Tala slowly got her emotions under control but was left shaking as much from the physical backlash of fading terror as from the cold wind whipping snow about her. Ahh, adrenaline; how I wish I didn’t need you.
“Thank you, Terry.” Her voice was steadier than she’d expected it to be. “Any interest in some jerky?”
The terror bird wearily lifted his blood painted beak from the downed arcane bird and regarded her for a long moment. Finally, he shook himself to indicate a negative. He then returned to gorging on his fallen prey. Terry’s movements were slower than she was used to seeing. How hard did he have to push to stay so close?
Tala, for her part, took out her incorporator, painstakingly funneling power from her gate into the device, and took long, careful drinks. Jerky followed, and she chewed and swallowed at a measured pace. Some leftover, heavy bread was next.
As she ate, she began trudging through the snow towards the closest downed enemy not currently being eaten by Terry. It turned out to be the one that had flared its wings, almost stopping mid-air to strike at her, near the end. She’d moved away from it as she’d been seeking the final bird without realizing she was doing so.
She quickly found her hammer in the snow nearby. Thankfully, her mage-sight picked it out with ease, and she dropped it into Kit. Then, using her knife, she began to work on the fallen bird.
Keep moving and the cold won’t take you. Her inscribings should prevent frostbite, but they didn’t block the pain of the cold. Shoes would be nice to have about now…
She paused her work to pull out her jug of ending-berry juice, carefully refilling her flask, drinking a cup of the sweet, power-filled liquid, and topping the flask off once more. I should never have let this remain empty.
She was taking all sorts of lessons from this insane night.
As she felt the cold begin to settle in, her leathers responded. That reminded her of just how much the garments had done this night, so she slapped her hand onto the confluence near her right thigh and gave them a healthy amount of power…slowly. She was exhausted.
The leather felt much thicker than she was used to, but also had much more give. What under the stars?
She looked at the bottom of the tunic, focusing to activate her mage-sight. What she saw surprised her, even given how adaptive the outfit had been up until now.
The leather had thickened, the fibers spreading apart, within the increased depth. Then, the leather had joined together in a lattice, creating uncountable, isolated micro-bubbles of air. There were so many, that she would guess at least twenty isolated bubbles were in a direct line from the outer surface to the inner at any given point. This should be a fantastic insulator, now. And, in fact, she immediately began to feel warmer, from her wrists to her ankles, though her neck, head, hands, and feet only received peripheral benefits.
That improved, she turned back to the kill before her.
What to harvest, what to harvest. She worked on the most obvious thing first, the talons. The amazingly strong, sharp finger-feathers were next. Her still active enhancements kept her hands from being cut on the vicious edges and needle-like barbs of the vanes.
Her book on bound items had implied that a Mage could increase the power of soul-bound items through the incorporation of other items of magic. These should qualify. If not, she could always sell them. Sadly, she couldn’t take everything, and these seemed the most useful and, therefore, valuable.
As she could only read volume one on bound items, there was little more than implication, but even so, she wanted to be prepared. Her knife had been part of what tipped the scales for her, between life and death. She wanted that tool to be as potent as possible, going forwards.
Now that she wasn’t fighting for her life, she was able to appreciate the scale of the creature, before her. From beak to tail-feather, it was nearly twenty-six feet. That’s close to ten times a mundane raven! Well, if she was remembering correctly.
The magic of the arcanous ravens was entirely bent around flight and the regular functions of the beast, itself. No special or elemental abilities at all. Huh, they’re almost mundane.
The bird she was harvesting had a total of eight talons and eight finger feathers. Seems standard, I suppose. The other feathers were more flexible and suffused with power for flight. Not that useful. She’d never even heard rumors of magic flying constructions. Doesn’t mean they don’t exist, though…
She’d easily placed the talons into Kit, but now she stared down at the finger feathers. Each was nearly fifteen feet in length, also surprising light, all things considered. “Kit… you can’t carry these, can you?”
The pouch did not respond.
Now free from the bird’s body, the feathers looked like some eccentric piece of art; plumage wrought from a dark, impossibly light metal. With the bird itself seeming to weigh close to four-hundred-fifty pounds, the feathers are much lighter than I’d expect.
Even so, the feathers were fairly unwieldy. They were much longer than they were wide, being less than a foot across at the widest part. Let’s try it.
She set Kit on the ground, wide open, and dropped a feather down into it, doing her best to center it so as to not brush the sides. To her surprise, the entire feather disappeared down inside. Nice!
Curiosity nagged at her, so she knelt and looked down in.
Kit had rearranged, with most of her items neatly crammed to one side of an extremely tall, narrow pit. The pit was barely larger than the hole opening into it. So, no going in there until I get these out, it seems. Still, they fit.
The ending-berries’ power was blunting the cold but being steadily drained in doing so. The diminishing wasn’t something that would run her power dry, even if she decided to sleep naked in the snow. Still, given her recent desperate reliance on the power, she didn’t like the slow drain. And it doesn’t stop the discomfort…or the pain. And it’s getting harder to move my cold muscles…
Keep moving. Keep your muscles warm.
More to the point, her moving, flexing, and straining to harvest from the great bird had highlighted to her that she had not come away from the fight cleanly. If she had to guess, she had at least one broken rib, and likely some internal bruising.
The now refreshed ending-berry power within her would prevent further damage from occurring, even if the already present bruising caused massive swelling. Huh, I’d not really considered the power as an effective wound isolation technique. Infection should also not be able to take hold, not that she had any open wounds.
The first bird harvested, she fought through the pain to return to Terry.
Terry was just finishing his meal, which seemingly consisted of the entire carcass, bones and all. Tala arrived to find a wide splash of bloody snow and a small pile. So, not quite everything.
As she walked up, Terry was swallowing the last bit of broken bone. He regarded her, feathers matted with thick, congealing blood. Finally, he gestured to the pile with his beak.
He bobbed a nod.
She grinned, striding over and picking up the eight talons, one at a time. She took a moment to pare away what little flesh remained attached to each, tossing the bits to Terry as she worked.
By the time she finished, her fingers were growing numb. Gloves. I have gloves. She felt foolish for not considering it earlier. She cleaned her hands with rags and cool water. Interestingly, the water felt warm to the flesh of her fingers. Probably not a good sign.
After her hands were dry, she pulled on her gloves. They weren’t thick, but they would help.
Terry had settled down into the snow, resting his head, eyes closed.
When she moved, Terry’s eyes snapped open. “Over there, there’s another. Still hungry?”
He slowly pushed himself to his feet. He didn’t stagger, but he definitely lacked some of his usual pep. And he didn’t teleport to come to his feet. It was possible that he’d exhausted his magic, following her then fighting. I hope he recovers, soon.
She returned her focus to the next task, even as Terry began wolfing down the body she’d already harvested, tearing it into manageable chunks, then swallowing them whole. There were fourteen total, in the flock. Assuming they’d been from the same flock. What’s a flock of ravens called again? She thought back through her studies, and her enhanced mind brought forth the result.
She began laughing again, and now that her adrenaline was fading, the pain that laughing evoked in her cracked rib made her gasp.
“I was almost killed by the unkindness of ravens.” She wheezed. “By the stars, that would have been embarrassing.”
Keep moving. She was able to find ten of the birds, not including Terry’s dinner, from which she got a total of eighty talons and half as many finger feathers. Sadly, many of the feathers had been destroyed or damaged to the point that their magic was leaking away too fast to be useful. I suppose hurtling into the ground isn’t the best for physical integrity. If she was honest, she was surprised that she’d found as many intact as she had.
Terry moved behind her, resting while she worked, then quickly rending and eating what she left behind.
He didn’t so much as slightly bloat, despite consuming what seemed to be many times his own volume of food. Maybe, he doesn’t need a cow a day because he has some means of having insane reserves?
She would likely never know.
As they moved across the sparsely wooded mountainside, they also encountered other carcasses, or evidence of blood, layered within the snow. This was the killing ground for this group. They brought their prey here, and either dropped it from great heights, or worked together to tear it apart. She was very lucky to be alive.
The last bird they found was the one who’d grabbed her in the beginning. It was beyond salvaging.
By the half-liquified slurry, at the bottom of a deep crater in the rocky ground, this bird had been bigger than the others, maybe by a lot. Likely why it went so far afield?
She did not watch Terry consume the…bowl of sustenance, but the sound of it made her gag.
When he was done, she contemplated continuing to hunt. There should be at least three more birds. No, Tala. You’ve already been harvesting for close to two hours, if not longer. We need to get back.
“So, Terry. Back to the caravan?”
He cocked his head, then glanced towards the south-east, the direction she believed the caravan to be. Then, he looked back to her, seeming contemplative, his head drooping a bit.
She frowned. “We came a long way…didn’t we.”
Terry bobbed his agreement.
“And you’re really tired…”
He bobbed a yes.
She sighed. “I am too…”
She groaned, pulling out a blanket and wrapping it around her shoulders. “Can you teleport with anyone or anything else?”
As an answer, Terry blipped away, instantly appearing on her other side, perfectly clean. The blood, gore, and viscera that had been splattered across him rained wetly down in the spot he’d left. Even his half-hidden collar was clean.
“So…no…” She sighed. That would have been too easy.
Terry walked up beside her, pressing close and hunkering down as she considered. His warmth radiated through her painfully. Even so, she snuggled more deeply into his feathers, even as the terror bird laid his head down, closing his eyes.
“Thank you, Terry.”
Terry crooned softly, seeming pleased.
After a moment of stillness, the world around Tala blazed yellow-green, and she had the fleeting assumption that she’d somehow fallen asleep, and the sun was breaking through the surrounding trees.
No. She turned, straightening and keeping one hand on Terry. A being whose aura radiated yellow-green power landed a dozen yards away with a whump, which sent a cascading wave of snow flowing outward.
It was a woman of such surpassing beauty that Tala considered that she, herself, might have died. Is this one of the gods?
No, that didn’t make sense either.
The woman walked forward, the details of her magic unreadable to Tala save the undercurrent which blatantly signified just how outmatched Tala was. She’s letting that through, showing that aspect of herself to me on purpose.
Belatedly, Tala realized that, even aside from her mage-sight, there was a pressure from the woman, one that spoke of power and dominance.
For her part, the woman walked casually towards Tala, the snow melting away from her delicately sandalled feet as she came. Her simple, one-piece dress swaying pleasingly around her. There was a slight cream color to the material, which appeared to be silk of some kind. The woman carried nothing else that Tala could see.
“Mage.” The woman’s voice was somehow more like silk than the dress appeared, and while it was softspoken, the force behind it shook snow from some nearby trees.
Tala swallowed, knowing that the inscribings around her ears had likely reduced the impact on her. Terry, for his part, crouched low, seeming both fearful and defiant at the same time. Yellow-green… She recalled the books in her pouch and picked what she thought was correct. “Paragon…Or is it Refined?” Only after she spoke did she realize that her words could be taken as an insult.
The woman froze, halting her advance. A small smile tugged at one corner of her lips. “So, you aren’t ignorant, and you have backbone.” She nodded. “Good. I saw what you did, here.” She gestured around them to the bloody forest. “Reasonably handled for a mortal.”
That’s a bit insulting. Still, this woman could likely kill Tala without a second thought. And it's very likely that I just insulted her as well... “I am Tala.”
“Tala.” She almost purred the A’s in the name. “You may call me Mistress.”
That’s not foreboding… Tala swallowed again, steeling her resolve. “What do you wish of me, Mistress?”
The woman tilted her head almost delicately at the question, seeming to consider. “You are no Archon, clearly you aren’t even Bonded, but I sense archon stars.” The way she said bonded reminded Tala of the other books. She means the rank. “You would make an interesting servant.”
Tala shook her head, immediately. “I would not. I am contracted with the Caravan Guild, and have other debts besides, which I am obliged to fulfill.”
Mistress waved the notion away. “I will buy out your contract. And give you an additional thousand ounces, gold, to become my bonded.”
Tala blinked, startled. A THOUSAND ounces gold? That was insane. She blessed the stars that a contract couldn’t be bought out without the agreement of all parties, and she did not like the way the woman had said ‘bonded.’ “I’m unfamiliar with that term. What do you mean: bonded? You said it as if it were different than the ranking.”
“Oh! Silly me.” Mistress laughed slightly. “We would exchange archon stars, and you would become my bond servant.”
Mistress blinked at her for a long moment. “Maybe I don’t want you, child. Archon stars create a soul-bond. It would be forever.”
Tala remembered what Grediv had said about bonding humans. “Isn’t human soul-bonding forbidden?”
The woman waved her hand dismissively, again. “One-way bonds are, yes. But two-way? I could up-lift you. Give you power, make you more.”
But I’d always be subservient to you… And that ‘always’ would be literal. She also had avoided saying if it was forbidden. “Thank you, but I don’t think I am interested.”
The woman sighed. “Ahh, well. If that is your decision.” She turned to go.
She paused. “Yes? Did you expect me to force you? You should know better than that. Such a bond can only be entered into willingly.”
Well, yeah, I did sort of expect you to. “No, of course not, Mistress. Before you go, could you return me to my caravan?”
She smiled, mischievously. “Of course!”
Tala brightened but was still wary of a trick.
“For the low fee of five hundred ounces, gold.”
And there it is. “That is insane.”
“My time is valuable.” She waited a moment before nodding. “I thought not. Now, if there’s nothing else?”
Tala groaned. “You would leave me stranded out here?”
Mistress shrugged. “Mortals die all the time, child. If you’re of no use to me, then I’ve no time for you. If you were a village or city in need, I’d likely help, but…” She shrugged. “I do hope you survive. Maybe, our paths will cross again, sometime in the future.” She seemed to consider that for a moment. “Yes, I think that we will get along much better if we meet again in the future.”
A village? Tala knew the term; it was meant to refer to something like a city, but smaller. Where was this woman from, that there were villages?
She didn’t get the chance to ask, as Mistress strode forward, resolutely.
Tala flinched backwards but found the very air hardening around her.
Terry hissed but seemed similarly locked in place.
Tala almost smiled. Terry doesn’t have to move as I do.
As if on cue, Terry flickered, appearing behind Mistress, already poised to strike. There, however, he froze once more, locked in place.
Mistress turned to regard him, holding up one hand, but stopping herself from touching Terry. “A dimensional terror bird? Fascinating.”
Tala saw power thrumming around Terry, as he clearly fought to move or teleport. He couldn’t do either.
Mistress shrugged. “I’m not going to hurt her, little chick. Quite the opposite, actually. Now, stop wasting my time.” She spun and took the last few steps to stand before Tala. “Now, you’ve something dampening magic around you…no, through you?” She tsked. “How could you possibly function with such an envelope. Unless...”
Tala’s arms were moved upward, her palms turned towards Mistress.
“There we are.” Mistress placed a finger against each of Tala’s hands, and power pulsed between the women.
The ending berry power within Tala was suppressed and compressed, driven aside by Mistress’s working. Tala’s ribs clicked back together audibly, her bruises disappearing, and she gasped. An instant later, her restraints vanished, and she dropped to the snow. “How?” She took another deep breath, reveling in the lack of pain. “To heal such an injury in the past, I’ve had to remove my protection against magic.”
Mistress quirked an all-too-condescending smile. “The same way you move power through your body, dear. Your blood. The iron content creates wonderfully efficient pathways for the transmission of power to where it’s needed. You’ll learn to better utilize your body’s natural pathways soon enough. You should survive just fine, now.” She patted Tala’s cheek.
Tala, for her part, was still so stunned that she didn’t react.
Mistress took a few steps away from Tala and Terry, crouched down and leapt away, leaving a concussion of sound, a deep depression, and a tempest of swirling snow in her wake.
“That was…” Tala shivered, looking to Terry. “That was deeply disturbing.”
Terry’s eye watched the departing Mistress from his unmoving head. After a long moment, he suddenly dropped to the snow, then flickered to beside Tala, where he pressed against her more forcefully and firmly than before.
After taking another minute to collect herself, she felt a flicker of doubt. I could have been done. My debts erased, my contract over. I could have been free. That woman would have given me power and taken me away from here… But at what cost? Am I to trade virtual slavery for the real thing? If she’d understood the offer correctly, she would have been binding her very soul into the woman’s service. That has to have larger implications than I’m capable of understanding right now…
Tala felt herself hardening with resolve. It seems that there will always be people who want to rule over me. I need to get stronger.
She patted Terry. “I’ve a request, Terry.”
Terry, who was settled down to rest once more, craned his neck, twisting his head to fully face her. He seemed to be feeling much better, after his meals.
“Can I have a ride back to the caravan?”
Terry gave her a long, searching look.
“I could probably walk or run back, but you would be much faster, and if we want to rejoin the caravan before we reach Bandfast, it’s likely the only way to make it in time.” She nodded to herself, clarifying. “If we don’t arrive with the caravan, there will be a lot of difficulty getting in. Strangers generally don’t wander in out of the wilds on their own.”
He hesitated for a moment longer, then bobbed a slow nod, crouching down so she could hop up.
She tucked her feet back in what felt like a natural position, and they fit nicely under Terry’s small, flightless wings.
Terry took a hesitant step, shifting beneath her. He paused, then a ripple of power shivered through him, and he grew, just a bit, expanding to be a better size to carry her. He tested a few more times, fine-tuning his size to best manage her on his back.
“Thank you, Terry. I won’t forget this.” And she wouldn’t, not the least because Terry, as it turned out, was fast.