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Even through Tala’s closed eyelids, the light from the thunder bull’s counterattack was blinding. In that instant, her entire body felt hot, as if she’d been standing, naked, beneath the sun, slowly rotating to be evenly toasty, for hours.

Eyes closed or not, she could see the ten-thousand licks of lightning, which had combined into the column of power. Her mage-sight could not be closed.

The electricity danced across the iron on her skin, heating it in a blinding instant. The heat threatened to burn her flesh, which activated her defensive enhancements, along with using up the last drops of ending-berry, defensive power. Though the iron-salve didn’t protect against the lightning, it did create an easy path for the power to flow across, thus shunting the lethal levels of power away from her internal organs.

Her palms had no iron salve to protect them from the magic, directly, or to redirect the flow, away from her flesh. Consequently, the power that struck there burned through the flesh itself, on the way towards the iron-salve on the surrounding tissue.

A horrifically clanging silence fell upon her, and she staggered.

The lightning had passed, and she caught herself on near-molten ground, a circle twenty feet wide blasted clear of grass, the earth beneath scooped out in a ring around her. She thought she might have even seen the flicker of some lightning glass within the dirt, but she wasn’t sure, given her eyes were not working properly. Everything was...wrong to her normal vision.

She felt power moving through the inscriptions across her ears, empowered and resonating, having dampened the booming thunder which otherwise had been enough to shatter her eardrums, at the very least, reducing it down to ‘just’ loud but not damaging.

The extra layers of defense on her feet, added so that she wouldn’t need shoes and wouldn’t exhaust her others, kept her flesh from melting on the still glowing ground. Even so, those inscriptions were guzzling all the power her keystone could send their way, and the smell of cooking meat was a subtle undercurrent below the overwhelming tingle of ozone in the air.

The bull let out a groan of misery, and Tala’s mage-sight saw licks of lightning dancing across the creature’s brain. Not used to using lightning without a skull, eh?

Tala’s eyes only saw dazzling brightness, overlaid with spots, though she could feel healing spell-forms activating to repair what damage had been done to them.

She tried to flex her hands, to reach for her knife, but instead, she let out a bellowing wail of agony.

Her palms were scorched, burned and charred almost to the bone. That would have been all of me.

She could feel power rushing through her in a torrent as her regeneration spell-forms activated and skin, muscle, and connective tissue began to reknit, and return to function. Those inscriptions worked around the already ablaze lines of power, which held what remained in place. The metal in her palms had already had magic flowing through it, and thus had not been able to channel the lightning into the rest of her or, again, she’d be dead.

She was alive.

Even so it hurt.

Yelling in rage more than pain this time, Tala kicked the side of the bull’s head, or at least the blob of color that her eyes presented before her. The move was done out of frustration and emotion more than a thought that it would do damage.

However, the damage had already been done. The bull was dead on its feet, brain fried by its own lightning magics.

Her kick triggered something within it, and the beast collapsed sideways.

As the thunder bull crashed to the ground with a very appropriate rumble, Tala felt further scripts activate across her scalp and was almost overcome by incredible itching.

Her hair had been incinerated, and Holly’s work was now regrowing it.

A similar, but much more pointed, itching exploded on her palms, and though they were smaller, it was much more intense.

Grimacing against the pain, she brought her palms together and rubbed them furiously, sloughing off the remainder of the dead material, revealing whole, new-grown skin.

She sighed, smiling. Not bad. She brushed her hands off on her pants, removing the remaining ash… or she tried.

Her clothing, like her hair, had been obliterated.

She was utterly, stark naked.

The one bright spot was that she’d left her satchel, and most of her equipment, back at the caravan. She’d come with the ending stick and the vial, in just her shirt and a pair of pants.

She’d even forgotten to strap on a knife.

I was under-prepared… But it had served her well. This time.

She’d have to go back to the caravan for new clothes. She looked down at the beast, now cooling against the ground. How am I going to get one of these horns off? Maybe she could borrow a saw?

There was no sign of her vial. It might have been flung into the surrounding countryside or buried in the upturned earth. She would likely never know. Oh, the losses we suffer… She chuckled at that, and then, the reality of how many ways she’d just come close to death began to crash over her, and she began to laugh harder.

She let her head fall backwards, spread her arms wide in a stretch and laughed and laughed.

Only the sound of horses’ hooves crunching on broken earth brought her back, and she turned to see a group of guards approaching cautiously.

She pointed at the front-most guard. “You. Your cloak, now.”

The man nearly jumped out of his saddle when she pointed at him, and nearly fell again as he ripped the garment from his shoulders and tossed it to her.

She draped it around herself, holding it closed with one hand, and smiled at the guards, who did not seem sure about approaching her. She glanced over her shoulder at the downed bull. Maybe it isn’t me they’re afraid of?

“It’s dead. Harvest away!” She grinned. “If you would be so kind as to free one horn for me, I’d be grateful. Either way, I’ll be back.”

The guards who’d been riding swung down, and they, along with those who’d been on foot, moved around her, to the great beast, never coming within arm’s reach.

Behind them, Brand’s two cooks approached tentatively. Tala smiled to them. “Will you have time to harvest the meat?”

They blinked at her, then glanced towards the horizon, where the barest hint of the sun’s edge was beginning to show. “I think we can.”

She glanced behind them where she saw that each of the two had a small, two-wheeled wagon. Her eyes narrowed as she looked closer. Are those foldable? It seemed likely.

“Hey!”

The two cooks jumped.

“My eyes are better.” She grinned at the men. “All’s well, eh?” Her mage sight still seemed a bit wonky, but it was recovering as well, if more slowly.

They laughed nervously and bowed as they went passed her to join the guards already working to gut the great bovine.

I hope they’re able to skin it, too; the guards deserve a bit of extra luck. She took a deep breath and let it out along with much of her tension. “I think.” She spoke softly to herself. “I think it’s time for breakfast.” After a moment, her smile grew. “And coffee. Definitely time for coffee.”

Without further delay, she strode back towards camp, clothes, and coffee. As the guards began to work in earnest, they’d started to speak to one another in low voices. Nonetheless, Tala caught snatches of it.

“It attacked her, but she just screamed at it, and the attack failed!”

“One kick. One kick, and it has a hole blown in its head! How could a kick even do this?”

“She punched it first, the kick was just a finishing blow.”

“Hah! It was dead on its feet from her punch! The kick was just to topple the thing.”

“Speaking of kicks, did you see those legs?”

“Legs? Are you blind man! Didn’t you see her-” Tala stopped listening after that.

She could return after breakfast to harvest a bit for herself, before the caravan departed. I need to secure a horn, at the very least.

Her to-dos settled, in her own mind at least, Tala strode determinedly into camp, keeping the guard’s cloak carefully closed.

No one approached her as she went to her box on the side of her wagon and pulled out the clothes that she needed. I’m going to be harvesting more, anyways. She pulled on the bloodstained pants and shirt, pants first, working to keep herself covered by the cloak.

That done, she placed the cloak to the side, folding it in preparation to be returned to the guard who’d given it to her. She moved through her stretches, mindful of the eyes of the camp on her, furtive though they were.

No exercises this morning. I’ve a schedule to keep.

Stretching complete, she went to the chuckwagon and grabbed a large mug of coffee. She didn’t move as she downed the whole thing. It had been a little hot, but not enough to burn her.

This, she assured herself, is the start of a wonderful day.

 

* * *

 

Tala smiled as she sucked down the last drops of her second mug of coffee. “Ah! Thank you, Brand.” She held out the mug, and he dutifully refilled it.

“Are you alright? I couldn’t really see what happened from here, but a guard came to inform us that a thunder bull was available for harvest.” He tilted his head inquisitively. “Got the horn already?”
She smiled back. “Assuming the guards get it for me.” She shrugged. “I’ll go back myself in a bit, to see what I can grab. Honestly, they’re probably too busy to do that work for me.”

“You look healthier today.”

She paused at that. “What do you mean?”

“You…” He smiled, thinking. “You’ve got more color to you. Even your hair seems a lighter shade. Maybe, all the time outside is doing you good?”

She didn’t really know what to say to that. “Umm… Thank you? I suppose.”

He nodded to her and handed her a plate with three mini, egg-and-sausage pies.

She took the plate and lifted it in a gesture of salute. “Thank you for this.”

Plate in one hand, coffee in the other, she strode to a table and plopped down, beginning to devour her breakfast immediately.

Trent wandered over; his own breakfast ostensibly finished. “So…that was a bit insane.”

She grinned up at him, around her food. “Worked though, didn’t it?”

He sighed and sat down across from her. “Just because a gamble pays off, doesn’t mean it was a wise gamble.”

She gestured towards him with the remains of her last pie. “Wise words.”

He looked at her curiously. “Something seems different about you…”

She shrugged. “Brand says I look healthier.” She washed her mouth clear with coffee and grinned. “Maybe danger suits me?”

Trent frowned. “May I look?”

She instantly understood that he meant with his mage-sight. “By all means.” She saw power weave across his face, and then felt a tingle from her keystone. Someone was observing her with magic. She froze. I shouldn’t be able to feel that.

Trent’s eyes widened. “By all that shines. Mistress Tala. How many spell-forms do you have active?”

She looked down at her own hands and finally registered what had seemed odd.

Her iron salve had been burned, or blasted, away.

Oh, slag. “Ummm…a few?”

“A few? Tala, it looks like you have complete inscriptions individualized for each small patch of skin, and they are all active.” He frowned, seeming to be trying to look deeper. “Do you have multiple layers of inscribings?”

And, I need to leave. “That’s a good question, for another time.” She stood, turning to take her plate and mug back to the chuckwagon and came face to face with Atrexia.

“You.”

“Me?”

“You! You-” She stopped, looking around at the other people present, who were conspicuously not looking at the yelling Mage. Atrexia took a deep breath and spoke levelly, through gritted teeth. “You were quite phenomenal, dispatching that thunder bull. Well done.” Under her breath, the Mage added. “You are a fool of the highest order, child. I cannot believe that you assaulted a thunder bull on your own.”

Tala grinned, understanding the position that Atrexia was in. She responded in a normal tone, not attempting to prevent others from overhearing. “Thank you, Mistress Atrexia. I am gratified that my strategy was successful.” Tala gave a slight nod and stepped around the other woman.

Atrexia spoke under her breath, again. “This isn’t over, Mistress Tala. I will not allow your folly to cost me this caravan.”

Tala ignored her. As she walked away, though, she heard Trent whisper, too quiet for her to hear at this distance, but whatever he said caused Atrexia to spin, and a pulse of magic washed across what Tala presumed was her face. Without turning around, it was hard to tell.

Hey! I can sense behind me now, with some precision. She’d only had vague feelings before. Was the change a side effect of the loss of the iron salve, or something else? She’d have to investigate further. Tala’s keystone tingled again, letting her know that she was being observed with magic.

Atrexia let out a low, startled gasp, barely loud enough for Tala to hear, though it seemed unintentionally so.

She sensed the source of magic which was Atrexia’s mage-sight sink lower, and the bench creaked just slightly.

I really need to salve up…

She quickly dealt with her dishes and returned to her wagon to fetch a bar of iron salve. That in hand, she went outside the circle of wagons and quickly did her best to cover herself, once again.

It was an imperfect job, but she could improve it later. After all, there was the harvest in progress, and time was wasting.

Tala, newly clothed and fully geared up, strode back across the rolling grass as camp began to be taken down behind her. If schedules held, she didn’t have much time, maybe only half an hour. She’d asked Den, and he’d said their path would take them past the carcass, though she wasn’t sure if that was because that was the best path, or because Den was being kind.

She arrived to find the cook’s pull carts piled with carefully packaged meat. Apparently, one of the carts had held a folding table and a set of butcher’s knives, because the two of them were working at a furious pace atop just such a table, processing the massive animal.

On the carcass itself, the guards were working together to try to roll the massive animal, now much lighter without the guts and large sections of its muscle. They were not having success.

Tala bit her lip, considering for just a moment, before calling out to the men. “Step back!”

They obeyed instantly, jumping away from the body and allowing it to settle back to the ground.

Tala held out her hand, palm towards the beast. Her first two fingers were extended towards the sky, the second two bent down. All four fingers and thumb were tucked close together. To her sight, the body lit up with a blue light. She had been careful to target the body as a whole, not imagining the individual pieces. In this way, it could continue to be carved up and manipulated, but as each piece was taken away, that piece would fall outside the purview of her working. She thought it would hold until roughly half the beast had been harvested.

Restrain.

A golden circle blazed on the back of her hand, near the knife edge of her palm. Seven castings used.

Power flowed at her direction, flicking through the needed calculations. It was a blessing that gravity didn’t care about the mass of a target; all things were equal before it.

Kinetic energy was redirected to lift it off of the ground.

As such, when her power created an exception, precisely altering the gravitational constant for this corpse in particular, it hovered in place, now in a stable orbit just over a foot above the ground.

“Don’t get under it. It should stay stable until roughly half of what’s left is removed, but don’t trust your life to that.”

The men were gaping, but at her words they all uttered their understanding, quickly diving back in to work.

The corpse spun easily for them, though it still took quite a bit of effort to both overcome the inertia at the start and to stop it moving once they got it going. Even so, the alteration allowed them to strip the other half of the hide in mere moments.

I should have done this before I left…

She couldn’t go back, now. Time's wasting. She pulled out a handsaw that Den had lent her and walked up to the head of the great beast. The guards had not gotten to the horns, yet.

Off to the side, two guards were stripping the now freed hide of the remaining strips of fat and flesh, which had clung to the inside. Several others were helping carry large slabs of meat to the cooks, who were eyeing the sky, clearly trying to decide whether it was time to start carting the meat they had back.

It seemed that they decided on a compromise, continuing to work while sending back the two carts, each maneuvered by two guards.

The final four guards were cutting away connections between bones, to free those for salvage. Now that Tala was looking, she saw the gut pile a little down-slope of the great corpse, and as she saw that, she also saw something else.

The terror bird was ripping away at the great bull’s heart, its eyes firmly locked on her as it ate.

The guards had noticed the animal, and were keeping a wary eye, but there seemed to be an uneasy truce of sorts. The bird was content, and clearly realized that there would be leftovers once the humans left. It had not needed to fight.

Still, it made Tala nervous.

Nope, I’ve got a job to do. She placed her saw against the great horn and began working. The bull was no longer free-spinning, and enough of the guards had grips on the animal that it didn’t shift greatly as she sawed away. It was tedious work, not because it was hard, but because the horn was massive, nearly a foot thick at the base, and she was cutting it as close to the skull as possible. The horns went straight out for a short span, then curved dramatically inward to point forward. All the better to gore you with, dear Tala.

She did not shudder at the idea of even more ways that she could have died. It was, after all, time to saw.

An interesting side-effect of her spell was that the horn never broke free. Up until the final stroke of the saw separated the horn from the skull, it remained perfectly in place, despite large amounts of blood welling out around the cut. You know? I never thought about it, but I bet the horns are more like fingernails than bone… True to that thought, the centers did seem to be more tissue than hard material, though she was cutting close enough to the skull that a large part of what she cut through was the bone nub to which the horn was attached.

It was…messy work.

When the connection was finally broken between the horn and head, the horn dropped to the ground.

The horn probably weighed almost forty pounds, which actually surprised her. I thought it would be heavier. After a moment’s thought, she realized that even having eighty pounds of horn on an animal’s head would already be a strain, and, after all, the magics running through the piece were potent forms that hinted at bone stability, strength, and regrowth. Also…bone destruction? Are these used to crush their enemies?

I wonder what Janice wanted this for, anyways… As she contemplated, she began sawing off the other horn. If one is valuable, then two are. She had been mildly surprised that the thunder cattle didn’t have lightning magics in their horns, but apparently, such powers were housed in the brain. Somehow. Interesting that the brain had still been vulnerable to those magics…

She didn’t touch that.

Instead, once both horns were free, she coated one with her iron salve, and set them aside. She didn’t coat the one she’d gotten for Janice, because she had no idea what purpose the woman needed the item for, and she was loath to do something that might make her reckless venture end as a failure.

Horns claimed, she turned her mage-sight back to the body as a whole, focusing on the points of greatest power, regardless of the type.

It wasn’t surprising to her that, as she saw the final scraps of the beast’s massive heart vanish down the terror bird’s gullet, she noted that that had been the greatest point of power, aside from the brain. Nope, not touching that. For some reason, the idea of harvesting an animal’s brain did not sit well with her. She clearly wasn’t alone as no guard touched it, either.

The guards had returned with the empty pull-carts and were now helping the cooks load the rest of the butchered meat, along with as many of the remaining slabs as they could fit. Even so, they were going to leave a city banquet’s volume of meat behind.

I suppose it’s hard to butcher a literal ton of meat in close to an hour. Still, if she was right, they’d gotten as much meat as might be gathered from two or three mundane cattle.

I am going to have so, so much jerky. She grinned. Worth it in every way.

Back at the wagon circle, the oxen were being hitched up, and everyone not on duty was climbing back into their own wagons.

The guards working to harvest the great bull were clearly from the other shifts, as a full complement were moving through their assigned tasks around the wagons.

In the end, Tala’s clothes had yet more blood drying them, and she had secured for herself two horns. Frustratingly, most other pieces which the Order of the Harvest’s book had indicated had already been claimed by the cooks, but she couldn’t really blame them for that. After all, she was stepping into their sphere. Thus, she’d mainly worked to help the other harvesters’ efforts.

She gathered up her haul and trudged back towards the caravan. Den, driving the lead wagon, met her halfway.

He hooked his reins on a mount beside his seat and jumped down to help her with her burdens, even as the oxen continued apace. Together, they got her satchel, tools and everything into her box, save the two horns, one because it wouldn’t fit, the other because she intended to visit Janice right away.

They were able to get the salved horn up onto the wagon’s roof, and Den didn’t even give her an exasperated look. Instead, he smiled and asked if there were any further ways in which he could help.

Bless the man. She said no, and he bowed and jogged to hop and pull himself back into the driver’s seat.

Similar events were playing out up and down the caravan as guards helped unload the cook’s harvests, along with their own, storing everything appropriately.

Tala hefted the weighty, naked horn and smiled, placing the inside of the curve across her shoulders.

“Time to collect.”

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JLMullins

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