Tala was turning to leave Holly’s workshop, and Terry had already flickered up to her shoulder, when Holly grunted.
“I forgot. For your other hand, I want to do something a bit more esoteric for you. It will require practice, but it should be incredibly useful, if you can make it work.”
Tala turned back towards the Mage. The Archon. “Harder to use than my current offensive scripts?”
“Yes. By quite a bit, actually.”
“Harder than creating spell-forms in my lungs?”
Holly gave her a flat look. “Don’t be tiresome.”
Tala found herself smiling. “Do tell.”
“I want you to have a constantly-active, gravity-manipulation inscription.”
Tala blinked. “That sounds…dangerous? My current offensive abilities are locked behind a hand gesture.”
“If you need that crutch for a while, I can incorporate it, but I think, eventually, we can get it to a simple state of mind. Your cognitive and nervous system enhancements should be able to sustain that.”
Tala frowned. “Let’s keep it locked behind a hand gesture for now, but I think I like the idea of something a bit more utilitarian.”
“It will, by necessity, be weaker than your crushing attack, especially after we enhance that, and much less precise than your restrain, at least at first, but I think that, in the end, you might lose the need for those pre-scripted functions.”
“Alright. I’ll give it a try.” She’s an Archon, after all. I should listen to those wiser than me…when I can.
Holly nodded, smiling. “I’ll finalize the scripts then, and we’ll add them, tomorrow.” She turned back to the slate in her hand.
Tala found herself frowning, looking at the back of her hand. Wait a moment. “Mistress Holly? Where are the detailed scripts for my crush and restrain? I don’t exactly have much of me free and open for such workings.”
“Hmmm? Oh, the bulk of those are in your right breast.”
Tala blinked at her a few times. “What?”
“The three-dimensional scripts that enact the specifics of those effects reside within the tissue of your right breast. I’ll be putting this new one in your left. Activation scripts and most of the metal reserves are, and will be, in your hands, of course.”
“But…” Tala frowned. “Why there?”
“Well, around the regenerative inscribings, you had room. I saw no need to fundamentally alter the internal workings of the tissue there.” She quirked a smile. “Even when you have young children, we don’t need to radically increase your ability to produce and hold milk, and I assumed that you didn’t want your breasts to feel like someone had strapped rocks to your chest, so stiffening and strengthening the internal structures was unnecessary. Hence, free space for your other workings.”
Tala didn’t really know how to process that. “I…suppose that makes a sort of sense.”
“Good.” Holly responded in a monotone. “I’m glad you approve of my work. Now, I’m very busy, and you aren’t my only project. Be off with you and eat something.” After a moment, she elaborated. “Eat a lot of somethings. You read the book, your digestive system will be able to hold and process much more, far more efficiently. I want you to test its limits. Goodbye.” With that, she turned and sat at a workbench, continuing her work across several slates.
Tala shrugged and departed, Terry a comfortable weight on her shoulder.
Having finished with Holly for the day, Tala made her way back through the city to acquire another food log from the restaurant at which she’d eaten lunch. It wasn’t a long walk, and she used the time to contemplate her new inscribings, along with Holly’s thoughts and ideas. No breakthroughs presented themselves, but Tala felt better for having taken the time.
When she arrived at the eatery, following Holly’s promptings, Tala bought two of the delicious things. How have I already processed all that chowder… She had to laugh at herself. She hadn’t even considered the fact that she had been filling up her stomach before it was to be inscribed. I’m glad I didn’t puke again. That would have been wasteful.
Thankfully, that hadn’t happened, and now she felt empty and hungry once again. The new inscribings in her digestive system were efficient, it seemed.
Wait… One of the inscribings was to prevent the vomiting of non-toxic food… was that one activated first? That would be just like Holly.
She caught a whiff of the food sitting before her and returned her attention to the meal.
Terry watched with what Tala interpreted as slight amusement as she devoured both ‘Little Caravans.’ Tala even used the remainder of the chowder as a drink, to wash down the food logs.
“What are you looking at, bird? I’ve seen you eat so much more than this.”
Terry shook himself, almost seeming to roll his eyes, before he stretched out in the last vestiges of evening light.
Tala found herself smiling. This is sooooo good. To her delight, she found that she still felt a bit hungry, even after she finished. I get to eat more? She hesitated, the implications sinking in. Well, this isn’t going to be very good for my money pouch… It seemed that the free food on caravan ventures might be a more valuable perk than she’d ever guessed. Though, I should slow down eventually, right?
The inscribings in her body’s storage mechanisms were similar to those on her muscles. Her fat could store dozens of times more calories without changing size, now, and she would need all of it. Her regenerative inscriptions pulled from those stores, and the scripts were interlinked so that her healing wouldn’t be dependent on biological mechanisms to get the needed energy and compounds from her stores to the part of her in need of healing.
Eat more, survive more. She grinned. I’m my own regenerative potion. I just need to be sure to stay topped off. That was proving more problematic than she would have expected. If only such potions weren’t just the stuff of myth… She hesitated. Well, ending-berries seem to be behind some legends, maybe something else is behind healing and regenerative potions?
She could go in search of the origin of those myths… but now was hardly the time. Needing more food, she wandered the area near the restaurant and bought a large selection of inexpensive foods. Another silver, spent.
She was torn, obviously. She needed to be saving up to pay off her debts, but she also knew that if she encountered something truly dangerous to her, a few extra calories in her system could keep her alive. My debts don’t matter if I’m dead… She decided not to camp on the uncomfortably comforting thought.
In the end, she decided that she would allow herself the budget to eat six robust feasts a day, instead of three light meals, as she had been accustomed to before these changes.
So, three silvers a day, then. When not in a caravan. It was a painfully large amount, when she contemplated it. Even after she realized that she’d spent more than that this day, without much consideration. Easier to spend in the moment, than with intention, I suppose.
She licked her fingers clean of her last purchase, a deep-fried pastry that had been filled with a heavy, savory, cream sauce. Delicious.
With a satisfied sigh, she turned towards home. I need to do my practice, and there’s really no good place to do it within the city. Maybe, the guards would let her use a space off to the side, so she wouldn’t get in anyone’s way? It was worth asking.
Some of those auxiliary buildings looked unused, this morning. Maybe, I could use one of those.
Terry seemed content to snap up the oft tossed pieces of jerky as Tala meandered home. He hadn’t been willing to eat the other food she’d offered him. In time, Terry. I will teach you the amazingness of all human food. That got her thinking about Terry, in general.
“Do you need exercise, Terry?”
The bird regarded her for a moment, then blinked away and back, allowing a little longer delay than usual, to ensure she noticed.
“That is exercise to you?”
He bobbed a nod.
“Huh. Good to know, I guess.” She smiled. “Sorry to make you sprint for treats.”
He let out a vibrating almost-whistle: soft, low, and pleasantly melodic.
“Don’t mind, eh?”
He shook himself, settling back down.
“Fair enough.” She pulled out the current book for review and filled the last of the walk with silent reading.
* * *
Tala sat on the floor of her room, her body pleasantly worked and stretched.
Now, let’s see what difference there is with Flow.
She drew the knife but remained seated.
She tossed the weapon at the wall before her, and immediately called it back. As if on a string, the knife jerked to a stop, and whipped back into her waiting grasp.
Tala grinned. Yes! It felt so much easier than before.
What followed was a series of fast throws and retrievals. She tried calling the knife back and moving her hand out of the way, but the weapon unerringly came into her grasp.
She could change which hand it came to, she could even cause it to slap into any part of her that she wished, but she couldn’t cause it to miss or fly past her. So, I can’t use this as a method for propelling it into an attack…
Or could she?
She searched around until she found a cutting board in Lyn’s kitchen; the other Mage wasn’t home, yet.
The knife rested on the living room table, as Tala held the cutting board over her right palm. Here it goes!
She pulled the knife to her right hand.
The weapon whipped across the intervening space and thunked into the cutting board, driving its point in and sticking in place.
That was effective. She frowned. Well, if it didn’t strike with enough force to go through the cutting board, it probably wouldn’t penetrate an arcanous creature very deeply. So, still not an effective weaponization of the ability. I’ll have to think of something else.
She continued her soul workout, until she started to feel weary in that regard. Ok. Let’s not overtax.
She returned to her room, sheathing the knife and sitting back down on the floor.
Alright, let’s test for an Archon star. She began to gather power in her finger, just as she’d done before. As she did so, she made sure to pull from her gate, not from the reserves in her body.
It felt painfully slow, glacially so. What’s happening? At this rate, it would take her days to do what she had been accomplishing in earlier attempts. She examined the flows within herself, finding that her power was being tapped to empower her myriad inscriptions. That wasn’t new; she’d noticed it when empowering the cargo-slots that morning, but there were now more than ever, and essentially all active, even if not all currently working.
She didn’t even bother making the Archon star spell-form, because she could tell that she just didn’t have the available power-flow. I could pull from my reserves. That should make an effective star. But the goal wasn’t to make more stars like she had. She wanted to make a full-powered star, and her reserves were not sufficient to that task.
I could direct the entirety of my flow into the star. But that would cause her inscriptions to drain her reserves. It wouldn’t be a quick drain, but neither was the making of a star.
Growling, she released what little power she had gathered back into the natural flows within herself. She needed to increase her power accumulation rate. Ok. My soul is exercised, so I should be able to stretch it, now. She smiled determinedly to herself. Yes, because my soul is a muscle, and must conform to all I think I know about strengthening those.
She shook her head, closing her eyes. It’s worth a shot, or at least a look.
She turned her mage-sight inward, focusing on her gate. To the best of her knowledge, that was the approximate location of the physical manifestation of her soul. How have I never done this before?
Distractions fell away as she narrowed her intent on the keystone inscription, surrounding her gate, and slowly moved inward, doing her utmost to examine the source of her magic.
* * *
Tala found herself, body-less, her perspective floating in a clearing within a wooded valley. Before her towered a colossal mountain.
She knew that she was still sitting on the floor of her room, but the experience felt real.
Within her vision, she found herself inexorably drawn forward, towards the base of the nearby mountain.
The trees were old-growth and lusciously beautiful. Their dark green canopy created a stunning, swaying green tint to the light.
The undergrowth was sparse, and she didn’t see any animals.
After a short minute of movement, Tala came out of the forest and saw the base of the largest mountain, rising as a cliff from the valley floor. Set in the base of the cliff was a deep, wide pool. Set deep within that pool was what looked like a huge vault-door, currently hanging open.
From the opening, water gushed forth, filling the pool from within and causing it to spill out into the valley, nurturing the growth therein.
Why is there a door? I never want it closed… The door was thrown wide, but even so, its mere presence seemed to restrict the flow, somewhat.
Investigate first, Tala. She looked to the bubbling stream of water and began to follow it through the valley, away from the mountain and the pool.
Within this vision, the water was fast flowing, and it quickly split into countless streams, each splitting further, until the main trunk of the waterway was miniscule. The side paths continued to diverge and diminish until they simply ended, the liquid absorbed fully into the fertile ground.
She returned to the central flow and followed it to the other end of the valley. There, the barest hint of a waterfall trickled out, into the world outside.
“Fair enough, I suppose. That’s what I already understood.” She almost laughed. Of course, my mental map of my magic is going to follow my understanding of such. Did you expect differently, Tala?
With a simple thought, she was back at the pool and the vault door.
Her presence dipped into the pool, and she felt the buzz of energy from the liquid around her. My reservoir of power.
She approached the door, examining it for a long moment.
“So, this is dumb and unneeded.” She examined the hinges, and to her surprise, found that they seemed to have a simple mechanism to release the heavy contraption of metal to allow it to fall away. Well, I was just going to look, but this seems designed to detach.
“No, Tala. That would be foolish. Don’t go messing around with your power.”
It’s right there! It’s designed for me to do this.
“Why? Why would it be designed to allow such?”
Because I want it to be…
“Exactly. So. Is this wise?”
Because our magic functions based on our understanding, and that mechanism is a representation of my understanding. Therefore, it will function as I believe that it will.
There was actually some logic to that. Tala groaned. “Fine. Fair enough.”
Besides, if it fails and I die, I’m done: Debt gone, problems solved.
She decided it was best not to follow that train of thought.
Strangely, she had the odd sensation that she actually had this type of conversation with herself quite often but usually didn’t pay this close attention.
She gave a mental shrug and reached forward and activated that mechanism.
The hinges popped open, the force of the water knocking the door away, where it instantly vanished, dissolving as if it had never been.
The newly freed portion of the opening into the mountain allowed for a marginal increase of flow into her reservoir.
And Tala began to scream.
* * *
Tala found herself writhing on her back, pain lancing outward from all across her keystone inscription. Heat like a bonfire radiated from her skin and a deep tearing sensation caused her vision to fuzz. She was utterly unable to make a sound, or even draw breath. I thought I was screaming? That must have just been an inner manifestation.
Even so, she soon heard the sound of running feet.
Lyn burst into the room, Terry beside her.
The other woman dropped to her knees beside Tala, wiping something away from the latter’s mouth. “Tala! What’s going on? Talk to me!” She turned Tala’s head to the side, but Tala already knew she wouldn’t vomit, despite the agony.
Tala met Lyn’s gaze but couldn’t speak. Instead, she arched and clawed towards her own back.
Seeming to understand something from the flailing, Lyn forced Tala to sit up, having to leverage her up from above her head, then push her forward into a slumped, seated position from behind. She then stripped off Tala’s top. The elk leather seemed to know that Tala wanted it away, because it came off without difficulty. Tala didn’t know if Lyn even undid the ties, first.
Lyn gasped. “Tala, what’s going on? Your keystone… parts of it look like they’re melting.” As if in response to Lyn’s words, Tala heard liquid dripping onto the floor, along with a strange hissing. “Tala, you’re bleeding and leaking metal. It’s hot enough to boil the blood.” Lyn was surprisingly calm, all things considered. “What do I do?”
Tala could feel her inscriptions working, already healing her skin and the deeper tissue as well, even as new portions were burned open, more metal expelled. Why is it getting through the defenses? She could feel the active defensive scripts on her back. It didn’t do anything to prevent what was occurring. She finally managed to pull in a breath and gasped out. “Holly.”
Lyn nodded and tried to stand, carrying Tala.
Lyn struggled to lower Tala back to the floor, on her side this time, then ran towards the door. She hesitated in the doorway, looking back at Tala. “I’ll be as fast as I can.”
Tala couldn’t muster a reply from where she lay.
A moment later, Lyn was gone, and Tala was alone in her agony.
Well, not completely alone. Terry came over to hunker down next to her face. He looked concerned, somehow. How can I interpret emotions on an avian face? Well, she could, so now was hardly the time to analyze it.
She felt unable to move, barely able to think. It was as if something was digging into her back, paralyzing her, locking her in place.
Over the next half hour, the pain moved across her keystone in waves, the damage always healing shortly after the bits of metal were expelled.
At long last, Tala groaned, able to move once more. She rolled onto her stomach putting her tear-covered face to the floor. The stone was cold on the bare skin of her chest and abdomen, erratically interspersed with the wetness of drying blood and oddly smooth lumpiness of now cooled bits of metal.
A few minutes later, she heard the front door open, and Holly and Lyn came in with quick steps.
They hesitated in the doorway, and there was a long pause before the two women stepped in. One, Lyn if Tala had to guess, waited just inside Tala’s room, the other circled her on the floor.
Like a vulture. Tala didn’t feel like lifting her head.
“Child. What have you done to your keystone?” She continued to circle. “It looks like all portions for closing your gate have been removed.”
Lyn, who was near the door, took in a sharp breath.
Holly grunted. “Those portions weren’t really needed for her, anyways, but I’d planned on simply letting them fade. What did you do?” She repeated herself.
Tala groaned, again. Her head was turned to the side, now, but her hair covered her face. She spoke through that impediment. “I was examining my gate with my mage-sight, and I noticed that the ability to close it off was restricting the flow. So, I took the door off its hinges.”
Holly laughed mirthlessly. “Mistress Tala. Magic works on intent and ability. In effect, you caused your body and magic to reject that portion of the inscribing. Your power and flesh then worked to remove it, so it could no longer act upon you.”
Tala grunted. “There was an obvious mechanism for removing the door. Why would it be there, if I wasn’t supposed to, or it would be harmful?”
“Did you want it removed?”
Tala grunted. Oh… “Is this unusual?”
“No, it is quite common in those who haven’t gone through Academy training, especially if their inscriber doesn’t ensure compatibility before laying the spell-forms. It is unusual for a fully trained Mage to be foolish enough, however.”
She groaned, again. “Yay, me.”
“You are lucky that you aren’t a Material Creator. When they have a reaction like this…” She sighed. “The regeneration scripts have kept you whole, and your inscriptions seem to have kept their other functions intact. In this case, I will say don’t worry, I could tell if they were otherwise broken. As usual, you’ve done something that would have seriously injured almost anyone else I’ve ever worked with.”
Tala grunted. “Yay, me…”
“The process seems complete. Get yourself cleaned up, put on a shirt, and then we’ll talk about exactly what happened. Yes?”
“Yes, Mistress Holly.” She spoke into the floor and her own hair.
Holly didn’t respond. Instead, she walked from the room, drawing Lyn after her.
Lyn spoke over her shoulder. “I’ll get the bath heating, Tala.”
Tala grunted her thanks.
The door was pulled closed, and she slowly pushed herself up.
Her front was liberally speckled with dried blood, and bits of metal were held to her skin by the crusty red adhesive. She sighed, brushing it off. The sensation was oddly satisfying. As she moved, she felt similarly encrusted portions on her back. Probably more, there…
She heard the water running in the bath room across the hall. It cut off shortly after.
So, not a full bath, just enough for me to get cleaned up. That made sense, she supposed.
She gathered up her elk-skin tunic and crossed the empty hall. The small amount of water in the tub was already warmed by the small fire beneath.