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Tala snorted a laugh at Brand’s words as he passed over the jug full of coffee. Brand then seemed to notice Renix for the first time. He straightened, brushing off his apron, and put on a diplomat’s smile. “Mageling Renix.” He bowed slightly. “How can I serve?”

Renix shook his head. “Nothing for me, thank you. I am simply walking with Mistress Tala.”

“Very good. Mageling, Mistress.” He bowed to each of them in turn, then shut the door.

As they walked back out from between the moving wagons, Renix gestured back towards the closed door. “Like that!”

Tala frowned. “What?”

“The cook! He anticipates your needs and works to meet them.”

“We have…an understanding.” He tried to kill me and doesn’t want me to seek vengeance… Was that all it was? No, we’ve come to an amicable understanding in truth.

“Yes, but you seem to reach those with everyone you talk to. Your driver lets you spend most of the day on top of his wagon.”

My wagon. But she didn’t interrupt.

“The guards lend you shields whenever you want.”

Well, only at night. I’d love one for shade…Maybe I should buy one in Alefast? Or a parasol? No, the hat is plenty.

“The cooks, I’ve already mentioned.”

Stabbed, threatened, understanding reached, yes. She had uncorked the coffee and was beginning to drink. It was lukewarm and deliciously dark. Exactly what she needed.

“Master Trent and Mistress Atrexia let you do as you wish. They don’t like it, but they don’t stop you.”

They’d have a hard time, if they tried. Well, her iron salve was a bit haphazard, at the moment. I should fix that.

“And the passengers see you as a walking legend.”

That was news to her. “Oh?”

“Of course! How could they not? You fought a terror bird, driving it away without any harm coming to the caravan. You harvested from an ending tree. You punched out a thunder bull; what do you expect them to think?”

Well, that last is a bit of a mischaracterization… She sighed. “I see your point. Do you want my answer, or do you wish to keep singing my virtues?”

Renix blushed deeply and cleared his throat. “Your answer, if you’re willing…Mistress.”

Tala’s lips quirked up in a wry smile. “Be you.”

He turned to her, frowning. “I can’t really be anyone else."

She shook her head. “I mean, be true to what you want, how you want to act, what you want to do, who you want to be. That will require you to make sacrifices, as you can’t expect the world to hand you anything, but every sacrifice to become more of who you are is easy to make, and you will never regret it.” She paused, then her shoulders drooped just slightly, and she sighed. “It can be lonely, Renix, being who you wish to be. You won’t make as many friends, if you don’t twist yourself into knots to please people, but those you do make will like you for you, not for who you are pretending to be.” She smiled up at him, then took another long pull of coffee.

Renix didn’t respond for a long while, as they continued to walk alongside the caravan.

“Does that help?”

Renix laughed briefly. “Maybe? I don’t know who I want to be, though… How do I figure that out?”

She smiled. “Find one thing that you want and figure out what you need to achieve that. That is who you want to be.”

“What do you mean?”

She shrugged. “If you want to be a famous historian, you need to study history. Thus, even if you don’t think that you want to read, you actually do, because reading widely and retaining in great detail is what will allow you to become a famous historian. As an example. I mean, even if you go explore ruins, you will need to be able to read and articulate what you find there.”

“Huh.” He pondered, again, and Tala downed more of the coffee. “I think… I think I understand what you mean. I want to be strong, so even if I don’t like exercising, I do want to exercise, because it will make me stronger.”

She pointed at him firmly, her gaze intense. “That! That is a better example.”

He grinned back at her. “I do think I understand.”

“Good. Let me know what you discover, yeah?”

He nodded. “I will. Thank you, Mistress Tala.”

“You are most welcome.”

He turned, striding back towards his own wagon, and she picked up her pace to return to the wagon at the front. I hope that was the right thing to tell him… It shouldn’t hurt him, at the very least. As long as he doesn’t expect everyone to immediately accept him for who he wants to be, he should be fine. You can’t force that.

Sadly, the coffee didn’t last for even the trip back to the cargo wagon, and she was left to shepherd an empty jug, at least until lunch.

 

* * *

 

Coffee gone, but well imbibed, Tala felt much more awake, though slightly saddened for the loss.

It’s just coffee, Tala. There will be more, tomorrow. She didn’t allow herself to dwell on it further.

Instead, she took out her magic detector and began sweeping herself to check how her iron salve was doing.

Not good.

She took the next hour to slowly, covertly, re-salve herself until the magic detector didn’t register her at all.

She peeled the glue from her palms and tossed it aside, then contemplated how to spend the rest of the morning.

I could continue to study magic items? There was merit to that, as every bit of knowledge could help her in any negotiations for the creation or purchase of such items.

I could process the remaining ending-berries, and put them in the flask? Having ending-berry juice ready to hand, pulp and all, might be quite useful. She didn’t know the first thing about wine, and she suspected that the fermentation process could go incredibly awry, as the magic was more likely to act on the bacterium than be preserved in the final product. Super wine is out, then. Still, having the berries ready to hand could be useful…

The wagons were moving up through foothills, almost parallel to the range of mountains to their south. Early tomorrow, they’d go through a pass, and come down upon Alefast from the north, but for now, the terrain was becoming rockier and much more starkly beautiful.

I could just enjoy the scenery and draw, if the mood takes me. Just relax, if not. She almost chose this, but she just couldn’t bring herself to waste the time.

Make another star? That had merit. Not only was it potentially useful, as from what Trent had said it was training her body’s ability to draw upon and use power. Her own experiments seemed to bear that out, as well. As Holly had designed her inscriptions, they would pull from every drop of power she gave them, so any increase she could facilitate to her own inflow of strength would directly benefit her, almost immediately. Unlike other Mages, who would have to modify their inscribings to take advantage of the increase. Holly’s way really was turning out to be a vast improvement upon what she’d been taught was the norm.

Is it actually Holly’s way, though? From what she said, she’d decided it was viable only because of my peculiar depth of power, and the workings I wished to accomplish… Worth considering, but not right now. Tala sighed, a slight smile tugging at her lips. It’s my way.

How should I spend my remaining time? She glanced at the sky. Two hours until lunch? Her stomach growled, and she pulled out a bit of jerky. Chewing and enjoying the comfortable influx of power.

A flicker of dimensional magic caused her to spin.

On the wagon top, directly behind where she’d been sitting, was a small bird, barely bigger than a crow, but clearly flightless. It looks exactly like a terror bird but scaled down. “How odd.”

The bird tilted its head and screeched; eyes fixed on the remaining jerky in her hand.

“You want some of this?”

The bird looked her in the eye and bobbed a nod.

Tala’s own eyes widened, and she took in a slow, deliberate breath. “So… you understand me.”

It bobbed again, then returned its gaze to the jerky, which she still held.

She tossed it to the small bird, who easily caught it in its mouth and guzzled it down. “You’re welcome, little guy.”

The bird regarded her, then slightly tilted its head.

With two more pulses of dimensional power, the bird swelled to double its previous size, then vanished.

Tala stood, frantically scanning the surrounding landscape. It changed size. She was breathing faster. Rust and ruin, slag and stagnation. That hadn’t just been a terror bird. That had been the terror bird, and it could change size.

No wonder my alteration to gravity didn’t hold. Drastic changes in size would certainly free it of the working. That meant that she had no means of magically affecting it for any length of time. Even my crushing attack would likely be shrugged off…

It was far more dangerous than she’d guessed, and she’d fed it…again. Oh, rust me to slag.

After a long moment, she sat back down, having been unable to locate another dimensional signature or the bird itself.

She now knew what her morning would entail. She had a singular question to expand upon and delve into answering.

Now what?

 

* * *

 

Despite her lingering questions about the terror bird and what to do next, she did not, in fact, spend her morning simply contemplating them. After all, time was wasting, and an hour ignored was an hour lost.

Instead, she sought out one of the guards on duty. To her relief, the first one she came across was Adam. “Guardsman Adam!”

The man turned his gaze from the surrounding, rolling hills and growing crags, and towards her as she climbed up onto the roof of the wagon he stood upon. “Mistress Tala? How can I be of assistance?”

“I want to learn to fight.” As his eyes widened in surprise, she decided that she should be clear, from the outset. “I think that two sticks, or maces, or clubs, would be ideal for me, and I was hoping you might know of a guard who’d be willing to walk me through the basics?”

Adam seemed to rein himself in, and he glanced away. “There might be someone, but a true study of fighting would require hand-to-hand combat as well, along with groundwork and intimate understanding of the human form.” He smiled slightly. “At least if you wish to be able to fight other humans. It is invaluable to know where to strike and how, if you intend to end a fight quickly and efficiently. If you intend to fight non-humans, you’ll want to study arcanous biology, and extrapolate from there.”

Tala was nodding. “That’s fair. Who could give such instruction?”

Adam seemed to contemplate for a long moment. “Almost any guard could give you the basics.” He shrugged. “These are highly sought-after posts, and no one is here who hasn’t earned it.” After a moment, he nodded to himself. “A few of us are better at teaching; I, for one, was an instructor for new recruits, full time, before transferring to more ranging assignments, and we’ve a couple others with similar backgrounds.”

Tala’s eyebrows rose at that. “Why would you leave a teaching position? Wouldn’t that pay better, or be more satisfying, or…something?” She took a moment to really look at Guardsman Adam and realized that he was likely close to fifteen years older than she was, likely in his mid-thirties. He was heavily muscled, but not in a bulky sort of way. He was barely taller than her with grey-and-white-flecked, close-cropped hair and beard.

She didn’t focus on him long enough for her mage-sight to activate. Not a Mage.

She’d assumed that guarding a trade caravan would be an undesirable position, given to new recruits or those in disfavor, and she hadn’t let her observations shake her initial assumptions.

Huh… That was pretty foolish of me.

Adam was smiling. “Fulfilling? Somewhat, I suppose. I do love teaching, but this pays so much better.” He shrugged. “A bit more dangerous, but not overly so. My wife worries, but she also knows that I’m almost as likely to get seriously hurt in the city as out here, and out here, if anything does happen, Mages are ready to hand, so I might even have a better chance of surviving. The kids are getting older, and perhaps I’ll move back to teaching once the eldest reaches ten or so.” He shrugged.

And a family man… Was everyone in the caravan married? People do get married pretty young, Tala. Mages are a bit of an exception, but not over-much. Truthfully, she would likely be married by 30 as well, most mundanes were married well before twenty-five.

“The danger is why the pay is better. I want to provide for my family, and spending the days outside, in the beauty of the wilds? Well, that’s not so bad.”

She really didn’t know what to say to that, so she just smiled in what she hoped was a companionable way.

“Anyways,” Adam’s gaze swept the horizon, again, before returning to her. “Your training.” He sighed. “I can’t say I’ve seen many Mages interested in martial pursuits. Why hit a man when you can obliterate him at a hundred paces?”

“Killing is easy, but it is not always the best option.”

Adam nodded. “Not everyone understands that. I’m glad that you do.” He chuckled to himself. “Skies above, I hope all Mages understand that. Too many of us are at the mercy of your magical whims.” He gave her a wink. “No disrespect intended, Mistress.”

“None taken, Guardsman.”

After another sweep of the terrain, Adam turned to face her fully. “I can teach you, some, if you wish, but I’m not going to argue with you.”

“That’s fair.”

“You do what I say, when I say it. No arguing.”

She shrugged. “I suppose so.”

“Shirt off.”

She grabbed the base of her shirt and started to lift. Adam’s eyes widened, and he spun around, clearly blushing deeply.

“Stop! Stop.”

Tala started to laugh, letting her shirt fall back over her stomach. “That was a test, yes? You were trying to find an excuse to refuse?”

Adam scratched the back of his neck, still not looking at her. “Is your shirt on?”

“It is.”

He turned back slowly, checking first. “Not precisely…We do something similar with new recruits, though for men it’s ‘Drop your pants.’ You’d be surprised how few follow instructions.”

“So, you don’t have to see pants-less men that often?”

“Or women, we do get some of those as recruits.” He quirked a smile. “Strangely, they seem more willing to comply with random commands than the men. Maybe something about ‘proving their worth’ or justifying their being there. I should have remembered and expected you to act similarly.”

“So… what’s the point of the lesson? Or do you just like seeing who you can get pants-less?”

He reddened, again, but less so this time. “No, it’s to drive home a notion: No one should be obeyed absolutely. Sometimes your commanders are wrong. Now, we also go out of our way to build trust in those commanders, but we don’t want blind obedience. That gets people killed.”

“Huh. Not what I’d have expected from the Guardsman Guild.”

He shrugged. “We want our people to survive, same as any.”

“Fair enough.” She waited for a long moment, as he continued to keep an eye on the surroundings. “So…you’ll teach me?”

He smiled, again. “I said I would, didn’t I?”

“How do we begin?”

“We fix how you walk.”

Tala frowned. “What’s wrong with how I walk?”

“You move like a Mage.”

“…and?”

“And you don’t want to fight like one, so you shouldn’t move like one. I want you to walk up and down the caravan and keep your center of balance inside your planted foot at all times.”

“Say again?”

He smiled. “You should be able to stop and be balanced almost instantly, no matter where in your stride you choose to stop.” He thought of a moment, then nodded. “Imagine your center of balance as a dot on the ground and keep it inside the foot that is on the ground, at all times. When you step, it will obviously move between the feet, but that’s fine, while they are both down. Understand?”

“Somewhat…” She nodded. “I’ll see what I can do. What next?”

“Master that, then we’ll talk.”

She crossed her arms. “Walking. You want to teach me walking.”

“Let’s be clear. I gave you a direction, you will be teaching you how to walk.” He grinned.

Tala rolled her eyes. “Fine.” She swung down onto the ladder and paused, looking back up towards Adam. “I’ll be back shortly.”

He snorted. “We’ll see.”

She climbed down quickly and began walking. As she did, she bent her focus towards her balance, and began stopping herself at random intervals, noticing how unsteady she was much of the time. I’m basically falling from one foot to the other, simply relying on my continued movement to catch me. Adam had been right.

Well, let’s do this. And the real work began.

As it turned out, changing how she walked was hard.

Her body was used to moving certain ways, and it took active effort to change that. Worse, it didn’t actually take all her effort. So, she was left having to focus, while not truly being distracted by what she was focusing on.

It…

Was…

Tedious…

In order to distract the petulant part of her mind, while she was kinesthetically focused on her walking, she created and focused upon the Archon star spell-form.

Soon, she was walking, mind bent towards maintaining constant balance. She tested her progress by stopping and staying in place every so often, always aiming to be in a slightly different phase of her stride. In addition, she was locking the Archon star spell-form into place and slowly running power through it.

As she had no intention of expending a monumental amount of energy and having to sleep for hours, she also wasn’t planning on cutting her finger and expelling the drop of blood containing the star. Thus, she formed it in her center, just behind her sternum. Even so, she did not put it in her heart. She knew better than that.

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JLMullins

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