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Tala was frowning. Holly can’t be that special. I mean, she helped me a lot, but any inscriber would have done the same, right? She knew that her own reticence to have another work on her proved that notion false, but she still didn’t relent. “How does the inscriber matter that much?”

Trent shrugged. “Aside from the obvious need for a steady hand? It’s the mind behind the inscriptions. It matters less for work on Mages than for item construction because our minds come into play, but it still matters. A good inscriber has to mesh their thinking with the Mage they are working for and harmonize that Mage’s capabilities, power, and ways of thinking with the inscriptions used. There’s no one better than Holly, who works on Mages.” He smiled ruefully. “I’ve heard that there are a few inscribers that work exclusively with Archons, but you’ll likely have better knowledge on that before I do.”

“Huh. I had no idea.” She briefly thought of the complex inscription on the back of her neck, ostensibly keeping record of much of what she did, and how. So, Holly had more in mind for this, than simply keeping me from running off or some other such nonsense?

“How did you connect with her?”

“A contact with the Caravan Guild, a friend, introduced me to her.”

“Your handler?”

Tala shrugged. “Started that way, yeah.”

“Glad you’re getting along with them. Bad blood, there, can really hurt you.” He smiled, again. “It sounds like they’re treating you well, too.”

“Yeah, she really is.” Tala looked up, past the caravan and towards the head of the pass. She could see sunlight on a few hills that peaked up high enough to be visible from her vantage. “I’m still trying to get a grasp on things.” She glanced towards Trent. “Thank you for your kindness.”

He shrugged. “Not hard to resist being a rust bucket.”

Tala snorted, again. “Fair enough.”

“We already discussed the commission we earn for protecting the caravan, remember?”

She cocked her head at the sudden change of topic, frowning slightly. “Yeah?”

“Magical creatures have a higher bounty, mainly because they generally cost so much more in inscriptions to deal with.”

“Oh?”

“That one was a Bound, so the payout will be five gold.”

Tala almost gasped. “For one attack?”

Trent sighed. “I’ll need two of that to replace my inscriptions, even with the discount. If I guess right, Atrexia and Renix will each need between half and a full ounce for the same.”

She grunted. “Even with how quick the fight was?”

He laughed. “Half the magics involved were negating each other. I doubt it looked like much.”

Tala thought back to what her mage-sight had been showing her through the battle and realized that he was telling the truth. As she’d watched, it was as if the four combatants had been clashing with spell-forms rather than the effects that the spell-forms were meant to produce. Only the occasional magic was able to fully manifest its intended purpose. “I’d not thought of it in those terms before.”

Trent shrugged. “It’s a hard thing to convey, if you haven’t seen it.”

“So, the whole bounty’s spoken for, eh?”

He smiled. “Money trouble, right?”

“Fly’s already in the ointment; no reason to deny it, now.”

He laughed. “I think a half ounce gold can be spared for your contributions. I’ll have to verify with Atrexia, but I doubt she’ll fight me too hard. It would have cost her a lot, too, if you hadn’t intervened.”

“Half an ounce, eh?” That would have been incredibly generous if she’d used her own magic correctly. As it was, that wouldn’t even cover the cost of the inscriptions she had to replace. Still, it was something. “Thank you. That does help.”

“Wish I could offer more.”

She shrugged. “It’s quite generous. My own bumbling isn’t your fault.”

He patted her shoulder comfortingly. “Want to talk about it?”

“Not now… Maybe on the trip back, in a few days?”

“Fair enough.”

They’d been slowly outpacing the caravan, moving up the line as it continued forward, and were finally coming up beside the lead wagon.

“I’ve got to go check in with Atrexia. Take the day to rest. Recover and think about the fight. You did well for your first battle with a magical animal. Don’t be too hard on yourself.”

“I’ll try. Thank you.”

She pulled herself up onto the top of the wagon as Trent turned and walked back towards the center of the caravan. Atrexia was still up on the central wagon, scanning their surroundings with an ever-sweeping gaze. Tala could sense the woman’s mage-sight from here.

She’s a bit nervous. Tala couldn’t blame her.

With a sigh, Tala sank into a comfortable seated position, looking forward.

Hey! I didn’t trip. Thinking back, she could tell that she’d been mostly balanced as she moved, but she had fallen a little back towards her previous way of walking. Her aching legs and low back attested to the fact that she was moving in the right direction, but she swore to herself that she’d be more attentive, going forward.

She’d check in with Adam after lunch, but she was fairly certain that his ‘next step’ would be to practice the foundational material he’d already given her.

Very well. I’ve much to improve, and time waits for no one.

Wait… Time is an immaterial thing. She gasped. Are there time Mages?! She thought back through all the inscription theories and couldn’t recall a single mention of such, which was a bit strange. Her teachers had gone out of their way to explain the few things that were definitively not possible through magic, the main one that had stood out to her being: the ‘from scratch’ creation of a free-willed lifeform.

But she was getting off track. Time magic… what would it even do? She knew that some incredibly powerful Gravity Mages could alter the flow of time minutely, but anything that would be affected was also destroyed under the astronomically amplified forces.

But can we modify the flow of time, directly?

It seems that she had yet another subject to research. It’s becoming quite the long list…Maybe there’s a book.

She groaned. Tala… focus. You don’t really understand time, so you’d need to get a grasp on how it actually works, before you could even consider altering it. She snorted a laugh. Maybe humans can’t truly understand time. That would make time Mages impossible, even if the magic could exist, theoretically. No wonder our teachers never spoke about it. No reason to open a rancid fruit.

She pulled her mind back to the present and returned to basics. Breathe.

After five minutes of breathing, Tala stood up, and moved through her stretches atop the moving wagon. Allowing half of her mind to remain focused on her breathing, she tuned in her balance. To her surprise, the internal focus activated her mage-sight, and she was able to perceive her own body, the minute contraction of various muscles, the exact points of weakness and her center of balance.

It was especially odd, as her iron salve kept her mage-sight from seeing beyond herself, containing the sight, and if anything, amplifying it.

She could move the focus back out, through her eyes, but that would make the internal awareness fade, somewhat. Another thing to practice. She grinned.

With an exact map of how each muscle in her body responded to her desires, she was able to modify her movements to an incredible degree. She could perfectly stretch any muscle and isolate any fiber of any muscle for individual contraction…in theory at least.

In practice? It wasn’t perfect, as her mind wasn’t used to sending such specified commands.

She’d been wielding her body like a hammer in the dark.

It’s time to be a… She hesitated, holding a precariously balanced stretch, her leg muscles twitching in sequence to compensate for the sway of the wagon. She couldn’t think of a good metaphor. Well, rust.

One of her stabilizing muscles, deep in the hip of her planted leg, seized up. Tala dropped to her knees, the knuckles of her left-hand driving into her hip, trying to relieve the pain. It was excruciating, her heightened focus making the pain much more acute than it would otherwise have been.

No. Focus, Tala! She narrowed her sight in on the spasmodically twitching muscle group, increasing her awareness of the pain many times over, as well.

She gritted her teeth and bent her mind towards the muscle fibers. Release!

They relaxed.

Oh…my… She let out a relieved breath. That would have been-

The muscles jerked in once more, contracting violently, responding to the build-up of bio-chemicals within.

Cursing to herself, under her breath, she bore down, turning her will upon the rebellious portion of her musculature, but as much as she desired, her muscles were not perfectly subject to her will.

Power, however, was.

Magic swept through her hip. It was relatively unfocused, but it responded to her directive, and the muscles of her hip were soothed, forcibly.

She flopped back onto her back, gasping, both hands clutching at her hip to guard against the lingering pain.

“Ow…”

She felt exhausted, fully spent: mind, body, will, and soul.

“Well… pain’s gone…mostly.” She groaned, not sitting up. “Maybe…maybe, I should take a little nap.”

 

* * *

 

Tala woke from her short nap to the smell of food.

She sat up groggily, just in time to see Brand scale the last portion of the ladder with a platter of food.

“Lunch’s here.”

“Thank you!” She shook off the remnants of sleep and accepted the proffered meal. It was at least three times what she would normally eat, but it looked just about right. “Do you have-” She stopped with a laugh, as he pulled a jug out from behind his back, where it had been hanging from a leather strap. “You brought coffee."

“Of course! I always felt bad pouring out the leftovers, but most people don’t like it when it’s not fresh.” He shrugged. “Waste not, and all that.”

“Well, thank you, regardless of the reasons.”

Brand smiled as he climbed back down the ladder. “Of course! When we get into the city, come find me, and I’ll make the promised introductions.”

“Will do.”

The sun was now easily reaching them. They were nearing the end of the pass, and it was nearly noon. Because it was late autumn, the sun looked to be ahead of her, out the mouth of the valley to the south. As such, it was a bit of a pain to look at what lay ahead, at least without her hat.

She pulled the hat a little lower as she dug into the food.

She’d heard someone else bring Den his lunch, while Brand was delivering to her, and she was glad to know that the driver was enjoying similar fare. This is delicious.

The coffee was cold, but she didn’t really care. I might have a problem.

While she ate one of the beef pasties, she flipped through her various books, taking notes and consolidating her to-do list.

It was going to be a busy couple of days in Alefast. Hopefully the waning city will have the resources that I need. She looked to the back of her hand, where only nineteen small golden circles remained. Dare I wait for Holly?

Things hadn’t really been standard, and she’d used less than half her castings, but what if things were worse on the way back?

I’ll take the first day to do the most dangerous stuff, and if I have to use more than another casting or two, I’ll get a new set of rings inscribed.

She nodded to herself. It was a reasonable compromise.

Her first stop this evening would be a blacksmith, after meeting Brand’s contact, of course.

And meeting with the Caravan Guild’s representative for payment and to send messages.

But after that, a blacksmith. My request shouldn’t be too odd. She snorted. Except that it’ll be a Mage requesting a farm implement. And out of as pure iron as they can manage. She sighed. I don’t do subtle well, do I.

True to his word, Adam swung by after lunch, and true to her guess, he simply emphasized focusing on the basics. He wanted her to let her body adjust and to strengthen the muscles that ‘spoke’ to her.

She agreed, and he confirmed that he would be on the caravan trip back. They’d continue her training, then, assuming she’d made good progress, while in Alefast.

He was still on duty, so he left after their brief exchange of words, and Tala returned to her stretching and inner focus.

As she moved, she was careful to monitor the condition of her muscles, both ensuring that she pushed every part of herself, and that she didn’t go too far and strain anything else.

She still ached, deep in her hip. Right, massage. I need to schedule…half a day is probably too long. She sighed. I’ll see if anyone is available on short notice.

Every so often, she shook the iron flask containing the paltry few ending-berries she still had. I want this filled.

Trent had promised to point her to a grove of ending trees. If her visit to the blacksmith went well, she should be able to go to the grove and get back tomorrow, an easy harvest in hand.

She was just setting the flask aside once more when her wagon came over top of the long rise of the pass, exiting at the same time.

Before her, a new world spread out, rolling hills basked in the sun, some grassy, others covered in trees.

A city was just more than a half dozen miles distant, and she could already see how different it was from Bandfast, if only because of its nature as a waning city.

Only the innermost wall still stood.

There were no farms, no bustling industry, no rings of towers protecting the outermost reaches.

The Wild had reclaimed everything once held by the city.

Small stands of trees that looked ancient grew right up near the white city walls. Deep shadows were easy to see, despite the hour, and the dark green of the leaves spoke of abundant life.

The air practically vibrated with magical power, and she could almost feel the plants growing around her.

The world is healing the wound of the human city, magic swelling to speed up the process even as our spell-lines and magics fade. This city had less than three decades remaining, before the last walls fell. In that time, it would be the center of the most dangerous, and most profitable, harvesting expeditions.

There was magic to spare in the lands surrounding the city, and people were ready to collect on that, bringing power and utility back to the rest of humanity, for the betterment of all.

The cycle continues.

Aside from the trade caravan, she didn’t see any other humans moving outside the city, and her mage-sight couldn’t penetrate the defenses around the city.

Make no mistake, the defenses weren’t blocking her sight so much as filling it with so much information anything from beyond it was unrecognizable.

She blinked rapidly and turned her focus away. She felt slightly nauseous. Bandfast’s defenses are nothing compared to these. That made sense. Alefast now had to stand as a bastion against truly magical creatures, not just arcane, and midnight foxes weren’t close to the most powerful among them.

Even aside from the plants that seemed to be growing so quickly that they almost moved as she watched them, she saw the ripples of magic from countless arcane animals bounding, hunting, and living within the landscape.

It was like finding a jungle after living in the desert.

This was the magical equivalent of verdant fields. She was used to highland, arid farming.

Amazing. Even the Academy hadn’t had this high a density of magic.

The arcane beasts kept their distance from the caravan, but she could sense them, even if she couldn’t see them.

She could also occasionally still sense flickers of dimensional energy, near the edge of her range. It’s still out there…great. She’d been hoping that it would stay on the other side of the pass.

As they trundled on down through the foothills, Tala caught glimpses of magical animals and beasts watching them.

Surprisingly, nothing made a move on the caravan, and after a bit of contemplation, she realized why. There’s nothing for them to gain. They live off power, and here, there is power aplenty.

She glanced back towards Alefast, and the beacon of magic that it was.

Human cities, in their early years, drained most of the power from the surrounding lands, providing protection by weakening the magic of anything that would come against it. As such, nothing powerful attacked them. The crazy would-be-emperor’s road had been an exception, because it completely cut off paths and routes, instead of simply being an irritating, prickly obstacle to move around.

As the city aged, the land would compensate, slowly increasing ambient magic in the region to balance it out, until the rate of increase outpaced what the city could draw in. The result was a surge of power that coincided with the city’s final years. Thus, allowing the enemies of man-kind easy access to assault the walls.

After humans left the city, and the spell-lines lost the remnants of their functionality, magic in the region would level out, and slowly return to what it once had been.

A surprisingly mellow, cyclical war of attrition.

She returned from her musings, scanning their surroundings. Even though the creatures around them had no instinctive reason to attack, many magical creatures were sapient, and some might choose to attack on a whim, or for some unknown purpose. For whatever reason, the more powerful magical creatures were, the more they seemed to dislike humanity. Yet another thing my teachers couldn’t, or wouldn’t, explain…

Given the potential for such powerful attackers, Trent and Atrexia were obvious in their diligence, allowing their defensive power to color the caravan to any with the mage-sight to see it.

In a land full of fruit, why dig through a thorn bush for berries, dried on the branch?

Maybe my venture won’t be as dangerous as I’d feared? It was a bit of a fool’s hope, and she wouldn’t allow it to draw her into complacency, but she did allow it to lift her mood.

Two days in and around Alefast, then back on the road. Back home. She smiled. It was still new, but she was, indeed, making a home for herself in Bandfast.

I am still beholden to those I live with. It soured her thoughts, just slightly. She knew that Lyn genuinely liked her, but she had no illusions about the woman’s first priority, which was to their indentured master. Like virtually everyone. Lyn bent to the whims of her contract even as Tala, herself, did.

Focus on the good. Work to change the bad. She did not think of her father’s kind voice, speaking that truism.

If she’d judged the distance correctly, they had less than three hours left before reaching Alefast, and if patterns held, the work-yard would be just inside the gates.

I could run ahead. She snorted a laugh. I could walk ahead and arrive in half the time. Still, she only considered it for a moment. While she was technically within her rights to do so, it would set a bad impression, and the wrong impression with the wrong people could severely hamper her contract opportunities, under her indenture, going forward.

Thus, she settled in to wait. She did, after all, have books to finish.

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JLMullins

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