Here is the first of a series of interludes involving a new character named Miller. It’s a different tone compared to the other chapters. Leave a comment if you liked it, or what you think did or didn’t work. Or about anything to do with the story really. It’s incredibly helpful, especially at this early stage where we can read every comment.
This world is going to get pretty big, and we have plenty of places where we could make side stories and secondary characters. Let us know what catches your curiosity, either here or at our Patreon, and it might just get its own arc.
Atlan Jonson Miller walked into the headquarters of the Istima Eyrie and could barely breathe.
A bird, a real-life bird, walked past him with a contract describing a target. Someone abusing magic who didn’t know their days had just been numbered.
A bird, a real-life bird, nodded tersely to her partner before moving towards the door. Their faces were weather-beaten, grim-jawed, and they carried enough supplies to travel for a month as they hunted.
And a bird, a real-life bird, even if they were only a sparrow apprenticed to a more senior bird, pushed themselves off a wall and gave him a lazy salute.
He stared. This was one of the hard-bitten, paramilitary men of the streets he had spent so long reading about. He just barely managed to nod his head.
The boy sighed and mumbled something under his breath.
“Can you get to the changing room by yourself today?”
“… I forgot where it is,” Miller whispered, flushing faintly and motioning around him. “It’s just so much. You know, being here…”
He was not quite dragged to the changing room and not exactly shoved onto the bench in front of his locker. The sparrow turned and was about to walk away, like he did every day, when Miller found the courage to speak.
“Wait, can I get your autograph?”
The sparrow, a particularly promising apprentice who looked to have serious potential based on the rumors (and his ‘confidential’ test scores), turned to him and frowned.
“Like paperwork? I thought I signed over all the evidence the diviners needed.”
“No. I mean, like, an autograph.”
“You’re a bird.”
“…I’m an apprentice.”
“But an apprentice to the Birds,” Miller breathed, eyes shining.
The sparrow was silent for a long time. Miller considered laughing and playing it off. Decided not to laugh. Then changed his mind back. But no. There were birds here. He had to play it casual. Super casual. Hard-bitten bird casual.
Finally, the boy spoke, “Is this an order from a specialist?”
The word ‘no’ had hardly taken shape on his lips before the younger man spun on his heel and stalked away. Not even wasting his breath with a refusal.
Atlan Miller leaned back and shook his head. God, that was like, just such a laconic bird thing to do.
After changing, he forced himself to focus on work. He would die before he dishonored the uniform. Though technically, because he was on a divine and detect patrol today, he wasn’t wearing a ‘uniform’ per se. More of a plainclothes disguise. Still, he was on duty.
On duty as a bird.
When he was on the job, he felt two inches taller. In uniform (sorta), he was stronger, tougher. His clothes even seemed to fit differently and he felt like he was seconds away from staring morosely out a window with his stubble just barely visible from under the shadow of a wide-brimmed hat. Just like the art panels in the publications.
He got to his desk and tried to keep his eyes down. The office itself was fairly normal. A big open room with lots of desks, lots of papers, and metal barred windows reinforced by magic. The distracting part was all the legends of the force sat around him.
Staylen ‘Thumper’ had the Eyrie record for the longest continuous successful hunt of a corrupt mage. The man was given a target, took wing, and could not be shaken from the hunt.
There was also Mason and his partner Elaine. They were specialists from divination and research like him. But they were elite. Putting them in a library or at a crime scene was like putting a shark in water. A shark that could summon other, bigger, hungrier sharks. Sharks that were birds.
There was also McBallow. He actually hadn’t done too much, but he had won every pitcher chugging contest for the last three years.
And those were just the birds who stayed local to handle Istima contracts. Which was, by far, the minority of their organization. All sorts of nomadic legends and unsung heroes stopped by as they followed leads, chased jobs, or came to track down clues in Istima’s libraries.
“Excuse me, sir?” said a young messenger in a tone of voice that implied that this wasn’t the first time he had asked.
“Yes?” Miller said, eyeing the boy up and down and wondering what sort of deductions the birds from a publication would have made from the tell-tale scuffing on his shoes or the strange cut on under his eye.
Miller shook himself out of his train of thought, “I’m sorry. Say again?”
The boy’s eyes darted around. Not surprising considering the company.
But maybe, just maybe, if one also considered his posture, then something about his message could be deduced by those eye movements. Was there any ink on his hands? Ink on the hands was always a sure sign of something. He had read that in a story about Grimm Noir. Stories about him were only given half a page every other week, and Miller had to import the magazine from two towns over. But Grimm Noir was one of his favorites. He was a bird’s bird. Noir would have known exactly what this punk wanted and exactly who his father was having an affair with just from looking at him.
He shook his head one last time and was about to reply when Al interrupted. Al didn’t have a nickname yet, but Miller had started internally referring to him as ‘The Watcher.’ He was a brand crow, just out of his apprenticeship. And he was always getting watch duty because of his ‘excessive’ use of force when questioning ‘innocent’ suspects.
“Don’t worry,” Al said, ”I’ll get him there.”
The boy looked conflicted about handing off his message to someone else.
Al sighed and gestured to Miller, “He’s from the Night Court.”
“Oh,” the boy’s eyes widened in sudden comprehension, “Oh! Say no more.”
The messenger retreated at a pace that was slightly less than dignified and slightly more than a walk.
“You hear what he said?”
“No,” Miller said, wondering what incredible things a bird like Al was deducing just by looking at him. Did he have any ink stains on his hands? Should he have ink stains on his hands? ”I was, uh, thinking of a case.”
“Whatever. They need a diviner at the tannery. The one by the—”
“The meat pie store where Delguna found the person trying to experiment with plague magic?”
“No, the one by the building that burned—”
“Where Fleet and Farrow tracked down the pyromancer-for-hire and clubbed him in the back of the head?”
“That’s in another city. The one wi—”
“From three years ago where the entire bar was mind magicked but—”
“The one by Washer’s fountain!” Al roared.
“Yes sir!” Miller called, jumping to his feet and saluting crisply before sprinting for the door.
He thought he heard the bird mutter something about only being a crow, but he couldn’t hear it over the sound of his own grinding teeth. He wouldn’t let the Eyrie down.
The scene of the crime was neither insidious nor foul. Which was a bummer.
He stood at the back of a very mundane tannery. There were no grim shadows, no dour silhouettes. Just a very well-maintained alley where the wood of the building had reached out and eaten someone. The only thing marking it as the scene of a crime were two hands and the edges of an Autumn Court robe poking out of the wall.
As he stood, staring at the surroundings with his best melancholy gaze, other diviners searched the scene for evidence.
No. Scratch that. They were birds. They scoured the scene for evidence.
Based on the mumbling and hand gestures it was clear that most of the diviners scouring the scene had studied magic from the Autumn Court. A few others used artificed tools they had designed themselves and whose secrets they jealously guarded. He even spotted another practitioner of the Night Court style who was staring at a paper with an optical illusion drawn in precise lines.
He let himself grin.
Back when he first started, he had also needed to slowly work himself up to the different mindsets that let him cast his spells. And oftentimes the mindsets lingered in a way that was distinctly un-bird like.
But, in uniform (sorta), he could do anything.
Somewhere in the back of his mind he opened up a little door and let himself not just remember, but completely believe a realization he had had about the foundational nature of magic and love. One that had hit him after doing a seven-hour guided psychedelic exploration.
Nothing around him physically changed, but it felt like the entire world had jolted and shuddered as he recalled what an illusion time was. The way all things were one, the way he was all things, and the way magic was also him-the-all-things.
For just a second the world became meaningless colors and shapes. Nothing but a swirling mixture of all-one-made-of-the-all-things.
But dammit, he was a bird! So he spit on the street, all hard-bitten like, clenched his jaw, and ignored the diviner berating him for spitting on a crime scene. Grimacing, he reinforced his understanding of the world with magic, and threw forth his will.
The real world, like a suspect getting swooped by a squad of special secret sparrows, gave way to him. As his spell twisted reality, forcing it to comply with how he willed the world to work, he saw the magic on the wall take shape like a diagram made of colors, maths, and music.
Explaining it was difficult. It was difficult to even remember the real world while immersing himself so deeply in the psychedelic revelation that magic was just another part of him-the-all-the-things. But this was his trademark spell, and even after leaving Istima for the eyrie, he had never stopped perfecting its casting. Plus, he was a bird now. And a spell like this was nothing to a bird.
So he stared deep at the all-things-but-also-him-who-was-also-magic-and-also- everything. After giving it a good melancholy glare, he slammed shut the door in his mind.
“Dammit, Hitch!“ he snarled as he spun to face his partner.
Hitch (he couldn’t pronounce his real name and it didn’t sound very bird-like anyways) blinked at him. He was short, unusually stout for his people, and the fastest Aketsi in Istima. Maybe the faster caster period.
Miller made sure to hold his grimace, his hard-boiled grimace, until his partner responded.
“What,” Hitch said at a glacial pace, “is the problem.”
“How can I solve a crime like this!”
“Is the magic,” his partner drawled, “obscured?”
“Damn you and damn the magic! He doesn’t even have ink on his fingers! I’m a diviner not a miracle worker!”
It took several seconds for his partner to nod his head before he replied, “But what about the magic?”
Miller huffed and waved his hand, “What about it? His life was eaten by Autumn Court magic. Real generic. Then a Night Court shoved him in a wall. Same disposal guy who did the bodies under the cobbler’s store on Rue. But how are we supposed to figure out the crime without a body to analyze! What if he had chalk markings on his robe? Or very distinctive mud in his boots?”
Over several long seconds, Hitch scratched his chin and nodded, “You can,” he finally said, “learn a lot from mud.”
He was just about to slam his fist into his palm (all tough like) when he was interrupted by Jercash. The whipcord-thin Raven led a small unit of elite trackers. It was hard to find out his story since he was here following a lead from another eyrie, but Miller was still starstruck.
The man was of average height, had a perpetual frown, a beaten up wide-brimmed hat, and eyes that never stopped scanning for threats. Jercash, he was the real deal.
Miller made a mental note to send a letter to the city where the raven was from and find out his story. The man all but radiated hard-bitten, hard-boiled, hard-ness.
“Is there a problem with the scene?” Jercash asked.
Something happened. It was hard to say what.
With his senses having just been thrown wide open and his head still a little foggy from switching out of his spell, he was briefly overwhelmed by the presence (magical and otherwise) of Jercash.
For just a second the world broke into disjointed colors, and he felt insidiously connected to everything that ever was or would be.
With a surge of will, the diviner pushed the lingering magic away from himself and went through some breathing exercises. When he finally felt more grounded, he looked up at Hitch.
“What did I miss?”
“Not,” his partner breathed, “much.”
“You explained it for me?”
Hitch waved his thanks away, arm drifting through the air with the slow-motion swoop of a falling feather.
They stayed at the scene long enough to watch Jercash gather his unit and disappear into the streets. Hitch dutifully informed him of every single word that the foreign raven had said. Though he wasn’t able to describe his tone, body language, or level of grittiness to Miller’s preference. Still, with every word, he felt more and more himself. More individual and less part of an ever-flowing sky river of magic and love. Which was good.
He had to report what he had sensed to the diviner in charge and apologize for spitting on another crime scene. After that, the other Night Court mage he had seen reached into the wall and pulled the body out.
There were no interesting chalk marks on his robe. No distinctive mud on his shoes and no ink on his hands that Miller could use to deduce the man’s life. Still, he tried to help out when Hitch nodded to the Night Court sparrow, a relatively new addition named Rawlins, and raised his eyebrows significantly.
“The world is a word on the lips of turtle,” said the sparrow, who was staring at her own elbow with mingled disgust and avarice.
Miller considered giving Hitch a gruff clap on the shoulder. Maybe a terse nod. Better yet, a laconic nod. But Miller wasn’t really sure what traits made a nod laconic. Was it in the chin? Did one grimace? If so, how much? In the end, he was forced to just nod regularly and stand next to the sparrow so that both of them faced the now normal wall.
When he had been new he had also had trouble bouncing back from his spells. That was the cost of Night Court Magic. The ‘rules’ that governed their abilities were far looser than the other courts, and the spectrum of magics available to them was dizzying. But to make the world change to your will, you had to utterly believe in what you were trying to make happen. There couldn’t be a single doubt left in you.
But, the sort of things a Night Court mage had to believe in, to know was true all the way to their bones, were fundamentally at odds with the way day-to-day life worked. How solid were objects? How solid was time? And just how likely was it that a demon would pop out of the (maybe solid?) air in front of your face?
Especially when you were new, there was always some spillover when one engaged in bouts of selective insanity.
The others would try to help, they’d look out for Rawlin’s until she found her way back, but there were some things that an artificer was just not equipped to handle.
Miller took a deep breath, feeling all the little doorways he had drilled into his own mind, and loosened his grip on ‘real’ just a little.
“What does the turtle rest its feet on?” he asked.
“Turtles,” the girl whispered, eyes going wide, “turtles all the way down.”
“To the bottom floor of a lobby?”
“The basement floor of a lobby in the sky.”
“The body is the lobby of the soul.”
“And the soul is the sacrament of the silent soliloquy.”
“Exactly,” nodded Miller. ”Now ask the secretary of the basement of the sky, which is the lobby of the body, what they want you to do.”
“Who is The Secretary?”
“Their name is Ms. Rawlins. What do they want you to do?”
“Please take a number,” Rawlins said dreamily, “and be patient while we process your request.”
“Hmmm, what number?”
“That’s a good number.”
“Better than thirty-two,” the sparrow said, a brief smile flashing across her face as both of the mages shared a laugh.
He thought he heard one of the other birds at the scene mutter something about ‘Umbral freaks’, but that was fine. If the Night Court had taught him one thing, it was magic. If it had taught him two things, it was magic and a sommelier’s appreciation for psychedelic compounds. But it had also taught him that everything was a matter of perspective. And it was awfully hard-bitten and bird-like to have that kind of perspective if you hadn’t had the exposure to classic Night Court humor that he had.
Miller clapped the young sparrow on the back and moved towards his partner. The kid would be fine.
The crow in charge of Rawlins gave him a laconic nod (though Miller still couldn’t figure out how he pulled it off. Maybe it was the shoulders?) and then it was time for patrol.
The street was bustling with happy shoppers. Washer’s Fountain was full of people industriously going about their laundry, and he even heard children laughing.
Suspicious. Very suspicious.
As they walked at Hitch’s sedated and endlessly deliberate Aketsi pace, the diviner slowly cracked the door in his mind and let a wisp of magic reinforce his will. Even with all of his experience, it was still difficult to remember his individuality while he cast the spell. But no matter what, from the moment he had started as a sparrow, he had always been able to remember that he was a bird; even when he forgot who he was, and what a ‘he’ was.
So they meandered around Istima, and he looked for dark magic and miscreant mages to manhandle.
Most people in this part of town didn’t recognize them. Which was ideal. They kept their identification tucked away and trusted that few criminals would bother to learn the face of a diviner.
Miller’s mission, his ongoing case, his never-ending investigation, his grim and gritty gambit to garnish the gallows with gratuitous gaggles of groveling ne’er-do-wells, was to move through the streets looking for indicators of dark magic. Most other specialists on divine and detect patrols worked alone so that they could wander unseen through more parts of town and filter information back to the crows that made the actual contact with dark mages. Or to teams of crows working under a raven.
But, shortly after being put on this contract, he had been lucky enough to be assigned a partner. Which was a relief. Miller absolutely idolized his old raven. He had known everything about him: his shoe size, his favorite food, his favorite diner, and who his favorite waitress was at his favorite diner down the street from his favorite gentleman’s club.
Being without his unit had been tough on him.
In fact, Miller’s old raven had been so insistent that he become independent that he had refused to give him advice after his promotion. Never spoke to him once or bumped into him in the hallways in the months since he was reassigned. Even when Miller made newspaper collages to celebrate his old unit’s successes and left them at their raven’s ‘confidential’ home address, he had been completely ignored.
Because, the meticulously unspoken message had said, a real bird of the streets could only learn from the streets.
And Miller was going to become a real bird if it killed him.
“Why,” Hitch suddenly asked, “did you pour ink on your hand?”
Miller all but jumped out of his boots.
“How did you know I poured the ink?”
Hitch’s face slowly shifted into a frown. His hand glided up from his side to point at Miller’s own, which was completely black from the ring finger to the outside edge of his hand.
“There’s a lot. A lot of ink.”
Before he could respond someone cried out from inside a nearby alley. The duo peeked their heads around the corner and saw a young man in the distinctive oil-stained clothes of a Summer Court Artificer being assailed by several other members of the Estival Court.
Immediately, a smaller girl on lookout duty yelled that they had company. Angry glares, snarls, and twitching hands turned towards them.
He and Hitch pulled their identification from under their shirts and activated the enchantment that showed they were genuine bird’s badges and that the talisman belonged to them.
Suddenly, the attackers’ faces went white, and Miller’s detection spell picked up on several items with a telltale glow of magic that were hurriedly shoved into pockets and packs.
“Help!” the boy inside the circle of attackers cried.
Miller glanced at his partner. They shared a meaningful look before turning back to the ally and crossing their arms.
Hands twitched but none of the enchanted items reappeared. So, after several moments, the gang went back to their mugging/robbery/intellectual property theft under Miller’s watchful gaze. Unfortunately, no one used or misused magic. Just mundane battery and hurtful language. And they were birds, not the police. So they kept their distance from the entirely mundane crime.
Within two minutes he and Hitch were back to ambling the streets and looking for illicit spells.
“Maybe,” Miller said, picking back up on their previous conversation, ”I just smeared my hand while writing a report?”
“Smeared between your fingers?”
“And the back of your hand?”
“You don’t know how many reports I write.”
The diviner received a stony, dare he say it, laconic, look from his partner.
“I could have knocked over an ink well!”
Hitch scratched at his face, “But did you?”
“No,” Miller sighed, “I didn’t.”
He shook his head, just about to say that he should have known better than trying to fool a bird when something caught his attention.
His magic senses, both the mundane ones and his detection spell, both picked up on a surge of power. He snapped his head around just in time to see a bone-thin teenager jump down an alley in long gravity-defying leaps.
“Thief!” someone called.
Pages of illustrated birds flashed through Miller’s head. Endless descriptions of foot chases, horse chases, carriage chases, and even a few aerial chases pushed themselves to the front of his mind. This was just like the stories in the newspaper serials, this, was his moment to be a real bird.
He didn’t hesitate a single second to sprint after the scrawny boy, a trail of residual gravitic magic guiding him like ribbons floating through the air.
He followed the magic through one alley after another. Around sharp turns, and under a pile of discarded timber that looked solid at first glance. Finally, after several minutes of running, he came upon his thief.
The boy was clearly a teenager and a scrawny one at that. Probably an Istima drop-out who couldn’t maintain his scholarship. But the three men around him were adults. Large, muscular adults.
“Stop what you’re doing!” Miller shouted. Though it may have come out as more of a pant than he wanted. Diviners weren’t used to running.
One of the men frowned. With a twist of his hand, he unstoppered a wine bladder. A stream of water floated out and started circling his hand. “Or what?”
Miller wanted nothing more than to put his hands on his knees and pant. Instead, he forced himself to stand up straight.
“Are you threatening me?”
The two other men crossed their arms, and spell circles came to life in front of them.
“Maybe we are.”
A savage smirk came to Miller’s face. It was just like in the publications.
He flipped his identification out from under his shirt and activated its enchantment.
“I don’t think you want to do that, pal.”
He could all but see the illustration in his head. This is what being a bird was supposed to be like. It made him feel two inches taller. Like there was actual magic flowing through his body. He could imagine the feel of his sleeves going tight around strong arms and could all but see the sharp line of a bird’s jaw cutting across the cover of a magazine.
“Holy shit!” the elementalist cried, pointing at him “What’s happening to his—”
Miller shook his head and frowned, an inexplicable ringing having suddenly come to his ears, “No distractions! You’re coming with me.”
One of the Autumn Court mages had started retching and looked to be wiping something off his mouth. Though Miller didn’t recall seeing him bend over to vomit. Weird.
“What the fuck are you doing to your face? Are you taller? That’s—”
Miller found himself standing a step closer than he remembered being. Also, maybe while he was blinking (or something?), the scrawny teenager had disappeared.
“Are we going to do this the easy way or the hard way?”
The elementalist snapped his finger, and the water that had fallen to the ground (when had that happened?) rose to circle his fists again.
“Fuck you, you featherfucking freak! I’m not going to the cages!”
Maybe it was the acoustics of where he stood, but for just a second Miller heard something from behind him that none of the others reacted to. It wasn’t very loud, not much more than a slightly raised voice. Still, he recognized it.
With a shark’s grin, he raised his fists into a pugilist’s stance.
“You sure about that, pal!” he said, raising his voice until it echoed down the alley. “You really want to get rough with a bird?”
The vomiting Vernal mage spat one last time and resummoned his spell circle. One that, to Miller’s magically enhanced vision, was clearly designed for evil ends.
“What are you going to do? Shapeshift into an elementalist? You can’t do shit.”
Miller blinked. Shapeshifting? He couldn’t shapeshift. And how did they know he was Night Court?
Before he could respond, the noise he had heard rounded the corner behind him.
“Ahhhhhhhhhhh,” Hitch (sort of) yelled, as he halted the fastest sprint an Aketsi could manage without knocking their various extra knees together.
Miller didn’t give his opponents time to speak. He just straightened up, put his hands into his pockets, and grinned.
“Get ‘em, partner.”
“… again?” Hitch sighed, tugging his talisman out of his shirt.
“Come on! That was as straight a line as you can get!”
Seeing the bird turn his head, the water elementalist raised their arm. But no one, absolutely no one in Istima, was faster on the draw than Hitch.
At the speed of thought, the entire alley filled with a typhoon’s worth of lashing wind, cutting tendrils of air, and sand flying so fast it could scour your skin clear off.
And, of course, the air filled with one other thing; Hitch.
In a blur, his partner was launched like a statue in a hurricane. A cocoon of wind formed around him that was so thick it blurred his outline with its power. The compact Aketsi barreled through all three men in a set of strafing passes so fast Miller almost couldn’t follow it with his naked eyes.
It barely took three seconds.
Casual and all bird-like, Miller sauntered over to the downed men. Hitch’s feet were just coming to the ground, his face twisting into a glacial scowl.
“Fastest hand in all of Istima,” the diviner smirked.
“Miller,” Hitch growled, crossing his arms at the pace of seaweed drifting in the water.
One of the crow’s victims tried to say something and pull themselves off the ground. But the Aketsi shifted his foot just enough that it was resting on the man’s crotch. The suspect went real silent, real fast.
“You,” Hitch said, the second set of legs folded under his robe shifting in agitation, “are a diviner.”
“I’m a bird.”
“Diviners,” his partner glared, “are supposed to observe and detect.”
The illustrations in his mind’s eyes faltered, and he suddenly felt like he was shrinking. No longer was Miller a heroic pursuer of evil; just a pretender trying to stand with a straight back, so he didn’t disgrace his (sort of) uniform.
“Specialists are birds too,” he muttered, swearing he could see the fabric of his clothes loosen and sag around suddenly narrow shoulders.
For some reason, as Miller felt himself deflating, Hitch averted his eyes and breathed carefully out of his mouth.
“Plus,” he added, taking advantage of the silence, “our hawk is going to be pleased.”
“He, literally, never is.”
“Ha! Right about that,” Miller laughed, clapping his partner on the shoulder.
Rather than reply, Hitch just shook his head and started cajoling the three mages up to their feet. With efficient motions, he hobbled their legs and looked for contraband. Though his hand never strayed too far from a small pouch of pacification potions.
“Streets toughs,” his partner grimaced. “You should have left them to the Vultures.”
“Vultures,” he scoffed. “What kind of bird would let someone misuse magic right in front of them?”
Hitch tightened a knot more aggressively than was strictly necessary and mumbled something under his breath about a diviner who did his actual job.
But Miller didn’t pay him any mind. Today he had done his uniform proud. And tomorrow he would wake up early to read the newest Grimm Noir story before getting paid to go to a real-life eyrie full of the most hard-bitten, street-tough, heroic people in the world.
Just like in the publications.
Life was good.