This is another extra long chapter. Just a little bellow 6,000 words. And that’s because:
- We’re doing some cool stuff with Cal and Yam structurally.
- I’m bad at writing short things.
- The Wandering Inn and John C. McCrae do like 12k on a slow day. To their audience 6k isn’t ‘extra long’, it’s ‘cute’.
But let us know what you think about the chapter and the chapter length. Also how you feel seeing these characters through a different lens. Even small bits of feedback are very useful to us while we decide where to take the story going forward.
After his misadventure at the Tooth and Claw, Yam thought it best to keep a low profile. So, for the next week, he acted like a model student. His only irregularity being how little time he spent in his room.
For whatever reason, happenstance had not yet conspired to bring him face-to-face with his roommate. There was a lengthy sheaf of papers that they were to go over and sign once they had met. A brief glance showed that it was many, many pages of rules that detailed, with painful precision, the exact punishments if one’s partner were to engage in dark magics, and the exact rewards one would receive if they provided proof of their partner participating in dark magic.
Yam did not plan on shackle himself to some random student. Not unless he absolutely had to. He was certain that the administration would eventually notice that they had never turned in the forms, but he could honestly say it was just because he hadn’t seen his roommate.
Admittedly, hiding in an underground cavern only accessible through passages that were camouflaged behind magically horrific lavatories might be frowned upon. But no one had explicitly told him not to, so he didn’t think about it too much.
It was just safer to not have a partner around.
That was part of what made the Vernal Court unique. None of the other courts’ foundational courses trained you on how to overcome other beings’ magic resistance. Moreover, they made a study of poison, violent injury, mental magics, and how to alter entire ecosystems. Everything they did was a breath away from dark magic,
Some of the things they were forbidden were self-evidently wrong; like trying to steal someone’s good health and place it in another, altering the Collective to subvert another’s will, manufacturing plagues, or precipitating natural disasters through weather working. On the other hand, some of the ‘black magic’ seemed like it shouldn’t be such a big deal. For instance, inflicting magical incontinence on someone was ‘too close to lethal dysentery’ and therefore ‘illegal’.
Though he thought it would be both hilarious and useful, he restrained himself from looking into those taboo topics. Especially since there was still a market full of rules that he very much did plan on transgressing. Aehp the Eclectic Beast Lord was more than a superb Spring Court Mage. There was no way Yam could grow into the identity if he didn’t break a few rules.
Which meant that Yam spent most of the week hiding in his cave. The bright side being that he was beginning to believe that no one else knew of the cavern.
He studied the texts given to him by the Bookkeeper and constantly trained his magic.
It was a cycle. Go to Blood Alley when he was losing focus. Come back and sleep. Then practice control or perception exercises until his magic reserves were tapped. Move onto honing his harmonic regeneration or read until his eyes hurt. Then straight back to perception and control drills for his osteomancy modules.
He even picked his second discretionary module. The magical first aid course he really wanted required several pre-requisite courses, so Yam began one of them. It was called Assessing Injuries and it was delightful. They identified wounds and learned how to assess the difficulty of treating them through magical or mundane means.
Even though much of it was rote memorization, and the lectures had to be extraordinarily repetitive since students entered the module unpredictably, the few times they touched on abrasions, lacerations, punctures, and avulsions he immediately saw how the material could impact the single healing spell he knew. Even something as small as washing a wound with clean water before sealing the skin made the magic far easier to execute.
It was a frustrating and exciting time. On one hand, he was so ignorant that it was easy to find something new and important to learn. However, it was difficult to prioritize what he should actually focus on. Everything was fascinating and potentially useful.
Which made his slow progress even more frustrating. He was endlessly struggling with the basics. Though he wanted nothing so much as to learn how to check food for poison and fix dehydration, he spent hours struggling with fine control by keeping chunks of ice from melting and seeing how many forks he could levitate at once.
Which was why, a week after he had escaped the Tooth and Claw, he found himself unusually dispirited. Though that was, largely, because he was sitting in the gymnasium with his elbows on his knees and a towel draped over his head.
The clothes were still uncomfortable, and he hated that after each lesson he had to use his good brush to fix his fur while he was still sweaty. Could one shampoo a brush? Did you take it to a dry cleaner if it developed a smell?
He recognized the light, squeaking sound of Coach Comb’s shoes, but didn’t look up.
“Yam my boy! You ready to hit the floor?”
The slender Len clenched his fists, but there were people watching. So he whipped the towel off his head and hopped to his feet, eyes lowered deferentially.
“Yes sir! Let the torment begin!”
His instructor was not yet old, though his heavily tanned skin had gained wrinkles early, and his hair had just crossed the threshold where it could be fairly described as ‘whispy’. Despite that, he had the vibrant smile of a young man.
Coach Combs threw back his head and laughed. “Good! That’s what I like to hear!”
The two of them went to the side of the gymnasium where a variety of tools, machines, and devices waited.
Yam always came to the late classes, there were fewer people to see his struggles. It also meant he could go straight to his cavern and fall asleep afterward. The less time he was conscious after his shame the better.
Because of the hour, Coach Combs was also able to give him more time and attention. It shamed Yam that he needed it, but he didn’t have it in him to tell the Coach to stop.
They started with him leaning forward and pressing himself away from the wall with his arms. He still couldn’t do standard push-ups. They interspersed the wall presses with other activities and through it all Coach Combs rambled to him.
The older man would discuss what the purpose of the exercise was, which muscles he should feel strain in, the signs of good versus superb form, and he would cajole Yam to push a bit harder; to match or beat his previous best.
Then, after checking in on the other students, he would come back and talk about how an ancient group of mages thought certain muscle groups enhanced certain types of magic. How they would walk with grossly large shoulders or calves. Necks wider than the circle of their hands, and other parts of their body bound immobile so they didn’t exercise the ‘muscles of dark magic.’
As the hourglass ran down, the older man would discuss theories of what caused muscle adaptation. He mentioned how different exercises had been invented and would spend entire modules talking about how brilliant researchers had found clever ways to test the relationship between the body’s health and magical reserves.
Yam didn’t listen to all of it. There wasn’t always space in his head for anything but ensuring that the battle between his shame and his rage was won by a rage hot enough to push him through the next set. What he did hear helped. It helped him drown out the voice in his head that said all of this was worthless and that his body just wasn’t made to get stronger.
He caught Coach Combs repeating his favorite stories more than once, but never corrected the kind man.
During that week, the two of them spent most of the time figuring out what imitations of true exercise he could accomplish. But trying to do a pull-up while standing on a platform that actually pushed upwards with enough force to cancel out most of his weight, and STILL only getting his chin to the bar twice made it hard not to feel like a failure.
He finished his module and put the towel over his head again.
A large hand rested on his shoulder. “You did well today.”
“Thank you, sir” his voice came out monotone.
After a pause, the hand clapped him on the back once and withdrew. “You know, there is a way to make this into an advantage.”
“Sir?” He said more out of politeness towards an elder rather than genuine curiosity.
“Yes. Have you ever heard the phrase, ‘practice makes perfect’?”
“Well, when I was first starting my own research, I found someone who looked into it. And they discovered that it’s a lie.”
Yam frowned. He had heard master craftspeople, women and men who were wise and virtuous, insist that practice made perfect.
When he raised his gaze, Coach Combs caught his eye and grinned. The man obviously knew how inflammatory what he had said was. And he was so obviously pleased that it had worked.
“Practice makes permanent,” the older man grinned. “So, tell me, what do you think perfect practice makes?”
Yam didn’t actually have a chance to answer before the Coach stepped away. “Just like with magic, enough power lets you get away with doing things sloppily. And just like with magic, those bad habits become permanent and stunt your potential.”
“… thank you, sir.”
Coach Combs waved him off and started walking towards a cluster of students who were talking at a station rather than doing their exercises.
“It’s my job. Remember to stretch, eat plenty of meat, and get a nice long sleep. Otherwise, you’ll waste all the hard work you’re doing.”
Yam left the gym disgruntled, feeling like everyone was staring at him, and wishing he had something to smash.
Which was all to say that he was in a better mood than usual.
If he didn’t have something else on his schedule, he would have gone immediately to sleep. But, there was always more work to be done. So, he limbered up his bargaining face and made his way to The Wandering Len.
He made sure to greet his favorite hairy knuckled, fungus bloom of a barkeep and quickly found the reason he wasn’t ensconced in his cavern embracing blissful unconsciousness.
Thomnas was just as thin, and his hat was just as ostentatious as he remembered. Maybe more so. Had he gotten a promotion?
The Autumn Court student really was an excellent contact to have. He seemed competent, likely to succeed, and he was just horrible at holding his tongue once he had a few drinks in him.
Nice person as well.
Though Yam’s impression might have been impacted by the drinks. The young Len had intended to stay sober, but he had had a long day, and he was still new to alcohol.
“I can’t believe you picked the Spring Court,” Thomnas slurred. “I thought we had you for sure.”
“What’s wrong with the Spring Court?”
“Yam, what other court makes standard-issue uniforms meant to handle bloodstains? Not just requisition a few for medical students, but in the rules for every student. That’s creepy.”
“Nothing wrong with sturdy clothes.”
“I heard,” Thomnas leaned forwards, his impressive hat lurching to the side, ”that they’re always cutting themselves to practice fixing it. That they don’t understand pain afterward. That it twists their minds and surgery stops bothering them.”
Huh. That did seem far more controlled and predictable than Blood Alley.
“I see why others would find that disquieting,” Yam said out loud, though most of his attention was focused on how to change his spell so it came from the self AND targeted the self. Which seemed a lot like using river water to dilute river water.
“It’s horrifying!” Thomnas cried. For some reason, he decided to raise his mug. Maybe he was used to doing that when yelling?
Either way, Yam raised his own.
“Horrifying!” he called, rapping their mugs together and taking a deep drink.
“But why,” his friend whined, wiping his chin, “did you have to act like you wanted to join the Autumn Court?”
“The Autumn Court has amazing things to offer.”
“The woman you bargained with was so angry that she misfiled a form. Twice. It was the talk of the building.”
“Well, she was not very good at—”
“Why did you make me think you wanted to learn from the Autumn Court?”
Yam sat and pondered for a moment; the drink made it a bit more difficult than usual. What was a truthful way of saying he still wanted to learn from the Autumn Court without saying he planned on stealing their secrets, ransacking their libraries, and laying waste to any man, woman, god, or institution that would bar his path?
“Familiars,” he said slowly, “are awesome.”
Thomnas stared at him.
“It’s just part of the process,” the young Len shrugged. “If you’re being thorough, you gather counteroffers when bargaining.”
“Process?” Thomnas asked, cocking his head. “Like protocol?”
“And you spent several hours in that poor woman’s office because…?”
“It was the minimum I could do.”
“According to protocol?”
“Yes. Three days would have been better. But,” Yam shrugged, “the timeline didn’t allow for a textbook negotiation.”
Thomnas scratched at his chin. “Huh. Well, fair enough then. Nothing you can do about protocol.”
The young autumn mage thought for a few more moments and nodded decisively before raising his mug into the air. “Protocol!”
“Protocol!” Yam and several other Autumn Court mages cried back from around the tavern.
After a long draft, Thomnas continued, “So, familiars, eh?”
“Yes. I need one as soon as possible.”
“They are extremely convenient. And I understand why you wanted to learn from us. None of the other familiar magics are as good.”
“How so?”, he said, putting his bargaining face back in place.
Heh, bargaining face back in place. It rhymed.
“Well, let me tell you! Summer Court doesn’t have any actual familiars. They just make machines. Doesn’t look like a wizard’s companion should at all. And can you imagine the logistics of broken parts while traveling?” Thomnas shivered, “Mail routes, messenger pigeons, currency conversion; what a nightmare.”
“What about Winter?”
“I’m not sure if elementals just like to follow the powerful ones or if they actually have something like a real familiar bond. And don’t even get me started on the Night Court!”
“I don’t know what they do or how they do it, but I don’t trust it! I have never heard of a single one of them requesting exotic pet forms from the school.”
“The scandal,” Yam said, voice flat.
“I know! And their familiars don’t always keep the same body plan or level of sentience. How do you track that? Which of the forms do you use? What do you put down on apartment applications?
“Is the Spring Court any more civilized?”
Thomnas snorted and waved his hand before taking another gulp and calling for a refill. “They have animal companions, not familiars. It doesn’t count.”
“Why is that?”
“They make mental-waiting-rooms and let animals opt-in for practice. That’s just a pet you talk with. Any real bonding-bond they made would be black magic.”
“So, the Autumn Court has better ‘bonding-bonds.’ ”
If Thomnas noticed the joke, he didn’t show it. “Yes! Proper soul to soul connection; well defined, ordered, and honestly negotiated. Sympathetic magic is the only real way.”
“What sort of familiar do you want?”
Thomnas slouched and pushed his hat back into place, a dreamy look coming to his eyes, “Something that looks wizardly. Something that can fetch me ink wells or melt sealing wax onto my forms.”
Yam nodded. “Breathing fire would be superb.”
“Maybe some fairy-like thing that could magic away stains.”
“I’ve heard folk tales of fae that can slip into your foe’s nightmares.“
“Or!” Thomnas spoke over him, ”A phoenix. I bet a quill made from their feathers would never run out of ink!”
“Just imagine the burning talons,” Yam whispered.
The two lapsed into a companionable silence as each courted radically different daydreams.
“Yam,” Thomas finally said, ”what do you want in your familiar?”
“I want everything. Maybe a swarm of familiars.”
“Yeah, but what about your first?”
The young Len closed his eyes and let magnificent scenes of devastation and ruin drift through his mind.
“I want something mighty and fearsome, but loving. Something with fur I can brush. Large enough for me to sleep against by the campfire. Enough strength to crush boulders. Tentacles that could creep unseen from the sewer grates so my foes fear to walk the streets. Venom that could melt stone, and a visage so horrifying that it will eat at the sanity of my competition before ever even setting its teeth to their innards.”
Yam blinked his eyes and saw that Thomnas, and the customers sitting on either side of their table, had turned to stare at him.
His friend pushed his hat back in place and belched.
“Horrifying!” Thomnas shouted, lifting his mug into the air.
“Horrifying!” The tables around them chorused, lifting their own drinks.
Yam had stopped drinking shortly thereafter. As the (relatively) sober one, he made sure Thomnas got back to his lodgings. Along the way, he saw several other members of the most august Autumnal Court in similar states of inebriation. Some had removed the belts from their robes and tied them around their foreheads, others had a distinct green tint to their faces and held their hats queasily in front of themselves. Others scrawled graffiti across the walls in gorgeous cursive script, their grammar perfect even when writing lewd poems about the professors. He didn’t stop to check, but he thought that one of the drunken vandals had taken the time to compose his graffiti in iambic pentameter.
“Yam. YAM!” His friend slurred.
“You know you’re like a brother to me right?”
“I heard you the last time.”
“Good. Then Yam…”
“You gotta do it. If I recommended you, you gotta do it. Even if you’re not in the Autumn Court.”
“What do I gotta do, friend?”
“You gotta win.”
“I can’t remember.”
“I can’t either.”
“That’s why we’re brothers.”
And that, somehow, was how he ended up back at the Tooth and Claw.
Yam had decided that he needed to study. Immediately. Urgently and. Right. That. Moment.
So he had made his way to the Day Court and his familiar foe, the uncanny bench. He thought the bright light and inexplicable discomfort of the bench would help him sober up.
All it did was make his sleep fitful enough that he was startled awake when a ring of students accidentally exploded a sack of wine they had been practicing on.
Mostly sober, but hazy around the edges, Yam had leaped from the bench and found himself deciding that he had to do what Thomnas had said and win himself a familiar.
Ticket in one hand, and slip of paper from his bet the previous week in the other, he made his way back to the Tooth and Claw to see how much he had won.
Turned out it was just enough to get a very greasy breakfast. If he was smart he would have left with this gambling money, and done just that. Instead, he stayed to watch the beasts. Trying to keep himself hidden in the standing masses at the bottom tiers of the Tooth and Claw.
He stayed there for a while. Enough time that weariness managed to steal away his clarity at the exact same pace that the alcohol surrendered it back to him.
His eyes constantly tracked the guards, his mouth started to taste horrible, and the sounds of the crowd seemed to physically stab into his brain.
Even when he was able to see around the much taller adults who crowded the ring, he was disgusted to see what was happening to the majestic creatures that fought. If he had any of them as his familiar he would lavish them with attention, and fresh cuts of meat, and hugs, and warm blankets, he thought.
The final straw came when he saw a particularly bowel-loosening monster enter the ring. It was large, with clumped fur that Yam’s experienced eyes and mage’s instincts said was not moving in the way mundane fur should. It squared off with a large insect creature. Horrid thing, fearsome and powerful but there was no warmth, no love in its eyes. Yam could not imagine stroking its shell by a campfire or being greeted happily by it when he returned home.
It ended up being a non-issue when the first monster used a magnificent array of teeth hidden under the tentacles cascading from its face to tear into its bug foe. Yam felt bad, and shockingly bad too. His first thought was relief that the bug had been the one killed. True, insects seemed like more of a utilitarian familiar than a true companion, but you shouldn’t judge a business by its booth. Especially not someone like him.
Then, when he saw how roughly they forced the hungry be-furred monster away from the body, a feeling started at the base of his feet and slowly filled the rest of him. A tingling wash that was not quite indignant, not exactly mournful, and was neither righteous nor shameful. He just knew that something was wrong.
Animals shouldn’t be treated like that.
Yam checked for any nearby guards and saw none. He began to move, wishing he could summon the familiar burning red anger or blinding orange waves of greed to cover the fear in his stomach.
The young Len walked to the door he remembered using to enter the back rooms. The guards were glancing at an overseer, a thug with slightly nicer clothes and a well-lacquered club he had obviously not had to use recently.
In his time watching for any guards who might recall his face, he had noticed this same pattern. Soon the overseer would give a signal and a large group of fresh guards would leave the bar and be replaced by those who had been working inside the labyrinth. Just like his first visit, there should be a brief window with no security watching the entrance.
“Didn’t expect to see you here,” a voice said from where there should be no voices.
Yam spun around, “I can expla—” he stopped. That was not a guard. It was a human girl. A human girl who had somehow sneaked into the off-limits area of the fighting ring.
He squinted at her and recognized a particularly strange human he had healed in Blood Alley. “Wait, it’s you! The one with the hands!”
The girl raised an eyebrow and smirked at him. “Guilty.” She glanced at her palms, making a joke of his words, but her eyes immediately snapped back to him with a hungry sort of wariness.
The girl was young, possibly of age with him. It was hard to tell with humans. They didn’t have much fur to check for grey and no scales that would show wearing. Just naked, constantly wrinkling skin.
He remembered little of her and likely would not have even if had been completely sober. He did recall that she had made an effort to speak like a Len, which was more respect than most humans showed. But in the end, she had ruined the budding amicability by challenging his honor and forcing him to answer a question they had been making a friendly game around.
Now, he looked closer. She was relatively small for a human and her hair was clean. But, rather than the slender limbs of a noble that lifted nothing heavier than a letter, she looked stringy. Her muscles were small but twitchy, and ready to propel her in any direction at any time.
“What’re you doing here?” he said. ”Do you work at the arena?”
Even as he spoke, he summoned his magic and stretched the space between them so she would not be able to touch him.
He did not like her. He did not like her superior humor, he did not like the sharpness in her eyes, and he did not like where she had chosen to approach him.
And surely enough, he was proven right. In terse words, she demanded his ticket from him. Well, good luck to her. Though he was not particularly skilled in perceptive magics, he did not sense any awe-inspiring powers from her. And if she wanted to take his ticket by force, he would make inches into miles and see how long she was willing to run to get it.
But, before they were able to exchange more than a few words, the girl’s head snapped to the side. Her entire body coiled in a way that Yam had only seen animals do. He followed her eyes and, seconds later, a sound reached him.
“Who’s there?” said an approaching voice. “I know someone’s in here!”
In a flash, they darted behind some nearby equipment. Yam quickly reestablished a buffer of stretched space between them and tried to think. It was hard. Luck had gotten him out of these rooms the last time he had been here, and his thoughts were still slow from alcohol and weariness.
Also, the human was talking to him while he was trying to think. So he let his mouth move of its own accord while he desperately tried to figure out how to solve this puzzle.
“Alright,” she said, ”I’ve got an idea. The security in this place isn’t great. And operations like this can’t have dead ends, in case the owners need to get out in a hurry. We have a chance of getting out of here if you follow my lead.”
Yam paused. He should think like a Ken Seeker and disassemble the logic of this scenario. Fight fear with reason and use his brain. But his mind was cloudy and something in his bones trusted the feral competence of this girl.
He let his magic go so he was able to lean close and hear her whispered plan, “Okay, what do I do?”
She shoved him with both hands, and he careened right in front of a whipcord-thin man with cruel eyes. “Hey!” the guard shouted. “Who the hell are you? How’d you get down here?”
“I… uh, er, that is—”
“Shut up!” the man said, drawing a knife. “Now, you’re coming with—”
And just like that, the girl materialized out of the darkness behind the guard. She glided across the floor in perfect silence, her gaze constantly darting around the room, barely ever resting on the man but still somehow breathing in time with him so he wouldn’t hear any indicator of her approach.
At least not until she sent a tremendous kick into the back of his knees.
She shoved the man, savagely twisting with the entirety of her body so that her small frame was able to topple the guard into a cage. His torch hit the ground and went out.
The latch clicked shut and she was dragging Yam through the darkness in a moment.
Fate help him, he was never coming back here. This place was awful and the fear was squeezing his heart, lungs, and bladder horribly.
But, even as cold fear dripped down the inside of his ribs, some deep set of values took issue with what they had just done and demanded that he speak up.
“Wait!” he turned back towards the injured and imprisoned guard, “I came here for a creature!” he said, giving voice to that most pure and righteous avarice that lived inside his heart.
“No time!” she said, pulling him through dim and barely visible hallways, twisting them around, and moving down corridors for no reason that he was able to discern.
“I need a familiar,” he muttered, more to himself than anyone else.
After several flights of stairs, Yam’s legs, still tired from Coach Comb’s gentle sadism, were starting to weaken. His breath had become wheezing and he desperately wished he could bend space without giving himself away.
Suddenly the girl stopped her endless silent jog and all but shoved him into a room full of small cages, telling him to grab an animal and stop whining.
Even though he hadn’t been talking?
Humans made no sense.
“But they’re so small!” The words slipped from his lips, not bothering to get permission from his brain.
“Yeah… but they’re harder for anyone to reach, so maybe they’re more dangerous? Or more valuable?”
The young Len cocked his head. That actually made sense. Also, if these were infants then he might be able to raise one. Their bond would be far stronger like that.
“Come on, come on!” the girl growled. “Make up your mind.”
“Okay!” He made a quick circuit, feeling rushed and disjointed. No cage’s base was larger than a checkered game board, and some were covered in cloth, presumably to calm the creatures inside. He paused between two cages and lifted their covers. One of them held a puppy-sized creature whose fur wove itself into armored plates when it saw Yam. The other cage held what appeared to be a winged weasel made of interwoven vines. It looked at him and its entire torso opened up to reveal pink flesh lined with rows of needle-like teeth.
“It’s so hard to choose,” he whispered. ”Fate help me, it has so many fangs.”
“That’s the one!” The girl said, suddenly grabbing him by the belt and hauling him away.
She tugged him towards the door and his hand closed on empty air instead of the cage’s handle.
Without thinking he thrashed his whole being. It gained him just enough freedom to turn and lunge towards the cloth-covered cages. Then, with no apparent effort, she hauled him back with her single arm.
And this time he allowed her to.
Because this time, there was a cage clutched to his chest with the same paternal love his siblings had used on their most treasured dolls.
In a blur, she guided them through tunnels and, somehow, onto the upper viewing levels. He moved, almost incapable of thinking between the heaviness of his aching body, the fear still clawing at his stomach, and the unfettered euphoria he felt from cradling the cage against himself.
They exited the Tooth and Claw quickly. And, finally, came to a stop in the streets outside the venue. Yam doubled over, his legs aching and his lungs feeling uncomfortably tight.
“There,” the thief girl said, not looking the faintest bit tired or winded, “that was easy.”
He wanted to collapse. But he refused. Instead, Yam pulled himself upright, careful not to jostle his new familar, and stretched the space between himself and the girl.
“What was your name again?“ she asked. ”Tum? Past?”
“I am Yam Hist of the Ken Seekers.”
“Great. I’ll try and remember that.”
“I am in your debt,” he said, intending only to signal his honesty prior to a negotiation, as was custom. But, to his surprise, he meant it. Something in his burlap-covered cage moved and he felt a warmth that reminded him of when his mother had introduced him to a new sister right after the midwife had left. He really did owe this arrogant girl.
”If you want the ticket,” he said, not giving himself the time to think, “it’s yours.”
The girl blinked at him a few times then that annoying, superior smirk came to her face. “Well, about that,” her hand rose from her side, a familiar thick paper already in her fingers, “I already have it. Guess you’ll just have to owe me.”
The magic he had been holding collapsed
“Thief!” He called, cradling his freshly liberated familiar and very pointedly not-thinking about the irony.
“Oh please! I just happen to be better at it than you.” She pocketed the ticket. “Don’t worry, I’m sure I’ll need patching up sooner or later. Then we’ll be even. Besides, you got what you came for.”
He glared daggers. “I suppose so. Will you tell me your name?”
He did not say it out loud, but he finished the rest of the sentence in his head, ‘so I can make sure I never have to see you again for the rest of my life’.
“Nobody. Just Cal.”
“Great. Well, try not to get in any more trouble.” She nodded and walked off, her body language shifting between one step and the next so that she completely blended into the rhythm of the crowd.
He tried to place his anger at the theft, and the pain in his weary limbs, in some distant corner of his mind. He reminded himself that his first instincts about that ticket had been right. The Tooth and Claw was built on dark drives and evil ends. Such places could only pollute his virtue.
Still, his mind drifted to bone spikes crusted in blood, fleshy tentacles hiding long teeth, and streams of fire cooking flesh and setting acid tears alight.
Yam sighed. It was for the best that he had lost his ticket. He would be a damn fool to return, but all men were made fools by beauty.
Which reminded him. He turned from the street and slipped deeper into the alley. He smiled down at the cloth-covered box in his arms. Carefully, when he was sure no one could see what he was about to do, he set the cage down and crouched so he could greet his new companion; someone he hoped would become his first real friend in this savage place.
He took the burlap off and—
It was disgusting.
Its eyes were horrifically large and shiny.
Its fur looked revolting soft and fine.
It had a vile body. Almost completely spherical with tiny forelimbs and stubby legs. All covered in a dense coat of hateful baby blue fur with purple spots and a white belly. Its little snout seemed to smile at him, and the tip of a tiny tongue poked out from under a wet little nose.
Those adorable eyes blinked and Yam saw that it had long, thick eyelashes that were a delicate shade of lilac.
It was the most horrifying, unholy being he had ever seen.
Yam fell to his knees, “Whe—”, he had to stop, feeling his gorge start to rise, “Where are the fangs?”
The creature cocked its head to the side for a moment.
And it chirped.
Its round little body actually bounced with the motion and it grinned lovingly up at him.
He couldn’t help it. A visceral abhorrence, some sort of last-ditch spiritual defense, rose up from the deepest and most true parts of his soul, and Yam vomited right there on the cobbles.