Book 1: Chapter 24 (Bad Shark, Good Dog)
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Chapter 24

            Will Schneider loved the rush that blacksmithing gave him. It was like a practical magic, his will shaping the world around him. Much more tangible than balancing spreadsheets. He whistled a happy little tune as he hammered the glowing metal into shape. This one would be a generic longsword after a few more rounds of hammering and quenching. Those were always big sellers around Ren Faire season, but he was behind his schedule. Downside of all those online customers, I guess. Let myself get caught up in the day by day, and now I’ll have to work double for a while.

            In all the racket, Schneider nearly missed the jingle of the doorbell. He did not look up from his work as he checked the blade for imperfections. And here I thought we’d be dead today. “I’ll be a few, but feel free to watch.” His voice was slightly muffled by his mask

            The guest did not respond; instead, heavy footsteps walked past the forge and into the shop. Schneider did not look up; he was at a critical part of the process, and any mistake could ruin the weapon. Sure, most of the customers don’t need it to be perfect; they’re going to put it up above the fireplace and forget about it. But I’d know.

            Janet’s piercing shriek and the tinkle of shattering glass roused Schneider from his contemplation. All care for his new creation evaporated; in a flash, he had vaulted over the divider separating his smithy from the visitor’s area. He already had Orcbiter drawn as he dashed into the shop.

            “You again!” The invader from the night before was rummaging through the now-open display case. He was still dressed in that slouch hat and jacket, but they were soaking wet and caked with sand.

            He seemed to pay Schneider no mind. “Sharp did not work on that armor. I need something heavy. Hm.”

            “Get the hell out of my shop!” Schneider spared a glance at Janet. His niece was a goth, and panicked tears sent black streaks down her face. She was unhurt, but she was also frozen in place.

            Again, the intruder ignored him as he studied the wall above the shattered remains of the glass case.

“Perfect,” he rumbled.

A powerful arm reached up, bringing down a sword that should have taken three men to balance. The ridiculous thing was more than six feet long and wider across that Janet’s torso. Realistically, it was barely a sword; it was more like an enormous bludgeon with a somewhat sharpened edge. Schneider and a team of visiting blacksmiths had made it a few Renaissance Fairs ago to put on a show and try to drum up some business. They had pulled it off, but since his was the only local shop, he had been stuck with the darned, unsellable thing. Schneider had concluded that letting Vince run a few online ads for him was much cheaper and easier.

The giant swung around, balancing the enormous sword on one shoulder. He finally seemed to notice Schneider, pointing Orcbiter his way. The curved longsword suddenly seemed… inadequate.

“Do we wish to fight me?” rumbled Marazza.

“Not anymore,” said Schneider, tossing Orcbiter aside. “Y-you want it? It’s yours. Just leave me alone.”

“I thought so. You Landmen seem to lack iron.” With that, he strode out the door, though with some difficulty. The enormous sword’s weight was nothing to him, but it took some effort to clear the doorway.

Schneider stood there a moment before his startled heart remembered to start beating again.

“Do you want me to call the cops?” asked Janet.

Schneider sighed. “Yes, obviously.” Not that he was sure what to tell them.

***************

“There’s something in the woods!” shouted Vince. “Get Luis back in here, we gotta go!”

Bayla hopped out of the van at Vince’s warning. She tuned out his protest; he probably wanted to drive away, and she had no patience for that. I will not be on the sidelines for another battle!

She reconsidered her choice as the pair of stallions galloped out of the forest. Bayla had seen horses from a distance before, but something seemed off about these. The horses she had seen reminded her of jellyfish: a large body supported by spindly limbs. These attackers’ legs did not end in a single hoof, but in a paw with multiple extended claws. She also did not recall hearing that horses had wicked tusks jutting from their lower jaws. They were an enormous breed; her own sense of scale was distorted, but their shoulders were level with the van’s roof, and either one might have outweighed the vehicle. Their red hides were interrupted with white stripes, making them harder to see in the dappled sunlight of the treeline. It is no wonder they were able to ambush us.

The pair came to a stop in front of Luis’ van, their nostrils flaring as they took in their quarry.

Luis shouted something in that Landman tongue she did not understand, but the terror in his voice carried the meaning. “What are those things?” He was near the rear of the van, struggling to hold back a ferociously barking Rufus.

“Forest Kaleekos,” said Nanora as she leapt out the van’s back door in her full Ivory Witch regalia. “They are a little like horses, only larger.”

“Kaleekos?” asked Luis. “Oh, Chalicotheres. They’ve got those in Africa; they call ‘em Nandi Bears.”

“Oh, they do not!” snapped Vince as he ran to Bayla’s side. “Bayla, we need to get going!”

Bayla ignored him because through all of their chatter, the two titans’ attention was riveted on her. She found that problem much more pressing. Bayla shifted around her Aqua Armor, exposing her midriff to make enough material to form a shimmering polearm. She jabbed it at the two beasts, and they kept their distance.

There was something unsettling about them, outside of the obvious. They moved in exactly the same way, though not simultaneously. One would tilt its head before returning to a level position, and then the other would match the angle of its’ partner’s head tilt a few moments later. The patterns of their short, dun coats were also completely symmetrical. Even twins will have some difference between each other.

“These are not natural,” said Bayla.

“They must be ideal summons,” said Nanora, “like I use.” As if to demonstrate the idea, she held up one of her few unmarred charms and focused her mana into it. A swirling portal opened up in the thin air next to them, a four-legged form taking shape within. That gave Bayla a moment’s reassurance; the witch’s summons had been irksome foes, but now she was on their side.

That goodwill vanished as soon as the glowing form took shape. The Kaleekos towered over the short-haired, tan-furred dog. By the Abyss, even Rufus is bigger than that pipsqueak! “What good is a dog going to do against them?” demanded Bayla.

“Don’t be mean; he’s brand new!” Nanora reached down and scratched behind the beast’s ears. It did not respond as it passively took in its surroundings, including the pair of Kaleekos. “I’ll name you later, boy. I need you to go nip at their heels and keep them busy. Don’t try to fight them, alright?”

As soon as Nanora finished speaking, the ideal dog darted between the two beasts’ legs, raising holy hell with a constant stream of barking. The Kaleeko’s rumbled in distress at the sudden threat in their midst, the commotion disturbing a flock of crows in the trees above, adding to the general chaos. The twin beasts whirled around to try and face the new pest, rearing up on their hind legs to deploy their claws. The dog dodged around their attacks, obeying its orders to the letter.

The racket set Rufus off more, his own savage barks joining the cacophony. The lunging dog very nearly slipped from Luis’ grip.

Vince turned to face his friend. “Luis, get him in the van! Nanora’s given us a great opening. I doubt they can keep up with a car.”

Bayla shook her head. “And leave these two monsters in our wake? If they are like Nanora’s summons, they will not stop, even if we can outrace them.”

            “Besides, if somebody saw them, they would call more constables,” said Nanora.

“That would be stormy,” said Bayla. “We need to stand and fight, Vince.”

He nodded, taking her hint. “No choice in the matter. Let’s do this.”

            “Whatever you’re doing, I’m getting me and Rufus out of here,” said Luis.

            “Good; I wouldn’t want either of you getting hurt,” said Nanora.

            “That’s the nicest thing you’ve ever said to me,” said Luis. His rakish smile was ruined by his bright red face as he strained to keep his St. Bernard in check, though.

            “Don’t go too far,” said Vince. “You’re our ride to Greene Point.”

“Of course not,” he replied. “I’m looking forward to that date.” With that, Luis backed the van away, rounding a corner about a hundred yards away.

“Lucky thing you had that summon in reserve,” said Vince.

            Nanora smiled proudly. “I wasn’t only back there petting Rufus. I just copied him onto a blank charm.”

            “What?” Bayla cocked her head at the witch, looking back and forth from the dodging dog. “That looks nothing like him!”

            “Looks more like a dingo,” said Vince, nodding in agreement.

            Dingo? Another word I don’t know.

            “That is the ideal form of a dog, apparently,” she said. “We witches believe that all creatures are reflections of an idealized form in the mind of the Creator, and we can tap into that to form our summons. Whoever sent those after us is an impressive magician; it takes skill to summon two creatures at once. They also are a bit more independent than mine; unless I ordered the summon to defend itself, it might ignore a smaller beast.”

            Bayla scanned the woods. “That means she must be nearby, right?” Her Landmaiden eyes could not penetrate far into the dense tangle of blackberry bushes and ferns. That meant her echolocation would be useless, too. She almost wished for a shark’s sense of smell. Almost.

            “Possibly,” said Nanora. “You don’t need to stay close to your summon to maintain it, but it does reduce the energy cost.”

            “We’ll deal with that later,” said Vince, unsheathing his Bowie knife.

            “Vince, you should activate your Aqua Armor,” chided Bayla.

            He looked down at himself. “I thought you did that last time.”

            “No, it’s—”

            Bayla was interrupted as the summoned dog’s luck ran out. The left Kaleeko caught it with a swat, its enormous claws gouging deep into the summon’s hide. The tan dog whined once as it flew through the air, trailing a shower of golden sparks. It bounced off the ground once before it completely vanished.

            “You monsters!” shouted Nanora.

            Bayla sighed, hefting her spear. “Vince, for your armor, imagine a shell wrapping around your skin. Feel the pull of your magic on the water surrounding you.”

            “My, uh, armor turned into seawater back on the beach, remember?” he said, looking sheepish in a way that might have been cute under different circumstances.

            The pair of Kaleekos whirled about, their dull eyes once again focusing on her.

“Very well,” said Bayla. “I shall take point.”


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