Tala was surprised by the weight of emotion in Trent’s response, but she didn’t comment. Let’s see what he’ll be willing to tell me about the wells of power in the wilds.
Den, for his part, turned to look at Trent. “Master Trent, you might as well tell her.”
Tala blinked, looking between the driver and the Mage. “Den? You know?”
He gave her a curious expression. “Of course, I know. I have to steer us around them, don’t I?”
She hadn’t considered that. “Are there that many?”
Den shrugged. “I’m not really sure. One or two for every ten square miles?”
Trent grunted. “At least.” He sighed, pulling himself back up onto the wagon’s roof. “Seems we’ll need to discuss this, too.”
Den helpfully held up something that looked like a compass, but with half a dozen needles pointing in various directions. “These point to nearby, non-mobile sources of power, the biggest needle points to the closest, and so on.”
Tala found herself nodding. “That’s how you avoid so many dangers.”
“Precisely, though, sometimes I wish that it would point out the mobile ones, too.” Den gave a meaningful look towards Terry. After a moment, Den shrugged, then waved absently towards Trent. “You can take it from here, Master Trent.”
Trent shook his head but was smiling even so. “Thank you, First Driver.”
The three Mages sat near the back of the wagon, once again.
“So, what do you know?”
Tala shook her head. “Oh, no. If I tell you that, you’ll refuse to tell me more. Explain the wells of power.”
Trent grunted irritably, rubbing his forehead.
Rane leaned back and gave Trent a serious look. “If you don’t tell her, I will.”
Trent’s gaze, back at Rane, was weary, more than anything else. “You know? Of course, you do. You spent years in the wilds.”
Rane shrugged. “They’re hard to miss, if you spend any time out here, undirected.”
Trent sighed, nodding. “That’s true enough.” He straightened, looking at Tala. “The wells are magical springs, which grant ingrained magic to any creature that touches them. I don’t know how the various magics are selected, nor why creatures get the same effects or different, seemingly at random. Some wells always grant the same, some never seem to give the same ability twice, according to what’s been shared with me.”
Tala was frowning. “But…that’s fantastic. Wouldn’t that remove the need for inscribing? What are we doing avoiding them?”
Trent shook his head, dampening her enthusiasm. “They can’t attach to anything with a soul, anything with true sapience.”
Tala looked to where Terry lay. “Then, how do you explain the more intelligent creatures?”
Trent shrugged. “Most seem to develop such intelligence either after receiving their gifts, or as a result. Again, I don’t know which. That intelligence, once acquired, however acquired, does mean that they cannot gain more.”
That made sense. If Terry could have been collecting various powers from these wells for hundreds of years, he should have a much broader power-set. Well, what Grediv said strongly implies that the magics can override one another. “Huh…”
“In addition, this is virtually only true for arcane creatures. Magical entities either get their power from elsewhere or gain enough power from elsewhere to advance. These wells only grant abilities that seem to closely mirror inscriptions, if not exactly.”
“And humans are sapient, so they can’t get…” Tala’s eyes widened. “Babies.”
“Babies.” Trent nodded. “Their soul isn’t fully established, they aren’t fully sapient, or something else, I don’t know, but occasionally, a baby would be able to gain power from such as these.”
She swallowed. “You say occasionally…”
“Maybe one in a thousand. The others die horribly, or so I was taught.”
Tala felt sick. “Some would see that as acceptable.”
He nodded, again. “For permanent power? Unfortunately, yes. And that’s why the powers that be don’t give the option.”
“You know, the more I learn about this world, the less I like it…what other horrors await me over the next hurdle?”
Trent shrugged, but Rane cleared his throat, deciding to answer, himself, “The evils of this world are too much for average citizens to grapple with. They aren’t directly affected, so they needn’t have the burden. Archons, and to a lesser extent Mages, are the bulwark of the common man’s defense, but even we can’t bear everything.”
Tala grimaced. “So, we’re left to stumble around blindly, until someone with the right knowledge notices that we should be told.”
Rane shrugged this time. “It isn’t a perfect system, but it has served to shepherd humanity for more than two thousand years. This policy has grown our species from around ten thousand hiding, scared savages to right around thirteen million, living in comfort and security.” He sighed. “I hate it too, but the world is such that one evil person, with the wrong information, could undo a lot of that progress. People just don’t need to know everything that’s out there.”
Tala was not happy, but she supposed she understood. If I’d known, as a child, that the right pattern of metal in my skin would let me throw fire, what would I have done, trying to gain that power? She shuddered. “ ‘We are but children, searching in a darkness full of knives.’ ”
Rane nodded, finishing the quote. “ ‘What good father would not remove the blades, that our fingers may be safe.’ ”
She shook her head. “Pruning the tree of knowledge still seems foolish.”
Trent interjected. “But it isn’t pruned. What teacher starts with calculus, when his five-year-old student begins to learn math?”
“But what good teacher says calculus does not exist, when an inquisitive student asks?”
Trent cocked an eyebrow. “Any who know to ask are told…generally.”
“So…what makes an Archon an Archon?”
He didn’t answer, directly. “You have an alchemist background. What would you say to a child who asks how to make an acid that can dissolve anything?”
“I wouldn’t say: Go mix things and see what happens.”
Trent grinned. “Have you not been told what to avoid? Even without a proper master?”
Rane frowned at that but didn’t comment.
Tala grumbled a bit but had to concede. “Fair, I suppose.” She let out an irritated sigh. “So… we really are still children.”
Trent and Rane spoke at the same time, both clearly quoting Grediv. “ ‘Archon is but the beginning.’ ” They then glanced to each other and grinned.
Tala nodded. “Well, then. I suppose we need to reach Archon.”
The expression on the two other Mages became solemn, and the men nodded.
“Well then, gents. It seems we’ve work to do.” She nodded to Trent. “Thank you, Master Trent. I wish you luck on your quest towards Archon.”
“And you yours.” He nodded to both of them, in turn, and departed.
Tala stood, moving through her stretches. If I’m going to spend the rest of the day making a star, I need to prevent cramps.
Rane, for his part, returned his attention to his letter from Grediv. As he read, he occasionally nodded, or shook his head. At a few points, he barked out laughs, followed by mutters to himself, which even Tala couldn’t hear.
As Tala finished her stretches and moved to a comfortable, seated position in the center of the wagon’s roof, she saw Rane upend the envelope.
A sapphire fell out.
It was the largest gem she’d ever seen, and her mage-sight provided details beyond what even her enhanced senses could distinguish. It was completely magically inert. It was a shaped gem, but she couldn’t discern any facets. Even so, she knew it was a sapphire., though it was smooth and rounded. I thought gems had to be facetted…
Rane held it up, eyes wide. “It’s huge!”
Tala cleared her throat. “So… how’d that fit in the envelope?”
He grunted. “Dimensional storage, only accessible twice.”
She gave him a deeply skeptical look. “Master Grediv found a one-use, envelope-shaped, dimensional storage item.”
“And he’s wasting it on you.”
She rolled her eyes. “You know what I mean.”
“Fine…” He huffed. “It’s highly temporary. It will only last another couple minutes or so, now that I’ve opened it.”
Tala stood, striding over and snatching the envelope.
She examined it. “By the rusting stars…” There were minute inscriptions embedded in the paper, with a more complex set woven through the wax seal. She couldn’t determine the metal, or the specifics of the spell-forms. They were simply too minute and too complex. “How would you even go about making something like this?”
Rane took it back from her, pulling it from her hands. “With great difficulty and expense.”
“Obviously, but you said you’d had that for years.”
He shrugged. “It would have lasted a lot longer, if I hadn’t opened it.”
She gave him an irritated stare. “So… how?” It clearly doesn’t have an ingrained power source or reservoir.
“How was your outfit made?”
“What? I’ve no idea.”
“But you’re wearing it. How can you not know every detail of its construction?”
She grunted, unhappily. “Fine. I’ll concede that you probably don’t know.” She growled in frustration. “More things I don’t understand.” She glanced back to the envelope. “Well, I understand some, but not…” Does it only use power to access a space, elsewhere? That would allow for the longevity… She huffed a breath. “It doesn’t matter. So, are you going to become an Archon, now?”
“Hmmm? Oh! No. I have to do quite a bit of practice, first, and I can’t be on assignment. There can be no chance of interruption, after I begin. I could not replace this if I failed.” He held up the gem. “This is a kindness, compared to a normal gem.”
“Well, because…” He hesitated. “You know what? I’ll tell you after you craft an Archon star as powerful as you need. Master Grediv told you what that threshold was, right?”
She nodded, dejectedly. “Yes…”
Rane tucked the gem away. “Well, I, for one, am going to practice. What about you?”
“Yeah… I am too.” She returned to her seat. Last time I reached almost 10% of my goal with four hours and a mistake. She nodded to herself. “I need a baseline.” She centered herself and began to shape her power. Let’s see what I can do with an hour.
* * *
An hour later, her exhaustion had become manifest. I’m glad I wasn’t planning on doing this for longer.
She pulled back her defensive powers, pricked her finger with a non-magical knife, and caught the drop of blood, containing the Archon star, in an empty iron vial. I suppose I could use glass vials… might be cheaper? She actually had no idea if it would be less expensive.
She maintained her focus, letting the power of her regenerative inscriptions activate to heal the small cut. Then, and only then, did she allow herself to relax.
Nicely done, Tala. No slips, no mistakes, just good, solid work. She focused on the drop within. She had dedicated her entire flow of power into the spell-form for an hour, doing her utmost to open her gate as wide as possible. This was the result.
A drop of power spun furiously without seeming to move. Her mage-sight locked onto it easily, partially because it was ‘new’ to her.
Her jaw dropped. There is no way.
The Archon star before her was half as strong as the one she’d made most recently, despite taking a quarter of the time.
She looked up to see Rane sending thin streams of his power out, between his hands. He obviously couldn’t control the power, once it was out, but he seemed to be doing something to cause the magic to twist and curl around itself, between his hands, after he released it.
Something in her voice must have come across strangely, because he was up and standing over her with surprising speed, the power he’d been working with harmlessly distributed into the air. I guess he was using little enough to not be easily detectable. “Mistress Tala?”
Tala cleared her throat. Right…decorum, and focus. “Master Rane. How quickly should a Mage’s flow-rate increase?”
He seemed to relax, moving a bit away and settling back down, sitting and facing her. “You got a boost, eh?”
She nodded. “Much more than I really should have. My power accumulation seems nearly double the last time I tested in this way.”
“Well, you have been practicing more dynamically. That can help.” He held up a hand to forestall her. “That said: Life or death battles push Mages farther than anything else…assuming they survive. I’m guessing there were a few times that you had to utilize your magic-flow to stay alive?”
She nodded. “To use my weapon, yes. Every bit of increased flow through my gate allowed me to use it longer without exhaustion.”
He nodded in turn. “That kind of thing changes you at a deep level.” He quirked a smile. “That’s why Master Grediv had me in almost constant battle for most of my training.”
“So…your gate is a city gate beside most Mages' trap doors?”
He laughed. “Not quite.” After a moment’s hesitation, though, he nodded. “If you exclude Archons? I suppose that’s accurate enough. I can refill my reserves from empty in…two minutes?” He seemed to consider. “Yeah, that seems about right.”
“That doesn’t tell me much…”
“Oh! Well, my current power density is gold, by the inscriber’s scale, and I’m quite a bit bigger than you. So…”
She laughed in turn. “I hadn’t actually considered body size.”
“I’d guess you were tested for density, given your type of inscriptions. Assuming I understand them. It’s pretty irritating not being able to see them working.”
“Yeah. Mistress Holly tested my density.”
After an expectant moment, Rane prodded. “And?”
“Off the scale. She said it was in Archon ranges.”
Rane’s eyes widened. “That shouldn’t be possible.”
Tala shrugged. “It’s nothing more than a deeper lake, right?”
“Yes, Tala, it is. The human body shouldn’t be able to handle that level of power. There’s a cap. How are you still alive?”
She found herself smiling. “You know, now that I think about it, the inscriber asked a similar question.”
“So…what? Does it take you ages to refill from empty?”
She shrugged. “Something like that. I think around three or four hours, last time I was foolish enough to let it happen.” When I made the star before this one…
Rane seemed shell shocked, and he took a moment or gather himself. “Tala…” Then, he caught himself. “Mistress Tala.”
“An untrained child should be able to refill my reserves in less than an hour, if such a thing were possible.”
“You are hardly untrained.”
“Again, I ask: So?”
“You have a terrifying amount of power within you, if what you say is even half-way correct. I’m even accounting for the fact that most of your inflow is likely being siphoned away by your body’s currently-active inscriptions.”
She shrugged. “Hasn’t done me too much good.”
He cocked an eyebrow. “Have your spells ever failed?”
“No. Why does that…”
“Whether a spell grabs hold can be a function of the amount of power behind the working. That’s why Mages use secondary effects to attack anything of unknown power, or of a tier higher than they are.”
She thought back to the midnight fox. Trent, Atrexia, and Renix threw attacks, but hadn’t tried to affect the beast directly. She had. She had locked onto the beast, if poorly, and had directly affected it. “Huh…”
“You’re remembering something.”
“I think I know what you mean. I altered a fundamental property of a red-auraed creature.” She shook her head. “A Bound entity, though that ranking still seems odd…”
“That’s…that’s impressive, Mistress Tala.”
She let out a long breath. “So, it would seem.” She frowned. “It didn’t seem like it took more power than usual.”
Rane shook his head. “It wouldn’t, unless it was actively defended against the particular magics you used. It’s more about the weight of power behind the working.” He grunted irritably. “I’m not explaining it well.”
She shrugged. “So, my power density is high. I knew that. My flow rate is growing quickly, and does so even more quickly when I’m fighting for my life?”
“That’s the gist of it.” After a moment’s hesitation, he added, “Expect your gate to shrink, again, in the coming days. You will still have an increase, when it’s all said and done, but not this great.” He smiled. “It’s only been, what? Eighteen hours or so?”
“Yeah. Hmmm… I might need to be attacked more often…” Tala smiled and winked at Rane. I need to competently defend myself more often, is more like it.
Rane opened his mouth to answer, frowning, but at that moment, a call came from beside the wagon. “Mistress Tala?”
Ashin climbed up the ladder, a wide grin on his face. “You are alive! I knew we’d slowed, but I couldn’t get a straight answer, while I was on duty.” He pointed a thumb over his shoulder. “I just got off and thought I’d come check.”
She smiled. “Yep. Still in one piece.”
“Short version? An evil, black, flying chicken snatched me up in the middle of the night-”
Rane muttered under his breath. “Nightwing Raven.”
She ignored him. “Brought me back to some other evil chickens.”
“I killed them and came back.” She hesitated. “Some electric chickens ambushed me when I was almost back. Killed them too.”
Ashin, it seemed, had heard Rane, because he glanced to the large Mage, waiting for an explanation.
“Lightning terror birds, I think. Mistress Tala, are all birds chickens to you?”
She shrugged. “Not Terry…well, I did think of him that way at first…so, only those I don’t like or don’t know?”
Ashin was smiling, still. “Well, I’m glad you’re alive. It sounds like you aren’t really up for sparring today, though. I can’t blame you.” That seemed to trigger a memory. “Oh! Adam asked me to give this to you.” He searched for a moment, then pulled out a folded piece of paper, holding it out to her.
Tala took it, unfolding it to reveal a map of a portion of Bandfast. A red arrow had been drawn, pointing at the Guardsmen’s main compound, and ‘Please arrive as soon after dawn as your duties allow.’ was written across the bottom.
Tala looked up, eyebrow cocked, and Ashin explained. “We’ve several training grounds throughout the city, and he wanted to be sure the two of you would show up to the right one.” He gestured to include Rane. Then, he returned his attention to her. “He said he’s glad you’re alive, by the way.”
She grunted. “Well, thank you, I suppose?”
Ashin smiled, turning to go. “I’ve got to gather my gear, and it seems that I’ve time to win back some pay tokens, before we arrive in Bandfast. I suppose I’ll see you, tomorrow, if not before.”
“Seems so. Take care, Ashin.”
“And you as well, Mistress.”
He had just departed, and Tala had just picked her book back up, not up for another Archon star, when she heard another voice. “She’s alive!?!”
Tala glanced at Rane, who shrugged. “Mageling Renix was acting as forward scout.”
Renix practically flew up the ladder, stopping at the top to stare.
“Hello, Renix.” She smiled.
“Mistress Tala…” He froze there for a long moment.
“Can I help you?” She hadn’t closed the book.
“Regrettably, no. I’m simply the result of a collective hallucination. Brand really should learn not to add strange mushrooms to his meals.”
Tala saw Rane shift and glanced his way. She grinned when she saw his face.
Renix was frowning.
She stood, stowing the notebook and walking over to give Renix a platonic hug. “Yes, Renix. I’m alive.”
He returned the hug, the frown never leaving his face. “You know, we looked for you, as long as they would let us.” He glared at Rane.
Rane held up his hands. “We had a time-limit. I’d planned on coming back out to search, once the caravan arrived, but…” He shrugged. “I didn’t give you good odds.”
Tala looked back and forth. “Did you two have a fight?”
Den snorted a quiet laugh from the driver’s seat but didn’t turn around.
Rane grunted. “No. I gave an instruction, and he threw a tantrum.”
Renix reddened. “Excuse me?!” She saw power building within the younger man, seemingly subconsciously.
Tala held up her hands. “Woah, there, Renix.” She waved her hands, drawing Renix’s eyes back to her. “Renix, thank you for your concern. Master Rane is in charge of getting the caravan safely to Bandfast. He had to prioritize that.”
“And if you’d been dying nearby? Just beyond our last, quick sweep?”
She hesitated, then sighed. “Then, I’d be dead. But that isn’t a justification, either way. The person you’re searching for could always be just one rise over, or they could be fine, already heading to meet up with you further down the trail.” She gestured to herself. “Like I was.”
She then glanced to Rane. “As for you. You don’t need to be so condescending.”
Rane opened his mouth to object, but hesitated, shrugged, and turned his attention back to his book with a nod. “Fair enough.” He did not apologize.
Renix glared at the top of Rane’s head for a long moment before turning his attention back to Tala. “Well… I’m glad you’re ok.”
“Me too.” She smiled. “Truly, thank you for the concern.”
Renix smiled at that, then shrugged and glanced away. “We have to take care of our own, right? Humanity needs all of us.” He glanced at Rane and sighed. “I do need to get back to my position. I’m to sweep the left side of the caravan, until we reach Bandfast.”
He waved, and climbed back down, out of sight.
There. Now, hopefully everyone knows I’m back.