After the concert . . .
His and Lucy’s vehicles were the only ones left in the parking area. Jude relaxed even more, lowering his shields and reading the night. What was that? He turned toward south by west, tasting the flavor of the magic.
Craaaaan— Whrrr— Silence. He turned back to the pickup. Lucy undid the hood latch and got out. “Can you help me, please?”
“Ah, yes.” He hefted the heavy steel hood as she put the support in place. She had a little flashlight and peered into the engine. “That’s not good.” The alternator belt had failed.
“No. There’s a spare in the tool box, but I didn’t think to grab the key.” Irritation filled her voice. “And I left my phone on the kitchen table. I remembered it just as I got here.”
He started to reach into the rucksack on the seat of Martha’s car, then stopped. “And mine is at Aunt Martha’s, charging.”
She opened her mouth to say something, then froze, eyes wide. “Oh shit. What’s that? Bad magic!”
Without thinking he turned again. “Yes. In the state forest land on Hunter’s Road.”
“You’re that sensitive?” she breathed.
“I was warned. I need to go, now.” Except that meant leaving her here, in the cold. He hesitated.
“I’m coming with you. I can shield, and if it’s pattern magic, I can help.”
Jude shook his head. “No. If whoever it is summons something, Pasaru and I can’t fight it and protect you.”
Lucy planted her fists on her hips. “Jude Tainuit, I am not staying here. And I’m not helpless, remember?”
Defender, what do I do? The stench of wrongness grew worse, stronger and deeper. “I—”
“I’m not waiting here, she repeated.
Jude thought several unkind things, then nodded. “Come. Pasaru will meet us there. He tracks the scent of the magic.” He unlocked the car door. Lucy ducked in and had the seat belt fastened almost before he could close the door. Jude moved the rucksack to the back, then got in.
He started the engine, and split his senses, seeing both magic and the road. He drove west, toward Hunter Road and the state nature area. As they got closer, the sour feeling grew in intensity. Lucy made a face. He nodded again, then turned onto a long farm driveway. “We stop here. Don’t alert them. No panic,” Jude explained.
Lucy covered her eyes for a moment, then nodded and got out. She closed the door very quietly. “Panic means doing something stupid.” Her eyes unfocused for a few heartbeats. “More stupid. I sense strong intention but weak power right now. Close to coven magic but off center.”
“Yes,” a harsh voice said from above. Jude pulled on the right gauntlet and spun a tiny bit of magic into his right hand. Shoim landed. “Half a dozen, boys, don’t recognize the pattern. Good news—they cleared the leaves away from the fires.”
“Thanks be for small miracles,” Jude said under his breath in the clan’s speech. Lucy twitched. She stared at him with new intensity, then relaxed. Aloud he said, “Pasaru and I will track to the magic and deal with the boys. Shield, please, and be ready to grab overspill.”
She nodded as fast as possible. “Shield, and deal with overspill. Backlash is yours?”
“Yes, if it comes to that.” He’d hurt if it came to that. She could get help if that happens. Lady of Night, please may we not need that. Defender guide my blade if the Great God wills. And please may I not lose my temper. Pasaru did that.
They walked into the woods. “Cut fence,” Jude warned, gesturing toward the strands curling back onto the fencepost. A sound of acknowledgement came from behind him. Shoim hissed something unflattering. The snow-damp leaves made no sound. I don’t hear her steps. He turned his attention back to the magic ahead of them. The flavor grew still more sour and “dirty,” like laundry left too long unwashed in a plastic bag, or spoiled milk on a summer evening. Jude drew magic from Pasaru and from the night.
“Elemental, left side, by the stump” Lucy murmured. He stopped and turned. She turned as well and approached the knee-high, dark shape. She went to one knee and spoke quietly. The shape gestured then disappeared into the soil once more. She stood and returned. “The pattern directs magic down, into the ground. It’s worse down there than up here.” She stuck out her tongue. Blegh.
Without thinking he made the hand-sign for “proceed” and returned to the Hunt. Now he could see glimpses of light, flickers where none should be. Magic swirled ahead, some land power but more raw, untrained, and badly-directed personal power. By the Defender’s blade, what do they think to do? Aside from burn down the forest, that was. He stopped and observed as he drew more power from the flows around them.
Seven shirtless teenaged boys stood around a pattern scratched in the dirt and snow. Five green and silver candles burned in cheap brass candlesticks. A weak shield surrounded the teens, so they had done one thing properly. Perhaps. As Jude watched, the magic in the outer shield faded, diverted to the primary spell.
Should he reach under and push the magic out of the soil, forcing it back in a way that would startle and disrupt the boys’ work? Or interrupt, break the pattern, and let Pasaru rip them apart with his tongue? The magic shimmered, grey and black overwhelming green.
“That’s not smart,” Pasaru whispered.
“No,” Lucy breathed. “They seek to summon money. They attract something else. The glyph miwali needs a limit mark.” The faint whiff of fear around her decided Jude.
“I end this. Shield and be ready,” he ordered. He cast a heavy shadow illusion around himself and Shoim, and stepped into the clearing. As he did, he punched through the remains of the outer shield and broke the summoning part of the spell. “What do you?”
Six of the seven jumped and stared. The spell wavered. The seventh boy chanted, “Almost there, almost there, I feel it moving to us!”
Jude undercut whatever answered. The magic recoiled and snapped back. Three boys yelped. He grabbed the backlash before it more than stung the fools. Pasaru hissed, “You know nothing of proper magic, fools and thieves the lot of you.”
“But, but,” one of the smaller boys said, eyes wide. “It’s not theft if you summon the money. It comes from a different plane.”
Lucy stomped up beside Jude, arms folded. “That’s pure bullshit,” she declared. “Everything returns three-fold, good and ill. You steal. And if you are trying to use a spell from Wizard of the West, you steal twice over as well as being dumber than a flock of spooked sheep.” Contempt oozed from her words. “And you didn’t read to the end of the book, where it clearly says that none of the spells will work. Where are your shields?” He felt her sending magic out as a shield around the pattern spell.
The most powerful magic worker, a redhead almost as tall as Jude, spluttered, “We had one, and there’s nothing that bad out here! Who the hell are you, anyway?”
Jude bared his teeth and stepped closer. He cast a small illusion, making Pasaru’s eyes and talons glow crimson and silver against the shadow behind them. “We are land workers sworn to the light. You profane this season with your greed.” He sent power into the pattern, then down, cupping his left hand as he caught the sour and twisting magic. He lifted it, making it visible as writhing red-eyed worms and vipers.
“Enough of this.” Jude shattered and cleansed the remains. Lucy shielded the boys from any overspill, smoothing it then passing it to Jude.
“We also know better than to attract creatures that eat magic users,” Pasaru snarled. “There bad things out here. Things that will make you piss yourself with terror. Then the beasts will play with you before consuming you. Slowly. Things like that,” he gestured with one wingtip.
Jude cast a third illusion, this one in the shape of one of the abyssal slime beasts he’d dealt with. A black spot turned into a maw as the green-purple foulness oozed over the forest floor, scorching the ground with its evil presence.
One of the boys swayed, then sat hard, about to faint. Jude dismissed the spell. “Douse the flames, take your candles, and go. Now.”
“And put on your shirts. That’s not how you do skyclad, and what you’re flashing won’t impress anyone.” Lucy snorted. “Trey, do your parents know that you’re out of the house tonight?”
The redhead smelled of panic and building fear. “Uh, uh, don’t tell them please! I promise I won’t do this again if you don’t tell them. I’ll be grounded for life.”
“If you’re lucky,” she replied. “Geh weg.” Scram.
The teens did as commanded. Lucy checked each candle in turn, making completely certain that the wicks stayed cold. The redhead found a stick and tore up the pattern as Jude glared at him. “Who cut the fence?”
Four boys pointed at the smallest teen, who shook his head. “Wasn’t me! And anyway, only two strands were still good when we—”
“Taking after your Strohfus cousins, I see,” Lucy said. The temperature around them dropped several degrees from the ice in her voice. “Who will be in the county jail for six more months, might I remind you?”
“And whose father may spend several years in the state prison for cattle theft,” Jude added. “Find a better role model.”
Lucy and Shoim both pointed back to the east. The boys slunk away. Jude shadowed them far enough to make certain that they got to the edge of the woods, then returned. Lucy had scraped away the last bits of pattern. “The earth Elementals say thank you.” She glowered at the dirt, grumbling, “And they used oil pastel instead of proper chalk. Donnerwetter, what do they teach them in school?”
Jude reached out, seeking any hint of rot left in the soil. “Not common sense, that I am sure of.” Not rot, but something else bubbled up behind them. Lucy gasped. He spun around.
“Ave Doamni Noxi,” Shoim whispered. Hail, oh Lady of Night.
“Jude?” Lucy held one trembling hand out ahead of her, not quite pointing. A soft red glow appeared on the ground, then grew taller, supported by green the color of all good and growing things. Magic flowed around them, wild and strong, heavy with mystery. The flower, now almost knee high, shimmered and began unfolding. He dropped to one knee. Beside him, Lucy did the same. “Es ist ein Rose entsprungen,” she breathed. Lo how a rose er’ blooming.
“O Rose Mystica,” Shoim whispered. Oh, flower of mystery. The red bud opened, revealing a crimson heart shading to deepest pink with outer petals of purest white and blood red. The emerald green stem and leaves moved back and forth as if touched by a soft breeze, but no air moved in the darkness of the woodlot. Only ancient magic swirled, good, powerful, and fierce.
A second bud appeared beside the first, dark blue dotted with white. Jude’s breath caught as the bud opened, revealing petals the blue of the Lady’s robe, the statue in the clan’s chapel. The white spots shimmered like stars or silver beads for a handful of heartbeats, then deepened to the same beautiful azure as the rest of the petals. Thank You, oh thank You.
The flowers swayed. The scent of finest perfume, warm with spices, filled the hard winter air, then faded. The flowers too faded, disappearing into the darkness. Jude hung his head, eyes closed, locking the memory away in his heart. Then he stood and offered Lucy his free hand.
She accepted it, and he helped her to her feet. Instead of letting go, she moved closer, still holding his hand. “You saw—?” Wonder and hope filled her eyes.
He nodded, as did Shoim. “I did. We did. A true Christmas rose.” He tightened his grip the slightest bit. She leaned toward him.
“Ahem.” Shoim’s cough cut the cold air. “And you are going to see stars, if you are fortunate, when Mr. Hoffman catches you out in the woods at midnight with his daughter.”
Lucy blushed as she let go of Jude’s hand. “Hawk,” Jude began, teeth clenched, “your words are neither needed nor welcome.”
“And it’s not midnight yet, and I don’t have a curfew, Shoim.” Lucy shook one finger at the raptor. “Dad’s not that bad.”
If Shoim had possessed eyebrows, they would have risen with disbelief. “Really.”
Jude looked up at the bare branches and stars. Familiars! “We do need to get back to the car. I told Aunt Martha that the concert would be over at eight, and she’ll start worrying if her vehicle does not return on time.” He gestured toward the road. Lucy nodded and led the way along the deer path.
As they came in sight of the road, Shoim spread his wings a few inches. “You need to recharge, both of you. And it’s not just her vehicle that she’ll worry about, Jude. It’s you.” He began flapping. Jude extended his arm just in time as the harrier took off. “Meet you in town,” he called, then disappeared.
And just how is he going to land, pray tell? Some questions should not be asked aloud. With a grumble about Familiars and manners, Jude opened the car and offered Lucy her choice of snacks. She took the chewy dried fruit bar and a sausage kolache. He had the last kolache and some trail mix. Once they finished, Jude opened the door for Lucy, then checked the car as he walked around to the driver’s side. The teenagers had not done any damage that he saw. The car started as it should, and he drove to the Hoffman’s farm and specialty dairy.
As he turned off the road onto the Hoffman’s drive, Lucy shifted in the seat. “Your Familiar’s not exactly normal, is he? For Familiars, I mean.”
Jude took a long breath. “I would like to say that he’s the unhappy exception, but the other Familiars I’ve met share some of his, um, quirks?” Before she could panic, he added, “I’ve only met two others, so it might be just bad luck on my part.”
As he hoped, she giggled as she opened the door and got out. He followed her to the three-story wood and stone farmhouse. He waited at the foot of the front porch steps as she climbed them. The front door opened, and a large paternal figure loomed in the light of the doorway.
“Dad, the pickup died. Jude brought me home when we couldn’t get it started again. Straight home,” she added quickly. “I think it was the alternator, and I don’t have a toolbox key.”
“And your phone is here, on the kitchen table,” her father said, looking over Lucy to Jude. “And your phone?”
“I left it with Aunt Martha, sir.” He does not look pleased with either of us.
Mr. Hoffman glowered. “Hmm. I’ll get the key and see to the pickup. You will take me to town, yes, Jude?”
There is only one safe answer, I do believe. “Yes, sir.”
[Snip. The pickup is mended]
Mr. Hoffman returned everything to the tool box. Jude got well clear as the farmer climbed into the pickup’s cab and cranked the engine. The engine caught on the second try. Mr. Hoffman rolled down the window. Jude handed him the flashlight back. The older man studied him once more. “I see why Lucy likes you. You’ll do. Have a Merry Christmas.”
“Merry Christmas, sir.” Jude backed away, then moved the sedan. The pickup pulled out of the parking lot and onto the road. Jude parked once more and went to where Shoim perched. “That was interesting.”
“I’ll say. See you at Martha’s house.” Shoim departed, leaving his mage shaking his head. As usual.
(C) 2022 Alma T. C. Boykin All Rights Reserved