Tala whiled the rest of the afternoon away in what had become the usual fashion.
There were quite a few arcanous encounters, scattered around the wagon train, but Rane wasn’t needed, let alone Tala. She was sorely tempted to investigate, whether for harvest or just to get involved, but wisdom won out. My defensive inscriptions are mostly shot, after all.
So, pragmatism won out.
It was a surprisingly peaceful afternoon, all things considered, and Tala felt tensions that she hadn’t noticed slowly releasing, as her body seemed to finally realize that the danger of the previous night was over.
Finally, as sunset was approaching, the lead wagon crested a slight rise, and Tala looked up to see Bandfast, laid out below them.
While they had initially departed towards the south, when she’d left Bandfast, they were now arriving from almost due east.
From her vantage, among the outlying, now-abandoned mining districts, Tala looked upon the concentric rings of defense, keeping the humans within safe from the dangers of the wilds. She had to shake her head at her own thoughts. The mining districts are gone. Though the wilds lacked the power of those around Alefast, they had still reclaimed the territory, once held by the mining areas, so thoroughly that Tala couldn’t see any indication of the previous operations.
Though, now that she thought about it, her mage-sight was detecting…something. It was far too faint for even her enhanced sight to truly ‘see,’ but she still felt a pulling. As she concentrated, she was able to detect that the pull wasn’t on her, per se, it was on her inscriptions and the metal they contained. Something is drawing precious metals down, into the ground around the city?
She tried to look deeper, to sense more, but didn’t get anything further. Why didn’t I sense anything like this when leaving? Or around Alefast?
Had she just been too otherwise preoccupied? It was a very minute feeling. Maybe, I’m just imagining it. But that seemed wholly unsatisfying.
She sighed, returning her focus to the inhabited part of Bandfast, as a whole.
It was an interesting contrast, having just come from Alefast: Where Alefast was a single ring, with high walls, and powerfully active defenses, Bandfast was a many-tiered, defensive structure with sprawling agricultural development, stretching for more than a mile past the outermost wall. The land was lush, even now in autumn. The surrounding defensive towers ensured that it wasn’t really the countryside, but it was far from urban.
Alefast had had what appeared to be old-growth forests pressed hard against the walls. Bandfast faded almost seamlessly into the surrounding, rolling plains.
To her mage-sight, Alefast had blazed with power, seeming under constant assault by the magic-dense environment around it. Bandfast looked almost undefended, with tendrils of relatively weak magic lazily flowing in, towards the city, and being absorbed by the city’s spell-form networks.
If I didn’t know better, I would assume that Bandfast was the ancient city, and Alefast the new outpost for humanity. We build up in small ways, but the world is constantly trying to break us down.
The young city had a vibrancy, an expectancy, a sense of hope and life. Incredible.
Even though it made no sense, it also felt like home.
I’ve spent more time with Trent than with Lyn or Holly. But she found herself excited to see them, nonetheless. The inn in Alefast had accommodations more comfortable than her room in Lyn’s house, but she was looking forward to sleeping there tonight, even so.
We are a strange lot, humans. She found herself smiling, contentedly.
The wagon started down the far side of the hill, approaching the outer defensive towers.
Rane walked up to stand beside her. “So, this is home?”
“It is.” It really is.
He nodded. “It’s big.”
She glanced his way. “Is Alefast the only city you’ve been to?”
“Yeah.” He shifted a bit. “The air here feels…weak.”
“Low magic density.”
He grunted. “Feels strange…”
“It’s been this way since we came through the pass.”
“But it’s worse, here.”
She thought about it, examining the area around. He was right, of course. With all the area’s power being drawn into the city’s spell-workings, it left very little free floating. None, within the city. That made Tala frown. “Aren’t you used to being within the city proper?”
“Yeah, of course. I wasn’t in Alefast often, but it wasn’t that rare.”
“There’s no power, there.”
He grinned. “None in the air, but the deeper layer, that’s still power-laden. That’s what artifacts feed on, within the city.”
She frowned. “Is that enough?”
He shrugged. “I’m not an item expert. All I know is the feel of Alefast is not one of starvation… It’s like a beach as compared to a desert. Similar if you look closely, but the wider view gives context and reveals how different they really are.”
Tala found herself nodding. “I think that makes sense.” It certainly lined up with how it had felt to her. Great… I’m going to have to feed my items more often. That in mind, she went through the process of doing just that, filling the reservoirs of each item bound to her. The knife didn’t need a top off, but she poured into it, nonetheless, increasing its capacity by a fraction.
She’d been tending to her items off and on, but it was good to top them off, before they entered the city proper.
Terry appeared on her shoulder, shifting nervously as they came abreast with the outer towers. That reminded her of his collar, and she placed her hand on that, filling the reserves in her portion of the strange, dual-bonded item. Let’s not forget that. The other half didn’t need power. Tang said even my half wouldn’t need re-inscribing… Might be worth asking the Constructionist about that.
Tala felt the hard line of distinction as they passed the outermost ring.
Terry, for his part, shivered slightly, and his collar began glowing subtly to her mage-sight.
Tala had been watching closely, and no attacks came their way, no nearby towers triggered to drive Terry back, and he continued, unmolested, atop her shoulder.
She grinned. “Well, Terry, it seems that you’re welcome, here.”
The terror bird stood up taller, stretching his flightless wings and reaching his head towards the sky.
Then, he vanished. The sudden loss of weight caused Tala to sway, almost losing her balance. She had been able to track Terry, and he stood some hundred feet away, stalking alongside the caravan.
She could feel a pull towards him. It wasn’t a physical thing, so much as a certain knowledge of exactly where Terry was. It also wasn’t like her sense about where her knife rested, not a knowledge of ‘self.’ Interesting. Thinking of the knife reminded her that she needed to name it, but other things were more pressing, at the moment.
Terry’s collar was now glowing to normal vision, clearly a warning yellow in color. Terry was looking down, obviously trying to observe the glow as he prowled further away.
The color moved through the spectrum to red, and it seemed to begin vibrating slightly. Though how she knew that, she couldn’t have guessed.
As he moved, Tala felt the sense of his location grow stronger, though not with proximity. It was more like a different type of warning, delivered directly through her magic-bond to the collar. Terry bobbed, as if to himself, and vanished, reappearing on Tala’s shoulder.
The collar lost its visible glow, stopped vibrating, and seemed to calm, once more. Though, it still had a power to it, in Tala’s mage-sight.
“Done testing your tether?”
He paused for a moment, then shook himself.
“Fair enough, I suppose.” She looked away from Terry and saw Rane regarding them. “Yes?”
“It will be interesting to see how that works out.” He gestured to her and Terry. “I wouldn’t want to fight him, and I suspect I don’t fully understand all he can do. Terror birds are powerful, Mistress, and that’s before they become arcanous. Be careful. The fact that he was able to go through a well, or more than one, so young?” He shook his head slowly. “He is more dangerous than we realize.”
Oh, you have no idea. “Thank you for the warning. I’ll keep it in mind.”
Farmers were closing out the day in the fields as the wagon train passed, now on a clear, well-maintained road. The caravan guards and farmers exchanged greetings, both via waves and with words. Some of the farmers seemed to know some guards personally, and a few longer exchanges took place around them, as they continued.
Everyone had relaxed, now that they were within city defenses, though not all wagons had made the transition, yet.
Tala turned to look back, and again, noticed how the human-made road ended in an almost crisp line at the edge of the tower’s defensive formation. That used to continue, connecting the mines to the rest of the city. It had been reclaimed.
As she surveyed the caravan, she was reminded of the battle she’d witnessed two nights previous, even if just at a distance. Or was it three nights ago? She sighed. Doesn’t matter. If the reforged entity attacked Bandfast, would the defenses hold? She had no idea if the spell-forms were capable of resisting anything in the Archon power range, and she hoped to never find out.
Rane cleared his throat, resting a hand on her shoulder. “Tala-” He seemed to catch himself. “Mistress Tala?”
“Hmm?” She turned to face him.
“Are you alright?” He didn’t remove his hand.
“I was just wondering if this city would survive an attack from a reforged beast…”
Rane’s hand tightened, slightly, before releasing. “There are Archons within the city who would rise up to face such a threat, but…” He looked away, out over the fields, letting his hand fall from her shoulder. “These outer defenses were not designed to repel such a danger. Master Grediv hammered that point home, clearly. ‘City defenses can only defend against the expected level of threat, for the given ring.’ ” He shook his head. “If that happened, the outer rings would burn, and only the innermost would put up any form of resistance. If it happened at night, most of the populace would survive, to be rescued when possible. During the day?” He gestured.
“It would be a slaughter.”
Rane shook his head, solemnly. “No, a slaughter implies violence. These outer defenses would do nothing against such a being. The people would simply cease to exist, instantly. Unless the attacker had other plans for them.”
Rane shook his head. “That isn’t for me to share.” He smiled ruefully. “You really need to be raised to Archon.”
She grinned. “Yeah. I’m going to be getting the remainder of my inscribings, soon. After that, I’ll have time to train and, hopefully, advance.” She turned to him, only to find the other Mage open-mouthed and staring. “What?”
“You aren’t fully inscribed?”
She shrugged. “No.” She frowned. “I thought you knew that.” I’m pretty sure I told him…Right? Maybe that was Renix and Trent…
“No. No, I did not know. How are you this incredibly…still alive, while being unfinished?”
She laughed. “I’ll try not to be insulted.” She shrugged, again. “My inscriptions are bent almost entirely to defense, surviving is half the battle.” She grinned.
“More than half, honestly…” He was nodding. “But, why not? Why aren’t you fully inscribed?”
“I didn’t have the funds for a full set of inscriptions. Now, I do.”
“Not have the…What? That’s ridiculous. How can you not have enough to properly equip yourself?” His face was the picture of consternated confusion.
“By being poor, Master Rane.”
He opened his mouth, then closed it. A moment later, he opened it again, then closed it.
“I’ve rendered you speechless? Maybe my powers are complete.”
He snorted a short laugh, a small smile returning. “But you have the funds, now?”
Something in his tone made her wary, but she didn’t want to lie. “I do. I mean, I’m not flush, or anything, but I can pay for what I need.”
He shrugged. “I could give you some.”
She blinked at him. “Master Rane. I don’t really think…” She didn’t really know what to say. “I appreciate it, but any reasonable amount wouldn’t change my finances very much.”
“A thousand ounces, gold?”
She stiffened. Mistress’s offer to become a soul-bound servant. She had no reason to believe he was asking for such from her, but the amount was too much of a coincidence.
Den, who had apparently been quietly listening to their conversation, barked a laugh. “Take it! Take it and run, Mistress.”
Den’s interjection allowed Tala to refocus, and she shook her head. “No, Master Rane. That wouldn’t be right. I’d be all but a slave to you. I can’t easily repay that kind of money.”
He shrugged. “I have very little use for it right now, and it isn’t that much, in the scale of cities.”
How wealthy is his family? “No. Thank you.” She felt the fleeting relaxation bleeding away from her, and she pulled inward hugging her arms to her chest. Even if I didn’t sign a contract, I would be in his debt forever. She almost laughed. It might be worse without a formal obligation. She’d simply owe him, forever. She shook her head. I can’t. No. That…That isn’t right.
Rane was giving her a quizzical look. “Is it too much? I probably don’t actually have that much, in truth. I’ve not really had to do many purchases…ever, I suppose. Something just reminded me of the tale of Heraza, so the amount came to mind.”
Den groaned from his perch at the front of the wagon. “Master Rane, with all due respect, referencing the slave price of a famously indentured wife was not…” He stopped himself, shaking his head. “Nope. No. I’m already interjecting too much. Not my business.” He turned to fully face forward, beginning to whistle.
Tala had gone rigid at the name. I forgot that part of the story…
Rane turned to her, a look of humored exasperation melting into panic when he saw her stance and face. He held up his hands quickly. “I didn’t mean to imply that! Oh…rust. I’m an idiot.” He shook his head. “Mistress Tala. I…I was pulling a number out of the air, that’s all.”
She felt herself straighten, and when she spoke, her tone was cool and poised. “Thank you, Master Rane, for the offer. I will make do on my own. I neither need, nor want, your charity.” Without another word, she turned and strode to sit near the back of the wagon.
Rane looked from her to Den, then back to her, then groaned, moving to sit where he had been positioned all afternoon, near the mid-point of the wagon top.
She pulled out her notebook and pointedly opened it, continuing her anatomy review, and preventing further discussion.
Should I be flattered? Heraza is a famously beautiful character. Or should I be insulted, because she was only rescued from folly and ruin by the attentions of a king… What she truly felt was weary, and frustrated, and irritated.
The last of the ride into the city proper was silent and awkward.
They passed through the gates without incident and entered the work-yard with light still in the sky. The half-day of expedited pace had allowed the caravan to arrive a bit ahead of schedule, though Den seemed to have slowed sufficiently that they had lost some of that time, likely in order to not push the oxen too hard.
As Tala closed her notebook and tucked it into Kit, she stood, surveying the yard. To her surprise, she saw both Lyn and Holly waiting near the paymaster’s table.
Rane stood and moved to intercept her before she got off the wagon, but she turned and hopped off the side, allowing the ending-berry power within her to absorb the impact to her legs.
Huh, I’d have broken both ankles. She had tried to land in a crouch, but she’d apparently not absorbed the impact sufficiently. Her growing experience with the power allowed her to determine the extent of the injuries that had been prevented. Glad I’m full of the stuff.
Rane, for his part, growled in irritation. “Mistress Tala.” He didn’t shout, but she heard him clearly.
So, he’s been paying attention. He thinks he knows I can hear him. No need to confirm.
“I know you can hear me.” Well… fine then.
She turned, giving him her best disinterested looked. “What.” She spoke softly, trusting him to hear her as well. It seemed that he could. I wonder what abilities he has, to allow that?
“I am sorry. I truly didn’t mean anything by it. I don’t even have a thousand ounces, gold; I was trying to be whimsical…” He reddened a bit. “I have a habit of saying things as they come into my head.” He scratched his left shoulder absently. “I…I’m sorry.”
She shrugged, feeling some of her irritation leak away. This isn’t worth it… “It’s in the past, Master Rane. I will see you tomorrow, in the training yard.”
He hesitated, then seemed to hunch slightly, even as some deep tension seemed to melt away. He nodded and waved goodbye.
She simply turned and strode through the already growing swirl of people, as the wagons disgorged their passengers. It didn’t take her long to reach where Lyn and Holly waited. As Tala came close, she pulled out the gloves, which had been a gift from Lyn, and pulled them on.
Lyn, for her part, almost tackled Tala in a careful hug. “You’re alive! Bless my stars, woman! What’s wrong with you?”
Tala’s emotions went through a whirlwind, even as she fought to maintain balance. “What are you talking about?”
Lyn pulled back. “You! I was notified that you were lost, and that the caravan was proceeding with all haste. We needed to prepare for emergency unloading procedures, and that doesn’t factor in the less-than-ideal reports of your…more dangerous actions.”
“Why were you notified?” Tala interrupted.
“Because I’m your handler for the Guild, or near enough.” She lightly tapped Tala’s forehead. “Remember?”
It was then that Tala noticed the gloves on Lyn’s own hands. So, she doesn’t have to be concerned, touching me. It was almost a sweet gesture.
“We’ve lost a few incoming caravans, and we thought whatever had taken you might have been the same.” She let out a small huff. “But as I was saying, I was told you were gone early this morning. Then, after hours of panic and planning, I got another message: ‘Dimensional Mage recovered, resuming standard schedule.’ That’s it.”
“Well, if it is the same thing, it won’t be an issue, now, but I seriously doubt that my problem could have taken a whole caravan.” Tala looked to Holly, who was standing politely to one side. “Why are you here?”
“I have an invention I’m going to try on you, and it is time to do the next portion of your inscriptions.”
Lyn spun on Holly, but the other woman raised a hand placatingly. “I know she has duties, and I know she just got back, but there is no reason to wait, and it won’t interfere with her duties.” Holly glanced Tala over, her gaze clearly stopping on Kit, Tala’s knife, and on her outfit more generally. “We can discuss your… alterations, in my workshop.”
Lyn pursed her lips. “Fine.” She turned back to Tala. “Well?”
Tala was grinning. “Let me settle up with the paymaster, and I’ll tell you the story on the way to Holly’s workshop. Ok?”
Lyn nodded. “I suppose that makes sense; we should get dinner on the way, too.”
Holly shook her head resignedly, but she had a small smile, nonetheless.
Lyn suddenly seemed a bit awkward as she sighed and cleared her throat. “Also, I am obligated to inform you that you’ll have to have a lengthy meeting with a Senior Guild Official, before you can sign up for any other contracts.”
Tala hesitated. “That doesn’t sound too good.”
“It’s not great.” After a moment, she shook her head. “I’d have been told if they were planning on nullifying your contract, but don’t expect an easy meeting.” She gave a pitying smile. “Oh… and your disappearance caused a whole host of expenses, from the messages to a scramble to gather workers to unload the cargo-slots more quickly… Most of that was mitigated, but you’re still on the hook for what can’t be recuperated.”
“What? I was snatched! It’s not like I wanted to leave the caravan.”
“You were only snatched because you weren’t sleeping in a wagon, a wagon which you rejected.” Lyn grimaced in sympathy. “I’m sorry. It’s not a lot, but it’s still about an ounce, gold.”
“Great…” Could have been worse… Tala sighed in resignation.
Then, Lyn seemed to take Tala in, fully, for the first time, and she used the opportunity to change the subject. “Are those new clothes?” When Tala nodded, Lyn smiled. “Nicely done.”
Tala rolled her eyes, pushing away the sinking feeling that was trying to settle into the pit of her stomach. More money I owe…Still, she would at least pay this obligation immediately. She turned to approach the paymaster behind his table, waving over her shoulder. “I’ll be right back. Don’t steal any wayward children while I’m gone.”
As she walked, she felt a blip of power, and Terry was suddenly on her shoulder. Behind her, she heard both women inhale sharply. Where were you hiding, Terry?
Lyn didn’t otherwise react, but Holly muttered under her breath. “Seems that it will be an even more interesting tale than expected.”