Tala had lost all sense of time.
She was sure that they were done inscribing, for now, but she couldn’t say how long that had taken, or how long it had been since that was complete.
She was surrounded by heat, however, so she did know that horror was coming.
That lessened the relaxing effects of the bath.
Sure enough, an indeterminate time later, she felt the bath fully drain, and she braced for the glacial baptism.
As it washed over her, she found that she didn’t hate it quite as much as the first two times. Holly, however… Tala hated Holly.
When can I sleep?
She sluggishly rolled out of the basin and onto the awaiting towel pile. “Can I sleep, now?” Her voice barely chattered from the cold, though it was muffled by the towels.
“Not yet, dear. Soon, though. We need to keep your gate closed for another hour or so, then you can rest.”
Tala saw Holly frown out of the corner of her eyes. “I just said: another hour. Are you quite alright?”
“I heard you…rusted jerk…I meant…” She took several deep breaths, pulling her thoughts back to herself. “…how long have we been at this?”
“Oh!” Holly seemed to consider for a moment. “It’s been roughly a day since we began, and you’ve done splendidly. I feared that I’d have to send you out with only the first session complete, that’s why I crammed so much into that one. But you surpassed my highest expectations!” She grinned down at Tala. “We were able to complete all surface level inscribing, save your left hand, and all the inscribing above your neck.”
“Why are you standing over me…”
“Why are you lying down?”
“I want to sleep.”
“Precisely. You cannot sleep, yet. Your subconscious would activate your keystone, opening your gate and undoing a great deal of work from our last session. I will not allow that.” She shook her head. “That is just unacceptable.”
Tala grunted. “Food.”
“Ahh, yes. Here it is.” Holly gestured toward a small table off to one side.
Tala didn’t move. Instead, she opened her mouth.
“You-you’re serious, aren’t you.”
“Feed me, or I sleep.”
Holly sighed. “And just like that, you remind me how much of a child you still are.”
Tala slandered Holly’s good name, then added. “Not very child-like, eh?”
Holly sighed, again. “Oh, yes. I can think of nothing more mature than expressing your emotions via vulgarity.” After a moment, she patted Tala on the shoulder. “But I’ll get you food. You have been through much, and much of it is unique, due to your particular inscribings and power density.” She continued talking as she walked over to the table and retrieved a selection of foods. “Rest assured, I am taking extensive notes, should anyone else consider this path.”
Tala accepted the first bite of food gratefully but spoke around it. “If anyone considers it, slap them. Please?”
Holly snorted a laugh. She snorted. “I’ll admit, even if the results are spectacular, I’m not sure I’ll be willing to do this for anyone else.” She frowned. “I don’t like to see my clients suffer.” She put another piece of pastry into Tala’s mouth. “Can you please sit up? I don’t like treating you like an invalid, and you are beginning to make me nervous…You can move, can’t you?”
Tala grunted, then sat up, pulling up a mass of towels to drape over herself.
“There you go. Much better.”
Tala glared, but then her eyes slid down to the plate of food in Holly’s hand, and she sluggishly snatched it, devoting her limited thoughts to the consumption of the food. “Your offering is accepted.” For now.
Holly smiled and patted her on the shoulder again, through the towels this time. “Glad you’re up and moving. We can walk you to a back room where we have a bed, once you’re done.”
Tala hesitated. “I thought you said an hour?”
Holly hesitated. “Hmmm… You’re losing your perception of time, then? Definitely time to sleep.”
Tala frowned, continuing to eat and speak around the food. “What does that mean?”
“That was nearly two hours ago, dear.”
“Oh.” Articulate, Tala. It made no sense. She’d only asked a moment ago…but she didn’t really care. Holly was going to let her sleep.
She devoured the remaining food and stood, with Holly’s help. They replaced the towels with a robe, and true to her word, Holly led her to a back room and a bed.
Tala was asleep before she lay down…literally. As they entered the room, Tala glanced at the bed and passed out. Thankfully, Holly was able to catch the other woman and lift her, bodily, into place.
“Sleep well, dear.”
As if at the words, a pulse of power washed over Tala, originating from her back, from her keystone and the gate beneath.
The spell-lines across Tala’s entire body flared briefly to life, resembling nothing so much as spider-web-thin stained glass before a sunrise. The ripple of power and accompanying light passed, then seemed to settle.
Tala gasped loudly at the initial flare but failed to rouse. As the power faded, reducing to a barely noticeable thrum, she breathed easier, seeming to drift into a deep, restful sleep.
* * *
Sleep left Tala slowly, as she became aware of the world around her.
The soft murmur of dozens of voices tickled at the edges of her hearing. Though, they were overshadowed by a deep, regular thump-thump. The sound of great bellows filled the air around her every so often, almost seeming to be in sync with her breathing, and as she began to shift, wagonloads of fabric seemed to cascade around her.
Her skin was alive with the feel of ten thousand canyons pressing against her flesh, and the alternating patterns of textured cloth and blessedly smooth air threatened to overwhelm her.
Her eyes were closed, she knew they were, but she was still forced to look upon a great latticework of intersecting lines, harshly backlit: a stained-glass masterpiece, knit from flesh.
The smell of her own clean skin could almost have been described as overwhelming, except that she could still easily discern the scents of linen, leather, wood, and oils from the bed in which she lay. The odor of a dozen meals, of metal, of dust, of people underpinned it all, and she suddenly felt the overarching need to plug her nose to keep it out.
She moved to do just that, but her arm responded too quickly, and she simply slapped herself across the face.
She’d also, with that simple slap, driven a miniscule amount of blood into her mouth. It might have been as much as a drop.
Even so, the taste of blood bloomed, and suddenly, she could taste the inside of her own mouth, taste her teeth, and her gums, and her…
She couldn’t take it.
She drew in on herself, curling into a ball.
Her knees slammed into her forehead quick enough to send her mind spinning, but she didn’t change position; she did not allow herself to uncurl. Even so, her surprise caused her eyes to pop open.
The world shattered into light.
The room before her was rendered within her own mind in still images, her brain struggling to process the overabundance of information deluging her from her eyes, and for just a moment, her other senses were thrust aside as too much.
She was still in the back room, in the spare bed on which Holly had laid her.
Blessedly, her knees were blocking nearly half of her vision, though the intricacy of the hexagonally arranged spell-lines inscribed into them was, in and of itself, an abject agony in its quantity of information.
Above her knees, she saw the door, closed, but with light streaming around the edges and through minute gaps. It was the only light coming into the room, but it was still too much.
The wall was well plastered and newly painted. There was some dust, here and there, but it seemed to have been cleaned recently. Who dusts walls?
Some deep, animalistic part of her grabbed onto that, her first, truly coherent thought. Who dusts walls?
Her eyes fixed on the door, Tala knew that it was opening, even though she didn’t see it opening so much as notice that one side was suddenly slightly closer to her. And again closer. And closer.
Tala’s other senses came crashing back, no longer able to be held back by her sight, and the light swelled as the door opened. Her mind, animalistic and sapient together, agreed: This was too much.
She fell into the blissful, total nothingness of sleep.
* * *
Tala slowly came back to herself, hearing snatches of a hushed conversation.
“…no choice now…”
Tala groaned, and the sound was like the quaking of a mountain. Strangely, though, it didn’t seem deafening. How does that make sense?
She blinked her eyes open, staring up at the wooden beams above her. She could see the tool marks from where each had been worked, though she didn’t know enough about woodworking to guess at how. The ceiling they supported had been plastered and smoothed, but she could easily see the variations, textures, in the surface.
How am I seeing so much detail? If that madwoman had inscribed her eyes there would be a reckoning…It was a ridiculous thought. She’d been conscious for the inscribing, and her eyes were untouched.
No… I’m not seeing more detail. It’s more like… She hesitated. It’s like every instant is a painting that I’ve had a week to study and find the details and patterns within.
This was nothing like it had been with her old inscribings.
Voices reached her, loud enough that she felt like Lyn and Holly were each speaking straight into her ears. Strangely, there was a breathy quality to the words that made Tala think that they were whispering, despite the volume.
“Did you hear that?”
“I think she’s awake.”
Tala groaned again, and then shuddered at her own sound. They must be sitting above my head. She whispered back to them, her voice an avalanche. “I’m awake…and hungry.”
They didn’t respond.
“Should we go in? When I went in earlier, she reacted like it was a physical blow.”
“I told you to give her more time.” Tala could practically hear Holly rolling her eyes.
Wait, go in? She twisted to look above herself, but somehow the motion threw her out of her own bed. She slammed into the hard floor and swore as pain equivalent to stubbing a toe blossomed across her elbows, knees, and forehead. She yelped, then twitched away from the pulse of sound, slamming her head back against the bed that she’d just fallen out of.
Pain blossomed on the back of her skull, causing her to curl inward.
Somehow, she remembered kneeing herself in the head before and pulled up short.
The door burst open, flooding the room with harsh light, and Lyn’s voice boomed through the small space.
“Mistress Tala? Are you awake?”
Tala could see one of Lyn’s eyes, looking in through the slightly cracked door.
Tala groaned, again, but kept herself from moving. If I don’t move, I can’t hurt myself. Don’t move, no more pain. That was good mantra. Don’t move, no more pain.
Lyn put it to lie by opening the door wider, and slapping Tala in the face with the full light of…nothing?
A lamp was lit on the far end of the hallway, but otherwise there was no source that Tala could see.
Lyn seemed to see her on the floor, and she shrieked in horror and stomped across the floor to check on her.
Oh, she gasped… and is likely tip-toing…
Holly stood in the doorway, lines of concern clear across her face.
“Mistress Tala? Are you ok?”
Tala knew, now, that Lyn wasn’t shouting. It didn’t hurt her ears like shouting would have, but it was still LOUD. She groaned again and found herself more used to the sound. “I’m-” Her own whispered voice sounded like a trumpet and seemed to rattle her skull. Measured actions, Tala. “…thirsty.” There, see? First steps.
Holly immediately seemed to relax, if only just. She spoke incredibly softly, but seemed to be intending for Tala to hear. “Your mind is reframing your senses, dear. It will not cause you harm, but it will feel incredibly overwhelming. You are doing very, very well. Be patient and move slowly.”
Lyn had already stood, hurrying from the room. She returned shortly with a cup and pitcher of water.
The rushing, rumbling waterfall that resounded behind Lyn’s filling of Tala’s cup was incredibly soothing.
Tala tried to take the cup, but almost slapped it from Lyn’s hand instead.
“Mistress Lyn, why don’t you help her drink it.”
Lyn nodded and did just that, helping Tala to sit up and pressing the cup to her lips.
What followed was, frankly, a humiliating night, in which the two women slowly helped Tala retrain her various senses and movements. Her system was thrown off, but it had also been enhanced, which allowed her to retrain it vastly more quickly than would otherwise have been possible.
By the time dawn broke, Tala was able to stand and shuffle-step without tripping. Her first great voyage without assistance was outside to see the sun rise.
“Hey!” Holly clapped Tala on the shoulder. “Your heart never stopped.”
Tala turned and glared at the woman.
“Good for you, Mistress Tala.”
Tala grunted, and turned back to regard the city, softly glowing in the newborn, yellow-orange light. “I think I might be happy if you died.”
Lyn laughed, and Holly snorted.
Lyn placed a hand on Tala’s shoulder. “I’m impressed, Mistress Tala. With your magic saturation…” She shook her head. “I would not want to be under the influence of your enhancements. The fact that you are acclimating so quickly...”
Tala sighed. “Is testament to Mistress Holly’s inscribings on my mind.”
Holly snorted, again. “Capacity does not equal capability, girl. Nor does it grant the ability to persevere.”
“What does that even mean?”
Holly smiled. “It is like a carpenter in a fully functioning smithy: He has the strength to do the work; he has all the tools; but unless he is persistent, and practices, he will never make anything but a fool of himself.”
Tala grunted. “I suppose.”
Lyn chimed in, again. “Besides! You didn’t close your gate once while we were working, or even before we came to help you. That would have shut off the flow of power and greatly reduced what you were experiencing as your power density dropped.”
Holly nodded and continued the thought. “It would have slowed your adjustment, and likely would have made it worse for you in the long run, but it took strength to avoid that.”
Tala stared at them for a long moment, before looking away. “Umm…yeah. Thank you.”
Lyn’s mouth opened in a silent ‘Oh,’ and Holly laughed. “You completely forgot you could do that, didn’t you.”
Tala glared at her, again. “It wasn’t exactly in the front of my thoughts, no.” She grumbled, looking away.
When she looked back up, both Lyn and Holly were grinning at her.
“I kind of hate you two, right now.”
“Oh, we know, dear.” Holly patted her on the arm, yet again.
“Let’s get breakfast. Hate is always harder over breakfast.” Lyn began leading Tala away, not waiting for a reply.
Blessedly, she was right. Everything seemed better over breakfast.
* * *
Tala, being broke, relied on the charity of her tormentors, or friends as they likely saw themselves.
They refused to help her walk, insisting that she needed to retrain the movements and any further assistance on their part would slow her readjustment to her own body.
Her mood had not been improved when it turned out they were seemingly correct. By the time they reached a cozy breakfast eatery, Tala was walking with her usual, steady, Mage’s grace. In fact, it seemed easier to keep her balance than it had before, now that she was more used to her passive enhancements.
The deep fried, sausage-and-egg-filled donuts did improve her mood, as did the rich, smooth, black coffee. Worth every copper I didn’t pay.
Coffee was a habit she’d avoided, as the crop required magical climate control of vast underground growing rooms to properly ripen. Grown on that scale, it wasn’t too expensive, but it was still a delicacy. Some people did drink it every day, but she supposed that some drank wine every day too, and the cost was roughly equivalent. She usually abstained from both, barring special occasions.
This was a special occasion.
Holly had not, in fact, inscribed Tala’s tongue, but she had added spell-lines with increased communication speed and information density throughout her entire nervous system. Thus, she felt, smelled, tasted, and heard more without actually taking in additional input.
Lyn and Holly hadn’t been feeding her gruel, but the breakfast donuts and coffee were so rich and full of wondrousness that Tala felt they might as well have been.
In retrospect, they had likely chosen to bring her more bland foods to reduce at least one aspect of her sensory overload. In that light, it was almost kind.
As the three of them sat around a small table, outside the little café, Tala did not grumble to herself, deciding, instead, to enjoy her food.
After long minutes of such enjoyment, she opted to break the silence. “So…How long has it been?”
Lyn smiled. “You ‘missed’ four full days. You're due to check in at the work-yard tomorrow, for departure in three days from now.”
Tala nodded. She’d lost fewer days than she’d feared and recovered much faster than she would have expected. “Why is everything so much…more intense than with the inscribings I had before?”
Holly answered from Tala’s other side. “Inscription design. First, by covering all of your skin, curves included,” she quirked a smile, “the efficiency and power of the spells were increased. Additionally, those you had before only activated when your heart rate increased, which was usually accompanied by massive adrenaline spikes. The adrenaline would have both protected your mind from some of the harshness of the increase and convinced your body that it wasn’t something to adapt to.”
Tala nodded. “I think I can see that.”
Holly rested her hand on her own upper chest. “In addition, I was able to make better use of your prodigious magical density. Your old schema was simply skimming off the surface. The new design funnels the majority into your workings. Our upper limit on the always active scripts was still your power accumulation rate otherwise we’d run you dry, but even so there was room for a marked increase.”
Tala frowned. “Wouldn’t Mages always want their inscribings to make use of all their power? Why would any design leave power unutilized?”
Lyn’s smile shifted, just slightly, towards patronizing. “Mistress Tala, more power doesn’t mean better, for most magics. Imagine throwing the full power at a Mage’s disposal behind Mage-sight? I’d see every trace of magic within fifty miles, and my mind would overload.”
Tala found herself nodding, again. “Right, precise use of power is much more important than the amount of power used.”
“Except in your case.” Holly took a bite of her own donut. “The inscribings we worked for your enhancements are meant to be overtly powerful. The finesse is from you, and how you learn to use your body, thus holding back in the empowerment really didn’t make sense.”
“Huh.” Tala glanced to the two women. “I suppose that makes sense.”