Tala was decided: Rane knew his food, and she was quite happy with the noodle place he’d led them to.
To her surprise, Rane hadn’t objected to her order. He’d insisted that she get whatever she wished, and he’d cover it. He’d remained adamant, even after she’d asserted that he didn’t have to pay for her full order, or any of it really.
Thankfully, the place was inexpensive, so her meal, enough food to feed a normal household, had only cost around three silver.
Now, their food had arrived, and Tala was doing her best not to gorge…at least, not too quickly. Terry had briefly sampled each type of food that they’d ordered, but in the end, he was content with bits of jerky.
She had a plate of ridged, tube-like noodles with a red, beef sauce. A serving bowl beside that held long, thin, round noodles, covered with a form of mild pesto and chicken. A second plate contained small, curved tube-noodles with an orange, spicy sauce, mixed with quite flavorful pork. The final dish, a cast-iron skillet hot off the stove, held wide, flat noodles, which had been caramelized with the sauce within the skillet. That one tasted salty with a very subtle sweetness and a chargrilled flavor. It was served with beef strips and a medley of vegetables.
Rane had ordered a large salad, with a small plate of noodles, dressed with strips of chicken and a white sauce.
Bless the man, he looked on with a mixture of awe and horror as she began to eat the entirety of her order. Tala took small bites, of course, even if they were rapid. Cleanliness, and all that.
“How are you planning on keeping all that down?”
Tala swallowed the current mouthful. “Digestive inscriptions. I need a lot of energy for my inscribings to have their full effectiveness. So, we modified my systems to allow for high intake. At the moment, it’s more ‘requiring’ than ‘allowing,’ but even so.”
He nodded, slightly. “A downside of being a guide, rather than a creator, I suppose.” He thought for a moment. “So, your storage systems are inscribed too?” He nodded more completely. “That’s right. I remember you saying something about this to the class, yesterday.” Rane quirked a smile. “I’d love to be able to eat anything I want, but it isn’t worth the modifications my inscriptions would constantly need.”
“Mistress Holly took care of that, too. I won’t change size unless I deeply deplete my reserves, in which case I’ll shrink.”
He grunted. “So you said. Must be nice.”
“Except on the coin pouch.”
Rane grinned. “Hence accepting my invitation.”
She paused, another bite halfway to her mouth. “I would have come, even if you weren’t paying.”
His hand came to his chest, a look of false afront painting his features. “I’ve been robbed! I could have had your company for free?”
Tala laughed, feeling the tension bleeding away from the situation. True, he’d insisted upon paying, despite her earlier inquiries, but for some reason she hadn’t really believed he was genuine, until then. “Thank you, again, by the way.”
He waved dismissively. “Think nothing of it. I’m glad to have some of your time.”
She snorted a laugh around the current mouthful, chewing carefully and swallowing. “My schedule does seem to fill up, doesn’t it?”
“You seem like you don’t take much time off.”
She shrugged. “Too much to do.”
“Well, we can focus on eating, so long as we can talk after? I did have a purpose for asking you to meet.”
She smiled. “Sure. I want to do some practice, but aside from that, my only obligation is with my inscriber later this afternoon.”
He nodded, bringing a forkful of salad up for a bite.
* * *
Their food consumed, the staff thanked, and the restaurant left behind, Tala and Rane walked side-by-side through the city.
“So, how have you been liking Bandfast, so far?”
Rane smiled, looking up to the sky. “There are so many people. Honestly, it’s a bit overwhelming.” He chuckled, ruefully. “And, it’s only been...what? Less than two days?”
“I can imagine, and just about, yeah. Alefast is miniscule compared to here, and you spent a good deal of time in the wilds, right?”
“So…” What do I even talk about? Why am I here? “How are you progressing on your star?”
He glanced her way. “You really don’t take a break, do you?”
Great question, Tala. Nicely done… She shrugged. “I’m behind in so many areas, and I want to catch up.”
“I suppose that’s fair.” He sighed, eyes returning to their path forward. “Good, I think. Master Grediv gave me several different paths towards making an Archon star. Well, they’re helpful in general, but specifically useful for making Archon star creation easier. I read through them and chose the one that seemed best suited to me, to my methodologies and my way of thinking.”
His eyes flicked to her, then away. “Trying to steal my family’s secrets?” But he was grinning.
“I’m already well down the path towards making a full-powered Archon star.”
“ ‘Well down the path.’ ” He shook his head. “I bet you’ve spent less than a day on your chosen path.” He snorted. “Most Mages don’t even have the luxury of a path, at all.”
She opened her mouth to object, then closed it into a pouting frown. He’s right… That didn’t make it better. Probably made it worse if she was being honest. “Fine, but I’m not trying to steal your techniques.”
He grinned. “I know, I know.” He let out a breath. “There’s honestly nothing very secret involved. I’m just not used to Mages being as direct as you are.”
He laughed. “I chose a method that lined up with my magics. As power comes through my gate, I pull it along faster, which causes the magic to flow more quickly. It was called the ‘Way of the Rapids,’ in my notes.”
“That…huh. I wouldn’t have thought that would work, but it seems almost like what I’m doing.”
“Creating a void around my gate that sucks power through.”
He blinked and stared at her for a long moment. Finally, he barked a laugh. “If I’m pulling a string through the mud, you’re moving all the mud away, so the string moves on its own. That sounds annoyingly difficult.”
Tala quirked a smile. “A bit, but the results are extraordinary.”
“I get a four-fold increase with the most basic form, and a variation I’ve discovered seems to yield an additional bump.” And that was just when I was working with the two incorporators in my first attempt. She hadn’t analyzed her current ability, fully.
He was frowning, again. “Four-fold? Additional? You aren’t obsessing over the numbers, are you?”
“No? I did come across the term ‘mana’ as a unit for measuring magical power.”
“Came across?” He hesitated, then nodded. “Right, you’re Academy trained.” He sighed, shaking his head. “It’s easiest to keep Mages out of their own way if they don’t have hard numbers to put to their abilities. It’s possible, but not ‘efficient.’ ” He made air-quotes as he said the last word.
“It does seem that a lot was hidden from me, or at least not mentioned, at the Academy.”
“They aim to make as many passable Mages as possible. They aren’t concerned with helping the good ones be great.” After a moment’s pause, he continued. “Well, that’s what Master Grediv said their intention was, at the founding. Now? I fear the instructors actually believe they're teaching a fully realized, deeply applicable curriculum.”
So, he does have some knowledge of the Academy. Tala snorted a short laugh. “Seems a waste.”
“Meh. Most students get snatched up by good masters after graduation, and the deficit is corrected. I think I can understand the methodology, even if I don’t like it.” He chuckled. “Not like I have a better way to do it.”
“Fair enough.” She thought about it. “Yeah, I’m glad I’m not in charge of teaching the next generation.”
“So, back to the stars: I have heard of the technique you’re using, or at least something like it.”
“Let me guess: Way of the Void?”
He laughed. “Precisely.”
Of course, it is. “What were some of the others?”
He gave her a look.
Tala held up her hands in surrender. “Just the names?”
Rane sighed. “Way of Compression, Way of the Breath, Way of the Vortex, Way of the Channel, and Way of Denial of the Existence of Intervening Space.”
Tala blinked a few times. “You made that last one up, didn’t you.”
He shook his head. “Nope. Apparently, ‘Way of Denial’ is something else, but Master Grediv thinks that path is for: ‘Those without a firm concept of reality.’ Which fits, I suppose, given the name.”
She grinned. “I suppose so, yeah.” She considered the names. “You know, I think I’m doing something like Way of the Channel, if the name is any indication.” Could I build the channels without making them void? She briefly tried, and found that her power-flow did, indeed, increase, if just marginally. “Huh. It seems so.”
Rane stopped walking. “Did you just try out a new methodology for power manipulation, after intuiting how from the name?”
“Long question, but…yes?”
He just stared at her.
“You’re…” He shook his head, looking embarrassed. He turned and started walking.
He just shook his head, again.
She walked quickly to catch up and fall into step beside him. “What, Master Rane?”
He sighed. “You’re something special, Mistress Tala.” Then, he barked a laugh. “And, you are just insane enough to try things most people actively avoid, as well as just clever and skilled enough not to kill yourself.”
“Surviving is all about mitigating the risks. Hence my inscriptions.” She grinned. “Wait until I try combining all the methodologies you mentioned.”
Rane looked her way, suddenly serious. “No, Mistress Tala. Please. Perfect what you are currently doing before you add in more. My understanding is that most Archons do combine many of these, but after they are Archons. You can kill yourself, or at least do serious damage, if you try to force too many changes at once.”
She opened her mouth to argue, but he cut her off.
“Please? If you’re getting good results, perfect what you have, then add more. Don’t make a hodgepodge foundation that can’t support you later.”
That’s a fair point… She sighed. “Very well.”
They walked in silence for a long while, not going anywhere in particular.
Finally, Tala glanced towards Rane. “So, what did you want to talk about?”
He straightened, clearly having thought about what he wanted to say. “Well, I was curious when you were planning on venturing out, once more.” He didn’t look at her.
“Not quite sure, yet. Why?”
“I don’t know many people, and I’d really rather not go off on my own just yet.”
Tala quirked another smile. “So, you want to come with me?”
He shrugged. “If you’ve no objection.”
“Mistress Lyn said that once I’m an Archon, I should be able to renegotiate and be both Dimensional Mage and Mage Protector for a caravan.”
He frowned. “Why after?”
“Because the services I can offer will have materially changed.”
“And they haven’t already?”
Tala opened her mouth to say: ‘No’ but stopped. “Huh…Have they?”
“From what I saw and heard? Yes. You shouldn’t be sole protector for a caravan, but few should. Plus, I’d be there, too.”
She found herself nodding. “My new cargo-slots should be done by the end of the week. They’ll allow for a two-wagon caravan.”
Rane perked up. “Oh? Just the cargo and chuck wagons?”
“Could go faster, then. It’s always a delicate balance between size and speed. A single rider can go as fast as they like, in general, but as soon as there are two, there is an argument for caution.”
“I was wondering about that. Why are caravans so slow?”
Rane smiled. “You know, a master would have told you that.”
“Sure, probably, but now you can.” She gave him an expectant look.
Rane shook his head, but his smile never faltered. “Fine, fine. You’d be surprised how many things have perception based on movement, but on a grand scale. I’ll give an easy, well-known example: The tralvoldoc can detect anything outside a city that’s moving faster than a quick walk, up to a hundred miles away, but they usually don’t care if the combined mass in motion is less than a reasonable herd.” After a moment, he added. “Or a few wagons.”
“They look like a huge pile of vines, roots, and tentacles. They can teleport miles at a time. Supposedly, they appear above their prey and drop on top of them to cover and consume.”
“How huge are we talking about?”
Rane looked around, then pointed at a nearby park. It filled most of the city block. “Mature ones are easily about that big, piled twenty or thirty feet high.”
“Arcanous or magical?”
“I think arcanous? Plant-origin. I’ve never seen one myself.”
Tala stared. “That…sounds unpleasant to deal with. A bit scary actually.”
He huffed a laugh. “Not really. People have escaped from those fairly often. It’s the ones we don’t know of that scare me. Caravans go slow to avoid notice.” He shrugged. “A two-wagon caravan could go faster, by a bit, than a wagon train of a normal size.”
“And thus, my question is answered.” She shuddered slightly. She would likely survive under such a pile of hostile limbs, at least at first, but whether that would be preferable or not, she had no idea.
Rane cleared his throat. “But, back to my inquiry?”
She smiled. “It has merit. I’d prefer to travel with you as a co-Protector than a stranger.”
He smiled in return. “Well, then, might be worth asking your handler to investigate your fitness for that duty. Yeah?”
“It might be worth it, indeed. I can probably discuss it with the senior official, when I have that meeting.”
“Oh…right…” She sighed. “I need to meet with a Guild higher-up, before I can take another contract.”
Rane quirked a smile. “Makes sense. You didn’t exactly act as a typical Dimensional Mage, on your last trip.”
“Yeah, not sure what the result will be.” Tala turned back towards the park. There were several groups of children playing, adults watching from the sides or from various benches. She smiled. She used to love playing with her siblings and the other neighborhood kids in their local park. She shook her head to clear it, returning her focus to the present. “I’ll talk to Lyn this evening, see if she thinks bringing that up in the meeting makes sense. I can tell you what she says tomorrow?”
“Where can I find you? We aren’t needed for the class tomorrow.”
“I’ll be in the training yard, nonetheless. Look for me there. I probably won’t have an answer ‘til tomorrow evening, at the earliest, but we can still discuss it.”
“That sounds like a good plan.” He looked around and let out a long, contented breath. “I suppose I’ll let you get to your training. I’ve my own tasks to accomplish, today.”
Tala grinned, waving goodbye. “Take care, Master Rane.”
He waved back, as he strode away down a side street. “See you soon, Mistress Tala.”
She stayed and watched the families playing for a few minutes before turning back towards the training yard. “Ready to bask on the roof again, Terry?” She flicked a piece of jerky for him.
He didn’t respond, happily remaining on her shoulder despite the piece of meat vanishing.
“Glad to hear.”
He opened an eye to regard her for a moment, then closed it again, clearly not minding her oddities.
* * *
Early afternoon had passed, and Tala now sat in the shade, near one side of the training courtyard that was set aside for her.
She closed the final volume of Holly’s books. She hadn’t come close to reading them in their entirety, but she had filled in her knowledge gaps sufficiently to ensure all the scripts would function properly. I can expand that base of understanding, over time.
She looked back to her incorporators, sitting in her lap.
Her head hurt from the mental strain of manifesting the void channels, though her improvement was obvious. She could now power active scripts, feeding her body the power it needed, and divide the remaining power among the three incorporators and Flow, each device producing at roughly three-quarters of the rate she’d managed, individually, that morning in the Constructionist Guildhall.
The exercise had stretched her gate to the point that she’d bet her unaided power accumulation rate was at least a couple of mana higher. The rate enhancement, now that she was using the channels along with the void, was almost double that of the void alone.
And it felt like someone was driving a chisel through her left temple.
She’d been able to hold the most recent stint for five minutes.
With my inscriptions, I should not even be able to have a headache. What is going on, here?
Her needed breaks had been getting longer and longer. This last one had been a full ten minutes, and the headache wasn’t gone, yet. Maybe…I might be pushing too hard.
Lyn’s master had told the Mage that she could push with these exercises without hurting herself.
But that was an easier version, and they were talking to Lyn, who is cautious by nature…
She flopped backwards, to lay flat on the sand. A nap sounds really, really nice.
She was thirsty, too.
I need to rest my eyes. Yeah…just for a minute or two. But first, a drink.
Tala tucked the other incorporators into Kit, verified that Flow was on her belt, and sat back up to be able to drink more easily from the cool water incorporator.
Come on, Tala. Power it up. She hazily moved to do so and realized that she’d created the same five channels that she’d been using all afternoon. She groaned, but was too out of it to stop, now. She connected the smallest one to her body and inscriptions, and then just shunted the rest to the incorporator. There, now I’m not just dumping power into the air.
She activated the channels, connected their voided paths to her gate, bringing the incorporator up to her mouth.
As she did so, her sluggish mind caught up to her actions and her eyes widened.
Water rocketed out, not fast or hard enough to harm even a regular person, but still vastly more than anyone would want shooting into their mouth.
The flow of power immediately cut off, Tala choking, gagging, and retching up the fluid that had invaded her lungs. Idiot! She spat, coughing uncontrollably.
She hacked into the sand, her whole body convulsing.
Finally, the last bit of water came back out of her, and she was able to draw a full breath.
Her lungs felt…heavy. Like she was beside the ocean on a particularly humid day, after sprinting down from the Academy.
“That. Was. Awful.” She spat again, uselessly.
She noticed Terry standing beside her, as she knelt on the sand, her hands holding her up. He was regarding her with an odd expression.
He tilted his head back and forth regarding her intently, then vanished.
“Yeah… Not dead this time, either.” She groaned, thinking back over the idiocy she’d just performed; she hesitated. I connected four channels to a single destination, a single outlet. Her fuzzy mind was having a difficult time tracking through all the implications, though her headache was a bit better.
Unless she was lying to herself.
There is no way it’s worse, now.
“If I could maintain that, funneling into an Archon star spell-form…” Her headache flared, and she groaned again, flopping over onto her side, on a patch of dry sand.
After a long break, she very carefully, finally, got her drink from the incorporator. She used the absolute minimum amount of power possible to activate it.
Minutes more passed. “If I could maintain that four-pronged approach, I could make a full Archon star in a few hours.” She couldn’t maintain it, obviously, but she was close to enacting the technique half of the time, if she alternated.
No. That wasn’t true. It was much closer to one third of the time.
Well, fine…I should be able to do that, after a rest, though. If she could hold the form while resting her mind, she just might be able to make it work.
I should ask Holly… Her eyes flicked to the sky. Regarding Holly…It was time to return to the inscriber. Duty calls.