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Tala moved towards the chuckwagon, allowing her back and shoulders to move along with the rest of her, keeping balance.

It felt strange to relinquish the rigidity that she’d held for so long. The manner of movement didn’t feel like something she did; it had become a part of her. Even so, she wasn’t stiff, as her daily stretches and exercises had kept her limber despite her manner of movement.

Honestly, it felt like she was going to fall over, which was incredibly disconcerting given that she was focused on her balance, so she knew she was perfectly stable.

Like feeling starving on a full stomach… It made no sense.

Still, she rested in the feeling instead of fighting it and found a strange comfort in the flow of the movement, as her whole body seemed to harmonize with her balance and breath.

This is fantastic!

She easily got her food and made her way to the Mages' table, where the three people there were already gorging themselves.

Tala smiled at the three. “Rough day?”

Renix nodded emphatically, speaking around food. “Yeah, and tomorrow will be the hardest.”

Tala found herself nodding. She’d noticed the slow increase in ambient magic as they progressed, and now having seen the power practically streaming through the pass, she understood. “Well, Alefast is a waning city, so...?”

All three stopped eating and turned to look at her.

Trent cleared his throat. “Mistress Tala. I know that your training was…” He glanced at Atrexia, then back to Tala. “…unusual, but did you really not think to investigate what the implications were for the stage of our destination city?”

Tala shrugged. “Honestly? No. So, a city in its last stages, eh? Population in the tens of thousands, buttoning up and getting the last of the goods out.” She smiled, sitting down with her food. “Magic coalescing about the walls like water in the ocean, luring in all manner of creatures, both the simply arcane, and the truly magical.”

Atrexia shook her head and continued eating. “Like a child with a bedtime story.”

Trent ignored his fellow Mage protector. “Even the harvesting guilds will be beginning to pull out. Why do you think I wasn’t willing to go with you to the ending tree grove?”

“You said it would be too expensive?”

He gave her a flat look. “And have we encountered so much lately that that made sense?”

“Oh.” She nodded, digging into her food and talking around the mouthful. “I get it. The abandoned outer circles of the city, and the surrounding countryside, will be crawling with beasts.”

Atrexia hesitated, then sighed. “That is close enough to true. You know, it would be better if you stayed in the city. You are taking the next caravan out, yes?”

Tala nodded. “I am, but I’m very interested in the ending-berries, and I think it’s worth the risk.” Tala’s eyes narrowed. “You didn’t care if I risked myself the last time it was brought up.”

Atrexia put on a false veneer of affront. “Mistress Tala! I never meant to imply I’d like to see you die. I only meant that your death would be a travesty to more than just you, if you died before tomorrow morning.”

Tala’s eyes further narrowed. “You don’t think there’s another in the city who can empower cargo-slots.” Atrexia took a hasty bite of food. Tala took the silence as a response and continued. “You’re afraid of getting stuck in Alefast until a replacement can arrive, if I die.”

Renix was still shoveling food in his mouth, but he managed to give Atrexia a hurt look. “That’s not very kind.”

“I don’t want her to die, ok? Why must you look for the reasons why? Isn’t my desire enough.” She glanced Tala’s way. “Besides, I won’t be with the caravan coming back immediately anyways. My departure doesn’t hinge on her.”

That gave Tala pause. Maybe, it’s something else, then? “Fair enough.” She turned back to Trent. “So, what will tomorrow look like?”

“The pass will be the biggest gamble. Mistress Atrexia is uniquely suited to fight in that terrain, that’s largely why she was recruited for this particular venture.”

“Strong-armed, more like,” the woman muttered around her food.

“In either case, she should be able to drive back anything we encounter through the pass. Once we’re out, the power in the area beyond the pass will have changed the local animals much more substantially than those we’ve seen so far, and there will likely be at least a few purely magical creatures.”

“Trent? Why are you giving her the most basic lesson?” Atrexia had paused eating, once again, to regard him.

He shrugged. “I prefer to be thorough.”

Atrexia grunted, seeming unsatisfied, but didn’t press.

“Do you need me to be ready to help?”

Atrexia rolled her eyes but refrained from commenting.

Trent, though, was nodding. “Maybe. What sort of support could you offer?”

Tala hesitated, realizing that she didn’t really want to explain her abilities. Finally, she settled on being accurate, but vague. “I can remove single targets, largely without difficulty. There will be some magical creatures that can shrug off my attack for a time, but very few. I cannot easily effect a swarm, but I can remove up to…” She glanced at the back of her hand. “…23? I think I can remove any 23 opponents from the field, either one at a time, or in groups. If there are particularly resilient opponents, treat them as more than one of that number, and it should still be accurate.”

Renix whistled in appreciation around his food, somehow, but didn’t comment further.

Trent nodded. “Big and focused. That might be useful. Renix and I are good at quickly removing lots of normal opponents, and the guards can handle a horde of weak, or a small number of normal, enemies.” He glanced to Atrexia and smiled. “She can obliterate almost anything arcane in the mountains, the few exceptions should be subject to Renix and I, but it’s good to know we can call on you.” He turned back to Tala. “Are you limited by what they are composed of?” He blinked, seeming to consider for himself, then shook his head. “Of course, you aren’t; I apologize. You’re an immaterial, the material that is around is irrelevant to you.”

Tala smiled. “Reasonable question, nonetheless. If I can see or sense them, I can affect them.”

“We’ll keep that in mind. Thank you.”

“Happy to help.”

Small talk filled the remainder of the space around the consumption of their food, and the four parted ways for the night.

Tala felt somewhat strange as she made her way back to her wagon, requisitioning herself a shield along the way. She didn’t feel sick, precisely, but she did feel off.

She dismissed it.

 

* * *

 

Tala woke, gasping for air and struggling to breathe, just as first light began to put the stars from the sky.

Something had gone terribly wrong.

She pulled in huge lungfuls of air through a gaping mouth, but it felt incorrect, broken. Like eating soup with a fork.

She pushed herself out from under the anchored shield and away from her bedroll, but she found herself stiff, and her movements stumbling. Poisoned? Someone poisoned me?

No, she didn’t feel sick, she just couldn’t seem to breathe right, or move without tripping over herself…

Everything I focused on yesterday. Everything is WRONG. Somehow, her body was fighting back against the changes she’d made to her breathing, posture, and balance.

It was rusting terrible.

She tried to draw in her breath through her nose, but it felt like breathing through a straw… which was actually pretty close to the truth. Even so, it was infuriating, and her lungs screamed at her for more air, faster.

She tried to focus on her movement, keeping her balance centered above her feet, and it felt like someone had broken her ankles.

Her whole back felt like it was a collection of tension, knots, and agony: the muscles bunching and twisting, fighting for control. It was as if someone had laced her back with rope from the abyss itself, before cinching it taut.

She groaned, trying to stretch, while fighting a growing sense of breathlessness.

What is going on?

She heard a man walk up to her wagon and begin to climb. She ignored it as she tried to force her body to obey. You are my body! Come on, Tala, get it together.

She heard a quizzical noise, and turned to see Adam regarding her, his head just barely poking above the lip of the wagon. “What’s wrong with you?”

She pulled in a quick breath through her mouth, despite how wrong that felt too, and cursed at him. “You rusting broke me! What’s wrong with you, telling me to change all these-” She took in another gasping breath. “-things about myself at once?”

Adam was frowning. “You should be experiencing some oddities, as well as a difficulty in replicating what you did yesterday, but you seem to be having a somewhat extreme reaction. Are you sure you aren’t overreacting?”

She glared at him, as she panted, hating every inhaled breath, even as her lungs fought to keep her breathing more. “I learn much more quickly than most.”

He nodded. “Your reaction makes sense then, I suppose. Your success yesterday was something we call beginners’ competence, often known as beginners’ luck. Most people are very good at most things, when they first attempt them, only falling to the traps of ignorance upon repeated attempts. Most of the time, that means that a student will feel like they are getting everything right on the first day. Then, they will feel that they are unable to take a single correct step for weeks after that.”

Tala cursed again, then took in a great gasp and continued. “You mean, that I’ll be this way for weeks!?

He shook his head. “I would expect you to level out more quickly, but you won’t return to the competence you experienced yesterday for quite a while.”

She continued to glare.

“Take deep breaths. You know the pattern.”

She opened her mouth to shout at him, but he held up a hand, climbing the rest of the way onto the roof.

“Try it.”

She dropped into a cross-legged, seated position, focusing on her breathing, and glaring.

“Close your eyes.”

She obliged, turning all her focus onto fighting her body’s certainty that she was drowning.

“Breathe.”

She did. In through her nose, out through her mouth.

“Slowly, deeply.”

She did so, feeling her panic begin to lessen, even while she still felt out of breath.

She heard Adam walking around her, seemingly examining her as she continued to breathe.

Tala didn’t let that distract her from her ongoing, internal battle.

Suddenly, she felt Adam strike her back, right at one of the worst bunches of rebellious muscle. It was as if he severed the abyssal cord, and the taut rope of agony whipped through her back.

Instead of screaming, as she very much wanted to, she found herself utterly unable to breathe.

He’d struck her just at the end of an explosive exhale, and she was utterly without breath.

“In through your nose, Mistress Tala.”

She obliged, if only to be able to scream at him.

Surprisingly, the immense flash of pain had passed, and her back felt incredible relief. She was by no means cured, as many muscular pain points still screamed at her, but her entire back was no longer a web of misery.

Tala grunted instead of screeching at him.

“Better?”

She grunted again, opening her eyes to glare. “You could have warned me.”

“No, I couldn’t have. Your unawareness is all that allowed me to break the core of your misalignment.”

She grumbled, but she knew he was right. Her body was no longer screaming at her quite so loudly, and her lungs no longer felt like they were in open revolt.

“I’ve seen you stretching. It is a good set. Triple your time in it this morning, and do another set, just as long, at least twice more today. Try to focus on the things from yesterday, and don’t be discouraged when you have more difficulty than before.”

Tala grunted, then sighed. “Thank you.” After a short pause, she added. “I think I still hate you, but thank you for not just abandoning me.” After another pause, she continued. “You came, because you knew I’d be off this morning?”

He quirked a smile. “That, and I could hear you gasping for air from the other side of the caravan.”

She felt herself color. “Was it that loud?”

“I was waiting for some indication that you were awake, so I was paying very close attention.”

She felt slightly mollified.

“I’ll leave you to it, then.” Without further comment from either of them, Adam departed.

After he was well out of earshot, Tala muttered to herself. “I hope some sort of masseuse is still in Alefast, because there is no way I’m getting all these knots out just by stretching…”

Breathing first, Tala. She calmed herself, centering her thoughts, and drawing her awareness inward, enforcing her breathing pattern. It wasn’t perfect, but she was able to alleviate the feeling of drowning in perfectly good air.

That done, she clumsily gathered up her bedroll and tossed the shield down over the side. She’d normally have carried it but didn’t want the added imbalance.

She returned the shield and stored her bedroll. Then, she went through her morning empowerment of the cargo-slots.

It was much more difficult, today, as her body's aches and general feel of being off-balance weakened her mental construct, thereby lowering efficiency.

Even so, it didn’t take long for her to be finished with her work for the morning.

That done, she made her way to stand outside the wagon circle in the light of the rising sun and began to stretch, following Adam’s advice and lingering deeply in each position when it was a static stretch, and increasing the repetitions for those that were dynamic.

Her body felt like a twisted cord being pulled. It was unwinding, but there were still spins in the line that caused strange pulling.

It was deeply uncomfortable.

Extended stretches complete, she moved through her exercises, then did another, normal set of stretches after. More can’t hurt.

Through the body work, she’d been keeping a portion of her mind on her breathing, and it continued to settle into place.

All told, it was well after sunrise when she finished, and most people had finished their breakfasts by the time she grabbed hers. She found herself catching her feet on the uneven ground as she approached the chuckwagon but kept herself from falling, cursing, or making too much a spectacle of herself.

Brand, bless the man, had a massive earthen jug of coffee to go with her food. It was at least a half-gallon in size. The meal itself was an omelet, containing a healthy helping of thunder bull meat along with cheeses, spices, peppers, and other vegetables.

She poured out her thanks, then took her breakfast back to her wagon, tripping several more times along the way. Thankfully, she was always able to recover herself before dropping anything.

As she ate, she stared at the pass they would traverse in the next few hours. The density of magic flowing through it was palpably higher than that in the surrounding hills. What awaits us, there?

She’d find out soon enough, but she had more immediate concerns.

Her food eaten and coffee at the ready, Tala turned her focus inward and simply breathed.

Tala sat on top of her wagon in the shade of her wide-brimmed hat, eyes closed and thoughts directed inward.

Even so, she was able to hear the creak of the wagon beneath her and feel the growing warmth on her right side as the caravan began to move towards the cleft that they would use as a pass.

As she directed her attention towards her breathing, it seemed to activate her mage-sight’s deeper perception, because she was suddenly able to see the air, lightly infused with magic, moving in and out with each cycling breath.

It was strange, as there seemed to be power relating to fire in each breath in, and her body was harvesting that, replacing it with something that appeared reminiscent of living plants, at least that was the feeling she got. Strangely, the air she exhaled seemed to be denser with magic than that which she drew in.

Am I losing power with each breath? It was a strange thought but made a sort of sense. Most Mages leak power all around themselves. I don’t. I suppose losing some through breathing isn’t unique to me, it is just more noticeable to me.

It was more than sensing the contents of her lungs; though, that was part of it, and that was strange enough.

Just as the thunder cattle, or terror bird, had been more than the animal they diverged from, so the air in her lungs was more than simply air.

Within most human cities, there was almost no magic free floating, as all of it was harvested and directed towards the defenses of the city, itself.

Here, in the wilds, it was everywhere.

She could feel the slowly increasing quantity of magic in the air she drew in, steadily rising towards the density that she exhaled.

Experimentally, she held her breath, and watched closely. Not only did the tint of the air in her lungs move away from a patron of fire, and towards an aide to plant life, but it also became more and more magically dense, moving rapidly towards the levels of power observable throughout her body. Could we make a device that measured a Mage’s power via breath?

She contemplated. We’d have to have them hold their breath for a set amount of time… As she continued to observe, she noticed that as the magic in the air she breathed increased, so did that in the air she exhaled. We’d need to be in a magically sterile environment, too. So, it would only work in cities…

Experimentally, as she continued to breathe, she reached out to the power in the air within her lungs. To her surprise, it moved easily, responding to her will.

In gleeful fervor, she concentrated the power, pushing it together as she exhaled.

A small pop caused her eyes to snap open. What was that? It hadn’t truly been a sound, though a sound had accompanied the feeling.

Den turned his head around, barely able to see as he looked over the front edge of the wagon, a question in his eyes. She waved and smiled. After smiling and returning the gesture, he shrugged, and turned back towards his work.

Den felt that? No, he likely heard the slight pop. It hadn’t really sounded like anything natural. She couldn’t think of a way to describe the sound as she took notes. Pay more attention next time.

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