|Three Cheers and a Tiger ~ Silver
Albert Woodler had been poring over ancient volumes of text for nearly three days when he finally found what he was looking for. It was almost dusk, and the dusty light that filtered through the workroom window pooled on the long worktable as Albert thumbed through the heavy books before him. His vision was beginning to blur even with the help of reading glasses and he paused to rub his eyes and glance over at Julia, who was once again settled on her perch with her head tucked under her wing. Lucky bird, Albert thought. He sighed and took a swig from his water bottle, managing to slop a sizable amount down his shirt and jeans in the process.
"I have a drinking problem," he announced to his sleeping familiar, looking ruefully at the dark stain spreading across his crotch. Julia didn't move. Hopefully, his pants would be dry soon—for now, at least, there was nobody there to see. He stretched his arms above his head and then behind his back, cracked every joint he could think of, and returned to the open book.
It was as he was settling back into a reading posture, perched on his stool with his chin in his hands, that he saw it. The runes were inked beneath an illustration of a man with his hands raised in a gesture of summoning. Before the man was a wooden oval like a picture frame, and within it, a human face. To the untrained eye, it looked like a picture of a medieval lord showing off his favorite portrait, but Albert's stomach gave an unnatural swoop when he saw it. Was this it? He silently mouthed the runes, testing the sounds in his mouth but not daring to say them aloud. The sensible part of his brain that wasn't yet swimming with adrenaline was protesting that he couldn't know for sure, that he hadn't even translated them yet. Nevertheless, no logic could overrule this feeling in his bones that he had found the object of his search.
The paragraph accompanying the illustration was in Occitan, and he could read most of that easily. His heart pounding faster with each line, Albert skimmed through the text, then grabbed a bit of paper and hastily copied the runes onto it.
Under different circumstances, Albert probably would have exercised more caution; he was not a rash person by nature. Normally, he would have double-checked and cross-referenced and asked for a second opinion, just to be sure, but after three days of nothing but musty books and the company of an ill-tempered African Grey Parrot, he was desperate for a bit of excitement and some tangible results. He slid down to the far end of the worktable where the spell lay, essentially finished, but not yet working.
Julia woke up at the sound of the metal stool scraping against flagstones. "Must you be so loud?" she muttered irritably. "Some of us are trying to sleep here." She shoved her head back under her wing.
Albert paused for a moment and considered whether or not he should ask Julia for help. If he kept her awake now, she'd be more annoyed than usual and would probably insist on doing a lot of research before she allowed him to try anything. That was a disheartening prospect. Yet, it really would be best to have an extra pair of eyes. He sighed, running his fingers through his rumpled hair, and then stood up and walked over to Julia's perch.
"Hey," he said. When she didn't move, he poked her gently with a fingertip.
Without untucking her head, Julia scooted down her perch away from him.
"Jules, I need your help."
She ruffled her feathers. Well, at least he knew she was listening.
"Julia, I'm going to… try something."
There was a pause as Julia slowly swiveled her head to regard him with one shrewd yellow eye.
"Nothing big or important," he lied hastily. "It's just sort of an… adjunct spell. And I need an extra pair of eyes."
She cocked her head at him, unblinking. Finally, she turned and flapped over to her worktable perch. "Wake me when you're ready," she said, and her head disappeared under her wing.
Albert finished sketching the lines of the spell on the worktable, outlining them with powdered mandrake root, and set the large oval frame in place, propping it upright. He also, as subtly as possible, added a containment charm, marking the necessary characters on tiny scraps of paper and pasting them at various points around the spell. Hopefully, Julia wouldn't look too closely—if she saw a containment charm, she might easily guess that this was no mere adjunct spell. Better to ask forgiveness than permission, he thought. Last but not least, he took the paper with the new runes on it and carefully added it to the spellboard. He stepped back and surveyed his work.
"Jules," he said. He turned and saw that she was already awake, standing on one foot with her head between tucked between half-fluffed shoulders, her eyes glazed and sleepy.
"Well?" she demanded.
Albert turned back to the worktable, rolled up his sleeves, and taking a deep breath, flicked his fingers to set the spell in motion.
A fizzing sensation filled the workroom, as though the air itself was humming some inaudible tune. The outlines of the worktable seemed to blur and shift from side to side, and the pungent odor of mandrake powder filled the room. Albert stared hard at the wooden frame in the center of the table, and at the rippling air around it. Was that a man's face? He definitely saw—
There was a flash of light from the center of the table as the wooden frame exploded, sending flaming splinters in every direction. Albert, having completely forgotten his safety goggles, was saved only by the containment charm—the chunks of wood slammed into an invisible wall just inches from his face and clattered harmlessly onto the table and floor. It all happened so fast that Albert hardly had time to register anything, and when it was over, he stood rooted to the spot, his mind utterly blank with shock.
"What… the bloody hell… was that?" Julia's voice was soft, but infused with such ire that Albert would have much preferred she scream at him. "I don't know of any kind of 'adjunct spell' whose purpose is to blow up in the face of the wizard casting it. Albert? Would you care to explain why we almost died just now?"
He couldn't look at her. Not only had he told her an outright lie, but she was right—he could have killed them both, tinkering with an unverified spell. "I'm sorry," he mumbled. What else could he say? Skirting the wreckage strewn across the floor, he clambered onto his stool and slumped forward, his face in his hands. His shirtsleeve, resting against a bit of smoldering wood, began to singe, and he rubbed it out in irritation, using the movement to covertly wipe his eyes as well; he refused to let Julia see him sniveling. But he couldn't help it… it was just so disappointing. Here he thought he'd found what they'd been looking for, and it all turned out to be a dud, and a dangerous one at that. "I'm sorry," he said again.
"At least you had the sense to put up a containment charm," she said by way of an answer. She was now picking her way through the debris on the table; she lifted a bit of wood in one claw, turning it over dexterously and then nibbling at a corner. "It looked like the same spell you've been trying all week. What did you add?"
"That," he said, gesturing to the piece of paper bearing the runes. It wasn't even singed—go figure.
Julia hopped over to inspect it, but before she was even halfway there, a low groan issued from somewhere on the other side of the worktable.
Julia and Albert both froze, staring at one another, silently confirming that, indeed, neither of them had made the noise. Albert cleared his throat. "Hello? Is there someone there?" There was no response.
Julia gave him a significant look, then walked over to the far edge of the table. "Albert," she said sharply.
He moved around the table to look.
A man lay there, curled on his side amid the splintered wood, his arms over his head. He looked to be in his mid-fifties or so, balding, plump, and well-dressed. He moaned again as Albert approached; he didn't seem to be totally conscious yet. Albert stood at the man's feet, staring at his familiar, and Julia stared back.
"Albert, what have you done?"
"I have absolutely no idea."
"That," she said in an ominous tone, "is the wrong answer." She trotted back to look at the unblemished slip of paper on the table, and after a minute, she asked, "Where did you find this?"
"Over there… top of the page." Julia flapped over to the book and landed on top of it, cocking her head to one side to read.
Albert bent to inspect their guest. The man was covered in debris, but at least he was visibly breathing; tentatively, Albert put his hand on the man's chest—there was a heartbeat.
"You copied it wrong."
Albert looked up. "What?"
"It's mannaz nauthiz sowilo, and you wrote mannaz nauthiz kenaz. You never paid attention in runes. Why didn't you let me double check for you?"
But Albert was distracted again. "Julia, I found his wallet." He gently dislodged a brown billfold from the man's pocket and flipped it open. Out fell a couple bills of unfamiliar currency and several identical little cards. Albert picked one up and inspected it. It was embossed with an official-looking symbol and gold lettering. Julia glided down to settle on his shoulder, and he passed her one of the cards.
"It's a hotline," she said.
Albert turned to her in astonishment. "What? They're not numbers—"
"Did I say they were? No, it's more runes… I'll translate." She held the card up in one claw and read, "'In case of emergency, please contact Resident Midgard Liason, Nissa Aven.' The contact info—" She squinted at the card. "—is the same as what's in that book."
They looked at each other.
"Well, if this isn't an emergency, then I don't know what is," Albert announced. He replaced the wallet and its contents, keeping one of the embossed cards. Working quickly, they cleaned up as best they could and began to set up the spellboard again. While Julia sketched and lined the shapes with mandrake powder, Albert scribbled characters and figures on scraps of paper, passing them to Julia for inspection before wrestling a new wooden frame into place. Ten minutes later, they were putting the finishing touches on the pattern.
"At least if the containment charm fails this time around, I'll know it was both our faults," Julia remarked as she settled on to her perch.
Albert cracked his knuckles and took a deep breath, letting it out slowly, and after glancing once more at the man on the floor, he flicked his fingers. The air once again began to hum as though infused with electricity, and the outline of the wooden frame wavered as the energy coalesced in its center. Albert braced himself for another explosion, but after a moment or two, an image shimmered into being. The woman was in her mid-twenties, attractive and smartly dressed, as though for a business meeting. She looked directly at Albert and spoke, but although her voice was pleasant and smooth, he had no idea what she had said. He glanced quickly at Julia, who fluffed her feathers in an avian shrug and started to preen. Nervously, Albert looked back at the young woman. Why did she have to be pretty? He swallowed. "Erm… do you speak English?"
She looked confused for a moment, and then seemed to understand. "Ah… Anglishe."
"Um, yes…" He looked at the unconscious man, and then said, "Well, I was casting a spell… this same spell that I'm using now… but I made a mistake, and the spell exploded, and it brought a man with it. I don't think he's seriously hurt, but he's unconscious."
She frowned a little, but nodded.
"I'm guessing he came through the spell from… wherever you are. This is his." He held up the card.
To his astonishment, the woman reached towards him through the frame and held out her hand.
Numbly, he passed her the card, and she took it, her fingers actually brushing his. She was no mere image. His heart began to pound—after all this, had he actually done it? Had he created an inter-dimensional portal?
The woman looked at the card. "Is de man still there?" she asked.
"Yes… on the floor. I can't really lift him up to show you."
The woman said she would be back soon, and walked out of the frame. She was gone for about five minutes, during which Julia pretended to sleep and Albert fidgeted. When she returned, it was with two burly men who nonchalantly clambered through the gateway and onto Albert's worktable, carrying a stretcher. The young woman stood on the other side of the frame, directing them in that melodic language, and Albert waited awkwardly until the men had lifted the little man onto the stretcher and backed out through the portal. When they were gone, the young woman turned back to Albert and smiled—God, she was pretty, especially when she smiled.
"Dank you," she said. "Can I help you in any oder way?"
"Ah, yes, actually. Can you explain something?"
"Um… who is that man? And, where did he come from?"
"Where?" she asked. "Our company. In Anglishe… I would say, 'Technical Help'. For magic. It is his job to fix spells with problems."
"No, no, I mean, what's the name of the place where you are?"
She looked confused again.
"Erm, like, this is Earth. Here, this place, this world," he said, gesturing vaguely around him.
She brightened. "Ah, yes. Dis is Asgard. We know of your Eard because we help wid your magic—I visit often—but, it is not in de same… ah, place." She beamed at him one more time. "Dank you for contacting us, and have a pleasant day." She stretched her arm to the side as though reaching for something, and vanished with a snap.
"Gods be praised," Julia remarked.
Albert looked at her. "Since when are you religious?" he asked.
"Ever since you started communing with deities." She hopped off her perch and on to his shoulder. "We can clean this up later. It's dinnertime. Let's go out to celebrate our own personal deus ex machina. Drinks on me."
"Hang on a minute…" Albert's mind was still churning. "You think that she's… that they're…"
"Yes," Julia interrupted. "Once again, it's your own fault for not paying attention in runes class. Some of us actually did our homework." She fluffed herself up and shifted from foot to foot. "And we need to go now, because Polly really wants a cracker." She swooped towards the door. "Any day now would be nice."
Still dazed, Albert shook his head and went to fetch his coat. As he was pulling it on, he noticed something glinting under the worktable, and bent down to look. It was one of the little embossed cards. He picked it up and squinted at the runes that spelled out "Nissa Aven," then smiled, and put the card in his pocket.
Ari Susu-Mago has been writing and telling stories since the age of five. After one year of college, she decided that she needed a change of pace and is taking a gap year to further explore her interest in creative writing, among other things. She lives with her parents, sisters, and dog in Oregon.