Chapters

Yam 5

1.05

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

~~~

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

~~~

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yam nodded seriously. Finally, a taste of civilization.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yam’s only reply was a smile. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

~~~

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Those he had fought particularly hard for. 

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

Plus, he already knew which court he would join. 

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

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

~~~

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

The anomaly stood out immediately. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And a young woman materialized. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Don’t touch me!”

“I’m sorry! Are you hurt—”

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

 There was a stutter in Yam’s chest. 

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

Just rage. 

Even in Istima. 

Even in the most educated place in the entire world. 

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

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

He had just stolen something from another student. 

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

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

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

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

Last Chapter                                                                                                               Next Chapter

Cal 5

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Thanks, but I’m good. Just be safe.”

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

The Akatsi saw her and limped over.

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

“What happened?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It would have to do.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Don’t you need it?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You, uh, noticed that?”

“I did. So, where is your project?”

“I’m wearing it.” She lifted a boot.

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

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

“Is something supposed to be happening?”

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

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

Cal gave her a blank look.

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

“Oh.”

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

“Yes?”

“Did you blind another student?”

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

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

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

Last Chapter                                                                                                               Next Chapter

Lyssana 4

Chapter 4: The Inner Workings of Winter

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Only if you use my name.”

“Please, Lyssana.” 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Last Chapter                                                                                                               Next Chapter

Yam 4

1.04

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The feeling did not leave. So Yam stayed sitting. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You could not fight the earth. 

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

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

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

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

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

For now.

~~~

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

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

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

None of that mattered. 

There were books. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 “I’m sorry what?”

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

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

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

“How long will that take?”

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

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

“No number, no entry.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“As you say bookkeeper”

Nathanial took his seat and ignored their existence all together. 

~~~

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

He was a ghost, and clearly a powerful one. 

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

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

“Are you looking for something sir?”

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

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

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

“Do you have any questions?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“How many books are in the Understacks?”

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

He stared deeper but the number didn’t change. 

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

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

“Can I live here?”

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

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

The air all but thrummed with the weight of knowledge. 

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

“It depends on the student.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yam’s hands shot towards the shelves.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You’re not a librarian?”

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

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

The bookkeeper flickered, “Pardon?”

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

“Well, that is rather blunt.”

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

“Discrimination is a part of life.”

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

“I am a Study of the Ken Seekers.”

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

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

“You want to work in the Understacks?”

“Yes.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You are going to make me read books?”

“Will that be a problem?”

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

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

Last Chapter                                                                                                               Next Chapter

Cal 4

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I’m fine,” Cal said.

“Wonderful! Sable, if you would?”

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

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

“Got lucky.”

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

“What do most thieves come to find?”

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

“What?”

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

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

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

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

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

“And you are?”

“Cal.”

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

“I’m fine. What’s going on exactly?”

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

“To do what?”

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

“But… why? This is a tailor’s shop.”

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

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

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

“I… need to know the details.”

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

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

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

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

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

“Or even legal,” Sable added.

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

“And where do I come into all this?”

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

“And why should I trust you?”

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

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

“That is?”

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

“Stay? We aren’t a boarding house.”

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

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

“Hang on a minute—“

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

“Fine,” Cal said, crossing her arms.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Last Chapter                                                                                                               Next Chapter

Lyssana 3

Chapter 3: Dreams and Memories

Smoke churned all round her, the stinging pain bringing tears to her eyes. There was no relief. The mountain was so unkind. Her child-mind did not comprehend why this was happening. Why had she been sent to an island of fire? There was only pain and sorrow in her heart as she looked on through the flames, knowing her new guardians would not let her out until she had paid her time. Lacuna wept, tears streaming clean rivulets into the soot that covered her face. 

“Father! Mother! Please help me!” Her cries were swallowed by the sounds of lava surging beneath her perch on the cliffs edge, heat rushing to meet her tender face. She curled tightly in on herself, trying to be as small as possible. Lacuna could feel the strands of her hair singing in the heat, and it burned as it whipped around her huddled frame. Hours went by; until she had no more tears to cry and until her voice ran away from all the strain. Then she hid her face in her knees, begging everyone she had ever met for it to be over. Even the images of her sister smiling down at her brought no more strength. She had given it all to the angry fire below. 

She did not know how long she silently wept, but when her arms grew tired from fatigue, and she let her face rest against the side of the cliff; she wished for death. She hoped and prayed for death, angry that she did not have the energy to pull herself over the edge into the river of lava below. It was all she could do to simply exist. Closing her eyes, she felt herself drift away. 

Lyssana woke to the sunlight warming her face as she blinked the dream away. Lacuna. She had been called that in another life. It meant “The one with a missing piece,” or so she had been told. How cruel to name a child so. A cold feeling of anguish curled tightly in her chest, but she took a shaky intake of air and let it melt away. It had been ten years gone since the last dream of her childhood invaded her sleep, and it disturbed her that these memories should surface now. She allowed herself a moment to breath before rolling out of bed, opened the doors to her living space, and froze. The food she had bought the previous day covered the marble floor, smears of light pink pulp sitting on top of the counters. Her eyes narrowed as they settled on the two heads that popped out of the basket and tilted in opposite directions at her arrival. It wasn’t anger that stilled her feet, only shock at the sight. 

She quickly closed the doors once more and turned, pressing her back to the dark wood as she took a deep breath. She had read that the Corpegara were mischievous when bored, but her rooms were a mess! Why had she made such an impulsive decision to bring home two creatures she knew so little about? Another breath was inhaled to suppress the rising panic, and she flung the doors open and strode forward into the kitchen, hands on hips as she looked at the two stone creatures. They turned to her again, faces full of picturesque innocence. She stared them down for a moment before sighing and letting her hands fall to her sides in defeat. At this change in demeanor, both of the Corpgegara jumped out of the basket and sat on the counter in front of her, chirping excitedly, though as she continued to watch them, their ears fell back against their heads and they seemed to sink into themselves. “Are you both quite finished now?” They both looked back up at her, ears once again lifting to their full height, dark eyes meeting hers. “Very well. Let’s get you both cleaned up. Follow along now.” With that she turned on her heel and walked back toward the bedchamber, two stone figures in tow. 

Giving them a bath had begun quite easy, as Lyssana discovered they very much enjoyed staring at their distorted reflections on the copper bathtub as they splashed in the shallow water.  The shop keeper had claimed they could understand the common tongue, and so far they had seemed to comprehend everything she said, so she began chiding in a gentle tone. “If we are all to cohabitate peacefully, then we need to set some ground rules.” They both stopped splashing and turned to her, as though giving their complete attention. She smiled and began washing the smears of fruit off their intricately carved bodies with a soft cloth she had found stocked in the washroom pantry. “Firstly, no more destroying my food for your entertainment. It is very costly and a lot of work to walk into the market to buy. I will get you whatever toys or materials you require for entertainment so long as you promise not to destroy my things. Do we have a deal?” 

Both Corpegara turned to each other before looking back to Lyssana with a nod and a quiet chirp. Their wings unfurled as they sat in the copper basin, waiting patiently for her to continue cleaning them. “Excellent,” she mimicked their chirp with the pitch of her voice and a smile broke across her face as she moved the cloth down the length of their wings. They really were quite spectacular with their hard gray skin that seemed to be carved with tiny ruins. Some level of intellect was present because they really did understand her words and react accordingly. They were impressive creatures to say the least, and she very much looked forward to reading more about them in the evening. “Secondly, you both need to remain in my apartments when I am away. That means classes and whatever related errands I will be required to participate in. I can’t have you both making a mess of the city while I’m away.” She regarded them seriously, stopping her cleaning to drive the point across. They didn’t seem pleased with the notion, and the smaller one snorted its displeasure. “Will you agree to this rule if I promise to take you with me when I go on personal errands around the city? Is this a compromise you can agree on?” 

She would have to limit her time in the city with these two in tow if she was to avoid drawing attention to herself. Perhaps only shopping under the cover of night would help? Lyssana very much doubted it, but she didn’t know what else to do at this point. Two less enthusiastic hums  answered her and she nodded in satisfaction as she grabbed a towel from the wash stand. 

“Very good. We will most likely have to add to these rules as time goes on, but for now these are the only two I will put in place.” She paused, draining the tub and watching their curious stares as the water swirled down the drain. “I suppose you’ll both need names. What shall I call you?” Lyssana rose from her crouch, motioning the two figures to exit the tub so she could dry them off. They very much enjoyed the soft towel as she rubbed them down in turn. They had not responded to her question, though she had not expected them to suddenly speak names to her, so she tentatively spoke her next words, wishing not to offend. “Sarpia and Halvard?” They paused, turning to regard her with their dark, non blinking stare. After a few moments of silence, they chirped to each other and nodded, their wings rising and falling as they seemed to discuss her proposition. The smaller of the two circled her and sat at her feet, staring up expectantly as Lyssana lay a tentative hand on its head. “Sarpia?” The creature chirped and nodded, swinging its head to the other and chirping again. “…and Halvard?” At this, they both cooed and began prancing around the bathroom, as though proud they had names. “It’s settled then! Welcome home, Sarpia and Halvard.”

 She could not stop the grin from springing to her face again as she draped the cloth and towel over the tub to dry. Now to clean the rest of the mess and go buy more food. 

She remembered well the places she had visited the previous day and her trip to market started just the same, with the exception of the two Corpegara wheeling and circling overhead. For two creatures made of stone, they seemed to float effortlessly through the air, rising and falling with the birds that rode the wind. She could not feel that wind in the streets below her two companions, due to the unnatural weather patterns produced by the Courts. 

The chill of the Hibernal Court did not bother Lyssana, for the fiery magic in her veins kept her body at a comfortable warmth, though she supposed the large fireplace in her sitting room would keep anyone who did not have this ability cozy enough from the wintry air that surrounded her residence.

 The Corpegara didn’t seem to mind the cold either, which made taking care of them a little easier. Their distant calls were never far  as she continued her shopping. The Merchants were the same discriminatory scoundrels, though she had learned from her observations and wore a muted orange dress, still silk, though no embroidery. The prices were slightly less, higher than the people in linen or wool paid, but less exorbitant than before. Lyssana wished she could wear the linen dresses, but she knew people watched her, and her appearance must be kept for those spies of her family. For now, however, she had to get ready for the first days of class, and that meant cleaning her apartment and getting Halvard and Sarpia whatever they required to entertain themselves in the days to come. 

After two tragic mishaps that resulted in the purchase of nearly a dozen small shelled creatures, three large fruits that resembled trees, and a pair of femurs from what she only assumed was a goat; Lyssana finally trudged back into her apartment with two shapes waiting patiently on the deck. She happily gave them the bones they had dived a shopkeeper for and set about cleaning the mess they had made the previous night. 

The pulp from the carintas was easy to clean from the marble floor, and after an hour passed, her rooms were back to the pristine condition in which they had been given to her. With a sigh of relief, she walked back to the deck to find her two companions purring contently as they gnawed on the bones she had given them. They seemed to be slowly eating the entire thing, their stone teeth grinding the bones down as they ate. It was fascinating to watch, and she found herself mesmerized by their methodical chewing. The sun would be hitting its zenith soon, and she was appalled that so much of the day had already passed. With a final look at the Corpegara, she donned her hooded cloak and set out to find the materials she would need for her first classes. 

The main building of her court, where she had done her testing, was no less spectacular that her first visit, and she found herself observing the stained glass windows as she walked the corridors to the main lobby. The room that had been previously cleared now held rows of tables, each full of food and lined with the students of The Winter Court. She frowned for a moment, weighing the option of eating here or waiting until after she got back home to make food, but the hunger in her stomach made the decision for her. She grabbed a plate at the nearest table and began piling it with food. 

For the most part, everything was delicious. The exception was the orange pie she had tried that ended up tasting like cinnamon, but had an unsettling musty odor. She discovered later that it was made from a lichen that grew to the far north of Apaernore, making it a delicacy for the fine tuned palates of the Hibernal Students. She would leave the sweets to them, for she preferred the spicy dishes that were mostly untouched on the tabletop. The fermented spicy cabbage had been quite delectable, and she would need a recipe for that to make on her own time. 

As she filled a second plate, a figure took the empty seat beside her. His head was level with hers and covered in dark, shoulder length hair. Dark green eyes sparkled mischievously as he extended a hand in her direction. “Hi there, I’m Neal. I saw you sitting over here by yourself and figured you could use some company!” 

She stared at him, her only response a blink of annoyance at her disrupted peace. Dealing with the Corpegara the last few days had left her little time to cook for herself, so this space in the dining hall was already an unwanted necessity.

Neal dropped his hand, his smile faltering slightly. “That’s alright, you don’t have to talk, we can just eat quietly.” He looked smug as she turned back to her food, opting to ignore him completely. “Oh, yum, this pie is my favorite!” He openly laughed at the disgust that crossed her face, and quieted again at the anger that replaced it. 

“If I wanted company during my meal, I would have chosen a seat around people. You’re intruding upon my peace.” Her voice was strained, appetite suddenly gone as she looked at the food on her second plate. The tribe she was raised in taught her to let nothing go to waste, so she ate methodically, tasting nothing. 

“Maybe you just didn’t realize you wanted company. Or maybe you’re just too shy to ask for friends? Waiting for a dashing stranger to sweep you off your feet?” 

Hands closed tightly in a fist around her fork, and the room seemed to grow slightly warmer as she glanced at his smirk. This man was clearly getting enjoyment from trying her patience, but Lyssana Terasu didn’t have any patience. It wasn’t needed in her previous lifestyle; for elemental magic followed the emotional stereotypes well. Her keepers, the Saakarans of the Isle, were some of the greatest elemental magicians known to date, and they were not a patient people.

His voice was grating. Each word forcing her fists tighter around the steel. “You know, people are going to have to collaborate to get through these classes. I’ve heard they are pretty brutal. We could be partners, you and I, and-” His voice was cut short by a yelp of surprise as her fork landed next to his hand on the table. A sliver of smoke rose from the polished wood where it landed, and her fist unfurled from the handle. 

“Your hospitality is…endearing.” She sneered the word through a clenched jaw. “But I am not in the mood.” Her chair echoed as she pushed it backwards in the now silent room, and an amused laughter of “Fire mages are so touchy” followed her exit. 

She calmed considerably as she made her way to the library; all the pent up emotion now dispelled. A smile greeted the third year student behind the desk. “I’m here for my class schedule and supply list.” 

“Name, please.” 

“Lyssana Terasu.” The man behind the desk shuffled through stacks of folders, a bored expression on his face. He looked much older than any of the other students she had seen thus far, but the name plate he wore clearly stated a third year rank. 

“I got a late start.”

“Pardon?” 

“You’re wondering why I’m so old and only hold a third year rank, right?” She nodded, though any embarrassment she should have felt was nonexistent. “I had to work here at the library for a few years before I saved up enough to attend Istima, so I got a late start.” No remorse filled his voice. The words were spoken matter of factual, as though he were oblivious to the fact that many other students would be embarrassed to admit such a low social status. 

“There is nothing wrong with a delayed start.”

“There is also nothing wrong with being yourself, as many here would try to make you believe.” His words had a cryptic feel to them and he handed over a folder with her name scrawled across the front, face still bored. “So many people come here to be something else, but they are all still the same on the inside.” She accepted the paperwork and he turned away without another word, humming a seemingly familiar tune as he shuffled more papers around.

She shook the conversation from her mind as she wandered the shelves, selecting the books listed on her parchment. A few other students meandered through the meticulous library, though each was keen on their objective.

The first day of class was nauseating. Lyssana was so nervous, but she refused to let it show. With a straight back, she walked into the meticulous, well lit room.  A large window took up most of the back wall, and fifteen desks filled the room, five precis rows of three. The jars lining the left wall were all facing the same direction, labels written in a fancy, flowing script. The desks appeared unassigned, so she took the middle desk in the second row, sitting forward as other students filed in and filled the surrounding seats. A familiar face slid beside her with a cheeky grin. “Hey there, stranger!” She glanced at him, acknowledging his presence with a nod, her irritation masked with nervousness. Despite his overly pushy demeanor, it was nice to see a face she recognized. 

“Good morning, Neal.”

“You just aren’t a very cheery person are you? Or is it that you’re not a morning person, hm?” There was a hit of playfulness in his tone, but she would not take the bait, instead turning back to the front of the room as the professor walked in. His robes were immaculate, and a deep purple, which accented the auburn hair on his head.

“Good morning, students! Welcome to your first class here at Istima! My name is Professor Hurst, and you all find yourselves in Intro to Elementalism.” His cheery voice grated her nerves even more, and Neal chuckled at her lack of response with the class as they returned the salutations. 

The mood quickly turned to business as he began the lesson and Lyssana found herself fully engaged in his teachings as he explained the fundamentals of elemental magics. “Elementalism is so fascinating because it requires a family heritage in order for the correct energies to be felt and manipulated. This means elemental magic can’t be used by just anyone, you have to be born with the ability for it!” His enthusiasm was impalpable, and she wondered if every person in this forsaken court had lost their mind to a peppy disposition.

 “That means each and every one of you is special. Your magic is unique to yourself alone. Though the Winter Court is currently working on a project that will isolate the exact criteria that gives us this ability to manipulate specific energies, we are still a long way from discovering it. Perhaps one of you will discover those secrets in the future, with the help of your classes here at Istima.” He paused for dramatic effect. “Now, we all know that one’s ability in elemental magic varies between mages. Some have a very strong ability, and others can barely manage to move water in a bucket. Most elemental mages can only control one form of a single element, but there are a rare few who can have a disposition for another class of an element. This being said, it is possible that some of you can manipulate energies outside the element you normally control. However, it is important to remember that this talent is very rare and difficult to master.” Several confused glances from the other students confirmed Lyssana’s own thoughts as she listened to the lecture. 

Professor Hurst must have noticed her face in the crowd as he stopped to smile, as though he had expected this reaction. “Miss Terasu, I presume?” The room fell silent, all eyes turning to face her as the room fell deathly silent. She gave a slight nod. “Your display during orientation was quite impressive, I’ve been told.” He waited only a moment for a response, in which she gave none, though a few irritated faces glanced between her and the professor. “You are confused about my earlier statement, yes?About the ability to work with more than one elemental class?” It was clear he would not continue until he elicited a response, so she spoke.

“I am only curious what you define as separate elemental classes?” More hushed whispers followed her question and the professor gave a satisfied nod. She ignored the glances that fell on her, and the quiet questioning mummers about her testing. She wondered if she may have to accept that a disadvantage was in place here at Istima. If these professors spoke so openly about her in front of the students, she was sure to have a following against her. Professor Hurst had just put an open target on her, and already she could feel the hatred in a few of the glances. 

“A very good question,” he praised. “There are four primary elemental categories: fire, water, earth, and air. Within each of these categories are classes, or forms, of that element. For example, within the category of fire there are multiple forms this element can take. These are referred to as classes within the category.” He grabbed a piece of chalk and began drawing a circular diagram as the class scrambled for parchment to copy. “The secondary form of fire is magma, air has a class of wind, water has ice, and metal is a class of earth.” Each of the elemental categories were encased in a large circle with the classes written in a smaller circle directly attached to the class, forming a diagonal and horizontal line with the circles. 

“Now it’s very important;” he turned back to the class, locking eyes with each student before continuing. “This is only the most basic breakdown of the elemental classes. From here, the elements begin to work together to form the other classes. This is where elemental mages must work together in order to complete complex tasks. This is where your first assignment of the year comes into play. You must pair up with another elemental mage in order to complete a simple task. The task can be anything you decide, but it must be completed with magic alone, and it must require the elements of each mage in the pair. Any questions?” He gave little time for anyone else to speak before he started pairing students. Of course, with a class of fifteen, there was need for a group of three, and who better to end up with two partners but Lyssana? Neal seemed ecstatic to be partnered with her, and she rolled her eyes at him, though the petite blonde woman with bright blue eyes seemed terrified. 

The task itself was vague and could be anything, though the rules of the assignment were specific enough. Neal was an earth elemental, and the woman who had quietly introduced herself as Abby was a water mage. That gave them many options of creation, and Lyssana’s mind filled with ideas as the professor continued. 

“Other elemental classes require more than one category of the elements to make them work. Mist, for example, requires the primary use of water and a secondary use of wind in order to manipulate it. Most of the time this requires two mages – one of air and one of water – but there are some mages who can manipulate certain classes of another element.” Excited voices erupted around the room, and Neal looked at her with an eyebrow wiggle. She shot him a dirty look and proceeded to copy the new circles on the board. “Working with wood requires the use of Earth and Water.” He drew circles connecting all four elements of the board, writing words in them. “Acid, earth and fire. Lightning, fire and air. And they only get more complicated from there.” When he finished, there was a diagram of circles, all connecting within the elements. “Now you understand your assignment. You must work together to create something or complete a task that one element alone cannot accomplish. Class dismissed.” 

Since this was her only morning class today, Lyssana had quite a bit of free time to begin the assignment, and it seemed Abby held a schedule similar to hers when the three compared. Neal had another class immediately, but promised to meet in the dining hall for the midday meal. The smile she pointed toward Abby was an attempt at comforting, but the woman shrank back with a flinch, and the smile faded. “Should we wait in the dining hall then?” The young woman glanced at her and shrugged, eyes returning to the ground in front of her. “Do you know how to speak, or are you a mute?” Lyssana’s words were riddled with irritation as she began walking to the dining hall. Abby followed, though she said nothing, a pout setting on her face. 

“I’m not used to being around people. I’m sorry.” Her voice was quiet, nearly a squeak as they walked down the bustling halls. People seemed to move out of Lyssana’s way, so a path cleared in front of them, but she took no notice. 

“Don’t apologize for something you have no control over, it only makes you look weak.” The words were out before she even realized what she was saying, and a wince was suppressed. “Those words were ingrained in me as a child. I know they are harsh, but they are necessary. Especially in a place like this.These students will take every advantage they can get, even at the expense of someone else.” She glanced back at the shorter woman, eyes now wide as she comprehended the fiery mage’s speech.

“Your family must be very harsh for such words. They may hold some truth, but that does not make them kind.”

“I would not know, for I have not met my family. But I do know that kindness is unnecessary for learning, especially in this place.” She paused for a moment, contemplating her next thought. “I…must admit that I am envious. You have clearly been raised in a much more…gentle environment. I wish I had a family like that.” 

Abby started, confusion marring her porcelain features. “You have me mistaken, Lady Terasu. I was raised by my mother alone. I have no other family.” Sadness filled her eyes, and they began to water, though she blinked it away quickly. “I was raised in Akatsan. My mother is a teacher that studied their culture and language, so I’m more used to being around the Akatsi than I am humanity.” 

Lyssana let out a snort, though she flashed the water mage a smile. “The Akatsi are long winded and social within their tribes, yet you do not carry these characteristics. I do see how being around so little of humanity would have you shy. Worry not, I can feel the potential you have, and I think you will do fine here.” It was as close to a compliment as Lyssana knew how to give, and Abby didn’t seem so bad. A complete polar opposite, but a decent talent, with her energy nearly half what Lyssana held.

“And what about you? You say you don’t know your family, but you clearly have money, and a reputation it would seem. Professor Hurst mentioned your testing at the orientation. What did you do?” 

“You sure do ask a lot of questions, Abby. Perhaps one day I will indulge, but now is not the time. Too many ears to hear, you understand?” 

Abby did understand, and she begrudgingly let the conversation fall away. They reached the dining hall in very little time, as the path cleared before Lyssana. She had an air of command about her, and people seemed to feel it as Abby did. The woman was absolutely terrifying, but Abby was happy to be on her good side…at least she thought it was the good side. Now it was just time to wait, and eat. 

Last Chapter                                                                                                               Next Chapter

Yam 3

1.03

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

A private room. 

With a view. 

And snacks. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It was a surreal moment. 

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

 Yam looked at the ball of hair.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes”

“We could use more of those.”

“Truely?”

“Yeah”

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

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

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

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

Much easier to remember. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Last Chapter                                                                                                               Next Chapter

Cal 3

Cal awoke early on the first day of class. With the constant sunlight, it was hard to sleep in the Day Court at the best of times, but the thin walls did nothing to dampen the sound of hundreds of new students preparing for their days.

Her stomach growled as she walked through the gate into the Summer Court, but she ignored it. Instead, she focused on her surroundings. It was the usual sweep; looking for guards, weapons, fat coin-purses, and so forth. Yet all her knowledge was useless here. There were no guards, the students carried no weapons, and she couldn’t see anything through the elaborate robes that passed as fashionable in the city.

But she did see a familiar face. The Akatsi from the day before. She made her way through the crowd until she caught his attention.

“Rathana, isn’t it?” She said.

“Callion,” he nodded.

“You, uh, wouldn’t happen to know where class is?”

“A question I myself was hoping you could answer.” He frowned. “None of the new arrivals know and none of the older students will tell us. I believe it is a form of test.”

“And the bullshit begins,” Cal muttered.

“Lady Callion?” A voice called. She turned and saw a boy with an angular face, high cheekbones, and fine red robes. He was oddly familiar, but she couldn’t figure out how she knew him. 

“Yes?”

“Lord Jasten Forthale? From the orientation test?” Cal remembered him now. He was the annoying one who she’d greatly wanted to punch. He smiled and eyed her up and down. “I see you too chose to pursue the Estival Court.”

“Yes, though they aren’t making it easy. I still haven’t figured out where the class is supposed to be.”

“How fortunate, I’m on my way there right now. I can show you.”

Cal raised an eyebrow. If that was true, it was almost enough to make her not want to hit him. “You know where class is? How’d you find that out?”

“It wasn’t easy, but for the right price, anything is possible.” The urge to punch the young lord was growing again.

She faked a smile. “Lead the way.”

The classroom wasn’t easy to find. Cal and Rathana followed Jasten around the side of one of the towers and down a small stairway. The stairway hugged the exterior of the tower as it descended, giving Cal a spectacular—yet terrifying—view of the city. Only a thin guardrail separated her from plunging several hundred feet down.

The stairs curved all the way around the tower, until it ended at a doorway placing them somewhere under the courtyard. The corridors within were lit not by dim torches, but strange blue lamps which cast an unwavering light across the cold stones.

“Are you sure this is the right way?” Cal said. She hated being underground. It was far too cramped and cold.

“It’s just a bit further,” Jasten said, walking down the hall. After about fifty feet, he turned left and the tunnel opened into a circular room.

The room was a bowl, with rings of benches around a central stage. More blue torches cast strange shadows on the walls, but Cal was glad to see sunlight streaming in from a small skylight above. Students, no more than thirty, dotted the benches.

“Should we find a spot?” She asked, looking to Rathana.

“I will stand,” he said. “Sitting is… problematic.”

Cal nodded slowly and found herself a seat. As she did, an older woman walked in.

When she pictured professors—or any academic for that matter—she envisioned stuffy little men with thin glasses and beards so long they tripped over them as they walked. She’d never suffered from an abundance of schooling. Numbers and letters were picked up as she went, learning from the other children or the occasional well-meaning priest.

But the woman that walked into the lecture room seemed out of place. She was wearing a black leather smock over fitted robes. Her hands were covered in soot stains and her brown hair was just beginning to show streaks of gray. She stepped into the center stage and looked around with a sigh.

“Gods above, I swear you first years are getting younger and younger,” she said. “My name is Hasham Teagan. While the pedants in the Autumnal Court may wish for you to address me as professor, or artificer, I forbid you from using it. Teagan will do fine. And you!” She snapped at one of the boys in the front rows. “Stop writing down everything I say, I can hear you scribbling from here and I have a splitting hangover as is.”

“I am here to introduce you to rune-based magic, artificing, and to the Estival Court as a whole. We will start with basic runes—” A hand shot up. It was Jasten. Teagan raised an eyebrow and nodded to the young lord. “You have a question?”

“Prof—sorry, Teagan, I think I speak for some of us here when I say that we already have a grasp of runes. Would it be possible to gear our efforts towards something more advanced?”

“A fair point. Tell me, does anyone else here feel this way?” Several other hands went up. “Alright, then you are excused from this lesson. We will meet again next class for a more a more advanced take on runework.”

The students grabbed their things and filed out the door, smiles on their faces. Once they had gone, Teagan shook her head.

“Happens every fucking year. For those of you who have chosen to stay, congratulations, you’ve made a wise decision. Hopefully it won’t be your last.” She crossed over to the large stone table at the center of the room. “Honestly, it’ll take far too long to train that lot out of all the bad habits they’ve learned from their tutors.”

“You are here to learn runes,” she continued, holding up a leather bag. “Each of you will be given a slate tablet. This piece of rock is your new best friend. It is on this canvas that you will learn the basics of practical magic. Not the fanciful casting of elementalism, nor the effete and wilted powers of the Autumn Court, but real magic. The kind which the modern world is built upon.” She spilled the slates out of her bag and onto the table. “Come get one, they’re all the same, so it doesn’t matter which one you choose.”

Cal joined the rest of the students as they made their way down into the center of the bowl and grabbed a rock tablet. It was a little larger than her hand, rough at the edges, and cool to the touch. As she retook her seat, Teagan began to speak.

“Grab a rock, a quill, or whatever else you have on hand and draw a line like this.” Teagan made a small line on her own slate. Looking around, Cal found a pebble by her feet and quickly copied the line. “Now one like this. Then this. Well done, you’ve just drawn your first rune.”

Cal squinted at the small jumble of squiggles she had scratched into rock. It wasn’t glowing, and it certainly didn’t seem magical.

“This is an anchor rune around which other runes can be drawn. It is simple, but necessary, so get used to drawing it. Without an anchor, your spell has no target, and is liable to affect anything in the nearby area. Not so bad, unless you are trying to do something useful. If the ever-burning torches in here didn’t have anchor runes, this entire room would become a massive arcane fireball.” Cal glanced around the room. The pale blue light suddenly seemed much more ominous.

“Now,” Teagan smiled, “let’s learn how to make one.”

An hour later, and the rock slate glowed slightly in Cal’s hands. Her head hurt from everything Teagan had thrown at them. Anchors, targets, values, energy conversion statements, and all the others she couldn’t remember. And yet, she’d done it. So had most of the other students.

“Excellent,” Teagan said, tossing her slate onto the table with a thunk. “You’ve taken your first steps off the path of idiocy.” She leaned back against the desk and folded her arms. “As I said, I will be teaching you not just runes, but the basics of the Summer Court. Unlike the other schools, we do not have grades.” Some of the students spoke in excited whispers at this, but Teagan silenced them with a hand. “Instead we use a system of points. Points are awarded to winners of challenges set forth by your teachers. The only way to advance out of your first year is to have enough points to do so. Keep in mind, there will not be enough challenges for everyone to do so.” She smiled. “As I said, it was wise of you all to stay, as I am going to assign your first challenge now: to take what you have learned and recreate the rune-lights we have made today, but improve upon the design somehow. A point will be given to the most impressive design. Good luck.” With that, she grabbed her satchel bag and walked out of the room.

No one moved for a moment, then Teagan’s head appeared in the doorway once more. She rolled her eyes. “Gods above, you’re dismissed! Leave!”

 Without Jasten to guide them, Cal and Rathana had to find the next class alone. Fortunately, the other students in Teagan’s class had some ideas, and it only took a few false starts for the group to find the right room. It was located up a winding staircase within the tower, high above the courtyard.

The room was about halfway up the tower, in a bartizan—one of the turrets which sprouted off from the main cylinder of the structure like a branch off a tree trunk. As she stepped through the door, Cal was hit by a wave of heat and bright light. As her eyes adjusted she gasped. The roof, the walls, and the floor was almost entirely glass. Verdant plants were hung in pots, ivy coiled and draped along desks and railings, and hissing pipes spray water mist across most of the surfaces. In the center of the room was a small clearing with stone tables and strange equipment.

Standing in the center of the mess was an Akatsi. Female, Cal thought, though taller than Rathana, and older. Her skin was a gray-green, and flecked with spots of gold. Around her neck hung a strange glowing pendant. The woman turned and spotted the students.

“Ah, you’ve found me. Have a seat, if you need.” She waved at some stools. Cal took a spot while Rathana stood beside her.

The professor shifted her legs beneath her robes, bringing the second set down and raising the first. She wiped her hands on her smock and looked at them.

“I am professor-artificer Sita Mach. I have been assigned to teach you about potions.” She grabbed several small bottles, each filled with a thick brown liquid, and set them on the table. “In front of me, I have placed samples of several potions. One heals stomach ulcers, one helps maintain body heat, and one is a deadly poison.” She held up one of the potions. “Can anyone tell which one this is?”

The room was silent.

“Excellent. No answer is better than the wrong answer. Especially when mistakes can cost lives. Now, this class will be a combination of biology, physiology, and a smattering of other disciplines. Some of you might question the necessity of this, but if you ever wish to make a potion, and not simply copy the recipe from a book, then you will need to understand what you’re working with. Let’s begin with the basics.”

For the next hour, Professor Mach went around the room describing plants. It was mind-numbingly dull, and Cal struggled to keep up. Finally, she circled back to the central table.

“This is a lot to take in, but with time you will learn,” she said. “Any questions?”

Someone raised a hand. “What about that fourth bottle, professor?” He pointed at a fourth bottle of brown liquid sitting on the table. “You talked about the other three, but what does the last potion do?”

“What, this?” Professor Mach lifted the bottle. “It’s perhaps my favorite potion, known for both causing and relieving headaches.” She uncorked it, and took a swig. “It is commonly known as brandy, child.” She set the bottle down. “Dismissed.”

Last Chapter                                                                                                               Next Chapter

Lyssana 2

Chapter 2: New Beginnings 

Lyssana eyed the rooms she had been directed to, gold gilt covering the legs of the three chairs in the sitting room matching perfectly with the maroon pillows; the golden tassels streaming nearly to the marble floor. A vexed gasp caught in her throat. She would have been happy with a hut in the courtyard, but an ‘anonymous sponsor’ had paid the rooms off for her. Not even past the first day and people were already trying to purchase her loyalties. No doubt the owners of said sponsorships would be slipped to her in a way that would be made to look like a mistake, but already she found herself seeing the clear currents of deceit and privilege intermingling here. But I could navigate the waters of the islands, I can navigate these. A thought that was supposed to have been encouraging only made the tension in her stomach seize again and she dropped her bag with a thud to the chair closest to the door. All three sat circled around a pristine marble fireplace as tall as she was. Why anyone would ever need such a thing confused her, but she walked past to discover the other atrocities that lay in wait, for it seemed the entire apartment carried the same theme. 

The bedchamber was more extraneous than she could have ever imagined and she closed the door quickly, blocking the view of the posted bed that held a canopy nearly to the ceiling. The floors were marble as far as she could see. A small room lay open opposite the bed chamber. What was most excitedly a kitchen! She would not have to sit with all the other students in the common rooms. The first smile of the day graced her lips and a small sigh of relief dropped the tension that had been holding her shoulders stiffly. Golden tiles lined the deep sink and wood stove, surprisingly unstained from soot or ash. It was going to be awful keeping that clean.

With hesitation, she walked toward the large double doors that led to the bedchamber. They opened without a sound, the heavy wood gliding effortlessly to their open resting places against adjoining walls. She had to stifle a gasp as the horrendous sight before her was washed in light from the sitting room. A large four post bed was the staple of the room, with a carved wardrobe sitting opposite it. A stand mirror reflected an open bathing chamber around the corner, the copper bathtub shining brightly in the dark room. She walked to the closed windows, throwing back the curtains to let the sun bathe the room in brilliant light. It seemed the room caught aflame, the bright silks coming to life under the brilliant rays. Bright reds covered the bed in all shades, while the cushioned stool at the foot hosted a dark burgundy to match the curtains. The wood was all a dark color, an unfamiliar variety and all carved and gilded with gold. The wardrobe was a masterpiece with animals she had never before seen carved along every inch. She found herself drawn to it, eyes wandering over the carvings as she opened the doors. The creatures almost seemed to move, their movements likely reflecting how the animals moved in real life. The enchantment was heavy and probably the result of a master enchanter. A piece of furniture this large and so strongly enchanted must cost a fortune!

Disgust instantly washed over any awe she previously held toward the furnishing, but she pulled open the doors anyway, stifling another groan at the sight. Silks in all shades of red, yellow, and orange filled the wardrobe, with muted browns peeking through on occasion. She fingered through the garments, holding up a few and gaping that they were already her size. All of this had already been here on her arrival, her place in this school already guaranteed. She had not earned her place after all, but it had been bought for her. Anger then replaced disgust as she paced the room, kicking her silk skirts with every step. Lyssana Terasu was not a woman to be trifled with, even by her own blood. She had been brought to this school with the purpose of earning a name for herself in the eyes of her father, but in this moment she wished nothing more than to bring him down. Her feet stopped pacing as she turned back to the wardrobe, a plan falling in place and a slow smile creeping on her lips. She would do what was asked of her, but Lyssana Terasu already had a well earned name that she carried with pride. The title she had been given upon exit of her naming trials; of which the Saakarans were quite harsh. Their overall dislike for humanity had already put her at a disadvantage on the island, but she had risen quite high within the tribe before her summons here. She would show her family that she was good enough, and before this was done, her father would pay for all the wrong that had been done to her. 

With a final look through the wardrobe, she discovered several large purses of gold, two daggers with batteries sewn into the leather hilts, and a belt embroidered with golden runes. She pocketed some gold and tucked the daggers into her boots before standing before the large mirror in shock. The reflection was not the Sakaaran warrior she had worked so hard to become. The runes in her skin were all covered beneath the silk gown she wore; her hair slightly frazzled from the day. With a sigh, she reached up to straighten it, hoping the image staring back at her was suitable enough for a noblewoman. One last glance in disgust at the woman in the mirror and she was off to search the city for some food. 

She had no idea how to cook. Somehow there was a vendor with fresh fish on the floating island, though none of the species she recognized. Asking directions on how to cook the rainbow striped fish resulted in an exasperated look by the few other people at the stand, and mutters about “didn’t the lady have servants for such menial tasks?” She had paid the man and quickly left the stand, berating herself at her idiocy. Life here at the school was going to be a difficult adjustment, but she was a survivor. She would rise through the ranks and stop only when she was killed, for her life had been given a new purpose. 

Streets jutted into dark alleys at every turn and she watched everyone closely. In some of the alleys she thought a figure shrouded in darkness could be seen, but she dismissed them as students practicing magic in preparation for their tests. Who was she to understand the Umbral Court and the darker magics they prided themselves on? 

She paused at a stand with round, red fruit as the prided item for this shop owner, and as she inspected one of the items, the conversation happening around her caused brows to furrow. 

“Yes, I’ve told you already, the carintas are a half dram each…” at this Lyssana raised her head, for the last patron had been told the carintas – that had to be the red fruit in her hands – were a whole dram each. Then she noticed the shop owner eyeing the patrons as he spoke. “… and if you don’t like my prices, you can find another shop! But I guarantee you’ll not find any as fresh as these unless you carry yourself to the orchards to pick them!” 

The woman he spoke to wore a linen dress with no embroidery and she frowned deeply as she handed a gold bar to the man to be weighed. As Lyssana caught the man eyeing her, she hastily put in her basket and handed over a few coins; for though she was unaccustomed to the noble life, she knew she needed to learn all she could before someone thought her out of place, and so she paid the outrageous prices for her wares without complaint, all the while holding her head high and looking down at those around her. 

Lyssana found herself walking further up the tiers of Istima as she wandered the city. Past the large cathedral like buildings that seemed to rise from the ground at random intervals to the docks where more eager students were unloading themselves and hurrying to the center of the island. The evening would be upon them soon and the last students would be in their testing for the day. She wondered if the school went silent at night, or if it was always so bustling. Her gaze found the stormy moat surrounding the island and a sense of calm washed over her. She could feel the static energy from the lightning in the clouds and she let the chaotic energy mingle with her own. It was an odd sensation, though pleasant enough. If she closed her eyes, she could almost reach out and feel the bursts of energy as the churned beneath the surface. It was exhilarating as she added her own magic to the mix, causing colorful bursts to mingle with the lightning, creating a muted light show beneath the clouds. 

With a start she realized a few people were pointing to the displayed phenomenon and she slipped back into the crowd before people could begin questioning the cause. She did not believe any had seen her, but she chastised herself for being so drawn in to something she did not know. It would not do to get herself killed before she had even been here a day.  It was so strange being in this tide of chaos. Someone had all but bought her way into the school; so how many others in these streets were here by money and not talent alone? 

These thoughts haunted her as she made her way back to the apartment, eyeing store fronts that seemed of interest and making a mental note to explore when she was not so exhausted from the day. She stopped in her tracks at an enchanters store, her feet moving toward it without her volition. The inside was filled with magical objects of every shape and size, some carved with runes and some clear of any markings. Something tugged at her energy, drawing her deeper into the store with almost a sense of urgency. Never had she felt such a calling at this level and it concerned her. She did not stop until she stood before a pair of gargoyles, their features carved in exquisite detail to the point that their eyes seemed to follow her every movement. She found herself fighting back the urge to reach out her hands, for she was unsure what magic would activate at her touch. A shopkeeper was beside her in a moment. 

“Ah, good lady, I see you’ve found the stone guardians! You are the first customer in twenty years to have expressed an interest! What a grand day this is!” 

She could not hide her shock, turning quickly to look at the young man with eyes wide before her attention fell back to the creatures before her. “What exactly are they and why do I feel them drawing me in so?”

The man smiled in her peripheral vision and spoke in a smooth tone. “The stone guardians are exactly that: protectors. But they aren’t the average guard creature, no! They choose the people they wish to serve and protect! Your energy must be what’s attracting them to you, so they reached out to get your attention; it’s how they communicate, though they also understand the common tongue in which we are speaking. They are officially known as Corpegara, though no one quite knows what they are in truth. They’ve just sat here on this shelf for nearly twenty years, occasionally grabbing the attention of a passerby, but none have been chosen to take them home.” 

Lyssana stared in awe at the guardians, her hand moving forward of its own accord to touch them each in turn. They came to life under her touch, their wings stretching as though they were woken from a nap. The shopkeeper took a startled step back, gawking at the creatures in shock. “Th-they’ve never awoken before! I-I think this means you must take them with you now, for they’ve chosen you!” He sounded as shocked as she was feeling and a grin broke across her face as she handed the man the pouch of gold at her waist. 

“Is this sufficient?” She asked, turning at last to the man who nodded fervently as he took the pouch to the front counter to count the gold. The creatures made quiet chirping noises as they watched her, each taking a turn being pet with her free hand. Were they sitting on the ground, they would come no higher than her knee, but they seemed to enjoy their perch on the shelf, vying for her attention. She could not stop smiling over making her first friends at the school, knowing full well that her apartment was going to feel less empty with these guardians present. 

The man came back with a significantly lighter pouch, but she paid no mind, knowing full well there was gold to spare in her wardrobe, but a frown crossed her face as she looked down at her only free hand. “How will I get them home?” The frown deepened as the man stiffed a laugh behind his hand at her ignorance; though he quickly stopped at the look on her face. 

“Ah— my lady, they have chosen you and are now bonded to your energy signature. They will follow you home of their own volition. They are your problem now.” That last line was meant to be muttered under his breath, but he did not take into account her incredible hearing and her frown deepened. To remedy his clear mistake, he handed her a locked book. “This will give you all the information you need to know… free of charge.” She doubted that very much. Judging from the gold missing from her pouch, he had taken enough for a library. 

“Very well…” Lyssana took the book, obvious questions beginning to surface as she turned it over in her hands, but  the young man bowed his way out of her view and around the corner. 

“No refunds!” She heard him yell from a distant aile, but curiosity quickly replaced the annoyance she felt as she examined the book. It had an enchanted lock unlike anything she’d ever seen before, tiny engraved runes in a neat row along the metallic spine. She sighed, wondering what she had gotten herself into as she looked to the Corpegaras a final time before waving them to follow.

“Come little ones, let’s go home.” 

A crowd of people gasped as she walked from the store and the two winged beasts flew out after her, shooting high into the sky and flying circles around each other. So much for not making a scene, she thought bitterly, but was unable to harbor such negative thoughts as she watched them fly and play overhead. 

Her rooms were in the largest tower on the second highest tier of the city, giving her a  view of the school from one window and a view up at her court from the other. The highest tier was dedicated to the courts and while some courts held students in their midst, the Winter Court used that space for extravagant displays of their magic within, leaving the students to the tier below. Lysanna didn’t mind though, for it was fewer stairs for her to climb.

Upon reaching her room, she deposited her basket in the kitchen and opened a door on the opposite end of the apartment that led to a balcony where her friends already waited. They cooed as she sat in a wooden chair, turning the locked book every which way to try and figure it out. After a few frustrating minutes she looked to the creatures, holding out the book with a look of irritation painted quite plainly on her face. Another chirp sounded as the smaller of the two – yes she was just beginning to see the subtle differences between them – extended a granite looking snout and tapped the book on the spine above the runes. The engravings flashed brightly and the book fell open in her hands. She eyed the one ruefully before settling in to examine the ancient looking pages. 

Lyssana began to read aloud, which they seemed to quite enjoy as they curled around themselves on the ground at her feet.

“The Corpegara are a rare creature that are shrouded in controversy and a bit of mystery.” The book was written in a fine, flowery script that she found difficult to read, and almost rolled her eyes as the tone began to reflect that whimsical handwriting. “Though mages argue about the origin of the Corpegara, most can agree that they are the result of enchantment gone wrong. One theory is that they first began as statues that were used for experimentation by several mages to try creating life. Another theory is that the creatures were already alive, but significantly altered by a transformation spell.” The script then went into theories of magic that she could not follow, and she skimmed the page until the words made sense once more. “Despite the origin debates about the Corpegara, one this is for certain: they are fiercely loyal and quite mischievous if given the opportunity.  One scientist wrote that they ‘tend to share many personality traits of a housecat, but with wings. They are quite terrifying in that aspect and you couldn’t pay me to have one, as they sometimes require attention for hours on end!” Lyssana chuckled quietly to herself as she looked over the cover of the book at the sleeping forms beside her. They looked  innocent enough, surely they couldn’t be as terrible as the book stated. A few hours of play seemed like a decent price to pay for some loyal companions. Ignoring the unease in her stomach, she read far into the night, pausing only when she was hungry enough to tentatively try some of the food she had bought from the market. With the first feeling of content since her arrival, she settled in for her first night at Istima.

Last Chapter                                                                                                               Next Chapter

Yam 2

1.02

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And they were largely ignored. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Again his technical skill was noted and largely ignored. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Last Chapter                                                                                                               Next Chapter