Confessions of the Magpie Wizard Book 5 (Chapters 31, 32 & 33)
Bryndísar Family Farm, Iceland
Wednesday, October 26th, 2050
“Mr. Maki, what a pleasant surprise!” I picked up the phone and forced a smile to my face when I recognized the caller ID. I tried to sound as enthusiastic as I could, and while he couldn’t see me, the smile helped.
I tucked the phone into my shoulder as I hauled the freshly split logs into the farmhouse under the other arm. It must be lovely to have your own trees. I must have made some noise, since I could almost hear him frown. “I hope I’m not interrupting anything.”
“Of course not, sir. Your timing was spot on.” It was still dark out, but I had nearly finished my morning chores. Since the farmhands had returned with the new sheep in tow, we cadets had found ourselves under a lighter burden. I wondered if a call from the Divine Blade meant it was all ending.
“Careful, Marlowe, you don’t want to get that nose too brown.”
I was laying it on a bit thick, wasn’t I? Too used to placating devils. “Wouldn’t dream of it, sir. To what do I owe the pleasure?”
“I have some news for you.”
“Good news, I hope. It’d be a nice change.”
“Well, we haven’t had any sign of activity from the Beckers’ compatriots, if they even exist. I’ll leave it up to you if that’s good or bad.”
My shoulders slumped, and I very nearly lost my phone. “Then I imagine we’re still stuck here.”
“Chin up, Marlowe. It won’t be forever. It’s possible the spooks will decide that the Beckers were rogue agents and give you the all-clear. Some people turn rotten without the Horde ever reaching out to them directly.”
I scowled into the phone. They called me Malthus. There’s clearly somebody helping them from occupied Europe. Not that I can tell him that. “One can only hope, sir. How are things going on your end?”
“You seem pretty well read; I’m sure you’ve heard the old saying that war is ‘months of boredom punctuated by moments of terror’?”
“Right now, Henrik and I are immersed in the months of boredom part, just like you. Only your scenery is nicer.”
I felt my mouth spread into a wry grin as Heida opened the door for me. “Right again, sir.”
“Pass the word along about the investigation; I’m due for another round of readiness drills soon.”
I noticed that Heida relieved me of my phone rather than help with the firewood. She replied in Icelandic, and the only bit I could make out was ‘Olvirsson’. “Oh, it’s you, Corpsman Maki? No, I’m obviously not disappointed. How much longer are we… Uh huh? Uh huh? Nothing? Really? Yes, everything is going well. No sign of any trouble, sir. No, Marlowe has been on good behavior. Are you sure you aren’t disappointed? You too, sir. Goodbye.”
“I take it the news is bad?’
“God, still no word on when we get out of here.” She stuck out her tongue and blew a raspberry as she returned the phone to my pocket. “What did you ever do to get the Divine Blade on your ass?”
“What do you mean?” I asked, feeling a bit ill at the g-word.
“Every time I report in, he specifically asks about you. He’s sure you’re up to something.”
“Is he wrong?” I asked, waggling my eyebrows.
My attempt at deflection prompted another raspberry. “He sure is. We’ve been here for a week, and you haven’t made any moves on me.”
“You and your father were both clear that wasn’t welcome here,” I said, finally arriving at a metal bin near the fireplace. After I deposited my load in there, I set one of the fresh logs in.
Heida sidled up behind me as I worked, getting delightfully close. “That’s when I thought we’d be here a few days,” she said, her voice matching her pout. “And you spend more time with Kowalski and Yamada than me.”
“They’re both still working out their affinities. Besides, you haven’t been around at all.”
“Ugh,” she said. “I’m still getting calls from cranks seeing sword whales in the harbor and pterosaurs attacking their sheep. More of that last one; I think there’s a whole group on SatoChat that likes to share around blurry photos of nothing, and they just scare themselves more.”
“Sounds like a vicious cycle,” I said.
She rolled her eyes again. “Tell me about it. I have to explain that I’m not available, and then they want to speak to my supervisor… It’s a whole mess.”
“Perhaps you ought to shut off your phone,” I suggested.
“I wish. The Outreach office is shut down, but I still have to log the complaints, just in case there’s some clear danger. You know, maybe somebody could help me out with that…”
“Sorry, but I have my orders just like you have yours, and I’m apparently a full-time magic tutor.” I almost wish I’d never helped Rose out. The school got wise to what I could do after that. Proves that no good deed goes unpunished.
She pressed herself against my back. “Are you sure that’s it? Maybe you’re getting tired of me.”
“Oh, I assure you that isn’t the problem.” After checking that Bryndísar was nowhere to be seen, I gave her knee an affectionate squeeze. “I simply prefer to keep all my parts in one place, and your father has one heck of a grip.”
“Then we’ll have to get creative,” she replied. “How about tonight in Viktor’s barn?”
“It’s a date.” I chanced a quick peck on her cheek before finally standing upright. I turned to leave, but stopped short. “Actually, there is something a little more wholesome you could help me out with, if you have a moment.”
Heida raised an eyebrow. “What would that be?”
“It involves a saddle,” I replied.
“I thought you said it would be wholesome,” she replied, giggling at the obvious bait.
How Bryndísar thought he could protect this one is beyond me.
Viktor and I stood in his paddock. I’d brought him an offering of alfalfa to keep him occupied, but I needn’t have bothered. He’d been excited to see the leather saddle slung over my shoulder, like a dog who understood that a held leash meant it was time for walkies.
Can’t say I blame him, the way he’s been cooped up for so long. At least he’s holding still; this is difficult enough.
“It doesn’t fit right,” said Heida, admiring my handiwork from the other side of the fence.
“Not surprising,” I said, making the dozenth adjustment to the saddle. “It’s sized for a horse, which our dear mackie most certainly is not.”
Viktor snorted through his trunk and gave me what he meant as a light swat on the shoulder. I winced at the stinging blow, taking the hint that no, that was not comfortable. I loosened that strap.
Heida chanced a step closer. Viktor gave her the stink-eye, but didn’t make any moves. “How does the Horde do it? He has that sloped back; it can’t be comfortable.”
“You should see the working breeds; some of them have a full hump over the shoulder,” I replied, stroking the Motlhyder’s splotchy side. “This is generations of breeding at work to make him a proper riding animal. I think I’ve just about got it, though.”
“You talk like you’re an expert,” she said, sounding somewhere between impressed and skeptical. “More little lessons you picked up in the Horde’s stables?”
“There was a slavedriver who spoke a bit of English,” I said, giving one last adjustment. “Anyway, that’s not important. What’s important is, he’s ready for a quick ride!”
I sprung up and, in a single motion, I was astride the mackie’s back. Viktor let out a contented bleat, leaving his snack half-finished. I squeezed his side with my legs and he ambled forward. I could feel his excitement as his muscles tensed up, ready to work out their energy. “Heida, be a dear and get the door for us.”
“You’re sure Pabbi approved of this?” she asked. “There’s a reason we don’t let Viktor out much.”
“Approved of it?” came an unexpected voice from behind Heida. Bryndísar’s walked from around the barn, supporting his weight on the enchanted cane. “Whose saddle do you think it is?”
“Mamma’s,” she replied, in a tone that made it clear this woman was in the past tense.
Bryndísar frowned for a moment, before turning his attention back to me. “I’m impressed, Skjor. The last one who tried that little maneuver got thrown off in ten seconds flat.”
Our slow circle around the pen had brought us back in front of the pair. “Haltur.” Viktor followed the order reluctantly. “It’s all a matter of speaking their language. Say, do you mind if I let him stretch his legs a bit? It’ll do wonders for his mood.”
“As long as you don’t leave the property,” said Bryndísar. “Heida, go get the barn door for him.”
“Alright,” she said, grudgingly. I passed through Viktor’s barn, ducking my head to avoid bumping it in the doorway. A barn designed for sheep wasn’t easy to ride through, but I also didn’t feel like getting back on again.
When we came out through the main door, I saw that Heida was a good ways back. Far enough that I had to shout. “What’s the matter, my dear?”
“I have a long-distance relationship with Viktor,” she called back. “Let’s keep it that way.”
“How I raised such a worrywart is beyond me,” said Bryndísar, coming around the barn again.
The blonde girl didn’t respond, aside from hugging her sides. A bleat from beneath me reminded me that I had something else to focus on.
“Let’s see how fast you really are,” I said. I gave the reigns a good snap and kicked his sides twice. “Schnen!”
I’d been right that Viktor was well trained. No sooner had I said the High Demonic for ‘go’ than he was already galloping at full speed. I had to lean over and grip tightly. “Rather rude of you! You need to let me ease into it when I’m so rusty!”
The beast didn’t reply, of course, but I swear he was pleased by his little ‘joke’. There was something in the cant of his head and the gleam in his eye.
There wasn’t time to dwell on it though, not when Viktor was devouring the distance between the barns one stride length at a time. By the Dark Lord, it felt good to ride again. A statistician would tell me that animal riding was much more dangerous than flying in an airplane, so I ought to have been petrified. Not if you know what you’re doing, I’d have replied. Devil and beast working together gave me control.
Viktor took my guidance well as we circled around the next nearest barn. I saw a few of the hired hands, who called out at me with clear concern. I wondered if they even saw me on Viktor’s back, or if they thought the mackie had gotten loose? Either way, I was out of range too quickly for it to matter. We also passed by Kowalski and Lilja, who were guiding one of the herds to a fresh pasturage. The two waved to me, but the sheep clearly did not approve of the bizarre, gigantic creature in their midst, scattering in all directions.
Feeling, pardon the pun, a bit sheepish at making their work harder, I swung by the farmhouse. A familiar brunette was doing the dishes in the kitchen window, but dropped what she was doing to run outside.
“Viktor, no! You… oh, I missed you there, Kasasagi.”
“No worries, my dear,” I said, bringing Viktor to a halt. His sides heaved with the effort. I’d worked him a bit too hard, perhaps, but I don’t know if I could have made him run any slower. “Everything’s under control.”
“I see that,” replied Mariko, sounding impressed. Devilmaids were always impressed with a good mackie rider, and it seemed the human girls were no difference.
“Wait,” I said. “What was your plan if Viktor was loose?”
“I am not sure,” she admitted. “Maybe tangle him up with a Spectral Web?”
“He’d snap that in a moment,” I said, speaking from personal experience during the campaign in England. “And you’re rather lucky he’s in a good mood right now; mackies don’t like having their shoulders touched.”
“Ara! Sorry, Viktor,” she said. “Where should I pet him?”
My first instinct was nowhere; he’d tensed up when she approached. However, it might be a good idea to get Viktor acclimated to humans while I was there. I did still have designs on owning the Motlhyder, and I didn’t want to be liable for his bad behavior. “The ears, if you can reach them.”
Mariko held up a finger. “I think I have a better idea.” She dashed back into the kitchen, returning with a green apple. “Viktor, how would you like a—”
Very much, as it turned out. His brown trunk had already grabbed the fruit from her hand, and it vanished down his gullet. In an instant, he lowered his head and probed her hand and arm with his trunk, seeing if there were any more of the fruits.
“Sorry, that is all I can spare from lunch. Ooh, that tickles!” She giggled at his ministrations as his trunk probed her apron’s chest pockets.
Oh sure, if I touched her there, I’d get slapped. I thought back to Mariko’s confession. Unless… no. Don’t let yourself get tempted.
“Viktor, opar!” He raised his head at the command. “I’ll leave you to your work; we don’t want to overdo it on his first ride in years.”
“Is there room up there for me?” she asked.
I raised an eyebrow. “Have you ever ridden an animal before?”
“Not once,” she replied. “That is what would make it doubly, no, triply special.”
The Japanese woman seemed so excited that I couldn’t bear to say no. Soon enough, the two of us were riding back to the barn at a slow trot. Viktor kept wanting to go full tilt, but I held him steady.
“Stop that; we have to be gentle.” Mariko arms were wrapped around my chest, and she was firmly pressed against my back. I’ll admit that the sensation of her compressed endowments was just a tad distracting.
Stop it. You told her no, and it’s for her own good. Besides, there’s someone else to worry about.
The glare that Heida was shooting us as we neared the barn again confirmed my thoughts. “I see you’ll go riding with anyone.”
Mariko bristled at the catty shot across her bow, but I piped up. “Care to take a turn?” Best to get some distance between those two.
Bryndísar helped a reluctant Mariko down, but Heida surprised me by hopping to the front of the saddle and taking the reins.
“I thought you said you had a long-distance relationship with Viktor?” I teased.
“But it’s a chance to spend some time with you,” said the blonde. “So, I’ll risk a little danger.”
Easy for her to say. Bryndísar’s wasn’t glaring at her. Mariko wasn’t either, but a pacifist’s ire didn’t worry me as much.
“Nice to see you taking an interest in something around here,” said Bryndísar. “You sure you can handle him?”
She stifled a giggle, revealing a her delightfully dirty sense of humor. “It can’t be that different from riding a horse, and we used to have Bruno,” she replied, turning to face me. “This was his saddle.”
“Bruno was a good horse,” said Bryndísar. I noticed he’d put himself between Mariko and the mackie. “Y’know, I always hoped Viktor or the other Macrauchenia could take his place. Imagine running around town riding that.”
“It’d certainly get attention,” I said. Heida’s shoulders slumped ever so slightly. “Now, let’s be careful. Whatever you do, don’t—”
Hm, she had been listening. I was forced to lower my head and hold tight as she sent the mackie trotting ahead. More slowly than on my first ride, due to the extra weight, but still.
“How do I slow him down?” called Heida.
“It’s a bit late to ask now!” I cried out.
“That isn’t helpful, Soren!”
“Fine, pull the reins back and say langsa.”
She followed my instructions, slowing Viktor to a trot. “I really had you scared there, didn’t I?”
“Of course not,” I said. “I was simply a bit startled.”
“Uh huh,” she said. “You haven’t noticed your hands have had a death grip on my tits for the last kilometer.”
“Wait, what?” Blast her, she made me look. I had them around her waist, like a gentleman.
Well, perhaps a bit lower than was strictly gentlemanly. But, gentlemanly for a devil.
She giggled again. “You’re too easy, Soren. That’s what’s so great about you.”
“Aw, don’t be like that,” she said. “I’ll make it extra special tonight, okay? I wouldn’t want you giving Yamada another ride.”
“You’re a jealous one, aren’t you?”
“What can I say? You’re a lot of fun, and I hate sharing. Sorry to ruin your fantasy.”
I tried to think of baseball; it seemed boring enough to keep me from having a, shall we say, involuntary reaction to the idea, and she’d notice rather quickly. “I didn’t have that fantasy until you put it in my head.”
“Aw, sorry to tease you,” she replied.
“You’re a poor liar, my dear,” I replied. “You live for that. We ought to go back.”
“Yeah,” she said, bringing Viktor around. “Hm, Viktor’s pretty easy once you know how to manage him.”
“He seems to like apples and ear scratches,” I said. “Also, he likes hearing words in Demonic.”
“Hm…” She reached out and was just able to reach Viktor’s ears. She said something I couldn’t make out a word of, earning a pleased bleat from the mackie. “Sounds like he doesn’t know the difference between Icelandic and Demonic.”
“Or you’re good with your hands,” I said, glancing around. Seeing nobody about, I let my hands move up her taught stomach. Might as well be hung as a goat than as a sheep. “I’m not bad myself…”
“Hold it, Magpie,” she said. “Tonight. We’re out in the open right now, and I know your luck. Pabbi or Yamada would come out of nowhere, and then we’d have something awkward to explain.”
“Oh, very well. I’ll be good,” I said. At least I’d managed to allay her jealousy for a while. However, I added that to her tab to work off later.
Once Viktor was back in his stable, Heida had vanished to go work on her Wizard Corps assignments. Mariko and Bryndísar went back to their work in the house, leaving me with no company besides the farmhands, who didn’t speak much English, and Kowalski. It was an easy choice; definitely easier than it would have been before our Icelandic excursion.
“Yeah, that’s it, Buddy!” Kowalski crowed as the shadowy golem strained against the half-rotten stump. “You’re getting it!”
Plus, I got a show in the bargain.
“This is the second most fun way to get rid of a stump,” said Lilja. The three of us were leaning on an aged fence that creaked under our weight. It seemed to be held together by a thick layer of moss.
“What’s the most fun way?” I asked.
“Dynamite,” replied Lilja. “Pabbi always handles it. He’s convinced I’ll blow off a hand.”
“I’m a little surprised he bothers with it,” I said. “Magic is cheaper.”
She shrugged. “I’m a mundane. I think he wants to make sure I know how to do everything without relying on magic. I’m sure he’ll let me set it off one of these days.”
Kowalski scowled a moment. “Mundane? That’s an awful thing to call you just because you aren’t a wizard.”
“It’s the term, isn’t it?” Lilja turned towards him. “What would you call me?”
Kowalski gulped. No, don’t look at me, you fool. I mouthed ‘delightful’ over her shoulder.
“Delilah? Wait, no that doesn’t make sense.”
Lilja blinked. “Delilah? Huh?”
I facepalmed. Swing and a miss.
He ran his fingers through his hair. “It’s been a while since I had a haircut. Sampson must’ve been on my mind.”
The brunette giggled. “I’d offer to cut your hair, but I wouldn’t want to steal your strength. You’ve been so helpful to us lately.” She seemed to recall I was there. “Uh, you too, Soren.”
How did he manage to get over that stumble? Whatever one would call that maneuver, it had worked. She must be sweet on him; that’s the only way that would pass.
“Glad to be of assistance. It certainly fills the day.” It certainly beats being worried about vengeful devils.
“I’m glad somebody is,” said Lilja, rolling her eyes in an identical way to her sister. “God, the way she complains, you’d think Pabbi had kidnapped Heida to bring her home.”
“She doesn’t much care for the rustic life, does she?” I replied. “Any idea why that is?”
“Couldn’t tell you.” she said. “It’s like she turned thirteen and a switch flipped. She was always talking about living in the city.”
“Doesn’t make any sense to me,” said Kowalski. “I’m from a city. It’s cramped and dirty.”
“The heart wants what it doesn’t have,” I said. “Speaking of fun, Buddy is really getting into it.”
The shadowy beast’s form had shifted into something like a bladed octopus, his sharp tentacles having bored deep into the stump. What passed for his muscles strained as he tried to lever up the rotting lump.
“Wait, we have the wrong tool for the job here,” I said. “We should get Mariko. She could vaporize it without raising a sweat.”
“No way,” said Kowalski. “I think I’ve started figuring Buddy out. He gets bored really easily.”
I smirked at him. “It took you that long to figure it out?”
“I always thought he was just random,” he said. “I finally see the patterns. It’s like one of my neighbors in Gunma. He got himself a collie dog from God knows where. He tried to take it on walks when he could, but he worked long hours and left the dog alone in that tiny apartment. One time I went over, and the thing spent all its time staring at the faucet and barking whenever the water dripped. You couldn’t pry him away from it except to eat or go on his walks.”
“Poor thing,” said Mariko, who seemed to come from nowhere. She joined us on the fence, and I was amazed the rickety thing held.
“I suppose dogs can be neurotic too,” I said. That reminds me, I should go check on Viktor and make sure he isn’t going too stir crazy. He’d had a bit of exercise before, but that wouldn’t erase being cooped up all those years.
“Whatever happened to him?” asked Lilja.
He shrugged. “My magic came in and we got moved to the nicer apartment block. I lost contact after that. Either way, that’s like Buddy. He’s got energy to burn, and he likes solving problems.”
“Even if he has to make them,” I added. It makes sense. A golem without a mission is like me without a girl to romance.
Mariko clucked her tongue. “I am glad that he is learning to behave.”
“I’m not totally sure he is,” admitted Kowalski, rubbing the back of his head bashfully. “That’s what I’m worried about. What if we go back to Reykjavik or Nagoya and suddenly he’s back to being himself?”
“Has he acted like he was going to attack you lately?” I asked.
He shook his head. “No, thank God.”
“Then that alone is progress.” I swore I could feel a headache coming on. “Anyhow,” I grumbled. “I think Buddy could use some pointers with that stump. He’s not getting anywhere fast.”
“Do you have somewhere else to be?” asked Mariko, subtly shifting down the fence to rest her head on my shoulder.
Not until later. And no, conscience, I have no reason to feel guilty about that rendezvous. It’s not a betrayal; Mariko has been told the score. Repeatedly.
“Kowalski,” I said, ignoring the question. “Go be constructive; suggest he try cutting it into smaller pieces. We’ll see how he does at hacking away at it.”
“He doesn’t like being interrupted when he’s having fun,” said Kowalski, his voice full of trepidation. “Not that he likes being interrupted by me anyway.”
“Why wouldn’t he listen to you?” asked Lilja. The giantess caressed Kowalski’s cheek, and I thought his face would burst into flame. “You’re amazing.”
His eyes flew wide open, and he swallowed nervously. “Y-yeah, why wouldn’t he? Alright, wish me luck.”
He trundled over and he began an animated conversation with his other half.
“That was a good little trick there,” I whispered to Lilja.
She raised her eyebrow in another excellent impression of her sister. “Trick?”
I traced my finger along my face. “Your little motivational speech there. It’s what he needed to hear.”
“It wasn’t a trick,” said Lilja. “Why would you think that was a trick?”
“Because it’s Kowalski?” My statement became a question partway through as Lilja’s expression hardened.
“Kasasagi!” chided Mariko.
“What? He doesn’t have the best record!” I said defensively.
“Okay, that explains a lot,” said Lilja rising to her full height. “Poor guy; he makes it sound like nobody believes in him. No wonder he’s so jumpy! You be easier on him, you hear?”
I was reasonably sure I could have taken Lilja in a fight, if it came down to it (she was a mundane, after all), but I didn’t see a reason to try. It’s bad manners to brawl with your hosts.
So instead, I nodded. “Yes, yes. I’m simply… You know what? There’s nothing I can say that won’t dig me deeper. I’ll concede the point.”
“Smart man,” said Lilja, leaning back down on the old fence. “Rafal’s a lot of fun once he decides you aren’t judging him.”
“What are we doing out here?” asked Mariko. “Heida said you were removing a stump?”
“You heard right, my dear,” I said.
“I see. Is there a reason we are all here?” she asked. I noticed she wasn’t shy about snuggling up to me.
“Nothing more interesting is going on,” I said, and it was my turn to feel a tad flushed.
“We’re here to back up Rafal,” said Lilja. She cupped her hand around her mouth. “You’ve got this, Rafal!”
He started at her voice, though Buddy matched his surprise. The inky form gave us a thumbs up, which looks unnerving when it came out of a tentacle. Buddy’s limbs reformed into something more humanoid, only with his arms replaced by scythes. Once he was solidified, he began hacking away at the stump.
“I really could help with that stump,” said Mariko. “I need things I can destroy to practice my magic.”
“Oh, really?” Lilja jerked a thumb back towards the house. “Shoot, once Buddy’s done, we’ve got a whole pile of old trash I can show you.”
“Splendid!” said Mariko. “Kasasagi, you will need to be there to watch me with your Mimic.”
It was a relief that she’d taken our discussion to heart and was finally interested in developing her talents. Or, she sees it as an excuse to hang out with me. The sun was already starting to set, and I certainly didn’t want to be late for Heida. It’s Hell being popular sometimes.
Heida looked up from her compact. “Oh, good. I was worried you’d stand me up.”
“Never,” I replied. “Especially not after the way you got me going earlier.”
Heida was a vision in the flickering lanternlight, and I could tell that was no accident. We had traded our uniforms for overalls once we had begun pitching in at the farm, so I hadn’t seen her in anything more enticing than a work shirt for weeks. She must have snuck her traditional dress along for just such an emergency, and her makeup was expertly applied. Her finery contrasted with Viktor’s barn, which only accentuated the effect.
“A girl can worry,” she said. “You spent all afternoon with Yamada after our ride.”
“It was all professional,” I said.
“See anything interesting with that x-ray vision of yours?” she asked.
“Just magic flowing through her body.” I considered how secretive to be. Had Heida seen Mariko’s scar when they’d roomed together? I decided not to mention it, just in case. The flow through her ruined arm was distressing, as normal, but not any business of Heida’s. “Nothing much to say, besides to say she can dissolve old plastic wrap father than she could those bicycles.”
Heida’s worried face shifted into a sardonic grin. “I’m glad to hear it was so dull.”
I sniffed, pretending to be wounded. “Oh, I see. I think you enjoy seeing me miserable.”
She chuckled, getting my dry tone. “Not exactly. I do prefer to be the highlight of your day, though.” She glanced nervously towards the barn door. “Nobody saw you, right? We don’t want Pabbi throwing a fit.”
“Everybody was asleep, and I cast sound deadening spells,” I replied. “And you most certainly are the highlight. You make me feel a tad underdressed.” I had worn a cleanish set of work clothes; I was worried my white uniform would make me too visible in the moonlight.
“Good, keep the flattery coming,” she said.
I glanced around. “Where’s Viktor?”
Heida pursed her lips and stepped towards me. “I dolled myself up and all you can think about is that smelly beast? Don’t worry; he’s out in his pasture with a snack.”
I raised an eyebrow at that. “I’m surprised he put up with you.”
She shrugged. “Once somebody’s given you a ride, they tend to calm down a bit.”
“Really? It didn’t work on me.” I reached out for her, but she danced out of reach.
“Nuh uh, not yet. I didn’t doll myself up not to have you appreciate it. Especially not in this weather.”
“It is rather cold out there, isn’t it? What if he freezes?”
“Don’t flatter yourself; we won’t be that long,” she said. “Speaking of flattery, I believe I said to keep it coming?”
“Hm…” I scratched my chin thoughtfully as I circled her. “I’ve never wanted to be anything but English, but that outfit makes me wish I’d been born a bit further north.”
“Mm, decent,” she said, miming writing on an invisible clipboard. “Three points.”
“You fit that gown even better than the last time you wore it. All this clean living agrees with you, my dear.”
She shook her head and tsked me. “Ooh, implying being stuck out here is a positive, and indirectly calling me fat? Minus five hundred points.”
“Oh my,” I said. “That’s quite the deficit to make up. I suppose saying you’re looking radiant wouldn’t be enough?”
“Two points,” she replied.
“Well, we don’t have all night,” I said. “I imagine that actions count for more points than words?” Without waiting for a response, I swept her off her feet.
“Hm, you’re doing better than last time,” she said, giving my biceps a squeeze. “I guess all of that hard work isn’t hurting you any.”
“This straw looks clean enough for our purposes,” I said, carrying her over to one of the empty stalls. “Thank goodness Viktor’s in here alone”
“Agreed,” she said. “Though… maybe we don’t have to get right into it?”
“Oh?” I set her down gently on the straw bed before joining her. “It’s not like you to wait.”
“I’m… you know how we agreed not to talk about anything too heavy?”
“More or less.” She had always declared serious topics out of bounds, and I’d never cared to intrude. Our Father Below knows I have enough neurotic girls to keep track of. Boys too, though they’re less fun.
“You and Yamada… should I be worried?” Her blue eyes glinted in the light of the lanterns as she looked up at me.
“Why would you be?” I recalled what Kowalski and I had overheard; she certainly hadn’t sounded concerned. “Mariko and I are only friends.”
“Sure,” she said. “And the short girl from the news reports? The one with the gun?” She levered herself up on an arm, a defiant glimmer in her eye. “Aha, I knew it! The news said she was your girlfriend. Am I the other woman?”
“My dear, I thought you were more sensible than to trust the media,” I replied. “We were together, but I… I ruined that. So no, you aren’t ‘the other woman’.”
She let out a sigh. “That’s a relief.”
“I’m confused why you would care, though,” I said. “This is all rather casual, isn’t it?”
“It is,” she said. “It is.” She sounded surer the second time. “You’re going home soon, and then I go back to chasing Sverðhvalur in the harbor and trolls in the gardens. Nothing lasting. That’s all it can be.” She sighed again.
“Is everything alright?” I asked, knowing damned well it wasn’t. Why do I keep adding other people’s problems onto my own? It was a strict violation of Our Father Below’s great law: others do not matter, insofar as they are not you. In another time, I’d have tried to find a way to claim it was for my own self-interest, but I wasn’t in the mood to lie to myself.
How about this? As much as Heida wants to have a literal roll in the hay, I’m just as ardent, and I won’t be able to enjoy myself if she can’t?
It rang hollow. No, I simply cared, damn my bleeding heart.
“Do you ever think that this is all there is?” she asked. “Just distracting ourselves, until the Horde eventually rolls over us?”
“When you go heavy, you go heavy,” I replied.
“I think about it all the time,” she said. “Those devils are out there, waiting to pounce if they get the chance.”
I don’t know, you’re doing an awfully good job of keeping this devil from pouncing on you.
“They’re never going to get a boat out to Iceland,” I replied. I knew that from personal experience; the rowboat I’d taken from Calais to England during the invasion nearly sunk without the Royal Navy’s efforts. “You’re safe out here.”
“Pabbi told me the same thing,” she said. “Then while I was taking my exams, they sent him to England and… and some of him didn’t come home.”
“He has a sense of humor about it; you can, too.”
“That’s what I don’t get,” she said. “I think about facing them down and I...” She extended her hand upwards, squeezing it into a trembling fist. “Clench up. Do you feel me?”
I nodded. It certainly explained her poor performance at the Starlight. “Again, when you go heavy, you go heavy.”
“You’re right,” she said with obvious disappointment. “That isn’t what we have, is it?” She sat up and presented her back to me, moving her dirty-blonde hair to the side to expose her zipper. “Well, go on, if that’s what you want.”
“I didn’t say to stop,” I said. “All I can say is paraphrase a little Shakespeare; the one who worries dies a thousand deaths, but the sure man only dies once.”
“You left out the word coward,” she replied, glaring at me over her shoulder. “Is that what you think of me?”
“No, and believe you me, I’m not brave. Ow! Why did you flick my nose again?”
Her eyes narrowed as she tucked her legs to her chest. “I told you not to be modest with me. You keep being in the news for doing these insane feats. No way in heck you can tell me you’re a coward.”
I tapped my forehead. “Oh, I’m a yellow-belly up here. It’s my darned legs that keep carrying me into danger without checking first.”
“Yeah, you have what Pabbi has,” she muttered. “I’ve seen your scars. If I looked like you, I don’t think I could leave my room again.”
“Hmph, I think they’re rather dashing.”
She shook her head. “Not like that, just… how do you keep going?”
I shrugged. “It beats the alternative, and I keep finding myself in danger, whether I consent or not. Believe me, my dear, you get used to it.”
She winced. “You sound like Pabbi.”
“In a good way?”
“Not even a little.” She cradled her head. “Ugh, I could use a drink, and Pabbi doesn’t keep ‘poison’ under his roof.” She cracked a weak smile. “But, hey, you listened. One thousand points for that. I’m going to miss you when you get reassigned.”
I reached out and touched her shoulder. “Do you want to keep things going after I leave?” I wasn’t sure if I was too enthused by the idea; this girl was fun, but the way she way she treated the others gave me pause. Besides, baring souls wasn’t part of our arrangement. I didn’t feel the same warmth in my belly that Kiyo had given me when she needed me. This felt more like an unexpected obligation, and not a welcome one.
“I’m sorry I brought that up,” she said, dodging the question. She chuckled and started undoing her own zipper. “I’m bringing down the mood now, and now is what we have. How about I make you forget all about it?”
An honorable man wouldn’t have let her distract him. Something was clearly weighing on her, and ignoring it wouldn’t do her any good.
Sadly for her, all she had was me, and I was more than ready to do what came naturally.
I had just finished unzipping her when a horrific screech assaulted my ears from outside.
“The devil was that?” I said, undoing my work.
“An owl?” offered Heida. “Come on, don’t worry about—”
The sound came again, much closer this time. Something heavy banged against the back door, and I realized that Viktor was desperately trying to get back in.
“Viktor! Svalinn’s Wrath!” I hadn’t been lying to Heida about my rebellious feet; I rushed towards the locked door without a thought. The retreating mackie nearly trampled me, and that gave me pause. Viktor was a mountain of a beast on top of being a trained war-mount. What could send him running?
I peered into the moonlit night. “Heida, can you…”
She had anticipated my request and flung a ball of light over my shoulder. It seemed her Lightshow didn’t make stable structures, as it exploded into a hail of sparks. Stars danced in my eyes, but I could still make out the outline of the sinister form before me.
An inky, unnaturally dark being stood before us, conspicuously black even against the Icelandic midnight. Its long talons dripped with blood, highlighting its foot-long claws. It was humanoid, save a set of batlike wings that extended to either side of it. Hateful white eyes drilled into me.
“Buddy? What are you doing out here?”
He replied by rushing forward, and my head and neck very nearly parted ways.
There was no way in Hell I was going hand to hand with that thing. I flung the energy blade to free my hands and buy myself some time. It dipped its shadowy head beneath the attack and crouched down. Muscular legs coiled, ready to launch it right at me.
“Magic Bolt!” No need to be fancy. The blue sphere shot forward, and this spell found its mark, for all the good it did. The energy briefly lit its dark chest before bursting like a water balloon. A spray of residuum illuminated everything except the monster, who stubbornly refused to reflect the light.
Still, Buddy seemed startled, flinching away from the impact. With a flap of his wings, he vanished into the night.
Heida slumped to the ground on nerveless legs. “Was that…”
I dissipated the discarded magical blade and crouched down to her level. The startled woman threw her arms around me, which shouldn’t have been a surprise. “Buddy? Almost certainly.” I held her tight, watching the limping mackie moving to hide in his pen. “And somebody owes us an explanation.”
Thank you for reading!
These chapters originally debuted on my Patreon. If you would like to read ahead, please consider backing me there.
Original Post: https://www.patreon.com/posts/magpie-wizard-5-64298478
Note: Chapter numbering differs slightly from Patreon, due to minor edits between then and now.