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As before, when sunset was close, Den found a relatively flat stretch of ground and led the wagons in a great circle.

As they rolled to a stop, the guardsmen and servants immediately began setting up camp, and the drivers tended their oxen.

Since Tala didn’t have blood to clean off this evening, she used the opportunity to do some standing stretches. The wagons were incredibly stable, but she did not trust herself to balance atop them, at least she hadn’t yet. Maybe tomorrow. It would probably be good for her stability to try.

Newly limbered, she strode towards the chuckwagon.

To her joy, she could still feel the comfortable energy of the berry within herself. It seemed to have diminished slightly, but certainly not by more than a quarter, even though she’d eaten the fruit at least two hours earlier. This is even better than I’d hoped!

As she walked across the wagon circle, more guards were sizing her up than ever before, but Tala ignored their stares.

She greeted Brand and the other cooks cheerily and took the offered bowl of…

“What is tonight's meal, exactly?”

Brand cracked a half smile. “Stewed barley, root vegetables, and chicken.” He emphasized the last, and Tala understood.

So, they didn’t jerk all the blade-wing meat, just what they weren’t using for tonight. “It looks wonderful.” And it did. It had a thick, porridge-like consistency, but orange vegetables and green spices gave it a pleasing aesthetic.

As she looked about, a waving Renix drew her over to the table where the other Mages were sitting. Once again, it was set a bit apart, which gave some privacy, along with a sense of ‘other-ness.’ Like at the Academy, but this time I’m segregated with the other magic users. She almost smirked at the irony.

Trent smiled up at her. “Care to join us?”

Renix grinned. “We haven’t gotten a chance to hear your side of the terror bird’s attack.”

Atrexia sighed and grudgingly motioned for Tala to join them as well. “Go ahead.”

She stepped over the bench and settled on Atrexia’s right. “Thank you, don’t mind if I do, but the story will have to wait, until I eat a bit.”

Renix nodded in concession, taking another bite of his own dinner.

Atrexia grunted.

Tala settled in, took a bite, and blinked down at the bowl. This is fantastic. She looked back towards the chuckwagon. Maybe they are culinary Mages of some kind…That was unlikely.

This seemed to be the perfect way to end the day.

Tala continued eating at a dedicatedly steady pace, making sure she did not rush, and enjoying every bite.

After a few moments of silence, Trent cleared his throat. “So, before we hear the story, we have to discuss the fee.”

Tala sighed. “Master Trent, I do not see how it is reasonable to expect me to pay you and Renix for his aid or Mistress Atrexia for her healing.”

Trent’s forehead crinkled in a frown. “No, Mistress Tala. Our fee to you.”

Tala returned her attention fully to him. “What?”

“You are not employed to defend the caravan or engage arcanous beasts, we are.”

“I was just defending myself.”

Trent sighed. “Do you know how we are paid?” He gestured to himself and Atrexia.

“No, I can’t say that I do.”

He nodded. “We are paid per arcanous threat the caravan survives.” He hesitated, then added. “In addition to our wagon, and half of our inscribing costs.”

Tala pondered that. “No base rate?”

“None.”

Renix piped up. “Master Trent pays me a straight amount and covers half of the remaining cost for my inscriptions.”

Trent gave Renix a look, and the younger man returned to eating. The older Mage then turned back to Tala. “You did most of the work driving off the terror bird, and the guard will definitely report it as a threat driven off. Your inscriptions won’t be reimbursed, and you were in considerable danger.” He glanced at Atrexia. “We don’t want you to interfere, so don’t see this as an ongoing arrangement.” He returned his eyes to Tala. “But we do want you to feel inclined to help, if the need arises.”

Tala, while listening, was enjoying another mouthful of the food. Is Brand married? No, Tala, you shouldn’t marry a man for his cooking…He had stabbed her in the chest, trying to kill her to hide his own secrets. So…he’s not afraid to stand up for himself? It was still a bad idea. Didn’t he say something about a family? Might have just been lies to gain pity… She sighed, her mind returning to what Trent had said. “I think I understand. What do you propose?”

“Half an ounce of gold.”

Tala blinked at him. “What.”

“We will be paid one ounce of gold for a threat the caravan survives of that bird’s magnitude. We then split it among ourselves as we see fit. My mageling did deliver the final attack, but you did the bulk of the work, and will bear the greater cost in inscriptions. That said-”

Tala held up her hand. “I understand. You don’t want me throwing myself in harm’s way, trying to ‘earn’ more.”

Trent was nodding, but it was Atrexia who answered. “If you die, or are unable to maintain the cargo, the caravan is considered a loss, and we are paid a meager percentage of the passengers' fees.”

Renix made a face. “Never happened to us, but I’ve heard it isn’t even an ounce, gold, to split.”

Atrexia continued as if Renix hadn’t spoken. “It would also be a mark against us and make it much harder for us to get further contracts. You are our charge, Mistress Tala, and your safety is part of our responsibility,” after a moment, she added, “no matter how little any of us like that fact.”

Tala nodded. “Understood. Thank you, I suppose.” After a moment, she cocked her head. “Could I take payment in the form of favors?”

Trent’s eyes narrowed in suspicion. “What kind of favor?”

“Well, you see, I’d like to harvest some more materials from any ending tree we might pass.”

Atrexia’s face had paled. “Master Trent…what does she mean: ‘More?’ ”

Trent put his forehead in his palm and rubbed vigorously. “She…” He sighed. “She has a short stick and several berries.”

Atrexia turned horrified eyes on Tala. “Were all your teachers rusting MORONS!” She almost shouted the last but managed to keep it to an intensely loud whisper.

“It is safely contained.”

“Mistress Tala-” Atrexia looked to the darkening sky for a long moment, seeming to be trying to gather herself. Her hands were clenching and unclenching under the table. Finally, she looked back at the younger Mage. “Mistress Tala. You have gambled against the arcane king and won. Do not take that for evidence that the game is fair.

Tala sighed. “Yes, I am familiar with the fable, Mistress Atrexia. I know that just because a thing was easy once, that does not mean it always will be.”

“That is not the point of the fable, Mistress Tala.” Atrexia was drumming the fingers of her left hand on the table in an anxious rhythm.

“Oh? Then, enlighten me.”

“The arcane king often let his opponent win the first round, so they became complacent. If he read them to be a true fool, he would let them win more than once. Then, he seduced them into one more bet, in which they lost everything.”

“Ending trees are not intelligent, nor are they linked.”

“It. Is. A. Metaphor.” Atrexia seemed to be under a great deal of stress, as she was rubbing her sternum, unconsciously, with the heel of her right palm. “Mistress Tala. You are a Guide! You should be able to understand these things.”

“Mistress Atrexia. I am not a child. I know it is a metaphor. It is also a tale meant to inspire consistent caution, no matter how things have gone in the past. I am not asking for help to burn an ending tree or pluck its berries by hand. I am not a fool.”

“Then prove it. Take the money and leave the golden cage alone.”

“A golden cage would be entirely ineffective.”

Atrexia returned a look of pure condescension. “Our ancestors ceased harvesting ending-berries for a reason, Mistress Tala. Foolish are those who neglect the lessons of history.”

“And do you know the reason?”

Atrexia hesitated. “Well…no…”

“I do.”

Trent and Renix had turned to their meals when the two women had begun arguing, but both perked up at Tala’s words.

Trent leaned forward. “I’d be curious to know, Mistress Tala.”

Atrexia glared at Trent. “Don’t humor her, Master Trent. How could she possibly know?” She turned back to Tala. “Are you a scholar of the deep histories? Are you informed beyond the sages of the Academy?”

“No and probably?” She shrugged. “I have different insights.”

Trent cleared his throat. “To be fair, Mistress Tala, you didn’t know it was an ending tree before you asked me for help.”

Atrexia let out an exasperated breath.

“You are right, I did not, but I did know that the power it radiated was identical to my own enhancements, just utilized in reverse.”

Atrexia stiffened at that, turning to examine Tala.

Tala continued. “With the name, I was able to research my hypothesis, and confirm that the berries are of the same power but act as my enhancements do.”

“So, why aren’t they harvested?” Renix was leaning forward as well.

“First, the trees are exceedingly dangerous.” She held up a hand, forestalling comment. “I have no intention of collecting any more from the trees, themselves. I just want the berries.” She lowered her hand. “The danger of the trees is magnified in that they move erratically and without warning. The only known salvation, if a harvester accidently touches a branch, is to eat a berry. From what I can tell, and from looking at the relative power of each, eating a single berry would save a person from a single solid touch with the tree, maybe two if they had some resistance to magic. The window for eating the berry after a touch is mere seconds, so if you don’t already have one…” She shrugged.

“That’s all well and good, but that could be overcome.”

“Exactly, Mistress Atrexia, I believe we can overcome that.”

Trent sighed. “What is the second reason?”

“The pit, at the center, contains the same effect as the tree, though implemented more like an explosive reaction.”

“Explain.”

“Once the seed is removed, or damaged in any way, it concentrates its power and releases it all in a pulse. Eating a single berry is not sufficient to allow you to survive exposure to that pulse.”

Trent was nodding. “That’s how it spreads. A bird swallows the berry, allowing it to survive having landed on the tree. Then, as it is flying away, the seed is either exposed or damaged, and it activates.”

Tala nodded. “Within a short time, it triggers, obliterating the bird, and dropping the seed in a new location, ideally surrounded by a fresh pile of fertilizer.”

Renix’s eyes were wide. “That’s…devious.”

She quirked a smile. “My thoughts exactly, though, obviously, the tree isn’t sapient, so devious doesn’t apply.” She gave a pointed look to Atrexia.

The other woman rolled her eyes. “So, you stated the problem. The berry is both useful and valuable, but not sufficiently so to justify the risk. It’s like a dragon's hoard. Sure, if you manage to kill the dragon you get some money, but the chances for death are numerous.”

Trent was shaking his head. “No, it’s like an infinite den of vipers, where each viper has a silk ribbon around its neck. Sure, you can probably kill a snake and take the silk, but you also might damage the silk, making the effort useless. It is unlikely that you would get rich before you got bit.” Trent saw the look on Tala’s face and rolled his eyes. “And for the metaphor you don’t have access to defensive or healing magic to remove that risk.”

Atrexia was nodding. “That is a better metaphor. It isn’t one big risk for massive gain it is a thousand possibilities of death each for minor gain. Not worth it.”

To the other’s obvious surprise, Tala nodded in turn. “Exactly. That is why they are no longer harvested.”

Atrexia grunted. “Oh. I see.”

Trent grinned. “She got you there, Mistress Atrexia.”

Atrexia rolled her eyes again. “Nonetheless. That problem still holds true for…us…” She looked back to Tala, examining her more closely. “You say your spell-forms counter the tree’s magic?”

Tala grinned. “If the magic can get to me at all.”

“That would remove the first hurdle.” After a moment, Atrexia amended. “Well, it would mitigate it.” She frowned. “Mistress Tala, that is the harvesting. The part you requested us to assist with. That seems to be the hurdle that you can actively overcome.”

Trent pointed to Atrexia. “She’s got a point.”

Tala sighed. “No. I said that I would like to harvest more. I hadn’t actually told you what favor I would ask.”

Trent nodded. “True. True.”

Atrexia sighed in exasperation, and Renix grinned.

Tala continued. “As I was saying: I would like your help spotting the trees, as well as use of a larger iron box.” She hesitated. “Well, an iron flask would be better…” She nodded. “Yeah, an iron flask. And I need time to actually harvest.”

After a moment, Atrexia shook her head. “No.”

“What?” Tala frowned. “What do you mean: ‘No’?”

“You are asking us to risk this entire contract, to repay you for half an ounce of gold. No. That is foolishness.”

Tala felt her anger rising, but Trent held up his hand before she could respond. “Mistress Tala. We cannot stop you.” He gave Atrexia a silencing look when she opened her mouth to object, then continued. “While we cannot stop you, we will not help you. In fact, we will do anything we reasonably can to discourage you.”

Tala opened her mouth to object in turn, but Trent wiggled his still aloft hand. “However. I am willing to try to help you, after we arrive in Alefast. There are some known groves of ending trees within a couple hours walk of the city, and you could easily go out and get back before nightfall.”

Tala closed her mouth. I’ll need to be charging these cargo-slots for unloading, and the new set for my return trip, but if I do that in the morning… She found herself nodding. “You would offer guidance and protection?”

Trent paused. “Well…no. I would buy you a map and make sure you could read it and follow it to the grove. Half an ounce of gold is not worth the inscribings it would take for me to make such a journey safely.”

Renix straightened. “I could-” He cut off as Trent turned on him, eyebrow raised. Renix deflated. “I could wish you the best, and buy you an iron flask…”

Tala almost found herself smiling at the exchange. Finally, she sighed and nodded. “Fair, but that doesn’t erase the debt. Half an ounce of gold. Yes?”

Trent paused for just an instant before nodding. “Fair enough. The grove is well known, and maps of the region around Alefast are cheap.” He smiled. “I’d be happy to help a friend, especially if that friend refrained from dying until then?”

Tala snorted. “Fine. I’ll try to exercise greater caution.”

Atrexia took her last bite of food and straightened. “That insanity out of the way, Master Trent, didn’t you want to review something with Renix?”

“Ahh! Yes, quite right.” He glanced to Tala. “Mistress Tala. I was going to give Renix here a brief refresher on the use of magic, but he’s heard it from me half a hundred times, and I’ve gotten Mistress Atrexia to give her take at least six times.”

“Ten.” Renix said with a glower. “She can make magic boring, Mistress Tala. Magic!”

Tala quirked a smile. “I’ve had teachers like that.” She looked inquiringly at Trent. “Do I hear a question in there?”

“Would you provide the refresher?”

She blinked back at Trent. “On…the use of magic…”

“Yes.”

“Are you sure you don’t want me to enlighten him on ‘what stuff is?’ ”

Trent grinned. “I find that a broad prompt allows a Mage to convey what they feel is important. It prevents too much repetition.”

She shrugged, taking the last bite of her own, fantastically delicious dinner. She swallowed. “Sure, I suppose.” Setting her bowl aside, she turned to face Renix more fully. “Any act of magic requires three things: First, power. Second, a shape. Third, a will. The less of any one of the three you have, the more of the other two are required, and vice versa.” She held up a hand. “Spell-lines grant a spell its shape; we, through our gate and keystone, provide the power. The will comes through our understanding of what we are enacting. That is why a Mage cannot use a magic they don’t comprehend.”

Renix was nodding. “Of course, this is basic.”

Tala quirked a smile. “Am I giving an overview or not?”

Renix shrugged. “Fair enough.”

“Now, the shape is ‘used’ by the consumption of our inscriptions, the metal slowly being eroded with subsequent uses. The power is obvious, our gates can only open so wide, and the power accumulation rate varies from Mage to Mage, but here is the point of note, where a Mage can truly influence things. If the power is sifted, controlled, and provided to the spell-form exactly as it needs to be used, then the burden on the inscription lightens, and they will last longer.”

Trent was nodding, a small smile on his lips, but Renix was frowning. “We have filters on our keystone, right? That is how the type and quantity of power going to each spell-line is governed.”

Thank you, Master Himmal, for filling in this gap in my education. “Well, yes, but that is like trusting your knife to perfectly purée an herb. The mortar and pestle will do a better, finer job. And as with herbs, your gate, as governed by your mind, can better modulate the type and quantity of power given to your spell-lines.”

“And you do this?”

She shrugged. “Me? Not particularly.”

Atrexia scoffed, taking a drink of water. “Of course, you don’t.”

Tala ignored the other woman. “I have chosen my spell-forms to take advantage of my…peculiarities. And thus, I have no need to feather the power. My spell-lines will use, efficiently, anything I give them.”

Renix was frowning.

Tala sighed. “Most of my inscriptions are not…finessed. They simply act. You would not want to throw your full power behind a lightning strike because…?”

Renix started nodding. “Because I could blow a crater the size of a wagon in the ground. If I was too close, I could kill myself. It’s imprecise, sloppy, and prone to collateral damage.” He glanced to his smiling and nodding master.

Tala smiled too. “Whereas if I dump too much power into my protection?”

“You are simply better protected.”

“Exactly. Now, the final component, the mind, is where every Mage works and refines themselves over their lifetime. The clearer and more accurate you can perceive what your power should do, the better. The more closely you can make your mental construct to the effect that is to come, the less power, and the less inscribing material, will be required to achieve the same result.” She smiled. “In cases where you are using all the power you can, that simply means that the effect will be greater, instead of the power requirement dropping.” She touched her two thumbs together and two index fingers together, making a triangle. “Imagine this triangle, fixed at its midpoint; that midpoint is the spell-working, the output. The higher you raise each corner…” She rocked her hand around, tilting the triangle in demonstration. “…the lower the other corners can get. You will always need all three corners to make a triangle, but you can alter their elevation.”

Renix looked thoughtful. “Yeah, I think I knew that…I just hadn’t thought of it that way before.”

Trent inclined his head, briefly. “Thank you, Mistress Tala. I think that is sufficient, for now.”

Tala actually felt a flicker of disappointment. She’d been starting to enjoy the monologue. Even so, she nodded in return. “As you say, Master Trent. Is there anything that you would correct?”

Trent seemed to think for a moment, then shook his head. “Not specifically. You spoke in generalities, so of course it wasn’t perfectly accurate, but you weren’t aiming for precision, nor did I request such.” Trent nodded to Tala. “Thank you, again.”

She smiled in return. “Of course.”

Atrexia didn’t comment as Tala stood, taking her bowl, cup, and spoon to the washing station. Every other dish either had been, or would be, washed by one of the caravan’s servants, but Tala found she didn’t mind the quick task.

Hah, I never had to tell my side of the terror bird attack. She decided to see that as an absolute win.

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