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Tala bid Lyn a good night and checked on her gear, which had been stored in Lyn’s guest room. It rested in a small pile in one corner, on the poured stone floor.

Before she began sorting her items, she went to Lyn’s washroom, filled the tub, and lit the prebuilt fire with her fire striker. The fire striker was a simple stone rod, as long as her finger, with copper scripting lines on the outside and a spark lizard tongue powering it. It was cunningly constructed, so that she could expect close to three minutes of use. She could turn the device on or off, by rotating a small wooden pin, to either align, or breach, the scripting. When it was on, an eight-inch jet of flame was sustained from the tip.

It had cost three silver, but she’d never been good at starting fires with flint and steel, so it had seemed a reasonable expense.

With her bath heating, she returned to the room and sorted through her pack.

I should get my sleeping situation worked out. Estimating that it would be five minutes at least before the water was sufficiently warm, she got out the base for the bed she would use in the coming weeks.

A large tarp of overlapping, stitched, and waxed leather. It was two feet longer than she was tall and similarly wider than she needed, to provide a comfortable border around her in the night. I want to get silver and gold inscribing stitched into it, relying on my own gate, but that will be at least a gold ounce, or two… Holly could likely do it without the difficulty of stitching, just inscribing the leather as she would my skin, but I’d guess that that would be even more expensive… The extra protection would likely be worth it, but she was racking up quite a few expenses that were ‘worth it.’

She decided to ask, and took out a loose piece of paper, penning the beginnings of a note to Holly, detailing her ideas.

Once the note was started, she turned her attention back to the fully spread tarp. She stepped around it, inspecting the craftsman’s work. She’d not been able to fully look over the piece when she purchased it, but Ashin had spoken well of the man’s products, so she hadn’t quibbled. He was right. The seams were tight and subtle, meaning they wouldn’t add to the bumps of the ground, and shouldn’t allow any water to come up through. The man had also stated that there was a layer of woolen batting inside the leather, to aid in sleep on rough terrain. From the cushioned feel of the tarp, it was well made and evenly spread throughout, as well. The only exception was that, in the center of the tarp, just more than a foot from one edge, a portion of thicker padding was evident. It was a pillow of sorts, though much flatter than any she’d find in the cities.

As she considered her purchase, she realized that the leather was a bit wider than the bed, which stood beside it, and just a few inches longer. She frowned at that. I’m not that much shorter than average… She sighed. It wasn’t important.

She pulled out a quilted woolen blanket and centered it on the leather, completing her padding. Above that, she had a linen lined woolen blanket, sewn into a sort of envelope, so she didn’t risk sticking out, regardless of her movements through the night. It was apparently a common design, used to compensate for the lack of any sort of mattress to tuck bedding around.

This might be a bit excessive… But it was coming into full autumn, and it might be quite cold. I suppose I’ll see how my preparations stack up. Ashin had been skeptical, but he hadn’t argued over any of her choices. Does that mean they were wise, or he wasn’t willing to speak up…

She sighed. No use second guessing, now.

I should get used to this, before my trip. She glanced at the bed. Besides, I don’t want to get iron all over Lyn’s linens.

She stepped across the hall and verified that the water was close to the right temperature. She banked the fire, closed the window, and grabbed one of the bars of iron salve on its stick, along with a small jar.

Finally ready, she stripped and climbed into the bath, sinking down into the water and letting the heat seep deeply into her. Knowing that she’d not want to bathe too often until she reached the destination city, she took a long time to get thoroughly clean.

By the time she was done, the air in the washroom was quite warm as well, between the low burning fire and steam from the hot water.

She took great care to dry herself off. When that was complete, she took the little jar and removed the lid. Affixed inside the lid was a little brush, which she used to carefully spread the thick white liquid on her palms and the inside face of her fingers and thumbs. It was a glue, which dried quickly, and maintained flexibility once dry.

That complete, she placed the lid back on, but couldn’t seal it easily. Tala held her hands carefully spread, moving them through the air as the glue dried. It only took a few minutes before it was no longer tacky, and she was able to reseal the jar fully.

That done, she took up the salve bar by the handle and began rubbing it across her back. Her warmth allowed the salve to spread across her skin easily in a thin layer, and she worked it in across all her skin, pressing it in, and helping it get absorbed. She took care around her eyes to coat the skin without getting the salve in where it didn’t belong.

Finally, she worked it through her hair, coating it lightly, but making sure each strand stayed separate.

When that was complete, she opened the window and allowed the warm air to escape, cooling the washroom quickly.

As the air cooled, she continued to work the salve into her skin and hair, using a comb and brush to keep her hair from affixing to itself.

Nearly an hour after she had started, she was shivering from the cool air, but finished.

She examined herself in the full-length mirror, taking in her darkened skin, now with a subtle grey-tint, and her utterly black hair. Her hair had always been a deep brown that was almost black, but the iron impregnated salve had finally tipped it into true black.

As she focused on herself, she felt her mage-sight activate, but though she could still see hints of her inscribing beneath her skin, she couldn’t see any magic flowing through her. Her gaze panned over herself from toe to head, and when her gaze met her own eyes, she stepped back in shock.

Her eyes were blazing with power, as if the glow which should have been evident across her entire body had been collected and concentrated to shine from her eyes, alone.

She looked closely around her eyes, and she could see the spell-lines worked into her eyelids, which contained wards against magics acting on her through her sight. It was one-way, though, and didn’t prevent her own magic from shining out.

The effect was…terrifying, if she was being honest. In the past, once she was coated in the iron salve, she’d been unable to see power in her own spell-lines, but her eyes had never glowed like this, under her mage-sight. Is this an increased sensitivity in my mage-sight, or is it an amplification of power in my inscribings? Likely, it was both.

Well, we’re in it now, Tala. Let’s hope no one mistakes us for an arcane. She grinned to herself.

There was a brief flicker of a memory, black skin, white teeth, and blood, but it was nothing more than a passing fancy, dismissed even before it had fully passed through her mind.

It was time to sleep. She dressed, crossed the hall, and slipped into her bedroll on the floor.

Tala was immediately glad for her purchases, and quickly drifted off into a comfortable sleep.

 

* * *

 

Tala was poked.

She groaned and rolled over.

More pokes.

Tala pulled her blanket over her head and grunted. “Go away.”

“Mistress Tala. Get up.”

Is that Lyn? Tala sat up, glaring.

Lyn was near the door, a handkerchief over her nose and mouth.

“Mistress Lyn?”

“You reek of iron…”

Tala glanced down and saw that the other woman was holding a broom, the flicker of life magic momentarily evident, indicating that it had a wooden handle. Tala blinked several times, trying to process that. “Did…did you poke me with a broom?”

“I’m not going to touch you.”

Tala looked at the window behind her, still dark. “Why are we awake?”

“You said you needed another hour or two this morning, before we left, for more iron… or something.”

Tala scratched her forehead, trying to clear her thoughts. A healthy amount of iron dust trickled down into her lap.

“Thank you, by the way, for not using the bed.”

Tala glared, but Lyn’s smile seemed quite genuine. Finally, the younger woman grunted, again. “Happy to help.”

Lyn chuckled to herself, but Tala heard it easily. “Well, I’m going to go grab us breakfast. When I get back, we can eat and head to the work-yard.”

Right! I need to empower the wagons, today. With a sigh, she pushed herself to her feet and brushed herself off. She then shook out her clothes, allowing the dust to fall into her woolen envelope.

When the trickle had all but stopped, she did her best to empty the blankets onto her tarp, and from there, it poured easily into a little pouch.

Her magnet gathered up the remainder of what she could find.

That done, she stripped and moved through her stretches and workout. Gotta keep in shape. Heavens help her if Holly had to modify the inscribings because of a few extra pounds.

Now sweaty, she re-lit the fire in the washroom, and repeated her tasks from the night before. Though, this time, she only had to use a very small amount of the liquid glue to touch up the edges and cracks on her palms and fingers.

Roughly an hour later, she’d finished applying the next layer of iron salve and working it in. The now open washroom window showed the barest hints of dawn’s first light, and Tala thought she heard Lyn out in the front room.

Freshly ironed and dressed, Tala strode out into the sitting room to find breakfast, coffee, and Lyn.

Tala grinned. “I think I love you.”

Lyn held out a mug and plate. “I get the feeling that your love and hate are rather freely given.”

Tala took the offered sustenance and narrowed her eyes in an approximation of a glare, even as she kept her smile. “And quickly taken away, when appropriate.”

“You better not leave. There is no way any other Mage would take your room now.”

Tala paused only having taken a small sip. “I knew it.”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about.” Lyn took her own breakfast and sat.

“You normally rent out that room, don’t you.”

“I still do.” Lyn grinned.

Tala sighed. “How much will it cost me?”

“For the room? Twenty silver a month, once you have funds. I’m not a monster. That said, food and delivery of such?” She lifted her own breakfast. “That’s extra.”

“You’re trying to rob me blind.”

Lyn laughed quietly, around her food. “Not at all. By all means, compare rates. I’m giving you a good deal.” She smiled towards Tala, even as the latter took another chair. “I like you, and I’ll be glad to have you around, when you’re in town.”

“Hmmm…” Tala kept her narrowed gaze on Lyn, even as she ate the nutritional offering. “Fine. But if you’re overcharging me…”

“You should leave if you can find better accommodations or a better rate. It was an offer, Tala. I trust that you will find that it is a good one.”

“So… I only have to pay when I’m in town?”

Lyn snorted. “Hardly. I’m holding the room for you, so you’ll pay.”

“But what if I go to other cities?”

Lyn shrugged. “Not my issue. Day rates in most cities are at least 3 to 5 silver a night. It would be hard to beat my rate, but you’re welcome to check. I don’t want you here if you’d rather be elsewhere.”

Tala thought about it momentarily, then nodded before returning her attention to her food.

 

* * *

 

Less than an hour later, they were approaching the outer wall and a large work-yard. Make no mistake, it wasn’t the outside of the city, as the farms, and their defensive towers and magics lay beyond, but this was the outer reaches of the urban area of the city.

As they approached, Lyn was explaining the procedure to Tala.

“Because we don’t have a baseline for you, they will need you to empower several variations on the trade wagons. They’ll start you on the smallest and simplest ones.” She hesitated for a moment. “If you can, please try not to burn them out.”

“What do you mean?”

“If you dump power into the activation, you’ll likely fry the whole script. They aren’t cheap to replace…”

“So, if I do this wrong, I’ll have more debt?” Tala cocked an eyebrow in irritation.

“Not at all. I sent them a note to start higher up the chain, but I expect them to ignore that. When they do, if you burn out a wagon or two, the cost will fall on them…” Lyn seemed to realize something and clarified. “That would be bad, Tala.”

Tala sighed. “I’m not a child. I won’t break their toys just because I don’t have to replace them.”

Lyn quirked a smile. “And because you would do well to stay on the wainwrights good side.”

“How many tests am I going to need to do?”

“Shouldn’t be more than six. Once they’ve determined your capabilities, you will have to empower at least ten spell-forms for the actual trip, likely more on the way back.”

Tala was nodding. “And again, every morning until the trip, during the trip, and for at least two days after the trip.”

“Exactly.”

They came around the final turn, and Tala got a better look at what awaited them.

There were three fully enclosed, large wagons, each with a door in the back. The wagons stood nearly ten feet tall, from ground to mostly flat top. Beside the wagons, stood three objects that seemed to be little more than freestanding back panels from wagons, similar to those they stood beside. All six awaiting objects were covered with deep lines, filled with copper. Test pieces? That made sense. The actual trade wagons would use gold, but it would be incredibly inefficient to activate gold scripts just for a test. They’d burn out without really being useful.

Even so, the copper meant that it would take more power to activate. After a moment’s thought, Tala found herself nodding, and she spoke her realization under her breath. “It’s mimicking the strain of multiple activations, and fatigue from days on the road.”

Lyn glanced at her. “Well reasoned. There are Archons who’ve never bothered to work that out.”

Tala smiled. “Let’s do this.”

Two men and a woman were waiting for them.

As they came into range, their bodies flickered beneath Tala’s mage-sight, showing their blood flowing through looping circuits, again seeming reminiscent of spell-lines, but…not. The power of life and water and earth was intermixed with that of blood throughout their flesh with their inscribings glowing overtop it all.

They were, all three, Immaterial Guides. And all three had nearly identical spell-lines, only seeming to have been modified in consideration of their different body types, shapes, and heights. They were configurations that she would never have recognized herself, but her mage-sight seemed to help with translation.

The spell-lines were made to allow for the testing, analysis, and creation of inscribed items. The inscribings had resemblances to those Holly bore but clearly had a different focus.

One of the three, clearly the oldest, seemed to have a different depth to his spell-lines, to his power, as if they were canyons, and his were vastly deeper. Through those canyons, Tala thought she saw flickers of an underlying orange light, but it wasn’t steady, or pervasive. In addition to the other oddities, a small glass bead hung around his neck, which positively radiated power. Something seemed to be diminishing it, though, as if someone had tried throwing a veil over the sun.

Is that an Archon’s mark? None of her teachers at the Academy had been Archons, but she’d heard of them. I thought it was supposed to look like a star… She sighed. A question for another time, I suppose.

As Tala didn’t focus on any of the Mages, specifically, their power faded to her mage-sight, leaving them as they had been.

They each bowed slightly in greeting and the older man gestured to the first wagon. “This schema is the simplest; it doubles the interior space and stabilizes the cargo there-in.”

Tala saw the outline of a right hand and strode forward to place her palm against it.

The Mage continued his explanation. “Most young Mages take close to ten minutes to fully recharge this scripting, when they first encounter cargo-wagons. Are you familiar enough with the concepts to activate it?”

Lyn spoke under her breath, but Tala heard easily. “Not your toys.”

Tala grinned. Without a word, she opened her gate, and drew deeply on her power, shifting it to her hand as if she were going to prick a finger and confirm a contract. She was very careful not to activate any of her spell-lines. As the power flowed through her, from her gate, it gathered up more from her body, carrying it along and into the wagon.

She felt a strange resistance and had a realization. I forgot to peel off the glue. Likely, some of the iron dust had managed to get stuck in the glue, creating what amounted to a dampening filter for her power.

She was about to pull her hand back in embarrassment, to remove the barrier, when she saw three symbols above her hand blossom with light in quick succession. She pulled her hand back quickly, to keep from overcharging the spells.

To her mage-sight, power rippled through the copper lines, and there was a twisting expansion before her sight, contained within the wagon. It had a similar look, under her mage-sight, to a pillowcase as stuffing was shoved inside, but without a physical change. In addition, the secondary and tertiary symbols each seemed to correspond with a well of power, which appeared to her mage-sight as knot-like bundles of scripting, connecting and feeding into the main functions.

The older Mage smiled, stepping forward. “Oh! That’s wonderful. I can see that Mage Lyn did not oversell your ability.” The two other Mages came forward and opened the door in the back of the wagon. They both stepped inside with ease and seemed to be measuring the space.

After a quick moment, their voices echoed out, clear for all to hear. “Correct empowering. Precisely doubled in size. She did not double the size of the indents and other imperfections in the outer shell, thus maintaining maximum efficiency.” As they stepped out, the woman triggered a secondary portion of the spell-lines, deactivating the script.

They walked to the next wagon, and Tala pointed to a part of the spell-lines that lay above the activation point that resembled an outline for her hand and the three symbols, which would indicate the level of empowerment. The portion she’d indicated looked more like writing than true spell-lines, but it wasn’t the alphabet used in books. “These are the specifications, correct?” She glanced to the older man. “This wagon’s scripts triple the size, stabilize the cargo, and protect the wagon, itself, from the weight and jostling of said cargo, correct?”

He had opened his mouth to give exactly that explanation but seemed satisfied as he closed his mouth, nodded, and smiled.

She took a moment to catch the edge of the glue on her right hand and peel it free in a one large piece. As Tala looked around for a place to dispose of her now removed handprint, she saw several aghast looks. She smiled. “It’s just glue.”

They did not look mollified.

Tala sighed, then decided to just toss it aside. Some people freak out much too easily.

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JLMullins

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