11. Vandal-Hearts

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"...Mm, I wouldn't necessarily describe it that way, but you've got the right idea, my dear." Astral's voice echoed in the treetops over the sound of rickety cart wheels fighting to remain stable in the stony forest path. He sat up front on the bench, Phalanx's reins in-hoof, with Regina at his side. "Let's take the example of – ahh – something tangible, something we can see and touch and smell and taste – an expert cook, perhaps. You like to cook, helping about in the kitchen?"

"...Not really, no," said Regina. She scrunched up her face at the thought of being stuck inside her mother's kitchen, being ordered around, and always getting herself scolded over improper measurements. She shook her head with defiance.

Astral raked a hoof over his cheek, surprised by Regina's response. He caressed his beard with slow methodical strokes until the most obvious answer came to him. "Oh? ... Oh. Oh, of course! What is this old porcine thinking? I am in the presence of an expert gardener! How embarrassing!"

Regina giggled behind rosy cheeks.

"Well, all right then – when you garden, and when you garden well enough—"

"I do!" Regina said, tail wagging. "Mrs. Jacobi once told me that I will make a fine young bloomer some day!"

Astral paused, blinked. "Oh, bother. Well ... well perhaps you, uh, you may one day. But – but – but in any case – when you cook a meal or produce a fruitful garden ... that is the by-product of the powerful Energies that flow all around us."

This confused Regina. "But good crops grow because of the wind and sun and rain. And Mother Azna's blessing, of course."

"...Let me rephrase, child. All right – when you ... make something, say, our potatoes. The good potatoes which you and Dwain picked this morning were able to grow strong and healthy because of..." He blinked. "Well, stupid luck, really. But ... but know that things driven by creation and activity are the pools of which Mana Energy overflows."

"Mana ... Energy?" Regina asked.

"Ain't nothin' ye should be all concerned about," Dwain said from behind. He lay among the vegetables in the cart, reclined against the sack of potatoes with one leg crossed over the other, and paws folded behind his ears. He spied Astral with a wary eye. "Ain't nothin' ter do wit' KeetoTown, ain't nothing ter do wit' us."

"Oh, but of course it has everything to do with you, my boy!" said Astral without looking back. He chomped on the end of his pipe with an audible click, snapped Phalanx's reins to make the mule tread the uneven road just a mite faster. "Has everything to do with all of us. The trees we ride past, the birds that flock overhead ... As Life Energy flows within our veins and makes our hearts beat fierce, Mana Energy flows all around us: in the air we breathe, in the food and drink we ingest, to the rest our tired bodies embrace. While Life gives us vitality, Mana runs deep, like a cleft in the river. Everything we do is a by-product of Mana Energy. From the baking of cakes, to the keeping of crops, to the construction of great cities – to even the focus of our innate arcane abilities—" Astral winked at a terribly confused Regina and continued, "—A base utilization of Mana is what helped our potatoes, and carrots, and turnips along. But an expert gardener, like our little Regina here, would have no problem, I surmise, using Mana's essence to produce a truly fruitful garden, in time."

"My head hurts..." Regina sighed, folded her elbows over the narrow armrest of the wooden bench, and let her mind wander from such complicated nonsense, taking in the lush sights of the Keeton Woods that crawled past them at a snail's pace. The rich smell of fir needles started to make her eyes feel heavy.

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