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Tala walked back into the circle of wagons, possibilities whipping through her head.

She passingly noticed Brand re-entering the chuckwagon and quirked a smile. He’s going to have a fun time explaining what just happened.

She returned her mind to the present task.

Do I lie?

No, there wasn’t really anything convincing she could say.

Do I tell the whole truth?

That was folly. Besides, there was likely no surer way of preventing herself from learning the secrets that the cooks had uncovered.

Decades… She shook her head. That kind of time researching had to have yielded truly fantastic results. I’ll have to see if their methods were sound, else it might all be useless to me, anyways.

Focus, Tala. Mages ahead. What are you going to say?

The question was taken from her as she approached the table.

All three of the occupants were staring at her chest.

Tala frowned, shifting a bit uncomfortably. “Um… Hi? Did I drop something on…?” She trailed off as she looked downward and saw that soft light was still visible, shining through the small slit in her tunic. You know? I don’t know if Brand grabbed his knife…

Trent cleared his throat, looking up to meet her gaze. “Mistress Tala. Your breast is glowing.”

She blushed deeply and couldn’t think of a response.

Atrexia, taking Trent’s comment as having breached the silence, stood, and strode to her. The other woman stuck two fingers forward, towards the slit in Tala’s shirt.

Tala slapped the encroaching hands away. “Hey, now! Hands to yourself, please.”

Atrexia stopped, glancing around.

Several guards and passengers had turned, but when they saw the Mages looking back at them, they returned to their own business.

“Let me see, girl.”

Tala glared. “I am your peer, Mistress Atrexia. You will address me as such.”

Atrexia straightened. “Mistress Tala, please show me that spell-script.”

Tala narrowed her eyes, then sighed, pulling the collar of her shirt down to expose the still glowing, golden spell-lines.

Atrexia squinted, and Tala saw power ripple around the woman’s eyes. So much for asking for permission... “It increases…something. Why does it look like that? The golden color is…off, like I’m seeing through tinted glass. Are you using a different metal than gold? An alloy? You know, that’s incredibly dangerous.”

You can use alloys? What would that even do? Tala had a notebook out and was making notes to herself before she truly realized that she was. She’d stepped back, to give herself room to remove her notebook from her satchel, and absently waved her pencil at Atrexia. “It’s gold; it’s just under a different layer of protection. You are correct, though, it enhances the inter-connection between the cells in my skin.”

Renix cleared his throat, and Tala saw that he was still staring at the glowing script. “Translation?”

Trent turned to his student, and physically turned the boy’s head. “It makes her skin tougher. Now, stop staring.” He turned back to Tala, not mentioning that she was still taking notes on her thoughts and contemplating the ramifications. “What did you have to defend against? I’d say that almost anything that hit there, could have killed you.”

Tala briefly stopped writing. Oh…right. She finished the sentence she was working on, closed her book, and tucked it and the pencil away. Never decided what to say, did I…

Atrexia had crossed her arms and was waiting impatiently. “Well?”

Tala sighed. “Please sit down.” She sat herself and waved to Atrexia and Trent’s half-eaten food. “That’s not going to hurt you.” Tala began monitoring those around them, modulating her volume and tone to a pitch that she believed wouldn’t be discernible by even the closest bystander, and the others must have picked up on it, because they shifted their own voices to match.

Trent gave a suspicious glance to the bowl, then looked back to Tala. “How do you know?”

“Well, I suppose I don’t know, but you’ve likely eaten this stuff, or the like, on every trade expedition you’ve ever gone on, and you’re fine.”

Trent grimaced. “Great…”

Atrexia sat, again, her mage-sight still active as she prodded her soup.

Tala sighed. “How about this: You eat a bite, and I’ll watch what happens to the power within your system, ok?”

Trent, Renix, and Atrexia all stared, wide-eyed at her, as one.

It was Tala’s turn to frown. “What?”

Renix swallowed, then leaned forward. “You can see the flows of magic, inside people?”

Oh…right. She was putting her foot in all sorts of wonderful mistakes, wasn’t she.

Atrexia held up a hand, to forestall Renix’s continued questions. “While that is a good question, mageling, I think the answer is rather obvious.” She pondered for a moment. “Master Trent, you first. Then, me.”

Trent turned to her. “Wait, what?”

“I have inscribings that should reject any foreign power, no matter how it first affects me. I doubt I’d be a useful test, but I am willing to be a secondary perspective.” She glanced to Tala. “Assuming you are willing?”

Tala shrugged. “Sure.”

Trent looked back to the bowl, then sighed.

Tala watched him pick up a piece of meat, and she focused on it. The bite lit up to her mage-sight, highlighting the latent power within.

Trent glanced to her, and she nodded, assuming that he was asking if she was ready.

Without further delay, he ate the bite.

Immediately, power began to be drawn away from meat, even as he chewed. It flowed outward, through his spell-lines and towards his keystone and from there outward into his body.

“Fascinating.” Tala leaned forward.

Trent stopped chewing. “What?” The question came out slightly garbled, around the food in his mouth.

“Power is leaving the meat, and flowing backwards along your inscribings, to your keystone.”

Atrexia nodded. “So, it’s wearing away at his spell-lines.” She frowned. “An expensive-“

Tala held up her hand. “No, it isn’t. The power isn’t being shaped by the spell-lines, it is just following the same channels…” She leaned even closer. “It is entering your keystone, and…huh.”

Tala stood and walked around to stand behind Trent. The older man didn’t turn, though he did twitch just slightly.

“It is entering your blood and…fading.”

Atrexia stood, her own mage-sight still active. “What do you mean fading?” She seemed frustrated as she looked but obviously couldn’t see what Tala saw.

“Like water on sand.” Tala shrugged. “If I had to guess, your body is taking the energy and using it. No lingering magical signature.”

Atrexia returned to her seat. “Now me.”

Tala watched as the woman took a bite. The result was almost identical to that of Trent. The only difference was that the power took different paths to her keystone, as her spell-lines were different.

“Basically the same result. Different paths, though, because you are inscribed differently.”

Renix cleared his throat. “Were there commonalities in the types of spell-lines the power followed?”

All three Mages turned to look at him, and he hunched just slightly.

After a long moment, Trent nodded. “Good question, but that seems a bit specific for Mistress Tala to be able to determine.”

Tala shook her head. “True, but not relevant. In each of you, the power followed the largest through-lines through each of your spell-forms, ignoring any ancillary lines.”

Renix brightened. “Like lightning!”

Trent was already nodding. “Our spell-lines are acting to funnel the power throughout our bodies. Fascinating.”

After another almost uncomfortable silence, Trent and Atrexia shared a look, then sighed and began eating in almost perfect sync.

Tala grinned. “Decided it wasn’t dangerous?”

Trent glowered. “Decided it wasn’t worth starving…” He sighed, looking to Atrexia. “What do we do about it, when we reach Alefast?”

Atrexia looked at Tala, then back to Trent. “This would kick up a mother of a storm…”

Trent grunted. “Best case scenario?”

“We get poisoned on our next expedition.” She pointed at Tala’s breast again. It still had a subtly glowing circle. “I’m guessing we’re right?”

Tala grimaced. “Yeah. Seems the cooks don’t like seeing their friends die, and they are convinced that the meat makes themselves, and the guards, stronger.” After a moment, she added. “They claim that they’ve seen it increase the speed of healing as well.”

Trent grunted. “You’re going to look into it?”

Tala hesitated, then nodded. “I hope to. It is in line with…several other avenues I’m already taking.”

Atrexia cocked an eyebrow above another spoonful of soup. “Your glass covered skin?”

Tala sighed. “It isn’t glass. It’s-” She stopped herself, then found herself grinning. “Did you think I’d give you the answer in order to correct you?”

Atrexia shrugged, continuing to eat. “Worth a shot.”

Tala kept smiling. “My inscriber said she wouldn’t wish my process on her worst enemy. Still curious?”

Atrexia smiled in turn. “Just because you haven’t found an easy way to do it, doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist.” She shrugged. “Assuming it’s anything worth replicating.”

Trent interjected. “Mistress Atrexia, all Mages have secrets.”

She huffed. “And we’re all worse for it.”

Trent smiled ruefully. “Care to share yours?”

“Nope.”

“So, what you meant was that you were worse for it.”

“Can you guard this caravan without me?”

Trent hesitated. “I’d not like to try…”

Atrexia grinned. “Then, we’re worse for it.” She winked.

Trent rolled his eyes and turned to eating in earnest.

Tala sat back down beside Renix and leaned close. “Are they always like that?”

He shrugged, clearly trying not to stare at the glowing spot on her skin. “When we are in the same caravan, yeah. Master Trent tries to build good relations with any Mage he travels with. If that isn’t possible, he learns how best to interact for the least friction.” He quirked a smile. “If that isn’t possible, he learns how far he can needle them as revenge for messing with his attempts to get along.”

“Probably a good idea... Though the last is a bit odd.”

It was well and truly dark, and the passengers and guards had moved back to their wagons, or posts, leaving the Mages to themselves.

With nothing really remaining to discuss, Tala bade them all a goodnight.

She walked beneath the stars back to her wagon. As she approached, she could hear Den, lightly snoring from the driver’s seat, up on the wagon. The oxen were staked out on leads and hobbled so they could graze and sleep at their leisure. I don’t see a water basin for them. I wonder how it’s provided.

She gave that a moment’s thought, then shrugged. Den knows what he’s about.

She glanced around, and though she could see perfectly, she realized that the darkness was enough to hide her from any observer, or at least obscure the details.

That in mind, she stripped off the stabbed shirt and pulled on another. She took her bedroll and unfurled it under the wagon, atop the thicker puff of grass.

She still marveled at how much Magic wove through the ground and plants out here in the wilds.

Shortly after she laid down, she heard a guard walk by some fifteen feet out, and she settled in, feeling safe.

 

* * *

 

Tala woke to the soft light of pre-dawn, the feeling of pins and needles all over her body and the subtle, but pervasive, flash of power igniting spell-lines across her flesh.

Her eyes shot fully open, and she was suddenly aware of thorny vines constricting down upon her. In that frozen instant, she assessed her situation.

If she had to guess, the softer patch of plant she’d taken as a gift had turned out to be some sort of carnivorous plant. It seemed to have wormed vines up, and across her entire body through the night. With the first light of dawn, it had uncovered thorns, spaced every one to two inches, and constricted in an obvious attempt to shred its victim apart and cover itself in her blood.

Her enhancements had objected…strongly.

Golden light, with a slight grey tint, washed outward from her, even as her clothes were utterly shredded.

The vines began almost slithering across her, and she realized that if they had pierced her, they would now be sawing through her muscle and bone.

By all that shines. She flailed despite her bound limbs. Thankfully, she hadn’t been bound to hold her down. No, the plant’s aim seemed to have been to get its wicked weapons into position over her main arteries and open them to the sun.

She blessed Holly and her inscribings, again.

Tala’s hand found her belt knife, which she’d laid beside her head the night before.

Tala whipped the blade free and began to hack.

In most circumstances, hacking at something so close to her own flesh would have been unwise, but her active enhancements turned aside her own blade as easily as the thorns, though she still felt the impacts.

She tore herself free and rolled out from under her wagon.

Her shirt was simply gone. Another one? Seriously? She stood in just her small clothes which were miraculously mostly intact.

She had apparently been yelling, because several guards were already running towards her, blades drawn, and Den was staring at her in mute horror.

She felt thick, sticky ichor slowly dribbling down her exposed skin. Apparently, the plant had something like blood, and she was coated in it.

Tala looked under the wagon, and saw her bedroll, somehow entirely untouched, writhing atop the floundering plant. It oriented all the spines and thorns towards me. She was not going to pay for a new bedroll.

With a bellow of rage, she dove back under the wagon, grabbing her bedroll, whipping it off the plant creature, and tossing the gear out from under the wagon. She remained, slashing any vine she could hold onto long enough to cut.

She vaguely saw the guards skid to a stop and draw back, as the now fully uncovered plant lashed out with half a hundred more tentacle-like vines.

With so many vines, she couldn’t get close, not in the confined, four-foot-high space.

Tala had had enough. “Toss me your sword!” She glared over her shoulder at one of the guards, and he blanched.

Another tried to shuffle closer, but the vines were moving too quickly.

The vines struck Tala, herself, in a steady rhythm, but they lacked the mass to do any damage without the aid of their thorns.

“Don’t bring it to me. TOSS IT!”

The guard flinched, then pitched his short sword to her, underhanded. Considering he was some ten feet back and aiming to toss it under a wagon and near someone in the middle of a maelstrom: He did a good job.

The tip struck her squarely in the side, causing another section of her inscribings to blaze with light. How that one section had avoided activation up until then, she had no idea.

She picked up the blade from the ground and found herself grinning. “Now, you rusting patch of grass, you die.”

She drove inward, hunched yet cutting in great sweeping arcs, leaving dozens of tendrils twitching on the surrounding ground. After each swing, she was able to take a shuffling, crouching step forward.

Finally, she got close enough to the center to drive the blade straight down, into the core of the thing, buried in the ground.

The entire mass seemed to freeze on the instant, then fell limp.

Tala whooped in victory, ripped the blade free, and staggered out from under the wagon.

She was glowing like a small fire, and she would have been surprised if any part of her spell-forms hadn’t been activated. I’m glad they aren’t one-shots… What had Holly said? Each area should be able to activate at least a half-dozen times? It was something like that. She’d have to check her notes. At the moment, she was much too distracted.

Atrexia, Trent, Renix, and a half dozen guards were standing in a ring around the wagon, staring at her in mute horror.

Den was still atop his driver’s seat.

Tala looked around at all of them, saw the man who’d given her the sword, and tossed it back at his feet. “Sorry, I’ve nothing to clean it with. Thank you, though.”

The man mutely bent down and retrieved it, holding it as if he were unsure if the weapon was safe.

Trent opened his mouth to speak, and by the smile tugging at the edges of his lips, Tala could guess it would be something about her chest glowing again.

She pointed the knife in her off hand at him and glared. “Now is not the time, Master Trent.”

Trent closed his mouth, but the small smile remained. He seemed to be laughing at his own joke.

She looked down at herself. The glow wasn’t strong enough to obscure the details of her figure, though the streaks of black ichor, which speckled her from head to toe, made it so she didn’t feel mostly naked. She did feel gross, though. And sticky…

Her eyes flicked to Atrexia. The woman wore barely more than Tala currently was. So, why are they staring at me? She grunted. Right…glowing.

Tala sighed and growled. “It’s done, now. I’ve work to do.” When no one moved, she raised her voice. “Off with you!”

The watchers turned reluctantly, slowly scattering back to their morning tasks. Atrexia lingered for a moment to shake her head and mutter under her breath. “If we get a salad as part of breakfast, someone dies.”

Tala almost laughed, and when she looked after the woman and their gazes met, she saw a twinkle in the other Mage’s eyes. Ahh, that was meant for me to hear.

Tala walked around the wagon and opened the wash station. She had a building headache, and it was beginning to make her feel grumpy. After she scraped herself mostly clean, she used almost a gallon of water getting off the last bits. When she looked up from dunking her head, again, she saw Den’s hand sticking out above her, his head no-where in sight.

Grasped in that hand was her last, undamaged shirt, tightly folded so it wouldn’t drop into the water. How long has he been holding that there? From the way he was positioned, he couldn’t see any part of her, and it didn’t look like he’d even tried to spy.

She scraped what water she could, off of herself and took the shirt. “Thank you, Den.”

His voice came from the driver’s seat. “I didn’t want you to have to come back into the wagon circle just to get that.” After a long moment, he added, “Are you ok?”

Tala thought about that, as she pulled on the shirt. Finally, she sighed. “Yeah. I think I might have nightmares about grass, but yeah.” She shivered. “I’ll be sleeping on the roof, from now on…” As she thought about that, she added. “Maybe I can get the guards to lend me one of those shields. Being snatched by some arcanous owl would be an unfortunate way to go…”

Den chuckled. “True enough. Most people sleep inside on these expeditions…” He didn’t say more.

Tala sighed, closing up the wash station and stretching up and back. This was not how she liked to wake up, but she could make the most of it.

She moved through her morning stretches but decided to forgo the workout. She felt a bit sore from her work harvesting arcanous parts the day before, and the morning’s scuffle had added new aches. Great. The wilds are my workout…

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