As Tala did her best to mentally prepare for the next steps, she found the continued pain distracting. “Can I activate the mid-layers?”
Holly was maneuvering the torturous contraption but glanced towards her face while answering. “Hmmm? Sure. The work on your shoulder is fully finished, after all. I thought you already had.”
Tala decided it was best to not comment. Power blossomed through Tala’s arm, and the pain was washed away as her flesh knit together around the inscriptions. She looked down at her own arm, marveling at how strong it felt, while still being under her control. The glow from her skin had lessened, the excess power now being pulled deeper.
I wonder if the glow means a lack of efficiency? If so, this full set was almost perfectly efficient, only the barest hints of illumination still visible. If anything, it looked like the glow was directed inward.
I’ll be visible in the dark, but I don’t think I’ll illuminate anything around me.
All parts of her arm’s biology were increased in perfect proportion, so there wasn’t any change in how it responded, or to how it moved. Even so, she felt like there was more force behind each gesture.
Her head snapped up as something slid over her left arm, locking in place before she could react. “What!? Now? I thought you said we could wait until I was ready.”
“Now is best, dear. You’re ready.” She stuck the leather tube between Tala’s teeth, cleared her throat, and addressed the machine. “Begin.”
The process of pain and delayed relief repeated itself on her left side, though Tala was able to activate the mid-layer of regenerative scripts more quickly, this second time.
Then, hesitantly, Tala agreed to have her legs done. The device of madness was slipped over the first leg, covering from toes to the top of her hip.
Lyn cleared her throat. “This is fascinating, but I think I’ve seen enough… I’ll… I’ll wait in the outer room?”
Tala nodded weakly, taking in the woman’s pale complexion. “Not fun to watch; I understand.”
Lyn smiled with shame-faced regret, before fleeing.
Holly cleared her throat. “I want to add some things to your legs as well, though not at this time. I want you to be more anchored, when you need to be, and I want to discuss ideas. I need to grasp what you will be able to enact, and I don’t have a full understanding of your limitations, yet.”
Tala grunted and didn’t really have anything else to add. Eloquent, Tala.
Holly smiled, patting her non-encapsulated hip. “Begin.” The inscription machine tightened, locking her leg, even her individual toes, into perfect immobility, as the needles began their work.
Five minutes later, Tala was barely aware of Holly switching legs. Terry was sitting on a chair in the corner, clearly no longer enjoying her lap. “Sorry, Terry… I’ll be done…soon.”
And agony began anew.
This time, the pain left immediately as the needles finished each layer, the interconnecting scripts activating as soon as they were complete. Even so, echoes of pain sent twitches through her enhanced nervous system.
Holly moved the contraption after it finished with Tala’s last leg, manipulating it to open wide enough for Tala to slip it up, over both her legs and higher, further over her torso. Tala stood, lifting her arms above her head, so it could come high enough.
The device locked the inner lining around Tala but didn’t begin. Its encapsulation went around each shoulder, closing around the base of her neck but leaving it and her head bare. It also wrapped around her upper legs, holding her up and allowing no room for escape. “Holly?” Tala’s voice was a bit raw, even with the earlier protection of her throat. Tala had pulled the ending-berry power into her right hand, what little of it was left.
“There are two things special about this portion. First, I have increased the inscriptions for…support, both muscular and elsewise, around your chest. You will never need a corset. That’s for sure.” Holly laughed a bit, to herself. “I wish I had the fortitude for these inscriptions myself.” She smiled and winked.
Tala grunted. Yeah…why do I feel like that was intended to distract me? “Second?”
“What is the second thing?” Tala forced out.
“Oh! Yes. Well, we’ve been doing inscriptions in all your soft tissue, fat, vessels, arteries, capillaries, etc. but in your torso, there is quite a bit of movement from your involuntary muscles that I just can’t be sure we’ll account for accurately.”
Tala found herself frowning. “What does that mean?”
Holly smiled, placing a cool object against the back of Tala’s neck. “Sleep, child.”
Tala immediately lost all sensation below her neck, but before panic could set in, a deep, dreamless sleep took her from the world of the conscious.
* * *
Tala woke to a soothing hand, brushing her hair off her forehead.
“Time to wake up, Mistress Tala.” The voice was soft, welcoming, comforting.
Tala groaned and tried to get up, but she couldn’t move. Her eyes snapped open in a panic, and she looked up at Holly’s workshop ceiling, her head hanging backwards. “Gah!” She felt herself beginning to panic.
“Mistress Tala. Please, control yourself. Before I release the block at your neck, I need you fully conscious.”
Tala growled, glaring in the general direction the woman’s voice had come from. “I’m not very happy about being paralyzed, Mistress Holly.”
“You will recover. As I think you would care to know this: I had to stop your heart, briefly, for the inscriptions on that muscle-group, and your diaphragm, to be done. No damage resulted from the arrest, and as you can see, you are quite alive.”
Tala’s eye twitched. You have to be rusting kidding me… “So, why am I still paralyzed?” After a moment, she growled again. “And why couldn’t you have knocked me out like this for my limbs?”
“You see, the nature of most of your inscriptions required very specific integrations with your keystone as well as your mind.”
She decided to reword her second question. “You just knocked me out for my torso. Why couldn’t you have done that for my limbs?”
Holly sighed. “For many Mages, for other inscriptions, I could do just that, in fact, that is likely how this might be worth using. For you, though-” She clucked her tongue. “-Your power density rises when you are unconscious. It is to the point that I don’t trust fragments of spell-forms won’t be activated, if you are so infused. In addition, we needed the spell-forms to be seamlessly accepted by your mind. Once your limbs were complete, they served as both an outlet for that excess power, and a platform for connection to your mind.”
Tala grunted. She didn’t really grasp what the issue would have been but arguing now seemed pointless. “So… why was my torso different?”
Holly gave her a flat look. “You will understand in a moment, dear. When this comes off, you will feel much, which your body will interpret as pain. Your body is too robust to be deceived about the alterations.”
Sounds like a fake reason… But Tala was tired. I just want to go home, go to bed. “Fine… Let’s just get it over –”
Holly pulled the stone away from the back of Tala’s neck and an avalanche of pain tore through Tala’s torso. It wasn’t pain in the traditional sense; Holly had been right about that. More than anything, it felt like her entire torso was trying to tell her, all at once, that something had been done to her. Someone had fundamentally altered her being.
And her ‘self’ hated it.
She involuntarily threw her head back and let out a single pulse of a scream that shredded her vocal cords, utterly. The ending-berry power was still sequestered, so was of no help.
The regenerative scripts in her neck activated, and her voice was restored in time to vocalize her first whimpers, before she slid out from inside the automatic-inscriber and vomited towards the hard floor.
It was long minutes before Tala became aware of her surroundings again, but Holly was kneeling beside her, holding Tala’s hair and a bucket. The hair was to one side, and the bucket directly below Tala’s mouth. It had even caught her first retch.
Terry was pressed firmly against Tala’s other side, and somehow, Tala knew he was glaring at Holly over her back.
“There, there, Mistress Tala. You’ll be alright, now. The first time is always the worst for inscriptions.”
Tala’s whole body shuddered, and she felt a coldness settle into her core. She began to shiver.
Holly wiped Tala’s mouth with a cloth, helping her stand and stagger over to a nearby chair, where a waiting warm blanket was draped over her. A large mug of mint tea settling into her hands.
Tala glared. She knew. She KNEW it would be like this. But Tala couldn’t gather the energy to accuse the inscriber, at least not at the moment.
Instead, she glared.
As she glared, the focus was intent enough to activate her mage-sight. Power swirled around Holly, just as before, but now, Tala was used to the sight. She was ready for the influx of information, and she knew what the underlying yellow aura meant.
She croaked out one word. “Refined.”
Holly paused momentarily, then sighed and continued her work. “Yes, dear. I am an Archon.”
Tala glowered. “Why hide it?”
“I didn’t, but there is also no reason to overwhelm others mage-sight with one’s power. It is polite to veil oneself. My workshop contains my aura, so I let it flow more freely. This is a sanctuary. A place I can let my hair down, so to speak.”
Tala was feeling better by the moment, and she looked around, seeing Kit on the chair beside her. She reached in, grabbed the iron vial, which she felt a slight connection to, and tossed it to Holly. Holly, seeming bemused, caught it. Tala felt herself smile, if only slightly. “Open it. Liquid inside.”
Holly sighed but nodded, righting the vial, and carefully opening it. She looked inside and froze, shock clearly evident across her features. Power rippled across the woman’s face, activating her mage-sight. “Child…That cannot be…” She blinked, moving the vial closer to her face. “But it is… is it in blood?” She glanced up at Tala, then back into the vial. “Mistress Tala, who taught you this?” She held up the vial, demanding an explanation.
“I stumbled across it.”
“In what book? The curators will be hearing from me if-”
Tala was shaking her head. “No, not a book. I was experimenting, and the form just felt right.”
Holly stopped her tirade and looked back into the vial. “No one suggested it? Implied it? Nudged you along? You didn’t encounter an oddly friendly stranger in the wilds, and began doing unusual things thereafter?”
“No?” That last one was oddly specific…
Holly grunted, looking back into the vial. “Well, rust my biscuits.”
Tala snorted a laugh. “What does that even mean?”
“Hush. Do you know what this means?” She lifted the contained Archon star.
Tala shrugged. “What you just said? No. That’s why I asked.”
Holly gave her an unamused look.
“Fine.” Tala grunted. “It will mean I can be considered for Archon, once I make a stronger one.”
Holly opened her mouth, then closed it. “Well… good. Some things are as they should be.”
So, not quite correct, then? Interesting.
Holly’s eyes moved to the knife, lying beside Kit. “But clearly, you know some.”
Tala nodded. “I know some. Master Grediv advised I not soul-bond with anything else, until I reached certain thresholds.”
Holly snorted this time, shaking her head. “Fool of a man. I would bet you’ve almost met his meager thresholds?” She gave Tala a rather intense look. “You’re almost to them, right?”
Tala hesitated, then nodded. “I am.” She’s going to try to stop me. Tala had already agreed to wait, but she still wanted to rebel against even the implied restrictions. That’s not a wise reaction, Tala. Listen to the wisdom of the Archons.
“You would be wise to put your energy into making a properly powered star.” She looked into the vial, again. “This shouldn’t be possible, and I know some elders would be in a fit if you came up for consideration based on this.” She clicked her tongue a few times. “How long did it take you to make this?”
Why lie? That was the stronger of the two she had with her. “Four hours.” The other, which she’d made in one hour, still rested inside Kit.
Holly’s head snapped up. “You’ve been improving your flow-rate?” She nodded to herself. “Right. My mind has been thrown by all this. We increased your continually active scripts precisely because of your improved flow-rate.” She shook her head. “I must be getting old. I recalculated your scripts based on the new measurements, myself.” She continued to mutter, but Tala was having trouble focusing.
Her head felt stuffed with cotton and her whole body tingled with something akin to after-images of pain. “Can I go?”
Holly stopped her pacing and glanced Tala’s way. “Can you?”
Tala frowned, then sighed. She pushed herself upright, using more effort than usual because of the expected weight of the blanket. She vaulted up, her head tapping into the ceiling.
She came crashing down, arms pin-wheeling to try to regain balance.
She didn’t succeed, falling flat on her face.
A groan issued from her lips as she lay on the floor. It didn’t hurt, not really, but it did make her feel quite disoriented. Yeah, I’m glad that this wasn’t coupled with the sense enhancements…
With careful effort, Tala pushed herself up. Even so, she moved from horizonal to standing in one motion, her feet acting as a pivot point.
“This seems… more powerful than I expected.”
“Of course, we were just discussing your increased power density and flow rate. All your inscriptions were adjusted as allowed for by your new levels.” She fell back into the tone of a lecturer. “Remember, the muscle enhancements, including those for regeneration and development, will not allow bulking, though you will still grow in strength with proper exercise.” She shook her head, a frown painting her features. “I’ve never understood why some people try to grow in such…odd proportions. Such a radical change in your shape would force a redesign of your scripts and be altogether too much work.” She gave Tala a meaningful look. “You were heading that way already, before we stopped it, here.”
Well, there is that, at least. She’d forgotten that detail, though she did remember discussing it with Holly, and the particulars made sense. “Gold scripts, right?”
“Yes. As it stands, we should refresh you every six months, to be safe. Doing so will also remove almost all of the pain and discomfort, as it won’t be introducing new points of inscription, simply reinforcing the existing lines.”
Tala grunted. She turned her concentration to her own body, slowly, carefully, going through some basic movements, getting her body used to its new strength. In less than a quarter hour, she had it mostly acclimated. She placed the books Holly had prepared for her into Kit and sighed. “Mistress Lyn is waiting for me.”
Holly looked up from the slate she’d been examining. “Hmm?”
Did…did she forget I was here?
“Quite right. Run along, now. We can do a few organs a day.” She clicked her tongue. “Come by each evening around sunset. Yes? Don’t forget to read up.”
Tala groaned, moving towards the door.
Holly cleared her throat, and Tala glanced back, freezing in place at what she saw. Holly was standing perfectly still, her aura visible to Tala’s unaided vision. “That was not a suggestion, Mistress Tala. You will be here each evening, if I have to come and retrieve you, myself.”
Tala’s eyes widened, and she swallowed involuntarily. “Yes…Yes. I will be here.”
Holly smiled, returning her eyes to her slate, the palpable power around the woman vanishing as if it had never been. “Good. See you tomorrow. Be sure to eat. Your body is essentially rebuilding and reinforcing itself with a new blueprint. No skimping!”
Tala rushed from the room, only tripping a few times as her body continued to adjust, Terry already back on her shoulder.
Lyn was waiting for Tala in the outermost room of the workshop. “You smell…Did you vomit? Was that you I heard scream?” Lyn was a bit pale as she quickly came to Tala’s side.
An assistant came forward with a wet cloth and some water.
Tala wiped her face once again and drank the water, thanking the young man.
Turning to Lyn, Tala sighed, leaning against the woman a bit. “Let’s get out of here… I have to come back, tomorrow, and I already feel like I’ve been here too often and too long.”
Lyn simply nodded, walking with her out into the early evening.
After they were a few blocks from the inscriber’s workshop, Lyn nudged Tala. “Want dinner? I know we already had some of Gretel’s pies, but...”
Tala did, but she really didn’t feel like going anywhere, right now. “Yes? But I just want to go home… Is that ok? I’m really, really hungry, though…”
Lyn smiled comfortingly. “Sure thing. It seemed like that wasn’t…great.”
Lyn smiled wanly, guiding them towards home.
Lyn and Tala walked in near silence through the streets, making only a single stop to grab a few meat and veggie skewers for Tala as they walked. Tala ate them with ravenous speed. Shortly thereafter, they arrived at Lyn’s house.
Tala produced her own iron-key, stuck it into the lock and twisted. The metal groaned, and Tala let up on the pressure, before she distorted anything.
“Heh, sorry about that.” Tala moved more carefully and unlocked the door, causing Lyn to smile broadly, even as she shook her head.
“Welcome home, Mistress Tala.”
Inside, Tala wiped her feet on the mat and walked in to find six large packages sitting in the middle of the living room floor. The outside of each was waxed cloth, clearly meant to protect and preserve whatever was inside. Heavy cord bound each parcel tightly.
Lyn was frowning at the small pile, clearly confused as well, and Tala noticed a note on the top, so she walked forward and took it up.
A second hand had written another note, below:
Tala snorted. The packages were large, but thankfully looked like they would fit through Kit’s opening.
Terry appeared next to the large bundles. “Hey, none of that. We need to be sparing, and that isn’t yours until I give it to you.”
Terry gave her a contemplative look. Finally, he squawked out a low huff and blinked back to her shoulder.
Shaking her head, Tala took off the belt pouch, opening it on the ground…and looked down at the tops of nearly four dozen massive feathers. “Right… I need to deal with these.” What can I do with the jerky, then?
“Is that a dimensional storage?” Lyn came closer and looked. “Fascinating. I don’t see any spell-lines. It is an artifact, right?”
Of course, she would know about artifacts. We have discussed them before, right? “Yes…”
“How much power does it take, each day?”
Tala shrugged. “Not much? I just have to remember.” With the thought in her mind, she topped off all her items quickly. She’d fed them before arriving in Bandfast, while in the farmland, but thought it wise to keep them as full as possible.
Lyn was nodding. “Those look like arcanous harvests in there. Did you need to sell them?”
“Actually, I was thinking of doing a merging spell-working, to draw their power and potential into another item.”
Lyn looked at her, a bit confused. “That’s not a cheap or simple spell-form, Mistress Tala.”
Tala groaned. “Do we have to ‘Mistress’ each other?”
A smiled tugged at Lyn’s lips. “No. I suppose not.”
“You aren’t wrong, you know. I was considering doing the spell-form myself, but I really don’t want to get it wrong. It’s likely worth going through the Constructionist Guild…”
“Do you need a connection? Or do you want to just approach their offices, yourself?”
Tala perked up. “I’d love an introduction.” She smiled. “Thank you.”
Lyn smiled. “I am happy to help.”
Tala stretched, feeling the kinks in her back. “Oh...” She groaned. Then, she had a realization. “Oh!”
Lyn looked around in alarm, trying to find what Tala was reacting to, but didn’t find anything.
“Lyn. Lyn! Do you know a place for body work?”
“Body…work? Do you mean massage?”
“Yes. I have terrible knots in my muscles…everywhere.”
Lyn cocked an eyebrow. “You’re going to need someone with inscribed hands, now, I’d wager.”
Tala thought for a moment and groaned. “You’re probably right.”
“Or…a hammer and chisel?”
Tala snorted a laugh. “At this point, either way.”
“You know, I’m not really your manager…”
“Aren’t you, though?”
Lyn pursed her lips. “No? Well… I guess sort of.” She grunted. “Fine. I’ll help you, but as a friend. Not because it’s my job.”
“Fair enough. Thank you.”
“Early afternoon? To finish before you return to Mistress Holly’s shop?”
Tala felt an involuntary shudder at the name. Odd… “I suppose that would be best, yeah.”
Without thinking, Tala grabbed one of the packages and hoisted it up onto her shoulder. Lyn stepped forward and grabbed one of the cords binding together another package. “Oh, let me help you.” She pulled upward, but the thing barely moved. “What the rust?” She glanced at Tala, easily holding it on her shoulder. “How heavy is that?”
Tala frowned, shifting under the weight. It was heavy but still perfectly manageable. “No idea? Thirty or forty pounds?” She shifted again. I have been training… “Maybe, fifty?”
Lyn shook her head. “Didn’t you just have your strength augmented?”
Tala blinked back at her. Right. “Yes…I did. What I meant is that it feels like that much. No idea what it actually weighs.” Twelve hundred pounds, six packages. “Two hundred pounds?”
Lyn tried to budge a parcel, again. “I think you’re right; that has to be around two hundred pounds.” She looked towards her door. “How did they get it in here?”
“Well, Ashin has a key, but for the load…Teamwork?”
Tala took six trips. How tightly did they bind this? Each parcel practically felt like a solid block, but she could feel some individuality within, meaning it had likely been cured in small pieces before being compacted into these monstrosities.
Once the final one was stacked in the front corner of her room, she stood up and stretched once more. I’m really going to get my money’s worth out of that massage…
She looked around herself, taking in the simple room.
Terry was curled up on her bed. My bed.
There was a shelf against the wall to the left of the door and a writing desk under the window that she didn’t really remember, but she hadn’t truly spent much time in here. Smiling, she walked in, taking a notebook and pencil out of Kit and setting them in the center of the writing desk.
She looked around. It’s so bare in here…
Lyn had likely not wanted to put anything personal in here, as it was to be someone else’s room. She took out a hatchet and knife, setting each on the desk, attempting to make them look intentional.
She shifted them a few times, stepping back to look.
After a short time, she rolled her eyes, laughing at her own attempts. “They’re tools, not decorations, Tala.” And they are reminders of Terry’s murder spree on my behalf… Was that a good memory, or bad? She didn’t know.
Only time would tell.