The people running the tutoring building had been very frustrated with him when he made himself a small fire in the corner of his room. Which, to be fair, had been inconsiderate even if the marble floor and open window meant nothing bad would have happened.
It did end up being a bit of a miscalculation. They were annoyed enough to immediately eject him from the building when, thirty-six hours into his ‘single free tutoring session’, they had finally found him asleep.
Yam took it with good cheer though. His channels were sore, his body ached, his back was stiff, and he felt an odd kind of existential pain that made him suspect his soul might be sore as well.
Somehow, the slender Len was able to make it to his dormitory without getting lost or physically running into anyone. Once in his room he only stopped long enough to write himself a brief note: more black tea, schedule practice at Blood Ally, find food for room.
He fell into bed with a toothy smile and looked down at his hand. With a flicker of light, a weak and wavering symbol made of light started floating above his fingers. It made his channels ache, but he watched as lines slowly spread to form a small spell circle with several open slots for more shorthand commands.
Yam woke with the sun and set to writing himself notes the moment he got out of bed.
There had been so much knowledge given to him, but he had quickly discovered that the Vernal Courts teaching methods did not last long in the mind unless they were handled properly. Like meat that needed to be processed into jerky.
Though that might be his fault for going to tutors without having completed any basic, preparatory lessons beforehand. As soon as his tutors had learned that he had no knowledge of medicine beyond common herbs and no training in anatomy beyond what it took to butcher food, they had been forced to teach him in an unusual way.
The Spring Court’s domain was complex magic. Making small or vast changes to convoluted networks where everything was interconnected, like healing a body or altering the weather. His first tutors had decided to begin by teaching him the court’s trademark mind magic. They called it the Initial Collective. By accessing a strange, ephemeral flavor of magic they had reached out to him and bound the three of their minds together. Immediately, he had sensed their Presences, despite them being human.
But, what was more interesting, he had sensed an odd space open up that was very much part of his own mind, but not within his mind. The sensation was incredibly strange, but he quickly figured out the trick of it. The Initial Collective made a sort of ‘shared room’, that connected to all the participants’ minds. At will he could expand a small amount of his magic and flex a part of himself that he had always associated with his Presence. Then he could put a thought, sensation, or piece of knowledge into the ‘room’. Anything in the room was shared by all participants.
It had taken him three separate rounds of tutors to figure out how to operate within the Initial Collective, but as soon as he did everything had changed. His lessons all took place, to some degree, within in the Initial Collective. His tutors would think in the shared space, route their magic senses through it, or drop bundles of understanding there for him to examine. For the more advanced lessons, they had shared while he followed them around one of the Spring Court’s small free clinics.
At the five-hour mark, around his eighth or tenth round of rotating tutors, he had realized a critical mistake. Things placed in the Initial Collective did not last in his own mind unless he put in the effort to learn it himself. To tangle that magically shared knowledge into his own unique thoughts and memories. Like a spider web trapping an unusually large insect. Though it was simultaneously like having a book summarized for you. In the moment everything made sense, and with the other person there, all the information was at your disposal. But if you did not read the book yourself or in some way connect the information to your own experience, then it faded away. Lost to your reach as soon as the other person left your presence.
He had lost hours of anatomy, healing, and of instruction. His first reaction had been a fear so primal and overwhelming that it seemed like bands of magic were holding his lungs shut. Why couldn’t he remember? Was he too dumb? Too weak? Was he being attacked? What had he done wrong? Then came the anger. A rage so intense that he would have tore the building down around him if he had the power to do so. This was around the time that the administration was cautiously asking him when he planned on leaving.
So, he started a fire, brewed the strongest tea he could, and told them he would leave an archmage or die trying. They had not been pleased with his answer, but that was their fault for not putting a time limit on his free lesson.
To his ear ‘tradition’, ‘common practices’, and ‘being courteous with shared resources’ sounded a lot like ‘horse shit excuses to stop me from becoming a god’. And he treated them thusly.
He started learning everything again. This time he rephrased what he had learned out loud. Constantly. No matter how many strange looks he received. When each session ended and he had to wait for the next pair of tutors to arrive he would compulsively go through everything he had learned. Trying to memorize the sensation, the knowledge, and the pure understanding that had been so vivid.
As more hours passed he observed pairs or large groups enter the Initial Collective and collaborate to heal a body. The more invasive the healing, the more people in the collective. Though for serious surgery they went past the initial stage of the spell and he was unable to observe.
Still, it was fascinating. Those with the most acute senses or the best diagnostic spells became the eyes of the group. Others with superior dexterity would root out invisible pieces of corruption and disease from the blood. At the same time others would use their own specific spells to heal the gross physical wounds.
Still, for all its wonder, it was torture to watch as a Ken Seeker. To see a collective end and feel the perfectly elegant comprehension of magic, healing, and medicine only to have it fade. It was like having his own limbs taken away from him. While he was connected, he knew so much, and everything made sense. They thought together and communicated by sharing feelings, and resolve, and pure intent. It was like being in a Caravan and part of that great network of Presence again. But so much more intimate.
Outside the collective he was alone. Forced to scratch frantically at a notebook. Fighting his hardest to leave a faded, third hand representation of what he had briefly been a part of. No matter how hard he tried, or how fast he wrote, the loss was inevitable. There was just no way to keep everything from a collective.
And things were only more frustrating from then on out. As a Len he had a natural advantage when it came to mind magic. Which, he had learned, was what Presence was. A communal, organic, intuitive, mind magic that was inherent to being a Len.
That being said, he had no native facility for healing. While in a collective, he understood it to his bones. Obviously. But when he was forced to actually produce the pattern of energy, to maintain the fine control of power and perception, it felt like playing a familiar instrument with numb fingers. He remembered exactly how the magic should feel, but the memories were not his own. Neither were the skill, nor the practice. In their place he held nothing but desire and incompetence.
It had taken hours and hours of guided control exercises before he could practice sealing even a minuscule cut. And he only did so by using the Initial Collective to borrow an understanding of the patterns of nerve, fat, under skin, and over skin need to address those shallow scrapes.
Most of his thirty-six hours had passed by the time he was able to heal a cut three times in a row without failure. The tutor had then taught him the last piece of vital Spring Court magic.
The way it had been described to him was as making a small golem in his mind. He could teach it, to the best of his understanding and skill, how to do a single task. Then, when he activated it and gave it magic to use, it would execute the task without any need for direction from him. But it would only work as well as he would have at the time of its creation and required direct intervention if he needed to improvise, or if any scenario came up that he had not been familiar with when he had cast the mind magic to ‘teach’ the golem.
Yam was not capable of casting the spell by himself yet, but with help he could make his first Shorthand. The first step had been to memorize a standard spell circle. Which was a visual representation for how several different shorthands would interact.
It should have been easy, but by that point the caffeine was not helping as much as it should have and his focus had grown quite weak.
Then, with his tutor handling the most complex pieces of spell formation from within an Initial Collective, all of his knowledge, skill and understanding was compressed into a single character. The Spring Court’s symbol for ‘heal laceration’.
His tutor had lightly cut her own arm, just enough to produce a few beads of blood. Yam had thought of the symbol, burning and eternal in his mind within its cocoon of mind magic, and fed it power. Then, just like that, the spell circle had drawn itself in strands of light. His symbol had appeared, held safely in the circle. That separate fragment of his mind and understanding had healed the cut on his tutor’s arm with only the slightest need of guidance from him.
Back in his room Yam wrote furiously. Trying to encapsulate the entire process, all the feelings, and steps, and insights in his own words so that they wouldn’t fade from his mind as he spent longer and longer away from the Initial Collective he had learned it in.
In the end his remaining understanding felt shallow, and when he summoned the shorthand in his dormitory, he saw obvious flaws. Looking in on the preserved segment of his mind, he could see edges blurred by sleep deprivation and weaves of magic that could easily be simplified and made more efficient. Shore up leaking power here and put less energy into this section as it was obviously more of stabilizer than an active spell component.
But other parts looked foreign to him. Like the many, many details of anatomy he hadn’t actually learned, and merely remembered from the collective when the shorthand was made. In general the shorthand felt shallow and difficult to process. Likely because, at the time he had made it, his knowledge had been shallow, difficult to process. Especially since it had been entirely reliant on the fading memory of the Initial Collective.
Without that memory and several details he had only been able to memorize in the short term, it was difficult to read his own shorthand. Like a familiar language written in jargon he no longer remembered.
He dismissed the spell circle with a thought and leaned back in his chair. It had been thirty-six hours well spent, but he would have to earn another tutoring session if he wanted to go back. Moreover, the spell circle had slots open to hold more the shorthand spell symbols. Places where he could add the fixing of muscle and nerve and blood once he had mastered those skills. Maybe even ways to block pain as he burnt corruption from a wound.
That was one of the critical secrets to the Spring Court’s massive works of magic. One mage became an army. A general with thousands of specialists working on their behalf. They would be left with nothing to do but orchestrate the process from on high. Looking down on great circles redolent with a lifetime of shorthands and perfectly preserved moments of competence. At that point a single Spring Court mage became a collective in and of themselves
He wanted that. He wanted that terribly.
But there was work that needed to be done first. He needed larger reserves, finer control, and stamina potions. Lots and lots of stamina potions. The next time he returned to the tutoring building it would not be for just thirty-six hours.
The next day, he went to his first module. A module, not a class. There were no classes in the Vernal Court. Which sounded strange. But it was a school of unknowable secrets and reality bending magic. So an odd name was… good?
When he had gone to the administrative office, he’d been told that for his current level of skill, he was allowed five modules but that he was only able to choose two of them until he passed his basic requirements. One of those slots was strongly, strongly encouraged to be the osteomancy course he had been offered by Mrs. Reed.
He was not allowed to take the massive book listing all possible courses home and it was too large to hide under his wrap. Instead, he checked read the schedules for his courses; Basic Osteomancy, Basic Physical Training, Sentient Species Anatomy, and Basic Control Exercises. With one choice left open for later.
The book’s text shifted as he read it, magically updating information like class sizes, schedules, and other details. He quickly discovered that Basic Physical Training was available at all times throughout the week with various different instructors, but Basic Osteomancy would only be available at three different times on each of the three days it was held. Which, luckily included one session starting very soon.
After a speed walk across campus that left him vaguely breathless, he found the correct room and entered his first module at Istima.
One of his osteomancy teachers was a human-looking woman, aside from the small caps of bone on the tips of her fingers. She was accompanied by her partner, a rather plain looking human with short brown hair on his head.
When he arrived, he was handed a single sheet of paper:
Basic Osteomancy One
· Sense bone matter accurately from near range and mid-range (within arm’s reach and across a room)
o Display the ability to sense bone matter of dimensions smaller than a standard Imperial 1 Jez coin
· Cause bone matter to levitate in a sustained fashion
· Cause any degree of replicable fusing of bone matter
He skimmed the paper and went up to the front of the small classroom where the pair of bored senior students serving as teachers were answering questions and describing training exercises to other students.
“Excuse me.”, Yam said when he made it to the front of the line, being sure to make his language appropriately formal and respectful, “But I am able to accomplish all of these tasks, and this is my first class. What am I supposed to do?”
“Show me,” the brown-haired student said as he shoved an animal bone with visible fractures along its length towards Yam.
Despite their boredom, as it turned out, the pair teaching the class were very helpful.
He levitated the bones they provided for him with almost no effort. They barely reacted. Which made sense since it was insultingly easy. They then asked him if he could liquidate sections of bone and fuse them back together. Yam was pleased to comply.
When he had first discovered that he was elementally aligned with the specific earth and water combination that let him manipulate bones, his family had spent months trying to find a mage who would tutor him. In the end a wandering hedge witch had taught him a few basic control exercises and told him control of energy was the foundation of all magic. It determined the size, complexity, and fine detail of what one could accomplish. It also determined how efficiently and elegantly a spell was executed. According to her, most mages were seduced by flashy magic and maintained their control exercises at the bare minimum degree of competency. A mistake which put a flaw in their foundation and sharp limit on what they could do.
That was what she said. What Yam had heard was slightly different: ‘you can make everything you do better than everyone you will be competing against, if you are willing to be more disciplined in this one simple task. Everyone knows it, but no one cares enough to pull the full measure of profit from this knowledge.’
If that were a business deal measured in money, he was certain his mother would have put all of their savings into it at once.
So, for all that he lacked in magic theory and prestigious tutors, he was rewarded with compensatory time to spend on his foundations. He had meditated and cycled through control exercises for at least an hour everyday. Without fail. And four times that whenever he could. Everyday, every week, from the first time he met the hedge witch to the day he set foot in Istima.
He opened the particular set of senses that let him perceive bones, and found the one offered by his teachers. With all the efficiency and speed he had cultivated in his travels, he turned the entire small thigh bone into a liquid, only allowing it to become solid once it was in the shape of a perfect cube.
He looked up, hoping he had understood them correctly and saw both of their mouths gaping.
With a sudden intensity they asked him to levitate AND make the bone spin. Then lift only one of these beads while letting the others rest. Then how many could he move at one time?
A few of the tests were unfamiliar and he struggled through them, but most seemed childishly easy. It had taken him almost a year before he could lift multiple bones at once and set them rotating around his head, but still he had figured that out as a rather young man. And he had done it while riding a moving wagon. Standing still in a silent classroom made the entire affair trivially easy.
In the end they put him through all of the requirements for Basic Osteomancy one, two, and three. However, he was unable to pass the sensory tests for the fourth level of the module. He had never been taught any exercises for perception. So while physically moving or reshaping was not difficult for him, no amount of effort let him will his way into sensing small hairline fractures and the underlying structure of different animal bones.
The brown-haired boy turned to his companion who silently lifted a quill with the thumb and index finger of her right hand, the only digits that held no bone growth’ at their tips, and began writing.
“This is your first module, right?”
“That is correct,” Yam said, still frowning at the perception tests.
”Heavens preserve us,” the teacher said while shaking his head. ”Well, we will write your writs of success for these three Modules. You’ll be certified up to Osteomancy 3. Take them back to the administrative office. They’ll be added to your records and you can enroll in a new module.”
“How long will that take?”
“The writs rarely take more than fifteen minutes to process, and once they are the modules that list Basic Osteomancy three as a prerequisite will be open to you. Provided they have no other prerequisites.”
His face brightened, “Perfect, thank you very much”
Before he left they gave him various drills he could use to improve his perception: the sensory equivalent of her control exercises. He was just about to turn away when he remembered something, “I’m sorry to use any more of your time, but you are senior students, correct?”
“Yes, we are,” said the male.
“Then I was wondering, what would you do in my position? The module system seems quite confusing.”
Once again the two students shared a look. This time it was the female who spoke, her voice so soft it was difficult to hear. “It’s a mistake to try getting experience early. It’s impossible. Test out of as many basic’s as you can. No one wants help unless you are certified in anatomy, fine magic control, and have writs of success for practical skills. You should also take modules on harmonic restoration and physical fitness. It shows your magic reserve is large enough for applied work.”
“Thank you. Does that mean I should avoid entering another of these courses so I can spend more time on my prerequisites?”
She shook her head and dropped her eyes just long enough to drip hot wax onto the form she had filled out and press it with a seal. He saw a flicker of light as a spell circle briefly flared into existence while she pressed the otherwise simple but well made seal into the wax.
“No”, she replied, ” Osteomancy is in demand. Learn it. Having skills other people need is how you get ahead.”
She handed her partner the paper and he spoke as he applied his own seal to the form, “After you pass through basic modules, trading favors, skills, and drawing the attention of specialists is vital for progression. Pass the basic osteomancy courses so you can enter the introductory classes. Those are the marketable skills. Also,” he said handing Yam his form, “get your Vernal uniform. It will matter soon. Especially the clothes for physical training.”
Yam accepted the paper and stared at it for several seconds before he responded. “You deserve more thanks than I have the time to give. I did not expect anyone in Istima to be helpful.”
That earned him a smile from his two student teachers, “You’re welcome,” said the one with brown hair. “There is competition here, but we are not the Summer Court.”
“Act well your part,” the female spoke the words with the cadence that only came from having repeated a motto thousands of times before.
Yam followed their advice and, after turning in his writ of success, used his stipend to buy clothing. There were no strict guidelines for uniforms. Just a long string of requirements. Clothing must be of a certain material. They must cover certain portions of the body. One must have items to stop hair falling into patients wounds, and the clothing could not impede the frequent tying on and replacement of butchers’ aprons. His main sets of clothing would not be available for several hours, but the merchant had Vernal Court physical training clothes that were pre-made in a variety of common sizes.
That was how he ended up skulking through a gymnasium wearing a pair of short trousers like a gods-damned barbarian.
They were horrible: confining, uncomfortable, and almost indecent. He had tried to buy a pair that were larger and less form-fitting, but the waist had been entirely too big for him. Instead he was forced to strap himself into the vile cloth contraptions. He felt the fabric pull against his legs and body as he moved. They showed entirely too much of his lower body and they made him look like a human child.
Even worse was the shirt. He had gotten a large shirt so that the hem hung down and covered some of his waist. But he was certain that when he took it off that it would catch on his fur, pull against the grain, and put everything into disarray. A man of his family was expected to have a certain amount of neatness. The same way none of his siblings in reptilian bodies would go out with dead skin and snarled scales, he refused to be seen with tufts of fur sticking out at odd angles.
Thankfully he was allowed to keep his own footwear.
He went to the gymnasium ready to argue about the need to wear these ‘clothes’. So, once he had stored all of his belongings in an enchanted locker, he straighten his spine, locked his jaw and stalked into the main area—
And stopped dead in his tracks when he saw that female students were in the same room and they had to wear the same uniform. He went back to his locker until the skin of his face was less heated.
They must have custom tailored their training cloths to have them fit so tightly.
How did they move?
Finally, he was able to respectfully lock his eyes onto the floor and check in with a staff member at a small window by the gymnasium. He sensed no magic from her at all, which was more shocking than it should have been. Of course, Istima would not fill every menial position with mages. Otherwise there would be no reason to have an (almost) normal city grow around them. The magicless employee answered his questions and directed him to a corner of the room where a heavy set older gentleman was supervising a group of students.
Yam began walking towards one of the bleachers and waited for the clock to mark fifteen minutes as passed. At that point, he had been told, the instructor would give directions to any newcomers. For basic modules like this, the Spring Court tried to have classes running as close to constantly as possible. That way, students could drop in and do their work quickly without the administration having to make writs of exception for the module due to scheduling.
Yam took a seat. But, even with his eyes down, he quickly noticed that student’s with clothes made of better material also had the clothing cut more tightly. Which immediately made him wonder if he had made a mistake in getting his large and billowing shirt. It wasn’t quite a tunic…
But he was also not an exhibitionist human savage.
So Yam sat silently on the bottom tier on the benches where he could more easily keep his eyes on the floor. He was not sure if he should force himself to stare so he was desensitized or if it was more virtuous to keep his discomfort rather than lose his sense of propriety. He found no solutions. Instead he spent much of the time trying to tug the short trousers further down, wishing he had his belongings so that he could at least do control exercises while he waited.
Finally, he was called up with a small group of other students. The instructor, Mr. Combs, was a gregarious and friendly man. He looked each student in the eye and offered his hand in the human fashion. Yam found himself liking him immediately. After giving a concise introduction the instructor asked for all of their ages so he could tell them their exit criteria. It was fairly simple, a certain number of pull ups, push-ups, sit ups, squats, and a short run. The requirements varied based on species, body plans, gender, and in one case, a thing called ‘reservoir conductivity’. Whatever that meant. Combs then explained the proper technique needed for each exercise, and that poor form would not be counted towards exit criteria.
“Alright everyone, go to the stations and give it a try. If you think you meet exit criteria, or if you need help, I’ll be right here.”
Yam had only taken a few steps when Mr. Combs, or rather, Coach Combs, caught his eye.
“Yes sir,” he said warily, “is there anything I can do for you?”
“I didn’t want to do this publicly, but are you really fourteen? If the administration is under the impression that your age is higher than biologically accurate, then it won’t matter now. You’ve already been accepted.”
For the second time in a day Yam felt his face heat and his eyes drop. But he fought the impulse and kept his shoulders from drawing themselves up
“No sir, I did not obfuscate my age.”
“Alright. I’m only asking because I’ve never seen a furred Len who is so…” The instructor trailed off though his hands vaguely pantomimed around his chest and biceps, “… petite.”
Memories rose from the depths of his mind, but Yam viciously shoved them down. He felt a spark of anger and focused on it until it became a defiant blaze.
“I,” he said, biting off his words, “had to choose the mammalian branch. I was born with a blood illness and needed a more robust body.”
“Ahh. I see. Well, if the illness still bothers you we can—”
“I do not need accommodations. My family is just naturally slender.”
“Alright. Well… If you need anything, I’ll be here”
“Understood,” he said, jaw tense. “Thank you, sir.”
Yam quickly turned and stalked to the nearest station. He wasn’t sure how long the line was but, lost in his anger, he suddenly found himself standing in front of a pull up bar. The flame of rage that had been burning so bright flickered for just a moment, and he felt a cold hand brush against his heart.
Before it could take hold he shook his head and stoked the fire. He was not here to be pitied or stopped! Even if they put him in the clothes of a clown, even if he was denied the reptilian form of his family, he was not someone who could be stymied. For now he was a Yam Hist of the Ken Seekers, his fur a constant testament to the weakness of his body, but he would see the world burned if that is what it took to remake himself as a god.
Yam bared his teeth in defiance and threw himself up to the bar. His fingers closed and he yanked against the metal.
Only to find himself stalling halfway up.
He pulled harder and clenched his jaw until he thought his molars would crack. He shifted up half an inch—
And stopped again.
No! He was not weak little Yam anymore. He did not need to be carried in anyone’s arms when his legs shook, or pretend like staying inside was his preference. He was a man and a mage of Istima!
Arms quaking, he bent his entire will to the task.
But nothing happened and he could feel the eyes burning into his back.
He pushed harder. Willing his body to obey him. He wasn’t weak anymore. This would not happen to him again. He willed his chin to raise until everything fell away and the burn in his arms was the only thing in the world.
His fingers gave out and he fell with a snarl. Yam pounded the floor with his fists and leapt up again.
Within thirty seconds he fell, not able to get more than a quarter of the way up. He was just about to hurl himself up again when a hand gently rested on his shoulder.
“Yam, that was a tremendous effort,” said Mr. Combs. “Why don’t we go over here and make a training program for you?”
“No!” he growled, feeling his magic spike. “I refuse to be beaten by this! I can—”
“Yam,” the older man interrupted, firm but not unkindly. “There are other people waiting for the equipment.”
The hand gently on his shoulder pulled him to the side and a tiny burst of air spasmed its way out of his lungs.
“Here,” the coach produced a handkerchief, “wipe your… face. I’m sure you’re sweaty after that effort.”
Yam crumpled the handkerchief in his fist. He hated the way his thin arms shook just trying to do that. How his face burned even under the hideous fur he had to wear.
He let himself be led to the bleachers.
“That’s it buddy. Remember, today is just the first step. We’ll make a plan and I’m positive that someone with your determination will test out.”
“Do you really think that?” he asked quietly.
“Of course,” Combs looked down and gave him a small smile, “You’ve got the will for it. Haven’t you?”
The whispers of the other student’s sounded like a roaring waterfall to his ears. With his arms still watery and shaking, he used the handkerchief to dab at his forehead and casually wipe the moisture from his cheeks.
“I don’t have a choice. I cannot stop here.”
“Exactly right,” the older man nodded his head.
They walked silently until they made it to the far corner of the room. Mr. Combs hesitated briefly, before going to a knee. “Being sick is horrible, and it’s not fair. But as long as you promise to mind your limits and not do anything rash, we’ll get you there. This is Istima after all. You must always acknowledge your boundaries so you can live to grow past them. Sound like a deal?”
It took him longer to respond than he would have liked, and his voice was not as strident as befitted a soon to be archmage-deity. But he did respond.
And he felt that little bonfire of rage stir in his chest. It was only embers now, but he stoked it and fed all the emotions, and weakness, and the whispers until those embers yielded a tongue of true flame.