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 Orison pulled out a map Gan had helped him to create. "There are blank spots all over the place. I need to know what I'm working with here and if there are dangerous spots that either need to be dealt with or avoided. To be clear, I'm not asking you to deal with them yet. I just want this all marked out. While you're at it, if you happen to find a nice spot for running in, I'm not adverse to respecting a private 'territory' on the edges of my land. In fact, there's likely a good deal of uninhabited or mildly infiltrated and potential threatening spots from east to northeast out there for the claiming."

Rune eyeballed Orison and said, "Wanting to use us as a shield against Forgotten Northlanders isn't doing us any favors."

Orison nodded and said, "Having threats none of us know about on our stomping grounds isn't a favor to any of us but don't pretend that circling off a chunk of hidden ridge land as a private sanctuary isn't appealing even if you have to mark and defend that territory."

Rune snorted. "If there was anything in there worth claiming, it would have been."

Orison sighed. "I think you're missing a big hole in your logic on that one. Navigation through this area is a big pain in the a** and mages are too expensive to put to work on construction projects. With a little time, I'm going to turn this into a second major trade hub for Northland and Centerland. If I can manage, I might even add Highland to the mix. The one thing this place was missing to make it appealing to those like yourself will be here.

"Are you going to try to convince me that people aren't a part of the equation? It's quite the contradiction to need lots of privacy but still be close to people. Still, I think this area has more than just a little potential to become exactly that, a place with lots of private space but access to a good number of people."

Rune peeked and listened around then said, "The old wolves were responsible for that trail to begin with but no one was interested before. If you're telling me the truth then yeah but I know a thing or two about you that makes me a little uneasy about investing too much... You going to lie to me and tell me you don't have blood-sucker acquaintances? The best kind of place for us is the best for them too. After we do the dirty work are you going to clean us out to make room for them?"

Orison flared soul power through his eyes. "One thing will be crystal clear. There is no territory on MY land to fight over because it is mine. Peace will be kept here because those who break it won't be welcomed or possibly breathing. I'm offering the east of my border as allies. If you want it, I'll help you claim it as long as you help me get to the hard to reach areas of my land and tell me what's there. West is off limits and there might be a vampire or two that pass through but there will be no nest near my land, ever. No other points are up for discussion."

Rune looked ready to take Orison up on a challenge for authority until his keen hearing heard the draw of bowstring to his left and right. "Coward."

"Mage, hypocrite. Only one of those arrows is aimed at you so unless you want your pack mate to have a new silver accessory in his face you'll tell him to stop creeping up behind me," the young mage said blandly.

As quickly as it escalated, the heat died out of Rune's eyes. "Two hundred and a signed document stating that your eastern border is our group's training ground. I'm not interested in having your help claiming territory."

Orison said, "100 and if I see signs of recent ransacking of anything you find on my land or failure to report a finding will result in unpleasantness. I'm asking you to look, not touch. It's more to give you something to do and a way to get some gold."

After a few finer points of contention and a detailed contract, the group of mercenaries had something to do until late fall came, ending any meaningful outdoor activities for anyone except for two of their six person group. Not that the other four couldn't find something to do. Orison made sure there was some coin to throw around between his people and even if it wasn't what they were expecting, there was a silver or two for a couple hours' assistance on any number of activities.

With less and less for most to do as fall progressed to it's nastier side, Orison observed the visible expressions of his people's personal lives between his relentless pursuits to force his land into usability. With so little going on, there was really only one activity healthy people would always have available that was of interest, no matter the environment. And as far as Orison could see, there were plenty of people that were healthy and interested.

For himself, other than batting around the idea of taking 'Sandy' from the mercenary troop up on her flirtations, which he declined after learning that Rune's pack mate was serious about her, he didn't really go out of his way to make himself available. Joining him in celibacy, because reasons, was Rithus. Both of them seemed to be on the same page about entertaining anything serious when they planned on leaving someday and the Marshlander didn't particularly feel any 'needs' when the weather was too cold apparently. Neither did Orison but he thought it had more to do with certain parts of his mind catching up with his body.

As time went by, it became more obvious that Gan's friendship with Corvinus and Yulian went into areas Orison was happy to remain unenlightened about and Morrel was throwing around so much 'dog food' with Ruolan that even established couples like Droya and Claudius occasionally found it uncomfortable to be around them. It dawned on the young mage that Morrel still thought of himself as an old man and not the powerful supernatural entity in the prime of his life that he'd become. Ruolan had a strangely low self esteem and soaked up the generous affection that rained on her from Morrel, returning it with an intensity that bordered on obsession. In the words of Droya, 'It would be adorable if it wasn't a little scary.'

With the absence of a temple and magistrate, Orison found out that he was the only entity on his land capable of officiating legal weddings. This surprising tidbit was brought to his attention when Jiraya, the young Bastet man he'd rescued from Avenar's estate, approached him with the forty-something Highlander restoration mage to be officiated. Their story was completely under the radar but was somewhat of a welcomed surprise. The two had grown close due to sharing responsibilities over the four children in Orison's clan. It hadn't been an intentional decision for things to turn out that way but Jiraya just kind of naturally slid into it and proved to be a deft and trustworthy hand at childcare and Myriam found joy in teaching that turned into a deeper affection for the traumatized kids.

Orison contemplated that the same thing that drew the woman into a restoration specialty is what pulled her heartstrings for Jiraya and the four children. Determined to make it something less dry, Orison splurged a bit of supplies from his private stock and held a little ceremony, urging them to share vows and making it through the legal proceedings in as natural a way as two nights of crash course studying Centerland marriage would allow. As a traditionalist, Myriam married into the Cantrip Clan and defended it from slander as if she were born into it, which apparently was a Highlander way of thinking that he wasn't aware of.

As if the ceremony had been some sort of catalyst, the four gold elf guards and remaining Marshlander woman from the Domain refugees slowly started coming out of their shells and mingling with everyone. That didn't mean all was well, however. Just when Orison wasn't on edge around Therridel any longer, the elf got himself beat up by Rune's second when the journeyman illusionist let 'Sandy' have her way with him. Luckily the elf was capable of handling his own problems and before the week was out, Sandy was no longer acting oblivious to her companion's advances but the man in question suddenly seemed to be more interested in the ongoing mission Orison had given to Rune. Aside from 'abusing' Therridel with a weirdly possessive 'bros before h*es' mentality friendship in his free time, the man became another helpful set of hands around the valley. At least, that's what it looked like in public and that's all Orison cared to know.

As interpersonal relationships grew deeper and more complex, Claudius and his brother found themselves with actual business to handle. Orison found it sad he couldn't share a joke with Claudius about his Mayberry sheriff way of handling things but was happy to continue his tight, three section plus sleep schedule. To cut down further on things he didn't particularly have a care to deal with on the daily, he empowered Droya with the ability to use his seal to officiate on his behalf and slowly started fading into the background to focus on the land and his magical studies.

Just when Orison was finished with linking the western lake with the reservoir and service creek, Rune handed in the eastern side report. Among a honeycomb of caverns with common crystal and semi-precious stone deposits was a hydro-thermal activity area. After running a few test to make sure it was safe, Orison delegated the northeastern most third, accessible only by cave unless one was really good at climbing, to be the beginnings of pack territory. The southeastern two-thirds along with the southern caverns would be developed into a winter retreat/ recreational hot springs area after development.

With the resources of his property now known and the people around him briefed on expectations come spring, the young mage lost himself completely to development and study. It was a cold scouring of his mind and soul. All thoughts and feelings tumbled from jagged edges to smooth corners under a blur of golems, models and theories. Weak sun, wind and eventually blizzards were his days. Words of the deceased wise and arcane symbols with a slightly concerned but supportive small group of friends and family flitting in and out were his evenings and nights.

The final few barriers that existed between boy and man within Orison eroded away. On Longest Night, at Droya's behest, the young mage took the first day off in nearly two months. During a small celebration of the returning of light and life, Droya slipped him a small present, secretly wishing him a happy birthday. Orison smiled at the three sets of quality woolen socks within and knew he had finally become himself. And if the shadows in his heart might never be completely gone, at least for the time being, he had made peace with and moved beyond them.

His gift to the clan was an underground access route, lined with glow stones and mixed support structures that wouldn't buckle under an earthquake, to a somewhat steamy but near tropical hot springs region large enough to put a decent village in. It had nearly taken three weeks but Orison had removed a portion of cave ceiling and transplanted a large amount of grass and other flora to create a place that would maintain a temperature of around 80 degrees all year round. It was a nearly one mile ovoid of private paradise. Until some buildings were complete within, the only two permanent inhabitants were Rithus and the Marshlander woman but soon most of the clan would be living there until spring.

After the intense, two month long session, Orison switched gears back into reconnecting with his core group even as he slowly drew a line between himself and the rest, pushing them into Droya's arms. Ultimately, this was all for her, Morrel and those friends and loved ones who would inevitably be left behind. It was only a small thing at present but inside Orison, Gan and Rithus was a slow building pull that would grow stronger, an instinct that would lead them to a restless desire. They had already made the first step on the short road to the tower and for better or worse they didn't intend to turn back.

***

In a rare moment of privacy, Orison sat down with Droya for a serious talk. He had noticed the sad stares at the increasingly round belly of Yulian and a small knot of unhappiness laying in the deep bottom of her and Claudius' relationship. The young mage had been putting off a final card to play as he watched to insure Claduis wasn't going to give in to whatever small voices might be whispering to him that might drive the man into the arms of a woman that could give him what Droya could not but he didn't. The Centerland man was as true as the day is long and it was obvious that despite Claudius' desire for a child of his own, his love for her was strong enough to deny seeking it.

"Mom, I don't want to give you false hope but I have a possible solution to your infertility. It comes with risk and there's some gradual changes that come with it." Orison said.

Droya was silent for awhile but eventually curiosity won over dread and she said, "Tell me about it, sweetling. Let me know all you can."

There were some unspoken understandings that lay between them and Droya knew by how he breached the subject that this was one of the ones that came close to secrets not easily shared. "I have secured a source of, let's call it, essence enrichment. That source is not a place that could be considered good but the portion that belongs to me is free of 'taint'. I have the ability to give over a portion of that to you but know that even though it should make you whole, over a long time it will also make you more. It won't be in the way I am but you'll live a long time, maybe more than you'll want to. You might change over time as well but it will also be small changes and over a long time. The thing is, once I grant that portion to you, I can't take it back.

"Of course, there's a decent chance that our shares from that place will be severed at some point. That could happen tomorrow or never, though. If it's a long time, you will eventually be forced out of the material realm to live among the 'others' that watch, guide and manipulate this world, only able to visit for a short time. Morrel can help you with a lot of that, including staving off changes or keeping you from being pushed out but the price is making a pact with the world as he has. Honestly, to protect from many unknowns, I'd say you should do that from the very beginning if you choose to do this."

Since Morrel was brought into it, Droya had him weigh in. The conversation was long and all possibilities were covered. Orison noticed that Morrel had strong mixed feelings about it but considering his closeness with both Droya and Orison, whatever internal struggle the wood elf was enduring had ended up landing in their favor. With all discussed, Droya decided to sleep on it. It all left Orison with the subtle feeling that he was a devil tricking a poor woman into selling her soul.

Once Droya was gone, Morrel said, "For the chance to have children, to give children to Claudius, she's agreeing to a great deal more than she was designed by nature for. Still, she's a strong woman and adaptable."

Orison asked, "What will the world ask of her Morrel? I've negotiated for the source but what will the world want from her?"

Morrel said, "The world does not bargain. It does not issue bills for services. She will be to a lesser degree as I am and her importance to the world will raise with her ability and willingness."

When the next day came, Droya decided to go through with it but not without reservation. Unlike the sacrament that Orison and Gan had, which more resembled applying sunscreen, Droya swallowed the aloe substance down. An entire day was spent communing and bringing herself in alignment with the world. Afterward, Orison designated her as the other tithe holder. Orison watched carefully for tricks as she called for her first tithe and sure enough there had been one. A spiritual entity of weak strength slipped through the connection but once inside it was met with a green glow that dissolved it like mist in the sun.

Assured by Morrel and what he saw, Orison no longer needed to worry about such things. What was to become of her future was in her own hands and what she could get out of Rozcherek before the demon inevitably found a way to slip the contract or was defeated by another of his kind. If there was anything to regret, it was the subtle wall between mother and son known as the will of the world that would be between them from that point forward. Still, the woman had risked much to stay by his side and provide support when he needed it most. He wanted to provide her with something enduring. The young mage just hoped that she wouldn't end up hating him for it.

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