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Tala turned to see that two Mages had just entered the lounge. Both were Materialists, one Creator and one Guide, and both seemed to specialize in ice and lightning. Interesting combination.

The two turned at Cran’s voice and smiled when they saw him. The younger’s smile morphed into a wide grin, as he called back. “Oi, yourself!” They walked over, and Cran stood to greet them.

Tala followed his lead, and he introduced her. “Renix, Master Trent, this is Mistress Tala.” He turned to her. “Mistress Tala: Renix and Master Trent.”

She nodded her head in a slight bow and took their hands as they offered them, each in turn. Renix, it seemed, was the Creator and Trent the Guide. They were both taller than she was, with Renix being the taller by half a head at least. They had brown hair cut close to their heads, though Trent’s was slightly longer, darker, and curly. They both had the lean, careful physique of Mages, and faces with well used smile lines.

Despite their similarities, Trent was clearly older, likely ten years her senior, while Renix seemed barely older than she was. Might just be the attitude?

“Pleasure to meet you, Mistress Tala.”

“Glad to meet you.” Renix glanced down. “Nice gloves.”

Cran grinned and motioned for everyone to sit. “She’s starting a new trend.”

As they all sat, Tala felt her cheeks redden. “I am not.” But when she glanced around the table, she saw they were all smiling amiably.

Cran waved to the group, bringing their focus back to him. “You three seem to be destined to meet.”

Trent rolled his eyes. “You are not destiny, Master Cran, no matter what your mother told you, in or out of the womb.”

Cran snorted a laugh. “I mean, you will be traveling together.”

“Oh?” Trent glanced towards Tala. “You’re going to Alefast?”

Tala felt a small knot of tension evaporate. Not Marliweather. “Seems so.” She glanced at Cran and saw a twinkle in his eye, but he didn’t comment.

Renix looked eager. “Do you work alone? Are you the other defender of the caravan, or will you be our baggage handler? Where is your master, or do you have your own mageling?”

Trent held up his hand. “Easy there, Renix. Let her speak.” He then turned back to Tala, his smile still obvious. “I am curious, though.”

They haven’t seen me, then. They don’t know what quadrant I’m of.

“Careful, boys, she makes you pay for answers with food.”

Trent’s smile widened. “Well, why didn’t you say so.” He glanced at the now empty space before her. “Let’s get you something to eat and my mageling some answers, yes?”

Tala held up a hand. “No need for that, Master Trent. I am an Immaterial Guide, and I suppose ‘baggage handler’ is as good a term as any.”

“Dimensional magic.” The older man shook his head. “Never could understand it, but I guess I wasn’t meant to.” He smiled again. “I’m a Material Guide.”

“And I’m a Material Creator.”

Trent gave Renix an amused glance but continued. “We’ll be working, as a set, to help safeguard the caravan. I believe we have another Mage to collaborate with for that duty, but I don’t know if they have a mageling.”

Renix shivered. “Is it just me, or is it colder in here than usual?”

Cran glanced to Tala with a knowing smile and made a ‘you should say something’ gesture.

Tala sighed. Like with Cran, they would soon realize it was her. “It’s actually me.”

Trent turned his full focus on her, and his smile was gone. “Are you leaking that much magic? What idiot inscribed you? You shouldn’t go to back-alley inscribers, or you’ll die of magic poisoning before thirty.”

She held up her hands. “No, no. Nothing like that.”

Cran sighed. “Mistress Tala, just let him look.”

Trent glanced to Cran, then back to her. “Would that explain it, then? Do you approve?”

After a moment’s hesitation, she nodded. Then, looked to Renix. “You can, too.”

She saw power ripple across both of their faces, and their eyes began to glow faintly. Their mage-sight inscriptions were identical in function, being much more complex than Cran’s, but they each had to be laid out slightly differently, due to the unique contours and size of the two men’s faces.

Their reactions could not have been more opposite, without one resorting to violence or fleeing the room.

Renix leaned forward, a look of awe blossoming across his features. “Amazing! How are you doing that?”

Trent pushing himself backward, seeming to barely restrain himself from jumping to his feet. “How are you doing that?! What…?” He looked around, seeming to see the many eyes now turned their way. Carefully, he pulled himself forward again, and he lowered his voice. “What are you, Mistress Tala? I’ve never seen anything like that save…” His eyes widened. “Did you find a set of invisible armor?”

Cran snapped his fingers. “That’s it! It’s like she’s wearing an iron suit.”

Tala found herself nervously laughing. “No, I don’t have invisible…wait. Such things exist?”

Trent waved a hand dismissively. “In theory. I’ve seen stranger things. Now, what are you doing? Do you have an active shield against magic, constantly empowered? That seems needlessly wasteful, though the inscribing must be flawless to achieve such results. I’ve never seen anything exactly like that…” He seemed to hesitate. “Well, no, that’s not true. It looks a bit like Master Grediv, but there are quite a few differences…” He frowned, seeming to contemplate.

“It isn’t an inscribing.” She hesitated, unsure of how much she wanted to share with three men who were still basically strangers. And any in the lounge with enhanced hearing. She couldn’t be the only person with such abilities. “For ease's sake, let’s assume I have a very high iron content in my skin.”

Trent didn’t look satisfied, but he didn’t press on that issue. “And your eyes?”

“I need to keep some mysteries.”

The older Guide seemed even less happy at that answer, but he let the matter drop. “Very well, then. We did come to eat an early dinner.” He glanced at Renix and noted the younger man’s clear ardor. He sighed. “May we join you, here? We’re going to be spending quite some time together in the near future, after all.”

Cran looked to her, but Tala was already nodding. “It would be my pleasure.”

Tala spent the rest of the afternoon with Cran, Renix, and Trent. Lyn joined them in the early evening, and they chatted until well after dark, about trivial things.

In the end, Tala was the first to leave, as she had an early morning at the work-yard the following day, and Lyn opted to go with her. They were, after all, staying in the same house.

Tala, again, slept in her bedroll, though she did seriously consider the bed. It is mine, now, after all. Assuming she took Lyn up on her offer.

 

* * *

 

Tala woke early, her own mind rousing her well before dawn.

She stretched, exercised, bathed, and added to her iron salve, finishing just as the sky began to lighten.

Lyn was gone before Tala came out into the main area, and a note simply stated that Lyn had a lot of work to catch up on.

A small pouch of coins held the note down and was described there-in as: ‘…food money for my new housemate. Pay me back when you can.’

Tala sighed. The pouch contained a mix of mostly copper coins with a little bit of silver. The total value of the pouch was two silver ounces. And my debt grows…

Still, she took the pouch gratefully. There was no interest implied, and she did need to be able to eat during her last day in the city. Thankfully, her food would be taken care of on the trip, itself, and she would receive her pay on the far end, with which to cover her costs for the two days in Alefast before her return.

With nothing further to do in the home, Tala gathered what she thought she’d need for the day into her satchel and departed.

She’d also found an iron key in the money pouch, as the note had indicated she would, and she used that to lock Lyn’s front door on her way out. Mine too, unless I find a better rate…

She did find the iron amusing, however. From what she knew, and what she’d gleaned, most Mages avoid iron as much as possible, which was why Lyn’s own key had been brass. She must have had it specially cast for me…for some reason. It seemed an odd gesture, but Tala found that she appreciated it, nonetheless.

She had a warmth in her heart and a spring in her step as she moved towards the work-yard.

To her surprise, without someone walking beside her, setting the pace, she moved much faster than she thought usual. Her motions felt natural, as if it were still her regular pace, but the world moved by at a brisk pace. She caught and passed other early risers with surprising ease, and each step seemed to carry her farther than expected.

It appeared that her quicker reactions were causing her to push the boundaries of walking at a regular pace. I likely look pretty odd. ‘Come on, woman, just run, if you’re in that much of a hurry!’ She grinned to herself. Then, with a mild effort of will, she slowed her pace until the passing of the surrounding city, if not the movement of her limbs, felt right.

This…is…so…slow… She sighed, internally. I should buy a book or two. Hesitantly, she pulled out a notebook and pencil, and began writing her musings. Surprisingly, she found it trivially easy to both write out her thoughts and keep track of her own movements. As an added bonus, it made the slower pace seem less grinding.

Thus, she amused herself by doing quick sketches of things she passed; writing out her thought processes and working through some of her more esoteric ideas; and adding to the letter for Holly that she’d begun earlier.

She stopped through a café to pick up a breakfast of eggs and coffee for half an ounce, silver. Only after she’d departed, with a full stomach, did she realize that she’d never stopped her work in her notebook.

I read the menu, ordered, paid, and ate, all while continuing to sketch, write, and contemplate. She’d never been terrible at multitasking, but this seemed more extreme than that. I’ll have to ask Holly.

She arrived at the work-yard as she finished adding a brief explanation and inquiry about just that to her missive to the inscriber.

The cargo-slots were exactly as they had been, and workmen were working on each, seemingly taking great care to arrange everything within. This seems like a process that would have been standardized and made as efficient as possible…

Even as she had that thought, however, she realized that, given there weren’t daily deliveries to each other city, the exact cargo going would likely be expanding until they departed, maybe even hourly. Thus, they might have to do some rearranging if new items came in.

Why not stage it in a warehouse, and move it over the day before? Or the morning of departure? They could even take exact measurements…

She didn’t know, but it didn’t really seem that relevant. This is the job; I don’t suppose I need to know exactly why they need it of me.

As she approached, she noted that only one symbol on each script was still active, demonstrating their need for recharging. Why not just add more capacity, and have Mages charge them on each end? Yet another question she couldn’t answer herself. Still, she added both the questions, and her musings to the notebook she’d designated for ongoing questions for future inquiry. Probably due to higher concentrations of magic dissipating more quickly…

She charged all ten scripts quickly. As before, she worked to envision exactly what her power was going to do and channeled the magic through that mental construct before it exited her hand to enter the inscribing in the wood. Also as before, each such empowering seemed to get easier, as her mind settled into the truth of her mental model and even adjusted it, ever so slightly, to match small variations from her expectations.

In the end, it took her about five minutes to charge all ten. It had taken longer than the day before, but she’d also felt as if the open doors, and the actively entering and exiting workers, had slowed her down.

In retrospect, it had likely been unwise to allow them to continue working while she was actively dumping power into dimensional distortion magic. She might have…Nope, not going to think about that.

What’s done was done. In the future, I’ll ask them to hold off on the one I’m actively charging. This was likely another thing a master would have taught her, if she’d done a stint as a mageling. Or maybe not? The workers seem to know what they’re about, and they didn’t hesitate to continue to work… A master might also have alleviated her concerns. I’d have known, one way or another.

She left the work-yard without fanfare, though she did smile and wave to the various workmen who acknowledged her.

In fact, more such smiled her direction, as she got farther from the cargo-slots, and she had a realization. With the iron salve, at any distance, it would be hard to tell that I was a Mage at all. She cocked a humored smile at that. I wonder why they think I’m here.

She did not write that question in her re-opened notebook, though she did sketch out what she could remember of the inscribings on the cargo-slots. To her decreasing surprise, she was able to create a full sketch. I’ll have to check it against the real thing, tomorrow.

To accurately render the depth, she’d used various pressures with her pencil to create darker and lighter lines, also breaking up some of the lines to help emphasize their depth within the wood.

As the lines were magical in nature, her mage-sight had allowed her to see them, easily, even through the wood.

She had two realizations as she studied her finished work. First, she’d never had the fine motor control to sketch so precisely, before. Even earlier this morning, her lines had been more hesitant, and less practiced, but in a no-longer-surprisingly-short amount of time, her movements had adjusted to her mind’s intent. My body and mind are better connected, making the refining of skills much faster. Or that was her best guess.

The second thing she realized was that the Wainwrights Guild would likely be less than pleased that she was able to copy out every layer of their spell-forms. I’ll just keep that to myself, I suppose. That might make verifying the accuracy of her copy more difficult, but she’d manage. Somehow.

Tala spent much of the rest of her morning combing the city for rooms to rent, either temporary or long term.

In short: Lyn was offering her a very good deal, if not so inexpensive as to be obviously charity. Even though it is…

Money. Tala’s woes were almost entirely money related. They’ll be a little better, after I return, but with my ideas for Holly, on top of all the debt I need to pay off… She was likely to have money problems for quite some time.

Instead of going by a restaurant for her lunch, as she desperately wanted to, she found the local food market, and used the last of her borrowed funds to buy dried fruit and meat, a quarter pound of butter to fill a small wooden box she’d already purchased for the purpose, and biscuits. The latter she found in a little bakery which seemed to specialize in portable food for workers.

As such, the biscuits were dense, delicious, and filling. She still had to eat lunch, after all, and the butter she’d bought didn’t quite fit into the container. So, she ate one of the biscuits with butter and found herself satisfied.

The purchase of traveling food had been somewhat of an internal debate with her, as she was supposed to have her food provided for her on the trip.

That said, she had no way of knowing the quality or quantity of what would be offered. Another thing a master could have easily told me. And she was not willing to be at the mercy of whatever cook or quartermaster happened to be on the journey with her.

There was also always the possibility of some sort of disaster. Thus, she’d eventually decided that buying a few days of such food was wise.

Her lack of funds had changed her mind, until Lyn’s generosity. Spend the money you have, Tala, and you’ll always be poor.

That wasn’t entirely fair, as she could also eat this food in Alefast if she didn’t need it on the journey, thus reducing her expenses overall, but she still felt fairly irritated.

Today was her last day in Bandfast, as the caravan would depart just after dawn the next morning. With that in mind, she wandered the city, taking in the sights and sketching many of them.

The shorter days and softer autumn light cast an almost dreamy aesthetic to the city, and she found herself enjoying each feature she passed, from the imposing, spell-lined city walls, to the small homes. She passed large block buildings that appeared to be apartment complexes and some that seemed to be factories, by the sounds coming from within. She passed people of every description and age going about their business throughout the city.

Honestly? It was exhausting.

The Academy hadn’t been vacant, by any means, but it spanned tens of thousands of acres, and had a population that maxed out in the ten-thousands. Thus, there was never want for room.

This city, and every city, was teeming with people, and with her newly heightened senses, it was…a lot.

In the end, she sought refuge atop an outer wall.

The farmland stretched out beyond that wall, defensive towers flaring with power every so often to deter, or bring down, arcanous creatures that drew too close. Some people came and went through a nearby gate, and soldiers patrolled the walls at regular intervals, but overall? It was quiet.

What would it be like to leave the cities behind, forever?

She laughed at the thought. Even as a Mage, she couldn’t survive in the wilds for very long. Her magics were finite and once they expired so would she.

Still… If she were free of debt, and able to earn enough, she could spend most of her time away.

One has to dream, right?

She ate some of her trail food and drank from a waterskin as the sun sank below the horizon to the south-east. And thus, my last day here is done. She’d be back, but it still had a sad, sweet quality to it.

I’ve only been here a week or so, and only conscious for half that. Still, she felt like she was becoming attached.

Tala laughed at herself, then. I want to go into the Wilds, forever! I cannot believe I’m leaving this city I somehow love so much… She snorted. Get it together, Tala. You’ve work to do.

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JLMullins

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