It was with a weary body that Yam left the Wandering Len. He made sure to tip the staff generously.
While meandering down the dimmed but never dark streets, he was mulled over what he had learned. Or at least he tried. He was jarred from his thoughts when he stepped across the border of the Day Court and was greeted with an abrupt transition from a slightly chill night to a bright and balmy day.
The brightness made his heart try to jump, but he was too tired. His building fatigue was like grease gradually thickening in his veins. The best he could do was stumble, rub at his eyes and string together a nonsensical collection of words that were delivered in a tone that made it clear he was trying to curse, though the results were mixed.
He forced his legs to keep going. As he walked a few oddities began tickling at his mind. For instance, try as he might he never was able to spot the sun. It always seemed to be hiding behind a building while, somehow, still heating his face.
That would not have been a problem if he didn’t find himself trying to check the time or his direction only to notice that the shadows had changed while he wasn’t looking. That the sun was behind a different building or, once, that it was behind more than one building at the same time.
For all the wonders he had seen at Istima over the last few days the Claral Court felt somehow off. Something about the wearing of the roads. The slant of the different roofs, and something just a bit too-much about the plants.
He just couldn;t figure out exactly what it was. In general, the Claral Court was a place of stately buildings and cobbled roads. Everything was from different architectural styles, but somehow came together with little slices of green grass and inviting trees in a manner that felt exactly like a university should.
Except for the sensation that there was a sound just below his threshold of hearing.
At one point Yam found himself examining a bench for almost half an hour, absolutely certain there was something strange about it, but unable to figure out what it was. In a fit of petty rebellion he decided to fight back and sat on the bench. The nagging sensation persisted but Yam leaned back, being as pugnaciously comfortable as possible: just out of spite.
The feeling did not leave. So Yam stayed sitting.
While he fought his invisible war with the uncanny bench he slowly tuned in to the people around him. They all seemed like regular students. Books in their arms or floating behind them. Some swished by in the ink flecked robes of the Autumnal court, others, wearing the bright colors of the Hibernal Court, floated on cushions of air.
He spotted a few non-human students. Each one he spotted gave him a sense of vindication that he chose not to examine too closely. For several minutes he did nothing but watch everyone going about their business; talking in small clusters, sitting under a tree set to the side of the path, or covertly dipping their hands in a fountain and scrubbing at stains off their clothes.
It became increasingly obvious that everyone else was comfortable in the omnidirectional sun. Yam sighed and rubbed at his temples. He must have spent too long trying to read the convoluted strings of influence, game, and motivation. For the entire day, he had been trying to notice something out of place and was suffering the hangover from it.
As far as Yam could see the only strange thing was a set of stones, just slightly less worn than the cobbles around him that people always stepped or hopped over. Also a doorway set partially up a wall. No one looked at the door and even students with faces buried in books leapt over the skipping stone.
Feeling somewhat foolish, Yam stood from the uncanny bench and went to his new student lodgings.
It took him longer than absolutely necessary to find them, but he managed to do so without pulling out a map and making himself look like a lost tourist or naive new student. It was an impulse that did not make any particular sense. But he decided not to look at it too closely.
The building was a few stories tall, devoid of the decorations and ornate facades of other structures in the Claral court. Though, it was made of the same gray, flecked stone that seemed to be the primary material of all the surrounding buildings.
Sitting at a small, folding table in the lobby was a person in the robes of the Autumnal court. His clothes were distinctly thinner, and his hat was noticeably less pointy than Thomnas’s. The student still managed to guide Yam through several stacks of paper work without ever making eye contact. Once the papers were finished he held them out and fed the sheaf to what the Len could only describe as a mouth made of bent and twisted space.
The heat mirage-fun-house-mirror mouth chewed the papers and spat out a solid brass key.
Yam went to his room on the second floor with his mind completely enraptured with the idea of having a familiar that existed by twisting the fabric of whatever space it happened to be moving through. Like a specter that made an impression of itself from underneath a long stretch of cloth, but was completely invisible and without physical substance underneath the fabric.
It was almost maddeningly exciting. Yam would either need to befriend that student, or see if he could bribe away the creature with more papers.
Of course that was assuming it was a separate and sentient entity. And that he wouldn’t like the other student and not feel guilty about taking his pet. Or that he couldn’t find a more impressive one on his own.
Following that twisted train of half formed thoughts, Yam stepped into his own small room and let habit guide his limbs while his thoughts were occupied. He formed a bundle of pillows under the blanket so it looked like a sleeping Len, stuck hairs across all the openings of his drawers, dresser, and closet to determine if they were tampered with. Then he opened the window, grabbed a drainage pipe and shimmied down to a set of bushes wondering what sort of exotic pet stores were in Istima.
The space under his window was set in between three walls, the two on either side pushed out from the main building and housed bedrooms. All the windows were covered by thick black cloth, presumably to block the sourceless sunlight, and looked over thick, untended bushes set behind a massive oak tree.
It was perfect. Yam took out his not-for-eating knife and hacked a small hollow into the bushes. Once inside he took the pin from his shoulder and undid his wrap. He refolded it and set it on the ground. Bed made, he pulled a wax paper wrapped bundle of rat jerky from his backpack and took out his for-eating knife.
While he chewed Yam closed his eyes and let his other senses rove around him. The stone walls were dead to his perceptions in a way that spoke of potent magic protections. But the ground beneath him was not. Below him were some sunken cobbles, some foundation, but the greatest measure of the building’s weight was placed on porous stone that looked like a bee hive. In some sections the gaps were so small and tight that the naked eye would never see the holes. In other places they were so large that several men could walk shoulder to shoulder.
Connected to the earth as he was, the young Len took the time to sink into his own body and feel the resonance of the earth and bone. He relaxed his mind and let it slowly travel through those materials into the greater whole they were part of.
In a far off way Yam felt, through the bones in his own body and the rat bones in his pack, all the bones in the world. Each and everyone connected to one pervasive flow of elemental power and meaning. Similarly he sunk into the earth, and through it, into the energy that made all matter know it was stone.
Though he could feel that power, the deep profound currents of magic that were moving through the calcium frame of his own body, it felt untouchably far away.
Instead of fighting that sensation Yam relaxed and let the feeling of such profound energy flow past him.
The covetous parts of his mind wanted to grab that power. To pull it through his channels and command the forces of nature. But with an iron will he crushed that impulse and focused his whole mind towards moving close enough to feel the energy more clearly.
That was the key. The difference between sensing that cataclysmic power and trying to take it was the difference between feeling the impact of a falling star through the ground instead of trying to catch it with a butterfly net.
He studied the flows, and focused on the faint aura around the torrents of power. Like mist from a crashing waterfall. With great care he let those wisps float across the paradoxical distance between himself and the main force. Then he took that aura into himself.
That was the other key. One could get wet by jumping in a waterfall and being drown or simply by waiting in the mist of a waterfall.
Thanks to years of practice, the diffuse energy flowed through him calmly, and left behind trickles of itself. He took hold of those trace remains, the equivalent of droplets caught in his fur from a waterfall mist. Then he distilled and progressively filtered those trace remains until only clean magic was being deposited into his reserves.
Yam was not patient, and this was only slightly faster than his natural recovery rate. Still, he pushed through. He had learned that this struggle was one where you had to play the long game. It was a battle of patience more than of will and force.
You could not fight the earth.
He let the sounds of brushing leaves, chattering students, and buzzing insects fall away and focused all of himself on making the magic inside of as pure as possible. On inching slowly closer to that limitless torrent of power his magic senses spied on through the peepholes that the stones under his legs and the bones of his own body had become.
For now it was a bare trickle of power that reached him.
For now his magic was of middling quality and only slowly settling into a more refined state, one drop of clarified power at a time.
That should have frustrated him, made him seek power through easier methods and expensive solutions like most mages did.
But he stayed silent and smiled. Because, even though he was only able to touch a trickle of power for now. He was also only a mortal.
Yam was shocked to find that, after a nap, when he stepped out of the Claral court it was after dawn for the rest of the world. That shock was balanced by the relief of seeing the moon and finally having something he could orientate himself with.
He had vague plans for finding food and exploring the other courts but, exactly seven steps past the border of the Claral Court, Yam saw a stone building. It seemed partially grey, particularly thick, and particularly academic. As soon as he noticed the students walking from the building with books in their hands he lost his train of thought.
Without recalling the steps that led him there Yam found himself slowly moving through the line. The inside of the building was just as grey as the exterior. Tapestries on the wall were faded, Yam’s nose smelled dust and must, and the ceilings were arched in a manner that left their peaks always shrouded in shadows.
None of that mattered.
There were books.
The shelves were at least eight feet tall and stuffed with a variety of leather, treated skins, and cloth bindings. He did not to salivate; but it was close.
At first glance the entire library appeared to fit in a space the size of a large ballroom. But students were continually moving in from the outskirts of the room and stepping from behind stacks. It quickly became clear that there were even more rooms full of books.
It was almost too much to bear. Books were heavy and expensive and required careful maintenance to protect them from the environment. His entire tribe had enough books to fill perhaps two of these shelves. If you needed more you might have been able to buy something for the journey between towns. But, for the sake of space, they were always re-sold as soon as possible. So come the next town that particular book was gone and you were left hoping that you never forgot what those pages held.
But this! Even a quarter of this room must hold more information that could fit into an elder’s mind. And there were more rooms. The raw concentration of knowledge, of wisdom, of power in this one building.
When Yam reached the front of the line the student manning the desk had to repeat himself twice before he was able to peel his eyes off the shelves.
“I don’t have a student number,” he said, “I was only admitted yesterday.”
“Then you’ll need to come back when you have one.”
“I’m sorry what?”
The student behind the desk was wearing a grey robe with leather pads sewn onto the elbows. He wore the sort of tall hat Yam was already coming to associate with the Autumnal Court. The material of his robe was not impressive and the decorations on his hat, while glittering and ostentatious, were clearly made of inferior materials.
The student underneath the robe was young with baby fat in his cheeks and massive bags under his glaring eyes.
“I said,” repeated the baby faced boy, “that you need to come back when you have been given a student identification number”
“How long will that take?”
The human turned his eyes away from Yam. “That’s not my department.”
“Wait!,” Yam started fumbling with a belt pouch, “Just give me a moment and I will show you that I am a student. I just need—”
“No number, no entry.”
Yam finally pulled a fresh rat skull out, “Just watch, I’m sure there will be no doubt left-”
The baby-faced student came to his feet and slammed his hands against the table so hard his hat tipped to the side, “I said, no number no entry. I am not the admissions council, and I am not making an exception. For all I know, you’re just another cur off the streets.”
The nervous smile on Yam’s face flickered for a moment before reasserting itself. But this time a bit too sharp and showing slightly too much tooth.
“I,” He said slowly and with a treacherous softness, “am no dog. I have told you I am a student. Are you saying that I would speak a lie?”
“I,” the other boy mimicked, “am saying that you do not belong here. And that I will not let a stray past my desk unless given incontestable proof that I must.”
A pressure grew in the air and the library’s greyness seemed to grow darker as Yam felt his mind sinking into his reserve of power.
The dimness lightened and a hand flickering with witches fire and dreamy colors fell on the desk between them.
“Return to your duties, Nathanael. I will escort this honored guest through our stacks.”
The student, Nathanael, looked up at the figure floating next to him. The man was older, his wispy hair just going grey. Holding still he appeared absolutely normal. Except for his eyes, which had a quality that was not humanly possible. They were blue and not particularly striking nor rare. They were simply a blue so laced with magic that the color became tinged with something else. Something from another place.
Nathanael looked up at the man and the contempt on his face grew until it imploded in on itself and the baby faced student’s expression was completely devoid of any emotion.
“As you say bookkeeper”
Nathanial took his seat and ignored their existence all together.
The bookkeeper motioned to Yam and drifted away. The moment he moved the cloak of normalcy crumbled. Every piece of him in motion gained a faint translucence and glittered with the subtle throb of witches fire. Like individual strands of it had been spun and then woven into shape of the bookkeeper.
He was a ghost, and clearly a powerful one.
Yam followed after him allowing none of his shock and as little curiosity as possible show on his face.
The bookkeeper glanced back at him and began patting his jacket and pants.
“Are you looking for something sir?”
“I’m just wondering if there was a steak falling out of one of the pockets. Perhaps that would explain the way you’re staring.”
Under his fur, the young Len’s skin heated. Before he could apologize the Bookkeeper burst into a peal of friendly laughter. “I’m sorry,” he said, “I couldn’t help myself. Have you never met a ghost before?”
Yam raised his eyes and saw the smile crinkling the Bookkeeper’s eyes, “Very few, sir.”
“Do you have any questions?”
“How many books can I check out at a time? How long can I keep them? is there a limit to how long I can stay in the library? How is everything sorted?howdoIfindabestiary,andabookontelekinesiandillusionsandshapeshiftingand—”
The bookkeeper’s eyebrows lifted higher and higher until finally the ghost lifted a hand and interrupted, “I had meant questions about ghosts. I thought you would find that more interesting, little one.”
“Sorry, sir,” the young Len flushed, “There is just so much to learn here.”
A small grin spread across the bookkeeper’s face, the motion making patches of his skin become briefly translucent, ”Well, I suppose that is a reasonable reaction for one such as yourself.”
“Yes sir, my parents were committed members of the Ken Seekers.”
The two began moving again as the bookkeeper spoke, “The first thing to note, is that this is not technically a library. These are the Understacks. We hold duplicates, reference books, scrolls that have been transcribed, overflow, and copies of previous students’ dissertations.”
“How many books are in the Understacks?”
The bookkeeper held out his hand and a tangled clump of magic formed. It was tightly controlled, but still leaking into the visible spectrum at the edges. Yam looked into the glow and felt something foreign trace against the edges of his mind until a number seemed to float up to the top of his consciousness of its own accord.
He stared deeper but the number didn’t change.
The fur along his spine stiffen and stand up. “How can so many fit in here?” He whispered.
“The Understack wanders more deeply than the average building.”
“Can I live here?”
“No little one, there are better ways to die and you should enjoy the sun while you can.”
The two of them stood in silence, Yam’s eyes tracing the spines of books that surrounded him and stretching up to the ceiling.
The air all but thrummed with the weight of knowledge.
“How does a student check out a book?” He asked.
“It depends on the student.”
When Yam’s face twisted into clear confusion the bookkeeper opened his hand and another flicker of magic flew away from them. It formed an illusory length of string that looked as though small lightening bugs were glittering along its length.
Without speaking the bookkeeper floated forward, following the trail of magic until it terminated in a particularly dark side room.
“These are the common access introductory tombs.” The ancient ghost said, ”They hold brief primers needed to understand how each school’s magic works. Very little is usable beyond some basic cants. As such, any student may access these books. There is no fear that you will steal an artificer’s business because you have learned how to write a floating light command.”
Another line of magic appeared and they followed it deeper into the library, moving through small doors, a few side passages and, after almost five minutes of walking, into an area where the air was cooler, dryer, and the building’s decorations seemed subtly more antiquated.
They finally came upon another shelf of books. The wood it had been constructed from was completely different from the shelves from the entrance to the Understacks.
“These are teaching tomes discussing the various methods of creating familiars and specifically the Autumnal Court’s method of binding.”
Yam’s hands shot towards the shelves.
And, in a literal flash, they were knocked back.
Something between a whine of pain and a growl came from his throat and the young Len tried again. Pushing his hand forward with a wave of mental power backing up the motion.
After perhaps thirty seconds of Yam trying to physically and magically punch his way through, the bookkeeper cleared his throat, or at least made the sounds a corporeal being in possession of a throat would make should they decide to clear it.
“Ahem. As you may have noted, this information is restricted to students registered with the Autumnal court.”
Without any effort the bookkeeper reached past Yam’s clawed hands to adjust the tomes so that all of their spines were even and the bookend was more snug. “Should you wish to check out a book you would need to wait for your admissions to be processed, then for that information to reach the libraries, and then for your court to grant you access to whatever level of information they deemed you entitled to.”
With a feeling of horror Yam recalled library access being offered to the most prized first day students during the admissions.
“They will try to limit how much I can learn!”
“Of course. Knowledge is the currency, power, prize, and punishment at Istima. Would you expect every student who can float a coin to immediately access books with a Catastrophe Curse or the exact manner of breaking through the school’s defensive wards?”
The bookkeeper’s magic line sparkled again and the pair followed it back to where they started.
The rage in Yam cooled into a sort of resigned numbness. Of course getting into the school would not be the end of his journey. They would try to pull more out of him. More money, more work, and more debt. Why wouldn’t they? They had the power, and they controlled access to a vital resource. Given that sort of sublime bargaining position, who wouldn’t use it for all it was worth?
Almost in spite of himself he pointed a claw towards the glittering thread of power they were following, “Is that some sort of bibliomantic librarian magic?”
“No. I am just a bookkeeper, not a librarian. This is simple organizational and bookkeeping magic.”
“You’re not a librarian?”
“The Understacks are not a library. And,” he added with a significant look at his flickering insubstantial body, “to be a librarian is a position of great power and prestige.”
“Ahh, of course. A ghost cannot be safely oppressed or reviled without first limiting its ability to resist and grow.”
The bookkeeper flickered, “Pardon?”
“I believe you implied by your body language that you were discriminated against due to your species.”
“Well, that is rather blunt.”
Yam smiled at the compliment and the bookkeeper continued, “But essentially correct.”
“Discrimination is a part of life.”
“I am sorry that you had to learn that so early”, the ancient ghost looked at him with his more than mortal eyes, ”You are of the Ken Seeker tribe?”
“I am a Study of the Ken Seekers.”
“And what is it you are seeking in Istima?”
“I am Study Yam Hist, my aspirations go beyond the heavens, but at this moment I want to know if I can work in the Understacks and have you teach me your book magic.”
“You want to work in the Understacks?”
“You realize working in the Understacks can be seen as a mark of shame, that people will assume you were not trusted to work in your own court’s facilities?”
“I presume that due to my species that they wouldn’t trust me to work in a library.”
The ghost conceded the point with a wave of his hand. “It is beyond my abilities to teach you true library magic.”
“Mr. Bookkeeper, sir, I do not care if you have me plugging leaks with my fingers or tie me to the ceiling so I can clean the top of the shelves; is there anyway I could help with these books?”
Yam, noticed that he was staring into the bookkeepers eyes and forced himself to drop his gaze deferentially. Even so the determined set of his jaw remained unchanged and the way he balled his fist did not escape the ancient Ghost’s notice.
“It isn’t possible for me to hire you until I have confirmation you are a student.”
“I understand, do you need other errands run or-“
“But,” the bookkeeper interrupted, “I will give you a task. If you would like to work for me, I will loan you a few books from my personal collection. As soon as you have read them all you may return here to me and we will see where you stand.”
“You are going to make me read books?”
“Will that be a problem?”
Yam blinked several times to hide the avarice in his eyes, “It is not the easiest task…. but I am in your debt.”
A grandfatherly smile sent a wave of translucent thought through the bookkeepers face. “Think nothing of it little one. Those in situations like ours need to look after each other.”