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A note from JLMullins

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Now that everyone at the table had finished eating, Tala was becoming increasingly aware of their attention on her. Finally, as that tension threatened to break into conversations, or at least questions, she stood. “Archon Grediv. Would now be a good time? I’m afraid that I need a bath after the week on the road, as should be apparent, and I have other appointments this evening after our discussion. That in mind, I’d be grateful for some of your time, now.”

Grediv took her flood of words in stride and stood as well. He swept his gaze over the other three. “Thank you, again, for the information and for allowing me to join you for dinner. I will take my leave.”

The three nodded, giving Tala furtive glances.

Tala smiled and waved slightly. “See you all, around, yeah?”

Nods were her only reply, as she and Grediv walked towards a door in the outer wall, through which they could see a small, walking garden.

The night sky was stunning overhead, as the mostly cloudless expanse gave Tala a clear view of the jewel-like stars. There was very little light pollution, even in the heart of the city, so she was easily able to pick out familiar patterns in the sky. It has been a bit unseasonably cloudless of late. We’re probably in for a dark, cold winter…

Her mage-sight responded to her focus, and the city’s defenses sprang into view, blocking out the stars.

She sighed, returning her eyes to the garden around her.

It was well maintained and beautifully cultivated. Several fountains were strategically placed both to hide any noise, which infiltrated from the surrounding city, and to give any in the garden a measure of privacy from any other guests.

“I’ve always loved these grounds.”

Tala regarded Grediv. Now that he was walking nearer to her, she could see that he was quite a bit taller than her, though that wasn’t too odd. He had wings of white in otherwise blonde hair and she could see his spell-lines in amongst the roots.

He was clean-shaven, to the point that she suspected he’d shaved shortly before dinner. His clothes were fairly standard Mage’s robes, loose and flowing. Though, they seemed of high-quality fabric and deep, rich colors. Primarily, they were an emerald-green and deep, dark amethyst-purple. It was an odd combination, but not jarringly so.

“Have you come here often?”

He chuckled lightly. “Since they were built.”

She cocked her head. “I was under the impression that this inn has stood since the founding of Alefast.”

“Your information is accurate.”

“Care to explain?”

“Most Mages live far longer than most Mages realize that they will. Powerful, careful…beings of magic can expect millennia, though that happens with sad rarity.”

He didn’t say ‘Mages’ but that is clearly what he meant. Dancing around a rule, compulsion, or enforced edict? She had no way of knowing and asking would be pointless. So, she didn’t respond, instead simply walking beside him in silence.

He glanced at her from the corner of his eye. “Not going to ask?”

“You’ll either tell me, or you won’t.”

He laughed again. “True enough. Unfortunately, as you are not an Archon yet, I can only share so much. I will give you one tidbit, which is only mildly taboo to share.”

Again, she waited.

“You know, sometimes it is more fun when the other person asks.”

“Would you like me to be more inquisitive?”

He huffed a short laugh. “I suppose not, though it does disappoint.”

“Oh, don’t mistake me, if I thought I could get away with it, I’d literally pin you down and wring ten thousand answers from you, but I doubt I’d even be able to inconvenience you.”

“Fair enough.” He grinned broadly. “Here’s the tidbit, then: Archon is only the beginning. In truth, it is the beginning of true Magehood. Just as your time as a mageling revealed things a hundred times more expansive than you’d thought possible, while at the Academy. Just as your master filled in the gaps your highly focused, quadrant-specific Academy education left behind, so it is when you are raised to Archon.”

Tala cleared her throat. “Well… about that…”

Grediv cocked an eyebrow her way. “Yes?”

“I sort of…” What are you doing? Why would you tell him this? Because he seemed to want to help, and him not knowing might actually get her killed. “I never apprenticed under a master. I graduated less than a month ago and have never spent any time as a mageling.” She let the words spill out of her, before she could stop herself and didn’t look at him for reaction.

Grediv, for his part, burst out laughing.

Tala turned to regard him then, incredulous.

He continued to laugh, moving over to sit on a bench, tucked beside a particularly lovely fountain.

She sat beside him, but just more than an arm’s length away.

Finally, he reigned himself in. “And here I was, wracking my mind to think of what master would have let you try all that I’ve seen from you in just the last couple of hours.” He snorted. “Mistress Tala, you are in very dangerous waters. You are swimming admirably, but you could easily get yourself killed.”

She sighed. “Don’t I know it. I’ve been doing what I can to catch up with books on theory.”

“You’re an avid reader, then?” He looked a bit surprised.

“Aren’t all Mages?”

He scoffed. “If only.” He scratched his chin. “I think I can help you, then. I’ve a few volumes that I usually give to first time masters, when they take on a mageling, but they should serve as good primers for you.”

Tala felt an exuberant smile break out across her face. “That would be amazing! I can’t convey how much that would help me.” She hesitated. “You know, I’m also looking for texts on determining the specific modifications for spell-forms for use in unique materials, as well one on elucidating the uses of Archon stars, and specific techniques for Mage meditation and training…And I’m curious about time related spell-forms.” She smiled brightly, then. Oh, please, please, please!

He blinked at her for a long moment, then shook his head, a smile plain on his face. “The meditation and training techniques will be in the primers I get for you. I believe I have an extra copy on the tests for new material inscription, but I’m almost afraid to ask why you want them…” He didn’t give her a chance to respond. “Time magic: that’s a flat, emphatic no. The short answer is that your soul is inseparably tied to the flow of time, so if you do almost anything wrong, the result is you ripping out your own soul. No. Maybe, maybe once you reach Archon, but not a moment before.” He hesitated. “In fact, even when you become an Archon, you should wait at least a decade before beginning that kind of research.”

When I become an Archon… That floored her. This ancient Mage was telling her that she would be an Archon.

“As to the uses of an Archon star?” He sighed. “Please, be very, very careful.”

“What is their purpose?”

He hesitated. “This…isn’t suppose to be shared with any who is not an Archon, yet, but no non-Archon is supposed to be able to create one, so…” He shrugged. “An Archon star is a touchpoint for your soul.”

“…What.”

He grinned. “It is the first step to expanding your sway over the world around you.” He gestured to himself. “The reason your mage-sight can’t penetrate to see my magic is because I am in control of the magic around my body. Some call it a shroud, some an aura, some a field of influence.” He shrugged again. “The name isn’t really important.”

“But humans can’t control magic outside of themselves.”

“Correct. But Archons can. An Archon star is the first step towards that…in a sense. They are like…a practice sword for your soul? No, that’s a terrible analogy.” He scratched his chin and muttered under his breath. “I miss my beard.” Finally, he let out an explosive sigh. “I can’t think of a good metaphor. Needless to say, the Archon star is an anchor for your soul, to help you exert your influence outside of your own body. Eventually, you could say that that will allow you to expand that influence into the world around you in general, not just to the star.” He snapped his fingers. “It’s like the breathing apparatus at the Academy, for swimming underwater. It helps Mages learn what it means to breathe underwater, so that their mental construct will accurately work when they use that magic for themselves.”

“Huh…I never used those myself, but I think I understand what you mean. They are a crutch.”

“More like a bow? To shoot you farther than you’d ever get on your own.” He groaned. “This is why I’m not a good teacher… Without the Archon star, you will never learn to exert your will outside your body. That’s actually good for a whole host of reasons…But!” He held up a finger, drawing her attention sharply to him. He had correctly guessed that she’d been letting her mind run rampant at the various implications. “But, I will not tell you how to use it, until you are an Archon, and I ask you to keep this information to yourself.”

Tala thought about the opening she’d sensed in the magic of the artifacts she’d seen, and almost asked, but something held her back. I’m going to experiment, and he might stop me. She swallowed. Tala, this has to do with your soul…Just ask the man. She was set on this. No. She’d shared enough, already.

After a long silence, he lowered his finger. “That’s about all I can tell you and likely much more than I should have. My recommendation would be to work on improving the power of the stars you can create. Once you can make one…forty? Almost forty times as powerful as the one you have now, present yourself to an Archon, and you will be evaluated. I’d recommend you wait until you can do that in one go, but I can’t force you to that.”

“Won’t that be on the higher end of usual?” Who mentioned something like that… Atrexia?

“So, someone has been explaining some things.” He leaned back, stretching out his arms and resting his elbows on the back of the bench, still not too near her, though. “That’s true, but much of your early days as an Archon are influenced by how you are perceived at your evaluation. I could likely force your admittance with that little drop of blood, but you would be dismissed as a weakling, if an odd one, and it would take you decades to recover. In the worst case, someone would fixate on you, and try to experiment upon someone so unusual. But-” He turned back to her, a smile tugging at his lips. “You come forward with an Archon star in the upper reaches of the required power level? Made in blood? No one will discount you, then.”

She was nodding. “That’s a lot to think about… Thank you, Master Grediv. I do appreciate the time that you’ve taken.” Great… abduction…

They stood, and Grediv gave her a slight bow. “It was a genuine pleasure, Mistress Tala. When you get to be my age, very little surprises you, and most surprises are unpleasant. Thank you for being a pleasant surprise, through and through.”

Tala bowed in turn. “You are too kind. I look forward to the books…?”

He laughed again, short and merry. “Yes, yes. I’ll have them delivered to you tomorrow evening. I have to ensure that I’m not breaching protocol too much in giving them to you, but I don’t see that being an issue.”

“Thank you.” She hesitated, thinking for a moment. “If I may ask one parting question?”

He quired an amused smile. “Yes?”

“Why don’t you have an Archon Mark?”

He looked at her for a moment, then snorted. “Ah, that. The specifics are decidedly outside what you should know…” He seemed to consider for a moment, then shrugged. “What many think of as an Archon Mark, is actually an item used to aid a new or…deficient Archon in certain required tasks. I will not say more.”

“So, those with Archon Marks, as I understand them, are the least of the Archons?”

He shrugged. “More or less accurate.”

She opened her mouth to ask another question, but he raised a hand, forestalling her.

“I do have to go, Mistress Tala, and I’ve already said more than is generally allowed. I’ll see what I can do about that, but I make no promises.”

She sighed but nodded in resignation. “I understand. Thank you, once again.”

They shook hands, and parted ways. For Tala, that meant walking back towards the inn complex. For Grediv, that meant a wink and vanishing on the spot, without a trace of where he had gone.

Oh, Tala. How much bigger is the world than you ever realized? She was finally beginning to find out.

 

* * *

 

It had been easy for Tala to find a member of the staff and ask to be led to her room.

As it turned out, she would be staying in a beautiful space, twice the size of her room in Lyn’s house. Apparently, because she’d opted to pay for use of the baths up front, and for every night of her stay, she’d been given one of the rooms with a private bath. To her joy, the attendant had explained that there were both cold and hot running water, the latter of which Tala had heard of, but never experienced.

I wonder how they do that…Probably an artifact now, but before the waning? Might be worth investigating.

The room was simply furnished with a moderately sized bed, writing desk and chair, and a reading chair. The lighting throughout the space was linked sets of artifact lights, similar to the one the guard at the inn’s entrance had used. When she asked, the attendant explained that for most of the inn’s history, they’d used inscribed lighting, but as the city was now waning, they’d been able to slowly replace those expensive, costly to maintain devices with the more prolific artifact lights.

Also, yes, the hot water was currently supplied via artifacts, but she didn’t know off-hand how it had been handled before. Maybe similar to the artifact coin, which lowered water temp. That would probably be a much more useful item. Probably why she didn’t have one in stock.

Artia’s warnings about evil artifacts made Tala a bit wary, but she supposed that the Wandering Magician was quite motivated to keep their guests safe and happy.

After confirming that the accommodations were acceptable, and that she didn’t want or need a larger bed, the attendant departed, wishing Tala a good evening.

Tala was about to dive into the evening's work when a knock came at her door.

“Yes?”

“Mistress Tala?”

Tala frowned, walking to the door and pulling it slightly open. “Yes?”

A short, plump woman waited outside, carrying a small pack and a step stool. For her to appear short to Tala, she was quite a bit shorter than average, indeed.

“Can I help you?”

“I was told you requested a consult from a seamstress.”

“Oh! Yes, come in.” Tala opened the door wide, allowing the woman entry and closing the door once she was inside.

As they both walked into the center of the room’s open space, the seamstress looked her up and down. “I can see why you called for me.” She tutted to herself. “Let’s get a look at you.” She grabbed Tala by the belt and turned her around, looking her up and down. “No, this doesn’t suit you at all, and that’s ignoring the state of the thing!” She tsked to herself. “I just couldn’t live with myself if I didn’t fix you up.” She stopped Tala’s movement and glared up at her. “You, child, are an affront to anyone who has to look at you.”

Tala blinked, feeling as if she’d been slapped. “Excuse me?” She was starting to feel quite hurt and not a little angry.

The seamstress waved a hand. “I cannot, you are too beautiful to be dressed like an urchin boy, begging for his next meal.”

Tala really didn’t know what to do with that, so she just waited.

“Yes, yes. I will do one outfit for free, and after you wear it, you will be desperate for more!”

Free? “Deal.”

“Hmmm? Oh, yes, of course you’ll agree. No one would want to look like that.” She gestured to Tala, generally.

Tala sighed. “So, what are my options.”

“Options? Silly girl, you have no options. I will measure you and make you an outfit. I will be in charge of all the choices. Tomorrow, late afternoon, you will put it on and fall in love. You will never want to wear anything else, and you will buy an entire wardrobe.”

“And if I don’t?”

The seamstress regarded her, again. “Not likely, but I suppose it is possible.” She shrugged. “If that is the case, you can throw my work in the fire, and go back to wearing flour sacks, or whatever other rubbish you find in local alleys.”

Tala sighed. “Fine.”

The seamstress nodded once. “Then, let me get to work.”

It took surprisingly little time for the diminutive woman to take all of Tala’s measurements, using the stepstool where appropriate, even though it was all of them. The seamstress left Tala alone and feeling only slightly violated. Even so, she was hopeful. If nothing else, it will be interesting to see what she brings back.

In the renewed silence, Tala pulled the curtains closed and moved through her stretches, using her mage-sight, directed inward, to target each muscle and ensure that those that were most sore got extra attention. It was not a fast process, but she took her time.

Quality requires patience.

That accomplished, she stripped out of her clothes and moved to the bathroom. She ran the hot water, as the attendant had shown her, and quickly filled the tub.

She took almost as long in the tub as she had stretching, soaking then scrubbing off the grime accumulated through her travels.

That done, she reapplied her iron salve, using her magic detector to verify there were no gaps.

There, busywork complete.

She turned her attention to her gear, emptying out her new pouch and spreading her stuff across the floor and bed. She took the time to organize her items for easy access, in preparation for their return to the dimensional storage.

When that was complete, she regarded the open belt pouch. Stretched as wide open as she could make it, there was a hole just large enough for her to slip through, if she were so inclined.

From the back side, the pouch looked like nothing so much as a smooth circle of leather, only made less so by the heavy cord that wove in and out around the rim. There was also a buckled strap, used to affix the whole thing to her belt.

Artia did promise that this wasn’t a bag that ate people… She really needed to know what the inside looked like, if she was going to arrange it effectively. Simply looking in had revealed nothing, even when she’d brought the bag near a light. It still simply looked black within, utterly empty.

Cursing herself as a fool, she placed the open dimensional storage on the ground, took a deep breath and hopped in, tucking her arms in close and pointing her feet straight down to allow her to drop straight in. All or nothing!

She dropped down, bending her knees to land softly on a dark, even surface. She looked up, and saw the opening still there, just within reach of her upraised arms.

Around her was only blackness, though as she looked, she got the odd feeling…not of being watched, but of being held? It was a strangely comforting sensation, and oddly disconcerting for that comfort. You make no sense, Tala.

She looked around, then sighed. I wish I could see. She reached out to try to touch a wall, and suddenly one was there. Under her hand, gray blossomed outward, quickly painting the entirety of the space. Did it hear my thoughts, or intuit my need from the fumbling?

As the change occurred, she felt a small vortex of power and looked up. Above her, over the opening to the bag, her mage-sight let her see a short burst of magical energy moving in a swift current. It flowed into the bag for less than a second, then vanished from her sight. Coloring the walls used energy, and it’s refilling itself? Interesting. How had it found free power, within the city’s walls to draw upon? More to ask Adrill about…

She decided to speak out loud, just in case the bag could hear her. “If the entrance could be near one wall, with a ladder up out of it, and shelves around the outside of the top, that would make arranging this much easier.” True to Artia’s word, the inside of the dimensional storage was like a large closet, if with a low ceiling. Is that because of my height? So, I wasn’t trapped? An interesting thought.

She pointedly did not think about how easily she could have been trapped, if the pouch had been a bit deeper. This was a pretty foolish thing to do, wasn’t it…

She didn’t see anything happen as a response to her words, but she felt something. It wasn’t a hunger, so much as a request? It had a similar feel to the magic which surrounded a transaction slate, awaiting her blood, but without that being the exact desire.

Waiting. Did it need more power?

“Sure. Let’s see what you can do now that you’re owned by a Mage.” It was time to give this artifact some power to work with.

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