Tala ground her teeth as she circled Adam on the sand of the training courtyard.
Every step compressed a circle of sand, but not markedly; there was enough surface area that she still got good purchase. Arguably, she had a better footing now than before the increase to her weight and footing surface area.
Again and again, she threw herself at the guardsman: punches and kicks, elbows and even headbutts were launched as sweat poured from her.
He was too skilled to allow virtually any of her hits to land.
He ducked and wove around each strike, occasionally reaching out to subtly alter the incoming trajectory of her movements.
Then, like clockwork, after she’d failed with ten attacks, he would lash out, decisively ending the exchange.
If she was quick enough, she would block the attack and lose her momentum, allowing him to step away. If she missed the timing, or lost count of her own attacks, he would disable her, if briefly, by taking her footing or striking her head to daze her momentarily.
It was infuriating.
After each exchange, the watching students would analyze how she had failed, while the instructor and Adam, himself, offered advice on how, exactly, she could correct the errors and perfect her fighting techniques.
“Keep your elbows tighter to your sides.”
“Your attacks should stay ahead of your body’s movement, don’t let them trail.”
“Your footing telegraphed your attack; shift like this, instead.”
“An elbow strike would have been better, there.”
“You aren’t utilizing your unique strengths with that strike. However, if you change it like this…”
“You should have thrown a hook, instead of a jab, with the previous sequence in mind and how it opened his defenses.”
“You allowed yourself to forget about defense.”
Oh, how she hated it.
As credit to their advice, and her own resolve to improve, she got closer to landing blows, and got hit less, as time went on, but it had yet to be as gloriously in her favor as their first exchange.
* * *
When Tala and Adam had first faced off, they bowed in turn.
“Ready, Guardsman?” She wore her elk-leathers, as immaculately clean and pristine as ever.
Adam wore a loose-fitting set of workout clothes, light and unrestricting, while being well-fit enough to reduce the potential for handholds, if he were to grapple. “Ready, Mistress.”
Tala didn’t hesitate after his acknowledgement, launching herself across the short space, her speed clearly surprising the large, lean man. Sand sprayed behind her in large plumes, as she’d required incredible force to move as quickly as she’d wanted.
She didn’t attempt subtlety, throwing a haymaker-style punch.
Adam raised an arm almost disdainfully to block, though he shifted his body and weight to ensure he was grounded and braced against the blow.
He compressed his lips, seemingly in irritation; he’d taught her better than to throw such an easily predicted attack. Perfect.
His perfect form hadn’t been enough.
Tala was small, comparatively speaking, and so the blow shouldn’t have been a question of strength and proper form. Any such contest would heavily favor him over her, because she was lighter.
Only, she wasn’t.
Her forearm connected with his, and she powered through, trusting to her fully grounded weight to lock her in place.
His form had been perfect, and his blocking arm hadn’t collapsed, despite the tremendous strength behind her blow. Instead, his unshifting body had been driven up and backward. After he’d lifted free of the sand, his shoulder gave way with a sickening pop as the joint left its socket.
Adam had grunted in surprised pain, before he landed once more, sliding back but maintaining his feet as his left arm dropped, useless, to his side.
The Mage Healer they’d had ready to hand took only a moment to fully restore the joint.
Adam had bowed and smiled. “Very well, then. Let us truly begin.”
* * *
Now, Tala was paying for her earlier arrogance. He’s proving to me, and everyone, that skill trumps weight and strength. At least in what amounts to a point match…
Each exchange took less than a minute, even with the feedback, and they paused for water after every ten bouts or so.
Two hours passed with little variation, and Tala, along with most of those watching, decided that the extra weight was more useful in grounding her, and adding to her footing, than in any sort of acrobatics. Might change my mind, as I gain competence, though.
Finally, Tala decided a change was in order.
She stored her cool water incorporator, turning to face Adam once more. “Enough. We fight until one of us is truly disabled.”
He hesitated, then nodded. “Or to surrender.”
She nodded in turn.
They closed the distance, moving together with smooth, even steps.
Tala’s quick jab was hooked and jerked downward, Adam’s backfist using her resistance to gain a burst of speed and power.
His knuckles caught her nose with a blow that would have shattered the feature on anyone else.
It tingled, forcing her to blink rapidly.
She threw a knee to his gut, and he rolled around it, delivering a hammering blow to her raised hip. She felt the joint shift, threatening to pop free.
She drove her elbow down as she dropped much faster than any other person could, due to her increased gravity.
With that third strike, finally, she caught him by surprise, once again.
She clipped his knee, sending a wet crack across the sand.
He didn’t stop, though she could see pain in his eyes, held in check by a fiery determination, her enhanced perception presenting his expression to her, as if on a canvas.
His chest flexed, bulging beneath his loose shirt, and his two palms thundered, one against each of her ears. Her vision fuzzed for just an instant. It hadn’t been sound, not really, so her dampening scripts had done little to soften the impact.
For that instant, she had to rely on feel and animalistic instinct, through incredible disorientation.
They exchanged a dozen blows and counter strikes.
If Tala had been uninscribed, she would have ended up with broken ribs, ruptured kidneys, shattered joints, and blinded eyes.
But she was a Mage.
There was no question of who was more skilled. Adam attacked her with near perfect impunity, but impunity wasn’t the same as invulnerability.
When her vision finally refocused, her mind clearing, Adam was gasping and standing on his one good leg, his right arm broken in two places. He also had a broken rib to go with his arm and knee, and one eye was squeezed shut against rapid swelling.
Tala ached but nothing was broken; nothing was out of place; nothing was truly wrong.
Adam spit out a wad of blood and spit, then nodded. “I yield.”
The Healer rushed forward, restoring him quickly. Tala took a moment to appreciate the work of the Material Guide. Their scripts were efficient, effective, and precise, restoring the target to full health, using the patient’s own internal maps as a template and guide.
Simply perfect. Her healing, when she used it, influenced the processes, magically. The material and energy still had to be supplied in mostly mundane fashions. If I were to try to heal someone else, they’d be malnourished and skeletal. Probably an overstatement, but in the vein of the truth. Plus, I’d have to get entirely different inscriptions… So, no healing others.
But she wasn’t here to admire the elegance of another Mage’s work, or to lament an area she’d never excel in.
Tala looked around at those watching. Silence reigned among the onlookers, until Adam was back at one hundred percent.
The Healer retreated, and Adam cleared his throat. “So, who has a comment?”
No one spoke out, but the students were glancing to each other, the air beginning to fill with mutterings.
Adam grinned. “To her, I would like to say that I, for one, am impressed. She has been listening to every bit of advice we gave. To you all,” he gestured to the watching students and teachers, “I say: any mundane warrior would be a fool to engage a Mage in open combat, this is known. Their methods are usually less up close and personal than this, but they are also usually more definitive as well. Would you rather face her or a Mage that could simply incinerate you at a hundred yards?”
There were more mutterings at that.
“Exactly. She is effective as she is now, but she is still a child when compared to the offensive abilities of most Mages. Now, what advice can we give her to correct that imbalance?”
Rane grinned from his chair off to one side, giving Tala a happy nod but keeping his thoughts otherwise to himself.
And thus, the real work began.
* * *
The sun was straight overhead, and Tala was feeling desperately hungry, by the time they called an end to the morning’s training.
Adam had received healing more than a dozen times, and after the first two true bouts, the most senior guardsmen had joined him to fight her two on one, then three on one.
All the while, dozens upon dozens of eyes had scrutinized Tala’s every move.
With every angle watched by someone, and a truly impressive staff of advisors, Tala had made incredible progress. Her increasing number of opponents stood as obvious testimony to that, as did her slowly decreasing time to total disablement of those opponents.
Make no mistake, Adam and his compatriots were still vastly more skilled than she was, and if she had lacked her inscriptions, she would have lost, quickly, to any one of them. Or if they used inscribed weapons.
Still, she was quite happy with the morning’s progress. Good training.
It was amazing what could be accomplished when injuries weren’t a real concern. In that light, she was more than a little impressed by Adam and his fellow guardsmen and women. No matter how hurt they had been while sparring with her, they had never hesitated, or flinched, in their exchanges. They had never even let a single injury take them out of the fight, likely using the opportunity to train themselves in fighting under those particular conditions. True masters, it seems.
Terry had watched from the nearby roof, basking in the sunlight. Even so, he’d seemed much more intent on her activities than usual. I wonder what he’s contemplating.
Rane walked out onto the sand. “Thank you, all. I think Mistress Tala should grab some lunch, as she has a rather important meeting early this afternoon.”
After the collective responses settled down, Rane continued.
“Tomorrow, I will be joining those opposing the Mistress, which should allow for increased scrutiny on her fighting techniques, as well as allow you to finish your evaluation of my fighting style and abilities.”
Sounds and utterances of agreement came back towards them in an incomprehensible wave.
Rane leaned in close to Tala and whispered. “There is a set of private baths in that building there.” He indicated with a bob of his head. “I suggest you clean up, then get lunch and head to your evaluation.”
Tala nodded. “Thank you.” Lunch sounds so, so fantastic. “Care to join me?”
He froze, rapidly turning a bright shade of red.
She frowned. Why would… OH! She colored slightly as well. “For lunch, Master Rane. Would you like to join me for lunch?”
He cleared his throat. “Um… well. I’d love to, but I need to get to my own evaluation.”
“Fair enough. Good luck.”
He quirked a happy smile, the color starting to fade from his features. “Thank you.”
They bid each other goodbye, along with the Guards: students, instructors, and combatants.
The Healer, just as all morning, didn’t converse with anyone, simply departing when the need for their services was clearly over.
Tala did take advantage of the baths, though she didn’t use their tub or water.
She stripped down in the private room, then blasted herself with hot water, quickly removing the residue of the morning’s sweat and sand. She marveled at how she was able to bear the otherwise scalding water. She could probably cook herself, in time, but she wasn’t submerged; so, it was just unpleasantly hot when used like this.
Terry waited outside, basking in the sun.
Dressed and dry, hair combed and re-braided, Tala left the Guardsmen’s complex behind and hunted down some lunch, Terry on her shoulder once again. With me, as he should be.
She chose a new place this time around.
Her lunch was beer-battered, deep-fried chicken with a side of likewise battered and deep-fried vegetables, ranging from mushrooms and zucchini to potatoes and squash. It all came with a staggering variety of available sauces.
To her delight, it was ‘all you can eat.’
To the relief of the owners, she did not, in fact, follow that allowance.
No need to put them out of business.
Even so, she suspected that she’d eaten as much as any two other patrons she observed, and some of them were very enthusiastic diners.
She did not let Terry have any, giving him some jerky instead.
He hadn’t been too disappointed. I might have to start letting him try more varieties of human food. It bore considering.
The restaurant staff tried to charge her ninety-nine and nine-tenths ounces, copper, but she just gave them a silver and refused the remainder. Stupidly specific prices.
Thus fed, she headed towards the Archon facility, located within the innermost circle of the city. It was just barely two hours after she’d left the sandy courtyard, and Terry was on her shoulder once more.
When she arrived outside the indicated building, she was at once confused and impressed.
The building, itself, was situated near the bottom of a small hill, clearly extending back into it. Even so, it looked small, seeming barely bigger than a single-family home. I suppose it doesn’t have to be that big, but I expected more. It also looked decidedly ordinary. If you don’t know it’s here, you’ll never find it. She grinned. Unless you have mage-sight like mine.
To her mage-sight, the protections were staggering. Not only were the city’s standard defenses thicker and more powerfully concentrated around it, but there were many more, cunningly buried into the construction of the building. They would need material guides to re-inscribe the portions imbedded in the walls.
She swept her gaze across the surrounding area and noticed with shock that the increased defenses encompassed the entire hill. Moreover, though the powerful thrumming of the city’s magic made seeing anything specific below ground difficult, she thought she saw the complex, augmented wards extending far below ground. Fascinating. This is probably the best defended place in the city.
As Tala walked forward, she was subjected to more bits of scanning magic than she could count; many were similar to the one in the Constructionist’s Guildhall, examining her magic and inscriptions, but others seemed to be checking her physical form. She even thought that she felt a few focus on her gate: her soul.
It was a bit disconcerting, but nothing hostile was triggered, so she continued forward at a steady pace.
As it turned out, the entire structure visible from the street was solid stone, no rooms or open spaces to be found. Behind a set of heavy doors, there was only a straight passage, leading from the entrance deeper in.
Once she was well inside the little hill, she came out into a lushly appointed entry foyer. There were thick rugs on the plain stone floors. Heavy tapestries hung on the walls to dampen sound and add warmth to the room. Where the ceiling of the passage had been an unremarkable eight feet, this room expanded upward to at least ten, and that ceiling was textured and oddly shaped.
Tala blinked, taking in the ceiling as a whole. It’s a map. It’s a map of the known world. The detail was staggering, and she quickly realized that the few lights that were in the ceiling itself were each located to indicate the placement of humanity’s cities. Fourteen; so, they marked where one is currently being built, too. Additionally, there was a hole where a fifteenth would go, but there was no light, yet.
There was nowhere to sit, as this was obviously not meant as more than a front entry. Three other hallways led off, centered in the three walls, other than that containing the entry passage. In the center of the room stood a round counter. Four people sat behind the counter, each seeming to be working on something out of Tala’s sight.
They were inscribed, but not Mages, their spell-lines focused around their eyes and ears. Are those forms of blinding and deafness? There were conditions woven in that were far too complex for her to parse at a glance, but she guessed that they were prevented from seeing or hearing information not allowed to them. I can’t even imagine how it determines that. Maybe, it’s something that Archons can activate, at need?
That was a horrible thought. I don’t ever want someone else activating scripts on my body… But now wasn’t a good time to contemplate that.
The closest, a woman, glanced up at Tala’s entrance and smiled a greeting. The expression seemed to be genuine, and not simply an affectation for her role as greeter. “Welcome! Are you Mistress Tala?”
Tala was still looking around but decided she should probably give the woman her attention. “I am.”
The attendant nodded, looking down. “Your brother should be finished, within the hour, and I’ll escort you in, shortly thereafter.”
“My…brother?” She had a moment of panic. Which one? How is he here? What is going on?
“Yes, the two of you signed up together: ‘Mistress Tala and Master Rane Gredial.' ”
“Oh!” She felt tremendous relief. “No. He’s not my brother.”
The attendant’s eyes widened, and she visibly paled. “Oh, no! I’m so sorry, Mistress. Your husband should be out soon.”
Tala blinked at that. “What? No… No! Master Rane is not my husband.”
The woman seemed completely baffled, now. “Then… I’m so sorry. I don’t understand.”
Tala cleared her throat. “I don’t have a last name.”
“Oh!” The woman straightened. “That makes sense. I should have thought of that... It’s unusual, but not unknown. My deepest apologies for the misunderstandings.”
Tala, herself, was now quite flustered. “It’s…it’s fine.” She swallowed. That’s embarrassing. The other three attendants weren’t looking her way, but their body language suggested they were hiding smiles of amusement.
The attendant swallowed. “Well… can I get you any refreshment while you wait? After I get that, if desired, I will lead you to a seating area, where you should be more comfortable.”
Tala nodded, rubbing one temple against a newly budding headache. “Coffee, please. As much as you can bring me.”
The woman smiled. “Certainly.” She turned, ostensibly to come out from behind the counter and go get the beverage.
Tala held up a hand. “Wait.”
The attendant paused.
“I’m afraid that you heard me ask for a large mug of coffee.”
She nodded hesitantly.
“What I want is for you to bring me as much coffee as you can. I can provide two one-gallon jugs, if that would be useful.”
The young woman swallowed, again, seeming quite taken aback. “I’ll…I’ll see what I can do.”
That will have to be good enough. “Thank you.”