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Of all the most valuable things to Bobby, he counted no material object among them. He preferred cherishing what he remembered.

In better days he'd peer from the window and sip a refreshing drink, appreciating the view outside... Then turn inwards and enjoy good company. Every memory of slow mornings and relaxed afternoons was a cherished one. He remembered clean air in his lungs, and a warming presence, and then just as quickly he put those memories aside and drove a steely rod through them. That was a past foreign to him now, despite it shaping him.

The Honda lurched and metal ground against metal in the transmission. Alys let out a growl of indignation. "How did you humans design these things?" The elf revved the engine high and slammed it into gear.

"Alys we're on a county road-" Bobby didn't even have the courage to look out the window. He slunk down in his cloth seat and let the raucous song of the Civic serenade his ears. Rumbling tires, wheezing engine, struggling air conditioning, it was a wonder the damn thing could even make it out of the driveway. He sipped on a bottle he'd filled with coffee, ice, and a shot of Bailey's, fumbling for an aspirin and washing it down with his Irish coffee. "-do you mind slowing down?"

"Well maybe if you weren't up late banishing spirits, I wouldn't be in so much of a hurry!" She shot back, finally slamming the car into gear after waking the dead with the screaming four cylinder engine. They crested a hill and Bobby felt a little closer to Heaven when they caught some air, and a lot further towards Hell when they slammed back down. "And we need to get that hand of yours looked at!"

"Jesus Christ, Al, it's just a burn, you don't need to be so serious about it!" The little pill floated down his throat on a wash of caffeine and alcohol. Bobby curled up in the seat, keeping his bandaged arm raised and praying to whatever higher power they didn't find a speed trap. He had no doubt Alys could be quick behind the wheel, she was an elf after all, but even he respected the speed limit!

Maybe he should've just called a ride in from one of his less magical friends. They didn't question when he showed up scuffed up. Alys had a way getting between places quite quickly, which Bobby had no way to follow. And his own vehicle, regrettably, was no chariot of the gods.

"What in God's name is so important that we need to get there that quickly?" The air conditioner didn't exactly cooperate most days. It left Bobby to choose whether he was sweating because this fine elven lass didn't know traffic laws too well, or because he'd have to deal with his boss, or because there was nothing to temper the muggy summer air that seemed ready to seep everywhere unwanted. It made his shirt stick to his chest.

"You'll know, when we get there." Alys pursed her lips, leaving Bobby to finish off the rest of his drink. The alcohol worked through him and just barely lifted his spirits. "It's important. It's good news."

"I hope." He chose instead to draw on a happier memory. The first time he learned to do magic. The first time he'd had a good coffee. A good cigarette. A good beer, too. He almost had the mind to draw a cigarette out, but Alys never was one for tobacco. Bobby rubbed his temples and watched the treetops rush through the windows. They turned into a blur of green as Alys drove too fast, but then again, so did he, and she'd learned from the best. "Did something change up in the office? Thought boss wanted us both in the field-"

Alys took a sharp turn off a utility road. The Honda shuddered in pain as the wheels rolled over half-broken concrete. Bobby cussed up a storm and braced himself on the seat.

"Slow down, slow down!" He took a deep breath. "Jesus, Jesus- damn thing's about to fall apart!"

"To answer your question." Alys cut the engine back, thankfully, taking the curvy roads slow. "Yes. It's a little urgent. I got recalled from Ala- what's it called, the state to your west-"

"Uh, Alabama?" Bobby coughed.

"It took me two hours to find a decent gate back here, y'know? And two more to get over to your place." Alys snorted. "The infrastructure there is atrocious!"

"Tell me about it."

Now, on a map, the county road would have been the quickest way to get to the office. It was a straight shot when laid out on a piece of paper, and the shortest distance between two points was a straight line. Given that, even a slow, lurching Honda like Bobby's ought to have gotten to the office in a reasonable time. Taking even a slight detour would add precious minutes to the journey, but Bobby had his suspicions, and so he pursed his lips and watched the forest engulf them. Alys didn't seem too bothered by the bumpy road, and if she wasn't bothered he wouldn't be either: he pulled his cap over his head to cover his eyes and kept his bad arm from banging against the sides of the car.

Straight lines, maps, all of that went out the window when elves and magic got involved. They dipped low and pulled up against an iron gate. Now it was connected to a tall gate, that let little light through, and on first blush it'd seem like a wealthy recluse had spent a pretty penny on a tall privacy fence. To a mundane person, there was nothing out of the ordinary. Despite the fence, it didn't break up any of the flora, kudzu crawled up tall trees, but those attuned to magic could spot ever the slight differences. It was a difference that would never show on a photograph, never be heard on a recording, and never be found on any sort of instrument. To the mind the plot of land ahead held an air of distance, as if, in spite of being a stone's throw away- it felt so far off. Bobby couldn't quite wrap his head around it, but it seemed like a between-space, one favored by elves for their traveling.

Bobby let his breath out, and leaned back and tossed out his rhetorical question. "We going through a gate?"

"It'll save a minute." Alys brushed her hair back and preened herself to look good for the toll officer. "Do you have your accoutrements?"

Bobby blinked, and dug out the iron rod from his belt. He raised it up and noted that it needed a cleaning, the metal was getting a little dull and pitted. He twisted the cap off the rough threads and pulled out his papers. They were tough, laminated, and enchanted for durability. Every human magician- whether natural born, or those sworn to a patron, needed those papers. It wasn't fun to carry them around, but he needed to do it anyways.

"Will this do?"

Alys leaned over and read over his papers. "You need to get these updated, these expire in..." She squinted. "Five years."

Bobby rolled his eyes. "I just got these papers five years ago."

"You should get them updated." Alys pulled up closer to the gate, drawing out her own seals: hers were different, as an elf, but it all ended up being used for the same thing. As they pulled right up to the entrance, a guard strode out from a small, well hidden booth. He was a tall, thin man with harsh features, a bulletproof vest marked "U.S. GATE MARSHAL," a handgun holstered on his hip, and holding a spell matrix designed specifically for keeping both hands open. It was a bulky thing with a polymer shell that fully encapsulated the man's arm, his fingers covered in a neoprene sleeve, and a spell at the ready. The air around his fingertips distorted. It was likely a telekinesis spell.

"Afternoon," the Marshal stepped in front of the vehicle. He wore a neutral face, he was all business it seemed. "Going to need to see your papers, ma'am, yours too, sir."

Bobby passed the papers over, and so did Alys. The marshal lifted them with a telekinetic spell, and floated the papers over to his small booth. The man disappeared into the windowless confines and it left Bobby and Alys sitting alone in an idling car.

It didn't take long. Alys rolled the windows down to let some air in. Bobby pulled his phone out and awkwardly passed the time by scrolling through headlines and what little social media he maintained. Anything he could do to keep his mind off the heat and the tongue thick in his skull. "The boss is pulling us out of the field?"

"You could say that." The Gate Marshals were... Decidedly bureaucratic in their function. Alys never liked them. Bobby put them in the same boat as the game wardens and traffic enforcement: they never bothered him, he understood they were more necessary than not, but boy howdy, was it inconvenient having to show paperwork to every marshal at these hubs. It was why he preferred the longer commute to the office that he took. At the least he didn't have to pull his papers out every time he went down the road. "He's got a... Special assignment. Something he needs you to take care of."

He remembered the last few special assignments. His boss was... Eccentric. Bobby let out a groan. He'd run all across the south running errands all over. Most of these special assignments- weren't: between the occasional bounty on a rogue, or the delivery of special packages. It was always something with his boss. "One of these again? C'mon, didn't we just hire some more magicians?"

The Gate Marshal came back out from the booth with the papers. He wiped his brow with his wrist because of the humidity, and trudged back on over. Alys and Bobby sat politely, and watched him come over.

"Right, all your papers check out." The Marshal handed off the papers, Alys thanking the man and handing Bobby's papers to him. The marshal thumbed his radio and flagged the Honda through the gate. "Head on in, regional routes go straight ahead, Yssian routes on the right. Have a safe trip, y'all."

Alys nodded, and they trundled through the gate. As soon as they crossed over, the air seemed to shimmer and shift, and very quickly it became apparent that the woods continued for little distance: they quickly faded into a flat, featureless expanse stretching out in all directions. The sky above was a cerulean blue, marred by no clouds- not even a single wisp of one. Ahead, there was a square ahead manned by another few Gate Marshals: these were more heavily outfitted, with spell matrices that covered both arms. They had small carbines slung under their shoulders, and bulkier armor.

Bobby resumed the conversation as they rolled the junky little car up to the larger complex. He rarely used the Gates: they were great for traveling fast... if you avoided "official" roads. When he'd first started his journey as a magician, they were barely looked at, and, really, only elves used them. But with time and the secret influence of the unfathomably large bureaucracy of the American intelligence services and their shadow money, more and more gates had been turned over to the Marshals. Mostly the ones used by human magicians. He knew these gates were almost entirely under American jurisdiction, at least, on this layer.

"Right, special assignment." The man picked up the conversation. As they rolled closer, the guards flagged them down and did a once over with the vehicle. They waved their devices over the vehicle, looking for contraband. The pair went through the usual discussion with the guards- which way are you traveling, for how long, any stops, whether it would be a return trip or one way, any declarations of weapons, alcohol, or tobacco if entering the City Ys. It took just a few minutes, Bobby answering truthfully, but it felt like an hour of interrogation. When the guards were fully satisfied, they flipped a lever, guided them onto the same road they were driving down, and waved them off.

"Special, yes." Alys leaned over the steering wheel. The road opened up in front of them, a yawning expanse of... not much. The piercing blue color of the sky was so pure and unbroken it made Bobby's eyes sting. He leaned his seat down and snatched an old baseball cap to throw over his eyes. "One of his old friends is uh, well, as far as I've gathered, you know how he is about his oaths and contracts- he's having to fulfill his end of a bargain, now."

"Egregious." He let out a grunt. At least the roads were smoother, but not a bit of that smoothness translated to the insides of the car. The suspension was so shot it wasn't even funny. "Well, what, wait, someone's coming to collect on him?"

"Ah-" Alys ran over a bump, and Bobby cussed. "You could say that."

"God-" the byzantine structure of his boss' life outside his work, the private-political-business-social enigma was a thoroughly incomprehensible thing to him. They took a gently sloping curve. "-are you serious?"

"Deathly, deathly serious." She deadpanned. "He says it's a family matter, too. Can you believe that? Him, family?"

Bobby furrowed his brow. Did his boss have a family? In the five or, now, what was it, six years he'd worked for the man, he couldn't even recall a ring on his finger. "He's got a family?"

"So he says. I've never seen them, and I've known him for-" Alys took a mental count. "-What's the conversion rate between a Yssian cycle and a year here?"

Alys, being from the City Ys, bless her heart. Bobby thought back to the first time they'd gotten to know each other, and her... certain notions of how seasons worked. Ys was a well-managed place, micromanaged, even, and that extended to the seasons of each year. He tapped his fingers quickly. They had a different calendar over there. One that was... decidedly more organized, but converting between the two was always a pain. "Uh, shit. I forget."

"Well, what was it now, you've got three hundred and sixty five days to a year, and we've got just about four hundred-" she pursed her lips. "Ninety cycles, or about, eighty years, now. I was just a kid when my dad met him, you know, and my dad worked for him for, what is it now, a hundred or so cycles before he retired and-"

"Way to make me feel old." Bobby joked darkly, cutting her off with a wry grin.

Alys stammered. "Oh, what? Old?" She gave him a quick glance. "You're only twenty... nine? Years, right?"

Bobby rolled his eyes and stretched out in the seat. His joints confirmed his age, a chorus ringing out through his body, and drawing a relieved grunt out of him. "Honestly, I don't even count anymore. I just get older. I think-" He hummed. "Eh, birthday's coming up soon."

The elf fumed, her hair whipping back 'round and her ears wiggling front and back. "We have it on the calendar."

"Yeah." The man hacked up a cough and leaned on the door. "Gonna have me a nice celebration, Alys?"

It took a moment for her to come up with something to say. "We will, we will."

They both fell into silence over the next few minutes as Alys drove. There were signs posted up for various gates. Bobby didn't remember them being so close together, maybe the Gate Marshals had done something about that distance needing to be crossed. Gates were a funny construction. They didn't exactly... map onto how someone would assume they would, given a two dimensional map. Moving ten feet between two Gates could be a mile outside, and a mile between two Gates might only be ten feet outside. But, after all, there were ways to change such things.

Bobby didn't think too much about it, as Alys passed through another gate, posted up by a more diverse team of guards. He recognized an elf in Yssian garb- fine, concealing clothing- speaking with one of the Marshals there. On approach, the guards stood at attention, flagging them through the exit. It was a reasonably quick affair getting out of the Gates, and the same shimmer-shift of air occurred as they made it back to Georgia.

Exiting into a forested road could've been anywhere, but the tell-tale humid air made it well known that they were back in the Peach state. Bobby sucked in a breath of it, before squinting, as Alys rushed onto the road and up into the highway. They were on the familiar stretch of road up in front of an industrial park that Bobby knew all too well.

Red Clay Technical Services, his (legal, technically speaking) employers. The name was just sufficiently on-the-nose that, well, nobody would really bat an eye at some warehouse in the middle of nowhere, or the lake it stood next to. As far as anyone was concerned, it was some niche-of-a-niche business that served worldwide customers in some... Bobby didn't even remember, was it communications or information technology? He just recognized a few of the semi-trucks and work vans they had parked out front, as Alys pulled in and took up a parking spot.

He always found the name a bit funny. Plenty of businesses positioned themselves as being local by taking up names relevant to places nearby. He couldn't even count the number of places called Peachtree, or Georgia something-or-other, but Red Clay? There wasn't even a pinch of red clay anywhere nearby the place. The engine wheezed and died as Alys yanked the engine out, and they both exited under the plain-and-peeling vinyl sign hung up front.

"Hey, quick smoke break?" Bobby shot his elven friend a glance. She sighed and waved him off without a word, entering through the glass doors. It left the man alone to huddle under the tiny bit of shade he had outside, sweating up a storm all the while.

After stretching out again, and dragging his second-to-last smoke out, the sun beating in his eyes, he caught the most dreadful thing out of the corner of his eye.

Perhaps, though, dreadful wasn't the right thing to call her. She was actually, in the very technical sense of things, an incredibly beautiful thing to behold. Skin as white as snow, hair blacker than night, but her eyes were shocking, deep, dark pools of blackness that seemed less like eyes and, more, he thought, akin to portals to some dark abyss. He hated looking at her, to her eyes, and so he averted them, focusing instead on the gently swaying trees rather than her gently-swaying hips and-

"Well, look what the cat dragged in!" She sidled up next to him with a cocky grin on her heart-shaped face. He thought he spotted a chain-like tail wrapped around her leg.

"Buzz off." He dared not use her real name, instead lighting the cigarette with a snap of his fingers. He was as competent a demoniac as the rest of them: but once he was done with them, he was done! He didn't keep them around, like his boss asked him to, with- "Delilah, not in the mood for yer bullshit."

The succubus pouted. Oh, there was no denying that she was heartrendingly beautiful. But, that was the pout of a creature that ate souls, and collected a paycheck, from a dragon. "Aw, is Benji's best fixer a little grumpy? What happened, you get back together with Aly-Al? Saw you driving in with her, you know."

Bobby blew out a puff of smoke, and raised his bandaged hand up. Her eyes widened a little, and he figured it was the residual aura of light-magic still lingering on his torn up fingers. He had to remind himself not to look too hard into her eyes, it made his heart race and his head swim like a bad hit or a whiff of something toxic but sweet. "If you don't back off right now I will banish you back ta' whatever circle of hell I pulled you out of just as quick as I summoned you."

"Ooh." That gave her pause, but she still grinned a shit-eating grin. "Rough night?"

"I had to banish something, couldn't take any chances. Light magic is like that." He blew smoke from his nostrils, tapping the ash off his cigarette. "Don't you have some 'human resources' work to get to?"

"Morale resources, we don't employ too many humans here."

That smug correction almost made him want to snuff his smoke out on her cheek. It'd heal, and she'd bitch and whine, but by God it'd feel good. "Oh whatever, why the Hell are you bothering me? It's like- shit, what, almost four? Don't you head home by now?"

Delilah stood up straight. Bobby wasn't a big guy, and while Alys, his elven friend, stood a half-a-head taller than he, Delilah was... shorter. Pleasantly shorter, she could make any man feel big and strong, and he had to remind himself that succubi were well-glamered. And deeply manipulative. "Why, I was just waiting for my ride to get here. Everyone in the office is talking about you, Bobby-boy."

He groaned and threw his cigarette in the ashtray nearby. He was going to finish off his pack... but then he'd have to spend that time dealing with the lascivious, promiscuous demon he'd brought into the world. And he reckoned he ought to do it quick, as he saw a nice car- some new model of Cadillac, fresh off a dealer lot, smoothly roll up. "Are they now?"

"Yeah! Boss has got some family business he needs taken care of." Delilah cocked her head to the side. "And you're the talk of the town, since you're Benji's best man for the job. Doesn't that make you feel good?"

Bobby sighed, straightened out his shirt and gave her a stern look. His head was starting to thrum like a drum. The Cadillac, or Mercedes, or whatever it was, the newer ones all looked the damn same to him, pulled up to the entrance of the building. The windows were such a dark tint he couldn't even get a look at the driver. "Oh it feels great, really. That your new boy-toy?"

"Yep!" She snickered, putting a bounce in her step as she made her way to the car. "He's a lot of fun! You'd get along pretty well with him!"

The magician scowled and waved her off. "Go- y'know what, just go. Tired of dealing with you."

"Oh, don't be so harsh!" She returned the wave, sat her behind down, and she and her man sped off.

One of these days, Bobby shot her a scornful look. One of these days she's gonna get banished, he repeated the thought, and I am not gonna feel the LEAST bit bad about it.

With those thoughts, he turned, heading into the Red Clay offices, shoulders down and a growing tension in his back. The door slid open smoothly, and cool, dry air greeted him, immediately highlighting how much he'd been sweating. Sunlight faded into modern LED lighting, and his boots clicked across the luxurious tile flooring. If they ever actually had visitors, they'd probably appreciate how upscale and modern the place was. If one didn't know better, you could almost say it was smack in the middle of a new, urban city, not the middle of the sticks.

"Afternoon, Bobby." There was the clerk. Guard. Guard-clerk. He spied the long, long stretch of the snake-woman's tail before he saw the lady herself. She was a cute little Arabic girl named Layla from the waist up. Nice black hair and deep brown eyes, with a sharp face and slender features. Below that?

Snake. Thirty whole feet of snake. She weighed a ton and ate like it too, and her serpentine coils piled up behind the front desk like nobody's business. Last time Bobby checked, the glamer spell- that convinced mundane people she was merely a human, rather than a massive, monstrous woman, gave her a wheelchair. Her size always made his stomach sink a little even in her presence, a primal reaction.

"Afternoon, Layla." He stood and watched her flip through a book. "Whatcha reading?"

"Oh-" she looked up and adjusted her glasses. "-This? Funny little book about a magic school."

"That one?" Bobby blinked. "I've heard of it. Nothing like the real thing."

"It really isn't." Layla snickered. "Hey, Benjamin's looking for you, he says to just head straight to his office in the back."

The magician nodded as he passed by her, stepping over the tip of her tail gingerly. It was getting late, and he really needed to go see what the deal was that Benjamin- his boss- had for him. "I heard, I heard. Enjoy your book- I honestly liked the movies better."

"I'll have to watch them, you know." She hummed and slowly read down her page. "You get on now, I hear it's important."

"I will, I will. Take care, now." Bobby stepped on through and began his long walk.

 

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A note from SOUTHDOG

Originally posted on Scribblehub 6/24/2021

Revision 6/28: Corrected spelling and grammatical errors.

Revision 7/7: Removed extraneous line breaks, extraneous usage of "F" word. Bobby is a good boy, he doesn't say that

Revision: 7/10: Removed extraneous segue


About the author

SOUTHDOG

Bio: Hi! I'm Southdog. I write urban fantasy and comedic fiction starring rednecks, sassy blondes and satirical elements. You can find me on other sites here.

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