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Tala inhaled, long and slow once more, focusing on the power coming in with the air, as well as the power leaking into her lungs.

Eyes open, she exhaled, while willing the power to come together, compressing it into as small a point as possible as it left her mouth.

As soon as the magic left the inside of her body, she lost sway over it, and it attempted to come to equilibrium with the air around her.

There was a pop, and a minute flicker of light as the power dispersed.

Tala’s breath caught. That shouldn’t be possible. Humans can’t create magic without spell-lines. We can only…She gasped. Move power around within ourselves. That’s all that she had done. To be fair, only Immaterial Guides could manipulate power, freely, within themselves. Magic was, after all, Immaterial. Though Immaterial Creators can’t make it…Or can they? I’d bet it’s like making gold, it takes more power than it gives benefit.

She returned her focus to what she’d just done. The power had left her because it was in the air she’d exhaled. She hadn’t cast it forth as a spell.

She bent back over her notebook, recording what she had done and the result. Without a better way to describe the sound, she settled on: ‘It creates a pop, which sounds like a cork shooting from a bottle, but heard through your chest.’ It was not a great description.

A world of very foolish ideas opened before her. Could I direct the power within my lungs into a kinetic force amplification form? The most likely outcome would be bursting her lungs from the inside, so she held off on that.

Tala had heard of Mages who treated their spells almost like breath-weapons, breathing out their spells. Barbaric shamans of the past would cut themselves and fling out spells. She’d always thought of both as strange, but what if they were each doing what she had just done? Creating spell-forms within themselves and then finding a way to send them forth.

She let out a barking laugh, realizing that someone, at some point in history, had likely tried to urinate spells. Assuming I’m right…

She then felt a bit of embarrassment at having thought of the shamans as barbaric. Spell-forms in blood is exactly how I’ve been making my Archon star variant…And how everyone checks for identification and certification, though, without the form.

She needed to test this. Gravity. I have the best grasp on that.

She picked up a pencil and held it in front of her. Then, she took a deep breath, quickly bringing to mind a very basic gravity spell-form. It simply would deny gravity’s effects to an area.

She moved to impose the simple spell-form onto the power within her lungs.

It was much trickier than she’d hoped.

The power fought her, seeming not to want to follow her guidance, and it didn’t seem to want to flow as she expected, like trying to cut a hard, round herb with a dull knife. It kept slipping and sliding, and she could feel how dangerous it would be if it slipped fully from her grasp.

Her breath held, she bore down and forced it into shape, maintaining her mental construct both of the spell-form she was guiding the power through and the results the spell should accomplish.

She failed.

She let out a breath, the power popping violently within her mouth as she exhaled. It felt like someone had kicked her in the teeth… from the inside.

“Ow…”

She took a few calming breaths, focusing solely on using the correct pattern of inhalation and exhalation. To her surprise, she realized that the long, deep breath through her nose should be perfect for building the spell-form and adding power to it in a slow, controlled way, and the quick exhale would expel the magic quickly enough to make it useful for delivering concentrated spells.

This wouldn’t work for a breath weapon. I’d need a long, steady exhale for that… How would that even work? I’m not going to experiment with heat-forms. Not only were they not her expertise, thus not easy for her to picture and therefore enact, but she was also highly aware that generating magical heat in her own lungs was a recipe for disaster.

Anti-gravity, right. She was about to attempt it again when she heard a horse ride up beside her wagon.

“Mistress Tala! What are you doing?”

Tala turned and leaned to look over the side of the wagon, down on Trent. “Master Trent?”

“Are you trying to get us killed?” He seemed a bit flustered.

She frowned. “What do you mean?”

“Are you sending out magical pulses?”

She opened her mouth to say no, then stopped. Oh… “Um… Possibly?”

Trent closed his eyes, clearly steadying himself. “Mistress Tala. We are trying to thread this pass without garnering the attention of anything… unpleasant. Why by all that breathes would you be sending out magical pulses?!” His voice was barely contained below shout.

“I apologize, Master Trent. I did not think that what I was doing would be so obvious.”

He pursed his lips. “It felt like you were poking me between the eyes, even without my magic-sight active. Whatever you were doing created ripples in all the magic in the area.”

Oh…rust.

He took another calming breath. “Thankfully, it seems to have gone unnoticed. Please-”

A strange, chuff chuff sound echoed out of the pass and across the caravan. It was as if a bear were sniffing at the wind, if the bear in question was the size of a mountain.

Tala turned to look back at the pass, and her mage-sight immediately highlighted two differences.

First, the magic coming out of the pass was even stronger than before, seeming to be rippling out like waves before a boat. Second, a blazing source of power was dropping down the sheer face of one of the mountains, deep in the pass, directly into their path.

She turned back to look at Trent as he stared down the pass. “Oh, child…what have you done.”

Tala stood, focusing down the pass once more, even while she was still unsteady on her feet. Not the best time to have balance issues…

She swallowed involuntarily at what she saw, concerns over her balance temporarily forgotten.

Where the arcanous creatures and plants she’d seen over the last few days had had magic in them, the beast striding their way was magic. Every fiber of its being inundated with power; a deep red aura underlay the magic she could see.

Though she’d never dug deeply into the study of magical creatures, even she knew of the kind coming their way.

A midnight fox.

As the name suggested, the basic appearance was that of a massive fox, its shoulder reaching higher than Tala’s head, even standing on the wagon top. Its eyes were a gleaming silver with black slits, and its fur was a matte black that more closely resembled tar than the fur of animals, though it moved easily enough. Flicks of light glinted off the sliver of its claws, and there was the wrinkle of small gusts of wind in the surrounding grasses from each movement of its tail.

There were two main deviations from the vulpine form; the first was two horns, one on each side of the head sprouting from just below the ear, curving inward, following the line of the upper jaw, and practically dripping with power. Her mage-sight gave her the impression of darkness, silence, and protection from those horns.

In addition to the horns, a pair of antlers sprouted up between the ears on top of the midnight fox’s head. While the horns were an almost steel grey color, banded with black, the antlers were as metallically silver as the midnight fox’s eyes and claws. The power coming from each reminded her of an incoming thunderstorm. Each antler had eleven points, and if she remembered correctly, they grew a new prong for each decade they’d lived. More than two hundred and twenty years old.

There was a terrible beauty to the animal, even at their current distance. It is young, for its kind. Midnight foxes were said to live for centuries, if not millennia, continuing to accumulate power as they aged. And that ignored the theory that all such were originally ordinary foxes that became so infused with power that they transformed. Do the antlers count their age from first birth, or from transformation? As she considered, she realized that it was hardly relevant.

“Master Trent…What now?”

Trent’s eyes were locked on the pass. “We have to know what it is. I can’t quite see it-”

“Midnight fox.” She cut across him. “Eleven prongs, per side, if my count is correct.”

He looked up at her sharply. “Are you sure?”

“As I can be. I’ve never seen one in person, but the standard markers are there. The horns and antlers, black fur that doesn’t look quite right, silver eyes, etc.”

Trent nodded. “Your mage-sight must be impressive to see it at this range. How did you get around the overstimulation-” He cut himself off. “This is hardly the time. I apologize. I must go speak with Mistress Atrexia.” As he turned to ride away, in search of the other Mage, he paused, glancing back at her. “Were you serious, when you offered to eliminate singular, large threats?”

She nodded. “It is the least I could do, given…”

He held up a hand, shaking his head. “With where it came from, it likely would have noticed us either way. Now we can face it before going into the pass, where it would have had the advantage.” He sighed. “I don’t think we will be able to drive it off, but we can hope.”

Tala frowned. That’s right. Truly magical creatures can’t be killed outright, not without incredible preparation. The best that can be hoped for is to kill this body and hope that there isn’t enough power in the area for it to come back.

Magical creatures were believed to be manifestations of the power in each region, which allowed ordinary animals to grow incredibly potent. Now that she thought about it, she’d never heard if the creature that came back was the same one, or if it was just usually the same kind. How would you even test that? Unique markings? Even if they were different, that wouldn’t prove that the intelligence inside were different… Magical creatures acted as if they were unconcerned of death, as almost universally they would never retreat, even in the face of certain bodily defeat. There were exceptions, but they were rare. All that considered, did it matter?

Not at the moment. Focus, Tala. “Is this one known?”

Trent was nodding. “It is one of those catalogued in the region, though I don’t recall it being spotted in the last fifty years or so. It hasn’t engaged caravans in the past.” He was scratching his chin. “It is definitely better than some of the others noted nearby.” He grunted. “I must go. Please be ready in case we need you.”

He turned and rode away just as the wagon jostled her more than usual, and she lost her balance, sitting down hard. “Ow…”

Tala took a long pull from her coffee jug, thinking. I could crush it, end the fight. But she was having trouble focusing, and balancing, and with magic in general. Her teeth still hurt from her earlier experiment. What’s this, Tala, not confident?

She let out an irritated grunt and drank more coffee. I’ll be ready if they need me. She deeply hoped that was the truth.

 

* * *

 

Less than an hour later, they were nearing the mouth of the pass, where the midnight fox waited, sitting back on its haunches, towering over the wagons.

The oxen were understandably skittish, but they were well trained and well handled. They wouldn’t flee without good cause.

Looks like a good cause to me…

Tala sat near the front of the lead wagon, and Trent, Atrexia, and Renix walked well in front of the oxen, Renix in the middle and a little behind. They had all left their Mage’s robes behind, and their spell-lines were fully uncovered. This would not be an easy fight, and they wanted every advantage.

The Mages were close to a hundred feet in front of Den’s oxen, and when they stopped, Den pulled his animals to a halt as well, maintaining the distance.

There were irregular waves of power coming from the midnight fox, but Tala couldn’t discern the exact source. To her mage-sight, the red aura of the beast made it look like it was bleeding out a fine mist, which swirled in the air around it. The fox didn’t move, maintaining its position in the very center of the surprisingly wide, level pass-entrance.

The pass itself stretched out behind the creature, nearly flat and wide enough for two wagons to easily pass with room to spare, before the sides rose sharply up.

Yeah, that’s definitely not natural.

The fox stood up, power moving up its antlers in waves, sparks jumping between the points.

With a yell, Atrexia countered, power flowed from the spell-lines around her ankles, through the rock surrounding them.

Spears of stone shot from the ground beside the midnight fox, driving into its body and head and throwing it to the side just as lightning manifested from its antlers.

The spears of stone did not pierce the fox’s fur, as power had surged in the fox’s horns to counter the attack. Tala could see a sheen of magic, cracked and dissolving, which had sprung into place across the vulpine body.

Even so, the fox’s lightning struck out in a cascading cavalcade of repetitive strikes, carving huge furrows in the earth as it skittered towards the Mages. Trent flicked his hand, and Tala thought she might have heard him utter something, but she wasn’t sure. Power reached out from his left arm, and the lightning diverted in its leaping path, digging up rock and soil towards the east.

The conflict devolved from there, the fox rolling to its feet and lunging for the Mages, using the motion to throw out another attack.

The strikes, counter strikes, blocks, and retreats of the four became almost a dance. They never closed the distance between them, despite the fox’s aggressive movements.

The three humans seemed to be barely holding their own against the massive creature, and Tala had to wonder why it didn’t charge, simply tearing them to shreds via tooth, claw, horn, and antler.

Power flashed in the mouth of the pass for nearly a minute before Tala sensed an issue. She stood in a rush, even as the midnight fox must have sensed the same thing. There was a missing piece to the human warding, a gap.

A lance of lightning coalesced, threading through the complex net of defenses the three humans were wielding, striking Renix full in the bare chest.

The young man was thrown backwards, tumbling feet over head again and again before coming to a rest near the oxen.

Tala quickly focused on him and determined that he’d prevented the power from penetrating his body, even though it had thrown him, and most of his injuries were due to the subsequent tumble across the rough ground. He was covered in scrapes and cuts, already welling with blood.

She looked back up in time to see the fox pounce atop Atrexia; its leap stopped by a dome of stone, which rose up in two halves to close over the Mage in a protective formation.

A spear of ice, as thick as Tala was tall, drove through the vulpine neck, courtesy of Trent, who had taken advantage of the animal’s distraction, but it only seemed to slow the great creature marginally.

Trent called out. “Mistress Tala!”

The midnight fox’s eyes turned to regard her, even as its antlers began the short process of charging for another raking lighting cascade.

There was no one between the fox and the caravan now, save the seemingly unconscious Renix.

Tala stared at the antlers, seeing the building power with all too much clarity.

“TALA!”

Her conscious mind frozen in horror; she acted on pure instinct; her right hand coming up as she extended her arm, palm out. Her first two fingers shook slightly as they extended towards the sky, the second two bending down. All four fingers and thumb were tucked close together.

She couldn’t take her eyes from the antlers, and thus, as she locked onto her target, only the fox’s antlers glowed blue to her sight.

No time to fix it. The lightning was about to be unleashed upon her.

Crush.

Unlike her restraining magic, there was no artistry, here, no calculations, no light touch. Her power seized the gravitational constant for the target and dumped power into increasing it.

The fox, sensing the incoming attack, seemed to activate the defensive fields of its horns, causing a glittering field to manifest across its form.

It didn’t matter.

One golden ring blazed to light on the back of Tala’s outstretched hand, and the fox’s head dipped slightly, the effective weight of the antlers quadrupling.

The lightning, it seemed, couldn’t be released through the fox’s own barrier, so the power still radiated in those metallic points.

Another golden ring blazed with power on the back of Tala’s upraised hand, before vanishing alongside the first.

The fox’s head dropped to the ground as the antlers quadrupled in weight, again.

The animal let out a furious snarl.

A third golden ring flashed away in a blaze of power, and fox began to try to scramble backwards, causing the antlers to unbalance and slam into the ground to the side. It was dragging its head across the soil, the antlers digging trenches. They might have broken off, but the fox's magical defensive field seemed to be protecting them.

A fourth golden circle triggered and the antlers, now two hundred and fifty-six times as heavy, cracked free from the fox’s skull.

POWER. Overwhelming, all-consuming power blossomed from the sharp tips, seeking to destroy. The fox’s defenses were strong, however, and that power couldn’t strike outward through its magical field. Instead, lightning tore through the creature in a brilliant blaze that briefly outshone the sun.

Tala turned away, stumbling as she twisted to shield her eyes, and she sat hard bruising her backside with the awkward landing.

She groaned rubbing her eyes to clear them before turning back towards the midnight fox.

There was no fox left to see.

Her mage-sight allowed her to perceive the remnants of the animal’s protective shield, just then fading away, allowing a laughably small dusting of ash to fall to the ground.

The midnight fox had been obliterated, entirely, by its own magic.

Tala looked at the back of her hand. Four. It took four rings, and even then, it only worked by happenstance.

Her fear had locked her concentration on the antlers alone, instead of the fox as a whole. One ring should have been enough to slay the beast outright, as most creatures are not structured to keep blood flowing when the blood was four times as heavy, and they will usually drop into unconsciousness almost immediately due to shock, to die shortly thereafter.

Still, she’d had a failsafe built in so that when she came across a particularly resilient enemy, the magics would ramp up until death was inevitable. That had both saved her, today, and cost her. Three castings…wasted. Her inability to overcome her momentary panic had cost her not only the inscriptions, but the manner of victory had eliminated any possibility of harvesting.

It was the worst sort of victory; the only consolation was that it had been a victory.

She tried to pull herself out of her self-deprecating musings, and as she did so she saw the earthen dome crumble away, Atrexia quickly taking in the remains of the battle.

Trent was already running towards Renix, and Tala found that Den was already beside the mageling, carefully shifting the man’s body to a more natural, prone position.

Atrexia didn’t run, but she did take up a quick pace as she returned to the caravan, herself.

Tala unsteadily climbed down the wagon and met Trent beside Renix.

The Mage took in his mageling’s state with a careful inspection and sighed. The young man was breathing, though clearly in a lot of pain, even while unconscious.

Trent looked up at Tala and smiled. “Thank you, Mistress Tala. That would have been…” He shook his head. “Thank you.”

Tala tried to smile in return but felt sick. I failed. She felt like someone who had bludgeoned an attacker to death with a sword, still in its scabbard. Sure, the threat was gone, but she was a clumsy oaf, alive more from luck than anything else.

When she didn’t reply, Trent stood from beside Renix and stepped around to her. “Hey? Are you alright?”

Atrexia arrived and immediately attended to Renix, not giving Tala a second glance. Even so, Tala turned away, so that the other woman wouldn’t see the tear, which had escaped one eye. “I’ll… I’ll be fine.”

Trent caught her up in a hug. “Thank you, Mistress Tala. No matter what, thank you. I might have been able to protect the caravan, but there was no easy endgame in that fight, after it knocked Renix away. Thank you.”

Tala hesitantly hugged him in return, silently nodding against his chest, before he let her go.

“Go, see if the cooks will get you some food. We’ll help Renix back to our wagon and be on the move again, soon.”

Tala nodded again and strode away in silence, Trent continuing to block her from Atrexia’s sight.

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JLMullins

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