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Tala’s eyes focused on the pulse of dimensional magic and her mind registered the newly appeared creature, scanning it from talon to beak.

It looked like nothing so much as an oversized hawk, if the bird had trained for long distance sprinting instead of flying. It was taller than she was, and its legs were much larger than its wings.

The three forward talons on each of its feet looked to be useful as much for gaining traction on the ground as tearing into their prey. The legs were covered in thick, grey, ridged hide up well past the back-bending knees, and above that, feathers coated the beast.

The feathers were a mottled grey and black in patterns that made it difficult to pick out the exact shape, even against the greenish-brown background of the grasslands. Nonetheless, her mage-sight saw detail where her eyes failed her. There were two thin, miniscule wings, which were clearly meant for balance rather than flight. A short, stabilizing tail sprouted from the rear.

The neck was long and curving, but proportioned more like a horse, than a swan.

Finally, the head. The beak was iron-grey but flecked with glinting accents of what looked to be gold, silver, and copper. It was hooked, clearly designed for biting and tearing prey into pieces small enough to swallow. The face was highlighted with twisting lines of deep blue and blood red, and the eyes were an absolutely stunning golden-yellow.

There was a terrifying intelligence in those eyes.

Underlaying it all was a truly chilling depth of power. The sight of it almost overwhelmed her before she forced her mage-sight to disengage from the beast.

Tala didn’t even have a chance to finish her gasp of shock, before the talons of one foot were whipping at her. The great bird had planted the other foot firmly, gripping the earth, and seemed to be aiming to slice her open in the first attack.

In mute horror, she fell backwards, raising her arms in a vain attempt at defense as the razor-sharp weapons came in.

The pain of impact tore down her left arm, splitting open the sleeve of her shirt more easily than a tailor’s scissors. She felt the minute traces of the ending-berries’ power used up in an instant. It wasn’t enough.

Her gate was open, the keystone funneling power to her enhancements, and her arm pulsed with a soft, golden glow.

Her arm was not torn open.

The bones did break with a nauseatingly wet crack.

She was still falling backwards.

Tala was able to vaguely register what might have been surprise in the beast’s eyes, before dimensional power warped around it. It vanished, appearing behind her in the same instant.

Three lines of fire blazed across her back as the talons caught her again, stopping her backward movement and throwing her forward.

Her spell-lines activated for that portion of her flesh and saved her from the shearing strike. Thankfully, the hit to her back was less focused, and therefore, did not break bone. Stars be praised for small miracles.

The bird let out a piercing cry of frustration, which sounded like nothing so much as a hawk’s call that had been deepened and given a volume to rival a basso trumpet’s blare.

The beast’s power pulsed again, even as Tala heard guards beginning to call out.

It was beside her this time, and its head snapped forward, beak chopping into her temple.

The world went black.

 

* * *

 

A pulse of power exploded from the base of Tala’s skull, and she returned to consciousness, violently.

She was falling in a spinning twist. The bird’s three quick strikes having completely tangled her body. Even so, she was able to flop in a semblance of a roll and come up to one knee; one foot and her right hand granted her greater stability.

Thus, an instant after the bird’s beaked struck, she was glaring up at it from the ground.

A shiver ran through her from head to toe, and a sense akin to her mage-sight picked up the signature of what had awoken her: It was the inscription, set to watch for any loss of consciousness not due to falling asleep.

Once again, a sound, almost like a bell, hummed through her thoughts. Despite herself, she still found the note calming. Then, a mockery of her own voice came to her, once again.

Consciousness lost for 0.10 seconds due to a sharp blow to the head. Skull fracture and severe concussion were imminent.

Cranial inscriptions activated to prevent skull fracture and cushion dura-mater.

Additional threat to consciousness detected, dual fore-arm fracture. No bone inscriptions available to repair the damage. Temporary neurotransmitter solution available.

Mild, targeted, electrical shock and hormone cocktail utilized for near instant resuscitation and defense against immediate return to unconsciousness.

No lasting effects detected or predicted.

Log complete.

The bird took a step back, eyes widening.

Tala cracked her neck as she stood. She tucked her left arm close against her stomach, feeling the pain, and knowing that only a ludicrous amount of adrenaline was keeping her from collapsing from that pain, alone.

There was a ka-chuck of crossbow fire from the nearest wagon, and the bird flickered without moving.

The bolt passed straight through the beast without slowing or harming it, and only Tala’s mage-sight let her know why. It altered its own dimensionality so quickly and precisely?

This was… not good. From what she could see, this beast was old, and the power coursing through it was a blazing inferno that made the blade-wing falcon look like a candle beside the sun. She didn’t have time to let her mage-sight adjust to the intensity, so she could get more information. What is this thing?

Even terrified, she knew she had to act.

Her right hand came up, palm out, as she extended her arm. Her first two fingers were extended towards the sky, the second two bent down. All four fingers and thumb were tucked close together.

One target this time. She held the features of the predator in her mind, and the bird was highlighted blue almost instantly. Crush it? There was easy justification for lethal force… If I do that, there might be nothing but paste… She still wanted to harvest. Really? That’s your priority? Even with her injuries…yeah…yeah, it was.

The bird, sensing the magic building within her, lunged forward. In the last instant, when a Mage like Trent or Atrexia would have attacked, the bird vanished, appearing behind her once again. Despite not moving, Tala did not lose her lock on the target.

Restrain!

A golden circle blazed with light on the back of her hand, as power leapt from her gate down her arm and into her hand, spinning through the needed, deeply-scripted calculations and stealing kinetic energy from the bird at the same time. That energy was repurposed to move the beast off of the ground, even as the spell-form calculations finished their work and her power created an exception, precisely altering the gravitational constant for this creature in particular.

The bird stopped mid-attack, lifting off of the ground and hovering in place, now in a stable orbit just over a foot above the ground.

Just like the men that she’d restrained in Bandfast, the bird did not stop moving. It flailed, beginning to spin and twist in chaotic circles, each movement adding to the confusion.

When the bird realizes it can teleport around as easily as before, it will attack me again. She should have used lethal force.

The predator screeched in frustration once more.

Tala felt an incoming pulse of power and sighed in relief.

Lightning lashed up from the ground in a torrent and ripped through…empty air.

At the last instant, the bird had vanished, a slight ripple of power all that remained in its wake.

The thunderous boom from the lightning rattled Tala’s skull, but she managed to maintain her feet. Even so, she felt enhancements around her ears draw a bit more deeply on her power as they deadened the sound to protect both her eardrums and her hearing.

She spun, gritting her teeth against the pain in her arm, which the motion magnified.

Neither her mage-sight, nor her eyes, could find the bird.

Renix rode up to her less than ten seconds later, the clear source of the lightning.

“Mistress Tala! Are you alright?”

She stared up at him. “What the rust was that thing!?”

“I didn’t get a look at the magic it held, but it was a terror bird, for sure.”

Tala blinked back at him. What a frustratingly fitting name… “Dimensional.”

Renix nodded. “That would have been my guess, but I’ve heard of lightning, air, or earth varieties which might have escaped my attack as well.” He was scanning the surrounding landscape. “Is it gone?”

Tala nodded and found that the motion made her head spin. “From what I can tell, yes.” After a moment, she added. “To be fair, though, I didn’t detect it until it attacked the first time. So…”

Renix kept scanning. “We’ll be more vigilant. They rarely travel alone. They usually have a pack, three or four strong is the smallest I’ve heard of. They can get as large as twenty.”

More of them? Great…

Trent rode up and demanded an explanation. Renix gave it.

Shortly thereafter, the duty sergeant for the guards arrived and asked for the same. Renix happily complied.

The wagon train did not stop its slow march forward.

Tala, for her part, bent down to pick up her satchel. The shoulder strap was neatly severed, and she had two short strips of strapping cut cleanly free as well. She sighed, decided it wasn’t worth fixing immediately, and began eating jerky. After a moment’s chewing, she realized that she should go to the chuckwagon.

Trent tried to stop her, but when she indicated her arm, and that the chuckwagon workers were also the medics for non-lethal injuries, he relented.

Less than a minute later, she was knocking on the back door of the wagon.

It was not Brand who opened the door, but the young man’s eyes widened when he saw her clearly broken arm, and he motioned her inside.

Brand was working on dinner, but he stopped to come and assist when he saw her.

She told him a brief, flavorless version of events. “Giant, slag-begotten chicken attacked me. We drove it off.”

He was unsatisfied but agreed to set her arm before pressing for details.

The two cooks, who were trained as medics, worked together to pull her arm straight and reset the bones, Brand, himself checking their alignment before splinting her forearm.

She did not lose consciousness when they set the arm, but it was a near thing. To distract herself, she began talking. “What, no ‘bone be fixed’ meat?”

Brand rolled his eyes. “If we had harvested something that would speed healing, sure. But we haven’t.”

Her eyebrows went up. “You don’t keep any stock?”

“That would be prohibitively expensive and unreliable. The older the harvest, the more it loses power. Jerking the meat will contain the effects, but meat doesn’t contain bone healing magics. That would be…odd.”

Tala grunted.

Brand shrugged. “Besides, Mistress Atrexia should be able to heal this with ease.”

Material Guide. Right. And her emphasis on earth and rock would more easily align with bone than Trent’s ice and lightning.

As if on cue, a knock came at the door, and Brand’s assistant opened it to reveal Atrexia, herself.

The assistant bowed and backed away before the Mage, as she stepped inside.

“You’re alive. And not bleeding out. Wonder of wonders.”

“You already knew that I’m not easily cut, Mistress Atrexia.”

“Ahh, yes, the plant.” She tsked. “You’re making this into a habit, Mistress Tala.”

Tala held out her splinted left arm. “Can you just fix this, please?”

Atrexia cocked an eyebrow. “How? I can’t see through your skin with mage-sight, so why should I be able to affect you?”

Brand’s eyes moved to stare first at Atrexia then Tala, but he held his tongue.

Tala groaned. This had been a problem before, but she hadn’t considered it in this instance. After a moment’s thought, she used her right hand to point at her left palm. “Can you work through here?”

Atrexia frowned, stepping forward. She took Tala’s hand with surprising gentleness. The spell-lines around the woman’s eyes pulsed with power, as she examined Tala’s palm. “Is all your skin naturally this color?” She indicated Tala’s palms.

“I suppose?”

Atrexia blinked at her for a moment. “Wow. You’re really light skinned, aren’t you.”

Tala glowered, but otherwise didn’t respond.

The other Mage returned her attention to the examination of Tala’s palm. “Ah! Yes. I can see now that… What the rust!” Her mouth stayed open as she stared at Tala’s palm. “How many spell-forms do you have active at the moment, ch-” She had almost said ‘child,’ but her eyes flicked to Brand, and she cut off.

“Just the ones reinforcing the skin of my forearm, back, and head.” She hesitated. “Well and reinforcing my head in general.” And those enhancing my nervous system. And those watching for the need of further enhancement effects. And my mage-sight. She contemplated. Yeah, that’s it. She, of course, was not going to give that full list to Atrexia, but it was wise for Tala, herself, to know.

Atrexia nodded, slowly, in the silence. “That shouldn’t be enough to explain the level of magic I’m detecting.” She glanced up to Tala’s eyes, and then away. “But I suppose that’s standard for you…isn’t it.”

Tala didn’t respond.

“Well, I’ll see what I can do.” Power flexed outward from Atrexia, driving into Tala’s palm. An instant later, there was a weird click, and most of the pain in Tala’s arm vanished, leaving only a lingering ache. “Huh…that was surprising easy… Were you able to suppress your magical defenses that perfectly?”

“Hmm? Oh! Well…no.”

Atrexia waited for a moment before cocking an eyebrow. “So… your magical defenses are that weak?”

“They don’t exist, at least not for my palms.”

Atrexia’s mage-sight was still active, and the woman looked back down at Tala’s palm “Then these spell forms are…” She started nodded. “…only for the enhancement of your skin. Whatever you’ve done to the rest of your body to protect you from magic, you’ve left off of here. Why?”

Tala opened her mouth to respond, but the other Mage was already waving a hand to silence her.

“Because it’s too perfect. If you completely sealed yourself, you couldn’t affect the outside world…” Her eyes widened, and her gaze, once again, flicked to Brand, before returning to Tala. “We will discuss this, later. Yes?”

Tala sighed. “I suppose so.” She flexed her arm and hand, removing the temporary splint. “Thank you, by the way.”

“Hmm? Oh, think nothing of it. It is part of my contract to provide such services.” Atrexia turned and opened the door, already departing.

“Thank you, nonetheless.”

At that, the Mage paused, looking back towards Tala. After a short silence, she nodded. “You are most welcome, Mistress Tala. We will speak, tonight.”

Without further delay, Atrexia stepped out, closing the door behind her.

 

* * *

 

Tala rested atop her wagon, her shirt flapping in the steady breeze.

The wagon wasn’t really moving fast enough to create a breeze, so she was grateful that the weather aligned to bring the pleasant wind.

The only irritant was the small hole in the front of her shirt, causing the garment to move unpredictably, snapping in the breeze. This, unfortunately, was her least damaged shirt, even with the hole courtesy of Brand’s knife.

Four shirts should have been plenty…

She was working to stitch the leather strap of her satchel back together, using the two pieces that had been cut loose as bracing on either side of the butt-jointed leather pieces of the strap. All in all, she’d lost less than a foot of the strap, and she blessed her luck that she’d not cut the strap down to a perfect fit. Instead, she’d had the excess dangling beyond the buckle, which had let her adjust it to fit her most comfortably after the repair.

I won’t even have to punch new holes to keep using this. Altogether, it wasn’t more than a mild inconvenience.

She felt a flash of dimensional magic and jerked to the side, her eyes sweeping her surroundings. She nearly dropped the satchel in her moment of panic, and her heart was racing when she caught sight of a ground-squirrel blinking away from a much larger rival some hundred feet to the caravan’s right.

Dimensional rodent… The feeling had not been any stronger or weaker than that of the terror bird. She shuddered. Apparently, the magic for such teleportation doesn’t care about size. As she thought about it, the bird could have grabbed her and jumped away, leaving her at its mercy. Well, if I didn’t have the iron salve to block such magic from affecting me.

It was also possible the magic couldn’t take another living being. At least not an unwilling one? She did not have a good understanding of teleportation magic, despite her intensive studies before her naked transport attempt.

She shook her head and returned her attention to the stitching. She blessed her foresight, when she’d purchased the heavy needles and waxed thread. A bit of delicate knife work was all it took to make the needed holes for stitching, her precision augmented by her enhancements.

Start to finish, it took her less than ten minutes to finish the repair.

During that time, she fearfully responded to no less than five instances of dimensional magic, all of which turned out to be benign sources, at least relatively.

This…might be untenable. She had no remaining injuries, per se, but her head, back, and arm all had deep-rooted, softly throbbing aches. I need a bath…

At that thought, she considered the berries. Brand said that the berries would mitigate, and might even reverse damage, in some cases… It was likely worth one berry, as a test.

She readied her iron salve bar and pulled out a whole berry.

Instead of twisting it open, as she’d done for Brand, she popped the whole thing in her mouth, and crushed it against the roof of her mouth with her tongue.

Power blossomed behind her lips, and she almost gasped at the sensation.

Working quickly, she picked the seed out from the berry’s meat and expelled it into her hand. Its power was building towards activation, and she quickly coated it in iron salve, before placing it in the pouch with the other ending tree bits.

As she did that, she relished the sweet flavor of the ending-berry. The juice, before, had not been sufficient to truly give her a taste for the treat, and treat it was.

I’d take this over a donut any day. And that wasn’t factoring in the power.

She felt the energy flowing outward, seeming to cling to her spell-lines like water to an aqueduct, as if her lines were made for such power. I suppose they were, in a sense.

She felt the rush fade, just slightly, as her aches were soothed away, and she let out a breath of silent pleasure at the sudden relief. It wasn’t a healing, per se, more like her body knew it wasn’t in danger of further damage, so it didn’t need to scream at her so loudly.

Aside from the brief, initial dip, the torrent did not lessen as it suffused her. It didn’t fill her with the non-descript restlessness of undirected power, but instead with a sense of wholeness, completeness, togetherness.

She understood immediately. The magic is meant to keep the consumer whole and healthy, and my mage-sight is picking that up and presenting it to me as a general feel, for the power within myself.

She felt a familiar comfort and was strongly reminded of her time at the Academy.

On rainy days, when she hadn’t had classes to attend, she would curl up in her rooms, beside a low-burning fire, and read as the gentle murmur of water filled the air outside. She’d missed many meals, and if she was being truthful, quite a few classes, whiling away the hours in any number of good books.

I could get used to this.

She contemplated eating a second, but dismissed it, as one of the reasons she ate one now was to see how long it lasted. Eating a second would throw off the test. She had no idea if the berries were standardly cumulative or multiplicative. Assuming more would add to the duration at all.

Still enjoying the taste that lingered in her mouth, she found herself contemplating. Could I make wine out of this? Or just juice? Or jam? She gave a short, soft laugh. I wonder if cooking it down would concentrate the power or disperse it… She needed vastly more berries with which to experiment.

That in mind, she found herself mentally jumping at every bush that peaked over a hill or looked like it could be a tree. It was an added, sporadic, irritating interruption. They did not see any more trees of any kind that day.

Tala spent her time reading, walking, taking notes, and sketching. Additionally, she continued to find herself flinching at any spark of power she felt, which had even a flavor of dimensional magic to it. It made for a less than pleasant afternoon.

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JLMullins

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