Saturday Snippet: Glen Coe II

And now for the trail . . .

Mike hid his shiver, but not easily. Luciphera pulled her jacket closer. He scooped up Rich and led the way back to the washrooms, then to the car. The air moved a little, just enough to be a faint breeze out in the open. It smelled wet, and sort of grassy but not quite. It wasn’t a sea smell, like in Oban, or forest, or back home. He shrugged and kept his eyes open for traffic of the four-footed kind. They way his life went, they’d find Scotland’s largest stag by hitting it. The ridges and mountains eased closer to the Coe River, green and grey hemming in the world. Grey stone spilled down here and there, steep slopes succumbing to gravity and rain, a reminder of the power of ice and water. Tourists and others stood out as crimson, sky-blue, or canary yellow dots among the greens. Nothing taller than waist-high grew in the glen, at least not in this area. He could see some sheep here and there, well disguised by the dirt on their fleeces.

Luciphera slowed, signaled, and snarled at herself as the wipers came on instead. He did not smile – he wasn’t driving, after all. And he’d done it too. She signaled and turned into the trail head parking. Well up the Glen from the cluster of cars, a solid block of inn stood out, pale cream against the greens and grey. Up the slope, a waterfall danced down the sheer wall of the glen. “It’s hard to believe that this is a dead volcano,” he admitted as he let Rich out. He pulled on a better jacket, then strapped a harness on his wiggling Familiar, along with a leash.

“Awwwwww. Come on boss, I won’t get into trouble.”

“Rich, it’s not you getting into trouble,” Luciphera said, pointing up the trail with her hiking stick. “It’s tourists giving your mage trouble, or that determined park-ranger looking person scowling vehemently in our direction.”

“Oh. Um, yeah.” The mongoose subsided for a moment. “The one with the firearm-looking thing?”

“You got it,” Mike said. Whatever it was, he didn’t want to throw a physical shield over Tik-Tik unless he had no choice. The presence in the glen might react.

Luciphera didn’t say anything until she finished negotiating the gate. First, she lifted the metal strap over the top of the outer gate, then reached down and lifted a second latch. She eased through the small opening and turned hard right. Only once the outer gate closed could she repeat the process with an inner gate, then continue up the trail a little ways. Mike sucked in what little gut he had and copied her. He could probably vault the wooden part of the fence, but not with an official-type person watching, unless he had a really good reason. Once he and Rich caught up with her, Luciphera nodded. “I agree on the volcano. Calderas are supposed to be tidy and round, more volcano looking. Not track-shaped.” She drew a long oval in the air with her free hand, then started walking up the trail.

Rich stayed close to Mike, not tugging on the lead. “This is what, three or four booms in a line?”

“Ah, two booms, but older stuff fell in when the caldera collapsed for the last time and made it long instead of just round?” He only paid attention to rock stuff when it affected his life, or could be used for cool points. “No, that’s right, multiple booms, then the land stretched under the remains of the caldera. It’s the same age as the mountains near home, the Appalachians.”

Glaciers had carved on the glen more recently than they’d worked on the Appalachians, though. That and latitude, since they were so much farther north than Kentucky or Riverton. Luciphera had stopped to take a photo of the waterfall. Mike and Rich nodded to the naturalist, who glowered down at Rich from under a flat, lichen-green tweed cap. Rich waved his silver-white forefoot, smirked, but stayed quiet. The frown on the lean, pointed face grew deeper, but the stranger didn’t speak. I wonder if he’s one of those preachers the lady at supper last night was talking about. The Free Kirk Calvinists. Mike studied the land around them, arms folded. If he had to try and grow food or raise sheep and cattle here, he might slide into Calvinism too. Or was this the Catholic area? I can barely keep track of Orthodox denominations, let alone anything else aside from Sunni and not-Sunni. That’s complicated enough, thanks.

His friend had started moving again, and had gained a dozen meters of so on him. Rich trotted ahead, more or less in a straight-ish line. Then he stopped dead. “Need a lift,” he said. Mike hoisted him onto his shoulder. “Don’t like this,” Rich murmured. “Ahead, on left. Red jacket with hood.”

What’s he seeing? He shifted to seeing magic. Ohhhh nuts. Do we warn him? The person had shields, and what looked like a focus of some kind. The man glanced up the steeply-curving slope ahead, then back down at a large, flat rock. He’d moved off the trail. Luciphera stopped and glanced back at them. Mike stretched his stride, drawing a little power from Rich. I do not like that. What’s he trying to do? The sense was some sort of reading, as if the stranger sought information from the stone.

Luciphera eased closer, then closer still. She pointed up the slope, away from the man, and asked, “Are you seeing that?”

He caught her meaning, and leaned close to her as well, one hand on her shoulder, as if he sighted along her stick. “Yes, I am. It looks unstable, like a rock-slide waiting to happen.” He extended his shield around her. The magic of the glen stirred, and he braced. Please don’t hit us. And don’t hit him, either.

Power shifted under him, then hesitated, dark and cold. Please, Lord, not again. Please spare Luciphera if it hits us. Or if glen responded to the sorcerer’s proto-spell.

“Don’t ground it into the land if it hits us, Defender.” Tik-Tik shook as if with fear. “It feeds like that.”

He gulped. “Luci, if you sense magic moving toward us from the glen, run. Don’t ask, don’t look, just run.”

“Are, are you sure?” Fear filled her voice.

“Yes. You’ll be fine, but get away from Tik-Tik and me as fast as you can.”

The power loomed, then eased away, shifting its attention. He caught an odd sense, but didn’t have a name for it. Off to the left, the sorcerer waved his hands in a complicated flat pattern. “Yowch!” The presence in the valley stung him, just a tiny bit. Tiny by its standards, Mike guessed. The guy stripped one glove off with his teeth, and Mike winced at the red glow, like a terrible sunburn.

Luciphera turned her head, eyes wide, meeting his. “Um, that’s what you were worried about?”

“Pretty much, but even more so. Something here doesn’t like any magic. Any other magic, I should say.”

She nodded hard. “Got it.” He lifted his hand. A drop of water thumped on his hood. “Scotland strikes again.” She giggled a little with relief as she pulled up her hood. “So much for the sunny picnic weather the TV promised.” With that she set off again.

The inn at the end of the scenic trail served scones almost as large as his hand, which was saying something. Mike savored the thick soup, hot scones, clotted cream, and tea. He wanted a pint, but refrained.  Rich worked on a bit of fatty bacon. Luciphera cradled her tea mug in both hands, after devouring a large sandwich and a slice of cake. “The nature book says that the weather is because of how the edges of the calderas affect wind from the sea.”

Mike nodded. “There’s a reason for the postcard we saw showing ‘A Fine Day on Ben Nevis’.” It had been solid grey, like the inside of a cloud.

Rich licked his chops, then twitched his whiskers and tail. “The farther north, the wetter, and this side is wetter than St. Andrews.”

I still have trouble with Britain having so many kinds of weather. He’d read something that claimed Eurasia’s weather went east west, while North America’s went north south, and that was part of why people spread the way they did, and culture developed on east-west lines. We’re no farther than Riverton is from Pittsburg, and the weather and landscape are so different. Although, it did explain some things. Shadow claimed that the English went odd from being cooped up on an island for thousands of years. Ditto Japanese pop culture. Mike had more tea and shrugged to himself. Meister Gruenewald was a lot stranger than either of those, and he’d lived on the mainland for his entire life.

Luciphera’s eyes went wide, and she covered her mouth with one hand. “Oh. Dear.”

He glanced over his shoulder and regretted it. A guy in a faded, brick-red canvas kilt with cargo pockets had come into the tea room. He wore a flannel shirt in Black Watch plaid over a mustard-yellow tee-shirt, and looked as out of place as a giraffe in a cat show. A voice with a flat California accent demanded a table for one.

Mike leaned forward. Rich and Luciphera leaned in as well. “Tourrrists,” he groaned, then winked. She snickered. Rich gave him a disappointed look, then attacked the last bit of cream on Mike’s plate.

That night, after they returned to Oban and retired for the night, Mike looked at his Familiar. “This morning. What did you sense just as the glen redirected its attention?”

“Um.” Rich went still, then blinked twice. “Approval? Like we’d passed a test? No idea, Defender. That’s . . . don’t mess with it, leave it alone.”

“No shit. I don’t care to get burned again, literally or magically.” His arm still ached a little around the edges of the burn scar, especially when he was tired.

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


Saturday Snippet: Glen Coe I

Mike, Rich, and Luciphera go hiking. Bumped to Friday due to Day Job.

Luciphera parked in the far end of the visitors’ lot at the main visitors’ center. Mike unfolded from the front seat and opened Rich’s carrier. The mongoose started to bolt, then stopped. He descended in a graceful flow from the seat and stood beside Mike. That’s odd. He extended a tiny bit of magic as he locked, then closed the door. Ah, yeah.

Old and cold. Chill filled the local magic flows, like a winter breeze but made of magic. The land here had watched glaciers advance and retreat, seas rise and fall, and creatures humans had yet to imagine live and die over the eons. It reminded him of an eagle staring into the distance, seemingly unaware of the birds and smaller animals below its perch, but ready to strike at any moment. The presence predated the events of the 1600s, but those had not helped. Perhaps. “We stay quiet,” Rich murmured.

“Yes.” Like that thing near Draku’s eyrie. It and Meister Gruenewald had a treaty of sorts. Perhaps. Perhaps. Mike shivered, then followed Luciphera between tall blooming hedges that hummed with bees to reach the gift shop and visitor center. Rich detoured, as did Mike. The facilities were quite civilized. They met up again in the gift shop.

“Can we get one of those for Angus, please, please?” Rich begged, pointing to a tee-shirt proclaiming “Kilt – what happened to the last person to call it a skirt.”

“If you spend your own money,” Mike said. Luciphera chuckled, then continued to a very large 3-D topographic map of Glen Coe, Ben Nevis, and the other mountains around them. “I’m just not used to mountains that fall into the sea, almost.”

“No. Ours back home are inland, except for Alaska and part of California.” She wrinkled her nose as she read one of the caution notes. “I’d ask who goes hiking in Scotland without preparing for weather changes, but I’m sure there’s someone.”

One of the volunteer guides gloomed over to them. “Aye. Tourrists.” The word dripped with resigned contempt. “Come up from London and think that just because the peaks are nae sa high as th’ Alps, they’re tame.” He shook his head.

“Like the ones who try to pet the fluffy cows in Yellowstone,” Mike said.

“Aye!” The man perked up, in a dower sort of way. “Are ye thinkin aboot climbing?”

Luciphera brushed her hair back from her forehead as she straightened up. “No, sir. I’ve never climbed serious mountains, and my friend didn’t bring his equipment with him.”

“Good choice. If ye want a general introduction, this trail . . .” He pushed a button, and a path along the valley glowed yellow. The docent showed them several options, ranging from flat and damp to not so flat and still damp. “Mind ye stay away from th’ sheep. They’re in controlled grazing paddocks, to preserve wildflowers and other adapted plants.”

Mike put a hand on Rich before he mouthed off. The mongoose sagged, but held his peace until they went into the small theater to see the film about Glencoe and the infamous massacre. “I wouldn’t bother the sheep,” Rich protested, tail thrashing, whiskers twitching. “Just look at them.”

“Rich, I remember when you ‘just looked’ at the puppies in the park,” Luciphera sighed. “They don’t speak mongoose.”

“And harassing the livestock is a criminal offense, especially here,” Mike reminded him. The lights dimmed, and the film began. Mike shivered as the story unfolded. They violated the laws of hospitality. You don’t do that, ever. There’s so much karma debt there. . . He’d learned that over and over in Southwest Asia and elsewhere—the laws of hospitality were sacrosanct, and the lowest of the low were guests who betrayed their hosts after breaking bread and taking shelter under the roof. A warm hand took his in the darkness. Luciphera squeezed, then let go. She understood.

“Nae dogs and nae Campbells,” Rich whispered. “Took generations to cleanse most of the blood corruption from the land here.”

Most? I don’t like the sound of that. “Not our job, right?” he whispered back.

A furry head thumped his neck half a dozen times as Rich shook his head. “Oh no, no way, no. Healer, land healer with native blood and the agreement of the locals, maybe. Not us.”

The lights came up. Luciphera stood. “So, I want to see that house, and the archaeology thing, then the waterfall trail.”

He stood as well, and smiled. “The trail that ends in the inn with the four star tea?”

“Well, there’s that too. If we need to warm up.” She grinned and winked. They left the theater and read about the history of the mountaineering clubs and rescue groups, then the Special Forces training area just outside the mountains. She got a few things in the gift shop.

A tourist looked at Mike. “Which clan do you belong to?” the man demanded. “And what’s that on your shoulder?”

Mike smiled, one hand on Rich. “Any Scots in my family was too long ago to document, sir, and my Familiar.” Since every army known left genetic material in the area, who knows? Although a wandering Viking is more likely. Some of the Varangian Guards in the Byzantine art looked a bit like him.

“Oh.” The American returned to an intense study of clan badges and tartan patterns. The young man restocking the coffee mugs mouthed, “Tourrists,” and rolled his eyes. Mike agreed whole heartedly.

“I dare you to say Clan MacRadescu,” Rich giggled once they went back outdoors. “Do it, do it, do it,” he chanted.

Mike pointed to the bushes. Rich weaseled off to do his thing while Mike made another pit stop, then held Luciphera’s bags while she did the same. Refreshed, the trio followed the short nature and history trail to the reconstruction of a turf house. Luciphera looked at him, then at the house, then back at him and shook her head. “Not happening,” she said. “I don’t see you moving into one of these, no matter how cozy it might be in winter.”

Since his shoulder reached half-way to the peak of the steeply-sloped grey-green thatch and turf roof, he couldn’t argue. “Life imitates nature,” he observed, waving toward the ridge on the other side of the glen. “These would blend in very well once moss grows on the roof.” The ridge line and the roof line matched, as did the green of the lower slopes and the black and green walls. Turfs six inches thick and more had been cut, then layered to make the walls. “Rich, stay out of the roof.”

“Awwwwwww.” Rich sniffed around, then darted into the dark, shadowy interior.

Luciphera ducked through the doorway. “Mind your head, Mike,” she called. “It’s really low.” Thus warned, he bent double and followed. Once his eyes adapted to the very dim light from the doorway, he started to straighten up. He could stand, if he stayed in the center of the room, away from the roof beams. “I don’t think the people were as tall as we are,” she observed.

“No. Not as much protein in the diet, so shorter and lighter mostly. Plus this keeps heat in.” The turf house had no windows, just a door at each end. It smelled of smoked meat, peat and turf smoke, and wood. It was a little overwhelming, and his eyes watered. I guess you got used to it, especially in winter. The smoke is better than a dozen unwashed people and chamber pots. The people here had survived, but not exactly thrived. But they’d been independent of the English and Scottish crowns, too, and if this was all they knew? My ancestors weren’t all that different – blood feuds as a sport, fighting outsiders when given the chance, suspicious of change, carrying grudges until after the second coming? Check. “I don’t think I want to stay in that traditional house hotel, thanks.”

“Does it have snakes?” Rich chittered. “Snakes in thatch? Those are fuuuuuun!”

“No. There are no snakes. Zero. Keine Schlange. Nae snakes,” Mike informed him. “And get out of that!” He grabbed Rich just as he started trying to burrow into a basket near the door. “Dude, you are not an exhibit. Quit.” He bent over again and unceremoniously hauled Rich back into the open air as Luciphera took pictures.

Rich found a stack of wood and wove in and out of it, sparing his mage the challenge of trying to explain damage to a display. Luciphera stepped out of the house, blinking. Even the cloud-covered, mottled-grey sky was bright compared to the inside of the turf building. “It’s eleven,” she began. “Let’s go to the trail now, in case rain moves in.”

“Rain will move in,” Rich said, now still and serious. “Glencoe has rain and overcast when all around are clear. The land remembers.” Mike hid his shiver, but not easily. Luciphera pulled her jacket closer.

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

Tuesday Tidbit: The Aftermath

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

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

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

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

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

Major Kowalczyk pointed to the table. “Food.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Why is Familiar Radescu so quiet?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

He didn’t move. “You are?”

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes, sir.”

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mike sighed and stopped petting.

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

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

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

Saturday Snippet: Port of Call

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What?” Fast twitching whiskers tickled his ear.

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

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

Also a good point.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday Tidbit: Cellar Battle

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday Snippet: YGTBSM Edition

In which our heroes behold the next-to-last thing they want to see.

“Got it. I contain, then wait for your assessment.” That made good sense, and wasn’t too far from the 767th’s own procedures. Power flared again. Harp muttered something unflattering in Pashto. “Concur. From the green area ahead and right?”

Eyes fixed on the road, Harp nodded. “Affirm. I really hope we don’t have to deal with casualties.”

“No joke,” Tik-Tik sighed from his carrier. “Defender, sunset’s not until 1930, twilight 1954 to 2030.”

The blessings and curse of northern latitudes. “Got it.” They wouldn’t have much in the way of shadow power to draw from. Although, given the regional history, the nocturnal power flows here might be too exciting by half.

They’d stopped at a light, and Harp turned to study him. “You’re shadow workers?”

“Affirm. Trained by Shadow and Ears.”

Harp’s shoulders relaxed. “Thanks be to Danaa. That makes it easier. I worked with them in Southwest Asia a few years ago.” He shifted the car back into gear as a third pop of magic flared ahead. “A lot of sensitives are going to want to have words with yon eejit.”

“Concur.” Mike concentrated on recalling what he knew about wide area shielding and containment, while trying not to grip the lovely grey leather interior too tightly. Harp drove like a local who had spent too much time in Italy, meaning like a lunatic by Mike’s standards.

They turned onto a parkway that wound through trees before emerging on black volcanic rock and lush green grass. “Welcome to Arthur’s Seat Park,” read the sign in the parking lot. A stream of people rushed past them, going anywhere but into the nature area. “Not a good sign,” Tik-Tik observed as he got settled onto Mike’s shoulder.

“No.” Harp closed and locked his door. “Head up that way.” He pointed toward bare basalt pillars. “I can talk to the authorities if we have to.”

“Good.” Mike took off at a jog-trot. He glanced back to see Harp, and a police car where the Rolls had parked. That explains why no one honked at us. Harp caught up with them, then passed, stretching his legs.

The soldiers rounded the rocks of the geology park and skidded to a stop. “Blessed St. George!” Mike’s jaw dropped as he stared at a blunt-muzzled monstrosity in black and crimson. He went to one knee, fingers on the soil. Tik-Tik flowed down to the ground. He called power from Tik-Tik and himself, sending a shield out, around the giant beast. Ebony and dull crimson plates shifted, and black wings spread to half cover the cloud-swept sky. The dragon threw its head back in a silent roar and clawed the sky, revealing liquid scarlet fire flowing between the plates. The beast turned burning scarlet and gold eyes on them. “I thought those didn’t exist,” Mike managed to gasp, trying to gather his wits.

“They don’t. My uncle is going to be so pissed.” Harp pulled magic hard, so hard Mike felt it. “Duck!” A fireball raced past his ear and slammed into the beast. It absorbed the magic, or so it felt. “Oh [censored], I was afraid of that.” He sounded resigned. “I ‘censored] hate [censored] Mondays.”

Yep, he’s a Marine NCO a tiny bit of Mike’s mind whispered. The rest of his brain screamed at him to get behind concealment and Do Something. Tik-Tik bounced up and down like a long, furry ping-pong ball. Sorcery magic touched with something exotic passed from Harp along the ground, toward the looming monster. Mike didn’t try to follow the flow. The dragon raised one enormous stony red and black foot and slammed it into the ground. Mike imagined he could feel the ground vibrate. “Continue to shield?”

“Affirm. It’s a summoning that warped itself to match the ground. You’re on an old volcano. Some feckin’ eejit’s gon ‘t feel my fist, he is.” The Irish accent thickened, then stopped. “Vertical dispersal. I’ll undercut the pattern from here. Once that,” he waved at the dragon, “goes away, we’ll sort out the caster.”

“Do it, do it, before it burns someone or us or calls something bigger, do it do it.” Tik-Tik moved to stand across Mike’s feet, leaning on his shins. Mike drew more power and thickened the shield, tapering it in at the base, then up to channel any more eruptions away from the park and the city. Beside them, Harp murmured a rhythmic phrase. He repeated it as he clasped his hands and extended his arms, as if shooting a pistol. Green and gold power touched with bits of fire dove under the source of the magic, then spread. Harp unclasped his hands and spread them, palms up, lifting the magic up from the ground. The dragon shape collapsed. Mike grabbed the overflow, sending it to Tik-Tik.

“Ground it, Defender,” Harp ordered. “The stones want it.”

What the—? Never mind. The land absorbed the magic like a sponge, dispersing it harmlessly. Mike shifted all flow from Tik-Tik and into the old volcano.

Harp jerked his head down and clapped his hands together. His magic returned to him. He caught it and pulled it into two foci. “That’s done. You can lower the shield Defender, Tik-Tik.”

“Wilco.” Once he’d pulled the power back into himself and Tik-Tik, Mike said, “The prone individual is our problem?”

“Not for much longer. I hear the Garda approaching. But for the moment, yes. I promise, I won’t hurt him too much.” Harp started toward the flattened figure. Mike and Tik-Tik came along. “Her,” Harp corrected. The woman sat up, then leaned forward and lost her lunch. “Glad I won’t have her headache.”

“No shit.” Mike’s head pulsed once with the memory of his last bad overstrain reaction. “Tik-Tik and I will need food soon.”

“No problem. I’ve got recharge supplies in the car.” Harp stopped and folded his arms. He glared at the woman, and at the remains of the pattern burned into the grass. “Do you see what I see in the grass?”

Mike ignored the magic worker in favor of studying the pattern. Tik-Tik went closer, sniffing and twitching. He pointed to a half-visible shape. Mike circled to see that part better. Tik-Tik patted the dirt. “Boss, there’s no undershield. Remember what Al said two days ago?”

“Don’t want undershield for cthonic summoning,” the woman groaned. She sounded like Mike had felt after the fight in Houska. “Wanted an earth spirit.”

“Oh, ye got one,” Harp said. He glanced back, then moved to his right as a pair of police officers stormed up. “Good evening, sirs. Summoning that went wrong.”

The shorter of the two man—Ford per his name badge—scowled. “Who start—” He caught himself as he took in the woman on all fours. “Black Annie. Again.” He sounded resigned. “What devil inspired you this time?”

She leaned back so that she sat on her knees. She pushed dark brown hair back from her round face. “It’s not the Devil. It’s my rightful money I’m searching for, and you know it!”

The taller officer—Armstrong—looked at Mike and Rich, then came over to study the pattern. “That explains the dragon. Did you and your Familiar undercut the pattern?”

Mike shook his head, as did Rich. “No, sir. I shielded, then dealt with collapse and overspill as that gent undercut the pattern. He knows that area better than Rich and I do.” Carl had his ID out and was speaking quietly with Officer Ford.

“Good work.” Armstrong extended his hand, and they shook. “We’re part of the magic side of the Edinburgh Police. Got a call about uncontained power eruption in the park, followed by reports of the volcano’s dragon waking.”

Rich shook all over. “There’s not a dragon here, is there, sir?”

“No, but two novels and a local music video describe one, and you know how that works. May I see your ID, sirs?” Officer Armstrong shook his head as he photographed the pattern. “That’s Annie’s work, clear as day.”

After they gave their statements and got snacks, the trio adjourned to the pub. Mike raised his pint. “To quiet evenings?”

“To quiet. Slainte.” Carl took a long pull from his pint of stout. “I needed that. My uncle’s going to be irked.”

Rich, halfway through a fried potato wedge, licked his chops. “Your uncle doesn’t like dragons?”

“He doesn’t like people who call up dragon-like things. It’s a very long story, but he had to deal with someone who insisted on summoning very, very nasty abyssal and worse entities, then claiming that he’d proven that dragons existed.”

Mike savored another swig of his local ale. “I can see why that would leave a bad taste in his mouth.” He leaned back against the booth, making space as the waitress set down two very full bowls of cullen skink. “So, you wanted to ask about Mrs. Langtree’s recent paintings?”

Carl perked up. “Oh, yes. She’s still taking commissions?”

“Yes. She’s cut back recently because of a little health scare. It wasn’t anything really serious, but she and her business manager and her husband agreed that taking fewer cover commissions and portrait orders would be wise.”

They talked art and sales until the rest of supper arrived. Then all three tore into their meals, savoring shepherd’s pie, a Scots Burger with mixed beef and mutton topped with bacon and a fried egg, and one of the thickest plain burger patties Mike had seen. ‘The cook must think you’re cute,” he observed as Rich gobbled the meat.

“How can he eat all—?” Carl caught himself. “Never mind. I saw how much Rodney eats. And worse. What he eats.”

Mike sorted words as he had another fork full of shepherd’s pie. “I think they send any extra to a remote storage place or something. I don’t want to know. Civilization probably doesn’t need to know, either.”

“In Rodney’s case, I agree with you on both counts.” Carl took bite of burger. “Ah, since you’re new to Edinburgh. There’s an unspoken rule among the esoteric community—the real workers, not the wand-wavers—to avoid serious magic on both Arthur’s Seat and the volcanic formation under the castle and Royal Mile. Shielding, a little illusion, checking old things for possible curses and so on, those are all fine. But no major workings unless you have no choice.”

“What about that shielded area at the history museum?” Rich asked, then resumed devouring. Half the patty had vanished already. Mike used his fork to scoot the rest closer to the edge of the plate.

Carl sat back and had a sip of his pint. “That’s so shielded you could probably hold every spell challenge or duel in NATA history there all at once and no one would notice. Some archaeology stuff needs, ah, special care and defusing.”

“No s—,” Mike caught himself. “Kidding. You ever have to deal with some of the finds from the Carpathians and Danube Basin, or Mesopotamia?”

“Mesopotamia. Zero out of five stars, not only wouldn’t recommend but won’t do it again without half the rest of my crew assisting.” His scowl shifted to a little smile and he winked. “Besides, I found a doc who will swear on a stack of whatever book you want that ancient artifacts give you hives, fallen arches, and Nebuchadnezzar’s Revenge.”

He felt Rich’s disapproving glower. Mike grinned anyway. “Sounds good to me. How many times have you let the smoke out of your electrical system?”

“Only once. It’s not an MG, remember?” Talk returned to harmless topics, like beers, cars, and American football, the latter leading to a glower from a passing fellow customer.

 After they finished, and Mike paid, he asked, “If you don’t mind, why Harp?”

Carl smiled. “Comes from my other other job.” He began humming, and sang in a warm tenor, “Come by the hills to the land where fancy is free.” As he did, misty green hills appeared, and the scent of fresh sea air replaced city smells. The scene faded.

A bard. I’ve heard of them, but never met one. “Thanks. I hope we cross paths again with less excitement.”

“Agree on both counts.” They shook, then half-embraced. “Go Navy.”

“Sod off,” Mike replied. “Army all the way.”

Rich sighed as loudly as he could, “Boys, no fighting over religion.” The trio went their separate ways. Mike thought fondly of a third pint, then shook his head. He was meeting Alyssa at eight the next morning for the long-by-British-standards drive to Oban.

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

Tuesday Tidbit: Those Who Don’t Work Magic

The negotiations are wrapping up, and the power is back on. All should be well . . .

The next morning, Rich returned from his constitutional and hissed, “Kabanos was-slash-is a coven warlock. Heard other Pole talking to Jelen. And road’s clear so decent breakfast.”

“That’s good to know. At least there was enough caffeine to keep people from being too grumpy.” Whoever had been sneaking up on them returned to the main courtyard. “You find enough worms?”

“Fewer than yesterday.” Rich drooped. “Like home worms better. Nightcrawlers rock!

Gagging sounds came from behind them. They bared their teeth in matching not smiles. Their better mood lasted until the meeting reconvened. The Poles seemed optimistic, based on their relaxed shoulders and calm smiles. The Belarussians glowered, but more at each other than the others. Mike stood in a corner, opposite Capt. Sluka. He counted noses. Huh. He counted again. All the chairs for the Belarussians had been filled, but … Where’s Turko? He didn’t see her. A different woman sat in the interpreter’s position beside Petrov, the military advisor. Rich lay under a radiator, hiding.

Ear-numbing discussion and debate began at eight. Just before eleven, the lead Polish diplomat, Ryszard Nowak, shook his head. “No, my government cannot agree to—”

Bang whoosh! Petrov tossed something underhand toward Sluka. The charm carrier hit the floor and released an anti-magic spell. The Czech mediator’s aid, Lukas Pavlovsky, threw a hard blocking spell between the charm and the other Czechs. Mike drew power from Rich, who launched from hiding straight toward his mage.

The room rocked as raw magic erupted from below! Foulness and pure abyssal evil fountained up. “Holy shit!” Custiss gasped.

“Anything but holy,” Tik-Tik snarled.

The evil took form as an abyssal beast, purple-green spotted and covered in mismatched spines. Eyes stared from the tips of half the spines. It lurched on eight legs. Petrov froze, then knocked his chair over as he jumped to his feet. The Belarussian turned white, then green, and mouthed denials as he and the others scrambled to escape the creature.

The flat, eyeless avocado green head swung back and forth, then locked on Kabanos. He knocked aside his chair, trying to get to the door. Capt. Sluka stared, paralyzed, white with terror. “She’s never seen abyssal,” Tik-Tik hissed.

“Lady of life, give me aid,” a woman called in Polish. Coven magic swirled, then took solid form as Marija Kaminskia cast a shield between Kabanos and the beast. It hesitated. Kabanos threw open the door and fled. The creature followed, more abyssal power surging onto the room, drawn by the witch’s spell. Tik-Tik distracted the beast, dancing and hissing as if he attacked a snake.

“I’ve got it,” Mike called. “Pilum de umbra.” He spun power from Tik-Tik into a spear and impaled the creature as it clambered toward the door, chasing Kabanos.

Seeeeeee! The thing shrieked, the writhed, clawing at the spear.

Mike surged more magic into it, shattering the manifestation’s body. “Lux argentumque.” Light and gold, he poured cleansing magic into the remains.

“The seal on the gateway!” Marija called, casting a hard shield over the other Poles.

“Get them out, shield. Go, go, go,” Mike ordered.

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

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

Saturday Snippet: A Quiet Visit In . . .

Mike is enjoying the sights in Edinburgh. The Scotland one, not the Texas one.

Two days later, Mike strolled along the street, headed for the ice-cream shop in the Grassmarket neighborhood at the foot of Edinburgh Castle. The line out the door made it easy to find. Luciphera wouldn’t be able to get away until the next day, so he and Rich were playing tourist. It was nice to be in a place where he didn’t get second looks. The very comfortable tweed jacket that he’d found in an upscale used clothing shop also helped. The tailor in the shop next door had been a bit puzzled by the request to reinforce the shooting patches on the shoulders. Then Rich appeared. The gent had gotten the work done in record time, and now the pair blended in much better. Rich shifted in his carrier, then hissed, “Lookatthat, look at the painting!” Mike slowed and peered into the window of the Goth and dark-things shop on the corner of the Grassmarket. “You know that painting.”

Mike did indeed. “No kidding. I wonder how much it’s worth now?” He couldn’t see a price tag. It wasn’t actually a painting, but a limited edition Langtree print, one of a run of twenty-five. It was one of Mrs. Langtree’s dark landscapes, featuring a ferocious purple and black dragon with blazing yellow eyes. It loomed over a hellscape of black stones and dying plants. Charred, sharp stones littered the land around the creature. The sky burned red and orange behind the beast, the last light of a dying sun on a dead land. What might have been the bones of another dragon or other monster just barely appeared in the foreground, half-hidden by the rocks. “That’s . . . That’s one of her not-exactly-imaginary works, as I recall.” I am so glad I don’t have her knack for seeing into other planes, St. George and St. Basil be thanked.

A neatly dressed man about his own age had stopped to look as well. “I think it is. My uncle mentioned a place a lot like that, once.” He turned to Mike and studied him. “You know Mrs. Langtree?”

Mike studied the stranger in turn. Something about him . . . “Yes. My dad’s her business manager.”

“Huh.” The man shifted one of his two shopping bags, freeing up his right hand, and cast a small illusion of the US Marine Corps – Special Operations/Sea-Witch insignia.

Mike replied with the 767th’s flaming sword cross.

The stranger smiled. “Carl.”

Mike extended his right hand. “Mike.” They shook. He opened the top of the carrier and said, “My Familiar, Rich.” The mongoose bobbed his head up and down very fast. The Marine blinked hard, then shrugged. “Before you ask, no, there are no normal Familiars.”

A knowing smile appeared on Carl’s face. “No shit. My uncle still laughs when he remembers meeting Master Tay for the first time.”

“I can imagine. He’s rather . . . memorable.” Should I be scared?

An emphatic nod greeted his words. “He is indeed.” The brown haired man hesitated. “You said that Mrs. Langtree’s business manager is your father.”

“Yes. It’s complicated.”

Carl glanced left and right, then found what he was looking for. “Sorry. Needed to find the clock. I don’t wear a watch and my phone’s not on me at the moment. Do you have plans for supper?”

“Not yet. I was going to try a pub an associate recommended.”

“I need to finish two more errands for my uncle. You want to meet at the Cutty Sark at six? Its’s on the north side of the Royal Mile, down the slope. I’d like to know more about Mrs. Langtree’s other recent works, if you don’t mind?”

Mike glanced at his Familiar. Rich nodded, and said, “Sounds good. Cutty Sark at six, just art business, no business business.”

“Dude, you make it sound like I work for the Mafia.” Mike rolled his eyes.

Carl started laughing, head back, guffaws filling the Grassmarket. “Oh aye, ye have nae’ idea.” A hint of Irish lilt touched his voice before he recovered.

Mike got his ice cream. It was as good as advertised. Then he wandered up the back ways from the old hay and fodder market at the base of Edinburgh Castle’s promontory. Rich napped. They relaxed a little at their bed and breakfast and Mike checked his e-mail. He shook his head at one from Uncle Leopard, Taylor Wilmington, his adopted father. “Shoshana’s gallery show went very well, but now Dad wants to turn the property tax assessor into a salamander. He’s pretty sure no one would object if the transformation was open-ended based on apology and repentance.”

A loud sigh came from Rich’s nest. “Can’t do that unless he deserves it and at least four other magic workers agree.”

“Silver and Phillip, that new young sorcerer, agree.” He read a little farther. “Dad’s irked at Eluvite’s distributer. Again. They won’t release until the North America tour starts.”

Rich sat up. “That’s next February! That’s mean, really mean, no fair, not fair, seriously no fair.”

“No joke.” Mike replied as much as he could to the e-mail, then sat back. “Should I tell him about Poison Glen’s pop-up concert?”

“You want to die of spell-choke via internet?” Rich wasn’t entirely kidding. “He’ll ask Shadow to tell Master Sergeant Kim that you need to do more hand-to-hand training.”

Good point. He’d gone up against Uncle Leopard at the dojo. Once. He’d lost. Military training and size did not make up for experience and treachery. Especially treachery. Won’t mention Krakow, either. Dad would fly over just to fuss at me for not inviting him. He’d be past peeved.

“I wonder if this is the only pub open today,” Mike half-asked as they got close to the Cutty Sark. Carl waited outside the door, being harmless. Mike strolled under the sign, showing a tattered shirt blowing in the wind. I thought the Cutty Sark was a ship. Wait, what’s

Wham! A surge of powerful, undirected magic washed over them. Mike ducked and Carl spun to the left, looking down the street.

“Ah, bluidy hell,” the Marine snarled. “We need to deal with that.”

“Affirm. Working name Defender and Tik-Tik.” He sent out a little magic. “Source is 085 degrees, roughly three clicks?”

“Affirm. Car’s this way. Working name Harp.” Carl strode briskly to the east, then cut north. They wound down from the long ridge where the castle and palace held sway, down to a parking area. “The old Rolls,” Carl called over his shoulder. “Yes, I updated the starter and such.” He sounded defensive.

Mike shrugged and remembered to get in on the wrong side. He plunked Rich’s carrier into the foot well. “Depending on what we find, do you want me to contain or deal?”

Harp started the car and cast an illusion of some kind on it. He backed with great care out of the tight slot, and merged with traffic. “Contain, in case it’s native. I don’t think it was, but if it is, I’ve dealt with that before. Sometimes you just have to let it vent and try to limit the damage.” He shook his head, then made a rude gesture below the window in the general direction of a delivery truck. “He’s not supposed to be here until after midnight, even on Monday. If its native, I’ll do a secondary containment around yours. I’m pretty rested and charged.”

“Got it. I contain, then wait for your assessment.” That made good sense, and wasn’t too far from the 767th’s own procedures. Power flared again. Harp muttered something unflattering in Pashto. “Concur. From the green area ahead and right?”

Eyes fixed on the road, Harp nodded. “Affirm. I really hope we don’t have to deal with casualties.”

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

For those wondering, the goth shop and the ice cream shop exist, and are where described in the Grassmarket.

Tuesday Tidbit: Which Side are They On?

The foggy, stormy weather makes people tetchy.

Mike ventured up to the dining area. A bare-bones repast, but lots of tea and coffee, awaited them. Mike snagged a pair of eggs for Rich, and a little of the sausage and some bread for himself. He’d brought rations, so he could work on those. Coffee, however, was not negotiable. Rich made happy devouring sounds under the table. Mike nursed two cups of black wakefulness and heat, then finished the last of the sausage and bread. Angry voices snarled at each other in Slavic. “Oh goody,” Rich groaned, then licked his chops.

Fedor Volkov, the lead Belarussian diplomat, marched into the dining area, a thundercloud over his head. His military assistant followed. Kestutis Petrov seemed equally happy. He dove for the tea as his boss surveyed the limited breakfast choices. Neither had seen Mike yet. Rich tugged on his cuff. Mike picked him up and eased out of his chair. He snuck to the door, walking with silent care. If they noticed him, they pointedly ignored him in favor of hissing accusations at each other.

“That’s not good,” Rich murmured once well clear of the room. They went half-way down the hallway, toward the meeting room. It remained locked for now. The white walls around them seemed warmer than before. Or was it just warm compared to the icy hisses of the Belarussians? Rich arranged himself across his mage’s folded arm.

Mike stroked his Familiar and said, “Claiming that someone is working magic for the Poles? Yeah, since neither Jelen nor Kabanos have done a thing, assuming Kabanos even can work spells anymore. We have not,” Mike counted off. “The Polish interpreter and diplomat, ah, Marija Kaminska. She has shields.” A lot more sensitives here shielded if they could than did back home, so shields didn’t always mean magic worker. “I haven’t sensed anything inside the meeting rooms.”

“If you mean spells, that makes two of us.” Mike inclined a sort of bow as Captain Sluka came toward him. “Nothing in the meeting room, but,” she waved toward the castle. “Have you been outside yet today?”

Both of them nodded. “Yes. There are trees down across the road, three of them, and part of the cliff-edge side of the road looks undercut. We didn’t go see.” He spoke a little slower than usual, like the stereotypical tourist or dropped-in aid worker.

She groaned, after looking around for the others. “I do not like this. Mr. Benes asked if any of our group had been in the cellars. An alarm flashed during the storm. Someone had unlocked that door, but closed it so the storm didn’t blow in. Nothing seemed disturbed, but he did not check all the nooks and crannies. I said that none of my group was out.”

Mike turned his left hand up in a shrug of sorts. “I don’t know, ma’am. The other Americans have either ignored me or actively don’t talk.”

“They don’t like having a military magic worker instead of diplomat,” Rich said. Mike put a hand over his muzzle before he said more. Mr. Custiss walked toward them.

“Good morning,” he said. “Is there a problem, aside from the blocked road?”

Capt. Sluka said, “There might be. Do you know if any of the consul’s party returned to the cellar overnight?”

“I don’t know.” He rubbed under his nose. “I didn’t hear anyone leaving our rooms, but I always sleep well during storms.” He waved one hand toward Mike in a sort of “shoo, go away” gesture. Mike nodded and left before Rich spoke.

The mongoose held his peace. They went past their room to the far end of the hall, away from all the occupied rooms. Only then, when Mike stopped beside a radiator and set him in the deep window niche behind the heat, did Rich speak. “Don’t like this. Storm natural, trees make sense, but what’s out there?”

Mike folded his arms. “No idea but there’s two things out there. The evil in the peat bog, and something else local that’s neutral at the moment. That’s what I sensed coming toward us, the second thing. If it gets mad, we’re in really deep kimchee.”

“No shit. Agree on the bog. I wonder.” Rich did a lap of the window sill. “If they really did toss the bodies of the abyssal things and what they killed into the bog. Did that connect the two, the planar portal and the bog, so they are feeding off of each other?”

Crap, shit, hellfire and damnation. He ran through maledictions in half a dozen languages, ending in a heart-felt, “Oh fuckit to the moon and back. You’re talking something that needs Emm Gee, Shadow, Silver, Silver’s boss, me, and half the exorcists in the Vatican, plus two Orthodox patriarchs at least to deal with.” He exaggerated, but not that much.

“Not impossible, then, just complicated.” Rich grinned, far too eager sounding for his mage’s comfort. “I don’t understand why the Belarussians are so hot about magic, since they shouldn’t sense any if their patriarchal blessings are holding.”

He opened his mouth, then closed it. “We have no way to tell if the blessings have failed, do we.” That required clergy, since ordinary magic workers couldn’t see the shield of the Russian Orthodox patriarchal blessing. “What if, ah, they’re unshielded sensitives?”

“Uuugh.” Mage and Familiar groaned in unison. “Jinx,” Rich sighed. They shared a tired look. “I wish you could check.”

“So do I. I’m frustrated as all get out. It feels as if we’re nine-tenths blind, feeling our way through that fog out there.” Mike paced a little. “I want to go for a run, read the land, read the building, and don’t dare. I wonder if this is what Kabanos is feeling, except it’s constant and he shields?” He glimpsed Ms. Pullman approaching and groaned to himself.

“Yep. It sucks like a gravitational singularity.” Rich stopped and snickered. “Only the Russians would hear ‘black hole’ and think it’s obscene. Hole, hole, diggy diggy hole, find snaaaaaaaaaakes unholy holes, happy holes, donut holes.”

The approaching interpreter heard the chant and reversed course. Mike put his hand around Rich’s muzzle. “You have a one-track mind, dude. Food, food, and food. When are you going to grow out of this phase?” he said as he hefted the mongoose out of the window’s niche. “Gads.” And he needed more breakfast.

“We’re closer than before,” Consul Houser announced that evening, after supper. He’d called all the American to a meeting in his suite. Mike leaned on the wall, Rich draped over his boots. “Only one thing remains to be sorted out.” He beamed.

“Mr. Benes said that the road should be open again later tonight, weather permitting.” Custiss sounded puzzled. “I’m not sure what he meant, since it’s clear and dry here.”

Mike shrugged, as did Ms. Pullman and the others. He missed internet access, or even a TV so he could peer at the weather symbols. They should get ZDF here, plus the local signals, maybe ORF as well as something Polish.

“One more day, perhaps two, and things will wrap up.” Houser said, taking over the discussion once more. “Captain Radescu, do you have anything to add?”

Mike straightened up. “No, sir. Thus far, I have not sensed any magic being worked inside the meeting rooms, nor being worked in a way that would affect anyone in the negotiating group.” Rich reached down and tapped the wood floor.

“That reminds me,” Ms. Pullman said. “I was told that you met privately with Major Kowalczyk two days ago at breakfast.” She glared at him.

“He asked to sit with my Familiar and me, yes, ma’am. We discussed music, including local bands. Major Kowalczyk recognized Rich from a concert we had both attended in Wroclaw, although to my knowledge we did not meet.” Thump into each other in the mosh pit perhaps, but not meet.

The tall interpreter’s glare grew more intense.  Mr. Houser cleared his throat. “Ahem. Please remember that we and the Czechs are to be completely neutral, Captain. Discussing mutual interests could be taken as favoritism, and the Belarussians are already sufficiently displeased with having three known magic workers present.”

Three? “Yes, sir.” Does that mean Rich, me, and Sluka, or me, Sluka, and Kowalczyk? Or someone else? He tucked the idea away.

“Are there Belarussian goths?” Rich asked once they got back to their room.

“Yeah. The guy in prison for the free-speech protest back in June is one, and I guess you could take that group that got vehemently disbanded by the cops for murder among other things as being goths. Or so they claimed.” He’d heard about that mess from Uncle Leopard and the shadow workers.

Rich froze. “Um, the ones who were all into ah,” he tipped his head toward the valley outside. “The Russian marshland deity.”

“You got it. I heard one of their songs, once. I was cured.” Not saying Chernobog’s name was a good idea. “And concur on not naming names.”

Rich curled into a tight ball of fur and snored. Probably on top of the microphone, which served someone right.

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

Saturday Snippet: Talking Shop and Tea

Mike, Rich, and Allister talk a little shop.

The next day, Mike found lots of things for Rich to explore, dig, and turn over, all of them well away from the poultry runs. Rich’s mage helped Allister, sort of. “How did they survive?” Mike asked as he held the gate open. Even scattering some food and casting a ‘come here it’s safe’ charm on the open gate hadn’t convinced the sheep to move until Allister started to shoo them. “They are so stupid.”

“They’re docile, mostly edible, give wool, and not as dangerous as cattle? And not as sneaky as goats,” Allister added, closing the gate behind the last sheep. “Some of the old breeds have better survival instincts, but I’ve never heard of any sheep that won’t try to get through the fence to eat the verge.” He pointed to the grass in the space between wall and road.

“Sheep don’t climb trees,” Rich added from atop the little bit of stone wall beside the gate. A black-faced ewe peered up at him. He peered back.

Baaaaaaaah. With that declaration, the ewe trotted off to rejoin the others. The humans shrugged.

“Like hedges,” Rich declared, bouncing in place. “Hedges have nests, and eggs, and lizards, and snakes. I love snakes, snaky snakes!”

Allister tapped the side of his head with one finger, eyebrows raised. Mike both nodded and shrugged. “They’re not all like him, Familiars that is. The wallaby over in Germany is rather quiet and very civilized.” Spooky pale and funny looking in those sweaters she wears, but quiet. Meister Gruenewald had wondered about the source of Walburga’s divination skills, but then he wondered about the source of everything magic related.

“There’s a mage in in Herefordshire with a hedgehog Familiar. Land-reader and water-worker, keeps an eye on the south bit of Offa’s Dike.” The sorcerer shook his head. “I’ve heard that the Dike was quieter before the Spell Eruption Event.” He gave Mike a puzzled look, then led mage and Familiar back toward the house and farm yard. “Truth, I’m a wee bit surprised we don’t have more excitement here. Not complainin’ mind, just surprised.”

Mike shrugged the Rich-free shoulder. “I’ve been told that, oh, half the places known for magic now had back before the S. E. E. I wonder if there was something back then, but it was so weak that no one noticed it, or no one was strong enough to try to tap it. The really bad places—” He shrugged again, then navigated the stile over the fence, leaving the pasture for the edge of a wheat field. The men skirted the knee-high grain and climbed another stile. This pasture didn’t have sheep at the moment. Instead, a neighbor’s tan and white dairy cows blinked placidly at them as they ruminated. Mike nodded at one especially sleepy-looking individual “She reminds me of someone.”

Allister chuckled. “Aye. The clerk at Sand Central, the one that never saw anything, never heard anything, and never did anything?”

“She’s the one.” None of the soldiers could figure out what exactly her job was supposed to be, unless it was to keep the chair from floating or rolling away.

“You still plannin’ on Edinburgh tomorrow?”

Mike nodded, then opened the gate into the farm yard for them. “Yes. A friend from Ft. Campbell is working there, and we’re going to go to the west coast and play tourist for a few days. She has a car.”

“She.” A knowing smile and lift of sandy-blond eyebrows met his words.

Rich sighed as loudly as a mongoose could sigh. “Only friends. Frustrating, only friends, she’s nice, has a job, cute, knows military, only friends.” Profound disappointment filled his voice, and he drooped.

Mike set him down on the ground beside a bush, then stood and stretched, twisting back and forth. “Friends. Alyssa McMasters.”

“Has a job? Does it have benefits, pension, all that?” Allister grinned.

Mike elbowed him, carefully. “Yes, probably, and yes. No, I will not introduce you unless you promise to behave.”

“Well, sod that, then.” Allister tossed a rude gesture in his direction. “Da needs me to pick up some parts in town, so I’ll drop you off at the station.”

“Thanks.” The afternoon sun felt good. The little breeze brought the smell of cut grass. The upwind neighbor had mowed a hay meadow the day before, and a small tractor trundled back and forth, pulling a set of spinning wire wheels that flipped the grass into the air so it could dry into hay. Mike looked around, then lowered his voice, “Question. Did you ever sort out that charm you were fighting with down south?”

Allister nodded, and led the way to a small stone and wood outbuilding beside the sheep barn. He unlocked the door. Rich raced over and almost slid into the wooden door. He stopped so hard he left furrows in the dirt. Both men shook their heads. Allister waved his hand, opening a shield, and they went in. The sorcerer closed the shield behind them but left the door open. “Mum will know we’re here, but won’t come in. Da doesn’t come in. He tolerates magic, but he had a bad meetin’ with a witch when he was a lad.”

“Makes sense.” Mike folded his arms as Rich sniffed under everything.

Allister opened the shutters and pulled a small green book with padded covers off a shelf. He set it in a circle on the battered wooden table under the window. He turned pages, then moved a ribbon onto a page and stepped back toward the door. “There. The last two lines of the triggering cantrip. The missing vowels are i and a,” he added before Mike could ask.

Rich thumped against Mike’s shin. Mike lifted him onto the table, then read, careful not to complete the spell. “What— That,” he backed up and ran a finger under the lines of text. Celedon’s got beautiful handwriting. Damn. Mike straightened up. “The elements should self cancel. Unless you overweight it toward the fire component, and then you introduce at least three other problems?”

Celedon nodded. “Spot on. Defender, it took me two months to sort out the balance. As a cantrip it’s unstable, almost lethally so. And draws far too much power, I think because of how it ties into the intention-seeking bit in the third line.” He reached inside his collar and drew out a guinea coin on a long chain. He waved the focus back and forth. “If you cast a pattern first, if the pattern includes the glyph tico as the bridging aspect, if you are smooth and fast enough to catch the instability before it pulls everything apart while you link the cantrip into the pattern, then it works.” He pinched the bridge of his nose and shook his head, eyes half-closed. “Which is why I told command to ram it up their collective arse.”

“No shit,” Tik-Tik said. He patted the book with his silver-bleached forefoot. “That’s too unstable to use for anything besides a horrible warning, or maaaaaybe a teaching exercise. Maybe.”

“I wouldn’t even do that,” Celedon replied. “I’m not fast enough to catch it, I don’t think even Stilton’s fast enough. I’m sure as bloody hell not strong enough to ground out that, split shields, and redirect the overspill at the same time.”

Tik-Tik nodded, tail fluffed. “We’re not. Maybe once, but we’d have to know to expect it. Shadow and Ears probably could, probably. Silver and Rings have the power but not the speed.”


Mike closed the book. “Shadow’s wife. She’s stronger than he is, scary as shit when she gets mad. I though he was kidding about abyssal beasts wetting themselves when she showed up. He wasn’t.”

Celedon mouthed something in Turkish both appropriate and profane. “I’m warned. She military?”

“Nope. Civilian, grew up hard, knife fighter, fights dirty, real dirty. Cooks really, really well, makes me eggs, round eggs, soft eggy eggs!”

Mike scooped up his Familiar and moved clear as Allister put the book back. “I like your workroom.” He glanced down at the floor. “What did you use for the casting circle?”

“Aluminium. Old beer tins. Cheap, neutral, and they hold a foundation surprisingly well.” Allister crooked his little finger, and a shield base shimmered into existence, celadon green with brown flecks. The sorcerer flexed his fingers and the shield faded again. “It grounds well too. I’m a little surprised we don’t make portable training circles from it, but it might be too easy to bend.”

Steps on gravel grew closer. Allister dropped the shield on the door and turned. “Your Mum’s got tea ready.” Ian frowned.

“Sorry, Da. Lost track of time.”

Mike followed the Douglas men across the farmyard. Magic might be different, language might be different, but an irritated mother needed no translation! A farm wife herbalist. I’d be careful, too.

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