No matter the genre, or if it is non-fiction, authors need to triple check the final proof of their manuscript before it is published. Why? Well . . .
The crystal ball beside her desk began wiggling on its stand. Morgana reached over absentmindedly, patted the top to stop the vibration and waited for the incoming text. It was from Dolores.
“Hey, thanks for the thunderstorm you’re throwing my way! Better than fire or dust!”
Morgana frowned, rotated in her seat and typed on the magic-only keyboard, “Thppppth. That was supposed to stay up here. Mutter, mutter no more bargain bin eye of newt.” It really had been commanded to stay locally, but Waldo had muffed the winds aloft forecast.
“…and the voice in the back of my head says ‘lines you’d see in chat with an evil overlord’s friends… Um, was that eye of newt or Aya’s snoot?”
“Eye of newt. Gotta use water creatures to get water elementals.” Didn’t Dolores remember that? Oh wait, no, Morgana remembered, Dolores specialized in automata and mechanical charms, not the traditional elemental spells.
“Ah! No wonder the hellbender is going extinct; people keep mistaking it for a non-water creature!
“You got it. There was a terrible typo in ‘Summoners’ Monthly’ a few years ago, and…”
“Was it a typo, or a conspiracy of editors? Must we keep the blue pencil of evil back in the vault? Don’t they know not to mess with eldritch artifacts?”
“I’d let my subscription lapse by then so I don’t know. I heard that they started outsourcing their editors and that never ends well. Especially with spell casting. You’d have thought the disaster at Necromancy Digest would have been enough of a warning!”
She could almost hear Dolores’s sigh. “How many times do we have to tell the kids that you cannot mindlessly accept every suggestion from Spellcheck? There’s a critical difference between ‘shrubbery wrath’ and ‘Shrub Niggurath.’ The first is for animated hedge mazes, the latter is the black goat of the woods with a thousand young. IA! IA Cthulu fthagn!”
Morgana’s crystal ball buzzed, and she draped the cloth over it. Dolores had an incoming call and had switched lines. Well, she needed to get back to work, anyway. Reviewing the galley proofs for a new edition always took forever, or at least felt that way. It wasn’t the local time dilation effect, not with her books. No, Morgana sniffed as she pivoted back to her work table, it was going through each page and every spell, triple-checking the ingredients lists and accents and graves. “Well, you know very well what happened when Lillith couldn’t be bothered to do more than a cursory glance at the illustrations and chapter heads. Especially in a book for primary-level spell casters, too! I declare, some people.” You could never, ever be too careful with primary level spells. Students always found a way to turn a basic experiment, like changing water into ice, into a disaster of planetary proportions even without bad instructions. After the third water-shifting class got nearly eaten by Monsters from the Unseen Depths, the publisher finally issued corrections, and eventually recalled the entire print run.
Well, that would not happen to her book. No, other things would arise, and someone would probably sue because she hadn’t insisted that buyers use only organic herbs or something. And despite the enormous disclaimer on the cover and in the introduction and on the index and on the appropriate pages, they would try a vegan-version of something with embarrassing results. She smirked a little as she remembered the man who had turned his Family Jewels into romaine lettuce. If it calls for animal products, use animal products, darn it. Hecate wouldn’t have given us animals and their spells if we weren’t supposed to use them, especially not now that almost every magical-use creature could be purchased certified farm-raised. Except rabbits and squirrels and pigeons, but no one minded a few of those disappearing from time to time, since they self-replaced so fast. Especially the ones that liked to browse on her herb garden.
By the time she reached the point that her eyes were crossing and her “t”s were not, Morgana had found twelve minor corrections, mostly punctuation, and one major problem that could have expensive outcomes if not fixed. She flagged it, saved everything, backed it up to her hard drive, to her secondary storage in the fog, and into the pocket reality she kept just for things like this. Then she went to make a nice pot of Darjeeling tea with a bit of detoxified azalea honey. Smiley, the wolverine that had decided to act as her Familiar, grumped across the floor as she started the water. “Yes, yes, I have not forgotten,” she assured him. She went to the meat pantry, waved away the ice-sprite at the door, and pulled out a chunk of lightly aged and slightly fermented moose. “Certified Canadian, free range,” she showed him the tag. He adjusted his wire-rim glasses and peered at it.
“What make, Madame?”
Now it was her turn to peer at the tag. “A Volvo sedan.”
Morgana popped the chunk of road kill into Smiley’s microwave for ninety seconds, turned off the kettle and started her tea, then served the meat. He devoured it like the wolverine he was, snarling and generally making a mess in his dining corner. Since he also tidied up after himself, the splatter and streaks no longer bothered her. Once the tea reached the proper strength, she added a small dollop of honey then went to check on her herb starts. The aconite looked fine, as did the foxglove, but the henbane… She shook her head. That was the third batch of seed from Tol and Gygax Greenhouses that had been bad. “Cheap seed is shoddy seed indeed.” However, the basil, thyme, and lemon balm not only did well, but needed thinning.
Morgana resumed her error hunt the next day. One cantrip bothered her greatly, so she got a clean sheet of foolscap, a HB pencil, and her large eraser and started writing it out. After three words, she carefully erased part of each letter, then wrote more. That was what the students would do, after all, and she needed to follow standard teaching procedure. After she’d copied the cantrip out, she sat back and read it silently. There, the next to last line, that was the problem. Someone had removed the umlaut from cantü and had capitalized it into a name! “Oh my stars and garters. Does no one teach proper spell checking any more?” Poor Cantu would be up to his or her ears in aquatic life the first time a class attempted the transfer spell!
Smiley lumped his way up onto his platform and looked at the page. “Hellebore and henbane. Is that a typo?” He tapped the incorrect word with one sharp claw.
“Can you imagine what would happen the instant the starter class at Albuquerque Academy of Alchemy reached that word?” He grinned, baring all of his very large fangs. “Half the city would be drowning in frogs and pond scum.” Smiley blinked. “On second thought, Madame, can you leave it in for their edition? Please?”
“No I cannot. And it was the would-be Wiccan in Madrid who tried to exorcise you, not Albuquerque.” As if anyone can exorcise a Familiar. Heaven knows Merddyn and Mallory have tried often enough. Of course, if I were chosen by a 100-pound skunk, I might try to find an escape clause in the fine print. What exactly had happened to make the skunk grow that large no one knew. Or if they did, they remained in hiding. But Rose had terminated the bullying problem at their children’s school once and for all, so Morgana kept her mouth firmly closed.
“Wondering if Krimhilde ever sorted out how to identify her individual ferrets, or if she’s given up.”
“Hmm.” He leaned back, then settled into a lump. Buuuurrrrrp. “Sorry. I seem to recall that she’s given up. She tried colored collars, and they swapped them when she went shopping one morning.”
“That sounds like ferrets.”
Morgana erased the cantrip completely, brushed the rubber bits into the proper dustbin, and returned to work.
The next morning, before she could do more than change clothes after her tai chi class, her crystal ball began bouncing and flashed red and black. Smiley raced up, turned off the alert, and she opened the call.
“Morgana, it’s Jaramillo. We’ve got a situation. I’ve already alerted Dolores. What do you know about Wanda’s Wondercaster Third Edition?”
Smiley groaned and facepawed.
“It has some serious flaws, and a ten-page errata was supposedly issued six months ago. Why?”
Jaramillo ran thick, ink-stained fingers through his salt-and-pepper shag. “We found an open copy with penciled in notes, more notes in silver, and hoof prints leading to the city park.”
Smiley put both front paws over his eyes.
“It was at the transformations chapter.”
Morgana covered her eyes with one hand. “I’ll, sorry, we’ll be there in half an hour. Shall we meet at the park entrance sign?”
“Perfect. Jaramillo out.”
“Morgana out.” She draped white velvet over the ball to activate the answering service, and looked at Smiley. He glowered back. “How are you at herding large animals?”
He licked his chops. “How large?”
“Two hundred pounds and larger?”
“No worries, mate!”
We’re doomed. And so is Rampaging Potoo Books once this gets sorted out.
* * *
Morgana’s battered red and blue SUV pulled into the parking lot near the main sign for the city park. She saw Dolores’s husband’s pickup, and Jaramillo’s vintage station wagon with real wood and silver trim parked near the gate. Morgana let Smiley out of the back-seat car-cage, hauled her full emergency kit out of the rear storage area, and waved to one of the mounted police officers beside the gate. His partner was talking with Jaramillo. Morgana approached slowly, so as not to spook the horses. They had been trained not to panic around predatory Familiars, but some of them shied from humans. The park sounded quiet and she didn’t feel any disturbances yet.
“Good morning Officer Macbeth,” Morgana said when she got close.
He tipped his hat. “Mornin’ Ma’am. I understand we have a possible transformation in progress?”
“Yeah,” his partner called. “Mr. Cortez says it is probably a first-time, and recent. Cow sized or larger.” She didn’t sound happy.
The redhead looked up at the light blue morning sky, draped with wisps of high cloud. “I feel the sudden need for a donut with a depth-charge chaser,” he sighed, so quietly Morgana barely heard him. “Will y’all be needing an official assist?”
Dolores shook her head. “Not yet. You might put animal control on stand-by, in case our transformation is too spooked to listen to reason, but we’ll try to undo the spell the easy way first.”
“Oh good.” Macbeth’s partner grinned and winked. He gestured with his thumb to his associate. “Her ropin’ skills need a little work.”
“Well, no one can dally or hard-and-fast on these things,” she gestured to their English-style saddles. “We need real saddles.”
They’d all heard the argument before, so the three magic workers excused themselves and went into the park. Macbeth closed the gate behind them. “Nothin’ personal, but the Sisters walk the kindergarten past her every mornin’, and I don’t care to get called for an accidental spell-interception.”
“Where’s your Calmer Half?” Morgana inquired of Dolores as their Familiars scouted ahead of the three humans.
“He got commissioned to write a history book about the Muti Wars, since he can read all the languages involved.” She sighed. “He’s in the groove and I don’t dare disturb him.”
“No, that would not be good.” Dolores’s eagle owl soared back toward them, looped past, and went out again down the left-handed trail. “Not auspicious.”
Jaramillo shrugged. “No, but that leads to the big grassland-reconstruction, which fits with the hoofs. I just hope we’re not dealing with something like an aurochs. Those things were huge.”
“Or a bull bison,” Dolores gulped. “Patrick has stories from his days on the frontier patrol.”
Smiley licked his chops. “Bison tastes very good.”
By now Morgana had learned to ignore comments like that. Jaramillo gave Smiley a worried look, then ducked a tree branch. “Crap, they’re supposed to trim those.” Then he looked down and saw the no low-flying sign. “Never mind.”
MbwwwaaaaaH! Something bellowed ahead of them, just past the edge of the tree-shadows. All three magicians pulled their saints’ medallions out of their collars and set down their equipment bags. Dolores opened her leather case, removed a small round clockwork and wound it, whispered a cantrip trigger, and let it go. “Shadow-flash,” she explained.
“Good thinking.” Jaramillo removed a veterinary tranquilizer gun from his bag. “I loaded with Solomon’s Seal and foxglove extract, assuming mass equivalents.”
Morgana crouched down and after considering the grass, light conditions, and that it was a nature reserve in the park, used a silver rod to draw a circle in the bark and dirt of the path. She stepped into it, Smiley at her side. Morgana reached in and then out and down. In the name of Him who made the Earth and sky and waters and air, and all that dwells therein, I ask the aid of a spirit of the Earth. She never compelled, only asked.
“What desire you, Mistress?” A shape like a large prairie dog sat just outside the circle.
“I ask your aid in slowing the transformed creature so that my associates and I may undo a spell cast in error.”
“And what do you give in return?”
Morgana considered. “Thanks and honor, and two pounds of organic carrots, with their tops.”
“Nope. Five-pound sack of Double-Circle Co-op rabbit chow, here, tomorrow at ten.”
“Agreed.” Morgana erased part of the circle. Smiley sniffed the prairie dog, nodded once, and backed away. He was good.
“Silly cow woke half the park, tripping over his own hoofs, eating wrong,” the prairie dog grumbled. “What’s the plan?”
“I slow him down, Mrs. D shadows his eyes, and if possible, you trip him so we can lay hands on him and undo the spell, sir,” Jaramillo said.
“My pleasure. I hate herbivores stomping around when I’m trying to browse the ‘Net.” He touched his paw to his forehead in a salute and disappeared into the soil.
Jaramillo led the way into the knee-high grass. Beside Morgana, Dolores started to giggle. “I think he’s a UT fan.”
Morgana winced, but had to agree. A very confused looking longhorn steer bawled fifty yards or so ahead of them. His burnt orange hide did suggest a certain team loyalty. “Oh. Could this be a deliberate shift? Based on shape and color?”
“If it was, then after you yell at him, turn him back into a steer, but make him maroon,” Smiley suggested.
Dolores smiled. “I like how you think.” The smile disappeared. “But no, this is accidental. Steer.”
The steer made a choking noise, then a series of random sounds as if trying to talk. Cow mouths are not made for elocution, alas, and the mage inside the shape lacked the patience to sort out how to get close, if Morgana understood the noise and the increasingly panicked body language. She squinted in the bright sunlight. A large shadowy bird shape flapped down toward the steer’s hindquarters, then thumped them with fisted talons and soared up. The steer jumped and lurched toward the humans, then turned as he tried to see what had hit him.
“Perfect,” Jaramillo breathed, sighting.
Hsssss timp! Hsssss timp!
Two bright lime and yellow darts appeared in the steer’s rump.
Bwaaaa! The animal jumped, then lurched as a hole appeared almost under his forefoot. The next hole was exactly right and his front end dropped into the ground. “Sol y umbra in Nombre de Diós,” Dolores called. The clockwork flyer cast a deep cone of shadow over the steer’s head, further confusing him and stopping him from trying to back out of the hole. The three mages ran through the grass and laid hands on the sweat-wet hide.
“In the Name of the Most High, Adonai Elohim, Lord of all powers and magic, if this be an unwitting spell, may it break. If it were done in error, may it break,” Jaramillo and Morgana chanted. “In nomine Domini, amen.”
Morgana felt Smiley pushing energy into her as something under her hands trembled, fought against the command, and then shattered. The hide and hair became a very wet tee-shirt, soaked through with sweat and stinking of fear. The steer twisted, shrinking, until it became a man in a UT-Austin tee-shirt and camouflage pants, no shoes, and a motorcycle. As soon as the spell finished dissipating, Dolores hurried to the motorcycle. She studied it, wrinkled her nose, and called up to her Familiar, “grey tube, please, with the red cap.” The eagle-owl returned momentarily with a large plastic tube and dropped it into Dolores’s hands. “Thank you.” She removed the stopper, poured some glittery blue and green powder into the palm of her right hand. After a whispered prayer, she puffed the powder onto the motorcycle. It shivered, but did not change any farther. “It’s clean.”
The young man pulled his arms out of the ground. “Where am I? What happened? I feel sick.”
Indeed, before he could answer any questions, he threw up a very large amount of green roughage. Smiley snickered and Morgana hid a mean smile. Served the kid right, or did it?
Jaramillo pulled a water bottle out of his waist pack and handed it to the young man, who rinsed his mouth out. “Thank you, sir.”
“You are in the city park. You turned yourself and your motorcycle into a burnt orange steer.” Jaramillo crouched beside the teenager. “What do you remember?”
“Um,” the kid looked up at the mages. “I was in my back yard. I’d borrowed my sister’s textbook, because I wanted to see if I could summon a spirit that would be willing to scout the woods for me this fall. But I didn’t have the right tools and herbs, so I tried something else. That’s all I remember.”
“This is your motorcycle, I hope.”
“Yes, sir.” The sandy-haired boy looked around, and cringed. “Oh no. I’m in the nature reserve! The game wardens will kill me!”
“No, but your sister might. Where do you live, son?”
“T-twenty-eight thirteen South Fergus Falls, sir.”
Jaramillo stood, wincing at the sound as one of his knees popped. “Right. Son, here’s what we are going to do. I’m taking you home. Mrs. D is going to bring your motorcycle to your house, while Miss Brothers takes care of any problems with the park wardens.”
Smiley’s snicker stopped in mid-snick. He gulped. He and the boss park warden had a history, as they say, and Morgana rolled her eyes. A strong whiff of musk made her eyes water. “Do you have your e-key?”
“You can wait in the car if I need to talk to anyone.”
“Thank you, Madame.”
Fortunately, the only thing Morgana needed to do was fill out a single page form giving the situation and attesting that no rare or endangered plants had been damaged. Her earth-spirit had checked the roots of the plants once Dolores got the motorcycle coaxed to life and out of the grassland area, and had given two thumb-claws up. Morgana felt a little odd toting a sack of super cheap rabbit chow into the park at three in the morning, but a deal was a deal. She had made certain to get the kind in the paper sack, so it would biodegrade.
On Thursday afternoon they met at Jaramillo’s house for dinner and debriefing. He had thawed some smoked brisket, Morgana brought roasted root veggies and sauce, and Dolores made a fruit salad with fluffy ginger-lime cream. “I left Patrick imploring Saints Scholastica, Dominic, and Isidore of Seville to help him cure the indexing program.”
“Not St. Jude yet?”
“Not yet, although I suspect he will be getting a call shortly.”
“Speaking of calls, did you get in touch with the ombudsman at Rancid Potoo?”
Jaramillo gave her a tired look over his reading glasses as Smiley smirked. “Yes, I called Recombinant Potoo. Yes, they assured me that what we encountered could never have happened with that book and that edition. And then they said that it was covered in the errata. Which will be sent next week.”
Dolores almost spat lemonade all over the table. “What? Next week? That edition came out two years ago!”
“They were waiting until they had enough corrections to justify an errata booklet.” He took off his glasses and rubbed his nose, then put them back on. “It seems that someone failed to correct the sample transformation spell. No student has done it yet, because each teacher has his own, as we all know, and they monitor every transformation until graduation. So our junior genius is the first one to try the sample, which has a slight oopsie in it. Shoo, Dog.” Dog the Iguana-melion obediently stalked off the book and moved to the back of the chair. “Here.” He opened the book to a marked page and pointed. “Read for yourself.”
Morgana reached over the brisket, took the book, and read. “Oh, Hecate’s hurried haircut.” She passed the book to Dolores.
“Instead of a majestic deer, he turned himself into a majestic steer. How could Wanda miss that?” Dolores closed the book and ate some of her veggies. “And how could the editor miss that?”
“No idea. I just hope that part wasn’t permanent.” Morgana took a bite of the brisket, enjoying the smoky flavor. Smiley tried to look scrawny and pathetic. She pointed to his slab of cow with her fork and then ignored his whimpers. Wolverines just can’t whimper convincingly. She took another bite. “Would it be permanent?”
Jaramillo thought as he chewed. “No, since it was accidental. I warned his parents just in case. And he’s grounded for the rest of his natural life, or until he turns twenty-one, whichever comes first.”
“I’m glad that was the only thing that happened. Some of those notes in the margin are scary.” Dolores frowned. “Why are they still using that book, anyway?”
“It was cheap. The school got a deal on used books, since a new edition is coming out in three years. I’m a little worried what else will go wrong in the new edition.”
Thwap! The cherry on top of the bowl of fruit sailed off the pile and into Dog’s mouth. He crunched the whole thing, pit and all.
“Bad Dog!” all three chorused, aghast.
H/T To Dorothy Grant, for the text exchange that started this entire odd tale, and for permission to quote it.
(C) 2017 Alma T. C. Boykin. All Rights Reserved.