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Tala stared in mute fascination as the arcanous bull rushed across the ground between his small herd and the caravan.

He’s close to half a mile away! Nonetheless, he was covering the distance at a rapid pace.

Tala focused on him, willing her mage-sight to engage at much further-than-normal range.

The bull was full of power.

She could see twisting, intricately flowing spell-lines woven through the beast’s flesh, bone, hide, and hair. The long, curving horns were practically throbbing with power, though she couldn’t quite tell what any of it did. The structure and design were eerily familiar but the whole was still unintelligible.

In less than twenty seconds, the bull had covered the majority of the distance between him and the lead wagon, upon which Tala sat.

Atrexia, the Mage tasked with handling the threat, sat straight-backed on her horse.

As Tala watched, Atrexia extended a hand, and made a series of quick gestures.

To Tala’s mage-sight, power shot out from the woman’s right shoulder, soaking into the ground just ahead of the charging bull. A small portion of the fringe of that working passed through the edge of Atrexia's clothing, and that minute portion was fractionally diminished. Even so, the end effect was impressive.

In that instant, two lances of stone erupted from the ground in unison, their points driving into each shoulder of the animal. The bull’s charge was used up against the spikes, as its own momentum drove it far onto the hardened stone. The charge was halted barely one hundred yards from the oxen pulling Tala’s wagon.

Atrexia swayed slightly, and Tala saw magic practically dripping from the woman. That must have taken a great deal of power. Tala frowned. Why?

She scanned the ground, willing her mage-sight to inspect it, and she had her answer.

There was no rock in the ground, at least not much. Atrexia had been forced to: first, tear the soil away from the roots of the deep, wild grasses; then, compact an immense amount of it into a dense enough form to be able to pierce the bull’s hide; and finally, drive it upward quickly enough to effectively catch the bull off-guard.

There were now wide swaths of cavitation, deep beneath the ground. She pulled from deep enough the wagons won’t be at risk of causing a cave-in. Yet another way in which the Mage had strained herself.

When looked at in that light, the attack had been an amazing feat of strength.

She would be a terror in mountainous regions, or anywhere with any substantial amount of rock ready to hand.

The bull was shuddering as it rested, impaled upon the two earthen spikes, its blood slowly leaking out.

As Tala turned her attention back to the bull, she saw its power flowing through it in horrifyingly familiar patterns. That’s how my skin looks when it’s pulling back together. Healing magic. The bull was healing itself.

With a bellow of rage, the bull jerked upward. The crack of stone shattering filled the air as the spikes splintered, sending a cascade of gravel down towards the bull’s hooves.

Atrexia yelled a challenge in return and kicked her horse into a forward walk.

Brave horse.

The bull shook itself, the last vestiges of the spikes falling from the fast-closing wounds.

Atrexia yelled again, raising her hand.

She doesn’t have the strength to do that again. Tala leaned forward. What is she doing?

The bull took a step backwards, flailing its horns in a warding gesture, a vain attempt to show strength.

Atrexia raised her other hand, and Tala saw power run across the woman’s bare stomach in a completely different pattern than before.

What is she doing? That’s not an earth magic working…is it? Tala was not a Material expert.

To Tala’s surprise, she saw flickers of power around the bull’s eyes, and the creature reacted as if it could see Atrexia’s power coming to bear. It turned and ran back the way it had come.

They can perceive magic? That was news to her. Can all arcanous creatures see power?

Atrexia held herself stiff and straight but reigned in her horse, bringing her advance to a halt. Soon, the bull had returned to its small group, and all of them had retreated, back down the far hill and out of sight. As soon as the thunder cattle were no longer in view, Atrexia slumped in her saddle.

One of the guards ran up to her, offering her water, and talking quietly enough that, along with the distance, Tala couldn’t catch what was said. Even so, she got the gist: Atrexia would be retiring to her wagon for a few hours to recover. I don’t blame her.

As the other woman turned her horse back, riding towards her rest, Tala raised a hand in acknowledgement, and smiled. Atrexia gave her a strange look, but then nodded, a small smile tugging at her lips as well.

On his horse, beside Tala’s wagon, Renix groused. “That was a waste of power. We could have struck the whole group down and had magic to spare.”

Tala turned to him, eyebrow cocked. “Oh?” She saw Trent riding nearby, but he didn’t say anything, yet.

“Of course! Creating shards of ice is much easier than pulling rock from who knows how deep.”

He doesn’t know how she did it. That made sense, in retrospect. He’d likely not used his mage-sight, and it likely wouldn’t have told him much, if he had. “So, then why did she volunteer, and why did Master Trent allow it? Are they both fools?”

Master Trent was still riding where Renix couldn’t quite see him, and Tala saw a smile pull at the older man’s lips. Renix shook his head. “They aren’t fools; they just don’t want me in the fray.”

Tala barked a laugh. “Charitable of Mistress Atrexia to expend so much power just to keep you a bit safer.”

Renix frowned. “That doesn’t make much sense, does it.”

“No. So…?”

Renix sighed, seeming to take a moment to think. “Well, I suppose it makes sense for her to handle a threat she knows she can, and leave the unknown to us, given we have more flexibility and capability in the current terrain and environment.”

Trent took that moment to kick his horse forward and draw up beside Renix. “And there, you show that you are listening to your lessons after all. We’ll get your quick mind educated soon enough, but at least your slow mind knows how to put the pieces together.”

Tala frowned. “Quick mind? Slow?”

Renix grunted. “It’s a metaphor Master Trent favors.”

The older Mage interjected. “What you do on instinct, and without effort, is your quick mind. That is your assumptions, and your reflexes. Your slow mind is how you act, what you say, and what you think when you take the time to contemplate before speaking or acting.” He shrugged. “It always made sense to me.”

“Huh.” Tala thought about it. “Seems reasonable.”

Trent then turned back to Renix. “Though, even your slow mind missed a bit. If we’d killed the bull on his test charge, the whole family would have attacked. In total, that would have taken much more energy. We can kill them more easily than she can, here, but her stopping power was able to do the trick, nonlethally, thus reducing our total use of magic.”

Renix was nodding. “And our total use of metal in our inscriptions.” After a moment, he added. “How much?”

Trent broke into a grin. “I only had to pay her one silver ounce. Apparently, that working is much heavier on power expenditure than on metallic consumption for her.”

Tala didn’t quite follow, but she decided it wasn’t worth redirecting the conversation.

Renix nodded. “Probably worth it.”

“Definitely worth it.” Trent reigned his horse around, before adding. “I’ll take the far side. We’ve got both fronts to guard until she’s recovered.”

Renix nodded. “Eyes sharp.”

“Magic ready.” Trent’s reply came back readily, making clear that it was a familiar exchange.

Tala turned back to the book that Renix had lent her and began to read.

She was no more than two dozen pages in, when one of the guards called out. “Above! Air hammer bolts, mark!”

Tala’s eyes flicked up just in time to see a falcon diving towards her. That’s odd.

It took a moment for her eye to properly focus before she realized: Oh…that’s big.

The bird’s wings were tucked in tight, as it dove down towards them, but if they were spread wide, she’d have guessed their span at close to thirty feet. Even at this distance, rapidly decreasing though it was, she could see power rippling around the wings, and magic clearly augmented its flight. No bird could be that big, naturally, and hope to fly.

It had a look close to that of a peregrine falcon, hence her initial confusion.

It seems odd to encounter this creature so soon after the thunder cattle…unless it was hunting the bovine, noticed us, and decided we were easier prey? It was a possibility. That said, as the great arcanous avian streaked towards her, she realized that it was, indeed, diving for her, specifically.

Her eyes widened, and her hand began to come up.

In that moment, she heard the distinct ‘twang, chunk’ of five different crossbows firing, and their bolts streaked through the air, guided by practiced aim.

As they flew, Tala got the impression of metal glinting along their shafts in irregular patterns.

In less than a blink, all five missiles had struck true, and the avian screeched in rage and pain.

Then, Tala’s mage-sight blossomed with a story of power.

Each of the bolts, now firmly imbedded in the great bird, flared to life, the irregular metallic gleam being revealed as non-empowered spell-lines.

They are using the bird as the source of power! It was genius, really. Magic items often used pieces of arcanous creatures to power them for a time; so, it made sense that weapons could be crafted to take advantage of the same principle.

Each of the five bolts were inscribed with the same spell-form, and they all flared to life in near perfect unison.

They were Material Guide spell-forms, and Tala didn’t need her mage-sight to see what they did.

From five places on the creature’s body, a working reached out, and swept the air from beneath its wings.

The change in airflow radically altered the beast’s flight path, and not even the last-minute flare of giant wings could slow it. After all, there was no air in place below the wings to catch on to.

The bird slammed into the ground at high speed, just off to the caravan’s right.

Surprisingly, the body wasn’t obliterated, as Tala would have assumed.

Even more shockingly, the bird jerked and stuttered upright, coming to its feet to let out an ear-splitting shriek.

How is it still alive? There was a depression, nearly six feet deep, in which Tala could clearly see well entrenched grass roots. Yet, it acts almost unharmed.

That wasn’t quite correct, its wings did seem to have some new kinks in them. So, it would likely never fly again. Without healing…

The guards had not been idle, and even as the bird rose up, two of the mounted guards rode past, jamming spears deep into the creature’s neck.

Moments later, a bright flash of power told Tala that the spears had been inscribed too.

Well, that and the fact that each spear blossomed outward with a ring of cutting wind.

The bird’s head fell free, and the great body toppled backwards with an almost delicate whoosh.

And now, I know how the guards are useful. In truth, they likely had many tasks, but their ability to protect against such threats was noteworthy. I wonder if those weapons are specific to arcanous birds? I suppose they would work against other creatures that used wind and air magic.

Because the creature wasn’t actively trying to activate the spells, the spell-forms had to be able to utilize magic already within the creature itself.

She shuddered at the thought, realizing that the beast likely could have sent great wheels of cutting wind into them, if the guards hadn’t been fast enough. The spears had simply tapped into the power first.

The guards, and the chuckwagon workers, were already swarming over the body, beginning to strip it down, and Tala grinned, an idea coming to her.

She set the book carefully aside and climbed down, walking over to the working men. The wagons still had not stopped their inexorable movement forward.

One of the guards looked up as she approached and saluted hesitantly. “Mistress? Can we help you?”

She pointed to the bird. “Will you be taking all of it?”

The man shook his head. “There isn’t time to harvest everything.” He pointed to the chuckwagon workers. “They will harvest the parts best known to be edible to supplement our supplies.” He gestured to himself and the other guards. Those other guards had already retrieved the five bolts and two spears, their copper inscribings still mostly intact. “We will harvest the wing bones. Those are known to be potent power sources for the making of wind and air constructs.”

Tala nodded. “Any objection to me taking something?”

The guard looked nervous. “Pardon, Mistress, but the bones will be a great bonus to the men, when they’re sold in Alefast-”

She held up a hand, stopping him. “I won’t take anything you’ve already mentioned.”

The man brightened visibly. “Oh! Of course, then. Take whatever you wish, Mistress.”

“Tala. My name is Tala.”

He bowed. “A pleasure, Mistress Tala. I am Guardsman Adam.”

“Good to meet you as well, guardsman.”

That out of the way, she bent to her task.

Fifteen minutes later she was jogging to catch up to her cargo wagon. Blood was dripping down her arms, over her gloves, and speckling her face and clothing. She felt lightly strained from all the jerking and twisting she’d done to get parts free, and she was very pleased with her new knife, which had performed perfectly. I’ll have to thank Ashin, again, for taking me to that smith.

Her harvest?

Guided by her mage-sight, which could still see the lingering power slowly bleeding from the newly dead beast, she’d taken all four talons from each foot and all three bones from each of the legs. She’d left the feet behind, mainly because she’d ran out of time to work through the tough skin and sinew. And they were surprisingly heavy.

These do not feel like they came from a bird capable of flight. Magic allowed for wonderful incongruities, such as allowing for a beast to fly when it weighed more than her wagon, ox team included.

The talons each resembled nothing so much as black, hooked blades, and to her best guess and understanding, they held a strange, arcanous version of power directed towards one thing: Integrity of the talon itself, most strongly focused in preserving the beyond razor sharp edge on the interior curve. Consequently, she had tied a short length of rope around the base of each, below the sharpened portion, tying them together in a tight bundle.

The leg bones were as white as any mundane bone, and she’d lashed those together, separately from the talons. The power in them seemed bent solely towards maintaining the strength and integrity of the bone, itself. No wonder the impact with the ground didn’t turn it to paste.

Those fourteen pieces were all she’d had time to grab, and they were by no means clean. Bits of flesh, sinew, skin, and muscle clung all over them, making it a rather macabre prize.

She ignored the stares that the drivers, guards, and even Trent and Renix, directed her way, as she hauled her harvest up onto the roof of the wagon. Once settled in, she began to clean each item as thoroughly as possible.

In talking with the guards, while working on the body, she’d learned that they kept iron plated chests in which to keep any trophies, so that they wouldn’t lose too much power before they could be sold and turned into the power sources of constructs.

Tala didn’t have iron boxes, but she did have her iron salve.

Thus, she had retrieved one of the bars from her pack, stored in the box beneath Den’s driver seat, and as she finished cleaning and drying each piece, she applied the salve thoroughly across the surfaces. If it works to lock my power in, and others' power out, it should be sufficient for this. It should also protect the bones and talons from rot, if they lasted long enough for that to matter.

Honestly, she had no idea how it would actually work, but her best guess was that the bones would hold onto the power that was currently in them, and if anything put stress on them, such as an impact that would otherwise have caused a break or distortion, some of the power would be used to resist. Once all the power was expended, they would just be normal bones and talons, again, since they didn’t have any active source for new power.

I hope that’s how they work. She might also be able to tap into their power for inscripted items, but that was a whole different area of study. I’ll bet Holly would have some thoughts.

Worst case scenario, she should be able to sell them. And that’s not a bad case at all.

As she worked with the pieces, she noticed that the middle bone from each leg fit rather nicely in her hand. There was a comfortable place for her to grip, sinched against one end, and they were just over two feet in length. These would be pretty nice weapons. If she knew how to use such. Still, she’d seen students at the Academy doing a form of stick fighting for exercise, and ostensibly for fun. It would be easier than learning to fight with a blade.

It was a relatively silly thought. After all, she had magic; why would she need to learn how to fight with a weapon? Still, the guards brought down the bird with weapons…and magic is expensive to use in all cases. It might just be wise to learn how to use mundane weaponry.

…I wonder if any of the guards know stick fighting. If they did, hopefully she could convince them to teach her.

The task of cleaning the harvests and applying her salve complete, and close to half the afternoon gone, she turned back to her borrowed book.

Thankfully, they had no further arcanous encounters that afternoon.

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JLMullins

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