Tala closed the item creation primer and looked up, just in time to see a group of caravan guards returning from the city gates, which were now only a few hundred yards away.
Adam was in the group, and while the others moved on to the wagons further back, Adam paused to speak to Den, turning his horse to ride alongside their wagon.
Tala moved closer, and Adam smiled before speaking loudly enough to include her. “We’re going to have to surrender to an inspection.”
Den groaned. “Why? That is not the standard, Guardsman. You’re delaying my delivery of goods.”
Tala blinked in surprise. She’d never heard Den take that tone with anyone. Additionally, it conveyed to her that Adam was somehow subordinate to Den. Wait…Den always chose the campsites. He directed our paths of travel…
She found herself dumbstruck. Den is in charge of the caravan. He just doesn’t bother with minutia.
She remembered the Mages looking her way when deciding how to change their path on the first day. No, not my way. They were checking if Den was going to comment.
That actually made a lot of sense.
She returned her mind to the conversation in time to hear Adam’s calm, if deferring, response.
“I understand, First Driver, but it seems that a particularly mischievous magical entity attempted to breach the city in the last week, by disguising itself as a caravan.”
Den seemed taken aback at that, as he took a moment to respond. “It disguised itself as a caravan wagon?”
Adam shook his head. “No, as an entire caravan. Wagons, oxen, drivers, even outriders.”
“So…many working together.”
Again, Adam shook his head. “Apparently, the Prime of this city’s defenses verified it for herself. It was one entity.”
“Huh…” Den scratched his head. “Well, I suppose that would make them a bit jumpy…” He grunted. “Fine, fine. What’s the process?”
“Each wagon will need to stop within the gatehouse for a minute, while two Mages sweep it for deviation. Everyone not on a wagon will be separately inspected. It is encouraged that anyone who can, should go through the personal inspection, rather than being included in the general wagon scan.”
Tala barked a laugh. “I’ll pass, thank you.”
Den glanced back at her and smiled. “You’re welcome to stay with the wagon, Mistress.”
Adam opened his mouth, likely to object, then seemed to think better of it, shrugging instead. “They didn’t mandate it. You’re lead wagon, so just stop within the gatehouse.”
Den sighed. “So, if we’re at all suspect, they can drop the portcullis on both sides, locking us in.”
“It is what it is, First Driver.”
“And it will be as it will be.”
Adam grinned, bowed slightly to Den, then Tala, and wheeled his horse around to carry the information further back.
Den eyed Tala. “You ever heard of something like that, Mistress? An entity taking multiple separate forms?”
She shook her head, then paused. “Well, I’m still rather…inexperienced, but I believe it is possible that such could be faked, if each form were linked somehow that wasn’t easily noticed… Shadows? Invisible tendrils?” She shrugged. “Just a shot in the dark, though.” As she considered she smiled slightly. “Expect them to drop the portcullis.”
He looked at her in alarm. “They’d only do that to trap us.”
“Or, to put iron between us and the rest of the caravan.”
He looked confused.
She sighed. “Iron can interfere with most types of magic. If we are of one being with the rest of the caravan, dropping iron between us could sever that connection, revealing a fake.”
“I’m just guessing, but I thought I’d let you know, so you don’t panic if the iron comes down.”
He still looked nervous, as they approached the gatehouse, but he didn’t waver.
The gatehouse was a massive monument of strength and power. It had been crafted with skill and had been maintained with care. It didn’t look like it had survived more than three hundred years. As she considered it, Tala realized that it had probably been built when this became the outer wall. More efficient than maintaining gatehouses for every circle for the full life of the city, I suppose.
The archway was wide enough for two of Den’s wagons to pass side by side, reminding her of the pass they’d just gone through. As they entered the first arch, the wagon sliding into the building's shadowed interior, Tala looked up at the thick iron portcullis, held ready to descend.
Each iron strip in the basket weave was close to an inch thick and the bottoms were wedged into spikes and blades. They weren’t razor sharp, but with what must be at least two tons of iron behind it, they didn’t need to be.
Den was eyeing the inside of the gatehouse as he slowed the oxen to a stop.
There were arrow slits to either side, and murder holes above. They both knew that magically facilitated death could be poured out upon them in apocalyptic quantities through those openings, and likely through the solid stone of the walls, themselves.
The oxen came to a stop in very nearly the exact center of the darkened interior. Den had not allowed his trepidation to hamper his performance.
The wagon behind theirs had stopped just outside the gatehouse and was awaiting instruction. Tala could clearly hear a guard inside the second level of the gate, shouting down to the secondary wagon, but before she could focus in on that conversation, she felt magical senses sweep over them. There was a brief hesitation, then the portcullises dropped.
Tala saw them begin to fall, and quickly clasped her hands over Den’s ears, shielding them from the deafening racket.
The oxen were not so lucky, and Den had to fight them back into stillness after the sudden noise.
Tala, for her part, had trusted in the noise suppression inscriptions around her ears, and they had not failed her.
Any noise which came close to her ears was scaled down and suppressed until it was no longer of a harmful level. Thank you, again, Holly.
“Rust me to slag.” Den glanced at Tala, even as her hands moved away. “Thank you. I couldn’t let go of the reins, and that was loud.”
She smiled back. “Happy to help.”
One of the murder holes opened, almost directly above them, and a Mage looked out.
Tala focused on him, and instantly could see him in his entirety, though only with her mage-sight. Material Creator. He specializes in water? No… She looked closer. It wasn’t ice. Acid? There are Mages who specialize in the creation of incredibly caustic acid? She did not like the idea of that. Her iron salve would do nothing against acid created above and dropped on her head, and her protective inscriptions might be overwhelmed by a constant acid burn. She had no way to negate it, and that made her quite unhappy.
She met the man’s gaze, knowing his mage-sight was active, and knowing that she would look quite odd to him. “Well?”
He flinched back just slightly. “What are you?”
“I’m a very cranky Mage, whom you are keeping from her destination.”
“How are you doing that? It’s not like an Archon’s veil at all…” He gestured through the hole, vaguely in her direction. Den glanced her way, cocking an eyebrow.
“How do I exist? How am I standing? How am I talking…? You really need to be more specific.” Really, Tala? Antagonizing the person who can kill you?
“How are you invisible to my mage-sight, except your eyes…and palms?”
“Do Mages not have secrets in this city? We’re clearly human, and you are delaying this shipment from entering. On what grounds are you delaying?”
The man narrowed his eyes. “Based on the fact that an unknown humanoid entity is on the lead wagon.”
A voice drifted from behind the man. “He’s not.”
Tala followed the second voice with her eyes and her mage-sight showed her another Mage, waiting out of normal sight. Material Creator, again… She couldn’t figure out what he focused on, though. It was some complex bio-chemical, which was definitely not acid, but…Venom? Poison? Probably both. Great. Yet another Mage whom I couldn’t easily survive. She frowned. Those were incredibly violent specialties, with virtually no use outside of overwhelmingly bringing death.
Well, mister acid could be on garbage disposal, or some such…
“You tell me what you are.”
“I already have.”
“If you were a human Mage, your spell-lines would be glowing like the sun to my mage-sight. They just look like someone drew on you.”
“Peeking is rude, without permission.”
“Then grant permission.”
“I can’t; I’m passively defended from mage-sight.”
That truly seemed to stump the acid Mage. The sound of a shifting chair came from above and the second voice murmured to the first, though loud enough for Tala to catch it. “Is the guy human?”
“And are the big things oxen?”
“And the wagon?”
“She still doesn’t look right.”
“Rude!” Tala called out. The two men, above, stopped talking, and Den gave her an aghast look.
“Mistress Tala? What are you doing?” His voice came out as a harsh whisper.
The acid Mage’s face reappeared. “So, superhuman hearing, eh? Not really giving credence to your claim.”
Tala rubbed one hand across her face in frustrated irritation. “This is going nowhere. Listen to your friend, and let us through. If I’m not human, the city’s defenses will fry me anyways, right?” She tilted her head to the side, showing her neck, free of any collar.
Again, poison man spoke quietly to acid. “She has a point.”
“Shut up, she can probably still hear you. She might have a collar! Or something similar...” He sounded quite irritated.
“And a reasonable sounding gentleman he is,” Tala interjected. You just can’t shut up, can you…
There was a long pause as another person, non-Mage, came in to demand an explanation for the hold-up. Acid argued with the man, who turned out to be the gatehouse commander, but poison didn’t back him up. So, it ended with acid being commanded to let them through.
Tala smiled, patting Den on the shoulder. “We’re good.”
Den looked uncertain but nodded his thanks. “I hope so…” He glanced her way. “Did you have to antagonize them?”
“They were being rude.”
“They were doing their job.”
After a moment, she grunted irritably. “Fine… You’re right. Sorry about that.”
The iron latticework began to lift slowly back out of the way, both in front and behind them.
Acid spoke one last time. “Head on through to the work-yard. It’s to the right once you exit the gatehouse.”
“Thank you!” Den called up, waving to the man as he flicked the reins, ushering the oxen into movement once more. As they came back out into sunlight, he glanced at her. “Next time, if there is a next time, would you mind doing the personalized inspection instead?” He seemed a bit hesitant as he said it.
She huffed a laugh and shook her head. “Fair’s fair. I’ll try not to be a source of your stress, again.”
He snorted. “Don’t make pretty, false promises, girl. You’ll be a source of my stress for years. I can feel it.”
He continued to watch her out of the corner of his eye, and she turned to fully face Den. “That is one of the nicest things anyone has ever said to me.”
He barked a laugh. “You remind me of my brother’s youngest daughter.” He shook his head. “Too smart for her own good, that one, and she wants everyone to know it.”
“That… is hurtfully accurate.” She flopped down on the driver’s bench beside him, even as he guided the oxen through the muster yard behind the gatehouse, and over to what was clearly the work-yard, lined by stone warehouses. A bit foolish to put the warehouses right up against the wall, but I suppose if anything could reach over the wall to harm the city, the defenses are as good as breached, so convenience takes precedence.
The other wagons were not delayed nearly as long, and the portcullis stayed up.
Even so, it was almost an hour before all the wagons joined Den’s in the work-yard, and a contingent of city guards came out with a group of officials to greet them.
Den exchanged pleasantries with one of the men as Tala dropped off the wagon to store her things in the box and face the Mage who came to inspect the cargo-slots. Immaterial Creator, dimensionally focused.
The Mage ran her hand over each of the hand-shaped charging panels and looked closely at the indicators. She flicked at the wood of the cargo-slots themselves and poked around the edges of the wagon.
Tala, eventually, cleared her throat. “So… is everything in order?”
The Mage stuck out a stone slate in one hand. “Blood here.”
Tala took the slate and read over it. It was a testament that she was Mage Tala, and that the cargo had not been compromised on the trip; that she had kept the cargo-slots charged, would continue to do so for the next two days, and was now passing responsibility of the contents over to the waning city of Alefast.
Tala nodded along as she read the document. Finally, she pulled a small bit of power into her finger, while moving her defenses away, and pricked it on the sharpened nub of stone in one corner, moving to allow a drop of blood to fall onto the magical device.
The blood vanished on contact, and the stone flickered with light. After the flicker passed, new text at the bottom simply stated that her identity was confirmed, and the contract had been accepted.
Tala smiled, handing the slate back.
The Mage glanced at it, then nodded. “Very good. Would you like payment to be credited to your account, or would you like waning notes for the value of your payment.”
Tala frowned. “Not coins?”
“Oh no, dear.” She glanced at Tala, again. “You’ve not been to a waning city before, I’d wager.”
Tala shook her head.
“The precious metals are in much too high a demand to be used as coinage, here. They’d simply be melted down and sold as raw materials…” She hesitated. “I’d be happy to take any coins off your hands and place their value into your account, with a ten percent increase, of course.”
Tala’s eyes bulged. I can make ten percent on my currency, just by bringing it here?
Den cleared his throat, as he finished his own conversation and moved to join Tala. “Ten percent? Is that really what you are offering?”
The Mage colored slightly. “It was meant as an opening offer.”
Den laughed. “Mistress Tala. It is standard for gold, silver, and copper to be worth at least a quarter more than their stamped value in a waning city, at this stage. As I understand it, that is one reason Mages try to avoid being inscribed in such cities, whenever possible. It is just too expensive.”
That made a lot of sense. It also explained why Trent had estimated his expenses for inscription refreshment to be so high. Well, that makes my decision easier. No reinscribing for me. “It does make sense that metal would be at a premium in the last years of the city.” She looked back to the Mage. “I think I’ll keep my coinage and use it to trade for goods and services. My payment may be placed directly into my account.” Every person in all the human cities had an account linked to their blood. Only Mages could use it easily, but it was effectively an unbreakable medium of exchange. Hers had many debts linked to it, but they wouldn’t draw on her balance unless she fell drastically behind on her payments.
The Mage bowed. “As you will. The Master Moneychanger will see to it that you are paid.” She gestured towards a table off to the side, where a line of caravan workers was already queuing up.
As Tala walked across the hard packed earth of the work-yard, she saw the last of the passengers departing, carrying their bags into the city, or loading them onto waiting transport, which would do the same.
Workers were already wheeling out a great crane to pull the cargo-slots free of the wagon, and Tala found herself somewhat sad to see them actively disassembling the top of the vehicle to get access to the magically maintained cargo. It’s been a fun few days. She had the trip back, which would come sooner than she likely realized, but it still felt like an ending. I’ll get over it.
She walked with Den over to the payment line and took a position at the end.
Several of the servants and drivers who were waiting ahead of her looked back in confusion, seeming to expect her to have walked to the front. When she didn’t move, they turned back towards their destination and their pay.
The line moved quickly, and it wasn’t long before Tala approached the head of the line.
The only wrinkle came when Trent, Renix, and Atrexia had walked over, and Trent, along with Renix, joined Tala in waiting. Atrexia huffed a bit but didn’t end up contesting the issue.
Renix, for his part, looked markedly better, seemingly mostly recovered from his concussion. Rest does wonders, I suppose.
Tala let the three go ahead of her and did her best not to listen in while they discussed things with the payment officer.
Her efforts were aided by Brand, who had already spoken to the man, and who came over to stand with her.
“Mistress Tala! We’re here.” He smiled as he walked up to her.
“Seems so.” She returned the smile.
“I heard there was some issue in the gatehouse?”
She shrugged. “Nothing major.”
After a moment’s pause, Brand turned to regard her more fully. “Really? Not going to tell me any more than that?”
She gestured to Den, who waved farewell in their direction as he walked off. “You could always ask him.”
Brand grunted. “Fair enough. I’ll have the whole trip back for that, however, and I’ve promises to keep!”
She quirked a smile. “Sounds good. After I deal with this.”
Trent, Atrexia, and Renix all moved off to the side, where they settled in to discuss the next few days.
Tala stepped forward.
“Name and position.”
“Tala, Dimensional Storage Mage.”
The man grunted. “You’re the source of all this complexity, then.”
Tala frowned. “What?”
He spun a slate around, showing her an itemization:
5.5 oz gold for services rendered as a Dimensional Mage. 1 oz gold for helping to deal with two threats to the caravan. Less 2 oz silver for services rendered by Mage Trent. Less 1 oz silver for equipment requisitioned from Head Cook Brand.
“Does that look correct?”
She frowned, thinking back. “Yeah. I believe so.”
“You authorize the funds mentioned to pay the debts described, and you’d like the balance deposited into your account?”
He took the tablet back and made a couple of notes on it. “Very good. Blood here.”
She took the tablet back and pricked her finger, letting a lightly infused drop vanish into the stone.
“Very good. 6 oz gold, 47 oz silver has been credited to your account. Is there anything else I can assist you with, today?”
“Actually, yes. I need to add an addendum to my field log to inform my Guild contact of a few things.”
“One is a communication for the Wainwright’s Guild, who are currently building out a set of Cargo-slots for me.”
The man grunted. “Very well.” He handed her a blank slate and a stone cylinder that was similar in size and shape to a pencil.
Tala quickly used them to scribe a note to Lyn, asking her to deliver messages to both the Wainwright’s guild, and to Holly, and quickly wrote out those missives. As the stone pen moved across the slate, it was as if darker rock bled up through the tablet, leaving her words incorporated into the very nature of the stone. “Thank you.” She held it out to him.
He touched it to another tablet that he’d been working on, and a new square darkened. “Blood here.”
She repeated the confirmation process and the slate faded back to blank.
“Now, if that is all?”
“It is, thank you.” She bowed slightly, walking to the side, where Brand was patiently waiting. “Shall we?”