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Tala fell into a modified pattern over the next few days. Mistress Odera rarely let her engage the creatures that attacked them directly, but Tala used her gravity manipulation as often as possible to assist in the defense of the caravan.

She’d made great progress at first, but that had slowed to a crawl and was continuing to slow. The new manipulation ability was highly useful, and she had no complaint about that, but in a combat situation, especially against more than one opponent, it still seemed cumbersome to the point of worthlessness. This was magnified because distance greatly slowed the rate of change that she could impart, as well as increasing the amount of power required per second to enact the change.

Yes, I’ve been working with it for two days, and I dub it worthless!

She shook her head to herself. It had taken her weeks before she was able to use Crush at all, for the first time. She could dedicate a good bit of time to this, too. Worst case scenario, if she still didn’t like these workings, she’d get something else in their place, after the inscriptions ran out.

Her morning routine didn’t change much, except for the increase to her effective gravity for physical conditioning and the reducing of such after. If there was time, she and Rane would engage in a few rounds of sparring. Since they were fighting with their weapons, she still only ever won through trickery. Unfortunately, no trick worked more than once.

She did improve though, and she was surprised to see Rane improving as well. Mostly, the latter amazed her, because she could tell he was getting better. My perception is improving, at least in regards to combat.

The days were filled with forest watching, physiology and anatomy review, gravity training, conversations with Mistress Odera, and periodic moments of high adrenaline, as magic-charged beasts threw themselves at the caravan.

The evenings were filled by her role as a Mage protector, along with sparring against Rane and other basics such as eating.

After all the passengers and off-duty personnel had gone to bed, she sparred with Terry, and while she didn’t feel like she was improving combat wise, at all, she never let herself fall into quite the same level of desperation as that first time.

Consequently, she felt like she was at least better able to perceive how badly she was losing. Baby steps, Tala.

With regard to the attacks: The first day had mostly been Certs, with the occasional Leshkin, puma, or species of deer. Or, had they been elk? They weren’t moose… It was hardly relevant. There had even been a couple of great reptiles, but those were incredibly easy for the guardsmen to drive away, so Tala only ever caught the barest of glimpses.

The guards had been very thorough in harvesting from any creature that left remains, which was all those they killed, except the lesser Leshkin. The wagons were slow enough, through the forest, that the off-duty guards were easily able to do the work in time. It helped that nothing was anywhere close to the size of a thunder bull. The forest had powerful creatures, but not many large ones.

The second day, they left the Certs mostly behind, and their encounters were, consequently, more weighted towards the other creatures.

The third day, lesser Leshkin became almost their sole attackers. On that day, Tala began to take note of something odd with the Leshkin. Every lesser Leshkin that died within her line of sight had its gaze fixed on her as it perished.

That’s not creepy or anything.

Over these days, Tala watched the slow change in the direction of the currents of magic within the forest. Finally, on that third day, Tala’s observations of the power flow told her they were even with Makinaven, at least in the north-south direction. The power in the air seemed to flow almost due west, now, and there was a lot more.

They’d been shunted in the direction of old Audel, one of the more recent ruins, and the magic density in that region was still quite high from the recent waning.

The forest continued to attempt to force them east or south. Towards greater magic density.

Also, on that third day, Mistress Odera began creating arching shields over the snarls of roots, which occasionally were the forest’s obstacle.

Easier than migrating so many trees to deflect us, I suppose.

The oxen, as was their standard, didn’t seem to care in the least, dragging the wagons over the magical bridges. The surface dimpled slightly with each of their steps, giving good traction. Mistress Odera had worked her magics with as gradual a slope as was reasonable, so the task wasn’t too onerous.

The horses hated it.

In the end, most of the horses had to have hoods pulled over their heads before being forcefully lead over the constructs.

That added distraction and difficulty, along with making it harder for them to maintain a good perimeter.

The head driver had several constructs that let him pinpoint their location, and he let the caravan know that they were still around three days from Makinaven.

Rust, we went much further east than I’d thought.

That night, as she and Terry were preparing for their sparring session, Tala’s mage-sight alerted her to incoming threats.

A unit of four Leshkin warriors was upon them, breaking from beside one of the closer trees, coming from the east.

“LESHKIN!” Tala’s voice boomed out, the inscriptions on her lungs, throat, and vocal cords allowing her to get to a much greater volume without causing damage.

She dropped Flow’s sheath into Kit as she assessed the incoming enemy.

Like all the Leshkin she’d seen before, these were made of seemingly random plant-matter. One was of mostly roots, two of bark, and the final of leaves.

They all seemed to be staring directly at her, an odd savagery on their inhuman expressions that was at stark contrast to the nearly blank expressions of the lesser Leshkin they’d been fighting.

Each warrior carried a weapon.

Root held a massive, two-handed club as it thundered silently forward. How do such loping steps not shake the ground?

Each Bark seemed to be wielding a long spear, leveled at her as they charged on quick, light footsteps.

Leaves? Leaves put an arrow into Tala’s eye as her warning call was still echoing through their campsite.

The arrow exploded on impact, unable to penetrate her well inscribed flesh. Bless you, eye inscriptions.

The ending-berry power had, like previously, retreated before the attack. Leshkin arrows, as it turned out, were filled with the same caustic sap/blood as the Leshkin themselves.

Tala screamed in irritation and pain as the acid burned at her defenses. How is it hurting when it isn’t harmful to me? Was it a secondary effect of pushing back the ending-berry power? Was it lessening her defenses overall?

If she understood the quick glimpse she took with her internally directed mage-sight, her defensive scripts were almost entirely annulled, and so her eyes and skin were burning freely beneath the acid. The only reason she still had a face was that her regeneration scripts seemed utterly unaffected by the strange repulsion the Leshkin exuded, and were working perfectly, rebuilding the flesh even as it melted away.

I am an Immaterial Guide! Rust me if I let some rusting plant dominate MY power in MY body!

With a growl of irritation, she mentally seized her defensive powers and forced them into position, even as she swiped the sticky sludge from her eyes.

Those same eyes widened as she opened them only to see Root’s club incoming, fast.

On instinct, Tala dropped backwards, taking the move from Rane’s arsenal, even if her version wasn’t magically-enacted.

Her mage-sight detected the blips of Terry’s retreating power. Mistress Odera had warned him away from fighting these foes, and he seemed to be wise enough to have listened, at least in the heat of the moment. Great.

Flow was already lashing out, and Tala took Root's closest leg off, just above the knee, before her back had even hit the ground.

As the man-sized Leshkin fell towards her, she swept her blade upward, bisecting her opponent groin to crown.

She threw herself to the side, pushing a bit awkwardly across the ground and barely avoiding the deluge of acid that rained onto the frozen soil where she’d just been lying. Thankfully, Flow seemed to have some blow-back on the horrid liquid, delaying its fall and even driving a lot of it up, first.

One. Or was that two, because two lessers had been needed to make this one warrior?

Now was hardly the time for such contemplations.

Leaves launched three more arrows towards her, but she was able to dodge two and strike one from the air. Score one for improved reflexes and proper training. The one arrow she shattered covered her hand and arm in burning acid however, and her sleeve was much worse for wear.

She connected a void-channel to the elk-leathers to keep them from burning through their reserves and losing their power.

She couldn’t close on Leaves, especially with the two Barks almost upon her. Even so, she’d distracted the archer for long enough that two guards were able to strike it with specialized quarrels from their position atop the chuckwagon.

Bark and Bark were closing rapidly on her as she turned her attention from the now removed, long-ranged enemy. How was their heavy hitter the fast one?

Unfortunately, her time sparring against the Guardsmen had made at least one thing abundantly clear: spears and halberds were incredibly effective.

I wonder if I’ll be able to add a path for one of those to Flow, in the future.

It was an oddly disconnected thought as she backpedaled, using Flow to knock aside quick thrusts and probing jabs, leaving heat-darkened marks on their wooden weapons. Don’t let them flank you, Tala.

She was hearing the steady rhythm of crossbow fire, but her two opponents seemed not to be the targets of any of the shots. What are they shooting at?

She rolled her head to one side, a spear tip going through the space her mouth had just occupied. Rude.

Exactly as Mistress Odera had implied, there was a reason the Leshkin were considered a bane to humanity’s early attempts at civilization and magic: their natural aura seemed designed to suppress, or push back, ending-berries’ defensive power. And I modeled my primary defensive scripts on that same mythos…

The aura was a subtle thing. To reference Ingrit’s analogy: It was like a light rain; the presence or absence of a fence was largely irrelevant.

Translation? Her iron-salve didn’t stop it. Might be weakening the effect, though. She wasn’t dead, after all, despite taking an arrow to the eye. I doubt my regeneration was fast enough to stop that in the way it was blocked. My defenses had to have done something.

If she’d been told this enemy so directly countered a large part of her defenses, she’d have picked a different route. If only some other Mage relied on this defense in modern times, so that the counter was more than myth and legend.

She grunted. Bark thrust for her trailing leg as she continued moving backwards, very much on the defensive. Tala jerked the limb out of the way, mis-stepping, unbalancing, and taking a forceful thrust from other-Bark in her shoulder.

Her scripts had a lot more staying power than the nebulous, free-floating ending-berry defense, especially backed by her pre-prepared will, so the sharpened wood didn’t breach her flesh, but at some basic level, Tala felt her inscriptions bend before the impact. Thankfully, they held.

Leshkin were strong.

The single, upward angled thrust lifted her free of the ground and caused her to whip in a full circle before she landed again, in a tumbling heap.

Not good. Not good!

The buzzing of bolts through the air announced two quarrels striking home, and one Bark immediately crumbled into a disjointed pile.

They targeted the same one. Was it bad luck, or did the warriors need two quarrels to go down? Didn’t the Leaves go down with just one? In that crystalized moment, as the remaining Bark drove a spear towards her abdomen, her near perfect recall brought her the memory of two bolts striking the archer.

So, that had taken two as well. Fascinating. Not currently relevant, but fascinating.

A guard tackled her attacker seemingly out of nowhere. His short sword hacked and stabbed again and again as he took the beast to the ground.

The combination of stab wounds and the massive man’s weight coming down on top of the Leshkin caused it to pop.

Caustic sap-blood splattered across the guardsman, and Tala thought she heard him gritting his teeth in obvious agony.

Wow, how is he not screaming at that much pain? She knew the barest fraction of what that felt like, and she’d screamed while gaining that knowledge.

“Mistress Odera! Healer!” Tala was able to get to her feet. At the same time, the guard stumbled upright, turning towards her before swaying. He slowly sunk back to his knees.

He was mostly silent because the lower half of his face and the front half of his neck were gone.

The nameless guard looked up at her with pleading in his eyes.

The moment stretched out, as Tala looked back into the man’s eyes.

She couldn’t do anything for him. He was already dead; his body just hadn’t caught up with that fact.

Finally, the guard collapsed, motionless on the forest floor.

Silence filled the clearing.

The attack was over, and reality truly hit home.

He’s…he’s dead.

 

* * *

 

Tala stood, staring down at the unmoving guardsman for what felt like an eternity.

He looked perfectly healthy, now that his wounded front was pressed against the ground.

He could be sleeping.

But he’s not.

Why had he done that?

Why did he protect me?

That was his job.

It’s not anymore.

Tala felt a mirthless laugh bubble up from inside her.

He’s dead, and he hadn’t needed to die.

He’s dead, and it’s because of me.

This was far from the first person she’d seen dead or die. She’d seen Terry’s slaughter of around a dozen men, but those men had been hostile towards her. This man – I don’t even know his name – This man died because she had looked weak. He died, because her death meant the end of the caravan. He died, because she’d let the Leshkin get too close. He died, because she’d let the Leshkin get the upper hand.

She felt a weight on her shoulder, and Tala realized that she was kneeling beside the body, silent tears running down her face.

“Mistress Tala, do you need healing?” Mistress Odera’s voice was soft, gentle even, conveying the strength of her presence without imposing it upon Tala. It was her hand on Tala’s shoulder.

Tala shook her head. She heard other footsteps around her and watched as a number of guards worked together to move the body, likely taking it to a cargo-slot, to be brought home for burial. To next of kin.

Had he had a family? What will happen to them, now?

Tala stood, took out her copper incorporator and used a brief, moderate pulse of hot water to wash her face clean. The too hot water used a small bit her ending-berry power but was otherwise a blessed relief. “What happened?”

Mistress Odera patted her shoulder once more, then stepped back. “Around ten lessers attacked the far side of the encampment, while these four struck over here. That is more advanced tactics than they usually use, but not alarmingly so. There were a few casualties, but he was the only death. The others were within my ability to fully heal.”

Tala nodded. What would have happened if the attack occurred during dinner? “Something’s changed. These are the first warriors we’ve encountered, and I find it hard to believe that there just happened to be four, together, along with a small contingent of lessers.”

Mistress Odera grunted before replying. “We started making our way in a nearly straight line towards Makinaven, bypassing most of the things meant to divert us and slow us down. I didn’t do so earlier, because it is known to bring greater attention, but I deemed the risks acceptable.”

“Do you still?”

The woman gave her an odd look. “Yes, of course. Today, we made more progress towards our goal than the two previous days, combined. We need to reach the city, and I am unwilling to wander the forest for weeks to do it. That would only lead to more potential injury and death. This route usually claims at least a few of the guardsmen, it’s why it is so well paid for them.” She paused, seeming to see something in Tala, then. Her voice softened, ever so slightly. “The fact that our caravan is smaller, that you allowed that, has already kept us from receiving as many attacks as is standard. We should have suffered more casualties by now, if not more deaths. Your abilities have mitigated that.”

Tala grunted. “I’ll have to take your word on it.”

“You can look up the statistics yourself, Mistress. What I say is true.”

Tala just nodded. I know you’re not lying... “Doesn’t make it better.”

Mistress Odera grunted. “You aren’t wrong. I wish there were better ways. We’ve tried having only Mages as guards, but it takes so many that we end up drawing more enemies down upon us, and people still die. We’ve tried…” She shook her head. “We’ve settled on this because it’s the best of our current options, not because it’s good.”

Best of bad options, indeed. Tala took a deep breath and gave Mistress Odera a sad smile. “Should we expect more attacks, tonight?”

Mistress Odera sniffed. “Always expect attacks.”

Terry flickered into being on Tala’s shoulder, returning from whatever he’d been up to.

“But, if you mean should we be extra diligent? I don’t think that’s required. Once things calm down, you should be able to treat this like any other evening.”

Tala looked to where the guards were dragging off the vegetative remains of the Leshkin. They’d already taken the weapons for use until Makinaven, then for sale to improve the payout.

Her eyes flickered back to where the guard had died. There’s not even any blood.

The acid hadn’t opened any wounds, and the damage it had done had been fused closed as it happened. “I will try.”

“See that you do. I’m glad that you are continuing your practice. It will improve the defensibility of the caravan and increase the survival rate of everyone here.” Mistress Odera quirked a smile. “Even if just marginally. Such gains are slow; so every day matters.” She turned to go. “Good night, Mistress Tala.”

“Good night, Mistress Odera.”

The camp slowly settled back down into the sleepiness of night.

It was dark, beneath the forest canopy, and Tala had never really considered how the guards on night watch were able to see well enough to be worthwhile. During dinner, and for a bit afterwards, magical lights lit the space around them, but those would soon be put away.

Why don’t guards have night-vision inscriptions? The obvious answer was that such couldn’t be turned off without a keystone, and during the day they would likely be more than a little inhibiting. I’ll have to actually look, after lights out tonight.

Until then, she would follow Mistress Odera’s advice. “Ready, Terry?”

He answered by flickering over to the space already cleared for sparring. He was smaller, today, choosing to be closer to the size of a large dog, as opposed to that of a horse.

“Let’s see how I can improve.”

 

* * *

 

An hour later, a guard called that the lights were being deactivated.

Tala was drenched with sweat, having pushed hard, even if not nearly as hard as she had during her first match with Terry. She weakly waved acknowledgement to the guardsman. “Thank you!”

She’d done markedly better, tonight.

It wasn’t that she’d managed to hit Terry, nor had she been much better at warding him away, but she had gotten to the point where she didn’t feel escalating panic at her own mounting helplessness, and that emotional control helped her keep her mind centered and allowed her to analyze what was happening.

She didn’t have a workable solution, not yet, but it was a monumental step forward.

First rule: Don’t panic. She smeared some of her sweat across her face. I need a towel…

With a sigh, she pulled out her cold-water incorporator and blasted herself clean. The cold water was shocking and invigorating. Night watch, here I come!

The large constructs dimmed and went dark, one guard carrying each of the four items back to the cargo-wagon for safe storage.

Now that she was looking for it, Tala noticed that each guard wore a close fitting, flesh-colored mask, minutely thin copper wire was woven throughout and fused periodically to form inscriptions for increased light collection. Only active at need, when powered, able to be used by any. That was an elegant solution.

As she thought about it, she couldn’t decide if she’d get inscriptions, were she a guard. Obviously, the ideal thing would be to become a Mage, but that wasn’t possible for everyone, not by a long shot.

The Guardsmen Guild probably doesn’t pay for personal inscriptions, but they likely pay for inscribed items, like the night-watch masks. Anything I got would always be on, so maybe before a particularly long or dangerous route? That made sense. She hadn’t really looked closely at the guards, though her mage-sight had shown her that many had bits of magic circulating through them on occasion, likely the result of long hours of training.

Well, time to take my post on top of the cargo-wagon. Normally, she read or practiced, but tonight? Tonight, despite Mistress Odera’s assurances, Tala knew that she’d have her focus fully on the dark, cold forest around them.

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Nathan Impey, SomethingWicked , N. A., Miles Pettey, Nikolaus Johann Kurmayer, Jason H, John Marcus, R , Desertdoe , Naimah , Connor Moffat, Gusten Nyberg , Chad Lowe, Dave Burkett, Matt DiMeo, Michael kim, Robert Rosenthal, Joost Boere, P.R. Bakker, Isaac Larkin, Chris K, Elessar Beverly, Sid_Cypher , Kevin O'donnell, Hamish Macintosh, Daniel Moses, Lance Linked, moniker, S , [email protected], Matt Button, Xaim , Alex Diaz, ashandarei, Daniel Staub, Forrest Venable, John Smith, roborobo1 , Sansvoid, DRg, Faris Bissex, Jeff berman

Inscribed:

Lord Falco, DT , Chase128, Charles, fennek , Alastair Dent, nikrowd , Isaac Fratti, Ari Mononen, Daydeus, ImBaroqe, Jonathan , Anks , PeM


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