OZ’S TRACKING POTION WAS bubbling away in a small cauldron as I joined the wizard in his basement lab.
The basement looked as it had when Diana and I had been by earlier. You’d never have known that a passel of ornery goblins had been set upon the place, only to be burned into ash just hours ago.
Oz sat bent over a cutting board, slicing up some sort of fruit.
“How’s the brew coming along?” I asked. Steam rose from the small cauldron. It smelled of feet, which didn’t bode well for the taste.
“Just getting some oranges ready to add to the potion for flavor,” he said.
“Don’t bother,” I said. “If there’s one thing I’ve learned kicking around this planet for the past hundred and fifty odd years is that magic potions are like medicine. It doesn’t matter how much fruit flavor you add, it’s still gonna taste like death.”
Oz looked from the orange slices to me, then back again.
“Well,” he said, sighing. “I suppose I am a bit peckish.”
He ate the orange slices.
“How’s this potion going to work?” I asked.
“Quite simple actually,” Oz said. He walked over to the boiling cauldron and stirred the concoction with a long, wooden spoon. “Once I add the lock of Maggie’s hair you gave me, which is the final step, the potion will lead you straight to her.”
“Right,” I said. “I get that. But how?”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean, how? Like, am I gonna see a glowing yellow line that I follow to Maggie, or an arrow, or will a spirit animal guide the way? What can I expect?”
“Honestly,” Oz said, stroking his long beard. “I have no idea. I’ve never brewed this particular potion before.”
“Oh, well,” I said. “That’s comforting.”
“Sorry,” Oz just shrugged his shoulders. “Looks like it’s ready for the hair.”
“Not a phrase I like to hear before drinking something that smells like feet,” I said.
Oz tossed the lock of hair into the cauldron and the potion let out a little hiss, like the hair had angered it in some way. A thin column of blue smoke snaked from the cauldron and the stench magnified beyond feet and moved into the realm of hooves.
“It’s ready,” Oz said. He dipped a wooden ladle into the potion and filled a small glass with it.
The potion was brown. Then green. Then brown again. Then pink for a moment. Then back to brown.
“This will help me find Maggie?” I asked, taking the glass.
“That’s the idea,” Oz said. “Of course, that all depends on the hair.”
“What do you mean?” I gave the potion a sniff and immediately started to choke and cough.
Oz gave me a few slaps on the back, laughing. I never wanted to shoot a friend more than anything in my entire life.
“We’re going on the assumption that the hair you brought me belonged to the young lady you’re looking for,” Oz explained once the coughing fit had ended. “Do you know for a fact that it belonged to Maggie Keaton?”
“No,” I said. “But it was in her boyfriend’s hand. He’d been holding on to it like a life preserver. Who else’s could it be?”
“No, no, you’re correct. The logical assumption would be that the hair belonged to her. But if it didn’t . . .” He spread his hands.
“Okay, well,” I said. “Ain’t no reason to put this off any longer.”
I downed the potion in two quick gulps, followed quickly by a fight with my stomach not to bring it back up. I won, this time, and it wasn’t long before a tingle ran through me.
“Well?” Oz said.
“Just a minute. Something’s happening.”
The tingle traveled through my body. It began in my stomach, then set out for new territory. It crackled along my legs and down to my toes as it also worked its way up my torso to my arms, hands, and fingers. Then the tingling stopped and for a moment, I went numb in every corner. That was when I felt the pull.
“Well?” Oz said again, showing his impatience.
“I’m feeling a pull,” I said.
“Yeah, like something’s pulling at me.”
“Pulling you where?”
“The south,” I said, pointing in that very direction.
“Then south is where you should go,” Oz said. “That’s where you will find young Maggie.”
“Thanks, Oz,” I said, offering him my hand. “Thanks for all your help.”
“You just go get that girl home safely,” Oz said, shaking my hand. “You do that and that’ll be all the thanks I’ll need.”
“Haven’t you gone yet?” Grace walked in with a large, brown, paper grocery bag in her hand.
“I was just leaving,” I said.
“Here,” she said, holding out the bag. “Thought I’d send some food along with you.”
“Thanks, Grace,” I said, taking the bag. “But I ain’t all that hungry.”
“The food is for the girl, numb-skull,” she said. “They could be starving her for all we know.”
“Right,” I said. “Sorry, wasn’t thinking.”
“No you weren’t,” she said. “You go get that girl, Norman.
“Yes ma’am,” I said.
“And, Norman?” She said as I turned to leave.
“If you gotta rough up them bastards that took her, then you just go ahead and do so,” she said.
“I plan to,” I said. Then I leaned down and kissed her on the check. “I most certainly plan to.”
Ten minutes later I was heading south down County Road Two Thousand. The pull grew stronger the further I went, and when I was just ten minutes out of town, the pull directed me to the right and an abandoned building that had been sitting there next to the highway since the late Seventies.
I ignored the pull and passed by, not an easy task when magic is at play. But if that empty building was where the Brotherhood was keeping Maggie, driving right up to the place would go a big step toward announcing my presence to anyone inside. Especially if they were watching, and they’d be stupid not to be.
I found a side road a half a mile down the highway. I took it, turning right.
Gravel crunched and popped out from under the tires as I looked for a good place to pull over. It’s one of the little things you have to think about before you storm what might be a fortress chock full of murderous zealots and one dark wizard: Where to park the car.
It wasn’t long before I came across an access road that one of the local farmers used to get their equipment in and out of the field to my left. Just beyond that was a small copse of trees. I parked behind those so the car wouldn’t be seen from the road.
The sun had begun to set. I would be dark soon, but I still had a couple of hours before midnight. I’d packed the essentials before going back to Oz’s place. I went around and opened up the back of the Scout to retrieve them.
First, I’d need ammunition. I always prefer to go into one of these little capers without firing a single bullet, but that’s rarely ever happened. It’s like the old saying goes: I’d rather bring along two guns and a few dozen shells and not need them then to come to face to face with a colony of goblins and not have anything to shoot them with. It’s a fairly common saying in my circles anyway.
I packed the ammunition in my backpack along with a flashlight, a few chemical lights, the bag of food Grace had given me — A couple of sandwiches and a chunk of cold roast beef — along with a canteen of water. I’d also packed an assortment of magical items just in case.
I took of the coat and tossed it into the back of the Scout before pulling on the backpack.
Once I was ready I set off north, back the way I had come, back to where the tracking potion was pulling me. The empty building.
I could see it there silhouetted against the horizon. I’d driven by the beast most days for as long as I can remember, yet I can’t recall what the building had been used for before it had been abandoned. To me it looked like the kind of massive structure that would house a factory of some sort. I could imagine rows of assembly line machines and employees in grease-stained coveralls working the line, pushing through whatever product the factory had been built to make.
But I’d never heard of a working factory out here in the hundred or so years I’ve lived in Eudora. I’ve always ignored the place, wrote it off as I drove by, and I was beginning to wonder if, after all this time, that that was something the place, the building, wanted to happen.
That took my thoughts down a path I didn’t want them to go, so I continued forward, trekking across the unplanted field toward the old factory, pushing the thoughts that were forming in my brain regarding the building being alive out of my head.
But then, as the darkness fell one last thought slipped in. What if that’s what the building had wanted?
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