Tuesday Tidbit: The Aftermath

Mike, Rich, and Co. have to deal with the results of someone’s folly. As usual . . .

Mike smelled food and fresh air. He managed to get up the stairs. Capt. Sluka and Ondra Adamcik waited. Mike started to speak, but the civilian shook his head. “Eat, please. We’re stalling the other Americans until you can eat.”

Rich, sitting on a portable table with a plate of his own, waved his silver-white front paw. “Need food first, boss. Houser and Custiss are not happy, for different reasons. Custiss dropped his shield, has a headache.” Rich ate more sausage. His left hind foot now matched his right forefoot, both silvery white.

“The consul is most disappointed that the Belarussians attempted to use magic to assist in the negotiations,” Adamcik said. “Eat, Captain.” He peered at Mike, came a step closer, and peered again. “Your hair is now silver.”

That explains—. “Backlash, sir. It means my Familiar and I are injured inside as well.”

Major Kowalczyk pointed to the table. “Food.”

“Yes, sir.” Mike sat and devoured things in a bun, pickled vegetables, cheese, and slices of spiced pear.

Fed, watered, and arm temporarily bandaged, Mike felt a little more human. Almost. “The others are all OK?”

Kowalczyk shook his head. “Turko. She’s trapped in her head, seeing whatever you fought. None of us can break her out.”

“Needs clergy and not-us help,” Rich said. “Boss, talk to consul, then fall over. We’re drained.”

For once he could not argue with his Familiar. “Yes, we are. Thank you sir,” Mike nodded to the Czech diplomat. “And you, Mistress Kaminska.”

“I’ll come with you,” Sluka said, her hands shaking a little. He pretended not to see. Once they left the others, she began, “I apologize. I froze and I shouldn’t have.”

“You ever see an abyssal creature in person?” Rick asked. “Not an illusion or illustration, but in person?”

She shook her head. “No, but that’s no excuse.”

Rich shifted to face her better. “Not excuse, but cause. If you’ve never seen something like that, felt the aura and smelled the stench, you freeze. He did. Others do. It’s normal. You didn’t run or panic. That’s good.”

“He’s right, Captain, if not diplomatic.” They’d reached the door. Mike girded his mental loins as Capt. Sluka knocked on the door. She moved well clear as the door opened. “Captain Radescu reporting as asked.”

“Come in.” Mike eased in the door. Rich felt limp, as if he’d fallen asleep. “Captain Radescu, what happened? And why did you go running off?” Consul Houser frowned from behind his desk, irritation quite clear.

He took a very long breath. “When the two spells triggered in the meeting room, the energy release attracted something very bad, sir. Something from the cellar. That’s what caused the creature to manifest. It chased Major Kowalczyk because he has a great deal of unused magic, and that sort of creature gains power from others.” Mike inhaled again. “My Familiar and I dealt with it, then went to the source of the abyssal power, down in the cellar. Marija Kaminska blocked the cellar door as Rich and I closed the portal once more. Ms. Turko had slid the stone just far enough to release a lot of nasty magic, sir.”

Mr. Custiss, still pale, swallowed hard and nodded. “I felt that and hope I never, ever do again. Did something break?” He tapped his head.

“Yes, sir. Magic backlashed. My Familiar and I are both injured.” He held up his arm. It hurt, hurt a lot. Ms. Pullman covered her mouth with her fingertips, eyes wide, and leaned away. Mike lowered the arm once more.

Mr. Houser drummed his fingers on the desk. “I see. Were it not for what I observed with my own eyes, Captain, I’d not believe you. But I have no choice.” He scowled. “I am very disappointed with Colonel Petrov for not trusting our and the Czechs assurances that no magic was in use.” Pure irritation drew his features into a frown, fingers still moving. “Your abrupt departure and lack of explanation were undignified and did not contribute to calm.”

“Sir, yes, sir.” Do not say a word, because you’re going to bite his head off. Don’t. The magic-enhanced energy shot had begun to wear off, his upper body ached, and his head throbbed. Food and water were not enough.

“Why is Familiar Radescu so quiet?”

“He’s asleep, sir. Backlash hits Familiars very hard.” And their mages, too. You’re starting to blur on the edges. Not good.

The consul’s frown eased. “I see. You’re dismissed. Write up your observations, please. We will resume negotiations tomorrow, assuming nothing else happens.”

“Thank you, sir, and yes, sir.” Mike departed, closing the door behind himself. He made it to his own room by leaning on the wall as he walked. Once inside, he sat on the bed. Rich oozed down from shoulder to bed and snored even louder. “Right. Waiting won’t make it better.” He took off his jacket, then gritted his teeth and unbuttoned the shirt. He peeled the left sleeve off, mouthing a lot of very bad words as he did. He went to the washroom and rinsed his face, then studied his arm.

Blisters ran from the back of his left hand up his arm almost to the elbow. He didn’t feel much pain. Yet. The brown and white center of the burn seemed dry, not wet and weeping. His hand and arm worked. He glanced in the mirror. He’d aged decades, face drawn in and almost gaunt, eyes sunken with dark rings under them. A silver-white streak ran from his forehead back through the center of his hair, a narrow skunk stripe.

Someone tapped on the door. Mike glanced down. “Not up to it.” He wasn’t pulling on a shirt until he treated the burn. He plodded to the door and opened it. A young woman with a first-aid kit stood there. “Yes, ma’am?”

“Captain Sluka said— Oh, that’s bad.” The woman frowned. “That’s a serious burn. Sit, please, so I can look at it.”

He didn’t move. “You are?”

She glared up at him. “Hana Kopa, certified trauma nurse for both magical and physical injuries.”

“She’s OK, boss,” Rich called, then yawned. “You need help.”

In several senses of the word, yes. Mike retreated and sat.


“. . . Our Czech counterparts are going to monitor the actual portal, sir. Ms. Turko will not regain her sanity, I suspect. She did not expect what appeared, and what it did to her.” That explained the surge that knocked us head over heels. What the blazes was she thinking, and who told her to try that?

Rabbi-Major Cantor shook his head. “There’s a difference between eschewing the esoteric and denying the reality. I’m sorry that she learned the difference in such an unpleasant manner.” His crisp enunciation was for the benefit of the State Department observer on the secure speaker phone.

“What about the missing hikers?” came a disembodied voice from the phone. “He was one of ours, an American, Dan Young.” The voice sounded unhappy.

“Given that the Czechs had been watching him as a person of interest in a human smuggling case, and the confirmed death of his associate, I believe that he is dead,” Rabbi-Major Cantor said. “They have not found his entire body yet. More they have not said.”

Not quite true, but more than sufficient for what State needed. I know that we play for the same team, but some days, sheesh. Mike stayed quiet. Rich too held silence, whiskers twitching, tail lashing back and forth across the desk. The rabbi had cleared everything but the phone and his computer off the surface, just in case.

“Part of him’s enough to notify the family if they ask. Thanks. Captain Radescu, I have your report.”

“Yes, sir.”

After the call ended, Rabbi-Major Cohen waved one hand. “Sit, before you fall over. I see that pressure bandage on your arm.” Mike sat and arranged his left arm on the arm of the chair. “How bad does it hurt?”

“No more than a bad sunburn, sir. The middle has no sensation at all.” He was lucky to still have almost full motion of that arm and wrist. “Third degree. I still don’t remember exactly what happened.”

Rich nodded from atop the desk. “It got really hot, sir, almost burned my paws. It’s easy to see why people thought that was a portal to hell. There was an access point below as well, but that filled in over the years. We suspect that clergy played a role in channeling the portal into a less-accessible and more easily defended direction, but no one knows.”

The chaplain nodded. “Without records, there’s no way to know, and so many wars went through that region . . .” He frowned. “I wonder if the SS burned those along with their own documents?”

Mike exhaled. “It is possible, sir. But the place was damaged in the Hussite Wars, then the Thirty Years War, and a few other things. I have no idea if any parish records or episcopal documents survived those upheavals.”


Silence filled the office. Rich wiggled, then dove off the desk and into his mage’s lap. He did a three-sixty, then another, then a one-eighty before Mike rested his right hand on the Familiar’s back. “Chill, please.” Rich settled.

“Your leave starts three weeks from Tuesday, HaShem permitting. You’re going Stateside for at least one of those three weeks of leave. At least.” The chaplain leaned forward and locked eyes with Mike. “Not to Rock Am Ring. Not Whitby. Home. To rest. Is that clear? That comes from Reverend-Colonel MacAdams own lips, understand?”

“Sir, yes sir.” Rich grumbled something Mike ignored. Those are both over for the season already, but he doesn’t need to know that. Nor did their superiors need to know about the invitation to a special concert at a club in Poland in early November.

Once back in their own quarters, Rich erupted. “You need to tell them about Krakow! They need to know about Krakow.”

“Which them? If you mean my superiors, they will when the time comes and I apply for a weekend pass. If you mean back home? Oh no, no you don’t. Because there are two shadow mages who will hurt me badly for going without them. And Dad will be seriously steamed, even though he didn’t love their last album.”

“Aaaaawwwww. I wanna see Tay turn green. There’s a cover band in Riverton called Green Lemurs. He’d fit in great!” Giggles erupted as Rich rolled back and forth, convulsed with mirth.

Sir, I’m sorry. Whatever I did, I’m heartily, completely, truly sorry. He glanced down at his left arm and shivered. “We need to tell Draku what happened,” he reminded his Familiar.

Laughter stopped. “We do. Not now. Not until you talk with Fr. Chaput about what you saw and heard.” Rick climbed up the little steps onto the bed, then from there onto the chair and into his lap. “We need to talk to him. Before it starts eating into you. She chose, Mikael Sergeivich. You didn’t push her to do it. She. Chose.” Brown eyes older than the hills stared up at him. “Understand? Free will. She chose to ignore the warnings and try to release power for Petrov to tap, and she paid the price.”

“Is paying. That’s what hurts, Rich, hurts so damn bad.” No one deserved what she seemed to be living through, over and over and over. In a strange country, because the Belarussians refused to take her back with them. They didn’t have the facilities, or so Petrov had claimed. Mike stroked the rough fur under his hand and sighed.

An answering sigh greeted his words. “No easy answer, boss.” He wiggled again. “Oh yeah, and you need to get Rodney to introduce you to Shoim’s mage.”

“This mage is not a girl, I hope.” Don’t even think about it.

“Nope!” Giggling ensued. “Gothy, gloomy, very not a girl. Land healer. Shoim wants him to learn about good music, our music.”

Mike sighed and stopped petting.

“And I need a new outfit for Krakow! Something back and shiny, not PVC, lots of sequins. Can get it from Silver’s boss, or that Slovak place on the border. Lots of skulls and sequins!” Rich bounced on the bed. “Something expensive nice new.”

Maybe the Hindus were right. Maybe he’d pissed off God in a previous life, and Rich was the result. I apologize, Sir. St. George, if you have a moment, could you ask God to let me know how to make amends, please? Before Rich ruins my budget? Please?

(C) 2023 Alma T. C. Boykin All Rights Reserved

Leaky People: Patch, Wrap, Wait, or Yes?

It all depends on where, what else, and what else is leaking. One of the first things that any First Aid or bleeding control instructor, or other emergency situation instructor, will tell you is that you need to take a deep breath and evaluate the site. Slow down. It’s like firearms – slow is smooth, smooth is fast. If you go rushing into a situation and become a second victim, no one gets helped. Is there a live power line? Is the shooting still in progress? Is there green (or reddish orange brown) air in the room? Don’t do it! Look for Plan B, or observe and call for help and give calm information to the dispatcher.

If you don’t have training, and/or you don’t know what else to do, see about moving bystanders to a safer, quieter place. Call for help, relay what you see as best you can, and get others well clear. If bad people set up the initial problem, they may have delay-action nasty stuff waiting. Move people away, because you might prevent even more people from getting hurt. Ditto if you see green/red/brown/black air coming from where the initial problem started.

Then comes the evaluation of the leaky person. Where are they leaking from? No, you cannot use a tourniquet on someone’s neck, no matter how tempting it might be. Arms and legs, yes. Torso? Good luck finding a place where you can clamp the punctured blood vessel against a bone to stop blood flow. So you can use a tourniquet on an arm or leg, pack and/or apply pressure on the shoulder, hip, or other area like that, and use a chest seal on the torso. The class or instructor goes through how do to those with either a “real” tourniquet like a CAT-5 or other brand, or a pressure band like a SWAT-T. If you are dealing with a child, you’re not going to find a tourniquet small enough in most first-aid kits or field emergency kits. That also applies to small or frail older people.

It’s going to be messy, no matter what’s going on. If there’s a bullet entry point (or shrapnel from an explosion of some kind), there might be an exit would. You have to deal with both. There’s going to be blood, messy clothes, possibly other stuff to deal with. You might have people losing their cool, or trying to take pictures, or just freezing. You night need a second set of hands, or several really big people to hold down someone while you try to slow or stop the leaks.

And you need to act quickly, if you can. The class started with a video of a 20-something guy in Pakistan who “fooled around” and tried to start a monkey dance with some cops or paramilitary guys (there’s a lot of overlap in that part of the world.). He “found out” the hard way and got shot in the leg, femoral artery. One minute and a few seconds later, he was close to dead. He had a large leak from a relatively small bullet (7.62 the instructor said.) Time really is of the essence when people leak profusely.

I learned a great deal, and it confirmed the importance of mindset, at least for me. I tend to game through things in my head. I’ve added “messy and chaotic” to my mental run-through. How will I deal with people who are losing their cool as I’m trying to keep mine while dealing with problems? Who in my daily round could I call on for a second set of hands, if needed? If other people have the scene, how would I move a group away, calmly, and try to keep them from having breakdowns all over the place?

I suspect a lot of it comes down to me being calm and organized. Sort of like horses. A horse thinks, “Oh, the predator on my back is tense. I need to freak the heck out right now!” And does so. If the adult-types stay calm and start dealing with matters, then other people will stay calmer. Because no group of people will all stay mellow if there is blood and stuff all over the floor. (If they do, I should probably worry about something else, because that’s NOT normal behavior for most ordinary teens and adults.)

Frustrated Roses

My rosebushes are terribly frustrated, even though they are supposed to be dormant. That’s part of the problem. It’s been warm enough that they start to bud, and then we get three or five days with lows in the teens F and highs in the 30s-40s. And no moisture. That’s rough on plants. It’s not great for people, but we can layer and unlayer. Roses don’t have that option. I’m seeing more and more black or brown canes and stems that were green.

It didn’t help that we had a form of black-spot the last two years. It caused foliage to drop, so the plants had to spend more effort regrowing the leaves and stored away less in their roots. The plan is, come true spring, to get out the loppers and shears—and the bleach—and cut everything way back, dipping in bleach after every trim. We won’t get any flowers, alas, but it might help ward off the black spot. Pre-treating for grasshoppers is also in the works. They didn’t help. Native bees just trim the leaves a little. Grasshoppers strip plants bare and carry diseases.

it’s better for roses if it gets cold and snowy, and stays that way. Or at least gets cold and stays there. The up and down really do a number on them, especially when we get a high wind from any direction. The wind sucks moisture out of both plants and ground. The worst I recall seeing was in April 2012, when it went from the 60s to the teens with 60 MPH north winds. When I came home from Santa Fe, NM, I had a garden full of rose jerky. Everything had been freeze dried and dehydrated. A number of roses didn’t make it through that mess. It also caught the hawthorn tree. Interestingly, since then, the hawthorn has leafed out and bloomed later than before. Make of it what you will.

Cold and snowy insulates the roses, keeps the ground moist, and helps them remain dormant. While dormant, they just sleep, not using much energy. Come spring, they’re ready to go with full reserves of root strength. We’ve not had a “good” rose winter since the late 1990s. If you can’t get that, a cool, damp, but not too harsh winter works, so long as you don’t have more than one or two deep cold spells. Alternating warm days and nights with deep freeze is what kills the plants, splitting stems if it’s bad enough.

What can you do? You can try to swaddle the plants if it is going to be that bad and they are small. 10′ tall (three meter) climbers are not amenible to that. We use lots of mulch, and water every three weeks or so if there’s not been sufficient snow or rain. Prayer helps, at least for the gardener’s peace of mind.

The High Plains are not natural rose territory. They always need a little cosseting, even monsters like Harrison’s Yellow. I think it’s worth it. Most days. Don’t ask me when I’m trying to prune the sweetbriar and the wind is blowing.

Saturday Snippet: Port of Call

Mike, Rich, and Friend are on the west coast of Scotland.

Alyssa McMasters, or Luciphera as her Goth scene name proclaimed, nodded at the Victorian bar-brooch in the water-front antique shop. Jet, marcasite, and silver formed a delicate, glittering lacework around an oval of jet. The letter L in Gothic script took up most of the central stone. “That’s lovely!”

Mike reached inside, drew a tiny thread of magic, and sent it out to touch and read the jewelry. Nothing. He didn’t sense any “tarnish” of bad wishes, and it wasn’t an empty focus, unlike the ring now tucked into his bag. “It really is,” he said. “And it looks sturdy.”

Luciphera sniffed and said, “You are too practical by half, Mike,” then winked. Her tone of mild exasperation brought an answering smile from the shopkeeper. Luciphera turned back to the nice lady. “I’ll take the bar-brooch, please.”

Task done, Mike eased out of the cramped confines of the antiques shop and back into the street. The clutter did not agree with his broad-shouldered frame. Nor did leaving his Familiar unchaperoned even for a moment. Where had Rich gone off to? Thump. Something thudded against his left shin. Mike glanced down. Rich had found a blue and white striped ball almost as big as he was. The white-tailed mongoose grinned up at his mage, then chased the ball back toward a group of small children who squealed and bounced with delight. A wild game of “chase the ball and the mongoose” ensued. Mike took his time, only interrupting his Familiar when Luciphera emerged from the shop, smiling with triumph. “OK, Rich, time to go.”

“Aaawwwww,” he groaned as Mike scooped him up. “You’re no fun. I never get any fun.”

“Dude. Your fun is my nightmare. Expensive nightmare.” He settled Rich across his shoulders. Rich dug his claws into the special canvas pads now worked into the jacket’s shoulders. Mike had borrowed the idea from Lelia Lestrang and Tay. No one paid attention to that sort of trim on a tweed jacket, especially not here in far western Scotland. He’d found one of the few places where big red-heads attracted no notice, almost. Mike mirrored Luciphera’s smile.

“Thanks for checking this.” She lifted the box, then tucked it away in her bag. “Do you want to do the coastal walk now? We seem to be between traffic rushes.”

He considered, then nodded. “Yeah, or we go at sunrise.”

A discreet rude gesture greeted his suggestion. “Only if we have closed a club first, then gotten food.”

He drooped, then waved her ahead for the moment. The teen lounging on the bench near Mike leaned forward. He gave Luciphera a leer and started easing to his feet. Mike caught his eye and frowned. The kid returned to his sullen slouch. Good choice. He and Luciphera weren’t flying their freak flags that high. Her full black skirt and long-sleeve grey blouse looked more like mourning than modern Goth, if someone ignored her boots. Shoulder-length black hair wasn’t all that rare, either. Mike kept going and caught up with his friend. “So,” she began, then paused until the diesel roar of the “lorry” faded. “Today we hang out and rest. Tomorrow Glen Coe?”

“Weather permitting, yes. The part about ‘expert hill walkers and experienced mountaineers’ makes me twitch.” He rested one hand on Rich, forestalling a demonstration. There was another reason Glen Coe bugged him, but he could shield against that.

Blaaaaaaatttt. A big, black-hulled Caledonian-MacBryer car ferry sounded its horn. The sound rolled over the water and echoed from the stone facades of the Victorian seaside holiday hotels lining the harbor frontage. A small fishing boat eased farther over to the other side of the channel. The white and black Cal-Mac could eat four fishing boats and not notice. The ferry departed with ponderous dignity, headed for the islands. Gulls screamed overhead as semi-quiet returned to the harbor. A small, shaggy dog took offense and barked at the closest seagull. The gull ignored the yapping. Rich giggled, then subsided.

Luciphera stopped to read a sign about languages and place names. They had crossed into the Gaelic part of the world, the western Highlands. “That’s a lovely way to describe a moment,” she said, pointing to the line of verse across the top of the sign.

He read over her shoulder. “It is.” They shared a taste for poetry, among other things. “Too bad you can’t use so few words to convey meaning and sense in an official document.”

A small, blunt elbow thumped his midsection. “No work talk.” She shook a warning finger at him, then flounced off up the walk way.

Thppppth came from his Familiar. “Told you so,” Rich proclaimed from his perch. Mike didn’t dignify the comment with a reply. He took a deep breath of sea-scented air and caught up with his friend again. He waved away a swarm of something. Probably midges, with his luck. European insects loved him.

The path joined the road. A stern sign warned drivers to pay attention to pedestrians and give them the right of way. Mike still made himself as small as possible. He also cast a “please look” spell, encouraging people to notice him and Luciphera both. With a stone wall on the sea side of the road, they had no room to dodge traffic. He could vault the wall if he had to, but the thirty-foot drop would hurt, and he couldn’t drag her with him. Mike didn’t relax until a footpath reappeared just as they reached the tight bends at Dun Ollie. Traffic sped up again, he noticed, then hurried to get ahead of Luciphera and open the gate. It had one of the “reach under, lift, then slide, then move gate” latches on the inland side, where most people had trouble reaching or seeing. Allister had showed him the trick, thanks be. Luciphera smiled and eased through. He followed and re-latched the gate. He didn’t see any sheep, but that didn’t mean much, he’d learned.

“Are you expecting the sheep to have a scout?” she teased him. “One up in the trees, with a spy glass, waiting to make an escape attempt?”

Rich giggled, then started to bounce. Mike helped the mongoose down to the ground before answering. “Of course. I’ve watched Monty Python and Shaun the Sheep. I know what sheep are capable of.” Especially when you needed them to ignore you, like back in— He slapped the memory down hard, pushing it away to where it belonged. This is not there. This is Oban, Scotland, with Lu, on leave. The moment passed. “Plus, they are dumb enough to run into traffic for the hell of it.” Why sheep preferred the edges of roads to their own lush pastures he didn’t want to guess. Pure stupidity, probably.

Rich emerged from several clumps of grass. “No snakes or lizards. No fair.”

“Too cold.” Mike got Rich back on his shoulders and they continued up the trail. It wound around the remains of the first Dun Ollie, home of Clan MacDougall. Scotland seemed to grow ruined castles. Mike read the history sign and studied the remaining wall and tower. He boggled. “Early castle sacked in 689, first MacDougalls in the 1200? Good grief.” People had used the hill under the castle for eight thousand years. He shook his head a little.

Luciphera took a few photos of wild flowers and an especially dark and twisted, half-dead tree, then started ahead once more.

“What?” Fast twitching whiskers tickled his ear.

“I should stop being surprised at how long people have lived here.” Mike nodded at the castle. “Or on the mainland. People re-use good spots. But they’re so casual about it here.”

Rich sniffed. “Yeah. Different scale, different priorities, different culture. More people in less space, so more reuse. Back home, build out, not up.”

Also a good point.

By the time they wandered back to town that afternoon, breakfast had worn off. They’d stopped at the war memorial, and he’d read the names. A generation, probably, lost. Lots of brothers and cousins. Luciphera hadn’t said anything, but she’d leaned on him a little, being there. Now she scooted her chair out and set a very full dish of ice cream on the small table. She didn’t have the accelerated metabolism of a magic worker, but she’d been up early doing some work before breakfast. They opted for ice cream at a shop full of locals. “Plain,” Mike informed his Familiar as he set the dish down on the floor. “No, you can’t have mocha or whisky-flavored. Just vanilla, very vanilla.” Oh shit. Wrong phrase. Wild giggles rose from under the chair, and Luciphera had to cover her mouth, then cough to hide her snickers. His face turned a little warm and he sighed, “I know better than to use that word in this company.”

“Yes, you do. Even in this context.” She winked, then took a bite of her top scoop. Her dark, perfectly-curved eyebrows rose to her hairline. “The peppermint is quite strong,” she squeaked

“Curiously strong?” It was his turn to wink. The little tag on the case stated that the ice cream included the actual mints, so she’d been warned. The mocha reminded him of his one experience with Cuban coffee, in a cold, sweet, and wonderful way. The walnut didn’t seem as strong, but tasted richer. A lot of people ordered the seaweed flavor and acted delighted with the taste. He wasn’t quite sure. Maybe it’s the Calvinist streak, eating vegetable ice cream. Or they are messing with us tourists.

“Are we still on for Glen Coe tomorrow? I know you said you and Rich wanted to look into some things about it?” She asked as they strolled later, glancing into shops and oogling a book store’s display windows. “That must be a first edition.” She leaned closer and peered at the card under the leather-bound volume. “It is, the limited release English-English anniversary edition.”

The purported icthyology of the Lock Ness Monster interested him more, until he saw that it was a novel. “Yes, unless there’s something you’d like to do more. I don’t think we have the gear to climb Ben Nevis, and Rich doesn’t do fishing.”

“Why not? I like fish, fishy fish, not eely fish. Eels feels funny, eely eels, squealy eels,” Rich chanted, then snickered.

Luciphera shook a finger at the Familiar. “Because fishing here requires being calm, quiet, patient, and sneaky. You only match one of those four. And the streams are cold, very cold. Even the lowland streams are cold. Trust me.”

Rich sagged flat, pretending to be fur trim, then flapped his tongue at her. Thppth.

“And this is why I don’t take you nice places.” Mike shook his head. “Since we won’t be camping overnight, Glen Coe should be fine, as long as we take rain gear.”

They moved to the next block and rolled their eyes at the tourist goodies. “I think you need to take the plaid Highland cow back for your sister-in-law,” she said. “What’s wrong with nights there?”

Shadow’s daughter will want a dozen, one in every plaid they offer. He glowered at the long-haired, tartan-colored stuffed animal. “I know someone else who would want it even more. Sheila would just beat me with it.” He shifted topics. “Something in the valley disagrees with magic workers, or vice versa. I can’t get a solid answer as to what, but I can guess why.” Things like the Glencoe Massacre left very strong traces on the landscape, and attracted things that throve on death, pain, and betrayal. Three hundred years wasn’t long enough to wash the stain away, especially not in a land that still remembered the Romans quite clearly, as one of his colleagues had discovered during a night nature hike along Hadrian’s Wall. “Now, the framed watercolor painting of the wild haggis in it’s native habitat there for my brother, that might work.”

She elbowed him as Rich chanted, “Do it, do it, do it.”

Mike glanced at the price tag. “Never mind. It doesn’t include shipping.” Maybe he should ask Shoshana if she could do one as a joke. Except she might discover a plane where free-range haggis roam the moors and dales. Yeah, no thanks. He was afraid to ask if any of her cute, pastel creations came from Elsewhere.

(C) 2023 Alma T. C. Boykin All Rights Reserved

High Pressure Low Pressure

A repost from 2021. I’ve been taking a class on “how to stop humans from leaking until the professionals arrive” and didn’t write new content. The wind howled on Tuesday and Wednesday – visibility in town was 1/2 mile in dirt. Blargh.

You’ve been researching an area’s weather and climate too long . . . when you can reconstruct the weather systems (highs, lows, frontal passage) by reading the complaints about wind and lack there of in ranch records from the late 1800s early 1900s.

High pressure, low presure, or fixin' to blow up a storm. Photo by Michael Lapoint.

High pressure, low pressure, or fixin’ to blow up a storm. Photo by Michael Lapoint.

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A Little Too Clear a Comparison

For reasons unknown to any but my hind-brain, I started thinking about metaphors and similes that rural people used to use, and that urban folks might not understand. And a few that need no translation like “We call him Blister because he only shows up after the work’s done.” You might not do manual labor, but you’ve probably crossed paths with that person.

One that stuck in my memory was the phrase, “as cute as a cancer-eyed cow.” Right away you know the speaker is not paying the subject a compliment. Hereford and Hereford-cross cattle are more prone to skin cancer of the face than are darker-colored breeds, so the phrase is used more often when you have a goodly number of white faced cattle. I’d never seen an afflicted cow when I first heard the term. A few years later, I was on the I-40 East frontage road in Amarillo, at a stoplight. A pickup with a livestock trailer pulled up beside me. I glanced over and beheld a Hereford (red and white cow) with a very large and ugly tumor around the left eye. No, not cute at all. There was a large-animal vet nearby, so I presume that’s where the rancher was going.

Another that is very regional is “He lives at 8th and Plum.” Meaning he’s at least eight miles from pave and plumb in the middle of nowhere. I’m not sure anyone now days in the cities says, “I work from can’t see to can’t see,” given how well lit many urban areas are. “Rainin’ like a cow peeing on a flat rock” is another that needs a leeeeetle familiarity with livestock and their habits to make sense of, if you’ve never seen that kind of rain or that kind of, ah, output.

Accepting Responsibility

A Mild Rant

I was skimming some news articles and started noticing a pattern to various actual and proposed legislation in the US and in British Columbia, Canada. All these suggested or current rules seem aimed at preventing people from having to plan ahead and then from taking responsibility for the consequences of their actions or inactions. Some deal with biological consequences, others focus on social and legal consequences. But it seems as if a certain section of political society has made their platform “You Shall Never Be Responsible.”

The pattern had never really appeared so clearly to me before. Granted, it is likely coincidence, and a combination of me boggling at some of the activists’ purported fears, and seeing so many things piled up at the same time. We are at the point in many state legislative sessions where people are actively fighting to get bills on the list for consideration, so politicians are going to the media to gain support for their various proposals. Plus I read the Canadian news, and a few things stand out under the heading of, “That’s not going to end well for anyone.”

Without going into specifics, it seems as if this spate of regulations and legislation is aimed at blocking consequences. “You did not plan ahead. You refuse to accept the need to mitigate possible unwanted results of your action. So we will do everything we can to ensure that you never have to plan ahead or take responsibility.” In some cases, it is society/government that is protected from accountability. “We don’t want to believe that an activity could harm both those involved and greater society, and we don’t want the icky task of sorting out the criminal from the clinical, so we’ll wave our hands and make everything legal, then sing happy songs together.” Those who venture to suggest that requiring people to consider consequences and take steps in advance are excoriated as cruel, heartless, anti-personal freedom, and modern-day Puritans or (worse!) fuddy-duddys.

I fully understand that there are times when the best of plans are undercut by forces outside of a person’s control. The Fickle Finger of Fate goes “Flick!” Hard cases make bad law, especially when threats or violence are used to push people into terrible positions. That’s not what I’m looking at. I’m looking at enabling poor decisions and immaturity. “It’s OK! Do what you want, you won’t get in trouble for it, and if you make others miserable and drive them out of business, that’s their problem, not yours.” It’s a version of the soft bigotry of low expectations, as Thomas Sowell phrased it, applied to larger groups of people than ever before.

People have always tried to avoid responsibility for bad consequences. You don’t have to believe in the Judeo-Christian creation story to see the value of it as a way to explain human nature. “It’s Eve’s fault!” “The serpent made me do it!” “What do you mean, where’s Abel? Am I my brother’s keeper?”

Those were individual acts and excuses. Now we have political careers and “caring” professions that rest their careers on shielding people from feeling the consequences of their actions. Not that it will help. People still end up emotionally damaged, physically damaged, and dead. More and more bystanders are dragged into the problem, forced to work around the results, or being berated and harangued as people vent displaced regret and pain.

We need adults, not perpetually sheltered people. Some years ago I recall the jaw-dropped shock of a reporter and an activist when one of the town’s permanent homeless said, “I’m homeless because I’m an alcoholic, and as long as I’m a drunk I’ll be on the streets.” It was sort of refreshing. The guy knew that he was the problem, and he preferred booze to everything the activist was offering. You have to respect the honesty, if not the life choices. In his own way he was far more adult than some of the solons seeking for new ways to protect people from the Revenge of the Copy-book Headings.

Some of society’s problems don’t have easy solutions. There’s no wand “The People” can wave to instantly deal with the self-indulgent, with the will-try-anything-that-might-help, with the perpetually immature. I fear that as things get rougher, those truly in need of help will be “dealt with” along with those who prey on them. Actions have consequences. Being an adult means accepting that.

Tuesday Tidbit: Cellar Battle

The Belarussians’ surprise was just the start of Defender’s headaches.

“Source, Defender, to the source,” Tik-Tik shrieked. Mike grabbed him and ran, pounding toward the stairs to the chapel and what lay below it. “Have to replace the seal, can’t close the breach, replace the seal.”

He heard steps behind them and slowed. It was Marija. “What do you need?” she gasped, breathing hard. “My people are safe for now.”

Thanks be! “Get the bag with the flaming sword cross from my room. Bring it to the room with the portal.” He tossed her the key.

“Da.” She caught the key and raced to the closest stairs.

“You trust her?” Tik-Tik asked in his ear.

“For now.” He sped up. St. Michael, defender of Heaven, help us, please! St. Anthony protect us from demons. Father God, help us close the portal, please, oh please. Protect our souls. The spiral stairs felt closer, smaller, as he half-slid down the steps to the cellar and what waited there.

He slipped on loose dirt and rock at the base of the steps, almost fell. He caught his balance and stood, gasping for breath. Chaos swirled, roaring, deafening him. The stench of abyssal magic, evil, corruption freely chosen filled the air like smoke, choking him and burning his eyes. Mike reached inside his collar and pulled his St. George medal free. The silver flared, glowing white in the darkness. He heard steps behind him. Rude words in Slavic floated down from the doorway as the witch appeared.

Whatever Marija said in Polish, he agreed with. “That’s bad,” she added in English. “The bag?” She handed it to him. He caught it by the strap and opened the flap, triggering a shield. The stench faded a little. Claws skittered against the defense, testing it and him. “What more do you need?”

“Shield the doorway and get ready to run. If we can’t close it, you’ll know. Get your people out of here, especially Kabanos.” He’d be a very tasty morsel for an abyssal beast. “God be with you.”

“May the Lord of Hosts and the angels of Heaven guide and protect you.” She retreated up the steps and he felt shields forming behind her in the doorway.

Tik-Tik dug his claws into the padding on his mage’s shoulder. “Can’t do anything from here,” he said. “Physical seal, physical movement.”

Mike pulled a T-shaped, silver and iron tool like a sword’s hilt from the bag. “Gladius lucis,” sword of light. The preset spell triggered, and a gleaming blade extended from the hilt. A screeching laugh cut through the wails and hisses around him. Mike pulled a ring out of his jacket pocket and slid it on. “Scutum fidelii” shield of faith. A round shield like a Highland targe appeared. He drew more power from Tik-Tik and took one step forward. The chaos retreated, flowing away from him, thickening as it did. Another step, and the darkness folded in on itself, taking the shape of a man in a hooded cloak. It laughed and turned, retreating toward the portal’s mouth. Mike followed.

Hssssraaaahhh! A beast with two heads on long necks snapped at him. The rounded body stood only knee-high, but the wide mouths drooled venom. He blocked the bite, then swung the sword, severing the neck and sealing off the magic. Black ichor gushed. Hsssreeeeeee! The shriek cut his ears. It hurt. He used the shield to block the second head and cut it off as well. The head bounced twice, rolling into the darkness. Laughter bubbled from ahead of him.

“It will wear us down,” Tik-Tik warned. “Fight lots of beasts and nothing left for Boss Fight.”

“Understood.” He took a deep breath and pressed on. The floor sloped, encouraging him to hurry. He moved with steady slow steps. Darkness folded back from his advance, turning the stone walls and ceiling around him black as pitch. The abyssal magic swallowed light. I don’t like this. His gut screamed for him to turn and run. “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want,” he recited under his breath. “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil.”

“You should,” came the hiss from ahead of them. “Fear is the beginning of wisdom.”

“Fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom,” Tik-Tik corrected. “And anyone can quote scripture, especially wrong.” He sounded bored. “Someone didn’t do their Lectio Divina assignment properly. Probably cribbed it from that cheat site.”

If you make him mad, I’m turning you into a hat band if we survive. The darkness ahead contracted into man form again. Abyssal stench thickened. “How long have you tapped imaginations to find a form?”

“Longer than you have ever lived. I rule here and below,” the dark man pointed down with one black-gloved hand. He had no face, just darkness in the hood of his cloak. A black belt cinched the cloak at his waist, like a monk’s rope belt. The angular hole in the stone beside him pulsed. Raw abyssal power bubbled up and oozed out of the portal. Off to the side, a slab of stone with carvings on the top waited.

A faint whimper caught Mike’s ear. He glanced to the left and saw a figure cowering against the wall, mewling and trying to hide. Dirty blond hair hung loose from a braid, as if she had pulled her hair down to hide her eyes from the creatures lurking at the edges of the room. “God have mercy,” he whispered, then ignored her. He drew himself up. “Return to your proper abode. This is not your plane.”

“It once was. It will be again.” The being made a complicated summoning gesture with his right hand.

A pale shape floated up from the gash, like a translucent woman. The inverted tree-of-life pendant hanging around her neck pulsed. She moved toward Mike and Tik-Tik, reaching toward them. Broken nails marred her hands, and blood stained the front of her shirt and vest. “Revenant, sort of,” Tik-Tik hissed. “Or semblance.”

The magic around her shimmered with the purple-orange glow of the gash in the floor. “Semblance,” Mike said. He drew power from himself and sent it to the sword of light. “Return to your proper abode.” He blocked a grasping hand, severing the arm. The sword vibrated as if he’d struck stone. Black cracks flowed over the woman’s skin, crazing her. Her lower jaw dropped open, revealing fangs and a forked tongue. She lunged again, jaw opening wider and wider to engulf them.

He jammed the shield into her mouth and swung again. Power flowed out of him even as her form collapsed and the orangey blob oozed back into the gash. The sword’s blade dimmed and vanished. He crouched, setting the hilt down on the floor. The dirt and stone felt hot, like a sauna floor or the edge of a volcano.

Tik-Tik swarmed down. “Hot foot, hot foot,” he chanted, alternating paws. “Move the rock, move the rock! Nownow now!” The mongoose raced toward the dark shape and jumped, biting where the knee should be.

Mike dropped the shield as well and leaped toward the stone. He landed on it, arms flailing to keep his balance. Lungs burning from the brimstone in the air, he gasped, then braced one foot against the wall beneath the blackness. His leg stung as he leaned down and pushed. The stone resisted, then scraped forward toward the gash. Inarticulate howls filled his ears, a battle cry answered. Another breath, another push, muscle straining. One more centimeter, one more centimeter, gasp for air, shove, ignoring howls and burning claws that tore at him. Something flew past his head, hit the wall. Magic flickered. One more centimeter, grinding, scraping, air hotter, thicker, pain in his hands.

“Life to open, life to close,” a harsh voice screeched. “Stop him!”

Little farther, Lord be with us, little farther. He couldn’t see, couldn’t feel anything but rough stone and pain, fire licking his flesh. He’d never hurt so much! Air too thick to breathe, had to keep pushing.

Light flashed, clear and pure. The symbols on the stone radiated light, liquid silver flowing through the lines and curves to reveal Solomon’s Seal. Mike pushed once more. Something pushed beside him.

“Noooo! You cannot damn me again!” Words twisted to a shriek. Magic flared, backlash! Mike grabbed it, held it, fire in his arms, sent it to ground “Nooooooooooo—” The wail faded into silence. Darkness, safe darkness surrounded him. A soft gold light bloomed off to the side. He didn’t look. Too tired, hurt. He rolled onto his side and closed his eyes. The tips of his fingers brushed rough fur at his right hand. He pulled Tik-Tik closer and sank into rest, sweet rest.

“Defender,” a man’s voice said. “Defender drink this. It came from your bag, from the silk bag.” The voice spoke German with a Polish accent. Everything hurt. Words hurt. He started easing up. Hands helped support his shoulders. He drank.

Three, two, one. Energy raced through him. It burned, sort of. They called it lightning in a bottle for a reason. Shit, I hurt. Rich, where’s Rich? He opened his eyes the tiniest bit. His headache didn’t get worse. He opened them more. “Where’s Tik-Tik?”

“He’s eating his weight in blood sausage.” He heard laughter in Marija’s voice. “He bounced, or so he says. You didn’t.”

“And you’re too big for any of us to get upstairs without a block-and-tackle,” Kabanos said. “If you can get up to the ground floor, there’s food and a real bed waiting, in that order. Jelen said you’d need them.”

“I do. Give me a little room, please.” The others move clear, and he rolled into a seated position, then onto one knee, then stood. Kabanos steadied him, then let go. “Thank you.”

“I have the bag,” Marija said. “We used silk to move your tools back into the bag.”

Rich must have warned. He couldn’t think and walk, so he walked. All of him ached worse than in Basic Training, or the last time he went hand-to-hand with Sergeant Kim.

As he got into better light, he saw scratches on Marija’s face. “You’re hurt.”

“Not as badly as you are. I got distracted and one came partly through the shield. They’ve been cleansed, both soap and water and blessed silver-balm.” She sounded tired. “I know better, but I’ve never seen an abyssal creature up close before.”

“And I don’t want to see one ever again, thank you St. Michael and St. Woitich,” Major Kowalczyk murmured.

(C) 2023 Alma T. C. Boykin All Rights Reserved

Book Review: Locked in Time

Lomax, Dean R. and Robert Nicholls. Locked in Time: Animal Behavior Unearthed in 50 Extraordinary Fossils. (Columbia University Press, 2021) Kindle e-book

I needed a brain break from history (depressing), herbology and medieval medicine (wince-inducing) and current events (no comment). So, dinosaurs and paleo mammals it was. The book is popular science, not academic analysis, but has a very thorough bibliography and works cited section for those interested in detailed paleontology and physiology. It also begins with sex and ends with corpolites and urine, so you’re warned.

The book focuses on behaviors, how we know about them, what clues we can suss out from trackways, trails, bones, and so on. It is not a guide to different species, so don’t expect to learn much about any one type of critter. One review dinged the book for that, and I can sympathize, but the focus is on “how did the animals do [thing]” more than a guide to paleo-creatures. In part because of this, the authors assume that readers have some basic science background and are generally aware of types of dinos and paleo-mammals. I suspect that covers the bulk of their target audience.

The book is arranged by behavior, starting with reproduction. You will learn lots of fascinating biology, and about how meticulous fossil preparers and excavators have to be. After all, one early fossil includes two insects caught in flagrante delicto, and shows their anatomy. Most of the fossils are not that small, but two are smaller. Each behavior has detailed photos of the fossils involved, as well as a full-color scientific illustration of the behavior described. Burrows, baby-sitting, fights, naps, each is shows in the probable habitat. The fossils are from around the world, and are very current (most recent from an unpublished 2020 paper).

You can dip in and out of the book, but I read it straight through. The writing style is good popular science, not watered down. The author is English, but dinosaur is a universal dialect. As I mentioned above, the writer assumes that you have a basic idea about biology in general and ancient life in particular, but you don’t need to be a physiology expert to get a lot out of the book.

The e-book worked on my first generation Paperwhite™, but to really get the benefit of the illustrations, you need a color screen or the print edition.

I recommend the book to anyone interested in ancient animals, people curious about “where did dinosaurs sleep, anyway?” and parents of kids who are ready for more than Dino 101. (You might skip the first chapter unless you want to discuss birds, bees, fishes, turtles, and so on.) It’s very well written, with a dry sense of humor. The authors really love old critters, and it shows.

FTC Disclaimer: I purchased this book for my own use and received no remuneration from the author or publisher for this review.

Product Review: Xandria The Wonders Still Awaiting

CD and MP3 Xandria: The Wonders Still Awaiting (Napalm Records, 2023)

Short version: Despite the hiatus, they are as good as ever, with a thick sound and great lyrics that showcase very good vocals.

This has been a very rich winter and early spring for fans of symphonic metal. Avantasia, Twilight Force, Ad Infinitum, Dark Sarah, and Xandria all have new releases. Each is very different (OK, Twilight Force is pure Twilight Force, but they’re sui generis so you know what you’re getting.) Of these, Avantaisa and Xandria are the two I’d had the highest hopes for.

Xandria is probably my second-favorite symphonic metal group after Nightwish. Their music tends to be on the lyrical end of metal, with some numbers that are not “real” metal. They went into hiatus for a while, and rumor had it that they’d fully broken up and that was that. The rumor proved to be false. This album, the first in six years, is heavier than the bulk of their earlier work. The female vocals are less operatic overall, but just as good as earlier releases, and they work very well with the complex instrumentals, growls, and choral elements.

The preview songs, “You Will Never be My God” and “Wonders Still Awaiting” gave a good tease for the direction of this album. All the songs hold up, and repay close listening for both the music and the lyrics. The songs range from flat out heavy metal to introspective laments and meditations on memory and loss. All are very good. This far, I like “Wonders Still Awaiting,” “Two Worlds,” and “Your Stories I’ll Remember” the best, but there’s not a bad number on the album. It is longer than it sounds, and I didn’t realize that it’s over an hour. It’s that good.

The balance between guitars, vocals, and other instruments is very good. A full chorus fills out the recording, but never overpowers the other parts. Over-weighted instrumentals is a problem I’ve been hearing with a few other recordings, so kudos to the engineer and composer and arranger. All the parts are present, but they don’t drown the lead singer.

The album art is odd. Not quite Hyronemous Bosch strange, but definately goth.

Overall, I’d say the album is well worth the wait. It’s the first new release thus far to be everything I’d hoped for – rich, long, complex, with great vocals. I recommend it for fans of symphonic metal, people who like the Nightwish sound without Nightwish’s occasional occult inclinations, and goth-metal buffs. It’s not heavy-heavy, but it’s not pop, either.

FTC Disclaimer: I purchased this album for my own use and received no remuneration from the band or the record label for this review.