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The cooks worked through the night, getting energizing meals for the Mages and guards, along with keeping them supplied with coffee.

Tala got a bit more than the average of both food and coffee, but she still felt hungry down to her bones. Which broke so many, many times…

It did seem like they were mainly out of danger, as no further attacks came before the light of dawn broke across the canopy overhead.

Tala recharged the cargo-slots as her last act before stumbling into her room and crashing into deep sleep.

It felt like as soon as her head hit the much-too-firm pillow, a loud knock sounded against her door.

Tala rolled over and sat up with a groan. She was sore. The bed was designed for someone four times her weight, and so it resisted her downward pressure with ease. I should have increased my weight before sleeping… Maybe next time.

Her eyes flicked around the small space. The walls were simple in construction, made of interlocking panels that could be taken apart and removed from the expanded space with ease. Even so, there weren’t cracks to affect privacy or the darkness desired for easy sleep, and they seemed to have been constructed with sound isolation in mind as well.

Her eyes landed on Terry, sleeping in his corner space. When did he get back?

The knock came again.

“What.” She didn’t make it a question. Don’t encourage them.

“Mistress Tala?”

What kind of idiotic question is that? Who else would be in here? “Yes.”

“Lunch has been prepared for you; can I give it to you, now?”

Lunch? Well, that meant that it was later than she’d thought it was. “Yes. One moment.” She stood and walked to the door, unlocking it and pulling it open.

One of the guardsmen stood outside the door, bearing a large tray that was laden with an absolute feast.

Tala grinned, taking the tray. “Thank you!”

He gave a half-bow. “Of course.” Without another word, he closed the door for her, leaving her to her meal.

Tala came back to sit on her bed, placing the food on her lap. Her stomach growled at the slight delay. I was not going to start gorging, while standing.

There was a large bowl of fresh berries, a platter of raw veggies, a whole loaf of heavy bread with copious amounts of butter, and meat enough to feed a small army. Well, not quite.

There was bacon and sausage, then pulled pork and ground beef, and finally what seemed to be garlic flavored chicken.

Tala devoured the meal with abandon.

She drank deeply from her cool water incorporator. You know, I bet I could brew tea with the hot water one… If she knew how, she could probably make coffee as well. Might be better to not learn that secret…

She had a thought, then. What would happen when the water discorporates? Would it just leave behind a powder? She blinked a few times. If I were to make a solution with a large portion of incorporated water, the saturation and potency would rise to an absurd degree, after the water discorporated.

It wouldn’t be useful in every situation, and might actually ruin quite a few concoctions, but it could be worth investigating. If nothing else, cleaning iron-dust would become almost trivial…if I did that anymore.

She smiled. It was worth experimenting with at some point. I’ll have time, eventually.

The meal complete and her dishes scraped clean with remnants of the bread, Tala dipped the dishes into Kit for a final cleaning. That is really, really handy. I do need to figure out what happens to all the gunk that Kit cleans off at some point.

But that could wait for another day. She absentmindedly topped Kit off with power.

Tala felt refreshed but still ravenous. More food!

She and Terry left her room, the bird only coming awake enough to flicker to her shoulder as she departed before snuggling down to continue his rest.

Tala was almost blinded when she pulled open the outer door, looking out on the sunlit, forest landscape, slowly moving by. The white of frost and snow patches increased the harshness of the view.

After her eyes adjusted, she swung out, grabbing the ladder up to the cargo-wagon’s roof and pulling herself up.

Rane stood on the top, on overwatch for the two-wagon caravan.

Tala sat on the edge of the roof, beside the ladder. “Any excitement this morning, Master Rane?”

Rane smiled her way. “Mistress Tala, good afternoon. Nothing of consequence. A pack of upright reptiles made a play for the oxen, but they were driven off before we could get a good enough look to judge their species.”

Tala grunted at that. It was a frustration for such creatures: Human eyes, even enhanced, weren’t good at picking out the subtle differences between the large reptile species.

Sure, overarching groups were obvious: walking on four legs versus two was quite distinctive, and those with a long neck or massive, backward sweeping neck-plate were also easy to differentiate. Unfortunately, most of the obviously varied ones either weren’t present in the forest or didn’t seem as inclined to attack.

All carnivorous lizard-things look really similar….

Rane rolled his eyes. “I can guess what you’re thinking.”

“Oh?”

“All a bunch of featherless chickens?” He quirked a smile.

She paused for a moment. What?

Clearly, by the twinkle in his eyes, he thought he’d said something immensely clever.

Come on, Tala. What does he- Right… “Very funny, Master Rane.”

He cracked a full grin. “All in all, Mistress Odera was correct. This portion of the forest is positively tame.”

Tala smiled in return. “Ahh, yes. I’d like a home…” she looked around, “on top of that hill.” She pointed to a nearby rise. Sun streamed down on it, showing that it lay beneath a break in the canopy.

Rane shook his head. “That would be horribly indefensible. All that light coming down would make the surrounding woods look almost black for much of the day.”

“I thought you said these parts were tame?” She put on a mock air of confusion.

He laughed. “Not city-safe, Mistress.”

“Fine.” She took a deep breath, ready to continue the banter, when her stomach let out a gurgling roar. She felt herself blushing. “I…should probably get some more food.”

Rane nodded. “Yeah, it looked like you did a lot of healing yesterday.” His eyes flicked to her right arm. “Are you…ok?”

Tala glanced down at the arm in question. “I…” She took a breath and let it out slowly. “I think so. The loss barely registered before it came back. I think I’m more irritated at the loss in reserves and inscriptions than the limb.” Is that true?

He had an incredibly serious look on his face. “Severe injuries, even if they’re healed, can be rough to weather. Take some time when we get to Makinaven to recenter yourself.” He gave a half-smile. “We missed our earliest departure date for the return trip, so we’ll be there for a bit more than a week.”

Talal nodded. That sounded wise. “Thank you, Master Rane.”

He waved her off. “Go, eat.”

She nodded, swinging back onto the ladder and climbing down. Terry kept his eyes lightly closed, but his feet gripped her shoulder quite firmly, implying that he was awake.

Amnin greeted her warmly, when Tala knocked on the chuckwagon’s rear door, another massive tray of food already ready and waiting for Tala to devour. This one also had a large jug of coffee along with it.

“Bless you, mistress of these kitchens.”

Amnin just laughed and waved her off. “Eat, please. Send word if you need more.”

Tala took the tray back to her room in the cargo-slot, after briefly checking in with Rane. He told her to eat, then return, so he could go sleep for a bit.

Mistress Odera had yet to come out, though her servant had gotten her a few meals, reporting that the Mage was resting after the massive expenditure.

Makes sense. Even with her ridiculous efficiency, it must have been taxing to the extreme to maintain against the assault for so long.

Tala sat down and dug into the smorgasbord. The variety in this meal conveyed the idea that the cooks were clearing out their leftovers before arriving at the city that evening, rather than making new dishes.

That was fine with her. The variability helped alleviate the oddity of just how much she was consuming.

In truth, she’d retreated to her room, mainly because she’d felt some embarrassment at the spread and hadn’t wanted anyone to watch.

Terry dutifully kept his eyes closed. His only sign of wakefulness was an occasionally open mouth, which Tala placed food within. He ate happily, leaving her to her private gorging.

This is taking a lot of the fun out of eating… Too much of a good thing and all that. Fine. I’ll try not to lose any more limbs…

She still had to decide what to do with the arm.

She did not consider the options while eating. She needed the calories and couldn’t risk being put off by the grisly thoughts.

That said, once she’d basically licked the dishes clean, she did allow her thoughts to move to the limb.

I could let Terry eat it. He’d probably love that. Given how packed it was with calories and energy, it might feed him as well as many big-game beasts.

She wouldn’t have to think about it again, that way…

But what about the gold? It was something to consider. There were at least five ounces of gold within the limb, probably closer to ten. She didn’t often consider the scripts that had stretched through the arm in order to link those in her hand to those in her right breast. And I’m going to have to get those replaced…

Mistress Odera had a ‘Holly-approved’ inscriptionist to take Tala to, so that would take care of finding someone who could correct her lack of quick, offensive spell-forms. The cost would be cut in half now that Tala was officially a Mage protector. But if I were an inscriptionist, that would cause me to charge more.

Tala wouldn’t count on too much of a discount from her earlier inscriptions.

In fact, as she thought about it, she was pretty sure that Holly had already been undercharging her, given the other woman’s desire to experiment with Tala’s inscriptions and capabilities. Tala hadn’t really let herself consider it fully before, because she hated being beholden to anyone. Still, she hadn’t really had any other options. So, don’t think about it.

She let out a tired sigh. So, expect more expensive inscriptions…

Thinking of inscriptions, she swept her mage-sight through her body, checking the integrity of the active scripts that she still had. They were much more worn than she would have liked.

Six months? Rust you, Holly. These won’t last six weeks. To be fair, she had been stressing them quite thoroughly.

She shuddered, remembering the juggernauts knocking her around like a child’s ball.

Yeah, I prefer worn inscriptions to death.

Still, this meant that she’d have to visit Holly as soon as she was back in Bandfast, just to be safe.

I’ll need her to look at this, too. She brushed her hand across the base of her neck, thinking of Xeel and the supposed encounter with an Arcane. I hope she can get something from it.

So, back to her arm.

I should get the gold out. Maybe the inscriptionist would have an idea as to how.

A thought occurred to her, then.

Wait…the elk leather. She opened Kit and reached in, seeking to get just the sleeve instead of the arm that was within.

She felt the supple leather in her hand and pulled it out.

It was that and only that: wonderfully high-quality, dyed, and treated leather. No magic remained.

I wonder if I could cut my outfit in half and get two outfits out of it?

What would the purpose be? She didn’t need two of them, and they wouldn’t be able to be sold; they were bound to her, after all.

Maybe, as a back-up? In case something manages to completely obliterate the one I’m wearing, and I survive?

There was some merit to that, but she didn’t want to experiment on her own. It wasn’t worth losing the garments, especially when she’d be near a branch of the Constructionists soon enough.

She sighed, putting the leather back in her pouch.

“Thank you, Kit.”

The pouch did not respond.

She’d finished her meal and was just delaying at this point. “I need to go relieve Master Rane.” She glanced to Terry. “Want to stay in here or come with me?”

He cracked an eye then closed it without moving.

“Fair enough.” She smiled to herself as she left her room, locking it behind herself.

She gave all her dishes over to the chuckwagon workers, along with her profuse gratitude, before she climbed back up onto the cargo-wagon’s top.

“Ready to take overwatch?”

She nodded. “Go, eat, sleep. I’ll be fine for this last stretch.”

“Thank you.”

“Rest well, Master Rane.”

He gave her a parting, tired smile before disappearing over the edge of the wagon, leaving Tala basically alone with her thoughts.

The afternoon passed uneventfully as they continued to draw closer to Makinaven.

The guards drove off a few lesser arcanous beasts, but nothing of note: no true attacks and nothing close enough for her to even see what it had been, through the low-light and trunks.

Terry came out of the cargo-slot and vanished for a couple of hours in the middle, likely off to hunt or for a final run before they were to be within a city for more than a week’s time.

Good thought, my friend. Burn off some energy. She’d initially felt some irritation towards Terry. After all, he hadn’t helped her when she was reduced to a training pell for the Leshkin juggernauts, but a little time and a little thought had shown her the folly of those feelings.

He couldn’t have done anything except get hurt. I survived. If I’d been seriously hurt, or truly trapped, he likely would have come to help me.

She didn’t actually know that, but she hoped that it was true. After all, he’d come to her aid in the past. Never against creatures that could seriously harm him, though… Well, he had helped her face Leshkin knights. I might be over thinking things.

To be fair, she’d never put herself on the line for him, had she? Maybe with Xeel. I think that man would have killed Terry if I hadn’t vouched for him, or if I had hedged too much.

Her partnership with Terry was still incredibly new, and though she was coming to understand the value of sparring with the avian, it was quite intimidating: traveling with a creature that had so thoroughly demonstrated his martial superiority.

Well, he can’t outright kill me. She snorted a chuckle. That just means that I’ll still be breathing as he kills everyone around us. Then, I’ll have plenty of time to rue my choices as he bleeds my defenses dry. But he wasn’t hostile to her, so that wasn’t a concern.

Nope, she wasn’t worried in the slightest.

Nothing to fear but a slow death, surrounded by carnage, at the hands of someone I trusted.

Friends were great. Tala should find more.

Finally, they came out from around one of the large trees, and she was able to look down, across a cleared space before them, upon Makinaven.

Nothing that she had read or heard, prepared her for the sight.

A truly gargantuan tree stood in the center of the wide clearing, and nothing about that description accurately conveyed the scale.

The tree was a titan compared to the children they’d been travelling among, and no other great tree stood in the area before them, the space involved being close to four times the area of a normal, new built city.

It wasn’t that much taller, at most double the smaller trees in the forest at around one and a half thousand feet in height. The trunk, however, looked to be a thousand feet in diameter at least, and the amount of magic flowing through the entirety was colossal.

Now that she was closer to the source, she could see that the draw-down line they crossed the previous day was likely the very edges of this great tree’s roots. The Builders had obviously added to and augmented the power-drawing nature of the tree, using that natural framework to exceed the draw of most cities.

The tree, itself, then functioned as the others in the forest did, raining the power down from its spreading canopy. And oh, how the canopy spread.

What sort of magics are in the wood to allow that? No amount of mundane material could allow such cantilevered limbs, and certainly not of that size.

There was no city below or around the tree at first glance, and Tala was already seeing lights sparkling in the trunk in the early evening dimness. As she focused more fully, she saw buildings on the lower branches, melded with the bark.

The streets must run down the middle of the branches with buildings on either side. Makinaven should be firmly in the bureaucratic phase, preparing for its waning and abandonment, but if anything, it looked livelier than Bandfast, a city less than half its age.

“Beautiful, isn’t it?”

Tala shifted her gaze to see Mistress Odera climbing the rest of the way onto the roof.

“Makinaven, Retindel, Truhold, Namfast, and Manaven.” Mistress Odera took a deep breath and let out a deeply contented sigh. “Those are our remaining forest cities, this cycle. They are truly something special.”

“Makinaven doesn’t look like a city in the bureaucratic stage.”

Mistress Odera nodded knowingly. “That is because the forest cities are able to maintain nearly every stage for their full life-cycle. Only the mining operations fade at the usual time. The great tree that each is built within makes the foundational inscriptions more efficient, long-lasting, and powerful. The result is more danger around the cities but a longer lifespan for most of the cities’ functions.”

Tala was awed, and true to Mistress Odera’s words, Tala could see orchards and farmland tucked around the base of the tree, spreading outward to cover almost the entirety of the space beneath the reaching canopy.

“The entirety of the city is within the tree, only the food production and now closed down mining operations are located outside.”

The wagons did not slow their pace as they headed down a slight incline, down into the valley in which the great tree flourished.

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