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Tala turned, breakfast in hand, sweet solitude awaiting her atop Den’s cargo wagon, behind. “Ashin. It’s been too long.”

The young man smiled as he jogged up to stop beside her. “Good morning, Mistress Tala.”

“Good morning.” She waited for a moment, but when he didn’t say anything further, she smiled. “What can I do for you?” So…hungry…

“Did I see you sparring with Guardsman Adam earlier?”

She shrugged. “Sort of. It seemed more like him throwing me to the ground, and then telling me how I should have avoided it.” She smiled weakly.

“Oh… okay.” He glanced over his shoulder, then back. “So, if you need another sparring partner, I have a different shift than Adam, and I’d be happy to help.”

Oh! That’s actually a kind offer. “Thank you, Ashin, that’s kind of you.” She hesitated. “Do you know the methods that Adam uses? It might slow down my progress if I get differing information.”

He waved that away. “In a sparring partner, differing styles can actually be really helpful, past a certain point. But that’s not what you’re asking. Adam was actually one of my teachers, before he started taking breaks from his role as a trainer to pull caravan duty. I’ve not seen him in a few years.” A happy smile settled onto his face. “I’m glad to have had this journey to catch up, actually.”

“I’m glad to hear it.” She glanced down at her food, then back to Ashin. It could be really nice to keep progressing… “Yes.”


“Yes. Not now, obviously.” She slightly lifted her tray to indicate that she was about to eat. “Are you free in…an hour?”

“Definitely! Yeah. I’ll come to the wagon? It would probably be interesting, fighting on a moving surface.”

“Yeah.” She was suddenly a bit uncertain. “I’ll see you, then.”

He nodded, waved, and went on his way.

“Huh. That might work out well.” She turned and finished the trek to her wagon. She climbed just enough that she was able to slip the tray onto the roof above her when another voice called out to her.

“Mistress Tala!”

You have to be rusting kidding me. She sighed, making sure the tray was secure on top of the wagon before climbing back down to face her new accoster. “Master Rane?”

Rane stopped just out of arms reach and gave a shallow bow. “Good morning, Mistress Tala.”

“Good morning, Master Rane.”

They stood for a moment in frustrated and awkward silence.

Finally, Tala cleared her throat. “Can I help you with something?”

“Oh! Right. Yes. Did I see a guardsman throwing you around, earlier?”

Was the whole caravan watching? She sighed, again. “I’ve no way of knowing what you saw or didn’t see, but I am learning to fight, yes.”


“Because if one is bad at something, one very rarely succeeds. If I fight, I want to win.” She took a deep breath, closing her eyes for a moment. Tala, you’ve no idea why he’s here. Give the man a moment. “Why do you ask?”

He was frowning. “Most active magic is focused on ranged engagement. Why do you want to fight anything up close?”

“I don’t want to.” She purposely did not recall the instance of slapping a thunder bull upside the head with an ending stick. “I am learning so that if it happens, I’m not an open extract over the fire.”

“A what?”

She shook her head. “A fish out of water?”


They stood for another long moment, Tala thinking about her cooling breakfast. “So…?”

“Oh! So, if you are learning close up fighting, I’d love to spar sometimes. I’d be a terrible teacher, but it would be fun to test each other at some point.”

“Well, I’m very much just starting, so you’d likely destroy me, but maybe?”

“Master Grediv always says that attrition is the best teacher.”

“He sounds lovely.” Maybe, I don’t want to maintain contact with that man. He sounds like kind of a jerk. She almost snorted a laugh. He was kind of a jerk.

“Oh, he’s alright. After I got used to being thrown into combat, it was actually kind of fun.” He smiled, but there was a hint of sadness there. “Oh! I forgot. Did I hear you mention, to Master Trent, that you are interested in harvests?”

She perked up. “Yes. Why?”

“Well, to tell the truth, I’ve been missing combat…Is there anything in particular you’d like?”

She thought of Terry and grinned. “Yes, actually. I’d love all the thunder bull meat you could help me acquire.”

“Thunder bull… that’s an arcanous beast, right? Sounds like it would be fun.” He grinned in turn. “If I see one, I’ll take it down for you. I’ll have to look it up, to make sure I don’t endanger the caravan or myself, but when I can, I’ll see what’s possible.”

“Thank you!” She felt giddy at that. She wasn’t burning through her jerky stores too fast, but she still saw the end of that road as all too close, and she did not want to find out what would happen if Terry no longer received jerky bribes. I need to verify with Brand that he’ll jerk more meat for me… “Truly, thank you.”

He gave a short laugh. “I haven’t done it yet, but you’re welcome. You’ll let me know if you want to spar?”

“I will.” She thought for a second, then clarified. “Let you know, that is. I’ll let you know if I want to. Thank you.”

He smiled, ignoring, or not noticing, her awkwardness. “Sounds like a plan. I’ll leave you to it. We’ll be rolling out soon, and I’m rear-guard today. Ride safe!”

She waved as he turned to go. “You too, I suppose.”

She was up the ladder quickly, and she only waited long enough to get comfortably seated before she began devouring her breakfast. She was so hungry her head hurt, and to her irritation, the headache remained, even after she ate the provided food, washing it down with water from her incorporator.

Despite the pain in her head, she wanted to be productive. Another set!

She moved through her spiritual exercises, pulling the knife to herself from twenty, fifteen, ten, and five feet. She was able to do four repetitions from both twenty and fifteen feet, but she wore out on the third at ten and five feet. Progress is progress.

Her head hurt worse, so she drank some more water. What now, what now. Hmmmm…

She stood and moved through the techniques that Adam had shown her, allowing her mage-sight to guide her into as perfect a replication of his movements as possible. He said repetition was key. I need to have these movements be my default.

As she was working, Den hooked up the oxen, climbed up, gave her a happy wave, and started them on their way for the day.

For each technique, she performed the movement a hundred times on one side, slow enough to ensure she was doing it right. Then, she did it a hundred more as quickly as she could, focusing on speed over perfect technique. Then she switched sides. Just as Adam suggested.

That was not quite accurate. Adam had suggested that she do each movement three times fast, and then three times slow, to each side. A hundred is better.

After she’d done all the basic techniques in the same manner, she was feeling very worked and quite a bit warm.

Her outfit had relaxed, allowing the cool air to flow around her more easily and that helped. Her wide-brimmed hat helped, too.

She sat, drinking deeply via the incorporator, and breathing as evenly and deeply as she could manage, ensuring that she kept with a quick exhale. Very nice, Tala. You can do this!

Now what?

Archon star. She decided that the creation of the star in her finger was the most pleasant way she knew of, for the moment, so she began moving her power in that direction.

She opened her gate wide and began guiding all her incoming power into her finger, forming the spell-shape within a bit of blood, right near the skin of her left ring finger.

She pulled against her gate, not allowing the extra power she wanted to come from her reserves, around her keystone. That’s likely what’s been exhausting me. Instead, she moved the power directly from her gate to the star, doing her utmost to pull as much as possible.

It was mentally exhausting, taking much more of her concentration than when she allowed some of the power to come from her reserves. When she did that, she’d let her gate refill those reserves even as she pulled the power free.

Her flow rate was…lacking. That said, it felt like her gate was a muscle, and her efforts were forcing it further open. I’m relating many things back to muscular exercise… It’s like studying? No. That’s idiotic. Muscular exercise is a perfectly fine way to conceive of this.

To her surprise, she was making monumental progress. As if she’d never really tried to force it open before. That’s not true. I’ve forced it open lots of times… She hesitated, trying to search back through her memory with the little bit of mental space not otherwise engaged. A few times?

She thought further. A couple of times, and never for more than a moment… It was no wonder that her gate was responsive. It had basically been a passive part of her magical ability that she simply allowed to refill the vast reserves within her. That was foolish of me…

As a result, even though her gate began with little more than a stream, she quickly got it much closer to a healthy flow, and she was building the Archon star at a rate slightly faster than the last one she’d done, without exhausting her reserves. This is SO much better!

Now that the spell-form was established, and her gate was thrown wide, the power was almost moving on its own, requiring very little of her will, and therefore mental power, to continue.

She let out a long, slow, contented breath. “There we go.” She took a moment of that freedom to delve into herself, feeling out her gate with her mage-sight.

To her surprise, it actually seemed like the gate, itself, naturally wanted to be open. Just as muscles usually wanted to relax. To open it, she was fighting years of something akin to cramping, due to lack of use. Additionally, she was working against her own keystone, which was designed to prevent her gate from tearing open irreparably. That would be bad…

Without that restriction, it was technically possible for a Mage to turn their entire being into an open gate, thus obliterating themselves and leaving behind a hurricane of power without end. It was a major task to shut those down when they were found. At least that was Tala’s understanding.

Thankfully, as far as Tala knew, no Mage had succumbed to that sort of accident since the invention of modern keystones, some five hundred years ago. Score another one for research and rigor.

With the keystone in place, she did have to fight against it, mentally, but it also meant that anything she accomplished would be safe. It was a tradeoff, but extra effort was well worth the removal of that risk.

At her current rate, she would need to keep this up for one hundred hours to make an archon star powerful enough to meet Grediv’s expectations. Not likely… Still, she determined that she’d keep it up for as long as possible, keeping her efforts on increasing her rate of flow through her gate.

She found that she had enough mental space to continue some light reading and note-taking. So, she forwent her biology review for the time being.

She considered throwing some meat for Terry but didn’t want to draw attention to him. I’ll give you a treat tonight, buddy. Thus, she passed the morning.


* * *


Noon was fast approaching, and she was at her limit, even with the easier method.

Throughout the morning, her gate had continued to open wider, though at an ever-slower rate. If she had to guess, she was drawing through at close to double the rate that she’d funneled into the most recent Archon star. And nearly four hours to boot. She was hoping for a star that was at least three times as potent as her last attempt.

She carefully removed an iron vial and a non-magical knife from Kit. Maintaining her concentration, she withdrew her myriad defensive and regenerative abilities from her finger before pricking the surface and letting the drop fall free.

As it was breaking free, she relaxed, happy to have completed the effort, and she felt a tearing sensation. It felt like someone had filled her body with spiders’ webs and then pulled them all out at once, through her left ring finger.

Virtually all of her reserves were gone in an instant, though the ending-berry power remained untouched.

Weariness slapped her upside the head, and she was barely able to stay conscious enough to catch the drop in the vial, cap it, and return the vial and knife to her pouch.

Well done, Tala, way to lose focus in the eleventh hour.

She groaned, curling up in a ball and succumbing to sleep.


* * *


Tala awoke, sitting up with a groan.

Her eyes were stuck shut with sleep, and she rubbed them to clear the crustiness.

She blinked into full wakefulness, looking out at a late afternoon sky. Well, rust.

Den turned to look at her, and he smiled. “Hello! Guardsmen Adam and Ashin each stopped by, separately, and asked me to let you know such. Brand left you that.” He nodded towards a new tray of food, though it was cold, now. “And he took away your breakfast tray. He also said that he’d have refilled your coffee jug, if he could find it.” He smiled back at her.

“Oh, no! Do you know where the Guardsmen are now?”

Den shrugged. “On duty, or asleep, I’d wager.”

Tala sighed, feeling quite guilty. I can’t believe I missed our sparring and training times… “Thank you, Den.” And thank you, Brand. She yawned. “I didn’t mean to sleep.”

He laughed, turning forward. “You’re doing something wrong then, Mistress.”

She grinned ruefully, even though she knew he couldn’t see. “You’re not wrong.”

She pulled the food towards herself and ate without really noticing what it was. She had a vague sense that it was good, but that was really all. Coffee… She was irritated that he hadn’t brought more. Why didn’t he… Her eyes widened. Well…I forgot.

She reached into Kit and pulled out the full jug of coffee that Brand had given her that morning. To her surprise, it was hot. How is that possible? She looked down at Kit. “Are you a perfect insulator?” On some level, that made sense. The pouch could nearly perfectly isolate items, thus preserving them in an almost steady state.

The pouch did not respond.

Oh, well. The earthenware was actually quite hot to the touch, likely fully equalized with the coffee it contained. She bore through the discomfort and drank deeply, washing her late lunch down with gusto. That’s so much better.

“Thank you, Kit.”

Kit did not respond.

Tala stood and stretched. Right, so don’t lose focus at the end or the stupid Archon star will take everything it can on the way out. She pulled out the iron vial and opened it, looking in with enough focus to key off her mage-sight.

The star was radiating at least four times the power of any of her previous stars, and she felt ecstatic at the discovery. True, a chunk of that had been because of her mistake at the end, and she was not going to replicate that, but it still meant that she was improving, quickly.

That verified, she stored the vial and went through her exercises: Muscular, spiritual, magical, and martial. It was becoming a lengthy regimen.

Now done, and feeling very content in her efforts, she sat down to empower her items. She fed Kit up to nearly bursting, topped off her clothing and the hammer, and finally, she decided to increase the knife’s capacity. I need to find a name for you at some point. Perhaps, it would be wisest to wait until the knife demonstrated what it could really do. Yeah, you should earn a name. She smiled at that.

In a very similar process to creating the Archon star, Tala opened her gate wide, and channeled the power directly into the knife, though she didn’t form the power, or otherwise attempt to influence it beyond that. She didn’t have to be touching the weapon, so she left it sitting a few feet from her.

It didn’t feel any different or harder than giving the knife power when it was in her hand, but she thought it couldn’t hurt. Best case, this is a bit harder, and its good exercise.

The knife had started with a relatively weak Archon star, mainly because the stars she was creating were incredibly weak. Thankfully, as Grediv had assured her, she found that she could increase the power of the connection, and thus the power residing within the knife, simply by giving the tool an influx of magic.

The power she gave was more effective than when she built it into an Archon star. Thus, over the next hour she pushed the knife’s capacity to almost double its previous capacity. Not sure why that’s useful, but yeah! Progress.

As she was finishing up, she let out a contented sigh, and got Den’s attention. “Anything else eventful happen?”

Den glanced back at her, then hesitated. “You did have one other visitor, but he asked me not to tell you…a few things.” He took a deep breath and let it out. “Mistress, I understand that, because I’m here it makes sense for me to pass along messages as such, but it really isn’t my job.” He gave a sympathetic look. “I’m not cut out to be a footman or servant or anyone who has to make potentially political decisions.” He frowned.

“Den! I’m so sorry. I never meant for you to be a message service, or anything like that.”

He waved her away. “Oh, I know. That’s not what I meant. I mean that: I’ve information that I would normally simply tell you, but I’ve been asked to not do so by someone I don’t really know.”

It was Tala’s turn to frown. “Is someone ordering you about, Den?”

“Not really.” He let out an exasperated sigh. “Please just… Take your dishes to Brand. Yes? He’ll handle it better than I will…”

Tala smiled and patted him on the shoulder before climbing down the ladder. “I will, Den. Thank you, and I’m sorry.”

“It’s fine, it’s fine. Just…stop having so many suitors, maybe?”

She colored. “Den. It isn’t like that. Brand and Adam are both married!”

He shook his head. “But the other two gentlemen don’t seem to be. Though, if their actions are any indication, they’re open to the idea.”

Blushing further, Tala cleared her throat. “I’m not addressing that…” She glanced back towards Den, seeing laughter dancing in his eyes, though he had the good grace to not give voice to it. I guess I shouldn’t hold his good humor against him… “If there is ever anything I can do for you, please let me know?”

“I will. Thank you, Mistress.”

A note from JLMullins

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