As Terry took off, Tala held on tightly, finding that the magical collar was a great thing to grasp. He clearly knew where he was going, crouched low to give power to his driving run. Even so, he was having to move slower than on his chase after her, given that he couldn’t teleport with her atop his back, lest he leave her behind.
Tala, for her part, was huddled low, head hunched in close to Terry’s neck in an attempt to get some shelter from the wind caused by their speed. Her blanket was tucked tight around her, and her feet were quickly warming under Terry’s wings, though they were prickling painfully at the returning heat.
Terry’s running had a rhythmic cadence that was hard to fight, and Tala felt herself begin to slip several times before she was able to bring her mind back under control and force herself to stay awake.
She did everything she could to maintain her focus:
She moved through mental puzzles and riddles, searching for new solutions, or new ways of looking at the problems.
She focused on her breathing and balance. Her posture was shot, but that wasn’t a primary concern at the moment.
She attempted the meditative techniques found in Grediv’s advice for Masters and magelings books.
She reviewed the information she’d been reading and did her best to extrapolate the answers she’d been seeking, as well as construct deeper questions, to help expand her knowledge when she again had the ability to read.
When all that failed, she began at her feet, silently naming each facet of her anatomy and describing what purpose it served and how it functioned.
They’d been traveling for what felt like days, but was likely closer to an hour, when something caught Tala’s eye. A column of power, flaring within her mage-sight, having just come into passive range.
“Terry? Can you go that way?” She lifted one hand to point, and Terry complied.
Less than a minute later, Terry slowed, and Tala climbed off his back.
They were beneath the snowline, now, so cool grass flexed softly beneath her feet as she shook out her legs and walked to the crest of a hill.
In a valley below, a storm of lightning swirled around a single, discrete point. The column that she’d seen was hidden to normal sight behind the rise and the trees covering this portion of the landscape. That probably means it is hidden to most people’s mage-sight, too.
Most mage-sight inscriptions didn’t allow for the penetration of mundane matter, after all.
To Tala’s mage-sight, it looked like nothing so much as a gate, ripped out of a Mage and fixed in place. There even seemed to be something like inscriptions drifting around the gate, drawing power and enacting their purposes. Material Creator scripts, focused on lightning? They actually reminded her of Renix’s spell-forms, to an almost disturbing degree, though they were twisted and changed, as necessary given their change in medium and construction.
Thankfully, for the small part of her that had immediately begun to worry about Renix, these seemed to have come from a smaller person. Maybe a woman? But she was assuming that it had come from a Mage, somehow, and that was probably wrong.
Tala stood, examining the anomaly for a long moment. What is it?
If it was a gate, the keystone was clearly gone, and the inbuilt restrictions with it. Is this what happens to a Mage, if their keystone fails? No, that couldn’t be right, or early Mages would all have ended up like this. Maybe this is what can happen without that protection. Even so, she still wasn’t sure her guess was correct.
Whatever it was, it had clearly affected everything around it. Rather than scorched earth, grass grew right up to the fount of magic, electricity jumping between the slightly metallic blades.
Trees grew nearby, subtly glowing with their own internal magics. When she examined them with her mage-sight, every bit of power, below, was some variation of the source in the center of the little valley.
The air thrummed with power, and the ground did too. If it hadn’t been so clearly elementally bound, it would have put Alefast’s magic density to shame. As it was, the power seemed restricted, somehow. The concentration falling off precipitously with distance from the source.
As she examined that decline more closely, she thought she understood what was happening. Most of the power is being lost as it loses its bent towards lightning. It is increasing the power density in the land all around, but not nearly as much as if it were non-elemental power to begin with.
As she watched, an arcane rabbit, with obviously similar magics, zipped in from the edge of the valley and to the source. It seemed to draw on the power, there, briefly diminishing the surrounding storms by a minute fraction.
Instead of refilling the rabbit, like topping of a water-skin, it seemed to twist something within the tiny creature, and when the rabbit vanished out of the far side of the valley, Tala would have sworn that it had a new form of lightning magic coursing through its previously mundane ears.
Arcane creatures get their power, here? She looked around and realized that the surrounding vegetation was soaking up the power. We just happened to come close enough to notice it… How many such founts were there, in the wilds?
Did all arcanous creatures receive their abilities, here, or places like this? Why ever leave? Why not just cover yourself with more and more random inscriptions, Tala?
It was dangerous. Some probably died, and they likely could only return a few times.
She glanced towards Terry. “Do you have to go to something like this? To renew your power?”
He hesitated where he crouched down, curling up to wait for her. Finally, he shook himself, indicating the negative. Now that she thought about it, she’d never taken the time to deeply examine Terry.
She focused, allowing her mage-sight to delve into the terror bird. She immediately had to turn away, blinking her eyes to clear her vision.
She returned her gaze to him more carefully, allowing her inscription-granted-sight to adjust.
Terry was a deep reservoir of power, and that power coursed through him like a force of nature.
Even so, it didn’t have an underlying color behind the power. He’s not of an Archon rank, somehow. So, the progression wasn’t just about a quantity of power, then…
She looked through the maelstrom within Terry. She couldn’t see a source for that raw power; like all arcanous creatures, he lacked a gate. He’ll run out, eventually. She gave him a long look. “You have to refill you power, somehow… You said you don’t need to come to a place like this… Are you capable of converting food into power?”
After another moment, Terry bobbed a hesitant nod.
She gestured towards the spring of lightning power, below. “But the magics, themselves, were granted to you by a place like that?”
Another bob, firmer this time.
“What would a dimensional well, even look like?”
He laid his head down back on his own back, closing his eyes.
“Fair enough. You can’t really describe it, can you.” She felt herself grin tiredly. “This probably isn’t the best place to rest.” She looked again, frowning. “There are a lot of these, throughout the wilds, aren’t there.”
Even though it hadn’t been a question, Terry bobbed a nod, standing and moving over beside her.
“Well, that helps explain why I’ve never seen a gate within arcanous creatures.” The beasts could draw on their own strength to power the workings, but these wells were likely the source of what amounted to natural, internal inscribings. With no need for re-inscription…
She had a passing desire to walk down there, and get the natural inscriptions herself, but she squashed that as the foolishness it was.
“The ancients must have known about these.” She sighed. “They must not work on people.”
She gave another long look at the glowing valley, unable to shake how closely the fount resembled a Mage’s gate, to her mage-sight. What are you? She’d have to ask Trent…or Holly. Someone will know.
She climbed back up onto Terry and settled in, deep in thought.
In this way, she passed what remained of the night.
With her weight, and their down-sloping path, Terry could not go at top speed. So, as dawn broke across the wilds just more than an hour later, Tala and Terry were only about half-way back to the caravan’s campsite, assuming Tala’s estimates were correct.
How far did those stupid raven things carry me? Seems like it was more distance than from Bandfast to Alefast…
She was no longer able to focus well enough to keep fully awake, and Terry seemed to have sensed that.
I wonder why the caravans are so slow… She yawned. She remembered something about increased mass, or increased speed, drew attention? Something like that. She shook her head. It was hardly important at the moment.
Thus, as the first light of a new day bathed the autumn landscape, Terry stopped beside a short cliff. Above them, a tree arched out over the drop, and below the tree a small alcove was visible among the roots.
Terry vanished from beneath Tala, and she barely caught herself, stumbling in her exhaustion.
Terry had appeared instantly on her shoulder, in his much smaller state.
Barely conscious, Tala staggered to the alcove, laying her blanket out and collapsing upon it. She was asleep even before Terry had curled up between her and the outside world.
* * *
Tala woke suddenly to a low, rumbling shriek.
She rolled backward, away from the noise, coming up in a crouch, her back pressed hard against a wall of packed dirt.
Soil rained down around her, and she lifted a hand to protect her eyes as she took in the situation.
Terry was crouched low, now about as tall as she, herself. He was facing away from her, head sweeping from side to side, keeping constant watch on their opponent.
Six terror birds were arranged in a loose arc in front of their little alcove.
Tala shook her head, brushing away the dirt, and clearing her mind. Six. She focused her intent, and her mage-sight blossomed. Each bird held lightning magics. Not unexpected given the region. She passingly wondered if these had received their power from the well that she and Terry had found, or another.
Six were in front of her. If it were me, I’d have at least one on the cliff above.
Why hasn’t Terry slaughtered them? She took another look. Terry was positioned between her and them. Protecting me until I woke? Until she was ready.
She threw her blanket into Kit and pulled out her knife and hammer, holding the hammer in her off hand. Punches won’t really do much.
She began drawing as deeply as she could through her gate, saturating herself in power.
His head flicked slightly to one side, allowing one eye to see her easily.
Terry vanished, and the storm began.
Tala lunged to one side, out from under the cliff, as soon as she saw Terry appear behind one of the birds in the other direction.
Their attackers had a mix of reactions.
Three looked around in confusion, clearly uncertain where Terry had gone. That explains why he’s not bigger. He’d be easier to spot.
Two threw their mouths wide, sending trees of lightning scouring towards her. …and easier to target.
One died as Terry took its head off with a viciously precise swipe of his claws. Nicely done, Terry.
Two more dropped down towards Tala from where they’d been perched on the short cliff, above and behind them. I knew it.
So, there were eight…well, seven now.
Tala cursed her lack of ranged spells, even as the uncountable branches of power threw dirt, rock, and clumps of sod in all directions, the lightning itself falling short of her position.
She felt strangely detached as she analyzed the magics before her. This isn’t an attack technique. It’s meant to herd, directing prey into a trap. It still might seriously hurt her, but it wasn’t intended to kill. Just like an elemental barking or howling, then.
She quirked a smile and flung the hammer straight at one of the confused birds, between the two sending forth lightning.
The hammer, being entirely metal, drew the lightning like a magnet draws iron. Thus, the target of her throw was hit, first by the handle of the hammer- hammers like that are not meant for throwing -and second by lightning from two directions.
The electricity had no discernable effect, the nature of the bird’s feathers easily shunting the power into the ground, though it did squawk awkwardly as the hammer’s handle struck its throat.
Terry had not been idle, and another terror bird was falling, spraying sparking blood across the grass. There is no way that isn’t ridiculously valuable… As Tala sprinted after her hammer, she shook her head. Focus, Tala!
She tripped as one of the previously confused birds lunged forward, slashing at her legs and opening a long gash through her pants, if not her skin.
Tala turned the fall into a roll, coming up and taking the last step to pick up the hammer. Her leg was poorly positioned and almost buckled beneath her, even as she crouched at the feet of the now thoroughly enraged lightning terror-bird.
It struck. Tala jerked the hammer upward, falling backward.
The hammer made a hollow thunk against the underside of the creature’s beak, rolling immediately into a series of wet squelching sounds. The avian’s lower beak turning to pulp.
Tala was already acting, striking out to take advantage of the situation.
She threw some of her gathered power through her knife’s second path, causing it to flow outward into a hair thin outline of a blade, filled with blazing heat.
She struck upward again, this time with the blade, while her current attacker continued its forward movement, despite the injury.
Her blade hit the bottom of the beast and passed cleanly upward, bisecting the terror bird before Tala cut off the flow of power, and the knife returned to its inert state.
She nearly staggered in weariness at the sudden expulsion of power but managed to keep herself from falling.
That might have been a mistake.
The bird, itself, hit her shoulder with a glancing blow, even as it fell into two sizzling pieces. The hit imparted lightning, and Tala found her entire body locking up.
Unfortunately, the attack had not been a direct working of magic, so her iron salve had done nothing to prevent it, and while the iron had directed most of the power across her skin, instead of through her organs, it hadn’t diverted all of it.
All over her body, her defensive enhancements activated, despite the ending-berry power within her, already working to protect her from internal burning or damage.
At the activation, she felt a sinking feeling. Several sections didn’t activate at all. They were depleted to the point of ineffectiveness. I was too tired to notice that last night.
None of her defenses kept her muscles under her control, however, and she found herself temporarily unable to act.
Much too close for comfort, another terror bird released a screech of utter fury and rage. The near-deafening sound was undercut by the continued deaths around her, as Terry maintained his grisly rampage.
She internally thanked Holly for the ear protecting inscriptions, yet again, even as she regained a small amount of control over herself, allowing her to turn and face the bird who was, by its strong reaction, her previous victim’s mate.
It stalked towards her, head down, eyes alight with malice.
“Bad birdy.” She held up both her weapons before her, protectively.
The bird crouched lower, then seemed to turn into lightning, streaking past her faster than she could track.
Tala gasped as the impact twisted her, even as it eviscerated her clothing on her right side from half-way up her ribcage down nearly to her knee.
The immortal elk leathers immediately began to reform, growing across her faster than rushing water.
Having spun with the blow, Tala was facing the creature when it reformed out of the lightning, turning slowly as if in triumph to survey its defeated foe.
It froze in obviously shocked confusion when it saw Tala standing, apparently unharmed.
She smiled. “Yeah, I seem to have that effect on your kind.” That would have been viciously effective against almost anyone I’ve seen fight. Glad it’s me, here… Her eyes flicked to where the last other opponent was beginning to drop, already dead. “Thank you, Terry. You’re welcome to this one.”
Terry manifested behind this last enemy, towering over their foe, now much larger than before. His talons were already around his victim. With a slight flex of the muscles in his leg, he created five clean pieces letting them fall, squelching across the newly turned earth.
Lightning flickered out of the mutilated body, but like with the others, Terry barely twitched, seeming able to resist the cavalcade of power. “Thank you, Terry.”
Terry bobbed, quickly blipping around the area, devouring the often still twitching remains. That’s still a bit terrifying…
She looked up at the sky. It was nearly noon. No time to harvest anyways. “Eat up, my friend. We need to depart.”
He complied with alacrity, soon crouching next to her, the perfect size to carry her once more.
Tala, for her part, had used the brief minute to drink deeply from her incorporator, and to wash herself from the little blood that had reached her skin, mostly on her face.
The sword killed surprisingly cleanly, leaving cooked meat and sealed off blood-flow in its wake. Good little knife.
As she climbed into place on Terry’s back, she considered the weapon. “You need a name, little knife.”
Terry gave her an odd look, but simply shimmied slightly, shifting her weight to what must have been a more comfortable location. He then crouched down and took off at a run.
* * *
They arrived at the caravan’s campsite from the night before and found it predicably vacant. Even if they had looked for her, when they hadn’t found her, they would have departed for Bandfast, hoping to reach the city quickly enough that the cargo could be unloaded before the scripts ran out.
Standard procedure. Still, it was a bit irritating. They’re six, maybe eight, hours ahead of us? She grinned widely. “I think we can catch them in half an hour or so.”
Terry looked back at her, and she could feel his accusation.
“Right, sorry. You are capable of catching them in about half an hour. Thank you, again, for allowing me to ride.”
Terry bobbed, seeming mollified.
He leaned his head forward once more, launching back into a ground eating pace, as he followed the tracks left by the recently passed wagon train.
* * *
Tala peeked over a hill, looking at the back of the last wagon in the caravan, retreating away from them, Terry perched on her shoulder.
“How should I even do this?” She’d already considered riding up on Terry’s back, but had dismissed that as foolish, even if Terry had been willing, which he didn’t seem to be.
She could simply walk up behind the wagon, allowing the guards to see her catching up.
They shouldn’t attack me. At the very least a guard or a Mage would be sent back to see what the humanoid shaped thing following them was.
Tala turned her head in a startled jerk to see Rane just coming out from behind a nearby outcropping of rock.
“Is that really you?” His nose crinkled as he cautiously drew closer. “You smell like blood and death and…” He hesitated. “Well, you smell really bad.”
She found herself grinning in relief. Well, that’s one decision made. “Hello, Master Rane. Permission to rejoin the caravan?”
He gave her a searching look, and she could tell that he was examining her with his mage-sight. How can he look at Terry so easily? I guess that much of Terry’s power is below the surface, so not viewable by most…
“You do seem to be you, strange and alien as always.”
“You just say the nicest things.”
Rane smiled, having the good grace to look slightly abashed. His hand was still wrapped, but he seemed to be using it with a fair degree of ease. Good.
“So… can I rejoin the wagons? I’d love to get a nap. It’s been a long, night and morning…”
After a long moment, Rane nodded. “Let’s get you to the chuckwagon. They likely will have a means of getting you bathed.”
She gave him a hard look. “You’re joking…right?”
“No. You smell horrific. You might even scare the oxen.”
That’s hardly fair. They don’t shy from anything. Tala glanced to Terry, but the little bird was seemingly asleep, curled happily on her shoulder. “Fine…” She sighed. “Take me to a bath.”
Rane smiled genuinely at that. “I truly am glad to see you, Mistress Tala. We had no idea where you’d gone.” His smile lost a bit of its happiness. “What did happen? Did you go off to find something? You promised not to do that, you know. No one could find you this morning. Den said you’d never leave your bedroll behind, willingly, but we couldn’t find any evidence of an attack, and none of the guards saw or heard anything.”
After she’d taken a moment to process the flood of words, Tala smiled. “That, Master Rane, is an interesting story.”