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Tala almost smiled as Trent let out a frustrated breath. So, what is an Archon star, Trent? Teach me your secrets.

After a moment, he nodded to himself. “Alright, from my understanding: As one step to being elevated from Mage to Archon, a Mage will dedicate themselves to pouring and concentrating power into a small item, usually a gem or something similar. They must maintain the steady influx of power for days, or even weeks, until it reaches a sufficient quantity to manipulate into this self-sustaining vortex. The entire time, they must maintain the flow of power, and keep it moving perfectly…” He was frowning. “There is no way you maintained that level of focus when the terror bird attacked, or when you went to the ending tree.” His frown was deepening. “And how would you have focused it into a drop of blood unless-” His frown shattered into a look of confused wonder, and he spun on her. “Did you build this within your own body?”

“Umm… yes?”

He looked down at it, then back to her. “How long did this take you? How much time did it take to build up the power necessary to cycle it in this manner?”

“Twenty minutes? Probably a lot less, but it felt like a long time.”

Trent gaped at her. “It should take enough power to level a city to make an Archon star. There is no way you can divulge that amount of magic so quickly.” He frowned down into the vial again. “But I’ve also never heard of a Blood Archon…”

She frowned. “A what?”

Trent sighed. “Your title as an Archon is derived from the material you used to create your first Archon Star. Gems are standard but vary in difficulty. Diamond is the easiest, and ruby is the most difficult of the gems. A rare few use something other than a gem. As an example, to my knowledge, there are three Glass Archons. I’ve met one Oak Archon, who used a sphere of polished, black oak as her medium, and she is the most powerful Mage I’ve ever even heard of. I’ve never heard of someone using a liquid…”

Master Himmal said he was a Glass Archon. That…that makes sense, now. “So…would it be harder or easier?”

Trent scoffed. “Is it harder or easier to make a chair out of water, when compared to emerald?”

“I’ve never seen a chair made out of either?”

He sighed. “You can’t make one out of water, Mistress Tala. You could make it out of ice, or encase the water in something, or manipulate it with magic, but then the chair wouldn’t be out of water, it would be out of ice, out of whatever you encased the water in, or out of magic. Sure, the substance would be water, but the chair wouldn’t be, not really.”

“So…?”

“So, I’ve no idea.” He frowned. “There honestly doesn’t look to be enough power here to create a stable Archon star at all. My mage-sight should be overwhelmed by the mere presence of such…” He sighed. “But, since I’ve never made one, myself, I am deeply out of my depth. Can I show this to Mistress Atrexia?”

Tala bristled. “Why her? Has she made one?”

“No, she has not, but she often carries constructs to measure quantities, and specific minutia of constructions, of magic, and if we could get an accurate reading on this…” He looked to her. “You don’t even know what this could mean, do you?”

She frowned. “No. That’s why I’m asking you.”

A small smile quirked at his lips. “If two independent Mages verify an Archon star, meaning that they can’t have been the applicant’s master or previous acquaintance, then the Mage who made the star is immediately placed in candidacy for being raised to Archon.” Trent tsked. “You don’t have the requisite years of experience for serious candidacy, and you’d need an Archon to sponsor you, as neither of us are Archons.”

Tala grunted irritably. “Master Himmal said the same thing.”

“You met the Glass Archon, Void Key?”

She blinked back at Trent. “You know of him?”

“Most Mages know of all the Archons…” He frowned. “No, that’s not true. Most Mages know the Archons raised in their lifetime; it’s widely publicized in Mage society. I suppose I could go back and look, to get a full roster…”

She snapped her fingers, bringing his attention back. “Focus, Master Trent. Yes, I know him. He proctored my test, when we were determining which cargo wagons to use.” She felt her irritation rise and glared at Trent, though her anger was directed elsewhere. “Why doesn’t the Academy teach us about the Archons? Or any of this?”

He smiled consolingly. “My understanding is that many students used to kill themselves attempting to create Archon stars before they were ready, so the Academy determined it wisest to let a master teach their mageling about such, when the master deemed the mageling wise enough not to attempt it.” He gave her a meaningful look.

She grunted. “They should still teach us about Archons.”

“You learned about the Archons of old, yes?”

“Of course, as part of our history.”

“There you go.”

“We weren’t told what made them Archons, just that they were powerful Mages.”

Trent sighed. “I’ve already explained that to you.”

“We weren’t even told what the Archon titles meant, Trent. What rusted slag is my education useful for anyways?”

“They were teaching you how to learn.”

She gave him a withering look.

He sighed. “Nonetheless, it is what it is. I should show this to Mistress Atrexia and get a measurement from it.” He held up the vial, now sealed. “May I keep this for a time?”

Tala grunted. “Fine.”

“Thank you.” After a moment, he smiled. “You know, the guards are already talking about you. If you aren’t careful, you might earn yourself a nickname.”

She sighed. “Great. I’ll be ‘The Ambushed’ or ‘The One Who Was Stabbed.’ ”

Trent laughed. “I think I’ve heard variations on ‘Iron Skin’ or ‘Armored Vengeance.’ ”

Tala was rendered speechless. How do I respond to that?

“The man whose sword you used?” When she didn’t respond, he added. “On the blood fern?”

Who picks these names? Nonetheless, she nodded.

“He’s already had half a dozen offers from other guards to buy that sword. Each far higher than the last.”

She grunted. “And?”

“He’s turned them down. Says it’s a lucky sword, and he won’t part with it.”

“Helped me, I suppose.”

“Not what he meant.”

Tala threw up her hands. “What do you want me to say, Master Trent?”

He shrugged. “You’re an odd one, Mistress Tala. People are noticing that.” He snorted. “Though, I imagine ‘Blood Archon’ will wash away any other title.” He grinned.

She grunted, again. “Great.”

Trent held up the vial, briefly. “I’ll talk to Mistress Atrexia, and find you shortly, yes?”

“Fine.”

With no further discussion, Tala went back to her wagon, and Trent re-mounted his horse, moving off to find Atrexia. As Tala moved away, and Trent did as well, Tala felt like she could still feel the drop of blood, pulling at her. She couldn’t have said exactly where it was, but she had no doubt that she could find it, if she had to. Like a string with one end tied to my finger… It wasn’t a perfect analogy, but it did seem to fit, at least slightly.

Tala sighed and thought she saw Trent have a quick conversation with Renix, likely telling the mageling that he was on his own for a bit, watching the left side of the wagon train.

With a sense of foreboding, Tala pulled herself back up to wait on the roof of her wagon.

 

* * *

 

Tala was left to her own devices for less than an hour before Trent rode up beside her wagon and swung onto the ladder from his horse. He paused briefly to tie the reins in place, then climbed up.

“May I join you?”

“You kind of already have.”

He smiled. “Fair enough.”

“So?”

Trent sat in front of her, just out of arms reach. He held up the iron vial. “Mistress Atrexia agrees, it’s an Archon star.”

Something in the way he said it made her hesitate. “…but?”

“But, its power is lower than any we’ve heard of. It shouldn’t be stable.”

“Explain?”

Trent was nodding. “Normally, an Archon star requires a vast quantity of power, equal to what an experienced Mage can produce over the course of days, if not weeks. The power fights itself and the medium, and the vast majority of the power is required just to force the remainder into a stable structure.” He lifted the vial. “There is no way you expended that much magic in twenty minutes, and this isn’t enough power, in any case. It is underpowered by at least a factor of fifty, if not a bit more.”

“But this one is stable.”

“But it’s stable.” He agreed. “No idea how or why.” He glanced from her to the vial. “Just so you are aware, the amount of power in this is insanely impressive, if your guess on how long it took you to create is accurate. If we’re correct in our measurements, you might be able to make a more conventional, if on the weaker end, Archon star in less than a day. Either your power accumulation rate is insane, or you are somehow being incredibly efficient.”

But an Archon is measured by the potency of their star, so…? “So, I’m a powerful Mage but the world's weakest Archon?”

He grinned. “They’ll likely want to consider you for raising to Archon, but no? I doubt this will qualify you for the title.” He handed her the vial. “You’ve cut down a tree with a paper sword, but that doesn’t make you a master swordsmith.”

Tala cocked her head. “If I track with your analogy, making a sword capable of cutting through a tree in one stroke would be a requirement for being a master craftsman?”

“Of course, but no one wants to buy a paper sword.”

She blinked at him. “You lost me.”

He sighed. “A paper sword that can cut through a tree is incredibly impressive, arguably more impressive than a steel sword that could do the same, but a smithing guild isn’t going to certify you as a master swordsmith for accomplishing such a feat.”

“Ahh… I think I understand. The Archon star is supposed to be an achievement of power, not finesse. I broke the test, because I didn’t know I was taking it.”

“An accurate way to look at it. You could do it, though.”

“Do what?”

“Make a true Archon star.”

She held up the vial. “Didn’t I?”

“I mean one of power, one that would give you a good chance for a positive elevation.”

“I could just add power to this one?”

Trent shook his head. “From my understanding, once an Archon star is made, any power added isn’t stable, so the star, itself, doesn’t increase in potency.”

But it absorbed my other blood, and the power within it… She decided it wasn’t worth arguing. “So…” She looked down at the vial. “What good is this?”

“I’ve no idea.” He snorted a laugh. “Ask an Archon?”

Tala sighed. “I suppose I’ll have to.” She looked at the vial, again. “But what can I use this for?”

“As I said, I have literally no idea.” He looked around before nodding to himself. “I’ve got to get back to my post, but Mistress Tala?”

“Hmm?”

“Thank you.”

“What for?”

“For coming to me and asking my advice.”

She smiled up at him, as he stood. “Thank you for your answers.”

He nodded, then climbed down the ladder without another word. A moment later, he rode away, maneuvering back to his position on the left side of the column.

Well, that’s a lot to think on…

 

* * *

 

Tala did not, in fact, contemplate all that she’d learned.

Instead, she went and got more food, eating until she was stuffed full, then returned carrying a plate stacked high with food that didn’t need to be warmed to eat.

That done, she examined her left ring finger. The spell-forms had activated as soon as she’d fallen asleep that morning, and the miniscule cut had closed without a trace.

“Den?”

Den’s head poked up, looking back to her. “Mistress Tala?”

“Can you note where we are, and tell me how far we’ve traveled when I ask again?”

He shrugged. “Certainly.”

“Thank you!”

Without another word, he smiled and turned back to his work.

Experiment, number 1! Well, she’d created the first one already, so maybe this was number 2? Doesn’t matter. Let’s do this.

Again, she mentally pulled back from the enhancements in her finger, even as she began dumping power into her system, pouring it into the mental construct of the spinning, twisting, flowing star of power. As with the cargo-slots, repeated use of a mental construct refined and strengthened her mental image of it, increasing efficiency.

As she wasn’t working for a specific goal, simply attempting to force as much power as possible into the construct, the process didn’t truly speed up, she was just able to put more in.

True to Trent’s words, her gate did feel wider, but it could easily have been her imagination. Expect a result, and that’s what you’ll see.

She dismissed the thoughts and brought the full force of her mind back to the task at hand. Hehe, at hand.

She shook her head and focused.

When she felt like she was going to burst, she again pricked her finger over an open iron vial. It was a different iron vial, and currently empty. If I’m going to sleep, I want them separate so that I don’t miss anything.

“Den.”

“Roughly half a mile.” He called back, without turning around.

“Thank you.” Around fifteen minutes, then. Very nice, indeed.

The spinning star of power blipped out of her finger and into the vial, seeming to draw all of her strength from her into itself. If anything, it felt like it pulled out more than before.

In mute exhaustion, she capped the vial and tucked it into her satchel. Yeah…sleep sounds great. As her eyes fluttered closed, she found herself grateful that she’d gathered the extra food, ahead of time.

 

* * *

 

Tala woke much later and groggily began tearing through the food that she’d gathered ahead of time.

She came to near full consciousness as she ate the last of the sustenance. She passingly noted that her finger was fully healed, once again. I might have to use a different finger, next time? She didn’t want to over tax the healing inscriptions in that one finger, exclusively.

“Den?”

“Yes, Mistress Tala?” He glanced back at her, once again.

“How long until we stop for the night?”

“Another hour, at most.”

She’d slept the day away. Good use of time, Tala. Well, it had been useful, at least she hoped so. “Thank you, Den.”

“Of course.” He turned back.

Trent seemed to notice her sitting up and rode up beside her wagon. “Still tired from this morning?”

She cleared her throat and felt her cheeks heat. “Yes…that’s it.”

Trent’s eyes narrowed. “You made another one, didn’t you.”

“Well, I needed to test a couple of theories.”

“Mistress Tala. You’re going to kill yourself, or someone else.”

“I’ll aim for the former?”

“Please, please don’t.” He was shaking his head. “Mistress Tala, did you at least learn something interesting?”

She shrugged. “I was about to find out.” She pulled open the new vial and opened it. It looked exactly like the first. Tala frowned. Did I open the wrong vial? She closed this one up and opened the other. Virtually Identical. Her frown deepened.

“Is something wrong?” He’d seen her reaction and was clearly concerned.

“They are almost identical.”

“That doesn’t seem odd, right?”

She shook her head. “One was added in on top of another source of power, which it absorbed.”

“Mistress Tala, Archon stars can’t-” She held up a hand to cut him off.

“I’m not going to argue with you, Master Trent.” She looked between the two vials. Maybe, I was able to put more in the second one? And they are just close enough in power I can’t easily tell a difference? That seemed likely. “So… what would normally happen if two Archon stars were put together?”

Trent sighed. “The gems would rest against each other, and they would be easier to carry in one hand.”

Right, Archon stars are solid… “Huh, maybe the solid medium is why they can’t absorb more power?” She carefully took off both caps, then grinned at Trent. “Care to witness something new?”

He seemed to fight within himself for a long moment, then he sighed. “Just a moment. I’ll be right up.”

True to his word, he got around the wagon and up onto the roof with surprising swiftness, leaving his horse, once again, tied to her wagon’s ladder.

“Please don’t kill us.”

“You know I can’t promise that.” She grinned mischievously.

I know that, but you seem bent on doing this anyways. I feel like you don’t know that you aren’t actually safe.”

She shrugged. “Nothing ventured…”

“Nothing lost.”

“That’s not how it goes.”

“But it could and be no less true.”

She shook her head. “No; it would be a lie. If you venture nothing, you lose opportunities.” She glanced to Trent. “Activate your mage-sight, if you wish.”

Power wove across the spell-lines on his face, and Tala nodded.

Carefully, she overturned one vial into the other.

The tiny blood-sphere rolled out, almost like a tiny marble, and into the lower vial, leaving no trace behind. There was a startlingly deep plump, presumably as the two drops met, and Tala saw a flicker of power jet out the top of the open vial. It was so miniscule she wasn’t sure that Trent would have been able to detect it.

She looked down into the vial and saw one sphere of blood, just slightly bigger than the first. Maybe as much as 25% larger? It also radiated a power deeper than before, like she was looking into a well, and the bottom was farther below the surface of the water that she’d expected. The final thing she noted was that she felt more connected to the drop, than before. It was as if two strings, tied to her finger, had been intertwined, to make a larger cord.

“Well? What do you see?”

“They combined.”

“What?”

“See for yourself.” She held out the vial to him, and he took it hesitantly.

He looked in slowly, as if afraid something was going to lance out and hit him in the eye. “Fascinating.” He looked back up at her. “My guess would be a near doubling in power.” He frowned. “Can you add more power without adding blood?”

Tala briefly chewed on one side of her lip, thinking. “You mean like I do to the cargo-slots? Let’s try.” She grinned, holding her hand out.

Trent returned the vial to her and leaned forward, watching expectantly.

She stuck her right index finger into the vial, resting it just above the blood and concentrated. She pictured the mental construct she’d used, opened her gate, and poured power out, just like she had for the cargo-slots the last few days.

Nothing happened. “Huh… Nothing.” Well, that wasn’t precisely true. Her power poured over the drop of blood, bouncing off the inside of the iron vial and flowing out, around her finger.

“Are you touching it?”

“No. I thought that would be a bad idea?”

“Hmmm… You aren’t wrong, but might be required?”

“Worth a try.” She shifted her finger just slightly to touch the blood.

Nothing happened, again. She tried to push power into the star, but it seemed to just wash over it, reflecting off the iron and out, around her finger. The star didn’t seem to react in the slightest.

“Well. That was anticlimactic.”

“Did your defensive spells activate?”

“Hmm? No, and this is touching bare skin.”

Trent sighed. “Well, as interesting as this is-” He hesitated. “And don’t mistake me, it is interesting- I have a job to do, and I’m neglecting it.” He swung down onto the ladder, pausing to look back to her one more time. “Talk tonight?”

She nodded. “That sounds like a plan. We’re nearly to the end of the travel day.”

Trent smiled then disappeared from sight, the soft clomp of his horse’s hooves on the turf slowly faded as he moved back to his position alongside the caravan.

She sighed, closed the vial, and stuck it back into her bag. Might be worth adding the creation of one of these to my morning routine… And render herself insensate with fatigue every morning? Maybe after breakfast… She hadn’t slept as long the second time, and she’d woken feeling much better rested…Maybe my body will improve its recovery time? Or maybe she’d abuse herself into an early grave. Maybe, I could keep it from drawing all the power out of me? Might be worth trying…

She sighed. No more than once every other day, until I can get back to Holly, and ask her about it. She hesitated. She’d have some funds in Alefast, she could purchase an archive tablet and use that to communicate with Holly, earlier.

It was an irregular form of communication as it was equivalent to checking a note into a library, which the recipient would have no knowledge of until they came to check out something else. Then, if they spoke to a librarian who knew about the note, it would be given to them.

Thankfully, Tala could give a note to the Caravanners’ Guild, and they’d get it to Master Himmal, so that he could take her information into account when making her custom cargo-slots. It shouldn’t be too much to ask them to deliver a message to Holly as well.

As she was thinking, she was rummaging through her satchel. In one of the inner pockets, she found a book: Trent’s book on Item Creation. Oh! I completely forgot that I borrowed this.

She grinned. I know what I’m doing until dinner.

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