Tuesday Tidbit: Storm Passing

Something moves in the storm. Or does it?

“Back in, storm’s here, back in,” Rich chanted. Once on his preferred perch, he murmured, “Do not like this, Defender. Someone tried to move the slab. Smelled cigarette smoke in the dirt, person dug in trying to shift the seal. Too heavy for now, don’t like it.”

“For now?” Mike murmured back. He retreated out of the wind, arms folded, as if observing the rain now sheeting straight down.

Tik-Tik wiggled and curled tighter around his neck. “Something answered the person. That’s the black. Do not like. Too many tasty tidbits around, the deaths in the peat. Need to carry our kit.”

Sharp tobacco scent cut through the rain and ozone. Mike rolled his eyes and said, “Why me? Of course that strap would come loose if you pull that way. And I don’t have the repair kit with me.” Irritation and frustration came easily. He added, “Dude, I told you to leave the nice bag alone and not pull on the strap. Now I’ll have to carry my everyday bag.”

“Needed a snack, smelled a snack. I like snacks. Egg? Beef stick? Beef sticks are great!” Chittering replaced words.

Mike sighed at the top of his lungs as he plodded past Zhurovina Turko. The tip of her cigarette glowed red in the dim light in the courtyard niche. He glimpsed a smirk on the Belarussian’s square, flattish face. She wore her hair in a crown over the top of her head, very traditional and completely at odds with her modern, loose-cut suits. “Dude,” he sighed. The smirk grew.

Once back in their room, Mike fed Rich some of his high-protein travel chow, then got ready for bed. Instead of sleeping, mage and Familiar said their evening devotions, alternating Latin and English. I prefer Serbo-Croatian, but not if someone else is listening. Latin meant Catholic, which fit an American. And everyone knew that the 767th would use Latin.

As he tried to ease into sleep, something boomed in the distance. A soft beep from the corner of the room warned that power had gone out for now. “Transformer?” Rich asked around a yawn.

“Who knows.” He rolled over. Not my circus, not my giraffe.

“Wer ist das?” Mike demanded, wide awake in the darkness. Tik-Tik hissed as a shadow moved through the room. Or did it? Mike drew power from his Familiar and waited. The presence dissipated. “Wo war das?” Where was that?

“Other side of the wall, strong, bad, really bad, but didn’t push in,” Tik-Tik reported. He dove off the bed and went to that side of the room. Mike looked at his travel clock. 0430, and very dark still. “Power’s on. Don’t like this. Something icky came past, or someone with an icky overlay, like a slimy cape.”

Mike wrinkled his nose at the mental picture. “Gross, dude. Seriously gross.” He stretched, then eased out of bed. The room felt no physically colder than before, but he shivered even so. A quick, hot shower, then he shaved and dressed. After their morning devotions, he and Rich eased out of the room. Absolute silence surrounded them, heavy and intent, as if the very air listened for something. Holy Lord, I do not like this place at all. We need to load a 737 tanker with holy water and drench the entire mountain, then make a second pass on the bog.

“Daaaaaaaang,” Rich said, completely still as he stared out the courtyard gate. “Stay with you farther, fog thick, something else.” The quiet had followed them outdoors, save for the sound of water dripping. No bird calls disturbed the morning, yet.

He could see a dozen meters or so, if he squinted. “Any smart birds are sleeping in,” Mike said, mostly to hear his own voice. Fog filled every space, held down by low clouds. Torn leaves, twigs, and some small branches littered the ground outside the walls of the castle. The walls seemed darker, the wet turning the stone and plaster grey-black instead of dirty-snow grey. Mike set Rich on the ground at the tourist gate. Rich hurried to do his thing and return. “Worms?”

“On the surface. I’ll get a few later. We need to look farther, Defender.” Rich’s voice sounded deeper in the pre-dawn fog. “Something’s wrong downslope.”

“Not the peat bog. I am not touching that unless we have reinforcements, clergy and otherwise.” Draku needs to deal with this place, if he can. What hadn’t he? Mike followed Rich to the end of the car park, such as it was. More branches littered the ground. Some longer grass in a meadow-like open area showed signs of overland flow, flattened by water. “Wow, it really did rain hard.” The soil here took a lot before rain started running off.

“Not the bog, nopity nope! Just the road.” Rich hurried ahead. Mike followed the silver tail tip in the twilight. “Well, sheeeee-it,” Rich called, sounding just like Sergeant Calhoun.

Slow footsteps came up behind him. Mike said aloud, “That’s a heck of a scratching post you pulled over.”

“Not me this time!” Rich attacked the oak, clawing at it as if he were a cat. Then he climbed onto the fallen trunk. “Dirt quit.” The roots had been pulled out of the ground. Water stood in the place where the roots had been.

Usually it takes a week or more of rain before that happens. I really do not care for this. He climbed over the trunk, collected Rich and went farther. Rich wiggled, so Mike turned him loose to grub for worms or whatever as he surveyed the damage. One bird called, then fell silent once more. Rich skittered over another tree, having too much fun. A charred streak and shattered stump marked lightning’s work. Mike lowered his shields. Icky seeped from the castle into the air, and from the bog into the fog. This is as rotten as that not-a-mosque, minus the attack sand.

“This is as bad as a movie,” Mike grumbled under his breath as he peered down at the road. The storm, after the heavy rain, had toppled at least three trees across the road. Parts of the pavement had eroded as well, probably undercut farther down the slope.

“Yep, but it works, doesn’t it?” Rich called from atop one of the trees. “Storm was natural, trees are natural, combination feels strange.”

Mike turned left and right as he studied the silent, mist-laden woods around them. “If I hear a chainsaw or banjos, we are running so damn fast.” There was a reason why the regiment kept a library of horror movies and fantasy novels. “We’re not getting a vehicle down that road until it’s cleared and inspected.”

“Agreed.” Rich scratched the surface of the beech with his claws, acting like a cat again, then flowed down and back to his mage. “Creepy, too creepy, fog creeping toward us.”

Something flowed up the road toward them, a dark mass in the mist, like concentrated essence of fog. Mike checked his six and backed away as fast as prudent, Tik-Tik scampering along beside him. The presence stopped at the second tree. Mike retreated farther. He didn’t sense any active malice in whatever it was, but the all-pervasive air of corruption could mask a lot of things. He scooped up his Familiar and hurried toward the relative shelter of the castle. When they reached the parking area, he unleashed the mongoose on the worms. Four proved sufficient. Mike tidied his Familiar’s feet and carried him back to the paved area.

Mr. Custiss waited on the covered portico in the courtyard on the north side of the castle. “How thick’s the fog?” He didn’t bother trying to hide his cigarette.

“Very thick, sir. Visibility might be fifty yards at most, probably less. And several trees blew down in the storm, blocking the road.”

“Well, nuts.” The consul’s aid sounded more resigned than irritated. “I’m sure Mr. Benes has what he needs to get through, or someone from the forest service will clear the road soon.”

“Yes, sir.” He kept one hand on Rich, preventing comment, snarky or otherwise.

“Do you get an itchy feeling from that end of the castle?” Custiss waved his empty hand toward the chapel and cellar entrance.

Mike and Rich both nodded. “Yes, sir,” Rich said. “There’s an esoteric presence, or strong traces of one, under the building. We can’t tell if it was here and then departed, or if it is dormant but present.”

Custiss took a long pull on his smoke. “Good. I’m not imagining things. Thank you.”

“You’re welcome, sir.”

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

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Saturday Snippet: Permission to Court?

No idea if this will end up in the final story or not. It takes place after Preternaturally Familiar.

Arthur finished his duties after worship and departed the chapel. To his mild surprise, Ladislu Padurowski, the current leader of the Hunters, waited for him. The young man seemed calm, but the scent of trepidation verging on fear surrounded Ladislu as he bowed to Arthur. “Thank you.” As he straightened up, Arthur guessed the reason for the young man’s presence, and swallowed a smile. Instead he feigned ignorance. “Yes?”

“I wish permission to court Mistress Deborah,” Ladislu blurted. He caught himself, not quite cringing back as he tried once more. “Ah, that is, sir, I have spoken with my parents, and I am prepared to support a lady as wife. I seek your permission to ask Mistress Deborah’s parents for permission to ask for her hand in honorable marriage.”

Arthur folded his arms. “Indeed.” He allowed silence to stretch as he inspected his nepatisha’s would-be suitor. “What makes you worthy of this privilege?”

“Nothing, sir. But I wish to try to make myself worthy of her heart.”

Ladislu’s complete honesty caught him by surprise. He recovered quickly. “Good. That is the proper answer.” How badly would this trouble the other Hunters? Not so badly as it once might have. He nodded. “I give you permission to court, should Mistress Deborah favor your suit.”

Were relief visible, the young man would have glowed as a beacon in the night. He bowed once more. “Thank you, sir.”

He straightened to find Arthur’s boot knife not quite touching his chest. “If you hurt her, I will take full measure of her pain from you in return. Is that clear?”

“Yes, Master Saldovado, sir.” To his credit, Ladislu’s voice did not shake, and he held gaze.

“Good.” Arthur stepped back, blade still in hand. “Go with the Lady’s blessing, and may Her Defender guide and protect you on your Hunt.”

A third bow, and Ladislu departed into the cold night. Arthur returned the blade to its proper place, folded his arms once more, and allowed himself to smile. The little one had accidentally revealed Ladislu’s interest, and her willingness to be courted by him. It would be a good match, if the young man had sufficient bride price, and if all parties were willing. He chuckled. Master Lestrang and the child might be harder to persuade. That was also good. A young man who wanted his nepatisha’s hand in marriage needed to earn that privilege. Not that any were worthy of such an honor, but Ladislu came close. Perhaps. Arthur walked with slow dignity down the steps and toward the main house. Perhaps.

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

Tuesday Tidbit: Exploring the Castle

Mike and Rich play tourist, sort of. No one has killed anyone . . . yet. It is the afternoon following the last excerpt, and a cold front is moving in.

“Done. Don’t like the air. Storm coming,” Rich declared. He hurried past his mage and into the shelter of the courtyard. The smokers had moved with the wind. Mike hid a smile. His dad still sometimes smoked a pipe, but only in the backyard or in his home office. The mage followed the mongoose back into the castle proper. “I am pretty, oh so pretty,” Rich warbled, posing under a statue of a weasel holding a heraldic shield. “Let’s go see the chapel. It’s open.”

“Sure.” Mike scooped him up and they went past one of the spiral stone stairs, then walked slowly through the public side of the castle. A few safety lights burned, casting darker shadows than night alone. “It’s tornado resistant at least.”

“Reeeeelaaaaaax,” Rich commanded, whiskers twitching, claws dug into the discreet cut-resistant fabric on Mike’s shoulders. “What could possibly go—”

The large hand over his muzzle silenced the Words Of Doom. Snickers emerged instead. All sound and motion ceased as they rounded the corner and beheld the Czechs and Consul Houser filing into the St. Michael chapel, along with Marija Kaminska, one of the Polish delegates. Mr. Benes, the castle manager, spoke, and Mike heard Ms. Pullman translating for Consul Houser. Mike tuned out the voices, listening instead with magic, sort of. He drew a tiny bit of power from his Familiar, just in case, and bowed as he entered the well-lit space. Nothing reacted. That was good. Perhaps.

The deconsecrated chapel dated to the building of the castle. Traces of the original paintings remained. St. Michael, wings spread, smiled a tranquil smile as he stabbed a heavy spear into a faded and chipped dragon. Bits of the plaster had fallen away, but the images remained in very good condition for frescoes from the 1300s. Especially frescoes in this part of Europe. “As you can see,” Ms. Pullman said for Mr. Benes. “It is traditional to have St. Michael in military chapels, or when there are concerns about demons and other forces of evil.”

Or when building over pagan ruins, or on a high place, Mike recited. The 767th had lessons about which saints were where, and why, and what that could tell a magic worker. Mike gave his patron saint a small salute, then turned to the stranger images. “No, a left-handed figure is out of place, unless it is Judas,” Mr. Benes explained, pointing to the much-faded painting in question. “And Judas would have red hair. This is a female centaur of some kind, or perhaps an overpainting of a horse and rider, although special imaging of the wall does not show that.”

The figure faced left, bow drawn, aiming at something. That looks more like a crossbow, sort of. The background appeared sort of blue-green, as if the person stood in the forest. She aimed at a man, although he’d faded even more. Mike peered over the others’ heads, then shrugged a little. He’d never heard of such in a chapel, unless the figure was a demon in a depiction of fallen sinners in Hell. Which did not fit the image, as best anyone could tell. A second painting of St. Michael, this time weighing souls, stood with his back to the archer. The saints processed on the other side of the chapel, including St. Andrew and the rest of the apostles. The Annunciation appeared on the south-west wall, another slight oddity. Since the chapel wasn’t aligned due east-west, having the start of the story toward the west didn’t really upset liturgical “flow.” Much.

“We are over the pit and the seal proper,” Mr. Benes said through Ms. Pullman, answering Capt. Sluka’s question. “The upper seal is there, in the center of the floor, below the peak of the ceiling.” Mike glanced up at the simple gothic arches overhead, then down at the brick floor. The square area of well-worn stone might have had words or images on it, but six hundred years of feet and brooms had effaced them. “No, there is a larger seal below us, a true stone.”

Rich shivered. Mike put a comforting hand on him, touching the rough, warm fur. “Don’t like that. Need to see it if we can, don’t like it. Don’t like deconsecration.”

“Agreed.”

Ms. Pullman frowned and turned toward them. “You have a question?”

“No, ma’am. Rich observed that the paintings remained in excellent condition, given that the chapel was deconsecrated and endured so many years of abandonment.”

She translated for Mr. Benes, and probably the listening Czechs as well. The manager nodded, but did not reply. Instead, he gestured for them to leave. Mike stepped out the door, since he was closest to the door, and cleared the way for the others. As required by the church, nothing aside from roof sat above the chapel. The spiral stairs led up to an adjacent tower and chamber to the side of the upper ceiling, and down to . . . something. The Czechs talked quietly, and Ms. Pullman spoke with Mr. Houser, then Mr. Benes. The manager gestured his agreement, and the group began walking toward a larger staircase. Mike and Rich followed.

They went down. Stone became wood. “This is a wine cellar and occasionally barracks,” Mr. Benes stated. A set of dim lights came on with a thunk as he turned on a heavy metal switch. Stone floor gave way to dirt and gravel, or so it looked. “This does open to the courtyard, yes, via those stairs,” he gestured to a set of wooden steps with twisted wood hand-rails straight out of an illustration of “primitive medieval woodwork.” They did look sturdy, however. Mike approved. He crouched and set Rich on the floor. The mongoose darted into the shadows and came back twice as fast. No one seemed to notice, aside from Capt. Sluka and Marija Kaminska. Kaminska followed Rich with her eyes, and eased closer to them, but said nothing.

“The actual wine cellar is that way,” Benes told them. “It appears that some larger casks were stored here, along with water barrels. Traces of a cistern have been found, or so archaeologists think, in the forecourt outside the  main entry gate. We have a well now, if piped in water ever fails.”

Mr. Houser listened to the translation and made an intrigued sound. Mike echoed him, since officially he didn’t speak much Czech.

Ondra Adamcik, the lead mediator, had been studying the ceiling and walls. “We are not below the chapel, are we?”

“No, sir. We are below the vestry and the private chamber, at the opposite end of the castle from the representative rooms.” Mr. Benes gestured to a deeper, darker passageway off to the left. “The chamber with the portal is that way.” He turned on a few more lights and allowed the Czechs to lead the way. Mike, Sluka, and Kaminska all held back, allowing their superiors to go first. Mr. Benes turned to Mike and pointed up. “Ihre Kopf – niedrigen Decken.” Mind your head, sir, low ceiling.

“Danke Ihnen.” Thank you, sir. Mike stayed low as he followed the ladies. Rich’s tail fluffed and he hissed so quietly that only his mage noticed it. Perhaps. Tik-Tik slithered around the edges of the dimly lit chamber, only the tip of his tail visible in the red-washed shadows. He returned, chittered, then fell silent. Kaminska eased even closer, staying near the door as best she could. Whiffs of abyssal magic burned his senses, nothing strong but . . . Mike eased to the side and held his fingers almost against the gritty sandstones. Traces have soaked in. The stone’s porus to magic. That explains way too much. St. Michael be with us. St. Anthony stand beside us and defend us from demons, St. George strengthen us. Tik-Tik kept one paw on Mike’s boot. Mike bent down and lifted the mongoose onto his shoulder.

“Do not like this, Defender. Look at the seal stone,” Tik-Tik hissed into his ear. Mike, still ducking, eased forward to where the others peered at a flat stone, like a grave marker, and a carefully fenced-off circular well. The well bugged him, but the stone made his hair stand on end. “Near the terp’s shoes.”

What? Mike pretended to be as fascinated with the faint carvings as the others were. The dim light kept him from recognizing the pattern marked into the pale grey slab, but he had a few ideas. At the edge, near where Ms. Pullman stood, he saw marks on the floor, scrapes of stone on stone, oddly deep footprints in the raked dirt. As if someone had tried moving the thing. Did he dare risk it? Mike lowered his shield the tiniest fraction of a bit, shifting his vision as he did. A hint of black, like the thinnest of lines, lurked along that edge of the stone. The pattern shimmered, still unreadable. He eased around to the other side of the stone. No black. A miasma of tainted magic filled the room as if fog had moved in. Mike shifted back to seeing normal life and strengthened his shields once more. A malign awareness shifted, then subsided.

Mr. Benes pointed to the knee-high slab. “Several hundred pounds, as you can imagine. No one has moved it since the 1930s, when local stories claim that the SS shifted it away from the crack it covers. They put it back, if they moved it.” He sounded less than persuaded. “The well is what leads to hell, supposedly. The ghost that comes in sits there,” he waved at a black iron chair or throne at the end of the room, on the other side of the well.

After Ms. Pullman finished translating, Mr. Houser chuckled. “What castle doesn’t have a ghost? Isn’t it Czesky Krumlov that has a white lady?” He turned and looked to Mike, eyebrows raised.

“Ah,” he hesitated, as if searching his memory. “Yes, sir, that’s one of the best known. The White Lady of Rozembirk, or Rosenberg, I think?” His Czech counterpart, Capt. Sluka, gave him a hard look. Did I get it wrong? Or does she not like me playing dumb GI? All of the above probably.

Mr. Benes slipped one hand in the patch pocket on his jacket. He spoke, drawing the others’ attention again. Mike eased back to the door, one hand on Tik-Tik. The Familiar vibrated. Mr. Benes described the black hooded spirit, then a few ghosts and haunts that had been reported in or around the castle. Once Ms. Pullman finished translating, Mike crept out the doorway, around the edges of the cellar room, and back up the stairs.

Not until he’d put the bulk of the Houska Castle between himself and the portal did Mike relax. He set Rich down once more. The mongoose walked with slow dignity out the gate, then dove for the bushes. Thunder grumbled somewhere, echoing off the world around them. A faint flash to the north and west, purple white. Mike crossed himself. “St. Michael archangel, defend us in battle against the wickedness and snares of the devil,” he whispered. He’d finish the prayer once they got back to their room. A gust of cold wind brought drops of rain.

“Back in, storm’s here, back in,” Rich chanted. Once on his preferred perch, he murmured, “Do not like this, Defender. Someone tried to move the slab. Smelled cigarette smoke in the dirt, person dug in trying to shift the seal. Too heavy for now, don’t like it.”

“For now?” Mike murmured back. He retreated out of the wind, arms folded, as if observing the rain now sheeting straight down.

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

Saturday Snippet: Space Gulyas

This is from a story I will be submitting to an anthology. It is set in the Planet Texas universe.

“It looks right,” István Gabor said as he walked around the small pen. “Color, horns, hoofs, body shape, all correct. But . . . not mammal?”

Dr. Szentmihaly spread his hands in a shrug. “Not mammal. None of the bovine genetic stock we brought to Novi Magyarsk proved viable. Ovine, yes, but not bovine or equine yet. We need a herd grazer now, and this native-base stock works. The meat tastes like beef.”

István studied the grey creature contentedly munching hay in the portable pen. The bureaucrats from Colonial Approval would refuse to allow such a thing. If they knew about it. “Has anyone made an official report to—?” He pointed up at the sky.

“No, sir. No time, and we need the power for more urgent needs.” A small smile appeared under Dr. Szentmihaly’s thick mustache. “It is better to delay any reports until resources are available.”

István smiled in return. “Most certainly. Survival of the settlement is our first priority,” he quoted. And if that meant preserving the botanical environment with a reptile-based gulyas, well, so be it. “No milk?”

The biologist shook his head. “No. But we have sheep and goats, and can work from there.”

“Well done. Cream in our coffee can wait.” He missed that, but all things came with time. The grasses needed to be grazed as soon as possible. The build-up of senescent material already posed a fire risk in some parts of the colony. He started to return to his vehicle, then caught himself. “Wait. No horses yet?”

A long sigh met his question. “Not yet. The stock they sent seems to be unviable. Our,” he waved at the white and tan buildings and half-domes housing the genetics workers, “first try with a native species . . . The legs are too thin and would break too easily. We can’t thicken them and keep the creatures docile enough to have round people.”

Co-located genes struck again. “Thank you for trying. I know your team will find a way. The cattle are our first priority, and the sheep.”

Dr. Szentmihaly smiled again. “You’re welcome sir. We’ll start breeding more of these and send them out to the ranches.”

Five planetary years later, Dr. Szentmihaly sounded disappointed. “It’s not perfect.” He shook his now-bald head. “The genes for a mane were co-located with a lethal cardiac defect.”

Fulop Gabor shook his head in awe and wonder as he studied the stallion. “He’s beautiful as he is, Doctor.” The dark grey stud’s long, flowing tail blew like a banner as he trotted around the pen, then stopped and came toward them, snorting. Calm brown eyes studied the humans, and his ears twitched. The stallion’s hoofs thumped the dirt, strong and sturdy. He was broken to ride but not fully trained yet. “Uncle István will be delighted.”

“I hope so. To have cattle without horses . . . The founders would throw meteors at us.” The biologist scowled. “Or paperwork.”

“Paperwork. The consul from New Texas avers that paperwork is worse than storms, volcanos, or a locust plague.” The locusts should not have been in the terraforming package. Honey bees should have been included. Non-viable horses and cattle were the least little woe compared to that!

Dr. Szentmihaly frown shifted to a smile. “Csirip. This one, three mares, are yours. We will trade out stallions to mix the blood after three years, until a large pool develops.” He shrugged.” And we cross more, now that we know how. Are the cheese goats working?”

Fulop wagged one hand, still watching the almost-horse. “Mostly. The hard cheeses are taking longer than planned, but that’s not the milk. Do these,” he nodded to the animal, “have a name?”

“Majdnemio,” came the instant reply. “Almost horse in the old tongue.”

“My-nem-eeoh.” Fulop nodded. “Perfect.”

Fulop’s uncle met him and the transport the next day at “Tanyanagy,” their ranch. Fulop opened the side of the transport, lowering the ramp, and the four majdnemio walked out. They wore halters, so the waiting men approached slowly, each clipping a lead rope to one beast. “Behold, uncle. Horses.”

István busied himself with the pale brown mare, leading her to the pen. Once all four had been turned in, fed, and watered, he sighed a little. “No hair.”

“Only the tail, and the skin in winter, sir. Dr. Szentmihaly said that manes and heart death are collocated.”

The medium brown mare shook all over, then rolled in the dirt. “Oh.” István watched the horses for another minute or two. “They are shorter shoulder to tail than the video animals.”

“Sprinters, Uncle. We’ll find a way.”

Uncle, nephew, and ranch employees shared tired sighs. It was the unofficial colony motto. That, along with “Swear, then Improvise, Adapt, and Overcome,” and “Bureaucrats and fish stink in three days.” Off-worlder bureaucrats especially.

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

Tuesday Tidbit: Watcher in the Night

Mike and Rich are dismissed for the evening.

After the meal, Brian Houser dismissed them. “Tomorrow will be early enough.”

“Yes, sir. Thank you, sir.” Mike wasted no time going to the main gate, which remained partly open. “Go.”

Rich launched into the outer courtyard where the living history programs, shop, and administrative buildings formed a loose square. Mike tracked his progress by the occasional clatter of rocks—or pottery—and chants of “Ooh, good worm, ssssluuuuurrrrp good worm!” Rich had behaved amazingly well, really. Too well?

He slalomed back, did two laps around his mage, and flopped onto his back, muddy paws in the air. “Dirt’s funny, boss,” he reported.

“Funny odd, or our kind of funny?” As much magic seemed to flow in the air, having it muck with the dirt sort of made sense, ish. Maybe.

“Our kind. No Elementals, none, nada, zip, zilch.” Rich rolled right-side up and shook all over. “Funny taste in the air, dirt too. Trees but no vegetables or eating plants.”

Huh. That is odd. And he didn’t trust the local net access to do any looking. A whiff of bitter tobacco smoke teased his nose, and he smiled. Welcome to Eastern Europe. Smoking wasn’t as common as it had been, but more people smoked than did back home.

The sour presence in the magic shifted. Mike eased into a half-trance, just listening and feeling the world. Rich draped himself over his mage’s shoes. The “flavor” . . .  A little like the peat bog, but not exactly? Yes, heavy with years and a bit of char, like singed but not burnt toast. That didn’t match either the usual sense of forest land in this region, or of the swamp, quite. The presence moved behind them in the castle, then faded as if going farther away or diluted by the night air.

“This is an odd castle indeed,” Mike said.

“It is. But having a separate kitchen in case of fire is a possibility.” Rich wiggled, probably getting dirt on his mage’s shoes.

Mike nodded, then scooped up his Familiar and dusted his feet of the worst mud. “You can’t leave any stone unturned, can you?”

“Not if it’s smaller than I am! I’m a mongoose, remember?” Mad giggles straight out of a bad movie filled the twilight of evening as Mike plodded up to his room, carefully ignoring the smokers spread out along the wall of the inner courtyard.

#

“Boss, wake up. Defender!” A cold nose on his neck drove away the last bit of sleep fog. “You’re starting to call out, and the shields are weaker,” Tik-Tik reported. “And your alarm’s about to ring.”

Mike rolled far enough to turn off the simple alarm clock without dislodging either the covers or his Familiar. Then he flopped back into the supine position, arm over his eyes. “Blessed St. George, that was one damn strange dream.”

“It was bad enough that you tried to hit something, then began talking in Draku-German.” The mongoose sniffed. “They were some of those phrases he’s too young to know.”

Bad language in German and something else. Great. “Ugh. Glad I don’t remember that part. We were . . . not being chased, exactly, but were trying to renew spells on one of those huge medieval wax seal things? That’s what it looked like. And something kept pestering us, like a were-cat but with garlic breath.”

“Wow. That’s weird even for you, boss.” Rich snickered, then dove under the covers. He emerged at the foot of the bed, looking somewhat flat from the weight of sheet, duvet, and folded blanket. “That’s magic mushroom strange. Shroom shroom, zoom zoom,” and he dove off the bed to do laps of the furniture legs.

Mike rolled out of the bed, then stretched. He had half an hour before early breakfast. The actual diplomatic part of the day wouldn’t start until nine, so he had three hours to kill. Breakfast began at six-thirty, come and go. He did push-ups, crunches, and anything that wouldn’t thump. Then he sat and relaxed, clearing his mind as much as he could. Rich settled onto his lap, still and quiet. Mike recited the morning devotion and prayer in English, for the benefit of any listeners.

As Rich had said, the shields he’d set on the room appeared weaker to his magic senses. Not the secondaries that used mage magic alone, but his personal power had been nibbled. “That matches yesterday,” Mike murmured.

“Yes. As if the other party does not recognize mage magic, only personal and shadow.” Rich hesitated, tail twitching. “Have any other mages visited since the SEE?”

Who else would have? Granted, that was almost fifty years ago, and he didn’t know all the mages in Europe. “I know not. We are rare, and those with larger Familiars might not come as mages.” The lady in Poland with the giant horse certainly wouldn’t have come here with her Familiar. “Perhaps the Hungarians? Heike and Walburga have not, or Draku would know.”

“Worker of shadow, yes, but not mage. And not the ones you are thinking of from Hungary. The mage is blind, doesn’t go far from Budapest. Only to farm vacation, has too much work in Budapest.” Rich shifted his weight. “We do no magic unless pushed, Defender. Hide in plain sight.”

I do not like what you are implying. And I agree. If something went south, they’d be the wild card. “I wonder what I’d have to give up for the Lord to grant us a dull, quiet, uneventful assignment.” Beef, alcohol, sweets, impure thoughts, and hot showers wouldn’t even start to be enough sacrifice to get that level of blessing. “And if I keep thinking like that, I’m going to get hit by lightning while standing in the cellar. Shift, buddy.”

“That would be funny!” Rich slid down to the floor. “Mage on toast, mage is toasted in a wine cellar!” He rolled back and forth, laughing his tail almost off. Mike glared at him, stood, and went to get a shower and dress.

They went to breakfast. The buffet had been set up in the pink-walled room. Mike glanced around, saw the e-g-g-s, and hurried over. He snagged a small bowl and put two soft-boiled eggs in it. He almost got back to the corner table when—

“Eggs! Eggyeggs I smell eggs. Round mounds of wonderful egeegggg!” Mike set the bowl down and yanked his hand back before Rich took it off. Happy devouring sounds followed him back to the food. The young man setting out the last tray gave him a worried look. Mike shrugged.

He’d half-finished his first plate of real food and nursed coffee as Mikolai Kowalczyk walked with slow steps into the room. Damn. He looks like two miles of bad road. The sensitive moved carefully, like an old man afraid of falling. He got coffee and glanced around. Mike stood as the other officer approached. “Be seated. Is this taken?” He waved at the empty seat.

“No sir. Please.”

“Too early for sir.” The Pole set the coffee at the empty place and came back with a laden plate. The caterer’s assistant followed and set a bread basket down on the table. Kowalczyk devoured sausage, cold-cuts and cheese, and a buttered roll before speaking again. “Your Familiar?”

Rich, licking his whiskers free of egg, poked his head above the edge of the table. Mike slipped him a bit of farmer’s bacon.

“Dobrey.” Good. After a sip of coffee, the Pole said in German, “Something moved last night, and I sensed an attempted spell casting. You?”

German I can do. “No. When we arrived, we ran a test. A presence reacted to shield-casting, just a common ward to keep away Elementals and stray magic.” Mike had more coffee as well. “Rich and I decided not to do anything unless forced to defend.”

Rich’s head appeared again and he rested his chin on the white tablecloth. “We don’t do charms or many pre-sets. Mage magic is free-form, mostly.”

Kowalczyk blinked, puzzled. He got more coffee, this with some milk, and sat once more. “How interesting. You are the first mage-Familiar pair I have ever met. You do not need patterns and charm-carriers?”

“No. We can use them, and have. Some mages also use a focus, as someone in the sorcery tradition would, to store power, but we don’t need patterns or to keep season and moon-phase in mind the way coven and sorcery workers do.”

The Pole ate another roll. Mike sampled the dark bread. Sour, heavy, dense, just like he preferred it, especially with real butter and a bit of soft sausage. He gave Rich a bit of the sausage as well, on a spoon. Delighted lapping sounds came from below the edge of the table.

“I know the coven tradition best. Is he truly eating that?”

“Yes. And anything else meat-ish. He also hunts, but not while we are on duty.” Most of the time. I hope. I will never live down the snake episode so long as Shadow and Ears are alive. That had been awkward. Very awkward.

“Different topic. What do you think of Blind Guardian’s latest release? The album.”

Mike smiled. “It’s heavier than I prefer. Evanescence, Ad Infinitum, Delaine, Avantasia, Aurochs’ Ghost, that local group from Bialystok, help me, Rich.”

“Thorn of the Swamp Rose,” came the instant reply.

“Thank you, Thorn of the Swamp Rose.”  

Kowalczyk’s smile grew as they recited names. “That matches my impression. I found their Thirty Years War album more to my taste.” The next few minutes passed quickly as they discussed bands, festivals, and bad fashion choices.

At last Rich sniffed. “The last we heard, the revolving door on the lead singer’s dressing room remained in place, and that they were talking to Marcella, but that was six weeks ago.”

The Pole rolled his eyes. “That’s clearer than what we’re hearing here.” His chair scraped back from the table. “Excuse me. Duty and a briefing calls. Thank you for confirming my observation.”

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

Saturday Snippet: Black Knowe Farm

Mike is on leave, visiting someone he can sort-of relax around. For shadow mage with crazy Familiar levels of relax.

Once they left town, Allister said, “Right. Da’s former SAS, so don’t worry about slipping, or if a memory bothers you. He’s been there. Mum’s a farm lady, weak herb-worker, grew up here, and handles the butchering and sausage making, so she’s hard to shock. My at-home sister’s visiting friends in Dundee and hiking up north this week.”

In other words, a nightmare or an accidental slip wouldn’t send them running into the sea. “Got it. What chores do I need to do?”

“Keep your Familiar out of the hen run. That should take up most of your time.” Allister signaled and turned onto a dirt road. The sound of the engine, and of the road, drowned out further talk. That was fine. Mike glanced in the back. Rich had made himself comfortable on some tool bags and other assorted stuff.

Twenty or so minutes later, the Rover pulled into a farmyard. The white-painted wooden gate stood open. A small tractor chugged in ahead of them. The tractor pulled a dark green, home-made trailer with wooden sides and mismatched wheels. I see where the jokes about Scots thrift come from. The box had been made from scrap lumber and bits of this and that. Allister parked beside a small, tidy hatchback, in the shadow of a long, low barn or super shed.

“Right. Welcome to Black Knowe Farm,” Allister said, once he’d killed the ignition and the tractor puttered to a quiet stop. “We’ve some sheep, wheat, chickens, and a little canola this year. Rich, do not bother the chickens or my mother will turn you into a fur collar. Understand?”

“Aaaawwwwwww, I understand.” With that Rich swarmed down from the luggage and down to the ground. He zoomed back and forth, sniffing mightily and digging a little here and there as his mage collected bags and carrier, then followed Allister to the house. Rich caught up with them, galloping in his weasely way.

“Mum, we’re home,” Allister called, scraping his feet on the mud mat. Mike copied him, and cleaned Rich’s feet once he’d set down everything. “Boots there, please, if you go mud-tramping.” Allister pointed to the tidy row.

“Come in,” a warm voice called. Mike followed his friend into the stone and wood house, and met a heavyset women in cotton slacks, a faded cotton blouse, and colorful floral apron. She wiped her hands on a tea towel and smiled up at the men. “You must be Michael. I’m Agnes, Allister’s Mum.” She extended a warm, plump hand and they shook. She wore her grey-touched strawberry blonde hair pulled back in a bun. “Allister said that you have a Familiar?”

“Yes, ma’am,” Rich called. “I’m Rich.”

She startled. “My goodness.” She blinked, then recovered. “You won’t need as much room as I thought.” She crouched and shook hands/paws with Rich, then stood again. “I was expecting a sheep dog or police dog.”

“We come in all shapes and sizes, mostly.” He giggled. Allister leaned away and made a warding off gesture at him. “What?”

The Scottish sorcerer shook his finger at him. “When you giggle, trouble’s about to land.” Allister straightened up. “We got dinner at the Thistle, so I’ll just show Mike and Rich their room, if you don’t need anything?”

“No, shoo. Tea’s at half past, since your father’s done early.” She smiled, plump cheeks dimpling. Mike caught a glimpse of a large kitchen with appliances right out of a TV history program about the 1950s, and a wood or coal stove from the 1850s. The well-worn vinyl floor seemed Rich resistant, perhaps.

Later that evening, after “a small supper” of mutton chops, green salad, mashed potatoes, and mushy peas, Mike wandered out onto the little back patio, as he’d call it. It served as the warm-weather outdoor work area, and as a place to do messy chores, like beating rugs. Thank you for vacuum cleaners, Lord, and for central heat. Radiators and Rich didn’t always get along. Rich sniffed around, did his thing, and acted as if he had no interest at all in the black and white chickens clucking and scratching in the garden behind the house. Mike leaned on the sun-warmed wood of the gateway and let his eyes rest.

Black Knowe Farm nestled in a little dip in a long hill. The house and yard faced north Mike leaned against the post and stared at the blue hills – actually mountains – to the north. Darker blue ridges rose at their feet, while blue, grey, and white covered the evening sky. Fields of dark green wheat, paler pasture, and gilt-fringed barley covered the closer hills and valley. Small copses of trees dotted here and there. Rich climbed up onto the drystone wall—carefully—and stretched out on the warm rocks. A wind from the sea murmured past, cool and soft. Birds twittered to themselves in the long twilight.

Allister joined him and lit his pipe. After several minutes of silence, Mike said, “Beautiful country.”

“Aye. She’s what kept me goin’ over there. This is what we’re fightin’ for, as much as for King and Country.” The Scottish sorcerer folded his arms. “Storm off the sea, or Arctic easterly, and it’s pure misery. Soil’s heavy as lead. Sheep get foot rot when you turn your back, an’ cows aren’t much better. But it’s worth the fight, every inch of it.” A thoughtful pause, “Till th’ damn tractor breaks again.”

Mike snorted, still watching the wind ruffle the grain and ripple the clouds. “So, Lucas makes tractors?”

An answering snort. “And APCs.” He came closer and rested a hand on Mike’s shoulder. “We heard rumors. That bad?”

“Yeah. Bad as Burnt Rock Hill.” Mike slid his sleeve up a little.

“Shit.” The blunt word and friendly hand helped. Allister didn’t need to say more.

“Thanks.”

A firm clout on the shoulder followed. Allister reached over and scratched Rich’s back. The mongoose sprawled flatter and sighed with content. Fast, off-rhythm steps approached, and Mike made room for Ian Douglas, Allister’s father. The lean, fair-haired man reminded Mike a little of Master Sergeant Priesterson, without the shadows that seemed to weigh his mentor. Ian’s eyes never stopped moving, always watching the sky and the ground. He’d served in several “interesting” places, some of which overlapped with his son’s service. Ian too lit a pipe. He’d earned the limp “in Asia. The hot, sticky bit. Don’t recommend it,” he’d said during tea.

The three men stood in friendly silence, watching the feathers and fibers of cloud stretch over the sky. “Weather comin’ in tomorrow. Warmer,” Ian said.

“Our warmer, not Yank warmer,” Allister said, straight faced.

Mike snorted. “You use Celsius just to make it sound better. My scale’s more honest.” He got a mildly rude gesture in Arabic in return.

“Boy, yer Mum doesn’t appreciate that,” came a warning.

“Yes, Da.” Allister scratched Rich a little more.

Ian studied Mike and Rich. “Allister says you had a bit of a bother, month back or so?” He tipped his head toward the east.

Mike weighed his words, then nodded. “Yes, Mr. Douglas. I got a little singed. Someone thought they could bargain with a devil. It didn’t go well.”

The former commando nodded. “Nivver does, lad.” After a thoughtful silence, he nodded again. “Nivver does. Don’t have to have magic to make hell on earth.”

“No.”

Ian reached up and thumped Mike a gentle clout to the bicep. “Neighbor to the north’s Royal Marine, south’s Argyle and Sutherland.” He made a tsking sound. “Allister just had to be the wild one.”

A faint halo glimmered over Allister’s head, drawing snorts from the others. “Aw, Da, at least I didn’t go Household Cavalry.” Mike rolled his eyes as Rich snickered.

“Because I taught you better, boy,” Ian growled.

Some things will never change until the Second Coming and the end of all wars. Cavalry, artillery, infantry, at least they all agreed to beat up the fly-boys.

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

Tuesday Tidbit: Castle Challenges

Mike and Rich check in, look around, and pretend to be invisible.

The manager hesitated, as if he wanted to say more. He shook his head and departed. Mike listened as the footsteps faded. He shut and locked the door. Rich had let himself out of his carrier and flowed around the edges of the room, sniffing, poking, and getting into everything he could. Mike unpacked his uniforms and set all his paperwork on the desk. Then he checked the plumbing. It had been upgraded recently, and the hot water steamed. “Not in Kansas anymore,” Mike grunted. He’d learned about European hot water the hard way.

“Test shield, Defender?” Tik-Tik stopped in the center of the room. “See if anything responds?”

“Affirm.” Mike stood beside the desk. He drew a thread of power from his Familiar and spun a shield out, onto the walls of the room. He waited. Nothing answered that he could sense. He pulled down that shield and sent the magic back to Tik-Tik. He repeated the test using only his personal power. A faint shift somewhere from the other side of the building, below their current level. Mike undid the shield and waited until whatever it was calmed once more. “Hmm.” With great care he drew shadow from around them, wove that into a shield, and began moving it toward the room walls. Darkness gathered, strong and angry, opposite their room and much lower.

“Break, break!” Tik-Tik warned. Mike dropped the power, letting it disperse like a mist as the sun rose. The presence on the other side of the building hesitated, then stood down as well. “I do not like that, Defender,” the mongoose whispered.

Mike sat cross-legged on the floor, head aching oh-so-faintly. “Concur. We assume that any sort of spell or power from before the SEE will be recognized and responded to. Personal shields might be an exception, but only on us, not cast on others.”

“Affirm.” Tik-Tik climbed into his lap and stretched out on his leg. “What’s over that way?”

Mike reached up, patted around the top of the desk, and found the folders with his orders and the official schedule and map in them. He pulled them closer, then down. “Let’s see.” He dug into his briefing packet and set the drawings out on the floor where Rich could see them, then got the visitor map out of the official event folder. He murmured, “Does it strike you that thus far, security sucks?”

A rapid head nod greeted his query. “Yes. Too much in the open, too obvious,” came the whispered reply. “Maps don’t match.” He patted his forefeet together, then touched one ear, his version of the gesture warning that the place might be bugged.

Mike leaned forward and set the official visitor map beside the briefing map. They showed the same number of levels above ground, and the same lay-out. The restored rooms, chapel, and dungeon with the hell-gate or whatever did not move. Rich slid forward from Mike’s knee and patted the official map. “No second room beside dungeon, no exit on east side.”

Mike leaned again and tapped the briefing map. It showed more cellars and something below the official lowest level. Aloud, he said, “That explains the fire ladder. I wonder if the original builder ran out of funds and so didn’t put stairs in the courtyard.” None of the three above-ground levels connected to the ground through the courtyard. Only every-other-room had windows, and those had been added in the renovations of the late 1800s. “Although, the stories say that the place was built to defend against something inside, rather than to keep out people.”

“Looks right, boss.” Rich sniffed. “No kitchen that’s been found, no well but cisterns, all pretty odd. Even that place in the Saxon Switzerland has a well.”

“Four hundred foot deep well, done by hand,” Mike groaned. Rich slid the rest of himself onto the floor and Mike stood, then stretched. “But with the caves and the loose sandstone, a well might not have worked.” And speaking of working . . . He needed a quick shower, then to get properly dressed. “At least I’m spared full dress, and our Class As are now wool and other natural fabrics.” He still envied the Marines’ boat capes. And semi-functional swords.

The opening reception took place in the trophy room, a cheerful yellow-painted chamber with hundreds of small antler mounts around the walls. Traditional floral patterns added a folklore touch to the corners of the room. Mike noted three exits, one of which led only to a dead end in an adjacent room. He’d peeked into a different part of the meeting area and had shaken his head. Pink, very pink, walls and ceiling with a modern parquet floor. Shadow’s daughter would love it. At least Major Kowalczyk and I will be equally miserable. They could gloom and think gothy thoughts together.

The other Americans came in as a group, along with Captain Sluka. The Czech negotiator, Ondra Adamcik arrived a few seconds later, talking in hushed but intense tones with Lukas Pavlovsky. Neither man appeared pleased.  Mike set the observation aside for now. He glanced down. Rich eased along the edge of the floor, sniffing the corners of the room and checking out everything. Despite the white tip of his tail and silver-white forefoot, he blended in rather well. Mike stayed close to the wall, out of the way as he approached the Americans.

The woman noticed him first, and said, “Ambassador Houser?” The shorter man with her turned, saw Mike, and frowned.

“Sir,” Mike said. “I apologize for not introducing myself earlier.” Rich tugged on his pant cuff. “Captain Mikael Radescu, Familiar Rich Radescu.”

The taller man leaned away from Mike. “That’s not a rat, is it?”

“No sir,” Rich said. “I’m a white-tailed mongoose.”

The ambassador’s frown cleared and a polite smile replaced it on his chunky, square face. He extended his hand. Mike shook, noting the large class ring with a diamond in it. “Good to meet you. I understand that you are here as military observer but not advisor?”

“Correct, sir. The nature of events at this location in the past led the Czech government to request the presence of a military observer.” You were briefed about the 767th, yes?

The taller man said, “Ambassador, Captain Radescu and his Familiar are specialists in sensing and blocking magic. We weren’t able to get one of our specialists here in time. That budget difficulty, sir?” The aid extended his hand. “Greg Custiss, the ambassador’s aid. Mrs. Susan Pullman is our interpreter.”

“Ah yes, now I recall.”

“Sir. Ma’am.” Custiss carried shields. That fit the briefing papers. Mrs. Pullman did not. The Czechs approached, and Mike eased back, Rich at his side. Rich tugged again, and Mike lifted him up onto his shoulders. Major Kowalczyk slipped in after the Czechs and studied the room. He saw Mike and made a small gesture of acknowledgment, then eased out once more.

The next few minutes passed in official greetings and introductions. Ondra Adamcik appeared to have no magic at all. He wore sensible shoes, not the highly polished dress shoes like the Americans. Mike approved, mostly. Lukas Pavlovsky lurked, for lack of a better word. He didn’t skulk or try to hide, but he gave off the air of someone with less than positive intentions. Maybe it’s just me. He reminds me of that guy in the souk, Honest Abdul the used camel dealer. “Honest Abdul” had bought and sold much worse things than just camels. The two shared similar builds and ways of moving. Mike shrugged to himself.

The Belarussians and Poles joined the neutral parties. The large space shrank with so many people, and Mike did his best to stay close to the other Americans but out of the way. For their part, the Poles were polite but somewhat cool. Ryzard Nowak, the lead negotiator, looked like a red fox, with hair close to Mike’s own shade, but a darker complexion and pointed features. His aid, Marija Kaminskia, carried strong shields, perhaps. They didn’t look quite like the usual. Perhaps she was an untrained sensitive.

A hard edged voice cut through the murmurs, “So many people for such a small matter!” The Belarussian military representative gestured with a glass of something, then switched from accented English to his own tongue. Kestutis Petrov looked more Finnish than Slavic, with tapering grey eyes, a heavy build, and morose expression on his round face. In contrast, the lead negotiator, Fedor Volkov, could have been the Russian president’s twin, except for his lack of hair. He moved quietly and smoothly, with a dancer’s grace, almost. Their interpreter and aid, Zhurovina Turko, set off all Mike’s internal alarms. All three of the leading Belarussians wore blue-grey in varying shades, almost like uniforms.

Only after the others had made a large dent in the array of light snacks and had at least one drink did Mike help himself. “Meatball, please,” Rich murmured in his ear.

“To eat or to chase?” his mage sighed. Of course he’d want something in a sauce. Mike found one on the edge of the dish, without much sauce, and speared it, then got some herring and a few other safe dishes. He left the mushroom blini and caviar for the locals. Fish eggs squeaked too much in his teeth. And they were eggs.

Mike held the meatball up on a fork. Rich nibbled it to death, then devoured the last bits. “No mess, no fuss, tasted good. Like the caraway,” he reported. “Onion free, that’s smart.”

Ambassador Houser had been watching. “He eats from a fork?”

Rich sniffed. “Yes, sir. Formal meals require formal manners, and Familiars are not the same as animals.”

“I apologize, sir,” Mike started. “Rich tends to be rather blunt at times.”

The diplomat waved away the apology. “Don’t worry, Captain. I’ve never met a true Familiar before. The ones in books and on television are, oh, just talking cats and dogs for the most part.”

I know exactly which series you read. Oooooh boy. “Yes, sir. Cats are especially traditional.”

After the ambassador moved away, Rich giggled. “Dare you to ask Raj which tradition she follows.” He poked his mage with the tip of his tail.

“No way, dude. She’d shed me to death. Or shred me.” The giant Pallas cat had torn a harpy apart in mid-air. Then whined about the taste, and about getting her fur mussed by a demon.

Major Kestutis Petrov appeared in his peripheral vision. Mike turned to acknowledge him. “A Familiar? Bagh,” the Belarussian declared in Czech, but quietly.

Should he play dumb? No. In slow, careful Czech, Mike said, “Yes, sir. A Familiar.”

“Radescu. Odd name for an American.” The major’s look turned somewhat calculating.

“I’m adopted, sir.” You’d have a heart attack if you saw my twin. Kit was as dark as Mike was pale. Kit took after their parents.

The Belarussian smiled, pleased with himself. “Ah. Now I understand.” He returned to the food.

As the opening reception and meal progressed, something shifted. A hint of sourness tinged the air, like a faint whiff of skunk far away. Kowalczyk seemed to notice it, as did Mr. Custiss. The mood among the people remained positive, although Fedor Volkov and Lukas Pavlovsky gloomed in their respective seats. Did the Belarussian ever smile? Perhaps his face just sagged naturally, like that one guy at the club near Ft. Campbell. Lukas struck Mike as someone who dotted every i, crossed every t, and rejected any form not filled out in triplicate using Verdana font with indigo ink. The natural born bureaucrat, in other words. Rich stayed quiet.

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

Saturday Snippet: News and Notes

Nikolai gets a call . . .

On the night of July third, Nikolai considered make-ahead meal options for his wife. He’d sent Lerae off with a kiss and the promise of something warm and filling upon her return. Early July tended to be far too interesting for the nurses’ peace of mind. Nikolai studied the freezer and vegetable drawers, and settled on grilled ground pork balls with onion, garlic, and a blend of herbs both sweet and savory. The recipe came from the Old Land, with spices borrowed from here and there. As he chopped the onion fine, he prayed once more for Arthur.

Niko’s phone buzzed, then began a march tune. Ladislu. He set the knife down and answered. Pure relief filled the younger Hunter’s voice and his words seemed to dance. “Lady be praised! The Great God heard our prayers, and the Hunter born lives.”

Niko’s knees buckled, and he sat on the kitchen floor. Tears flowed. “Amen e´ amen!”

“And,” Ladislu’s voice dropped to an awe-filled whisper, “He suffers no permanent injury, according to Mistress Deborah. Mistress Cimbrissa declares it nothing less than a true miracle.”

“Defender my witness, I have not heard such good news in this year and the last,” Niko managed. “Truly, the Great God and Lady are to be thanked and praised.”

“Amen. I have not told the others yet. I was on home duty when Raj relayed the message from Master Tay.”

Niko breathed deeply of the onion-filled air. “May I tell my Hunting partners?”

“Yes. It is no secret. Master Saldovado remains with his daughter and granddaughter, recovering his strength. Mistress Cimbrissa ordered it.” Laughter warred with relief as he said, “She may have grumbled about Hunters who refuse to remain quiet and abed.”

When didn’t the Healers grumble about Hunters testing themselves too soon? Perhaps at the time of the Second Coming? Or would it be a sign of the Second Coming? Since nurses did the same, Niko suspected the latter. “I hear her words in my lady wife’s voice.” A chuckle came from the phone. “Thank you, and I will tell Florian and Marius.”

“Good. Good night, and Lady bless.”

“Defender guide your Hunt.” Nikolai set the phone on the floor, covered his face with his hands, and just breathed. Only when fully in control of himself did he clamber to his feet and return to blending onion, pork, and other things. Feeding his wife came first, no matter how good the news he had to share.

Once the meat and seasonings rested, and he’d scrubbed the last trace of onion out of the cutting board, Niko called Marius. “Anno?” the farmer replied.

“Good news. The Hunter born lives and suffers no permanent injury. Ladislu passed the word.”

“Thanks be!” A woman’s voice and a question in the background, and Marius said in English, “Master Saldovado will make a full recovery from his illness.”

“Lady be praised!” Sharrie declared.

“Amen,” Niko said. She followed a different tradition of the Light, which mattered not at all at this moment. “I’ll call Florian and tell him, unless he’s out partying and carrying on?”

A fraternal chuckle. “He wishes. He’s helping father with the barn roof. Or he was this afternoon. I did not wave as I drove past.”

Niko chuckled in return. “No. I fear he would not have used all five fingers to wave, and then your lady mother would scold him for lack of charity to family.”

“She gave up, I suspect. Thank you for the news and the Lady be with you.”

“You’re welcome, and my regards to your lady wife. Defender guide your Hunt.”

Niko leaned against the wall, staring out the window into the back yard as he called Florian. “I hate roofs,” came from the other end of the call. “I hate them with a passion second only to that inspired by idiot magic workers and infernal beings.”

“Any man who likes working on a barn roof has fallen off of one and landed on his head, yet lived,” Niko replied. Especially in mid-summer, when the full heat of the sun baked roof and worker alike. “I have news of the Hunter born.”

A hissed intake of breath. “Yes?” Fear and hope together in the single word, a tremolo of concern.

“He lives, and is whole. Mistress Cimbrissa declares it a true miracle.”  He closed his eyes once more against tears of joy and relief.

Silence, a caesura of shock. “Thanks be to the Great God,” his Hunting partner whispered. “Blessed be His name forever.”

“Amen é amen. Ladislu told me. Word from Mistress Deborah and Master Tay to Mistress Raj and thence to all.”

“Thank you.” Another long pause. “I am glad for some good news. The estray officer yet seeks the ones who opened the gates.” Suppressed laughter. “They might turn themselves in soon, once they recover.”

Niko bared his teeth at the darkness outside the house. “Oh. Did they encounter difficulties?”

“Difficulties named Petru, Anastache, Boris, me, and Ianku. It seems that the bastards of Mongols sought to release the corriente roping cattle owned by Boris and his uncle.”

He chuckled as he imagined the scene. “It ended poorly.”

Florian’s chuckle carried malice and mischief in equal proportions. “For the would-be animal rights activists, it did. Not only did the cattle trample and abuse them, but their cars failed and they had to walk almost all the way back to Riverton for aid. It seems their phones also failed as the young fools sought to escape the tender attentions of the farm owner and his cattle.” Meaning that the Hunters had adjusted the phones, and since Boris’s farm lay in one of River County’s dead areas, the brats didn’t know until they’d gotten down the road.

“I’m sure Petru and the others were properly solicitous of the visitors’ health and well being.” He fought to keep his laughter out of his voice.

“Most solicitous, in full keeping with the laws of hospitality and River County both.” A happy sigh. “It almost made up for father needing help with the roof. Almost.”

Meaning that Florian and the others had roughed up the trespassers as much as the cattle had. “I won’t keep you any longer, but Ladislu gave permission to pass word.”

Seriousness replaced levity. “Thank you. Such good news is best fresh. Truly, the Great God and His Lady answer prayers.”

“They do indeed.”

“Lady be with you.”

“Defender guide your Hunt.”   

As the meat rested, Niko retreated to the music room. He tuned the cello and began to play, singing his joy and relief through Locatelli, Vaughn-Williams, and Hayden. The notes danced, then turned sober as he played the chants of thanks and deep joy. The instrument spoke what his voice could not, releasing his feelings into the night.

Two weeks passed before Nikolai returned to the home farm to train. He had not Hunted in that time, and needed to practice. He brought both knife and long blade. Florian had called the day before—Ladislu now led the Hunters. The Dark One had stepped aside, “after a century, or so it feels,” Florian chuckled. Then he sobered. Awe colored his Hunting partner’s voice as he continued, “And something’s different with him. You’ll hear.”

Thus warned, Nikolai made his way to the barn. The summer night air had a wet weight to it. Inhaling in the valley felt like breathing water. Up here, the moisture relented a tiny bit. He’d need a shower when he got home. I’ll need a shower before I finish warming up and stretching! Better heat than cold. Heat was only a nuisance.

What was that? He stopped, lowered his shields, and listened. The others worked, a staccato of blades and staves. The long, slow cadence of the wards surrounding the farm felt as it should. A nighthawk dove past, chasing a bug. Land magic moved through the crops and trees, strong and deep. Something . . . a faint harmony, new yet old, brushed his ear. Niko shrugged and raised his shields once more. It came from inside the wards, so perhaps it belonged.

Ladislu stood in the doorway of the barn, supervising the Hunters and students. Nikolai saluted him as training master. Ladislu acknowledge the salute, eyes never leaving two of the younger Hunters training with knives. Niko found a clear space out of the way and began warming his muscles, testing himself empty handed at first. Everything flowed as it should, including his shoulder. Niko checked his weapons once more and joined the more experienced Hunters at the ring farthest from the door. Constanche and Vladi nodded as he joined the group, watching as the senior Hunter and Petru trained. They circled, both breathing hard. The senior Hunter surged forward, and he and Petru locked into a clench.

Thump! “Break!” Marius called as Petru sat hard on the floor. “Draw.” The others nodded. Petru didn’t have the mass to overpower the senior Hunter, but the bigger, older man breathed hard, sweat showing through his shirt and running down his face. The senior Hunter sheathed his weapons and offered Petru a hand. Petru accepted it, and the two bowed to each other, saluted the judge, and left the ring.

After two more Hunters trained, Niko sensed Vladi watching him. Vladi caught the judge’s eye and nodded. “Challenge or test?” Marius asked.

“Challenge. Nikolai.”

Niko inclined toward the judge. “Accepted.” He moved into the ring and drew his modified competition saber. He saluted the judge, then his opponent. Vladi returned the courtesy. They took guard positions, watching, waiting. Vladi’s eyes narrowed, and he lunged. Kssss. Niko parried the thrust as he sidestepped. They circled. He had a little reach on Vladi, but didn’t react as fast. At the far end of the barn, Ladislu called, “Break, break now!” Vladi’s eyes went to the sound. Niko lunged, twisting to grab Vladi’s blade. Vladi dodged, lost his footing, started to fall. Niko pressed his attack. Vladi caught himself and slid forward, low. Kling-ksss. Niko parried and they separated, both breathing harder.

Something felt off in Niko’s hand. His grip on the hilt shifted when he parried. That should not be. He circled, alert. Vladi tossed his head back, clearing his eyes. He darted forward, flashing from low to high, aiming for Niko’s eyes. Niko caught him, clenched, then shoved Vladi back. He lost his footing, fell. Vladi rolled to his feet and returned to the attack before the judge spoke. Another clench. Niko feinted with his left hand. Vladi twitched back. Niko disengaged and swung low, almost catching the other Hunter’s knee. “Damntio!” Vladi snarled.

“Disengage,” Marius called. “Point to Niko.” Both Hunters breathed, waiting. Once tempers cooled, Marius called, “Resume.”

Niko lunged, full stretch. Vladi jumped back almost to the edge of the ring. Niko collected himself and pushed forward. Vladi met the attack and blades flashed.  The blade shifted in his hand. He pressed the attack even so. There! He scored on Vladi’s sword arm, red appearing on the bicep even as he felt a sting on his flank. “Break!” Murmurs rose from the others as they backed apart. “Mutual blood. A draw.”

Niko and Vladi saluted each other, then the judge. “Good match,” Niko said. The younger Hunter had poked him just above the belt.

“Thank you. And you.”

Nikolai studied his long blade. The hilt. . . He found a bit of light and wiggled, then turned the modified saber. The leather wrap around the padding and tang shifted. “It was due,” he sighed and slipped it into the sheath, then undid the hanging chains. He’d gone too long without taking proper care of the leather and metal. Well, he was not needed here, and the sooner mended, the sooner safe. He caught Ladislu’s eye and tipped his head toward the door, lifting up the sheathed saber as he did. The training master nodded his approval and made the gesture for dismissal. Niko bowed and departed.

As he passed the building that housed the tractor parts, he sensed motion and stopped. The Hunter born stepped out of the night, a shadow among shadows. Mouth dry, Niko bowed to the older Hunter. Arthur glided toward him, face unreadable as always. “Sir.” He saluted as was proper.

“Nikolai.” The Hunter born inclined his head slightly. Something about him— Niko listened. The new harmony, strong and a mystery-touched, flowed around Arthur, part of him in a way Niko had not sensed before. After a long moment, the Hunter born said, “I absolve you of any responsibility for my injury and illness.”

Niko bowed lower, hiding his relief. “Thank you, Master Saldovado.” He straightened. “It is good to hear you well.”

A small smile greeted his careful words. “Thank you. It is good to once more be well.” The smile faded as his eyes lit upon the blade. “Problem?”

“Hilt wrapping came loose, sir. I think the leather has stretched.”

“It’s the season for it. I go to the armory.” Niko fell in at his right shoulder and they walked through the warm night in silence. Only the stars sang the joy in the Hunter’s heart.

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

Tuesday Tidbit: Surveying the Castle

Mike and Rich take a look around . . . [NOTE: I’m aware of the security holes in the scene, and how bad the tradecraft is.]

Mike pulled over to the side of the roadside overlook and got out of the car. “Just once I wish they’d give me a vehicle with enough horsepower. Just once,” he muttered far under his breath in Serbo-Croatian. He unleashed Rich on the unsuspecting herbage around the tourist view-point and stretched. The car was not a bad car, but woefully underpowered for his tastes. What was the point of being on the Autobahn if one could not take advantage of being on the Autobahn? At least it wasn’t one of those compact French or Italian autos. Once the motor pool had attempted to assign him a tiny vehicle. Once. He’d loomed, but politely. Two meters of Slavic build did not fit into a “city car.”

Mike stretched, touching his toes, then twisted back and forth. Rich emerged several meters from where he’d vanished into the waist-high plants. He shook, dislodging leaves and a twig. “No snakes.” He drooped with disappointment, then turned in his own length and rustled away once more. Mike shook his head.

From here he could see the plateau, the peat bog in the valley, and the pale shape of the castle. They had entered the edge of the highlands on the northern rim of the Bohemian Massif, here a rumpled jumble of ancient sandstone, volcanic intrusions, and volcanic debris rising toward the Carpathians in the north and east. Streams and rivers cut down through the yellow-brown stone, making caves and “mushrooms” of rocks that attracted hikers and spelunkers. The land wrinkled around them, hidden under trees for the most part. A very typical Central European broad-leaf forest draped the hillsides. To the south and west, a reconstructed castle poked a picturesque tower into the sky. The peat bog filled the valley below them. Warm air flowed up the slope, and he heard birds, those few not terrified into departure by his Familiar. South and west of them, the Prague Basin formed one of the relatively flat parts of the country, hidden by the hills. It wasn’t bad country, especially if you wanted to hide from the authorities.  

Mike leaned against the car and lowered his shields a whisker, just feeling the land. The wary heaviness he associated with peat bogs surrounded the scene, masking anything else. Or did it? He drew a little power from Rich and extended his senses farther. Bitter magic darkened the far edge of the bog, souring the unpleasant presence even farther. Within the bog, he caught a wisp of . . . “I don’t like that.” He raised his shields once more, and made the Orthodox sign of the Cross. “St. Michael, defend us. St. Anthony stand between me and evil.”

“Bad stuff, Defender, baaaaad stuff,” Tik-Tik declared from beside him. “Don’t like that in the swamp, nope.”

“No. It feels full-fed. They won’t be finding the hikers alive.” Mike shivered. The hot August sun provided no warmth to his spirit. “I really do not care for this.”

“Shields up and stay quiet,” his Familiar reminded him. He pointed to the restored castle with his tail. “Better for fancy parties.”

Mike hefted the mongoose and set him on the car’s hood, now that it had cooled. That was another reason for stopping here—the engine temp had been climbing a little faster than it should have. A vulture glided down the valley. “There are at least a half-dozen castles better for receptions and meetings, either easy to get to or semi-private. Karlstein, Karlovy Vary, a bunch more.” Mike folded his arms and studied the landscape, once more shielded. “There’s no support structure close by, close per local standards,” he added quickly. “No hotels or resorts, no famous restaurant at the base of the hill, not like Hlubolka.” He’d have put things there, had it been him, or Karlstein if someone insisted on a genuine medieval castle.

“Agreed. Don’t like area.” Rich’s tail swept back and forth across the blue metal. “Don’t like that sorceress was related to Slovak mediator. Bad coincidence.”

“Hmm. Yeah, but one, he’s not here and two, she wasn’t acknowledged by either side of his family, because of her mother’s ancestry.” The sorceress’ mother had been sired by a SS officer and abandoned as the Soviet Army moved into Czechoslovakia. Her blood relatives had steadfastly ignored her existence, and still did, as best anyone could tell. “And our coincidences tend to be not so coincidental.” St. George hear my words, just once I’d like to have a quiet, uneventful mission that doesn’t drag in the dead or undead past, please? He sighed. “I keep reminding myself that at least we’re not seconded to one of the museums or in Southwest Asia again.” Here they usually only dealt with nasty old stuff or nasty modern people, not both at the same time. Usually.

“Yep! Gotta move, time passing, on the way on the way,” Rich announced, starting to bounce. Mike scooped him up and hustled him back into his car carrier before he got any more lively.  Or started singing. They were to meet their contact in an hour, and given how the road narrowed and twisted, following the high ground, they might need all that time.

The pulled into the recommended parking are in the hamlet of Houska just before fourteen hundred local time. “Look for a tall woman with pink in her hair,” Mike muttered as he opened Rich’s car carrier and let him swarm down onto the dusty gravel parking lot. As he closed the car door, a shielded presence moving toward them. Rich froze, then darted over to a clump of spike-leaved plants in large clay pots. Could you be more obvious? A woman in the uniform of the Czech military’s air arm approached. A splash of pink tinted the edges of her short, pale brown hair. She studied him in turn, a frown appearing on her face. I don’t like this. Too open, too obvious.

“Down here,” Rich called in Czech.

The woman startled, peered at the plants, then relaxed. “Captain Radescu, Familiar Radescu?”

 “Yes, ma’am. Captain Gabriela Sluka?” When she extended her hand, Mike did the same and they shook. He noted the wedding band. She was Catholic. Interesting.

“Yes. I’m glad you were able to come.” She looked him up and down. “You did bring a uniform?”

He smiled. “Yes, ma’am. Our standard procedure is to travel in something less likely to attract attention when we are away from the main unit.” Rich had begun alternately bouncing and doing figure-eights. Mike grabbed him and put him on his shoulder. “And that doesn’t show as much dust, ma’am.”

Capt. Sluka stared, then caught herself. “My apologies. I was expecting a more typical Familiar.”

There is such a thing? Mike made a polite noise, one hand on Rich to forestall commentary. Ma’am, I hope you never come to Riverton.

“This way, please,” she said. Mike fell in at her left hand, trying to look as average and normal as a six-foot-and-change redhead with a mongoose on his shoulder could look. She stopped in front of the door of a shed built against the hillside. A shield shifted, and the door opened. He sensed power moving behind them, toward the valley, and he hurried into the doorway. She frowned. “Is there a problem?”

“The power in the marsh senses the shield opening and closing, ma’am,” Rich answered. “Power that fed recently. Not smart to do magic, not smart at all.”

Capt. Sluka made a strange sound, then started walking into the hillside. Mike drew a tiny bit of magic from his Familiar and strengthened their own shields. The hallway opened into a larger room. It smelled a bit of beer and cabbage, and the furnishings looked like battered café or cheap bar tables and chairs. He glanced up. The remains of antique wiring hung from stone. It dated to the war, perhaps. Or the Soviets. “Gabriela, I thought someone was out—” The man’s voice stopped. “Why don’t I see you?” A nondescript young man looked at them. He closed his eyes for several seconds, then opened them again. “I still don’t see you.”

“It’s the nature of our shields, sir.” The man radiated “bureaucrat,” and something else that made Mike’s skin itch. It wasn’t magic per se. Sort it out later.

A third person coughed, drawing Mike’s attention. The man studied Mike. Black eyebrows rose, and a knowing smile lifted the corner of his mouth. “St. Peter save us, it’s the furry terror of the Wroclaw festival stage three mosh pit.” He switched to English, “Name an extinct spirit.”

Mike smiled. “An Aurochs’ Ghost.” He glanced at the man’s rank. “Sir.”

“Mikolaj Kowalczyk, Polish military representative, and no sir right now.” He extended his right hand. They shook.

“Mikael Radescu, Rich Radescu.” Rich shook as well. “I disavow any dancing my Familiar attempts.”

The bureaucrat frowned deeply. His round upper face tapered to a sharp chin, with soft green eyes and a nose that seemed too small for the mouth below it. “I’m Lukas Pavlovsky, the Czech mediator’s aid. I have work to finish.” With that he departed, or at least left the room. The mood improved as the door closed behind him.

“He’s a sensitive but not a magic worker,” Gabriela said. “He doesn’t understand why we’re concerned. We being the magic-using side of the military.”

Major Kowalczyk folded his arms and nodded. “The magic is the least of it, but who suggested this location and who agreed to it is not our problem. Sit, please.” Mike and Gabriela sat, and Rich flowed onto the table. “You are fluent in Czech?”

Rich sat, ears wagging back and forth. “Not entirely. English, German, Serbo-Croatian, some Polish, some Czech, some Russian, and rude words in two Arabic dialects.” He giggled. Mike rested one hand on his back. “And menu Spanish.”

“I’d suggest not letting the Belarussians know that you know any eastern Slavic language,” Gabriela said. She rested her hands on the small, beer-stained table. “Or that you do magic, but Rich’s presence makes that hard.”

Whiskers twitched as Rich said, “Not so hard, ma’am. I can be absent when needed. Or not needed.”

Assuming that no one notices a furry baseboard. Although depending on what drinks are served, they might not notice much at all. That marijuana-infused Czech absinthe scared him spitless. “What do you need me to do, aside from observe and shield as appropriate?”

The Czech officer glanced to her Polish associate, then said, “I’m not that strong. I know the castle’s reputation, and who used it during the Second World War. There are stories that the Soviets moved the blocking stone, then replaced it even faster, but no one knows.”  She leaned forward. “I don’t trust the place, but I can’t sense precisely why. The disappearance of the hikers also bothers me. Did they find something or meet someone? One of them, not the woman, was known to our intelligence people as an individual of interest.”

Mike didn’t groan, swear, cover his eyes, or grab Rich and run screaming from the room. Instead he said, “Died. Not just disappeared. Died. Rich and I sensed that from the other side of the valley. We’ve dealt with peat bogs before.” And would prefer not to again in this or any future lifetime, thank you.

The Pole swore under his breath. “I sensed that something had died, but not what. Thank you. I’m a very strong sensitive but no longer work magic.” He collected himself. “What do you know?”

“That the Americans are neutral observers, the Czechs are hosts and mediators, and this is about the problem with the border defenses between Poland and Belarus.” Mike sorted words that he needed. “Third-party access to the border and border crossing is a central point of concern, per my briefing.”

The Europeans both gestured agreement. “Correct,” Gabriela replied. She tapped one finger on the table. “This is a private location away from the press, easy to limit access to, and neutral in that officially, neither the Americans nor the Belarussians or Soviets were here for any extended period. We’ve swept it for the usual things, and found nothing. All the staff are cleared, as are the catering contractors.”

“And the unusual things, ma’am?” Mike asked. “The prospect of holding delicate negotiations at the location of a possible planar breach, in a castle known to have a bad reputation, seems somewhat unwise, if there is any truth to the stories.”

“My understanding is the same as yours,” Mikolaj sighed. “The valley makes my hair stand on end. I’ve read that when the abyssal creatures or whatever they were appeared in the 1200s, the bodies were sunk in the bog, along with the remains of the animals they killed.”

Rich groaned, ears flat against his head, tail doubled in size. “Not good, very not good, explains some things.”

I wonder what Draku would say if he heard that, and in how many languages? It would scorch paint from here to Prague and back, that much he knew. “That could intensify the negative nature of the bog, unless the bodies had been properly cleansed before deposition.” And I know they didn’t do that. It would require more magic than was available to most people before the SEE. The locals probably had not waited for a clerical exorcism and blessing, either. “If I understand, my Familiar and I need to be ready to deflect esoteric trouble and warn you if we sense something moving?”

“And if someone uses preset spells to influence the negotiations, yes.” Captain Sluka tapped the table once more. “The Belarussians have stated that they follow the Russian doctrine of magic use.”

Major Kowalezyk sagged as Rich made a rude sound. The Pole said, “Then I will assume that they have a magic user among the delegation, and that he or she will try to influence us or the Czechs and Americans.”

“Thank you, sir. That helps Rich and I prepare for what we might need to respond to. I recommend not using active magic, aside from shielding, based on what we observed on the way here.” Mike considered, then said, “Use name Defender, use name Tik-Tik.”

“Kabanos,” the major said. “Don’t ask.”

“Kabanos, and I won’t, sir.” That’s a good one. A sausage isn’t a personal name.

Capt. Sluka rested her right hand on her chest. “Jelen.”

Mike memorized the names. “Thank you.”

“There will be a few tourist groups coming and going, all with guides,” Sluka said. “It is August, and closing the castle completely during the tourist peak would invite questions. Foreign groups like it as a day trip, since we’re 45 km from Prague.”

Mike rested one hand on Rich’s back, more for his own comfort than his Familiar’s. Dumb tourists, hostile diplomats, and bad magic. Now I know why Shadow keeps trying to retire. And why he’d never accepted a commission!

(C) 2022-23 Alma T. C. Boykin All Rights Reserved

Saturday Snippet: Hunters Hunt

Someone didn’t get the memo about a three-day weekend . . .

His phone buzzed at eleven on the first night of July. Florian called. Nikolai rolled to his feet and began dressing for a Hunt. “Anno?”

“Constructs, five of them. Grey’s Mill road at the Martinsburg blacktop,” Florian reported. “Constanche says three the size of large dogs, two bear-sized.” His Hunting partner sounded most unhappy and rushed—not good signs. “Marius will join us if he can. Ladislu and Vladi are on the way.”

“So am I.”

“Defender lend you his wings. Grey’s Mill Road at the Martinsburg blacktop,” Florian repeated, then ended the call.

He already wore sturdy black trousers, so all he had to do was pull on his shirt and boots, and pull his hair into the ponytail. Lerae remained sound asleep. He kissed her forehead, then hurried to the car. He’d loaded the shotgun, his long blade and other things already, just in case. Thanks be that the road construction had ceased for the long weekend. He didn’t speed. Speeding attracted attention. It also attracted deer, skunks, and other things to the road, or so half the Hunters swore. Nikolai recited the Ave, calming himself and easing the Hunt fire starting to race through his blood. Not now, not while a little late farm traffic remained on the road. Thanks be, one of the Clan farms sat near the intersection, so he could park without inspiring unwanted curiosity. Indeed, just as he arrived, Marius’ pickup eased in behind him. They got out, strapped on their long blades, and Niko slipped more silver loads into the pouch on his belt. He also slipped in the special ear-protectors.

Nikolai stopped and took a long breath. Lady of Night, tune my ear to the night. St. Michael, Defender, be with us, if the Great God and His Son will. Then he listened to the magic around them. There, to the south and east. He gestured to Marius, who nodded and followed him. Dissonance like a diminished seventh crossed with a tritone grated in the darkness. A bitter scent, skunk-like but not a proper skunk’s stench, burned his nose and overwhelmed the proper life-rich smells of the summer night. Beside him, Marius snorted and made the hand gesture for “upwind.” Niko gestured his agreement and they shifted into a trot, not quite a Hunters’ lope, not yet. The midsummer moisture dampened their steps, softened the sound of their passing.

SSGGrrrrrrr. A night-bird called, one not found on these shores. The Hunters slowed, listening harder. The dissonant note in the night grew stronger. Whuf like a bear, then claws ripping roots. Bent plants showed where something large had lumbered into the woodlot ahead of them. Slss the sound of a long blade leaving its sheath. They’d found the constructs, and the others. Niko eased off the safety on the shotgun and he and Marius stepped forward, listening, looking, smelling the night.

Vladi appeared in Niko’s peripheral vision. He gave the gestures for “three, smaller.” Niko nodded his understanding. He was warned. Vladi slowed and passed behind Niko and Marius, allowing Florian to take his place. Where were Ladislu and Constanche? Florian gestured up, into the trees. That was Ladislu, then. Another nod, and the four Hunters eased into the thicket.

A beast with glowing stripes like foxfire turned, jaw open. Whoorf, Whoorf it barked, voice breathy and wrong. Two more striped beasts, as tall at the shoulder as Niko’s hip, turned toward them. “Mine,” Florian breathed as his twin said the same thing. Niko stopped moving, alert, shotgun at the ready but fingers clear of the triggers and barrel aimed one head above the beasts. The other three swarmed forward with long-blades in hand.

A jarring shift in the magic warned him. Niko turned, smooth and silent. A shape like a bear on its hind legs filled the gap between two trees. It stood taller than the local bears, and its eyes glowed blue-white. Where was Ladislu? Nikolai lowered the barrels and aimed, extending his sense of the night as far as he could. There, behind him, all Hunters behind him! The beast lurched forward one step, then a second. The paws took on a red-yellow glow and the claws extended, longer and thicker than a proper bear.

Boom, he fired, then pumped the shotgun. Silver shot peppered the false-bear. It howled, staggered forward, then fell.

“I have it,” Ladislu called. He darted forward and slit the throat, almost beheading the thing.

“Danger!” Niko whirled around as the others jumped back from the three dog-like constructs. Another bear thudded toward them, growing as it approached. Niko fired, pumped the shotgun, fired a second time, pumped, and fired once more. The second round, a blessed lead slug, opened the thing’s chest, and silver shot followed. The combination stopped the construct. It howled, waking half the birds in River County, then dropped to all fours and charged! The twins leaped onto the thing, stabbing, then slashing, a flurry of silent silver motion. The beast staggered again before collapsing. Nikolai eased forward, wary and ready. “One more in the head,” Florian commanded. Nikolai did so.

Once Niko reloaded the gun and Florian took the blood for him, the Hunters studied their kills.

“Not from the game,” Vladi observed. “These look like mastiffs, or started as mastiffs?” He crouched beside one of the dog-like beasts. “Mastiff as the base pattern,” he decided, pointing to the heavy shoulder and stripes. The beasts had cat-like claws, and heavier, thicker jaws than true dogs, with fangs like prehistoric beasts.

Nikolai listened around the Hunters. Florian too extended his senses, then shook his head. “I sense nothing else save these,” Florian reported.

“Likewise.” Niko activated the safety on the shotgun. He returned to the first bear construct and studied it, memorizing the details and the not-bear-ness of it. Claws too long for the paws, long fangs such as the other things had, white eyes that slanted like a snake, and a longer tail that ended in a tip rather than the rounded bear tail, all those he catalogued in his memory. Then he drew a pouch of basil from his pocket. “Great God who made all that is good, Lady of Night, bride of the Most High, cleanse this creature of evil, your servant Hunters beg. In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.” He scattered the dried basil and its blessing over the remains. A strong, perfect octave and fifth sounded as blue-green fire licked flesh from bone and bone from earth, leaving nothing behind. A true construct, then, not a twisted creature, thanks be.

“Well, that was interesting,” Florian observed once they returned to where they’d parked.

Ladislu and Vladi both snorted. “Interesting does not bring peace of mind,” Vladi stated, giving Florian a hard look. “Especially for those of us who go on duty at noon.”

“Perhaps this will be the extent of your excitement,” Marius offered, then passed the short, muscular paramedic his choice of jerky, trail mix, and things-in-buns. Vladi took one of the sausage buns and passed the sack to Ladislu. Nikolai checked the shotgun, then set it in his trunk and drank some water. He took the trail mix, since that was all that remained when the bag reached him. He had his own supplies as well, so he didn’t mind. He and Marius were the late arrivals.

“Where’s Constanche?” Marius inquired, mouth semi-full.

Ladislu swallowed before answering, “Monitoring the games, just in case. He saw the beasts on his way here, and watched long enough for Florian to pick up the trail, then returned to his primary duty.”

The others nodded. Two Hunts in one night wore on a body, but they’d all done it. “Any sense of the origin? Not abyssal, that I can tell,” Niko added quickly. “I didn’t sense any great magic as I drove out of the valley, either.”

Florian gestured his agreement. “Nor did I.”

Ladislu nodded. “I warned the senior Hunter. Letters is on call this night as well.”

The Hunters all relaxed, or at least their shoulders lost some tension. Niko finished the trail mix and gnawed on a protein bar. The sorcerer of shadow could track certain things better than they could, especially once the trail had cooled.

Vladi leaned forward and caught Niko’s eye. “Is your lady on duty this weekend?”

“Yes, starting tonight. She gets off Monday morning.” Vladi winced. Niko nodded. “That was my thought, but she volunteered to cover the weekend. Yes, I questioned her sanity.”

“Not to her face, I take it, since you yet live.” Vladi winked.

“No. I do not care to be the target of a justifiable homicide, thank you.” He managed to keep a straight face despite the others chuckles and rolled eyes.

The Hunters parted ways not too much later. Florian caught Niko’s eye. “Still no word,” he murmured. “May the Lady be with you.”

“Thank you. Defender guide your blade on your Hunt,” Niko replied.

He collapsed into bed just after four. 

(C) 2022 Alma T. C. Boykin All Rights Reserved