A fizzing sensation filled the workroom, as though the air itself were 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’ whose purpose is to blow up in the face of the speller 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.