Wren Sang: The second child of the Librarians Hana and Kester Sang (both deceased), currently an Athenaeum Apprentice in the field of surgery. This includes constructive and destructive exploration of living beings. They have some sort of shapeshifting ability.

Harmon Ainar: The only child of two Librarians originally from Raldea, currently an Athenaeum Archivist in the field of dungeon zoology. This includes the observation and preservation of living beings found in dungeons. He is an Intuit, and can gain information on a person through visually observing them, which he can never forget.

Exarion: A history teacher at Kainan High School. A skilled Artificer and mentor of the lowest ranked fourth year dungeon party.

Mahler: A teacher at Kainan High School. From the Second Ring family known as the "Brighthealers".


The Kingdom of Kestari: A western kingdom that covers almost the entirety of the Kestarin continent. Its largest region is the Inderton region, which covers most of the northern third of the continent. Kestari is home to three of the 11 Great Institutions: the Kestarin Institute, the Inderton Hunter's Guild, and the Athenaeum. Its capital is Salera City, and its royalty, nobility, and their assistants are divided up into three Rings, with the royal family in the First Ring.

Salera City: The largest city in Kestari, half built on the top of a cliff and half built at the base of the cliff. Its population is about 60% altefel.

The Athenaeum: A giant library built into the Saleran Cliff, below the southern half of the city. Working there are approximately 8000 trained Librarians devoted to the discovery, collection, and preservation of information on virtually every topic in this world and in dungeon worlds. It is one of the most famous of the 11 Great Institutions.

Town of Kainan: A small town to the northeast of Salera City. Most of its population is made up of students of Kainan High School and their families. These people are often A-ranks or higher, or from the Second Ring.

Kainan High School: A school for altefel aged 14 to 19 years old, known for its rigorous entrance exams and exclusivity. It takes all of its students on regular dungeon runs, and graduating in the top 25% of your class automatically grants you a dungeon permit.

The Kingdom of Raldea: An eastern kingdom that covers the southern half of the Ancient Continent, and is densely populated. The native language, Raldean, uses acoustic registers that require a certain genetic trait to produce and hear. It has been ruled by its king, the Scrivener Kang Jjie, for almost 1000 years. It is home to two of the 11 Great Institutions: the Raldean Forum and the King's Laboratory.


Altefel: Human beings with the ability to store, generate, and/or manipulate mana. Altefel are classified by magic type and ranked by ability. Altefel classes include Shapeshifters (Wren), Intuits (Harmon), Healers (Mahler), and Artificers (Exarion, Oleander).

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Chapter 1 – General Setup

To Wren Sang, not many people are all that important. Growing up buried in the stone heart of the Athenaeum, its cold corridors flush with the bustle of Librarians of all kinds, they had quickly learned that humans were just pieces of a large machine; humanity was nothing unless it was together. A man alone is nothing, but the eight thousand Librarians that make up the pulsing bloodline of the Athenaeum were together something else, a new kind of entity with meaning and power.

Though it’s not too uncommon to marry a fellow Librarian, it’s unusual to have a child while working; most are smart enough to know that there’s not enough time to take care of children. There was only one other person born in the Athenaeum around the same time as Wren, and that was Harmon Ainar, three years before. The two of them have never met, but Wren had met his mother a few years ago and looked at a picture of him for maybe three seconds.

Wren, now having spent twelve years growing up hidden in the labyrinthine center of the largest city in the world, stands at the end of a long line of other children, staring curiously at Harmon. He had apparently managed to study and pass the qualification exam to begin training to be a Librarian when he was twelve— a feat in itself because no one in the Athenaeum has time to help a child study. But here he is, now standing with the other Apprentices to greet the new batch that Wren is in. He looks back at them amiably, and once the Librarian in charge turns away from him, he winks at Wren. He’s not that good; he has to screw up half of his face to do it.

“Congratulations on passing the exam!” Harmon says, as they run into each other later that night. Wren tries to ignore him and walk past, but he moves to block their way down the hall back to their room. “I don’t see you too often, you know. If I’d known you were preparing to take the exam, I could’ve helped you study.”

When Wren doesn’t respond, he continues talking. He has a very mobile, expressive face, words quick and eyes warm with life. His awkward, croaky voice is offset by his sharp Raldean accent, every word enunciated with a light crispness, and his hands move through the air as he talks, reaching out towards them as he gestures. Why does he have an accent? His parents are Raldean; did he get to spend more time with them than Wren could have ever spent with theirs? Long enough to pick up their accent?

“You’re the Sang’s kid, right? Cain’s your older brother. You look like him.” He lifts a couple fingers to his temple and flicks a section of hair back out of his face as if to see them better. He’s still smiling, and bows politely to them, even though they have yet to give any indication that they'd been listening to him. “I’m Harmon Ainar, an Apprentice dungeon zoologist. I’m getting my Archivist certification next month, though, so I won’t be an Apprentice for long.”

To become a Librarian, you start as an Apprentice in a field that you study to get accepted into. From there, you can become an Archivist, where you gain the ability to modify the Athenaeum’s records, but you don’t have many licenses to do active field research. After working as an Archivist, your mentor will eventually decide that you’re ready to be a Librarian and start applying for various licenses or permits you need to do field research, and you gradually take on more and more responsibilities until you’re functioning as an actual Librarian.

Wren is tempted to continue to ignore Harmon, but they return the bow and introduce themself as well, even though he knows who they are. “Wren Sang. Apprentice surgeon.” They look at him as they straighten. He seems okay.

The Athenaeum, a giant library in the very center of Salera City, is built into the side of a cliff. The entrance is prefaced by huge gardens at the base of the cliff, but the actual architecture leading up to it is cut straight into the cliff face. It looks out northward and half of the city is built in front of it, while half of the city is built to the south on the top of the cliff, 800m above the northern half. As a result, the entirety of the Athenaeum is tucked below the southern half of Salera.

The building is almost as big as a city itself, and a complicated network of mana, mirrors, prisms, and tunnels bring in light and air, most of it constructed by hundreds of years worth of Librarians. There are a couple thousand access points within the Athenaeum that bring you up to the surface of the top of the cliff, so that much of the southern half of the city can be traversed by finding an access point down into the Athenaeum, taking a magic shortcut to another part of the Athenaeum, and then hopping back up to the surface.

Seven years after getting their Apprenticeship appointment, Wren has become very well acquainted with southern Salera, but is not quite as familiar with the northern half. A grid of mana latches is hidden throughout the north and when a latch is activated, it carries you around the city or into the Athenaeum. Wren had a map of them on their phone, but it died ten minutes ago and they’re now lost. Harmon said to meet him at a specific spot, so once he notices they’re late, he’ll probably start looking for them. Maybe.

“What time is it?”

Wren doesn’t register that someone is talking to them at first. They’re standing waiting at a light to cross the street and staring doggedly at the light; they don’t think they look like they’re inviting conversation. The speaker stands about three feet away and watches them mildly, waiting for an answer. They’re around Wren’s age, wearing some sort of school uniform that they can’t recognize. Wren shrugs and holds up their phone, clicking the power button to show that it’s dead. Then the light changes and they cross the road with everyone else.

As an Apprentice, Wren wears a necklace with the symbol of the Athenaeum on it. In that necklace is the basis of a spell called the discarnate bar, basically a mental shield against attempts to read or control the mind. Librarians deal in knowledge; there’s nothing more important to them than the truth and its record. To invade the mind or the Athenaeum’s private sector is a crime second only to the destruction of information. As Wren crosses the street, the charm on the necklace suddenly begins to get unbearably hot and the spell activates in full force, producing an unbearable pressure in the pit of their stomach. It burns against the skin at the base of their throat, a sharp pain begins throbbing through their skull, and for a moment, Wren’s vision goes fuzzy as nausea threatens to overcome them. They swing around to look for whatever could’ve caused the spell to activate and catch sight of the guy who had asked for the time sprinting in the other direction.

Wren gives chase, turning violently halfway across the road and running back down along the sidewalk. The sudden motion makes their head spin, and their feet hit the ground awkwardly as they swerve around people walking down the sidewalk. The pain in their head becomes a cold ache, and they stop running, exhausted already. Fuck that guy. They should get back to the Athenaeum.

Harmon and Wren are both altefel, or people who can naturally use mana. About 40% of the world’s population is altefel, but in Salera City, that number goes up to 60%. Harmon has the unfaltering ability to remember every single detail about a person he’s met before, and from there to be able to infer things about them. The more time he simply spends with someone, the more he discerns about them. As a result, he often gets caught up in talking to new people and forgets what he’s doing. Observing a person is like unraveling a ball of yarn to see what’s hidden inside, like smoothing out a piece of paper to read what’s on it. It’s fun.

Harmon had proposed they meet up at a cafe and while waiting for Wren, had ended up chatting with someone else sitting alone nearby. It’s about half an hour before he starts to wonder if something had happened to Wren. They’re not the most punctual person in the world, but half an hour is a little too much for them. He can’t seem to get in touch with them either. That’s not super unusual, but while checking his phone he notices that the Athenaeum had just put out a Level 3 emergency notice, which means that a Librarian had been attacked or the Athenaeum’s private section had been broken into. Wren’s an Apprentice, not a Librarian, so they probably wouldn’t put out a Level 3 notice if they’d been attacked– they’d probably just alert Wren’s mentor instead, but Harmon starts to worry anyway.

He heads back to the Athenaeum, flipping a latch hidden on the side of a streetlight and launching himself towards the hallway just before the Athenaeum’s hospital. The world pulls into long streaks of color as it rushes past him, and for a moment, time seems to dilate and dilute, like a tight breath stored in the lungs being let out in a long, thin sigh diffusing into the air. Different rooms flash past his vision from inside the Athenaeum– the giant butterfly conservatory crawling with greenery, the dungeon artifact restoration labs with lab techs hunched over workstations, the vaults that hold dead Librarians' journals in the depths of a dark, quiet tomb, the hospital lobby that splits off into eight different hallways– before he lands. He goes skidding across the linoleum floor, soles squeaking loudly, and puts out one arm to catch himself before he collides with the wall where the hall turns.

The Diagnosis Chamber, the long hall that runs up to the emergency room, is ribbed with dark metal arches. They glow different colors as a patient is sent through them, and they take their vitals; medics are trained to be able to interpret the subtle differences in value, shade, and saturation. As Harmon sprints down the hall, the arches flash yellow and blue, but he doesn’t have time to stop and think about what the colors mean, they just become a noisy haze at the edges of his vision. He bursts through the doors, forearms slamming into the wood before they fold open and he spills out into the emergency room.

He’s been here countless times before. More often than not, Wren was also here; that’s why they ended up becoming friends. The discarnate bar spell can give children pretty bad symptoms, including the odd phenomena known as brain thunder, which Harmon and Wren both used to suffer through. He would come into the emergency room unable to move coherently and Wren would be there, sitting at the end of one of the beds, drinking a regenerative tonic while dozens of spells worried over them. They wouldn’t greet him at first. Even after they became friends, they wouldn’t greet him; at best they would just look over and see if he came closer, which he usually couldn’t because he was on the verge of losing consciousness. But once they were able to walk themself, they'd shuffle over and sit by his bed without saying anything. Harmon has never been so quiet himself, but the stillness of his friend had become a close comfort, something he had learned to instinctively seek out.

As he enters the emergency room, two Librarians come towards him, ready to kick him out, but his vision tunnels in on Wren, lying in a bed right by the door. They look at him, owlish eyes flashing with amusement at his wild appearance, and he ducks under one Librarian’s arm, scrambles across the floor, and drops down into the chair by Wren's bed. He looks up at the two Librarians, grinning, the smile plastered over his face to calm the sudden knot of anxiety that had seized up inside him. Wren's okay. He's okay.

“We’re friends,” he says casually, and Wren nods. He waits for the Librarians to finish scolding him before he turns to the bed and starts scolding Wren in turn. “What happened to you?? You said you’d be able to find the place without help, and you ended up in the hospital!”

Wren opens their mouth to answer, then closes it. Then they sigh and sit up. Harmon blinks, and suddenly they’re no longer in their hospital gown, but wearing their uniform– the tunic and sash that marks them as an Apprentice. They reach into the chest pocket and produce a very small book from it, holding it gingerly between two fingers. As it grows larger, the dark green cloth cover displays the name Hana Sang along the spine and the front cover. Harmon gawks at it as Wren flips it open and looks at the first page.

Every single member of the Athenaeum owns a journal. Each one is set up with its own unique indexing system, and holds all of the information a member gathers over time. As an Apprentice, you develop your own indexing system and drill it into yourself until it becomes second nature, until the webs of mana that construct it are more familiar than the creases across your own palms. Most importantly, no one else in the entire world is ever allowed to look at what’s in your journal until the day that you die. The fact that Wren has their mother’s journal and is flipping through it so casually means that Hana Sang is dead.

“What happened?” he asks stiffly, wondering what else to say.

“No clue,” Wren says mildly. “I found her while I was looking for you.”

Wren says everything mildly. Harmon has only heard them raise their voice twice. And sure, they’re not that close to their parents– like Harmon, they're lucky if they see their parents once a month. But surely they should be having more of a reaction to their mother's death than that, right?

“My bar got disrupted,” Wren continues. “Someone was trying to get into my head. While I was looking for a latch back to the Athenaeum, I saw her and Kester dead in an alley. There were people around her. Five of them.”

“Kester– Your dad, too?” Harmon asks awkwardly, and Wren nods.

Harmon has looked at Wren for hours. When he closes his eyes, he can see their face in his mind. He can see everything, from the scar near their temple that they got when they were slammed in the head with a metal tray by an angry patient three years ago, to the direction their baby hairs naturally lie, to the slant of their nose and the tuck of their eyelids into the corners of their eyes. He knows them so well that he had stopped looking at them with the intent to discover more about them and had started simply looking at them because he wanted to see them react to things he said. But they’ve never felt more unknowable right now, in this moment. Their face is blank, their voice flat, their posture relaxed. He doesn’t get it.

“What now?” he asks quietly, uncertainly.

Wren shrugs and their mother’s journal shrinks back down. They put it back into their pocket and produce their own journal from the inner pocket of their tunic. They don’t open it, but their fingers tap and slide across both the front and back covers. That’s Wren’s indexing system– it involves combinations of tactile sensations over their hands; the faint amber burn of their mana drapes over their fingers, palms, and wrists and connects to the pages of their journal, like a puppeteer holding their hands out over a stage. Harmon guesses that they’re dumping information about the event into their notebook, trying to figure out what had happened and how they feel about it. The best thing he could do now is probably give them time to process everything.

“I want to go to school,” Wren says without warning, and Harmon stares at them.


The only time Apprentices have gone to an outside school while being an Apprentice is to obtain a dungeon permit faster– you only get needed permits when you’re promoted up to Archivist or Librarian, but graduating from an altefel high school can get you a dungeon permit immediately. Wren is training to be a surgeon, and though that can sometimes include surgery on creatures other than humans, there’s no reason why they’d want a dungeon permit.

“The people that killed my parents were wearing school uniforms,” Wren says, and presses their journal to their chest as they look idly around the room. The emergency room isn’t huge, but its vaulted ceiling is painted in an impressive fresco, displaying the stories of various constellations. Warm light pours in through frosted glass windows, all light piped down from the surface, and the curtains separating each hospital bed are a muted blue. Wren takes it in all like they have a hundred times, like they aren’t talking about their parents dying.

“You want to catch them?” Harmon asks, frowning. He’s too old to go to high school, but Wren is the same age as a high school senior. He doesn’t like the idea of them going out to investigate somewhere he can’t go. “They’ll probably catch everyone behind it without you having to do anything. One dead Librarian is bad enough. Two is call for even more serious action.”

“They’re Kainan students,” Wren says lightly, but their nails dig into the binding of their journal until they turn white. “You know they’re not going to do anything to them. They’re probably all Second Ring members.” Wren looks at Harmon, then smiles slightly. “So it's up to us, isn't it?”

Wren owes Harmon two months worth of chores in exchange for him helping convince their mentor to let them go, but that’s okay. They find themself approaching Kestarin’s most prestigious high school for altefel, Kainan High School. The town of Kainan is just east of Salera, and its students are either nobility from the Second Ring or scholarship students, most of which are A-ranked altefel or higher. A daunting place to be eight hours a day.

The front of the school is gated off by tall iron gates that curve around a large stone courtyard, currently totally empty. It’s not that long until class starts; Wren wonders why there aren’t at least a few people in there. Along the sides of the school building, gardens of wildflowers spread all over, all the way up to the high brick walls that circle the sides and back of the school. Three tall, pointed towers rise up from the main building, and streamers and pennants are hung between them, fluttering in the breeze, most colored green or white.

A teacher stands outside the front gates, arms crossed as she waits for Wren. She wears a pair of narrow gold glasses and has long purple hair tied back in a single braid, and waves as Wren approaches. Wren is taller than her, but somehow they feel a lot smaller than she is. It’s in part due to her demeanor, but the bigger factor is the sheer amount of mana that she has– Wren can sense it from yards away. It’s a cool, dense sort of mana that doesn’t move much on its own, and seems to settle against her form like a second skin. As Wren approaches, they refrain from responding, waiting to see if she’s from the Second Ring.

The Second Ring refers to the aristocratic families that have historically supported royalty in the First Ring. For example, there’s a family with a genetic predisposition for excellent swordsmanship that guards the royal family, and another with a healing ability that borders on total resurrection that serves as royal physicians. Nowadays, most of these families are merely proxies of the king, carrying out royal commands without questioning them. No matter what they think, Librarians, who are part of the Third Ring, are not allowed to address members of the higher Rings improperly without risking punishment. Wren isn’t allowed to speak to this teacher until they determine how to address her.

“My name is Exarion,” the teacher says, and Wren bows slightly. They don’t recognize the name from the Second Ring families. If Harmon were here, he’d be able to tell if she was a Second Ring member just by looking at her. “I’m the senior year history teacher and your party’s mentor through training dungeon runs. It’s nice to meet you, Wren.”

She uses their first name and holds out a hand to shake, the clearest signs that she’s not from any of the Rings. Wren shakes her hand and smiles politely, but doesn’t say anything, which doesn’t seem to bother her.

“I understand you’re a shapeshifter,” Exarion says, producing a ring of keys from her pocket. She tosses them into the air and the keys fan out across the keyring in a perfect circle, and the whole thing floats down slowly over the gate’s lock. They glow a bright blue, and the gates swing open soundlessly as Exarion keeps talking. “Shapeshifting is pretty rare. We only have one other in your year. You’re sharing a room with him.”

Wren has absolutely no intention of sleeping in a room with anyone other than Harmon. They hadn’t brought anything extra with them; they have the spell to bring them back to the Athenaeum with them and that’s it. Though Exarion doesn’t comment on Wren’s lack of luggage, she must have noticed, because she doesn’t bother bringing them to the dorms and just goes straight for the main building.

Exarion grabs her keys out of the air as they walk inside together– her mana usage appears to be extremely efficient and smooth, and the spell she had used just now is no joke, even though it had only taken her three seconds at most to execute. Security seems to be oddly tight. Are all the teachers this strong?

“Unfortunately there’s no room for you to join one of the higher ranked dungeon parties. Those are all full,” Exarion continues, leading Wren up to the front entrance, where two large glass doors sit under a short roof of tan slate. “You’ll be in the second team of B-ranks.”

Wren wonders why someone who is clearly a powerful spellcaster is mentoring what seems to be the weakest party in the grade, but keeps their mouth shut as they go inside. They head into the front office first; it’s unnecessarily large and looks like the lobby of a hotel. Wren can feel the security spells crawling through the walls of the building and nestling beneath the floor; there are so many of them that it feels like they’re in a prison complex. Even the Athenaeum doesn't feel like this.

It’s currently about ten minutes before the school day begins. Wren goes to the front desk to get their school ID, which will let them in and out of the school whenever they want. It has a tracking spell on it, probably in case people lose them, but Wren doesn’t like it anyway.

“You’re our new student?” someone asks, as they gingerly stick their card into their pocket.

Wren turns to look at the woman that had just come in through another door to the office. She looks relatively unassuming, with shoulder length brown hair, brown eyes, and a spray of freckles across her cheeks and the backs of her arms. She’s also dressed like a normal high school teacher– not that Wren knows what that would look like. To them, Exarion’s t-shirt and jeans is just as normal as this woman’s blazer and skirt, more of an indication of personality than occupation.

“I’m Dr. Mahler,” she says, and doesn’t hold out a hand to shake. Wren bows to her instead. They know who this is, at least. “I’ve heard a lot about you.”

“All information on active members of the Athenaeum is publicly available, Brighthealer,” Wren says, straightening, and they see a flash of satisfaction cross Mahler’s face when they use her proper title.

“You don’t need to mind the formalities,” she says, but Wren can tell she’s lying by the glide of her voice and the tilt of her head as she appraises them. “I’m simply a teacher here.”

“As a member of the Third Ring, I’m forbidden from doing such a thing, Brighthealer,” Wren tells her courteously, even though she definitely knows that already.

The Mahlers are a family of incredibly powerful Healers. Wren and all other members of the Third Ring have to address all the family members by the term Brighthealer, and like with other Second Ring members, are not allowed to come into physical contact or engage in combat with them. Acting out of line around a member of the Second Ring can get you expelled from the Third Ring immediately.

“I still have more to show Wren,” Exarion says, from behind them, and Wren bows again to Mahler. She lifts a hand, signaling that Wren can leave, and Wren turns and follows Exarion out.

“Are you gonna do that for every Second Ring member?” Exarion asks, when they’re a good distance away from the front office. “There’s a lot of them here.”

“I have to,” Wren tells her. “It’s not a big deal.”

“What if someone else doesn’t want to dismiss you? Will you have to follow them around everywhere?”

“I can dismiss myself, if necessary.”

“Well, tell me if someone’s giving you a hard time,” Exarion tells them, and gestures up and down the hall. “Anyway, this is where the first year classrooms are. Seniors are on the fourth floor. Down to the right is the entrance to the gyms. Feel free to use them whenever you’d like. Nurse’s office is to the left. We gather in the front courtyard to organize for dungeon runs. Cafeteria straight down the hall.”

She doesn’t bother showing them around at all and brings them straight upstairs. Wren follows behind her, one hand on their chest. Their journal rests there beneath their shirt, and they absently catalog what they’re seeing as they walk, still wondering why no one is here yet. The halls are completely empty, and there doesn’t seem to be anyone in the classrooms, either.

“What’s the spell around your head?” Exarion asks, even though Wren is 100% sure she can figure out what it is without asking. Maybe she’s trying to make conversation?

“It’s an observation aide. Many of us have one.” In an amber ring around their forehead ticks a thin spell, right above Wren’s brows. It slowly rotates around them, a little bit every few seconds, and it helps Wren catch details better and see farther away without glasses.

“It’s not the normal observation spell, though. You make it yourself?” Exarion glances back at them as they ascend the stairs up to the fourth floor.

So it seems like she’s interested in Artificing, the art of creating spells of all sorts regardless of what your powers are. Some people can manipulate their mana significantly better than others, to the extent that they can basically create their own powers, but Wren is pretty average in that regard.

“I’m no Artificer,” Wren says. “I just modified the spell I was taught to suit me better.”

“Still pretty impressive,” Exarion insists, as they reach the fourth floor. “There’s an Artificer in your year. You two might get along.”