The sun broke over the horizon. Its pale golden rays bathed Wintra with warmth. She shuddered. Her shoulders curled forward instinctively. She had never been a morning person, being particularly attuned to the night for as long as she could remember. Her work as a necromancer amplified her preferences, but while she usually felt indifferent or even annoyed by the sunshine, she had never found the sun's warmth as profoundly distasteful as she did this morning; it reminded her all too clearly of the cow's breath upon her bare neck.
She squinted in the dim light. It had been a while since she had been outside during daylight. She stared, unperturbed, while the cow struggled against its heavy, spellbound chains. It bellowed in distress, desperate for shelter. Wintra watched its skin bubble and sizzle with clinical interest. The cow's eyes rolled back and it convulsed. Human vampires reacted quite differently to the sun, she mused. Perhaps they were more sensitive to it, and so burned to ash. It was an interesting hypothesis, and one she wished to test with her assistant at their leisure.
Ten minutes later, Wintra prodded the body with her staff. Nothing. She thrust harder, to make certain. The inn's door opened, and the healer exited, mopping her brow with a rag. “I splinted his arm and stitched up his wounds. He spit out most of the whiskey and passed out when I set his bone. He won't be useful to you tonight. You'd best plan to leave him behind.”
“I'd like nothing better,” she admitted sourly, “but I'm not that lucky.”
“You'd have to be, in your line of work.” She squinted at Wintra more closely and pushed a lock of bedraggled blonde hair out of her silver-grey eyes. “Name's Becky, by the way. You're a necromancer, yes? You have the look of one. I crossed paths with some in my travels, years ago.”
Wintra nodded, rather bored by the friendly prattle. “Do you heal animals?”
“Aye, what can I do for you?”
“Take a look, at this cow.” She gestured to the charred corpse.
The healer knelt, reaching into the leather apron she wore around her waist. “I presume you've taken measures so it won't rise again?”
“I will, once you point out its heart, so I can stake it.”
The healer pulled on a pair of stained leather gloves. “What else are you looking for?”
“Anything unusual that catches your eye. The information may help exterminate them.”
Becky unsheathed a dagger. “The heart's on the left side, behind the shoulder. For a thorough internal examination, you must stake the beast after I finish, or you'll make a mess of its other organs.”
Wintra nodded. The healer slit the cow's belly open. A thick, viscous liquid oozed onto the ground as a rotten stench filled the air, and she saw Becky pause to hold back her vomit. Wintra stood, undisturbed. Given enough exposure to something, one could get used to even the most repellent of smells.
The healer removed a pair of metal tongs and some long spikes from her apron. She pulled the skin back and secured it out of her way with the spikes before she began her inspection. “Interesting. A cow's stomach has four chambers to digest its normal diet. This cow's stomach is abnormal. It's not designed to digest an herbivore diet. This is a carnivore's digestive system—or close to it.”
“Close to it?” She crossed her arms and leaned against the inn's wall, tired but mentally alert.
The healer hesitated. “It's not designed to digest solids.”
“Meaning it's designed to digest blood.”
“Not just blood,” the healer cautioned, “but gallons of blood. A normal cow eats about fifty pounds of foliage and drinks fifty or so gallons of water a day. Add to that the fact that blood is liquid and digests quickly...”
“And the cows wake up every night literally starving. No wonder the casualties have been high. What else?”
The healer removed her hands from the cow's belly, dripping droplets of red-black blood on the parched earth. She moved to the cow's head and squinted, pulling open its eyelids. “Unusual color. Probably indicative of its new nightvision.” She frowned. “Something about them reminds me of a cat's eyes. There may be similarities, but I cannot say for certain without an extended dissection.” She pried open the cow's mouth.
The cow had no upper teeth. “Is that normal?” Wintra asked, pointing.
“What? Oh, yes. As a matter of fact, the teeth are unchanged, which surprises me. But I suppose lapping up blood wouldn't require dental changes.” She shook her head. “But how does it puncture skin? It needs something to rip and tear.”
“Its hooves,” Wintra guessed.
The healer peered at them. “I believe you're right. They are sharper than normal.” She peeled off her gloves. “I must leave for my next appointment, but I hope I've helped.”
“Exceedingly,” Wintra assured her. “What do I owe you?”
“Getting rid of this plague is recompense enough.” She left, whistling as if she had been planting flowers all afternoon. Wintra smiled and went inside the inn.
“All right,” she greeted Calvin after a brief knock on his door, “how do you feel?”
He blinked at her wearily. “It hursh,” he slurred, “it hursh bad.” Wintra leaned forward. His breath stank of whiskey. Apparently he hadn't refused it after the healer had finished her work.
“It could have been worse,” she said stoically. “Tonight may be worse. The healer said I shouldn't take you with me, considering your injury.”
“You ken fiss it,” he said slowly, as if every word required great effort. “You haf magish.”
Wintra shot him her very best scathing look. “I am a necromancer,” she reminded him. “I do not use my magic to...heal,” she said, as if the very work were dirty. It went against all her principles to heal others without serious and admittedly selfish cause. If she did, everyone would expect her to heal them, and her reputation as a necromancer would fall to naught. “If I wanted to heal people with my magic, I would have spent my time learning to do just that—not skulking about trying to learn out of forbidden books or seeking out necromancers to apprentice myself with.”
“How ken I helf if you won't heal me?”
“You aren't much use anyway,” she answered bluntly, “but maybe you can prove otherwise after you heal your arm.”
“Whuh?” he croaked. “I kent heal myshelf! Whuh if I mesh it up?” he stalled.
“I'f been drinkin'--”
“Wait a few hours until it wears off. Just do it before dusk.”
She stood up. “Necromancers have to be. Rest. I'll wake you for preparations.” She opened the door. “Don't disappoint me.”