Tala’s eyes were pulped.
Stone shards had been driven deeply into them, bouncing around within her ocular orbits and rendering the soft organs to little more than bloody jelly.
She had not allowed Holly to inscribe her eyes with the same defensive enchantments that covered the rest of her exposed flesh. The very idea had given her shivers.
She was paying for that, now.
In abject agony, she dropped the hammer, reaching up to feel at her face.
Her cheeks were slick to her touch.
She could vaguely hear people calling out, and what was likely the sound of running boots drawing near.
It was hard to hear over all that screaming. Who is screaming at a time like this?
Her fingers searched upward until she found the mush-filled cavities of her eye sockets.
Her inscriptions still worked perfectly, and her mage-sight brought her an all too detailed look at the devastation. Her thoughts were full of curses as she tried to override the pain, letting her mage-sight guide her fingers to the fragments of stone in her eye-sockets. Thankfully, it looked like most of what was there was in large pieces, which she quickly pulled free, despite the nauseating agony and general revulsion that the action brought forth within her.
She closed her mouth, and the screaming came to an abrupt end. Oh… it was me. That was a bit embarrassing.
The inscribings around the ocular orbits in her skull, had activated, and were in process of attempting to repair her eyes, but she didn’t want to chance the big chunks. What remained amounted to sand, and that she’d have to flush out later, if the scripts didn’t take care of it.
Hands fell on her shoulders, and she realized that people had been calling to her.
“Mistress Tala! What happened? Are you alright? What do we need to do?”
It was… she couldn’t place the voice, and the pressure and itching in her eyes as making it hard to focus. “No danger.” She managed to get out. “Mistake. Don’t touch the hammer.” What idiot thought that was a useful tool?
The itching turned to an irritating burning sensation as the hands left her shoulders, and she heard other people begin to arrive.
The guard who had spoken to her, at least she assumed he was a guard, relayed her words to the others as they came up, and they sent runners back to the caravan with word that they were not, in fact, under attack.
Finally, light began to return to the world, and she began blinking rapidly.
She heard the one who’d spoken to her speaking to someone else and was able to focus enough to hear. “Her eyes are gone, turned to pulp. I…” The guard paused, seeming to gather himself. “I’ve not seen the like. How was no other part of her touched?”
Trent’s voice came back. “Do you see the glowing lines, guardsman?” I knew it was a guard.
“Yes, Master Trent.”
“Her magic protected her from whatever happened. Apparently, it didn’t extend to her eyes.” Because, idiot that I am, I didn’t think to protect my eyes from physical damage…wait a moment. Why didn’t the ending-berries stop this?
She thought back, even as she bent over, blinking furiously over her refilling sockets.
The shards were incoming, I couldn’t blink fast enough so I tried to pull back… She groaned. And she heard Trent moved up beside her. I’m an idiot. I somehow pulled the end-berries’ protective power back, without realizing it. That was a stupid reaction. I suppose we can’t expect our subconscious to behave rationally. Still, it had kept the damage confined to her eyes, themselves. There is that...
“Tala. I’m here.”
No, ‘Mistress,’ eh? She supposed he saw this as a dire situation. “Hi, Master Trent. Good of you to come.”
He seemed a bit stymied by her reaction but pressed on. “We can get you healed up right quick. I’ll send for Master Tang. He has some inscribings for healing, which should help, but we likely won’t be able to restore your sight fully, or maybe at all, until we return to Bandfast. You won’t bleed out, though.” He hesitated. “Are you ok?”
She kept blinking until, finally, a clump of goopy sand fell from each eye, and she could see. “Ow…” She sat back, looking over at him.
He made a face and shifted back. “You…do not look great.”
“Just what every woman wants to hear.”
He snorted. “Your eyes look fine, though…how? I mean, they’re a bit blood-shot, but the guards said they were pulped…”
“Oh, he was right. That really hurt.”
Trent frowned. “Mistress Tala…” Then, he made a silent ‘Oh…’ “You have self-healing inscribings.”
She nodded, noting the return of the honorific. No longer as concerned, it seems. “Yup, at least around my head…they rusting hurt, though.” And I’m starving… She pulled out a small bag of dried fruit and began scarfing it down.
“Better than being blind.”
“Too true.” She reached down and picked up the offending hammer with her off-hand. What a moronic bit of magic. “This. This is a…” She trailed off as she saw the rock or, more accurately, as she saw the remains of the rock. It had been turned entirely into gravel, which had been scattered out to nearly a dozen yards. She could tell because there were still tendrils of kinetic magic steaming off of the bigger chunks. She felt a smile tug at her lips. “This is dangerous.”
Trent regarded the hammer skeptically. “You do have a tendency to pick up dangerous items… May I?” He held out his hand.
Tala placed the hammer’s handle into his awaiting palm and watched as his mage-sight scripts activated. “Huh, a repeating hammer. An efficient one, too. Most don’t have this kind of scope.” He glanced at her. “The best I’ve seen only takes about half the force acting on the striking surface and redirects it. This is much better than that.” He glanced at the destruction, then at her face, which still felt slick. “Well, better in most circumstances.” He sighed. “I could have warned you to wear protective gear. You’re lucky it didn’t shred your clothes…” He looked at her pristine clothing, mage-sight still active. “Ah… you picked up all sorts of items, didn’t you.”
She smiled. “I tried to make it a profitable trip.”
He sighed, handing the hammer back, handle first. “Be careful, Mistress. Artifacts aren’t toys.”
She grunted. “I’m beginning to realize that.”
“About time.” He smiled humorously, seeming to be trying to take some bite from the rebuke. It didn’t work.
“Fair enough, I suppose.” She pulled out her incorporator and sprayed her face clean with a minimal amount of water, generated by a large amount of power. “I know I promised to be more careful; I apologize. I really did try to take this slow and carefully.”
“Thank you for the apology, and for recognizing the slip.” Trent sighed and handed her a small towel, pulled from his own dimensional storage. She accepted it gratefully, drying her face and chest, where the water had dripped.
I never noticed his storage, before. She handed the damp towel back. “Is that new?” She gestured to the sack, nearly the size of a backpack, once again slung over one of Trent’s shoulders.
He glanced at it, then shrugged. “Yeah, I figured it was time. I’m going to be taking some different types of contracts, going forward, so I can’t count on the wagon for Renix and my things.” He patted the bag. “Seemed worth the expense.”
She nodded. “Artifact, right? Bound to you?” That wasn’t one I saw in Artia’s shop. Then again, Artia would likely have sent Trent to the Constructionists, or elsewhere, if he’d stopped through.
“Yup. I’ve had constructed dimensional storage in the past.” He shook his head. “Just not worth it in the long run. Too costly to maintain for personal use.”
“And with the…advice Master Grediv gave me, empowering it myself isn’t an issue, like it might once have been.” Trent stood, before she could question him about that.
The guardsman who had gotten to her first was waiting nearby, and she walked over and thanked him.
He was understandably surprised to see her eyes had healed, but he seemed happy for her. “I’m so glad that your injury didn’t last. That looked quite agonizing.”
She gave a pained smile. “Oh, it was. Thank you, again.”
He gave a shallow bow. “My pleasure, Mistress.”
Tala bid Trent goodnight, and Trent promised to inform the other Mages, as tactfully as possible, that there had been no threat, just a simple, minor accident.
“Thank you, Master Trent.”
He nodded acknowledgement, waved goodbye, and headed back for the main circle of wagons.
Well, all things considered, that went pretty well.
She snorted a derisive laugh. All in favor of sleep?
Eye, eye! She laughed again, feeling a bit of mild hysteria at what she’d lost, even if just temporarily.
Don’t think about it, Tala. You’ll feel better in the morning.
With that thought, she climbed the ladder in search of rest.
* * *
Tala awoke, blinking up at the stars.
It was somewhere near midnight, and a cool wind played across her, pulling at the strands of her hair that hadn’t made it into her hastily done braid.
Under the shining jewels, above, she was brought into awareness of two things.
First, something soft, warm, and feathered was tucked under her left arm, a portion of it laying across her diaphragm as a comfortable weight.
Second, magic, more powerful than she had ever felt, was thrumming an irregular cadence to the north, deep within the mountains of that region.
It was power that had woken her, managing to drive through the gap between her eyelids to trigger her mage-sight.
She sat up, eliciting a grumbling, soft squawk from Terry, the small, warm weight that had been curled up with her.
She fished out a bit of jerky and fed it to the still half-asleep bird.
He snapped it up before settling down, his head in her lap.
Tala stared to the north, willing her mage-sight to inform her what she was seeing.
Somewhere, likely at least a couple of hundred miles away, there was a battle raging.
There were at least five sources of power, and her mage-sight overlaid them in various hues. She couldn’t see any details; they were simply too far away. In fact, their distance was so great, only their overwhelming power allowed her to see anything at all.
As she watched, she was able to put together a picture, if a vague one.
A being with a blue hue was fighting four others: two seemed green-ish but closer to yellow than blue, and two were a yellow-orange.
At this distance, she couldn’t tell what they were doing, or how they were fighting, but it was spectacular. Each engagement held more power than all that she had wielded in her entire life, and she could somehow feel that they were merely testing blows, searching for weaknesses to exploit.
Grediv is green. But the greens she felt didn’t feel like him, whatever that meant.
At a deep level, she knew something else: They are fighting over the fate of humanity, or at least the fate of some of humanity. Though, she couldn’t tell who was on which side.
The pulses of power grew in intensity as the engagement moved into full conflict. Birds and other wildlife in the surrounding foothills seemed to stir, and soft cries rose in the night.
The oxen, enshrouded within the smaller circle of the caravan, shuffled nervously, a few even letting out low, deep bellows that sounded almost like pleas for help, though they weren’t truly panicked. Thankfully.
Terry stirred fitfully, and she rested her hand on his head, stroking him and muttering reassurances, all without taking her eyes off the dark horizon and occasionally peaks, silhouetted before her mage-sight.
She had never felt so small.
She knew, without a doubt, that any one of the myriad strikes thrown in those great heights would erase her in an instant. She almost laughed, even the backlash of power would annihilate her.
She could drink every drop of ending-berry juice in her possession, and it might give her another second of life before such a collective onslaught.
She was nothing.
She shivered, and Terry crooned softly beneath her hand.
They were both nothing, naked before the awesome power of the universe, wielded by who-knew-what entities.
She found herself clutching her knife, handle in hand, blade bare. At other times, she would have been clutching her arms across her chest, hugging herself tightly.
She almost laughed at that thought. The knife was herself, now.
She began feeding a trickle of power into the weapon, a pitiful bulwark against the stark reality of her own powerlessness.
As she did so, she felt a strange duality, as if there was another way she could give the knife power. It distracted her enough that she was able to think back, considering. I’ve never given the knife power while I held it, drawn and ready for use. Is that the difference?
In a desperate attempt to distract herself from the battle playing out both before her sight and at an impossible distance from her, she pushed power down the secondary channel. It was like attempting to grind herbs with a feather.
Blinking in surprise, she turned her full attention to the knife, held in her right hand.
Her left hand still stroked Terry, absently.
She pushed again on this new, secondary path, and she felt the power flex, just slightly. To her normal sight, the blade of her knife seemed to shift, becoming more liquid and elongating just slightly. She stopped pushing power through, and the metal snapped back to its previous shape. What under the sky?
Magic blazed, causing her head to snap up and her focus to return to the battle.
The creatures that had been restless or roused by the distant conflict went instantly still, even Terry stiffened: prey, hoping beyond reason that the predator it sensed would pass by.
The sky flared with light to her normal vision, temporarily putting out the stars and causing her to raise a hand to block the light, least she be blinded.
Not again. Please, not again… She shuddered at remembered blackness.
The power, the light, had a decidedly blue hue, but it was somehow twisted, or wounded.
She felt each of the four lesser beings flicker before the onslaught, but still, they held.
Candles before a hurricane, but they held.
Then, impossibly, the blue power began to retreat, not truly defeated but driven back.
As the blue moved beyond her perception, traveling unbelievably fast, she felt one of the yellow-orange entity’s power waning. It dimmed, sputtered, and died.
One candle, snuffed out by the retreating storm.
In that moment, Tala knew, beyond the shadow of a doubt, that it had been four humans, Archons, fighting some creature. She knew that they had faced it on behalf of humanity and had scraped together a marginal victory.
She also knew that one of the brave warriors had fallen as a result of the battle. She did not know if they would rise again.
The other powers faded and vanished, as if falling under veils. Like what Grediv was doing?
The night was dark once more to eyes and sight alike.
Tala sat for a long time without moving, riveted by the realities laid bare in what she’d witnessed.
I can’t fight that. I can’t even resist the least of those involved. More than that, she had to admit to herself that she’d likely seen a minor skirmish, not a true battle.
What if whatever-that-was decided to fight to the death? She shuddered. The world was a much wider, scarier place than she had let herself admit.
No. She straightened her back. I will not be cowed. Grediv was green, from what I could tell, from what he said. If he can gain that strength, so can I. She would need vastly more power, if she was going to be safe before creatures like the one that had been driven off.
She felt fear, the likes of which she had never known, at the idea of facing such a thing. And I don’t know anything about it, save its power. She didn’t let the fear bow her, though she felt tears in her eyes.
Deep within her, she felt a yearning rise up in opposition to the fear, and in her current state, she couldn’t help but voice it.
“I want my dad.”
That utterance broke loose something within her, and she curled up on the roof and wept, Terry wedging himself within the circle of her huddled form.
* * *
Dawn came early, to Tala’s reckoning. The first tendrils of light were turning the sky gray, and Terry was gone.
She sat up, wiping her sleep and tear encrusted eyes.
The weight of the previous night was still pressing down on her, and she needed a distraction. She pulled out a bit of jerky, but instead of tossing it, she sat in on the roof-top in front of her.
It sat there for a good minute, her staring at it, before Terry popped into being with a slight flick of power.
He bent down and snapped up the meat before looking up at her, as if asking, “You called?”
She felt herself smile. “So, Terry. What are we going to do?”
He tilted his head to the side.
“What do I mean? Well, I think you’re good to have around, and you seem to like staying around. Is that true?”
He bobbed his head.
“Is it just for the jerky?”
He tilted his head to one side, then shook slightly.
He bobbed his head.
“Why else then?”
He gave her a flat look.
“Right, right, you can’t talk…Can you show me?”
After a moment’s hesitation, he bobbed his head slightly. Then, he moved forward.
Tala reached forward, not sure what to expect.
Terry flicked his head forward and bit her, not too hard, but it would have broken skin, except a small bit of the remaining ending-berry power kept her whole. Didn’t even activate my scripts.
Terry looked a bit amused, somehow, but flicked his head at where he’d bitten.
“Because you can’t hurt me?”
He tilted his head, then shook.
Not quite right…“Because I’m hard to hurt?”
He nodded to that.
“And I feed you.”
Her eyes widened, several things clicking into place. “Like a pack-mate.”
Terry nodded once, decisively.
“You don’t have a pack… a kettle?” She seemed to remember a teacher calling a group of predatory birds a kettle.
Terry gave her an odd look, then nodded.
He stepped forward tentatively.
She smiled. “You don’t have to be alone. You can stay with me.”
He straightened, shimmying slightly, and settling back, almost sitting, like a duck settling down atop its eggs.
“A few rules.”
Terry cocked his head but didn’t rise. Instead, he opened his mouth.
She let out a little laugh, and heard Den shift, groaning in his sleep. Tala lowered her voice. “Fine, fine.” She tossed him another bit of meat, which he caught easily. “So, first rule: No killing humans, except at my say so.”
He finished the bit of meat, then dropped his beak, giving her a skeptical look.
She lowered her voice a bit further. “Yes, yes, I know you helped me with those brutes in Alefast, but I don’t want that to become a habit. I’ll ask for your help if I need it, ok?”
He shimmied slightly, settling down to listen.
“Ok. No killing animals or creatures that belong to humans, again, unless I say so.”
Terry let out a little huff, then bobbed affirmatively.
“And, whenever any other human is around, you need to stay this size.” She gestured to his current shape, roughly the size of a raven, if an entirely different shape. “We might make exceptions in the future, but not now. Again, unless I say so.”
He seemed to consider for a moment, then gave a bit of a shrug. It looked almost comical from his avian body.
“So, do you have any requests?”
He opened his mouth.
She smiled. “More food?”
He opened his mouth wider.
“A lot more? You can still hunt when we’re in the wilds.” She hesitated. “I’ll need to get you a collar, if you want to come into the city.” Right, there should be someone with a ton of them, in this caravan.
Terry leapt to his feet, head low, eyes angry, hissing.
She held up her hands, glancing towards Den, but she didn’t see any other movement. “It’s up to you, but the collar protects you from the city’s wardings, its defenses. It isn’t because you’re a pet.”
He hesitated at that, then tilted his head as if in thought. Finally, he nodded, and settled back down.
She gave him a narrow-eyed look. “I’m going to make sure it only functions when I’m around. You can’t just use me to get a collar and go on a killing spree in any city you like.”
He settled down further and let out a disgruntled huff.
Glad I thought of that… She had to remind herself that this creature had tried to kill her. It was likely older than any currently occupied human city, and it was not a pet. “We might have to imply you’re a pet, and a hatchling, to keep people from being suspicious.”
He rolled over onto his back, feigning sleep.
“Alright, alright. You don’t really care, so long as I don’t think of you as a pet.”
He cracked one eye, then opened his mouth.
She snorted a chuckle and tossed him another bit of jerky. He snapped it up happily. “Ok. I’ve things to be about.”
This was a perfect distraction from the traumas of the previous night. She had put them from her mind completely. They weren’t affecting her, not one bit.
She didn’t even notice that she had to wipe a few stray tears from her cheeks. Nope, not thinking about it at all.