The caravan made it through the pass without violent incident. Though, Tala thought she’d seen some guards conversing every so often, looking at some things in the surrounding terrain. She almost went to see what they were looking at, at several points, but decided against it each time. No need to stick my nose into their jobs.
By the end of the day, the caravan had even returned to what seemed to be the same campsite that they’d used before going through the pass, last time.
Was that only four days ago? It depended on how you reckoned it, but yeah, pretty close. It really does feel like months. She might be over-packing her time and mind. No help for it…
The use of the same campsite was a bit odd to her, because it hadn’t taken a full day to get from this campsite to the city on the last trip. As she considered, she realized that they had not started quite as early on this outbound trip, and the oxen had been moving a bit slower than before. Will our pace be that much slower the whole time, or was it just to make today an easy start to the journey? She’d have to ask Den, if she remembered.
The wagon train, being much larger this time around, didn’t simply circle up. Instead, the wagons were positioned into a rounded, hourglass shape. The cargo and bunk wagons made a smaller circle, with the passenger and Mage wagons in a larger ring. The chuckwagon was positioned in the choke point.
This formation allowed all the oxen to be left free to roam within the smaller ring, while the people of the caravan were able to still have the shelter and perceived safety of the bigger circle.
Rane had stayed with Tala for the rest of the afternoon, walking beside her the last three hours or so.
They hadn’t really talked aside from the occasional, not-quite-awkward small exchanges of words.
She’d considered climbing back up on Den’s wagon, but she’d slightly feared that he would have followed, and something about him made her feel like sending him away would be akin to kicking a puppy.
How do I get myself into these things? If she was rude, once, she’d have her peace and quiet for the remainder of the trip, but she couldn’t bring herself to do it, at least not to him. I could kick a barking, aggressive dog, just not a puppy…
Even so, she’d used the time to good effect: making great progress on her review of biology, physiology, and organic chemistry, all while practicing all parts of what Adam had assigned her.
While the wagons were getting into formation for the evening, however, Rane had been required to move out and scout the perimeter. Thankfully.
In that time, she’d moved through her new exercises, both for her soul and her magic. I really need to be making Archon stars. But her mind was already split too many ways. Tomorrow. I’ll make one, tomorrow.
She was surprised at how quickly her spiritual muscles were recovering and strengthening. It was already a much easier task to pull the knife towards herself, regardless of the distance, but it still seemed to exhaust her fairly quickly. Nowhere near a dozen pulls from ten feet. She almost laughed at herself, then. Did I expect to meet Grediv’s requirements in a day?
The larger circle within the wagons was surprisingly full, as people milled around, without being crowded. Many were doing light exercises or stretching, clearly trying to work out some stiffness from a day within a passenger wagon.
I’m glad that I don’t have to deal with that.
Several of the passengers gave her slight bows and greetings in the vein of: “Good evening, Mistress.”
The sky overhead was trending through the fiery hues, blushing towards twilight and the dark of night. She took a moment to smile upward, her eyes flicking towards the few stars already visible through the remaining light.
Tala felt a previously unnoticed tension release, when no web of magic came into view. The feeling made her introspective, and she took several slow breaths to consider what she was feeling. I hate being constrained, and seeing the web of power over Alefast really did make me a bit claustrophobic. It hadn’t helped that her view of that constraint had come into prominence whenever she allowed her gaze to focus, thus inspiring her to keep her eyes moving. That did not promote relaxed regard for the beauty of the sky above.
I suppose I could have pulled power away from my mage-sight inscriptions. She hadn’t thought of that, earlier, but even now, she felt like it would be a bad idea. Holly’s recommendation to have them active at all times was wise, and I really shouldn’t countermand the design without reason.
About half the larger circle had been designated for eating with tables set out and the side of the chuckwagon open to serve dinner. The scents wafting from the mobile kitchen smelled amazing, as usual.
It was deep-fried steak, asparagus, and potatoes with a thick brown gravy. A slightly magical berry crisp was beautifully presented to the side, for dessert. Brand had individualized, chocolate-lava cakes just for the Mages.
Tala grinned openly at Brand, when he’d handed her tray to her, and he’d rolled his eyes, a smile tugging at his lips as well. “Yours has a berry flavored chocolate.”
She nodded, having already seen the vestiges of power in the center of the creation. “Looks great, Brand. Thank you.”
“Happy to oblige, Mistress.”
“Thank your cooks for me too, please?”
He smiled widely at that. “I will. Thank you.”
She carried her tray off to one side and set it down to fill a wooden cup with water, before picking the tray back up and moving around the outside of the assembled tables. Those eating were in various clusters, spread throughout the tables, and Tala was on the hunt for something in particular.
Finally, she spotted what she’d been looking for and smiled. An entirely empty table.
She was the first person at the table she chose, and she took the moment of solitude to dig in. It was wonderous to not have anyone directly around her. I’m falling back into old habits…
She had done her best to avoid connections while at the academy. She’d hated that she was there, and even though she’d decided to make the best of it, she had not wanted to have a pleasant time. She’d been there for one purpose, to improve herself. When she got out, she would not let anyone tie her down again. At least that had been the plan. Amazing how little fun you can have, when you put your mind to it.
She had known that she would have to sign a contract of indenture to get work, to pay off the debt, and while that necessity had galled her, she’d done it anyway. Just one more hard thing to be free. But then, she’d started encountering people who seemed to genuinely care. Oh, they had their own motivations, their own agendas, but that almost made it better. They weren’t being altruistic, so she didn’t feel obligated to be so, either.
Now, she was falling back into her habits from the academy. Training, striving, improving. Alone.
And now I’m eating alone. She sighed irritably.
Come on, Tala. It isn’t a binary. You are allowed to enjoy some solitude every once in a while, and still allow yourself to enjoy being around people. You are not withdrawing, again.
She smiled, nodding to herself. Yeah, I can enjoy a bit of time alone.
Of course, once she decided that, it didn’t last.
An older man sat down across from her and smiled.
Tala glanced up. Mage, Material Creator with a focus on… She frowned. Breathable air? She realized that she was frowning and forced her face to shift into a smile. “Hello. I’m Tala.”
“Greetings, Mistress Tala. My name is Tang.” He had a cleanly shaved head and no beard, as was common among Mages without access to Holly or inscribers who purchased her special needles. Or those unwilling to pay for the use of such needles on themselves.
Apparently, many Mages had Holly’s needles used on their scalp or face, so that they could keep their hair, but that method was too expensive to use elsewhere, for most.
“Good to meet you, Master Tang.” She nodded politely in greeting before taking another bite of her dinner.
He paused for a moment, then seemed to shrug before digging into his own meal. “Pleasant evening, tonight. I love the slight breeze.”
She frowned, not feeling the breeze, then she nodded. Right! His magic, reflected off my iron, might feel like a breeze. “It is, isn’t it.” She returned to her food. I hope he doesn’t notice the ‘wind’ isn’t affecting anything besides himself.
Trent and Renix joined them shortly thereafter. “Master Tang.”
“Master Trent, mageling Renix.”
“Master Tang.” Renix’s greeting came across somehow stiffly formal, as well as being more monotone than Trent’s had been.
Trent smiled. “Tala. How are you?”
Tang’s eyebrows rose, likely at the lack of the honorific.
Tala smiled in return. “I’m doing well, Trent. Thank you. Quiet day.”
Trent’s eyes were twinkling. He knew she’d left off his honorific to mirror him, even if she didn’t really know why. “About that: If I hadn’t known for a fact that you’d stayed near the caravan, I’d have thought you were out harvesting.”
Master Tang harumphed. “Of course, she wouldn’t do that. A Dimensional Mage’s place is safe, with the other valuable cargo and important passengers.”
Tala gave Trent an innocent look. “Master Tang has the right of it. I do my best to stay where it’s safe.” She held back a snicker. “Why, though?”
Trent just rolled his eyes at her antics, simply choosing to respond to her question. “We found a few arcanous bodies along the route, before the pass, and a couple since then, usually dragged off the route.”
She perked up at that. “Anything worth harvesting?” Then, she deflated. “No… you’d have told me earlier if they were.”
Trent grinned. “Right you are. No, nothing worth salvaging. They were ravaged, actually, mostly eaten whenever we found them, and if the one who found them so much as took their eyes off the body, the carcasses vanished.” He gave her a questioning look. “I’d bet there were more that we never found.” He huffed a laugh. “We found several places where the earth was wet with blood too, but no bodies. I know of five such places, confirmed.”
Tala had a suspicion that Terry was responsible, but she didn’t say so. “Interesting. So, we’ve some sort of guardian out there, then?”
Renix snorted. “Hardly. None of the creatures that we found would have been likely to confront a group this large.” He gestured around himself. “We probably wouldn’t have had any issues, regardless.”
Tang cleaned his mouth with a napkin and cleared his throat. “I think that might be a bit hasty, mageling. We only saw a few, and they seemed to have been positioned for us to find. It is possible that something is tailing us and might want us to fall into a false sense of security.” He took on a slight tone of lecture. “As a caravan grows, it dissuades smaller threats, while attracting larger.”
Renix deflated a bit, turning to his food.
“Or.” A voice came from behind Tala, just before Rane set his tray down beside her. “Or, something is trailing us, using the draw of our caravan as a lure to aid it in hunting. In that case, we would be secure, if only because it wants its bait intact.”
Trent nodded towards Rane. “Assuming the hunter doesn’t want to chum the waters.”
Renix frowned, looking to his Master.
“Ah.” Renix turned back to the food.
“Mistress Tala, Master Trent, Master Tang, Renix. Good evening to you all.” He snorted. “Our names are all of a theme, it seems. Tala, Tang, Trent, Renix, and Rane.” He said the last with a bit of a sing-song, under his breath. Tala didn’t think anyone, but she, had heard.
A chorus of greetings came back to him, and Rane smiled.
Belatedly, he glanced at Tala. “Uh…mind if I sit here?”
He took up nearly half the bench with his broad build; though, he had sat far enough away to avoid brushing her or impinging on her mobility. “I suppose not. Seat was open.”
Renix opened his mouth, seeming about to say something, but his eyes flicked to Tang, and he put a bite in instead.
Tang shifted a bit, using the movement to draw attention. “So, Master Rane, you are from the Gredial family, yes?”
“That’s right. Have we met, before this morning?”
“Not that I’m aware of. So, I’ve heard that Archon Grediv is actually the founder of your family, the namesake even. Is that true?”
Rane seemed at a loss.
Really? She sighed, internally. Shouldn’t let someone else kick a puppy either. “Master Tang, is this conjecture, or were you told that?”
Seeming puzzled, Master Tang turned slightly to face her. “Merely conjecture. The origins of the Gredial family are quite shrouded in mystery, and I’ve always thought that an Archon with such a similar name had to be connected.”
She smiled sweetly. “If it’s a family secret, it sounds like a question that Master Rane might not appreciate too much.”
Tang opened his mouth to respond, but Trent spoke first. “Oh, come on Master Tang. Everyone’s guessed Grediv at one point or another. The old goat even encourages it occasionally. You know how he likes making people look the fool.” Trent huffed a laugh. “I halfway figure that he steps in on their behalf occasionally just because so many people think there’s a connection. He can’t let bad come their way because it would look bad for him, even though they’re unrelated.”
Tang closed his mouth, thinking for a moment. “You do know the Archon fairly well, Master Trent.” He drummed his fingers on the table, then sighed. “Ah, well. It would be nice to put an old mystery to rest, but you’re right, that would be a bit too convenient.”
Tala glanced at Rane, while Tang’s attention was on Trent, and she found him looking at her with gratitude radiating from his all-too-easy-to-read features.
They returned to eating, and soon, Tang was pushing back his tray. “Fantastic, and that lava cake had a nice richness to it.” Tang patted his belly, then stood. “I suppose I should do a check of the perimeter. This close to the pass, we need to maintain vigilance.” He glanced at each of them with a smile. “Good night to you.”
A smattering of “Goodnight” echoed back, and he departed.
Renix looked back to Tala. “Why didn’t the cooks want us to eat the magic berry dessert?”
Rane, who had just put a spoonful of the cake into his mouth, almost choked. “What?!” He’d spoken around the food.
Tala sighed. “Because some things aren’t good for Mages, even if they help mundanes, Renix. You know, most people aren’t aware of magical foods.” She gave him a meaningful look. “And it’s best to keep that number small. Yes?”
Renix looked at Rane, then seem to shrink a bit. “Oh…right.”
Tala rubbed her face with both hands. “There are two of them. Heavens help me.”
Trent laughed. “Most everything has a bit of magic in it, Renix. We don’t need to point out every trace, when we find it.” He gave his mageling a meaningful look as well.
“Right, yes. I’m sorry, Master Trent.”
“It’s fine.” He turned to look at Rane. “Renix has especially acute senses, and he’s been refining his use of mage-sight and can sometimes sense magic in food.” He shrugged. “I never really notice myself, and it seems that Master Tang might not either.” Trent grinned mischievously. “It’d be a shame if he never learned.”
Rane frowned. “Yeah… Should I go tell him?”
Trent hesitated, his smile slipping just slightly. “No… I was being…” He sighed. “No. He’s better off not knowing. His type are very ‘by the book,’ and we don’t want to make trouble for our well-meaning cooks.” He gave Tala a meaningful look as he said that.
Well, rust. “Am I going to have an issue with him?”
“Knowing you? Yes. But I hope not. If he presses you on any of your…oddities, feel free to simply, politely decline to answer.”
I can do that. “I’ll keep it civil.”
“No, Mistress Tala, not civil, polite. He is senior to you, and he has enough connections to be a pain if he thinks you’re disrespecting him. You’re already likely to have some difficulty, regardless.”
She sighed. Great… “Ok. I’ll aim for polite.”
Trent grunted. “It’s something.”
Renix was seeming to open up, now that the older Mage had departed. “So, Master Rane, Master Grediv was your Master through your time as mageling?”
“What was it like?”
Rane seemed to chew on the idea, even while finishing the bite that had still been in his mouth. After he swallowed, he nodded amiably. “Oh, it was a rusting party. He took me out into the Wilds, only bringing me back to civilization to get reinscribed.”
Renix opened his mouth in shock. “Wait, what?”
“Yeah, we left at midnight on my twelfth birthday.”
“So, you didn’t go to the academy?”
Well, that explains a lot. Socially isolated since he was twelve? Tala actually felt bad for the guy. I was never that isolated.
“How long have you been a Mage?”
Rane shrugged. “Two years? Though he’s still kept me close. This is my first venture ‘away.’ ”
Renix gaped. “Two years?!”
Rane shrugged, self-consciously. “Yeah. I’ve been running around Alefast’s countryside, protecting various work-details. Not much time to do anything but fight.” His eyes flicked briefly to Tala, then back to Renix. “Master Grediv thought I could use a change of pace, so he recommended I take a caravan contract. The benefits will be many. At least that’s what he says.” He shrugged. “It is a bit better money, and slower pace, for the day’s work.” He sighed, pushing his plate back. “I haven’t gotten to just walk through the countryside in…” He hesitated, seeming to be thinking back. “A decade?” He nodded. “Yeah, about then.”
Tala didn’t know how to react to that. It sounded like Grediv had been pushing Rane harder than Tala was pushing herself. Huh.
Still, the boy wasn’t an Archon, and if Tala had understood Grediv correctly, she could be one pretty soon, if she dedicated herself to the process. So, driven, resourceful, and well trained, but not really a prodigy? That was likely unfair, but she found herself resenting all the special treatment the young man had likely gotten. Though, if she’d thought about it, she would have conceded that most people, other than her, would not consider a decade of rigorous, likely-brutal training to be a positive thing.
“Wow.” Renix was still in awe. “You must be all kinds of powerful.”
“Well, not really…” Rane frowned. “Master Grediv helped me choose a rather obscure power set, with regard to kinetic energy…” He sighed. “But that’s probably something else that I shouldn’t discuss.” He looked apologetic as he said that.
Trent interrupted. “You boys will have plenty of time to talk later. Master Tang was right about one thing. We do need to be extra vigilant, tonight.” He picked up his own tray, along with Tang’s, to carry back to the chuckwagon.
Tala cleared her throat, and the Mage paused. “So, Tala and Trent?”
Trent grinned at her. “Master Tang is a stickler for edict and tradition.”
She cocked an eyebrow. “Oh? And what did we just signify by the lack of honorifics?”
He actually hesitated. “Well, it could really mean anything from a rock-solid alliance to…” He cleared his throat.
“Well, it could mean that we were engaged.”
She snorted. “Worst proposal ever.”
Trent laughed, seeming to relax a bit. “I suppose so.”
“Oh! I think one of our fellows in this caravan bought up a ton of arcanous collars. Do you mind keeping an ear out?”
Trent gave her an odd look. “You want one?”
“At least to examine, but yeah, I think I might have a use.”
He shook his head. “I feel like I’ll regret it, but sure. I’ll keep my eyes and ears out.” After a moment, he cleared his throat. “Can I ask for something in return?”
She shrugged. “Sure.”
“Please try to stay out of danger? I’d really love a less eventful trip back.”
She looked away, feeling a bit embarrassed. “Yeah. I’ll do my best.”
“Thank you. Good night, Mistress Tala.”
She smiled, looking back towards him. “Good night, Master Trent.”
Renix and Rane followed Trent’s lead and stood to go.
Tala, who had finished her meal before the others, likewise stood. They dealt with their dishes and said goodnight.
Now, I need to find a guard who will part with his mountable shield.