Tala found herself to be in a bad mood.
With around sixteen guards in need of additional healing and the death benefits for five further guards, the Mage protector payments had been less than she’d hoped.
Not that I begrudge the guards their healing, or the families the money for the death of their loved ones… She definitely wished that neither category had anyone in it, though. That’s a good, not-too-selfish thought. She gave herself a mental pat on the back.
In the end, she’d received twelve gold as the caravan’s dimensional Mage; the increase to that figure was due to her verified status as an Archon. For her work as a Mage protector, she’d received a token to use with any inscriber, so that they could charge half the inscription cost to the guild, and thirty-six ounces, gold.
She now had more money than she’d ever had before, but it still felt like a ridiculously paltry amount.
Thankfully, she’d also gotten permission to stay in her room within the cargo-slot, until the caravan left the city once more.
At least that takes care of housing.
Rane, Mistress Odera, and Tala all moved through the busy, but not crowded, ground-floor streets. They were heading for the spiral road on which worked the inscriptionist whom Holly had designated as “Competent enough to work on a portion of Tala’s spell-forms.”
Rane needed some touch-ups, and Mistress Odera had already affirmed that she could use the same.
The man had his workshop on the two o’clock road, which began quite close to the work-yard that their caravan had stopped in.
The twelve spiraling roads were each named for the position on the clock at which they started, given the roughly circular interior of the tree. They had come in from the east, so that gate was at the three o’clock position, and the three o’clock spiral began at the gate tunnel. The two o’clock road touched the bottom floor to the north of the eastern gate.
Each road did a full circuit before the next major floor, the next tier, was reached. There, more than a hundred feet above them, another large open space held more buildings, parks, or common spaces, depending on the tier. This basic structure repeated for each level as the city went up.
Thus, each road intersected the floor of every tier at the road’s clock position, holding true to its name.
Now, this could cause all sorts of frustration to the uninformed. If a pedestrian wished to get to a place that they could see, but which was above them, on another spiral, they couldn’t just walk straight towards it. To facilitate transition between the spiral streets, which were stacked one atop another and perfectly pitched for even spacing, there were inset ladder tubes every so often.
Anyone moving large vehicles around was not given such a convenient way to change between the spirals.
That said, as Tala inspected the city more closely, she noticed that each spiral had a color combination theme to it, which made it much easier to determine which o’clock spiral would be needed to get to any given location, assuming she could see her desired destination. The two o’clock street, on which they needed to walk, had red and white banding on the outside railing as well as most of the buildings.
When they reached the entrance to the spiraling road, they turned to the right, walking beside the buildings to leave the inner portion of the road, that which was closest to the railings, open for vehicle or animal traffic. There were some horses and a few oxen, but those were really the only beasts that Tala saw. There are probably all sorts, but they just aren’t as common.
Terry eyed each passing creature with interest but settled back down on Tala’s shoulder after they passed without doing more.
The walkway they used on the building side of the road, designated by more white and red stripes on the roadway, was wide enough for five or six people to pass with ease.
Tala glanced down the side passages as they moved past. Some were gated and clearly marked as private sections of the city. Some of those seemed to be entirely owned by a single family with unifying styles behind heraldically emblazoned gates. Others seemed to belong to trading groups, or one of the Guilds. Probably mostly farming or crafting related. It had seemed like most of the buildings on the first-tier main floor were oriented towards crafting or production of some kind.
Other roads were simply that: roads through a short side district, leading towards the outside of the great tree without penetrating to the open air.
There were residential streets, along with shops either of mixed types or of a unified kind.
“Food!” Tala turned down a side street, and Rane shook his head, smiling.
This particular side-street had alternating red and yellow magical lights down the length, and every shop they could see seemed to be oriented towards food of one kind or other. They were a mix of restaurants and supply stores, if Tala was seeing correctly. I could get ingredients here and cook for myself, or just buy bulk food more cheaply. It was a good thought. Her consumptive needs did not lend themselves to a reasonable budget.
Aside from the lighting, the obvious features of the street were a series of tables, trees, and low shrubs artfully spaced throughout the area, giving plenty of places for people to enjoy their food, as well as some privacy and nature. The plants were selected to be the most pleasing in the oddly colored lighting, too.
Mistress Odera gave the other two long looks. “We should get to the inscriptionist.”
Tala stopped, turning around to face the older woman. “Of course we should, but I need some food.” Tala hesitated. “I should have gotten the Caravan Guild to pay for half my food, too…”
Mistress Odera huffed a laugh. “You could probably make a case for it, given your need to eat so much because of your inscriptions, and for your inscriptions to use.”
“Can you authorize that?”
“As a blanket allowance? No, definitely not, but I can speak to it, once we’re back in Bandfast.” She got a thoughtful look on her face but didn’t say more.
“But I need food now.” Tala stopped, realizing just how whiny that had sounded. “Sorry about that. I meant: My reserves are incredibly depleted.”
Mistress Odera opened her mouth to say something but stopped as Rane walked back up to them. When did he leave?
He held out something to Tala. “Eat. We can get you more after our inscriptions are refreshed.”
Tala took it without thinking. It was a thick flatbread that had been slit open and stuffed full of meat and vegetables, and then drenched in sauce. The bread was such that nothing leaked out. The thing was heavy. “Thank you!” She smiled to Rane. “What do I owe you?”
He waved her off. “I think you helped more than the pay distribution represented. It wasn’t worth fighting about, but I can correct the slight imbalance with a couple of meals.”
Tala opened her mouth to object, then considered his words. Yeah, it probably wouldn’t be worth contesting the division of things for less than a gold, and there is no way this cost that much. “Very well, then. Thank you, Master Rane.”
Mistress Odera sighed, likely in part because she’d been a guiding hand behind the distribution of their pay as Mage protectors. Even so, she didn’t interject with regard to the food or pay. “Can we go, then?”
“I’m good for now, yes.”
They went back out to the main road, and Tala took a huge bite of the meal-in-a-package. There really are a lot of variations on this concept. It’s like a pasty, or a little caravan, or a pot-pie, or so many other things I’ve come across, while being just a little different.
It was…mildly disappointing. It was good, especially because she was hungry, but something about the way the bread had been made gave it an odd, fibrous texture and almost no flavor. Meh, they can’t all be winners, I suppose.
As they spiraled upward, Tala devoured the less than ideal concoction.
Wait a minute… do the defenses work the same, within the city? The errant thought almost caused her to pause, but she decided to keep walking as she contemplated, glancing at Terry.
“Would Terry be safe in here, without the collar?” Terry perked up at the question, looking intently at the older Mage.
“Yes, but no.” Mistress Odera smiled. “He wouldn’t be struck down instantly, as he might be in some other cities, but his presence would trigger all sorts of alarms. The defenses would shift, and he would quickly be subdued or killed. In the worst case, an Archon defender would be summoned to deal with him, and the fine that would be leveled for such a thing is expensive.” She gave Tala a meaningful look.
Tala nodded “Fair enough.”
Terry flickered a bit away and his collar began glowing yellow, just like it would have if they were in Bandfast. He returned without further testing.
Mistress Odera nodded. “He would also be very ill advised to leave the inside of the tree without an active collar, as any space, outside, would be subject to…less gentle repercussions, as we discussed.”
Terry let out a small squawk of acknowledgement but didn’t open his eyes again.
Rane cleared his throat, without slowing his pace. “Are you sure you want to stay in the cargo-slot while we’re in Makinaven?”
Tala shrugged. “I have to come to the work-yard every morning anyways, so there isn’t much benefit in staying anywhere else. It would just add to my daily travel time.”
Rane thought for a moment, then nodded. “I can’t argue with your logic. Still, Master Grediv recommended that I get a room in the Soaring Heights Inn. It’s in one of the highest branches, reaching well above the canopy and giving commanding views of the surroundings from every room.”
“That sounds amazing! I’ll have to at least drop by for the view.”
Mistress Odera clucked her tongue. “There are quite a few observation areas that allow anyone who wishes to see views just as good, if not better.”
Rane crinkled his nose, then sighed. “Even so, I think that’s where I’ll be staying.” He glanced to Tala once more. “There are some sparring areas available there, as well.”
“I’ll take a look, sure. Not sure when, though. I still need to sell off some of the harvests I managed to grab, after I drop by the Constructionist Guild.”
Mistress Odera stopped walking, pointing to a door just to their left. “After inscriptions.”
Tala looked up to the sign hanging over the door, an inscription needle imposed across a circular spell-form. It was a keystone, if her interpretation was correct. “Ah, we’re here.”
The storefront wasn’t large, but through the glass in the door, they could see that the business inside seemed to extend quite a ways back, into the tree.
The three Mages entered, and a chipper attendant stood from behind a small counter. “Welcome, Master, Mistresses. How can the Hawthorne Inscribers serve you, this day?”
Mistress Odera took over communication, quickly explaining that they were Mage protectors, newly arrived and in need of reinscription.
The young woman’s eyes seemed to glitter, the more she heard. It made her look younger than she had before.
Or revealed her true age? I bet she’s related to the inscriber, somehow. I know the look of avarice.
Tala remembered that feeling, when a particularly wealthy and needy patron had come to her family’s shop.
The attendant pulled a cord, causing a bell to ring somewhere in the back. “We are fairly booked with appointments for the next week, but Master Hawthorne has some time right now, and we can make time tomorrow and then two days after. Who would like to go first?”
Both Rane and Mistress Odera turned to look at Tala. Tala gave a self-conscious smile. “I guess that’s me. I probably have the most foundational work needed. They both just need some reinforcement of existing lines.” She glanced to the others. “Right?”
They just nodded.
A middle-aged man came from the back, a slate in hand. “Welcome! Who am I helping?”
Tala raised her hand. “I suppose I’m first.”
The man extended the slate to her. “I’m Master Hawthorne.”
Tala ignored the available sharp protrusion, intended for use in drawing blood, and simply placed her thumb on the flat stone, allowing her power to brush the device.
Hawthorne took the slate back. “Archon Tala. Welcome. Let’s see what we…” All expression left his face. “You’re one of Mistress Holly’s?” He looked up at her, seeming to take in her appearance for the first time. “Where are your inscriptions? I don’t…” His eyes narrowed, then widened. “Impossible! How did she make them so minute?”
Without seeming to move, he was suddenly standing directly in front of Tala, his nose almost brushing her cheek. Tala was too startled to move.
“I can’t see the details even from here!”
Terry hissed, causing Hawthorne to step back.
“Ahh, right… My apologies. I was…” He cleared his throat. “That was unprofessional of me. Yes. Let’s see what we can do. Hmmm?”
Tala glanced at Mistress Odera and Rane, who both smiled. Finally, Tala shrugged. “Alright then…”
Hawthorne looked to the other two Mages. “I won’t be able to work on either of you at this time, unfortunately. Has Lana scheduled your appointments, yet?”
The assistant, presumably Lana, smiled and motioned for the two to come to the counter as Tala followed Hawthorne into the back.
The inscriber, for his part, was looking over the slate in his hands, muttering to himself in incomprehensible fragments.
Based on her glances into side rooms as they passed, Tala would guess that this space expanded to the sides as it went further back. Most of the workrooms were empty, though there were a few closed doors that Tala thought she heard people beyond.
After the hall took a few turns, they came out into a courtyard, with a large tree growing in the center. A tree, growing in a tree? She’d seen them before, most notably in the food-oriented side street, but it was especially odd, in what was basically a building. A tree in a building, within a city in a tree.
Magical lights seemed to mimic the natural light outside, at the moment doing a good job of making the space feel like it was open to a sunset sky.
“Are you really that busy? It seems like most of this place is empty.”
“Hmmm? Oh, well, this is after business hours for most of my workers. They’re eating dinner with their families and will be back in the morning.”
“Oh… Did we interrupt your meal?”
“Oh no, not at all. There’s always too much to do, so I live here, sleep when I can.” He smiled her direction. “I find it hard to turn away any in need of inscriptions. It just feels like I’m robbing them of a tool. Does that make sense?”
Tala found herself frowning. “Well…I understand seeing inscriptions as tools, but aren’t there other inscribers?”
“Yes and no. Yes, of course there are others, but they are just as busy as I am.” He shook his head.
“Didn’t you turn away Master Rane and Mistress Odera, this evening?”
“No, not at all. I can’t simply drop everything for every person who walks through the door, but I can make time for everyone who needs it.” He smiled. “Ah, here we are.”
They had crossed the courtyard, skirting the spreading tree-within-a-tree, and come to a large archway, leading into what was clearly an inscriptionist’s sanctum.
One wall was covered with racks of inscribing needles of Holly’s design.
Right, of course he wouldn’t have an auto-inscriber. She thought for a moment. That might just revolutionize his scheduling. Tala considered telling him about it for a moment, then dismissed the idea. I’m sure Holly will make it known when it’s ready.
Tala almost stumbled slightly as her mind connected that thought to her own experiences with the device and hitched. She used an unproven method on me. That wasn’t news, precisely, but Tala had assumed that the auto-inscriber was relatively new, not utterly new. No, Tala, she even said that she tested it out by printing the books.
Tala grimaced. Well, that’s a bit terrifying. I guess I didn’t really think through what she’d said, and what it meant. Tala promised herself that she’d listen more closely to the mad-woman and consider what she actually meant by what she said.
Hawthorne sat on a wooden stool, still looking at the slate. “I must say, I don’t think I can help you with most of these.”
Tala brought her attention back to the present and frowned. “What do you mean?”
“Well, these are too delicate for me to work on.” He huffed a laugh. “I’d say they are too delicate for anyone to do, but I see them in place within your flesh already.” He shook his head. “What has Mistress Holly come up with, this time?”
The question wasn’t directed at Tala, so she didn’t reply.
“So, how about you tell me what you were hoping to have done, and I’ll see what I can do.”
Tala glanced at her right arm, trying to decide how to explain. “Well, I need a refresher on my activation rings, for my offensive casts.”
Hawthorne moved a few things around on the slate, then nodded. “Oh, I see, yes. I can do that.” He grabbed a sheet of what appeared to be inscribed glass and brought it to a chair in the center of the room. “Come on, sit here.”
He pointed to the chair, beside him, and Tala sank into it.
“Let me take a look at what we’re working with.” He sent power into the glass and held it near her right arm. “Wait… Oh, my apologies, can you please lower your magical defenses? They are blocking my scan.”
Tala hesitated. Oh… my iron-salve. “I apologize, do you have a private room? My magical defense is physical, and I neglected to remove it.”
He arched an eyebrow at that but didn’t comment. He showed her to a back room, and once the door was closed, she dropped into Kit, stripped out of her top, and scrubbed her right arm clean with near-boiling water, soap, and a scrub brush she’d bought ages ago.
Less than five minutes later, she was dressed and back in the inscriber’s chair.
Hawthorne looked like he wanted to ask but restrained himself. Instead, he held up the inscribed item and looked through it once again. What he saw seemed to drive thoughts of her unorthodox defenses from his mind. “Remarkable. Truly remarkable.”
Tala glanced over, and through the glass, the organic material of her arm was invisible, only the metal of the inscriptions could be seen. She shuddered and looked away. It looked much too similar to how the inscriptions had looked, after her arm had fallen away.
Hawthorne frowned. “Wait, I don’t see the connecting scripts.” He consulted his slate, then looked back through the glass. “Did you burn through all the secondary inscriptions for those castings?” He seemed to be talking to himself as he moved the glass up her arm. “You did, they are utterly spent-” He stopped, the glass allowing him to look at her shoulder. “Mistress Tala.” His voice was flat, utterly bereft of inflection.
“Yes, Master Hawthorne?”
“Tell me what happened. Your secondary inscription channels are gone past a jagged point in your shoulder.”
“Well, you see… I lost my arm.”
“You lost your arm.”
“And it grew back.”
“So it would seem.”
“Maintaining all the other inscriptions.” He cocked his head to the side. “Well, of course it would, if they were active, and these are active.” He frowned, then shook his head and sighed. “Alright then. Let’s get to work. It’s going to be a long night.”