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Tala spoke as little as she reasonably could, both as she asked for something to eat, and while requesting a larger than usual lunch for herself and the other magic users.

She took a platter back to her wagon, and only slipped three times on the way up the ladder. Thankfully, she didn’t drop her food. Well, at least I’m finally readjusting…

Den smiled back at her, as she came up onto the roof. “I think we’re ready to go, Mistress. Are you braced for me to start?”

She gave a forced smile in return. “Thank you, Den.” She sat. “I’m ready.”

Den flicked his reins, and the caravan began moving across the broken landscape and into the pass, the wagons’ articulated wheels handling the rough terrain with relative ease.

Three guards were riding to the front of the caravan, scouting the way, and she glanced back to see Atrexia standing on the middle-most wagon, eyes scanning their surroundings.

Trent said it would have found us either way

Was that true?

Probably. It’s not like it was far off the path, and a midnight fox, in this pass, would have been…difficult.

Tala had dealt with a truly magical creature and protected the caravan.

From a threat I brought down on us.

Trent had assured her it would have seen them, either way.

She couldn’t escape the dual feelings of guilt and shame.

She’d instigated the attack, even if it would have happened either way, and she’d been sloppy in coming to the Mages’ aid.

What happened back there, Tala?

She’d frozen. Her eyes had locked on the antlers, and their building magical power, and she hadn’t been able to properly target the great beast. Trent had been calling to her for help. She’d offered to help, and she’d…succeeded?

This felt so different from the thunder bull. For that creature, she’d hunted it, going in with a plan, and executing the plan and the animal both. It hadn’t been a great plan, but she’d followed through to victory.

This…

The midnight fox had been about to kill her.

Trent might have stopped it. Similarly, her iron salve might have protected her, but Den would have died, and the cargo wagon, her charge, would have been eliminated. She shuddered to think what would have happened if the cargo-slots were compromised. Violent dimensional realignment might have obliterated the whole caravan.

She snorted a mirthless laugh.

Might have killed the midnight fox, too. Though, its protections had been astoundingly powerful…

She took a bite of her food and reveled in the taste. The food did make her feel a bit better. Every meal, she felt like nothing could be so good again, and every meal, she was proven wrong. She devoured the remainder, while continuing her contemplations.

Had fear been behind the hesitation and mistake? No. At the time, I ‘knew’ I would survive. Thinking about it now, I realize that I probably wouldn’t have, but I didn’t know that, then. She frowned. I’ve never stared down an attack before.

Training didn’t really count. She knew her fellow students weren’t a threat, and even if they had been, the training room defenses, and on call healers, were ready to hand. No student at the academy had died in the course of their training in hundreds of years.

She’d checked.

Even the thunder bull’s column of lightning hadn’t truly been an attack that she’d had to face down. It had come after she was finished acting and was passed before she really comprehended that it was coming.

That must be it. I’ve never looked upon a worthy opponent and known they were about to try their hardest to strike me down. She almost laughed at her own pretentious thoughts, but it did fit. She could still see the midnight fox’s eyes, locked on her, calmly assured that it was about to snuff her from existence.

She shivered.

With the practice she’d recently had, she turned her mage-sight inward and examined herself.

Her body was flooded with the aftereffects of adrenaline, and she was still trembling with lingering… Fear?

Again, that didn’t seem right.

Horror? That seemed closer to the mark. Fear was an emotion relating to what might happen, while horror was a response to what was happening.

She’d fought countless opponents in mock battles, all of whom had tried to best her. Even the thunder bull had struck her with a powerful blow, but the midnight fox…It had known it would be victorious. And Tala had picked up on that and almost made it true by her own reaction. Or lack thereof.

The terror bird had just been too fast an encounter for conscious thought. Maybe, I’d have responded the same, there, if given the chance?

Tala often put forward a confident air, despite not usually being truly confident, but she’d never actually seen confidence wielded as a weapon. It was a lesson that she swore to learn.

Her plate clean, and her mind mostly settled, she returned her focus briefly to the world around them.

They were deep in the pass now, the sun not risen sufficiently to shine into the chasm that was the cleft. Thus, they were in deep, cool shade.

It felt wonderful.

She laid back on the roof of the wagon and basked in the cool dimness of it all, breathing regularly.

Long inhale through her nose. Short burst of an exhale through her mouth.

What should I do for the remainder of the morning? She had several books that she still had to read. Trent will want his book on item crafting theory back… Her eyes widened. Oh… I’m an idiot.

She pulled out the book and flipped back through it until she found the section, exactly as she remembered it.

Every medium has slight variations in the spell-forms required. She groaned. Air is a new medium, to me. Great…

As she reread the section, she noticed a reference to methodology for discovering the means of inscribing new materials. The book, of course, didn’t elaborate, but it was referenced. There was a warning that it was costly, due to the need to use precious metals for each test piece, and it was useless if the Mage only had a small sample of the material, but air was everywhere.

She grinned. And I’m not using precious metals for the spell-forms.

She blinked. I didn’t use precious metals for the spell-forms. That shouldn’t be possible. Right?

Tala thought back through her conversations with other Mages. No, I made my Archon Star deviation in blood. No precious metals there. Archons also make their own stars in all sorts of materials, supposedly. Those spell-forms don’t need precious metals. So… The precious metals are only a catalyst, forcing the power through prescribed pathways that are too complex for a human mind to reliably maintain.

That was fair. As good a guess as any. She couldn’t possibly maintain all her silver inscriptions in her mind, at all times, and she heavily relied on their monitoring of incoming damage, among other things.

So, the metal is a crutch, if a necessary one? The need for precious metals was a lie. She snorted, again. Like our early math teachers insisting that we couldn’t take a large number from a small number, removing negative numbers from the picture until later lessons.

That seemed close, but still not quite right. The Archon Star has a form, but no function. I’ve never pushed the power through a mental construct of what it is supposed to do… The stars felt like a part of her. She sighed and added a book on the uses of Archon Stars to her shopping list.

She returned her thoughts to the main line of her musings: No arcane or magical beast that she knew of had inscriptions. Do they maintain their spell-forms mentally? No, that beggared the imagination. They somehow had their spell-forms imprinted on them naturally.

Magical creatures were even more extreme, seemingly completely created by magic. The midnight fox had seemed, somehow, to be entirely spell-forms, containing magic and forcing it into the animal’s form. She opened one of her notebooks to the back and began copying out all the parts of the midnight fox’s internal spell-forms that she could recall. There were a lot.

As she drew out the schemas, she continued her contemplations. The fact that magical creatures were mostly magic was hardly novel information, and it was the core reason why magical beast harvests were so much more valuable than arcane ones. While arcane harvests held vestiges of power, magical parts shaped any power that came into contact with them for an incredibly long time, in comparison, in addition to being vastly greater reserves of magical energy. Though, Tala had a nagging feeling that she’d forgotten some caveat to their usefulness. Can they only ever have one owner? That might have been it, but it didn’t quite fit.

I’ve still much to learn, and I’m getting all tangled up. There was no possible way that she was the first person to walk this path of thinking, so she needed to seek out books, or a teacher if she could find one. Master Trent has been trying to explain to me the benefits of the mageling-Master relationship.

She sighed.

That tincture’s already off the fire.

Still, she could likely find someone to help connect some of the dots.

Plus, books. There are always books. Hopefully, she could find some general texts, along with a more specific one on how to test for inscribing methodology on new materials. I’m not going to forget about that.

Now, I just need to figure out how to test my theories on my breath, without becoming a magical beacon…

She spent the morning writing out, modifying, and rejecting hundreds of ideas. Even so, every flawed musing enlightened the overall methodology of her thinking, moving her ever towards reasonable possibilities. Around those brainstorm sessions, she continued to illustrate the midnight fox’s spell-forms. Thankfully, she didn’t have to recreate the whole creature, as most of the fox’s magic had been duplicated. Thus, she was just sketching out the unique forms, along with her memory and interpretation of their purposes.

As to magic in her breath: The obvious solution was to practice inside cities, but as she fully intended to spend as much time as possible on trade caravans, that didn’t help her much.

While she continued to contemplate that issue, her ending-berries came to mind. Specifically, the seeds of destructive energy in their core.

She decided that keeping the ending-berries as they were, when they got to the city, was a bad plan. She got a bar of her iron salve, her as of yet unused iron flask, and the berries.

With quick, now practiced, motions, she split the berries open and sucked the seeds clean, reveling in the buzz of power. That done, she coated the seeds in iron salve, and added them to the others already so treated.

The meat of the berry, she dropped into the iron flask, making sure that all the juices got inside as well.

It was a quick process, and in less than five minutes she’d processed the last seven berries.

There, now I’m not carrying potentially lethal snacks. She was still carrying the seeds, themselves, but she decided that was fine. Incremental improvements for the win!

She sighed, shaking her head at herself. Despite trying to focus her mind on other things, she still felt a seed of discomfort for her part in the morning’s battle.

This isn’t going away, until I deal with it.

She stood up, swaying unsteadily with the movement of the wagon. This is the rusting worst… She focused on her balance, forcing her body to maintain her center of mass low and within her feet, and she felt muscles all through her thighs, hips, and legs cry out in protest. I wasn’t moving that differently…was I?

Her lower soreness, added to that still residing in her back, made her feel irritable. Well…more irritable.

She sighed, again.

With careful movements, she climbed down off the wagon and jumped out, clear of the wheels, keeping her footing with effort.

She swung by the chuckwagon to drop off her platter and thank the cooks, on her way to Renix and Trent’s wagon.

Once there, she stepped up onto the back step, took a long breath in through her nose and exhaled in a near whistle through her mouth.

She knocked.

A man she’d seen on occasion opened the door. “Mistress Tala? Won’t you please come in.”

He was the servant for Trent’s wagon. “Thank you, sir.”

She followed his gesture in, allowing him to close the door and shut out what little dust there was.

Renix was resting on his bed, about halfway up the wagon, and Trent was just pulling on his boots. “Mistress Tala? What can we do for you?”

“May I have a seat?”

Trent gestured to the many available places to sit, and she took one. It was a surprisingly comfortable chair, considering it was bolted to the floor of the wagon and looked to have been made as lightly as possible.

“How are you, Renix?”

Renix had pushed himself up into a seated position. “Oh, I’ll live. I was tossed quite a way and broke…” He glanced to Trent. “What did Mistress Atrexia say? Thirteen bones?”

“Fifteen, Renix.”

Renix nodded. “Right. Fifteen. So, not too bad.”

“Including a concussion.”

Renix gestured at himself, still in bed. “Hence the bed rest.”

Tala was frowning in concern. “She healed you up, right?”

“Oh yeah, of course! I’m right as rain.” He leaned his head back against a pillow and sighed, contentedly.

Trent shook his head. “The bones are set right, but a concussion’s no small thing. He’ll be fine in a day or two though, even without healing. And we’ll have the local flesh worker sort him out this evening. A shame Material Mages aren’t great at preventing concussions, though.”

Tala nodded, relaxing. “I’m glad you’ll be alright.”

“Oh, I’m hardly that.”

She quirked an eyebrow. “I thought…?” She looked to Trent, who was rolling his eyes but didn’t comment.

“I didn’t get to see you put that mangy beast down!”

It wasn’t mangy…Turn of phrase? “I guess, so… It wasn’t that impressive.”

“Not that…Are you joking?” Renix looked from Tala to Trent, then back to her. “You turned its magic back on itself, obliterating it outright! I heard you even had it trying to flee before you were done. I’ve never even heard of a magical animal fleeing. You’re incredible!”

Tala was frowning again, as she turned to Trent. “Did you tell him this tale?”

The Mage shook his head. “I told the boy it was your story to tell. So, of course, when you weren’t ready to hand, he got as many people as he could to tell him.”

Tala winced. “I’m sorry, Renix. I really should have come to see how you were, right away.”

Renix waved her off. “No! It’s fine. You have to think over a battle after it passes, analyze what worked, what didn’t, and what you could have done better. Contemplating self-improvement and meditating on what you discover is key to improving as a Mage.” The young man beamed, looking to his Master for affirmation.

Trent quirked a smile. “Renix is correct, Mistress Tala. The ways of honing one’s craft are well known to us, and your delay is most understandable.” His eyes were twinkling with hidden mirth.

Tala cleared her throat. So, a book on Mage meditation and reflecting techniques too. “Yes, well… I still wish I had come by sooner.” She took in a deep breath, smelling the clean, but lived in, interior of the wagon. “I froze up, and almost got you killed.”

Renix rolled his eyes. “Even if that’s true, which I doubt, you finished the job.”

Tala wanted to argue with him, to beat it into his head that she’d failed, but she realized that even if she succeeded in convincing him, it wouldn’t be fair. He was concussed, not fully present. It would like beating a cripple in a foot race. “Fine, but I still feel that I owe you an apology. Will you forgive me?”

“Absolutely! Done.”

She looked to Trent, and he smiled, nodding. “I am grateful that you acted when you did, regardless of the surrounding details. Thank you.”

Tala felt as if a great weight had lifted from her. A little voice in the back of her mind tried to tell her that she needed to apologize to Atrexia as well, but she snuffed that idea at its roots. “Thank you, both of you.” She smiled, genuinely, as she stood up. “I’ll leave you to your rest, Renix.”

He smiled in return. “I think we’re on the same caravan back, so don’t think this is the last you’ll see of me!”

She gave a short laugh. “I wouldn’t dream of it.”

Trent rose with her, his boots firmly in place. “I’ll accompany you. I need to join Mistress Atrexia on duty for this last leg.”

“Of course.” After a short silence as they moved towards the door, she glanced at him. “If I can help…”

He smiled. “I will not hesitate to ask.”

Tala and Trent stepped out of the wagon, one after another, and dropped to the ground, moving to the side so the closely following oxen of the wagon behind wouldn’t have to slow or divert.

“Thank you, again, Master Trent.”

He laughed. “I should be thanking you, honestly. I’ve fought through tougher spots, but it was about to get expensive.”

She turned to look at him, questioningly.

“Another point that a master would have made sure you knew of.”

She rolled her eyes, and started walking along with the caravan, Trent fell into step beside her.

“I mean that to protect the caravan from a powerful attack, at such a distance, would have taken a heavy amount of power, and would have eaten through several of my primary defensive inscriptions.” He quirked a smile. “You’re in a position to not need defensive inscriptions for anyone away from yourself.”

She nodded, realizing what he was getting at. “I either disable my opponent, move out of the way, or trust myself to weather the attack. If it isn’t directed at me, I can’t really do much to stop it.”

“Exactly.”

She laughed. “I’d make a terrible caravan guard.”

He shrugged. “Different skill-set. For a larger caravan, or a harvesting expedition, I’d want you on as a striker: someone to take the fight to beasts, while others covered the non-combatants. For a smaller caravan, you should be paired with a shield specialist, or maybe a fast-moving Immaterial Creator?” He shrugged, again.

She felt an easy smile settle in place. “That might actually be some fun, assuming I finish getting my inscriptions.”

Trent cocked his head frowning. “You aren’t fully inscribed?”

Tala cleared her throat, glancing away a bit sheepishly. “Well, I sort of have money issues, and I got all I could afford.” She scratched the side of her neck, absently. “My role in this caravan wasn’t even supposed to require the ones I do have.” She barked a mirthless laugh. “That didn’t quite work out.”

Trent snorted. “Too true. Even so, if you’re working with half a deck, you’re all the more impressive for pulling winning hands again and again.”

“Gambling metaphor? Really?”

“Are you saying what you’ve been doing is anything else?”

She grunted a laugh. “Fair, I suppose.”

“So, with the payday this evening, will you be finishing out? Getting inscriptions in a waning city is expensive.”

“I wish, even with the added expense. Mistress Holly’s really the only one I trust to do it right, though.” To her surprise, she realized that that was actually true. The inscriber was a bit inscrutable, but her work had proven itself.

“Wait, Mistress Holly, herself, actually did your work? THE Mistress Holly?”

When Tala shrugged, then nodded, Trent whistled.

“Man. You really must be something special. She only bothers with one Mage in a thousand. Her apprentices do most of it, though even having her modifications and ideas implemented on you would set your work as a cut above. It’s one reason I like being based out of Bandfast. Her work is second to none.” He shook his head ruefully. “You are full of surprises, Mistress Tala.”

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JLMullins

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