Tala didn’t know if she’d been asleep for a moment or hours, but when Terry jumped up, she suddenly found herself fully awake, throwing off her coverings.
“What’s going on?” She looked around frantically, her vision slightly blurry but clearing fast.
Her sleep addled mind, while awake, was not focused yet, even as she tried to take in their surroundings.
No one else was awake, but Terry was staring up at the cloudy sky, crouched and wary.
Tala looked up as power flickered around the terror bird, taking him away.
She had just enough time to blearily wonder why a large portion of the sky was so much darker than the rest when an arcanous avian slammed into her, its massive talons closing around her torso.
She didn’t have time to fight as it snatched her from the roof of the wagon, bearing her off into the cloud shrouded sky.
Tala’s first reaction was to yell for help, but the nearly crushing grip of the great bird kept her from drawing a full breath, and the initial impact had driven the air from her lungs in a soundless whoosh.
Unable to scream, she tried to turn and bring her magic to bear, but she had been snatched in a way to force her to be face down, and so all she could see was the ground rushing past, below.
In theory, she could lock onto the creature by targeting the talons, wrapped around her, but she was iffy on the result, which might just be the claws opening to drop her.
Now that she thought about it, even if she could target the beast, best case would be the bird dropping from the air like a super heavy rock, to land directly on top of her.
Not a great plan, Tala. Could she use Restrain? That wasn’t designed to affect anything this high up…what would it even do? It was probably not a good idea to test that spell-working with her life on the line.
What else did she have at her disposal?
Her knife. Yeah, that would work.
The caravan was already lost to her sight in the blackness, and if her eyes weren’t deceiving her, snow was beginning to fall. Just my luck. She almost laughed at that. She knew she’d been lucky of late. Just my fate? She hoped to the stars that this wasn’t reality balancing the scales…
Flickers of dimensional energy zig-zagged across the landscape below her, but if she was right in her guess, she was moving much faster than a galloping horse…or a teleporting terror bird.
Right, knife! She scrabbled at her side, trying to get to the weapon that she had hanging there, but couldn’t reach it as it was pinned to her side by one of the massive taloned toes.
She panted, trying to draw in enough breath for her continued efforts. Where is it taking me?
She craned her neck, looking in the direction they were flying, allowing herself to focus and her mage-sight to activate, despite the range.
Mountains loomed before and below her, the largest were not close, but they were coming closer far faster than she’d have wished. Hanging her head down, she actually thought she could see the lights of cities in the distance in varying directions. How high are we?
That prompted her to check her ending-berry power reserves. Not bad. She wished she had more, and she wasn’t sure if it would protect her from such a fall…
Wait until we land? It was likely taking her back to its nest to eat her… Why not kill me and eat me closer?
The obvious answer came to her mind immediately. Babies… She’s going to feed me to her babies.
Tala had no issues killing baby monsters, though she doubted it would be that easy. If I’m even right…Maybe just back to the flock?
Her arms were free, but the strength of the grip around her middle left no doubt as to the power of the bird holding her aloft. So, she didn’t even try to pry the talons open. Not worth the effort.
She briefly considered trying to pull the knife to her hand, spiritually, but dismissed the idea. If she tried to pull it out, it would have to overcome the strength of the talon holding it in place. I’ll have to wait until we land to fight.
This was a new experience. Most of her violent encounters had been sudden, save her slaying of the thunder bull for which she had a plan, however dubious. Now, she knew that she would be in a fight for her life very soon, but not now.
I can pull magic to fuel the sword, and that is likely my best weapon, beyond gravitation magic, which may or may not easily work… The midnight fox was still fresh in her mind, and if anything, she felt more stressed about this fight than that.
Ok. Focus, Tala. Don’t think about then, think about now.
She took a deep breath…well, she tried.
She took several slow, shallow breaths. I need as much magic as I can get.
Tala threw her gate wide, pulling magic into herself and keeping it close around her gate, not allowing it to pour through her inscriptions. As Holly had demonstrated some weeks before, Tala already had a very high magic density. Under duress, Mages could usually hold beyond their capacity for a short time, but it was only a fraction more than normal.
For Tala, a fraction more was still an ocean of power to most new Mages. Probably not Archons, but still…
She drew deeply, doing her utmost to increase the flow, which would also help sustain the sword when she invoked it.
Scant minutes later, she was truly full, near to bursting, and the mountains only appeared a bit nearer. Huh, I started too early… She examined the mountains, seeing that the tallest were farther than she’d originally thought and much bigger.
Her focus also highlighted close to a dozen more flying, arcanous creatures, lower down.
Tala’s abductor seemed to be losing altitude, heading for those other birds. If her guess was right, it hadn’t even been half an hour since she’d been snatched up. And…can’t wait. Here’s hoping!
She was belly down, so her first two fingers were extended towards the ground, rather than the sky. The second two bent down. All four fingers and thumb were tucked close together. She then slapped the clawed foot holding her, and the avian blossomed white to her vision, even the wing tips, which occasionally came into view lit up. Yes!
She was not startled that the color of her targeting had changed. It simply made sense. Blue, now, meant something different to her, especially after the distant conflict she’d so recently witnessed.
Focus, Tala. Mind on the fight.
She extended the two bent, outer fingers, altering the configuration of the spell-forms. Crush.
Power leapt through her already wide-open gate and down the spell-lines for her one lethal attack-spell.
The gravitational constant was altered for the large bird, and they suddenly began to drop.
Yes! Now, I just need to survive… could I get into Kit if it lets me go? That might actually work…
Power exploded from the bird, as its reservoirs of power began to drain at a markedly increased rate, granting greater lift to the creature, and they leveled off.
Oh, come on!
Her spell-forms were still active, the target still intact. A second golden circle burned away. The exception her magic had created for the target within the gravitational constant was amended. The beast’s weight quadrupling, again.
They began dropping once more, much faster this time. Tala pushed downward. It was an odd sensation.
Again, the beast pulsed with power. It reacted more quickly this time, and it began gaining altitude instead of just leveling off.
Not good… It’s now an endurance game. But she had seventeen rings to throw at this stupid bird. It was laughable in the extreme to think the beast could resist what would end up being billions of times the normal force of gravity…
Yeah… I’ll die from any impact far weaker than that.
The other arcanous avians were getting closer.
A third golden ring was burned away, and it was too much for the bird that was carrying her. It streaked for the ground.
In the animal’s panic, it began flailing. Tala was tossed out into open sky with a slight upward arc, relative to the plummeting bird. Huh, that worked out well.
Another avian snatched her as she began to arc back down. Or not. Are you rusting kidding me!
She targeted the new avian, even as a fourth ring burned away, activating just before her original kidnapper slammed into the ground with a thunderous boom, the sickening snapping of bones were a subtle background to the greater cacophony of the general impact.
The new bird didn’t seem content to just carry her, and it began pecking at her, even as it tightened its grip. They were probing jabs, that didn’t even pierce her elk-leather, yet.
Rust you, too! It was already targeted. Crush.
It immediately began to plummet, flinging her aside. The new bird was clearly weaker than the first, because it never recovered, though its struggling did prolong its plummet towards the ground and death long enough that a second golden ring was burned, to increase the pull.
Six down… not good. Her spell-forms were not designed for aerial combat.
She began laughing a bit manically as she fell. Humans aren’t designed for aerial combat!
Another bird struck at her as she fell, and she lashed out. Despite her now spinning perspective, the rushing wind, and the quickly approaching ground, she got a lock. Crush! The third one dropped towards its death.
A fourth swooped up, catching her and carrying her up quickly. The sudden switch of direction whipped her neck painfully, or it should have been, but the ending-berry power came through. By the sensation, and the amount of power lost, small though it was, she should have just broken her neck and spine in at least four places.
This just gets better and better.
To her surprise, her knife was now uncovered, though she couldn’t reach it.
She called it from her belt, and it whipped into her waiting hand. Flush with power, she dumped it into the knife, and it flowed outward into the shape of a sword, even as she swept it behind her back. The great bird, she still couldn’t tell what species it was, screamed in abject agony, and Tala fell free, still clutched in the now severed claws.
She stopped the flow of power to her sword, and it returned to the form of a knife. She kept her gate thrown wide, taking the brief space of time to begin refilling her body’s reserves.
Another bird dove for her as she began to pick up speed. It was diving beak first. So, not to catch me.
Her right hand came up in a perfect, practiced gesture, her knife tossed to her left on pure instinct. Only a small tug with her spirit guided the knife into her left grip. Huh, I can call it to my other hand, too? Why didn’t I ever try that, before?
The bird was highlighted in a glowing white. Crush.
Two gold rings were burned away at once. A second ring for the third bird, just before it impacted, and a new ring for this new bird.
The jerk downward on her most recent attempted attacker caused it to mostly miss.
Blessedly, as it fought the influence of her magic, and tried to pull upward, it bumped her from below, even as it streaked past.
This had two effects, one good, one bad. Good: it slowed her quite a bit, the much greater mass of the bird easily stealing much of her momentum, though it felt like landing from a great height even so, making her joints ache. Bad: it started her spinning, end over end.
Even with her enhanced senses, she was unable to focus or right herself.
Three birds struck her in quick succession, increasing the spin, driving in unpredictable directions, and wearing away at her reserves.
Then, she struck the ground.
* * *
A pulse of power exploded from the base of Tala’s skull, and she returned to consciousness, violently.
She was laying in the bottom of a crater, staring up at a cloudy sky, snow gently settling around her.
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. Even knowing it was coming, she jumped at the internal sound. She ground her teeth in a purely voluntary response. Rust Holly, that note is calming, and now is not a time to be calm.
Then, a mockery of her own voice came to her, once again.
Consciousness lost for 0.50 seconds due to unknown, full body impact. Defensive magics of unknown origin consumed to negate all but a fractional portion of the damage. Severe concussion was imminent. Unknown magics did not seem to protect neural tissue to the same extent as the rest of subject’s physicality. Noted for later study.
Cranial inscriptions activated to cushion dura-mater.
Mild, targeted, electrical shock and hormone cocktail utilized for near instant resuscitation.
No lasting effects detected or predicted.
Ancillary Note: Repeating such activities is ill-advised.
Three times. I’ve been rendered unconscious three times… That can’t be good for her. And now the magics were getting uppity with her. Great.
She groaned, pushing herself upright. She checked herself over. Her clothing was pulling back together, having suffered from the blunt force of the impact, but its reserves had been full, so she didn’t give it another thought.
Worryingly, her ending-berry power reserves were all but exhausted. How hard did I hit?
The deep depression in the earth, in which she was currently standing, seeming to indicate: Hard.
After she’d had a moment to consider, she realized that she was lucky to be standing, let alone have any power in reserve.
Unfortunately, the screeching of arcanous avians overhead told her the fight wasn’t over.
She was now where she was used to, on solid ground. My turn! As she stood, she noted that she had seven remaining golden rings on the back of her right hand. Apparently, it had taken another to bring down the fourth bird. May your soul be plucked…
Quickly, she let her eyes, and mage-sight, sweep the sky. She locked on to every bird she could see as they swept lower, to get a better look at her.
She took down seven more birds in quick succession, each one dropping from the sky into the ground more quickly than they could compensate, each one was rendered dead upon impact. How big is this flock?
She counted three more birds, still circled overhead, and she was out of offensive magic.
Not bad, Tala. Seven for seven. She ignored the ten to four ratio from her fight in the air. That had been unusual circumstances. I wonder if I’ll be able to harvest anything from these raven-spawned nightmares.
Indeed, she’d finally gotten a good enough look to determine that they were some form of arcanous raven. The magics she could discern were entirely for flight, far-sight, strength, and regeneration.
Come on… are you coming down, or not!
As if in response to her thoughts, the first one dove for her.
She held her knife off to the side, building up power just before the sword-path within the weapon.
The war-pick of a beak streaked towards her at unbelievable speeds.
Her perception let her see it coming.
This was not something that she’d practiced, but it was close enough to dodging a punch that it allowed her now quite-practiced muscles to feel the movement as familiar.
She waited as long as she felt was wise, then dove to the side.
She slashed out, pushing the pulse of power outward, forcing the knife to flow into a sword mid-swing.
Her timing was off.
She dodged too early, allowing the bird to track with her, but not perfectly. It dealt her a cutting, glancing blow as it shot past, draining the dregs of ending-berry power from her, even as it caused half her body to light with defensive spell-forms.
She spun away, immediately letting the knife flow back into its resting form.
Blood splattered the ground around her, and she realized that she’d cut the beast, too, though not fatally.
It cried in rage even as it beat great wings, tempests of magic swirling, to regain height.
Not great, but not bad.
She had a new problem now, however.
She was glowing.
The next bird dove, spotting and tracking with her much more ease. Come on, Tala!
She delayed a heartbeat longer, this time, and struck, empowering the path of the sword within the knife once more.
She struck true.
The blade, just as for the rock, gave her no resistance as the bird passed.
She failed to duck beneath the wing, and its incredibly resilient flight feathers sliced across her like so many razors, even as she bisected the creature’s main body, beak to tail. The lower portion dropped away, sloshing across the ground behind her even as the wings continued for a short way, the magic of their flight maintained ever so briefly.
The slices across her had been as a passing cut, so she didn’t think she was bruised.
Her clothes pulled back together over her still glowing flesh, and she wheezed in air, trying to recover her breath. More ending-berries! She felt like an idiot for not thinking of it sooner.
She pulled out her flask, opened it and tipped it back…empty…she hadn’t refilled it after her last drink. Stupid. Stupid!
The third bird was coming in for its turn. No more time.
One injured, one down, one to go.
She timed her counterstrike perfectly this time…for an attack that didn’t come.
She swept her flowing blade through empty air, where the attacker should have been, but the avian had flared its wings at the last instant, stopping so suddenly that Tala had trouble believing it was possible.
Instead of streaking through where she had been, beak used as a lance, the bird seemed to hang in the air before her, talons already striking out.
Her still moving sword, by chance more than anything else, split one of the great bird’s feet, even as the other drove Tala backwards, easily slicing through her leathers, hitting previously un-struck flesh, and activating her defensive scripts there.
It’s smart enough to know the glowing part has some sort of defense… That wasn’t great.
They each struck again, Tala wildly, the bird with animalistic instinct and precision.
Tala stumbled backward with more of her skin glowing and the certain knowledge that something within her was broken.
No time for that now. She was about to strike with the sword, again, when she realized that she was dangerously low on power. She pulled back from the path of the sword and the knife was once more in her hand.
In desperation, she plunged her hand into Kit, pulled out the hammer, and flung it in one motion.
The bird was still beating its wings, and tried to twist away, the full exchange having taken less than a handful of heartbeats.
The hammer struck the bird in the head, and for a moment, Tala despaired. I’m not wielding it! Will it activate? She screamed out with her will: Kill it!
The hammer’s power blossomed outward, hitting the bird again, and again, and again in a single continuous impact. The sound of cracking bone was sweeter than any she’d ever heard.
What remained of the bird went instantly limp, dropping to the ground with a whump in the snow.
Snow? Snow was, indeed, gathering about her, her impact and the beating of her attackers’ wings had mostly cleared the nearby space, but even so, there were drifts of the stuff all around her.
How high up in the mountains did it take me?
But now wasn’t the time.
The final arcanous raven-ine dropped silently from the sky, directly overhead. I already injured that one.
She had no tricks left. Her only hope was that it didn’t crush her, or otherwise break through her defenses, before she could stab it sufficiently with the knife to kill it or drive it away.
A flicker of dimensional energy was the herald of glory as Terry appeared, now larger than the attacking bird, his powerful claws seizing the final opponent around the neck and jerking it off course.
The two birds tumbled to the ground, Terry immediately vanishing and appearing behind the flier.
He struck, again, and again, and again. Each time from a different direction, each time evoking a fountain of blood and a screech of enraged pain.
The flier tried to beat its wings and retreat to the sky.
Terry forbade such a retreat.
The fight was so laughably one-sided, that Tala, indeed, began to laugh, despite the pain in her sides that screamed of broken bones.
Her stress, fear, anger, horror…all her emotions came crashing down upon her in an uncontrollable laugh. I’m going to live.
In the snow, as her companion eviscerated, and then began to consume, her final attacker, Tala laughed and laughed and laughed, tears flowing freely down her ashen face.