As Tala and Rane sat atop the front wagon’s roof, Rane finally asked a question that caused Tala to hesitate.
“So, are you from Bandfast, then? I don’t think you ever really answered that.”
I could lie… but what would be the point? She sighed, sitting back down. “No… I’m not.”
“Will you be heading home after we arrive in Bandfast, then?”
“Bandfast is my home, now.”
“Ahh…” He looked like he wanted to ask but didn’t press. Instead, he shifted to a different, if related topic. “So, youngest?”
“Middle. Dead middle. Five above and five below.”
“Ahhh. Got lost, there?”
“A bit, until Master Grediv picked me.” He gained a bit of a mischievous smile. “My eldest brother had been campaigning for months to get Master Grediv to come to our home and evaluate him. He was basically ready to be certified as a full Mage. Even so, he hoped to be a mageling under Master Grediv.” His smile widened. “After testing my brother, Grediv said, and I’ll never forget his words, ‘Why would I want to paint on a used canvas?’ He rejected him on the spot. My brother was so startled that he never actually responded.” Rane let out a small laugh. “That knocked him from his high horse. It mortified mother and father, too. Then, Grediv looked around, muttering about a wasted trip before seeing me. He pointed me out and said, and I’m not joking, ‘You! Blank canvas. Get over here. We’re leaving.’ And that was that.”
“He’s a colorful one, isn’t he?”
“Oh, you’ve no idea. So, what about you? Eldests usually have a lot of responsibility.”
She huffed a mirthless laugh. “You could say that. I wasn’t born the eldest, but I was when I left. Eldest of twelve. My elder brother, may his soul be gilt in gold, was really a half-brother. His mother died in childbirth, as did mine. I guess my father got better at picking a woman after that, because the other rascals all came from his third wife.”
“Not kind to you?”
“Oh, she was fine. Treated me like her own, then helped give me the family debts and send me off to repay them.” She froze. She’d not told anyone that. Why are you blathering, Tala?
Rane smiled consolingly. “Ahh, indentured into the craft, then…even more than most. I’m sorry to hear it. I’ve heard of such, but can’t say I’ve met any, what with not going to the academy.”
She hesitated, then sighed. Already talking about it, I suppose. “Not many at the academy, either. It takes a union of large debts and magical aptitude for such to happen, usually.”
“Well, I’m sorry. That’s a pretty bad hand to be dealt.”
“I’ll admit, I considered just dying, and leaving the rusting people with nothing, but I think I’m mainly over that.” She snorted a laugh. “I honestly think I tilted so far towards defense as a reaction to that way of thinking.” She found herself smiling, just a bit, despite the topic. “Many have it worse, and things are looking up.” She shrugged. “I’ll pay off my debt, and then be better off than I ever hoped.”
“Good way to look at it, I suppose. Glad you took countermeasures, I suppose. You do seem a bit carefree about danger.”
“Yeah, I’m working on that.” She glanced away.
There was a short lull, before Rane refocused the conversation. “So, how did they justify it? Sending you off to a better life?”
“Don’t know. Refused to talk to them, after I heard, and haven’t spoken to them since I left.”
He seemed stunned by the revelation. “Tala…I…” He closed his mouth, frowning. After a long moment, he nodded then spoke. “Losing your family like that… I’m sorry, Mistress Tala.”
She gave a sad smile. “I appreciate that.” And, strangely, she found that she actually did.
“Do you…do you think you’ll ever see them again?”
She snorted. “I used to have these grand plans: Pay off the debt, get a mountain of gold and go throw a handful at their feet. ‘How do you like that? I’m just gold to you, right?’ But it seems really childish, now.”
He gave her a half-grin. “Just a bit. Would probably be cathartic, though.”
She grinned in return. “It would at that.” She sighed. “Let’s talk about something else, yeah?” She scratched the side of her neck. “We’ll be in Bandfast tomorrow, right?” The days had flown by on this return trip.
“Tomorrow evening, that’s right.”
“It will be good to be home. And, it seems we have a place to train, right?”
“Yeah, Guardsman Adam seemed quite interested in seeing you hurt me again.”
She rolled her eyes. “I don’t think that was it.”
“Fair, fair. But it should be fun.”
She just smiled in response. Yeah. It should be.
The morning passed amicably, and Brand brought lunch for Tala and Terry almost perfectly at high noon.
When he saw Rane, he gave Tala an odd look, but didn’t otherwise comment. Shortly after the cook left, however, the servant for Rane’s wagon clumsily climbed up the ladder, bearing Rane’s lunch.
“Oh! Thank you, Manth.”
The servant nodded. “Will you be needing anything else, good Master?”
“No, thank you.”
The servant gave a slight bow and left, climbing back down and hopping free of the still moving wagon.
Rane seemed a bit embarrassed. “I forgot to let him know where I was going to be for lunch…I’ll apologize to him this evening.”
Tala shrugged, not feeling the need to comment.
They ate, chatting about various small things. When Terry vanished after finishing what Brand had brought, Rane paused, mid-sentence, and gave Tala a flat look.
“He’s fine. He won’t hurt anyone from the caravan, and we’re the only people out here.”
Rane didn’t press further.
After lunch, Tala continued her note-taking review of anatomy, and Rane read, while their stomachs settled. At nearly the exact right time, Adam arrived. In lieu of sparring, he first worked with Tala on her basic techniques.
After that, it was decided that Adam should see Rane move through his own attack and defensive patterns.
His sword was two handed and as tall as he was, a true greatsword.
The cross-guard, it seemed was sequestered within Rane’s dimensional storage, along with half the handle, thus only a single hand’s worth of the hilt was exposed for easy drawing of the weapon.
As he pulled it free, Tala had found herself gawking.
It was entirely wood in appearance. Its grain was tight, but clear, and the red tone of the material made it look almost dipped in blood then left to dry. The color had not been at all clear from the small portion of the hilt that had been poking out, though that didn’t make much sense to Tala.
The power flowing through the weapon was two-fold: First, the obviously required strength and sharpness magics were readily apparent. Second, there were hints of kinetic energy redirection that seemed similar to her hammer, but more refined and tailored to the martial applications of a sword.
When Rane pulled the blade free, a little clumsy because of his still bandaged hand, Tala got a good look at the magics. She shook her head. “No.”
Adam gave her a puzzled look, and Rane cocked his head. “What?”
“You heard me. No. That looks like an item, perfectly inscribed for your needs, but it’s an artifact. There is no way that’s a coincidence.”
Rane gave a sheepish half smile. “I’m really lucky?”
She sighed. “You’ll tell me later.”
He sighed in turn. “Maybe…”
She narrowed her eyes, giving him a searching look.
“Hey, it isn’t a ‘No,’ alright?”
Adam didn’t understand magic item variations, exactly, and he seemed content with his ignorance. He ignored their exchange and instructed Rane to walk him through his fighting style.
That took more than an hour, and Rane just covered the basics, while Adam was asking extensive questions. Most demonstrations were short, due to Rane’s hand, but they cleared up questions that would have been hard to answer with words alone. Finally, Adam had to depart, and Rane and Tala went back to their alternations of training and chatting.
Terry returned sometime during Rane’s demonstration for Adam, but no one commented on his arrival.
Other than the oddly tailored artifact, the day passed without incident.
More than a couple dozen small, arcanous encounters came and went, though Rane wasn’t needed to repel any of them, and Tala restrained herself from interfering. The guards handled most, and the other Mages were in better position for the others, so their pattern was uninterrupted.
It was actually a pleasant way to spend the day, if Tala was being honest.
Ashin came by and sparred with Tala, while Rane continued to read. The guardsman was a bit hesitant, given her earlier damaging of Rane, but Ashin got past it quick enough. Tala, for her part, kept to the basics that Adam had been teaching her. No more damaging partners, Tala.
The wagon train pulled into formation for the night, and dinner came and went. Trent finally asked Tala about her ending-berry harvesting, and she gave the barest of answers possible, without lying. She felt a bit bad, but she didn’t intend on telling him, or anyone, that she had gallons of ending-berry juice on hand. Also, as much as she trusted Trent, she was not going to share about the men Terry had killed to protect her. Nope, nothing good down that road.
The only thing of true note that evening was Tang.
As Tala headed back towards her wagon, finally alone for the night, Tang called out to her, hurrying across the larger circle of wagons. “Mistress Tala! A moment, please.”
Tala turned, Terry on her shoulder, and waited for the older Mage. She frowned as she saw something in his hand. Is that…?
He held the item out in question. “I found one! I had a whole host of collars to search through, but I did, indeed, have one for a young creature with dimensional magics.”
Tala cocked an eyebrow. “You just happened to have the exact collar we need?”
“Hmmm? No, of course not. I have at least one of almost every variation.”
She blinked at him in confusion. “What?” Wait… Tang was the buyer? That made a sort of sense, now that she thought about it.
He smiled. “The foremost artisan of arcane domestic collars lives in Alefast. I bought out her supply, and then some. I bought up every available collar in the city!” He gave her a self-satisfied smile. “I’m carrying them to Bandfast, then on to other cities, to sell.” He was nodding happily as he spoke. “It’s a side venture. I get all my funds in hard currency, travel to Alefast, transfer the money to my account with the bonus, then spend the increased amount on goods to travel back with. Once a year, I do so with collars. In the spring it’s…” He hesitated, giving her a sidelong look, then waved the topic away. “Never mind that. I’ve an exclusive deal with her, so I don’t mind telling you about the collars. I buy out all that she can make in a year, virtually every year. Have for half a decade.”
Tala blinked. That is surprisingly reasonable…still a bit fortuitous. “And this particular collar costs…?”
Tang’s eyes held a glint of greed. “Well, this particular collar has three features that make it more expensive than most. First, it is a growth collar, meaning its designed to remain perfectly sized for the arcane creature as it changes size, growing with it. It’s dynamic, so it doesn’t require fiddling with buckles or the like. Second, it is designed to connect with its wearer, becoming integrated, so that it moves with them. My understanding is it alters the collar so that the creature’s magic sees it as a part of it. I’m not privy to the ‘how,’ unfortunately. Now that would be a valuable bit of information…” He seemed to lose himself for a moment, before snapping his focus back to their conversation. “Where was I? Right! This feature is specific to dimensional arcanous creatures, so they can’t jump out of it. Without that, the collar will be left behind, and the creature killed, if it’s within the city.”
Tala gave Terry a glance. The bird looked a bit wide-eyed. “Yeah… that would not be ideal.”
“Finally, it is a training collar. It is two pieces, woven together. For lack of a better description, you magically bond one, the terror hatchling, the other. It uses the magic of any city you are in to ensure that the creature stays within a hundred yards of you. It won’t do anything outside of cities, but it shouldn’t need to, yes?”
She frowned. “I really can’t get over how convenient it is that you have exactly what we need.”
Tang sighed. “Dimensional rabbits and cats are very popular pets, and arcanous dogs are often used as guard animals. This is actually one of the more common collars, after the generic. The only really stand-out feature is the growth component, but as most pets, and guard animals, are acquired very young, this is, again, not a rare feature.”
“What about the fact that you have collars at all?”
He lifted his hands in frustration. “Would you prefer I have barrels of ale, and not be able to help you?”
Tala frowned. No… “I’m sorry, Master Tang. I’m just suspicious of things that seem too good to be true.” She sighed. That has been happening a lot the last three weeks or so… “I apologize. Thank you.”
He smiled, seeming at least somewhat mollified. “I suppose I can understand that…If it makes you feel better: The collars are only one of about eight different types of artisan goods I’m taking with me.”
He gave her a flat look.
She smiled at that. “Fair enough.” She looked to Terry. The bird hesitated, seeming to examine the collar. “So, it doesn’t do anything outside of cities?”
“That’s right. Except stay on.”
“How often will it need to be recharged or re-inscribed?”
Tala cocked an eyebrow.
“It is more like an incorporator, for its basic functions. From what I’m told, it alters how the creature’s powers are perceived by city defenses. The resizing comes from the wearer’s own dimensional power once the item is worn and bonded. And the tether, for lack of a better word, works similarly.” He shrugged. “Most standard collars don’t need to be reinscribed or recharged because they only have that basic lens-like function. If this was a growth collar for a non-dimensional animal, that would be a different thing entirely.”
In truth, Tala had never studied such things, but it seemed plausible. “Alright… What happens if he tries to enter a city, and I’m nowhere around?”
“I’ve never seen that attempted myself, but I would bet that the city’s defenses would bar his entry or strike him down, depending on his persistence.”
Simple… The lensing effect again? Changing the incoming defenses to a forbidding? She was out of her depth…again. There are so many fine variations of magic items… She needed to finish reading the volumes she had available on the subject. After the anatomy refresher. “Fine…How much?” She was loathed to ask. She looked to Terry, again, as covertly as possible. The bird gave a slight bob.
“For this? At such a time of need? Five ounces, gold.”
And Tang’s earlier change of attitude suddenly made sense. The rusting… “Five? That’s insane!”
“Supply and demand, Mistress. You’ve a demand, and I’ve a supply. An unscrupulous man would charge you double that.”
He shook his head. “No, Mistress Tala. The price is five.”
Her eyes narrowed. “What would it cost in the city?”
“For this?” He held it up. “Honestly, if I sell it in Bandfast, I’ll get three or four ounces, gold. If I take it to a farther city, I’d get four and a half or five. I can get as much as six, with the right buyer.”
He didn’t really have a reason to lie, as he didn’t seem to have any interest in negotiating. She silently grimaced. He also basically admitted that I could buy it from him in Bandfast for three…
Terry flickered and was suddenly holding the collar. Tala’s eyes snapped to him, and Tang gasped as the transport seemed to activate something within the strip of leather.
The collar whipped out and wrapped around Terry’s neck, settling into place partially hidden by his feathers, down near his shoulders. The dark color of the leather blended nicely with his plumage.
Tala reached out to touch the collar feeling around the outside. No seam. It felt hungry, though, like her bound items, and without thinking, she fed it a trickle of power.
Tang stood there, open mouthed, as a tendril of power locked onto her, and she knew the dual magic bond was complete, her to the collar, and the collar to Terry.
Tala looked up to Tang. “So, if you want, I can cut it off of him. Otherwise… you said three gold ounces, right?”
Tang’s eyes widened further, anger clearly beginning to build within the man. “Now look here. You just stole that from me! You can’t steal a pie, wolf it down, and then offer to give it back if the baker doesn’t agree to a lower price.”
He had a point. Rust it. “Fine. Four.”
Tang opened his mouth, clearly going to reject her offer, if not call for the guards, but neither of them had noticed Trent approaching. “Master Tang.” The Mage placed a hand on the older man’s shoulder. “What seems to be the problem?”
Tang turned on the man. “Master Trent, Mistress Tala just stole from me, then willfully bonded the item without purchasing it.”
“I heard and saw. The bird snatching a bit of leather you dangled before it is quite expected, as you likely knew.”
Tang cleared his throat and glanced away.
“You are right, though, that Tala chose to bond with the item. But that likely simply stole a bargaining chip you’d hoped to employ. How much were you planning to charge her to not bond the collar yourself?” He gave Tang a hard look. “Trying to steal her hatchling, were you?”
Tala frowned. That makes no sense. Collar or no, Terry wouldn’t have gone with him…except, he believes Terry is a hatchling, and bet that either I’d pay up, or he could take over training Terry, himself.
Tang shook his head. “That is a silly accusation.” Maybe, he’s right… It doesn’t seem likely to have worked…
Trent cocked an eyebrow. “Then, how about we end this in good faith. She pays you four gold ounces, and everyone walks away.”
Tang began to object, but Trent gave him a hard look. “That is plenty of profit for you, Master Tang. You know that it is.”
The older Mage closed his mouth, clearly still unhappy. “Fine.” He pulled out a small stone tablet and made a few alterations before pricking his finger and confirming his side of the transaction. “Here.”
He held it out to Tala, and she saw that it was for a transfer from a buyer’s account to his, in the amount of four ounces, gold.
Tala let out a defeated sigh. “Fine.” Then, she confirmed the transaction. The tablet flickered green, then went blank.
Tang grumbled at her for a moment after taking the stone slate back, then stalked off.
Trent was shaking his head. “Well, at least I know, now, why he was being so out of character.”
Tala was afraid to ask, but she did anyways. “How much should this have cost?” She lightly touched the collar.
“Hmmm? Oh, three or four gold is a reasonable, if higher-end, price. He was hoping for five, clearly. I don’t know if he was actually going to try to extort more if your hatchling had bonded the collar before the sale, but I wouldn’t put it past him.”
“That’s… he didn’t seem like that much of…”
Trent shrugged. “Then, maybe not. From what I know of him, he is genuinely fascinated by arcane creatures, so that wasn’t an act, but he is also obsessed with building his fortune. He’s given up studying or improving magically, and simply plays the trader.”
“Is it working?”
“Don’t know, don’t really care.”
She smiled. “Fair enough. Thank you, Master Trent.”
“Happy to help, Mistress Tala.”
She hesitated a moment, then smiled, giving Trent a nod. “Goodnight.”
Without another word, they each turned towards their respective beds.
* * *
Tala woke, late in the night, suppressing her own screams.
She’d learned to scream silently through her years at the academy. Most people were sympathetic the first time you woke from a nightmare, screaming, but after a few weeks of near-nightly wails?
No one had patience for that.
Why are you back… She couldn’t even muster the strength to be properly irritated. The nightmare was always the same, always stupid and childish.
Her parents pushing her under a falling ledger.
That was it.
Oh, there was usually variation in the buildup. Sometimes, the family, now faceless with years to forget details, would go to a park for a picnic before the falling ledger would appear. She would try to escape with her family, and her father would trip her, leaving her behind.
Or, they’d be climbing a tower, and he’d push her out a window as the ledger swept past.
Or, she’d be watching her younger siblings, and her mother would rush in to snatch the young ones from her arms before scurrying away just in time for the wall to shatter, the book coming through to crush Tala.
It’s the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard of… But she still woke screaming, silent or not.
She wiped a stray strand of hair from her face. I thought I escaped these… Perhaps, it was the contemplations of her debt that had returned the dream. Idiot. I can’t plan a way out from under the debt, if I can’t think about it…
With a groan, she stood and moved off the roof, leaving Terry asleep atop her bedroll.
She checked the sky, verifying that it was sometime after midnight. Good enough.
She charged the twenty cargo-slots with ease, her work and practice obviously paying off, even given her tired mind.
After the short bit of work, she still wasn’t quite far enough removed from the dream to ensure she wouldn’t return to it if she fell back asleep. Returning to the dream was worse, by far.
She would be trapped, unable to move, barely able to breathe under the suffocating weight of the ledger book.
Even so, she would hear her family going about their lives, out of sight, ignoring her whimpers, her pleas, for help.
She never woke from this part screaming. She felt lucky to wake at all. The dream would continue uninterrupted, forcing her to live every minute of it, crushed by the weight of their indifference, until dawn woke her.
I hate them. She drew her knife and strained against her gate, rage and hate and hope and desperation fueling her.
The blade of the knife liquified, slowly flowing outward to form the hair thin outline of a sword blade. Almost…There…!
But that was as far as she could push it. There was no satisfying click as she passed the threshold to ignite the aura within the blade, though she suspected it would still cut.
In anger, she strode towards a nearby rock formation and swung an enraged horizontal slash.
The sword passed the rock, and nothing happened. She felt no resistance; she felt nothing at all.
Her anger sputtered, and her gate closed marginally, removing the flow-rate required. The knife shrank back into its resting form.
She sheathed the knife and kicked the base of the stone. Nothing happened.
Well, there goes that hope. Some part of her had imagined the rock sliding apart, her cut having been so perfect that the stone didn’t move until disturbed. That’s what you get from hoping…
Still, she was focused on the rock, causing her mage-sight to activate.
As it did, she blinked in shock. What?
She could see power flowing through the stone, as it did in all things in the wilds.
That flow was broken.
In the rock, where she had cut, the flows of magic no longer connected. The tendrils of power had been routed around the line, stretching deep within the stone, and new patterns had developed.
It cut the magic? That made no sense. If you actually broke a flow of magic, power would burst forth, doing who knows what. So, what then?
She looked closer and saw a hair thin line in the rock, only visible to her enhanced senses because her mage-sight told her precisely where to look. It did cut the rock? No, no material had been removed…
Her eyes widened. A blade with no appreciable width. Her blade hadn’t been long enough to cut all the way through the rock formation, so there was no way for the stone to move, but she had cut it perfectly. The upper piece was now resting on the lower.
Well, rust me through. She looked at the knife at her hip and smiled. “Nicely done.” She patted the handle. “I think we’ll get good use out of you, soon enough.”
She pulled herself back to the present and looked around at the night landscape. “But not now…Now, I need to rest.”
It had been long enough.
She crawled back into her bedroll and gazed at the stars through the light cloud cover, overhead.
Her last thoughts weren’t promising, as she drifted off to sleep, I feel like I’m forgetting something important…
Even so, blessedly, the dream did not return.