Tala floated in hot water, luxuriating as the heat helped her body rid itself of the lingering nastiness, which Emi had worked from her muscles. She could feel her own power, flowing along channels inscribed by Holly’s machine, sweeping away the toxins more efficiently than her own body could have, naturally.
It was fantastic. Her muscles felt like they were free for the first time in her life, and the magic flowing through her was rebuilding them. Somehow, she knew that this time was taking longer than it ever would again, as every loosened fiber was reforged under the heat of her power.
The density of magic in her body was slowly dropping, and had been since this process started, despite her gate being thrown wide, drawing all the power into herself that she possibly could.
She didn’t quite know what would happen if the magic ran out before the process was complete. Something told her it wouldn’t be great.
She was in an artificial hot spring, in a secondary room inside of Emi’s building. She tried to distract herself. I wonder if she has more than one of these rooms. The pool had been shaped to resemble natural rock, hot water constantly flowing through and being refreshed to maintain a perfect, almost too hot, temperature.
Terry, who had slept in the corner while Tala was being worked on, now floated in the water nearby, his feathers keeping the moisture out to enough of a degree that he had no trouble staying above the surface.
He looks like the world’s most vicious duck…
Tala’s everything felt smooth and unrestricted.
Emi’s hands had been strong and experienced, tracing each clenched muscle to the source of the issue and relieving the tension. Tala had paid before being escorted to this idyllic, private oasis, and Emi had left her with a command to soak and relax for at least an hour before leaving.
That woman performs the real magic. I’m just messing with gravity; she truly affects the soul. Tala let out a contented sigh. The light feeling of nausea, brought on by the releasing of so many overworked muscle clusters, had finally fully dissipated, and she was left simply feeling content.
There is no way I can justify doing this regularly…Maybe shorter sessions? She would have to consider the expense, if need arose. She should not have been able to do this much correction in just three hours… Tala snorted. Magic, Tala. It’s an amazing thing. As she considered it, she realized that her own inscriptions, now integrated with her muscular system, had likely helped the prolonged session be even more effective. Hopefully, it will allow the results to be longer lasting, as well.
Terry tapped her on the head with his beak, and Tala’s eyes popped open.
As the bird stared down at her, floating above her head, he let out an inquisitive, cheeping squawk.
Still feeling the colossal drain within herself, she decided that she’d waited long enough. “I need to deal with this, don’t I…”
He bobbed an affirmative.
Tala sighed, turning the gaze of her mage-sight inward. Her focus was immediately pulled entirely into the torrent of power rushing through her. She was used to her internal reservoirs being like a placid ocean. This was like a hurricane.
Even so, she fought through the distracting flows of power, examining exactly what was happening.
For most humans, muscles were anything but smooth. Throughout their life, each person collected countless places where their muscles locked up, refusing to unclench. These were trigger-points or knots, within the muscle tissue. Each one was both a weakness in the muscle and a lessening of the capacity. At least, this was Tala’s understanding.
Tala’s daily stretching and exercise had kept the largest of these at bay, while making innumerable smaller ones, scattered throughout. It was these points that felt relief in a good stretch or were worked out with proper massage. Now, with the help of Emi’s expertise, and Holly’s deeply incorporated inscriptions, Tala’s body had released them all, and those broken down, overworked, underutilized muscle fibers were being rebuilt: better, stronger, more responsive.
Her energy stores, so recently overstocked, were being drained for the resources needed in the reconstructions. If it continued on for too much longer, her reserves, both physical and magical, would be utterly depleted.
Thankfully, at long last, it seemed that the process was coming to an end.
Four hours, give or take, to fundamentally alter my muscular system. It both seemed like much too much time, and altogether far too fast. Make up your mind, Tala. Is your magic too fast to make sense, or is it painfully slow? She quirked a smile. Both, it seems. I’ve not gotten used to what I can do, yet.
Terry was still looking down at her, but he seemed fairly nonchalant in his inquiry.
“You could feel it wrapping up, couldn’t you? You knew I was almost done.” She smiled up at the bird. “Ready to go?”
He bobbed an affirmative.
“Fair enough. We do need to get to Holly’s shop.” She felt a bit of apprehension at the thought of more inscribings, but her relaxed state kept it from growing into anything more. Besides, these have already been amazing…and I need more food.
She drifted over to the side of the large, inset pond, and dunked under one last time before climbing from the water.
Thick towels waited on a shelf to one side. After running her comb through her hair to dry it thoroughly, Tala availed herself of the towels, drying the rest of herself off fully. She then dressed, braided her hair, and strapped on her belt, knife and pouch hanging in counterpoint.
True to what she’d seen, she felt the consumption of her magic slowly lessening to a noticeable degree, to the point that, after a few more minutes, her reserves began to slowly refill. Down to about half. Not too bad. The hunger also seemed to settle in deeper. Food was now a must, on the journey to Holly’s. I guess I fully processed the food log, then…
Terry was still basking in the water.
He let out a series of happy chirps.
Tala gave him a flat look. “You wanted to be done.”
He hissed a happy reply, then appeared on her shoulder, perfectly dry.
She stared at him for a moment. “So, do you leave the water behind?”
“What if some water got under one of your feathers, would it be brought along?”
He shook himself.
“How does your magic know what to bring and what to leave behind?”
He turned his head, meeting her gaze with both of his eyes.
“Right, much too complex a question.”
Terry chirped once, shimmied slightly, and settled down on her shoulder.
Tala smiled, unlocking both doors into the room and pushing open the one that lead outside. “To Mistress Holly’s shop, we go!”
The short walk passed with reading and flicks of jerky for Terry, her eyes also nearly constantly looking for a source of food. The jerky she, herself, ate just wasn’t enough, though it helped. I’m glad I have so much of that, now… What am I going to do when I run out? She gave the bird a glance out of the corner of her eye.
He seems content, and I guess he can’t really hurt me. Could I stop him if he decided to kill one of these people we’re passing? She was quite uncomfortable with the obvious answer. I suppose that’s something to work on…
She had a brief mental flash of Terry eviscerating everyone on the street with his previously demonstrated efficiency. That would be…a lot of blood. She swallowed involuntarily, and Terry popped open an eye, regarding her.
“Glad to have you on my shoulder, Terry.”
The bird cocked his head, regarding her. She had no idea what he was thinking, but regardless, he closed his eyes again, settling back down.
I think he’s actually made himself smaller than before. To better fit my shoulder? She didn’t know. I wonder what his range is. Could he become as small as a finger? Might be worth it to figure out, but it wasn’t like it would matter, in the end.
She returned her attention to one of Holly’s books and passed the remainder of the walk without distractingly macabre thoughts.
Tala was almost to the warehouse when she finally spotted a little eatery. Yes!
This establishment seemed to specialize in soups, and she almost groaned in pleasure as she stepped through the door. The overpowering ecstasy of scents washed over her, and she felt a bit weak.
“Mistress? Are you alright?” The proprietor was a middle-aged woman, a look of concern obvious on her prettier than average face.
“I’m just very hungry. What’s your most filling soup?”
The woman nodded with a smile. “We have a sweet-potato cream chowder with bacon, along with other vegetables, spices, and meats, for a perfect medley of flavor.”
Didn’t I eat something like that on my trip? “That sounds wonderful! How much for…” She thought for a long moment. “A gallon?”
The woman smiled but seemed a bit bemused. “A gallon, Mistress?”
“As I said, I’m very hungry.”
“Let…let me ask.” The woman turned, walking towards the kitchen. “Brand! How much for a gallon of the sweet-potato chowder?”
Brand? No way.
A familiar voice responded from the kitchen. “We don’t usually sell it by the gallon. Are they looking for a discount, ordering the same soup for the whole group?”
“No, dear. I believe she wants it for herself.”
“Herself? No…” The expected figure of a man came from the back room and stopped in the doorway, a wide grin blossoming on his face. “Mistress Tala! I didn’t expect to see you in my shop.”
“Brand? You have a wife?”
His smile slipped, the man stopping for a moment, color rushing over his face. “Of course, I do! I told you, so. Didn’t I?”
His wife was frowning at him. “What’s this now?”
Tala quirked a smile. “We had a misunderstanding, and when he thought I was going to kill him, he said he had a family, as he begged for his life.”
Brand frowned, grumpily. “That’s not a very dignified way to express it.”
He hesitated, then sighed. “No…”
Tala found herself grinning. “You know, I should have asked where you worked, when you weren’t on the road, but the idea didn’t cross my mind.”
Brand shook himself, his good humor returning. “So, a gallon of soup? What, are you on a diet?”
His wife’s eyes widened in obvious horror, but Tala laughed. “When the food’s not free, I can’t eat as much as I would like.”
Brand nodded, understanding. “Too true. Well…” He seemed to be considering. “One and a half silver seem reasonable?”
Tala shrugged. “Looks like a cup would be a bit more than ten copper, so yeah. Sounds good to me.” She smiled.
Brand’s wife looked back and forth, then shook her head. “No, Brand. This is Mistress Tala, from the caravan?”
“Then, she should get two gallons for that price, at least this first time. We can charge her the regular price when she comes by later.”
Tala’s smile widened. “That is very kind of you, but I’m not sure I can eat two gallons. Also, I don’t think we’ve been introduced. I am Tala.”
The woman gave a slight bow. “You may call me Lissa, Mistress.”
“A pleasure to meet you, Lissa.”
Tala spent a few minutes talking with the two as Lissa served up the soup. They decided that Tala should eat at one of the tables off to the side, and so she was given a large bowl, which was refilled as needed.
As Lissa placed down the first bowl, she spoke softly to Tala, then winked. “I simply must see if what my husband said about your capacity for food is true.”
Tala felt a little embarrassed, but it had gotten her a bunch of extra food, so…
Several other customers came and went as Tala ate, but it wasn’t a very busy time, being about mid-to-late-afternoon. Finally, Tala pushed her bowl back, scraped clean for the last time. “Amazing. Thank you.”
Brand had returned to the kitchen some time ago, but Lissa smiled happily. “I’m glad you enjoyed.” She set a large jug with the amount she couldn’t finish contained within.
Did I really eat more than a gallon? Tala stood, Terry appearing back on her shoulder from the other chair where he’d been curled up. “I definitely did. Say goodbye to Brand for me!” She slipped the jug into Kit and set her used bowl and spoon into the dirty dish bin off to one side.
“I will. Take care, Mistress. We look forward to seeing you, again, soon.”
Tala gave a slight bow. “Definitely.”
Back out on the street, Tala stretched expansively. No more delays. Her hunger had been addressed, at least for the moment, and she felt truly stuffed. Her strengthened abdominal muscles kept her from manifesting a food-baby, but she doubted she’d ever been this full before in her life. It was mildly irritating to feel like she could still eat more, from a hunger perspective, even if she really didn’t have the internal room. She’d even eaten relatively slowly, taking nearly an hour and a half to eat everything. At least I have almost another gallon, for after my stomach empties.
A short walk later, she was at Holly’s building. Tala entered the warehouse and was met by one of Holly’s assistants. “Mistress Tala! Welcome. I’m to take you back to Mistress Holly.” The woman hesitated. “Umm… May I pet your bird? He’s quite cute.”
Tala glanced to Terry. The terror bird’s eyes had opened, and he was regarding the woman with what seemed to be curiosity. “Will you behave, Terry?”
He looked at Tala briefly, then gave a slight bob.
“If you wish? Just one pet, though; I don’t want to overwhelm him.”
The assistant smiled happily and gave Terry a slow stroke from the top of his head to the end of his short tail. “He’s so soft!” The woman stepped back and gave a slight bow. “Thank you. Right this way.”
Holly was waiting, with her contraption, in a back room.
“Ahh! Good, you’re here. How far did you get in your reading?”
Tala thanked the assistant, who left with surprising alacrity. She then detailed to Holly which organs and systems she’d finished brushing up on, for the moment.
“Hmmm… Good, good. Then, let’s begin!”
“One moment…” Tala had been thinking and needed to ask. “How did you come up with this device, and make it functional, so quickly? I wasn’t even gone a full two weeks.”
“Hmm? Oh, we’ve had things like this for years. The Constructionists use a less precise version for inscribing softer materials.” She smiled happily to herself. “They use my needle design all the time.” She shook her head. “No, this is just the perfecting of that, and alteration for using on souled entities.”
So…I’m being worked on by industrial equipment. That wasn’t quite right. But, Tala, it’s been modified for human use. Tala sat on a stool with a sigh, lifting her arms above her head; Terry stretched out in a corner; and Holly slipped the expanded automatic inscriber over Tala’s upraised arms, settling it around her torso.
“Now, I’ve modified the device to monitor your breathing and pulse, and anything else that might displace or shift your insides. That way it can account for movements or slight variation. I don’t want to have to knock you out again, after all. Even so, you need to remain as still as possible. Do you understand?”
Tala nodded. Ok, Tala; you can do this.
* * *
Ten minutes later, they were done, and the weird, internal-swelling pain was already a mere memory.
Tala stood and the inscription machine was removed. Her stomach felt…odd somehow. Given they’d done her digestive system as part of this session, that wasn’t unexpected. Is it processing the food faster? That was the intention, but she hadn’t expected to feel it working. “Why did that take so much longer?”
“It had to work more slowly to account for your movements, both voluntary and involuntary.”
Tala shrugged. I suppose that makes sense. “So, you wanted to discuss my idea for inscriptions in my mouth, throat, and lungs?”
Holly nodded, pulling out a tablet. “Yes, yes. They would have to be additional to those we’ll add tomorrow. I worked up a schema.” She handed over the tablet, showing a brief description of how it would function. “Basically, it will maintain the coherence of any spell-form or magic within your mouth, throat, or lungs, keep it from activating or penetrating deeper, and forcibly expel it, when you exhale. That should prevent anyone from affecting you magically via the air you breathe, unless they can entirely overpower you, regardless. Those we just gave you on your digestive system already protect you against intrusions on that front, both mundane and magical.”
Tala was nodding. “I think I’d like that. Yes.”
Holly gave her a long look. “Why do I get the feeling you are going to do something marginally insane if I give you these inscriptions?”
Tala thought for a moment. Why not tell her? “Well, I did figure out that I can create spell-forms within my lungs, so long as I am holding my breath. I was hoping I could use these to help in the stabilization and expulsion of such.”
Holly stared at her for a long moment, then started laughing.
Tala frowned at the woman.
Holly pulled up a stool, sat, and got herself under control.
Tala rolled her eyes and waited.
“Mistress Tala…” Holly shook her head. “My dear, the spell-forms required to create a specific effect would change depending on the exact composition of the air. It could be different from one breath to the next!” She shook her head again. “No, it would be different from one breath to the next, or if you held your breath for a different lengths of time, and depending on your heart rate, and so, so many other factors.”
“So, you’re saying it’s impossible?”
“Impossible? No, not really. I’ve written scripts that analyze and calculate exactly what spell-forms need to be used before infusing a Mage’s breath upon exhale, but they are devilishly complex, not to mention expensive. You are talking about doing that manually.” She shook her head. “And before you ask, no, I can’t give you those inscriptions. They would take up a large chunk of your flesh, so we’d have to remove some of the vital, interlinking inscriptions for your other functions.”
Tala frowned. “Couldn’t I learn how to make it work manually?”
Holly held up a hand, palm down, waggling it back and forth. “With practice, and I mean a lot of practice, you could probably get to the point of creating a general effect with reasonable consistency, but it would never be something I’d advise you to count on.”
Tala thought for a long moment, then shrugged. “Well, I’ll try, so long as you don’t think it will kill me.”
“Oh, this won’t kill you, directly. What I predict is you’ll practice and think yourself ‘good enough.’ Then, you’ll depend on the skill in a moment of crisis, and it will fail.”
“I never planned to rely on it. I just wanted another tool.”
Holly waved her off. “The scripts I’ll give you will be useful, regardless. If you wish to practice this oddity, be my guest, but it will never be a reliable tool.” After a moment’s consideration, Holly shrugged. “If you do choose to go this route, which I again state is insane, I suggest first learning mastery of sensing the composition of the air in your lungs. That would be a good foundation.”
Tala frowned. “I can do that?”
“Not yet. That’s why you need to learn and practice it.”
Tala rolled her eyes. “You know, that reminds me, Mistress Holly: When I tried to look up the spell-form modifications for air, it stated that that was the realm of Archons. Does that mean this won’t be a limit once I take that step?”
Holly scrunched up her face in irritation, then shook her head. “No, not really. Archons often work effects into the air around them, such as shielding their aura from observation. That is likely what was meant. Air around us is much more consistent than air drawn into our lungs.”
Something about Holly’s demeanor made Tala think that that wasn’t all entirely true, but she decided not to press for the moment. I suppose the core of it makes sense, regardless. “Well, it will be an interesting thing to try.”
“Your other insanities have worked out better than I’d have foreseen; so, who knows? Maybe, you’ll dazzle me again.”
Tala smiled, slightly, at the compliment, whether intentional or otherwise.
“And these scripts should keep you from killing yourself with your experimentation.”
And, good feeling gone…
“Now, go eat something, dear. Your body is screaming its need for sustenance.”
She frowned. I do feel pretty hungry…what happened to the gallon of soup? Has it already been processed? “How can you tell?”
“Now that I’ve re-established the link, whenever you enter this building, and while you remain in it, the script on the back of your neck connects to my central archive, updating me on how your inscribings have functioned, as well as how you’ve been doing overall. You obviously know that it will keep me informed of your status, or it wouldn’t work.”
Tala sighed. Yet again, I underestimate what’s been done to me. “Very well. Thank you, Mistress Holly.”
“Hmmm? Oh, sure thing, dear.”