Put a Stake In It

By Andrea L. Rau

 cool breeze blew through the window, rippling the ratty, black lace curtains like cobwebs shaken from a dust rag. A second gust blew back a curl of brown bangs and glided across a perspiring forehead. Wintra Felanos ignored the refreshing change. She scrawled her signature across a contract and sighed. She ought to be grateful for the work. Business slowed in the summer. Hot weather dwindled her prospects to earn a living. She folded the contract and reached for a half-melted stick of black sealing wax. She held it over a candle’s flame and watched the wax spatter onto the parchment. She stamped the congealing pool with her seal—a crow ruffling its feathers. She picked up a quill to address the contract, and her office door banged open. A gangly youth in rumpled, food-spotted robes tumbled through.

“Cows!” he gasped.

Wintra rose to throw him out of her office. He stood up. His rust-colored hair stood at odd angles from his scalp. It amplified the crazed look in his green eyes. “I am not drunk,” he declared, guessing her thoughts. “The cows are everywhere!”

“Well, they must change pasture to find food—” She drew back with a wince. His breath smelled foul with the aroma of onions and aged cheese, but she detected no alcohol.

“No, they’re evil!”

“Evil cows.” This might take all afternoon. Wintra sorely regretted sending her assistant home early. “How can cows be evil?” she asked with a morbid curiosity.

“They’re vampires!” He wrung his hands. “Vampire cows!”

Wintra closed her eyes. She knew it wasn’t the heat that suddenly exhausted her. “I see.”  He was mad. Perhaps she should summon her assistant to consult with before taking definitive action.

“I’m serious. I miscast the spell, and the cows are on a bloodthirsty rampage!”

Finally, something interesting amid his incoherent babble. “What spell?” She surveyed him again. He impressed her even less than he had before—which was to say, not at all.

“Well,” he hesitated, eyeing her less kindly than he would a snake.

She pursed her lips. “Well, out with it, if you need my help.” She arched an eyebrow. “That is why you tumbled through my door?” He bit his lower lip until it bled. “When you’re ready to talk, let me know. Otherwise, I have work to do.”

It was a lie, but she sat at her desk and started a letter to her bank, complaining about the lack of evening or early morning service hours. With her lack of business, the inconvenient hours mattered little at present. She was surprised, however, that they hadn’t increased their hours already, given how people around her behaved like frightened little rats scurrying for cover. But perhaps they refused to change them because they would rather keep her away if they could.

Naturally, the bank had not turned down its nose at her business. Her money was as good as anyone else’s, apparently. Greed. It was nice to know something could be relied upon in the world. Really, it made her feel almost connected to others. Almost.

She spied movement. “Yes?” Why was this buffoon still in her office if he didn’t know whether he really wanted her help?

“Please,” he spluttered, “I need your…assistance.”

“With what? I don’t have all day, you know.”

“With the vampire cows?” It sounded like a question rather than a statement.

“I gathered that.” She might regret this assignment, but money was money, and she had precious little right now. “What spell?”

“Spell?” he asked blankly.

“The one that went wrong!” she thundered, abandoning all pretense of patience. “Explain yourself now, or I’ll summon a crow and have him peck at your eyes until his beak wears down to the nub!”

He paled, and Wintra watched with interest as blood pulsed through indigo veins in his now translucent skin. Sweat dribbled into his wide eyes, forcing him to blink. He spoke softly, his voice obscured by chattering teeth. “I do n-need your help. Please, I am not kidding.”

Of course not, Wintra thought smugly. You wouldn’t dare be so stupid. You’re damned desperate just to come here in the first place. Whatever this nonsense is about, it has you much more scared of it than you are of me. “No, but you’re taking an abominably long time to tell me about it. You said a spell went awry? What spell?”

“My own,” he said, with a mixture of pride and shame. “The extreme heat has caused a famine, leaving the cows emaciated… A farmer asked me to help, and I invented a spell to increase the growth of a cow’s muscle tissue, so he’d have more meat to sell at market. Beef is in high demand right now.”

“Yes, I see.” She made a face. “Actually, I don’t. How can cows be vampiric? Do they suck the life out of the grass?” She laughed at the thought.

“It isn’t funny!” he admonished. “Certainly not to the people the cows are attacking—”

She laughed harder at the mental image of a herd of cows chasing a startled farmer around his pasture.

“—and eating!”

She considered him soberly. “Why not? It’s not like—” She stopped. If he knew she had nothing else to do for the time being, no other means of income, he had the advantage. “I can squeeze you into my schedule.” She smiled without warmth. “For a price, of course.”

“How much?” Beads of sweat glistened on his face.

“That depends on the situation’s immediacy—”

“Right away!” he gasped. “They’ll eat whole villages in the space of days!”

“—and the task’s difficulty, plus any additional supplies, necessary travel expenses and the like…”

He groaned and flopped into a chair. She eyed a stack of papers on her desk. “Of course, if you wish to leave villagers at the mercy of ravenous, bloodthirsty cows…” She waited for him to arrive at the only logical solution with all due haste, desperation, and large monetary promises. Her fingers twitched and she slowly reached across her desk.

“I don’t have much money,” he whined, earning a disgusted glare from her. “Sorry,” he apologized.

“Can’t you calculate the preliminary total?” he inquired after a period of silence. “My guild should help cover the costs.”

An absolute gibbering moron, she thought with glee as she plucked a contract off her desk. My favorite type of client. “I would be…” she searched for the correct word and tried not to sneer, “…happy to.”

* * *

            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—”

“Could he?”

“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.”

“Why not?”

“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. They 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.  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. 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.”

“What?”

“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.

* * *

            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 as 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 be 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.

“Don’t.”

“I’f been drinkin’—”

“Wait a few hours until it wears off. Just do it before dusk.”

“Yer relentlesh.”

She stood up. “Necromancers have to be. Rest. I’ll wake you for preparations.” She opened the door. “Don’t disappoint me.”

* * *

            “Now,” said Wintra as she sat in a chair. She watched with mild annoyance as Calvin flexed and bent his newly healed arm like he had never seen such a wonder before in his entire life. “You’re going to break your arm again,” she predicted, more because she hoped it were true than because she actually believed it. Despite his apparent success in healing himself, she found that she was disappointed all the same. Surely he might have rendered himself speechless, at the very least. His excited chattering and exclamations of amazement were grating on her nerves. “Now,” she repeated with more force, startling Calvin, “we must formulate a plan to kill these cows. Ideas?”

He shrugged. “I don’t know much about the undead, and even less about how to deal with vampire cows. Maybe we could lure them somewhere…”

“Luring them into a trap is a good idea, but that is not what primarily concerns me. Luring is the easy part. We must plan how to eradicate them first.”

“Stake them?”

“How would we subdue them long enough to do that?” She shook her head in exasperation. “You need to think about the entire picture, not just pieces of it. And eradication of the undead requires much more caution and precision.” She brushed aside some of the rolled up maps on the table. “Once we lure them to us, we must render them incapable of movement. We don’t want a mass of angry, hysterical cattle coming at us again. After I immobilize them with a spell, I’ll dissolve their stomachs so they can’t eat—”

Calvin turned faintly green. “Dissolve?” he inquired weakly. “That’s disgusting! And cruel.”

“It’s practical,” she corrected. “These aren’t cows, they’re undead. I think all bets are off when they inflict death and suffering of their own.”

“It’s inhumane!”

“You hired the wrong person for humane,” she pointed out. “Necromancy often employs cruel methods of magic. Besides,” she finished, “you have no other choice.”

“You don’t know that,” he argued.

“Of course I do. I’m not stupid. If you felt you had any other choice, you wouldn’t have hired me. I know my reputation; I’ve spent years cultivating it. You exhausted your other options before coming to me.”

“How do you know that?” he replied weakly.

“Because they always do.”

* * *

            Wintra and Calvin lay their trap as the sun set. When they arrived in the meadow chosen for their trap, Wintra saw Calvin wrinkle his nose out of the corner of her eye. The Novice turned in a slow circle, his expression growing more sour as he moved. Wintra ground her teeth together and inhaled with effort. She was thoroughly tired of his sulking. She couldn’t care less whether he liked her methods or not. He had hired her, knowing full well what she was, thus implicitly giving approval to whatever means she found necessary to carry out her job. That he had had no other choice left but to hire her—or his negative feelings upon Wintra’s pointing this out—wasn’t her concern. Unless it interfered with her job.

She watched him with narrowed eyes, prepared to take action if he did not adjust his attitude shortly.

“Where did this come from?” he asked grudgingly, gesturing to the pen, constructed of thin, spear-like posts, that surrounded them. His expression was bewildered, but Wintra noted a sliver of interest in his body language. Perhaps his curiosity would overpower his determination to brood. “That’s freshly cut wood.” Calvin threw his bundle down at the back of the pen with a grunt.

“I told the villagers my plan, and they finished it before sundown.”

Wintra unwrapped the bundle. Large chunks of freshly butchered meat lay inside. She raised her staff and wove a spell. The air turned rancid as the meat aged. Calvin gagged. “Pull it together,” she advised, “and grab a spear.”

A cool breeze swept across her face. She considered manipulating the wind to carry the rotten smell to the  cows, but she discarded the idea. She did not know from which direction the cows would approach. She idly watched Calvin twirl his spear. He glanced over his shoulder at the small, glowing orb that he had conjured. It was the fifth time in as many minutes. Wintra suspected it was his security blanket, but she had said nothing to him when he insisted on it. The fact that it would not protect him in any way whatsoever from the cattle, or that it was simply an unnecessary drain on his magical reserves during an inevitable battle with the undead, apparently didn’t matter to him in the slightest.

“Are you prepared?” she asked, setting their new lantern down in the grass. She lit it, mindful of the increasing darkness that encroached on them from all sides. If it weren’t for the fact that it enabled her to better plan her defense or particular modes of attack, she doubted she would even carry a lantern to light her way. In some ways, it was worse to see the enemy approaching than to have it leap on top of you in the dark. Still, there were far more advantages to be gained against an enemy if she could see what she was doing.

“I’m ready,” Calvin replied, his voice quavering with doubt.

“You had better be,” she warned him. “We cannot afford to make mistakes. This may be our only workable chance to destroy them.” He looked as if he might protest, but Wintra silenced him as her magically enhanced senses flared to life.

“They’re coming.”

The earth shuddered beneath her feet as the cattle approached. Calvin prepared to flee, but Wintra grabbed him and pulled him out of harm’s way. The cattle spilled into the pen like a charging army, and a fight broke out as several of them rammed into each other with snapping jaws, fighting over the rancid meat. Wintra backed out of the pen with care, using Calvin as something of a human shield. She figured the coward might as well be useful for something.

Wintra wove her spell, holding tight to Calvin’s arm while the cattle brawled with each other in hunger induced confusion. The Novice struggled as if possessed by a demon, too frightened to think clearly, and she growled something incoherent at him. Whatever her words had been, they seemed to have a great effect on Calvin as her spell rippled through the cattle with a flash of purple light. He  stopped struggling and blinked several times, as if waking from a trance.

The cows glowed a dull indigo, and their movements became slow and choppy until they finally halted, frozen into place. Wintra murmured her next spell before the first faded. The problem with working so many spells close together was that she couldn’t waste the extra energy needed to make them last longer, or she would have nothing left in her magical reserves to draw upon in an emergency. It was a grim lesson she had to learn but once, during her apprenticeship.

She let go of Calvin. The cattle bawled as her spell liquefied their stomachs. She shoved Calvin forward. “Get in there!” He stumbled forward and clumsily stabbed at a cow. Blood oozed from the wound. “No! Behind the shoulder on the left side!” Wintra barked as she staked a cow. “Get another spear!” she directed, after he correctly staked his cow. “Hurry, damn you, before the spells wear off!” The last thing they needed was for the cows to regain their mobility before they had finished staking them all.

He sprinted for another spear, and Wintra turned her attention back to staking cows. Her mind raced with the macabre possibilities of what might happen if her spell wore off too soon; being trampled underfoot by the cattle seemed to be the most optimistic probability. She moved among the immobile cattle, feeling paranoid. The knowledge that she never would have been able to use this particular set of spells on intelligent undead fed her doubts about the spells’ sustainability on the cows. Though they wouldn’t be able to actively counter her efforts, as a human vampire might, that didn’t mean the cattle hadn’t developed other means to ward off her spells in order to survive.

When she thrust her last spear into a cow, she wiped the sweat from her forehead and breathed a sigh of relief. She looked at Calvin, curious to see how he had been getting along in his own efforts. She called over to him.

He pointed toward a cow frozen near him. “One more!” he shouted. She waved at him to kill it. He looked around the pen and turned back with a panicked expression. “I don’t see any more spears!”

“There have to be more.” She stalked over to him.

He gestured toward the gutted fence. “See? They mis—Wintra!”

She dove quickly, and hoped she hadn’t moved into the cow’s path. She rolled to a stop and stood up. The vampiric cow had already compensated for her evasion and barreled toward her, snorting in fury. She ran erratically, weaving around carcasses, in the fruitless hope that the cow would flounder. Before she knew it, she found herself backed into a corner of the pen. Wintra swore. She turned and futilely cast a shielding spell as Calvin launched himself onto the cow. It bucked in angry circles while it tried to throw off the surprisingly determined Novice. Grateful for the distraction, Wintra ran toward her staff.

“Kill it!”

“What do you think I’m trying to do?” she spat. Wintra’s tongue twisted out the syllables of a spell and her staff’s head sharpened to a point. She hurried back and thrust it into the cow. Calvin fell off the cow at last. Before she could curse him for his stupidity in leaping astride one of the undead, Calvin’s eyes widened and the color drained from his face.

“That’s the wrong side!” he yelled as the cow staggered around in a daze.

Wintra swore. She couldn’t pull the stake out and correctly stake the cow without getting trampled and eaten. She must try something else. A more complex spell rolled off her tongue as Wintra visualized the wood of her staff becoming pliable, almost liquid. The staff lengthened, and its recently acquired point plunged through the cow and out its other side, piercing the heart.

“That was my favorite staff!” She glared at the cow bitterly. “Get the scythes!”

They decapitated the cattle, Calvin with evident relief, and Wintra with vengeful glee. Butchering her way through layers of muscle, fat, and bone felt cathartic to her. It took a long time to finish decapitating so many cattle, and when they finished, Wintra saw that Calvin was as exhausted as she was. They left the pen together, and Wintra leaned on her bloodied scythe. “There’s one thing more.”

Calvin looked up from his blood-spattered robes. She raised her arm and gestured with effort, her words inaudible. Flames spewed into the pen, devouring the bodies. Neither of them said a word as they watched the fire.

“And that,” she said some hours later, as the fire dwindled to ash in the light of dawn, “is how you kill vampire cows.”

Wintra narrowed her eyes and turned Calvin in the sun’s bright glare. “Now.” She stabbed him in the chest with her forefinger. “Where’s my money?”

She knew Calvin had lied to her about his funds, and the manner in which she would be paid—or rather, wouldn’t. She had no intention of going back to her office without the money, since she knew she would never receive it later.

“I don’t have it,” he hedged. “I told you, my guild will—”

“I don’t think so.” She spat out the words of a spell, re-energized by her greed.

Vines burst out of the ground and curled around his limbs, immobilizing him. “Wrong answer.” He panicked and gave Wintra the guild’s location. “Thank you, Milton,” she crooned to annoy him. She emptied his pockets of valuables and cast a spell. A crow flew at his eyes with a caw. He screamed and tried to cover them, but the vines interfered with his mobility. The bird began to peck at his eyes. Wintra smiled. No one crossed her without consequences. It was bad for business.

_____

Andrea L. Rau has been a bibliophile and writer her entire life. Currently, Andrea is consumed with editing a novel and writing new short stories. She lives in St. Louis, Missouri with her husband, two children, and two geriatric cats. Her story, “Put a Stake In It” previously appeared in Me Na Se Publications


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