AUTHOR'S NOTE: If this is found on a site other than Royal Road, or the linked Patreon, it was not posted by the author. Please find this tale, here: https://www.royalroad.com/fiction/47826/millennial-mage
The shop was closed, and the stall packed up, when Tala arrived. She knocked on the side door, and it was a moment or two before she heard movement beyond.
A young man opened the door. Right! They have a son. I'm pretty sure his name was Brandon.
“I’m sorry; we’re closed-” Brandon’s eyes widened, as he saw her. “Mistress Tala!” He stepped backwards, fumbling to pull the door further open. “Please, come in! Dinner isn’t quite ready, yet, but we’re happy to have you.”
Tala smiled slightly and gave a small nod. Again, something felt…odd about the boy to her mage-sight, but she didn’t dwell on it. That wasn’t why she was here. “Thank you, Brandon. Can you lead the way? I’ve only ever been in the shop.”
“Of course!” He turned and began walking back down the small hallway into which the side door opened.
Tala came inside and closed the door behind herself, before following him down the hall.
They passed two doors on their way, one into the dark shop, and the other would open onto the walled courtyard in back. The passage ended at a t-intersection, with stairs to either side, one set going up, the other down.
Brandon pointed down. “My father’s shop is down there.”
“I’d be interested in seeing that.” Might be interesting.
“Really? You know, I help him, sometimes. I’m sure we could show you after dinner, if you’d like.”
“I would, if time allows. Thank you.”
Brandon smiled to himself as he turned and led her the other way, up the stairs. The murmur of soft conversation, along with the sounds of a kitchen in use, floated down towards them as they ascended.
Tala reached the top of the stairs and turned, finding herself in a spacious dining and sitting room. There were several comfortable couches arranged to one side in a semi-circle to promote conversation. The other side of the room held a large table, easily large enough to seat eight. A door near the couches seemed to lead out, onto a balcony, overlooking the market square, below.
The space was clean, well-kept, and tastefully decorated.
Artia came out of another doorway, presumably from the kitchen. “Mistress Tala! Welcome. Brand and I are just finishing up. Adrill should be joining us, shortly.”
“Thank you, Artia. You have a lovely home.”
“Thank you, dear. Can I get you anything while you wait?”
“That isn’t necessary, but thank you. Can I help?”
“We’ve got it sorted.”
Tala gave a nod of acknowledgement, then turned to take a seat on one of the couches as Artia went back into the kitchen.
Brandon looked back and forth between his departing mother and Tala, seeming to be debating with himself. Finally, one side must have won out, because he turned and took a seat across from Tala. “So… How long have you been a Mage?”
Tala quirked a smile. “Long enough. Have you always helped out, here?”
Brandon shrugged. “It’s the family business. You know?”
Right, families actually do that… She tried to keep emotion from her face, but she must have failed somehow, because Brandon paled, looking away.
“I mean, I like the work, and it’s interesting. I think Mom and Dad would have let me go off to become a Mage, but Dad and I have the same…issue.”
Tala brought herself back to the moment, dismissing the flood of memories, all centered on a small, alchemist shop. “Issue?”
He cleared his throat. “Mom says it’s nothing to be embarrassed about, but we don’t have a gate.” He shrugged. “Can’t use magic.” He looked back to her, seeming to relax when he noticed her attention. “It hit dad hardest, but that was before I was born. Before he met mom, too. The way he tells it, he got the highest score the recruiters had ever seen on the cognitive and mental construction exams, but when they tested him for magic accumulation rate…nothing. No gate at all.”
Tala leaned forward. “That’s possible?” Is that what I noticed? She allowed her mage-sight to examine the boy as surreptitiously as she could. He still had some power flowing through him, though it was weak, and true to his word, there was no gate to be found. No broken gate, no closed gate, nothing. Where did the power in his system come from, then? Did he absorb it from ambient power? Could she ask, without being rude?
“Oh, yeah. Apparently about one percent of people don’t have gates within them, so we can’t empower inscriptions, or constructs or anything, really, let alone be Mages.”
“That must have been devastating.”
Brandon let out a mirthless laugh. “Yeah. For me, I knew about it from a young age, even though it’s supposedly recessive. Dad? His brothers are Mages, his father and mother too.” His smile was sad. “We still see family…sometimes, but we’re not really seen as part of it, and no one discusses Magic with us. Even if we bring it up.” He glanced up at her again and balked. “I’m sorry! You’re a guest, here, and I’m telling you sad family stories.” He held up both his hands. “I love my life, and I think what dad does is amazing.” He smiled. “He’s very excited to meet you and discuss the Order.”
Their family are Mages, and they still see them as so prejudiced? She sighed. Or they see them as so rigid and prejudiced because they have family who are Mages? “I’m glad that he’s excited. I admit I’m hoping to pick his brain about a few things myself.”
Brand walked out of the kitchen, wiping his hands on an apron as he took it off. “Mistress Tala! You look amazing, and I see that you no longer need a tailor.”
She smiled a bit sheepishly. “I came across someone who seems to do a good job. Have you heard of a seamstress named Merilin?”
“Merilin?” Artia’s voice floated from back in the kitchen. “I’ve heard she’s expensive, but worth it.” She looked Tala up and down, then nodded. “Seems the ‘worth it’ portion was true enough.”
Tala huffed a laugh. “Expensive was true too, though not overly so.” She shrugged. “I just don’t like spending money, I suppose.”
Artia laughed as well, coming out behind Brand. “Oh, I know that too well.”
Tala had the good grace to look a bit sheepish.
“Brandon, go get your father, will you?”
Brandon moved downstairs quickly, with the comfortable speed and ease of familiarity. Tala stood and moved towards the table. “How can I help, and where should I sit?”
“No help needed, and you can sit here.” Artia pointed at a chair beside the head.
Tala simply nodded and took her seat.
Brandon returned a moment later with a man who looked very much like an older version of his son. He was in his middle years but had somehow kept his hair from going grey or white. Instead, it remained a resolutely chestnut brown, though not with the uniformity that would suggest the color was artificial. He was broad shouldered, and his arms and forearms were corded with trim, strong muscle. He clearly was more used to long work than heavy work, and his figure bore that out.
Tala stood and gave a small nod. “Master Adrill, thank you for having me in your home.”
He gave her a small bow. “Mistress Tala, it is our pleasure to have you.” He gestured back to the table. “Please, sit, and drop the ‘master;’ I am no expert in any craft or field.” He smiled. “I do hope that the meal will be to your satisfaction.”
“Of that, I have little doubt.”
He sat beside her, at the head of the table, and Brand and Artia bought out the plates and cups.
The meal was stoved chicken over a mixture of wild rice and several other grains. There was a side of slow-roasted garlic and asparagus, and their mugs were filled with a sweet wine that complemented the flavors of the food superbly.
Needless to say: the meal was delicious.
Talk stalled while they ate, a sure sign that everyone found the food as delectable as Tala did herself. Once the plates were clean and cleared, the cooks had been thoroughly praised, and the mugs were refilled with a bit more wine, Adrill turned to Tala.
“Now, Mage Tala, what do you want with the Order of the Harvest? We have worked very diligently to keep…your kind from taking notice.” Everyone else seemed to lean a bit forward, awaiting Tala’s answer.
“Well, you seem to have quite extensive research on the potential benefits of consuming arcane and magical creatures. Humanity can use any edge we can get, and on a personal note, I can use any edge I can get.” She smiled, lifting her mug towards Brand. “Brand has already helped me greatly by providing some of your Order’s research notes, and I feel that I can use that to great effect, even if it never goes beyond me. As to the secrecy: I imagine my…odd circumstances caused me to miss many of the standard practices, which would have kept me from coming across what you all were doing.”
Adrill glanced to Brand, who nodded, then returned his gaze to Tala. “I see. What do you offer the Order?”
Tala shrugged. “A Mage’s perspective? A Mage’s hand in harvesting. I imagine few of your people have mage-sight, making the identification process more difficult. My mage-sight is actually a bit…not unique, but more informative than standard, so I can generally get a good guess at what the magic is intended to accomplish.”
Adrill’s eyebrows rose in surprise. “That is useful.” He glanced to Artia, she smiled.
“So…may I ask my questions now, or do you have more?” Tala inquired.
He quirked a half-smile. “Fair’s fair, I suppose. Ask away.”
Tala nodded. “The artifact dimensional storage items: They have to be given power, when not within a high magic area?”
“Is that a constant flow, a top-off every day, or sort of like they are a cistern slowly draining, and they need to be refilled every once in a while?”
Adrill was nodding along with her question. “It is most like a cistern, though I imagine they’d function best if they received a constant flow, which would best mimic a high magic zone.”
She frowned at that. “But they function in the city just fine?”
“Yes? This is a high magic area, after all. Even before the waning officially began.”
Tala shook her head. “No, it isn’t.”
The others at the table shared a look, but it was Brand who spoke. “Mistress Tala, you saw the creatures, plants, and…everything outside the walls. How can you doubt that this is a high magic region?”
She tilted her head, frowning slightly. “This region is, sure, but this city is not. Human cities process all unassociated magic within themselves, drawing in the surrounding power as well. There is almost no ambient magic, here.”
There were confused noises and murmurings from the others at the table.
Adrill spoke, this time. “Then how do artifacts function, within the city? They don’t seem to degrade, even when they stay within the walls.”
Tala sighed. “That was one of my questions for you.” She glanced down at her belt pouch. “When I went out of the city, today, I could see my pouch actively drawing in power from the surroundings. It wasn’t a lot, but in the high density of power, it was an obvious effect to observe.”
Again, there were shared looks, and Brandon spoke up. “You went out of the city?”
She hesitated. “Technically?”
“That’s incredibly dangerous.”
You’re not wrong. Still, she shrugged. “I didn’t encounter any…” She trailed off. She was about to say she hadn’t encountered anything dangerous, but that was a lie in a dozen different ways. She cleared her throat. “I wasn’t in any real danger.” She hesitated, again, thinking about her weakened and breached iron salve. “Well,” she cleared her throat, “I was safe, in the end.” She smiled weakly.
Maybe, I am a bit insane.
Dying would eliminate her debts…
The thought hit her like a slap.
Do I really think that? It was obviously true, trivially so, but did she really have that as a pillar of her actions? I…I don’t know how to feel about that…
Adrill cocked an eyebrow, seeming unaware of Tala’s inner turmoil. “If I didn’t see you sitting here, and believe you to be truthful, I’d think you were spreading rumors.” He shook his head. “What possessed you to go out, alone?”
Adrill’s eyes widened. He looked to Brand. “The two berries you gave us, you said Mistress Tala provided them, yes?”
Brand nodded. “She did. She also conveyed a desire to get more.”
“I succeeded, though I’m not certain exactly what I’ll do with them.” She gave a hesitant laugh. “Besides eat them for safety, of course.” Her smile firmed up. “I was also considering going back for more, tomorrow.” I am not suicidal. I’m making rational choices, attempting to gather useful resources.
Adrill leaned back. “How can you harvest them safely?”
She hesitated. Less so that I’d thought, but yes? “Safe is a relative term, but yes? There are several…oddities about me that allow me to counter their hostile magics.”
“That is a bold claim.”
She shrugged. “I’m not going to argue. I will not convey how I do what I do. Even if I did, there is a good chance that it still wouldn’t be enough.” She thought about how the trees had seemed to brush her in different locations every time, testing for any openings in her defenses. There had been the times where they had succeeded, and only the ending-berries already in her system had saved her. If that had happened earlier in the day, her inscriptions would have kept her alive…probably, but no one else would have that multi-layered defense. She would not send people to their deaths.
Adrill frowned. “I suppose there isn’t a reason for me to press, then.” He sighed. “What other questions do you have?”
Tala smiled, trying to alleviate some of Adrill’s disappointment. “In charging the dimensional storage artifacts, and artifacts in general, is raw power required, or should there be a mental construct to funnel the power through?”
The man tilted his head, thinking. “I know of the concept you’re referring to; it reduces power requirement for spell-workings or empowering, correct?”
“Close enough, yes.”
“Then, no, my understanding is that that doesn’t help, and can actually be detrimental.” He leaned forward, clearly getting a bit excited by the topic. “Artifacts often seem to have a kind of intelligence about them, almost a will of their own. If Mages attempt to force a mental construct on them, if I’m understanding what you’re referring to correctly, the item often rebels. It is like someone trying to force you to be something you aren’t.”
Tala was nodding. “So, they just require power to…what? Grow? Change?”
Adrill shrugged. “To exist. They do seem to change, slowly and subtly, almost like they are trying to incentivize their owner to feed them more.” He chuckled at the very idea.
Tala gave a nervous laugh and glanced down at her pouch. Slow and subtle? Hardly. But I suppose, most of their experience with artifacts is within the walls? “And, does ownership matter?”
“Strangely, yes. Items that are rented out, like most of our dimensional storage items, tend to stagnate, remaining fixed as they are.” He shrugged. “I’ve attempted to coax some to grow or change, but they always seem to know if I intend to use them myself or grant them to another.” He shook his head. “No, saying they ‘know’ is too far. They aren’t alive as we consider it, but they somehow seem to respond to my knowledge of such. It likely colors my will, somehow. The artifacts I’ve claimed have all slowly grown and changed over time, even without any power coming from me, directly.” He smiled. “I’m guessing your items have shown minor changes?”
“Something like that…yeah.” She took another drink from her mug. “Do you happen to have any notes on artifacts that you’d be willing to share?”
“Do you have any notes on ending-berry harvesting?”
Tala frowned. “They would get you killed.”
“We could learn so much.” He leaned forward, a hunger obvious in his eyes.
“They would get you killed. No.” Even if you wore iron salve, and full iron armor, the trees would get through, in the end. She sighed. “But I could get you some.” I’m already going back. No harm in giving him some of what I get.
Adrill had looked momentarily disheartened, but then, he perked up. “Oh?”
“How many would you need to be worth a copy of your notes?”
Adrill bit the left side of his lip, eyes ticking back and forth as he looked at the ceiling, contemplating. Finally, he nodded to himself. “Brandon and I could finalize a copy of our notes for you in the next day or so.” He glanced at Brand. “She’s leaving in your caravan again, yes?”
“Then, they will be done before you leave.”
“And the price?”
Again, Adrill hesitated. “You have me at a distinct disadvantage. I don’t know how hard they are to harvest for you, nor how many you can harvest in what span of time.”
Tala shrugged. “And I don’t know how extensive your notes are, or if they will be of use to me.”
Adrill glanced to his wife. “I see why you decided on a straight trade.”
Artia let out a soft laugh. “She’s either clever or just very stubborn.”
Tala sighed. “I hear that a lot, actually.”
Brand grinned but didn’t comment.
After a moment, however, Adrill addressed the head cook. “How much are ending-berries really worth?”
Brand shrugged. “A lot, but not very much.” He smiled sympathetically. “There is almost no market for them, because they are almost never harvested successfully. Those I have seen were procured on a contract and had a ready buyer at hand. Those that didn’t have a ready buyer almost all had their power fade to nothing before being sold, even in an iron box.”
“When there was a ready buyer?”
“Close to half their weight in gold.”
Tala had been drinking her wine, and thus hid her small smile. She had four gallons of compacted ending-berries, at close to eight pounds a gallon, that was nearly 32 pounds of ending-berries. If the price Brand had quoted was accurate- and it was what he had stated before, so he was at least consistent -she had close to two-hundred fifty ounces, gold, worth of berries. Too bad there isn’t a ready market. I’d have most of my debt paid off, now. Maybe, Grediv would want some? He’s probably loaded, given how old he claims to be. Only an idiot lives that long without amassing a fortune.
Brand continued, however. “That said, if you had a purpose for them?” He shrugged. “A temporary invulnerability to injury would be priceless in countless circumstances.”
Adrill frowned. “Very well.” After a moment, a small, almost mischievous smile crept across his face. “I fear that I am not up to the task of determining a fair trade.” He nodded. “I’ve decided. I will leave it up to you to give me what you believe is a fair quantity, in exchange for my notes. No matter the amount you give, I will consider it fair recompense.”
Tala glowered. He knows exactly what he's doing... “You, sir, are an evil man.”
Adrill simply beamed at her. “I feel that I am in good hands. Do we have a deal?” He held out a hand to her.
Finally, Tala barked a short laugh. “Very well. We have a deal.” They clasped hands and smiled. Well, rust. Now, I have to be the reasonable one.
The remainder of the evening was filled with polite conversation and little of note. It was getting a bit late when Brand and Tala bid the family good night and departed, walking the same direction for a short way. I never got to tour Adrill’s workshop. She realized. Maybe next time.
When they were about a block away from the home, Tala glanced towards Brand. “Why did they only have one child?”
Brand smiled, sadly. “It was a complicated pregnancy. The Mages said it had something to do with the mother having a gate, and the child being without. The child’s, Brandon’s, body was unable to cope with the power flowing into it from Artia, and it caused issues. Remedies were sought, and I was able to find a few rare arcane harvests that were used to keep the baby alive.”
“That’s why he’s ‘Brandon?’ ”
“But there were complications.”
“But there were complications.” Brand sighed. “The process…changed something within Artia, and they were never able to conceive again.”
“I’m so sorry to hear that.”
Tala frowned. “Then… how would Adrill’s parents not have known he was without a gate?”
Brand shrugged. “I don’t know all the details. Apparently, such complications don’t always arise.”
She grunted an acknowledgement, and they lapsed into silence. Eventually, she broke the silence once more. “Thank you, for introducing me to them.”
Brand huffed a laugh. “You’d have found them yourself.”
“Maybe, but you made everything far smoother. Thank you.” She smiled.
“Happy to help.”
“You have been. A help, I mean. Ever since you stabbed me, you’ve been nothing but kind.”
He laughed out loud at that. “It’s quite the thing to make up for. I still can’t believe I did that, no matter how panicked I felt...”
“Well, you’ve done it.” She smiled again, holding out her hand. “Friends?”
He didn’t hesitate, taking her hand in his. “Of course, Mistress Tala.”
She glanced down a side street and sighed. “This is my turn. Thank you for walking with me.”
“It was my pleasure.”
She gained a mischievous glint to in her eyes. “Are you sure you can get home safely?”
He laughed, again. “Oh, to be protected by one such as thee. How will I survive alone in this city of thieves and vagabonds!”
She laughed, too. “Fair enough. Goodnight, Brand.”
“Goodnight, Mistress Tala.”
They parted ways, each heading towards their respective beds.
Tala had a smile on her face, as she walked beneath the stars, under the powerful, magical dome of the waning city of Alefast. I have a friend. It had been too long since she’d been sure of that.
AUTHOR'S NOTE: If this is found on a site other than Royal Road, or the linked Patreon, it was not posted by the author. Please find this tale, here: https://www.royalroad.com/fiction/47826/millennial-mage