As Tala and Rane walked, to catch up with the caravan, several mounted guards came by to check in with Rane, to ensure that all was well.
He sent them off quickly to report Tala’s return and to confirm there were no threats approaching from the rear, before returning his attention to Tala’s abbreviated tale.
As word traveled through the caravan, the wagons slowed just slightly, the need for haste seemingly negated by her return.
I’ll have to apologize to Den for the trouble. Rane, for his part, kept a bit of distance, clearly still affected by the smell. I guess it’s grown gradually, so I’ve gotten used to it? As she focused on the possibility of a smell, she was suddenly hit with it, her mind allowing the sense through the dampening that it had been providing. She gagged. “Oh, that’s foul.”
Rane rolled his eyes. “Oh, now you smell it.”
Where could the smell be coming from. Where is it coming from? A moment’s thought provided the only logical explanation. “It’s my hair.”
Rane gave her an odd look. “What?”
“My hair is likely what smells.” She pulled out her knife, stopping her forward movement to carefully run the razor-sharp blade over her scalp in several quick strokes.
She felt a drain on the ending-berry power within her as the action should have left her bleeding, but her skin was protected and the knife was sharp, so the hair fell away quickly.
Before she allowed the vanity inscriptions to activate, she pulled out her water incorporator and fed it a large stream of power to gently rinse the residue from her scalp, and down her back.
Terry grumbled indignantly, flickering away and back so quickly Tala barely caught it, but he was then clean.
That complete, she put the knife and incorporator away and dried her head with a handful of rags, then stepped away from the hair she’d left on the ground. “Better?”
Rane leaned closer, sniffing. After a moment, he smiled. “Yes! You don’t smell like a careless mortician, now.”
She allowed her power to move across her scalp, and new hair blossomed outward, reaching its proper length in moments. She shook her head and ran her fingers through the hair, helping it settle naturally into place. She smiled. “You know, that does feel better. Thank you.”
Rane shrugged, and they started walking again. “It’s sounding like you had quite the night.” He snorted a laugh. “Morning too, it seems.”
“Too true.” She continued her retelling, then, shortly reaching the end of her story. She left Terry out of it, mostly, simply stating that he helped, without giving specifics. After a moment, she nodded to herself. “Let’s still go to the chuckwagon. I’m positively starving!”
Brand greeted her at the back of the chuckwagon with a surprisingly fervent embrace.
He released her, pulling back to arm’s length but maintaining his hands on her shoulders. “Mistress Tala. I’m so glad that you are alright. What possessed you to run off like that?”
“I didn’t run off. I was snatched from the top of the wagon by a massive bird.”
He stared at her for a long moment, before clearing his throat. “You’re joking.” He glanced to Rane, and the big man shook his head. Brand looked back to her. “You’re not joking?”
A confused expression stole across his features, and he turned to more fully face Rane. “How did no one hear her get taken?”
Rane looked a bit abashed. “Well, while we do watch the skies, it isn’t our only task, and anyone high enough, during the hours of darkness, is tied to a wagon in some form or other, to prevent things exactly like this.”
Brand turned back to Tala. “That’s right. I thought you slept under a shield or something. How did this happen?”
It was Tala’s turn to feel a bit embarrassed, and she scratched the back of her neck absently. “Well… I sort of fell out of the habit…”
Brand shook his head and gave a great sigh. “Then, I am even more grateful that you are alive.” After a moment, he narrowed his eyes at her. “You didn’t bring in some insane amount of meat for processing, did you?”
Rane made a quiet choking sound, but otherwise didn’t comment.
Tala laughed. “No, no. I wasn’t exactly in a place to properly harvest.” She felt Terry stir on her shoulder, but she didn’t look at him. “No consumables. I’m sorry, Brand.”
He waved that away. “We couldn’t have done much with it in any case. I’ve another project that is filling all our spare time.” His eyes flicked to Rane once more before returning to Tala. “So, I imagine you’re hungry?” He began moving about the chuckwagon, even while Tala and Rane waited on the back step. “Coffee too, yes?”
Tala nodded gratefully. “I would appreciate anything you can spare.”
“Absolutely! I’ll bring the food to your wagon.” He paused long enough to turn towards them and make a shooing gesture. “Go! I’ve work to do.”
Tala grinned before closing the door and hopping down with Rane. “Well, I’ve got to go talk with Den.”
She gave him a perplexed look. “Aren’t you on rear-guard?”
He shrugged. “I can get it changed.”
“Would Master Tang approve?”
He grinned. “I’m technically head Mage Protector for the guard, on this expedition. The only one to outrank me, under specific circumstances, would be you.” He hesitated. “Well, you or the Head Driver, but he’s not a Mage.”
She frowned for a moment. “Right…”
He shrugged. “If you didn’t have cause to think of it, then it likely wouldn’t have applied.”
“Fair enough. Isn’t it only in cases pertaining to the integrity of the cargo?”
“Generally, yeah. Many baggage Mages use that to leverage a say in the route, or so I was warned.” They were walking towards the lead wagon, and Rane grabbed the attention of a passing guard, sending her to inform the other Mages of the change in roster.
“So, how’d you get first chair?”
“First…Oh! Orchestra metaphor?”
Tala frowned, again. “Wait, really?”
Rane chuckled. “Yeah. Didn’t you know?”
“No. It was a common saying at the academy. Never really thought about where it came from.”
“Huh. Kind of stupid to say things when you don’t know what they mean.”
She cocked an eyebrow, giving him a level look. “Pretty stupid to say insulting things when you are trying to get on someone’s good side.”
He hesitated, then slumped slightly. “Apologies, Mistress Tala. I often don’t…feather my opinions.”
“I’ve noticed.” But she was smiling, and that seemed to lighten the admonishment.
He sighed. “Still want an answer?”
She shrugged. “I’m curious, yeah.”
“Part of it is Master Grediv, but mostly I think it was due to my much greater combat experience.” He shrugged in turn. “Around a decade of fighting to stay alive will do that, I suppose.”
“So… did Master Grediv just…throw you to the wolves?”
Rane snorted a laugh. “Sort of. Once I was ‘passingly competent for a child’ he began dropping me beside people in danger and leaving me to fight in order to save them.”
Tala’s eyes widened. “That’s horrible! How could he leave innocents under the protection of a child?”
He grinned. “I’ll try not to be insulted, but he didn’t. He always stepped in, if things got out of hand, or if I was in danger of losing someone.” His grin slipped. “Well…until I became stubborn.”
“What do you mean?”
Rane took a long breath and sighed. “I became frustrated with what I saw as my lack of progress. So, I stopped trying, and he had to step in more and more. Eventually, I would just sit down and wait for him to arrive.” He sighed again. “Finally, he got sick of it, and swore that he’d never help me again. I called his bluff…but he wasn’t bluffing.” The last had come out barely above a whisper.
Tala could see deep sadness in Rane. “Rane?”
He shrugged. “It was a young family. I still don’t know why they were outside the walls. A blaze wolf had come through the pass and was starving, because it was suddenly near the bottom of the food-chain. A single, starving wolf… It ripped out the child’s throat and charred the parents before I realized that Master Grediv wasn’t coming…” He fell silent then, and they walked on, slowly drawing closer to the head of the wagon.
Tala didn’t speak, but she laid her hand on his shoulder.
Eventually, Rane took an especially deep breath and exhaled. “Master Grediv returned to find me covered in the wolf’s blood, the splattering scorching through me.” He gestured to his face. “I don’t even remember killing it, but I must have. I only remember horror, blood, and pain.”
The scars. She realized with surprise. I’d almost forgotten them. That was an almost humorous thought, because they were absurdly obvious, but it was hardly a humorous moment.
“He kept the wounds, or the pain, from killing me, but no more. He did something to preserve the family’s bodies. Once I had healed enough to walk, we returned, and he forced me to look at ‘what foolishness has done.’ ” Rane’s voice had taken on a deeper tone for the last, and he kept the clear imitation of Grediv’s voice as he continued. “ ‘This is the price of laziness, boy. This is the price of failure. I was clear that their defense was up to you. My hands are clean. You, and you alone, are responsible for the loss of more than a century of human-life-years, at the least.’ ” His voice returned to normal. “And he was right. I never shirked the duties, or the training, again.” A small smile crept back onto his face. “And I’ve never lost another person.” He straightened a bit, looking to her. “Until you.” His smile became a bit sad. “I cannot express how glad I am that you are back, but I must confess that much of that is selfish.” He gave a little self-conscious laugh.
She squeezed his shoulder, before letting go. “I think I can forgive you for that.” After a moment, she worked up the nerve to ask. “How old were you when…?”
Silence fell between them once more, and they finally closed the last of the distance to the ladder on the foremost cargo wagon. Tala pulled herself up, Rane close behind.
When she reached the top, Den was facing her, face painted with a broad, exuberant smile. “Mistress! I could kiss you, then slap you across that pretty face.”
Tala tilted her head in confusion, but found herself smiling, nonetheless. “Den, good to see you, too.”
“I thought you’d gone and gotten yourself killed.”
“It was a near thing, a couple of times.”
Den’s gaze shifted to one screaming of accusation. “You aren’t careful enough, Mistress. You promised me you would be more careful this trip.”
Rane reached the top of the wagon but moved towards the back to allow Tala and Den to talk. Tala thought she could still see lingering sadness in the big man.
“Now, what happened? Why weren’t you here this morning, and how are you back?”
Den doesn’t want or need the full story. “An arcanous raven snatched me from the wagon-top in the night. I fought, I won, I came back as quickly as I was able.”
“Hmmm…” He gave her a searching look. “That sounds true, but you must be leaving things out.”
“Yes, Den. That was a five second recounting of…twelve hours?”
He cocked an eyebrow at her. “Don’t get sassy with me, young lady.”
He hesitated, clearly torn.
Tala grinned, waving him off. “You are fine, Den. I don’t need propriety. I am grateful for your concern, but I’m fine. While I didn’t choose the encounter, I did make mistakes, and I will take better precautions in the future.”
Den grunted. “Very well…” He then shook himself and smiled. “I am glad to have you back in one piece.” He reached down and pulled up a rolled bundle. “It was obvious that you hadn’t left on purpose, when I found this.”
“My bedroll! Thank you, Den.” She took it, then gave him a quick, slightly awkward hug. “I appreciate you taking care of it.”
He waved her away, while clearly smiling happily. “It was nothing. Enjoy the rest of the day, Mistress. We’ll be arriving back in Bandfast in a few hours.” Den turned back to his task, hands returning to his reins, eyes to the rolling plains, ahead.
Brand brought a truly impressive tray of food less than an hour later, and she found herself devouring it with abandon.
Around that, Rane and she fell back into the routine of the day before. I got a reasonable amount of sleep. I can sleep more, tonight. Her body and mind protested, but she didn’t really feel like sleeping. Even so, she found both her magic and her spirit had been greatly stretched by her night’s stresses. Once she got a good night’s sleep, she thought she’d almost be ready for her next steps. Ever onward, towards Archon-hood! She shook her head. Or a break might be nice…
It was mid-afternoon when Trent climbed up the ladder and regarded her from a distance. “You don’t look like an undead.”
“Well, I’d have to die first.” She smirked back at him.
“Ahh, the worst ones don’t die first.”
She blinked at Trent, not understanding. “Ok. Explain.”
“If you don’t know, you don’t get to.”
“That seems needlessly…” she groaned, rubbing her face in irritation, “…exactly like everything else I’ve encountered.”
Rane cleared his throat. “He’s talking about liches.”
Tala frowned. Like the children's stories? Dark castles, undead armies, evil incarnate?
Trent gave Rane a deeply frustrated glance. “Master Rane. Has Master Grediv taught you nothing about containment of information?”
Rane shrugged. “Mistress Tala’s more likely to become one on accident, due to ignorance, than choose into it.”
Trent hesitated for a long moment. “…you make a good point.”
Tala felt vaguely insulted but decided not to make a case of it. He’s probably right... “So…?”
Trent sighed, walking to sit beside the two of them, out of easy hearing of Den. “So. A lich is made when someone binds their soul to an item, in order to seek a rusting foolish form of immortality.”
Tala blinked, blood draining from her face as she glanced down at her knife.
Trent was on his feet instantly, power blazing across his face as he stared at her knife. Immediately, he let out a rushed breath. “Mistress Tala. Don’t. Don’t do that to me.” He had his hand on his chest, and he returned to his seat.
Tala felt relieved, but also confused. “So… not like this?”
Trent shook his head. “No…No. While you have soul-bound that knife…somehow.” He rubbed his forehead. “Your oddities aside.... You bound that knife to your soul. If you were to die, the knife would lose its magics, and your soul would depart the world of the living. A lich is one who has bound their soul to an item. Thus, if their body dies, the soul goes to that item, instead. Usually, it is done in such a way that a new body is then created, and the lich continues on as if they haven’t just died.”
Rane cleared his throat. “To be clear, this is different than an Archon choosing a vessel for their physical form that is not their original body.”
Tala frowned, deeply confused. “I don’t know that I understood any part of what you just said.” She looked to Trent. “Well, I understood what you said.” She looked back to Rane. “What?”
Rane glanced to Trent, who was glaring, again. “Some Archons choose to bind themselves into constructs, leaving their human bodies behind. It is rare, and usually only done in cases of irreparably damaged bodies.”
“And that’s different from a lich, because…?”
“Because a lich’s soul is tied to an object, which is not their soul’s vessel. The object is an anchor for their soul in this world, not a body in which to live. That’s why there’s a different name for it.”
Trent grunted. “Usually, only Mages who are sent to kill a lich, when they’re discovered, are told these details.” He gave Rane a significant look. “That said, I agree with Master Rane. It is possible you might create a phylactery by accident…” He frowned. “You really shouldn’t have bound something to your soul before…” He hesitated. “But you wouldn’t know to do that…” He scratched feverishly between his own eyes, growling in irritation. “I’m not supposed to know about that…” He groaned. “Please, don’t do any other soul-bonds until you become an Archon? There are too many ways it can go wrong.”
Tala thought for a long moment. “I think I can do that.”
Trent looked up in surprise. “Really?”
Rane cocked his head, seeming curious. “Really?”
She glared at both of them. “I’m not in the habit of doing things that I know are stupid.” She continued before either could argue. “And enough sources have given me similar warnings that I’d be a fool not to listen.”
“Well, I agree but…” Rane began, but he tapered off as her glare renewed. “Fine, fine.”
Tala straightened. “Why do you know all this, Master Trent?”
He smiled. “I’ve been given the information by Master Grediv, mostly. He thinks I’m ready to advance, so I now also have the spell-form for an Archon star.” He gave her a grateful look. “Actually, I had a head start, after examining yours. I knew what to look for, to identify one, but I’d never had enough explained to create one. Seeing yours in person helped jumpstart my own process.”
“So, you’ve made one?”
Trent laughed. “Oh, by the stars, no. I hope to, sometime this winter, but I’m still at the start of that quest.”
Rane was frowning. “Didn’t you want to discover how, on your own?”
Trent shrugged. “Why let pride slow me down?”
Rane reddened, clearly with embarrassment, and Trent frowned.
Tala was grinning. “Read the letter, Master Rane.”
Rane grunted. “Fine. You people are infuriating.”
Trent gave Tala a confused look; so, she explained, “Master Grediv apparently gave Master Rane, there, a letter, which I believe explains exactly what we are discussing. He’s refused to read it.”
Trent turned on Rane. “Don’t be an idiot. You can’t advance with that level of pride, and your master says you’re ready.”
Rane had hunkered in on himself. “Fine. I’ll read it. Just leave me alone.”
Trent rolled his eyes, turning back to Tala. “But, that massive tangent aside. I’m glad you are alive and back with us.” His eyes were sparkling mischievously. “After all, losing a baggage Mage would have hurt our payout considerably.”
Tala laughed. “I’ll try to be more considerate next time.”
“You know, you’ve said that before…”
She hesitated. “That’s fair… I really don’t mean to keep getting into dangerous situations…”
Trent gave her a sad smile. “Oh, I know that. Even so, you’ve much to learn.”
Rane, for his part, begrudgingly pulled out a sealed envelope, broke the wax seal, drew forth a heavy stack of pages, and began to read.
Trent bid them goodbye and moved to climb down, heading back to his assigned post.
Tala realized that she’d forgotten to ask something. And Trent’s right here. “Oh! What’s with the magic wells in the wilds?”
Trent’s body froze, but his head swiveled, his eyes checking for anyone else who might be nearby. “Rust, girl. You don’t make anything easy.”