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Over the next two hours, Tala split her mind across the two tasks, and found she was able to maintain both, though it took all her concentration. Perfect. She wasn’t bored.

At her halting pace, she only advanced up the wagon line slowly, and thus, when lunchtime came, Brand stepped out of the chuckwagon to find her barely one wagon away.

“Mistress Tala?”

His voice startled her, and she froze in place, perfectly balanced with her back foot an inch off of the ground.

Her concentration on the Archon star also broke, and the power was separated from her control, and she severed it before it could draw any more from her. She expected it to break free from the form and disperse back into her… It didn’t.

She suddenly felt a horrific clenching in her throat, and she began to cough uncontrollably.

“Mistress Tala!” Brand set the food he’d been carrying back on the tail of his wagon and ran to her, even as she fell to her knees, coughing and heaving.

He brought out a handkerchief and offered it to her. She took it and pressed it over her mouth. Strangely, it helped.

The coughing slowed until, finally, one last colossal cough brought up something that had been caught inside her. It stuck in the handkerchief.

Tala pulled the cloth away and both she and Brand gazed down at a small, spinning drop of blood.

“That…isn’t normal, Mistress. Have you contracted some…hostile magic?” He began looking around, and before she could say anything, he was waving to someone. “Mistress Atrexia! Please, come quick. I think Mistress Tala might be ill.”

Tala groaned.

The sound of hooves on soft turf came to a stop nearby and Atrexia dismounted. “What happened now, Mistress Tala?”

Tala coughed once more. “I was practicing the mental spell-forms for making a star, and unintentionally allowed power to fill it.”

Atrexia was nodding. “In your lungs?”

“Esophagus, I think, but close enough.”

“Let me see.”

Tala held up the handkerchief, flecked with spittle and one, still spinning, drop of blood.

Atrexia frowned, power moving in waves around her eyes. “This looks like the first you created. I’ll need to measure it, but I’d bet it is about that powerful. Master Trent told me how that effort exhausted you, before. How are you feeling, now?”

She shrugged. “Fine? Except my throat hurts a bit. I concentrated on it longer but didn’t funnel my full power accumulation into it, and I prevented it from drawing from my reserves, if that makes sense.”

Brand stood. “I’ll get some honeyed tea.”

“Thank you, Brand.”

He nodded and jogged to catch the chuckwagon.

Tala stood and began walking. Atrexia fell in beside her, leading her horse by the reins. “How do you account for this?”

Tala shrugged. “I did it much slower. I was trying to occupy my mind, and so I think I was letting it build for…two hours? Give or take.” She thought, then nodded. “Just about, yeah.”

“And before?”

“It took about fifteen minutes. Again, give or take.”

Atrexia grunted. “So, a much lower power input, over a much longer period, and likely with much less efficiency… That makes sense. Especially if it didn’t scrape you empty in the end.” She was nodding to herself. “You shouldn’t have any negative effects, but you also won’t experience any increase to your power accumulation rate.” She gave Tala a firm look. “That is not a recommendation that you should push yourself as you did, before, simply a statement of fact.”

Tala nodded. “I’m not really interested in sleeping away hours of daylight, today.”

Atrexia gave her a critical, searching look. Finally, she grunted, again. “That was likely due to allowing the star to draw power out of your reserves, but very well. May I take that for testing?”

“Shouldn’t I put it in a vial?”

“I have no idea. It’s not like this is standard.” She sighed. “At least you are moving towards a proper approach. Funneling the power gradually and letting it build within the spell-form is the right way to make an Archon star.” She frowned. “But please don’t make it in anything so vital, again? My understanding is that it isn’t advisable to make within yourself, at all. If you’re going to kill yourself, please wait until after we reach Alefast?”

Tala rolled her eyes. “Fine, fine. It wasn’t like I did it on purpose.”

Atrexia huffed. “That is precisely my point, ignorant ch-” She took a deep breath, closing her eyes before exhaling in a rush. After a small, forced smile, as if to herself, Atrexia spoke on. “You continue to do reckless things, seemingly at random, and we are all startled by your miraculous survivals.”

Tala thrust the handkerchief at Atrexuia. “Here. Let me know what you find out.”

The other Mage took the cloth without further chiding. “I will. Eat something and rest.”

As Atrexia rode away, presumably towards her own wagon, Tala found herself filled with joy. She’d turned her focus back towards her stride and found that she was still using the altered version. I did it!

She wouldn’t let her guard down, of course. She could always backslide if she wasn’t careful, but she’d done it. She had altered her steps.

Now, what’s next?

Lunch. Lunch was next. She felt her connection with the newly created star moving around as Atrexia went about her tests, but Tala didn’t let it distract her.

Brand returned with her lunch, and a large carafe of honeyed tea. He insisted on carrying both back to her wagon with her, and once he was satisfied that she was settled and resting, he took the empty coffee jug. “Let me know if you need anything else, please?”

“I will, Brand. Thank you.”

He nodded once, emphatically, and climbed down, leaving her to her meal and the wonderful relief brought on by the tea.

 

* * *

 

Atrexia tossed her the handkerchief a few minutes after Tala had finished her lunch. “It’s the same as the first, or near enough it doesn’t matter.” Without another word, she climbed back down the ladder. She seemed to hesitate, out of view, but then she rode away without saying anything else.

Tala had seen the light-colored cloth flick up into view, and she caught it, checking inside and verifying that the new little star was there. She’d known it would be, because she could feel it, like a light brush on her skin. She’d even known Atrexia was approaching with it well before the woman had arrived. What now?

She debated putting it into the vial with the larger one, hopefully to combine their power, but she didn’t actually have a use for them yet. Maybe more is better than stronger? She had no idea. So, she put this new one in the other vial, and stored that in her satchel.

The tea was gone, now, and her throat felt much better. There were no enhancement spell-lines to easily repair the modicum of damage she’d given herself, there. So, she’d have to wait for it to heal, like anyone else. It was frustrating that the ending-berry's power had finally run dry. Or, would it have kept the star trapped, unable to get free? That was a horrifying thought…

They were nearing the pass, now, and she could see it just less than twenty miles ahead and to the south.

Two great peaks towered above the surrounding mountains, and the space between them dipped vastly lower than those same, other peaks. Not a usual formation. At least she didn’t think so. Geography hadn’t ever been a passion of hers, let alone geology.

As she stared, she was able to pick out more detail, like the fact that the faces of the two mountains, nearest each other, were smooth, almost uniform slopes, giving the impression of a single mountain, split by one stroke of a titanic ax.

We are far from the land of arcanous gods. Humans had purposely moved to a greater distance from the magic-rich northern and eastern reaches of the continent, specifically to avoid those creatures.

If normal, arcanous beasts could, on occasion, become two or three times the size of their non-magical equivalents, the arcanous gods often breached ten times that, if not greater. They were said to be ancient beyond the reckoning of man, and powerful beyond Mages' ability to measure. Though, her knowledge of such came from childhood tales, told around a dying fire, rather than her Academy education. More and more she was frustrated at what they hadn’t taught her.

Did some arcanous god fight or die here, millennia ago?

She would likely never know.

Tala shook herself, bringing her thoughts back to the present. I should check in with Adam, get my next task.

Nodding to herself, she climbed down, and walked back towards the wagon that Adam currently stood upon.

She was careful to walk as she’d been practicing, maintain balance at all times. It was surprisingly effortful, and she was definitely feeling some soreness from her earlier walking.

Even so, she climbed the ladder, and greeted Adam. “Now what?”

He glanced towards her. “I saw; you learned quickly.” He was still armored as all the guard were, in iron chain and padded leather, an iron cap atop his head. He had one of the guard’s large shields leaning against his side, and a crossbow hanging from his belt. A quiver hung opposite, ready to hand, and a short sword was strapped inside the shield to complete his armament.

She waited for a long moment. “So…?” She noticed a two and a half foot long, thick stick, carved and polished smooth, resting against the shield as well. “Are we going to start fighting, now?”

“Now.” Adam glanced towards her. “We are going to fix your breathing.”

Tala groaned. “Adam. I just want to know how to fight! Can’t we do the fast version?”

His mouth quirked, and he bent to pick up the stick. In a smooth motion, he tossed it to her.

She caught it. “Yes! Now, how do we start?”

“If you are threatened, hit the person or thing with that until you are no longer threatened. Quick version over. Have a wonderful day.”

Tala blinked back at him. “What.”

“You wanted the quick version, right? That’s it. It’s not like you can cut yourself. Hit what’s bothering you until it stops.”

She grunted in irritation. “I sort of worked that out myself.”

“I’d thought as much.” He still didn’t turn to face her.

“Adam. Teach me.”

“Certainly, Mistress. Now, your breathing-”

She hit him in the back with the stick. He barely budged, and when she looked, she noticed that his knees were bent, and the shield that she’d thought was propped against him was, in fact, locked in place on the roof, holding him upright. She narrowed her eyes.

“Why did you hit me?” He turned his head to regard her.

“You were bothering me. I aim to follow instructions, teacher.

He snorted a laugh. “Fair enough.”

“So…?”

“Your breathing.”

She raised the stick as if to strike him again, and he quirked an eyebrow at her.

“Do you wish someone else to teach you?”

She grunted and lowered the simple weapon. “Fine. I’ll hear you out.”

“Good. Breath in slowly through your nose.”

She did so, taking much longer to draw in the breath that it usually did.

“And out fast through your mouth.”

She exhaled in a full-bodied, quick puff.

“Good. Now, breath that way until it becomes natural.”

Tala’s own eyebrow twitched. “Seriously?”

“Yes. Proper balance and breathing are the foundation of any fighting art. If you just want to swing a stick, have at it.” He gestured at her. “You can already do that just fine. However, if you want to learn how to fight, we will do it properly, as if you were joining the Guardsmans’ Guild in truth.”

She grunted. I suppose that each guild has to have something to offer, else they’d be replaced by free-lancers. The Guardsmen's Guild must have some way to make their members more effective… “Alright. I will do as you say.”

She climbed back down the ladder, breathing as he’d instructed.

The stick, she left at his feet.

 

* * *

 

Tala breathed in, long and deliberately, through her nose.

She exhaled in a powerful pulse, through her mouth.

She read her books.

In through her nose.

Out through her mouth.

Sketch the increasingly mountainous scenery.

In nose.

Out mouth.

Walk, balance perfect.

In.

Out.

Balance.

Hours passed.

Tala didn’t let herself be distracted as various people talked with her. She gave reasonable answers, explaining that she was focusing on something, and could probably talk later…she did this on the exhale, of course.

She didn’t stop her proper breathing when the guard drove off a flock of hornets, each the size of barn-cats, though she did walk, maintaining balance, to the other side of the convoy. In, out, quick step away from acid drenched stingers.

Horrifyingly, none of the hornets were actually killed, but after a few wings were lost to well-placed crossbow bolts, and lightning temporarily took one to the ground, they seemed to decide to search for easier targets.

Apparently, their armor scaled with them… Those hornets had been a startling realization for her. As there had been thirty-three in the swarm. Even if I was freshly inscribed, I could not have killed them all. They would likely not have been able to kill her, either, but she would have been left with three, very angry creatures that just might have harried her until her protections ran out.

In. Out. Balance. Even as she thought, she kept most of her mind on the changes Adam had instructed her to make.

I cannot assume that I am above the dangers out here, just because I’ve been lucky. My abilities help keep me alive, and can crush powerful opponents in a pinch, but the wilds are a place of attrition. The epiphany came with a renewed desire to hone her ability to fight. She could likely drive away the hornets with her bone clubs, once she knew what she was doing, and that prospect excited her. Armor your weaknesses and hone your strengths.

In, out, balance.

She found herself needing to yawn quite often, at first, but stifled the urge with an effort, a great effort.

She felt flicks of magic as other creatures were dissuaded, but none were brought down, so she didn’t pay particular attention. No harvest means no need for my involvement. She smiled at that, careful to not let it ruin her breathing.

Finally, after what was hours, Den led them over a particularly large, sloping foothill and into a circle atop it.

Framing their place of encampment, scarcely four miles distant, was the entrance to the pass that she’d noticed before.

A path ran almost straight towards it from the newly circled wagons, and she felt an involuntary shudder. Caravans take random routes to prevent more powerful beasts from knowing where to lie in wait. She continued to examine the deep cleft of the pass. Clearly, this part of the route is used more often than others.

If they were going to be attacked by something powerful, it would be tomorrow. This close, her mage-sight showed her magical energy pouring through from the land beyond. That increased magic meant more, if not more powerful, arcanous creatures. If they were really unlucky, they might even cross paths with a magical beast.

I’ll ask Trent, tonight.

She froze, realizing that her mind had moved away from her breathing. Am I?

Long pull in, through her nose.

Short, full-bodied exhale through her mouth.

“VICTORY!” Several of the drivers turned to give her odd looks, before returning to their work.

She’d done it. Still, she wouldn’t let her guard down. Or my Guard down. She laughed inwardly at her own joke.

I am altering my basic patterns way too easily… She considered all the aspects that Holly had enhanced, and came to the conclusion that altering innate, repeated patterns of action should be much easier with the enhanced connectivity and improved mental functions. I’ll likely learn to fight more easily, too.

She didn’t quite chide herself, even as she realized that Adam would say that she was already learning to fight, just by working on her stride and her breath pattern.

Fine…I’ll likely learn how to wield weapons more quickly, too.

Fair enough.

Adam walked over to her, having dismounted from his wagon. “So, you’ve corrected your breathing?”

She grinned back at him, answering on the exhale. “Yes. Next?”

He smiled. “You tell me.”

She blinked at him, then brightened. “I pick? Basic combat, then!”

He smiled back. “Incorrect.” He then turned and walked away, his stride perfectly balanced.

Tala stared after him. What?

He hadn’t been asking her to pick. He’d be asking her to figure out what was next.

Tala groaned, then hesitated, watching him walk away. What is he doing, that I’m not?

As she looked, her mage-sight responded to the focus, highlighting the currents of power that moved through him, just as they moved through everything to one extent or other.

Each step showed shifting flows of power, clearly grounding him to the earth, and giving him stability beyond what was normal. Without spell-lines? Somehow, his very movements seemed to invoke a sort of magic.

She could see his breath moving in and out of him as well, in the regular cadence he’d instructed her to use.

Finally, she noticed that he stood straight, shoulders back, posture controlled without being rigid.

She, herself, stood straight, but in a different way.

As she shifted, she could feel the stiffness in her posture, hours of training to keep herself firmly upright had lent her an immovability, like a boulder carried on the back of a cart. She was straight, strong, and inflexible.

Adam was a tree before the wind. His back and shoulders shifted with the rest of his body, allowing for a more flowing movement. The difference was subtle, but now that she noticed it, she couldn’t not see it.

“Posture.” She didn’t shout, but Adam turned around, smiling.

“No, but yes.”

She frowned, then rolled her eyes. “Observation, then posture.”

He nodded. “I expect I’ll give you the next step before we reach Alefast, tomorrow. Good luck.” He turned half away, again, then paused, glancing back. “Please don’t blow us up?”

She grinned. Mages often held their stiff postures to avoid crossing spell-lines. It was incredibly rare for there to be a reaction, and in every case that she knew of, it could be at least partially traced to poor inscribing. Even so, no good Mage risked it. No one wanted to rip themselves apart. “I’ll be careful.”

Adam nodded one last time and continued walking away.

Because she’d been focused on him, her mage-sight active, she’d noticed that his breathing pattern had changed during their discussion. That explains that. She’d been attempting to discern how she was meant to effectively carry on a conversation with the long inhale and short exhale.

The answer was simple, as most were once found. She wasn’t.

I’ll have to practice breathing in that other pattern whenever I speak… Another thing to learn. She found herself smiling. Another way I can improve.

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JLMullins

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