Tala found herself telling an abridged, and only slightly redacted, version of her trip. She didn’t feel like her secrets were really needed, here, and the two women had a lot more knowledge than she, herself. That said, she didn’t feel it was time to discuss her Archon stars.
She tried not to focus on the fact that she’d had her pay docked by one gold, and twenty silver, ounces for expenses incurred due to her disappearance. It didn’t seem fair… No, Tala, focus on the story. You can argue with the official, later.
They didn’t interrupt, only asking minimal questions, as they walked through the city to the lively square and Gretel’s meat pies. While the other two each grabbed a few to eat on the way, Tala bought five for herself.
Gretel was excited to see them all, but she was busy, as were they, so they only exchanged brief greetings, after the cook gushed over Tala’s new clothing. All in all, Tala was a bit sad to leave the boisterous woman behind them, so quickly, but they really did need to get to Holly’s workshop.
They ate as they walked, and as she renewed her retelling, Tala found herself pacing the tale to finish about when they arrived. She more or less succeeded.
The only reactions she noted came at the mentions of the ending-berries, Grediv, the battle she’d witnessed, and of… ‘Mistress.’
With regard to the powerful battle she had witnessed, Lyn had been aghast, but Holly had seemed contemplative. As to the ending-berries, Tala had almost skirted around the issue, but realized that Holly would need to know, as it would definitely be important, with regard to her inscriptions.
The ending-berries had rendered Lyn speechless for large sections of the story.
Grediv got a grunting, snorted laugh from Holly, and the inscriber had seemed to pay special attention to Tala’s descriptions of Mistress, and their interactions.
“And then, I rejoined the caravan, thanks in large part to Terry, here.” She patted the terror bird on the head, where he lay, curled up in her lap.
The three women sat in a back room of Holly’s complex, having just recently arrived.
“You know the rest.”
An attendant arrived, bringing tea for the three.
Lyn took a deep breath and let it out. “Well, I’m a bit speechless. It was supposed to be a quick, out and back run. A nice, easy assignment for your first contract. The route to Alefast is famously the safest, quickest route from Bandfast…” She shook her head.
So much for being speechless. Tala grinned at the woman’s contradiction. I missed you, Lyn.
“You are just a bucket of trouble, aren’t you?” It was said with affection. “I’m so glad that you survived all that. I’m also glad that no one was seriously hurt.” Lyn gave her a hard look.
Tala nodded, smiling a bit guiltily. She had neglected to mention Terry’s butchering of the men outside of Alefast, or his likely incredible age. “Yup.” In fact, she’d skimmed over much of her interactions with the bird, only explaining enough to justify his presence and hint at his role in getting her back safely.
Holly sighed. “Well, I’m going to have to do some tweaks to your spell-forms, but I expected to have to. You left out a few things, that we will discuss. Your…bond to the knife, for example.” She gave Tala a meaningful look.
Tala smiled back. “When there’s time.”
Holly shrugged. “Very well.” She stood and pinched Tala’s arm.
“Hey! Ow.” Tala rubbed the offended flesh, glaring at the inscriber.
Holly shook her head. “You changed your workout routine. I’m going to have to do a thousand little tweaks to make your spell-forms work properly.” She was frowning. “If I wasn’t planning on a vastly different set-up, this would be most inconvenient.”
Holy waved her off. “You clearly aren’t suited to dormant defenses. I’d expected this at some point, and you seem to have been working on your accumulation rate, so we’ll transition to always active defenses.”
Tala frowned. “That sounds not only expensive, but like it will run out much more quickly.”
Holly smiled with a malicious glee. “With previous techniques, it would be, but you gave me an idea. I will be able to make your inscriptions small enough, and numerous enough, that the power distribution and inscription erosion should be kept to a manageable level.”
Tala opened her mouth to argue, then sighed. “I don’t have a choice, do I…”
Holly just grinned.
“Great… how long will this take?”
Holly waved that off. “It won’t be an issue.”
I guess I’ll see? Holly was likely going to have some of her apprentices do a portion of the work to speed it up. That made her surprisingly nervous. Huh, I really don’t want anyone else working on me.
“I was going to have us remove the silver activation scripts, before we reworked the core functions, but you seem to have used them up already.”
Lyn scoffed a laugh. “You heard her story. Are you surprised?”
“Not at all.” Holly cleared her throat. “Now, let’s get you scrubbed down and ready for the work. Yes?” She stood, drink in hand. “Grab your tea and follow me.”
Tala shrugged, taking up her cup and following the inscriber, Terry flickering to her shoulder.
Lyn followed as well.
They came to a waiting bath, in a private chamber, and Holly closed the door behind them. Terry immediately blipped over to the edge of the tub, tested the water with a taloned toe, then settled down on the edge to watch the three women, no further interest taken in the tub.
“First, scrub the iron from the back of your neck. I need to collect the records stored, there, if I’m going to be efficient with our time. Then, while you scrub the rest off, I can be modifying as appropriate.”
That’s right! Tala felt indignation rise up withing her. “I almost forgot!” She raised a finger, glaring at Holly. “You put a voice in my head, and gave it power over my hormones? I didn’t know you were going to do that!”
Holly blinked at her, a bit owlishly. “Mistress Tala…dear.”
Tala drew up short, hesitating. Did I miss something?
Holly continued, after a short breath. “Did the spell-form work?”
“Then, you must have known.”
Tala opened her mouth to object, then hesitated. Oh…huh…
“I am surprised that you heard a voice, however. Your mage-sight must have detected the activation and functions, and a voice was the easiest way for it to convey what it picked up.” She clicked her tongue, tapping her chin in thought. “Yes, that is fascinating. I’ll have to keep that in mind. Maybe, we could use that…” She stopped her contemplations. “Well?” She gestured at the bathtub. “Get your neck clean. I need that information.”
Tala sighed, much of her indignation spent. “Fine, fine.” There was a stack of pumice stones, and Tala picked one up, wetting it and running it over the back of her neck. It wasn’t very pleasant.
As she scrubbed, she felt a mild drain on her ending-berry power. Thankfully, it only protected her skin, not the salve atop it. I should probably let that run dry, while in the city… I don’t have an infinite supply.
In another burst of furious scrubbing, she finished. “There.” Her skin felt raw, though she knew it was largely undamaged. The ending-berry power would prevent any true damage. Still, it felt quite uncomfortable. Yes, woe is me, I suffer so, for my power! She snorted, and Lyn and Holly gave her odd looks. She waved them away. “Is that good enough?”
Holly stepped forward and took out a stone, clearly inscribed with intricate spell-lines in a complex three-dimensional pattern, woven through its whole structure. Holly funneled a bit of power into it, and it burst to life.
The inscriber placed the stone on the back of Tala’s neck, and she felt a strange tingle, like a dog was slobbering on the back of her neck then licking it clean.
“Aaaah, that feels weird!”
Holly stepped backward, bringing the stone with her. “All done. I’ll get this analyzed.”
Lyn cleared her throat. “Do you need me?” She looked to both women.
Tala shrugged. “It might be nice. Who knows what she has planned for me…”
Holly grinned in a very I’m-a-mad-researcher kind of way. “You should at least stay to see my newest invention. If it works as expected, it could revolutionize inscribing.”
Lyn cocked an eyebrow. “Oh?” She seemed to contemplate. “Your last success was those needles…” She nodded. “I can spare a few hours.” She looked to Tala. “Welcome home, by the way.” She winked and walked from the room.
Holly waved absently as she left, as well. “Be quick, please. This won’t take long, after you’re done.”
As the door closed behind the two women, Tala sighed and began stripping off her clothing, setting it, and her gear, off to the side. Lowering herself into the tub, she basked in the warmth for a good minute before getting to work. The familiar feeling of raw skin soon pervaded her senses. The removal of the dead skin exposed the living, and the ending berry power didn’t prevent that.
Holly had been thorough, providing both mirrors and pumice stones on sticks, to allow her to get every inch of herself clean. It was a familiar process, but not a pleasant one. Nothing for it, though.
Twenty minutes later, she was done. She likely could have made the process more pleasant by going slower, but she was tired, and she still had whatever Holly had in store before she could sleep.
Her artifact comb dried and detangled her hair with a few strokes, and she pulled her clothing back on, reveling in the now familiar feel.
Do I even need the other sets of clothes? She could find a use for them, she was sure, but that was for later.
* * *
Tala stared at the contraption hanging before her. It looked like nothing so much as a full arm gauntlet, without visible seams or joints. From the abyss.
Hundreds of Holly’s special needles were attached to the thing, on various tracks, and the entire contraption radiated magic. The surface was as intricately worked as the needles themselves, and Tala found herself gaping from the doorway.
A secondary difference was that all of the needles were almost comically small.
“Come in, dear.” Holly’s voice floated from a corner that Tala couldn’t quite see.
She stepped in, seeing Lyn and Holly to her right. “What is it?” She had a guess, probably a good guess, but she still wanted to know.
“Well, child, it is an automated inscriber. We already have every Mage’s inscriptions in the archive, why manually take that out and apply it?”
Tala nodded, hesitantly. “It looks…painful.” Terry had come in on her shoulder, but he was now walking around, below the device, examining it critically from beneath.
“Don’t be silly. It still won’t have to pierce your skin.”
Tala gave her a flat look. “Yes, and the simultaneous injection of metal all through my…arm?”
“Through my arm will feel like a warm breeze.”
“Ahh, yes. I suppose that’s true.” She shrugged, disinterestedly. “You’ve suffered worse.”
Tala shook her head in a mix of bafflement, confusion, and amazement. Did she really not think of how much it could hurt? “Why are the needles so much smaller?”
“Because this system will allow for a much more complex, minute, interwoven mesh of inscribings. This will be laying down spell-forms with as little gold as possible, to make them as small as possible.”
“Won’t that cause them to run out sooner?” Is this what she meant, earlier?
“Yes and no. Each individual part would run down sooner, but they bear a much smaller amount of the overall load. Like I hinted at before, you could see them as each only handling a very small percentage of the overall spell-working, so the same amount of material will be used up, but much more slowly for each individual portion of overall spell-form.”
“And this isn’t normally done because…?”
“Because it would be impossibly tedious for an inscriber to do this by hand, even if they were precise enough to do it accurately, which even I wouldn’t be. This is only possible because of this invention.”
I suppose that makes sense…
“Well… If you aren’t willing, it will take us three to four days to get the work done, solid. No breaks. Does that sound better?” After a moment’s pause she added. “Also, it won’t be as good because we can’t do as minute workings and layering. I’d have to rework the spell-forms from scratch.”
“That…sounds like too much? Why so much…”
“We’re adding innumerable layers to you, dear. You will be inscribed throughout your bone and soft tissue, and we’re refreshing your enhancement and skin inscriptions.” After a moment, she shook her head. “No, we’re overwriting them, incorporating the lines that are still there.”
Tala groaned. “How long will that take?”
Holly shrugged. “I estimate it will take about five minutes per limb? I eventually want to make a whole-body version, but I wanted to prototype, first, and this seemed a reasonable size. We won’t have to wait for integration, like before, because we’re working with much smaller amounts of metal, per injection.”
Tala gave her a highly skeptical look. “Why me?”
“Hmmm? Oh. A few reasons, actually. First, it really isn’t worth my time to inscribe you at so many levels. I was considering having several apprentices work on you alongside me, but that isn’t ideal.” She was scratching at her chin. “Then, this occurred to me. Seems reasonable.”
“Ok… so why me? I inspired the idea, but I’ve been gone?”
“Oh, your fortitude, child, and the complexity of the spell-forms you can sustain. Much about your self-imposed training and powers requires you to endure…much.”
“You just said you thought it wouldn’t be painful.”
“Of course, dear. You’ll be fine.”
Tala narrowed her eyes. Is she trying to be funny? After a long moment, she grunted in irritation. “Fine. What about my torso?”
“It can expand to do that as well. Though it will take a bit longer. We won’t do your organ specific inscriptions today. I want you to read some information I’ve put together on the exact function of the organs and how the inscriptions will augment them. I know you’ve a good deal of anatomy training, but I want it to be better. No need to put the work in place, until you understand it well enough to activate the inscribings.” She pointed towards a side table, where a stack of books waited. “Those have a section on each organ or system, what it does naturally, and how the inscribings will interface with those functions. They are customized to your physiology, based on my initial scans of you, before you left.”
On second inspection, Tala realized that ‘stack’ did not do justice to the massive number of volumes awaiting Tala’s inspection. I can find the pieces I’m missing and brush up on what I need to review. “Did you write these, yourself? By hand?”
“Don’t be silly, dear. I used this.” She gestured to the device. “I wanted to test its precision, so I placed the stack of blank books within it, and supplied it with mundane ink.” She smiled self-satisfactorily. “It performed flawlessly.” After a moment, she nodded. “You will, of course, have to pay for the tomes.”
“But I didn’t ask for them.”
“But you need them.”
Tala grimaced. “…How much?”
Holly seemed to be taking her in. “An ounce, gold. They cost more to make, but I used them as a test case, thus reducing my over-all expenses. One gold ounce seems fair.”
Tala growled. First, I have to pay more than an ounce for being abducted, now another ounce for these books? She sighed. “Fine…”
“And, while we’re discussing prices: You used up all your golden rings.”
“I didn’t factor that into the price of this inscribing.”
Tala sank into a chair. Why fight it? She won’t let me win… “How much?”
“Hmmm? Oh, let me see.” Holly pulled out a slate and looked over the text on its surface. “Four and a half ounces, gold, to fully refresh the thirty rings.”
“Oh, rust that! You didn’t assume that I’d use any of them?”
“No, I didn’t. You were specifically sent on an easy, safe mission. Your danger-mongering isn’t on me.”
Tala grumbled, but again, she didn’t really have a choice. “Fine… So, what do I owe you, then?”
Holly showed her the slate. “Thirteen and a half ounces, gold.”
Tala’s eye twitched. That’s more than half of what I have…
“My math is good.”
“I can see that. You seem… chipper about all this.”
Holly was grinning. “Of course, I am, dear. You are a wonderful specimen to work on.”
Tala’s eye twitched again, for entirely different reasons. Great… I’m her experiment. Tala supposed it could be worse…somehow.
“Now, as this will take a few sessions, please do not replace your iron, or you’ll have to scrub before every session, and that’s a waste of everyone’s time and resources. Also, the ending-berry power within you is unideal. We’ll make it work, today, but don’t renew it, until after we’re done.”
Tala grunted. Great. So, I need to walk around with no defense against magic, and without one of my physical defenses as well. She didn’t let the fact that she’d already decided not to use her ending-berries within the city get in the way of her irritation. “Fair, I suppose.”
She did smile as she glanced to the stack of books. She’d planned on visiting a library, and eventually purchasing a set of reference volumes for anatomy, physiology, and the like. These were custom to her, along with details on the specific magical enhancements and alterations she would bear.
And, I’ll actually be complete, as a Mage, soon. It was a relieving feeling.
“I do like your ideas for your throat and lungs. Though, again, we’ll need to discuss them, later.”
Tala grinned at that. Right! So much has been happening that I forgot about making spell-forms within my lungs… She shook her head. My lists need better organization. That’s a pretty big thing to fall by the wayside. She walked forward, sitting in the chair beside the new device and slipping her arm inside.
Holly walked over and held out the tablet, once more. It now contained both the agreed to transaction, thirteen and a half ounces gold, and authorization for Holly to access, alter, and implement her inscriptions.
“Looks good, I suppose. Let’s do this.” She pricked her left ring finger, after withdrawing her defensive powers, and allowed a drop of blood to confirm the agreement.
Holly nodded. “Very well, let’s get to work. Please pull the ending-berry power back from that arm.”
The device responded, whether to Holly’s words, or the signed contract, Tala didn’t know. An inner sleeve tightened around her arm, all the way up, past her shoulder, and around each individual finger.
The needles began soundlessly moving into position.
“Now, I’ve made a couple of changes. Mainly, I wanted you to be able to activate your crush and restraint magics with either hand.” She held up her own hand to stop Tala’s objections. “This will not negate other spell-forms being available to your left hand. In fact, I intend to make your right hand able to use those as well, once we decide which to use. I have several ideas, that we should discuss, one in particular seems perfect, but not now. We will do your left-hand workings after your internals. So…in a week?”
The needles seemed to have gotten into position, because they all plunged inward simultaneously.
Tala jerked despite herself, but her arm was held quite immobile, and there wasn’t any pain. Still, the visual of seeing them all jab inward had startled her.
I shouldn’t have watched…
Then, the pain came.
She remembered the feeling of her bones breaking: dozens of times in the academy training grounds and many times since. This felt like that, throughout every bone from her shoulder to her fingertips.
She screamed, feeling something try to tear in her throat, only prevented by the ending-berry power within her. It took all her willpower to keep that power away from her arm, though she wasn’t sure how much it would have helped.
Before her scream had even started, the needles had retracted, moved ever so slightly, and jammed in again. And again. And again. It seemed that there would be dozens of jabs, per needle, per second. How can they work that fast? If she had been in a better place, she might have laughed at the silly question. Magic, of course.
Holly helpfully put a leather tube in Tala’s mouth for her to bite down on. Tala glared at the woman but bit down.
Terry, for his part, flickered to Tala’s lap, staring up at Holly, then glancing to Tala with an obvious question.
Between excruciating pulses, the needles now looking more like waves as each moved independently, Tala seriously considered unleashing the terror bird on Holly, but finally, thought better of it, giving an almost imperceptible shake of her head.
Terry let out a breath that could only be considered a disappointed, confused sigh and curled up on her lap.
Inscriptions formed remarkably quickly, taking less than a minute before those in her bones were complete.
Her power immediately rushed through them, and the bone reknit itself around the inscriptions, locking the precious gold into place.
Only gold. Always active.
The needles didn’t stop, however, as they slowly moved outward, meticulously inscribing every layer.
The torture device worked its way outward, moving through her muscles, tendons, and other mid-level tissue. Her arm remained locked in place, completely unable to shift or in any way ruin the precision of the inscribing.
The needles finished with the muscle and other mid-layers of inscribing, but those didn’t activate. Apparently, Holly had left off the connection scripts, for some reason.
Tala growled, mumbling around the leather tube she was still biting down upon. “Why didn’t the mid-layer activate?” Since she couldn’t move her right arm, she gestured towards the constantly moving device with her head. Sewing machine! It looks like nearly two hundred sewing machines… The thought didn’t help.
Holly shook her own head, hair bobbing. “We have to wait until the inscriptions around your shoulder are complete, or when the muscle enhancements activate, you might tear your own arm off.”
That…sounded unpleasant. Tala stopped complaining, though tears had begun to leak from her eyes, and she couldn’t control the occasional whimper. The ending berry power would likely prevent my arm from damaging itself…but I’m pulling that back, out of the way. Much better to avoid that possibility.
The needles continued their methodical action, quickly refreshing, altering, and augmenting her highest levels of inscriptions, including her enhancements, defenses, regenerative scripts, and her active offensive magics. Everything she could feel was gold, except the connections for her offensive spell-forms. Don’t want those powered all the time.
Less than five minutes after the process had started, it was over. Her arm was released from the sleeve, and Tala ripped it free, cradling it against her chest.
Holly examined Tala’s arm, even going so far as to slap Tala’s left hand to get her to let go, so Holly could stretch out Tala’s right arm for full inspection. “Yes. Good. It perfectly modified for the indicated increase in muscle tone. Very nicely done.” She glanced up, momentarily meeting Tala’s gaze. “Nicely done, Mistress Tala. We can move to the next limb, whenever you’re ready. Your body’s use of ending-berries has primed it to receive these specific inscriptions, wonderfully.”
Tala found herself shaking her head, feeling a little dizzy. “No. That was not nice… You aren’t a very nice person…” The leather tube had fallen away from her mouth at some point.
“But, I am an effective one.” Holly smiled, as she continued to examine Tala’s arm, poking and examining it from every angle.
Tala just groaned in response. She closed her eyes, bracing against the continued throbbing in her arm. Oh, right. She had been holding back her own power from the deeper layers, along with the ending-berries’. Now, she allowed power to flow through her uppermost regenerative scripts and the pain from that top layer vanished, her flesh tightening around, and integrating with, the inscriptions. The skin across her entire arm began glowing, if subtly. It almost looked like she had gone out to get a tan and had brought back some of the sun with her. Great, the joys of always active surface inscribing.
There were three more limbs to do, then her torso.
Tala took deep breaths. This was far from over.