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A note from JLMullins

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Tala sat in the inscribing chair for what felt like hours, Terry asleep in her lap. Thankfully, with Holly’s needles, and the pane of inscribed glass to allow Hawthorne to see where he was working in detail, she didn’t need to even roll up her sleeve.

“The fact that most of your inscriptions are intact makes this so much easier.” Hawthorne leaned back, stretching his back.

“What do you mean?”

“Well, with all the inscriptions already there, my scripts here,” he tapped the piece of clear material, “have something to lock onto easily, without having to worry about the exact positioning of your arm. It aligns the scripts that are present, then tells me where the missing ones should go. I’m basically just tracing.” He looked at the inscribed needle in his hand. “Tracing with really expensive colored pencils.”

Tala snorted a laugh. “Glad it’s that easy.”

“Easier, I would say. It’s hard coloring within the lines.”

Tala gave him a side-eyed look. “You don’t inspire confidence.”

“Good luck going anywhere else to get this fixed.” He gave her a mischievous smile. “We’re just lucky this was a part of what Holly dubbed me capable of working on.”

Tala shook her head. “Isn’t that a bit insulting?”

He shrugged. Before responding, he reinserted the needle, injecting another fleck of metal into the proper place.

She grimaced at the additional swelling pressure.

“I think it is more an acknowledgement of my skills by a master, than anything else.”

Tala looked him over again, seeing a new side of the man. He wasn’t an Archon, at least not that she could tell. He was a Material Guide, and he used his magic almost entirely to improve his ability with inscriptions. Even as she watched, a flicker of power went through a spell-form in his hand, and she felt the newly added gold shift by less than the width of a hair. No, he didn’t move it, he rotated it, reoriented it for better conduction of power.

She’d never considered the orientation of the metal as important, but he manipulated almost every injection he made.

Is it like a magnet? She could just ask. “Why do you reorient the metal?”

“Hmm? Oh, the metal in the injection medium isn’t perfectly uniform, despite what we’d prefer. So, by orienting and concentrating the precious metal on the long axis, along the channels we want the power to flow down, we improve efficiency and reduce the total number of injections required. It isn’t a lot, but over the course of a spell-form or an entire set of inscriptions?” He smiled. “It’s better.”

“But you used your own power, your own inscriptions, to enact the change.”

“That’s right.”

“So… doesn’t that take more power and metal than the efficiency gives?”

He chuckled at that. “Yes and no. In the beginning, it definitely did, but my efficiency has increased to the point that it’s a net gain. Even before that, though, it was worth it.”

“Why?”

He gave her a long look before shaking his head, smiling, and turning back to his work. He continued to inject and reorient as necessary. “You fight for civilization. A drop in your power, in your efficiency, in your effectiveness, could mean the death of others, the failure of a caravan. That means needed supplies don’t make it to their destination. Letters are lost between loved ones, and so much more. I can’t allow that.” He shook his head again. “Not if I can help it.”

Tala just nodded.

After a moment, he cracked a smile. “Also, in your case, there is a danger of interference or cross contamination with your surrounding inscriptions. Any misplaced metal could be disastrous.”

They fell into silence, then. With nothing to distract her, Tala gritted her teeth against the unpleasant sensations, and kept her regenerative scripts from activating. She needed to wait until he was finished.

It took hours more, and Tala gained a renewed appreciation for Holly’s strange device. I hope it spreads soon. I can’t imagine how much it will help humanity. What if they’d had one in the caravan? Could Tala have gotten her inscriptions refreshed as soon as they were lost?

Those two juggernauts would have been squished for sure. She frowned at the thought. Why were they after me so intently? She didn’t have any doubts, now. They had been after her.

The juggernaut had left the caravan behind to pursue her, even if just briefly.

At the time, the chuckwagon had been all but undefended, but the Leshkin had chosen to pursue her. She allowed her mind to think through the various possibilities as the night wore on.

Terry continued to sleep in her lap.

“There we go.” Hawthorne set aside another spent needle. “That’s the last of it.” He swept his viewing item across her arm, and up to her shoulder, once more. “I just need to correct the connection, here. When you lost your arm, the blow seems to have moved some of the dormant gold out of position.” He placed his hand on her shoulder, and a series of spell-forms lit up across that arm.

The sensation was akin to a mass of worms wriggling in her palm, but inside her shoulder. Tala winced and felt like vomiting at the wrongness of the feeling but held herself still. I’m not meant to have something wriggling around inside my muscles…

“Are you alright? That can be disconcerting to some.”

“It wasn’t great… How does it look?”

“We’re done. Your inscriptions are refreshed.”

Tala relaxed, allowing her regenerative scripts to fully activate. Her flesh tightened around the new metal, seamlessly integrating it into her spell-forms. She let out a relieved breath. “There.”

“I won’t ask you about your other work. It’s…it’s detailed beyond anything I’ve ever seen before. I’ll bet Holly’s close to an announcement.” He didn’t ask, though it was clear he wanted to.

Tala gave an awkward smile. “Something like that.”

“There’s a schema in here for connecting your other hand to the same spell-workings. There’s even space to add another set of rings on your other hand. We could schedule another appointment to do that?”

Tala almost said yes immediately, but then, she hesitated. I am trying to remove my dependance on those. I need to be practicing, using, and digging deeper into my active manipulation, not leaning on a well-loved crutch. “Thank you, but I think I’ll hold off.”

“As you wish. We should settle up now, then.”

“Oh! Wait, one more thing.” Tala reached into Kit and pulled out her naked arm. “As a Material Manipulator, could you get the gold out of this?” It didn’t seem to have begun decaying, yet, but it was still…icky to hold.

Hawthorne gave her a longsuffering look. “Is that your arm?”

She rotated it, so that he could see the gold rings on the back of the hand. “It is.”

He stood, seeming to take a deep breath to calm himself. After a moment, he went a grabbed some gloves and came back, taking the arm from her. “It is deeply disturbing that you kept this, Mistress Tala.”

“Should I have left it for the beasts to eat?”

“Well, probably not…” He sighed, holding up his left hand. To her mage-sight, a series of inscriptions lit up with power across that arm and onto his chest. With a squelching sound, gold pulled itself out of the dead limb, exiting away from Hawthorne, before floating over to an empty dish on a side table.

Without a word, he went over and rinsed the gold, before drying it on a cloth and dumping it into a small pouch. He returned and held out the pouch. “Here. Mage gold is often prized by the Constructionist guild, and while not difficult to get, few like providing it.”

“Thank you. What do I owe you for helping retrieve it?”

He waved his hand. “It took little effort or power. We can call it an addition on the other services.” He glanced to her arm, which sat on the side table. “I’m going to have that burned.”

Tala decided it wasn’t worth arguing, especially since she really didn’t have a better idea. She nodded, taking a breath and bracing herself. “How much for the inscribing work?”

Hawthorne quirked a smile. “Ten ounces. I wish I could offer it for cheaper, but the needles are expensive, and I had to use quite a bit of power manipulating the gold to be in the right position, given your inscription complexity.”

Ten ounces gold…that means that this will get him twenty, total, and he’s acting like it’s as low as he can go. How much, exactly, was Holly undercharging me? “I can do that. Thank you for fitting me in immediately.”

He waved that off. “I couldn’t let you be hampered.” He pulled out a slate, did a few things on its surface, and then handed it to her. “Put your token, there, and confirm the transaction, if you would.”

Tala looked closely, verifying all was right. She then placed the token she’d received as a Mage protector on the slate and confirmed the exchange. “There we go. Thank you.”

He waved her off. “I did the work; you paid; No thanks needed.” He yawned. “I do need to get some rest, though. Lana!” He called out the last.

The attendant from before came a few moments later. “Yeah, Dad?” She hesitated. “Oh! My apologies, Mistress Tala, I didn’t realize that you were still here.”

Tala gave a seated half-bow. “More than fine. I was apparently difficult to work on.”

“Oh?”

“Master Hawthorne can tell you, if and when he deems appropriate.” She smiled.

Hawthorne shook his head to clear the sleep. “Lana, could you escort Mistress Tala out? There isn’t anyone else, right?”

“No, the apprentices are all finished. I’ll lock up, after.”

“Thank you.”

“Um… is that an arm?”

Tala and Hawthorne looked to where Lana was pointing. “Yes, dear. I’ll be dealing with that, before I sleep.”

“But-”

He shook his head. “No buts. We can talk, tomorrow.” He smiled towards Tala. “Good night.”

Tala stood. “Thank you, again.”

He shrugged and waved, using rote movements to clean up his space before he dealt with the limb and slept.

Tala followed Lana out and bid the girl ‘Goodnight.’

“Remember us when you need a refresh.”

“I will.”

Tala turned away from the now locked front door and looked out at the nightscape of Makinaven’s first tier.

The interior light had been dimmed, but it was still bright enough to see clearly. Traffic had slowed, but it was far from nonexistent.

Tala began to walk back down, towards the work-yard and her accommodations for the night. The cooks had given them all food as they’d approached the city, but even with that, and Rane’s offering, Tala felt famished.

She came to the food-oriented side street once again and stepped back into it. The restaurants all seemed to be closed, and only one of the general stores looked to be open for business.

Tala knocked as she pushed the door open. “Hello?”

“Hello!”

Tala looked at the young man who sat behind the counter. “Are you open?”

He gestured. “Seems so.”

Tala gave him a flat look, then shook her head. Kids shouldn’t be sassy with adults... She walked in and looked through the wares. She quickly picked out some fruit, jerky, and what seemed to be small bag of day-old pastries.

“One silver, please.”

It was an exorbitant sum for what she was getting, but she wasn’t in a position to be too picky. I really, really need to replenish my food-stores. She hesitated for a moment. Could I use my incorporator to make soup, with dried ingredients? That would be amazing. I’ll look into it.

She paid and left.

While she ate her newly acquired food, she got out some of the arcanous jerky for Terry.

She took the time to stretch her legs and just let herself walk. Tomorrow, I’m going to walk through the city… but not without good food.

Tala could probably find open vendors in the upper reaches of the city, even at this time of night, but she wasn’t willing to do a long hike in the hope of such bounty. Tomorrow.

They got to the work-yard all too soon, and she found her cargo-slots set off to one side, standing free of any wagon.

Oh… Tala stood for a moment, staring at the fourteen identical, empowered constructions.

Which one?

With a sigh, she went down the line, glancing inside each, until she found the one that she wanted. “There you are.”

She hesitated in the eerily silent work-yard, looking into the equally silent, dark interior of the cargo-slot. She didn’t really want to go inside. At least not yet.

I don’t know how much I’ll sleep in. I should charge them now. With a sigh, but not of relief, she let the door swing closed and walked over to a nearby warehouse.

There, she grabbed a short stepladder that she’d seen leaning against the side. Little ladder in tow, she went down the line, recharging each cargo-slot.

There. Now, time to sleep. She returned the stepladder to where she’d found it, then walked to the correct cargo-slot.

No hesitation, that will just make it worse. She strode inside, allowing the door to close behind her.

The space was… a bit creepy, in all honesty. She was used to it being quiet, it was well built and designed for such, but she wasn’t used to the utter silence that now surrounded her.

With hurried, quiet steps, she moved through the dark interior to her door.

She unlocked her room, jumped inside, slammed the door, and relocked it behind her.

That’s right, Tala. The darkness almost got you.

She shook her head but didn’t let herself laugh.

Make no noise…

She was tired, despite having slept past lunch the day before. I can’t sleep that late, today. Only a short sleep, then. Just like six hours.

She flopped down on her too hard mattress and touched middle finger to thumb, increasing her effective gravity until the bed was comfortable. That sorted, she closed her eyes to sleep.

 

* * *

 

A soft knock on her door jerked Tala out of a heavy sleep, filled with nightmares.

She sat bolt upright, her heart pounding. No one else is supposed to be here. Who’s knocking?

She gasped in a breath, her mind telling her that her ribcage was shattered, lungs ruined. No. That was a dream…Or two days ago… She grimaced.

She stood slowly; eyes locked on the doorway. Terry lay motionless in the corner.

Doesn’t he sense the danger? She had a horrifying thought, then. Is he dead?

She stared at him, her gaze unmoving despite her half-awake mind screaming at her to watch the door. Finally, she saw his chest move with an inhaled breath. Good, not dead.

Her eyes returned to the door as she drew Flow, leaving it in the form of a knife. A knife is a better weapon for close quarters than a sword.

The knock came again, a little louder this time, booming in the otherwise silent cargo-slot.

Tala grabbed the doorhandle to fling it open. Instead of throwing the door wide, her quick pull jerked her forward, slamming her face and chest against the locked door. Flow stabbed easily into the wall, where it stuck.

“Ow…”

“Mistress Tala?”

She recognized that voice. “Mistress Odera?”

“Yes, dear. Are you alright?”

Tala shook her head, pulling the key from Kit, unlocking the stubborn door and pulling it open.

“I brought you breakfast and thought that we could take a bit to talk.”

Tala looked to the woman’s hands but saw nothing. “Do you have a storage item?”

“Well, yes, but the food isn’t in there. Come on.”

Tala rubbed her eyes and glanced towards Terry.

“We aren’t going far. He’ll be fine.” Mistress Odera smiled. “I’m not even sure the city defenses would register his presence regardless, while he’s in here.”

Tala nodded and followed Mistress Odera out to the common area of the cargo-slot’s interior. On one of the tables, a massive spread of food was laid out, along with what appeared to be several earthen carafes of some kind. Coffee?

She almost sat in the closest chair, before remembering her increased weight. It’s nice that it hasn’t been causing me issues in moving. I’m getting more used to variable gravity.

She brought her left middle finger to her thumb and focused on herself, returning her effective gravity to standard.

It didn’t take too long, but it was long enough for Mistress Odera to move around and take the chair opposite.

The older woman began building herself a breakfast sandwich, pulling from the various platters of food with the implements she’d already set out.

“This is a feast, Mistress Odera.”

“For most people: yes, it would be. For you? In your state? It’s needed support for proper functioning as a Mage protector.” Her eyes were twinkling.

Tala grinned back at her. “I like the sound of that.”

Mistress Odera nodded. “I believe I saw that you’ve recharged the cargo-slots, already?”

“That is correct.”

“Good, then we can eat now.” She smiled. “I can’t authorize this for every meal, but it seems reasonable to me to fund some calories after particularly demanding ventures.”

Tala lowered herself into the seat, her effective gravity back to normal, some of her joy leaving. “It was…a bit demanding.” The faces of the guards who had died flashed through her mind. Sometimes her near perfect memory was a curse.

She hadn’t known them. She hadn’t learned their names, and she couldn’t convince herself that she cared about them as individuals.

In truth, she didn’t. That said, they had died fighting alongside her, in spirit even if not physically, and that did matter. Maybe, I can care about their character, their actions?

“What’s wrong?”

“Hmm?”

“You aren’t eating. What’s wrong?”

Tala sat up a bit straighter and began taking food for herself. “I…I don’t feel anything for the guards that died.” She frowned, and Mistress Odera cocked an eyebrow. “No… no, that’s not right. I am grateful for their sacrifice. I hate that they died, and I think well of them for their actions in defense of the caravan, but I can’t bring myself to care about them as individuals.”

Mistress Odera gave a slow nod. “You’re dissociating from their deaths. You don’t want to view them as husbands, wives, fathers, mothers, sons, or daughters. Yet, you still see their sacrifice for what it is.”

Tala shrugged, eating without really focusing on what she was consuming.

“It is so easy to hear: Thirty people died in this accident or attack. It sounds tragic, and you wish it hadn’t happened, but rarely do we consider the ripples such deaths will cause. It’s uncomfortable to consider, and hard to deal with emotionally.”

Tala nodded, continuing to eat, mechanically.

Mistress Odera gave a sad smile. “You don’t want to have to sit with the fact that Sergeant Fawn had a two-year-old daughter, who he will never hold again.”

Tala set her food aside, looking down at her hands.

“We don’t like considering that guardswoman Hida was newly married, and she’d decided that this would be her last round trip before settling down to have a family.”

Tala’s vision began to swim with unshed tears.

“Those are just two of the fallen. Each death is a tragedy of unmitigated horror for those who cared for and loved them. To us? It’s unfortunate but doesn’t occupy more than a cursory place in our minds. It can’t.”

Tala lifted her head with a frown. “What does that mean?”

“Mistress Tala, across humanity, between five hundred and a thousand die each day. Now, a bit more than that number are born as well, their lives laid out before them. Do you know how many of those deaths are due to old age or similar causes?”

“I imagine very few.”

“You’d be right.” Mistress Odera had a sad smile. “We live in a violent world, Mistress Tala. Death is all around us, constantly. Yes, every death is a tragedy, but it can’t be our tragedy. That sounds heartless, because it is. Death should never cease to affect us, but it should also never break us.”

Tala huffed a derisive laugh, wiping her face. “You make it sound so easy.”

Mistress Odera shrugged. “It isn’t. We have a lot to talk about, and this is just the beginning. It is alright to not be okay.” She smiled. “You need to process through the losses. The loss of the guards under our protection, the loss of your arm, these are not small things.” After a moment, she poured a mug of coffee, then handed it to Tala. “Here: Drink, eat, let’s talk.”

The next couple of hours passed slowly. Mistress Odera often seemed to be contradicting herself as she drew Tala through her emotions and thoughts on how the trip had gone and the results thereof.

In the end, Tala decided that Mistress Odera was perfectly willing to spout utter nonsense, if it allowed Tala to properly think through a given issue.

I’m glad she brought food…this is exhausting.

The morning passed, and they made some progress, but as with most things, it was but a small step forward.

One step at a time.

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