Tala glanced towards Grediv as he pulled something out of a dimensional storage, which she couldn’t see. She looked closer, curious about what weapon he would choose over his magics in the coming fight.
It was a staff of what appeared to be pure sapphire, and it radiated something which blocked her mage-sight as effectively as Grediv himself did. Soul-bound?
“You are a sapphire Archon?”
He laughed. “By that titling, yes. I still find it easiest to make Archon stars in that gem, though I don’t have much need to do so, anymore.”
That brought up so, so many questions, but now was hardly the time.
“So… what are you going to do, and what do you need from me?”
“I am going to pull together an act of obliteration, but that creature will recognize the danger of my working and seek to stop me. I don’t wish the time or collateral damage that that fight would bring, so I need you to engage the cyclops, and then, I will begin.”
“How long will you need?”
She frowned. “It couldn’t cover this distance that fast.” She gestured to the cyclops, easily a quarter mile away.
“You’d be surprised what a fused is capable of.”
“Orange, by your mage-sight’s scale. Its body and soul are fused, magically.”
Tala frowned. “What would you be?”
He smiled, slightly. “I stopped climbing the ladder long ago. If I were to loosen my control, you would see me as green. Most know my ranking as: Paragon.”
She hesitated. Wasn’t that the level of beast that obliterated the inter-city road? “I don’t know what that means.”
He shrugged. “You don’t really need to know, not yet.” He turned to regard the cyclops, still waiting for them. “So? Are you ready?”
Tala let out a breath, examined her ending-berry power reserves, and nodded. “As ready as I’m likely to be, today.”
Grediv laughed. “Excellent.”
Tala started forward, limbering her arms as she walked.
He called out to her, even as she continued to walk. “Don’t use your combat magic on him. It would take more power than you possess to harm him, or even properly restrain him. Leave that to me.”
She didn’t understand how that was possible, but decided he probably knew best. She waved, without looking back. “Sure thing.” I’m still trying, if I need to.
She covered the distance to the cyclops at a steady pace, the monster regarding her calmly.
Its eye looked from her, to Grediv up on the hill, then back to her. A voice issued forth from the beast, its mouth moving awkwardly. “It sends a snack before my main meal? How considerate.”
Tala didn’t slow, but she felt suddenly a bit more uncertain. Great, it’s intelligent…
She closed the distance, moving to a jog for the last hundred feet. As she entered into the area of its orange aura, she felt an oppressive weight, not on her body, that was moving just fine, but on the magic of her being. It was as if the power used to keep her body functional was being pulled, her ownership of it being contested. Even through the iron? No. She could feel the foreign influence coming through her palms and eyes, straining against the defenses she had, there.
She hated it. She had no idea what would happen if her defenses failed or if she lost that internal contest, but she wasn’t going to find out. She clamped down on her internal power, refusing to let it shift into another’s control, and that seemed to bolster her defense.
The cyclops shook its great head in what seemed to be mild irritation, lifting its club off of its shoulder.
She was almost in range of the brute’s club, so she pulled her knife and flung it at the creature’s eye.
The cyclops, for its part, seemed so bemused that it didn’t even dodge. Tala’s aim was true, and the blade struck the massive eye point first. Ha! First try! Maybe she didn’t need as much practice as she’d thought she would?
Behind her, Tala felt Grediv begin building towards his working.
The knife fell away as the cyclops swiped at its face, acting like it had an itch.
Tala called the knife back to her, catching it as she stared up at the massive humanoid. Oh… well, that’s-
She saw the club twitch, then blur; then, pain blossomed across her entire right side.
She was airborne, and unable to get her bearings. The instant of flight lengthened as she examined herself. More than half the remaining power from the ending-berries had been drained away in that instant. Her clothing had been obliterated at the point of impact, leaving her right shoulder, upper arm, and hip suddenly bare.
The berries’ power had done their work, however, and she was intact.
She then hit the ground, skipping across the bolder-strewn landscape like a rock across still water. She was thrown into a spin that, again, disoriented her.
As she rolled to a stop, she felt the last of the ending-berries’ power as it was expended. Her clothes were ragged, but already, the leather was regrowing over the holes, and even the scuffed portions were rapidly returning to an undamaged state, boning reformed in the appropriate places. Ha! That’s fantastic.
It was a bright spot in an otherwise disastrous moment.
As she pushed herself up, she retched, spilling the remains of her breakfast across the ground. Though, she couldn’t have said if it was from dizziness or something more dire.
Large impacts were approaching quickly. She looked up to see the cyclops already before her, club raised, ready to bring down.
She moved on instinct, lunging to the side before he moved. Even so, it was almost too slow.
Impossibly, the club traveled in its massive arc faster than she could move a half dozen feet. Thankfully, the club was only four feet wide.
The ground exploded beside Tala, even as she moved away, stone shards peppering her from head to toe, activating the defensive scripts across the majority of her skin on that side. Her clothing had a host of new holes, which immediate began to pull closed.
How long has it been? “Archon!” Tala yelled, putting all the volume she could into it, trying to keep the desperation at bay.
The cyclops definitely heard her, because it paused, eye going wide. Spinning, it turned back towards where Grediv was raising his staff, a smile painted across the Archon’s features.
Despite her horrifying position, Tala found herself frozen in awe. In front of the tip of his staff was the most complex working of magic she’d ever seen. It put the city defenses to shame, and she couldn’t begin to understand it. True to what he’d said, the underlying hue behind the working was a deep, vibrant green, not a hint of blue in evidence.
His spell-lines were blazing with light, but she still couldn’t see magic coming from them. His control was as awe inspiring as his power.
The cyclops roared and moved to hurtle his club at Grediv.
And you said it had no ranged attack.
Grediv closed his hand, and the light shot forward, faster than a blink, striking the cyclops in the center of its chest.
The cyclops ceased to exist.
The massive humanoid: club, clothes, everything was simply gone, along with the working. A resounding silence fell over the Wilds around them, and Tala pushed herself to her feet, pulling out a rag to wipe her mouth.
Somehow, the utter silence was more terrifying than an explosion would have been.
She tossed aside the small strip of cloth, which had once been a part of one of her pairs of pants if she wasn’t mistaken. Her water incorporator was retrieved, and she used a pulse of power to shoot a bit of water into her open mouth.
She underestimated the amount, and the force, that would be produced and almost puked again, as she began hacking and gagging. Nicely done, Tala.
She aimed for the inside of her cheek, instead of straight down her throat, and used a bit less power. A large mouthful of water blossomed into being, and she swished and spit. Better.
That done, she began walking back towards Grediv.
She reached her senses into her clothing, even as it fully returned to form. She could tell it was strained. I’m amazed it remade itself that quickly, twice in a row. She moved the incorporator to her left hand and placed her right palm on her side, beginning to funnel power into the tunic in a steady stream. When she felt like she was pressing up against the leather’s capacity, she moved to the pants, shifting her hand to her hip, under the tunic.
She finished topping off the clothing’s reserves just as she reached easy speaking range of Grediv. “You didn’t pay me enough.”
He snorted. “No, I didn’t.” He smiled. “But you should never pay someone more than you have to, right?”
She gave him a flat look.
He laughed. “Fine, fine. I’ll think of some way to repay you. Come on. The caravan will have left already. They’re heading this way. We can meet them back towards the city.”
Tala sighed. “Why don’t we just wait here?”
He thought for a moment, then shrugged. “Fine by me. We can wait at least a little while.” He pulled a folding chair seemingly out of nowhere and sat.
Tala looked at him, then the chair, then back at him.
“What? I don’t carry extra chairs.”
She sighed, again, and sat on a nearby rock.
There was a prolonged silence, in which Grediv pulled out some sort of sandwich and began to eat.
“You know, you almost got me killed.”
He shrugged, speaking around a bit of food. “You should have dodged better.” He swallowed. “You did well enough, though. You served as a nice distraction. I’m glad that immortal elk leather regenerates so quickly, or you would have a real wardrobe problem, given how you fight.”
She glared. “You promised I’d be fine.” Wait, immortal elk leather? Does he know the material on sight?
“And you are.”
She opened her mouth to continue, but he held up his hand. “Listen, Mistress Tala. You are going down a dangerous road. If you can’t survive a little danger at this point, you are going to meet an unpleasant end.” He leaned back, taking another bite. “If this is too much for you.” He swallowed. “You should quit now. Do caravan routes, get married, settle down, have happy babies, live your life.”
“Are you saying I can’t do that if I continue to pursue growing stronger?”
“It’ll be harder.” He gestured towards where the cyclops had been. “That will not be the strongest creature you have to fight. Not by a foot or a mile.”
“But I’ll get stronger, right? I’ll be able to face something like that easily?”
“Eventually, yeah.” He shrugged. “Or you’ll die. Those are the only results of the road you’re on right now: death or improvement. As I said, if that’s too much, choose another road.”
“You aren’t improving any more. You said so.”
He took another bite, continuing to speak around the food. “I left that road behind. The next steps would have been…even more unpleasant than those previous, and I’m happy with my life. As long as nothing insane comes in the next couple decades, I’ll keep it.” He frowned. “Though, a fused this early in the waning…” He shook his head. “It’ll be fine.”
Tala didn’t know how to process all the implications of what he was saying. “What color would I show?”
He snorted. “You’re barely more than non-magical, though your power density is impressive. You wouldn’t register to your mage-sight’s scale in that sense. As I said, you haven’t really begun, yet.”
Tala was nodding. “So, an Archon would be red?”
“A newly raised, full Archon would be red, yes.”
She frowned, again. “What changed? Why are you willing to tell me so much more, today?”
He gestured. “You fought a fused.” He shrugged. “Rules are more lax for those who have faced greater powers.”
She blinked at him. “That’s why you invited me…”
He smiled. “That, and the power in you meant you were probably pretty safe.” He shrugged. “If you’d died, I’d’ve had a large penalty from the Caravan Guild, and I’d have known you weren’t what I thought.”
“And what did you think I was?”
“Worth my time.”
The supreme arrogance of the statement was held in contrast with the man’s obvious power. “I think… thank you?”
“You’re welcome. Seems you’re worth my time, so thank you for not wasting it. I’d have been cross if you died.”
“So…worth your time for what?”
“You’ll likely make something of yourself someday. You’re worth the effort to help, because we’ll likely know each other for a very long time.”
“Something like that.”
Tala snorted. “Not a great way to get it.”
“Oh? Do you feel particularly angry at me?”
She opened her mouth to say yes, then stopped, realizing that it wasn’t true. “I’m a bit irritated, but not really angry.” She narrowed her eyes. “Though, I should be.”
He nodded, grinning. “Irritation will pass, and the lessons you gained, today, will help you for a long time. Every time they do, the irritation will diminish, until one day, you’ll just be grateful.” He smiled. “It’s only up from there.”
She grunted. “Fine, then. We’ve a bit of time. Tell me more about soul-bonds, and bonds in general. Can I use an Archon star only on artifacts?”
“You can use them on things other than artifacts, but the results will be mixed.”
“Ok… What about standard magical items?”
“Don’t, don’t do that. You don’t want to bind your soul to something so temporary. You would not like what happened when its spell-lines ran dry. If it’s your vessel…well, we can’t discuss that, now.” He made a disgusted sound.
She frowned. “Couldn’t I just have it re-inscribed and give it more power?”
He shook his head, laughing. “Oh, rust no.”
“But, I get inscribed, why is it…” She connected a few things, nodding slowly. “My body is inscribed, not my soul.”
He pointed at her, clicking his tongue in acknowledgement. “Got it in one.”
She glanced at her knife. “So, this is a part of my soul, now?” That was a bit of a horrifying thought.
He shrugged. “Yes and no. Your soul has become invested in it. The weapon can be broken without killing you, or permanently harming your soul, but not easily, and you wouldn’t be the same after.” He thought for a moment. “It might actually shatter your gate, if you’re particularly unlucky.”
“Because my gate is a part of my soul.”
He gave her a funny look. “Child, your gate is your soul.”
She frowned. “But, what about people without gates?”
“Malformed souls, for a-” He cut himself off, sighed, and shrugged. “Don’t mistake me, most are still perfectly fine people, but it’s like being born with a crippled or malformed body. The body is still there; they are still people; it just doesn’t work normally.”
She nodded, though she still didn’t particularly like the implications. She was getting off topic, however. “What about Harvests, like these clothes, can I bind them?”
“You can. It would likely have some fun side-effects, too.” He grinned.
He shrugged. “Nothing harmful. I think that’s a lesson you should learn for yourself. It’s not like I’d actually be able to dissuade you from trying.”
She narrowed her eyes at him. That actually makes me not want to do it. He’s manipulating me, still. “Is the bonding process the same?”
“Close enough. You’ll figure it out, or you won’t.” He smiled.
“Not really helpful but fine. What about people, or arcanous or magical animals?”
“Don’t. Don’t ever put an Archon star into another person.” He sat up straighter, his last bit of sandwich vanishing.
“Because a human body can only have one soul.”
“So, what does-” Her eyes widened. “I’d be kicking them out?”
“You’d be starting a fight, yeah. Human souls are surprisingly ferocious in defending their home turf, though. As you are, now? You’d lose, and your soul would be damaged for that. Even if you greatly out-powered the subject of the attempt, you’d be forever changed. Don’t do it.” He leaned forward, locking gazes with her. “I cannot stress this enough, Mistress Tala. If you even attempt this, any Archon that sees you will know, and the first one will strike you down without a second’s hesitation. Trying to enslave another in that way is one of the most heinous things any Mage can do.” Grediv leaned back. “Don’t do it to a dead body, either. Souls aren’t meant to be connected to the dead and forcing it is necromantic slag.”
She swallowed. “Ok, then… I won’t… Is it the same with arcanous or magical entities?”
“No. Animals don’t have souls in the same way humans do.” He seemed to be relaxed, again.
She gave him a skeptical look.
He laughed. “They have something spiritual, don’t mistake me, but it isn’t anything like a human soul. I’d recommend against it, though.” He sighed. “Many of my peers disagree with me, however. A lot of them take on familiars.”
She frowned. “Like in the children’s stories? Wizards, high towers, witches, and black cats?”
“Something like that. The entity or animal gains far more than the Mage. Usually, their minds are opened, and they can truly move beyond instinct. The most intelligent animals or entities gain more. Their natural abilities increase, their lives are extended, and they gain access to your gate.” He gave her a meaningful look. “And that is the downside. They are bound to you, they can pull power through your soul, and you don’t control them.”
Tala’s eyes widened.
“Good, you understand. Some of the most evil things I’ve had to fight were beings who tricked their way into being familiars, then rendered their Mage little more than a power source. If you don’t care about the long-term consequences to your soul, and if you can endure unimaginable pain, there are easy ways to become more powerful. Now, if you can put those consequences and pain on another?” He shrugged. “It’s not great.”
“Yeah… I’m getting that.”
“You don’t actually need Archon stars to make a soul-bond, but it is the safest, most reliable way.” He gave her a look. “At your level, you’d kill yourself.” After a breath, he spoke again. “Let me be utterly clear: Not ‘you might kill yourself.’ Not ‘I don’t think you’re up for it.’ You would die. Full stop. If you are going to bond anything, which I highly recommend against as we’ve already discussed, use a star. There are no downsides, especially with how easily you can create them.”
She hesitated, then nodded. “Fair enough.” She shifted, getting a bit more comfortable on her rock. I should find a comfortable folding chair to keep in Kit. “What benefit is there from feeding power to a bonded item?”
“Good question. Aside from keeping it functional in the case of magic-bound items, it gives the item power to become more.”
“More of itself.” He shrugged. “All items have limits, so you can’t expect eternal growth, though soul-bound items will be able to grow more as you progress.”
“Because as my soul grows in power, the things it’s bound to can as well?”
“So… why don’t you have an arsenal? You could have a host of powerful items to aid you.” She laughed. “You could probably organize it, so you don’t even need inscribings anymore, except maybe your keystone.”
He quirked a smile but shook his head slightly. “Some people do try that, but I’d recommend against that path, unless you’re planning on staying in cities your whole life. Placing all your power into external objects radically stunts your growth and power. It might even stop it completely. There’s also the fact that as you and your bound items grow in power, they need more power at an ever-increasing rate. The accepted number is eight. Virtually every Archon worth their power will recommend that you have less than eight soul-bonds of any kind.” He hesitated, then sighed, adding. “Your clothes, as I imagine you’re considering them, can be bound as a single item. I strongly recommend that you figure out how, before attempting to bond either. You’ll be very happy, in the long run, that you took that extra time.”
She grunted. “Seems fair. Thank you for the advice.”
He stood, folding the chair and tucking it away…somewhere. “We’re getting close to things that I really should leave, until you attain Archon. Work hard, and our next conversation can cover more.” He smiled. “Come on, let’s get you to the caravan.”
She almost argued but thought better of it. “Very well. Thank you.”