Tala turned and walked as quickly as she was able, which was surprisingly fast given her increased gravity.
Terry sunk his talons into her shoulder, the points failing to pierce her skin but holding him securely, nonetheless.
I know I saw a Banker’s Guild office around here, somewhere…
And there it was: A beautiful, stone building. It was eye-catching without being ostentatious.
If she understood the windows on the outside correctly, it was a single-story structure, but that single story seemed to be nearly twenty-five feet high. Its large entrance opened onto a small park-space. The green area had clearly been designed more for looks, and to walk through, than for families or children to play in, but that was fine. I like having greenery around as much as the next person. It doesn’t all have to be family focused.
She walked through the bank’s large double doors, closing them softly behind her.
Inside, she was greeted by an environment that struck her as more archival than that of the library she’d just left. The rugs were thicker, seemingly more for sound dampening in the vast space than to make walking or standing comfortable.
Large, unicolor hangings periodically decorated the walls. She hesitated to call them tapestries, because they literally were simple lengths of cloth, no artistry, no embellishments at all.
As she stepped further in, she felt a small magical probe and heard a distinctive ding echo through the far part of the room.
Almost immediately, a grey-haired man bustled out. He was straight-backed, and he held a slate of deep green stone. That’s odd. Aren’t most such devices made of as light gray stone as possible?
He stopped before her and gave a deep bow. “Mistress Archon. Welcome to our humble Guildhall.” As he straightened, he glanced at Terry, sitting on her shoulder. “Would you like your companion to await you in a side room?”
“No, thank you. I am Tala.”
“Greetings, Mistress Tala. I am Nattinel, one of the senior bursars of this branch of the Banker’s Guild. How may I assist you, this day?”
“A pleasure to meet you, master Nattinel.” He wasn’t a Mage or inscribed at all, that she could detect. “I need to make a payment on my debts.”
He looked a bit surprised, but immediately hid it. “Certainly, Mistress. If you would?” He held out the slate, and a small, gold-outlined square grew into existence, centered near the edge that was towards her. Expensive.
She didn’t see anywhere to prick her finger, and so, Tala frowned.
After a moment’s hesitation, Nattinel smiled. “Am I to assume you are a relatively new Archon, Mistress?”
“Completely understandable. Walk with me, and I will explain some things that may be of interest.”
He turned, and she took two quick steps so that she could stroll beside him as he led the way off to one side of the spacious room.
“You see, Mages and mundanes must provide blood infused with some of their power signature to authenticate transactions and gain access to records, things of that nature.”
Tala nodded. This was known. Though, I wasn’t aware mundanes could do that…Had she ever seen one confirm a transaction with blood?
“Once the Archive has been updated to recognize an Archon, for reasons unknown to one such as me, they can simply will that authentication to occur with a touch.”
“Oh!” That made so much sense. Now that her body was soul-bound, her skin could act as an untainted catalyst for her power-signature. I wonder why blood doesn’t taint a Mage's power… That might be an excellent question for Ingrit. “Thank you.”
He led them to a couple of very comfortable looking chairs and gestured to one.
She hesitated, feeling a bit awkward.
“Is something the matter, Mistress? Does the chair dissatisfy in some way?”
She gave a little chuckle. “Well, you see, I am quite heavy.”
He blinked at her, obviously confused.
“If the chair couldn’t hold a horse, I probably shouldn’t sit in it.”
Nattinel gave a slow nod. “Were you not a Mage, I would, of course, allay your fears about being overweight, but I imagine that this is more a matter of magic than a false self-image?”
“You could say that.”
He nodded again, more firmly this time. “Very well. We can stand.” He again held out the slate to her.
Tala smiled. “Thank you.” She reached out, placing her thumb within the square and willing her power out, into the slate for verification.
The entire tablet shifted to blood red, immediately.
Tala startled back, retracting her hand and clearing her throat. “Did I…break it?”
Nattinel simply smiled. “Not at all, Mistress. Tell me, I’ve never seen this exact reaction before. Was your medium less common than usual? It doesn’t look like ruby.”
“You could say that.” She glanced away.
“It seems I shouldn’t inquire further. My apologies.” He gave a half bow, pulling the slate back and looking it over. “Oh! You are quite right. Today is the final day to make a…first?” He looked up at her. “Mistress.” He seemed to be fighting within himself, about what he should say, next. Finally, he gave a quizzical smile. “Did you only graduate the Academy a month ago?”
His surprise was evident. “I know that they are very loose with graduation dates and course work, tailoring to the individual -I have a nephew there right now, myself- but how are you an Archon so soon?” He stopped, seeming to come back to himself. He shook his head slightly and straightened, his mask of professionalism returning. “I apologize, Mistress. I meant no offense, and I should not have asked such a personal question. We are, of course, honored to have one such as you within these walls.” He made a vague gesture around himself.
She gave a forced smiled, feeling quite self-conscious.
“Would you like to pay the minimum, or some other amount?”
“Four ounces, gold, please.”
“You are aware that that is more than you owe for this payment?”
“I am aware that four is more than the minimum required payment, yes.”
He nodded, manipulating the construct. “Would you like that to be a prepayment on the next monthly charge, or an up-front amount?”
“Up-front, please.” Not that there’s much difference… She’d think about it. Maybe, I’ll change that.
More alterations. “Would you like to set up an automatic transfer for all future due dates?”
She blinked at him. “I can do that?” That would probably be interfered with by prepayment.
He smiled, seemingly back in comfortably familiar territory. “Of course! Most people do, as it helps prevent fees and such from negatively impacting you, should life become busy. We can even lock the automatic payment amount for a month prior, as soon as it is available. That can further reduce the chances of mistakes.”
“Well, I don’t think I need that last offering. But the automatic payment sounds reasonable.”
He nodded again. “For the minimum amount, or some other figure?”
“Let’s just do the minimum for now. I can change that later, correct?”
“That is correct, Mistress.”
“Then, that should be fine. Thank you.”
He seemed to make a few more alterations on the red slate, then turned the tablet back around for her confirmation.
She read over the short bits of silvery text and confirmed.
The construct shifted back to green, and Nattinel bowed over it. “Is there anything further that I can assist you with, today?”
“No, thank you. I appreciate your kindness, professionalism, and the time that you took to assist me.”
He smiled genuinely in response. “It was my pleasure, Mistress. I hope that we see you again, soon.”
They each gave a half bow and parted ways.
Tala stepped outside into the cool evening air and stretched her arms wide. I did it. I paid off a part of my debt!
It was just less than a percent of the total amount owed, but it was still progress. She couldn’t keep a grin off her face.
She walked through the garden-like park, feeling giddy. She knew that she’d been making progress with every silver earned, but to actually pay some of the debt off? It was a heady feeling.
A light sprinkling of snow was just beginning to fall, and she took a moment to breathe deeply and simply enjoy the beauty of the evening.
As she made her way to her and Lyn’s house, she watched the city slowly turn white beneath the gathering snow.
The temperature was cool, but not cold, and she was reminded that she’d promised herself to get some shoes. While she didn’t need them, and she definitely preferred to be without, there were situations in which having footwear was just better.
Even so, the snow beneath her toes was pleasantly cool. It reminded her of snowball fights when she was younger.
She felt her grin shift to a sad smile. What am I going to do about them…?
She shook off the memory, and fell back into quick, happy steps. Nope! Happy thoughts, Tala.
When she arrived at the house, Lyn and Rane were waiting.
“There you are, Tala! Did you already eat?”
Tala shook her head. “No, I just needed to make a debt payment.”
Rane frowned. “Can’t you get that automated?”
“Yes, and I have, now, but I hadn’t done that, yet.”
He shrugged. “Ah. I see.”
Lyn nodded. “Gretel’s?”
Rane frowned. “Gretel?”
“You’ll see!” I am soooo hungry.
It was a short walk to the courtyard, and soon the three new Archons were sitting at one end of a table, near a well-contained bonfire, enjoying the mountain of mini-meat-pies stacked before them.
Rane had insisted on paying, yet again, and Tala had reciprocated by pulling out food from the earlier banquet to supplement and augment the meat pies.
All three tossed bits of food for Terry at irregular intervals and in random directions. That kept the avian busy and content, while the Mages engaged in small talk.
Lyn had just returned with three tall mugs of hot buttered rum, when Rane’s eyes widened, and he lightly smacked himself in the forehead. “I haven’t checked if I can read any of the books!”
Tala’s eyes widened, and she sat up a bit straighter. That’s right! I never checked, either.
Lyn rolled her eyes and slid a mug in front of each of her companions.
“Oh! Thank you, Lyn.”
“Thank you, Mistress Lyn.”
She smiled at that. “Try it, then you can tell me what you’re talking about.”
Tala and Rane complied, both hesitating after their first sip.
Rane immediately took another, longer pull from his massive earthenware mug. “This is fantastic!”
Tala had to agree. It was thick and creamy, sweet and rich, and so alcoholic that she would bet that she’d feel the inscriptions on her liver begin to draw extra power, soon. Well, I’d suspected I’d be less susceptible to toxins, and alcohol is a toxin, after all. She wasn’t sure how she felt about it. It’s not like I enjoyed getting drunk; I just enjoyed the taste, every so often. That settled it, in her mind. It was a net good.
She grinned. “This really is wonderful. Where did you get it? I haven’t seen it available around here, before.”
Lyn pointed to a cart tucked off to one side, where a massive cauldron sat on a slightly glowing, inscribed metal plate. “He usually has drinks of some kind. I think last time we were here together he had a spiced mead?” She seemed to consider, then shrugged. “This is one of his specialties, which he only brings out when it’s especially cold, or when the weather turns.” She gestured around them to the new falling snow.
“Why? This is so amazing!”
Rane grunted, having just taken another long drink. “It is, but I think it’d be too much, if I had it very often.”
Tala hesitated at that. He’s probably right. “I suppose…”
Lyn smiled, taking a sip of her own, much smaller mug. “Now, the books?”
“Right!” Tala reached into Kit and pulled out ‘Soul Work.’
Lyn leaned forward. “That’s a beautifully bound volume. It looks new; did you buy it in Alefast?”
Tala hesitated. “I got it as part of a payment for some work I did around Alefast.”
Lyn shrugged. “Pricey payment.”
Rane widened the opening around his sword hilt before sticking his hand through the leather circle. As expected, the limb didn’t come out the other side. A moment later, he drew it forth once more, holding a worn and beaten leather bound text. The leather was much thicker than Tala’s cover but didn’t seem to have a hard surface underneath.
If Tala’s book was an academic text on the topic, then Rane’s was the travel journal the original researcher had used to compose his ideas. Well, at least if the outsides were anything to go by.
Rane looked back and forth between his copy and Tala’s, then he sighed, shaking his head. He muttered under his breath, and Tala grinned when she caught the words. “Master Grediv’s playing favorites again…”
Tala did her best to hide her smile as Rane glanced her way, and if he saw her mirth, he didn’t seem to mind.
“Well, let’s see.” He opened the book and stared. “You have to be rusting kidding me.”
Tala opened her own book to the first page and stared at the incomprehensible words. “Why…oh!” She placed her hand on the book and moved her power outward, giving the warding a good look at her soul.
Rane grunted in realization of what she’d done but seemed to decide on waiting to see her results.
The page shifted under Tala’s scrutiny.
‘Congratulations, New Archon. Your soul is not yet ready for the techniques described in this book.’
Tala seriously considered burning the volume.
“Rust you, too, book.”
Lyn cocked an eyebrow but didn’t comment.
Rane looked at his own book. “So, you don’t need blood?”
Tala grinned. “Not anymore.” She then gave a brief explanation, based on what Nattinel had told her.
Lyn was nodding, and Rane smiled. “Very nice. I really didn’t like constantly pricking my fingers…” He frowned. “But no luck with the book?”
Tala shook her head and sighed. Terry was once more perched on her shoulder, and he was staring at the book with seeming interest.
Rane placed his hand on his own book, and Tala saw power shift within the big man as he clearly let his magic be felt by the book. It was interesting; his power seemed to move more sluggishly than hers had. Being a Guide has its benefits.
That done, Rane stared at something she couldn’t see. “Well… that’s unhelpfully vague.”
“Oh? What did yours say?”
“Let your soul settle before forging ahead.”
Tala glowered. “My books are lippy with me. That’s actually helpful.”
Lyn was nodding, as she set her mug down once more. She leaned forward, speaking quietly, the sound likely drowned out a couple of feet away, given the surrounding murmur of conversation. “Our souls are newly bound to our bodies. I imagine it will take a bit for them to fully adjust. Try again in a day or two? Maybe a week?”
Tala gave her friend a skeptical look. “Do you even know what these are?”
Lyn rolled her eyes. “Books keyed to keep their contents hidden from those not ready to read them.”
“Oh…Yeah, that’s exactly right.”
Lyn snorted a chuckle and took another deep drink.
Rane and Tala checked their other books, and found similar messages on all those, which had been locked previously. Ok, alright…I’ll be patient. She looked up to Lyn. “So, how hard is it to crack this kind of protection?”
Lyn grinned. “Depends on who put it in place, but most will erase the contents if breached, even if you vastly overpower the original power source. Which I doubt you could do, as I’ve never heard of anyone but older Mages putting these in place. Now, I suspect they were more senior Archons.”
Tala wrinkled up her face. “That’s pretty irritating.”
Lyn nodded. “Oh, decidedly. The librarian I was talking to lamented how much knowledge was lost before it was universally realized that such measures couldn’t be breached.”
“Yeah. Apparently, some of the earliest Archons left whole libraries of information, keyed to help humanity at various stages of our progress. Some of their successors got greedy and attempted to crack the spell-forms, and the knowledge contained within was lost.”
“That’s pretty horrible.”
Tala placed the last of the other books back in Kit and frowned; ‘Soul Work’ was still sitting in front of her, as she examined it. “How, under the stars, can they stay empowered?”
Rane was the one who answered. “The way Master Grediv talked about them: they are very power efficient and are thus maintained even in environments that we can’t detect ambient magic at all.”
“But what about the metals? Shouldn’t they need to be re-inscribed?”
Rane shrugged. “They’re designed based on artifacts, incorporators, and the like.”
Tala gave him a flat look. “That seems unlikely. If they have trouble coming up with incorporators for specific materials, how can they do it for something as specific and convoluted as a book?”
“Ah. I understand the confusion. No, the magic doesn’t create the words, it obfuscates them. Thus, the integral spell-forms only have to be developed or altered depending on the concealment specifications. At least in principle.”
That made a sort of sense, Tala supposed.
Terry, for his part, had been staring at ‘Soul Work’ for a while, now, and he suddenly flickered, appearing standing atop the book.
Tala registered a shift in the bird’s internal power, and wards around the book altered in response.
Tala’s eyes widened. In quick movements, Terry flickered off the book, and Tala opened the front cover. She was greeted by an illustration of a terror bird glaring out from the page, clearly conveying disapproval.
Rane leaned over and laughed. “So, this one tailors the warning message to the one who tries to activate it.”
Tala sighed. “So, you’re saying that I’m responsible for the books’ attitude?” She looked at each of her table companions, as they just smiled back at her. “I hate you both.”
Lyn chuckled, pushing Tala’s mug closer to her. “Drink, Tala. This is meant to be a celebration.”
Rane wisely did not speak, taking another deep drink from his own vessel.
Tala tucked the book away, then patted Terry’s head, where he sat on her shoulder once more. She took up her mug and raised it. “To new beginnings.”
“To new beginnings.” The three mugs clunked together, and the three new Archons returned to more amicable topics of conversation.
Overall, it was an incredibly pleasant way to end a very long day.