Tala and the four other Archons came back out into the entry hall, and Tala waved at her coffee acquirer. She really came through. The attendant gave her a hesitant smile and wave. I suppose I dampened her enthusiasm a bit.
Elnea led them down another passage. This one had a thick, deep-blue rug running the length. Paintings and tapestries hung evenly spaced down either side, most depicting some form of creature. They each seemed a bit embellished, as Tala thought she spotted a thunder bull that was depicted as wreathed in lightning.
Who knows, maybe if it had seen me coming?
There were obviously magical beings sprinkled among the arcanous, if her guesses were right. She saw a midnight fox, and in the company of the other images, it really sank in how minor that being really was. And it still nearly killed me.
Creatures of legend looked down on them as they walked down the hall: Dragons, griffins, silver wolves, titans, and many more.
Tala tried not to slow, but there was such artistry and detail that it was hard to keep up her pace.
At the end of the wide hall, two heavy, black, wooden doors stood open. They seemed to be bound in silver, with gold inlay in the shape of spell-forms.
Not just in the shape of; those are spell-forms. If her mage-sight was correct, when those doors were closed, an incredibly powerful barrier would be generated, just this side of the entryway. Assuming it’s powered by something. The magical shield made her think of Alefast’s magical defenses, but on a much smaller scale. It’s likely connected to the city’s power matrix, just like all the lights.
They took the protection of their library seriously, it seemed.
When they passed through that entry, Tala found herself gawking, mouth open in unabashed awe.
Thousands of tomes filled the floor to ceiling shelving. Ladders were regularly scattered around the place, all on rails mounted to the shelves. The twenty-foot ceilings allowed for a lot of books per shelf.
All the wood was the same black as the doors, all the metal either bright silver or burnished gold.
The space wasn’t a rectangle. Instead, it seemed constructed like a hedge-maze to maximize wall-space for shelving and nooks for reading and research spaces.
Attendants were moving through the space on silent, slippered feet, and Tala could see several people reading in the few nooks visible from the entrance.
Elnea gestured. “The Bandfast, Archon Library, otherwise known as the Arcanum. Any attendant will assist you in finding whatever you are seeking and ensure the works you peruse are returned to their proper place afterwards.” She gave them each a serious look. “Bound are not permitted to remove any tome from the shelves. You must go through an attendant. Is that understood?”
Rane, Lyn, and Tala each gave some form of verbal assent.
“Good.” She gave a half smile. “In centuries past, we would simply inform new Archons of the library, but so few actually realized the extent of what was available to them that we changed our policy.”
Grediv cleared his throat. “You should be aware that Bandfast is known for having the most extensive physical library of the human cities. While it’s not the only source of these books, it is an incredibly convenient, central location. As an example of why, I can tell you that the Alefast Archon Council moved all but the most general texts here from our library, in preparation for Alefast’s final waning.”
Rane was nodding, he leaned closer to Lyn and Tala. “Bandfast is the current hub of Archon activity. That is one reason Master Grediv wished me to visit.”
Elnea had gestured, calling over four attendants. “I suggest you become familiar with the process, even if you have no immediate subjects for research.” One attendant approached each of the other Archons. “I will leave you in their capable hands. Welcome, Archons, to the Bandfast Arcanum.” She gave a half bow and departed.
Tala looked to Lyn and Rane; Grediv had already departed with his attendant. “Meet at Lyn’s house, tonight?”
They each nodded in agreement and turned towards their individual attendants, separating and moving to places with a bit better sound insulation and privacy.
Tala regarded the magically inert young woman who stood to one side, waiting for her. The young-looking woman wore a simple, clean, undyed linen Mage’s robe. Simple leather slippers peaked out from below the garment. Her auburn hair was held up in a simple bun. If she had spell-lines on her visible skin, they were hidden in some manner or blended too seamlessly with her already somewhat silver skin. Is that natural?
Though she looked to be just younger than Lyn looked, Tala guessed that the woman was much older. I really should stop thinking I can guess people’s ages…
“You’re an Archon.”
The woman quirked a smile. “Yes, Mistress. How can I assist you, today?”
“You could wipe me from existence. Why would you assist a new-raised Archon like me?”
She seemed to consider for a moment before her smile became mischievous. “The truth?”
“That would be nice.”
“I’m serving the books and knowledge by protecting them from you.”
Tala hesitated for a moment, then barked a laugh. She immediately covered her mouth in embarrassment but couldn’t help but smile. After a moment, she lowered her hand. “That,” she grinned widely, “that I can believe. I’m Tala.”
“A pleasure to meet you, Mistress Tala. I am Ingrit.”
“Thank you for your honesty, Mistress Ingrit.”
“I am a lover of knowledge. Lies are…distasteful.” She scrunched her face exactly as if she’d eaten something unpleasant.
“I couldn’t agree more.”
Ingrit glanced towards Terry. “Shall your companion wait outside, or can he be trusted not to cause issue?”
Tala looked at Terry. “You going to behave?”
Terry opened his mouth expectantly, and Tala rolled her eyes, tossing a bit of meat to one side.
Ingrit’s eyes widened in horror and anger, but as her gaze followed the moving bit of meat, she froze. The jerky was gone. Her eyes narrowed. “I didn’t see any movement.”
Tala shrugged. “He’s quick.”
Ingrit opened her mouth, probably to inquire further, but then she paused, shaking her head. “No, we are not here to satisfy my curiosity at this time. How can we assist you, here and now?” She seemed to keep a closer eye on Terry after that, though.
“What services does the Arcanum offer? I can see the books, but I suspect that there is more available than simply an extensive reading collection.”
“You are correct, Mistress.” Ingrit turned and began walking. Tala followed so as to not be left behind. “On the simple side, we offer assistance in researching any unrestricted topic, or outright answering such queries. We do not force our librarians to work on any project, but our interests are varied enough that it is rare for an Archon to wish to research something without at least one of us wanting to assist. More often than not, we have to figure out which of those who are interested will get the honor.” Her eyes seemed to sparkle with unspoken mirth.
I’ll bet you get any topic you want… That brought to mind a bit of a silly topic, but Tala thought she might as well ask. “What do the cooks have in their chuckwagons?”
Ingrit regarded her for a long moment. Then, she sighed. “Sadly, we are forbidden from investigating that. As part of the inter-Guild agreements, chuckwagons are inviolable, and if any Mage is ever allowed inside, as does happen occasionally, they are not permitted to poke about.”
“Inter-Guild agreements?” She thought for a moment, then started to nod. “Right, everything involves at least a couple of guilds. There would have to be ground rules and basic strictures.”
Ingrit simply nodded.
Is the Order of the Harvest so widespread that that is a portion of the negotiated secrecy? That was pretty likely, if she considered it. I might actually be able to learn, then…
Ingrit gave Tala a searching look. “You know something?”
“I think so.”
Ingrit shook her head, a half-grimace curling one side of her lips. “I wish I could ask, but as I am a node of the Archive, it would be a violation for me to allow you to tell me, even unprompted.” She sighed. “Such follies are sometimes the bedrock of civilization, unfortunately.”
Indenture’s rusting terrible, alright. “Well, then. Techniques for the fusing of body and soul?”
“That is forbidden material for one of your rank, though I can give you one hint, to add to the other you’ve received.”
“First, new Archons should develop their internal mage-sight, in order to facilitate progression. Be aware that that is incredibly difficult, given external distractions.”
Tala kept her expression neutral. My iron-salve has already helped me there, then.
“Beyond that, the advice Master Grediv gave you should be enough for you to go on.”
Tala stopped walking. “How do you know what advice I got?”
Ingrit gave her a puzzled smile, then nodded in understanding. “You weren’t aware; all official events that take place within the Archon compound are recorded and filed for transparency and as a record for future generations.”
Tala gave her a deeply skeptical look. “You cannot possibly watch everything, and how do you know, specifically?”
Ingrit gave a wide smile, that same gleeful sparkle back in her almost emerald eyes. “I am not a combatant. My inscribings bring to my mind any potentially relevant information if that information is present in the Archive and not restricted based on my rank. The massive caloric intake of a new Archon could inform future Mages’ inscribings, depending on how you turn out.”
Tala cleared her throat, looking away. “And there’s permanent record of that?”
Ingrit nodded, still smiling.
“That’s a bit embarrassing.” Then, Tala frowned. “Wait. Does that mean I could learn what was discussed in each conversation in that room?”
“The intention and use of such recordings are not permitted to violate personal privacy.” Ingrit cocked an eyebrow, disapprovingly.
Tala shrugged. “Ah…ok. I suppose I appreciate use restrictions, but that still seems pretty creepy.”
Ingrit sighed. “You don’t have to be here, nor do you have to attend official events. You are welcome to leave and never return, and nothing further will be recorded of your actions.”
Tala grunted. “I suppose.” She frowned. “So… if you were watching. How would I have done, had the Archons attacked me in earnest?”
Ingrit gave her a long look. Finally, she clicked her tongue. “Nothing I have observed about you implies that you are an idiot.”
“Is that supposed to be an answer?”
“If a gathering of Archons had attempted to kill you, how long do you imagine you would have survived?” Her eyes flicked to Terry, then back. “Even with help?”
“And your powers of deduction are verified. There was absolutely no desire to harm you or your companion, or to have either of you harm others. That, and that alone, allowed the outcome as it stands.”
Not really an overt answer, but I suppose it was a bit of a silly question…
The two began walking, again. “Now, aside from books, research materials, and research assistance, we offer many other services, including magically sealed rooms for experimentation. We can adjust the magical density in the air, or even change out a portion of the air for other materials, as requested.”
Tala grinned. “Oh, that’s fantastic.” How much do they spend to keep the inscriptions for all this intact? She had a sudden thought, remembering an oft asked question, and her smile widened. “Do you happen to know if an incorporator for coffee exists?”
“I’m afraid that what incorporators have or have not been perfected would be proprietary knowledge for the Constructionist’s Guild. I can contact a representative, if you so desire?” Her inflection on the last framed it as a genuine offer.
Tala sighed. That would have been too easy. “No… It’s fine.” She did a quick check and was happy to note that her aura was still restrained. The trick is making it reflexive. Right now, I’m still thinking about it. She smiled. “Well, if you’ve no objections, I have a few more questions.”
“Of course. I will answer if I can.”
“Why did the strength of my Archon star matter? Aren’t they just a touch point for my soul?”
Ingrit sighed. “If you wish to tie down a bull, as compared to a dog, do you need a hitch of the same strength?”
“Precisely. A weak Archon star is more like a tether; your soul is connected, but not inseparably.” She gave Tala a long look. “Yours was at full strength. So, your body and soul are now fully, almost irrevocably bound.”
“So… why couldn’t I make it stronger?”
“Two reasons: First, the spell-form cannot sustain more power. A free-form, inscription-less working, like an Archon star, utilizes the inherent properties of magic to remain stable, and too much power would have overcome the other features which allowed for permanency. As to others, whose stars were weaker than yours,” she smiled, “their first task as Archons will be to strengthen the bond, strengthen their soul’s attachment to their body, so that the two can then be fused. You just have to fuse.”
“Which you won’t tell me how to do.”
“Which I can’t tell you how to do.”
Tala grunted. “Fair, I suppose.” She looked up, considering. “Is an unused Archon star a weakness?” She was thinking of the two she had within Kit.
“I would say more a temptation than a weakness. If you have one, which you have yet to use, it is easy to bond something frivolously, without thought. Whereas, if you forge a star for a specific bond, that takes preparation, intent, and time to enact, allowing you to fully consider the act.”
“But they can’t be used to harm my soul?”
Simple enough, I suppose. “Well… can they be unmade?”
Ingrit thought for a moment, seemingly accessing something within the archives. “There is debate on that. The stars, themselves, can be destroyed. Nothing is invincible, but quite a few scholars postulate that the part of your soul, which you extended and attached to the star, remains extended and is simply utilized for the next one you create, making that process easier. If you never make another?” She shrugged. “I have no record of such an occurrence.”
“Is there any benefit?”
“To unmaking a star? No. You don’t get the power back, and you can’t bend that power to anything…” She thought for a long moment. “No, that isn’t true. If you unmake a star, the energy is released, but not attuned to you. It is not dangerous or damaging, but it will elevate the ambient magic in the area for a time.” She quirked a smile. “It is noted that I advise any asking this type of question to not unmake an Archon star within a city. Such would be inconvenient for power balances within our local spell-forms.”
“Noted. Thank you.” Speaking of spell-forms. “A broader question: How has humanity not run out of metals for inscriptions?”
“I have two questions for you, first.”
“Alright.” Tala felt a bit taken aback.
“First, do you have any idea how much gold there is in this world, in Zeme?”
Tala shook her head.
“There is a lot. Some…” Her eyes unfocused for a moment, then her gaze returned to Tala. “Some thirty thousand years ago, something destabilized our local system’s closest asteroid belt and showered this world with meteors. Those in power at the time were able to mitigate the fall-out, as well as the initial damage, but the result was an incredible increase to the precious metal content of Zeme’s surface.”
There was a lot there that was beyond Tala’s knowledge.
“Please understand that I am summarizing and simplifying. No part of what I said is actually, explicitly, exactly true, but close enough to answer your question.”
“So… we haven’t run out because there’s just so much?” That doesn’t seem right.
“Ahh, now for my second question. What happens to the metal in inscriptions, when it is used?”
Tala opened her mouth to say, ‘It’s gone.’ But then, she remembered. “ ‘Matter cannot be created or destroyed…’ ” That was a fundamental tenet of understanding, before magic was involved. Right?
Ingrit grimaced. “Well, it can, but you’re heading towards the correct answer.”
Well, obviously Material Mages can create and destroy… “It’s…gone?”
“It’s temporarily shifted, dimensionally, towards magical power.” Ingrit paused for a moment, then tsked. “I cannot give you a sufficient grounding in the theory needed to properly answer this part of the question…You’ve encountered incorporators, correct?”
“What do they do?”
“They bend power into creating matter, temporarily.”
“Exactly!” She hesitated. “Well, not exactly, but close enough. The use of inscriptions does the opposite to precious metals.”
“It bends them into…” Tala’s eyes widened. “Temporary power.”
“More or less, yes. Then, they return to their base state.”
“So… after I cast, sometime later, a bit of gold just seems to appear where I was standing?”
Ingrit shrugged. “If it wasn’t interfered with? Yes. Such is miniscule, only a few atoms at a time, under usual circumstances, but it adds up.” She smiled widely. “One of the great innovations were the gathering scripts. Decades before the renewed founding of each city, and as a final script laid at the end of each waning, the Builders lay out and activate a network of Material Guiding spell-forms, which draw that metal, while it is in flux, into the ground around cities. Specifically, into where the mining districts will be. It has the added benefit of drawing in surrounding precious metal as well, even drawing it up from the core, over time. Thus, we lose very little metal, in the end, and actually gain over each cycle. This city’s gathering scripts are only now, finally nearing the end of their current cycle. They will be refreshed in just less than two centuries, when Bandfast’s waning is at an end.”
“And we empower such scripts around waning cities in preparation for the next time we use that location for a city?”
“Precisely. The ambient magic at the end of a waning is perfect for empowering a surge of effort to draw materials up from lower in the world’s structure and to lay the groundwork for a future city.” She nodded. “All that is required, then, is to wait for the ambient magic of the area to return to normal, and it is ready for a new city’s foundations.”
Tala felt like she was a bit inundated with all the information that Ingrit had given her. So much for a simple question… She had a thousand more questions, based on what the woman had told her, but she couldn’t process it all, not yet. Simpler questions. “So…is there a list somewhere of all the metals and alloys, which can be used for inscriptions and spell-forms?”
“Unfortunately, that is proprietary information, locked to the Constructionist and Inscribers Guilds.” She gave a small, sad smile.
“Alright, then. I think I have a few simpler questions.”
* * *
An hour later, she decided to let Ingrit free. Even though the older Archon had shown nothing but kindness and patience, Tala was beginning to feel bad about dominating her time. I’ll be back, though. After I’ve had time to collect my thoughts and gather better questions.
Tala now knew the rates for using the various experimentation rooms: Expensive; how many of her current inquiries were beyond her current rank for easy answer: Most; and which of her remaining inquires she should bring to the Constructionists: The rest.
It was a bit disappointing, if she was honest, but she knew it wasn’t really Ingrit’s fault.
She’d also gotten a brief tour of the library, which was vastly more extensive than she’d expected. As it turned out, there were nearly thirty million books, two thirds of those being duplicates, so that the library was never without any given title, even discounting those held magically in the Archive.
It was a staggering number. Ingrit had explained that the works contained were of all sorts, including personal journals dating back to the first city, scholarly works delving into various subjects, and a few fictions, which were determined to contain enough fact or cultural relevance to be meticulously maintained.
To contain all those volumes, the library was an astonishing fifteen stories, each one larger than the one above as they descended into the ground. The lowest level was mostly the experimentation chambers, and other similarly dangerous or critical rooms.
In addition to the physical copies of each book, every work was available through the Archive, and as an Archon, Tala could now purchase a slate that would grant access to many of the works, restricted, of course, by her rank and guild-affiliation, or lack thereof.
They were too expensive for Tala to contemplate at the moment.
She was too fiscally wise to waste her precious coin on such luxuries at this time.
She didn’t give the acquisition of such a second thought.
Not at all.
I can’t afford it anyways…
On the positive side, there were publicly available slates, which could be rented for a small fee: 1 ounce, silver, per hour. Small fee. Ha! That’s my budget for a meal.
Tala bid the librarian good-day and smiled at the woman’s well-wishes in return. She lingered in her walk back down the passage, towards the front hall. She did her best not to gawk, but the creatures depicted were just so fascinating.
As such, it was almost sunset when she finally emerged from the Archon’s facility once more. She basked in the cool, autumn breeze, and reveled in the sight of the pastel sky.
You did it. You’re an Archon. Tala grinned.
Terry stirred in his place on her shoulder, looking up at the sky as well. Tala glanced his way, noticing that he had a bit of a forlorn look. “Missing the wilds, the open space?”
He gave her a long look, then a small bob of his head.
“Just a bit, eh?”
He bobbed more firmly.
“I can understand that. We’ll get back on the road, soon. Lyn’s supposed to get us an out and back contract in about a week, so we’ll be able to stretch our legs.”
He bumped her with his head.
Tala grinned back at Terry. “Thank you for backing me up in there.” She pulled out a big hunk of pork belly. “I know it’s not jerky, but want some?”
Terry quickly, and precisely, snatched the meat from her fingers, not even brushing her skin.
“I’d hoped you’d like that. You tried some during the banquet, right?”
He gave her a searching look, then bobbed a nod.
“Good. Want some jerky, too?”
He shifted happily, and she tossed out a chunk. She barely registered the flicker of him claiming it.
“You really are something.” And I really should ask Brand what spice mix he used for this jerky. Terry has a favorite, it seems.
The last couple of days, since she woke up, had been crazy, and even before she’d worked herself into unconsciousness, she’d barely had a moment’s rest. I’ve not seen Gretel since I regained consciousness. Her meat pies would be perfect for dinner. I should get Rane and Lyn, first. It would be rude to go without them.
That decided, Tala walked towards Lyn’s house, eating what would be a healthy dinner for anyone else from her banquet loot on the way.
Things are looking up. I should be able to pay my debt off without issue, and much faster than I’d hoped.
Her first payment.
Her eyes went wide. Oh, RUST!