Wintra watched the setting sun paint pink, periwinkle, and purple streaks across the horizon. While any other person would have found the sight beautiful, she hated it. Its resemblance to the projectile vomit that had drenched her during her last foray with one of the undead, scarring her left shoulder, only reminded her of her recurrent financial problems. She hadn't been paid enough to compensate for the headaches that excursion had entailed, and Wintra had a nasty feeling that she wouldn't fare any better with this job. If her client even intended to pay her at all--which she doubted. Something about his manner when he'd signed the contract had alerted her instincts to probable deception.
Wintra had no intention of letting him weasel out of their agreement. She needed the money too badly, curse it. Even a small payment toward her debts was better than nothing.
She yawned, irritated with herself. She hadn't slept well during the two day carriage ride to the inn. Perhaps it was the jouncing of the carriage over every rock in the road (or more likely her blabbering companion), for it certainly hadn't been the sunlight. She was used to sleeping odd, erratic hours since her profession often required nocturnal activity. Still, she thought sourly, I am usually better rested.
“Aren't you frightened?” he—Marvin? Melvin?—asked, as they sat in council with each other at the inn.
Sunlight streamed through the cheap linen curtains, warming Wintra's back as the day's heat faded. She tried to enjoy it, for she knew that soon enough, as the colder months approached, she would be too busy to wake or venture outdoors during daylight hours. “Why should I be?”
“It'll be dark soon, and we have to go...look for them.”
“That is why you hired me.”
“You're really not scared?” he asked skeptically.
She rolled her eyes. “If I were easily frightened, I have chosen the wrong profession, and we would not be having this inane conversation.”
“Point taken,” he sighed.
She ground her teeth together. “Is that all, Martin?”
“Calvin,” the would-be wizard corrected.
“Whatever.” She turned to him. “So what has been done?”
“Done?” He watched her blankly, a specialty of his.
“What other measures have been taken?” she prodded, losing the tenuous grip she had on her practically nonexistent patience. She glared at him. “What else has been tried? I must prepare for the hunt properly.”
“Well, I thought we could trap them in sunlight,” he confessed, “but they hide from it long before dawn. Then there was the cleric.”
“Cleric?” She arched an eyebrow with disdain. A village holy man was hardly equipped to handle this situation.
“I thought that if he could turn the undead--”
“No,” he admitted. “Oh, he knew the theory, but he lacked experience.”
“They ate him,” she guessed. He nodded numbly. “That's hardly surprising. Most clerics are frauds, full of hot air and empty promises. Oh, some are fine, but they're more ignorant than educated, especially in these parts. Learning something from a book and being able to recite it by heart isn't the same as doing it. You can't,” she sniffed, “learn combat from a book.”
“Maybe it was nerves.”
“I doubt it. Likely he prepared improperly, or he misremembered how. The point is, it didn't work. It usually doesn't.”
“It's a difficult spell,” she explained, “but it's very weak. Even if it works properly, it only banishes undead temporarily. It's a lot of energy wasted for little result. I have much better spells in my arsenal.”
“Spells no decent person would touch,” he grumbled.
“Don't get pompous on me now, Calvin. You hired me.” She shrugged. “Besides, I don't claim to be a decent Mage. No necromancer would.” She roused herself mentally. “Come. It's dark enough.” She reached for the lantern on the inn's rough-hewn table and grabbed her staff without waiting for an answer. Calvin scurried along behind her.
“Couldn't you cast an illumination spell?” he wondered as they ventured into the darkness. He hovered annoyingly close to her shoulders, too nervous to venture outside the small circle of light that the lantern provided.
“I could, but I won't. Why waste energy I might need later, if I have a perfectly good lantern right here?”
“You don't have enough energy reserves to spare for a small light?” he asked incredulously. “What did I hire you for, if you can't manage that? Even Novice Mages can juggle two spells simultaneously!”
“Minor spells," she corrected with a sneer. "Obviously you've never dealt with the undead. I'm not going to waste precious energy on stupid little warming or light spells just to curb your doubts, when that extra energy might mean the difference between life and death for us later. Now be quiet. I must use all my senses.” She sniffed experimentally as a cool breeze rippled her cloak. A mild scent of pine and damp earth filled her nostrils. She stood downwind from a forest. She was unlikely to find the cows there; they needed larger stores of blood to satiate them: people. But where were they?
“Here.” She thrust the lantern into his hands. “Make yourself moderately useful.”
She concentrated and probed with her thoughts. When she found what she sought, she recited an incantation and held out her arm. Calvin edged forward. He opened his mouth, but shrieked when an owl flew in confused circles around his head, grazing his hair. He dropped the lantern and cowered in the dirt.
“Get up!” The man was absolutely tiresome. “Don't you dare drop the lantern again! You're lucky you didn't start a fire, you fool.”
The owl landed on her arm with a hoot. It bobbed its head and scooted along its perch restlessly. Wintra locked gazes with it and cast another spell. A warm and disorienting sensation swept through her body, as if she had imbibed too much brandy. She lifted her arm. “Go.” The owl flapped away silently.
“What was that about?”
“We must rely on another nocturnal hunter's eyes to find the cows; one who travels silently and remains unobtrusive.”
“What did you do?”
She eyed him knowingly. He scuffed his boot in the dirt and looked away. She snorted. The idiot wasn't even fully trained, and yet he dared lecture her about magic and complain about her spells. No wonder he was in this mess. She smirked. “I cast a bonding spell to see through the owl's eyes so we may find the cows. It makes one aware of many things about the creature, such as hunger, thirst, gender...Of course," she couldn't help but add snidely, "as a fully trained Novice Mage, you know that.”
Calvin flushed and opened his mouth to protest, but Wintra silenced him. “Don't waste my time with excuses," she snapped. "I couldn't care less--" She faltered as a change in the owl's awareness alerted her own. "It found one. If we hurry, we may catch it before it kills.” They set off in the darkness, the dry, deadened grass crunching quietly beneath their feet. The crisp tang of the night air invigorated Wintra. She tightened her grip on her staff as they hurried through the darkened pastures, eager for the confrontation that lay ahead. Weeks of inane paper work and bothersome housekeeping tasks around her office had left Wintra bored out of her skull; the knowledge that she would soon be able to exercise her magic for professional purposes excited her. She breathed deeply, and a familiar aroma urged her to slow her pace at last.
She stopped in her tracks and inhaled again. The fetid odor of rotten flesh filled Wintra's nostrils. Calvin, unused to the smell, gagged violently. A cow stood several yards away, feasting on some discovered carrion. Wintra flexed her free hand and smiled eagerly. She grasped the smooth, bone-carved handle of the small, thin-bladed knife that hung from her work belt. She drew her knife and sliced open her right forearm.
“What are you doing?” Calvin demanded as her arm oozed blood.
“My job. Shut up and defend yourself.”
He stared in horror and fumbled for the small knife tucked into his own belt. He would do better to rely on his own awkward and rudimentary magic, despite his indicated lack of full training. If he turned himself into a vampire or a bush as a result, Wintra was equipped to handle the former, and tempted to plant the latter.
She spied movement in the distance. The cow sensed the fresh blood. “Brace yourself!” The creature raised its head. Its mad eyes glowed a putrid green. Blood dripped from its muzzle, spattering on the ground like macabre inkblots. Wintra recited a spell and swung her staff in front of herself like a bar. The cow charged and rammed its skull against the staff. It stumbled backward, shaking its head. Even vampiric cattle are stupid, she observed. Strong, though. Damn near broke my staff, all spells aside. The cow lunged at her from the side, bellowing in confused rage.
“Wintra! Look out!” Calvin leaped in front of her. The cow lowered its head and hit him in the stomach like a battering ram. “Oof!” He fell, and the lantern clattered to the ground. The cow licked savagely at Calvin's bleeding arm, aggravating its new disturbing angle. His bloodcurdling scream rather impressed Wintra as she worked her spell.
“Mmmwaaahgh!” the cow bellowed. Its jaw unhinged with a loud crack and hung loose, wobbling back and forth. Wintra wove another spell and the cow fell into the muddy pasture, as if dead.
Wintra peered at Calvin and set the lantern upright. “We'll take you to a healer.” She surveyed his damaged arm. “Although a Healer Mage would be better.”
“There isn't one nearby,” he replied weakly. “Thank you for ending its misery.”
“For killing the cow after you did that awful thing to its jaw.”
“That 'awful thing' saved you from being eaten alive,” she pointed out. “It can't suck blood if its jaw is broken. And it isn't dead, it's undead, as people in my profession say. I seized its muscles up. It should last long enough to haul it to town.”
“What? That's cr--Behind you!”
She turned. Of course. Cattle rarely traveled alone. As the herd stampeded toward her in a frenzy, she dropped her staff, grabbed the lantern, and launched it at the cattle. The lantern smashed to pieces as it hit the ground. A small flame spread, but not fast enough. Wintra shouted another spell. The fire exploded into an inferno, engulfing the cattle. She picked up her staff.
“Can you walk? That won't stop them for long.”
Calvin struggled to his feet and ran toward town, cradling his mangled arm. Wintra whispered another spell. She heaved the immobile cow over her shoulders. She hoped it would last long enough to reach shelter. But she worried what might happen if her spell failed, and the recuperated cow began to move, right by her very vulnerable and unprotected neck.