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An hour later, Tala had a headache.

Den was already tending to the oxen, and the wagons were comfortably circled for the night, but Tala was still trying to wrap her mind around the concepts in the introduction of the item creation book.

She threw her hands up. “This is maddening!”

She heard a throat clear and looked over the side of the wagon.

“Renix?”

The mageling looked up at her from beneath dirty blonde hair. “Master Trent asked me to come check on you. Will you be joining us for dinner?”

Tala sighed. He was afraid I’d made another star and was sleeping off the fatigue. “Tell the old man I’m coming.”

Renix frowned. “Mistress Tala, he is still younger than many magelings still beneath their masters. He is a prodigy! I expect he’ll be an Archon by thirty, or just after.”

Tala sighed again, swinging down onto the ladder, satchel and hat firmly in place. “I meant no disrespect, Renix. I was just meaning to tease.”

“Oh…” He looked away, seeming slightly embarrassed.

“I apologize, and I think that it is admirable that you defended your master’s good name, and a credit to him that you think so highly of his abilities.” She tapped her lips with one finger, contemplating. “Though, I suppose having a high opinion of the man who is training you could be a form of narcissism… are you vain, Renix?”

Renix started; he seemed to have been staring at her finger. “What? No! I mean… no? Wouldn’t a vain person claim to be humble?”

“True, true.” She shrugged. “Then, I guess we’ll never know.”

They stood for a moment, then Tala quirked a smile. “Dinner, right?” She gestured towards the chuckwagon, which was already serving people as quickly as they walked up. “After you.”

Renix colored, for some reason, and spun to stride towards the open side of the wagon. Tala followed, her headache already fading.

They were able to walk directly up to get their food, and Brand gave her a concerned look, as he handed her a plate that was mounded especially high.

Tala’s eyes widened when she saw power flickering through the meat. She leaned forward to whisper her question. “Brand? What is this?”

Renix had already headed towards the table at which the Mages were already sitting. Brand leaned forward and spoke quickly, as others were coming up behind her. “A thunder bull was slain, today, and we were able to harvest some meat before a large pack of blaze wolves drove the harvesters off.”

“How much did you get?”

“Only about forty pounds, raw.” He sighed. “Just enough for tonight’s meal.”

“You use three-quarter pounds of meat per person?” Well, including me that’s 51 people, but still…

He pointed at the ground meat patty on bread. “It reduces by close to a quarter when cooked, and people are hungry on the road.” He shrugged. “We might have some extra, because no one else has been eating like you.” He smiled cheerily.

Tala had to admit that her plate was the only one she could see with two sandwiches. “Fair enough. Thank you, Brand.”

He bowed slightly. “You are too kind, Mistress Tala.”

Tala’s eyes flicked to the woman who had come up behind her. One of the richer passengers…Traveling with her husband, if I remember correctly. Tala nodded to Brand in turn and turned to go.

“Mistress Tala, is it?” The woman’s voice was soft but carried a tone of authority.

Tala turned to face the woman. “Yes. May I help you?”

The woman wore a simple, elegant travel dress of deep green linen. It was clearly very clean, if not new. The neckline was low, but not indecent, and the toes of soft leather slippers peaked out from under the embroidered hem. Tala kept herself from glancing down at her own outfit, which consisted of clean pants and a shirt with a stab slit stitched shut over her upper left breast. Tala still wore no shoes, but that was by choice.

After a moment’s silence during which the woman seemed to be examining Tala in turn, Tala cleared her throat. “I’m sorry, can I help you? I really am quite hungry.” She lifted her plate just slightly, to emphasize the point.

The woman’s eyes returned to Tala’s face. “Yes, of course. Are you the one they’re calling the Iron Vengeance, or some such thing?”

Tala felt her cheeks heat and blessed her iron salve for its added camouflage. “I’ve not heard that one, but it sounds like it might be meant for me…” After a moment, she continued. “So…Can I help you?”

The woman sighed, then glanced around and noted that no one else had come up to get food behind her. “I want a thunder bull horn.”

Tala took a moment to absorb that. To the side, now behind the woman’s back, Brand was nodding and giving Tala an affirmative gesture. “Alright. I’ll see what I can do.” Brand smiled, and the woman seemed to relax. Even so, Tala found herself frowning. “What fee would you be willing to pay for this harvest?”

“Well…” She swallowed. “Two gold ounces?”

Tala’s eyes widened, and she was about to accept enthusiastically, but Brand was shaking his head. Tala changed tact. “Two? Are you sure?”

“Well, I don’t need a full horn…”

“And I have to fight a magical creature to get it. It’s not like I can just rip off a piece of the beast’s horn and run away.” She might actually be able to do that, but it was unlikely to succeed long-term.

The as of yet unnamed woman seemed to deflate, just slightly.

“Let’s start over. I’m Tala. What is your name?”

“You may call me Janice.”

“Janice.” Tala nodded. “In order to get you a thunder bull horn, I must slay the beast and have time to harvest from it. As we cannot halt the caravan, that means that I cannot guarantee time to harvest other pieces for which I have use.”

Janice sighed. “Fine, fine. That makes sense, I suppose. Five gold ounces?”

Tala didn’t let her gaze move to Brand, but she could still see him, as he shrugged. A reasonable price. “Could work. Do you need both horns?”

Janice shook her head. “No. One will be more than sufficient. Thank you.”

Tala nodded. I wonder what she wants it for. “I will do what I can. We have an agreement?”

“We have an agreement.”

Tala nodded to Janice, before turning to walk to her table, cooling food held on the plate before her. What a strange woman.

Tala sat down beside Renix, across the table from Atrexia and Trent. “Evening.”

Atrexia set a hand-sized, flat, river rock on the table. It was covered in what looked to be copper wire, set into delicately carved grooves within the stone. The carving seemed to have been done so perfectly, or so long ago, that there were no longer any tooling marks visible. “Give me the vial.”

Tala cocked an eyebrow. “Good evening, Mistress Atrexia. I hope you had a pleasant day.” Tala turned to look at Renix. “Why yes, I did, Mistress Tala, thank you for asking. How was your day?” She turned to look back at Atrexia. “Oh, you know how it goes, sleep a little, perform mystically complex magic. All in a day’s work.”

Renix choked. “What!?”

Atrexia sighed. “Today was awful for many reasons. Thunder bulls are a pain to kill, and it took so long to manage it, we couldn’t even properly harvest the beast.” She made a face. “I hate leaving the thing to rot, when it is one of the most harvestable animals.”

Tala was taken aback. She actually felt the same as the other woman. Maybe, I misjudged her?

“In addition, I had to devote resources to analyzing a truly heinous bit of magic, which is nothing but a child’s attempt at true art.”

And…good feelings gone.

“Now, give me the newest abomination so we can test it and move on with our lives.”

Tala opened her mouth to argue, but Trent shook his head once, then quirked an eyebrow, tilting his head towards Atrexia, clearly indicating that she should just follow instructions. Tala sighed and pulled out the vial, handing it over.

“There. Happy now?”

“Hardly.”

Renix was looking around at each of them in turn. “Ummm… Mageling here…Can someone explain?”

Trent gave Tala a mildly irritated look then simply said. “One step to being raised to Archon is to create a self-sustaining spell-form, called an Archon star. Tala has accidentally stumbled upon a way of creating something similar, and we are investigating.”

Renix’s eyes widened, and he looked to Tala. “That’s amazing!”

She grinned. “Got to pass the time somehow, right?”

In that short time, Atrexia had removed the cap from the vial, and was now holding the rock over the opening. Power rippled across the copper to Tala’s mage-sight, and a symbol that Tala didn’t recognize flashed into view of her normal vision.

Atrexia’s face registered shock. “Your guess was right, Master Trent.” She looked at Tala, narrowing her eyes. “What did you do?”

“You tell me what you found, and I’ll tell you how I did it.”

Atrexia commented under her breath, “Child.”

Tala did not vocalize her response. It would have been unprofessional.

Tala watched as Atrexia returned her attention to the iron vial.

Atrexia sighed, shaking herself free of some of her lingering irritation. She addressed Tala when she spoke. “This…star is just almost twice as potent as the one I analyzed earlier today.”

“Twice?” Tala found herself surprised as well. “Huh, that’s strange.”

Atrexia waited for a moment, but just a moment. “Well?”

“The first was a combination of two efforts of power, and I would have guessed the first was miniscule, when compared to the second. Together, they made up the first star I showed Trent, which he took to you.”

Atrexia didn’t look like she believed Tala, but she remained silent.

“This afternoon, I made a second star and placed them into the same vial.” Tala shrugged. “There was a flicker of power and an odd, resonant sound. When I looked, there was only that.” She nodded her head to the vial, still in Atrexia’s hand.

Atrexia looked to Trent, who nodded affirmation. “That’s what I saw, as well as my understanding of events.” He smiled wryly. “Just as I’ve already told you.”

Atrexia sighed. “Fine, fine. But are you telling me that you’ve somehow…what? Increased your output or efficiency on your second attempt?”

Tala shrugged. “It seems like you’re telling me that.”

Atrexia frowned but capped the vial and handed it back. “I’m not sure how I feel about this…” She glanced to Trent, then rolled her eyes. “But…it is a fully stable, manifested spell-form, which resembles an Archon star. I will certify such in Alefast.”

Tala nodded. “Thank you, I think? I’m still not really sure what that means.”

Atrexia blinked a few times. “What do you mean?”

Trent put his forehead down on his palm, groaning quietly.

Tala realized that Trent had not told Atrexia about her own situation and recent graduation. She cleared her throat. “I mean that I’ve never known anyone who's gone through the process before.” She shrugged. “I don’t know what to expect.”

Atrexia narrowed her eyes as she examined Tala’s face for a moment, then sighed, shrugging. “I suppose I don’t either. Most Mages that make it there reach Archon in their late fifties, and I’ve not socialized with the previous generations of Mages overmuch.” Speaking to herself, under her breath, she added, “I am not ok with this fledgingly girl becoming the first Archon I've met, before their raising.”

Tala grinned at her but took a large bite of her food as soon as Atrexia seemed to notice. Oh my…This is fantastic. She needed to see if Brand and his fellow cooks had a recipe book, or something. Everything of their make that she ate was beyond compare. Or, Tala, you just like food, and you’re hungry. It could be that; she supposed.

Despite starting after the other three, and having more, Tala finished her food first and was sitting comfortably, when she felt flickers of dimensional magic. She spun around, searching everywhere, but couldn’t find the source, even though it felt close by. As she was looking about, she saw Janice moving back towards her own wagon. Right!

“Oh! I forgot to say: We only have about a day and a half of travel left, correct?”

Trent gave her a searching look. “Yes…why?”

Tala nodded. “Then, I need to kill a thunder bull, tomorrow.”

Atrexia leaned forward, placing her head in both her hands, and groaned. “Of course, she does…”

 

* * *

 

Tala slept very well that night, under her re-borrowed shield, atop the cargo wagon.

Before she’d turned in for the night, she’d secured Brand’s assurance that if she brought down a thunder bull, with enough time to work, he would jerk as much of the meat for her as possible. She, in turn, promised to help in the harvesting of the bones and other parts.

Dealing with Atrexia had been surprisingly easy. I suppose I’ve pushed her to the point that she’s given up? Trent had taken a bit of convincing, but as he’d said before, he couldn’t actually stop her.

Thus, when she woke in the cool pre-dawn air, and rose to find a single thunder bull staring back at her from the next hill over, she was overjoyed. It looked to be a lone, young bull, likely newly out on its own. It did look a little frazzled, or stressed? Can cattle look stressed? Maybe harried…

She shook her head, refocusing. I cannot be this lucky. Keeping her eye on the bull, she decided to charge the cargo-slots first, just in case something went terribly wrong.

It was hard to force herself to focus, but she did it, taking a little longer than the day before, due to her distraction and newly wakened state. She’d gotten used to having time to stretch and bring her thoughts under control before charging the cargo-slots, and the alteration of the pattern added to her mind’s disgruntlement.

Finally, she had her gear stored, the shield leaning where she’d promised to leave it, and she realized: I have no way to kill a thunder bull.

She groaned, scratching the center of her forehead, a frown creasing her features.

I’ve a knife, but that won’t kill it any quicker than a bee sting would me. What do I have?

To her joy and surprise, she could still feel the barest lingerings of the ending-berry’s power, which she’d eaten the morning before. Nearly 24hrs, eh? That was good. Well, truth be told she had no idea what that actually meant, but it wasn’t bad… she hoped.

She refocused on the bull, peaceably chewing its cud less than a quarter mile away. Think, Tala. How can you end the beast? Her eyes widened, and she found herself grinning. The ending stick.

She fished the short stick out, quickly looking it over to ensure that the iron salve containment hadn’t been broken. It hadn’t.

How do I make this an effective weapon? She could break it in half, but then she’d have two shorter sticks, and she’d be faced with the same problem, later.

Then, she had a thought.

Grinning to herself, she pulled out the larger, rougher vial and opened it. It fits!

Using her knife, she careful scraped the iron salve off of one end of the stick, and as soon as she saw the ending stick’s power, clearly radiating through, she thrust it into the iron vial, using the vial's cord to hook on a nub of the little stick.

There. Contained.

It wasn’t perfect, and she’d have to work out a more secure way to store it long term, but for now? It was a good plan.

Humming happily to herself, she strode out of the camp, angling out to circle slightly to one side of the bull.

One of the guards had to have seen her depart, but no one spoke to her or tried to prevent her departure.

It took her less than five minutes to draw near to the massive animal, and she found herself pausing, little more than fifty feet away.

That’s…a big bull.

The beast was easily twice the size of one of the caravan’s oxen, and it was eyeing her, a look on its face of…not curiosity. Like a bird eyeing a stick that was resting beside a pile of seed. Oddly specific comparison.

She shook her head, considering. It can’t see any magic about me. If their mage-sight, or whatever their equivalent is, is more sensitive than most humans, they might even use it to see what is or is not a creature or a threat. They could use that to determine the nature of anything they faced. She almost laughed. I might just look like some strange bit of mud that is flowing its way.

It was now or never, and she wasn’t sure how the beast would react if she turned her back on it.

She strode forward, the stick in her right hand, her left clutching the vial atop it, the cord no longer holding it in place.

Forty feet.

The bull bent down to take another mouthful of grass.

Thirty feet.

It looked up, eyeing her.

Twenty feet.

It shifted, orienting its head her way, its back end swinging around away from her.

Ten feet, it lowered its head and let out a low chuff of questioning inquiry.

Tala lunged forward, ripping the vial free.

Now, the bull could easily see the power radiating from the ending stick, and it released a tremendous bellow of challenge. The beast’s head, lowering defensively, was just above her eye level.

Her mage-sight saw power tearing through the beast, quickly building towards an attack, directed at her.

The ending stick struck home, as she thrust it into the top of the bull’s skull.

In that instant, quite a few things happened at once.

First, Tala’s mind came truly, fully awake, and she remembered something. Oh…right… the ending stick dissolves things…

Second, the power in the ending stick exploded into the bull’s skull. The ending stick’s power was shaped to work as part of a larger tree, so it attempted to draw in more power to throw into the dissolution of the bull. It found none, and the iron salve prevented it from pulling from Tala, herself. In that instant, the stick eviscerated itself, draining itself entirely, even breaking apart the bonds within its cellular structure in a final desperate attempt to strike down its target.

Tala’s hand closed on almost empty air, her fist filling with a puff of iron dust.

Third, the bull’s own, internal magics strongly objected to being dissolved, and waves of reinforcing power swelled to defend the great creature.

The result was both spectacular and horrifying.

The ending stick had spent its power, its very existence, to obliterate a circle of the bull’s head roughly two feet wide and four inches deep. Just deep enough to fully expose that portion of the bovine’s brain.

The bull’s scalp and cranial cap had puffed to dust. The brain beneath was surprisingly large, fairly folded, and very much alive.

It was then that the bull’s counterattack manifested, and its species’ name- thunder cattle -was proved applicable. As she saw the power flicker forward, Tala closed her eyes.

Lightning struck from the clear sky in a column four feet wide, utterly enveloping Tala in light and power.

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JLMullins

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