Yam 12

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~~~

(2.05)

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

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

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

That evil bastard. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Have some dignity,” Yam hissed. 

Abomination looked up at him, stumpy tail wagging. 

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

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

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

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

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

Abomination chirped and licked him on the nose. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But so was he.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

~~~

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

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

And lucky for him that he didn’t. 

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

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

Yam froze. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I hear you.” 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Followed him up?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Until he fell. 

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

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

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

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

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

Better? No. Easier to work with? Certainly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Then gravity took him.

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Yam 7

1.07

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

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

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

“Your first time speaking with them?”

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

“Give me your letter.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yam nodded politely and kept his face blank. 

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

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

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

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

It really was an excellent deal. 

“This is entirely unacceptable!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

~~~

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

Now that was a woman.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Like the person he was supposed to be. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He really had chosen his court well.

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

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

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

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

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

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

~~~

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Yam 6

1.06

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

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

Significantly. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No. They seem quite peaceful.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Bullying?”

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

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

“With will.”

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

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

“The Presence?”

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

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

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

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

“With will?” Yam guessed.

“With will.” The older student nodded.

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

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

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

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

“Really?”

“Yes. Rocks don’t scream right?”

“No, they do not”

“Do they whisper?”

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

“Sure.”

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

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

“How do they do that?”

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

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

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

“That’s it?”

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

“That’s how you cast spells?”

“That is how we cast spells.”

“And it works?”

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

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

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

“How do you do that?”

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

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

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

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

~~~

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

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

The Presence was unspeakable. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yam went unconscious again. 

~~~

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Offensively… honest? 

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

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

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

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

It made his head hurt.

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

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

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

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

And all to an extent that was almost comical.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Oh? And why would ‘some’ say that?”

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

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

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

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

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

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