Tala walked out through city gates for the first time, that morning.

Growing up, her father had always maintained: “If you don’t need to leave the city, why would you?” Consequently, she’d never even been to the farms surrounding her home city.

She didn’t feel any change, nor should she have. The outer wall was nowhere close to the outer defenses, at least not in one of this phase. Consequently, they were still well within what was considered the city. Even so, it was new.

The farms looked the same in person as from afar, just nearer. Workers toiled in the fields, using animals and machines, both mechanical and magical, to finish the fall harvests. A few looked to be tending autumn crops, as well. Is Bandfast temperate enough to bring those to harvest? It likely wasn’t assured, or every field would be planted thus. I hope it works out for them.

As the caravan slowly worked its way down the main road, through the farmland on this side of the city, they fell into a comfortable order. Two guards rode ahead, beginning the job of scouting for the wagons. Three rode behind, to protect from, and warn of, any dangers that might come up from the rear.

An additional five guards were stationed on various wagon rooftops, each of those armed with heavy crossbows. Besides the crossbows, each had a large shield, which seemed to be affixed to the roof on a hinge, somehow. I’ll be curious to see how those work, and what they’re for.

Trent and Renix rode on one side, near the middle, and were mirrored by Atrexia on the other. Even still within city limits, their eyes were sweeping their surroundings. Good habits, I suppose.

The wagons, themselves, were in tight formation, with just enough room between the oxen’s noses and the back of the next wagon to ensure the driver could stop in case of emergency. Close and tight. Better protection? Or better to go unnoticed.

She had a fleeting thought. What if I could only have empowered the cargo wagons? We’d have an additional nine vehicles, just for goods transport. Would they have had to hire more guards, more bunk wagons, more Mages, more Mage wagons, and at that rate, another kitchen-wagon? It was a bit daunting. And with that many more people, we’d likely need another wagon just for travel supplies. No wonder the Caravanners Guild prized Immaterial Guides with dimensional distortion experience. I’m saving them a fortune!

She might need to apply a little pressure to Lyn when she returned.

Tala, herself, was sitting atop the foremost wagon, her charge, the cargo-slot wagon. There was a semi-padded square in the very center of the wagon’s roof, reasonably comfortable for one person to sit upon. A free-spinning ring surrounded the seat, and Tala realized that the guard’s large shields were likely affixed to that on their own wagon tops. It gives them the ability to have cover from any direction, with the weight of their wagon lending support. Clever.

Her hat was not providing much shade in the early morning light, but thankfully, they were heading south, first. Alefast is almost due east of us, but I believe I heard that the route chosen is utilizing easier ground to the south. Good thing, too, or the rising sun would be impossible.

She, of course, had a notebook out, and was sketching a random assortment of things which they passed. It was more something to do than because she truly enjoyed it. Or because I need it. She was finding that she had virtually perfect recall. When she’d compared her sketch from memory to the cargo-slots, they had been a perfect match. That has to be useful for something. She’d find a use, eventually.

An hour later, they reached the edge of the farmland, and Tala stared out at the lines of regularly spaced towers that stretched out to either side, encircling the city. The outermost, active defenses.

Beyond this were the mines, but they had been abandoned in this city, as it had moved to the next phase, contracting inward as the truly outermost defenses wound down.

As they neared, Tala took the time to focus on the closest defensive towers and sweep them with her mage-sight.

Each was three stories, with a contingent of ten guards manning the position. She also saw a Mage in each tower, ready to repair, re-empower, or bolster the defenses at need. After all, every arcanous creature brought down temporarily disabled the tower, until the Mage in residence could empower the newly cast spell-lines.

She frowned at that thought. No, I think some defenses have more than one casting before they are spent. She’d never studied emplacements, and she decided that it wasn’t something that interested her too much at the moment.

The spell-lines in the tower to the east were useless to her, as they were for a Material Creator, made to spawn stone before and above any detected threat. She copied them nonetheless.

Those in the tower closest to the west, however, those were clearly Immaterial Guide lines, and the spell was quite fascinating. It was clearly meant as a fall back, if the surrounding towers had spent their castings and had yet to be re-empowered. As such, that tower held spell-work for a simple series of kinetic thievery workings. If she read the lines correctly, and her mage-sight had yet to disappoint her, each of the twenty-five scripts would steal all kinetic energy from a target for up to half an hour, or until the maximum capacity of the spell was reached. Then, the spell would dump all the stored energy back into the target, crushing them into the ground.

I don’t see why the last part is necessary. After all, locking a creature’s blood in place for half an hour would be fairly lethal, as would preventing their breathing. Maybe some arcanous beasts can endure that? That was a terrifying thought.

She copied these spell-lines as well, and as with those to the east, she noted what each part of each set seemed to do. It seems reasonable to gain some knowledge of inscribing and spell-lines, in general.

She had begun sketching when the towers came into sight, and thus, she finished just as they came abreast with the line of towers.

An unnecessary call went up to: “Keep sharp!” as they entered the Wilds.

As if cued by the shout, a large, lizard-like creature shot out from the surrounding forest, sprinting at a pace that would put a horse to shame.

Thankfully, it was not running at them.

It was a massive creature, which positively blazed to her mage-sight. Clearly a predator, it ran on its back legs, its forelegs stretched before it, ten-inch claws extended. All told, the beast was probably twelve feet tall.

Thankfully, it was half a mile away, running towards the line of towers.

As Tala watched, one of those towers activated, and a thick stone block materialized directly in-front of the charging creature’s head.

The impact was sickening even at this distance, likely due to her enhanced perception.

There had been no time for the creature to stop, and the rock was clearly quite heavy.

The creature’s forward momentum broke its neck. The stone fell with the collapsing body, crushing the torso as it slammed into the ground.

Thorough. It was a bit grisly, even so.

No one else seemed to be reacting to the sight. Not close enough to be our concern, and not notable. She’d known that arcanous creatures regularly tried to breach city defenses, but as she’d never left the walls, she’d never seen such up close. Though, I have seen quite a few flying ones taken from the sky.

There were probably far more land creatures than those in the air. Huh. This might get…interesting.

Before the caravan, a wide-open, grassy plain stretched towards the horizon, broken only by rolling hills and the occasional tree or mountain in the distance. There was no road.

In fact, there were no roads in the Wilds at all. Such would make it obvious where human caravans would be traveling, and thus any arcanous or magical creature could easily wait in ambush. Instead, each caravan took a unique route between cities, and though some components of each trip between two given cities were occasionally the same, it was always random, at least to the best of the Caravanners Guild’s ability.

Don’t let them know where you’ll be.

There was also that fact that building and maintaining roads would be an enormous undertaking. Apparently, some would-be-emperor, about a thousand years ago, tried to build protected roadways, with towering defenses along the whole length, just as cities had.

The migrating arcanous beasts had not appreciated the blockage.

The road, connecting just two cities, was open for one glorious year before it was breached. Tens of thousands had died.

Apparently, the road had drawn the attention of a higher order of creature, her teachers had called it a paragon magical being, but hadn’t elaborated. She’d suspected they, themselves were ignorant.

Happy thoughts, Tala. This is an adventure!

It was not, in fact, adventurous. As if to belabor the point, nothing more of note happened, or was passed by them, until lunch. The oxen never stopped moving, and Tala guessed they covered nearly ten miles before noon.

As they traveled away from the city, she did notice one thing. There was a growing sense of magical power from the world around her, the grass, the ground, even in the air. It was a subtle thing, and would likely have been unnoticed, except that her mage-sight highlighted any change. Thus, the constant increase was a bit of an annoyance, as it filled her vision with hundreds of flickering motes and magical signatures. Thankfully, it leveled off just before lunch.

Tala had walked for a good portion of the time. Sometimes she walked beside Renix, talking about small things. Sometimes she walked or sat beside Den, and she learned about his family; his wife worked as a baker in Bandfast, and they had four children. Sometimes she sat and wrote out her thoughts.

Sometimes? She was bored out of her mind.

Walking, at least, occupied much of her thoughts, but the caravan was progressing so slowly, she found herself easily walking up and down the length of the wagon train, even as it kept moving.

This is maddening.

Finally, finally! Just before high noon, a guard called out a warning from the front. “Beasts ahead!”

Tala sprinted up from near the back of the wagons and scrambled up to the perch atop her cargo wagon.

There, nearly a mile ahead of them across the open plains, was a herd of truly massive creatures.

Each was larger than any one of the wagons in their train, and covered in long, blue-ish black fur. Short curving horns stood out prominently to either side of the creatures’ heads, creating an almost helmet-like look to them.

What under the sky?

As she watched, two of the giant, cattle-like creatures faced each other, strutting and posturing. That seemed insufficient to establish dominance, however, as the two braced themselves and charged.

Their hooves tore up the turf as their gait ate up the distance in a breath.

Their heads slammed into each other with a concussion that was easily audible even at this distance.

The additional rippling of distant thunder from the group ahead let Tala know that those two were not, in fact, unique in their posturing, within the herd.

It was with great wisdom that the caravan turned almost due east, aiming to skirt the notice of the numerous, large, arcanous bovine.

Well, that isn’t boring, at least.

It was a mixed blessing that the remainder of the day was anything but dull.


* * *


Tala had many questions answered, which she hadn’t thought to ask.

First, shortly after they diverted to avoid the magic cows -I am not giving them a silly name just to feel more secure- the workers from the kitchen wagon began distributing food, with the help of the servants from the various wagons.

Second, it was called a chuckwagon, not a kitchen wagon. That’s what Master Himmal meant. His metaphor made so much more sense, in retrospect.

Third, while Master Sergeant Divner seemed to direct the movements of the caravan, Trent and Atrexia had great sway over specifics, and the three of them closely consulted.

Fourth, by their many glances her way, where she sat on the lead wagon, she clearly had a right to weigh in, should she decide to join them.

She did not.

The food was a simple meat and vegetable pasty, and Tala found herself curious as to how they safely maintained an oven on the moving wagon, for the food was deliciously hot. Their travels were smooth, after a fashion, but she knew that she wouldn’t want to wield a knife while on a wagon, let alone manage an active fire.

The chuckwagon might have better stabilization. Maybe some magics to aid it? She’d have to investigate.

The caravan kept moving even while most people ate and while the three debated the path ahead.

Renix guided his horse up beside her wagon, where she was licking her fingers clean of her third pasty, and she waved lazily. “Not much happening.”

He shrugged. “The thunder cattle are interesting. I don’t know that I’ve seen a full herd this close to a city before. Small families, yes, but those are usually only two to ten beasts. That?” He nodded his head towards the south, and the source of frequently sounding, concussive impacts. “That is something new. I’m surprised it hasn’t drawn down larger predators.” He grinned. “I wish we could get closer.”

Maybe, I shouldn’t be flattered by his interest in my…oddities. He seemed far too fascinated by things that could get him killed.

The mageling finished a pasty of his own and sighed. “I do wish we’d be attacked, or something.”

Tala snorted a laugh. “Oh? What’s so bad about what you’re doing?”

Renix held up a book. “We only really get paid, if we actively defend the caravan, and Master Trent has me studying.” He said the last with a scowl. “I got enough of that at the Academy. At least if we fight, I can leave the books in my bag.”

Tala sat up straighter at the sight of the book. “Does that say: ‘Inscribing’?”

Renix glanced at it. “It does. Master Trent thinks a Mage should have a good understanding of inscribing for all four quadrants. I have a matching set of four volumes.”

Fascinating. So, I’m not alone in that thought? It was a bit reassuring that her own studies were aligning with what at least one master was teaching his mageling. Tala leaned forward. “I don’t suppose I could borrow the Immaterial Guide one?” When he cocked his head to one side, she quickly added: “I’d like to review some of the basics.”

He nodded. “That makes some sense, I suppose, though I don’t know why you’d choose to.” He made a disgruntled face. “I’ll have to check with Master Trent, but it shouldn’t be an issue.” He smiled. “Hey! You can join us this evening for discussions on theory. It would make it much less boring if you were there?” He left the last as a question.

Couldn’t hurt. “Sure. I’d like that. Thank you.”

Her mind returning to the books, she smiled. This is perfect! Tala had always avoided inscribing classes or much deep understanding of spell-lines. As she understood it, she didn’t need to know the intricacies of spell-line craft to use her own spell-lines. She just needed to know what the whole did, together. After all, an alchemist doesn’t need to know the chemistry of oxidation to burn a crucible to refine an elixir. He just needs to know it will help him in his work.

That was close to how it worked for Mages. A Mage simply needed to know what effect a given set of spell-lines would create when she powered them. That way, her power would mold into that. She couldn’t make the lines do something else, if she had a misunderstanding, and the specifics were handled by the spell-lines themselves. The worst-case scenario would occur if a Mage didn’t know what spell he was casting, when he empowered his inscribings. In that case, raw, unshaped power would pour through the lines, and likely obliterate them, as well as the surrounding flesh.

Though, as Tala thought about it, the inscribed spell would probably still be enacted.

That was why a Mage had to trust their inscriber absolutely. If there was a miscommunication, or faulty inscribing, the best case would be the spell failing to work. Death was a very real possibility in any misapplication of magic.

Even though her new mage-sight let her know the function of most inscribed spell-lines, it didn’t let her know if certain combinations were possible, or if un-empowered spell-forms were valid. I’ve got time. I should put it to good use.

While Tala had been pondering, Renix had returned to his wagon, snagging the desired book. He’d made a move towards Trent but noticed that the Mage was still debating with Divner and Atrexia. With that observation, he’d simply returned to Tala, offering her the book. “I’m sure it’s fine.” He smiled up at her.

Tala strained, reaching down, and took the leather-bound volume with a smile. “Thank you, Renix. I appreciate this.”

Renix smiled back, then seemed to hesitate. “Thank you, Mistress Tala.”


“You don’t treat me like a hanger-on.” He glanced away. “The best Mages talk to me, and don’t treat me badly, but I’ve not met a full Mage who treated me…like me.” He shrugged. “Like an equal, I guess. Thank you for not looking down on me.”

Tala grinned down at him, straightening her back to stretch just a bit higher, and cocked an eyebrow.

Renix laughed. “I meant metaphorically.”

“Well, you’re welcome, I guess.” She settled back in. “You are you, after all. It would be silly to treat you as anyone else.”

She was about to open the book and dig in, but she noticed that Renix was still riding beside the wagon. Huh…He’s still here. Most people didn’t stay around…

“So…” She closed the book. “How many of these have you gone on?”

Renix started, seeming to come out of his own thoughts. “Me? Oh…We don’t do these very often. Let’s see.” He frowned in concentration, scratching above his right eyebrow. “Well, I’ve been with Master Trent close to two years, and we guard a caravan every couple of months, so…twelve? Twelve, give or take.” He shrugged. “They start running together after a time.”

Twelve. This mageling has gone on TWELVE caravans. She was out of her depth. “Wow. That’s impressive.”

He shrugged again. “The pay’s not bad, even for a mageling.” He glanced towards her. “Nothing like what you’re making, if rumors hold true.”

She stiffened. “Rumors? What rumors?”

Renix didn’t seem to notice her tension. “Oh, you know: ‘Baggage Mages get all the money. They barely have to do anything, while we spend our metal fighting and killing for scraps.’ That sort of thing.”

Oh! Generally speaking, not me in specific. “I see. I’d never thought to ask what Mage guards would make.”

He drew himself up with a fake hautiness. “It’s Mage Protectors, and I’ll thank you to remember that.” He grinned.

Tala snorted a laugh. “Very well.”

Renix shrugged. “We don’t make much, though half of our inscribing costs are covered in the contract. No, the real money is in building and fabrication.”

Tala cocked her head. “Building and fabrication?”

“Yeah! Demolishing buildings and helping to erect new ones. Helping artisans, making factories more efficient. There are loads of jobs for Material Mages.” He glanced to her. “I’m sure there are for Immaterials as well, but…”

“You’ve never really looked.”

He shrugged, again. “Yeah, why scope out jobs you can’t do.” He smiled. “I’ve tried to convince Master Trent to let me get some Material Guide inscriptions, to help augment my own, but he’s convinced I don’t have the ‘right thinking’ to make them work, yet.” He sighed. “He’s probably right. Not worth paying for inscriptions you can't empower, right?”

Tala nodded. Many mages did cross quadrant lines here and there to lend their magics more power and versatility, but it was risky. To use magic, you had to understand what it did. Her own restraining spell, for example: She didn’t have to know exactly what values were being plugged into the gravimetric equations, nor exactly what values each target’s interactions with gravity was being set to, but she did have to understand what gravity was and how changing the gravitational constant for an object would affect every aspect of it. If she just understood the spell as: ‘It stops your target, makes the target float, and keeps them there.’ the spell would fail, likely catastrophically.

“I can understand that. I’ve never been able to wrap my head around the creation of matter.”

Renix grinned. “Oh, that’s easy. Mainly, it’s just imagining that there is more where once there was less.”


“More. You know. Rocks are heavier than air, and all that.”

“You specialize in ice and lightning.”

“Exactly! Lightning is the easier of the two, for me. My father was a builder, and I helped him install hundreds of lightning rods. Fascinating things, those.”

“I don’t follow.”

“It's like petting a sheep with a cloth glove. When you’re done, there’s more. There’s lightning…Well, just a bit, anyways.”

Tala shook her head. “I suppose I just don’t quite understand.” She smiled. “But, we are diametrically opposing quadrants, so…”

He barked a short laugh. “Fair enough.” He glanced at her, then down at the book. “Well, um… I suppose I’ll leave you to-”

A deep bellow rattled the wagons, emanating from ahead and off to the left, the opposite direction from the herd.

“Oh, good!” Renix smiled, tension seeming to bleed from him. “We have unwanted guests.”

Tala stood, looking towards the sound and saw a group of four thunder cattle-Stupid name-come over a nearby rise, walking slowly towards them. The sound had come when the lead animal, a bull, had seen the caravan, and their oxen, and had issued a challenge. Isn’t that the sound they make just before charging?

She turned to ask Renix, but he was already spurring his horse forward.

Trent called to him. “Stay there. We’re to guard the flank, while Mistress Atrexia handles these.”

Renix slumped but reigned in his horse. “Yes, sir.”

As his horse slowed to a walk, the lead arcanous bull bellowed again, lowering its head to charge.


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