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Tala looked up as her wagon took a somewhat abrupt turn, pulling away from her to the left as she walked. From the look of things, Den was guiding the caravan in a wide arc around a lone tree, which was swaying gently despite the lack of strong wind.

Tala tilted her head back, taking in the nearly perfectly clear sky. That’s strange. There’s no storm to explain odd wind patterns. She thought back over the trip so far. They’d passed countless bushes and were constantly around the all-covering grass, but Tala didn’t think she’d seen a tree since early the previous day.

The bark of this one was almost bone white, and looked as smooth as polished marble, at least at this distance. The leaves were green and full, and there were what looked like red berries scattered throughout the canopy.

As she looked closer, she could see that the plant positively blazed with magic, and Tala was tempted to try to go harvest a branch or something, but her better reasoning warred with that first temptation. Additionally, the aura of the power in the tree somehow tasted like a graveyard and an old graveyard at that. How can a living thing radiate a feeling of death? She had no idea. Even so, she somehow knew that ‘death’ wasn’t quite right.

They were almost halfway through their circuitous arc, and Tala was just pulling her attention away from the tree, when a bird landed in one of the upper branches.

Huh…maybe I was-

Even as she was contemplating, the bird simply fell apart. It turned to a fine powder, raining down upon the tree, which seemed to sway just a bit more. It likes it? She might have been anthropomorphizing just a bit, but even so… A tree that makes its own fertilizer…wonderful.

Had the bird eaten a berry, or had just touching the tree been enough to kill it? Maybe both? Maybe it didn’t eat a berry quickly enough? That could make sense. If the berries contained a counteracting magic to that of the tree, the tree’s seeds could be spread, else they likely wouldn’t move very far, and the berries, themselves would be pretty useless.

She didn’t understand why any animal would ever come near, until she realized that there was no smell of death, no bones, nothing to indicate that animals died here. Ooooo…that’s evil. Well, not actually evil, but it was devious.

Tala found herself wanting a stick even more.

She’d hoped to harvest the burn wolves, but they’d gotten away. The cloud hind had retreated before she’d really been able to contemplate plans for them, but the possibilities for their parts were numerous, and finally, the dimensional and invisible arcanous critters had been eluding her. She wanted something from today’s encounters.

You know? I bet I can get close enough…the iron should protect me. The question was, how would she harvest a limb? She didn’t trust herself to throw a rope over one, and she wasn’t sure a rope would survive contact anyways. The more she thought about it, the more she was sure. I want a death stick.

The tree was at least three hundred yards away.

She glanced at the grass, living happily beneath the tree. No effect on plant matter, then? That was good. Her clothes were linen and should be fine. Either that, or it takes direct contact… In either case, her clothes should be fine. She’d never thought of herself as wardrobe obsessed, but this was, after all, her last set of unstained, undamaged clothing.

She stuck her hat and satchel in the box of her wagon. Den gave her a questioning look but didn’t slow the oxen or comment.

She grabbed one of her sticks with iron salve from her box and strode towards the tree.

Trent rode up to her before she’d made it ten feet from the wagon. “Mistress Tala…that tree…”

“Death magic, right?”

He stared down at her. “Death magic… No? I mean, I suppose you could call it that, but it really is more like dissolution.”

“Huh. Good to know.” She turned back to the tree.

Trent cleared his throat. “Mistress Tala. What are you going to do?”

“I want a death stick.”

“You want…a death stick…” He sighed. “Firstly, as I said, it would be a dissolution stick. Secondly, are you sure that’s wise?”

She shrugged. “Is dissolution magic blocked by iron?”

He frowned. “Yes, as far as I know, but to get it in an iron box, you will have to get close. That magic is very powerful, and from a tree that old, it could shatter most defenses in moments. Please reconsider, Mistress Tala.” He glanced back towards the caravan. “You are somewhat imperative for this mission, and I believe that Mistress Atrexia, Renix, and I would be blamed if harm were to come to you.”

Tala hadn’t considered that. She growled in frustration. Then, a thought occurred to her. “Could you shoot off one of the smaller branches? Such as sending an ice spike into it, or strike it with lightning, or something?”

Trent blinked at her for a long moment. “I don’t see how…” He groaned and scratched his forehead. “Were you planning on climbing the tree to get a branch, before I came to talk to you?”

When he put it like that, it did sound foolish. After all, there is no way I could have kept my clothes out of contact with the trunk. “No?”

He sighed, shaking his head. “You are something else, Mage Tala.” He glanced at the tree. “Yes, I can, but it wouldn’t be free, and you’d still have a stick, full of lethal magic, that you couldn’t actually touch.”

“Leave that to me.”

He cocked an eyebrow. “Oh? You have a plan better than ‘climb the death tree’ for dealing with the branch?”

She ignored his obvious jab and nodded. “I do.”

“Care to share?”

“Not particularly.”

Trent groused for a moment, then sighed. “Two silver ounces, for the inscribings this will cost, and if the tree reacts to defend the fallen piece, you swear to pull back. I get paid either way.”

Tala frowned. “Can I pay you in Alefast?”

He waved a hand. “Fine, fine. Deal?”

After a moment, she nodded. “Deal.”

Trent turned and focused on the tree. “How big?”

“No larger than a walking stick, please.” After a moment, she added. “If possible, I’d love a couple of leaves and berries?”

He nodded and lifted his right hand, pointing the first two fingers, muttering quietly. “Small it is, then.” Then, he spoke without sound, and Tala saw a brief flicker of power on the man’s throat. Verbal caster? Those weren’t very common.

The brief flicker zipped down his arm to his fingers, then back to his throat, where it was diverted to his right knee. There, it became a flash, too fast for her to follow.

An instant later, lightning struck up from the ground and neatly sheared off one of the smaller, ancillary branches close to their side.

The boom of thunder came not a heartbeat later.

“Thank you.”

Trent grunted.

Tala strode forward confidently, her mage-sight sweeping the ground for any other arcanous plants that might be a threat.

She found none, though she did see the tree’s roots extending almost all the way to the wagons. That’s crazy! The root system’s circumference is nearly ten times that of the branches. That couldn’t be normal. Thankfully, the roots were deep as well, the closest to the surface being at least fifteen feet down at this radius. That should be safe. After a moment, she continued pondering. I wonder what the life cycle of a tree like this even is? Would it kill any little trees that grew up near it? Did the tips of the roots grow upward, after they were far enough away, to make new trunks?

She glanced around, noting, again, that there were no other trees in sight. How would this even get here? So many questions. She promised herself to add the questions to her notes for later. If later ever comes. With her growing list of questions, it just might not.

When she reached the fallen branch, she eyed the tree critically. It didn’t seem to be reacting to her presence. The limb was just over one foot long, barely curving. A little small, don’t you think, Trent? But she couldn’t really complain, it would be easier to deal with, at this length. A cluster of four leaves and some ten berries hung from one end.

This close, she could easily see that the spell-forms in the berries, while still unintelligible to her, felt opposed to that within the leaves and branch, itself.

She almost reached for it with her hand, but she remembered that her palms were not protected by her iron salve. Instead, she extended the iron salve bar, on its stick, and began rubbing it across the limb.

To her surprise, the salve came off easily, clearly at least tangentially affected by the magic of the hefty twig. The salve melted easily and resolidified quickly atop the bark. Her mage-sight told her that it was effectively blocking the power within.

Interestingly, the grass beneath the limb only began to crumble after she’d coated the top with the iron salve. Concentrating the power? And directing downward enough to cause it to affect vegetation, when it wasn’t meant to? It seemed plausible, but she was just guessing. Interesting.

She gingerly flipped the stick over and coated the other side, along with the leaves, using her mage-sight to verify that she left no holes in the coating. She did not coat the berries.

After double, triple, and quadruple checking, she took a breath, and picked up the stick.

Nothing happened.

Nothing continued to happen.

Hah! It worked. She’d never been in doubt…not really…It would have been a foolish risk if she wasn’t sure, beforehand.

Tala turned and strode for her wagon, which had completed another quarter of its trip around the radius of the tree. She could see many of the drivers, several guards, Trent, and Renix all watching her as she walked back.

The mundane folks returned to their tasks as she returned, but Renix and Trent awaited her, just outside of the tree’s root radius. Can they sense it, or does folk-wisdom regarding plants like this simply cover the outside cases? Probably not worth asking.

Trent was looking at the dissolution stick. Stupid name. His eyes then went to the stick holding the remains of her bar of salve. “Iron dust in the soap?”

She shrugged. “Not soap, more of a salve like-medium to facilitate spread and cohesion, but yeah something like that.”

He was nodding. “Clever I suppose, if you are careful.”

Renix grinned at her, pointing to the dissolution stick in her hand. “Do you want to get me a few? I’ll pay.”

“I don’t want to sell you death sticks.” Her eyes flicked to Trent, who was shaking his head in bemusement.

Renix frowned. “Fine, then.”

“Renix, this is dangerous. If it broke, the exposed ends might dissolve anything they touch.”

Trent looked around sharply, scanning the caravan. It didn’t look like anyone was close enough to overhear, but even so, his voice was a harsh whisper when he spoke. “Mistress Tala. Such things should not be said where they can be overheard. That is a dangerous item, and I will be very cross if I learn that it has been taken. Do we understand each other?”

Tala swallowed involuntarily. She responded with a soft voice of her own. “Sure, but I don’t see the problem. It really isn’t that hard to kill a person.”

Trent scratched above his right eye. “Not for a Mage, no. And you are technically right that anyone can stab a knife into someone’s back, but that takes some skill and strength and leaves evidence. That.” He pointed at the stick in her hand. “That could kill with a touch and would likely leave no evidence save a missing person.”

Oh… She hadn’t thought of it in that way.

“Do you want me to hold onto it? I have a lock box in my wagon…”

Tala almost grew angry at the implication, as well as the patronizing tone, but she calmed herself. “No. I’ll be careful.”

Trent narrowed his eyes, then relaxed, just slightly. Power rippled around his eyes, and he began digging in a pouch. “I can still see power coming off of the berries. Do you want a small iron box for those?” He pulled out a box that was just a bit larger than a stereotypical ring box. “Those should fit in here without trouble.” After a moment, he saw her hesitation and smiled. “No charge.”

She accepted the little box with a nod of thanks, and closed it over the berries, using the box, itself, to snip them free. That exposed a small bit of the branch to air, and it blazed with power to her sight. She quickly pressed the iron salve bar to the stub, sealing it once more.

Trent nodded, seeming appeased. “What do you want it for, anyways?” By his look, he seemed to be regretting that he hadn’t asked that question before helping her get it.

She tucked the little box under her belt and opened her mouth to respond but realized that she actually had no idea. In truth, what the branch did, breaking down cells to their base components, was the exact opposite of what her own enhancements accomplished. In theory, that meant that it should be able to power constructs like her own defenses, just like fire magic could be used to spread fires or suppress them. But was that really why she’d wanted a sample?

Why did I want this? The answer was both simple and trite. She was loath to pass on anything, and she’d been frustrated by missing the chance to harvest arcanous components so far that morning.

Trent turned to face her more fully, and his tone was more probing. “Mistress Tala. Why did you want that?”

She cleared her throat. “Mages have their secrets.”

He just stared at her for a long moment then let out a long, long sigh, scratching furiously between his eyebrows. He spoke very quietly, so quietly that Renix likely didn’t hear, but Tala could. “Rust and ruin, Mistress Atrexia is right. You’re a child.” He looked back up. “What is wrong with you?” He swung off of his horse, and tossed the reins to Renix, who fumbled them, but managed to grab them at the last moment. Trent stalked closer to her. “Do you want a pack full of poisons, too? I can create a lightning crystal for you that will obliterate a couple of wagons if you drop it. Would you like six or seven of those?”

Tala was backing up, but not as quickly as he was advancing. What is going on? She had flashes of her teachers advancing on her in rage after one of her many…unusual solutions, and she felt her pulse quicken.

“What, by all that shines, possessed you, girl?” He wasn’t shouting, but his voice was reaching the upper end of what could be called a whisper.

Tala stopped retreating and stood her ground. No. I am a Mage, and he is not my teacher. She glared up at him, truly realizing for the first time that he was, indeed, much larger than she was. Her mage-sight told her that his keystone was holding his gate wide open, likely in response to his own emotions. He was keyed up for magic, though he made no move to cast.

Trent halted his advance just out of arms reach. His eyes flicked to the stick but returned to meet her gaze an instant later. He seemed to be fighting within himself, but after a long moment of silence, he asked, in a level tone, “Well?”

“I am collecting all I can. I am learning all I can. I…” I’m short on money, and need to sell anything I can…

Trent’s eyes narrowed, and he raised a finger to point at her. “Tell me that you didn’t consider selling it. That would be very rusting foolish. As Mages we are supposed to protect people from powers such as that.” His finger now stabbed at the stick still in her hand. “And you would give it into the hands of a stranger to use for who know what sort of slag?”

Tala looked away. “I want to study it, alright? Its effect is almost directly opposed to some of my own defenses. Why, by all that shines, would I sell it?” Ok, not going to sell it. That was a bad idea…

Trent grunted. “If you truly don’t intend on selling it, and you will be careful…”

Tala held up a hand. “You’ve made your point, and while you aren’t precisely wrong, you are not correct. Now, I don’t have the correct book to properly research this. I’m done with the basic book on Immaterial Guide spell-forms. Do you have the whole set of tomes, or will I have to carry this dangerous item for the remainder of the trip, and seek the book in Alefast?”

He threw up his hands. “You can have any book you want, girl. I’m trying to help you, not keep things from you. I want you, and everyone else, to be as safe as reasonable.”

“Fine, fine. I’d promise not to do anything with it, before consulting you…”

“But you’d be lying.”

She grinned.

She saw Trent’s cheek twitch, though she couldn’t have said whether it was threatening a smile, or a sign of deep frustration and stress. “Would another perspective really be so bad? Even just to run your thoughts by?”

Renix piped up. “I’m happy to bounce ideas around, too!”

Trent paused. “That would probably be good for him.” He glanced back to her. “And for you.”

“Fine. I’ll talk with both of you before I do anything major.”

He grunted. “Probably as much as I can hope for.” He gave her a long look. “You know, there is more to the Master-Mageling relationship than obligation. The Academy does not prepare a Mage for the realities of the world; it isn’t intended to.”

Tala knew he’d guessed she’d never had a Master, but she chose not to acknowledge that. “And Renix has a good one. I hope to learn some from you, myself, during this trip.”

He pointed back to the stick. “Throw it back?”

She chuffed a laugh. “No, but when I’m done with it, if any part is left, I’ll let you burn it.”

He hesitated. “Far from anyone or anything?”

She thought about it for a moment, then nodded. “That sounds wise.”

They both nodded their assent. “Very well, Mistress Tala. Thank you.” After a moment, he smiled slightly. “In case you care, that is called an ending tree.”

With the name, everything clicked into place. Oh! That makes sense. Before humanity left the wilds for good, ending trees were used for disposing of waste, the creation of fertilizers, and…for ritual suicides. They supposedly couldn’t survive within cities. Wonder why…

Trent glanced to Renix. “Can you show her where the books are?”

Renix seemed to relax, handing Trent back his reins. “Of course.”

Together, Renix and Tala went to Trent’s wagon, and Trent, himself, went back to riding as flanking guard for the column of wagons, still winding through the open grasslands.

The strange, isolated tree silently shrunk into the distance behind them.

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JLMullins

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