Tala grinned, as she stood on solid footing, looking around the inside of Kit, her dimensionally enhanced belt-pouch.
The space was just a bit bigger than before, and something seemed to give her the impression that it was as large as it could get, for the moment. It was roughly six feet in every dimension, though several things pushed into the walls.
With her back to the ladder, the rack for her kegs and jug was embedded into the wall to her right, along with a shelf for the extra lids, tapping tools, and other miscellaneous items relating to ending-berries. That wall also had homes for her water skin and other liquid containers.
To her left, the wall was bristling with tools, including eleven axes, eleven hatchets, and eleven belt knives, each perfectly situated for maximum space efficiency. The fruit-picker was still tucked into its place, alongside the ladder.
She really did have quite the collection of odds and ends, mostly picked up in Bandfast in preparation for the unknowns of her first mission. Most of this is useless to me, now. Well, that wasn’t fair. It wasn’t burdening her, and it might come in handy one day. The artifact hammer was there, too. I really need to study that some more…
Connected to that same wall was a small worksurface, which hadn’t been there before. Below it rested the leather which she’d taken from the fallen men, in the form of pouches, belts, and packs. Huh, it will be nice to have a place to work with this stuff. “Thank you, again.”
Directly opposite the ladder, the wall was divided in two, split top to bottom. The right side held a sort of closet, within the wall, though there was no means of closing it off. Several of her items hung from a short rod, and the rest were folded neatly on various shelves. Her bedroll and accompanying items were stored under the lowest shelf, resting on the ground. “Thanks, Kit. This looks really nice.”
The pouch did not respond.
To the left of the closet stood a mostly empty bookcase, set back into the wall. Quite a few of the books glowed with power, but she put that aside, for the moment. She wanted to see what they were, first, then examine whatever magic they contained.
Along with her five notebooks and Adrill’s notes on artifacts, a middle shelf held the now heavily annotated ‘Why Organize When You Can Expand?’
The shelf below that held ‘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.’ And beside those three books rested the collection that Grediv had just given her.
Each volume in the collection had a dark leather cover, almost black in truth, though the specific color varied on that theme. The lettering inlaid in the hard covers was not quite silver but was much brighter than steel. What material is that? To her surprise, she realized that the three books Grediv had given her earlier looked to be a part of this larger set. Was this his plan from the beginning? Or does he just like this style, and he gets all his books bound in this manner… Either way seemed equally likely.
The new collection contained the four basic texts, describing the four quadrants. The volume on basic magic item theory was there, as well, but the books continued after those most basic books. There were two successively thicker tomes on each of the quadrants, as well as magic item theory, clearly the second and third volumes in each series. There were also three books on ‘Bound Magic Items.’ Though these were much smaller than those on other topics.
Nine books remained: one set and one individual book.
The set was labeled. ‘A Brief Overview of Entities.’ The eight books were sub-headed: ‘Arcane,’ ‘Bound,’ ‘Fused,’ ‘Refined,’ ‘Paragon,’ ‘Reforged,’ ‘Ascending,’ and ‘Transcendent.’ Grediv had called the cyclops a fused. If these were what she assumed, they covered, at least in brief, every known category of magical entity in the world. She shivered as she looked at the last sub-heading. I don’t know that I want to mess with anything truly transcendent.
Her eyes moved to the final, slim volume, which was labeled simply: ‘Soul Work.’
Tala gaped at the books. Twenty-seven books. It was a treasure trove of information. Master Trent’s set only had two volumes on each of the quadrants, and only one on item theory. This is…amazing.
She reached for the book titled ‘Soul Work’ first. She opened the cover and frowned. She could read the words, but they made no sense. They didn’t form coherent sentences, and the longer she stared, the more her head began to ache. As she focused, her mage-sight triggered, and she saw power swirling around the little book. She looked up and again saw it encompassing quite a few of the collection. The third volume of each set was empowered, along with all but the first three volumes of ‘A Brief Overview of Entities.’
She pushed through the growing pain and nausea to determine the purpose of the magic, though she thought she already knew.
They are warded against me, at least until I achieve Archon. Well, they’re warded against anyone below Archon. She knew that with certainty, though she didn’t understand either how she knew, exactly, or how the books would determine she met the criteria.
She growled. Grediv, you evil slag, why would you give me something I can’t use yet? Was he protecting himself against punishment? Were these really books she shouldn’t have, yet? Then, why give them to me?
Then, she had a thought and grinned. She pulled out her knife and examined it. Her mage-sight could still see her Archon star, embedded into the pommel, though it was quite thoroughly integrated. That should do it. She pushed the pommel against the book in her hands, and the magic shifted.
A single section became understandable to her, within the book.
|‘This is a restricted text, bound to those above your current level. Please return when your soul is of sufficient strength to warrant access to the information within. Thank you.’|
“You’re a snarky book, aren’t you…”
For good measure, she tested the knife pommel against the other magic bound books, to similar results. The wording varied, but the message was the same. ‘You aren’t worthy of this information.’
She sighed but felt a smile tugging at her lips. “Strengthen my soul, eh? I can work with that.”
Tala had taken enough time, looking about inside of Kit, so she climbed back out the pouch, unhooking and taking her hat with her. She hadn’t been down in the dimensional storage for too long, but it had been enough to cover most of the distance that she and Grediv had walked.
Den glanced back at her. “Do you know anything about that?”
They were heading down into the valley where she’d been the cyclops’s practice dummy. She could see an almost perfectly straight line of sporadic furrows carved into the earth where she’d been sent skipping. The end was punctuated with a massive crater from the beast’s downward strike. She grunted. “Yeah. Cyclops.”
Den let out a low whistle. “Those are nasty. I’ve only ever seen a valley cyclops at a distance, and it took two Mages and their magelings to bring it down.”
Valley cyclops? “It wasn’t a pleasant creature.”
“I’ll bet. Are you sure you want to be a Dimensional Mage?”
Tala sighed. “It makes good money. I promise; I’ll try to keep out of trouble on this journey back.”
He glanced back at her, shrugged, and didn’t press. “Guardsman Adam stopped by. He asked me to relay a message.”
“ ‘Please come see me, when you have a free moment.’ ”
“Thank you, Den. I didn’t mean for you to be my message service.”
He laughed. “Not like it took any effort.” He gave her a bit of a searching look. “You’re about my daughter’s age. She has the same effect on boys that you seem to. They always come calling.”
Tala blushed deeply, caught completely by surprise, trying to formulate a response.
“I’ll tell you the same thing I told her: It may seem fun to get all the attention, but the love of one man, if he’s the right one, is better than the fleeting affection, lust, and passion of thousands.”
She cleared her throat, very much embarrassed. “I’ll…uh…keep that in mind. But it isn’t like that. Adam is teaching me how to fight…”
He cocked an eyebrow at her. “Mmhm.”
She cleared her throat again, scratching the back of her neck. “Anyways, thank you for the message…and the advice. I’ll try to keep it in mind.”
He nodded once, then returned to his duties.
Well, I suppose I should go find him.
* * *
Adam was easy to find, as he was currently riding atop one of the wagons, eyes unceasingly scanning their surroundings.
“Adam!” She called to him as she began climbing the ladder.
“Mistress Tala. Good to see you, alive and well.” He did, in fact, spare her a glance and a smile.
She quirked a smile in return. Yeah…I deserved that. “Den said you came looking for me?”
“Yes, from what I’ve seen, you have progressed well in balance, breathing, and posture.”
“Thank you? What, have you been stalking me or something?”
He snorted a laugh. “Hardly. You are simply moving more easily and seem to be shifting your movements towards that of a fighter.”
“So, just staring at me, then.”
He sighed. “Do you wish to learn, or do you wish to poke and prod?”
It was a fair question. Den’s comment set me a bit on edge, I guess… “Learn, of course.”
“Good.” He was still moving his gaze across the surrounding trees. “Core.”
“The next step is core. I want you to strive to keep your core engaged as much as possible. This means keeping your abdomen tensed, and your body stabilized. This is an extension of all three previous tasks. In addition, we are going to start hand to hand sparring each morning, after your duties are complete and before mine begin.”
“I’m going to fight you?”
He shrugged, not looking at her. “I will be your opponent some of the time, but I’ll enlist others as well, where appropriate.” He did glance her way, then. “Based on your miraculous survivals, I assume that you have either a means of avoiding damage, or healing. Is that correct?”
“Yes? What are you planning?”
He shrugged, again. “It will be better for you, if your opponents don’t have to hold back. It will feel worse, but you will learn faster. That said, I have no wish to harm you, or reduce your ability to work during this trip.”
“Fair enough, I suppose.” She was beginning to feel a bit nervous. Even so, she took a moment to do as he asked, tensing her core. She didn’t clamp down, instead simply ensuring that there was tension throughout the stabilization muscles in her torso. “Is that it? Keep my core taut?”
He smiled, eyes continuing to move. “It’s enough.”
“Come find me before you’ve eaten tomorrow morning, but after your duties and other regular morning tasks are complete.” After a moment, he met her gaze, lowering his voice to just above a whisper. “I’d advise against seeking out Master Sergeant Furgel. He’s pretty embarrassed, and while I don’t think he will be so unprofessional again, sometimes men like that prefer to double down on their foolishness, no matter how otherwise competent.”
“Will do, and I will keep that in mind. Thank you.” With no further comment forthcoming, she climbed back down the ladder. Today’s been odd enough, I suppose, and tomorrow will at least have an interesting start. I’ve never done hand-to-hand sparring before.
* * *
Tala returned to the front wagon, having walked just faster than the rumbling caravan.
I need to run some tests. If she was going to get her soul stronger, she needed to go about it in a logical way. As she began figuring out how to test what she needed to, she made sure to keep her core tense. It was already becoming difficult. She was used to exercising her stabilization muscles, but she was not used to extended engagement of her core at large.
This is what he meant… She sighed. More to work on. She quickly realized that she couldn’t keep the muscles engaged constantly, and not just because she wasn’t used to it. Keeping any muscle engaged constantly was not feasible. Like with the breathing pattern, he is trying to shift my natural patterns, by having me aim for extremes to begin with. She’d had teachers use the method before. Even so, she decided to follow his instruction.
As she made her way back onto the roof of her wagon, she noticed that she was feeling a little bit anxious, and took a moment to analyze her own feelings, in an attempt to figure out why.
There was a feeling of absence within her, and she quickly realized that it seemed to stem from the fact that she had no ending-berry power within her, at the moment. The cyclops well and truly drained that.
That realization in mind, she reached into her pouch, and pulled out her iron flask. She took a few quick drinks, downing half of the thick, pulpy mixture. There. About one cup of berries.
The texture wasn’t that pleasant, but she didn’t mind, given the results.
She sighed, feeling content at the returned sense of thrumming power within her. One cup a day. That’s a good limit. Tala glanced at the flask as she closed it, and before she stored it. I wonder if the power is in the juice alone, or if it’s in the meat of the berry… She should borrow a cider press and see if she could render this down to an easier to consume liquid without losing too much of the power. I could probably dry out the remainder, after the press, and get a nice fruit leather… She might need to mix it with something else to keep the taste from becoming monotonous. Worth considering, but I won’t have the ability to do anything about it until we reach Bandfast.
It was possible that Brand had a press in the chuckwagon, but she had enough on her plate that she didn’t want to pursue that, at least not yet. If the opportunity presents itself, I’ll ask.
But that was for later.
She took her knife from her belt and sat down, leaving it in its sheath.
First, she placed the knife at arm’s length, where she could just reach it by bending forwards. She flexed, drawing the knife back to her hand.
It was much easier at this distance, and she grinned, broadly. Oh, that’s fantastic.
She’d suspected that distance would affect difficulty, as the implications otherwise would have been staggering, but she hadn’t known. Now, she did. She jotted that down, along with some other thoughts.
Ok. She stood, setting the knife up near the front of the wagon, then walked carefully to the back, keeping her core engaged as much as she was able.
One. She pulled it to her. It was exponentially harder to pull it to her across twenty feet than it had been to pull it the four feet or so.
She walked back, and replaced it at the front of the wagon, returning to the rear before repeating the exercise.
Two. This was close to double the distance she’d ever pulled the knife to her, before, excepting during the fight with the cyclops. For some reason, that had felt easier, though all the aches, pains, and exhaustion that had come upon her after the brief scuffle made it difficult to determine. Maybe, if the knife is already moving towards me, it’s easier? It takes less energy? That made a sort of sense. It worked that way with her physical muscles, why not her spiritual ones?
She did not feel up to a fourth, especially in light of her earlier exertion, so she placed the knife at the three-quarters point.
One. It was easier than pulling the item the full length of the wagon, but only just.
Two. She found herself sweating, even within the shade of her wide-brimmed hat.
Three. That was all she felt capable of at this distance.
Halfway, now. One.
Three. She was gasping, and she took a moment to pull her breathing back into proper pattern. Long inhale through the nose, quick exhale through the mouth.
Only five feet from her, now. One.
Two. She found that if she exhaled, while pulling the knife to her, it felt a bit easier, as if she was able to exert herself with less strain. Good to know.
Three. She was breathing regularly, now, but it was an effort. She pulled out her water incorporator and carefully shot water into her dry mouth at an angle, allowing her to drink with relative ease. She splashed herself with water through the process, but she didn’t care much. It would evaporate, either naturally or magically, soon enough.
She looked down at the incorporator again. Can I use this as a magical exercise? She pointed the device off to the side and threw power into it directing the flow straight from her gate to the item. She gathered up what she could from her reserves along the way.
A thick stream of water, as thick as her thumb, shot outward, arcing to the ground. She was pushing more power than she could sustain through the device, and she quickly came to the end of her reserves, allowing the flow, both of magic and water, to come to an end.
Interesting. She examined herself critically, turning her mage-sight upon her power. If making an Archon star is like carefully loading heavy cargo, powering this is like picking up and hurling heavy rocks randomly. In short, it was a similar process, but would likely work her power in different ways. Nice. Her goal, when she used this, would be to express as much power as quickly as possible, and sustain it, until it tapered off. Today, that had been about a second and a half. I have to start somewhere.
There was an oddity, however. Just like when her first Archon star had drawn power out of her, there were vestiges that seemed to cling more tightly to her physical form. The only part that she was able to redirect into the incorporator was the nebulous power that seemed to settle around her gate and keystone, rather than being spread through her body. I wonder why that is…
She noticed Den glancing back at her, and she waved.
He turned a bit more. “What are you up to, Mistress?”
She smiled. “Just exercising my magic.”
He opened his mouth, then thought for a moment, closing it.
Tala cocked her head waiting.
“You know; I’ve no meaningful comment. It’s not dangerous, right?”
“No. It’s safe.” It also shouldn’t be a beacon, like my magic-popping-breath, last time.
“Fair enough. Enjoy.”
Tala laughed a bit self-consciously. “Thank you, Den.”
He waved over his shoulder as he turned to face forward once more.
Hmmm… Den mentioned a valley cyclops. She sat down, reaching into her pouch and pulled out the book ‘A Brief Overview of Entities: Fused.’
She flipped through the index, and found cyclops, but a valley cyclops wasn’t listed. Huh. She placed the book back in and drew out ‘A Brief Overview of Entities: Bound.’ After finding the right page in the index, she again opened to the cyclops entry. There it was.
|‘Cyclops, Valley – Valley cyclops stand between eight and fifteen feet tall and have the attributes of any cyclops. See Cyclops.’|
She looked up to the start of the cyclops section:
|‘Cyclops are as resistant to direct magical manipulation as a foe in full armor: they are not impossible to affect, but it takes a great deal more power and/or precision. In addition, their physical strength greatly exceeds what would be expected, given their size and level of advancement. Expect any Bound cyclops to be as strong, physically, as the average Fused of most other entity types. Cyclops, unlike their giant kin, continue to grow as they age, until they become too big for their body to survive, or they find a method of advancement to a higher class of entity. Cyclops tend to use clubs, or other close-range weapons, and think poorly of those who attack from a distance.’|
There were a few other general facts, but nothing of significance in the moment. Den saw Mages guarding a caravan fighting one of these…a Bound entity. She felt her thoughts racing. Grediv obliterated an entity a full order more powerful than this, with ease. Thinking back on his words, that did make sense. He claimed to be a Paragon, which is two orders higher, still. She shivered. How powerful did that make him? She couldn’t even look at the book on entities of that order, so she couldn’t even get a general idea.
She had a myriad of things running through her head, that she wanted to look into, or do, or practice, or contemplate, or… Too many… She sighed, leaning back, and allowing her eyes to take in the countryside around her.
It was beautiful.
Dark green trees that were ripe with magic grew in clusters, groves, and whole forests easily within sight, as the caravan was currently on a rise. Trees with less magic were easily visible, as their leaves had changed in the autumn weather, more subject to the seasons than their magic-full cousins.
Tall, thick grass swayed in the breeze, looking like rippling waves moving across the surrounding, un-treed land. What had been a worn path, leaving Alefast, had quickly faded away as traffic patterns dispersed enough to make the wearing of a road unlikely. Even so, there was a road of sorts, since they were headed for the pass, as many caravans did. Really, it was mostly a strip of land, cleared of trees and undergrowth. The grass was too full of life to be easily killed by wagon traffic, and even if it died, it would be back so quickly that it hardly mattered.
Ahead, the pass loomed large, the magnificent mountain, cleft in two in time before memory. Snow covered the separated peaks, as well as the other peaks visible in the range. The mountain range was a stark thing from this side.
There were some foothills, leading up to the mountains, but they were dwarfed by the peaks that they heralded. On the northern side, the progression was far more gradual.
I prefer this. The clear, definitive majesty of the mountains were on easy display from the south, and she loved the harsh beauty before her.
As the wind changed direction, a cold breeze swept down from those mountains and tousled her hair, causing some stray strands to sway across her vision.
The air wasn’t frozen, but it was close. It smelled crisp and clean and perfect. She let out a contented sigh, closing her eyes and letting her arms spread wide in a subconscious attempt to catch more of that wonderful wind.
She wished that Merilin’s travel clothes were lighter, so that she could feel more of the breeze, even though they were already semi-permeable. She would have loved for the garments to allow the air to play pleasantly across her skin.
As if in response to her thoughts, the garments almost seemed to relax, just slightly, and suddenly the wind felt like it was striking her bare skin. She glanced down, startled, but she was still fully clothed, and the clothing was still solid, though it did seem a bit looser on her than before.
She grinned, closing her eyes once more and basking in the wind, until it passed a couple of minutes later. For those few minutes, there were no experiments to be run, no skills or muscles to train, no looming debt to dig free of. For that time, she was simply Tala, free in the autumn breeze.