Tala spat out a mouthful of sand, vaulting back to her feet with a motion similar to a pushup. My first impression was right. I hate this man.
There had been snow on top of the courtyard’s sand, earlier that morning, but now there was mostly just wet sand.
Rane was grinning at her, his massive sword held in a high guard. He wasn’t even sweating as he stood solidly upon the soft ground, barefoot and just in close-fitting, short pants. His spell-lines were on full display across his toned, tan flesh, ready to render her attacks meaningless…if she could ever land any.
She growled and lunged at him again, her practice sword driving towards his heart.
Force, Rane’s sword, came down like an avalanche. His reach was greater than hers, so she wouldn’t land her strike before he hit her.
She cursed, raising her weapon to defend herself.
Even though she got her sword up in time to block, it didn’t matter. Power flowed through Rane’s weapon, and since she used her considerable strength to hold her weapon in place, the marginally reinforced stick shattered.
Rane’s strike continued, catching her between her shoulder and neck.
She was thrown to the ground like a sack of flour, even though Rane clearly pulled his attack after the initial contact. Her defensive scripts were getting a heavy testing.
There were collective, audible intakes of breath, but no one gasped or cried out. They’d seen this too many times to react that way any longer.
Adam sighed from where he watched, sitting on one of the surrounding walkways. “Mistress Tala. You cannot block him. That has been made incredibly clear. You are wasting practice weapons. Why do you still try to block?”
She swept the sand from her face, once again, rising a bit slower this time. “Better to block than just let myself get hit?”
“Did blocking help?”
“No…” She grunted irritably. “I even angled the blade correctly that time. I know that I did.”
Rane nodded, resting Force on his shoulder. “This sword cannot be deflected by a like-powered opponent, and your practice swords are mundane. My sword resists any acting force, except that exerted on the handle.”
One of the students called out from the side. “What if she struck at his hands, instead of blocking the blade?”
Adam pointed at the young woman. “That is an excellent suggestion.” If Tala read his expression correctly, he’d been waiting for someone to suggest just that.
The sand in Tala’s eyes and up her nose made her want to curse him for that. You could have suggested that yourself, earlier.
“If you cannot dodge, which I’m beginning to wonder about, that would be an excellent thing to attempt.” Tala understood him to be saying: ‘You really should have thought of that, yourself.’
An assistant tossed Tala another wooden sword. She caught it with more practiced ease than she liked. I’ve broken way too many of these…
Rane raised his long blade high, once more.
The next exchange finally lasted more than a couple of movements. Tala’s probing strike at Rane’s hands forced him to pull his blow, simply knocking hers aside.
She was never able to land a strike, but the change in paradigm kept him from easily putting her down, yet again.
Finally, Rane made a mistake. With a great sweeping movement, he struck upward.
Tala stepped into the blow, dropping her left hand to catch the rising blade, even as her sword-wielding-right lashed out.
Force smacked her left palm so hard it stung, despite her inscriptions. She had braced the arm, and so it didn’t collapse before the blow. Instead, she was lifted just slightly from the ground. No opposing you with power, just weight, so our ranks don’t factor into it. She grinned, adding more force to her own strike.
Her sword connected with the side of Rane’s head…or it should have.
The inscriptions on his head sparked to life, shimmering silver weaving through to activate dull copper, and Rane was suddenly moving along with her strike, the blow not quite connecting.
As a result, Rane spun a full circle, feet over head, seeming to rotate around his abdomen. As he finished the rotation, Force whipped around, sweeping sideways.
Tala almost attempted to block the blow but fought down the reaction just in time to duck under it, launching herself forward to tackle Rane.
His scripts activated again, but this time it was to her advantage, as they moved him back and away, taking him to the ground just ahead of her. There, she landed on him without having lost momentum from an earlier impact.
She drove the wind from his lungs with her weight as she pinned him in place. If she felt correctly, she might have even cracked a couple of his ribs. Success!
In a quick motion, she brought her sword around and rested the ‘edge’ against his throat, one hand on the handle, one on the back of the blade. She grinned down at him for an instant before Force struck her from the side.
Rane had somehow used the fall to spin the blade around, once more.
She was blasted from atop him, to drive a furrow through the sand and smash into the stone steps at the edge of the courtyard. What are these steps even made out of? She’d hit them often enough something should have broken…
She groaned, staring up at the clear, cold sky. “That’s rusting idiotic. I won! If I’d wanted to kill you, you’d be dead.”
Rane lifted his feet, then kicked up to a ready stance. Gasping in sudden pain and clutching his abdomen.
How did he do that on sand?
The healer rushed forward and fixed him with a brief touch. Rane nodded his thanks to the healer, then regarded Tala. “Yes, you could have, but you didn’t.”
She frowned. “What?”
“You didn’t deliver the strike. You didn’t trust my defenses, or the waiting healer, so you hesitated.”
“I didn’t want to crush your throat, Master Rane.”
“And if you had?”
She opened her mouth to respond, but then her eyes flicked to the healer, waiting off to one side. Oh… She growled, then. “Fine.” She stood back to her feet. “Again.”
She rushed for him with controlled, precise, thundering steps. This will take that grin from his face. She stuck her hand into Kit, grabbing for the repeating hammer…and found nothing.
For the first time in her memory, Kit hadn’t offered up what she was reaching for. Because I lost it. I allowed it to starve. She slowed, causing Rane to hesitate.
Tala glanced down at Kit. Thinking of the now non-magic hammer. It came into her hand, and she drew it out of her bag.
It was utterly, magically inert. The innate magic in the tool had collapsed when it ran dry.
Tala growled at the loss, then flung the hammer at Rane anyways.
The next two hours were brutal. In the end, Tala only won once: Right after she threw the hammer, she tackled him again, while he was distracted. She was never able to replicate that initial moment of surprise, even by throwing other things, her practice sword included. She never won again.
Even so, she improved, largely due to the suggestions of those watching the bouts, and in the end, she could hold her own for long stretches before Rane inevitably drove her back into the sand.
They finished out the last hour of the morning with weapons sparring between Tala and Adam, along with several other guards. That, thankfully, she excelled at, though it was similar to her unarmed conflicts with the Guards.
They were much more skilled, but had no way of truly ending the fights, even when they could knock her down; there just weren’t enough of them to pin her on the ground. So, she always won by slow, incremental attrition. Not great for protecting someone else, but good practice.
When high noon arrived, the class was over, and the instructor assigned the students to write up detailed analyses of both Rane and Tala’s abilities and fighting styles, as well as how a unit of Guards could overcome each of them.
Tala, for her part, immediately went to the compound’s baths and did her utmost to clear herself completely of sand. She was mostly successful.
Following yet another vigorous self-scrubbing, she soaked and munched on banquet leftovers pulled from Kit. Her thoughts drifted back through the morning’s combat. She felt stronger than ever, and her body was moving exactly how she wanted it to, but she still didn’t have the experience to ‘want’ the right movement for efficient victory.
Give it time, Tala. She felt more connected to her inscribings, now that she was an Archon. Her body felt more her than ever before and those magics were an obvious, integral part of her as well.
Rane seems to have gotten a similar benefit. She didn’t begrudge him, that. She did wish that he hadn’t been quite so brutal about showing his dominance. Rusting man. If I could use my sword, things would have been different.
Still, they’d agreed that her weapon was just too dangerous to use in practice matches.
Adam had been cagey on the subject, but Tala didn’t press him. Not worth alienating my instructor.
When she was done in the bath, she dressed, clicked her tongue to get Terry’s attention from where he was sleeping in the corner of the room, and walked out into the cool, afternoon air.
Ok. I have a few things I need to do before returning home. Let’s get to it.
* * *
The rest of the week fell into a pattern for Tala, as the day of her next departure drew ever closer.
Lyn had signed Rane and Tala up for a round trip to Makinaven and back, and Tala’s ‘minder’ had agreed to the contracts, though Tala had yet to meet the Mage so assigned. Tala was going to meet her for dinner, the night before their departure, so at least she wouldn’t be going in totally blind.
The trip to Makinaven was purported to be a bit longer, time wise, and usually more dangerous than that to either Alefast or Marliweather. This was mainly because nearly two thirds of the journey went through the old-growth, southern forest, and unlike the trees that sprang up around the waning city of Alefast, these were not mostly clumped together with convenient paths around them.
No. That would be too easy.
In the worst case, they would have to circumnavigate around dense clusters of trees and other obstacles, searching for a path for the caravan, all while keeping it well defended.
If what Tala had learned was to be believed, the trees were truly massive, but the figures she found seemed too fanciful. She would have to see for herself. More than four times the height of the defensive towers? Unlikely.
But that was an issue for later. She’d gotten a general understanding of the dangers, both arcanous creatures and otherwise. She’d trust to her ‘minder’ to fill in the gaps.
Around sparring for the benefit of up-and-coming Guardsmen, and to improve her own abilities, Tala did a few more minor errands.
She sought out the alchemist she’d worked with before and purchased more bars of iron salve: two ounces, silver.
She convinced a blacksmith to make her a steel, folding chair, sturdy enough that it could have been a stepstool for a thunder bull, while folding small enough to easily fit into Kit: four silver ounces. The result was surprisingly well contoured and comfortable.
She also bought a pair of thick-soled, simple leather shoes, in case she needed to walk in snow, again, which seemed likely: one ounce, silver. She did not want a repeat of the discomfort and pain she’d experienced after being accosted by the raven-ine. The cobbler seemed to notice her increased weight, likely noticing when he had taken measurements of her foot. He’d hemmed and hawed about it, not wanting to offend, but after coming to an understanding, he’d hesitantly told her that the shoes wouldn’t last long under such an increased pressure. He didn’t know if the pressure distribution scripts would increase their useful life, but he thought it was possible. Worth paying attention to, at the very least.
Additionally, she hounded no fewer than six Constructionist Guild assistants, all of whom firmly maintained that there were no available schemata for coffee incorporators, of any kind. Boma, likewise, remained cagey. Thankfully, she was allowed to purchase an acid incorporator now that she was an Archon: hydrochloric acid, specifically. Thirty silver ounces.
With the incorporator, she received a ‘warning and safety’ booklet, and a mandatory, hour-long lecture from Boma on the safe and legal uses of the device. Even with her full flow directed through it, using several void-channels, she could only produce a thin trickle of the stuff. For now.
Even so, it was a useful tool to have at hand, if she found need.
Through some light experimentation, Tala found that she could easily maintain a single, small void-channel to her body constantly. However, if she used other void-channels too much, she would have to collapse all of them to properly recover. As such, she often played with her void-channels on the side, while doing her other tasks, but never pushed too hard. Moderation, Tala. Slow progress is good progress.
Given her soul-bound body, she no longer had to actively power her body or her scripts, since they had a direct connection to her gate, but she found it helped with efficiency to use a void-channel, nonetheless. The main result was that her keystone was under much less pressure. Hurrah! That will last longer, now.
Finally, Tala socialized with Lyn daily, and Rane often enough. She ate well, using all three silver ounces of her budget on food each day, - fifteen ounces, silver -along with finishing out the food she’d gotten from the banquet. And the last two days before departure, she charged her custom cargo-slots down at the work-yard.
That, all told, filled her days quite nicely.
* * *
Tala lunged out of the way of the falling halberd blade, blowing through half a dozen sword strikes, as the students strove to overwhelm her.
They didn’t even sting and her increased weight kept the blows from diverting her path too much, her downward pressure giving her surer footing, and she was getting better at posting her feet in opposition to incoming strikes.
She lashed out, breaking limbs with precision, culling their numbers with ease, until an enemy thrust went between her knees and tangled her legs, causing her to stumble and fall, even as the weapon bent under the stress.
Immediately, some dropped on her, trying to pin her down, as others grabbed madly at her limbs. Some used their weapons, driven into the soft ground, like pry-bars to lock her in place.
One star-cursed student decided the best solution was to jump on her head, driving her face into the coarse sand.
She struggled, but eventually they got enough weight on her that she simply had no hope of breaking free any longer.
She signaled her defeat, and they let her up.
Adam’s voice rang out, from where he stood beside the other instructor. “Why were you able to win?”
“She couldn’t cut us,” one student said, in a dejected voice. He gasped as a healer realigned, then healed his broken forearm.
“We took her foundation from her, then took advantage of that,” another answered.
Adam nodded. “You are both correct. When facing an opponent like Mistress Tala, containment is the best option, and you are fighting her when she is at a distinct disadvantage.” Even so, he smiled. “You did very well. Today is Mistress Tala and Master Rane’s last day with us. Tomorrow, we will see how you fare against unfamiliar adversaries. I hope you are up to the challenge.”
Tala glanced up into the cloudy sky. Almost noon, then. This group attack on her had been the last activity of the morning after she’d fought Rane, then a group of senior guards, first armed, then unarmed.
Rane still utterly dominated her, when he was armed, though he could never definitively end the fight. Her defenses were simply too good for that. I can’t imagine what he’ll be able to do once he soul-bonds that sword. Even so, she’d learned enough about his defenses that, unarmed, he couldn’t hold her at bay, and she cinched victory fairly quickly, each time. True, she had to rely on her near immunity to his attacks, since he still outclassed her, if not as much as Adam did, but victory was victory.
The only change after a week of intense sparring with the senior guards was that she won more quickly, though still only by slow steps against their overwhelming skill. Progress is progress.
Adam cleared his throat, bringing her attention back to the present, and she glanced around. All the students were looking at her, the last of them having already been healed.
She smiled. “Thank you, all, for your help and feedback over these last days.”
There were collective nods, ‘You’re welcome’s, and ‘Of course’s.
Adam smiled. “We wanted to thank you, as well. Very few combat-oriented Mages are willing to allow their abilities to be so thoroughly explored and delved for weaknesses. Fewer still will let us test our hypotheses on them, directly.” His smile widened. “Truly, thank you.”
There were a chorus of agreements from the students.
“We wanted to give you a small gift, to say ‘thank you for the time.’ ”
Someone in the crowd shouted out an addition. “And to tempt you back, when you return!” A ripple of laughter moved through the group.
Adam walked forward and held out a simple sheath. It was sized for a dagger and appeared to be incredibly intricately worked from a myriad of materials.
It was sized for Flow.
Tala took it, a slight frown creasing her forehead.
“Many magical weapons are too dangerous to train with, and as such, their wielders suffer from a lack of practice. To correct that, the Constructionists have long made a study of methods to render them safe for training bouts. I am no Mage, but it was explained to me as a lensing item, that would allow you to better train with your particular bound weapon.”
Tala almost dropped the training tool in shock. Her eyes widened as she looked up at him. “Adam…This is perfect.”
He nodded, and the watching students laughed. One in about the middle of the bunch commented, “If you use that, you won’t break us as easily.”
Nervous chuckles followed that pronouncement.
“This must have been quite expensive.” At least a half ounce, gold, if her estimation was correct. Those that I remember were just a bit more expensive than incorporators. At the most basic level, it was just an advanced incorporator.
“In your training you broke dozens of training swords.” His grin removed most of the reprimand. “This was the only smart choice we could make, if we’re to ever have you back. Especially if you work with us long term, as some few Mages do. I just wish they could have had it completed more quickly.”
“Of course…sorry about all the weaponry.”
He waved that away. “It was expected.” After a moment he chuckled. “Between you and Master Rane it was more extreme than anticipated, but that’s why that makes sense.” He nodded towards the item.
She pulled Flow from her belt, momentarily keeping it in the simple leather sheath she’d had it in since Alefast. That sheath came off and went into Kit, and she placed Flow into the new item. The sheath reacted to the movements of power around and through Flow, and subtly shifted shape so that it was a perfect fit. The effect was to make Flow simply appear to have a bit heftier, and dull, blade. Even the clasp to place the sheath on her belt was designed for holding Flow in the sheath when it wasn’t on her belt. Very streamlined.
She tested the design, clasping it to her belt easily; she removed it with equal ease. With a quick motion, she twisted the fastener to lock Flow in. Simple.
She took a slow breath. Here it goes.
She pushed her power into Flow, down the sword path. The blade extended, until it was fully in its sword form.
The sheath expanded likewise, thinning out and clinging more tightly to the blade underneath. As Tala expected, the burden of power required to maintain this shape was increased, probably because the sheath was utilizing some of the magic in the weapon for its own transformation. Good, the training version should be harder to use.
She tapped her open left palm with the edge of the sheath, and felt a whoomph of impact, like her hand had been struck with a particularly heavy pillow. Tala grinned, allowing Flow to contract.
She met Adam’s gaze and nodded, before sweeping her eyes across the assembled crowd. “Thank you, all. Truly.”
She took another half hour or so to speak with those who wanted to wish her well and bid them all a final goodbye. After that, she bathed, and applied her iron salve. I’ve been without this defense for too long.
Now that she wasn’t going to be rolling around in the sand every day, she wanted the protection it provided.
That done and verified, she dressed and headed off to lunch.
Brand and his wife greeted her warmly as she entered their restaurant, and she spent the meal chatting with them, as she had several other times, earlier in the week. Sadly, Brand wasn’t going to be a cook on her next expedition, but he assured her that the head chef for the trip was competent, and he’d warned her about Tala’s dietary needs.
She left them with one last goodbye and a promise to visit again, once she returned.
The snow on the ground was cool to her feet, but not unpleasantly so. It was a light dusting across most of the city, a beautiful highlight rather than an inconvenience.
If she’d been planning on being out in it for longer than a short walk, she’d have slipped on her shoes, but for the short trip, it seemed unnecessary. No need to get soft.
The beginnings of winter had settled in, in truth, and snow was a near constant feature of the city.
She loved it.
Growing up, she’d enjoyed playing in it with her siblings and the neighborhood children. Even at the Academy, snow had entranced her, though she’d enjoyed it alone, there.
She almost dropped through the Caravanner’s Guild lounge, but she didn’t like the attention she got there. Mrac had apparently received a mild reprimand for allowing her to get a higher pay than he was authorized to grant, now that she was an Archon. Because of that, the whole Guild had learned how much she was going to be making per trip.
It was apparently far from the highest wage per trip, but it was more than any other dimensional Mage got with so little on-the-job experience.
Some were impressed at what she’d managed to wrangle from the guild, a few were ambivalent, but many were quite irritated that she was to earn more than they were. All in all, she found it better to avoid them, for now. Maybe, things will calm down after another few weeks.
She would enjoy dropping back through, maybe getting to know some others in her profession. Yeah, when I come back.
But that wasn’t for now. Now, she wanted to ask a few questions of the librarians. I wonder if Ingrit’s available.