Chapters

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. 

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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.

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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.”

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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.

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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

Cal 2

The orientation building was at the edge of the docks, where the roads began to slope upward. The hall was built like a cathedral, with grand arches and stained glass windows. Cal could swear she saw the colored panels moving as she walked, creating scenes of swirling stars and planets in the light.

“Ah, you’ve arrived,” the man in black said. His voice echoed through the hall. He was standing with a small group of overly-dressed young men and women. “Come and meet some of your future classmates.”

“If we get in, that is,” one of the boys said.

“Oh, posh, Jasten,” a girl tittered, “we both know this whole thing is a charade. With your connections, I’m surprised they’re making you test at all.”

“Perhaps they merely wish to be impressed.” The one named Jasten raised a hand and a flame erupted in his palm, turning from red to blue to green. With a flick of his wrist, the fire was launched upwards before exploding into sparks.

The girl giggled and flashed her long lashes at Jasten. Cal struggled not to roll her eyes.

“But, we are being rude,” Jasten turned to her. “I am Lord Jasten Forthale, son of the Count of Ritania. And you are?”

“Lady Callion Augurellia, daughter of the Duke of Wystenvane.”

The young lord made a sweeping bow. “I didn’t realize you would be here, my lady. Our fathers would be glad to know we’ve been properly acquainted.”

“They would?” Cal felt a growing worry in her stomach. Her disguise had fooled commoners, but they never questioned authority anyway. Now she was among the elite, and they would pick her apart like a pack of wolves.

“Yes, after all, Istima is the birthplace of many fruitful… relations.” Behind him, some of the other boys snickered. The girl he’d spoken to earlier pouted.

“And rotten apples, apparently,” Cal muttered. 

“Pardon?” The boy asked. Before she could respond, an old man approached. He wore robes of deep purple and carried a staff of red lacquered wood.

“Attention, prospective students!” He said through his thick white beard. “Welcome to Istima. I am Garren, one of the deans of the university. Might I congratulate you on getting this far. But there is one test remaining!” He held up a single knobbed finger. “It is the most important of all: a chance to demonstrate your skill to representatives of the five courts. Do well, and you will be given opportunities few could dream of. I would also like to thank all of you for your generous donations which afforded you advanced test placement. In a moment, I will call your name and you will pass through these doors over there.” He held up a scroll and read from the list. “First up, Callion Augurellia!”

Damn. Cal had hoped for a little longer to come up with a plan. Instead, she found herself marching toward the impressively large wooden doors at the end of the hall.

The room beyond was an amphitheater, with five people sitting in chairs in a semicircle opposite her. She noticed each was seated beneath a stained glass window representing their court. In the middle of the room was a small table with a brass tube on it.

“Lady Augurellia,” said the woman beneath the snowflake. “Your family legacy precedes you. I was a classmate of your father’s. I trust he is well.”

“Naturally,” Cal said.

The woman gave a small smile. “Good. I am Professor Turin of the Winter Court. My colleagues and I are here today to judge you. Now, to the matter at hand. Please, show us what you can do.”

Walking up to the table, Cal felt for the ring on her finger. She angled her hand away so that it remained hidden from view as she grabbed hold of the table and lifted. Her audience muttered amongst themselves, some taking notes.

“Impressive, my lady,” Professor Turin spoke again. “I see that you continue the family trend of spurning the Winter Court.” The men and women laughed politely. “Perhaps some of my colleagues would like to comment?”

“Yes,” said the man beneath the stained glass picture of a leaf. “This was certainly a great demonstration of power—and without even touching the battery! I’m willing to make an offer based on that alone.”

“Hold on, Rasmus,” said a man beneath the picture of a flame. “Let the rest of us have a go at her first.” He turned to her. “You gripped the table as opposed to lifting it from range, why?”

Cal could feel the eyes on her now. These people were clearly expecting some kind of educated answer, but she had none. What was it the woman said when she bought the ring?

“Gravitic mitigation,” she said.

The man raised an eyebrow, but nodded, accepting the answer. “Bold of you to attempt such a thing. It’s more advanced and, arguably, less impressive to the casual observer.”

“I would argue that the people in this room are not casual observers, professor,” Cal shot back. The man laughed.

“A question!” Cal turned to the woman beneath the symbol of the moon. “Why did you assume the table was real?”

“I… I’m sorry?”

“Bah!” The woman threw her hands up, “have at her, dogs. The Umbral Court has no need of someone so… grounded.”

“You mean sane, Theodosia,” grumbled the man under the sun.

“Words!” The woman said.

“Pay her no mind, my dear,” the man smiled. “Now comes the time for us to make our offers. On behalf of the Summer Court, I extend an invitation.”

“On behalf of the Fall Court, I extend an invitation.”

Professor Turin smiled softly. “On behalf of the Winter Court, I feel your talents would be wasted here. No invitation.”

“On behalf of the Spring Court, I extend an invitation.”

“The Umbral Court shall not take you!” The woman beneath the moon jumped to her feet, pointing an accusatory finger. She stood for a moment, lowered her arm, and proceeded to walk out of the room.

“Somebody please fetch her,” Professor Turin sighed. “In any event, you have three offers to consider, my lady. Do you have a preference?”

“The Summer Court,” Cal said.

“Really?” Turin arched an eyebrow. “Are you certain? The path of the Summer Court is not easy by any means. With all due respect to my fellow professor,” she nodded to the man under the sun, “that school tends to attract the worst sort of miscreants, scoundrels, and cheats imaginable.”

The man beneath the flame grunted. “I’ve heard worse from better people.”

Miscreants, scoundrels, and cheats. In other words, I’ll fit right in, Cal thought. “I’m certain, professor.”

“Well then, I must congratulate you on your acceptance. Welcome to Istima.”

Half an hour later and Cal was waltzing down the street, class schedule and paperwork in her hand. It’d stung more than she’d like to admit to have had to pay the tuition fee—almost all of her remaining gold—but the promise of opportunity hung in the air. After all, she thought, spend money to make money, right?

After her test, a kindly old administrator had walked her through the process and gave her directions through the city towards her dormitory. The notion of having a bed to call her own was a strange feeling, but not an unwelcome one.

Checking the schedule, she saw that classes weren’t set to begin until two weeks after all of the admissions testing had been completed. That left her with a week to settle in and scout out—

The hairs on the back of her neck stood on end. Someone was following her, she was certain. She made a hard right and entered an alley.

From inside her boot, Cal drew out a knife. It was small, and the metal was pitted and stained, but sharpened to a razor edge. She hid in an alcove and waited.

A moment later, a figure passed by her and she leapt out. The figure cried out in a surprisingly high-pitched voice and Cal saw the flash of a blade. She quickly grabbed the figure’s wrist and twisted until the knife clattered to the cobblestones. The hooded figure struggled as she pushed them against the wall. Only when her own knife was pressed against the throat of her assailant did the fighting stop.

“I yield!” The figure cried. Cal ripped the hood back to reveal a woman, no older than her. Thick blonde hair fell in loose curls around a pale face. “You can put the knife down.”

She kept the blade at the girl’s neck. “Who are you?”

“Is that a joke? Gods, I know you can’t be that… hang on.” The girl narrowed her eyes. “You’re not Callion.”

“Tell me who you are.”

“My name is Alendra Kaestellus, which you would know if you were Callion, seeing as we’ve known each other since childhood.”

“If that was the case, then why would you attack me in an alley?”

“Because I wanted to get back at her—“

“With a knife?”

“It was just for show! I’d never actually hurt her, but I figured it’d give her a scare.”

“You hate her?” Cal lowered the knife a fraction of an inch. This girl didn’t seem like much of a threat.

“Gods yes. Callion made my life a living hell. She once locked me in the cellar during my own birthday party. It took hours for anyone to notice.” She shook her head. “But, you aren’t her, so who are you? And where is she?”

“Dead.”

The color drained from Alendra’s face. “You killed her?”

“No, but I found her body. One thing led to another and…” she gestured to herself. “Here I am.”

“I never liked her—I mean I really hated her—but I didn’t want her dead!”

“Well then it’s a good thing you didn’t kill her.” Cal shook her head. “Now focus on the here and now. This is a place of learning, so consider this your first test: you just found out I’m an impersonator and I’m holding a knife to your throat, what are you going to do?”

“I’m not going to tell anyone, if that’s your concern.”

“I have no assurance of that.”

“How about this?” Her hand shot up and Cal’s world turned sideways as she was lifted off the ground.

Being levitated was, as Cal found out, extremely unpleasant. The pull of gravity was all wrong, and there was nothing to grab onto for support. It took significant effort not to throw up as she was lifted ten, then fifteen feet up.

“I’m not helpless you know,” Alendra said. “So now I have a test for you: the girl you were threatening has lifted you in the air and could throw you to the ground at any time. What are you going to do?

“I could throw my knife,” Cal mused.

“If I lose concentration, you’ll fall.”

“I could shout for help.”

“I’d claim self-defense. After all, I just uncovered an imposter.”

“Your word against mine.” She swung her arms, reorienting herself towards the ground. To her surprise, Alendra was smiling.

“Then we are at an impasse.” She lowered Cal to just a few feet above the ground. “So I have a proposal.”

“I’m all ears.”

“Let’s work together. This place is dangerous, and it’d be nice to have an ally.”

“That’s rather trusting.”

Alendra shrugged, the slight movement caused Cal to bob in the air. “The way I see it, you’re going to need help to pull off this disguise of yours. No one knows Callion as well as I do.”

“And what do you get in return?”

“Who knows? But it’s the game of the nobility to collect favors. Who knows what I might need?”

Cal thought for a moment before nodding. “Alright.” Slowly, she was lowered all the way to the ground. As soon as she touched down, Alendra bent over, gasping for breath.

“Sorry, that took a lot out of me. Another minute of negotiation and I might’ve dropped you.” She wiped her brow and stood up, sticking out a hand. “Let’s start again. I’m Alendra, and you are?”

“Fen Calton.” She reached out and shook. “But my friends call me Cal.”

After another half-hour of walking, Cal made it up the various tiers of the city toward the center of the city. At this altitude, the air was noticeably chilly, and the lungs had to reach for every full breath.

The highest level of Istima was devoted to the six courts; one for each of the schools and another for student housing and the odd classroom. The gates to each were laid out in a large courtyard in the center. Cal noted the location of the Summer Court—Estival—the professors had called it. But for now, she needed to settle in. Nearby, she found the Day Court. Unlike the others, the gate to the Day Court wasn’t maintained. The few stones that weren’t covered in ivy were stained and pitted. The statues guarding its entrance were crumbling and disfigured, more than one looked like it had been vandalized.

Passing through the gates, Cal was surprised by a sudden wave of warmth. The skies above were azure and cloudless. She walked backwards out of the Day Court and the cold returned. When she looked up, the sky was thick with clouds.

“Confusing, isn’t it?” Alendra said. “Don’t worry, you’ll get used to it.”

“But…” Cal slowly raised a finger at the bright skies through the gate. “Huh?”

“Eloquently put.” Alendra walked through the gate and turned back to her. “Are you coming?”

Cal shook her head and followed. Once inside, she took her eyes off the sky long enough to take stock of her surroundings. The courtyard was circular, with three large towers on the perimeter, each showing signs of repeated repairs.

“This place is…”

“Old?” Alendra finished.

“I was going to say ‘a dump,’ but yes, old too. And empty.”

“That’s just because this is only the first day of admissions. By the end of the week, it’ll be packed. Not that it matters to us, though.”

“How so?”

“Well, you’re not planning on actually staying here, are you?” She raised an eyebrow. “Please tell me you found somewhere else to stay.”

“What’s wrong with this place?”

“Gods, just wait and you’ll find out.” She shook her head. “Why not use some of Callion’s money to get lodgings?”

“Her parents decided she needed to be independent. So they’ve cut ‘me’ off.”

Alendra laughed. “I would have paid good money to see her face when she found that out. In the meantime, we can at least get you settled.” She turned to towers. “To the left is the women’s dormitory, to the right is men’s, and the middle is purportedly used for meals. I doubt whatever slop the university is willing to give out is going to be edible though.”

“Considering how much it costs to go here, it better be,” Cal mumbled.

“The administration is of the opinion that if you don’t like it, you can just pay to get better somewhere else in the city.”

“You sure know a lot about this place.”

“I’ve only dreamed of coming here since I first learnt magic.” She spun around, taking it all in. “Speaking of which, I never did ask, how did you learn magic?”

“Oh, I can’t do magic.”

Alendra stopped spinning and stared bug-eyed at her.

“You can’t do what? Gods above and below, Cal, this is a damned school of magic! How did you even get in?”

Cal held up her hand and wiggled the finger with the ring on it. “I may have cheated.”

“That’s… actually rather impressive. But still, how do you intend on keeping up your disguise? Sooner or later you’ll have to prove you can do something.” She shook her head. “That won’t do.” She turned and began walking towards the women’s dormitory tower.

“Where are you going?” Cal called after her.

“We’re going to get you a room, and then we’re going to teach you magic.”

 — 

“Okay, everyone always tells you to clear your mind and focus on the action of magic.”

“Sounds reasonable enough.”

“It’s bullshit.” Alendra held out her hand and a small white flame appeared on her palm. “I wasted weeks trying to empty my thoughts because my tutor told me to. He only told me that because he was ancient and it sounds nice.”

“Then what should I do?” Cal shifted in her seat. “Do we know if I can even do magic?”

“Anyone can do magic.” She paused. “Okay, technically, anyone can do magic. Just like how anyone can technically be a master musician, or a great swordsman. But only a fraction of people even have the time and energy it takes to get good at it.”

“Just tell me what to do.”

“Hold out your hand.” Alendra did the action as she spoke. “Now, how much do you know about science?”

“Barely any.”

“Alright, then let’s start at the basics. Your body contains and uses energy. For now, let’s use your body heat. You can feel when this drops because you get cold. With me so far?”

“Yeah.”

“Good, because here’s where it gets tricky. That same heat you hold is the same energy needed for a fire, but it could also be the energy to make light, or sound, or gravity. All we do with magic is funnel your energy in different ways. So, I want you to feel the heat of your own palm.”

“Okay, I’m thinking about it.” Cal held out her hand and stared at it. It felt silly, but she really was trying.

“Now, try and make your palm warmer. Finally, here’s where it all comes together. Think about the air above your palm. It’s there, even if you can’t see it. I want you to try and transfer the heat in your hand to the air above it.”

Cal narrowed her eyes and, for the slightest of moments, she felt her hand go cold. More than that, it felt like the heat was being siphoned out of her. A small flicker appeared in the air, nothing more than a spark.

“That’s it!” She said, clapping her hands together. “Well done!”

The light died and Cal breathed out, suddenly very tired. Her hand was shaking, and the tips of her fingers were numb.

“Why do I feel like I’ve got a hangover?” She asked.

“That’s the drawback. Magic can’t make energy out of nothing, so it takes effort to do anything impressive. When I first started practicing, I fainted constantly. It gets easier, I promise. In the meantime, practice making that little flame whenever you can. Once you have that, we can work on more complex transfers.”

There was a week before classes. It was both agonizingly long and way too short of a time for Cal to prepare. It didn’t help that she didn’t even know how to prepare. Alendra kept her word and helped her practice, but she wasn’t going to be studying in the Summer Court.

“It’s not boring!” Alendra said, stirring the steaming bowl of broth.

“You just said your entire school is based around rules, Allie.” Cal shook her head and tore a piece of bread, dunking the pieces into her own soup.

“Well, yes, but it’s not like I’m one of those elementalists shooting fire out of my hands, now is it? If I don’t know what I’m doing when I levitate something, it could go flying off into the air, or send me flying in the other direction. You’re lucky I’m so good at it, or our first meeting could’ve been very different.”

“I guess, but still…” Cal looked at the towers of books heaped around her. “You sure all of these are required?”

“They gave me a list.” Alendra pulled out a small booklet. “Texts, supplies, schedules, it’s been rather helpful. Didn’t the Summer Court give you anything?”

Cal extended her empty hands and shrugged.

“Figures,” Alendra sat back, leafing through the booklet. “The only rules they care about are the ones they can break.”

“Any rule can be broken.”

She smirked. “If you think that, they’re not going to teach you anything new.”

“I don’t need them to,” Cal said between bites, “I just need them to drop their guard long enough to show me where they keep their valuables.” She saw Alendra frown. “What?”

“Listen, I’m not going to bore you with some lecture, but you did manage to get in to the most prestigious institution of learning in the world. Most people in your shoes would want to take advantage of that.”

“Oh, I plan to take advantage of everyone I find.”

“You know what I mean, Cal!” She was trying to be stern, but it was hard between the laughs. “I’m not going to lecture you, but keep it in mind.” She picked up a book and flipped to her bookmark.

“Are you actually planning on reading all those?”

“I want to get a head start.”

“Fine, be boring,” Cal sighed. She stood up and grabbed her coat.

“Where’re you going?”

“They didn’t give me any books, so I’ll have to prepare on my own.”

“Based on how vague and threatening that statement was, I refuse to ask any more questions.” She shook her head. “Go, enjoy… whatever it is you’re planning.”

Half an hour later and Cal was sitting on a rooftop. She’d ditched the uncomfortable clothes of nobility for something more plain and functional. It was hard to climb in a dress.

She’d been exploring in an increasingly large territory around the center of the city. It was beginning to be familiar, but there was just so much of it. As far as she could tell, Istima wasn’t built on a mountain, it was built on itself. If you went down, you just found more city. If you went down far enough, you stopped seeing people altogether. Maze-like corridors extended in every direction, vegetation and rot crept in and made the air fetid and damp. Cal shivered at the thought. She’d stuck to the upper levels since then.

She watched the entrance to the Summer Court. She had yet to explore beyond the strange gate, covered in strange, glowing runes. At the top of the stone archway, a golden sun hung, it seemed to emit a soft light, probably another pointless enchantment.

Cal slipped off the roof and walked across the central courtyard toward the gate. Despite the dreary, overcast skies around her, through the door, she saw a warm summer day. As she walked through, she felt the chill leave her bones and looked up to see clear skies.

As far as she’d seen, the courts all had the same basic architecture, but each had their own peculiarities, such as the giant floating orb in the Autumn Court. As Cal looked around, she saw that, aside from the three large towers, there was a series of smaller buildings clustered at the rim of the circular court. But in the center, there was a spectacular construction unlike anything she’d ever seen.

It was like a blacksmith’s forge, but bigger, much bigger. A great fire roared in the center of a central burner, smokestacks coiled like snakes around the center, and students worked with tools she could barely understand.

But, perhaps because this was Istima, the design wasn’t just impressive, but beautiful. On closer inspection, Cal saw that the smokestacks were covered in small iron scales, and the ends shaped into the mouths of great beasts, spitting black smoke into the air. The burner was covered in small runes, shifting from red to yellow to orange. The entire thing was functional, yet decorative.

“First time?” Cal leapt back and saw a tall, skinny man looking at her. “Apologies. I have startled you.”

“What?” She asked, looking him up and down. As she did, she saw he wasn’t human. At first glance, it was hard to tell, but beneath the broad hood, his skin was gray and mottled. His eyes were large and yellow, reminding Cal of a frog.

“You were admiring the forge. Most do. I did.” He stuck out a hand. “This is how you greet, yes?”

Cal took the hand numbly. The not-quite-human’s skin was cool to the touch, and his grip was weak as he shook her hand.

“I am Akatsi,” he said.

“Callion Augurellia,” she said, eying him up and down.

“Ah, no, Rathana On is my name, Akatsi is what I am.” He paused for a moment. “You seemed uncertain of my origin.”

Cal nodded. She remembered hearing about the strange swamp-folk of the south. They weren’t common like the Len, or spectacular like the Saakarans, they were just… strange.

“You are a student?” Cal asked.

“I will be. Two days until classes begin. Are you to study in the Estival Court as well?”

“I am.” She bit her tongue. She shouldn’t be sharing this much! She was supposed to go unseen and unheard. The Akatsi had caught her off-guard.

“Then we will see more of each other soon. I will leave you to wander, Callion.” He turned to walk away and Cal called out.

“Wait!” Curiosity got the better of her. “Is it true what they say about you? About your, uh, legs?”

Rathana gave a half smile, as though expecting the question. He reached down and lifted the bottom of his loose robes. Beneath, Cal saw a set of two bare feet. Then, the Akatsi shifted, there was movement beneath the robe and two more legs unfolded, descending until the feet touched the ground. When they did, the first pair of legs lifted and disappeared into the fabric. Then he lowered the robe.

“I hope this answers your question, Callion.” He bowed slightly and walked off, leaving Cal to stare mouth agape as he did.

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Cal 1

It was windier than she imagined. Standing on the observation deck of the gondola, the valley below was a churning maelstrom, with clouds ebbing and flowing like waves on rough seas. Even as the gondola pilot steered the vessel inwards and upwards, Cal saw something move on the forest floor below. It was like a deer, but larger, with black horns curling outwards in tight spirals.

“Marvelous, isn’t it?” Said the man in the tailored black robes. “Why, I remember my first time crossing over the valley. I wasn’t much older than you, my lady.”

“Fascinating,” Cal muttered, not looking up as the deer-creature disappeared behind a passing cloud.

“We’re nearly there, we should make our way towards the front if we wish to avoid the rush.”

She allowed the man to lead her through the crowded interior of the gondola. As the city came into view, Cal wasn’t the only one who gasped at the sight.

The floating structure was diamond-shaped. The bottom half was hewn of rough stone, like an upside-down mountain. Above it, the upper half was covered in countless structures and towers.

The crowd pressed against the front railing, clamoring for a better look and for the chance to be the first off when they arrived. Cal found herself struggling to breathe as the gondola touched down.

The port itself was abuzz with merchants and travelers. Cal had never seen so many people in one place before. As she stepped onto the dock, she knew that this was the perfect school for Lady Callion Augurellia, firstborn daughter of the Duke of Wystenvane.

She only hoped that no one realized it was all a lie.

Her real name was Fen Calton, or Cal to anyone who knew her. The real Lady Augurellia had died a week before, asphyxiating on her own bile while she slept. It was by sheer luck that Cal had been the first to happen upon her. Granted, it was because she’d been trying to rob the rich girl in the middle of the night.

Cal had been desperate. The luck she’d had when she first came to the two-bit town was quickly wearing off. The guards were starting to remember her face and the bar tabs were piling up. Even the local priests were beginning to doubt her poor orphan story, and the pieces of bread they gave her were getting smaller and smaller. She’d hoped the finely-dressed woman sitting in the inn would be her ticket out.

And, in a way, she’d been right. Among the girl’s possessions, Cal found the acceptance letter to the University. In a flowery script, the letter touted Lady Augurellia’s magical ability, familial legacy, and high application scores. The plan had formed in her mind and when morning came, the new Lady Augurellia had taken the waiting carriage out of town.

It wasn’t completely ridiculous. In the right light, the two of them could have passed for sisters—or at least cousins. Cal found the velvet dresses a little tight, but gave her the right look and kept anyone from asking too many questions.

The man in the black robes tapped her on the shoulder, stirring her from her musings. “We have an hour or two before the official orientation begins. Might I offer you a tour, my lady?”

“That’s alright,” she said, wishing she remembered his name. “If it’s alright with you, I think I’d like to wander by myself for a while. I can find my way to the orientation afterwards.”

“As you wish,” the man bowed. He departed and, in moments, was swallowed by the crowd. Instantly, Cal sighed in relief. It was hard to think straight when she was constantly being watched.

The University! She could hardly believe it. She’d heard tales of it since before she was a young cutpurse. And while the towers weren’t literally made of gold—a detail she’d always been cynical about—the city was full of rich merchants, powerful nobles, and other unsuspecting targets.

She felt in her pocket for her first goal. A small, cream-colored piece of paper she’d long since committed to memory: Property of Lady Callion Augurellia. Redeem at the House of Bergan and Sons.

It didn’t take her long to find the right place. The ostentatious building clashed with the more utilitarian look of the docks. Cal passed through the gilded doorway and found herself in a small reception room. The thin man behind the desk peered at her through small glasses teetered precariously on the end of his nose. Behind him, the back wall was lined with small metal boxes, each with a complex-looking lock.

Without a word, she walked to him and slid the paper across the desk. The man glanced down and read the slip quickly before looking back up and studying her face. For a moment, Cal froze. Had he seen through her disguise? Damn, she wished she’d checked for guards before she entered.

But then he smiled at her. “We’ve been expecting you, my lady.” He stood and walked to one of the boxes and unlocked it. From within, he drew out a parcel and a letter. He placed both before her and bowed. “Thank you for your patronage.”

Cal furrowed her brow. She really wished people would stop bowing to her. It was unnerving. She nodded to the man and went to pick up the parcel, only to find it to be much heavier than she expected. It was barely the size of her palm, but it felt like a brick. Peeling back the brown paper wrapping, she had to stifle a gasp. Inside were three small bars of gold.

“Is something the matter, my lady?” The clerk asked. “Were you expecting more?”

“No, no, this is definitely adequate,” Cal said, rewrapping the bars and stuck them in her pocket. She grabbed the letter next. It had an ornate wax seal of two herons beneath the word ‘Augurellia.’ She tore it open and poured over the words within.

Dear Callion,

Your mother and I feel that this sum should suffice for your needs for the year. I know you talked about wanting more independence and responsibility and, while I have my reservations, I’ve decided to acquiesce. This will be the only funds you receive from us, try to budget wisely. If you should find yourself out of money, I recommend you find a means of income. If that is too distasteful, then perhaps school isn’t for you. Should that happen, simply write home and I shall arrange for your return.

Warmly,

Duke Alton Augurellia

Damned again! She’d been planning to milk her new “parents” for more funds, but apparently, she wouldn’t have that luck. She lifted the gold again, hefting the weight in her hand.

“How much is this?” Cal asked the clerk.

“The gold? It’s 300 drams.”

“Drams?” She cocked an eyebrow. She’d heard of thalers, shims, and a dozen other coins, but this was new. The clerk seemed to notice her confusion.

“You are a new student?” He pointed at the bars. “Each of those is one hundred drams. The university plays host to dozens of nations and, to avoid appearing biased, has chosen to adopt a more… universal currency. In this city, we pay by weight.” He pulled out a scale, a small knife, and a glass jar. “Shops will place the price of an item on one side of the scale and you pay with an equal amount of gold on the other.” He demonstrated by placing several tiny weights on the scale. From within his clothes, he withdrew a small rod of gold and, using the knife, shaved small curls of gold onto the other side. Slowly, the scale balanced. 

“Seems overly complicated.”

“Perhaps, yes,” the clerk said, sweeping the gold flakes into the glass jar. “But, it has its merits, as I’m sure you’ll find, my lady.” He handed her the knife and another jar.

Cal nodded her thanks and turned to leave, more confused than before. As she stepped back out into the sunlight, she had to keep herself from feeling for the gold in her pocket. It was more than she’d ever held in her lifetime. If she hopped on a gondola and left the city right now, she could live comfortably for at least a few years.

But that wasn’t satisfying enough. If they were willing to hand her 300 ‘drams’ just like that, there were certainly more to be found.

Cal remembered her guide mentioning an orientation. Glancing at a clock tower, she saw she still had a few hours to go. More than enough time for her to get some information. She took a detour off the main thoroughfare and ducked into an alley. Here, where the air reeked of stale beer, urine, and desperation, it didn’t take long to find what she was after.

A man was slumped over against a brick wall. He was young, perhaps no older than she was, but years of hard living had clearly taken their toll. She nudged him with her boot.

“Huh?” He mumbled. “What d’you want?”

“Information,” Cal knelt down by him, “and I’m willing to pay.” At this, the man cracked open an eye, like a dog smelling food. She shaved off a bit of gold and handed it to the beggar, who snatched it hungrily in his grubby fingers. “Tell me about the university.”

“What do you want to know?” The man said, studying the gold in his hands.

“Where are the richest magicians?”

“They’re all loaded, but none near as much as the ploughin’ summer court.” He shifted, bringing his threadbare cloak around his shoulder. 

“Sumer court?”

“Them’s the ones who enchant and brew potions. Fuckers, the lot of them.” 

“Focus,” Cal said, proffering another small sliver of gold. “Next question, what do you know about orientation?”

“Worst time of the year. Kids get walked in front of professors like livestock. If they like you, you’re in. If not, you’re gonna need to pay to get anywhere.”

Cal chewed her lip. She’d hoped that her letter of acceptance would be enough. “And what do they like?”

“Fancy magic. The more powerful, the better. A few kids a year might even get in free.”

“And everyone else?”

“Gotta pay to study. Not a problem for someone rich like you.” 

“You sure do know a lot about this.”

“I was a student once. This place chews you up and leaves you broken.” He spat on the ground. “Now I’ve answered your questions. Pay more, or piss off.”

Cal put away her gold and left the alley, breathing deep as she reentered the sunlight. There was still some time before the orientation, but she couldn’t relax. She had to find some way to get into the school. The beggar had said the Summer Court was rich, so that would be her target.

She wandered the market, studying the signs of the various shops. While there were a variety of mundane stores to be found, the area was dominated by the sale of magical items. Color-changing clothes, ever-burning lanterns, hundreds of kinds of potions. The stores and their selections ranged from humble to grandiose, with prices that made Cal’s eyes boggle. But perhaps, one of these items could be of use in her orientation.

The store she picked to finally enter had large bay windows filled with enchanted gear. Inside, it smelled of cloves and citrus, and a finely-dressed woman stood at the counter. The shop attendant glanced up briefly at her entrance before returning to her book.

The store was set up in a series of small alcoves, each seeming to contain multiple small displays and a single device displayed on a central pillar. The first alcove Cal looked into held a glove-like instrument on the pedestal. She held it up in the light, studying the runes etched into the metal bands along the palm. She turned to the attendant.

“What does this one do?”

“An impressive and delicate device,” said the attendant, setting down her book. She hurried over and snatched the glove from Cal. “It’s used for energy redirection. While a normal energetic battery may be quite costly, the one used by this device is only capable of storing kinetic energy, reducing the price dramatically.” Cal nodded along, not understanding a word. She gingerly put it on over his sleeve and flipped a small switch. The device hummed to life. “The controls allow you to store energy or release it.” 

The attendant flipped the switch to collection and struck the wall several times. There wasn’t even a noise as her hand impacted the surface. Then, flipping the switch again, she hit the wall again. While her fist hadn’t been moving with any real speed, the stones cracked and splintered at her touch, sending dust flying.

Cal flinched as she was pelted with small bits of rock. “You destroy your wall often?”

The attendant shrugged. “I’ll have a geomancer fix it. Now, are you interested in purchasing this device for only three hundred and fifty drams?”

“Three hundred—I mean, that is, perhaps a bit cumbersome for my purposes. Do you have anything a bit more compact?” She turned to one of the smaller displays in the alcove. “What about that ring?”

“Ah, that’s a gravitic-mitigation device, capable of offsetting weight by ninety percent.” Cal gave her a blank stare. “It helps you lift heavy things.” The attendant grabbed the ring, slipped it on, and placed her hand on the edge of the stone display pillar. The pillar lifted off the ground like it was weightless.

The effect was impressive, Cal had to admit, and the ring was small enough that she could easily cover it up. There was just the matter of price…

“How much?”

“That is one hundred and twenty drams,” the woman clicked politely.

Cal winced. It would set her back, but she had to keep the thought of future gold in mind.  “I’ll take it.”

If the attendant was surprised, she showed no signs of it. Instead, she merely walked to the counter, placed weights one side of a scale, and waited for Cal.

Pulling her gold out, Cal placed one of the bars down and then grabbed another bar to shave off the rest of the weight. The attendant waited patiently, leaning over to watch the scales slowly level out. When she was satisfied, she straightened back up and nodded. “Let me just remove the alarm.”

“The what?” Cal leaned in, watching as the attendant moved her hands over the ring.

“Well, you didn’t think we’d just leave something like this lying out did you? We add a magical alarm as a theft deterrent.”

“I see,” Cal said, suddenly very glad she hadn’t tried to pocket the ring. If all the stores were like this, she’d have to rethink some of her usual strategies.

When the attendant was done, Cal took the ring and left. She slipped it on and… felt disappointed. She’d expected to feel some sort of surge of power, but all she felt was the cold silver band on her finger. But she still needed to test it.

She found a rain-barrel in a nearby alley and tried to lift it. It was impossibly heavy. For a moment, Cal felt panic creep into her mind. She had spent a third of her gold on this thing, and it wasn’t even working!

But she shook the thought from her mind. She tried again and, as soon as the ring touched the barrel, the weight was gone. It was still heavy, but not enough to keep her from raising it above her head. A laugh escaped from her lips as she looked up at the ridiculous sight.

While she set the barrel back down, her grip slipped. As soon as the ring wasn’t touching it, the weight returned and she had to jump out of the way as the barrel crashed to the ground. It splintered and the water it held exploded out.

Despite getting soaked, Cal couldn’t stop laughing. She wiped water from her face and rung out her hair. In the distance, a bell chimed. It was time for orientation. She looked down at the ring, the runes glowing faintly. It was time.

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Lyssana 1

The sun had just begun its rise as she stepped up to the ferry, gold in hand for her fare. The price was steep, but that was to be expected on the first day of orientation. She held her head high and shoulders back as every step was taken as one who had lived a life of privilege. The image had not been difficult to duplicate, for she simply mimicked the way other girls carried themselves through the town. She took calming breaths as she claimed her spot at the boat’s rail. Storm clouds brewed beneath the hull and stretched all the way to the floating island ahead, like a protective moat that hid unknown monstrosities in the valley below it all.

She tuned out the hushed conversations around her, instead choosing to focus on the energies she felt from everyone. A young man buried in the cowl of his hood was a hydromancer, the energy in his body moving fluidly and in complete synchronization with all his organs. It was easy for her to spot other elementalists, for they were all that inhabited the Islands in which she was raised, though pyromancers as herself were the least common of the Saakarans. Another deep breath was sucked in as the boat lurched forward. She watched the mountain peak slowly grow smaller. This was it, there was no going back now.

The ride was painless and smooth, the boat gliding over boiling clouds at the experienced hands of the ferrymen. They would be doing this all week, day and night until all students had either been accepted or dismissed. Already she had her orientation talent planned, for all students wanting acceptance had to prove their worth. Her orientation envelope had given her specific instructions as she was hoping to gain admittance to The Winter Court. Evidently, the elementalists had a different orientation schedule from all other students so as not to take time away from all other Mages that would be deciding the fate of each initiate. She would be taken to a room to display her level of skill. She would then be judged and either immediately be accepted, declined, or asked to wait until all other candidates had been seen for the day. Then, upon acceptance, all students of The Winter Court would be ranked and assigned lodging from there. Or so her uncle spoke. How he knew so much of the inner workings of a private academy was beyond her, but she had no reason to doubt  him so far.

The boat rocking into it’s dock brought her from her thoughts and she straightened her shoulders once more. It was going to be difficult keeping up an image she was so unused to. She made a final glance over the other passengers before stepping off and shuddered, for it seemed the cloaked hydromancer had been turned toward her, watching. Perhaps evaluating competition? Had that not been her immediate thought when she saw him, was the judgment of her power in comparison to hers? It was impossible to equally compare two elementalists of different class to each other, but she did not believe he would hold the upper hand in a battle. Her skills had been fine tuned since childhood. Once her family realized she did not have an affinity for Alchemy like them, they had shipped her off to the Islands of Hrovati to live with the native tribes. The Saakarans were the majority of inhabitants, and they were neither human nor particularly partial to the arrival of her and her caretaker. The islands were, however, well known for their elementalists. Not only did they hold each elemental ability, but the Saakarans were master elementals, and they had taught her everything she knew. 

It had not been until her name day that she gained absolute acceptance into the Tribe. The day of testing it was called, when children believed they were ready to ride and take on their roles in the tribe. There were only two other pyromancers her age that chose to test when she had stubbornly stepped forward. It had been a brutal day, storm clouds brewing angrily above the active mountain that was the main island of their cluster. To pass her testing and move forward, she would be required to pass through the heart of the volcano and return unscathed. The first to enter had not made it out, and the second returned with a burn across his cheek which would earn another year of trial and study before he would be allowed to try again. She, however, had simply regulated the fire and lava to burn away from her skin, using the energy of the flames to her advantage as she sat in the heart, meditating and learning to understand the mountain. She was the first human to pass and gain acceptance into the Saakaran tribe.

Regardless, none here could know her true heritage, for it was vital to the image of her family that she not exist; much like her uncle though she knew his story not. Instead, she would forever be known only by the name in which she had earned that day at the volcano: The fury of the sun. Rage she always felt toward the world and her family, though hidden beneath layers of meditation and self discipline. It had been little protection from what she discovered in the fiery mountain’s heart.

The crowd gathering ahead was being filed into lines at the base of a huge tower in the middle of the island; the center of learning for the Academy. This is where the administration would spend the majority of their time, governing the Courts and keeping the school in check. It was also where the Academy’s policing force resided. The mages that went out into the world to keep others in check from using magic illegally. Even from her remote island she could recite horror stories about the people who found themselves in the hands of those Mages.

She showed her orientation card to one of the men at the front gate to the tower and was given directions to The Winter Court where her trial would take place. The path was clear and she followed a few other newcomers with the same nervous energy that she carried within herself, though the previous hydromancer was now nowhere to be seen. It was possible he had a ticket for a later day and chose to arrive at the school early. The path led her to a courtyard that diverged into five towers. The largest directly before her had a crest displayed proudly, each quadrant of the crest corresponding to the banners displayed upon the other towers; one for each of the four elements. She did not allow her feet to stop and take in the scenery, instead she kept her gaze forward, determination marking her features as she entered the main tower of the court. There were only three others ahead of her, standing in a line waiting for their orientation trials to begin. The school wasted no time in this matter as there would be many students in the days to come.

Now she could only wait until it was her turn to perform. This first impression would be the only opportunity she had to set herself apart from all the other students wanting to study at The Academy. In front of her was a petite woman with blond hair in delicate curls to her waist and eyes as blue as the clearest waters of Hrovati. The woman turned to her with a judgmental once over head to toe and then sniffed indignantly, throwing her nose in the air and turning forward once more. An obvious aeromancer, though the energy levels she held in her body were minimal at best. The tiny woman’s power was minute compared to the Aeromancer at the front of the line. He stood at least a head taller than any others in line, eyes dark and brooding as he leaned against the wall. He too eyed her up and down before fixing his gaze back to the empty hallway, obviously evaluating her power level with not a hint of emotion. She simply turned her attention to the lanky boy standing between the two Aeromancers. He was skinny and not particularly tall, though of the four of them his clothes had the most embroidery and lace. Did that mean his family was wealthier even than hers? It was difficult to compare her wealth to that of others since she had no point of reference. The Saakarans shared all resources among the tribe, only delegating objects of ceremonial value to the leaders of the tribes and then filtering down to those who stood worthy. She owned only a few gold beads and ornamental pins that held her fiery red hair from her face. She had no need of anything else the Saakarans wore as ornamental. They stood much taller than humanity, their body proportions unequal in every way. They were slender, tall and had eyes much larger that filled their round faces. Two horns protruded and rested atop their heads, curving down to the base of the neck and often decorated or carved with runes. The leaders would often wear gold bands around their horns to display their station among the tribe. She had always thought it beautiful how they each decorated their bodies so differently with paint and the different elemental qualities attributed to their skills. The northern hydromancers often had ice crystals protruding from their skin and hanging delicately from their hair. It was a sign of their control of the elements, and she hoped to one day be as skilled in pyromancy as many were in their own elements. She would have to be.

A figure clothed in brown robes came forward to collect the tall aeromancer at the front of the line and they disappeared from sight around a bend in the hall. Now only two stood between her and the trial ahead. She settled against the wall, eyes watching the hallway for any signs of movement. Her nerves were beginning to show as her fingers tapped rhythmically against the marble wall. She had an advantage over most of these people, this she knew, but the thought was not as comforting as when her uncle had said it. She worried for the man. What had he done to be cast out from the family? He was not an elementalist as she, in fact, she had not been able to figure out his affinity. It was as though he had shielded his energy from being read. The thought mulled in her mind as she watched the lanky boy saunter down the hall. She hoped his confidence was not short lived, but she did not give him any hope of succeeding. His energy was so minuscule that she could not even tell his element.

Soon after the petite woman left and a line had begun to form behind them. She could feel the different energies around her, but her focus was not on the crowd gathering. It was on the hallway ahead. Toward her future. Minutes felt like hours as she waited, going over her routine again and again in her head until… finally! The same brown robed man motioned her forward and she pushed off the wall to follow.

Down the marble hall did she follow him, their footsteps echoing quietly along the polished floors. Tapestries lined both sides of the hall, each alternating various scenes from the different seasons. Their colors were so vivid that it almost seemed to be snowing in one tapestry. She couldn’t tell the material, but found herself transfixed by each one they passed. The hallway abruptly ended in double wooden doors that were as tall as the ceiling. The same crest displayed on the outside of the tower was carved into the wood with such craftsmanship. She could only imagine the cost of having such a door made.

The double doors swung inward and the man motioned her forward silently before turning his back to the door and staring at the empty hall behind her. She took one last breath before stepping forward into a large chamber. A long table sat at the far end of the room filled with mages. These had to be administrators of The Winter Court. Her breaths were even as she walked toward them, stopping at the empty table centered in the room. A battery rested atop the table in the right corner, but she ignored it, instead focusing her attention on the people before her.

A man in orange robes sat at the center of the table and spoke loudly, quieting all soft conversation happening between the scholars. “You come before The Winter Court to display your skill and power in the hopes of admittance to this school. What happens next is entirely up to you. Impress us.”

He was direct in his motioning toward her, not in the mood to waste any time. She contemplated a moment before climbing to stand on the table, earning some incredulous looks from a few of the mages at the table before her, but she ignored them. Her focus was only on the energy she felt beneath her skin, and the energy in the air around her. She cast away all else, for what she had planned would take all her focus unless she wished to burn down the tower. Her arms went out from her sides as flames began to dance across the sleeves of her dress. She had assumed the gold thread had been embroidered with the intent to be used as a source of energy, but she simply used it as an anchor for the flames, letting them follow the stitches along the hem of her gown. Soon the flames danced across her dress, the fabric showing no signs of heat as she made the flames begin to dance. Now the fun part. She could control the heat of the flames and focused the fire in her hands to heat as the fire closest to the wood beneath her cooled. Then, a single quartz crystal was taken from her pocket and held out for the mages to see. Beginning with the tip of the crystal she allowed the flames to envelope it entirely until it was included in the mirage of fire surrounding her. The heat could be felt across the room and she smiled at the sweat that began to form on a few faces.

The flames around her body began to die down as she focused her energy on the crystal resting in her hand. It was nearly as tall as her hand standing up and a few gasps echoed as the crystal began to change colors. She knew the reactions were not from the people she needed to impress. No, the pyromancers all watched with no visible emotion, judging her control of the fire and her own skill in handling the heat of the flames. The battery lie forgotten, for she did not need it and hoped that would add to her impression. A few minutes passed as the colors along the crystal grew brighter and more vivid. Clear to white to yellow to purple to green as the quartz grew hotter and hotter. Eventually the base of the crystal became black and she eased the heat into a gradient. The flames around her died down as she began to cool the crystal. It’s final result was a gradient within the crystal. The point was still clear, but the color moved into yellow then to purple and green, ending in the black base. She saw a single eyebrow raise as she stepped off the table and moved toward the mages. With a small bow she placed the crystal before the pyromancer who had spoken to her before and turned to leave.

“What is your name, child?” He asked. The inflection in his voice has risen since his first words and he passed the crystal down the table to the other mages. A few were astonished by the transformation while others remained unimpressed. She could only hope it was enough.

Turning back to the table she nodded her head and spoke for the first time since her arrival at the school, voice ringing clearly in the marble chamber. “I am Lyssana Terasu.”

“So it would seem,” he grunted in acknowledgement, turning a final time to the other mages and receiving unanimous nods from each in turn. “Welcome to The Winter Court.”

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Lyssana 0.5

Prologue

She tugged at the hem of her silk dress, unused to the delicate, clinging fabric. It was uncomfortable to wear while riding along mountainous paths; and she feared to get it soiled in any way. It had cost more money than she’d seen collectively on the islands, though the letters in her pocket promised enough for a large estate and a wardrobe finer than what she currently wore. A sigh caved stiff shoulders when her companion finally slowed, and she eagerly jumped from her horse, tripping ungracefully on her skirts as she landed. “Must I wear this ridiculous clothing?” She huffed in irritation, picking her skirts from touching the ground as she stomped toward her uncle. She had not known of his existence until three days prior and had since found out that was his preferred method of habitation.

His reply was grunted, mustache twitching as he spoke. “I know you’ve been out of touch with society for a while, but you need to learn the hierarchy pretty quickly. Silk is a sign of wealth, and you are fortunate enough to be a member of the upper class.” His tone nearly matched her irritation, though a level of patience was displayed that she could only hope to ever achieve. “I wish it didn’t have to be this way, kid, but unfortunately that’s the way this family works. We all have to pay our dues.” He turned his back to her then as he removed the saddlebags from his horse, clearly done with conversation until they settled for her lessons later that night. It had been much the same their previous days on the road, for her uncle was a man of few words until it was time to teach.

“I did not realize the price was so high,” she whispered, muttering to herself as she handed the reins to a stable hand.They were staying at The Mountain Pass, a two story inn that displayed a painted bird between two mountain peaks. She would need much rest in preparation for tomorrow, for it had been planned since the day she was born. 

She stifled the gasp at the price for their two rooms – she would have to get used to such money after all – and followed the innkeeper up the narrow stairs to a tidy room. It was quite spacious with a bed against the wall, a wardrobe and a washstand. A window opened to a beautiful view of the Storm Sea. How it raged in the distance, thunder rumbling the window panes while flashes of lighting cast eerie shadows over the trees below. She could see figures moving in the clouds, shapes that no creature she had ever seen fit. What was she getting herself into? 

Their meal was served in a private dining chamber, in which her uncle drilled her for hours on etiquette, how she was expected to behave, and what she should be prepared for as soon as she stepped foot on the campus. Already people were watching the travelers that filtered into the town. The inn was full of arduous nobles preparing for the early day, but she had been fortunate enough to avoid socializing with anyone. Their clothing hosted finer embroidery than many of the other patrons, and it had not even been asked if they wanted their meal in private; it had been assumed. It would take much for her to get used to this life, but she was determined. 

Late into the night did they bid farewell, for once the morning came, they would go their separate ways and likely never see each other again. It was bitter in a way, for he had been the only contact she had on the mainland. All interactions now would be blind. Her heart beat anxiously and once she was finally able to sleep, her dreams were filled with apprehension and her ferry falling from the Storm Sea into a den of vipers.

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Yam 1

He made six days’ travel in three. There should have been plenty of time to explore the academy, set camp, seek the currents of the place. Once he knew what everyone was pursuing he would be armed. When one was armed with knowledge there were few negotiations that could be lost and even fewer doors they couldn’t be opened.

            But when one was unarmed it was three days work just to find a ferryman who would carry a Len to the school.

             At first the prices were too high. When he found no better offers he could use to haggle with, he agreed to pay. Then the seats were too full. When he came late in the night, when seats should have been open, the ferrymen said they had an urgent appointment to attend to. 

            He walked away and watched them from afar. For two hours they chatted and took a single human across for a fifth the price he had been told was standard.

            The shame of being lied to was too much to bear. He came back yelling and finally, finally, one of them had the integrity to speak his mind.

            “Ain’t letting no fuckin’ Len on my boat just so he can piss on the floor and steal my sail”

            “All Len are not thieves! We are

            “Fucking savages!”

            “My people are not thieves and not savages!”

            That night he stole all the man’s money and relieved himself in his boat. 

He ran to the next cluster of ferrymen and used his new funds to bribe his way across the storm sea.

            The moon was full and when the clouds cleared there was just enough light to look over the side of the air ferry into the writhing sea of black clouds. In those moments of light he swore that he saw tentacles move through the mist. Once he even peered down just in time for lightning to crack across the clouds below him. From the depths three bloodshot, glowing, red eyes set in a perfect line stared up at the boat. A foreign magic brushed against him.  The sheer might of it was crushing. It felt like having his blood freeze into thousands of vibrating needles that pierced his flesh. 

            He whooped with joy. But, even after several fruitless minutes of throwing hunks of bread into the cloud, he came away without even seeing a hint of hungry teeth or  a single murderous roar. 

Still he sat back with a broad grin on his face.

            The ferryman saw the look on his expression and shook his head.

            That just made him smile bigger, “You must have seen some amazing things down there.

            “There are beasts that are beyond imagination.

            “Really?”

            “Son, the things I’ve seen would chill a man’s heart and haunt his dreams.

            The young Len kept his face straight and his tone honest, “Wow. Isn’t it dangerous? Aren’t you ever frightened that they’ll come for your boat.

            Even from behind he could tell the ferryman was smiling. With a carefully studied nonchalance he turned his face to the side and purses his lips, “We’ve lost good men to the Storm Sea. A lot of good men.,” the ferryman paused to wipe at a phantom tear before glancing at him from the corner of his eye, ”But…”

            “But?”

            “But real ferrymen have secrets; techniques to scare away the smaller monsters, and magic to make our ships invisible to the real terrors. Or, “he paused, staring into the mist with what he must have imagined a haunted stare would look like, ”at least some of them”

            “You must have very strong magic if even the students need to pay you for crossing.

            “Not just the students! Even teachers need our services. Have you ever heard of the Storm Strider?”

            “No”

            “Well boy let me tell you,” the Ferryman broke his dramatic vigil and spun around sporting the eager grin of a storyteller with a captive audience . Then, when he saw the not quite human leaning almost off the edge of his seat, the ferryman’s smile faded and a hand dropped instinctively to his coin purse.

            His passenger saw the motion. They locked eyes, and it was clear that the ferryman had seen him notice the reaction, and they were stuck watching each other being watched. Still, it was something any Len, especially one who had traveled, grew accustomed to. The younger man forced the smile to stay on his face and tried to revive the conversation, “The Stormstrider? It must have a terrifying history.

The invitation hung in the air. A small struggle played out across his guides face. 

“It’s bad enough,” the Ferryman finally said  shrugging his shoulders. 

            The boy waited, but the silence endured until his own eyes fell.

“Not all of my people are thieves,” he murmured.

            “Doesn’t mean you aren’t one.”

            The ferryman almost jumped out of his skin when his passenger started laughing. 

            “Well caught! You have good ears! ”

            For some reason this made the ferryman even more tense, “Quiet your barking. Didn’t I tell you about the dangers out there”

            Immediately his passenger spotted the game and leaned forward with a glowing smile, “Ahh, you did mention the dangers, but you never mentioned the dangers of speaking.

            “Just shut it”

            Still smiling the Len pulled a small book from his backpack and closed the cover with a snap, “Yes sir! So what about the Stormstrider. Is it

            “Shut your damn mouth, won’t you?”

            “What?”          

            “I said to shut your mouth before I find a muzzle for you”

            The Len’s smile slowly faded, his hands twitching towards his fur. He tilted his head to the side and examined his companions’ words, trying to find the game in them. 

Slowly the boy’s face shifted. There was a flash of confusion, maybe even hurt, but it passed too quickly to be seen. Almost immediately his brows furrowed, his lips twitched back and he shoved his book into his pack with more force than necessary. 

            When they finally arrived he stood to his feet, dusted off his wrap and turned to the ferryman, “Thank you for your services, I am glad you carried me here”

            The ferryman just grunted and held out his hand. 

            It was abrupt and a bit intimate, but the man was his elder, so the young Len leaned forward to clasp wrists.

“No!” the ferryman pulled his hand away like a snake was lunging for it, “the tip.” 

            The Len started, “A tip?”

            “Its custom provide extra money when a service is done well”

            “I know what a tip is. You did not do well en

            Before things could go any further a large scaled hand clamped onto his shoulder, and dragged him away.

            He wanted to jerk his shoulder free of the grip. To go back and speak his mind. Maybe even yell his mind, but the sense of Presence exuded by the other person was too great. Not intense or particularly awe-inspiring, but it still outclassed his own Presence. Feeling that he grit his teeth and allowed the other Len haul him away.

            When they had passed the dock he was spun around. The Len who had grabbed him was taller and slender. He had followed a different branch and a smooth coat of scales covered his body. They were a dull brown and accentuated the flatter features of someone who had taken the reptile path. 

            “Please,” the older Len said, “think before you speak. What one does affects us all.”

            The younger Len tore his eyes away from his companion’s scales and stuffed his envy away, not allowing himself to brush at his own fur, “I was not going to attack him. I was only going to tell him that he was an ignorant bigot who had already been paid three times an unfair fee. Also, that his boat was ugly”

            “Yes, but you aren’t in civilization anymore. These people do not value honesty. To them a harsh truth is an attack.”

             “But How?”

            The other Len shrugged, “We must take the higher path and not expect too much from them. But we are both being rude. I am an Employ from the Grace Seekers.”

            Immediately upon hearing the title ‘Employ’ the shorter Len dropped his eyes and assumed a more respectful posture, “Your craft?”

            “I am Employ Yut Good, a woodworker of middling talent and little drive,” he said with the well polished intonation of ritual, ”And you?”

            “I am a Seek of the Ken Seekers, soon to be a Study.”

            “And what knowledge are you pursuing?”

            “I will be a student of magic here. Not all from the caravan believe in my ability to succeed, though I am certain I will.”

Yut looked at him for several moments, noting the omission of his persona names before the standard demonstration of candor. 

That thoughts visibly cascaded through the older Len’s face as he tried to figure out who in the Ken Seekers could afford the tuition for Istima University. Finally, after looking for distinguishing patterns on his wrap, Yut’s eyes fell to the cloth bandage wrapped around the smaller Len’s bicep. 

To his credit Yut spoke immediately and without tempering his words, “The Ken Seekers have had their reputation shit upon by a Teach who spread lies for his own benefit”

Yam did not respond.

Yut’s posture grew less welcoming, “Who are you?”

Again the smaller Len chose not to speak.

“Tell me who you are, and what you are doing here. Give me an honest word”

Like an echo, the phrase, ‘honest word’ hung in the air. The young man’s neutral silence transitioned from shock to insult, to smoldering resentment. The silence stretched impossibly long, even though it would only seem like a few moments to the casual observer. 

Finally, the shorter Len spoke through his own grit teeth. “I am Study Yam Hist of the Ken Seekers,” he said, shrugging off Yut’s greater Presence and staring at the older Len directly in the eyes, “and I am here to become a god.”

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