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Tala returned to her room, only to find a note on the slate, which was affixed to her door, below the room number.
The note simply read: ‘Please see the Front Desk.’
I suppose they’re trying to maintain privacy? She turned and strode to the entrance hall. In order to reach her room, she had gone around the side, choosing to walk through the gardens as much as possible, rather than through the buildings’ hallways.
A different older woman was sitting behind a desk, situated in an alcove of the large atrium, at the front of the inn. The matron stood as she saw Tala approach. “Good evening, Mistress. How may I help you?”
“I had a message to come to the front desk?”
“Oh, certainly. Name, please?”
“Oh! Yes.” She bent down and lifted up a small chest. It was bound in iron, and had a solid clasp, though no lock to keep it shut. “This was left for you by Master Grediv. He asked us to convey his apologies for missing you, and to ask you to seek him out, if you had any questions.”
Tala smiled, accepting the box. “Thank you.” It wasn’t light, but it definitely wasn’t too heavy for her. “Goodnight, matron.”
Tala gave a small nod and returned to her room.
Once in the room, she sat in her chair, the box in her lap, and flipped open the lid. Inside, three thick, leather-bound books rested: ‘A Mage’s Guide to Their First Mageling: Basics Every Mageling Should be Taught,’ ‘A Reference for Inscribing Known Materials,’ and ‘On Determining the Means to Empower Unique or New Materials.’ There wasn’t a note or anything else in the box.
“Well, thank you, Master Grediv.” She smiled. “These will do nicely.”
She quickly flipped through the reference book and just as she’d thought, there were no useful notes on spell-forms for air. To her surprise, though, air was listed. Beside it, there was a simple sentence: ‘The creation of spell-forms in the air is the domain of Archons, and not within the scope of this work.’
Interesting. She was definitely going to pursue this further. She glanced at the box of books, then down at her belt pouch. I wonder… She closed the box, and opened her bag to slide the box in. Letting it go as soon as it was fully inside.
Then, she pulled the belt pouch free, opening it wide and placing it on the floor.
Without delay, she climbed down into it, and turned to look at the bookshelf. Sure enough, the three books had been added next to her notebooks. “Well, I suppose this entire space doesn’t exist, except under the influence of your power, so why should it be strange that things which enter it can be manipulated by you?”
The pouch did not respond.
“I need someone to talk to…” She sighed. With all the oddities swirling around her, she didn’t know exactly who she could trust with all of it, if anyone. Grediv was too nice… He probably wants something.
She looked around, then reached her arms out, stretching wide. She couldn’t touch the walls. “You’ve doubled in size…” She turned in a circle. “You also feel low on magic. The ambient power in here is almost as low as in the city.” She nodded. “We need to find a way for you to indicate you need more power, without me having to come in… Maybe one of the knots on your tie cord? Not sure how that would work, though…You’re connected to my will. Can I ‘feel’ when you’re running low?” That might be too convenient. Maybe after a few days of consistent refilling? She sighed, walking to one wall that had a lighter patch in the shape of her right hand. “I assume this is for me.” She smiled. Why not.
She directed power coming in through her gate in a carefully regulated flow out of her hand and into the inside of the belt pouch. She was mindful of how easy the power flowed, and didn’t allow the stream to grow too large, or to flow for too long.
“There.” She said, pulling her hand back. The ambient power in the air of the pouch had now risen to a level near that of the wilds outside Bandfast. “That should do.”
She climbed up out of the hole in her inn-room floor, closed the belt pouch and set it and her knife on the bedside table.
She stripped out of her clothes and carefully set them out on the chair, for the next day. That done, she moved through her nightly stretches, and did her hair up, so it wouldn’t tangle. No need to get my new clothes all sweaty or covered in wrinkles, after all. It wasn’t like she had spares, at the moment.
She was about to head to bed, when her eyes fell on the knife, now across the room from where she’d been working.
She didn’t feel the strained exhaustion in her soul anymore, though she did feel a bit of weariness from the same nebulous…sense. One rep, then.
She held out her hand and reached for the knife.
Without an instant’s hesitation, it zipped across the intervening space, stopping immediately, perfectly aligned and situated in her hand.
The worked soreness returned, and Tala yawned before smiling down at the knife. “That will do, nicely.”
Without further delay, she climbed into her waiting bed, snapped her fingers to turn off the artifact lights, and promptly fell to sleep.
* * *
She woke at the first hints of light on the horizon, the glowing sky turning the few buildings that poked over the inn’s walls into a flat black silhouette of themselves. Oh, I forgot to draw the curtains.
She completed her stretching and exercises before she was truly, fully awake. As wakefulness came upon her, she grinned in triumph. Throughout her sets, her sleepy mage-sight had been focused inward, guiding her movements towards best effect. In addition, she’d maintained balance and proper breathing.
Now awake, she added one more exercise to the regimen. Soul Work. It was a stupid name, but she couldn’t think of a better one.
She stood near the door into her room, knife in hand and in its sheath. With a casual motion, she tossed the knife towards her bed, then pulled on the weapon, drawing it back towards her, even as it arced away.
Immediately, the knife zipped back to her hand, as easily as her hand might move to rest on her hip.
The strain wasn’t as great, today, so she did a second toss and retrieval.
As she caught the knife for the second time, she felt a wave of dizziness, and sank to the floor, kneeling and placing her forehead to the soft ground. Oh my…calm down, Tala. You’re alright.
The dizziness slowly passed, taking with it the slight nausea that had been threatening to rise.
She carefully moved over to her bedside table and reached into her pouch, grabbing a piece of jerky from the shelf just inside the opening and popping it into her mouth.
Chewing on the jerky, she pulled out a brush, undid her hair, and worked out the night’s tangles.
That complete, she took her morning bath, careful to keep her hair dry. Then, she refreshed her iron salve, meticulously checking herself over with the magic detector. Not today, trees. Not today.
Satisfied, she dressed in her new clothes, strapped on the belt, and added the pouch and knife to it. Ready to go!
Again, she took advantage of the to-go breakfast the inn offered, downing the allowed two cups of coffee in quick succession. Not enough. But there really wasn’t anything she could do about it. She wasn’t going to buy more in the city. I don’t have that much money.
The attendant already looked a bit wary of her. I suppose I shouldn’t have drunk it so quickly?
She thanked the young man, then grabbed some extra bread, cheese, and a couple of pieces of fruit to supplement her lunch. She ate happily as she walked out into the city.
I feel like I’m forgetting something obvious, that would be really useful in my travels. But no matter how she twisted her mind, nothing came to the forefront. Oh well.
She made her way to the work-yard, much earlier than she’d arrived the day before, and waved to the foreman. The twenty cargo-slots were ready and waiting, a single glowing symbol visible on each.
She moved with calm confidence down the line and finished empowering them all in less than ten minutes. To her great satisfaction, she’d also done so in a manner that she didn’t feel any magical or mental strain. Her mental constructs had been quick, efficient, and thorough, and the power requirement for each empowerment had been less than ever. Repetition breeds precision. It was too bad that that competence wouldn’t translate to empowering anything else, mental models being specific to the working.
The general idea does seem a bit like knowing what my inscriptions will do, as I use them, but that’s probably just a coincidence.
“Thank you, you as well, Mistress.”
She walked through the market on the way towards the eastern gate but paused beside the friendly barrel merchant to say good morning.
“I’m afraid I don’t have any unspoken-for, empty kegs, today, Mistress.”
Tala laughed and shook her head. “No, no. I think I’ve enough of those…” She trailed off, looking at the larger barrels. Water. I would love to have a huge barrel of water available. She smiled. A cistern would be perfect… She shook her head. Now was not the time, she had work to be about. “Thank you, again, for the kegs.”
“Thank you for the business, Mistress.”
Tala nodded and continued on her way. As she walked, she glanced down at her pouch. “Hey…I hate just calling you pouch, but nothing else really seems appropriate…” Pouchy? Bag-thing? She groaned. “I don’t even know if you understand me, or if you need words at all, but it would be pretty great if I had a method for storing water in you? If you can make a cistern for me to fill up, that’d be amazing, but if not, can you make an empty rack of the largest barrel that would fit through your opening? I’ll just get a barrel if that’s the case. No big deal.”
The bag did not respond.
Tala cleared her throat, as she continued to walk. I am insane, but the insanity seems to work, so… She patted the belt pouch. “You’ll have most of today to draw in power. Let’s see what you can do with it. Thank you for carrying all my stuff.” All my stuff…it’s carrying my kit. Kit! “How about I call you Kit?”
The bag did not respond.
She smiled. “Kit it is, then.”
Tala waited in the line at the eastern gate, and once she reached the front of the fast-moving line, the guard waved her through.
She was now, it seemed, on the list.
Tala quirked a smile at that but didn’t comment.
She stepped out of the gatehouse, and into sunlight and power. She stepped aside as a group of people passed, turning north, thankfully the opposite way from her intended heading. She closed her eyes, spread her arms just a bit, and inhaled deeply.
“Wonderful.” She wasn’t quite sure how she’d like going back to lower magic regions. Maybe, she wouldn’t really notice? Not likely. The cities would be the same, at the very least.
The moment of reverie passed, she set out towards the ending grove once more. Don’t eat so many berries today, Tala. And watch your iron salve.
She still had a comfortable stock of power from the ending-berries that she’d consumed the day before, but it had noticeably decreased during the night. As she walked, she took a risk and turned her mage-sight inward to examine the power. As she did so, she got the impression of streamers of power funneling off the torrent, moving through her and trickling into each of her defensive inscriptions. Huh… They aren’t active… Even so, the power was flowing through them, and she could almost convince herself that she felt them doing…something. Maybe, Holly will be able to tell. She shrugged. Just over a week, and I’ll be back.
She now held about half the amount of ending-berry power that she’d taken in the day before. That was still a tremendous amount, likely close to forty berries worth. She’d guessed that she’d eaten close to a pound of ending-berries the previous day, but she wasn’t at all sure. That didn’t factor in how much of the juice she’d gotten by sucking the seeds clean.
Only one cup of berries, or their juice, per day from now on.
That seemed reasonable. That was about a quarter of what she’d eaten the day before, so it shouldn’t upset her stomach. As long as I eat other food, too.
She returned her mage-sight to focusing outward and continued to scan her surroundings.
Something had stuck in her mind from the previous evening, everyone had seen her going out as a dangerous prospect. Was I just lucky, yesterday? She glanced down at herself, and her new clothing, and sighed. I should probably change.
She glanced back at the city, considering the guards she could see up on the walls. Then, she realized that she didn’t really need privacy, just to be out of line of sight momentarily.
She stepped behind a group of trees and found a depression among some rocks that was about the right size. She took off her belt pouch and opened it wide, before situating it among the rocks on as flat a ground as she could find. Even so, it was at a bit of a tilt. That shouldn’t matter…right?
Her mage-sight showed a small, steady tide of magic moving into bag. What do the artifacts do with all the power?
She really needed Adrill’s notes…
Tala climbed down into the pouch and noted that gravity was oriented as usual, within the small extra-dimensional space. So, it’s as I figured, the orientation of the bag doesn’t affect the environment inside. That was incredibly good to know as it also implied that no movement was transferred in either. Thus, her items weren’t being jostled by her actions throughout the day. I can do more tests later.
She quickly stripped down and set her clothes to the side. True to what she’d thought, a small set of shelves had been added beside the one for the books, and on them rested her old shirt and pants.
She slipped into them, and replaced her belt overtop. Then, she glanced down at her new clothes, piled on the ground, and sighed. I’m not going to make bad habits, just because I have the option of convenience. She picked the pieces up, folded them nicely, and placed them on the shelves. “There.”
She turned to climb out, when she heard voices coming down the ladder.
“There’s said to be ruins this way, and you all saw the lady Mage going in this direction. I’d bet she has information we don’t.”
“So you say, but we’re still not equipped to go scouring ruins. We’re meant to be felling trees. These axes won’t work so well on magical monsters. And Master Sodro’s magic isn’t good for much beside letting us run away.”
Another man made a derisive noise. “That’s why we’re following the other Mage, idiot. She’ll deal with any threats, and we can hunt on her coat tails.” Sodro either didn’t take offense or hadn’t heard. Whoever he is.
“What if she doesn’t like us doing that?”
“There’s only one of her. We take what we want. She’s out here alone, and accidents happen.” There was a chorus of muttered agreements, and she heard no dissent, even hesitantly or quietly uttered.
Tala glanced down at her right hand. Nineteen rings left. There shouldn’t be that many of them… But she didn’t know, and she needed these to last until she got back to Bandfast. Think, Tala. Don’t rush in. You need to think through your options.
She cursed silently.
She could attack them with her knife; it wasn’t like they could hurt her, given her inscriptions and the power flowing through her, but they could catch her. She still didn’t really know what she was doing in physical combat, and a dozen men could easily pile on her and pin her down, leaving her helpless.
No, fighting was not a good option. Nice; way to think through that option fully. She should wait. Hopefully, they would pass her by without even noticing.
There was a pause among the men, outside, and she head them stop walking a throwing distance from where her bag lay, tucked among the rocks. “Where did she go?” Oh, come on!
“That way? That next rise is close enough that she could be over the ridge.”
There was a round of agreement, and Tala counted at least ten voices. Yeah, way too many…
One man spoke up. “I don’t know. I thought she was heading that way.”
There were more mutterings, but Tala couldn’t tell if they were agreement or irritation.
“What if she saw us and is trying to hide?”
There was a sound that Tala would bet was a hand slapping the back of a bald head. “Idiot! Why would a Mage hide from us? She shouldn’t know us from any other work crew out here.”
“Because she’s alone? Not every Mage can fight well against people. It’s much harder to fight a group of men than a single large wolf, or something. Maybe, she knew we were following her?”
“Oh, and you know that from experience, do you?”
“Don’t be daft; it’s logical! Would you rather fight one dog, or a dozen angry cats?”
There was a round of muttered agreements, and Tala had a sudden, horrifying thought. What if they find the bag, and close it while I’m inside?
She didn’t know if she could force her way out, should they tie it closed. She also didn’t know what trying would do to the item, whether she succeeded or not. Will the space be maintained, or will it close in on me…Artia’s tales of human-eating dimensional storage items came back to the forefront of her thoughts. Rust shut, stupid mind. Now is not the time.
“She could be in those trees. There really aren’t too many, but it isn’t a tiny grove. If she isn’t, we could lose her, while we try to do a thorough search.”
“Fine, then. Let’s vote. Who says search the trees?”
Tala heard the rustle of cloth. The rusting idiots are raising their hands to vote. She had no way of knowing how the vote was going.
“Who says go for that hill, and hope to catch her?” Again, a rustle of cloth.
Come on, come on!
“It’s decided, then.”
“You two, search that way, you three go there, and we’ll go straight through the middle.”
Oh, rust me to slag. Tala cracked her neck. If she could get up the ladder, and into a stable position before they were on her, she might have a-
“What’s this?” A voice came much louder down the ladder. “Oy! Boys, there’s a hole in the ground.”
Well… there goes that idea.
She heard the men gathering around the hole. Why, under the heavens, are you so interested in a hole? You probably can’t even fit inside it.
“That’s a small hole. Why are we here?”
Good question. She almost groaned in irritation but realized that any sound would give her away.
“She could be down there.”
“We can’t fit in that! I can’t even see anything in there.”
Can’t see… Tala looked around, easily able to see her surroundings. Tentatively, she moved over to where she could see up and out of the hole. There was a crowd of faces looking down at it, at her, but none of them seemed to give any indication that they could see her.
“Could be magic.”
“If it’s magic, we could die trying to get in.”
“That’s a fair point. Master Sodro, what does your mage-sight say?”
A rough voice grated a short response. “Dimensional. Magical.” The man who spoke wore a deep hood, clearly to hide his face, as it was horribly disfigured. Sometimes better vision isn’t a blessing. Much of his skin appeared to have had rock, earth, or sand laced through it. Magic poisoning? If so, it was a fairly advanced case of it. She was actually surprised the man was still functional.
“No.” The voice was clipped, as if the speaker didn’t like talking. With a voice like that, it’s no wonder. His eyes were glowing with power, no scripts to be seen on the surrounding…stone. So, his inscriptions have melded with the deformities. If she remembered correctly, magic poisoned Mages often had their magic enhanced at the end of their agonizing existence. Great…
“Yeah, I don’t want to die.”
That’s right, boys. Go on your way. No need to investigate further. Sodro pulled back, clearly not interested in participating in the discussion.
“So, it’s a magic hole. Seems stupid to mess with it. My vote is that we should just search elsewhere.”
Yes! Yes, you should.
“Hey, what’s this?” One bent closer and pointed to the edge of the hole. “Is that a cord?”
Oh, come on. This was just not her morning. Maybe, I can throw my knife up, first? Take one out by surprise? It probably wouldn’t help much.
At that moment, she heard a grunt of pain, and some of the men turned to look around.
“Hey, where’s Dentric?”
Another grunt came from the other side, and more of the men swiveled.
This time, there was a short scream of agony, before silence returned, and the men began to huddle together, from what Tala could see.
“Who’s out there?! We’re armed!”
One of the men that Tala could see jerked to the side, a spurt of blood painting those around him, before he dropped.
The screaming really started, then. And magic began to fly, specifically, earth magic.
Tala was torn between wanting to run up the ladder and see what was going on and staying put where it was safe. For now.
Her choice was quickly taken, as she heard what sounded like the last man fall, and silence filled the air.
A moment later, a burst of power radiated out, heavily tinged with earth, stone, and sand. He was further along than I’d have guessed, if his death caused that.
She only hesitated a moment longer. Well, rust this. I’m not getting stuck in here.
She surged up the ladder, knife in hand, and leapt up into a grounded stance, straddling the open belt pouch below her.
All around, the rocks and dirt were liberally sprinkled with blood and bodies. Several clustered fields of stone spikes, as well as a half-formed wall of earth were the only evidence of meaningful resistance.
Standing proudly over a broken, statue-like form was the terror bird, scratching at its red-painted beak with one of its powerful claws.
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: