Power exploded from several distinct points around Tala, various workings lashing out towards her, and she reacted on instinct, not waiting until she determined what they were intended to do. Too coordinated. They were expecting me to resist. If that was true, they’d underestimated her. Most of the Archons were simply watching, seeming almost curious.
She channeled power into Flow. The blade swept outward, becoming the wire-thin outline of a sword, surrounding a field of throbbing heat. That transformation took place even as she swung, slicing the first working to come within reach and ending it before it could affect her.
She dodged, ducked, dipped, dived, and…wove through the magics sent her way. She cursed her lack of iron salve, even as Flow split the few incoming magics that she couldn’t avoid and would otherwise have struck her. The blade sheared through spell-workings like Terry through a pack of murderous woodsmen, leaving the incomplete magic to spark and fizzle out without taking affect.
Thankfully, they hadn’t thrown anything but spell-forms her way. She didn’t know how she’d handle lightning, or fire, created first, then flung at her. I’ll just have to trust in my defensive inscriptions. They weren’t designed to fight Mages, though, let alone Archons.
She kicked backwards, driving downward to use her weight along with her strength to shatter open the door behind her…or she tried. It was somehow incredibly reinforced. The resulting boom shook the walls, causing dust and debris to fill the air. They built this place to contain Mages.
It didn’t matter though; her voice had reached him.
Terry appeared on her shoulder.
“Bigger, defend me!”
He flickered, and was suddenly next to her, already the size of a horse, crouched low. He screeched forth a bellow of challenge, his razor talons sinking into the stone below them with ease.
There was a collective hitch from everyone in the room at Terry’s appearance and enlargement. Silence briefly settled, and several watching Archons let out overlapping curses, which blended together to Tala’s battle deafened ears.
Terry settled down, ready to spring, and called again, low and thrumming, but he didn’t attack.
He glanced to Tala, as if in question.
He agreed to not kill anyone without explicit consent from me. Tala found herself smiling, despite the situation at large. That’s some impressive restraint, Terry.
From the side of the room, Rane was laughing, and Tala heard him talking to himself. “I knew it. I knew that bird was more than it appeared.”
She glanced his way and saw Lyn smiling back at her. They’re taking this well, but I supposed if they’ve already been coopted, they wouldn’t be bothered.
Tala allowed Flow to shrink, so that she wasn’t wasting power, but she didn’t lower it.
Elnea cleared her throat. “Well, this is unfortunate.”
“You think?” Tala tsked. “So, what is this? You force Mages to give in to their Archon star, replacing their soul with an arcane construction? Is that the purpose?”
Elnea blinked at her. “No, child. We verify that the Mage to be elevated hasn’t already been subverted. Being subverted before this evaluation is rare, but it does happen.”
Tala hesitated. “You told me to swallow my star.”
“And you will, eventually, but every Mage, when they first make a true star, must fight for dominance. We do not allow Mages to discuss their forging process, to keep that a secret. If the Mage does not balk at ingesting the star, then we can gather that they have fallen to it, or more likely another, earlier. There are tests to verify, of course, but they are quite invasive, and not advisable, except at great need.”
“So, you allow Mages to experience the temptation blind?”
“Did you want to swallow it?”
She hesitated. “…No?”
“That gut instinct is what is required. Forewarning actually lowers the number of Mages who succeed. If we’d told you not to swallow your star, before you came here, even if we’d explained why, is there a chance you’d have done it anyways?”
Yeah… I’m not answering that. What Elnea was saying made a sort of sense. It also seems a bit too convenient. Tala narrowed her eyes. “So, what now?”
“Well, generally we would have restrained you, then released you to show our good faith, before explaining all of this.” She glared at Grediv, then Holly. “We were warned that that might be difficult, but when we confirmed that your defensive layer was absent, it still seemed a reasonable course.”
Terry began pacing back and forth in front of Tala, between her and Elnea. The terror bird had shrunk to the size of an incredibly large dog, so as to not block Tala’s line of sight. He seemed no less protective, however.
“Your companion also complicates things, as I doubt we could safely restrain both of you without at least someone being injured, and we are not willing to risk that.”
Tala felt another smile tugging at her lips but restrained it. That’s right, Terry’s a rusting monster, my rusting monster. “So, again I ask: What now?”
Elnea sighed. “You do not make things easy, do you?”
Tala quirked a smile, then. “So people keep telling me.” She sheathed Flow, and Terry, noticing the action, flickered to sit on her shoulder, small once more.
“That terror bird is ancient, Mistress Tala. I don’t know what binds him to you, but be careful.”
Tala snorted. “Says the woman in charge of a room full of Mages who just attacked me.”
Elnea seemed to realize something. “Were any of the spell-forms directed at you harmful?”
Tala thought back. No. They had all been for restraint. “No, but if your goal was to coopt me, you’d want me alive.”
The Archon sighed. “To become an Archon in truth, you must soul-bond your own body.”
Tala blinked, considering. That…that makes sense. It was laughably obvious, now that she thought about it. At the moment, she was technically magic-bound to her body. Huh, Flow is more me, than I am…or than my flesh and bones are…That’s weird. It also lined up with how using the weapon had felt. “How do you prevent the star from taking over?”
“By not allowing the star through your gate. The danger isn’t it bonding with your body. The danger is with the star interacting with your soul, supplanting it. Like switching which end of a line is the fixed anchor.”
That…also made a sort of sense. She didn’t know how or why it made sense, but it just…did. “Alright.”
Elnea sighed, seeming to relax a little. “We’ve a spell-form, which defends your gate, while you soul-bond your body. In your case, it will be powered by four Archons, because your Archon star is as powerful as they can get. Usually, they are much weaker, and therefore obviously subservient to the soul which forged them. After they are used, the Mage then increases the bond’s strength, to that upper limit, before proceeding to the next steps. You…you forged a star that has more power at its immediate disposal than your own soul. If it wielded that power against you, you would fall to it, rather than it to you, as it should.”
That made sense, too, in a way. “That’s why you were hesitant, after learning I’d made my star within my own body.”
Elnea nodded. “Precisely. That harkens back to a time when most Archons fell, before we learned to forge them outside ourselves. If it reassures you any, you are welcome to examine the spell-form, before we enact it.”
Tala almost nodded, then her gaze flicked to Holly. Much of my understanding comes from, or is augmented by, my mage-sight, which she inscribed. Can I trust it? Has she been setting me up? Tala groaned, rubbing her face with one hand. If I believe that, I’m already dead. I could never get re-inscribed, and I’d have to leave, immediately, never to return. She groaned, again. “Fine. Let’s do this.”
* * *
A short time later, Tala stood in the middle of an intricately inlaid spell-form of intertwining gold lines, both across the surface of the floor and going down into it.
She had examined the working to the best of her ability, which was sorely lacking given the complexity before her. From what she could tell, it was a simple spell of augmentation. It would add the collective power of those empowering the spell-form to her own actions. Not exactly a defense of my gate, but I suppose if I am working to defend such, the effect would be the same.
In truth, most of the complexity of the spell-forms were workings of purification, to prevent the Archons assisting her from tainting the bond with the signature of their power. In the end, if she understood correctly, it would be like the ambient magic of the wilds working at her behest.
I could do a lot of fun things with this… If she had the proper inscriptions to take advantage of it.
She sighed. Terry was crouched on the floor beside Rane and Lyn, watching her closely, now the size of a medium sized dog.
Tala dropped to a cross-legged position, turning her gaze inward.
As she looked through her body, she searched for the small void that she now knew would be there, among her natural magical pathways.
In the center of her sternum, there was a distortion, as if there was a depth to that point that went beyond the physical; there was even a depth beyond the layer of and for magic throughout the rest of her. As she probed it with her mage-sight, she found an almost identical void to the one she’d found in Flow and the other artifacts.
It somehow didn’t disrupt or displace the inscriptions that now filled most of her being. Again, it was elsewhere while still being there.
The four Archons who would assist her were Grediv, Holly, Elnea, and the male Archon, who had been the last to oppose her elevation. An honor, or a punishment?
She understood why Master Himmal couldn’t help; his power was broken, uneven, and not reliable. Still, she felt a bit saddened by that. He had been kind to her, though they didn’t know each other that well.
The other Archons watched this ceremonial binding.
Elnea nodded. “Let us begin.” She and the other three settled into their circles, stretching out their hands and pouring their power into the compound spell-form.
The lines were slow to come to life; the glow flowing outward, following various splitting paths in no pattern that Tala could discern, but soon, the entirety was powered.
She felt their power in a very abstract way, like a parent helping her do a chore that was beyond her ability. It didn’t force her to do anything. Hey, I wasn’t deceived. At least not yet.
She already held the vial containing her most powerful star. She was about to drink it but hesitated. No. That’s wrong.
She drew Flow.
Tala focused, pulling her defensive power away from her chest. With a quick motion, guided by instincts she didn’t exactly understand, she drew Flow in a hard line down the center of her chest, splitting her tunic, skin, and bone in a clean line, not going deep enough to near her heart.
She almost blacked out from the pain, but the reinforcing power of the Archons helped her cling to consciousness as she sheathed the knife.
Several of the observing Archons gasped, but no one moved to interfere.
Tala dumped her Archon star out of the vial and pulled.
Just as she had called Flow to her hand so many times, she pulled the star into her chest and straight into the void that awaited it.
As the spell-form entered her flesh, it took on a life of its own, attempting to divert from her desired path for it, but she clamped down, feeling the weight of the four Archons’ power added to her own. The star didn’t so much as tremble side to side on its short flight.
With a deep thrum, the star vanished into the void that was ready for it, and Tala’s entire being shattered.
She lost control on her power, and her chest sealed instantly, her clothing closing just after her skin.
Her body’s natural magic subtly shifted to incorporate her Archon star. Physically, she felt minor blemishes and scars smooth over. Her flesh moved around her inscriptions. The magical spell-forms were immune to the changes around them, but they stayed enmeshed with their designated portion of her form, nonetheless.
Something within her eyes changed, but she couldn’t see herself to determine what it had been. Her nails began to blacken, but she recoiled at that. No.
The force of her will, still supported, reversed that change, and she suddenly felt something click within her mind.
Her vision went white as a torrent of magic slammed into the Archon star and through it, into her body.
* * *
She was suddenly outside herself, without form, looking into a white void. It wasn’t bright; it wasn’t dim; it simply was, and it was white.
It was familiar in its strangeness. This is like when I modified Flow.
As expected, a manifestation of herself appeared for her scrutiny.
She stood, a vision of terrible beauty. Her skin was the red of wet blood, her eyes black, her hair silver-gold. Her best features were all accentuated to an inhuman degree, and her inscriptions rested upon her like the mantle of an Empress.
Flow rested at her hip, and it resonated with this form, ready to strike down all who opposed her.
And, within her, she could feel that she had been lost.
Making another bid to win, eh? Just in a different way?
This one was a lie. She couldn’t choose this and still be herself.
The next hundred versions of herself that flew through her mind varied in any number of ways, but none of them were her.
She felt a force, with four blending components, helping to guide her through the hordes of false choices, itself guided by her desire to find herself.
Finally, she came to three manifestations that were her.
All retained her stature and general features. One had hair as red as new-shed blood. One’s hair was such a dark red that it was almost indistinguishable from black. The final retained her natural, deep, dark-brown hair.
Their eyes all had irises of ruby red. That’s what I felt. I suppose that change happened before I took control.
She could tell that each option was different in half-a-hundred little ways, but the hair was a good overall indicator.
I can change a little, or a lot. She somehow knew that this wasn’t the end. She would have chances to make more subtle changes as she continued to advance.
She might have laughed if she’d had lungs or a mouth with which to do so. I could change myself as I wished, now. Break bones and force them to heal back in different configurations. I could make my face look like anything I want. But she liked her face. It wasn’t perfect, but it was hers.
Similarly, the changes she saw open before her were…odd, and she somehow knew that the less she felt like herself, the harder she would find the next steps.
She chose the version of herself with the fewest changes. The only stark alteration being her eyes, and those somehow seemed proper, if a bit brighter than she expected. For some reason.
As she made her choice, she felt the rightness of it. She had forced her body to mold to her self, instead of allowing her body and Archon star to alter that self.
Hah, another false choice? How did most people pass this? Those other options had been pretty tempting. Maybe, it’s because of how powerful my star was? She hadn’t seen any physical changes in Lyn or Rane. Not that I really examined them that closely…
Power fragmented through her, body and soul; her very self, that which she had defended and chosen above all else, felt as if it was being scraped raw.
* * *
Her vision splintered back into normal sight, and she found herself sitting cross-legged on the smooth floor of the same room.
All traces of the spell-forms were gone, and Elnea stood over her, hand outstretched. “Rise, Mistress Tala, Blood Archon. First of your title.”
Tala swayed, the now familiar feeling of soul-deep tiredness washing over her. It was actually pretty bearable, since she was used to using Flow to work that part of her. As she shifted, moving to take the offered hand, she almost gasped. Her whole body felt alive, more her than ever before. Like Flow does.
It was as if she’d been wearing a suit of heavy armor, using gloves to feel about in the dark, and all that had fallen away, leaving her free to experience the world, truly, for the first time.
There weren’t more sensations, nor were they really stronger. The only descriptor she could apply was that everything felt more real.
Tala finally grasped Elnea’s hand, but remembered to not actually use it to stand. I don’t want to fling the poor woman across the room. That would be embarrassing. Tala nodded her thanks. I really do need to seriously consider how useful the extra weight really is…
“Let what was witnessed here stand testament to the wisdom of our ways. She is mighty without question, but still, without our added strength, she may have followed a false path. The victory is hers, and part of that was her acceptance of assistance.”
Tala quirked a smile, whispering for only the woman to hear. “Cementing your power?”
Elnea gave her a quick glance, then responded in a low voice, that somehow didn’t seem to carry at all. “Cementing the value of this Council in their minds. Archons like their freedom. It is good to remind them of the value of working together, even if only to raise up the next generation.”
Tala smiled in truth and gave a bow over their still clasped hands. “Thank you, Mistress Elnea.” She spoke loudly enough for all to hear. They released each other’s grasps.
Tala heard several people comment on her eyes, likely those with better vision, enhanced or natural. Elnea headed off any issue. “Her star fought well, seeking to oust or bend her eternal soul. That fight left obvious signs, just as many of you bear more discreet marks.” She gave a half bow to Tala. “Welcome, Mistress Tala, to the rank of Archon.”
A single, all-pervasive cheer echoed from every Archon present, more like a shout of triumph than a crowd’s adulation. Tala scanned those around her.
Grediv looked quite smug, clearly pleased with himself about something, and Tala thought she caught hints of quiet comments. Apparently, she’d weathered the bond better than anyone had expected, save Grediv apparently.
That’s why Lyn and Rane looked so exhausted. She realized.
She looked to them, seeing happiness in their expressions, and smiled in return.
Tala was about to turn away, to walk towards her fellow new Archons, when Elnea raised her right hand as high as she could reach, palm facing forward. Her left tucked in front of her chest in what Tala recognized as a knife-hand shape, though it wasn’t to attack. Instead, that hand looked as if it was resting on an invisible surface, bisecting the woman.
Magic swirled around the Archon, clearly designed to be showy, both to normal vision and mage-sight.
The upraised hand glowed for a moment with a deep, red light. It wasn’t Elnea’s aura but light visible to Tala’s normal vision. The woman’s voice lanced out, easily reaching everyone present, and if Tala read the magic correctly, her voice would be carried…somewhere else, as well. To other Archon councils?
“Archons of Humanity: Today, Bandfast welcomes its third new Archon, first of her title: Mistress Tala, Blood Archon.” Elnea clenched the upper hand into a fist, and a final burst of magic washed over the room and to the other destinations. Tala received, into her own mind, a picture of herself.
She stood straight, despite being below average in height. She was trim and fit, finding a comfortable middle ground between childishly slim and bulky.
Her hair was pulled into an ordered braid, artfully woven from near her left temple, across the back of her head, to where it blossomed from the base of her skull, near her right shoulder, hanging in front of that side of her chest. And dark brown. Tala felt immensely proud of retaining her natural hair-color, though she couldn’t have said exactly why.
Her eyes were now, by far, her most striking feature. They were as brilliant and pure a red as they could possibly be without actually glowing.
Her face was angular without being sharp, and soft without being round. She’d always thought of herself as pretty, rather than beautiful, and this image bore that out. With the addition of her new eye color, however, she was certainly striking.
She had a decidedly hourglass figure and was curvy without it being inconvenient, but she didn’t focus on that.
She was clad in her perfectly fitted elk leathers, near-white tunic and thunder-cloud gray pants setting off her skin’s natural tone. Kit and Flow hung from her black belt, one comfortably resting on each hip.
Oh, I could have, and probably should have, worn one of the formal outfits that Merilin made for me. It was too late for that, by far.
Her bare feet were obvious below the cuffs of her pants, but they were just as obviously intentionally bare.
On all her exposed skin: feet, hands, neck, and head, there was a sheen of gold over her natural skin-color. The spell-forms were far too delicate to be distinguished. Instead, the appearance was almost like a fine mesh of metal had been pulled tight and flawlessly shaped to her every contour. Even her eyes had veils of gold, highlighting their ruby irises.
The look of delicate, precious-metal work, combined with the positively gem-like nature of her eyes, caused her to almost look like a jeweler’s masterwork.
Throughout the manifestation, power was in evidence. Her aura was distinctly red, and that gave her a thought. Are my eyes red to match my aura, or is it a coincidence? While they were probably red because of the blood medium for the Archon star, only time would tell.
On a more ephemeral level, the woman that she, and everyone else, beheld had a weight of confidence and action, as if she knew where she was going, and may the stars above help any who got in her way.
Tala’s eyes widened at the brief image, her jaw going slack in shock. Is that really how I look to others? I wish I had that much confidence…
She didn’t know how to feel, if she was being honest. The impression passed in a heartbeat, but the memory, crystal clear, lingered in her mind.
Elnea grinned, lowering her arm, her magic worked, her job done. “Welcome, Mistress Tala, one of us in truth.”