Tala notified Mistress Odera, and the guards on duty, that she and Terry would be sparring, so that they would not come to her aid. Then, she carefully stepped forward into the already well trampled area of forest floor.
Terry seemed to have grown bored, while she took care of the particulars, and he’d curled up on the ground.
Tala took a moment to regard her avian friend. He looks so comfortable there.
Her focus expanded just slightly, and she saw him in the greater context. He was curled up alone, no others of his kind nearby. I wonder how long he’s been alone?
She gave a sad smile. And he chose to join with me. She never wanted him to regret that.
“Are you ready, Terry?”
The bird opened one eye and let out a soft squawk of assent.
“Alright, then. Let’s-” Tala’s words were cut off as her mouth filled with detritus: broken sticks and half-rotten, icy leaves. There was a weight on her back, and her ears were filled with a triumphant cry of exaltation.
She heard those watching gasp in alarm; she even heard several weapons clear their scabbards, before the weight vanished.
She pushed herself up, her eyes finding the bird, back where he had been. She glared, grimacing at the avian. “That wasn’t much of a bout.”
Terry’s eye opened, again, and the look he gave her was one of smug superiority.
“No, I’m not conceding.” She took Flow into her hand, keeping it in its sheath, and used void-channels to extend it. Taking up a high guard, she nodded. “Again.”
Even as she spoke, she moved Flow through a defensive sweep close across her back. She felt the briefest fluctuation of power as Terry again appeared behind her, but he seemed to notice the sword and immediately flickered to her side, behind the sweeping blade.
His taloned foot again knocked her down, this time with a blow to her side, and his weight held her against the cold soil.
Now, however, she could see him; he met her gaze and let loose a happy chirp.
“Yeah, yeah.” Thankfully, her enhanced strength made it easy for her to draw breath, even with most of Terry’s weight on her, and that gave her an idea.
She muscled through Terry’s resistance to roll onto her back, grabbing the bird’s leg with her off hand and thrusting Flow upward.
Terry flickered again, and his foot was now over her face. With no time for her to react, he slammed her head down, pushing it into the ground.
Tala’s off-hand closed on now empty air.
She growled in irritation. Even so, she didn’t let her irritation slow her, and she used her anchored head to leverage her body up, coiling around the massive avian limb.
He was gone.
She’d already been in motion, so her inertia carried her all the way over, causing her to fall back to her stomach.
He returned, now standing fully on her back.
Tala let out a muffled yell of frustration into the freezing cold muck beneath her and pushed, vaulting up despite the few hundred pounds atop her.
She swept out, putting less strength into the strike, so that she could immediately reverse it. Her attack and quick reversal caused Terry to have to blink away in rapid succession, spoiling his next attacks.
Alright, then. Let’s do this.
Flow was now in constant motion as Tala warded away the arcanous beast with a chaotic, but flowing, defense.
Every time she was too slow or too predictable, Terry would knock her aside, capitalizing on the further disruption to pin her down.
It was an exercise in utter helplessness, and she started to breathe heavier, unable to get space to think, to plan, to feel in control.
Why can’t I defend myself, here?
Tala began to feel tears building in her eyes as her desperation grew.
I am utterly outclassed. Even with all my defenses, he now has my measure. Her breathing continued to pick up, but not due to the exertion. He’s been watching us practice. He knows exactly what we are capable of, and he knows, now, how to counter it.
She forged one more void-channel for her body and inscriptions, giving her a marginal boost to her strength and reaction rate. I’m glad Holly didn’t put any power limiters on my enhancements. Even so, it wasn’t enough.
She wrought a second void-channel. In the corner of her vision, she saw that a faint golden glow was now easily evident from her exposed skin and the inscriptions set within.
Still not enough.
She made a third, and there was now a distinct glow, casting shadows on her clothing, and hair, but not yet strong enough to light up the ground around her.
She was sweating profusely, her hyperactive muscles generating incredible amounts of heat. They were working with more power, and under more strain, than they ever had before. Still too slow. What is wrong with me?
She threw together a fourth void-channel for her body and inscriptions, while maintaining those to Flow. She was at her limit, and the light from her inscriptions now highlighted a circle around her on the ground.
Steam was visibly rising from Tala’s clothes, skin, and hair in the frigid evening air.
Every change in Flow’s direction of movement produced a whip crack of sound, echoing and overlapping through the campsite. Flow never even brushed Terry.
The avian hadn’t noticeably responded to her ever increasing pace. He flickered around her with an air of utter non-concern, exploiting any and all imperfections in her form or defensive patterns, and there were many.
Her increased capacities meant that those flaws were exposed for briefer periods, but they were also much more numerous.
She could do nothing against him. It felt like she was simply flailing uselessly at the air.
Tears had long since joined sweat, streaming down her face, and her nose was draining down over her lips and into her mouth.
She couldn’t spare even an instant to wipe it away, though she did spit, when possible, to keep her airways clear.
Why am I so weak?
In an act of pure, thoughtless desperation, Tala tried to lock onto Terry for a Crush. He simply changed size briefly, without slowing his probing assault, thus disrupting her connection before she could enact the attack spell. She didn’t have the presence of mind or focus to make a more persistent lock.
Dread built atop the despair. He could kill everyone here, and there is nothing we could do to stop him. He wouldn’t do that…right?
Her face was tingling, feeling almost as if it had fallen asleep as her entire body responded to her emotional state.
Her vision was blurry, though her eyes were useless in tracking Terry, regardless. A brief flicker of diverted attention showed that there were far fewer onlookers than there had been. The distraction also earned her another faceplant against the cold ground.
After another frantic exchange, in which she desperately fought back to her feet, there was finally a brief pause, barely a couple of breaths in length.
Tala locked eyes with Terry, and she saw, as if for the first time, the true depth of his age, experience, and power. He is violence incarnate.
She should have named him Violence. She shook herself. That doesn’t seem right. I shouldn’t name him directly after something like that.
She almost laughed, then, feeling a manic desperation. I’m still frantically hoping he’s not about to kill us all.
Terry seemed to notice something in her gaze in that momentary eye contact, because he didn’t resume his non-stop assault, instead cocking his head to one side and settling down.
Tala stood still, eyes locked on her tormenter, Flow held to one side, her entire body on fire, all but literally. Her concentration broke, and the void-channels crumbled.
Her body responded immediately, instantly feeling like every muscle seized up, simultaneously.
She couldn’t even muster a cry of pain, as she dropped to the ground, twitching.
Aside from portions of her musculature that simply clamped down, refusing to release, many other parts rippled in uncontrolled spasms, with a feeling like a thousand small, powerful feet kicking her over and over.
Her only comfort came in the form of a small, fluffy weight that appeared on her side, shifting ever so slightly to account for her sporadic movements.
What seemed like an eternity passed before Tala felt her arms forcibly extended above her head and held down. Additional hands met her palms, and power flowed into her.
“Her muscles were cooking themselves. They’d have already succeeded, without the reinforcement.” It was Mistress Odera’s voice, and she sounded concerned. The older woman tsked. “For all I can tell, they might have been ruined and healed, but I think not. Her brain was sheltered from the heat, though.”
“Can you do anything for her?” Rane’s voice was clear.
“Yes and no.” The older woman sighed. “I can’t do anything more, magically; her body is already working at capacity even magically aided, but she should recover from this with a night’s rest. Her own regeneration scripts are up to the task.” She huffed a little laugh. “I could cut off her limbs and let them regrow. That would likely be faster, but more costly, and highly detrimental in the long run.”
Rane huffed out an irritated breath. “Why didn’t her defenses prevent this?”
“The damage came from the regular function of her body and scripts. There was nothing to defend against.”
Rane grunted. “I’m glad we sent everyone back into the wagons near the beginning of the bout. I know I wouldn’t have wanted an audience for this, if I were her.”
Tala finally managed a groan.
“Hush, child. You’ll sleep tonight and feel better in the morning.”
A big hand, which she assumed was Rane’s, patted her back. “That was quite the attempt, Mistress Tala. I don’t think I could have matched that level of effort for as long as you did.”
Her lips briefly stuck together before she croaked out a question, “How long?”
“Close to a quarter hour, if my reckoning is right.”
Silence surrounded the campsite, and Tala allowed herself to glance at the few remaining, who had been watching. Every face had some form of shock or horror in place, though none seemed too fresh, and few were turned her way. Just the on-duty guards. That was a kindness.
Rane tentatively tried to lift her, grunting when he succeeded. “Your movements looked like gravity was normal on you, again. Glad I was right.” He muttered to himself after that, much too quietly for him to have expected her to hear. “Still rusting heavy, though.”
Mistress Odera went before them, clearing the guards from the common room as Rane carried her through.
Kit dropped her room-key to the floor, and Mistress Odera let Rane in to lay Tala on her bed. It now felt hard as a stone floor.
Great… I’ll be uncomfortable if I sleep at a normal weight. Her body was starting to work through its issues, and she smiled weakly up at the two. “Thank you.”
Rane smiled back, and Mistress Odera nodded. “Drink a lot of water, dear. We’ll make sure you have a good amount of food available, when you wake up.”
Good. She didn’t have the presence of mind to verbalize her thanks, further.
The older woman produced a wet cloth from somewhere and quickly cleaned Tala’s face of sweat, snot, tears, and grime. That was kind of her.
Tala was already fading, though.
Rane and Mistress Odera left without another word, leaving her with the key.
Terry, for his part, curled up beside her on the bed, giving no indication of concern or remorse, save to nuzzle close before they both fell into a dreamless sleep.
* * *
Tala woke to the amazing smells of cooked and cooking meat wafting through the cracks around her door.
She was sore, but as she stood and stretched, her body quickly worked out that lingering pain. She moved through the stretching portion of her morning routine with practiced speed, taking time where it was needed without lingering unnecessarily.
Terry was curled up on her folded bedroll, which she’d previously set up for his use. His eyes were open, and he was regarding her with what she could only interpret as a look of expectancy.
Food was calling to her, but there was something she needed to do. “So… What was that?”
Terry stood and walked over to her.
Then, in a display of teleportation power beyond anything she could have imagined, Terry began to flicker.
He moved back and forth between two positions, two sizes, acting out two parts in a silent display. The power rolling off of him was palpable, but still so much lower than she’d have expected. He must have near perfect efficiency.
That wasn’t the point, though. She focused on the display.
The larger terror bird was knocking the smaller around, as the smaller desperately tried to fight back. It was fruitless, but neither stopped or gave up.
Over time, the smaller one slowly grew in size and competence, beginning to occasionally land blows on the larger specimen.
Through the course of the thirty second play, the two drew closer in ability until they were equals, testing and training each other, both improving greatly and advancing, together.
Terry stopped flickering, and staggered slightly, clearly having used a tremendous amount of power for the short communication.
“You were training me, trying to lift me up?”
Terry flickered to her shoulder and head-bumped her cheek.
“It was…” She swallowed back her rising tears. “It was pretty humiliating.”
Terry curled up, tucking his head down.
She nodded, feeling like she understood. “But, that’s how terror birds train each other: ruthless, without actually causing damage. No cushion, no coddling, just a continuous, overt display of skill.”
Terry let out a happy, little chirp, and shimmied slightly.
Tala shook her head. “I’ll…I’ll try to learn from that, but I didn’t have space to think.”
He opened one eye to regard her from her shoulder.
“That was part of the point…wasn’t it.”
He closed the eye again, and she’d have sworn he was smiling, except he didn’t have lips with which to make the expression.
“Well, I suppose we have to accept each other as we are, not as we wished we’d be.” She patted Terry’s head with her off hand. “Let’s get breakfast.”
She left her room, locking it behind her, and headed outside.
They exited the cargo-slot through the propped open door to find that it was still a bit before dawn. There was a pleasant, cool crispness to the air, and a light dusting of snow helped highlight the terrain, even in the dim forest. There were some guards already eating, and Rane was atop the cargo-wagon, clearly the Mage on watch.
Mistress Odera was awake as well, it seemed, and she smiled and waved to them as they walked over towards the chuckwagon.
“Good morning, Mistress Tala.” After a moment’s hesitation, her eyes flicked to Terry. “And to you, master Terry.”
Terry twitched but didn’t otherwise react.
“Good morning, Mistress Odera.”
Mistress Odera’s skin was a bit too pale as the woman smiled at them. “Last night was…educational.”
Tala grunted, noncommittally. “You said there would be food?”
Mistress Odera ignored the attempt at a topic change. “Are you alright, child?” Her voice was barely audible, even to Tala’s ears.
Tala hesitated. Am I? She felt recovered, but that wasn’t what the Mage had been asking about. “I…I haven’t felt that helpless in a long time.”
The older woman nodded. “I can understand that. He is a…potent creature.”
Terry gave a happy chirp in return but didn’t open his eyes.
With that topic broached and dealt with, if barely, Mistress Odera gestured back to the bustling chuckwagon. “They are ready for you.”
Tala didn’t delay in the slightest as she stepped up and received a truly monstrous portion of food. There were two bowls that each looked to be meant for either serving or mixing large quantities of food.
Amnin smiled but didn’t try to engage Tala in conversation. Instead, she simply indicated that the smaller of the two bowls was for Terry.
The avian perked up at that and gave a happy, trilling flute of gratitude.
Each bowl was filled with fat, well fried sausages. Sliced bread, buttered and toasted, had been arranged around the edge of Tala’s bowl. Terry’s had a fence of bacon.
“Grab a seat. I’ll bring you some water and your bacon, dear.”
Tala smiled gratefully, moving over to the end of an unoccupied table. She set down the huge bowls and almost pulled out her reinforced chair, but then remembered that she didn’t need it at the moment. That’s nice.
She slid onto the bench, and fell to eating with abandon.
Terry ate more slowly, but he still finished everything in his bowl with almost horrifying speed.
Tala tried not to complain about the lack of coffee. Apparently, Mistress Odera had advised she avoid it, this morning, because of how much liquid she’d lost the night before. Coffee won’t dehydrate me… She sighed. At least I can get some later today.
Amnin had promised to save her a jug, but she wouldn’t get it until after they started out for the day.
Sacrifices must be made, I suppose.
Breakfast done, she moved through her morning routine. Because her weight was now variable, she held off on muscular exercise until everything else was complete.
Now that she could alter effective gravity at will, if slowly, she had a task to accomplish right before her physical training.
She concentrated, bringing her left middle finger to her thumb, and focusing on herself, acting within the protective shell of her iron-salve. Over the course of a minute and a half, she increased her weight as much as she felt she could stand. Tala had been careful, near the end, as she hadn’t wanted to overshoot and kill herself.
She didn’t have an exact number, but her feet were easily sinking into the frozen ground, despite the increase to her footing.
Around six times? It didn’t matter that much. She could see the alteration with her new gravity sight, so she could track her progress in the future.
Alright. Time for physical conditioning.