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Tala stood for a moment, regarding the terror bird as it continued to clean its beak.

She looked around at the bodies surrounding them. “Ummm… Bad birdy?”

The bird stopped and looked at her, then at the men surrounding them. It cocked its head and let out a sound that reminded Tala of nothing so much as incredulity.

“Fine, fine. Thank you. You could have driven them off-”

It tilted its head the other way.

She felt a smile tug at her lips. “You’re right, that’s not really how you work.” She bent down and picked up her pouch, fastening it to her belt and pulling out a piece of jerky. “I suppose you want this?”

The head bobbed up and down once.

“Well, what are we going to do about all these bodies?”

The terror bird looked around itself, then started moving, blinking between the various men, pulling off their belts and packs with quick slashing talons and jerks with its beak.

What are you…It just saw me pull jerky from a belt pouch. She grinned. It’s being extra certain?

Once all the packs and pouches were separate, the ripple of power washed over the terror bird, and it quadrupled in size.

Tala’s eyes widened in alarm for three reasons:

The first was that she was afraid the bird might be seen from the city. She glanced back that way but realized that they were well out of sight. Good, tall trees.

The second reason was that, in her understanding, terror birds continued to grow, until they were killed. If this is its true size, it must be hundreds upon hundreds of years old. From her intricate understanding of dimensional magic, it was very easy to shrink something, but enlarging even moderately complex items was not only ludicrously complicated, it almost always resulted in the destruction of the same. That in mind, the bird was not likely to be enlarging itself.

The third reason was somewhat more personally practical. The bird now stood more than three times her height and was large enough to easily swallow a person whole.

I do not want to see how I fare in the belly of the creature.

It seemed that her estimates were accurate, because the terror bird began snapping up the bodies and swallowing them whole, one by one.

How can it possibly fit all of them? There were the repetitive flickers of dimensional magic emanating from within the creature. Is it shrinking them? Is its stomach some form of dimensional storage?

She had no idea, and she silently hoped that she never found out.

In a startling short amount of time, the terror bird had finished its work, and was standing close, but not too close, now just shorter that Tala, herself. It had left the Mage’s body alone. Apparently, it didn’t like the magic-tainted flavoring? Something like that.

“You are pretty capable.”

The bird bobbed its head.

“I need to give you a name.” She tossed the chunk of jerky to it, and the bird caught it easily, seeming to savor the flavor, moving the meat across its tongue slowly, rather than guzzling it down. “You’re a terror bird, that much is obvious. You seem to be fine waiting around for me to come out and give you treats…” She smiled. “You tarry nearby. Terror. Tarry. Terry. I’ll call you Terry.”

The bird hesitated for a moment, then swallowed before regarding her. After a long moment, it bobbed its head slightly and let out a chirping whistle.

“Very well, Terry, I’ll get you a bit more.” She pulled free some more jerky and tossed it to the side.

Terry vanished, and the meat did as well, a heartbeat later.

Tala sighed. “And now I’ve named it.” She walked over to the pile of belts and bags, most of which were speckled with drying blood. She groaned. “This is gross…”

Ten minutes later, she had finished processing the items she’d found. The men had each had an ax, though they’d been scattered around the clearing during the…incident. It seemed that there’d been eleven of the men in total, not counting the Mage. Each also had had a simple belt knife, as basically everyone always did. The woodsmen also each had a small, serviceable hatchet.

To her tremendous surprise one of the men had been carrying a hammer, which turned out to be an artifact. Aside from the same durability enhancements that her knife bore, the straight-peen hammer’s particular magics seemed specifically aimed to redirect force away from the striking surfaces. Maybe for assisting in the felling of magically dense trees?

She supposed that the woodsmen had needed the function and hadn’t been able to be picky about the form.

The handle of the hammer was a dark grey, almost black metal, where the head had the look of standard steel. Both the handle and head appeared to be made from material which had been twisted into beautiful, regular spirals before being hammered flat and smoothed, leaving only faint inclinations of the work to peek out from the patterns within the material.

Just like in her belt pouch and knife, there was a confluence of power within the head of the hammer that she now knew could accept an Archon star. I could sell this… but I’m not going to. She nodded firmly.

I’m keeping this. I’m not bonding it, though…not yet. One is enough for now. The hatchets, axes, and knives she’d have to sell. Back in Bandfast… She felt a momentary flicker of guilt at the deaths of these men, but it passed as she remembered their plans to cause an ‘accident’ for her. Too bad you couldn’t have just kept at your jobs and left me alone.

There were some food stuffs, protected by the men’s various pouches and bags from any blood splatter.

She packaged all these together into two groups, perishable and non-perishable. The latter category was, by far, the largest, and she stored those in her pouch, along with the tools she’d already claimed. She ate the perishable foods, which consisted of a large carrot, a hunk of heavy bread, and a handful of radishes.

She threw another piece of jerky to one side, and it vanished in a flicker of dimensional power. “Nicely done, Terry.”

If I’m giving him a name, I’ve got to try to train him. She almost laughed. He was likely older than the waning city to her west. ‘Training’ sounded a bit insulting. Maybe…negotiating? It would be worth a try. Later.

She took all of the belts, pouches, and bags as well. They’d each been treated against the coming winter weather, so the blood mostly wiped off on the nearby, clean grass. The remaining flecks came off with some water from her waterskin and easy scrubbing with some rags, which had once been clothing. That arcanous plant really did a number on these.

Finally, she looked down on the broken Mage. Terry’s attacks had shredded his clothing, skittering across the stone in his flesh until they found his soft spots. He had very little inscribing, as he had very little actual skin left.

It looked…self-done. Who would do this to themselves? He had obviously been a Material Creator, and he hadn’t properly insulated himself against that power. I wonder what his story is…well, was.

She really couldn’t just leave his body, but she had no idea what to do with it. Finally, she took off his belt, pouches and all, opened Kit wide, and maneuvered his body inside, dropping the belt in after.

I’ll look through his pouches later. It’s time to be moving. I’ve delayed too long as it is.

With a sigh, she set off, leaving the red splattered clearing behind.

Thanks to her care, she’d avoided getting almost any blood on herself, and what little had gotten on her hands, she scraped off on some rocks and trees as she passed. She had to use some more water and judicious scrubbing as she walked to get the last bits. She was grateful that she’d kept as clean as she had, because while the iron salve helped, blood was notoriously hard to remove.

Thankfully, the few spots that just wouldn’t respond to her ministrations blended with the berry stains already on her palms and finger-pads. Good enough, I suppose.

Just like the previous day’s walk, there was no snow, even in the deepest dells or in the shade of trees. The mountains to the north bore snow, but that was likely to be a year-round state for this region. The verdant fields hid many arcane and a few magical creatures from her normal vision, if not her mage-sight. Still, none were large or aggressive enough to do her harm.

She did note the distinct lack of larger threats, and pondered, not for the first time, if Terry was keeping the way clear for her. At the thought, she decided to toss another bit of jerky.

It promptly vanished.

Should I be worried that I’m becoming used to that? It was a concern for another day.

She easily reached the grove of ending-berry trees well before noon and looked about, feeling a bit nervous, given her recent encounter. “Terry?”

The bird popped into existence ten feet in front of her. At the moment, he was just larger than a house cat and was looking at her questioningly.

“Are there any humans about?”

He vanished in a flick of dimensional power, and Tala felt a cascade of dimensional blips all across the range of her senses.

Less than thirty seconds later, Terry was standing before her once more.

He shook himself, indicating a negative.

Tala grinned. “Thank you, Terry.” She tossed him another hunk of jerky, which he happily caught.

With as much solemn reverence as she could muster, Tala upended Kit, dumping the Mage’s body out, onto the ground. I suppose I’m glad that Kit can understand what I want? She didn’t quite know how the body had come out, especially since gravity in the pouch was seemingly unrelated to its orientation, but she wasn’t going to complain. I’d have hated to drag him up the ladder…

She glanced at the body, and had a moment’s hesitation. His eyes resembled huge gemstones, after all. She turned away in disgust. I am NOT prying his eyes out. That is a horrific idea.

Without pausing further, lest she somehow change her mind, she rolled him down the hill.

Tala stripped out of her clothes, placing them into her belt pouch. Then, she went down, and dragged the body the last stretch to the base of the closest ending-tree.

Several branches, which had been well above her head moments before, brushed against her and her burden.

A fraction later, the body puffed into dust. Tala staggered back, doing her best to not inhale any of the fine powder. There. That’s done.

She trekked back up to her pouch, removed her fruit picker, and went to work.

Noon came and went, and while she paused for lunch, she was diligent in her work.

Late afternoon arrived, and she was pushing against the edge of her time, if she wanted to get back into the city before dark. She smiled as she arched back, stretching aching muscles.

She had just finished refilling the second jug for the last time.

She’d filled all but one keg, and those, along with the two jugs, meant that she had a total of ten gallons of ending-berries. She couldn’t have asked for a better haul.

In order to speed up her work, and get access to berries after she’d done her best to pick the outside of the grove clean of easy to reach fruit, she’d had to delve deeper in.

She had lost count of how many branches, leaves, twigs, etc had come in contact with her, even before the first hour had passed. The trees still seemed to favor contacting new locations, if at all possible, and that had worked in her favor.

Today, she had been far, far more careful. After each basket full of berries had been gathered, she’d swept herself with the magic detector and re-applied iron salve on any portion of her that even might have registered to the construct. She also added more to any place she could remember the tree touching. A few times, when she felt a particularly potent spike of power from a nearby tree, she had retreated with a partially full basket, and reinforced her protection. I will not be complacent.

She pulled out the remnants of her shredded clothes, those that the arcanous plant had torn to ribbons, along with a water skin. She wetted the rags and used them to clean herself of the dirt, dust, and sweat that she’d gathered through the day.

All clean, or at least as clean as she was likely to get before returning to the inn, Tala dressed in the fading light of an autumn afternoon.

She didn’t climb down into the bag, as she was still feeling a bit of trepidation after her near miss, earlier that day. I really need some way of securing this, while I’m inside it…

Another project to add to her list.

Dressed and packed to go, she set out, back towards the city, taking a bit of a different route so as to avoid the site of the earlier massacre.

She did toss bits of jerky every so often, confirming Terry’s continued proximity. And protection.

When she knew that the city was just over the next rise, she found a sheltered place, among a striking rock formation, and changed back into her nicer clothing. Once again, she did not change within the pouch’s dimensional space.

Shortly thereafter, she arrived at the eastern gates, the sun just touching the horizon on the far side of the city.

“State your name!”

The now familiar ‘greeting’ caused Tala to smile, and she complied.

There was a bit of a pause before she was acknowledged and let inside.

“Any problems, guardsmen?”

“No, Mistress.”

Tala shrugged and smiled. “Very well. Have a good night!”

“Thank you, Mistress. Goodnight to you, as well.”

Without looking back, she strode out of the gatehouse and into the city, proper.

 

* * *

 

Tala walked up to Artia’s stall as the woman was finishing closing-up for the night.

“Mistress Tala! Welcome. I assume you’re here to see Adrill?”

Tala smiled, nodding. “I am. Thank you.”

“Brandon! Get your father, please.”

Brandon’s voice floated back from within the shop. “Yes, mom.”

While she waited, Tala helped Artia pack up the last pieces of the stall and bring them inside. “I don’t suppose you’ve gotten any other items you might want to part with?”

Artia laughed. “Nothing unique, if that’s what you’re asking. A few new dimensional storage bags, another knife, and a few more odds and ends.” She shrugged. “From what you conveyed; nothing seems to fall in line with what you’d be seeking.”

“Fair enough. Thank you.”

Adrill came in through the door in the back, a small book in his hand, Brandon right behind him. “Did I hear Mistress Tala?” He smiled when he saw her. “Welcome back! I assume you’re here for this?” He held up what was obviously a notebook full of his research into artifacts.

“I am.” Tala had given a lot of thought to the price she should pay for those notes and had decided that generosity would serve her best, in the long run. From what she knew, this city was likely the best, if not only, source of artifacts that she could get to, and Artia and Adrill were the best source within the city, at least now that they didn’t consider her a hostile Mage, to be avoided if at all possible.

Therefore, she pulled out one of the gallon jugs, wrapped in iron-salve treated cloth. “This is for you.” She set the heavy jug on the table. “I believe this is just under eight pounds of ending-berries, de-seeded.”

Everyone stopped and stared in stunned silence.

After a long moment, Brandon cleared his throat. “Mistress Tala?”

“Hmm?”

“I believe I misheard you, likely my parents did too, but I thought I heard you say, eight pounds. That can’t be right, because that would be worth nearly sixty-four ounces, gold.”

Quick with numbers, I see. Tala shrugged with nonchalance she didn’t feel. “If there was a market, I’d sell them. Without a steady supply their uses are limited and uncertain. If there were a steady supply, they wouldn’t be worth nearly so much.” After a moment, she realized that she hadn’t actually answered him. “But no, you didn’t mishear.”

Adrill came forward and set the book on the counter. “You have overvalued these notes, Mistress Tala, even though what you say is true. I will be able to take much greater risks in my research, with those available to me.”

Tala smiled. “I’d hoped that would be the case. The bag is…something that will help contain the magic, but an iron box or iron jug will function better, I think. Please be careful not to let the berries rust it out.” She grinned.

“Mistress…Tala, I don’t know what to say. This is too much. What else can we give you, in exchange?”

She was about to say, ‘Nothing’ when she remembered two things. “Well…the comb would actually be pretty helpful.”

“Comb?” Adrill looked confused, but Artia laughed, stepping over to a display table to pick up the simple, but magic filled, comb. Adrill nodded. “Ahh! Yes. It is a simple thing but consider it yours.”

Tala smiled, nodding her thanks as she slipped the comb into her belt pouch. “Do you happen to have something that can create water?”

As it turned out, they did, in fact, have a small bronze ring that accomplished what she wanted.

The ring was just large enough for her two thumbs to go through, together, and when a Mage funneled power into it, water would flow out the other side. It was actually a class of magical item that Tala hadn’t encountered before called a lensing item or an ‘incorporator,’ which simply took raw magic power and output a single, predefined substance. They weren’t rare, but they were fairly expensive.

To Artia’s understanding, they weren’t widely used because of two things: First, they were quite power intensive. A Material Creator could magic up close to ten times the volume of material, for the same amount of power. Second, incorporator items only created substances temporarily.

In the case of water, or anything else ingestible, it functioned as expected. It would hydrate the consumer and pass through without harm, ill effect, or oddity. However, if left in the open, the water or other substance would begin to evaporate back into intangible power within an hour, give or take, the greater the quantity exposed together, the faster it would begin to vanish.

Thus, incorporators were very niche in their usefulness, and Artia and Adrill parted with the one for water incorporation happily. They only had this one because it was the cheapest type of incorporator available. They explained that Adrill had purchased it for study ages ago, but that research hadn’t gone anywhere, because a Mage was absolutely required to use it. It had been gathering dust in his shop ever since.

Tala bid the family goodnight and headed back towards the inn, Adrill’s notes in hand, feeling contented with her decision to bias towards generousity. The ending-berries still had a theoretical value much greater than what she’d received, but she had no doubt that she’d gotten the better end of the bargain, in the long run at the very least.

 

* * *

 

Tala giggled with joy as she pointed the water incorporator towards the bathtub, within her room in the Wandering Magician.

With an effort of will, she pushed a trickle of power into the ring, clutched in her hand. She used only a tenth of the flow rate that she’d utilized the day before, during the process of creating her latest Archon star. The result was a thin stream of water fountaining out of the very center of the ring, seeming to originate from thin air before arching far away from her to land in the tub.

She’d soaked a towel or two in the beginning, as she’d gotten her aim down, but they were all dry now; she’d been playing for well more than an hour, after all.

“This is amazing!” She giggled again. “I’m so glad that I’m not a Material Creator, or I’d never do anything else.” She shot another spurt of water, sweeping the thin stream back and forth.

She had her mage-sight focused on the ring, as it worked, and was fascinated at what she saw. The ring acted as a sort of lens, but where an optical lens bent light, often revealing the multitudes of colors within, this ring bent magic, revealing the water within…or something like that. She didn’t really have a good grasp on what was happening, but it was still fascinating…and fun.

I need more of these. I need every kind of incorporator there is!

Finally, she was able to reign in her inner child, and she got ready for bed.

She stripped down, stretched, lightly exercised the muscles the day’s activities hadn’t worked, and tossed her knife, drawing it back to her.

She was able to draw it back three times that night, though the final one had her groaning on the floor with a splitting headache right afterwards.

Slower, Tala. Keep your soul intact, please?

To her great relief, the headache passed fairly quickly.

She indulged in a bit more play while she bathed, removing the day’s grime, but after that, she resolutely placed the bronze ring away.

She braided her hair and climbed into bed, content.

Today was a good day.

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