Tala came out of her quick wash in less than five minutes. The small amount of water had heated quickly, so she’d put out the fire before she’d even gotten into the tub.
She took a moment to clean up the blood from her floor and gather the bits of gold, putting them in a small cloth and storing it within Kit. I’ll have to get them changed back into currency… Or maybe Holly can use them?
Now clean once more, dry, and fully dressed, Tala sat in the living room with Lyn and Holly.
The two women listened intently as Tala told them what had led up to her body’s rejection of a portion of her inscribings, and they both sat in thought for long minutes after she had finished.
Finally, Tala was sick of the silence. “Well?”
Holly looked up to her. “Well, what?”
“Did I break something? Should I avoid looking at my gate with my mage-sight? What?”
Holly sighed. “Technically, you broke a portion of your keystone, and it was expelled, but I think you knew that. Otherwise, from what I could see, you seem to have left everything else intact and functional. I did already tell you that.”
“Why didn’t my defensive scripts prevent me from bleeding or my skin from breaking open?”
“Simple answer? Because those defensive measures function by keeping your body working normally. Your body’s expulsion of a foreign, unwanted material was a normal function, or as close to it as could be. So, your magics had nothing to work against.”
“So… I’m not protected against my own body killing me?”
Holly shrugged. “I don’t actually know. I’m not sure what extent would have been allowed, but I doubt that you could have actually died.”
Tala grunted. She pulled out the bits of gold. “Can you use these?”
Holly took the cloth in which Tala presented them, looking at the red-stained pieces. She sighed. “I’ll clean them and weigh them. I’ll give you a fair price, tomorrow afternoon.”
Tala smiled. “Works for me.”
Lyn looked up, then, clearly a bit stressed. “I need to know: Why are you doing experiments, here? It’s really unpleasant to continually find you in some form of distress…” She sighed. “Don’t misunderstand me, I’m glad that I was here, and that I could help, but…” She glanced away.
“I’m sorry, Lyn. I don’t really have another place to practice, yet. I think I’ll have one, starting tomorrow, but…” She frowned. “Where do Mages go to practice, generally?”
The two other women looked at each other, then back to Tala, speaking in seemingly unplanned unison. “The wilds.”
They both smiled slightly. Tala grunted. “Fair, I suppose… I’d rather not have to walk out beyond the city every day just to practice…”
Holly’s smile grew. “Honestly, it depends on what you want to practice. Healers, regardless of quadrant, have plenty of places they can practice, so do most Material mages, either Creators or Guides. Mostly, though?” She shrugged. “Its on missions. Inscribings are too expensive to burn through for practice alone.”
“I’m not using my inscribings to practice.”
“And the best Mages do likewise, but in the wilds.”
Tala sighed. “Fair enough. I might have a place I can go. It’s one of the Guardsman’s Guild training grounds.” She then frowned. Speaking of the guards… “Mistress Holly, how do the guards use magic?”
Holly took a moment, seeming to consider before she answered. “All creatures, humans included, use magic almost constantly. It helps the being accomplish their goals, and augments their physicality, if just slightly.” Holly was nodding to herself. “As the magic acts, it flows through the flesh, and leaves an impression. With enough repetition, that impression becomes a pathway, through which magic flows more easily. If the being, in this case a human, knows what they are trying to do, that satisfies the requirement for a mental construct. Thus, they have a form, a mental construct, and their own power.”
“The requirements to work magic.”
“But they aren’t inscribed.”
“They don’t need to be. They aren’t doing anything unnatural, so the body can be the template for the working. There would be no way for one of them to, say, manifest a gravity manipulation; there simply isn’t any basis within the human body to even begin to create those spell-forms.”
“So, without inscribing, we can’t do anything unnatural?”
Holly hesitated, then shook her head, sighing. “There are records of ancient warriors, burning themselves over and over again, very precisely and under incredibly controlled conditions, to imprint the pathways for heat and fire within themselves. From what I’ve gathered, it was only possible with healers nearby, whether herbal, alchemical, or magical. It wasn’t often successful, and it usually resulted in horrible disfigurement.” She smiled ruefully. “Inscriptions bypass that need. It’s expensive, and has to be maintained and refreshed regularly, but it works exactly as intended.”
Like Emi. Her body’s natural magical pathways perfectly mirrored the magic of her inscriptions. Tala’s eyes widened in realization. “Then, wouldn’t the inscriptions become unnecessary, in time?”
Holly shrugged. “Yes, and no. As the pathways settle into the body, that allows the power to flow more efficiently, thus the effects created can be greater. Eventually, the inscriptions wouldn’t be needed, but without them, the potency of the spell-forms would radically decrease. Few are willing to make that trade-off, especially since most who are Mages for that long have the available funds to spend on inscriptions, and it does help.” She smiled. “Also, Mages are prone to change their inscriptions fairly often. That is a flexibility afforded to us by inscriptions. Without the consistency and long-term application of specific magics, the body cannot form sufficient natural pathways for the magic to function bio-magically, without inscription.”
That’s why she wanted to get me transitioned over and settled on my new schema so quickly. “Is there any way to speed up the process?”
“Of course. Spell-forms that are always active ‘set’ faster. Otherwise, using them as often as possible builds the paths.”
“But Mages don’t really practice in that way.”
“It is quite expensive.”
After a moment, Tala nodded. “That’s why you wanted my scripts to be always active?”
“One reason, yes. Your scripts lend themselves to being active at all times, as well.”
“Well… thank you?”
Holly smiled. “We’ll get you all sorted. I’m happy to help. You are a very interesting specimen, and I expect to have learned a lot from you before we’re through. Especially after you become an Archon.”
Lyn sighed, interjecting for the first time a little while. “I knew it. This has something to do with that stupid spell-form too, doesn’t it?”
Holly glanced to the woman. “What do you mean?”
Lyn shrugged. “My master, before I left her charge, showed me the spell-form for an Archon star. She said I should work my way through her practice exercises, until I could create a stable star within a material. She said a lot more, but it always seemed pretty useless to me.”
Holly blinked owlishly at the Mage. “You…Your master recommended you for the path of Archon, and you haven’t pursued making an Archon star.”
“Didn’t seem useful.”
“Are you aware that that’s how you become an Archon?”
“Of course. I’m not an idiot. If I became an Archon, I’d have to be moved to upper logistical positions. I like my work as I am.”
Holly’s eye twitched. “You don’t have to accept further positions, if you don’t want to. You won’t receive an Archon’s pay, in all likelihood, but that doesn’t seem to bother you.”
“But what’s the point?”
Holly opened her mouth and closed it several times. Finally, she rubbed her forehead with one palm. “To improve! To get better. To-” She cut herself off and groaned. “There is so much that cannot be even attempted until you are an Archon. Please, for the love of all that shines, work on your star, Mistress Lyn.”
Lyn let out a weary sigh. “Fine, if you think it’s so important.”
“It is.” Holly rubbed her temples. “How many worthy Mages haven’t ascended because they saw no point?” She let out a low growl. “The current policies are maddening.”
Tala quirked a smile. “So… why do they exist?”
Holly smiled sadly. “Because it is better to lose out on a few potential Archons than to have hundreds of perfectly adequate Mages kill themselves attempting to ascend.”
Lyn cleared her throat. “So… no. Then, I’m not doing it.”
Holly practically ground her teeth. “If your master thought enough of you that she taught you about Archon stars, then you are capable, and the danger is miniscule.”
“But it still exists?”
Holly threw up her hands. “You could choke and die on a grape. Yes, there is still danger. What are you, thirteen?”
Holly gave Lyn an incredibly patronizing look.
Tala frowned. “Wait… you’re thirty-six?”
“Yes? How old did you think I was?” Lyn had a quizzical look on her face.
Tala shrunk down in her seat, just a bit. “Like…twenty five?”
Lyn barked a laugh, and Holly snorted in amusement. “Well, I suppose I should be flattered? My mother looked twenty at fifty, and she wasn’t even a Mage, so I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised…”
She’s thirty-six? Tala didn’t really know how to handle that. She could almost be my mother…
Holly closed her eyes for a long moment, breathing deeply. “As entertaining as this has been, I need to go. I’m in the middle of quite a few things.” She looked to Tala. “I’m glad you didn’t die. Work towards your star.” She turned to Lyn. “You won’t die from this. Work towards your star.” She narrowed her eyes, looking back and forth between the two women until they both nodded, Tala easily, Lyn reluctantly. “Good.” She stood. “Goodbye.”
Without another word, the woman departed.
“Well… that was something.” Tala smiled at Lyn. “So, thirty-six?”
“As far as I know. I am flattered that you thought me so much younger than I am.”
Tala dropped her gaze; a bit uncertain where to take the conversation. Archon stars. That should be safe. “Do you know what material you’re going to use?”
Lyn frowned. “You too?” Her frown faded to a look of defeat. “Fine…my understanding is that diamond is an easy medium, and I can probably get one fairly inexpensively.” She glanced Tala’s way. “Do you need one, too? Or are you using a different material?”
Tala looked away, clearing her throat. “A different material.”
“Care to share?”
She hesitated, looking back. “Promise you won’t try it? Or tell anyone else?”
Lyn shifted forward, a half-smile tugging at her lips. “Now, I have to know. I won’t tell, and I won’t try it. I’m barely willing to try the easiest method I know of. Knowing you, you’re doing something truly insane.”
Tala quirked a smile at that. “You aren’t wrong.” She pulled out her iron vial, feeling the faint connection with the star inside. “Here. Be careful when you open it.”
Lyn frowned but took the vial. She spun the cap free and stared inside. “Tala…”
“That looks like blood.”
“That’s because it is blood.”
“It’s not dried. How did you keep it from drying?” She looked up but didn’t leave space for Tala to answer. “Am I to understand that your intention is to make an Archon star in blood?”
Tala nodded, opening her mouth, but Lyn kept talking.
“I was right. You’re insane. Tala, that isn’t possible. My master said that Archon stars have to have a solid, dense medium.”
“Use your mage-sight.”
Lyn frowned but complied. “Did you modify the blood? Give it a structure that could…” She blinked in obvious confusion. “Tala?”
“What is this?”
“A weak Archon star.”
Lyn’s head snapped up. “This is an Archon star.”
“A weak one, yes. That’s what I said.”
“And you’ve already made it.”
“You can see that I have.”
“So, why aren’t you an Archon?” She shook her head. “What am I saying… you shouldn’t be anywhere near becoming an Archon.”
“It’s too weak. I could probably force my way into being recognized, though I have no idea about the specifics of that, but it would hurt my position among other Archons...somehow. I need to make a stronger one, first.” She shrugged. “Well, that’s what I’ve been told, several times.”
“Does Holly know about this?” She held the vial up, after placing the cap back on, securely.
“She does. She is one of those who advised I work on making a stronger one.”
“That’s why she wants you to work on your star…” She was shaking her head. “You’re insane.”
“I didn’t do it on purpose.” Tala felt a bit petulant. But it’s true!
Lyn laughed. “Of course, you didn’t.”
Tala briefly explained how she’d come to form her first star.
After the tale, Lyn was smiling. “That is very you, Tala.”
They both grinned at that. “Well, at least my life won’t ever be boring, with you around.”
“So… You need to practice, and I need to do some experimenting… Can I do it here?”
Lyn gave her a long look. “If I say ‘No,’ you’re going to go find an alley or someplace to do it in, anyways, aren’t you?”
She groaned. “Fine. My master left me a set of exercises to work up to the creation of an Archon star. I suppose I’ll focus on those.”
Tala perked up at that. “Oh?”
Lyn smiled, slightly. “More interesting than experimenting?”
“My experiments were attempting to pin down such exercises.” In a really, really roundabout way…
“Well, let me get my old notebook and see what we can do.”
* * *
Three hours later, Tala wasn’t sweating, but she felt like she should be. The exercise was rigorous.
They had begun simply, the instructions short: Draw all the power within her reserves away from her gate, creating a void around it. It was simple in concept, but truly straining in practice.
Tala had an advantage at first, given her practice drawing her power away from the healing scripts in her finger, along with pulling back the ending-berry power, any time she needed to enact a transaction.
Lyn, being an Immaterial Creator, had a harder time manipulating her own internal magic in general, but she was quickly able to pick up the technique.
The result was amazing. The deficit in magic just around the gate caused a cavalcade of power to flow through, seemingly in an attempt to even out the levels. During that time, Tala estimated that her power-flow was easily quadrupled, but she couldn’t maintain it for more than a minute, at least not at first.
Lyn’s master had said that the final stage of the exercise, which she should work towards, was to hold a small void of power around her gate at all times.
It was a daunting goal.
Lyn had managed three minutes on her first attempt, once she’d been able to manipulate her power enough to attempt it at all.
Was that because she’s older? Less power-dense? Tala didn’t know, and it didn’t really matter.
They had spent the three hours tackling this single exercise. In the end, Tala could hold the void for ten minutes, and Lyn for fifteen. It was growing late, and they were both mentally exhausted.
“That was nice.” Tala smiled. “I’m not used to working beside someone else. Not on the same thing, at least.”
Lyn smiled in return. “Yeah. I think I liked that quite a bit.”
The house felt uniquely saturated in power. As neither of them had directed their increased flows of power into anything, it had simply flowed outward, dispersing into the air.
Tala could see a slow drain, pulling the power from the air and down into the ground. Feeding the city. Similarly, the items she carried seemed to be drinking in the magic from around them, at least those she could see.
“We’ve raised the power-levels to near those around Alefast.”
“Oh?” Lyn’s mage-sight activated, and a wide grin spread across her face. “So, we have.”
“I should probably find something to do with the excess…”
Lyn rolled her eyes. “You don’t need to be perfectly efficient, Tala.”
“True, but if there’s something easy that I can do?”
Lyn smiled, pulling out her notebook. “Well, the second step will likely solve that. I can tell you, now?”
“At the moment, we are simply allowing the increased flow to fill us, the excess flowing away on its own.”
“The next step is to control the increased inflow of power, splitting it in two. We are to divert the amount we usually use into our body and its inscriptions and send the rest outward.”
“But…that’s what we’re doing already?”
Lyn shook her head. “Right now, we are allowing a river to flow into a leaky cup. Sure, most overflows, but what this is saying is that we want to direct a small portion of the river into the cup, just enough to maintain its level, and have the rest bypass the cup entirely.”
Tala found herself nodding, again. “And that excess can be directed into anything. This second step just lets it dissipate into the surrounding air, but I’d bet the third has us put it into something? A magic-bound item, or…?”
Lyn looked back at her notes but was already nodding. “Precisely that. She recommended that once that was mastered, I should split the power into thirds.” She met Tala’s gaze, a serious expression apparent on her face. “Don’t rush this Tala. We are nowhere near mastering even the first step. My master said I could move through the steps of this exercise when I believed I was ready, but I still want to be cautious.” She closed the notebook. “She did say that the second, different exercise shouldn’t be attempted, until I could maintain the void every waking moment.” She gave Tala a stern look. “That means I won’t be letting you know what it is, until then.”
Tala chuckled. “Fair enough. But you should probably get a magic-bound item, so we aren’t walking around dumping power into the city’s air.”
Lyn smiled at that. “That’s probably true. I don’t want the City Watch to get irritated at unexpected fluctuations in the power matrices.”
“We could take a trip back to Alefast, to get you an artifact.”
She shook her head. “No, a simple item is better for me. I know I’ll have to keep getting it re-inscribed, but I’ll find something reasonable.”
“As you wish. Oh! You could get an incorporator.”
Lyn gave her a long look, then rolled her eyes. “I’ll consider an incorporator, and I’ll go with you to Alefast, after we’re Archons. Not immediately, mind you, but sometime after.”
“Deal!” Tala smiled at her friend, then let out a weary sigh. “But now, we should sleep.”
“To sleep we go.”
Tala hesitated, realizing something. “Did you get dinner?”
Lyn hesitated too, then snorted a laugh. “I didn’t.” She looked to the window, seeing that full dark had fallen. “I don’t really want to go out, either. I’ll be fine.”
Tala waved that away. “My treat. I’ll go get something for us and be right back.” A new exercise deserves celebration. I’m not starting my budget until tomorrow, anyway.
“Well, if you insist. I’ll take it as an apology for earlier, and I did want to read another chapter or two…” Lyn patted a book, which sat beside her chair.
“Great! I’ll be back, shortly.” Apology? Oh… for breaking myself, a little, in her house… Sure. That too.
Lyn was already opening the volume, eyes flicking over the page to find her place. “Take your time.” Her voice was a half mutter.
Already lost to the world. “Terry?”
The bird appeared on her shoulder. She watched him for a moment, noticing his deep, long breaths. The power in the air was still dissipating into the ground and her magic items. To her surprise, there was a flow towards Terry as well, and not just into his collar. He seemed to be reveling in the ambient power.
“Does that feed you, too?”
Lyn glanced up, having been temporarily pulled back out of her book. Terry didn’t seem to mind, or he didn’t notice. The bird bobbed, contentedly, his eyes half-closed.
“Well, glad to assist, I suppose. Is there a danger of you becoming magic-bound to us?” As soon as she said it, she realized that it was a silly question. “No… you can’t be magic-bound to more than one source.”
Lyn cleared her throat. “Once undirected power leaves a Mage, it quickly loses the unique signature of the source, and disperses into ambient magic.”
“Huh. Good to know.”
Lyn was already back to her reading.
“Well, see you soon!”
She grunted, waving absently without looking up. "Be safe."