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.”
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?
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