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Tala basked in the warm morning sunlight as the wagon rumbled beneath her. The soft breeze was a perfect counterpoint to that warmth, and she found herself deliciously comfortable. Adding to her delight, a large pitcher of coffee rode beside her, her mug already filled.

She’d convinced Brand to give her the extra that had been brewed, but not drunk, before they were underway.

As a final little joy, she’d eaten another ending-berry as they set out. Hopefully, today, I won’t use up the energy by being attacked. She did need to know how long the power from one would stay in her system.

She’d seen Den freshly greasing the axles and joints in the wagon’s wheels before they left that morning, and they now trundled along with hardly a squeak or squeal.

They were moving slowly higher, as they came closer to the mountains to the south-east. Additionally, the grasslands were interspersed more often with large outcroppings or formations of rock. Well, Atrexia will be more effective at least.

She didn’t read. She didn’t take notes or sketch.

She simply lay back, sipping her coffee, and enjoyed the morning.

The only thing to spoil her good mood was the occasional flicker of dimensional power trailing the caravan near the edge of her perception.

The terror bird was no real threat to her, and she’d demonstrated that to the creature. Aside from broken bones… In that light, it should leave her alone. Then, why is it following, Tala? She didn’t have a good answer.

She would not let it affect her mood.

And it didn’t.

Not one bit.

Tala sighed, sitting up straight and glaring back down the line of wagons. Her mage-sight tickled her perception, and she looked up to see a large bird of prey winging past, up above them.

Such creatures were common, but none had attacked their group since that first day. Apparently, those closer to human cities tended to be a bit more aggressive towards humans, while those farther out tended to avoid more often than attack.

Boring… and, she supposed, impoverishing to Trent and Atrexia. At least, none of the mundane folks were in danger of dying. Huh, everything’s a trade-off, I suppose.

They’d also seen scattered groups of the thunder cattle over the past few days, and this morning in particular. Den had informed her that there were often small groups of the beasts up to seventy or eighty miles from the main herd. She’d looked them up in the Order of the Harvest’s book. Almost all of the animal could be harvested.

The meat gave good strength-enhancing effects and bone-broth or bone-meal made from the bovines would rapidly restore broken or cracked bones. Doesn’t store well, though, even in iron containers. The Order seemed baffled, and quite irritated, at that fact.

Den had also told her that the hides were highly prized, and that the guards always did their utmost to skin the creatures, if they had the opportunity.

How much meat would be on one of those things anyways? She really wanted to hunt for one. It wouldn’t hurt to have some of the bone powder, either. Broken bones seem to be my greatest danger, at the moment. But the stuff was only good for a week or so. I really hope I don’t break anything else that soon.

She found herself idly playing with one of the iron vials that Brand had sold her. It had an iron screw-on cap, lined with a leather gasket. The threading was on the outside of the vial, so that the spices that had been held inside couldn’t easily be caught in the thread. This is fine work.

The seal seemed intact, and the vessel had a delicate artistry to it. I wonder what I’ll use it for? She was already planning on putting the remaining seven ending-berries in the flask, but what was she to do with the vials? I’ll find a use for them.

Two of the vials were of this refined make, but the third was much cruder. It had likely held coarser spices, and so hadn’t needed the same type of fine seal. Salt crystals, maybe? Regardless, it was secured by a small, tough cord, which wrapped around a smaller portion of the vial. The rougher vial also had a slightly larger inner diameter, just larger than her thumb, and was shorter, so that her thumb could easily touch the inside of the bottom.

As she was playing with one of the finer vials, she found her mind wandering.

She drank more coffee.

Atrexia doesn’t seem to know what to make of me. I feel like she sees me as a child, but also as some sort of monster. Tala sighed, then quirked a smile. I suppose that Holly and Lyn weren’t much different, when they saw my fully empowered blood.

Tala’s mind stopped on that thought and refused to move onward. My blood was unusually powerful… Her eyes rested on the fine iron vial. I wonder… She found herself grinning.

With precise care, she began shifting her mind towards deactivating her protective scripts at one specific point on her left ring finger. As she did so, she threw her gate open, wide.

It might have been the coffee in her system, or something else, but she felt the nervous energy much more strongly. As she thought about it, it seemed like a horrifically discordant mountain lion, beside the calmly purring power of the ending-berry, within her.

She waited until she was practically ready to scream from the discordance of it. Her legs were trembling with nervous energy, almost causing the vial to shake free from where she held it between her knees, and the knife was shaking in her right hand.

She exerted her will and pulled all that nervous, raw power into her finger as she compressed it, pricking the place with deactivated magics quickly, before compressing it and releasing a drop of blood.

The nervous energy left her in a rush, and the drop of blood seemed almost to vibrate as it fell.

Tala’s mage-sight saw what resembled a falling bonfire as the blood dropped into the vial, and she fought a wave of dizziness in order to cap the vial and trap the power within.

Even through all that, she kept her control, and prevented her enhancements from activating to heal the minor cut.

The vial closed, she sheathed her knife and took several long, slow breaths.

Coffee helped as well.

The prick to her finger was small enough that it wasn’t actively bleeding, if she didn’t compress it, and she took a long few minutes to recover. Even though she’d tried to draw all the power within her into that one drop of blood, there was still a low level of saturation remaining, the power that hadn’t easily been pulled free.

When she was able to turn her full focus inward once more, she happily found the ending-berry's power still there, undiminished, undisturbed, and comfortably swirling through her. Good, I didn’t wash away one power with the other.

The image of her blood, glowing like a beacon before her mage-sight, was powerful to her memory.

I didn’t have a mental construct, just a maximum amount of power. She was ready to try again.

This time, as she built the power up within her, she forced it into a mental construct, just as she did when empowering the cargo-slots. In this case, however, she formed a star of swirling, intertwining power, her blood as the medium for that flow. Its sole purpose was to contain and maintain power. It’s a reservoir, a container for my power, that I can tap later. It is for me and tied to me.

The image reminded her of some of the rope and knot games her family had played with in her childhood. Almost like a monkey’s fist knot, but not quite. There would be no trailing ends to this spell-form.

She banished the memory.

She bent almost her entire will to the mental application of power, even as the power itself grew to a greater height than before.

This time, the energy didn’t feel frantic. It didn’t feel like she was a water skin, full to bursting. It felt like the flowing star she was imagining was blossoming into existence within the tip of her finger.

Following some deep instinct, she removed the cap to the metal vial, once more. With the cap gone, her mage-sight could see the power of her first drop of blood shining forth.

Almost as soon as the cap came off the vial, Tala brought her finger above it, and felt a strange tugging disconnect. It was almost like gently, but steadily, pulling a hair out by the root from an infected pore. It was relieving and painful at the same time, and she felt a rippling magical pop as the second drop of blood came free without need for her to compress her finger to bring it forth.

The blood sang to her mage-sight as it fell into the vial, and she passingly realized that in that one drop of blood, there was more power than she’d put into all ten cargo-slots, below her.

In rote motions, she capped the vial and twisted the cap down securely.

She felt exhausted. When she glanced inward, she found that no power, save that of the ending-berry, remained within her. Oh…huh…

She yawned and poured the last of the coffee into her mug before draining it in one long pull. It didn’t really help.

Her wide-open gate was dumping power back into her as fast as she was able, but it was a piddly flow against the tide of her exhaustion.

She stared at the metal vial for a long moment, without really seeing it. She jerked and shuddered, the vial coming back into focus. Why am I so tired? She yawned, again.

Tala tucked the vial into her satchel and curled down, using the bag as a pillow.

She was asleep before she realized that she was drifting away.

 

* * *

 

Tala started awake as the someone climbed up onto the wagon, behind her.

Her head was pillowed comfortably on her satchel, and a warm, fluffy something was curled in the crook of her arm, against her chest and stomach. She idly moved her hand across it and marveled at the softness.

Right, someone on the wagon. She pushed herself up and stretched. As she did so, she felt a flicker of magic, but didn’t register what kind.

She opened her eyes as she twisted around, to find Brand setting a plate down for her. “You didn’t need to wake, Mistress Tala. The food will be here when you are ready.”

Tala smiled tiredly at him. “Thank you, Brand.” She tucked her hair behind one ear. “You know, you don’t have to bring me my meals, yourself.”

He shrugged. “The other cooks…” He smiled. “They may be a bit scared of you.” He shrugged, again. “It also lets me stretch my legs.” He noticed the empty pitcher and mug and collected them without a word.

“Thank you for the coffee.”

He nodded to her. “If I’d known you were so tired, I wouldn’t have hesitated to give you the extra.” He barked a laugh. “I’d have made you more!”

Her smiled perked up a bit. “More?”

Brand sighed. “Would have. Not now, though.”

She sagged just slightly, then hesitated. What was I holding? She looked around but found nothing. A dream?

“Did you lose something?”

“Hmm? No… I don’t think so?” She turned back to face him, shaking her head in an attempt to clear it. “Still waking up, I suppose.”

“Well, let me know if you need anything.” She opened her mouth, but he spoke again before she could. “Besides coffee.”

It was her turn to chuckle. “Fair enough. I will.”

Without another word, he climbed down, leaving her to enjoy her lunch in peace.

As she pulled her plate over to rest in her lap, she noticed a small grey feather, trapped beneath her own leg. It was far too small to belong to any animal she’d seen up close, though it did have traces of magic on it, as most things did in the wild. Did it fall from the sky and just happen to catch, there? She still remembered the soft fluffiness she’d been holding upon waking. It hadn’t felt like a dream…

You’re going crazy, Tala. Some random pigeon didn’t fly down to cuddle with you, then vanish when you woke up. That would be ridiculous.

Without giving it more thought, she focused on devouring her lunch, finding herself as ravenously in need of food as she’d apparently been for sleep.

 

* * *

 

Tala stared down at her third empty plate.

She was still hungry. What did I do? She pulled out the iron vial that held her blood. She felt a strange connection to the blood within the vial, which wasn’t hampered by the iron in the least. It felt like an old friend was there for her, just inside the vial, waiting to greet her. That is really odd…

She still felt a strange form of exhaustion. I’ve never done a working that left me so hungry and tired. Though, her several-hour nap had mostly rectified the tired portion.

If she thought about it, she could see a bit of a correlation in her past between high amounts of magic usage and increased appetite and fatigue.

I’m out of my depth. With a strange hesitation, she opened the vial and looked inside.

To her normal vision, a single, large drop of blood rested in the bottom of the vial. Not two? Strangely, she felt like she’d known there would only be one.

That single drop was a darker red than blood normally was, almost like a scab, but it was clearly still liquid. It was as close to a perfect sphere as she’d ever seen, and she couldn’t see a single flaw in its shape. The last thing she noticed with her eyes was that it appeared to be spinning, very slowly, but the motion seemed to be just beneath the surface.

To her mage-sight, it was a spinning, twisting, vortex of power.

It looked a bit more powerful than when she’d first created it. Did it absorb the other drop? That seemed likely. It did not seem to be leaking power, despite the open vial lid.

She groaned. I need to talk to Trent.

She slung her satchel across her back and carried the now closed vial, along with her empty plates, down to the ground below.

She dropped the last foot or so from the moving wagon and steadied her hat.

After a quick detour past the chuckwagon to drop off her plates and thank the cooks, Tala walked towards where she’d last seen Trent, riding his horse on the left side of the caravan.

“Mistress Tala! Greetings and good afternoon.” He grinned down at her. “I trust that you slept well?” She could see humor dancing in his eyes.

“Greetings, Master Trent. Would you walk with me?”

Something in her tone must have stood out to him because his mirth faded, and he nodded. Trent swung from his saddle with grace and walked to the nearest wagon to tie the reins to a hitch. The mount would now follow the wagon without need of his minding the animal.

“Thank you.”

He nodded. “What seems to be the issue?”

Tala cleared her throat, feeling suddenly self-conscious. After a moment, she lowered her voice to be barely loud enough for him to here. “I would guess that you’ve figured this out, but I never had a Master.”

He nodded but remained silent.

“In fact, I just graduated…” She hesitated, reckoning the days in her mind. “A week and a half?” She shrugged. “I graduated less than two weeks ago.”

Trent’s eyebrows shot up in clear surprise. “Then, did you deceive the Caravanner’s Guild?”

She shook her head. “No, no, but I did manage to maintain most of my inscribing. That, coupled with my dimensional magic experience was sufficient for them to indenture me as a full Mage.” No need to mention that I tried to deceive them.

He frowned, clearly contemplating. “I suppose that makes some sense…hmmm…”

She waved a hand. “But that isn’t why I’m here.”

“Oh?”

“No… I have a question that I would ask a Master, but…”

“You don’t have one.”

“Yes.” She bit her lip, not willing to meet his gaze. “Can I ask you?”

Trent smiled, and she saw his features soften out of the corner of her eyes. “Of course, Mistress Tala. I am honored to be asked.”

She felt herself relax. “Thank you, Master Trent. Thank you.”

“What seems to be the issue?”

“I…I did a working which left me utterly exhausted. Immediately afterwards, I fell asleep and remained so for close to four hours. I’m not sure when I’d have awoken if Brand hadn’t brought me lunch. As to lunch, I ate three very large portions and could likely eat more.”

He was nodding. “Often magelings, and even some Mages, will experience such physical needs when they push their boundaries.”

“So… I haven’t hurt myself?”

He chuckled. “No, no. One way of thinking about it is that you were stretching your gate wider, opening yourself more fully to your magic. An increase in power is taxing on your physical self, and you will need time to adjust. It usually only results in true exhaustion, the kind you describe, if you also are low on power within your body, however.”

She sighed in relief. “Oh… That is so good to hear.” She remembered the difference in her power density after the two drops. That does seem to line up.

“So, what did you do? Charge the cargo-slots more quickly? If I read their scripts correctly, and if I have a good measure of your power, it should take you close to a minute to charge each. Did you breach that hurdle? Empowering those scripts at all is a remarkable achievement, but if you’ve already gotten that charging down to such a quick process…”

She blinked at him for a moment. What? I’d thought he would have noticed how quickly I charged the scripts…Tala, the whole world doesn’t revolve around you, and Mages don’t stare in awe every time you do a working. She shook her head. “No…that’s not what happened.”

He shrugged, clearly misunderstanding her. “Don’t worry about that then, you’ll get there.”

She opened her mouth to correct him, but then shook her head. That wasn’t the point of this conversation. “I did this.” She held out the iron vial, still closed.

He took it, giving her a skeptical look. “I’m not your teacher, so a prank would be highly inappropriate.”

“No! I’d never…wait, you pranked your teachers?”

He waved her away, opening the vial. “No matter.” He looked inside and frowned. “Is that a drop of blood? Why is it not adhering to the sides of…” His eyes widened. “No… it can’t be.” Tala saw power move through the inscriptions across his face, and his eyes widened further. “Tala. Who taught you how to make an Archon Star?”

“A what?”

He turned to face her, holding up the vial. “Who taught you how to do this?”

“No one? It just felt right, after something my inscriber had me do to test my body’s power density.”

Trent was frowning. “Did you keep it in this vial to bypass the stabilization requirements?” He was muttering to himself. “That shouldn’t have been enough…” He looked to her. “You did this in less than two weeks?”

Tala was frowning. “Wait, back up please. I don’t understand; what is an Archon Star?”

Trent took a deep breath and nodded. “Yes, that would be a good place to start.”

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JLMullins

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