More than an hour later, Tala felt like she couldn’t lift her head, let alone her arms, and she lay, sprawled on the roof of the wagon once more.

This was not her first break.

While she recovered, Ashin stretched and drank from a waterskin that he’d brought. “You’re improving, but I think you might be overdoing it.”

She groaned. The ending-berries, it seemed, did not prevent her from working the muscles. That would have been a disaster. ‘No, you can’t get stronger while we’re here!’ Though, the muscles did seem to be prevented from tearing. That’s useful. I can’t overwork them…at least not in that way.

To her surprise, the ending-berries’ power had been draining away at a steady, if miniscule, rate over the past hour, and when she investigated, during one of her gasping respites, she’d found that the power was being funneled through her regenerative spell-forms and reflected away from her skin, into her muscles, causing them to recover in minutes from what should have taken days.

And that’s a secondary effect. I can’t wait until the muscles, themselves, are inscribed and are powered properly.

Even so, she was at her limit. One more. She tried to sit up. She failed.

Den called back. “We’re about to make camp, so expect a bit more side-to-side movement from the wagon pretty soon.”

Tala waved his way, or at least she tried. Her hand mainly just flopped a bit at her side. “Thank you, Den. I guess we have to call it a day, eh?”

Ashin snorted a laugh. “Honestly, I expected us to be done… nearly an hour ago?”

She glared at him. “You think so little of me?”

He held up his hands placatingly. “Not at all. Sparring is really taxing. And what we’re doing it closer to full on fighting. You can take hits; I’ll give you that. I’d say it was your magic, but I don’t see any spell-forms active.” He genuinely sounded impressed. “They would be glowing right? Like when that plant attacked you? Or the thunder bull?”

“You are quite right. No glowing, no magic…for the most part.” She pulled out her flask and took a drink. An extra cup, today, won’t kill me. “Liquid courage.”

He gave her a flat look. “There is no way you’re drunk.” He sniffed the air. “There’s no alcohol in that at all.”

“What are you, some sort of bloodhound?”

He grunted, standing from where he’d been stretching. “Want help up?”

“Don’t you dare.”

He grinned down at her. “I’m going to go get cleaned up. My shift starts after dinner.”

She groaned rolling over and pushing herself up into a seated position. “How are you not exhausted?”

“Well, I wasn’t just kicked, punched, thrown, and placed into innumerable locks and holds.” He shook his head. “You really should have at least a few bruises. I was trying to pull my hits, but I’m not perfect at that.”

She shrugged. “I’ll be fine. That doesn’t answer my question, though; you were moving at least as much as I was.” Slippery rust bucket. “I didn’t even get a single solid hit on you.”

He grinned at that. “You landed a few glancing blows. You are improving much faster than normal.” He gave her a questioning look, but when she didn’t respond, he shrugged. “As to my weariness? Training. Lots and lots of training. I ran twenty miles each day that we were in Alefast, as a warm-up. This is my job, Mistress Tala. I have to be able to fight for as long as it takes to keep this caravan safe.” He hesitated. “What did you do, while we were in Alefast?”

She sighed, thinking of the ending-berry grove. “Mostly hunted up tasty food.”

He snorted another laugh. “There you go.” He shrugged. “This is known as a safer route, and we still had fighting almost every day. You might be aware, but some arcanous creatures can take hours to bring down. They aren’t tough enough to warrant the expense of Mage involvement, so we have to be able to go toe-to-toe with them and bring victory. They aren’t very common, but we have to be ready.”

That sounds horrible. “Well, you seem well suited to it.”

He smiled gratefully, seeming to stand a bit straighter. “I’ve really got to go.”

She waved goodbye. “Thank you, Ashin.”

He simply nodded, climbing down the ladder.

A minute or so after Ashin had departed, Den turned to glance her way. “So…not a suitor?”

She glowered. “No, Den.”

A small smile was evident across his features. “You spend more than an hour getting sweaty with a man, and you want me to believe there’s nothing there.”

“You’re making it weird, Den.”

He shrugged. “Fine, fine. But if you were my daughter, I’d be giving that young man a stern talking to. Because, in all likelihood, he’s thinking along those lines.” His voice lost some of its mirth. “Also, he was far too ready to hit you.”

She sighed. “He asked to spar, Den. That's where his mind was.” I hope. “As to hitting me: I asked him to. Besides, I’m fine.” She gestured to herself, but he wasn’t looking. “Thank you for the concern, though.”

He grunted. “I don’t want to see you get hurt, and I don’t just mean physically.” After a moment, he added. “And you are making my trip much more complicated. You know, I come on these for some time away.” He gave her a mock-stern look over his shoulder.

She held up her hands. “Fair, fair. If you ever want me to go elsewhere, just say so.”

He smiled at that. “Probably won’t, but I’ll keep that in mind. Thank you.”

Satisfied, she moved a bit of power through the incorporator and took a long drink, then flopped back down on the roof to rest and wait for them to make camp.


* * *


Light was beginning to color the sky into a stunning sunset when Tala finally sat back up.

The wagons were back in their dual circle formation, the oxen unhitched, and from the sound coming from the larger circle, dinner was well underway. Food. Her stomach practically roared at her, though it didn’t make an audible sound. Yeah… I really need to eat.

She stood, feeling much better after the extended rest. The ending-berries’ power was not intended as a regenerative aid, so it was not efficient at such. Only her own spell-forms and will, driven by her subconscious and conscious desires to improve and recover, made it possible at all.

The result was that she’d burned through half of the power granted by the two cups of the juice. I could have taken a death blow from that cyclops with the same amount of power. That was not quite true, but even so…

It was not efficient at all. I really need to get back to Holly and finish getting my inscriptions.

She climbed down the ladder with ease, feeling a spring in her step due to the added strength in her muscles, small though it was. She’d cheated and the result was akin to a week’s worth of dedicated, carefully directed training, gained over the course of a day.

Heavens help me if I had to do this as a mundane. That thought brought both Adam and Ashin to mind. Their drive, determination, and strength of character was cast in a new light. She huffed a laugh. All the guards, really. What Adam had said implied that the two she’d worked with were standard specimens among the caravan guard.

She passed sentries on patrol on her way towards dinner and gave them deeper nods of acknowledgement than she had in the past. These men and women deserve respect for what they have done, and what they do.

The guards showed mild surprise but nodded back in turn.

She began sorting through her upcoming tasks, trying to decide what she should do next, after dinner. Trent wanted to hear about the ending-berry harvest. I’ll have to discuss it with him, at some point, but not tonight. I don’t particularly want to have another conversation, right now.

So, she would take the food back to her wagon… Or… The terrain around the caravan was a bit rocky, and she’d been needing to test out her hammer. I could go up on that rise and eat, then test the hammer? The guards might not like that, though.

She sighed. Eat at my wagon, then find a rock nearby to test, first. It was the safer, wiser course.

That settled, she slipped into the back of the line for food, taking her hat from her head and tucking it into Kit.

She got her dinner without difficulty or incident, exchanging a few words with the cook serving the food that evening.

Meal in hand, she returned to the cargo wagon and ate under the sunset painted sky.

Her mind was elsewhere as she ate, and she took the time to feed her items as well. Her clothes had actually done a lot of work that day, shifting to keep her cooler, as well as keeping themselves clean. As a result, she had to give them significantly more power than she had before, discounting the recharge after the cyclops, that is. Still, it wasn’t that much.

She hadn’t had as much time to read as she’d have liked, given both her success with the Archon star and her focus on physical training, so she pulled out the first two volumes on bonded items, as well as those on magic item theory. I can take a break from my review, for a little while.

She cross-referenced as she ate, hunting for something that Grediv had mentioned. Combining items…combining items…oh!

She was almost done with her dinner when she finally came across what she was looking for. Bonding items to each other. That’s why it hadn’t been an easy index search.

There was a lot of information, now that she knew what to look for, though it was spread throughout the four tomes.

Huh… you basically force the items to soul-bound each other…items have souls? That started a whole other line of research, which was easily brought to a close. While artifacts seem to act as if they have a rudimentary form of spirit, other magic items do not seem to, though they can utilize methodologies intended for entities which do. It was clunky, and pulled from a dozen scattered sentences, but it seemed sound.

Fair enough.

“So, Kit, you’ve got a bit of a spirit, eh?”

The pouch did not respond.

She patted the knife. “That means you do, too…and the hammer…huh.” But she was getting off track.

She wanted to combine the two parts of her wardrobe into a single item. The books hinted that there were numerous benefits from shared pools of power, to increased capacity for the same. Other benefits depended on the item, though there seemed to be implications that she could also bond non-magic items to magical ones, thereby adding to or altering them in various ways. It also spoke of the foolishness of attempting to combine items with different core functions. Never bind a weapon to a dimensional storage, directly. Noted.

The example of a tried-and-true bonding that was given was the binding of a dimensional storage to a different container, thereby changing its exterior shape and altering the inside somewhat.

Apparently, there had been a length of time where many dimensional storage artifacts had manifested as barrels, which were highly inconvenient to transport. She found it interesting that such seemed to correspond to the waning of a city that had been known for its wine.

She’d like to have claimed credit for making that connection, but the books, themselves, pointed out that there seemed to be connections between what form artifacts took, and the places they manifested.

Yet more mysteries.

But back to the matter at hand. The process was supposedly incredibly simple when both items were magical.

Following the instructions that she’d pieced together and written out in her notes, she placed her hand on her own thigh, touching both her tunic and her pants.

Then, she began funneling a trickle of power into both at once.

The two items seemed to begin straining, trying to pull the power towards themselves, alone. To her mage-sight, that looked like power was flowing out of the items, back up the insubstantial stream she was sending out.

When the two searching tendrils met, Tala seized the power. This was only possible because the tendrils from the tunic and pants had reached up, into her hand of their own accord, trying to get an advantage on the other item in acquiring power.

Thus, with the power now within herself, she had mastery over it. In an effort of will, she flipped the tendrils together, turning them back on themselves and forming a very rudimentary facsimile of a now familiar shape: an Archon star. The book had called it a binding knot only describing it in how it differed from an Archon star. This would be useless to me if I didn’t know that spell-form…is that why it isn’t restricted knowledge? The result was much simpler than the Archon stars she’d made.

Aside from her familiarity with a very similar spell-form, she somehow felt that the process was made almost trivially easy because the two garments had been one, previously, when they were still a part of the immortal elk. Got it, don’t expect such an easy time, in the future.

The spell-form complete, three things happened:

First, a knot-shaped, bright brand seemed to blossom into existence on each garment simultaneously before fading once more from normal sight. To her mage-sight, they seemed to have but one brand, spread across both pieces, and that didn’t fade.

Second, what had been two shallow puddles of power splashed together, clashing and swirling into a single much deeper basin. It didn’t quite seem to reside in either part while, at the same time, was clearly within both. It was like looking at a fountain cross-eyed. She saw two, while knowing they were one and the same.

Third, the clothing moved around her, seeming almost to flow over her for a brief instant as the magical and physical manifestations of the two items became briefly malleable.

It was a surprisingly intimate experience, like witnessing a baby being born or attending a wedding. And two have become one, and out of the two come a new creation. She smiled. This, this is real magic.

She laughed out loud at that. Sure, manipulating fundamental forces of the universe is a neat trick, but I’ve made my clothing harmonize!

She laughed again, with a snort.

Still, the working felt like something deeper than manipulating gravity. Something more potent. She couldn’t explain it, even to herself.

She closed her books and her notes, the task complete, and stored them in Kit.

That done, she placed her right hand back where it had been, intuitively knowing that that was the right place, and pushed power into the leather.

It drank in the power, taking at least four times more than the two pieces had before, combined. That should give it more staying power… She grinned. And, so long as a scrap survives of either, both should be able to regrow, with the application of enough power. That was a relief. She’d been mildly concerned that something would wholly eliminate just one piece, leaving her in a state of perpetual half-nakedness, whenever she went through damaging experiences. Never again!

Her dinner done and the binding of the items complete, she leaned back, satisfied. I’d been planning on doing something after dinner…what was it… She couldn’t remember.

She took her dishes back to the chuckwagon and dealt with them there, quickly returning to her wagon to avoid interacting with anyone.

She was about to climb back up, when her eye caught sight of a particularly interesting rock formation, and that tickled something in the back of her mind.

It was something to do with rocks…?

“Right! The hammer.” She pulled out the hammer and examined it. She’d already topped off its power, though she really wasn’t sure why it needed it. Not like I’ve used you…

From examining the portions of its magic, which she could see, it appeared that it would take most of any force exerted on its striking surfaces and send it back, so long as someone wielded it with intention.

For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. If she understood it correctly, that should mean that any blow would have nearly double the force that would have been delivered by a normal hammer, used with the same strength.

Huh. Why would the hammer stop moving, then? If the hammer didn’t have full force exerted against it, it should continue, barely slowed. Would that mean it would continue to exert nearly the same force, which would again have a reactionary force applied against it? The magic would then turn most of that around, with the hammer still barely being slowed…

It was a dizzying concept, that she couldn’t quite fathom, but if she was understanding it correctly, it would make any simple strike into an almost infinite string of hits, possibly repeating endlessly, forever, until the wielder pulled the hammer back or the object struck moved or was destroyed. Or until the iterating force diminished so much that it was virtually meaningless. After all, all objects resting on the ground were constantly exerting downward force, and that didn’t crack the world.

Even so, how can that be correct? Only one way to find out.

She walked over to a small, plain looking rock and started by striking it with the butt of the hammer’s handle. There was a soft, but not quiet, ring of metal on stone, just as expected. The rock, which was barely bigger than her head, was virtually undamaged, though there was a small speck of lighter rock where the metal handle had made contact.

Ok. That’s the baseline, I guess? She then moved with the same gentle motion to tap with the hammer’s face.

The sound of a thousand small raps- no, a million. More? -rang out in a single long peel as the rock seemed to vibrate, skittering across the ground out of the way as the hammer continued, virtually unimpeded, into the dirt.

When it hit the dirt, there was a burst of wet earth, and the hammer came to rest, head completely buried.

She pulled back, and the earth vibrated around the metal, allowing the hammer to come free easily.

She examined the rock, finding a line of lightened material where the hammer had skittered down the surface. Fascinating.

She clicked her tongue, considering. So, that was a soft tap. What does a normal strike do?

She pulled her arm back and struck a true blow against the rock.

There was a crack like thunder, which her enhanced mind was able to distinguish as more than a dozen overlapping hits coming nearly simultaneously.

The rock exploded, and the world went black.


Pain filled her dark world, and she was greeted with the crystal-clear memory of rock shards zipping outwards in all directions, including straight into her eyes.

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