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“Now then, dear.” Holly seemed to be ignoring Lyn. “We need to test you.”

Tala frowned. “I was tested for magic compatibility, before I went to the academy.”

Holly sighed. “Your previous inscribers were either lazy or uninterested. You should have had whoever designed the work on your hand do the inscription. He would have taken the time to test you.”

Tala cleared her throat. “I’m clearly missing something. Can you explain what you mean, then?”

“In order to ensure your inscriptions are perfectly suited and tailored to you, I need to test your abilities. For some Mages, I’d check their power flow: how fast they draw magic through their gate. Others, I would be most concerned about their aspect control: how many distinct aspects they can affect with one working. Others still, the thing I’d need is power spread: the area or number of distinct targets they can affect with one working.”

She was nodding. “And for me?”

“For you, I need to check power density: how much power you can innately hold, within your physical form. You are quite young, so I assume we won’t have too much to work with, but it is the most important aspect of your power for the inscriptions you’ve selected. I’ve worked up several schema and inscribing plans, based on what we find.” She pulled out a small stone plate, carved and inlaid with silver spell-lines. “I need a drop of blood, here.”

“Wouldn’t it have been easier to test this before making the plans?”

Holly blinked at her. “Possibly? No. Not really. You are ignorant of my arts. Stop asking stupid questions.”

Tala felt Holly’s mage-sight settle on her, in preparation for the test. It was a perfectly valid question… Tala moved to prick her finger.

“STOP!”

Tala froze, the needle held just away from her finger. “What?”

“What are you doing?”

Tala frowned. “I’m going to get a drop of blood.”

“No, silly girl, what are you doing in your body?”

Tala frowned, looking down at her finger. “I don’t know?”

Holly reached out and snatched the needle from her, using her other hand to grab Tala’s hand. “You don’t want me to prick you with this needle.”

“Ok…?”

Holly moved to stick Tala’s finger, and she tried to pull away, confused at what game Holly was playing. To her surprise, she couldn’t free herself from Holly’s grip, and the woman didn’t even seem to be struggling. The needle hit Tala’s skin, pushing in to dimple the surrounding finger-pad…and stopped.

Holly frowned. “You don’t have any inscriptions.” She pushed harder, and the needle slipped in slowly.

“Ow!” Tala pulled back her hand and sucked her finger. Holly had, presumably, released her.

Holly handed the pin back to Tala, and Tala took it with a glare. “I don’t see why I need…” She looked down at her finger. She’d sucked the blood off and revealed a clean finger. “What?”

Holly was nodding. “You were pulling power away from your finger on reflex, to allow the pin to stick you. I’m now very interested in the results of this test. It seems that your body is acclimating to your chosen magics already.” She waved a hand to dismiss Tala’s question, even as Tala opened her mouth to speak. “Many people have tough skin, and many more will have their skin seal up from such a little stick. Both are well within the range of normal human beings, but it is still something. Go on.” She held out the stone tablet, again, awaiting the drop of blood.

Tala pricked her finger on the needle and held the finger over the stone.

“Now, put as much power into the blood as you are able, but please don’t open your gate. We are measuring the power in your body, naturally. Don’t hold back on me, now.”

Tala almost opened her gate on instinct, to draw power through her keystone. She resisted the urge, and instead gathered up the lingering power she felt within herself. Okay. This is like signing a contract or giving her access to my schema. When her finger began to get uncomfortably tingly, she compressed the pad and a single drop of blood fell to the proffered slate. There we go. She realized, after, that she hadn’t wanted the pinprick to close this time, and it hadn’t. She didn’t really know how to feel about that.

As the drop touched the plate, it flashed with power and turned from the normal red to copper, then silver, then finally became a softly glowing gold.

Lyn blinked, seeming surprised, and she opened her mouth, but Holly held up her hand.

She seemed quite serious, all of a sudden. “I didn’t ask for half measures. Give me all you can.” After a moment she added. “This isn’t like accessing your accounts, dear. The fools at the Academy didn’t do this test because they assumed they knew the results, but the nuance is important if I’m to inscribe you correctly. Open your gate for a moment, to equalize. Then, please, give it your all.” She smiled, but Tala thought she saw a hesitancy in Holly’s eyes.

Tala frowned. Fine, then. Not like a contract. She threw her gate open and waited, not pulling in power, but not keeping it out either. A moment later, she felt the power equalize, and she closed her gate. Ok. Let’s do this. She began to draw all the power in her body towards her finger, trying to wring every bit free, leaving nothing behind. Exhaustion swept through her, left in the wake of the departed power. Even as exhaustion settled in some parts of her, the path towards her finger was practically vibrating with nervous energy.

You want everything? If she was being honest, Tala was curious, herself. Here it goes! She exerted her will and drew all the power that she’d gathered into her finger as she compressed it, releasing another drop of blood.

The action was much like throwing a perfect punch, kinesthetically connecting all the major muscle groups into a single blow. Except, in this case, she was doing it with her power.

The energy left her in a rush, and the drop of blood seemed almost to tremble as it fell.

Before it even reached the stone, it began to glow, shifting through copper, silver, and gold with barely a flicker of time presenting each metallic sheen, and as it struck beside the first drop it became iridescent, leaving the metallic look and flickering through uncountable colors in indescribable patterns, glowing all the while.

Tala sagged back in her chair, exhausted. “Satisfied?” She opened her gate, allowing power to rush back into her, returning her body’s magic levels to normal. It took an uncomfortably long time.

Lyn gaped openly.

Holly simply stared at the shimmering drops. “What did you do to yourself, child? Have you been casting in an iron coffin?”

Tala’s eyes flicked to her pack, where the bars of iron-dust salve would have been, had she not drastically underestimated the drying time. That is…an uncomfortably close guess. “Ummm… Why?”

Lyn stepped forward. “At your age, you should struggle to indicate silver. Such easy presentation of gold, as your first drop indicated, should only come after a couple of decades of casting. That,” She pointed to the still glowing, perfectly spherical drop of blood. “That means that you are registering in the Archon range, for power density.”

“The Archon range?” Tala frowned.

Holly gave Lyn a silencing look. “It doesn’t matter, yet. The time it’s taking you to re-equalize means that your power rate is vastly below your density. That is a weak point, it seems.”

Tala was examining the drop of blood, still on the stone tablet held before her. Is it hovering, slightly off of the surface?

Holly nodded, seeming to decide something as she looked at Tala. “Every Mage builds up power in their system with each casting, usually due to leakage, or poor inscribing. That excess power acclimatizes your body to itself, and over time it changes how much power you naturally hold. Higher power density results in more powerful spells, but can lead directly to magic poisoning, depending on the type of magic involved.” She gestured with the stone in her hand. “You seem to have kept most of the power of your castings inside of yourself. Forcing your body to drastically reshape its capacities.” Her eyes narrowed. “Is this why you only express from your hands? Do you wear some strange iron suit?”

“Not exactly…” I suppose I don’t really have a choice. She briefly explained about her iron-dust concoction.

“So, you basically coat yourself in a salve, impregnated with iron.”

“Yes.”

“The iron then settles into the top layers of your skin, making you resistant to direct magical expressions?”

“That’s how it seems to work, yes.”

“And you keep it off of your palms, so that you can express your own magic from there?”

“That’s the theory. In practice, spell-workings seem unable to affect me, directly. Something created by magic can, and if I enter into a region already altered, I am affected by that alteration.”

Holly was nodding. “Thus, a Mage or arcanous creature would need to fight you as if you were in a suit of full plate armor, without the obvious visual clues, or the burdensome weight on you.” She began to laugh. “Child! You are either brilliant or lucky beyond count.” She hesitated, her laughter faltering. “Given that this is the second facet of your magic to give me that feeling, I’m beginning to assume brilliant.” She looked Tala straight in the eyes. “Any other type of Mage would have been dead from magic poisoning long before now, with your little trick. Even another Immaterial Guide would have obliterated themselves if they expressed from anywhere covered by this salve of yours. The iron-dust would have radiated a good portion of their spells back into their own body, causing havoc. You, though,” She shook her head. “You only have internal enhancements, thus having that radiant effect reflect back into yourself is only a benefit.” Her eyes narrowed. “This must have been excruciating, and quite tedious to enact.”

Tala laughed. “You’ve no idea.”

Holly smiled. “Oh, child. I can guess. This required you to entirely scrub away the upper layers of your skin any time you needed your inscribing refreshed. Yes?”

Tala grunted affirmation.

“And before your teleportation?”

Another grunt.

“And you mentioned practice, so I imagine you were injured…” Holly sighed. “You had to scrub your wounds clean, removing the impregnated skin before they could heal you as well.”

Tala glanced away. “Yeah. That was… unideal.”

Holly was nodding again. “That’s why you focused on the inscribings you did. Minimize injury in the first place.”

That’s one of the reasons. She was not going to tell these two Mages that she’d been enamored by warriors of old and sought to imitate them. Tala sighed. “Fair enough. You clearly understand exactly what it took.”

“Don’t take my understanding as an insult, child. No one I’ve ever heard of has done this before, and even knowing it works, I doubt any would be willing to do as you have.” Holly smiled slightly. “Only time will tell if it proves worth the pain.” She turned to Lyn. “Well, I will have to do this in much smaller stages, and only half right now. If I were to fully inscribe Tala, her body would tear itself apart. She has too much power going into her activations.”

Tala frowned.

Holly turned back to her. “Don’t be like that. We’ll get you fully inscribed.” She patted Tala’s shoulder. “We just need to do it in stages, to let your systems compensate.” She smiled. “I was right to take this on, personally. You will be perfect when I’m done.”

“Ok… so, how will this work?”

Holly held up one of the myriad needles. “These,” She swiped it at her own hand, through which it passed effortlessly. “don’t interact with normal matter, save at the handle.” She wiggled it. “The metallic ink flows through the center, and I can deposit the metal exactly where I need, without having to poke you full of a thousand holes.” She hesitated. “Millions of holes, actually.”

Tala frowned. “That sounds…”

“Expensive? Yes. The needles do last for a full inscribing, once activated, but can’t be used during more than one such. But it is the only way to work.” She winked. “Besides. I’m not the one paying the bill.”

Tala sighed. Still, though, not having to deal with the pain of all those punctures…

“We do need to discuss the alterations, so that the activation will go smoothly, once we’re done, here.”

Tala nodded. She’d expected as much.

“The effects should be nearly identical to your previous set, except the quickened signal speed will be constant; the inter- and intra-cellular bond augmentation will be more focused, only strengthening the bonds that are under stress instead of all bonds in the area; and the regenerative effects have been similarly focused. This will increase the speed of repair and strengthening, along with reducing the cost to you in power and inscription integrity.”

“Understood. And the work on my right hand?”

“Unchanged, save I’m giving you more uses between re-inscribings. We’ll discuss your mage sight spell-lines later. I will be adding in the deeper work on your head, too, but we can discuss the specifics as I work. The last major change of note is that I’ll be altering your keystone away from standard.”

“That sounds…dangerous?” And expensive. The keystone represents the majority of any Mage’s inscribing.

“Most Keystones are designed to close, when the Mage is unconscious. It protects from magic poisoning, and accidental triggering. The way your spell-lines are set up, that would be foolish. It will still cut power to spell-forms that take activation, but your passive magics, such as your enhancements, will receive power whether you are awake, asleep, unconscious, or in any other state.”

“That sounds dangerous.”

“Not especially, and definitely not in comparison to the other risks we’re taking.” She smiled. “I won’t modify your keystone beyond that, for now, but I imagine we’ll have to tweak it a bit more, when you come back.”

Tala nodded, steeling her resolve. “Alright, then. So, how many of those needles will you be using?”

“As many as it takes for the various depths.” Holly smiled before lifting the indicated tool. “Well, this one’s been activated, so time’s a wasting! Let us begin.”

Without warning, Holly thrust the needle into Tala’s neck. The needle itself didn’t hurt, but as metallic ink was inserted within Tala’s skin, there was a decidedly unpleasant feeling of swelling, near to bursting.

Tala almost whimpered.

It was going to be a long night.

 

* * *

 

Hours had passed in abject discomfort, and it was somewhere in the wee hours of the morning.

Tala lay with as much of herself under the water of her warm bath as she could manage, luxuriating in the heat and the subtle, pleasant smell of Epsom salt.

Even so, she was miserable. While the inscribed needles removed the need for her skin to be pierced, they also didn’t allow for any release of pressure when the ink was injected. Thus, much of her body felt like it was swollen, and it hurt to move. The soak was helping.

She’d never truly understood why Epsom salt soaks helped with swelling, but she couldn’t argue with the results.

In addition to the mild bloating from the minimal amounts of metallic ink involved in her inscribings, her body was working to encapsulate such, isolating the foreign elements and, in essence, enclosing the new material. This also caused swelling. Worse, she couldn’t allow her gate to open or any power to enter the inscribings, or they would activate and begin, effectively, fighting the process, attempting to keep her body in the current state.

She had not needed Holly’s warnings to know how bad of an idea that was. At the academy, they’d simply activated the healing portion of her spell-lines first, which sealed everything nicely.

There weren’t perforations to restore in this case.

I might actually hate Holly’s way more… Though, it was much more precise and quite a bit faster.

There was a rushing sound as the tub drained down to half, then refilled with new, hot, salted water, returning the temperature to her limit.

Tala floated, forcing herself to stay awake so that her body wouldn’t subconsciously allow power to flow through her.

Two more cycles of renewing hot water came and went with no other discernible change.

Then, as the water drained once more, Tala’s eyes opened, warily. The tub is getting lower than before…

She was about to sit up when what felt like a liquid snowbank was dropped upon her.

She would have screamed, if her lungs would obey her.

All sense of relaxation vanished in a flash. Interestingly, the feeling of swelling drastically reduced as well.

She vaulted to her feet, fighting every instinct she had and managed to keep her gate closed.

Arms clutched tightly around her torso and chest, she turned and glared at the woman standing in the doorway.

“Impressive control, Tala. I’d have guessed you would open your gate at that.”

“St…still t-t-testing me?” She began sloshing her way through flowing ice towards the side of the small basin, towards towels and warmth.

“I have to know your limits.” Holly idly scratched at the indentation which lay at the base of her throat. “I think you’re ready for round two.”

Tala paused mid-drying. She looked down at herself.

Her chest, upper legs, arms, and the back of her hands were covered in an intricate latticework of subtly metallic lines. The back of her right hand also had thirty golden rings, easily visible for her own reference. That way she couldn’t miss how many castings she had remaining of her offensive spells.

She could feel the lattice on her back due to the remaining sense of swelling. It surrounded and even overlaid her keystone spell-lines as well.

Holly noticed Tala’s hesitation. “Come dear, this round we’re doing from your neck up. The session after we’ll tackle your hips, waist, and lower legs. I think that is all your body will be able to handle this time. When you return from your venture, we’ll tackle the deeper workings, and those for your left hand.”

Tala glanced at her bare left palm. “You’ll leave me half equipped?”

“You’ll be fine, dear. I’ve increased your available castings for your primary magics, so as long as you aren’t ridiculously unlucky there won’t be an issue. Besides, you can get those refreshed on the far end, if you need.”

Tala grumbled, but not very loudly. The price for magic. It is so much, yet so little. She felt much warmer now. “Well, then. Let’s get to round 2.”

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