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When lunch was ready, Tala was very excited. Research, as it turned out, was exhausting work.

She tucked her borrowed book, along with her own notebook, into her satchel, made sure her hat was secure, and went to meet the chuckwagon worker on his way to her.

It was Brand.

“Hello, Brand. How is the day treating you?”

He smiled hesitantly. “Well, Mistress.” He offered her the cloth-wrapped pasty.

“Anything special in today’s meal?” She could already see the power flickering within the meat, inside the pasty.

He started to shake his head, then stopped, sighed, and nodded. He glanced around, ensuring that no one was in easy listening distance. “Another portion of the blade-wing, Mistress. The remainder is being made into jerky.”

Her eyebrows rose. “Oh? Would it be reasonable for me to ask for some?”

He looked mildly uncomfortable, even as he fell into step beside her. “We do try to keep it for the guards, as its benefits to them are more…” He cleared his throat, then continued in a rush. “They need the help more than Mages generally do.”

She nodded. “That’s fair, I suppose. If you have any extra, or are willing to part with some, let me know. Yeah?”

Brand stopped walking, and Tala came to a stop herself, a step or two later. They’d been walking off to one side, so their lack of movement didn’t affect anyone else’s progress forward.

Tala turned back towards him, head tilted in question. “Brand?”

“You…You aren’t going to demand any?” He seemed complete unsure of himself, once again.

“Why would I do that?”

He began walking again, and Tala fell into step once he caught up.

They walked in silence for long enough that Tala decided to begin eating her lunch.

It was delicious and filling. Coupled with the walk, it was exactly what she’d needed.

“This is great! Thank you, Brand.”

He nodded in acknowledgement but didn’t say anything.

Finally, Tala decided to change the subject. “I want your thoughts on something.” She licked the remnants off of her fingers. “Are arcanous berries usually safe to eat? I haven’t had a chance to hunt down that information in your book.”

Brand shrugged. “About as often as mundane berries. Though, truth be told, even most arcanous plants don’t spend any power on their berries.” He frowned. “Why? Did you find some?”

“Harvested, but yes.”

He was nodding. “Saw a bit of magic and snatched the berries? Might be interesting to see what you found.”

She grunted. “They’re from an ending tree.”

Brand turned to her, eyes wide and mouth open. “What?”

“They are from the ending tree we circumnavigated an hour or so ago.” She cocked her head to one side again. “Why?”

“You must be pulling my leg. Everyone knows about ending trees.”

She shrugged. “Yeah, I know that in our ancient past they were used for creating fertilizers, disposing of waste, and…other things, before we moved into the cities.”

He shook his head. “Haven’t you heard the stories of ancient warriors shrugging off blows in battles, and taking on arcanous beasts barehanded?” He cocked an eyebrow at her, clearly referencing her own escapade.

“Yeah, of course. It is actually one reason I’ve pursued the avenues that I have. I love those old tales: Galadria, Akmaneous, Heleculies, Krator, Manastous, Synathia, …” She smiled happily to herself, before she remembered that it had been her father who’d told and read those stories to her. The smile faded.

“So, you do know.”

She sighed, feeling the weight of sadness settling in. “No, Brand, and this conversation is becoming exhausting. Can you just tell me?”

He grunted. “Ending-berries confer resistance to physical damage that usually lasts around an hour after they are eaten. One berry is sufficient for a fully grown man to receive this effect.” He was becoming animated. “Moreover, legend says that the effect built, and the effects lasted slightly longer each time a berry was used. The greatest of warriors only needed to eat a berry once a day to be considered nearly invincible.” He then gave her a sheepish look. “If I hadn’t seen your spell-lines, myself, I might have assumed that such were the source of your resistance to…blades.” He looked away. “That would, of course, have been foolish.”

Tala cocked an eyebrow, then looked back over her shoulder. “Then, why didn’t we pick that tree bare, as we passed it?”

“Two reasons that I am aware of: First, the art of harvesting the berries without dying from exposure to the tree has been lost. All I know of who’ve tried recently were forced to consume all that they picked, just to counteract the tree’s magic against them, and most still ended up with missing fingers, if not more.”

Tala nodded. That made some sense. Even the stems of the berries had radiated the power of dissolution. Then, she frowned. “Iron tongs would solve that, so would heavy gloves. I think I remember seeing a type of berry picker that should work, too.”

“In theory, yes, but the trees move unpredictably, and become more and more agitated the more berries that are picked.”

“Cut down the tree?”

Brand paled. “The chips and sawdust carry the magic even more effectively than the unharmed tree. Cutting it down would fill the air with death. The same goes for burning the wood.”

“I’m sure Mages could find a way, if they knew the berries were so valuable.”

He nodded. “And some do, but as the effects even extend to breaking down spell workings in unpredictable ways, it proves dangerous, on top of the cost of using their magics in the first place. I think I’ve seen a total of a dozen pounds of the berries sold across various markets since I joined the Order of the Harvest.”

“You seem awfully knowledgeable about this specific fruit, Brand.”

He sighed. “It is one of the core examples we, of the Order of the Harvest, learn of. It is a harvestable piece, which humans can eat and get obvious benefit from. If we could safely harvest them, not only would that help pay for our cause, but it would also greatly aid our cause, in a myriad of ways.”

She was nodding. “So, these berries aren’t common knowledge?” She gave him a bit of a reproachful glance.

He shrugged, not seeing, or ignoring, her implication. “I’d assumed that they were, among Mages, but I could understand if they didn’t want guards finding out. Learning that a thing is, in theory, worth double its weight in gold causes men to take…risks.”

“Ahh… I think I understand.” She hesitated. “What’s the second reason?”

“Hmm?”

“The second reason, you said there were two.”

“Oh! Right. Each berry has a seed inside, and while naturally dormant, anything that tries to harm it will cause it to activate with a blaze of power like that of the tree.”

“Anything?”

He nodded.

“Including biting, or digestion…” She gave a low whistle.

“In addition, the seeds are incredibly virile. They will grow in anything, even open air, once they are outside of their berry. Most people don’t want lots of little ending trees sprouting.” He thought for a moment. “I do think that they need sunlight to grow, though, but not much. Their first activation of their power powders anything above them, letting light in, even it if is diffuse.”

Tala frowned. “Except within cities, right?”

“Hmm?”

“Ending trees can’t grow within cities?”

“Oh, yeah.” Brand frowned. “I’d forgotten that.” He shrugged. “Probably a part of cities' defensive magics. You know, ‘no hostile magics shall, here-in, endure,’ and all that.”

“Maybe, I suppose.” She thought for a long moment, before continuing. “So…I do actually have some, but they are still on their stems.”

Brand looked at her, as if trying to assess if she were joking. After a long moment, he spoke. “I cannot pay for such, nor do I know of any who could buy them, despite their value. You might have luck in Alefast but be careful.”

“Would you trade some jerky for a berry or two?”

He hesitated, giving her another odd look. “We don’t have enough jerky to equal the value of one berry, let alone two, and they’d be of limited use to us… though, I will admit that we do have a few tasks we could use them for.” He frowned. “I think two would be helpful, but again, we don’t have nearly enough jerky to actually be worth the trade, for you.”

She shrugged, lowering her voice. “A pound of arcanous jerky per berry seems reasonable to me.”

He gave her a skeptical look. “Making it jerky doesn’t give it extra power.” He nodded to indicate her mostly finished meat pie. “It would be, in essence, like the meat within that.”

“Does it fade beyond that?”

He hesitated. “Not when properly prepared.”

“In the book?”

“Yes, described in the book.”

I need to find that section… “Very well. Do we have a deal?”

“If you remove the stems and seeds?”

She nodded. I can probably do that, safely.

“Deal.” He held out his hand, and Tala took it.

Brand went to fetch two pounds of jerky, along with a small dish for her to put the berries into. Tala jogged back to her wagon, quickly climbing the ladder, and settling into a stable seated position upon the padded square in the center of the roof top.

When she felt ready, she pulled out the small iron box that she’d gotten for the berries and opened it. The conflicting magics radiated outward to her mage-sight, and she felt herself smiling. Eleven berries. She’d miscounted earlier and was now very happy that there were more than the ten she’d thought she’d seen.

The first thing she did was pick up the small bunch by the berries and rub the stem across her iron salve. As before, the salve liquified and resolidified very quickly, clinging to the stem. Then, using her mage-sight to guide her so that she only grabbed the treated portion, she began pulling off the berries closest to her new point of grip.

It was slow going, and she had to continually work up the stems, coating any part she revealed with iron.

When she was done, she had the stem in four roughly equal pieces, entirely coated in iron salve, and tucked into a very small pouch.

The berries sat, alone, in the small iron box.

Brand came to her wagon shortly after that and climbed up to join her. He carried a small wooden bowl in one hand.

The man handed her the bowl, then sat down a good five feet back, watching with interest. He had a small bundle of what she assumed was the jerky, tucked under one arm.

“I assume you don’t want berries that come out of my mouth?”

He snorted. “No. No, I do not.”

Each berry resembled a cherry, more than any other berry, though they’d grown in bunches like grapes. She frowned. “You know, if it only has the one seed inside, it really isn’t a berry.”

Brand shrugged. “It’s called an ending-berry. I guess that doesn’t actually make it one, but…” He shrugged again. “Not much we can do about a silly name.”

She sighed. “Fair.” It seems like a lot of things have ridiculous names.

Being very careful, she gripped the two halves of the ‘berry’ and twisted.

They came apart with surprising ease, and she carefully placed one half in Brand’s bowl.

The seed was, then, sticking out, white and slick with black juice. Interesting. Red berries, black juice, white seed. She delicately removed the seed and placed the second half in the bowl.

She could see magic in the seed, slowly beginning to awaken. If she was right, she had just about twenty seconds before something happened.

She also saw power in the juice, coating the seed.

Without taking time to consider, she popped the seed into her mouth, sucking off the juice.

A pleasant power buzzed through her, and she felt her enhancing and regenerative spell-lines tingle with an odd resonance. Thankfully, they didn’t activate.

Tala took out the seed, carefully dried it off, then rubbed it against the salve bar, quickly coating it. The magic hadn’t triggered before she finished the process. Good. No issues. She smiled triumphantly.

“One done!” She looked up to see Brand much further back. “Brand?”

“What…Why? Are you mad? You put the seed in your mouth?”

Tala thought she saw Den glance over his shoulder, but the driver didn’t interject. “There was juice on it. I didn’t want that power to go to waste.”

“I told you that it activated with a pulse of power, and your first reaction is to put in inside your head.

“My mouth.”

He gave her a look.

She sighed. “It was perfectly fine. I could see the magic building, and there wasn’t any danger of it activating before I finished.” Unless it nicked a tooth, or was otherwise damaged, I suppose.

He seemed somewhat mollified. “I guess you are the expert in things of magic…”

She did not correct him. Yes, good. Believe I am an all-knowing Mage. She smiled slightly.

After a long moment, he seemed to relax. “Very well… Are you going to do the second one?”

She smiled. “Of course!” The second berry was no more difficult than the first, though its power began building much more quickly, and she guessed that she was only barely fast enough in getting it coated in salve. Different paces for different seeds. Good to know.

She offered the bowl back to Brand, the tingle of the berries’ magic causing an interesting feeling of rippling tension within her. Brand hesitantly took the bowl. After examining the meat of the berries, he nodded. “Alright, then.” He held out the small package. “Just came out of the smoker an hour or so ago.”

Tala frowned. “I definitely didn’t see any smoke.”

Brand waved the objection away. “Of course not. We capture it all to ensure we can use it towards properly smoking the meat.”

She was pretty sure that wasn’t how that worked but didn’t press him on it. “Fine.” She took the package, it felt light, but two pounds wasn’t actually that much. “A pleasure doing business with you.”

Brand grunted. “Same to you.” As he climbed down to return to his own wagon, Tala clearly heard him muttering to himself. “She’ll put grey in my hair, sure as the sun’ll rise, tomorrow.” Then, he sighed. “I hope this doesn’t rusting kill me.”

With no further audible complaints, Brand was gone.

Tala tucked the seeds into the pouch with the stems, closed the iron box on the berries, and sighed herself. “There we go. All in all, a profitable morning.”

 

* * *

 

Tala quickly began flipping through Brand’s book after he departed. With her enhanced senses and perception, she was able to find the section on jerkies quite quickly, even though it was very small.

 

‘Cure the jerky within an iron box. The smaller the box in relation to the meat and the smaller and fewer holes in the box, the less loss in power will be experienced. This isn’t a recipe book, learn how to make jerky somewhere else.’

 

Tala snorted. It matched the tone of most of the rest of the text, which often seemed to relish belaboring the fact that it was staying on topic.

That found, she began flipping through to find the section on berries. When she did, it was similarly to the point.

 

‘Berries, roots, fruits, leaves, etc. taken from arcanous plants are no more or less poisonous than their nearest mundane kin. Thus, if you can identify the core species of plant, which is now filled with power, you will have a good idea of the edibility of the item. That said, the magic in question might, itself, be unhealthy or even lethal if incorporated into the human body, thus analysis of that must be accomplished separately.

‘The only known universally healthful produce from an arcanous plant is the ending-berry, though extreme caution is advised as any damage to the pit will cause either nullification of the beneficial effects, or death. No consistently viable means of harvesting the ending-berry is known. Benefits: One berry will confer nigh invulnerability towards mundane damage to the consumer, lasting roughly one hour. Nothing short of magic, or a concussion, has been known to harm a man when under the influence of an ending-berry, though things that should have caused great injury seem to reduce the length of time the effect lasts. Legend indicates the long-term consumption of these berries causes each subsequent berry’s affect to last longer, but such has not been tested, reliably, by the Order of the Harvest.’

 

That settles it. I need to find a means of harvesting these. The way their use is described is almost identical to my own enhancements. In truth, that wasn’t by accident. Tala had grown up hearing of the warriors of old and had sought to mimic them, as a Mage. Though, she hadn’t known about the berries.

She did not contemplate that it might have been a subconscious means of reaching out towards those who had abandoned her to debt, a search for happier times.

‘Other plants are healthful under specific circumstances.’

The book went on to detail quite a few varieties of fruits, berries, vegetables, and herbs. One leaf could be chewed to dull extreme pain but would cause permanently mind-altering hallucinations if there were no significant pain to dull. A root would heal a broken bone, if eaten in exactly matching weight to the bone to be healed, otherwise, it would not fully work, or would fuse an amount of cartilage equivalent to the excess. In this case, aiming low was the recommended path.

There were more, but as only the name of the origin species was mentioned, along with a brief description of how the arcanous version differed in appearance, the book was not useful to her in identifying the plants in question. As the book said: ‘This is not an herbiary, nor a picture book. Find your herbology and plant lore elsewhere.’

Unfortunately, her work under her father, in the apothecary, had not included foraging for herbs or parts of plants. They’d had a small garden with well labeled varieties and purchased the remainder of what they’d needed from the local market. She likely would have learned the specifics of identification and prime harvesting, but that opportunity had vanished.

She turned her mind back towards the book and realized that she was starting to like the author, though she knew it was more the universal tone of the Order of the Harvest, as the particular voice of the writing varied widely throughout the book.

A side realization came from that breadth of authors. This has taken more than a few decades to compile. The Order was older than Brand had implied. Or maybe older than he knows?

Those two specific sections found and read, she decided to stretch her legs once more.

Hat atop her head and satchel at her side, she climbed down, greeting Den as she passed, and strode towards the back of the caravan.

Various guards inclined their heads to her, and Guardsman Adam waved. She responded in kind to each. There was no sign of Ashin.

Atrexia smiled and nodded, but didn’t otherwise acknowledge her, and it seemed that Trent and Renix were on the other side of the wagons, at the moment.

Tala still felt the buzz of power from sucking the juice off of the ending seeds. That’s odd. It’s been, what…20 minutes? She knew that she hadn’t consumed a third of a berry's worth of juice. Not that I really understand how it works…

Perhaps her iron skin was preventing the power from dissipating, or maybe her spell-forms were somehow helping the power be more efficient. Or the amount consumed only affected the power of the defense, not the duration. She really had no way of knowing. Not yet.

It was a curiosity, though, and she was quite focused on the question as she strode past the last wagon and began to turn back to continue her pacing.

Her inward focus likely explained why she didn’t register the flare of power, until it was almost too late.

Dimensional magic blossomed less than five feet from her, as something flickered into being in that space.

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JLMullins

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