Chapters

Yam 9

~~~~~~~~~
This is an extra long chapter. Thank you for all the views, the work on our TV Tropes page, and for our patron(s) at https://www.patreon.com/impracticalmagic

It’s nuts. But thank you and please leave some comments for us. We want to know how you all would like to see this story develop, or who your favorite character is and why it’s Yam.

~~~~~~~~~

2.02

When Yam stepped into the cavern under his dorm, finally wearing proper clothes again, he felt a great weight fall from his shoulders. Walking through the threshold marked, in his mind, the end of his nightmare at the gymnasium.

He was pleased to see no signs that anyone had come to the underground retreat, but it had only been a few days. So he restrained his optimism and, with the ease of long practice, stretched a length of cord across the entrance of his hideaway. It was hung with detritus that would rattle loudly if jostled; a common practice for Len sleeping away from the Caravan. 

It filled him with a powerful surge of longing for his home; for a place where he could feel his people around him instead of standing isolated in a world that felt oddly thin and unreal. Like life without Presence was a dream that hadn’t included a sense of touch or smell.  

Yam sighed as he sprawled across the cavern floor, not even bothering to adjust his great wrap or cross his ankles. He missed his siblings. He missed knowing every expression of his favorite vendors as they haggled. He missed eating food that wasn’t dry or burnt, and he missed his father’s deep voice and calm Presence. Talking with him felt like lying in a slow river and letting it float you downstream. If he was here, Yam was certain he would already be feeling better. 

His father always knew about the history of a piece of architecture, the legend behind a beautiful flower and, even when he didn’t know either, his father had mastered the  profound trick of seeing every sunset as something new and worth losing himself in. Yam could barely imagine what the wonders of Istima would look like to him. 

And that was why he was not allowed to be tired. Not when his father, his family, and his entire caravan needed him.  

With bone-deep weariness, the young Len unwrapped the cloth bandage on his left bicep and saw that the fur he usually kept shaved had grown in enough to obscure his tattoo. It was the standard Ken Seeker design with small variations. Those subtle differences would let Len from most regions of the country figure out his caravan and family. But the practice was not universal. Which was why he was able to let the fur grow in without it seeming too strange. At least not to others. To him, it was strange to the point of discomfort. 

He had spent years of his childhood dreaming of the day he would shave his arm and be entrusted with carrying the reputation of his people on his skin. Though Len from certain other regions didn’t follow the practice, it always made their adults seem oddly juvenile to his eyes.  

Strange that he now had to thank those man-children for normalizing what he was doing. 

He discarded the rolled cloth and scowled. It burnt to hide his heritage and his family. To announce with his actions that they were a shame. But he had to do it if he wanted to gain enough power to make the world acknowledge their Virtue. 

It was confusing, and paradoxical and it made his heart hurt. But his discomfort meant little compared to the needs of his family. And his weariness meant even less.

He opened one of the small pouches on his belt and pulled out a pill. Brush marks were visible on its surface where the pill maker had applied the exterior coating, and the smell was unpleasantly pungent. It was large enough that he would need to chew it in more than one bite.

The medicine had the energetic and wakefulness effects of black tea, but it was far more potent. In most villages, it would guarantee any man a living. But in Istima these pills were common, maybe even trite. Especially since it was made from relatively common herbs that had been ground together and bound in a sticky paste without any application of magic. 

Yam threw it into his mouth and let his mind go as empty as the cavern around him. He was so exhausted after the physical training that he didn’t even have the energy to wince at the taste. 

He spent some undefinable amount of time underground. His fingertips hummed with borrowed vigor even as his heart felt exhausted to the point of numbness. Being underground meant the elemental energy of the earth was more abundant. He let those soothing flows lull him into a stupor as he worked through the stack of papers he had gotten from Thomnas, the Autumn Court representative.

Even with advice and privileged papers, it took hours of eye-achingly monotonous work to complete the forms. And he had made several mistakes that required him to messily cross out words and draw lines to the margins where he scrawled his corrections. 

~~~

He woke up underground, feeling wrung out and with a horrible headache. 

Though he had slept soundly in the safety of the cavern, he had slept shallowly and was not refreshed. His first thought was that the pills weren’t strong enough and that he would need to look for something more potent. Maybe he could go back to the side streets.  

Thoughts for a later day. For now, Yam hauled his body up the ladder and into his room. It was horrible. His aching muscles hung off a stiff back and rattling bones. When he finally shambled past a window he was surprised to see that it was dark outside. He had to have been in the cavern for more than seven hours. 

It was a testament to the day he had just been through that he didn’t even have the energy to be angry at the time he had wasted sleeping. Instead, he just rearranged his pack. 

A surly and exhausted Yam made it to the proper hall in the Autumn Court. Waited in a perfectly straight line and filled out the papers needed for him to deposit his papers. Which at first seemed ironic but quickly provided the benefit of stoking his rage enough that he had something to power his feet with it. 

Before that fire guttered he stalked to the Day Court and found the uncanny bench from his brief stay there.

Yam glared at the eternally present and eternally cheerful sun. He could not be stopped. If he slept through the day, he would find his own sun to labor under! One bright enough, and viewed from a seat discomforting enough, to prevent him from sleeping while he tried to figure out how to salvage this flaming chamber pot of a day. 

So Yam sat, but not wearily nor resignedly. No, he gingerly placed himself on the seat with the assistance of both quivering arms and cursed about his aching bones; like a rebel. 

He was indomitable. Sore and craving tea, but indomitable. 

He would have liked to write a list, but paper cost money and none would be coming from his family. Instead, he held his options in his mind. His first option was to memorize more of the content given to him by the bookkeeper. It was tedious, but he wanted to impress the bookkeeper so he had access to all of the knowledge of the Understacks. 

There were other options though. He had mixed feelings about returning to the Night Court. Being in the Presence of someone who could kill him with a sneeze was horrifying. Worse, there would be no way to pretend that he was in control of fate through some application of cunning or sublime planning. The Archmage would get exactly what he wanted, and Yam could do naught hope for scrap and pray to avoid drawing the being’s ire. 

But there was so much he could learn there…

Luckily, or perhaps not (he still hadn’t made up his mind about his conscription), returning to the Night Court wasn’t an option. He would receive a summons at the ancient mage’s leisure. 

Instead, maybe he should walk to the lower city? It would be easy to follow the signposts hidden in graffiti until they led him to stronger wakefulness medicines. Finding them at night might even be a good way of seeing what quality the product was; never trust a skinny chef or a sleepy man selling energy potions. His mother had never said that, but he was certain she would if given the chance.

There was also the option to practice control exercises for his osteomancy module. Osteomancy was a powerful tool and a great way to differentiate himself within the Vernal Court. 

In fact, he could go to any of his modules that had listed sessions during the night. There was no set schedule and, aside from stagnating as well as the possibility of losing admissions next year, there was no punishment for not attending modules. This was all to say he might get exclusive access to teachers by attending modules at night. 

Idly his hand reached into the pouch at his side and touched thick expensive paper. The exact paper he had seen passed off by the bookkeeper’s surly assistant. 

He had already sold everything else from Nathanael’s buyer: the fop who had been blinded. But the card, the invitation, had caught his eye. It was not ostentatious, but it was well made. It was sturdy and bore a subtle design in the margins so, when light hit the ink just so, one could make out the silhouette of capering beasts.

It was a conundrum.

Len had a certain reputation. Most humans feared what was different, and it was impossible to see someone living virtuously without having to confront their own deficiencies. That fear and desperate avoidance of their own moral weakness turned into anger. Anger and persecution aimed towards the Len. 

It was infuriating, but his elders said he should work to understand that it was just a reflex; just humans seeking justification that would not imperil their beliefs and dishonor the (false) lessons taught to them by their own elders. In a sad way, it was as noble as they knew how to be. 

So Len tried to be above it. They welcomed humans to their markets. Offered a game of words as they would for a trusted friend. Haggled earnestly, and treated them as though they were the informed and competent adults they wished to be perceived as. In short, they pulled no punches and modeled a life lived in pursuit of the great intangibles like wisdom, honesty, knowledge, and earnest self-improvement. 

If such lessons came at the cost of lost mere money or wounded pride, then it was a cheap price to pay.

But, despite their temperance and willingness to teach, if Len were not indispensable craftspeople, they would have been cast out violently. Instead, they were grudgingly accepted, silently resented, and used as scapegoats. 

Which was all to say, that it was impossible for caravans to travel without having the darker elements of a town reach out to them. Their false reputations ensured it. That reputation also made it all but impossible to survive the ostracization of legitimate businesses without occasionally accepting offers from their… less inhibited competitors. 

As such, even with his successful family and their pristine reputation, Yam still knew immediately what the paper was; an invitation to a fighting ring for exotic animals and magic beasts. The sort of place his parents had forbidden and that Aehp the Eclectic Beast Lord, with his hundreds of treasured familiars, would have found repugnant. But it was also a place with powerful creatures he could bond with and a reservoir of first-hand knowledge fit to challenge any bestiary.

On the other hand, it would be a den of criminals who reveled in cruelty and bloodshed. It might give him knowledge, but it would certainly be dangerous. Worse, he didn’t know the city well enough to say how much more dangerous it would be for a Len. Would he be allowed in, even with a ticket? Would they force him into the ring because of his fur and teeth?

Yam took the mixed fear, excitement, and shame, and put it all to the side. He needed to think like a Ken Seeker. Especially when he was without guidance.

So what was the logic of this situation? His safety concerns were probably justified. It was an illegal venue glorifying violence. Such places would self-select for a certain type of patron. But he also refused to be someone who made their choices because of fear. That was a path that led to servitude and the sort of passivity that gave corruption tacit permission to grow. 

On the other hand, this would be a cruel place and anything he gained from it would taint his cultivation of virtue. That was no small thing for a properly raised young gentleman like himself to imperil. Virtue was what separated them from animals. 

He couldn’t say how long he sat, waging a silent war against the uncanny bench, but eventually, he came to a conclusion. The invitation was a small choice tangled with large questions he felt hesitant tackling at the moment. So, he made the most reasonable decision he could considering his goals: he should find out if there was a place he could gain guidance on his magical development and, if not, settle for doing what studying could be accomplished on his own. After all, he knew helping his family through learning and hard work was virtuous. He was a Ken Seeker after all. Literally a seeker of ken. 

Confident in his decision the young Len took out his notebook and skimmed through the cramped handwriting to see if any of his modules had night sessions. 

His body froze. There was one module that would be open: physical training.

No. 

He couldn’t. 

Yam’s lips twitched. His legs were still too tired. Surely, it would be a waste to go before he had recovered? And the clothes were scandalous. It wasn’t precisely impossible but… 

True, other students could go twice in quick succession. If they were able too he could as well, right? But he was a Ken Seeker! Not a fitness seeker! Plus with his long night and how hard things had been—

The excuses tumbled through his mind like water over a cliff. And the fact that he recognized them as excuses made it all the worse. This was cowardice. This was what a sick-bodied and weak-willed child would say to themselves. 

With a snarl, he threw himself to his feet, shoved his book back into the pack, and stalked away from the uncanny bench. Yam’s jaw was clenched so tight he felt his teeth groan under the pressure. Not caring who saw it, he reached into his pouch and ripped out the invitation for the Tooth and Claw.

To say he had a fully realized thought would be over-generous. However, if his thoughts could be characterized, they would be something along the lines of screaming ‘I’m not afraid of anything! Not even this!’ and, a much quieter train of thought, one hidden by the volume of the first, which was the mental equivalent of covering his eyes with his hands and saying, ‘Avoidance? Nope, I don’t see any avoidance here.’

~~~

As a mage, Yam’s mental fortitude and capacity for prolonged focus were exceptional. 

His single-minded focus carried him until bare moments before he walked into the Tooth and Claw. He was standing in line, waiting to show his pass to one of two Aketsi doormen, before the first doubt pierced his defense. Was he really going to do this? Was he really going to enter a room full of hard men and lawbreakers? Sure, once or twice, he had grabbed something left behind by an unwary shopper. And once his friends had even talked him into sneaking a pastry from a stall. There had also been the ferryman. But they were bigots and what he had done was more prank than theft. 

But this, this was an underground bloodsport! Though, apparently, even the underground animal fights in Istima were fancy. The sign above them was marble with glowing magic highlighting the name of the ‘covert’ establishment. The ticket men were also very polite, and, for Aketsi, they moved at a rapid pace. 

The extremely strange and aesthetically pleasing incongruities were probably the only reason he made it to the front of the line at all. If there had been a dirty alleyway or if dangerous thugs had manned the doors, he would have lost his nerve and fled. 

But everyone around him was wealthy. For people who didn’t have access to a Len master craftsman, they were the peak of class. Their poorly cut jewels were set inexpensive metals, and less than masterful embroidery stumbled across the rare material of their clothing. Their presence made it feel like he was in line for a play, and more than once, he checked his invitation.

Finally, he made it to the Aketsi feeling like his head was full of wool. The doorman took almost three seconds to smile and nod his head. Yam had never seen one move so quickly! At least when not chasing down a thief in the market. The doorman examined Yam’s pass without touching it and slowly waved him in, “EEnnjjooyy, ssiirr.”

It was startling. If he was looking for wakefulness pills, he may need to start here. Aketsi’s biology was made for standing and slow ceaseless labor in the same way that the Len were made for community and adaptation.

His lingering thoughts carried him through the door and into a large indoor stadium before he truly took in his surroundings. The Tooth and Claw had three rings of people set at three different elevations. The lowest was standing room only. The top tier, where he had entered, was full of comfortable chairs and wealthy clients. He naturally moved to the second tier. It was full of people who looked successful and cultured enough to be less accustomed to acting on drunken or violent impulses. Which made it better than the bottom floor. But it’s patrons were also not so wealthy as to have guards and family grudges against his people left over from negotiations that had been executed a bit too masterfully. Which made it better than the top floor.

So he sat on the wooden benches and spent an uncomfortable twenty minutes torn between being fascinated and repulsed by what he saw happening in the ring at the center of the stadium. Those poor creatures. 

But gods help him if they weren’t magnificent. After seeing a gorgeous beast maimed, one that would strike terror into his enemies and be a suitable companion for Aehp himself, Yam found himself wanting an alcoholic beverage. 

He was already here, really what more did he have to lose from one bad decision? He spent nearly thirty minutes trying to find a beverage counter that was not staffed by a Len. It took a tremendous amount of attention for him to not constantly re-check how hidden his tattoo was. As a result, he accidentally waited in the wrong line. He was too ashamed to admit his ignorance when the man behind the counter asked for his bet. 

He placed a single dram on the wooden counter, but the employee looked at him strangely and he ended up putting down enough money for a restaurant-quality meal before he could subdue his pride. 

Afterward, he wandered until something caught his attention. It was ferocious, possessing a disquieting number of claws, and seemed to have venom leaking from its eyes in a lethal rain of tears; Yam loved it more than he had ever loved anything in his entire life. 

The young Len watched the beauty being carted around and saw how docilely it accepted affection from a wealthy merchant supervising its transport. He could already imagine frolicking together underneath the dormitory and him becoming rich selling its venom. They would be the best of friends and their foes would weep to see Aehp and his fell companion. 

The magnificent creature was carried behind a set of unobtrusive doors and the young Len held completely still; just savoring the paragon of terror and destruction he had the privilege to have witnessed. 

What. A. Beauty. 

Then, before his poor heart could recover, an even more horrifying eldritch monstrosity was carried from behind the doors.

Where he had only been able to watch the fights for twenty minutes before needing a drink, Yam found himself spending nearly an hour staring at the door as every third beast made his heart skip with intermingled terror and avarice. 

There was a great deal of ‘analysis’ and internal ‘debate’. But from the moment he saw a creature that appeared to shapeshift from a small dragon with wings of green fire into a scorpion with a hooded cobra for a tail, the decision was made. It was just a matter of how long it took him for him to consciously acknowledge the executive decision his heart had made. 

He snuck through the door. 

It was another horrible decision. 

Oh well.

According to reason, he should have been a bent double with the weight of fear and caution. Instead, his eyes opened wide and he rushed through the back room he was very much not supposed to be in and was carried from cage to cage like a child at a toy store. 

Finally, maybe ten minutes later, fate, which always guards the stupid and insane, ceased protecting him. It had never occurred to Yam to wonder why he hadn’t seen guards in the extensive hallways, or why no one cared when they heard the sound of his feet scampering from cage to cage. In truth, he had been too enrapt for such a coherent and reasonable thought.

When fate left him (that cold bitch) he was holding a thick and well-worn bestiary in one hand, a pamphlet with care instruction for Flesh Ants in another, and had tied two more books together with a piece of twine that he held in his mouth. That was when he had a horrible realization. 

“Owh noe,” he said, freezing in place, eyes wide. 

He had wandered away from the most impressive beasts and was now in an area mostly full of tools and cleaning equipment. He was also quite lost. And, even if he wasn’t, he all but collapsed when he realized that he couldn’t carry out all the animals he wanted, even if he gave up the books he had found. 

Those would have been poor realizations by themselves. What was worse was when he heard voices coming from down the hall and his magnificent display of dumb luck officially ended. Before he could think he stuffed the pamphlet into his belt and darted inside a closet. He had barely managed to hide and peek through a crack in the door before two large guards walked into view.

His hand fell to his pouch and he sensed the bones within. But the young Len hesitated. He was in no way trained in combat. His only experiences with fighting were exactly what one would expect from a too-smart, book-loving child who was too weak to flee his frequently unsupervised peers. 

He didn’t know how to fight at all, let alone with osteomancy. His racing mind raced as he searched for options. He had not yet learned any cants from the bookkeeper’s assignment, and his body was too weak to outrun anyone but an Aketsi. Which only left one tool in his arsenal: his natural ability for spatial magic. 

But, untrained as he was, he had sharp limits on its usage. Before he could think enough to stop himself, he took the twine from his mouth and set aside the two books. He barely even let himself breathe as he watched the two guards step past the closet where he hid.

The two of them passed by so closely that he could smell the sour scent of alcohol on their sweat. He was certain they would notice him too. 

But they didn’t pause. 

The large man and his even larger female comrade reached the intersection at the end of the hallway and stopped. Yam almost screamed when the two leaned their backs against the stone wall and began talking. Instead, he waited to a count of two hundred before finally accepting that the guards wouldn’t be moving any time soon. His ramble must have accidentally coincided with guards’ shift change 

It didn’t matter. 

He ducked back into the closet and slowed his breathing. He had played games of hide-and-seek where he had pulled off maneuvers just like he was about to do. There was even a piece of fortune on his side. The door to his cramped sanctuary opened inwards.

The young mage shook out his hands and went back to the doorway. A quick glance confirmed that the guards were still there. So he retreated into the closet as far as he could while still being able to reach the door. He didn’t want to create a visible silhouette. 

Over the course of a slow count to forty-five, he inched the door open to the exact breadth of his shoulders and then added a few fingers width to account for his clothes. After shimmying sideways there was a perfectly straight corridor of unoccupied space the width of his shoulders that stretched from where he stood to the intersection at the other end of the hallway.

Then the young mage reached out with his magic. It was hard to describe exactly what he did. Most of it happened without his conscious direction and, historically, the more he focused on what he was doing, the more often it failed. Just like how someone could walk on a strip of colored paving stones without any problem. But, if they stood on a raised beam of the same width and started consciously trying to keep their balance, they would twist and flail. 

Though he didn’t completely understand what the magic did, in some ways it was like folding a piece of paper. Put a dot on either end of the paper and then fold until both points were right next to each other. Done correctly, you could have the same amount of paper between the two points, but not the same amount of distance. 

What he did now was like that except he had a tube of paper, one big enough for him to fit through, and instead of just bending the paper he folded the whole tube until it compressed like an accordion.  

And of course, the other big difference was that he folded space itself, not paper. 

Yam picked a point at the far end of the hall, just at an intersection, and he crumpled the space between where he was and that spot. With a single step, he passed over the folded space. It was no more than a half-inch wide and was not something he could see with his eyes. His arcane senses had to tell him where the fold was. 

As he passed over and through what he imagined to be a standing loop of accordion ruffled fabric, there was a brief blurring of lights and Yam found himself standing at the end of the hallway.

He immediately stepped around the corner, hoping that neither of the guards had been looking. 

If the gods were kind—

“Hey! Anyone down there!”

He should have known. By the time he became a god he probably would have learned to stop being kind to strangers too. 

Fate knew he wouldn’t be here in the first place if he hadn’t tried to help that blinded fop with the ticket. 

Yam ran. The moment he had a line of sight down the hallway he crumpled space once again and zoomed ahead of his pursuers. As he fled, he turned towards the faint smell of animals and magic-ed himself forward in as many tiny hops and skips as he could. 

It worked. At first anyway. 

The sound of feet grew further and further away and his magic reserves easily handled the costs of his subtle working. In fact, it worked so well that he almost couldn’t believe it when he stepped into an intersection and ran face-first into a completely different guard who was wearing a hardened leather vest. 

The man barely moved when the rather scrawny young mage ran into him. But Yam landed on his butt and slid backward with the force of it. 

The guard blinked at the be-furred humanoid who had suddenly appeared next to him. 

“Wha—?”

“Look a Len!” Yam yelled, pointing his finger down the hallway, 

The moment the guard looked away Yam turned his head to look back the way he had come and crumpled space yet again. Awkwardly, he hopped his butt off the floor and an inch to the left. That was all it took to clear the spatial fold. He ended up at the other end of the hall with barely enough time to scramble onto all fours before the man started running towards him. 

The young mage forced himself to wait a single moment so the timing could line up. Then, when it was just right, he threw himself flat against the wall. For a brief instant, four-fifths of the hallway’s width was unoccupied down its entire length. 

But Yam needed to see both points he was manipulating. So, while he was still throwing himself against the stonework, Yam stretched his eyes wide and stared at the opposite wall. Both the guard and the floor just behind him were both in his peripheral vision for a moment. 

Faster than he ever had before, he reached out and crumpled the hallway. The guard stepped forward and found himself several steps behind Yam. With another burst of magic, which was just now starting to make his mind ache, the young Len sent himself as far away as he could. 

With a few more space bending leaps he lost his pursuer. But the yelling guards drew help, even as his impossible steps grew shorter and as more burly men and women poured into the hallways. 

Hallways that, he was just starting to realize, went below street level and extended the length of at least three warehouses. Maybe dozens.

He ran, but his legs were weak and turned so watery that he was forced to walk. When that happened he used his ability constantly to keep ahead of pursuit. The pace of his casting sent his head to aching. And, for all of Yam’s efforts, the net only grew tighter. 

The guards knew the layout better than he did and eventually formed a blockade that prevented him from even seeing the cages that held the fighting beasts. The ones that had first lured him into this labyrinth. And the ones that marked his most likely exit.

He was shambling through a massive three-story-tall space with his hand pressed against the stitching pain in his ribs. The middle of the large room was filled with rows of shelves that held crates, cages, and various small creatures. The wall on his other side was dotted by doorways leading to small rooms. Some were set up with fine tables and chairs. Often next to them were rooms with bloody surgeons’ tables or offices that housed ledgers and be-spectacled men dutifully ignoring the commotion beyond their desks. 

Yam darted into one of the table and chair rooms. He slammed the door shut even though all the others were open and he knew it would draw attention. For a frantic thirty seconds, Yam searched the door for a lock. There was none. 

He considered wedging a chair under the doorknob, but didn’t know if that actually worked. Storytellers mentioned it often, but he had grown up with a severe lack of extraneous chairs that he could try to wedge under the equally rare extraneous doors in his people’s minimalist nomadic caravan. 

The only other thing in the room was a small writing kit on the table and a knock-off porcelain tea set. 

He backed away from the door, heart thudding and temples feeling like spikes were being driven into them. Then his back fetched against a hanging tapestry and he felt something strange. 

In a whirl, the young mage spun around and pushed the tapestry to the side. Underneath the thick fabric was a door made of crossed iron rods that had been welded together, like the cross-hatched cage of a prison cell. 

On the other side of the metal was another tapestry. Yam barely managed to squeeze his hand through a gap and push the richly colored fabric aside. For a flash, he saw a short hallway, perhaps three to five paces long, that led to the highest tier of the viewing stands. Then the fabric fell back into place. 

He wasted almost a full minute trying to throw the tapestry up so that it would give him the light and line of sight he needed to work with. Then he remembered that he had other magics at his disposal. 

Using pure control without any fancy spell work, he sent three bone beads flying from his belt. They hit the fabric on the other side of the door and pushed until it was pinned to the ceiling. He held them steady with a thought and took his first clear look at the door. 

Like he had thought, the door was primarily made of crossed iron bars welded together. But, more importantly, there was a visible gap between the door’s edge and the metal frame that extended from the wall 

Yam moved to the keyhole and crouched until his head was lower than the lock. Then he grasped his magic and did something he hadn’t even told his parents about. 

They knew that he wasn’t limited to crumpling space. But they also knew that stretching space was far harder for him to do. The material of the world was inherently pliable, and it did not necessarily resist nor encourage change. It simply responded to the factors influencing it. And it did require some energy to combat the circumstances that held it in its current form. 

Compressing space was really folding and, when he did so, Yam let the world do almost all of the work for him. Like using a carrot to move a donkey rather than pushing it. Or like digging a down hill tench next to a boulder so that it would fall and move itself. 

To compress space he just had to nudge at a few circumstances; make a few points slippery, a few others sticky, and suddenly it was easier for space to fall into the shape he wanted than to stay the same.  Stretching, on the other hand, took more out of him. The movement was not fueled entirely by his own power, he didn’t think any mortal had the sheer amount of magic that would take, but it did require him to alter far more of the tiny influencing factors; the tiny circumstances that commanded the shape of space. In terms of effort and expense, it was rather like bribing twenty border agents instead of only having to charm five. 

His parents had seen him make it so no matter how hard they reached for him they could never pull sweats from his fingers. They had also seen him jump across a massive field with a tiny hop. But for some reason, they had always made the assumption that he only bent space by changing the distance one could walk: by bending the horizontal plane.

With the same trick he once had used to enter their locked wagon and pour honey on his sister’s pillow, he walked through the iron door. Specifically, he stretched the gap between the edge of the door and the edge of the iron frame. 

He had to crouch very low. The moment he entered the distorted space between door and frame the tiny sliver of the latch holding the door closed seemed to become an iron bar that spanned a gap several paces wide to either side of him. And, even crouched until his knees brushed his chin, it was uncomfortably close to the top of his head. 

But there was nothing to be done about it. To his knowledge, it was impossible to change space two ways at the same time. Just like it was impossible to manipulate a point not in his direct line of sight. Which was to say, his intuitive knack for spatial magic didn’t include how to overcome those particular boundaries. 

Which was fine. He could fit between any gap and he could raise the height of any ceiling Just not both at once. Similarly, he could move in a single direction as far as he could see, but if he would have to step off the straight line to avoid an obstacle, like a table, then his compression wouldn’t let him walk through that solid object any more than if he was moving through natural space. Even with those limitations, he felt like he had gotten the better end of whatever bargain gave him his abilities.

He made it under the Tooth and Claw’s iron door with an undignified amount of panting and duck-walking. The moment he was clear, he waved his hand and the bone beads holding up the tapestry whizzed through the air. In a flash they had looped back and pinned the thick fabric to the ground, stilling its motion so as not to betray his passage. 

Then Yam turned down the short hallway and saw the elbow of a servant peek past the edge of the doorway. More civilized and far better dressed, but a guard nonetheless. 

The door to the room behind the tapestries was thrown open with a shout. 

Yam didn’t move. He leaned forward, eyes narrowed and, just as he saw the protruding stomach of a nobleman peek past the edge of the hallway’s entrance, he reached out with his magic and stepped. 

If the doormen had been looking forward, they would have seen him appear, as if out of thin air, an instant before his slight frame was eclipsed by the girth of the passing nobleman. 

For Yam’s part, he spun on his heel and kept pace with the large man. Letting silk-clad girth  screen him from the servant’s view. He painted boredom across his expression and began walking slowly. Like he was just another patron unimpressed with the area’s spectacle and looking for libation. 

Or at least that’s what he hoped he was doing. In truth, his heart was hammering and his skin was sweaty enough that he felt certain everyone in the room had noticed. 

But no one called out after him. 

Just before he stepped into the stairwell leading to the exit of Tooth and Claw, the young mage glanced over his shoulder. He glimpsed a servant craning their head down the short hallway they were stationed in front of. Their expression was puzzled. Possibly wondering why there were guards in the client conference room cursing.

Yam turned around and began moving away only slightly faster than proprietary would have otherwise dictated. Heart in his throat,  legs barely able to hold him up, he made his way to the establishment’s door. As he moved down the stairs, he barely remembered to flip his stolen book so the title was invisible and so it obscured the pamphlet he had stuffed in his belt. 

Last Chapter                                                                                                         Next Chapter

Interlude: Alendra

Alendra woke quickly to the shrill sound of her alarm, she slapped the off switch and got up, her feet hitting the floor before her mind could argue. It was a trick she’d learned from her father. He’d always said it was harder to fall back asleep if you were already standing by the time you opened your eyes.

She looked around and frowned at the clutter. Given the amount of books the court required her to read, it was hardly any wonder that she had to pile them in pillars around her bed, her desk, and on any available surface. But there was still an hour before she was due at the clerk’s office, plenty of time to clean the place up.

Focusing her senses, Alendra summoned her powers, stretching her arm out towards the books. As she raised her hand, the books were gently lifted into the air. She felt only the briefest tug of weight in her hands as they hovered around her, softly tumbling as she directed them back onto the already overflowing shelves at the foot of her bed. Once they were in place, she breathed out. The mental strain felt good, like exercise. She was tired, but no longer sleep-weary. She stretched upwards and jumped in shock as her second alarm began to blare.

She turned it off and went over to the closet. The area inside was divided in two; to the left was for her personal clothes, to the right for school robes.

The everyday robes of the Autumnal Court were crisp and sleek. Deep blue, with a satin lining the shade of deep orange, like fall leaves. The court’s motto was embroidered in a subtle script in a band around the collar. Through order comes knowledge. Alendra buttoned up the double-breasted front and glanced in the mirror. Everything had to be spotless. Some of the professors had already made a point to verbally thrash any student who failed to meet their exacting specifications.

Her parents had rented her a room at Madam Horatia’s Boarding House for Young Ladies. It was a pleasant little building on the corner of two main thoroughfares of the Founder’s District, and just outside of the Autumnal Court’s gates. Alendra grabbed a piece of bread from the communal dining room of the house and stepped out onto the street.

It was less than five minutes until she’d reached the gate. Passing through the threshold, she was met with a pleasant fall breeze and the scent of dried leaves as the temperature shifted downward to cool, but not biting. She pulled her cloak around her as she hurried towards the east tower. Inside, she crossed the marble floor and took the enchanted elevator up to the fifteenth floor.

“Good morning, Ma’am,” Alendra said as she entered the Hall of Records and Processing.

“Initiate Kaestellus,” said the stern-faced woman behind the main desk. “You have crumbs on your robes.”

“My apologies, Ma’am,” Alendra said, looking down and plucking the stray bits of bread from her clothes.

“Hmm,” the woman’s sharp gaze returned to her work, “next time, do try to appear more professional, understood?”

“Yes, Ma’am.”

“Good. You may go.”

Alendra bowed slightly and headed in.

The Hall of Records and Processing was no ordinary office. It was the beating heart of the Autumnal Court’s administration, and by extension, the entire city. Every student of the court, no matter how advanced, was required to work at least a few hours a week as a clerk for the court. As such, the space was over-engineered to perfection.

A long, suspended bridge ran the full length of the hall. Every ten feet, on both sides of the walkway, was a spiral staircase of wrought iron. The staircases led either up or down three levels each. At each level, a walkway extended out, giving students access to a row of wooden cubicles. The cubicles were stacked on top of each other, making the hall look like an oversized row of bookshelves.

Alendra made her way down the walkway to row K. As she walked, the silence was occasionally punctuated by a low chunk and a soft hiss as the pneumatic tube system delivered records to waiting clerks.

She reached her row and walked down two flights of stairs, then took the walkway to the seventh cubicle. A message container was already waiting in the metal tube by her desk. She sat down and pulled out the papers.

As a first year, she didn’t have many responsibilities. Most of the papers were the records of new students that needed to be processed into the school’s extensive filing system. Working quickly, she could get through seven or eight forms in an hour. From a special pocket in her robe, she pulled out a leather case and withdrew ink and a pen. Then she set to work.

By the fifth record, her hand was beginning to cramp. She flexed her fingers as she read the name on the next page and froze.

Student Name: Lady Callion Augurellia

She scanned through the page. It listed everything the school knew about Callion; physical description, aptitude tests, application essay scores, even known personal relations. Alendra allowed herself a brief smile when she saw she’d gotten higher marks on that last item.

But there was a problem. This record detailed the life of the real Callion. The one who had died before she ever made it to Istima. Any clerk who spent five minutes looking at this page could spot Cal as an impostor.

Alendra stared at the page and frowned.

She had promised to help Cal maintain her cover story and, now that the opportunity presented itself, she was hesitating. What were the consequences of forgery? She’d seen students severely reprimanded for mistakes before, so what would be done about deliberate falsehoods? She considered just forgetting the whole thing. After all, the chances of someone going through Cal’s application paperwork and spotting the issue was small, practically zero really.

But, Alendra thought with a sigh, a promise was a promise. And more than that, Cal had become her friend. She was also a thief, a liar, and most assuredly a miscreant, and her friend. There must be a logical way to determine the best course of action.

As her father had taught her, there was certainty in order, rules, and logic. She just had to find the order: define friendship and determine where it sat on the hierarchy of her obligations.

If she was to define friendship, she would say that it’s a bond between two people who, while not contractually obligated to assist one another, were bound by duty and love to help, even if that involved personal risk. Alendra shook her head. The very definition was illogical.

But surely, some responsibilities superseded the duties of friendship? Romantic love, ethics, and law, to name a few. Yet, as she sat there, pen dripping ink as it hovered over the page, Alendra couldn’t find the will to go against her friend.

She pulled out a fresh page and began to write a new record. She copied over the relevant information, but subtlety changed what was needed to seamlessly integrate the new Callion with the old. The physical description of Cal was close to the original, but it wouldn’t pass under strict scrutiny. Alendra copied the handwriting of the original document as she made the answers more vague. For hair, she put medium and brown. For her eyes, she put dark. For height… how tall was Cal? Shorter than she was, probably due to a lack of proper nutrition. Alendra settled on the meaningless answer of ‘approx. 5 ½ feet.’

She did this with the rest of the answers. The Autumn Court’s paperwork was thorough, and in some places, Alendra strained to find a response that wouldn’t arouse suspicion. When she was done, she looked at the page and froze. There was a blank spot in the bottom right corner where she was supposed to mark her work with a personal seal. That mark would permanently tie this paper with her. Whoever saw it, were the forgery detected, could link the document back to her. And the punishment for falsifying information in the Autumn Court was severe—as  close to treason as one could get.

But she thought back to her own definition of friendship. If Cal was truly her friend, then by her own admission, she was bound by duty and love to help her—even though that involved a great personal risk. She pulled out the small signet ring given to her by the court, pressed it into a small ink pad, and pressed it into the page. When removed, it left a small black circle, inside of which was a picture of a single oak leaf—the rank of Initiate—and a seven digit code assigned to her.

The only thing left to do was shuffle the pages into a neat stack, being sure to place Cal’s somewhere in the middle, and place the forms back into the tube. She held her breath as she inserted the tube into the pipe, as though the system would somehow notice her forgery. But nothing happened. The tube slotted in with a soft chunk and was whisked away.

Alendra stuffed the pens back into her bag, promising herself she’d clean the nibs later. Right now, all she wanted to do was get out of here. She climbed back up to the walkway and made her way toward the front desk.

“Have a good day, Ma’am,” Alendra said, summoning the last remains of her cheerfulness as she passed the desk.

“Initiate Kaestellus,” the woman called. Alendra froze in place, then slowly turned around.

“Yes, Ma’am?”

“You took approximately seven minutes longer than your weekly average to complete your work. Explain yourself.”

“Oh… apologies, Ma’am. Er— one of the applicants had filled out a form incorrectly. I had to make sure their errors weren’t carried over into the records.”

Her heart was in her throat as the woman studied her. Could she tell she was lying? She was terrible at it. Usually, her face would start to go red and hot. Oh gods, she wasn’t saying anything—

“Hmph,” the woman scowled, as though she’d tasted something bitter. “Repulsive. That alone should have been grounds for the rejection of their application. Very well, you may go.”

“Thank you, Ma’am. Good day, Ma’am.” Alendra gave a short bow and did everything in her power to remain calm while walking to the elevator.

When the doors had safely closed behind her, she slumped against the wall and sighed deeply.

Gods, how did Cal do this all day? Wasn’t it exhausting?

Last Chapter                                                                                                         Next Chapter

Interlude: A Study on Human Culture

When applying reason and observation to the various properties, practices, and patterns of human societies, Len scholars have come to agree on the ‘Two Pillars Theory.’ Summarized, it supposes that the great majority of human cultures are based upon two underlying predilections: materialism and the fundamental need to remain stationary. 

As a result of these most strange species-wide obsessions, humans have developed equivalently strange practices. By means of example, humans will spend massive fortunes digging complex tunnel systems into the earth. Tunnels that they then relieve themselves into. Often these tunnels empty into rivers and have caused death and disease either for themselves or their neighbors. Neighbors who, are (somehow) unwilling to move to a more upstream location due to their species-wide phobia/fetishes.

Despite the abundant historical accounts detailing instances of plague, humans still build their cities directly atop these elaborate filth-labyrinths. In point of fact, living above their own collectively amassed excrement is considered a sign of societal advancement. This is because, humans devoid of excrement-tunnels, will empty their chamber pots into the street. No singularly nor secretly, but as a matter of general practice!

This is endured, by those who possess a robust enough health to endure it, so that they need only move the minimum amount from their permanent dwellings, and in spite of the certain knowledge that they will inevitably travel upon the streets where they have emptied their waste. 

Sedentary urges further engender Humans, excluding a very few nomadic tribes, towards developing the most strange of status symbols. They will construct massively large homes, beds more than 2.5 times their shoulder’s width (where a single individual of average size sleeps), high ceilings devoid of storage, and completely furnished rooms that are inhabited by visitors for less than three weeks per year. 

All serve as signs of wealth and social status. Of course, this is in addition to the wearing of physically impractical grab which serves to indicate that the human has enough wealth that they don’t need to leave their own dwelling. Indeed, it’s intense inconvenience implies that they can hire others to do simple chores, and, due to its fragility, the clothing also serves as evidence that they have not engaged in any activity more strenuous than moving between their many differently themed-rooms (please see chapter 6 to discusses examples such as ‘sitting rooms’). 

Though Len ourselves are not immune from the desire for finely crafted goods, humans will assign higher inherent value to items based on cost and material expense rather than history, craftsmanship, and usefulness. They will then amas as much as possible.

To support this shocking perversity, there is an entire industry built around making large permanent buildings whose only purpose is to hold items that are unnecessary. The industry is based around the certainty that humans will, as a matter of compulsion, buy more items than they can fit in their oversized personal residences. 

Rather than sell the trinkets and baubles, the species will sacrifice funds to have the useless possession kept away from them for prolonged periods of time in a ‘warehouse’. Which, as the name suggests, is a massive structure maintained solely for housing wares that are not needed. As a point of clarification, these are not season-specific tools or stores of food that are not currently needed. They are entirely unused. Either permanently or for multiple years. But they would, somehow, cause severe psychological distress if no longer owned by the human. This is in spite of the objects being hidden in a location that is, essentially, never visited or thought of.  

What is the purpose of this knowledge an intrepid reader of a less scholarly disposition may ask? By observing what fundamental differences in nature have led humans so far from the Virtuous Life, as described by the great philosopher Concratus, we can understand how to interact with their peculiarities and, mayhaps, aid their development. Like a young man assisting a simple relative or an aged grandmother who, despite being functionally challenged, possess enough goodwill and sentiment to be treated with sympathy. So too should we make efforts to understand the humans and aid them as possible.

In the spirit of goodwill and charity, this scholar puts forward that the underlying cause of aberrant human values lies in sensory deprivation, not an inherent lack of moral capability within the species. Phrased more directly, they are capable of Virtue, but are born with great obstacles and little to no guidance from those who have moved past them in such a manner as to provide tutelage. 

Indeed, for evidence of the severe moral damage inflicted by a lack of senses, look to the human form. Their body plans change to such a small extent that they have no means of knowing what their fellows value. Any child knows that an adult who has gone through the ritual to obtain a Reptile form is interested in longevity, mental pursuits, and lives a life comfortable enough that they need not gird themselves against undue environmental trials. Those of us who place our affections upon the pursuits made available by a hearty body, rapid healing, the ability to put aside sleep, and the desire to produce great feats of strength follow the mammalian path. 

Furthermore, an obvious supposition that must none the less be voiced, all Len know, for a fact, that we are one people due to Presence. Humans are deprived of such basic senses. 

The logical conclusions are thus; without access to bodies that can be adapted to their environments, humans fixate on the first safe location they can find and travel forth only with great trepidation. Often, they will suffer mass deaths from plague, reoccurring natural disaster, fire, and famine rather than brave the open road. And, please note, they will do so even when utterly believing in the forewarning of an impending disaster. 

Now herded together and deeply a feared of moving, we see the sad sensory affliction of the human condition made socially manifest. Without perceiving Presence human’s never know when they will be in the ‘out-group’ of another human and be categorized as a ‘Them’ or ‘Enemy’. To be categorized thusly is to be robbed of personhood in such a manner as to absolve the other party from any sort of punishment for enacting harm upon you; no matter how severe. 

As such, any singular human must desperately signal that they are simultaneously useful and possess group membership; both to convince the capriciously violent ‘society’ around them, and also to convince themselves they are safe. Otherwise, the unending emotional distress may be too acute to endure. 

In other words: by hoarding many items and wearing garish clothes they attempt to make a primitive, material-based Presence. One impossible to ignore or overlook.

They must spend so many resources, both material and mental, to achieve such basic communication that, from the onset, their pursuit of a Virtuous Life has been irreparably stunted. They are incapable of noticing elegance and subtly because their senses are distracted by the constant threat of otherhood should they miss a signal. The poor wretches, through no fault of their own, only possess enough left over-attention to engage with the more easily perceptible properties of quantity and garishness. Hence Len superiority in the realm of craftsmanship.

Furthermore, their weak social senses paired with their divisive nature dooms humans to employ pervasive deceit. It is like children who have decided that an act is good only because they will not be caught by someone who knows it is bad. From a young age, the ease of deceit makes it far too tempting to a young human and it is thus normalized by frequent use and success.

The tenants of a virtuous life: candor, brotherhood, dedication, generosity, respect for elders, and the pursuit of the great Enduring Intangible Gifts like knowledge, skill, love, elegance, expertise, and other such noble ends cannot exist in human society. At least not commonly or without intervention. The species put plainly, is born without vital qualities. 

To a Len, blessed as we are with senses and capabilities that remove us so far from base savageries, the world is wide and nuanced. Our senses and philosophies are as a team of well-maintained horses steered with a deft hand. Human’s work with vital senses removed and thus must blindly crack the reins and feverishly employ the whip against the only beast of burden able to move them; materialism and a stationary existence.

Though some claim that humans are doomed to create ever more elaborate and barbarous traditions as they grope in the dark for Virtue, this scholar believes it is our duty to reach out and help those who are willing. 

We should, as a people, meet discrimination with compassion. Knowing what sort of lives they live, do not begrudge Humans their need to degrade others so they can convince themselves that they are fortunate. Understand why those wretches, our siblings in personhood if not in Virtue, would not want to live constantly assailed by the knowledge that they are hostage to their own deficits. 

Instead, cast your mind to the wisdom of Concratus and think of how one can use a Virtuous Life to benefit the less enlightened around them.

Last Chapter                                                                                                          Next Chapter

Yam 8

2.01

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

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

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

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

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

~~~

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He wanted that. He wanted that terribly. 

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

~~~

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Basic Osteomancy One

Exit CriteriaL

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

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

·      Cause bone matter to levitate in a sustained fashion

·      Cause any degree of replicable fusing of bone matter

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“This is your first module, right?”

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

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

“How long will that take?”

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

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

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

“Yes, we are,” said the male.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

~~~

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

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

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

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

Thankfully he was allowed to keep his own footwear.

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

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

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

How did they move?

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

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

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

But he was also not an exhibitionist human savage. 

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

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

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

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

“Yam, right?”

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

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

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

“No sir, I did not obfuscate my age.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Only to find himself stalling halfway up. 

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

And stopped again.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He let himself be led to the bleachers. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Last Chapter                                                                                                          Next Chapter

Cal 8

The next morning, Cal was awoken by a shrill whining.

“Gah!” She winced in pain. Opening her eyes didn’t help as the bright light hit her eyes, amplifying her pounding headache. Beside her, Alendra had a similar reaction as she fell out of the bed and reached desperately for her bag.

“What the hell is that?” Cal said, covering her ears.

“Just a second!” Alendra opened her bag and pulled out a small contraption. She flipped a switch and the noise stopped. “There. That’s better.”

“Seriously, what is that?”

“It’s an alarm I got so I don’t sleep late.” Alendra put the device away and rubbed her temples.

“Allie, it’s the weekend.”

“And I’ve got things I need to do.”

“You work too hard.”

“Thanks.” She ran a hand through her hair and frowned. “I don’t suppose there’s a potion to deal with hangovers, is there?”

“I intend to find out,” Cal said, slumping back on her bed.

“Let me know when you do.” Alendra stood and walked to the door. “And don’t forget, you promised to get your hands checked!”

“Right,” Cal raised a lazy hand to wave goodbye and then turned over to groan into her pillow. When she finally worked up the energy to get up, she regretted it instantly. If sleeping on the make-shift bed alone was uncomfortable, trying to share it with someone else was nigh impossible. Cal sat up and winced, slowly stretching her neck and feeling her muscles protest.

Her clothes were rumpled and unkempt, to the point where even the street urchin in her was unhappy, but the only other clean outfit she had was Callion’s velvet dress, and there was no way she was putting on a corset again. She gripped the handrail of the stairs and grimaced as pain shot through her hand. She let go and leaned on the wall, sliding down as she descended.

“Morning, dear,” Sable called from within the kitchen. “Late night?”

“Something like that.”

“I didn’t even hear you come in.” He lifted a mug of steaming tea to his lips. “Though I saw your friend leave.”

Even in her bleary state, Cal caught his meaning. “She’s just a friend.”

“Oh, to be sure.” Sable said, sipping his tea. “Anyways, you look terrible.”

“Thanks. You wouldn’t happen to know of any hangover cures, would you?”

“A shop down the street sells some that work well.”

“Really?”

“Though I doubt you could afford their prices.”

Cal winced. “Figures.”

“Next best option is one of the wading pools. Nothing like cold water to clear the head.”

“Point me there?”

“Left out of the shop and past the bridge.”

Cal nodded and left, stumbling down the second staircase and then out the front door.

The morning sunlight did nothing to help her headache, and she blinked until her eyes adjusted. It was early still, and the usual hustle and bustle of the Falls had yet to pick up. She followed Sable’s directions, going left until she crossed over the bridge and saw a small path between two buildings.

Unlike most of the alleys, the stones slanted downward, towards the waterline of the canals. At the end of the path, it opened into a sort of miniature bay. 

The cobblestones formed a semicircle around a shallow body of turquoise water, like a little tide pool. A net was stretched over the entryway, presumably to keep out detritus.

She’d used public baths before. In some cities they were the only way to get clean. Cal looked back up the path and, once reasonably sure she wouldn’t be disturbed, began to undress. She got down to her smallclothes and dove in. The cold water was a shock to her system, and she surfaced gasping for air. She wiped the hair out of her eyes and floated on her back for a while. She didn’t know if the water had some sort of magic placed upon it, but it felt as though it was seeping all her aches away.

She allowed herself a few minutes of luxuriating before cleaning herself. Without soap, she just had to scrub as best as she could. Soon, her skin was pink and raw, but clean. She stepped out and wished she knew some sort of spell for removing water. As it was, she donned her clothes while still damp and left the pool.

Next, if only to keep Alendra from hounding her, Cal wandered around in search of a healer. It didn’t take her long to find a shop. She stepped inside and was greeted by the strong scent of antiseptic and incense. A man with a trimmed salt-and-pepper beard looked up from the counter.

“Welcome! Does something ail you, young lady?”

“Hi, uh, I cut my hands.” She held out her palms.

“That’s all?” The man looked at her incredulously. “Young lady, I deal in serious medicine. My clients trust me to reattach limbs, save them from incurable poisons, and bring them back from the brink of death.”

“Then this should be easy for you.”

“It’s a waste of my time. Come back if you lose an arm.” He looked back to the pages on his counter.

Cal frowned. “What, that’s it? What kind of doctor are you?”

The man scowled as though she had spat in his face. “I’m not a doctor, I’m a mage. If you want someone to deal with your paper cuts, try Blood Alley. That’s where all the Spring Court hopefuls go to practice.”

Cal sighed and turned to leave. On her way out, she made a mental note of the lack of magical wards on the mage’s windows.

She’d been piecing together a mental map of the Falls District since she’d arrived, but she hadn’t seen any signs for a ‘Blood Alley.’ She asked around and found out that it was a nickname for a place called Hotspur Row.

The street was lined with small alchemical shops and stalls. Anatomical charts and ingredients hung in the windows and the cobblestones were covered in poorly-washed bloodstains. Even now, in the early hours of the day, the street was crowded. There seemed to be two groups of people; the first was the ill, sickly and destitute. It was clear that they couldn’t afford to go anywhere else, not if the established healers were anything like the one Cal had seen.

The second group were the students. They hung out in pairs or small clusters, whispering between each other and watching those who passed by with eager eyes. Cal shrugged off their gazes as she wandered through the crowd.

“Need healin’ there, miss?” One called out to her. “Five drams and I’ll check you out.”

“I’ll do you for three!” His friend shouted as he stepped in her path, causing the small group of students to let loose in cackles.

“Fuck off,” Cal said as she pushed past him. She kept walking, clutching his coin purse in her fist. She needed to find someone discreet. It was possible someone in the Spring Court knew Callion. Towards the end of the street, she saw a lone figure perched awkwardly on the stoop of a closed shop. Fur, large eyes, and the familiar musty smell confirmed it was a Len.

Ah! Cal smiled. Good. Plenty of Len had passed through the squatter camps Cal had called home at one time or another. Once you knew how to speak to them, it was pretty easy to get what you wanted. That, and they tended to be far less nosy than humans.

This Len had his head buried in a book. Cal approached and waited for him to notice.

It took a few minutes.

Finally, the sun was high enough that her shadow began to touch the edge of the Len’s book. He wrinkled his nose and then looked up.

“Oh!” He snapped his book shut. “You require medical assistance?”

Cal opened her mouth to respond and remembered that this was a Len. Conversation was meant to be a game—the stakes of which was usually money. She held out her hands.

“I have a few small cuts, hardly worth the effort.”

The Len smiled. “Then perhaps even one as unskilled as I can help.” He reached forward for her hands and then stopped. His smile dropped. “I will have to touch you in order to help.”

“I expect so.”

The Len raised an eyebrow, but carefully turned her hands over, looking at the wounds.

“These are more serious than you say,” he said. “You may need advanced care. It could be very costly.”

“I don’t wish to trouble a… Heal? Is that what you’d call them?”

“So you come to a Study? You are a strange human.”

“If this is too challenging, I understand entirely. I’ll find someone competent—”

“Wait!” The Len clutched her palms tightly and closed his eyes. Suddenly, there was a bright light and misty lines began to form in a web pattern around his hands. Her limbs felt strange, like being jabbed with pins and needles. Cal wanted to pull away, but watched with amazement as the ragged cuts began to shrink, the skin repairing itself. When the Len was done, the wounds had become nothing more than small, silver scars. Cal stared in wonder at the magic.

“Not bad,” she muttered.

“It is average. That will be five drams.” The Len held out a hand expectantly. “Unless you want me to do something about the scars of course.”

Cal smiled. “Study, you really should discuss payment before rendering services.”

Somewhere beneath all the fur, she could swear she saw him blushing.

“I… that is theft.”

“Theft is taking something with a price tag. How was I to know you would charge for your healing?”

The Len stared at her with what was either fury or amusement. She never could tell with Len.

“Who are you?” He finally said.

“I am a customer.”

“Do you have a name?”

“Of course, don’t you?”

The Len was wary, but Cal saw him try to hide a smile, “Doesn’t everyone?”

Cal sighed. “Well, this has been entertaining, but I must be off.” She turned to leave, then paused and looked back to the Len. “Actually, I’ve always wanted to try this. I’d like your name. What’s the phrase you use? Honest truth? Honest word?”

The Len’s face fell, “You were doing so well. Almost as well as a Len. A little more time and you could’ve won.”

Cal shrugged. “Losing only matters if you want to win the game. Now, you’re name?”

“Study Yam Hist. And you?”

Cal wagged a finger. “Now that would be telling.” She reached into the coin purse she’d taken from the other student and fished out a clump of gold, definitely at least five drams. She tossed the nugget to Yam. “Thanks for playing.”

She turned and left, leaving the Len to stare down at the money in his hands while he opened and closed his mouth like a surprised fish.

As she exited the street, she took a left towards home, smiling as she went. Something in one of the windows of a store caught her eye. Something rather familiar. She stopped, cupping her hands to block out the light as she peered through the glass.

Inside, for a price tag of fifty drams, she saw her boots. The ones she had enchanted for Teagan’s class. 

Last Chapter                                                                                                          Next Chapter

Lyssana 7

Chapter 7: Forbidden knowledge

Lyssana awoke from a dreamless sleep. Moonlight filtered into her room through a crack in the heavy curtains and she stared at the light in silence. The Corpegara were not awake yet, so she rolled over to look up at the stars. An unfamiliar feeling of melancholy washed through her, as they were so different from the night lights she had used to navigate the islands. Then she remembered the pain of her stay and it fell away with the crash of reality. 

Sunrise was a few hours off yet and she tried to fall back asleep, but her mind was racing over what knowledge  Cavit could possibly know and why he was willing to share it with her. What would be his price? Instead of sleeping she got out of bed to start her morning. A few hours of meditation would  give her the ability to collect herself before the meeting. 

Centered was her being and balanced was the energy that flowed within her. Her mind was blank and free of all worries. She was the magma that flowed through the veins of the earth. She was the lightning that crackled in the sky. She was one with the energy inside her body and with the air around her. 

She could feel the warmth of the sun before it had even begun rising over the horizon and when she opened her eyes, the sky was only a shade lighter than hours before. She rose from her kneeling position and stretched her arms over head to open the wardrobe. Clothed in an orange silk dress, she opened the doors of her room and started her day. 

Cavit was waiting for her when she arrived behind the courthouse, despite it being a half hour to full sunrise. “You’re early.” She stated, mildly irritated she was not the first to arrive.  

“I always am.” His voice was as steady as her own, though he threw in a smile to warm it up. “I hope this place you told me about is as secure as possible, we’re going to need to keep everything I tell you today a secret. You need to swear you won’t tell a soul.” 

“I swear it.” 

They walked in silence as she led him through the outskirts of Istima, navigating through the rocky alcoves of the floating island. The static energy of the Storm Sea grew more erratic as they drew close and she could tell Cavit was growing more nervous. “Don’t worry, we aren’t going into the clouds, only just to the edge of them.” 

“I’m not worried, just curious as to how you found this place?” His voice rose slightly and she pursed her lips at the tone. 

“I stumbled upon it my first week here.” It was not a lie, and it was all the answer he would get until she got some answers of her own. The energy in the air vibrated as she began to descend the steps to the cave below, and the chill grey clouds enveloped her as she scaled the stair. Once her foot hit the platform to the cave entrance she stepped aside to let Cavit join her, though she had to pull him into the alcove as he must not have seen it and nearly continued past her to gloomy oblivion. “This is it.” She stated flatly, leading him into the darkening fog. 

“What is this place?” His voice was little more than a whisper as they continued forward and she offered him a shrug. 

“Istima is full of hidden places to study and practice. You just have to know where to look.” The sun could have been completely overhead and they would have never known, as the light penetrating through the clouds quickly dimmed until Lyssana had to produce a bright flame to light the tunnel. Cavit quickly followed suit and strained his eyes to look ahead, almost eagerly. 

She offered a smile as he looked around with wide eyes. She let her flame wink out of existence and gestured to him to follow suit. They stood in complete darkness before the pinprick lights along the ceiling began to glow like an underground constellation. 

The table Neal had made during their previous visit was still in the middle of the floor at the edge of the pool and she placed her satchel on the ground beside it, eager to begin learning. “So what knowledge is so secret that we had to go to the underground heart of Istima to discuss?”

Cavit took a deep breath and sat on the ground in front of her, pulling out notebooks from his own satchel and placing them in a pile. “This is going to be complex, so I’ll need you to let me know if I lose you at any point along the way, okay.” She nodded and he continued, handing her a notebook that looked ancient. The pages were yellowed with age and a flowing script labeled an illustration of a vague humanoid outline and what looked like two reflections of that outline slightly overlayed. Each layer was labeled as follows: 

Layer One: The innermost layer of an elemental magical being, the Acrocor, is the most primal base of magical energy. This energy defines the individual from birth, resonating with the elements around them from the moment they enter the world. It is the base of their identity and cannot be altered. 

Layer Two: The second layer is the physical body. This is the protective layer to keep the Acrocor safe from elemental damage as the mage grows and matures. The physical body can be altered, as it can manifest from the energy of the Acrocor. 

Layer Three: The outermost layer is the Aura. The Aura is a reflection of the Acrocor, seen as the energy passes through the body. Many mages see only a mirage of an Aura, as it appears to be a nimbus of color surrounding an individual. The intensity of the Aura is directly related to the energy capacity of the Acrocor. 

She took all the information in, eyes scanning over the image and rereading the notes over until the knowledge was ingrained in her mind before handing it back. “Why have I never heard these terms before? If these are notes related to elemental mages, shouldn’t it be common knowledge?” She was more confused now that she had been when she knew nothing. 

“I agree with you, the basics of this drawing should be common knowledge to elementalists, and there are some that speak of the glowing nimbus of color they see around others when they are at their most powerful, but there’s a reason this knowledge is forbidden. Apparently, it is possible to remove the Acrocor from another mage and take it for yourself.” He paused to let the words sink in before continuing. “Now, if the Acrocor is the origin of elemental magic, then this means the mage that steals the Acrocor from another can now have access and be proficient in multiple elements. It also means the mage that had their Acrocor stolen can no longer manipulate any element.” 

She listened intently and felt her face reflect the horror growing in her stomach. “So you’re saying it’s possible to steal another elementalists magic. Against their will? I’ve never heard of such a thing. Is this a joke you’re playing because you think it’s funny to make fun of the new student?” Anger flared in her chest and she glared at him, fists clenching at her side. 

“No, I swear this is the truth!” Cavit put his hands up defensively and his eyes pleaded for her to listen. “That’s the reason this knowledge is forbidden, because stealing another’s Acrocor is beyond illegal, it’s barbaric. To strip a  mage of everything that makes them who they are, it would take a monster to do that. Don’t you see? If anyone had the knowledge to identify and steal an Acrocor, they would be unstoppable.” 

She allowed herself to calm down at his rise of emotion, but the pit of horror in her stomach did not subside. “But…wouldn’t the body have a limit to the amount of energy it could hold before it just…burned up?” She was at a loss for how to explain her thoughts in an eloquent manner, but Cavit didn’t seem to mind. 

“And that’s what a lot of ancient mages believed was Ascension. One’s very soul becoming so powerful it could only exist on the plane of energy. They would shed their bodies and exist at a higher level. Of course it was at the cost of countless lives, but they didn’t care.” 

They stared at each other in silence while Lyssana processed everything. To kill countless beings for the personal hope of living as energy was something she could not even fathom. “Is all this in these notebooks?” She would want to read them all several times. 

“Yes. This is what I’ve been able to gather in all my time at Istima. This is what I came to this school to learn about. I know there are mages out there with this ability and I want to know how to stop them.” 

For the first time, she looked into his eyes and saw conviction, and she believed him. How easy it would be to lie about the use of this knowledge. He could have been wanting to learn so he could collect the Acrocors himself, but in that moment she did not think he was lying. 

“I think I will help you gather more knowledge.” She spoke slowly, her words precise as she watched his reaction. “This issue is bigger than us, bigger than Istima. It’s something that could affect mages all over the world if it got out. We can be keepers of this knowledge and hopefully find a way to keep it out of the wrong hands.” Cavit looked like he was about to cry. 

“You have no idea the relief I feel to hear you say that. I knew you would be the person I could trust to help me with this. Here,” he handed her the stack of books at his feet. “You’ll need to study everything here before we can continue. Just make sure no one ever sees the content of these books, or we may both die for simply possessing the knowledge. It’s been stripped from the libraries. Every time I got close to finding something about it, the pages would be missing from a book, or the book wouldn’t exist at all. This knowledge is being covered up and I don’t think I want to find out what would happen if we got caught.” 

She nodded agreement before stashing the notes in her bag. “I’ll read these this week and we can meet here again next weekend to figure out how to move forward.” He agreed and they went their separate ways. Cavit left the cave first and she gave him to the count of one hundred before following to avoid any possible suspicion of them being seen exiting the cloud line together. Not that she believed anyone would be looking at the cloud line, but paranoia settled heavily over rationality. 


~~~

A quiet knock at the door drew her attention from the kitchen and she greeted Abby and Neal with a welcoming gesture. They entered apprehensively, eyes wide as they tried to take everything in at once. “I feel like you’ve been holding out on us.” Neal whispered as his hands ran over the silk pillows in the foyer. He threw himself into one of the large chairs facing the fireplace and grinned in awe. “Okay, I could get used to this!” 

“Please make yourself at home. Dinner will be ready shortly.” She stepped back into the kitchen and could hear hushed conversation from around the corner. She remembered her first impression of the room and chuckled at the look of shock that had been across their faces. A few minutes later they shuffled into the kitchen and Abby screamed as Sarpia lifted her head to the newcomers. 

“What is that thing?!” Her hand pointed to the corner where Halvard now stood at alert, awoken by the scream. “Oh my, there’s two of them!” 

“Didn’t you know it’s rude to yell at your hosts’ pets?” Lyssana murmured dryly, whistling the Corpegara to her and handing them each a large bone. They chirped happily and ran past her guests to their favorite spot on the balcony. “They are Corpegara and they protect my home when I’m away. The smaller is Sarpia and the larger is Halvard. They are completely harmless. To you at least.” She did not look up from her final food preparations as she spoke, but she could see the look of fear on Abby’s face turn to curiosity and back to an apprehension. 

“Okay, it’s settled. I want to live here so bad.” Neal was watching the two creatures gnaw on their treats and shook his head in acceptance. “I’ve never heard of them, where do you buy them? A little extra security sounds like a pretty good idea.” 

“They just followed me home one day.” Lyssana shrugged as she laid the fish she had been preparing in the center of the dining table built against the low joining wall of the kitchen and living area. Plates had already been set out and a bowl of leafy green vegetables mixed with a type of pasta cooled in it. “What would you both like to drink? I have water, wine and mead.” 

“Wine for me please.” Abby gave one more glance at the Corpegara before turning back to the kitchen. 

“I’ll be bold for once and go for the mead.” Neal threw Lyssana a charming grin that she pointedly ignored.

Abby snorted, “For once? You’re over the top all the time!” Neal threw her a faux look of hurt and she stuck her tongue out at him. Lyssana rolled her eyes while her back was turned, almost regretting the decision to offer them alcohol. 

Lyssana put the glasses next to settings at the table and gestured for her guests to sit and serve themselves. She allowed them to dish their food first before serving herself. Neal laughed at the disgusted look on Abby’s face as she tried the wine and he offered her a sip of his mead, which she seemed to like better and got up to pour herself a glass. She passed the wine to Lyssana who enjoyed the robust red and chuckled at Abby’s look of dismay. “On the islands where I grew up, we made a drink from the Panat fruit, which has a very strong flavor, so I guess I enjoy full bodied wines.” 

“Damn,” Neal chuckled, “I think that’s the most you’ve opened up since we’ve known you! My turn!” He drained his glass and slammed it down dramatically. “Hi everyone, my name is Neal and I’m just really down to earth. I just feel like I have a pretty grounded spirit. The ladies say I’m rock-hard.” He stopped abruptly, staring at the table in embarrassment. Abby spit out some of her mead in shock.

 “Okay, that was too far and I apologize.” 

Lyssana laughed, which brought looks of shock to her guests faces. “We should all get together and have mead more often!” Neal beamed, his transgression already forgotten. 

Lyssana watched as her guests conversed and she chimed in when the conversation allowed her to be polite. The mead did not affect her as it did the other two; her tolerance to fermented beverages was higher as it had been an integral part of the Saakaran lifestyle.

 This was not as bad as she had imagined it would be – having guests in her home and conversing with them. The Corpegara joined shortly after the three humans had finished eating and Lyssana gave them the remainder of the fish she had cooked, as she had no ice for the icebox to save the leftovers. 

“So, what do your Corporegies eat other than fish and bones? And where do they poop if you live on the top floor of the tower?” 

Abby laughed at his pronunciation attempt and took another swig of mead before tentatively reaching down to pet the closest to her. Sarpia was happy to receive the affection and nuzzled the hand offered. 

“The Corpegara convert their food directly to energy with very little waste. Sometimes there will be calcified nuggets around the apartment if they’ve over eaten, but generally they are so efficient at converting energy that there is nothing to clean up after. And they eat just about anything, but the bones are their favorite and seem to be the best for them, so I make sure that is the majority of their diet.” She recited, remembering the book she had read nights prior. 

“So what exactly are they? I’ve never seen anything like them!” Abby was now on the floor with Sarpia and Halvard both vying for her attention. 

“Unfortunately there is such little known about them that I cannot give you an exact answer. There is speculation that they are simply a form of golem that evolved after they were abandoned. Or there is the theory that they were once animals that had the misfortune of being experimented on by a mage. I was able to find only one book about them and it was very little fact and more so primary speculation.” 

At this point Neal had joined Abby on the floor and they each had a creature sprawled across their laps. Neal traced some of the runes along Halvard’s wing and the small Corpegara hummed in contentment. “Well whatever they are, they seem to be good company. No one should be alone at Istima, even you Lyssana. I’m sure you’ve made some enemies at the school already and it would be a shame to go unprotected.” 

“Not that you can’t protect yourself!” Abby added quickly behind his words. “But I agree that they seem good companions.” 

Lyssana chuckled for a second time that night and turned to look at the four beings on her floor. “A companion was most welcome and they seem to enjoy it here, so we coexist peacefully. I am glad they like you both.” 

“Me too, can we do this more often so we can see them again? I think I’m starting to love them!” Abby pleaded with flushed cheeks. 

“No, I think that’s just the mead talking, but then again you do love animals, so it may be both things!” Neal’s words were beginning to slur and Lyssana handed them both glasses of water in place of the mead. 

“I do not mind a visit, but I’d rather you sober up enough to get home without being murdered in the street.” 

“I think the Winter Court is probably the safest court at Istima. I haven’t heard of a mugging or murder happen yet.” Abby suddenly looked concerned and downed her glass of water.

“I saw a mugging in the Summer Court a few nights ago and wouldn’t put it past someone to bring that behavior to our Court. We may not have such open hostility, but I fear our mages are just as dangerous and deceitful. They may just be sneakier about it. You need to watch each other’s backs.” 

“Wait, you saw a mugging? Why were you in the Summer Court?” Neal suddenly seemed skeptical and she gave him a hard look. 

“Why I was there is none of your concern, just acknowledge that the danger is very real here.” Hopefully throwing him into a wall had alienated him from her and the people looking to go after Lyssana would leave the other two alone, but there was never any guarantee. “I’ve already had threats against me and I’m sure as we progress in our classes they will only get worse.” 

Her tone must have been sobering because the two people on the floor looked up at her with wide eyes and Abby gulped. “Don’t worry Lyssana, we all have each other to look out for us, right?” She turned to Neal and he wrapped an arm around her shoulder in comfort. 

“I don’t think either of you could get rid of me. It’s already too late to make new friends.” He smiled drunkenly at them both and Lyssana rolled her eyes. 

“It’s only been two weeks. I’m sure neither of you would have any difficulty finding new companions.” She would not use the word friend. “However, I will do what I can when I am around to ensure your safety.” Abby smiled up at her and Neal looked like he was about to cry from drunken joy. “I need you for group projects and don’t want to talk to other people.” The joy fell from their faces and Abby grimaced. Neal still smiled slightly and watched her carefully.

“You pretend not to like us, but I’m pretty sure you’re going to call us your friends by the time this year comes to an end!” He beamed at her and Abby, his face flushed. 

Lyssana only scoffed and rolled her eyes. 

The rest of the evening passed without incident and her two companions drank another glass of mead while she was indisposed in her bathroom. She ended up giving them blankets so they could spend the night in the living room and the Corpegara snuggled between the two warm bodies on the floor. She sighed in slight irritation before going to bed and closing her door

Still, she made a mental note to buy a plush carpet and more pillows at her next trip to market in case they needed to sleep at her apartment in the future. But they were not her friends.

Last Chapter                                                                                                     Next Chapter

Yam 7

1.07

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

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

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

“Your first time speaking with them?”

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

“Give me your letter.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yam nodded politely and kept his face blank. 

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

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

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

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

It really was an excellent deal. 

“This is entirely unacceptable!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

~~~

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

Now that was a woman.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Like the person he was supposed to be. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He really had chosen his court well.

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

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

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

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

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

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

~~~

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Last Chapter                                                                                                           Next Chapter

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.

Last Chapter                                                                                                           Next Chapter

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.

Last Chapter                                                                                                           Next Chapter

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.

Last Chapter                                                                                                           Next Chapter