Tala and Grediv walked back south, down the slope and towards the city. An amiable silence fell between them as they walked, and Tala found herself going over what he’d said, taking notes on the soul-bond, as well as implications of other bonds, which he’d mentioned.
Grediv occasionally glanced over at her, as they walked, but didn’t interrupt her work.
Finally, when she’d paused for a long moment, he cleared his throat. “You have another question?”
She started briefly, coming back from far-flung thoughts. “Hmm? Oh, yes. If I soul-bond with multiple items, won’t they, in some senses, be bound to each other?”
He grinned widely. “Very good. Yes. The nature of our bound items will not only affect you, but each other as well.”
“What does that mean?”
“The combinations are too numerous to have any meaningful research done, but a common occurrence is the binding both of a weapon and a dimensional storage item.”
“And that does…?”
He gave her a flat look. “Come now, Mistress Tala.”
She rolled her eyes. “Let me guess, then: The storage can defend itself?”
He barked a laugh. “Well, in some cases yes, but not really, and never very effectively even when it does occur. Some will hurt anything that tries to damage them, but that is usually the extent of it. No, the most common result is a weapon that can be summoned directly into your hand and dismissed just as easily.”
“And it would go into the dimensional storage?”
“Sometimes. Other times, it seems to create its own storage, bound to the wielder’s hand, which can only hold the weapon, itself.”
She frowned. “That’s… handy?”
He groaned. “No. Bad pun, Mistress Tala.”
She quirked a smile. “Fine, fine. But I can basically do that now?”
“Oh? You think it’s the same?”
She hesitated. “Well, obviously not the same…” She thought about it. “I suppose there are different applications.”
He shrugged. “It doesn’t always happen, in any case.”
“So, what about combining items? You implied that I could bind my tunic and pants as one item.”
“Those are two different things, and I said you’d have to figure out the latter on your own.” He seemed to consider for a moment, then shrugged. “Artifacts, bound or not, can be coaxed into combining, with mixed results. If one of the items is bound, the outcome is more likely to be beneficial, more so for soul-bound than just magic-bound, but I’ve seen some horrible items come from the process. Don’t forget, it’s bound to you, so even if it’s a dud in some way, you’re stuck with it.” After a moment, he added. “Well, unless you’re willing to break off that part of your soul, but the folly of that should be obvious.”
“What if they’re both bound to you?”
“Then, you can’t combine them. For items to be combined, they must be compatible and not overly independent. Two bound items are each too set in their identity, as part of you, to be combined. Two unbound items will fight it out, as it were, and the winning item sets most of the parameters of the combination.”
“You make it sound like a negotiation.”
“In some ways it is.” He glanced over, noticing her writing down bits of their conversation as they spoke. He shook his head, smiling. “Artifacts aren’t sapient, but they do have instincts of a sort. Their nature dictates how they act, and that nature fights to be supreme.” He scratched his head. “Again, I’m not a great teacher, but I think you can understand.”
She was nodding. “So, if one item is bound, it has the upper hand in the negotiations.”
“That’s right, but be aware, if the item being combined with your bonded one is new, things can go wrong much more often.”
“Because you’re forcing it to join with your soul. If it doesn’t know you, if its instincts aren’t aligned towards seeing you as an ally? That’s just begging for a crack in your soul.”
“Which you won’t explain to me.”
“Which I won’t explain to you.”
She sighed. “So, only combine items with a similar purpose, and use any artifacts I’m considering combining for a while before attempting even that.”
“I still say that you’re treating them like they're intelligent.”
He shrugged. “Then, that’s my poor teaching showing through. Harvests are a different conversation, though. And, no, I won’t go into that, either.” He smiled widely.
Tala rolled her eyes, adding a few more notes to her notebook. “Your staff looks like sapphire.”
He nodded. “Bound items often take on aspects of the Archon star used to bind them.”
They both looked at her knife. “I’m glad it didn’t turn to blood…”
Grediv snorted a laugh. “That would have been less than ideal. It probably took on some other property than appearance. My staff isn’t actually sapphire, that would be too brittle to be useful.”
She grunted. “Fair…” She frowned. “So… I only get, at maximum, eight items, and one of mine is a knife? That seems wasteful.” She glanced down. “Don’t get me wrong, I’ll use this thing forever, if I can, but it isn’t exactly a great fighting weapon.”
“Yeah… I was a bit surprised at that. It is actually why I didn’t notice it at first.” He frowned. “Most artifact weapons, almost no matter the form, will shift into a more useful shape when bound.” He shrugged, yet again. “I suppose it thought you needed a knife more than anything else? You’ll have to tell me if you’re satisfied with it, in the coming years. There is also the fact that you used a drastically underpowered star. No one knows how that could be affecting the results, because it shouldn’t be possible.”
“Fair enough.” She heard something and looked up, seeing Den’s wagon cresting a hill close to a mile away. “There’s my ride.”
“So, it is.”
She turned to him, expectantly.
“You said you’d think of some way to repay me.”
“I answered all your questions, didn’t I?”
She gave him a flat look.
Grediv chuckled to himself. “Fine, fine.” He thought for a moment. “Master Trent said that you borrowed some of his basic volumes to reference on the trip down. Did you get your own in Alefast?”
Tala blinked several times. Oh…rust it all. “No… I forgot.” She let out an irritated sigh. That’s what happens when you try to do too much, Tala.
He shrugged. “Then, here. I can get myself another set.” He proceeded to pull a pile of books out of nowhere, one after another. Tala took each and pushed them into her pouch as quickly as possible, but he was already ready with each before she was ready to take it. She lost count, but there were at least two dozen volumes of various thicknesses, clearly a matched set of magical reference books. This is a way larger set than Trent has.
When the transfer was complete, Tala looked at Grediv critically. “Thank you. That was strangely kind of you.”
He shrugged. “You could have gotten something similar in town for less than half a gold. Most of the value is in giving it to you a week before you’d have a chance to pick up your own, again.” He smiled. “I’m pretty sure I didn’t give you anything that you shouldn’t have yet, but we did the exchange so quickly that I didn’t really have a chance to check.” He winked at her. “Oh, well.”
Tala glanced at her pouch, then back to him, then back to her pouch. She wanted to dive in and search through the books he’d given her immediately but knew that it wasn’t the time. As she looked at her pouch, she noticed the vortex of magic being pulled in, as usual. “Oh! Is that standard?”
“Is what standard?”
She pointed at the pouch. “It’s pulling in power from the surrounding area.”
Grediv looked intently at the pouch, and once again Tala felt a bit disconcerted, knowing that he was using magic that she couldn’t feel; his current use was so subtle she couldn’t feel it either. “Huh. Well, yes, but no. It seems like that little bag has developed a larger appetite than usual for artifacts at their level.” He frowned. “Shouldn’t be an issue. It likely just means that they have more latent power and will grow with you more easily.” He paused, giving her a hard look. “Don’t bond with the pouch, yet. Remember?”
She laughed. “I remember. Twelve repetitions without exhaustion.”
“At least, twelve. I’d prefer you got to fifteen or twenty, but you will damage yourself, likely permanently, if you try another bond before twelve. And you should be driving towards a full-powered star, so you can be evaluated as an Archon.”
“I already agreed.” She meant it, too. “I will probably take a shot at Archon before I bond anything else. I understand that is the wiser course.” And that was true, as much as she really wanted to bond Kit. Patience, Tala.
“Fine. I’ll leave that matter be, then.” As the wagons were not closing the distance fast enough for his liking, Grediv began walking once more.
Tala walked beside him in silence but spoke when they were about halfway to the front of the caravan. “Master Grediv?”
He glanced her way, not responding for a long moment. Eventually, he nodded. “You’re welcome, Mistress Tala. Don’t get yourself killed, yeah? I think you will be interesting to watch in the coming decades.”
She huffed a laugh. “I’ll do my best.” Then, she had a thought. “Do you have any use for ending-berries?”
Grediv gave her an arch look. “My good Mistress, if I had use for them, I would get them.”
She frowned. “Why don’t you have use for them? They’re dead useful.”
He sighed. “You think so, because their power is nearly identical to your inscribings' base structure. There’s no interference. I’m guessing that isn’t a coincidence?”
She shrugged. “It is and it isn’t. I was inspired to seek out these inscriptions because of stories, which I now suspect originated about people eating these, so…not a coincidence?”
“There you are, then.”
“So… what would happen if you ate one?”
“Best case: My body would reject the power, and the berries would pass through me without effect. Worst: there would be a clashing of powers, and the ending-berries would succeed in subverting some of my body’s natural magical pathways, weakening me for months, or years.”
That’s…pretty bad. She frowned. “Could something similar happen with arcanous meat?”
He hesitated. After a moment, he shrugged. “Probably not? Magic that enhances natural processes can be integrated much more easily. After all, I still have natural muscles, so power that helps muscles work better shouldn’t override anything else. I also don’t have inscriptions in my muscles, because that could easily lead to magic poisoning, so there isn’t really anything for them to interfere with.” He hesitated. “But I don’t know. It really isn’t done, but that might be an interesting line of research.” He was frowning in consideration. “Why?” After a moment, he sighed. “That’s a foolish question; it’s you; Master Trent told me of your…adventures.”
She cleared her throat, deciding to ignore the last comment. “Well, with the kills we make, it seems like the meat shouldn’t just be left there.” She shrugged. “We use other parts of the animal.”
Grediv grunted. “True enough.” After a moment to consider, he shrugged. “I do believe that the cooks sometimes supplement their supplies with arcanous meat. From what little I know, they seem to be wise about what they select, at least I’ve never heard of a magic-poisoning incident because of the food, so it doesn’t bear comment or interference. I’d recommend talking to them if you’re truly interested in this line of research.” He clicked his tongue. “Maybe I should, as well. It has merit…” After a long moment, he shook his head. “No. I’ve too much in process already. Maybe, in a decade or two.” He gave her a half smile. “I’ll be sure to remember your curiosity, should I ever choose to take up that research.”
“Uh, thank you.” She smiled in return. That makes quite a bit of sense. I suppose the cooks never give healing harvests to Mages, because they get priority treatment from the Mage Healer of the caravan.
Den hailed them happily as they walked up beside the wagon, and Tala swung onto the ladder climbing up to sit on the roof. She turned back around to wave goodbye to Master Grediv, but he was already gone.
She searched up and down the wagon train, but she couldn’t see any sign of him. Gone, again. She frowned. Does he go invisible? Or does he move so fast I can’t track him? There were likely other possibilities, but it seemed that the realms of magic, about which she knew nothing, were much more expansive than she’d ever realized. The more I learn, the more I realize that I don’t know… It was a daunting prospect.
She pulled out her wide brimmed hat, and settled it back atop her head, feeling the coolness of shade wash over her. She let out a long, contented sigh. Things are looking up.
“How was it getting out of the city, Den?”
The driver turned to her with a smile. “No difficulty, Mistress. It’s good to have you back with us.” His grin shifted, picking up what seemed to be a bit of mischief. “It would have been frustrating to wait for another dimensional Mage, if you didn’t return.”
Tala snorted a laugh, moving to sit beside him. “I knew you loved me.” She settled in and sighed. “Did you have a good stay in Alefast?”
Den shrugged. “I’ve some cousins in the city, and it was good to see them and their families.” He leaned back, turning his eyes back to the landscape ahead. “My family has been in the driver business for generations. We’re spread out throughout the cities.” He chuckled to himself. “It's probably one reason we stay in the business. It’s really the only way for us to stay in touch with each other without breaking the bank.”
They chatted for a while about his family and how much the kids had grown since he’d last seen them. They discussed quite a few little things, and Tala kept Den from ever turning the questions about family to her. She felt a pull of sadness but had decided that her own family history shouldn’t drag Den down. “I’m glad you got some good time with them.”
“Thank you, Mistress.” He eyed her, without turning. “I noticed earlier: you did some shopping?”
She glanced down. “A bit, yeah. I was quite tired of…” She sighed. “Wearing rags?”
“You mean you were tired of making rags.”
She huffed a soft laugh. “True enough.”
“Those do look a bit sturdier.” He seemed to hesitate, then continued. “I don’t really see how they’ll fare better, though. You seem to have a knack for destructive encounters.”
“Isn’t that the truth.” She shook her head, smiling slightly. “These are a bit special, though, so I’m hoping they’ll hold up better.”
“As you say, Mistress.” He seemed very hesitant, but resolute as he continued. “If I may be so bold: most Dimensional Mages tend to refrain from…violence, at least while they have that duty in a caravan.”
She sighed. “Too true, Den. I have a habit of…well, of being a bit reckless.”
“People are counting on you, now, Mistress.” His tone was not quite paternal.
“I know… I truly do, but I’m not used to that.” She sighed. “I will try to be better, this leg of the trip.”
He smiled at her. “That would be much appreciated.” He glanced back at her, returning the conversation to her wardrobe. “I assume that little bag’s your new storage?”
She gave him a critical look. “What makes you say that?”
“I’m not blind. You near filled one of these storage boxes on the way out.” He kicked the wooden box beneath his seat with his heel. “The way I figure it, you should have more, now, than when we headed the other way, but you’ve no luggage at all.”
She frowned. I am advertising myself a bit… Was it worth obfuscating the truth? “Den, could you try something for me?”
He glanced her way, then sighed. “Just don’t get me killed. My wife would be a bit cross with me, if I died.”
I really hope he’s joking. Does he really think I’d endanger him? Tala laughed a bit nervously. “It shouldn’t be dangerous.” She pulled off her belt pouch. “Can you open this?”
He looked at the pouch, then hooked his reins on an anchor, built into the seat for the purpose. He reached out. His fingers closed on empty air, the bag seeming to have moved just enough that his fingers slid off of it. Den frowned. “That’s odd.”
Tala sat the bag on the bench, and Den very slowly moved his hands from both sides. She saw the area warp slightly as his hands approached, but he was focused now and was able to get a grip on the little belt pouch.
“Slippery little thing.” He glanced at her. “It doesn’t feel slick, now, but it was kinda hard to grab.”
She nodded. Without mage-sight, it makes sense that that is how it would appear.
He tried to open the bag, but it remained cinched tight. After a moment, he handed it back. “I could try cutting the ties, but that seems like it wouldn’t be a good idea, and I don’t want to hurt your item.”
“Thank you. That actually was quite informative.” No one else could easily grab or open her pouch. Fantastic. She was sure that a concerted effort on the part of someone who didn’t care if they hurt the pouch would probably succeed, but whether that would gain them access, or simply destroy the dimensional storage, she didn't know. And I hope I never learn.
Den nodded. “Happy to help. You have some reading to do?”
“You do seem to like your books. Go on. Thank you for stopping to talk for a bit.”
“Are you sure?”
“I’m not a driver because I like to be around people all day, Mistress. I enjoy time to myself.” He winked. “But feel free to stop by for short visits whenever you like.” He patted the seat between them. “My bench has plenty of space.”
“Will do.” She grinned, climbing backwards, returning to the wagon’s roof.
Standing atop the roof, she looked back on the receding city of Alefast. She’d only been there two days. It had felt like months.
What do I do, now? Now, she should at least itemize what Grediv had given her. After that, she should probably begin prepping for her full inscriptions. I have a lot of biology to brush up on.
But that was for later, now was a time for new books. How can I get into Kit, without risking any number of catastrophes? She contemplated. She could ask Den to watch it, but she didn’t want to impose upon him. She searched her mind, letting her eyes move without really thinking about where they were looking. Eventually, her gaze fell on the swivel ring mounted into the roof of the wagon and moved to inspect the locking mechanisms more closely. There were catches used to lock the huge tower shields into place. Yeah, that should do.
She opened the pouch, hooking the cord in two places on the locking mechanisms on the swivel ring. That should hold it open. Now, to hide it.
The answer to that was quite simple. As she climbed down in, her hat settled into place, the brim wider than the hole. She took the chin loop, and lightly secured it to an anchor that was, suspiciously, already in place. “Thank you?”
The comforting feeling that she always felt within the pouch almost seemed to briefly intensify. Or you’re imagining things, Tala. Either was equally likely.
She climbed the rest of the way down the ladder and looked about.
What do you have for me, today, Kit?