Bobby passed through the working space of Red Clay with a slow, easy stride. He was already out of sorts- and he didn't need to make himself any more wore out.

Just like the Gates, Red Clay was... A certain kind of space. On the outside one would be forgiven for thinking it was just a particularly large warehouse. This is true, but also incorrect, because it is not a warehouse on the inside. It's a facility. Past the inside doors, the whole place opened up, even beyond what would reasonably be within it's walls. There were certain psychological tricks architects used to convey that an interior space should feel larger than it is, but in the case of Red Clay? It really WAS bigger on the inside.

To the detriment of the unfortunately footsore Bobby.

And, warehouse, facility, really wasn't an apt enough description. Complex, it was. He was certain the original warehouse space existed, and that there was a purpose for it: on audits, or inspections by unwitting humans, they trotted it out to the front and let whatever inspectors go none the wiser that another business ten times as large loomed under the surface. Unethical- well, it was for their own good.

The OSHA inspector would have a heart attack if he saw the elemental working near the gas lines, or the kobolds manning carts twice their size. The thought put a slight grin on his face.

"Hey- Bobby!" He heard Alys call out, the woman appearing from seemingly nowhere- yet materializing behind him with a hand on his shoulder. "Bobby, have you finished your smoke break?"

He nodded, his shoulders coming loose and the man taking a deep breath. "Yeah, yeah. Gonna drag me to the clinic now?"

"Oh, absolutely." She roughly grabbed his bad arm and held it up. "Light magic burns you up, you know that."

The man rolled his eyes. "You've already chewed my ear off, Lys, really."

The elf couldn't help but sigh, and start dragging him off. They flagged down a kobold- a little doglike creature with long flapping ears- operating a transit cart. It was an oversize golf cart, fit for carrying the few humans and many human-adjacent, human-shaped, and human-sized creatures that worked for Red Clay Technical Services around the huge complex.

Bobby couldn't quite tell if it was male or female under its coverall, but he spoke the few words in the rough, chirping kobold language he knew and pointed to the clinic. It hurt his throat to even try and get a few words out, but Alys spoke in her firm voice and got them both on the tram. It shuddered and rolled to a start, the two sitting on the vinyl bench seats and scanning over the facility.

It was a quiet ride to the company clinic, Alys making small talk with the driver and Bobby shifting uncomfortably. There were simply so many supernatural creatures working here, and they were, cosmologically speaking, quite remote from any sort of medical care. If, say, something were to happen, well they'd need the appropriate first response for them. Spilling coffee on your lap isn't bad if you're human, but it's serious for an elemental made of fire. Benji'd spent a lot of money hiring doctors, surgeons and a group of first responders to exclusively serve Red Clay Technical. They even had their own ambulance, a massive Sprinter van outfitted for getting places fast.

He tapped Alys on the side, drawing her out of her conversation. "I don't think you told me, but what were ya up to before ya got called back here?" Bobby asked. "Alabama, ya said?"

"Yes, a place called Gadsden. I was investigating an old myth your people had through there. Something about a witch of the woods, yes?"

Bobby furrowed his brow as the cart bumped over a threshold. He spotted the clinic's doors. "I've never heard of that one."

"Me neither. Couldn't find a thing about it. And Gadsden is an atrocious little city." Alys pushed her hair back, and they rounded a corner to land in a designated parking spot. They didn't take long to evacuate the cart, leaving the kobold to go back to his regular duties. He found it a little amusing how the little creature scrabbled to get back to work: he hadn't much to say but positive things about them. "Good little diners, though."

"I've never been there, honestly." Bobby shrugged.

"Can't say I'd like to go back." They pushed through the doors of the clinic- it was a cordoned off section of the facility, and- clinic may not be accurate. There was a small team of researchers there performing whatever pharmaceutical duties and trials they could. For all their ability in magic, Yssians weren't exactly... to say, well versed, in the same sort of medicine as Bobby's people were. How does aspirin react with elven bodies, for instance? Blood transfusions between orcs- even possible? It was a small part of Red Clay's diverse array of operations, but he reckoned when the time came it might end up being the most important.

But for now, they slipped past the front receiving area to go towards medical, Bobby pushing past the smaller elven aides. They looked quite crossly, as if the roughed up fixer was some blight upon their work. Perhaps the only thing keeping their baleful glares soft was Alys' presence. They quickly crossed the halls, Bobby's arm still aching under the bandages, until they reached Triage.

Mercifully, the clean white halls and quiet waiting room were empty. Alys rung a bell and Bobby leaned against a counter, catching a little bit of rest- but not for long. The bell's ringing called forth... Her.

"Hi- Penelope." Bobby put the words out with grit on his tongue, averting his gaze.

Penelope. Really, quite lovely, once you got to know her. A few months back they'd had a big celebration for her, celebrating twenty years with Red Clay and countless discoveries sure to increase the quality of life of the people of Ys. Bobby brought her some homemade moonshine, a big cut of venison, and quite a few antlers he'd picked up over the seasons that he figured she would have better usage for. And, over the years, he'd had nothing but positive interactions with her large extended family, taking her son out to shoot guns and hunt, helping out on their home with pest problems, and... well, he did count Penelope among his friends.

It's just that, well, she was a wolf. A witchwolf, caught between human and animal form- by her own volition. And Penelope, the matriarch, was a big one. Massive, even, scraping the top of the clinical section and barely squeezing through the double-wide doors. Even in a quiet room, all sound left, Bobby barely able to hear his own heartbeat or breathing. The deeper, primal parts of his brain couldn't reconcile the massive threat of knife-like claws and pearly whites, the snarling maw, the shimmering golden fur and the piercing blue of her eyes... with the fact that most of the month she was a sweet woman.

"Using light magic again?" Her black nose twitched and honed in on his arm. With a sinuous motion and a grip both soft as a mother's touch and hard as iron, she pulled his arm up and looked over his bandaged hand. Bobby winced and kept his gaze firmly fixed on a painting of...

"Unfortunately." He hissed. Why did it have to be a painting of a wolf? His heart sank and he had to stop himself from pulling away.

Penelope let him go, leaning over the counter. Alys took a seat and placed her hands on her lap, unaffected by the witchwolf's presence. The distinction- in Bobby's mind- between all the different denominations of lycanthrope- seemed irrelevant. Not when cold sweat soaked him and he had to consciously breath. Alys chuckled. "You know how he is."

"Were you using a silver catalyst?" Penelope let out a deep rumble. It was something like a groan.

Bobby cleared his throat and nodded. The big she-wolf dropped his arm and his gut rolled- the bandaged fingers knocking against the counter. He flinched but reminded himself, at most other times, Penelope was just a sweet little lady with a large family of shapeshifting wolf creatures that could end him in one bite, if they caught him off guard-

No, no, stop, Penelope is a nice lady, he reminded himself. "I know, I shouldn't."

"And you reek of tobacco. Was it undead?" Her brow rose and she sniffed him over. "Must've been undead, you don't smoke for anything else."

The man nodded, reminded of his last cigarette rattling around in his pocket. He coughed and scratched the back of his head, turning his eyes as far away from the wolf he could. "I- really, I really couldn't tell."

Penelope sighed. It was a hot rush of air that reeked thoroughly of freshly-eaten steak. Bobby cringed involuntarily. "Light magic, again, you really shouldn't be using that stuff willy-nilly. Last time it was just your hand. Now you know how this stuff spreads, yes?"

She had a stern, lecturing tone in her voice. It'd be one of those treatments, and he blinked a few times, steadied himself, and took a breath. "Do we have to go over this again?"

The she-wolf grunted, cowing Bobby. "Yes. Because you keep on doing this. You're a pact magician, and those light magic spells you're so fond of are supposed to be for killing pact magicians-"

"-so every time I use one of these spells it's gonna tear me apart a little bit more." He finished her sentence with a groan. "What is it you always say, Penny? First the fingers, then the palm, up the arm, will do you harm? That silly little rhyme?"

It got a nod out of her.

Bobby hesitated. "And you're going to have to put that gauntlet on me again, aren't you."

The she-wolf split a grin showing off her pearly whites. "Absolutely."

Bobby cussed and spat but couldn't say much to object.

It took little deliberation, and the magician, the doctor and the elf soon went deeper into the clinic.

The Gauntlet. A gleaming metal device vaguely in the shape of a piece of armor. It comprised a gauntlet, a stiff forearm guard, and all the way up to a pauldron that would be strapped to the chest of, with a wicked number of fasteners that could pull tighter than tight, and bound to a sleeve of tough, inflexible snakeskin. Bobby had once heard that it was used to restrain magicians of great power and infamy. That was in the city of Ys, known for its problems with madcap wizards and ne'er-do-well. Throw a fireball in a leviathan-oil processing plant? Summon a rampaging demon that took the lives of thousands? Assassinate a politician? Well, for those that survived their ordeals, there was always the Gauntlet.

Magic flowed from the heart to the dominant hand or hands, for most magicians, whether elf or human or the rarer orc and troll. Elves were mostly ambidextrous, and so gauntlets were oft fashioned for both of their arms. Orcs were, curiously enough, left-handed more often than not, and in the rows of Gauntlets he spotted all sorts of shapes and sizes for the different kinds of magicians out there. Left, right, clawed or even more exotic forms. Penelope deftly navigated the rows of Gauntlets, careful not to brush against them herself.

Orichalcum. The glittering metal could turn even a small ray of light into beautiful prismatic rays. The rows upon rows lit the storage room in a gorgeous glow, the light dancing off Penelope's golden coat as Bobby and Alys followed. The elf seemed less perturbed, but Bobby's whole body tightened up in the familiar room.

As mesmerizing the metal was, it had its... oddities. Only the people of Ys had the means of making it, and its properties made it a wondrous metal. Depending on its composition and temperament, it could be a mage's most cherished friend- a grand amplifier of ability- or a shackle. Like copper it resisted contamination, like titanium it was lightweight and strong, like iron, easy to shape, and like gold possessing a natural beauty all its own. The magician's metal, Orichalcum had two phases, the earthen and the celestial. These were earthen, binding magic and drawing it in, denoted by their bright colors. Celestial-phased Orichalcum was a popular catalyst for mages of Ys, but rare on Earth.

Bobby coughed as they finally came to a small operating chair in the center of the chamber. Penelope took a position beside the surgical chair. It was certainly an odd sight, seeing a terribly large beast so politely sitting beside the chair. "Now, Bobby, if you don't mind emptying your pockets, we'll get to installing your Gauntlet."

"You say that like it'll be fun." He groaned, drawing his gun, his implement and his wallet out of his pocket. "Alys, do you still have my keys?"

The elf chuckled. "You're not gonna be driving anytime soon." Either way, she drew the jangling keys and tossed them on the same small table beside the chair. "Penny, how long's he gonna have to wear that thing?"

"Until his arm heals. Bobby, do you mind removing those bandages you applied?" Penelope leaned over him, stating, more than asking, what she wanted.

The man shuddered, but complied, peeling the gauze and bandages off. As he started, Penny skulked through the aisles, her lumbering form barely squeezing through them. She disappeared from his sight for just a moment, before returning, grasping another gauntlet in her massive claws.

Unlike all the other pristine examples, this one... had seen exceptional service. The metal had dulled but never lost its glimmer, the snakeskin liner had since been replaced with toughened leather, and it even bore big ole' "B" monogrammed on the pauldron. For Bobby. It was an uncommon companion laid on the table opposite his possessions. The she-wolf opened it up with surprising deftness, exposing the innards of the brace, and the... interfaces, it had.

Gauntlets were complicated, their workings unknown to him. They restrained magic, for good and ill. He peeled the last of the bandages off and winced at the raw, red flesh stretching all the way up- almost to his shoulder, he realized. The most severe of the burns were around his twitching, volatile fingers, but his biceps weren't spared, the skin sensitive, his muscles tight. "Jesus Christ- it's that bad?"

Even Penny's eyes widened at the sight. She peered over him, before motioning for Bobby to roll up his sleeve. He complied, and then watched again as the she-wolf disappeared without a word, to draw out medical supplies. It left him and Alys in a cold silence, the fans in the room circulating the air with a steady drone.

She came back with a fanciful-looking pump full of a dark, oily fluid, and a tightly-sealed roll of some filmy material he didn't recognize. "Bobby, hold up your arm." She commanded, and he did so, raising it above- and wincing when she reached under and lifted him up some more. In her other claw Penelope grasped the spray bottle, thoroughly soaking his arm in the stuff.

It certainly couldn't have been anesthetic. His arm stung twice as much, and he watched as bubbles of an evil, black nature boiled up and off his skin. "Penny, what is that?" He questioned, digging his nails into the faux leather of the chair. "What is that?"

"Ichor, it promotes healing." She hummed. "With a little bit of peroxide. That succubus you summoned, what's her name, Delilah, she's quite the gracious giver." The werewolf grinned, and Bobby's heart sank.

"Ichor? Demon-blood?" He coughed. "Since when did you use that on humans?"

Penelope sprayed another layer, redoubling the pain on Bobby's skin. The bubbles turned into a stream of the inky black stuff, the liquid quickly evaporating into a hellishly hot vapor. He watched out of the corner of his eye as Alys shifted uncomfortably, but he grit his teeth and tried to keep his composure. It wouldn't do to let himself go in front of the two women. Well, elf, and massive wolf. "For severe magical burns? Like this? Induced by magic you are usually restricted to use? "

Her look turned sour and Bobby faced away. "It was necessary!"

"I don't care if it's necessary. One of these days you're gonna cast a spell and it's gonna cost you something fierce." She waited for his arm to stop bubbling, and Bobby watched as the suds dispersed. It left the red, raw skin stained a dark color, drawing out the veins and follicles in patterns around the significant magical channels. Those channels ran from just below his nail beds- where underneath they had turned into blood blisters and taken on a purple hue- to his knuckles, where the joints had inflamed and locked his digits in place, to the palms of his hand, where the ichor settled in the flayed-open creases.

He gagged and nearly threw up his lunch, barely holding it in with a few dry heaves. At least the pain began to subside with the ichor's calming, but he saw faces in the steam coming off his arm. "Now, part of your contract, as Benjamin informed us, was consent to the usage of Yssian medicine in the case of supernatural injury like this. I could tell the minute you walked in, you'd overloaded your channel. Ichor helps heal those over, and-"

He swore he read this in one of the research journals Red Clay had put out a while back. It didn't take long for the spray to dry and leave his arm covered in an inky black layer, the skin starting to numb. "Inhibits the usage of said magical channels in the form of an insulating layer, reflecting the patient's magic inwards."

"Ah- you've been keeping up with the papers?" Penny sounded pleased, even as she let him go and grabbed the roll of wrappings and began unpacking it. "You're not the first to get channel burn, but this is just about the worst I've seen. Doesn't help you keep on agitating those old wounds."

"What can I say? My work gets pretty involved." He straightened up in the chair and watched her unroll the strange bandages. They were printed with all kinds of runes, the sort he recognized from what were used by Yssian healers. Normally they'd be painted on, but Bobby suspected this was a new concoction developed by Red Clay. "Penny, what- what is that? Did we just get that in?"

She shook her head, starting to wrap up his arm. She started methodically, moving surprisingly deftly for such a large and clumsy-looking werewolf. The bandages seemed to glow a little brighter, flaking off with a chalky, red substance that bound up with the damp ichor and seeping skin of his into a repulsive mixture. Nonetheless, he couldn't feel too much. The ichor had deadened the nerves below his shoulder... And he thought, cut off his magic. "It's a dressing. The folks in Ys came up with it. Impregnated with sealing material and the runes are stitched in. We're running trials on it now."

"Trials?" He pursed his lips.

"Oh yes, absolutely." Penny didn't skip a beat. "Your contract, remember, expressly permits this sort of thing."

Bobby cussed and held his tongue, remembering what she'd just said. "Great. Experimental medicine."

Penny kept on dressing his arm up, slowly moving up from his nearly-destroyed hand to his aching shoulder. She didn't seem too fazed by it all. "Benjamin spares no expense, you know that."

The magician shrugged his other arm and decided counting all the gauntlets would be better than having to eye up the doctor. "Still."

She finished up her work in silence, cutting off the dressing even as it soaked the ichor in. The stuff was snug, but not too tight, binding up his fingers even more than they already were. Penny laid his arm back on the table, earning a grunt out of the man. "Going to need to prescribe you some painkillers, antibiotics, and antidemonics once we're done."

Alys raised an eyebrow. "Doctor, is it that bad? Benjamin has a special assignment- you don't think that will interfere?"

The doctor bared her teeth. "Oh, he does? I thought that was just a rumor." She seemed displeased, making Bobby shrink in his seat, even as she prepped the gauntlet with sterilizing chemicals and medical charms. "This man is in no condition to take on any of Benjamin's assignments. Unless it's an administrative or training assignment- I'll put him on medical leave myself if I have to. There's no way he's going out in the field like this."

Alys rolled her eyes and crossed her legs. "Doctor Penelope, it's a special assignment. Something really spooked him- Benji wouldn't have any reason to call me back from Ala-what's-it unless it was important. You know Bobby is the best that Ben has."

Penny gently set Bobby's arm inside the Gauntlet. The muscles already felt like lead ribbons in their cocoon of flesh and bandage. He doubted he'd even have the faculties for simple motor skills with his arm once he was fully installed. She started pulling the straps over his arm, the metallic protrusions inside of it poking into the bandages and earning discomfort out of him. "I do know. If Benji even thinks about sending him out on any sort of high risk assignment, I'll have his head."

Anybody else saying that would have been an empty threat. Bobby wasn't so sure, coming from Penelope. He averted his eyes, even as the restraining bolts dug in. For what it was worth, Penny was so gentle, he almost didn't notice when she clasped the two pieces of the Gauntlet together-

But when she tightened it all up, Bobby hissed and cussed. Alys twisted in her seat, obvious in how her hair fell limp that she didn't like watching as much as Bobby liked being there. But all the same, those sharp claws pushed and pulled, properly seating his arm in the Gauntlet. The orichalcum limb encased his own and immediately weighed it down. "Tell me if it's too tight." Penny said, pouring over the straps and buckles.

"I hate this damn thing." Bobby muttered, offering nothing- she'd installed it so many times before that, hell, she probably already knew his measurements. She got it snug and motioned for him to step up and off the chair. He did, the limb dragging behind him, about as flexible and comfortable as he expected: not much, better than it could've been, respectively. "So how long are you going to have me wear this thing, Doc?"

Penny fetched a keystone from some lockbox he never could find, reaching over and placing it in a slot underneath the monogram. The stone melded with the orichalcum, a pebble sinking into the metal. "Until your arm heals over, or until you learn to quit using that magic like that, Bobby."

"First one, then." Bobby half-heartedly joked. "Occupational hazards, Penny, we all deal with them."

The doctor didn't seem to take the joke as well, very nearly thumping him on the back of the head. "Don't you dare even think about doing that."

"Doc, Doc, it's a joke. I think your bedside manner needs some work."

"Just go see Benjamin, and if he sends you anywhere but to administrative, you better let him know I said otherwise." She snarled and that was enough to get Bobby stepping towards the door after gathering his things. Alys soon followed, the two exiting the clinic- smack in the middle of the warehouse. They left the cool air of the clinic, Bobby feeling wicked and Alys shooting dirty look back in.

"You'd think she'd be a little nicer with her patients. Any healer that acted that way back in Ys would be expelled!" The elven woman led Bobby along, holding him by the orichalcum arm. It had been a little while since he wore the thing, and it hung heavier than he remembered. If his fingers were stiff before, they were locked up now, and it took great strain and pain just to rotate his elbow.

"Nah." Bobby shrugged, getting on the route to administrative. The two hitched a ride on a large loading truck going to a receiving area near there. They passed the rows of product stacked high on the shelves until they crossed over and saw the Admin tower. "I just piss her off a lot."

"Do you really think that's such a good idea?" Alys cocked her head to the side. Bobby snickered. "She's a witchwolf! You know, the violent kind!"

"What's she gonna do, take this arm off?" He swung his encased limb about, hearing the metal smack against the cart with a loud ring. "It's already messed up."

"Oh for- you're a real handful." Alys sighed, the cart trundling along. Admin, it was a massive tower located semi-centrally in the Red Clay facility. The mindboggling size of the facility? That was just the surface level. There were few who worked close to the admin tower, that stretched what felt like a hundred feet high towards the ceiling. It had glass walls all the way up, a thin spire of an elevator that went upwards- to a command nexus- and downwards, into the bowels of Red Clay- sub-levels and cavernous depths where ever more esoteric things went on.

"Would you have it any other way?" He gave her a rhetorical answer. The loading truck stopped and deposited them at the entrance of the tower- four elevators elegantly arranged in a cross-shaped pattern, encased in sheets of glass- and so smoothly cut into the floor he questioned whether the elevator or the warehouse came first. The two stepped forward and called the elevator with one of its brass buttons. "Ya think Benji's gonna be mad with me?"

"Ben, mad at you?" Alys pursed her lips, the both of them watching the cables spool up and down. "I could never imagine that, but after this last stunt- you know, you never know."

Bobby shrugged, watching as the elevator platform lurched up, and the doors opened up- to let them on.

A note from SOUTHDOG

Originally Published 6/28/2021 on Scribblehub

About the author


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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