Lelia, Tay, and friends face a new—and very old—enemy. One who lurks in the shadows where even shadow-mages hesitate to venture. One who is stronger than any mage alive.
But perhaps, not stronger than two determined goths and their angry friends.
“I just do not know,” Shoshana declared, paint-stained hands waving. “I do not know. The air is wrong.”
Lelia didn’t push the artist for more. If Shoshana Langtree said it was wrong, then it was wrong. Lelia was the last person to question Shoshana when it came to art and atmospherics. Instead she asked, “Is there a way Tay and I can help?” Tay, the ring-tailed lemur balancing on Lelia’s shoulder, nodded his agreement.
Shoshana walked from the easel to the workroom door and back. She folded her arms and glared at the painting. “Can you make the bad air go away?” She ran a hand over her black hair, touching the lapis-blue streaks along the side. Lelia felt a moment of hair envy. The larger, stronger woman could carry off the colors Lelia never managed to wear well.
Tay wrinkled his nose as his mage sorted out what Sho might mean and what mage and Familiar could do about it. Tay started, “Uncle Leopard. If we talk to Uncle Leopard, and find out which spells he used for his wards, then we can build on his work. Maybe. Sorcerers do things differently, sometimes.”
Lelia rubbed under her nose, easing an itch from the lingering turpentine smell. “We can do that. If you will give us permission, Sho, Tay and I will just look at the outside of the workroom and shop. Then we’ll talk to Uncle Leopard and either refresh what he’s done, with his permission, or add to it. This time of year, who knows what’s moving through.” She sighed. “Besides the geese and teenagers.”
The tall, broad-shouldered young woman sighed as well and once more ran a hand through her emerald-streaked black hair. “I give you permission.” She frowned at the painting and planted her fists on her hips. “Now, you.” She glared, then shook one finger. “Stop that. The publisher does not want a dragon, she wants a lady-knight in green armor on a brown horse. So stop trying to be a dragon.”
Lelia took that as a good cue to sneak out of Shoshana’s workroom. She picked up Tay’s carrier and her handbag, and eased out the doorway, lowering the curtain so light from the workroom wouldn’t spill into the gallery part of the shop. Officially, the gallery wasn’t open, and Lelia didn’t want to confuse any potential customers. Sho sold original paintings and prints under her own name, and did fantasy and science fiction covers and illustrations under the name “Susannah Blakemoor.” Lelia didn’t know how much money she made, but it kept Sho fed and housed, which was probably better than a lot of visual artists did. Having Uncle Leopard manage the financial side of things probably helped. Lelia wouldn’t want to be the person trying to take advantage of Sho and having to explain some crazy scheme to Uncle Leopard. He could be very scary. Sorcerers, especially sorcerers with recently-teenaged daughters, seemed to be that way.
She and Tay hurried past the tap-dancing hippo painting, looking to the side so they wouldn’t start giggling. The jazz-forefeet and pastel leotard alone sucked away Lelia’s goth-points. She set her things down by the front door, and detached Tay from her shoulder, setting him on the floor. She knelt.
“I only want to take a look right now,” Lelia murmured to Tay. “Walk the inside, then we’ll glance at the outside, in case anything’s trying to work its way in, or someone accidentally broke the wards.”
He nodded and swished his tail. “Yeah. She’s not making sense, but not the usual way. If that makes sense.”
For anyone but Shoshana, it wouldn’t, but it did. “Agreed. Uncle Leopard probably used a basic shield, maybe keyed to her, himself, and possibly Bolts, but I don’t know.” Lelia stood, feet shoulder-width apart, arms at her side, and relaxed. Then she shifted her vision to what she thought of as mage-sight, drawing power from Tay as she did. Tay began walking along the inside of the gallery wall, and Lelia let her eyes follow him, seeing the older spell as a faint shimmer. She did not try to read it, instead studying the basic pattern and strength. The spells flared a little as Tay moved, reacting to him. That was normal, according to the books, if Uncle Leopard had used the spell Lelia thought he had.
Nothing seemed out of place, at least until Tay passed the door to the workroom. As he turned the corner and began walking back toward Lelia, he froze. Something skittered out of the shadows under a big oil landscape. Lelia pulled magic through him and made a magical net. “In nomine Deus, lux argentumque,” she chant-whispered, then “tossed” the net to Tay. He rose onto his hind feet, caught the magic, and pounced, tossing the net over the low-slung, bruise-purple shape before it could change direction. The thing tumbled, and he wrapped it, then bit down. The shadow stopped moving.
“Blagh! Pa-thooy!” he spat, hanging his tongue out. “Whatever it was, it had terrible taste.”
Lelia hurried to the magical net and its contents. “We’re taking this outside the wards to dispose of, right now,” she said. “It’s giving me the creeps.”
“Agreed.” Tay hesitated, amber eyes glowing with concern. “I don’t think it’s from around here.”
Oh no. That’s really not good. Lelia drew more power through her Familiar and imagined silver gloves on her hands. She picked up the netted thing and gagged as a really bad smell emerged. Tay raced ahead of her and once she bumped the gallery door open with her hip, he dragged his carrier and her handbag out. She followed, and after glancing around for watchers, set the thing down on the sidewalk. Then she pulled white string out of the pouch on her belt. Tay took the end and made a circle around the net and its contents. He returned to stand opposite Lelia. She raised her hands, he lifted his forefeet, and she murmured an invocation, raising a protective circle over the string. Then she reached in and removed the net, sending the power back to Tay.
It looked wrong. The parts didn’t match, the fur had changed to a rotten-avocado color with black patches, and the head reminded her of something out of Hieronymus Bosch’s worst nightmares. “In the name of the Most High, maker of every good and perfect thing, may this return to where it belongs. Lux aeterna, lux arumque, lux sempiterna.” She squinted as magic flared and the thing seemed to burn, then the ashes faded away. “Amen, Selah, so mote it be.”
Only after she lowered the circle and put everything back in the pouch did Lelia start to shiver. She pulled a little baggie of “lemur recharge” chow out of her purse, opened it, and gave it to Tay. Then she removed the little can of real-sugar soda from the depths of her purse, opened it, and said, “Cheers.”
“Mrgf,” he replied, mouth full of nuts and dried fruit. Lelia drank the sugar and caffeine, then gnawed on a beef stick. “Right,” Tay began after swallowing. “That didn’t come from around here.”
“We finish looking at the wards, get our groceries, and go home,” Lelia decided. “I don’t want to talk about it, not out in the open.” Something made her itch between her shoulder blades.
Tay shook, releasing grey and black fur. “No.” He dove back into the chow and Lelia finished the meat.
To her mild surprise, the wards around the workroom appeared intact, at least from outside. As they were finishing their inspection of the alley-side of the wall, a classic pick-up pulled into the alley. It parked, the door opened, and a stocky, muscular young man with close trimmed black-dyed hair, in black work pants and a black long-sleeved tee-shirt emerged. “Hi Lelia!”
“Hi Bolts. Sho called us in to look at the place.”
The industrial goth glanced around, then approached her and leaned to her ear. “Good. I don’t like something, but I don’t know what.” He straightened up. “Did you remind her to eat?”
Lelia shook her head. “Ah, no, I forgot. I was too busy getting an ear-full about the shop, and a canvas that wants to be a dragon even though it is supposed to be a horse.”
Bolts chuckled. “Yeah. Sho let me read the summary of the book, and I think the dragon would sell better, but that’s not what the publisher wants.” He stretched, shoulders popping. “Sorry. I spent the afternoon working on a transmission.”
“No problem.” Lelia crouched as Tay sauntered into his carrier and closed the door from inside. She picked it up, and balanced it with her handbag. “The tap-dancing hippo, though.”
He wrinkled his nose. “Oh, yeeeeaaaaaahhhh. I don’t want to know where that idea came from. But I bet it will sell as soon as Uncle Leopard gets it uploaded and priced.”
Thppppth came from the carrier.
“I agree, Tay, but fluffy and puffy is big right now,” Bolts reminded the lemur.
“Alas, yes. And we’re literally going to miss the bus if we don’t get moving. Later.” Bolts gave her a shoulder-hug, then started tapping on the door to the workroom, as Lelia hurried up the alley and back to the main street.
Not until the groceries were unloaded, Tay was fed, and Lelia had finished her own snack did she start thinking about the thing and the shop. “OK,” she said, sitting on the neo-Victorian couch, a latté in her hands. Tay bounced onto the seat beside her. “That thing did not come from one of Sho’s paintings.”
He tipped his head sideways. “But it’s not from here. It was from somewhere nasty.”
And here isn’t nasty? Yes, she knew what he meant, but she’d lived on the streets and he hadn’t. “Agreed.” She sipped the coffee and stared at the front window, imagining the darkness around the rented house. “But the feeling didn’t match any of Sho’s ‘elsewhere’ works.”
Tay licked his nose. “I’ll…” He thought for a moment. “I’ll give you that. It didn’t match. And the wards,” he hesitated, then continued, “the wards are OK. But they are weaker than I expected.”
“Yes.” Lelia closed her eyes. “I don’t want to bother Uncle Leopard right now. But, wait a second. Could that be part of the problem?” She opened her eyes and looked to Tay.
He scratched behind one ear with his hind foot. “Maybe. If he were one of us, then no, because the shield is independent of the caster once it is set. But sorcerers use keys, so the tie might still be there.” Tay blinked. “Patrick Lee would know but I think you could be right.”
She drank more of the latte before it could go cold. “I’m going to think aloud for a moment. With wards that are not straight, locked shields, for two people to overlay them, it requires the cooperation of both parties, unless a space is left between the wards. And wards will fade faster than straight shields, because of the additional flexibility required in the spell.” She stared at the front window, watching a moth flutter around and brush the outside of the glass. “Now, if I assume that Uncle Leopard gave me tacit permission to do a direct overlay, then I can build a secondary ward without contacting him, and mesh it into his work, like we did to Belle, Book, and Blacklight. Otherwise I have to get permission from Sho’s neighbor and the landlord, since that other space is vacant.” It would be easier if the wards were inside the shop, but that had caused problems, so Uncle Leopard had moved them to the outside.
Lelia drank more coffee and mused, then blinked hard. “What if that’s the problem? The wards are keyed to make allowances for Sho’s—, I’ll say special paintings.”
Tay rotated his head until his ears were on the bottom, chin on top. He made Lelia’s neck ache just to see him. He blinked orange eyes and said, “I think you’re onto something. She’d balk if protections interfered with her ‘special paintings.’ But,” he rotated right-side-up once more. “Ah, nuts. How to say this.” Lelia blinked and stared as the lemur got onto all fours and walked back and forth along the seat of the couch, pacing. “OK. That painting that got destroyed, the one that she mourned over.”
Lelia tried to remember, then recalled exactly. “The one that protected her and me from the shlorp-monster. She kept saying that she couldn’t go there anymore, and she never recreated it, or put a price… on… it.” Her eyes opened and Lelia caught herself before her jaw dropped. “Wait. She was going into the painting?”
“Not the painting. The plane that it connected to.” Tay stopped pacing and faced her again. He looked older, somehow, if that was possible.
“Shit.” It wasn’t a good word, or the right word, but it was the best one for the moment. “She’s inadvertently connecting here,” she pointed down with her free hand, “with other places. Some are nice. Some are… not nice?” The guy used another painting to call up the shlorp-monster. And I know she’s not doing it deliberately.
Tay nodded. “You got it. Not all the time, and most of what she paints comes from her own mind, the normal part or the other part. But planes connect to planes.”
“And things cross. Which was how the beast-thing in her gallery came through.” Lelia felt the hair on her neck stand at attention and all but render a salute. “Ooooooohh kay, this is so far over my head I might as well be standing at the bottom of the Grand Canyon.”
Tay nodded again, flipping his tail back and forth. “You and me both. It’s one thing to open a gate deliberately, but to do it more than once without intent? Without using magic? Without training?” He sat on his haunches and raised his forefeet in a shrug. “The other Familiars have heard of maybe two other cases. Maybe.”
Lelia let herself flop against the back of the couch. If the Familiars had no clue, then they really had a mess. “Great. I get to be the guinea pig. I hate the universe.”
“Tell me about it. I asked for a mage with a big budget who lived in a warm climate on a tropical fruit plantation.” He snorted and crossed his forefeet. “Instead I get someone who fusses about fur on her clothes and makes me shovel snow. Thppppth.” He flapped his tongue at her.
“Right.” She stood up. “I wouldn’t trust you with a snow-shovel. You’d use it as a catapult to launch snowballs at passing police cars just in case Angus was riding in the back seat with the window down. Familiars!” Lelia stalked off, leaving Tay in sole possession of the couch.
“That sounds fun!” He vaulted off the back of the furniture and followed her into the kitchen.
(C) 2019 Alma T. C. Boykin All Rights Reserved