Chapter Four: Enter the wyrm
Copyright © 2016 by Brian Bixby
Calpurnia checked herself at her door. She could sense that there was someone in her apartment, her magically locked apartment. She carefully and quietly unlocked the door and stepped inside. With a sigh of relief, she recognized from the magical aura that it was just her daughter Ursula. So Calpurnia calmly walked into the kitchen to see what havoc her youngest daughter was up to.
Ursula was sitting on the floor, a plate piled high with marmite sandwiches to her left, a half-empty bottle of gin to her right. Tonight, she looked to be about 12 years old, much younger than she actually was, dressed in a sweat shirt, sweat pants, and trainers. About the only element out of place was her hair: while she was wearing it in pigtails, it was dyed in rainbow colors, from blue on the top of her head to fire engine red at the ends.
Calpurnia sighed again. (It seemed to be the most appropriate reaction to so many of the events in her life lately.) As near as she could tell, this age regression almost to the beginning of puberty was Ursula’s way of deemphasizing the succubus side of her cambion nature. Ursula herself had never explained why her appearance changed so much from time to time. Calpurnia wasn’t sure Ursula could explain, since her thought processes weren’t entirely human.
Ursula looked up from her sandwiches, gave Calpurnia a big grin, and grabbed the bottle of gin. “Hey Mums, want a drink?”
Calpurnia spared a thought to wonder why Ursula drank, since she couldn’t get drunk, before sticking out her tongue. “You know I don’t drink that stuff. Where did you get it, anyhow?”
“Brought it with me from London,” Ursula replied, taking a swig herself. “Who’s the bloke you were with tonight?”
Calpurnia sighed yet again. She dearly loved her youngest daughter, but she could be such a trial. And one never knew when some other odd aspect of her cambion nature would crop up. Calpurnia swept forward, grabbed a marmite sandwich, and sat herself down at the kitchen table. “It was work, Urse.” She bit into the marmite sandwich and almost immediately gagged, Ursula had spread the stuff on so thick. Shuddering, she set the rest of the sandwich down on the table. “It’s a Council assignment.”
“Outstanding!” Ursula leaped up to show her enthusiasm. And then she frowned. “This isn’t some payback by Malignant Marcus, is it?”
While she was laughing inside, Calpurnia frowned to indicate her disapproval of that nickname for her first ex-husband. “You shouldn’t call him that. He’s your sister’s father.”
“He’s still a creep. So it’s like all splendiferous that the Council wants your help again. What do they have you doing?”
“I can’t tell you. It’s a secret.”
Ursula stamped her feet. “No, no, no, you can’t do this to me.” And then she got a sly grin on her face. “Bet you I could persuade the guy you met to tell me.”
Calpurnia put sternness into her voice. “Don’t even try it.”
Ursula shrugged. “Eh, he’s got a girlfriend anyhow.” She pulled up a chair and sat down to face her mother. “Anything I can do to help out?”
Calpurnia didn’t answer at first. She was a little disappointed to hear that Geoff already had a girlfriend; Ursula was always right about these things, it being one of her talents. But Calpurnia hadn’t invested much in romantic thinking about Geoff, so she gave it up easily enough. As for Ursula’s offer of help, Calpurnia knew that was Ursula’s way of trying to find out what the assignment was. But Calpurnia hadn’t been a mother to three daughters to be tricked so easily.
Still, she reflected, Ursula got around a lot in society in London. Maybe she could help. “You know anyone who knows the Duke or Duchess of Cambridge?”
That got Ursula laughing. “Do I know anyone? Mums, me and Kate, we’re mates.” Seeing her mother’s look of disbelief, Ursula explained, “See, Kate has a miserable time of it when she’s preggo, so I drop by every so often and perk her up by telling her dirty stories.”
Calpurnia rolled her eyes in dismay. She knew Ursula’s cambion nature meant she was great at telling dirty stories to amuse or arouse, and wondered just what sort of stories she’d been telling the duchess. Good heavens, imagine if Kate repeated one of Ursula’s stories to the Queen. The old girl would probably die of apoplexy! Obviously it hadn’t happened . . . yet.
She returned to the business at hand. “Think you could find out exactly what their itinerary is when they come visit Great Yarmouth?”
Ursula nodded. “Consider it done.” And then she was gone, just not there anymore.
Calpurnia sighed again. She remembered how the first time Ursula had vanished out of this plane of existence, she’d forgotten her clothes, which caused her a lot of problems when she rematerialized at school. Calpurnia glanced over at the floor, and saw the bottle of gin and most of the marmite sandwiches had gone with Ursula, too. There was one left on the plate. Such was the way her youngest daughter showed concern for her mother.
Life was no easier for Jacintha Lowell that evening. She had decided to spend the night camping out in the meadows bordering Breydon Water to be in a good position to photograph birds first thing in the morning. Unfortunately this meant a tent, and a tarp, and hauling along the extra-heavy waterproof photographic equipment her sponsor had required her to take. Jacintha had to hire a boy to carry most of the stuff. And by the time she’d finished setting up the tent, she was wet, cold, and in a foul humor.
Fortunately, her thermos had some hot tea, and Jacintha settled down to enjoy it. Her ill humor abated as she thought of how much money she’d get for this assignment when it was over, and some travel opportunities she could still look forward to.
And then she sensed something strange. Someone was passing nearby, along the trail that bordered the Waters. And that someone had some sort of spell on them.
Jacintha was curious. She put down her cup of tea and looked out. The rain had long ago stopped, and it was a clear night outside. In the moonlight, she could see a woman walking along the shore. The woman was carrying what looked like a heavily loaded picnic basket. And, now that Jacintha could see her, she could tell the woman was enthralled to some lover.
That was one aspect of magic that really irked Jacintha, that someone could place a spell on another person to make that other person love them. She found it particularly annoying that it was so often a man enchanting a woman. That was abuse in Jacintha’s book. So she quietly exited out of her tent to follow the woman with the picnic basket. She would see who this lover was who had enthralled the woman. If he wasn’t too powerful, Jacintha was going to give him a nasty surprise.
Since the rain had let up, Jacintha was able to keep dry while following the woman, except for her feet. Her shoes were soaked within minutes. With every step, her anger against the male magician who had bespelled this woman grew.
And then, to her surprise, the woman came to a halt along the path, and put down the picnic basket, as if she were waiting for someone. Jacintha looked around. It was fairly open ground here. Unless the man was crawling through the grass, he couldn’t be anywhere near. Had she been mistaken all along about what the woman was up to?
A few minutes went by. The woman stood there, looking neither up nor down the path, but out to the Water. She spared not a glance in Jacintha’s direction. Jacintha herself looked across the waters. She could see a small motorboat nearby hugging the shore, but it was clearly not what this woman was looking for.
Jacintha turned back to look at the woman, and shrieked in surprise. For just beyond the woman, emerging out of the Water, was the long scaly head and neck of the wyrm, its mouth glowing with the fires deep within its gullet. The shriek caught the wyrm’s attention, and it turned its dreadful head to look at Jacintha.
Jacintha knew that in a magical confrontation with a dragon (which is how she thought of the wyrm) and herself, the dragon was going to win. So she turned and ran, ran as fast as she could, ran as if all the devils in hell were pursuing her. Ran so fast that she didn’t see the edge of the ridge drop out from underneath her feet, throwing her forward flat on her face into the sandy ground.
The fall knocked the wind out of her. So it was only several seconds later that Jacintha rolled over in preparation to get up, only to find the wyrm’s face just inches from hers. She could feel the heat of its breath on her. Its eyes, its eyes, she found herself looking into its eyes, and she could not look away. She was terrified, she wanted to look away, but she could not, and she did not know why.
Thoughts entered her head. She could tell they weren’t her thoughts. Thoughts about how lovely the creature was. Thoughts about how she should surrender to it. Thoughts about how happy she would be to obey it. Jacintha knew these were not her thoughts. With horror, she realized exactly what had enthralled the woman she had been following. And yet she could not keep the alien thoughts out of her mind. And each thought seemed to gain on her, seemed to be more her own. She could even feel her horror at what was happening to her slowly fall away. She knew she must resist the creature. But she could no longer feel anger or fear about what it was doing to her, she could not even feel despair.
Geoff and Calpurnia had meant to reconnoiter the Water, not confront the wyrm. But when it reared its head out of the water less than 100 feet away, they recognized that they might have little choice in the matter. Geoff abruptly turned the engine to drive the boat to the nearby shore. And even before they grounded, Calpurnia was out of the boat and slogging through the water. She’d seen the figure running away from the wyrm, seen the wyrm’s head dart down, and knew there was not a moment to lose.
Calpurnia was definitely out of practice confronting emergencies. Without thinking what she was doing, she leaned down and grabbed a rock as she reached the shore, ran forward, and hurled it at the wyrm’s head.
Now it has to be admitted that Calpurnia’s ability to throw a rock for any distance and actually hit what she was aiming at was pathetic. But even a pathetic thrower can get lucky, and this time, Calpurnia was . . . lucky? The rock struck the wyrm on one of its ears, a very sensitive spot for wyrms. The creature reared back its head with a roar, and turned a malevolent gaze on Calpurnia.
Calpurnia had been mentally patting herself on the back for successfully distracting the wyrm. She began having second thoughts on the wisdom of her success as the wyrm opened its jaws, disclosing a fireball building up in its gullet. And then its head surged forward, and Calpurnia realized she had about two seconds before she was incinerated.
Geoff had delayed long enough to drop an anchor before following in Calpurnia’s footsteps. When he saw her throw the rock, he had shouted a warning which was lost in the roar of the creature as it reared back in pain. Before he could do anymore, the creature’s fire enveloped Calpurnia. And above the blazing fire, he could hear Calpurnia’s scream.
Is Jacintha going to abandon her husband for an interspecies romance? Is Calpurnia going to be a shish kebab for the wyrm? Is Geoff going to foul his pants in terror? Turn to the next chapter (once it goes up) for the answers!