Tala stopped by to say goodbye to Lyn on her way out of the Caravanner’s main office. The other woman seemed surprised, for some reason, but otherwise didn’t comment, except to say, “I’ll see you at home.”
It was late afternoon, and the sun had already set, though light still clung to the sky to highlight the clouds overhead, and periodic lights on the main streets provided easy illumination.
Tala knew it was cold. Even Terry seemed to snuggle closer into her neck as she stepped outside, but to her, it just felt wonderful.
There was an especially lovely park on the way, and Tala left the road to walk through it, across the grass. Still green? I wonder what that takes…
After she was a ways out onto the lawn, she had a realization. I hope I’m not crushing the grass as I walk. She looked behind herself and found that there didn’t seem any permanent damage, marking her path. She looked down and took a moment to analyze what she saw.
In a circle around each bare foot, the grass was pressed flat, as if under the boot of a giant. Tala couldn’t help but grin. I was wondering how it would look. Nice!
She could see the telltale threads of magic across her sole, increasing the surface area of her feet. She could feel the power in the gold inscriptions enacting that spell-form.
The manifestation is obviously beyond my foot, but the magic, itself, is contained there.
Magic was amazing.
She shifted up onto the balls of her feet, and the circle of compressed grass moved forward just a bit but didn’t reduce in size. Exactly as expected. It was an elegant solution.
A great solution to a problem I’ve created. She shook her head. I need to give it a solid try.
So long as what she stood on could bear her weight, it shouldn’t be damaged. If she’d done the math right, once she reached her maximum weight, that which she stood upon would experience the same pressure that it would under a normal person. Weight could still be an issue but shouldn’t be terrible. If a floor can hold four to eight people, standing in a huddle, it should be able to hold me.
It wasn’t a perfect analogy, but it was close enough.
She bent down and placed a palm down on the lawn.
An identically sized circle of grass depressed as she shifted her weight onto that hand. The active spell-forms on her hand were differently shaped from those on her feet, due to the difference in the form of the limbs, but they had identical functions.
I wonder what would happen if I slap someone… She grinned.
Now, she kind of wanted to slap someone. No, bad Tala.
It was time to get home.
* * *
Tala sat, cross-legged on the floor of the sitting room.
She was just finishing the last vestiges of a miniature vat of custard. She’d scraped the last out with her finger, which she’d then licked clean.
Lyn walked in, stopping when she saw her housemate. “What did you eat, this time?”
Tala pointed at four different bowls, each in turn. “Beef stew, bean porridge, chicken chowder, and butter-cream custard.”
Lyn shook her head. “Each of those bowls looks sufficiently large to hold enough food for a family.”
Tala grinned. “That’s why they’re called ‘family size.’ ”
Lyn snorted. “Fair enough. How was the meeting?”
“You didn’t just look up the results?”
“I thought it better to hear from you.”
Tala shrugged at that. “I think I did pretty well. I’m going to have someone watching over my shoulder, but I think I can probably learn from them, so it’s probably for the best.”
“That’s…surprisingly mature of you?”
“No need to sound surprised.”
“You aren’t exactly the…wisest person I know.”
“I follow wisdom when it really matters.”
Lyn opened her mouth to respond, then paused. “I think that might actually be true, from your perspective.”
“Of course, that’s why I said it.”
Lyn sighed. “So, you have a minder. Did you get a pay increase along with that restriction?”
“I didn’t get my initial ask, but I didn’t expect to.”
“Oh? So, you did get a bump. How much did you get?”
“Ten ounces but upped to twelve as soon as I’m raised to Archon.”
Lyn blinked at her, then she started laughing.
Tala was grinning, but slowly, that expression faded.
Lyn sat down in a nearby chair, shaking her head. “You robbed each other.”
Tala frowned. “What do you mean?”
“I looked at your file before the meeting. I saw what he was authorized to give you. I also saw a note, added by someone else.” Lyn had a small, knowing smile on her face. “Someone who didn’t know you very well.”
“The addendum was a notification that you were newly graduated, and while your ability was acceptable, impressive even, we should not expect further advancement for quite some time.”
Tala tilted her head. “So…?”
Lyn grinned widely. “He was authorized to give you up to eleven ounces per trip.”
Tala cursed. “That slippery-”
Lyn held up a hand. “No, Tala. You don’t understand. He was specifically forbidden from giving you more.”
Lyn cocked an eyebrow.
“Well, he hasn’t yet.”
“And aren’t you planning on making an attempt at Archon, tomorrow?”
Tala opened her mouth, closed it, then barked a laugh. “Oh!” She laughed again. “So, he thinks he saved an ounce, or I could have gotten one more ounce from him, but as soon as I succeed, I’ll have violated my maximum, by what he was told.”
“Precisely. If you’d actually gotten eleven ounces, gold, per trip, they would not have renegotiated any time soon.” She was shaking her head. “Somehow, you got more than you should have, by accepting less than you had to.”
Tala gave a seated bow. “Breaking the system, one decision at a time.”
“That does seem to be the way you work, doesn’t it?”
Tala sighed, leaning back and bracing herself up on her palms. “So, when are you making your own attempt?”
“I took tomorrow off. I’ll see what I can do with the five hours in which I can maintain my void.”
“So, didn’t your master tell you not to move on, until you could hold that constantly?”
“Yes and no. He said that I shouldn’t move on down the Way of the Void, until then. He actually left tips and tricks to allow for the creation of a star much sooner than that.” She smiled fondly. “Everything I can see seems to indicate that our learning and improvement will be opened to new horizons by becoming Archons.”
“And you didn’t want to do it.”
Lyn gave Tala a flat look. “I still don’t really want to do it. I’m not driven to be the ‘best Mage I can be,’ unlike some people. I’m looking on the bright side, but I am content where I am.”
Lyn shifted slightly. “Mostly.”
Tala just smiled.
“Fine! I’ve been feeling a bit stifled. I like my work, but I feel like I’m in a rut. Every day is the same.” She gave a half smile. “Well, it was, until you arrived. That’s probably why I took such an interest in you; you were odd from the start.”
“Glad to help.”
Lyn rolled her eyes. “Anyways. Mistress Holly is right. It’s time for me to move on with my magic.” She let out a sigh. “I was going to fight to keep my position, but who knows? Maybe, those I can move into will be more fun.” She did not sound convinced.
Tala shrugged. “Sounds complicated.” She pushed herself up. “I was just heading to sleep. See you in the morning?”
Lyn looked a bit surprised. “Oh? I just got home.”
Tala hesitated. Does she want something from me?
Lyn shifted again. “Could we…just talk for a bit? I feel like all I do all day is have quick touchpoints with people. I’d like to just talk…”
Huh…why not? She settled back down. “Sure. What do you want to talk about?”
The next couple of hours passed simply, the two friends discussing small things, lacking significance and without import.
Somehow, Tala loved it. She didn’t particularly enjoy the topics; they were fleeting and largely meaningless.
She didn’t enjoy the passage of time; after all, she had so much that she wanted to accomplish.
No. What she relished was the friendship, something her younger self just might have killed to have. You’re not alone anymore, Tala.
* * *
Tala woke early the next morning, feeling refreshed, despite the short night of sleep. She knew that Lyn would likely sleep quite a bit later than she herself had. So, Tala got to work on her morning routine.
Stretching, exercise, soul-work, and a bath. Every step was odd.
For the stretching and exercise, Tala’s new weight added strain and subtly changed her balance. Every bodyweight exercise, as stood to reason, was much more difficult, and the motions were ever so slightly off. Just as easy to move, harder to hold up. It was a strange balance.
As she thought about it, she was glad that they’d reinforced all of her tissues, else her eyelids might not have been able to open or close against the increased force, and all her soft tissue would likely be sagging toward the floor in a truly horrifying manner.
No one likes baggy cheeks.
Her hair was more like her clothing than a part of her. Her years without it and her own internal thinking had caused it to be exempt from the gravity working. Good thing, too, or I’d have the ugliest, flattest hair in the world.
Not that she cared, of course. Not one bit.
True to Holly’s prediction, Tala was now well past Grediv’s requirements for another soul-bond. Tala honored Holly’s advice and didn’t even consider bonding something new.
Not one moment’s consideration.
She didn’t stare longingly at Kit, wondering what she could accomplish with a soul-bond to the dimensional storage.
The pouch was just as excited about the prospect as expected, meaning it did not respond.
The bath creaked ever so slightly when she climbed in, but thankfully, since it had been over-built with a couple of hundred gallons of water in mind, it bore her well enough.
It was still well before dawn when Tala finished her inhouse tasks, and it was time for food. She used a measured pace and, thus, arrived at the breakfast eatery just as it opened. She purchased the group-meal, breakfast deal, this time with her coffee jug ready to hand.
The café was so close to Lyn’s house that she’d almost decided to go home to eat. Even so, she’d ended up sitting on the grass in a nearby park, under the slowly growing light of dawn, eating her breakfast.
She almost felt at a loss as to what she should do while eating. The basic reviews of the texts from Holly were, obviously, finished, though she’d likely need to delve more deeply, to continue to strengthen her understanding of the workings inscribed throughout her body.
She didn’t have a current research project, and she wasn’t willing to start a new one, given that her task for the day would be all consuming.
I could start making the star?
That had merit, but she didn’t want to divide her attention.
Ah! Right. She took the time to charge her magic-bound items, while she ate. She didn’t use a void or channels. She simply allowed her excess to flow into each, in turn, before returning it to the constant filling of Flow.
Unlike the day before, she took the time to really examine the items, and her connection to them, as she topped off their reserves.
There were some marked changes. First, as she noticed the previous afternoon, she was able to fill each of the items as quickly as before, but without the need for her void-channels. If she had to bet, Kit took around a quarter of the power that the cargo-slots did, though it obviously used the power differently. She suspected that her mental construct for Kit was less precise than that for the cargo-slots, so it was likely that Kit should require even less power.
The elk-leathers took half of what Kit did.
Her comb, as usual, needed nothing.
Terry’s collar took more than Kit, though she suspected that was mostly because the power wasn’t really going to be doing anything specific, so she had no mental construct for it.
She reached into Kit and pulled out the tool and found it…mundane. No! Rust me to slag… It was utterly without magic, aside from that which was naturally found in all matter.
That was a blow.
Tala looked at Kit. “You were starving, despite Lyn’s attempts, eh? I imagine dumping the hammer out to pull from the same ambient magic might have starved you all.”
The pouch did not respond.
Well, that’s rusting stupid… Could she re-empower it? Worth investigating, but from what she understood so far, the answer was no. The magic was sustained almost in parallel to physical reality, and with the collapse of the spell-forms, there was nothing to re-empower. The spell-forms were gone.
She felt the absence of her hammer keenly. It had helped her survive the raven-ines and the terror birds. It had had the potential to be an asset to her for the rest of her hopefully long life. I hate that I lost that tool… She shook off the loss. Not the time for self-pity, Tala.
She sighed, turning her attention to the other change that had stood out, before her: She could influence the flow of power within Flow.
The knife still kept itself topped off, connected directly to her soul, as it was, but now, she could shift that power around, within the weapon. She could feel the inscription-like place where she could activate Flow’s change into a sword. She could also shift the cutting and resilience spell-forms and power, just like with her own body, better and more easily in fact.
She would bet that, if she wished, she could even invert the power, weakening the blade to the point of falling apart.
She never would, of course, but it was fascinating to see the alteration of her control over the power. She couldn’t deactivate any of the spell-workings, of course, but she could fiddle. Yeah…not doing that now. Let’s not muck with my soul, eh Tala?
But the greatest change with Flow was that Tala could pull power out of Flow, and back into her gate or keystone, and from there out into her body. And Flow’s well of power was deep.
Could I pull from Flow to make my Archon star? Intuition told her she could, but that it would be a very bad idea, at least after a point. There seems to be a level of power required for this new stage of connection. If I drain Flow below that, I might shatter the connection.
That didn’t feel perfectly correct, more like the bond would be strained. And might break under that strain.
In either case, it wasn’t a good plan.
Though, I could dump into Flow for days, then pull it all out at once, down to that threshold, to make a star. That… that could work beautifully. I’ll keep that in mind if required, but today, I do it the right way.
She also had no idea if she could actually handle all that power at once.
She licked the remains of the last breakfast sandwich from her fingers and sighed, contentedly. That was good. She drained the last of the coffee in one long pull and stood, pushing up off the grass.
To her amusement, she noticed that her backside had actually left quite a depression in the ground, where she’d sat. I’ll need to be more careful about where I sit.
But that was for later.
Now, it was time to forge a star.
* * *
Tala was irritated.
She held the slowly building spell-form of the Archon star in her left ring-finger. She was alternating holding void-channels and resting.
When she forged the void-channels, she maintained a smaller one for her body and four funneling directly into the growing spell-form.
As she rested, she pushed the comparative trickle of excess into the spell-form to maintain its growth and keep it from solidifying.
At the start, she could only maintain the void-channels for ten minutes at a time.
True, that was a marked improvement from her earlier attempts, but it was still paltry compared to Lyn’s supposed five hours.
I must get better.
Her recovery time had improved as well, however, so each rest had started out taking around five minutes.
Thus, she was averaging around four times her usual power accumulation rate, mostly directed towards the star.
That great progress wasn’t what frustrated her.
No. She was irritated because she’d been at this for hours, and she was starting to slip. Her slips were miniscule, like an alchemist almost cutting a finger, or nearly adding the wrong ingredient: Not fatal, but not great.
Sometime after the first hour, Lyn had joined her, sitting on the floor across from her, holding a small, roughly spherical diamond between her palms.
That was over two hours earlier.
Tala was currently resting and used her freed mental space to glance at Lyn.
Her void is constant, consistent, and strong. Tala, herself, was improving. If she had to guess, she’d say she was holding the void-channels for nearly twenty minutes, now, and her required resting time had only increased marginally. I’m getting better.
Still, Lyn was doing it and doing it well, no sign of slipping in evidence.
Tala frowned as she looked more closely at the diamond in Lyn’s hand. Power was pouring into it, but a lot was flowing off of and around the surface, dissipating into the room.
Her mental construct of the Archon star isn’t perfect? Or there is some loss through the change of medium… It was most likely both.
It was almost as if Lyn was simply throwing the power at the gem, trying to alter it so it would take the proper form on its own.
But that would be madness. This is really hard, even while I’m controlling the power directly…
She looked down at her own hand, inside of which her own Archon star blazed with vastly more power than Lyn’s partially constructed one. I’m not seeing the same inefficiency.
As she thought about it, that made sense: she was an Immaterial Guide, and magic was immaterial, especially within her own body. She had nearly perfect control over her own internal power. So, even if Lyn could have been working within herself, she wouldn’t have the same advantages that Tala was experiencing.
Tala had also created quite a few stars, by this point, and her mental construct was likely much more refined than Lyn’s. This is going to be easier for me, than her. It is easier for me in basically every conceivable way.
While they each had advantages, Lyn’s mainly being her better, longer-lasting void, Tala decided she liked her own more.
Yes, I like having all but one advantage. Massive insight, Tala.
As rested as she was going to be and ready to dive back in, Tala closed her eyes and reforged her void-channels. Another round!
To her surprise, as she precisely guided her power into the spell-form, she could feel it coming to a tipping point. Just like Flow. If she had to guess, she was about to cross the lower limit of a true Archon star.
As she guided her magic, the spell-form ticked over the hurdle, and began drinking in power much more easily. In fact, Tala suddenly had to fight the spell-form on several fronts.
First, it seemed to want to draw all the power out of her, to drain her dry as some of her earliest versions had, before she’d gained greater control.
Second, it was trying to move on its own.
The Archon star wanted to move up the flows of power, towards her core. Tala felt silly, anthropomorphizing the spell-form that way, but it was an accurate description of how it felt.
Similarly, she knew that that was not a good idea. Something deep within her rebelled at the idea of the Archon star reaching her gate.
So, she fought the star, even as she continued to drown it in magic, using the pressure of inflowing power to assist in pushing the spell-form back.
The void-channels were now simpler to maintain, as if they were naturally meant to be there, but Tala was now working harder than ever: As the star grew in power, it also grew in strength.
Somehow, Tala knew: This is a fight for dominance like no other Mage has to face. She snorted a rueful laugh. This might even be why they don’t suggest Archon stars be forged within a Mage’s flesh. She didn’t know what would happen if she failed. She simply did not know enough. Even so, she knew that she, as she was, would cease.
And so, she fought.
She considered allowing her accomplishment to be enough. She almost stopped, realizing that she had a fully powered star, if in the lower reaches of acceptable power. No.
The channels were locked open, now, and while she could cut them off if needed, they were trivial to maintain. Like adding one to Flow, since its change.
Tala gritted her teeth and turned her entire focus inward.
* * *
More than an hour later, Tala was gasping for breath, her breathing pattern forgotten.
She was coated in sweat, more so than she had been in her memory. Academy calisthenics have nothing on this.
Her lungs burned, her every muscle quivered, and her inscriptions weren’t helping. The strain was beyond physical, and that was all those spell-forms could address.
Her star was complete.
Not only had she hit the level Grediv had recommended, but she, in her near infinite stubbornness, had gone beyond that, and the spell-form was no longer taking in power.
The Archon star sat on the cusp of…something. She had no idea what.
All she could interpret was that no further power could be incorporated into the form, and she had to GET IT OUT, NOW!
Her camp knife, not Flow, came up in a shaking hand, while her left hovered over the prepared iron vial.
Ok, Tala. Just a moment more. You’re almost there.
She pulled her power back from the ring finger’s defensive forms.
The tip of the blade pushed into the skin, her shaking making a far larger cut than she had intended.
No blood came out.
What the rust?
The Archon star did not want to leave.
Tala growled, pushing with all she had.
The star wouldn’t leave.
Rust you, you stupid, slagging spell-form! She jerked her defensive power back further and cut off her fingertip at the knuckle.
Tala almost lost the fight with the Archon star, then.
First, the intensity of the pain was staggering, given the totality of her focus on the digit.
Second, she was utterly unprepared for what she saw.
The fingertip fell away, leaving a golden mesh of spell-lines hanging in mid-air, connected back to the stump. The spell-lines stayed, even while the flesh fell away?
Power was flowing through them, locking them in place, even if she was forbidding their enactment. Can’t turn off gold lines…
In the center of it all, floated the Archon star, seeming somehow outside the physical space her finger had occupied.
Each beat of her heart caused blood to flow through where her vascular system should have been, and where the spell-lines meant to augment it still were.
The Archon star was perfectly spherical and ruby in color, set within an impossibly intricate weaving of gold.
Well…rust. What am I supposed to do, now?
As if in response, the star seemed to flex, pulling on its connection with her, to call itself to her, as she might have pulled Flow into her hand.
She opposed it with her will, and the strength of her soul, alone, but she was tired.
Bless you, Grediv, for insisting that I strengthen my soul.
She had no idea if she was screaming in agony and determination, or if she was utterly silent. She couldn’t spare any of her focus from the internal battle in order to register either sound, or the lack thereof.
Slowly, inexorably, she drove the star through the netting of gold, pushing the lines apart, only for them to snap back into shape right afterwards. Those spell-forms seemed tied to, and maintained by, the flow of magic, which again, was deeper than physical.
She didn’t know if she waged her war for a bare instant or for hours, but finally, the Archon star moved free, and the conflict was done.
The drip of power-saturated blood rocketed downward, into the iron vial, still enough a part of her that its gravity remained enhanced.
There was a last, sucking attempt to drain her dry, but Tala slapped it aside with contempt.
Then, knife dropped and iron cap firmly in place over the vial, Tala allowed her inscriptions to act.
Her finger blossomed outward: flesh and bone, nerve and sinew, drawn into being through the working of her spell-lines, the material and energy for their construction instantly moved from her body’s stores.
It didn’t take a lot, all things considered; a fingertip really isn’t that massive, and it was over in an instant.
“Take that, you rusting star!” She had tried to yell at the vial, but her throat was utterly parched, and it came out as an unintelligible croak. What possesses people to make these? She didn’t know if she trusted the star, outside of its vial. Good thing I don’t need to take it out…
In that instant of relief, she saw that the windows of their home were dark, and Lyn was sitting in a chair nearby, regarding her critically.
“Well. About time you finished, Tala.”