Jude and Shoim deal with a problem . . . and a memory.
“We need to unravel that charm,” Shoim murmured as they strolled past the library the next afternoon. Jude had parked at the grocery store when he went to work, giving them an excuse to go by the library while in town. “It is not aging well.”
“No.” The charm in the reference section had begun to shift in a way he did not care for. “I have not heard of a simple spell doing that.”
“No.” Shoim fell silent as a tractor and grain wagon rattled past loudly enough to wake the Seven Sleepers. Why were they on the main street? Oh, yes, the town had closed part of the back route because of a construction project spilling into the street. Mr. Scharbauer had mentioned it. Jude turned up the street beside the library and stopped in the shade of a magnolia tree that desperately needed pruning. He drew a little magic from Pasaru and reached into the library. The charm stood out like dirty oil on snow. Jude guided the magic around the charm, tested it, then eased his own power under the other’s work. It resisted, a bit like a weed that had sunk roots into the soil, then popped free. He dragged the sour magic out of the library and studied it to see how it had been assembled. Then he broke it, cleansing the power as he did. “Uck,” Pasaru observed. “I do not care for the determination in the spell.”
“Neither do I.” Jude slipped his Familiar some jerky and said more loudly, in English, “Which is why you should have eaten a proper breakfast. I do not care to hear about the mean hawk terrorizing the children by dining in the school yard. Again.” The mailman chuckled as he hurried past.
“The boys thought it was cool,” Shoim snapped. He mock-sulked the rest of the way to the grocery store. Once there, he started flapping. Jude braced, then heaved him into the sky. The harrier soared up into the heavens, circled, then departed toward the farm. Jude tucked the gauntlet into his rucksack and nibbled a few of the cookie bits in the bits bag as he leaned against Martha’s car. She had said that she would call her order in so he did not have to return to the farm to get her list.
Indeed, when he went to the service desk, Mrs. Grauer waved him over to the pick-up side of the area. “Jude, your aunt called in her order. She said she’s under the weather?”
He sensed ears turning his direction, and nodded. He pitched his voice to carry just a little. “Yes, ma’am. She had a little fall the other day. She’s just stiff, nothing broken or sprained. I’ve been staying on the farm in case she needs anything.”
The retired teacher smiled. “That’s good, that she’s not badly hurt. Give her my regards, and if you’ll pull up to the door, Joey will help load her groceries. She’s still got some credit, but I put the receipt with the balance on it in the bag with the baking things.”
“I’ll let her know, and thank you, ma’am.” He went back out, fetched the car from the far end of the lot, and drove to the door. A young man of school age wheeled a full grocery cart out and they loaded things into the car. Jude blinked at the very large sacks of dried beans and chick peas.
Martha helped move the lighter things in, then opened the heavy plastic bins where she stored bulk goods. “I used the last of the old beans and I want to restock now, before the winter rush, while prices are good. White beans here, spotted beans here, and the chick peas go in the smaller bin. It’s cooler out here, and they keep better. Mice can’t get into the bin, either.”
That made sense, good sense. Jude lifted the sacks and she steered and steadied them as the dried beans flowed into the proper spaces. He didn’t recall his mother or aunts having bean-bins, but they didn’t eat as many beans as they did root vegetables, canned vegetables, and bread. They also ate more meat than Martha did, but she wasn’t Hunting or doing strenuous physical labor, either. He returned outside and fetched the mail, then combed the garden for any more produce. He found one last green squash that had hidden itself away. He hefted it, impressed. The enormous, far too large to eat specimen went onto the compost pile. “Too big to eat, too small for the fair,” he snorted. Tasks done, he went inside.
“Sit and eat.” Martha ordered. He complied happily and feasted on left-over roast beef in sandwiches made on home-baked bread.
He left the house around seven that night. The coven was meeting, and he and Shoim had agreed to act as security of a sort, when they could. Clouds had moved in, and the weather forecast suggested that drizzle and light rain could be in the offing. Here and there Jude saw bubbles of golden light—cab-lights and headlights in grain dust—as combines trundled back and forth, trying to get crops in before the soybean and corn stems absorbed enough humidity to become thick and clog the harvester’s throat. Shoim rode on his left hand for the moment. Nothing moved that Jude could sense.
Shoim shifted on his hand as they reached the old St. Wenceslaus chapel near the coven’s work area. “There’s an odd scent in the air.” He raised and lowered his wings part-way. “Not exactly corruption, but not neutral, either.”
Hmm. Jude stopped beside one of the elm trees, mindful of the possibility of plummeting branches. He extended a little magic down, into the soil, then out into the night. “Toward town, but not in town,” he murmured. “I sense it too, but—” His eyes narrowed and he waited. “Like a bit of mist? Not a shadow spell, but very soft and faint. I agree, it is not of the light.” Should they Hunt this night?
Pasaru’s tail feathers flicked up, then down as he rocked forward and back, then left and right. “It’s too fuzzy for us to track easily, Tenebriu. I want to look closer, but we’d spend magic we will need on Monday.”
There was that. Jude nodded. “And it could be that our prey leaves a false trail. We wait.”
“We wait. And I want up, please.” Jude went to the red maple tree on the other side of the little chapel yard. The one low branch provided Shoim with a convenient perch from which he could see the coven’s working circle. He stepped off of the glove and situated himself. Jude tucked the glove into his belt and made a quick circuit around the working circle and parking lot. No charms, no garbage, and no sign of other people working spells attracted his attention. That was good. Were he the coven, he’d put up a fence with a locked gate, but they preferred not to attract curious eyes.
The first car pulled into the lot. He eased back into the shadows. He did not trust other people to look before they parked! Veronica, the coven leader, got out of her car, opened the trunk, and began moving plastic crates toward the circle. He’d offered to help, but the witches and warlocks always refused, so after the third time he stopped and just kept watch. Laurence’s new small SUV trundled up, followed by Lucy’s battered farm pickup. She drove her father’s spare vehicle. A pickup and another SUV arrived, and the remaining four coven members emerged. Jude eased over to where Veronica and Laurence stood as they studied the circle and the sky. Jude cleared his throat.
Laurence turned, saw him, and smiled. “Well met, Tenebriu. We do the equinox working tonight.”
Veronica smiled as well. “It is a simple power gathering and reading, no warding or other outside work.”
“Do you shield?” Jude asked, an answering smile on his lips, a smile that did not reach his heart.
“Just the usual, with a lighter outside shield to warn off Elementals,” Laurence assured him. Lucy had come up beside the warlock. The buffer glanced from the older witch and warlock to him, her expression a little troubled. She did not speak.
Jude nodded. “I will remain outside both. Pasaru and I both sensed something odd, but it is faint and well away from here.”
Hans, the youngest warlock, tipped his head a little to the right. “Ah, it could be, oh, I should remember. There’s a girl in the high school, her parents hired a magic tutor to test her and help her with her sorcery magic.”
The sense did not match, but Jude made the proper sound. “It could well be. The sense is toward town.”
“That’s probably it,” Veronica declared. Jude faded back into the night and left them to their work, and their working. As always, Lucy watched him, her dark eyes shadowed and unreadable. Shoim had said that she wanted to ask him out. Since she said nothing, and her father had let it be known that he did not approve of over-eager young men appearing on his door-step unannounced, Jude had shrugged off Shoim’s words. Shadow had warned him about match-making Familiars.
As the coven members busied themselves with candles, incense burners, and colored chalks, Jude walked around the edges of the property. A few Elementals, air for the most part, drifted by, and he gently warned them off. The spirit-like creatures generally preferred to observe rather than interfere, but even that could accidentally upset a working. An owl, a true owl, launched from an old oak not far from the chapel, winging her silent way into the growing darkness. The evening star shone down through a brief parting in the clouds, serene and silver. He pulled his jacket tighter and continued on his round, not working magic, really, but feeling the night, tasting the air and the flows of power in the land.
As he returned to Pasaru’s perch, the coven raised the outermost shield around their circle, one meant only to ward off Elementals and accidental outside magic. He shivered, reaching up to touch his Familiar. This was not a year and a bit ago, was not Barton Beck using blood-path and abyssal magic to drain and kill innocent people. Still, the memories lingered. He reached into his collar and touched the comforting warmth of his silver St. Michael medallion. Pasaru remained silent, just being present.
The harrier hissed, very quiet. “The blot.” Jude pulled on the left glove and raised his hand. Pasaru stepped onto his fist and they turned toward the sense of off-kilter magic. “Something is not right,” Pasaru murmured.
Tenebriu moved to the very edge of the coven’s property, near the county blacktop. He lowered his shields and extended his senses toward town, as when he tasted the wind for hints of his prey. “No. Malice, not targeted but malice, yes. And something . . . I do not recognize it. As if it is of another place?” Which made no sense, because magic was magic. No, he caught himself. That was not correct. But now was not the time to try to sort it out. “Shield the coven, yes? Or better, set a foundation, And wait?”
Pasaru rocked from side to side, then extended his wings slightly. “Yesssss. Foundation, be ready to trigger it. Work now, so trigger won’t interfere with the coven’s work.”
Jude didn’t thump himself in the head for forgetting, he just wanted to. He drew power from himself and the night together, twisting them like thread on a distaff and spindle, and sent the magic out along the ground, forming a larger ring around the coven’s outermost spell. He “primed” the shield but did not trigger it. If he concentrated, he sensed the coven’s magic working, gathering and shaping magic from the power in the earth and sky. The temptation to watch them work was almost too much. He quashed the mental itch. That was not his task. Pasaru shifted from foot to foot, then subsided. Jude concentrated on being part of the land and the night, still and harmless, not noticeable. A touch of breeze ruffled his hair. The wind carried the scents of autumn, wood smoke and grain dust, a skunk’s bitter unhappiness, and the faintest whiff of—
Pasaru hissed a rude word and mantled. “Brimstone,” Jude hissed in turn, but not just the stink of sulfur and rotten eggs. No, this was a scent from outside this plane, a whiff of an abyssal plane. The moment passed and the stench faded with the next puff of night air. “This I do not like,” Jude said, teeth bared toward the wind.
“No. When they finish, we Hunt.”
Jude took a long, calming breath. “We track, if we can, then Hunt if we find trackable traces. I do not care to walk into a surprise, or squander strength on a false trail.”
Pasaru made a harsh, but quiet, sound. Harriers could not growl, not that it stopped Pasaru from trying. For once he did not argue. Jude made himself note the direction of the wind, then resumed walking around the coven’s work area. The candles flickered in the breeze but remained lit. As he passed downwind, he caught a hint of warm, rich-scented incense. Thank you, Great God, Lady of Night, that I am not a warlock. A Hunter had not the time to light candles and draw colored patterns when he Hunted. Was that why Mrs. Lorraine’s books mentioned no witches of shadow, only mages and sorcerers? He shrugged and moved, attention on the wind and the scents it carried.
When the coven finished, they broke their circle and put out all the flames. Lucy checked each colored or white pillar twice after the others quenched the candles, making triple sure that no danger remained. He approved of the caution. He pulled the shield’s foundation magic back into himself and sent a little to his Familiar. Shoim poked him with a wingtip, then pointed at a fence post. Jude obliged, happy to ease the strain on his shoulder and elbow. Two and a quarter pounds of raptor grew heavy indeed. They stayed well clear as the coven packed. Laurence, Hans, Veronica and the others seemed to have forgotten them. Lucy, however . . . She glanced to them as she carried things to Veronica and Laurence’s vehicles. As he rested and flexed his left hand as best he could, she dug something out of her working bag and approached him. “Jude?” she called, quiet, moving with slow care.
“Yes, ma’am?” She reminded him of the women of the clans, dark of hair and tan of skin, with dark grey eyes and a round face. She wore dark colors, not black but navy, dark brown, and muted green. That fit her role as buffer, someone who smoothed magic and grounded away any excess or backlash.
“Um,” she glanced over her shoulder, into the wind. “Something’s not right, I mean, there’s a sour taste in the night’s power?”
If Shoim had possessed eyebrows, they probably would have risen. Jude’s certainly did. He answered honestly. “Yes, there is. We noticed it too, briefly. Faint, fainter than the skunk, but you are correct, ma’am.”
Relief warred with caution. “Thank you. And thank you, both of you, for watching the night.” She glanced down. “I remember last year. Here. I brought too much, and it won’t keep. The others don’t like it.” She presented him with a plastic bag full of something he almost recognized.
“Thank you, ma’am.” Jude took the bag with his right hand as Shoim bowed. Lucy smiled a little, then hurried back to the others. Had they even noticed her absence? Probably not. They were good people, but not wary enough, aside from Lucy. “Why did she notice?”
Shoim whapped him with a wing. “She’s a buffer, dummy. Her job is to sense changes in the magic and either sort them out or trigger spells that let her dump everything before it backlashes and kills the whole coven. The smaller she keeps the disturbance, the better it is for everyone. So of course she’d notice something off.” He twisted his head in his version of an eye-roll. “And what’s in the sack?”
Jude waited for the last of the group to leave before opening the bag the tiniest bit. He sniffed and almost gasped. He’d not smelled that combination of fruit and spices in almost a decade. “It’s kompoti. From the Old Land.” He opened the bag a little farther and drew out one, then nibbled. Oh, so close to his grandmother’s version! He closed his eyes for a moment, back in his grandmother’s kitchen with his brothers and sisters. “Smells are better than sound or sight/For making yer heart-strings crack”. Kipling was correct. He forced himself back to the present.
How did Lucy know the recipe? Her family was German. Jude set the question aside, sealed the bag once more and tucked it into his rucksack. He needed to move, to track the abyssal presence if he could. He took a quick sip of water and switched gloves, so that Shoim rode on his right hand. That left his weapon-hand free. He needed to train more with his right hand, but . . . Not this night, no. Shoim stepped onto the glove and settled.
(C) 2022 Alma T. C. Boykin All Rights Reserved