Tala stared at the servant for a long moment. “Oh, slag.” The plates… Right… She looked down at her pouch. “Kit, if you would?” She reached in and immediately felt a few stacks of plates. …wow. That’s way more than I expected. She smiled, attempting to hide her embarrassment. “My apologies.”
Tala did not look at the watching Archons.
Instead, she walked over to the closest table and pulled out a stack of around twenty plates, setting them on the table. She heard a few mutters and some chuckles. She stuck her hand back in.
Yup. She came out with another stack, then another after that, and a fourth…then a fifth. Then, a sixth.
The servant looked on with widening eyes. He reached out and took the top plate from one of the stacks.
“Did you expect me to give you some of the food back?”
Grediv casually flicked outward with his right, pinkie finger, and the sound isolation around him vanished.
Elnea gave him an irritable look but didn’t comment. She walked over to Tala since the younger Mage hadn’t returned immediately. The Head Archon was frowning. “Are you quite done?” Then, she saw what the servant had. “Did your dimensional storage clean and stack those plates?”
Tala shrugged. “Seems so.” She stuck her hand back in, and drew out a final stack, only about twelve plates this time. “That should be all of it.”
A couple other servants came over, bringing several tall stacks of boxes made of a thin, fast-growing wood. Not meant for heavy use? That was an interesting concept. Had she seen other establishments giving out one-use containers? Maybe… She hadn’t really paid attention as she never really had leftovers.
Several of those watching barked laughs, others rolled their eyes, and the murmur of side conversations grew.
Tala, ignoring the reactions of the Archons, lowered the stacks into Kit, one by one. Each was held together with loops of heavy twine, tied tight. “Thank you. And I apologize about the plates. I really didn’t even consider them, and I should have.”
The servant who had initially approached her bowed, smiling. “Think nothing of it, Mistress. Mistakes happen.”
What a politic answer… I wonder if they really think I was trying to steal more than a hundred little plates… It probably didn’t matter.
Elnea cleared her throat. “No, Mistress Tala. I need an answer. Did you stack those plates yourself?” She was frowning. “No, that makes no sense. Why would you clean and stack the plates, then put them back in your pouch?”
Tala shrugged, patting Kit. Wait… She looked down at the pouch. It’s really low on power, again. “Huh.” She stuck a finger into the bag and directed a couple of void-channels to dump power into Kit. “There you go, Kit.”
The pouch did not respond.
Elnea’s eyes widened, and she whispered harshly, “You are speaking to it? You have a sapient dimensional storage?”
“No?” Tala looked up at the woman, the servants having already taken their plates and departed.
“Mistress Tala, Dimensional storage items control the space within them, and they are loath to use more power than necessary.” She tsked. “But that’s anthropomorphizing them, too much. I can see that that is clearly an artifact, not inscribed, but I can’t see any magic around it, save through the top… I must know: Is that item containing its own aura, or are you somehow doing that?”
Tala hesitated. Oh! That’s how someone else would make a magic item look mundane. Soul-bind it, then restrain the aura. Even so, there seemed to be some hidden question behind what the Archon was asking, or something she missed. That in mind, she decided the truth was best. “I have treated the outside to protect it from hostile magic and help contain its power. I also do my utmost to empower it whenever it’s not as full as it can be.”
Elnea examined her critically for a moment, then grunted. Tension Tala hadn’t noticed building around the other woman vanished in an instant. “Well, at least you believe what you are saying.” She sighed. “Did no one teach you how to keep magic-bound items?” She waved away her own question, as soon as it was uttered. “Of course not, Master Grediv informed me of your unique situation, and that is decidedly something the Academy leaves to masters to teach their magelings.” She sighed.
Tala shrugged. “I got the basics. Artifacts, specifically, need empowerment only when outside high magic zones. Seemed dumb to me. If it’s hungry, feed it. Right?”
“Feed… you just give it power, right?” Some of the tension had returned.
Tala thought about it. “Well, I am storing a…” She cleared her throat. She doesn’t need specifics. “A lot of food in there. I can’t swear it hasn’t consumed some, but why? What am I missing?”
Rane, Lyn, and Grediv had come over to join them, silently listening. The other Archons were largely distracted by each other, though some of the closest did seem to be attempting to listen, and the last of the servants were well and truly gone.
Elnea shook her head. “So long as you aren’t feeding it life blood, or…other similar things, it should be fine.”
Tala swallowed involuntarily. Like a newly dead Mage? Well, Kit hadn’t eaten him, but still…
Elnea seemed to be contemplating. “You’ve somehow convinced the natural flows and patterns in that pouch that it will never run out of power, so it uses its reserves with near impunity.”
Grediv cleared his throat. “Mistress Tala’s many oddities aside, however fascinating and enlightening, there is still something that must be conveyed. Yes?”
Elnea nodded distractedly. “Yes, yes…” She met Tala’s gaze. “But first, Mistress Tala, I would ask a personal favor of you.”
“When you soul-bond that storage item, would you please allow me to witness the bonding?”
Tala hesitated. That seems a bit intrusive.
“I’ve made a study of artifacts, and I’ve not seen one act exactly like that one does.”
She shrugged again. “I suppose.”
Elnea gave Tala a last, lingering look, then turned and strode away. “Very well.” She led them to the center of the room once again, then clapped her hands, gathering the attention of the Archons. She stood for a moment in solemn silence. “While today is a day for celebration, as we welcome three new members to our fight,”
She continued, clearly uncaring of Tala’s surprise, “it is also a time for remembrance and for enlightenment.”
Tala looked to Lyn and Rane. Lyn looked equally confused. Rane was clearly unsurprised. Grediv did seem to tell him far more than most Mages get to know.
“In ancient times, humans were the least among the civilized races. Our bodies were frail, and we couldn’t draw in ambient magic nearly as well as those whom we lived among.”
Tala opened her mouth to interject, but Elnea gave her a level, silencing look, then simply continued.
“At best, we were savages, worshipping and sacrificing to trees for scraps of power. At worst, we were meat animals or menial slaves, only useful for the tasks beneath even our masters’ use of magic.”
Every Archon around them lowered their heads at the reflected shame of that earlier time. Then, as if following a script, they all looked up as Elnea continued.
“Then, came a time when natural magic began to fade, and we saw our chance. One young man, whose name is lost to antiquity, broke his own soul in twain. While still loosely connected, the part only weakly tethered to reality, to his body, began to generate power, pulling it from the world beyond. He was the first of a new humanity.”
Tala glanced to Grediv. So, breaking my soul wouldn’t have been so bad? She doubted that was the intended lesson from the story.
“Sadly, the breaking of his soul also broke his mind, and while he lived on, he never used his gift. His children, however, born after the great sacrifice, had the gift without the madness. They had the potential to become the first Mages.”
There it was. So, no soul breaking. Assuming it’s true… No.
“But the other races, those of more power than we, even still, saw the gift to humanity as something to be taken. They twisted those born with a gate, taking the weakest willed and severing them completely from their bodies. Thus, creating fountains of power, stopping the lessening of magic in the world, and even reversing the trend, eventually.”
Tala’s eyes widened. The fountain of power I found in the wilds… that used to be a person? I was right? She immediately thought of her lessons. Modern Keystones were designed specifically to help prevent Mages from turning their entire being into an open gate. If they did such, they would utterly obliterate themselves and leave behind a hurricane of power without end. A fountain of power.
“For generations, we were bred for our Gates, used as cattle, trained towards the singular purpose of our eternal souls rebalancing the world’s magic.”
There was a moment of silence.
“Then, the first of our great heroes stood up and said, ‘No.’ ” She straightened, smiling. “Akmaneous, Krator, and Synathia discovered spell-lines, though we would hardly call them that, were we to see them, today. They broke their fellows free and died to give our ancestors time to escape.”
Tala remembered those names, parts of those stories. Primordial human power, and those with the strength of character to sacrifice themselves for the good of all. They had died from magic-poisoning, imparted by their imperfect power. So, there are pieces that can be shared with mundanes.
“We fled into the south, where the lower levels of power meant our pursuers were weakened, but we were hunted nonetheless. For generations further, we hid among the tribes of non-gated humans, among the tree worshippers of this region, biding our time. Many of us were found, but never all.”
A moment of solemnity passed, once more.
“Finally, the first builder, Adraman, forged the first city. It drew deeply on the surrounding power, making the region anathema to other races, to those who must draw from their environment for power.”
Like artifacts. The other races function like artifacts?
“And there, modern humanity truly begins. Our scripts are not eternal, and the world itself rebels, increasing power in the regions we try to deprive. Arcanes can strike at us, relying on stored power for short raids, but they must always retreat, and no Arcane can enter our cities. Our defenses are impervious to them.” She smiled with pride at that. “Even so, any but the most capable, strong-willed Mage is destined to become a fount, should they attempt to rise. We are still under threat from our ancient chains.”
Tala’s eyes widened at that, and Elnea gave her a comforting smile.
“Yes, that is what you fought against. Ancient magics, ancient chains, set within our ancestors’ flesh and passed down through the ages, designed to take control of us, to trick us with false promises of power. If a Mage falls, they are led into the Wilds, their soul enslaved. That is why we no longer place our mediums into our flesh in order to build Archon stars within ourselves. We must be fully capable, fully ready when the Bond is forged, that we may lock our soul and body together, rather than freeing our gate from our flesh and enslaving our body to deliver it to our oppressors.”
Tala couldn’t contain herself any longer. “And you didn’t feel that merited telling us? Why not tell every Mage? Every person?”
“You could not be told. For any information that came from outside of you would be tainted by doubt. You had to feel it yourself, to know for yourself, in order to overcome.”
Just like I’ve always pushed back against the restrictions put on me. It still felt like a foolish reason. “And if I had failed?”
“We would have escorted you beyond the walls and wept at the falling of one so young.”
“That is rusting idiotic.”
“Oh? And how did you know the spell-form?” She gestured around her. “How do so many of the most promising know it, without being taught? Something deep within us fights against being taught the form, because part of our nature knows the danger. Even still, those best suited to becoming springs of power know the form in the end. They ‘discover’ it by accident, or research, or luck. They are at once the most in danger, and the most suited to overcome that peril. Some few more are able to overcome, and are in less danger, so their masters guide them to the form, despite objections. They have the clearest pathway to power, and humanity needs all the power we can gather. I was one such, as were Mistress Lyn and Master Rane.”
Tala didn’t know how to feel about that. Does that mean I’m more powerful? Or that I have more potential? Or that I was suspected to be easier to subvert? Easier to sway and control? She didn’t like the seemingly obvious answer.
“There is not enough time in a year to go through the intricacies of it, but know this: Most Mages would fall, were they to attempt an Archon Bond, and every Mage attempts it, if and when they fully learn the form.”
Lyn was nodding, and Tala turned to her, questioningly. Lyn smiled. “As soon as I actually read the notes my master gave me, I felt compelled to attempt it. I can’t explain it, really. At the time, I just thought I wanted to get it over and done with. But in truth, it was like…” She shook her head. “No. No other drive, or urge, I’ve ever experienced was so strong.” She met Tala’s gaze. “I could not have resisted, once I knew how to do it.” She let out a small laugh. “Even after I made the star, I wanted to swallow it. It was the silliest thing; I knew it was a gem, and I shouldn’t, but I wanted to. And the urge to do so grew with every passing hour.”
Elnea cleared her throat. “Mistress Tala. I am aware that your circumstances were more unusual, and I, or another, would be happy to discuss that with you, at a later time.”
Tala gave a half bow. “Thank you, Mistress Elnea. I have only one further question, if I may.”
Elnea sighed but nodded. “Go ahead.”
Tala turned towards Holly with a fierce glare. “Mistress Holly. Knowing this, how dare you encourage her to read those notes? You were putting her life on the line, for what?”
All eyes shifted to Holly, but the woman seemed utterly unaffected by the attention. “It is always a gamble, and a mageling’s master is always the best person to make the call. Hers gave her the notes, clearly determining that Mistress Lyn was one who should learn and should be able to weather the difficulty. I had no reason to disagree, so I pushed her to honor her master’s choice. Evidence suggests that we were both right to do so. It was much better than the alternatives, as her mind and will are stronger now than they might have been later.”
Tala did not like the answer, but it was at least reasonable. She frowned. But most magelings aren’t under Archons…
Elnea cleared her throat. “But the danger is real. As Archons, you are now privy to so much more, but not everything. You may not share this with non-Archons. You must guide any who discover the form towards the local counsel for aid.”
Tala couldn’t help herself. “But what about magelings who aren’t under Archons?”
Elnea sighed. “Most magelings aren’t under Archons.”
“Exactly, that makes no sense. How can a Mage determine if their mageling is ready for something they cannot know about?”
Grediv cleared his throat. “Did you read that book I gave you? ‘A Mage’s Guide to Their First Mageling: Basics Every Mageling Should be Taught?’ ”
She frowned. “I’ve skimmed it.”
He snorted. “Of course, you did.” He shook his head slightly. “Some of those tests and tidbits direct the Mage to seek an Archon under various circumstances.” He shrugged. “That takes care of the lion’s share.”
That made a sort of sense. She had skipped the regular system, so it was incredibly alien to her. “Fair enough, I suppose.”
Elnea cleared her throat, bringing Tala’s attention back to her. “Now, that out of the way. You need to know: You are much less useful to any invading arcane. Many of them could still sever the bond you just forged, and use you regardless, but not all. Once you’re fully Fused, doing so will just kill you and send your soul to the great beyond, so they don’t even try. That said, if they sense you, they will try to eliminate you, and that is just one more reason to work on your aura shroud.”
Elnea took a deep breath, while the three new Archons processed the flood of new information.
She smiled. “Now, Master Grediv has requested the honor of accompanying us, as I show you to our local Archons’ Library.” Elnea gave a sharp look to the Archon, who was hovering just to one side. “While I am tempted to decline, now, I think it wisest to allow such. Our companions, the other Archons, will bid you farewell, here.”
Tala, Lyn, and Rane looked around, smiling uncertainly. By her fellow’s expressions, they were clearly burdened by much of what they had learned, but also tentatively excited, likely for the good their elevation could bring.
Elnea straightened, her voice ringing out once more. “For the new Archons!”
A single unified shout of praise sounded back.
“Go in strength.”
The other Archons did just that, each giving some form of wave or small bow as they departed, en masse.
Tala watched them go, allowing her mage-sight to attempt to examine each of them. While she couldn’t see any of their auras, she did realize one critical thing. Most of them have no power visible at all.
As she thought about it, she realized that if holding back her aura’s power was easy, and hiding it entirely was harder still, then hiding her aura completely, while allowing all other signs of her power to be visible, would be incredibly tricky.
That’s what Holly is doing, along with several others. A few Archons, scattered through the crowd, looked exactly like any other Mage that Tala had ever seen.
My iron salve made me resemble an inexperienced Archon to those who knew what to look for with their mage-sight. Well, except her eyes and palms.
She didn’t know how to feel about that. She wanted to be the best she could be, but she also knew that, regardless, her iron salve would render her looking like the less skilled Archons. She frowned at that. No, Master Grediv hid himself completely from my mage-sight.
She was left confused. Elnea did say that the stronger you are and the higher you climb up the ladder, the harder your aura is to restrain at all… There was just too much that she didn’t know.
When the room had emptied of Archons, save the five who would be remaining, Tala glanced towards Terry. Oh! She’d been so distracted that she’d not fed Terry recently. Though, if the little flickers of dimensional power she’d picked up from the avian through the banquet were any indication, Terry may have eaten more than even she had. “Terry, you hungry?”
He opened one eye, giving her a condescending look.
She snorted a laugh and flicked out a bit of jerky.
Elnea frowned at that. Her mage-sight didn’t seem to be active, so it had likely appeared to her as if Tala had just thrown a bit of meat under the table. “Are you trying to teach him to fetch? Why would you teach that sort of trick to such an animal?” She seemed genuinely confused.
Tala opened her mouth to reply, but Grediv cleared his throat. “As fascinating as that bird is…we should probably head towards the library.”
Elnea rolled her eyes, the last shreds of ceremony falling away. “Very well. This way, please.”
They walked out through the seemingly indestructible door.
I bet I could break it with time…and without a room full of hostile Archons to contend with.
They left the not-yet-destroyed door behind them as they moved through the stark, empty passage, back to the entry hall.