Doorbuster

As it appeared in the JordanCon anthology “You Want Stories.” Anthology edited by Richard Fife. Story edited by Robyn Huss.

The last time Taryn stepped foot in a MagiMart, she accidentally set the store on fire. She was a kid then, and her parents had brought up her “destiny” for the millionth time. That was long ago, in a different part of the country, well before the store and the magic world had gone public.

Taryn paused at the storefront. If the signs were to be believed, the massive sales on wands, cauldrons, and select potions were “today only.” However, she was sure she had seen the same sale at least four times in the past three months. She walked past the crowd lining up next to the front entrance and stopped at an automatic sliding glass door. Cool dark brown skin, Bantu knots, and the most professional-looking blouse and pants she owned glared back at her. She sighed as the door slid open and disappeared her unsmiling reflection. MagiMart wasn’t the first job she’d applied for, but it was the only place that called her back. She had avoided the branch since it opened a year earlier. The Bible Belt used to be a place where she could get away from the magic world, a place where magic was frowned upon. A place where she could lead a normal life and work on her art without her parents nagging her into using sorcery or going into the family business. But, since it exploded into the mainstream…

Taryn took a deep breath. The negativity was not helping. She psyched herself up and stepped through the door. It appeared not much had changed to their standard layout since her last visit. MagiMart’s employees were still conveniently color-coded. The store’s salesforce wore traditional purple wizard robes with pointed floppy hats. She walked toward the closest Purple Robe and checked her badge. “Hi, um…New April?”

The pale, freckled woman laughed and brushed a patch of strawberry blond hair behind an ear sporting a dangling cat earring. “Yeah. There was already an April here when I started.”

“Guess that’s a good way to tell you two apart.”

“Oh, she quit a while ago.”

Taryn blinked.

“Anyway…sorry, but we don’t open ‘til nine.”

Taryn considered taking that as her cue to leave, but pushed forward. “Oh, I know. I’m not here to shop, I’m here—”

“I’m sorry, sir, but we don’t allow pets in the store.”

Taryn peeked over her shoulder. Another Purple Robe blocked a jittery bearded man in tattered rags. The raggedy man held a black cat with back-turned ears and a poofed tail.

“S’not my pet, s’my familiar!”

“Sir, familiars have auras that match their humans’. That cat has no aura and is biting your hand. I’m pretty sure it’s a stray.”

Taryn refocused and turned back to New April. “I’m here for the Conjure Crew interview.”

New April replied, but Taryn missed it over the loud yelp from the bearded man. No longer shaking, he grasped his bleeding catless hand. The man’s eyes cleared, and he glanced around as if he’d just come out of a stupor. “MagiMart? This Phoenix? What happened to my clothes!?”

“You’re in Knoxville, sir.” The other Purple Robe’s name tag said Mike, and Mike sounded annoyed.

“Tennessee? How? Last thing I remember is drinking some AstralMessage and then there was a lot of trash around me and a cat…I really should be in Phoenix…you have ports?”

“Ports are for paying customers, sir.”

“But I paid for the A.M. back in Phoenix!”

Taryn sighed and turned to New April. “If you’d excuse me just one moment.” She strode over to the two men and tapped the bearded man’s shoulder. “I’m sorry, sir, did you say you drank an AstralMessage potion?”

The man gave her a skeptical look but nodded. “I did. Got it from MagiMart Phoenix. Drank it to talk to my grandkids. They were the ones who begged me to try it! Said it was better than FaceTime! Next thing I know I’m bleeding into a cat’s mouth! Kids and their new-fangled sorcery!”

“Do you have the bottle?”

He pulled a mostly empty round bottle from his pocket. “This was it.”

Taryn took the bottle, uncorked it, and sniffed. Coughing, she recorked it. She left the arguing men and brought the bottle to New April. “This,” she gestured with the bottle, “this is terrible and wrong. I’m no expert, so I could be mistaken, but it smells like there’s Doritos in here. Adding corn in any form to your standard astral projection potion could potentially pull you physically into the astral plane, not only causing disorientation and hallucinations, but if you have no experience with that kind of travel, you could end up anywhere. I think we may be lucky the worst he got was a few cat bites.”

New April stared wide-eyed at her.

Taryn peered at her feet and scratched behind one of her black bantu knots. “I could be… I mean, I’m probably wrong, but it might be worth looking into.”

New April nodded, took the bottle, and walked over to the two men. “So, it’s come to my attention that this potion may be faulty. Mike, don’t you think, given the circumstances, our customer deserves a trip home?”

“He hasn’t paid for anything.”

“He paid for the AstralMessage,” New April leaned in and whispered. “And we don’t want him contacting the Better Business Bureau to tell them we spiked his potion, do we?” She continued louder, “So, please escort our customer to storage.”

Mike nodded and ushered him to the back corner of the building.

New April beamed at Taryn. “Great catch! You’re gonna nail the interview!”

“I’m sorry; did you tell him to put that man in storage?”

New April laughed. “Oh, no. Our stockroom is in a pocket dimension that connects every MagiMart in the world. He’ll be back to Phoenix in no time. Come on, I’ll take you back to the Blue Robes.”

Taryn nodded and followed New April through a section that didn’t exist at the last MagiMart she visited. It was filled with fake shrunken heads, light-up wands that changed the TV channel, clothes, incense, charm bracelets, and other non-magical items for the normies.

The women emerged from the end of an aisle, passed a section of wands and staffs, and approached a counter along the back wall. A tanned man with frosted bangs sat on the counter, sanding a wooden staff. A bottle of wood glue sat next to him. On the wall behind him leaned a woman with tawny skin, facial piercings, short black hair, and the word “PAN!C” scrawled across her nametag. She played a noisy game on her cell phone. They both wore blue robes and pointed wizard hats with white stars dotting them. As tech support of the magic world, their job was to man the phones and repair counter in the back of the store and take your case if your magic spell, potion, or foci didn’t work properly.

“Okay, this is where you need to be. Good luck!” New April gave her a thumbs-up, then disappeared into a door next to the counter.

Taryn pointedly faced the two Blue Robes and waited. Neither stirred. Taryn cleared her throat.

“PAN!C” glanced up, then back to her phone. “We’re closed.”

Swallowing her desire to tell the woman off, Taryn put on a faux smile. She knew this was a job she could fake her way through and didn’t want to blow it before the interview. This would be her first actual interview in over five years; she could use the practice. Taryn cleared her throat again.

The man kept sanding. “She said we’re closed.”

Taryn hesitated. “I’m here for the interview.”

The man dropped the staff against the counter and met Taryn’s gaze, surprised. “RED!” He hopped off the counter and shoved a hand out to Taryn. “RED! THE INTERVIEW’S HERE!” He grabbed Taryn’s hand and shook. “Jordan. Behind me is Trudy.”

“Sup?” Trudy didn’t move.

“I’m Taryn. Nice to meet you both.”

“So, you’re new. Do you know?” Jordan gave her a cocky grin.

Taryn hoped her face looked skeptical. “Know…what exactly?”

Jordan snapped his fingers. “Incendiumbo.” A small flame danced in the air just above his hand. “Magic. It’s real. We’re not just gag gifts.”

Trudy groaned at him. Great, a showoff. When his smug grin didn’t disappear, Taryn drew a wand from her back pocket and pointed it at the fire. “Glacienus.”

With a metallic snap, the flame turned into an ice sculpture of itself and crashed to the floor.

Trudy guffawed. “Ignore Jordo. We’ve been trying to train him for months.” She put her phone in a robe pocket, brushed her bangs out of her brown eyes, and approached Taryn. Trudy grasped Taryn’s hand by the fingers, bent, and gave its back a kiss. She leered up through her lashes. “I’m Trudy Fan.”

Taryn pulled her hand away. “And I’m married. What is wrong with this place?”

Trudy chuckled and shook her head. “Messing with the newbies is way too easy.” She pulled out her phone and slid back against the wall.

“What’s going on out here?” A woman emerged from the door next to the counter, followed by New April. The newcomer wore a serious expression across her pale fawn skin. She had a jaw-length green bob and stone jewelry in her one visible gauged ear. Unlike the others, she was not in the standard wizard robes, but wore jeans and a Batman t-shirt. “Were these two a-holes messing with you?”

Trudy muttered to herself as she played her mobile game. “Oh, I hope we keep this one.”

Taryn glanced from Trudy to the new woman. “I’m just here for an interview.”

New April gave Taryn another double-thumbs-up and scuttled off between two aisles.

The newcomer smiled. “Taryn, right? I’m Red.”

Taryn finally shook someone’s hand without incident. “Yeah, I’m Taryn. I’m sorry; did you say your name was Red?”

Red nodded. “Yeah, it’s a nickname. For the hair.”

“But it’s green.”

“Today it is, yes.” Red pulled a well-read brown booklet from her back pocket and handed it to Taryn. “This is the Little Brown Book. You’ll get one when you’re hired on. You’ll also be getting your own wand when you start. By the way, are you up to speed on all of this? I know we’ve been public for a bit now, but there are still a lot of skeptics out there. Do I need to give you the ‘magic is real’ spiel?”

Taryn smirked and drew her wand.

Red’s eyes widened. “My gods! That is gorgeous! May I?” Taryn nodded and handed the wand to Red. “This inlay…and the wood…what’s it made from?”

Taryn coughed into her hand and peered down at her feet, embarrassed. “It’s just oak.”

“This doesn’t look like the oak we have here.”

“It’s from the forest of Brocéliande.”

Red stared at Taryn and returned her wand. “Get out! That’s amazing!”

Taryn hated coming off like she was bragging, so she shrugged like it was no big deal. Changing the subject, Taryn pointed at the Little Brown Book and chuckled. “So, is there a Big Brown Book?”

“Yes. And if it appears, you grab it, turn to any page, and start reading. As fast as you can.”

“What?”

“It doesn’t stick around very long.”

“What?” Taryn was so confused. The place kept getting stranger and stranger.

Red’s mouth curled into a half smile. “MagiMart’s been around for a long time. I’m talking Medieval. The Big Brown Book was the employee handbook. It’s so old it’s rumored to have some actual Nostratic spells in it. It was enchanted to appear before every new hire. But we went from a couple of locations in Europe to a modern-sized global corporation.”

Taryn’s mind processed what that meant. “Wait, so that one book appears in front of every single new employee at every single MagiMart?”

Jordan glanced up from the staff he was sanding. “And every new corporate employee, and every seasonal hire, and every consultant, and every contractor, and every delivery driver. It never stops jumping. Every time it appears, we try to write down what we can to recompile it. I didn’t get anything new, just a couple pages about the uniforms.”

Still engrossed by her phone, Trudy snorted. “I got a page on neutralizing zombies.”

“I got a body swap spell. Switched bodies with my old boss. Took over a week to reverse. That was awkward.” Red winked. “So, when it appears, just open it and read.”

Were they crazy? No way she’d do that. “I’d prefer not to switch bodies with…any of you. No offense.”

Red waved away her concern. “It’s fine. We know how to fix that now. Anyway, most of what you’ll do around here involves answering the phones.” Red indicated the phones on the counter. They each had a red blinking light. “Trudy, turn off the recording.”

Trudy gaped at Red as if she had suggested having a root canal without sedation. “But—that would make the phone ring! Out loud!”

“Yes, it would.”

“But—we’re not open!”

“I want to give Taryn an idea of what support calls are like before the sale starts and it gets busy.” Red turned to Taryn. “The calls aren’t too bad, but they’ve gotten worse since we went public. The normies don’t seem to be able to grasp even the most basic of concepts, especially when it comes to potions.”

“I’m surprised it isn’t worse. How do you not have every normie in town buying stuff they have no business using?”

“Most of the store is under a perception ward.” Red pointed to some clothing racks and a smattering of aisles in the center of the building. “Unless you’re magically inclined or the front greeter adds you to a filter because you know what to ask for, you can only see the center of the store where all the clothing and toys are. You look anywhere else and your eyes just slide right back to safe merch or the cash registers. To shop in most of the store, normies have to at least do some research.”

Taryn’s jaw dropped. A perception ward of that scale took a lot of juice.

Trudy hadn’t moved since Red asked her to turn on the phones. Red glared at her.

Trudy huffed and dragged herself to the bank of four blinking phones. She extended a finger to a button at the bottom of a phone and paused. “You’re serious?”

“Yes! And put it on speaker so Taryn can hear.”

Trudy let out a dramatic sigh, then pressed the button. The phone rang, and she pushed another button. “Thanks for contacting the Conjure Crew, my name is Trudy. Can I get your name and the product you’re calling about, please?”

An angry male voice crackled over the speakerphone. “Yeah, your potions are a piece of crap!”

Trudy winced.

Red whispered to Taryn, “We get this call a lot.”

Trudy took a deep breath and leaned closer to the speaker. “I’m so sorry you’re not happy with the potion you purchased. But first, could I get your name, please?” The curt husky sarcasm was gone, and in its place was a much more professional, almost Disney-princess tone.

“What do you need my name for?”

“So I know what to call you.”

“Fine. Joe.”

“Thank you, Joe. What potion did you purchase and what happened when you used it?”

“I wanted to propose to my girlfriend by popping out of the pool when she walked up. But your stupid potion didn’t work and I almost drowned!”

Trudy face-palmed, took a deep breath, then forced a smile. “Oh, no!” She paused to point a finger to her open mouth and fake vomit. The smile was back before she continued. “It’s upsetting when the potion you paid good money for doesn’t work.”

“Damned right!”

“But I’d like to ask you a few questions to figure out what went wrong. It sounds like you were trying to breathe under water. Am I correct that the potion in question is ScubaNatural?”

“That’s the one! It doesn’t work! I want a refund!”

“Did you shake the bottle vigorously before drinking it?”

“I don’t know. Why would I do that?”

Trudy’s face became smug, but you couldn’t hear it in her voice. “That’s why it didn’t work.”

“What?”

“ScubaNatural is inactive unless mixed; its ingredients tend to settle when unused. If you look at the instructions that came with your bottle, it says in large capital letters to shake vigorously for thirty seconds before use.”

“No one told me that at the store!”

“If you only took the recommended sip, there should still be enough for several more applications. Shake it up, take a single swig, and it will start working immediately.”

“Well—good! I guess I’ll try again. But if I have any more trouble, I’m calling back!”

“Thank you for calling the Conjure Crew, have a great day!” Trudy jammed a finger at the button that turned the recording back on, grabbed her pointy wizard hat, shoved it into her mouth, and screamed as loud as she could.

Red sighed. “Oh, come on. It wasn’t that bad.”

Trudy peered over her hat. “He. Didn’t. Read. The. Instructions! It only has one!”

Red placed a hand on Taryn’s shoulder. “Don’t listen to her. She majored in drama!” She sang the last word. “That’s pretty typical, though. Reminding normies to read the directions is over half of what we do.”

“Did she get it?” New April reappeared holding two hesitant thumbs next to her chest. “How’d she do?” Her gaze darted to Taryn. “How’d you do? New team member?”

Taryn shook her head. “Oh, we haven’t even done the interview yet.”

Red slapped a hand down on the counter and grinned. “Well, about that. You’re not getting one.”

Taryn felt confused and a little angry. “But—I mean—I’m not great at all this stuff, but I’m a fast learner and—”

“Oh, no. You misunderstand. What I mean is the interview’s not necessary. The job’s yours if you want it.”

Taryn’s mouth opened, but nothing came out. She wasn’t sure how to feel. On the one hand, she wanted a job, any job. On the other hand, it was customer service. Magical customer service at that. Either way, she wanted an interview more than the job. “But, how will you know if I’m good enough without an interview?”

“New April told me how you handled that AstralMessage business.” New April waved at the mention of her name. “I checked the bottle myself, and you were right. You have good instincts and a natural talent we could use.”

That was not how Taryn pictured it going. “Oh, that. I just got lucky. It was all New April, anyway. She—”

“Bullcrap. She did the procedural stuff, which was her job. You troubleshot the issue and figured out the solution. That’s what we do here. If you want the job, it’s yours.” Red held out a hand.

Taryn glanced from person to person. New April barely contained her giddiness. Trudy eyed Taryn with a smirk. Jordan was trying to act nonchalant, but he couldn’t hide a grin either. It was like they all expected her to jump at the opportunity. Taryn’s eyes shot back to Red’s expectant smile. “I… Are you serious? You don’t know anything about me. That could have been a fluke!”

“I know enough. And as far as I’m concerned, you’re hired.”

PAF!

A giant brown leather-bound tome with gold capped corners and an inlaid rectangular, symmetrical design appeared in front of Taryn’s face.

Everyone froze.

Red pointed. “Grab it!”

Taryn seized the book. “But I haven’t said yes!”

“Doesn’t matter! Put it on the table!” Red jumped up and slid across the counter as Taryn put the book down. “Now, open it to any page and start reading!”

“Why me?”

Red grabbed a pad and paper from under the counter and got ready to write. “Because the book came to you! Read!”

Everyone gathered around. Taryn took a deep breath and let the book fall open to a random page. She didn’t know why she was so nervous; it was hard to mess up reading. She started at the top of the page on the right. “—following incantation: Surrecturus sit daemonium Falfekfh’ton. Once spoken, Falfekfh’ton will rise and destroy all that surrounds him until he is contained.” Taryn’s gaze slid up from the volume, terror on her face.

Red swallowed. “Well, crap.”

Trudy erupted in nervous laughter. “Well, on the bright side, that was definitely a page we didn’t already have.”

New April’s long hair blew out from her hat. Taryn noticed tags and signs flipping as if from an indoor breeze. “What’s happening?”

“I think we just summoned a demon. Quick, does it say anything about reversal?” Red pointed at the book.

Taryn flipped the page back and forth. “I don’t know! Maybe? My Latin’s rusty!”

“We don’t have much time! It never stays for more than a couple minutes!”

Jordan grabbed for the book. “Can we use the glossary? Find a generic banishment spell?”

Red slapped his hand away. “There’s not enough time!”

In a panic, Taryn grabbed a page and ripped it out. Everyone stared in stunned silence.

The book vanished.

Red grabbed the page from Taryn. “What did you do!?”

“I panicked!”

“No one has ever ripped a page out before!”

“I’m sorry!”

“No, you’re brilliant! What made you think of it?”

“I wasn’t thinking!”

Red read over the page. “Okay, there’s got to be something useful here…”

If there was, Taryn didn’t hear it over the roar and crash in the foci section not far away. Wands, staffs, shelves, and flooring shot into the air as something exploded from the ground.

Tendrils of shadow slithered across the sparkling purple terrazzo floor, then flicked into the air. A massive hand reached from the depths of the newly formed chasm. The clawed hand was so black it looked like an arm-shaped hole in the air. An equally dark pair of hunched shoulders and head followed. The…thing was completely black, save a pair of glowing red eyes and sharp bright white teeth that made it look like a cartoon come to life. A very scary cartoon.

“What is that thing?” Taryn pulled herself along the counter toward Red.

The creature raised its giant head so the flattened horns curving up from its temples almost touched the ceiling and roared. “I AM FALFEKFH’TON, DARK LORD OF THE SHADOW REALM! WHO SUMMONED ME!?”

“That answer your question?” Red flipped the page from the Big Brown Book and skimmed it. “The only thing potentially useful here is the demon’s sigil.”

“Are you telling me I ripped out the wrong page!? Why did you make me read it!?”

“Because we might not have had that page documented yet! And we didn’t!”

“Oh, great! I’m so glad I found the shadow demon page! Why was that page even in there? Who uses an employee handbook to summon a demon that destroys everything?”

“YOU!”

The crew’s attention snapped up to a glowing red eye staring at them. Taryn screamed.

Red grabbed Taryn and pulled her over the counter. Taryn saw Trudy and Jordan diving in the opposite direction before Red dragged her through the breakroom door.

Red pulled her past a table and u-turned toward a different door. As they ran, Red waved a hand at some motivational cat posters and a coffee pot sitting on a counter. “Breakroom. Never-ending coffee. Safe haven from customers.”

Red yanked Taryn toward the exit. Taryn glanced to her right when she heard what sounded like a bull crashing through a wall. The creature’s head and at least one arm tumbled onto the breakroom floor, pushing the table and chairs toward the fleeing women. They leapt through the doorway, back into the store.

Taryn took in her surroundings. The Conjure Crew counter was gone. In its place was a very large wiggling demon butt. Black tendrils and smoke draped from its back, pooling onto rubble in puddles of shadow. It looked stuck for now, but there were no humans in sight. “Red, what happened? Where’s the crew?”

Devastated, Red shook her head.

“Pssst!”

They spun toward the noise. New April waved at them from some bookshelves filled with giant tomes. They followed her and found Trudy and Jordan flipping through humongous dusty books.

Red relaxed. “I’m glad you guys are okay.”

Taryn was dumbfounded. “How? What happened?”

Jordan continued examining his book. “Camouflage spell. Everyone between these shelves looks like books.”

Trudy gestured at the actual books. “Wanna grab one and help us find spells?”

New April peered around the shelves toward where the counter used to be. “Guys, someone is gonna have to distract Mr. Dark Lord of the Shadow Realm before he pulls free of that wall, while some of us find spells, and all I can do is spot auras! I don’t know any magic! I don’t have the spark! What are we gonna do?”

Red grabbed her by the shoulders and looked directly into her eyes. “Everything is going to be okay. We’ve got this.”

New April nodded.

Red turned to Jordan. “Jordo, with me.”

Jordan pulled out his wand and hopped to his feet. “Sure thing, Boss.”

“Taryn? Help Trudy. Also,” she handed the ripped page to Taryn, “take this just in case.”

Taryn nodded and watched Red and Jordan run toward danger. She peeked around the shelves just long enough to see the shadow creature pull a hand free from the rubble while Red and Jordan shot ice from their wands to trap him. Those two were freaking crazy.

“Hey, Newbie.” Trudy waved at the ground next to her. “Grab a book and get crackin’.”

Taryn grabbed a volume and began scanning pages.

Trudy continued, “So, we’re looking for containment spells—specifically demons. Or—”

 “Or banishment spells. Doesn’t matter which dimension at this point. Well…almost. We don’t want to send Lord Fluffington to a dimension of innocents.”

Trudy whistled. “You do know your stuff. Why are you so hesitant to work here?”

Taryn glared at Trudy. Normally she’d just grunt without a response, but her survival was not certain at this point. The danger eroded her filter. “I don’t know if I want this job because my whole life, magic was ‘destiny.’” Taryn gave the last word finger quotes. “I was supposed to follow in my family’s footsteps and become some great sorceress like my mom. Only, I don’t want that. I just want to paint! I only came today because I wanted an interview so I could get some practice, and I didn’t even get that! Instead I’m told to read a random page from a disappearing book, and now I’m hiding and looking for containment spells while someone I barely know is distracting me while people could be dying!”

Trudy laughed so hard she collapsed on her book.

“Why are you laughing!?”

“Because you’re gonna do great here. We all have deep-seated family issues. Now breathe. I promise we’re gonna get through this.”

Taryn breathed in, then back out. It took a moment, but she calmed down. She almost felt normal again when Jordan landed on his back in front of them.

OOF!

“Jordan!” Trudy dropped her book.

“I’m alright… Ow! Just find a—”

A shadow tendril whipped out of nowhere and pulled him back over the shelves.

Trudy returned to her book. “Is there anything in yours?”

Taryn examined some pages. “Not unless we want to cast him into a vessel. I don’t know about you, but I wouldn’t wish forced-possession by that thing on anyone.”

“So that’s a bust. Wait—here!”

Trudy pulled out a pad and pen and started drawing. “Show me the demon sigil on that page you ripped out. Okay… This should at least buy us some time.” She ripped off the paper and handed it to Taryn. It had twelve symbols drawn in a circle. “Twelve o’clock is the breakroom, six is the entrance. You take one to six. I’ll take seven to twelve.”

Taryn stared at the glyphs. “And do what with them exactly?”

“Draw them! Paint them! Scratch them into the wall! Just get these symbols as close to these positions as possible! We make a circle, we can trap that thing in the store.”

“With us?”

“Better than letting it kill everyone outside.”

Taryn managed a nod and Trudy ran off.

New April peeked from behind a shelf. “What are you gonna do?”

Taryn pulled her wand from her back pocket and considered it. “Well, I did say I wanted to paint.” She pointed it at the floor in front of her. “Verdescessae!” A glob of green shot from her wand, and she moved it in the shape of a sigil from the paper. When it was done, she nodded at New April. “Stay here.”

Taryn ran and painted the appropriate symbols at two and three o’clock. When she got to four o’clock, she painted a symbol on the bathrooms, then pivoted toward five and stopped in her tracks. Red and Jordan were shooting fire and ice at the shadow demon across the store in the potions section while Trudy tried sneaking past to the ten and eleven o’clock positions.

Taryn winced as a voice boomed in her head. “I MUST RETURN TO MY REALM. A SOUL MUST BE SACRIFICED TO KOVAL TO OPEN A PORTAL. BE STILL, HUMANS. FALFEKFH’TON, DARK LORD OF THE SHADOW REALM, DEMANDS YOUR OBEDIENCE!”

She shook off the brain invasion and ran to the front entrance. The line for the sale had tripled since she arrived. Mike was outside trying to keep them organized. Taryn pointed her wand at the floor in front of the automatic door and painted her last sigil. With that done, she turned and tripped over a cat.

MROWWWW!

“Dammit, cat!”

The cat scampered off toward the customer service counter.

Taryn picked herself up off the ground and watched in horror as the shadow demon knocked bookshelves over on top of Red and Jordan, then stomped to where she left New April. “Red! Jordan! New April!” She wanted to run at the monster like Red, but she froze when it roared over a downed shelf, its ruby eyes boring at something or someone she couldn’t see.

Taryn jumped at a tap on her shoulder.

Trudy whispered, “Hey, I gotta do the twelve o’clock in what used to be the breakroom. You think you could distract Fluffington for me?”

The voice boomed in their heads again. “YOU!” Taryn spun back toward the monster. He locked eyes with her. “SUMMONER!”

“Yeah. I think I can manage that.”

Trudy winked. “You’re a doll, thanks.”

“I’m married!” Taryn yelled after her, attempting a smile.

“YOU WILL MAKE A SUITABLE SACRIFICE, SUMMONER!”

Taryn took a deep breath. “If you want me for a sacrifice, you’re gonna have to catch me!” Taryn turned and ran toward the front of the store and away from New April. She didn’t check behind her, but she heard potion ingredients and shelving crash to the floor.

“BE STILL, SUMMONER! YOU WILL SUBMIT TO FALFEKFH’TON, DARK LORD OF—”

“Yeah yeah, we know you’re from the Shadow Realm. You don’t have to keep reminding us.” Taryn was mostly nerves, but her adrenaline kicked in. She ran behind the clearance racks, pulled out her wand, and emerged on the other side aiming at Falfekfh’ton. “MANUUMNUR!”

Most of the rubble beneath the demon transformed into hands that grabbed the creature’s feet.

“WHAT IS THIS!? HOW DARE YOU ENSNARE FALFEKFH’TON!?” The beast roared and attempted to pull his feet free, but more rock hands clutched his arms.

Taryn breathed a sigh of relief, then turned her gaze to the back of the store. She could just see Trudy finishing the last sigil. All Trudy had to do was close the circle by imbuing it with magic. Just a few more minutes and the demon would be trapped.

“YOUR TRICKS CANNOT CONTAIN ME, SUMMONER!”

Taryn heard the cracking sound of rocks breaking and dashed for the exit. She pushed open the automatic doors and stumbled into the parking lot.

She expected to leave the chaos for calm quietness outside, but if anything, it was worse. Mike yelled over throngs of people shouting about the sale, and when they saw Taryn, she became their target.

“Hey, what’s going on!?” The shout came from multiple customers.

Taryn rubbed her eyes with her palms in frustration. “You should all go home! Now!”

The crowd erupted into incomprehensible yelling. After a moment, someone shouted over the rest, “What about the doorbuster!?”

A giant head of shadow crashed through the glass doors and roared into the heads of everyone outside. “SUMMONER!”

The crowd scattered. Some scrambled for their cars and fumbled to get inside. Most chose not to mess with keys and ran toward the road. Mike stayed and stared, slack-jawed.

Taryn gripped her wand. “So, Mike. We gotta drive that thing back into the store before Trudy finishes closing a circle. How are you with magic?”

“I…I play Magic…don’t have the spark, though.”

Taryn nodded. “Just me then.” She took a deep breath and faced the giant creature. There was officially no one else. Five years she’d been running, and here she was walking toward a demon from the Shadow Realm, wand ready, following in her mother’s footsteps. That last part was what angered her the most. Luckily, she had the perfect target to take it out on. “Hey! Fluff-face!”

Words filled her head and vibrated her bones. “FALFEKFH’TON! I HAVE NO FLUFF TO SPEAK OF!”

“Whatever, Fluffington. Let’s see what happens to shadow creatures when we turn on some lights. LUCESSAE!”

The tip of Taryn’s wand burst into blinding light, much brighter than the rising sun. Mike covered his eyes with his pointed hat, and Falfekfh’ton stumbled backward. Taryn pushed forward. The light pulsed into the demon. Step by step, she made her way back into the store as Falfekfh’ton roared and stumbled over the clearance racks.

“Trudy! Now would be a great time to close the circle!”

“On it!” Trudy waved aside the shelving she magicked off her trapped coworkers and sped to the closest sigil.

“Jordo, New April, let’s give these ladies some room to work and get the hell out of here!” Red and Jordan limped for the entrance, followed by New April.

Falfekfh’ton roared so loudly Taryn thought she might lose hold of her wand. “Trudy, any time now!”

The twelve sigils around the store lit up, then dimmed. “Okay, it’s done. Let’s go!”

“Run! Now!” The light from Taryn’s wand vanished as she spun and bounded for the front door—or what used to be the front door. Trudy made it to the parking lot first. Taryn was almost to the entrance when a shadowy tendril appeared over her shoulder. Pushing herself to her limit, she leapt over the demon’s own sigil and the tendril disappeared with a deep, ringing gong.

Falfekfh’ton roared at the edge of the containment circle. Taryn and the crew stood panting and watched as it slammed against the barrier over and over. “YOU CANNOT KEEP ME IN HERE FOREVER, HUMANS!”

Taryn caught her breath. “So, what are we gonna do about him?”

Red shrugged. “We may have to quarantine the store and count it as a loss.”

The entire crew slumped at the suggestion. Taryn looked at each of them, but stopped at New April who was fiddling with one of her dangling cat earrings.

“Wait, I may have an idea. New April, it involves you.”

New April started at hearing her name. “What? Who? Me? But I don’t magic!”

“I know. Those aren’t the skills I need.” Taryn explained her idea to stunned silence. When she finished, it took so long for anyone to respond, she was convinced they hated it.

Trudy spoke first. “Welp. It was nice knowing all of you.”

Red looked contemplative. “This could work. I’m in.”

“Me too!” New April was either shaking from excitement or anxiety. Probably both.

Taryn gestured to Falfekfh’ton slamming himself against the edge of the circle. “We still have to get past that.”

“I’ve got that part covered.” Red pointed at Mike. “Mike, stay here and send away customers. The rest of you, follow me.”

Red led the crew around to the back of the building. Next to some dumpsters and a loading area was a single door, labeled “Employees Only.” They slipped inside and took great care stepping over the rubble of what was once the breakroom.

Further inside, they all leaned against a mostly functional wall. Taryn addressed the group. “Okay, we’re back inside the circle. Now what?”

Red shook her head. “This is your show.”

Taryn swallowed. What had she gotten herself into? “Okay. Jordan? You stick with New April and keep her safe. New April?”

New April gave an awkward salute.

“Be careful. Check around Customer Service. Red? You’re on charm bracelet duty.”

“Gladly.”

“Trudy? Can you find the book I was reading earlier?”

“I sure as hell can.”

“I guess that leaves me on monster duty.” Taryn drew her wand. Jordan, Red, and Trudy followed suit. “I’ll go first, and the rest of you sneak out while I’ve got him distracted. Good luck.”

Everyone but New April touched wands. Taryn broke away and ran into the store. Falfekfh’ton still banged his fists against the front of the circle. She glanced to her left and watched Trudy disappear into the scattered bookshelves. To her right, Jordan and New April crouch-walked through some toppled potion shelves. Red passed her and ducked behind a foci shelf that was somehow still standing. The demon belted out an incomprehensible roar at the front of the store. Taryn kept an eye on everyone and skulked forward. If the others were fast enough, she might not even be needed.

Falfekfh’ton quieted and became very still. Taryn’s heart caught in her throat. Then her bones rattled. “SUMMONER…!”

Lucessae!” Taryn flicked her wand toward the demon before he had a chance to turn around. He was expecting it this time. Hundreds of shadowy tendrils rose from the floor and blocked the wall of light. She pushed forward anyway, but a lone tendril came from nowhere and knocked her wand away. She grabbed a random staff from the floor, swept it into the air, and slammed it to the ground. “Scutuessae!

Hundreds of tendrils slammed against an invisible dome around Taryn and were deflected away, but they didn’t stop. Taryn strained against the continued onslaught. She tried to see what everyone else was doing, but the mass of shadow tentacles pounding against her shield was too thick.

Through no action of her own, the tendrils were replaced by a wall of light. “Gods damn, girl. You’ve got some power!”

“Thanks, Red!” Taryn dropped the staff and pointed to her wand. “Transferaecis!” The wand flipped to her hand, and she pointed it at the demon, matching Red’s spell. “You get it?”

With her free hand, Red tossed a charm bracelet to Taryn. “With all the requested modifications.”

“And I’ve got the book!” Trudy ran up and dropped the tome on the floor in front of Taryn. “Here, let me help with that.” She pulled out a black wand with a skeletal design embossed on it.

Taryn let Trudy take over her position, pocketed her wand, and flipped through the book to the page she wanted. She found it as Jordan and New April arrived. “Hey guys, you find it?”

New April lifted her hands into view. She held a very angry cat by the scruff. “Yeah, he was in a box behind the service desk. Are you sure this is safe?”

“No. But it’s the best option we’ve got.” Taryn threw the charm bracelet to Jordan. “You know what to do. Wait ‘til the last possible moment.”

Jordan nodded, “Got it.”

Taryn went over the spell one last time, then stood. “Is everyone ready?”

Everyone nodded agreement. Even the cat meowed.

“Okay.” Taryn pulled her wand back out of her pocket. “Here we go—”

“WHAT DO YOU THINK YOU ARE DOING, SUMMONER? THERE IS ONLY ONE WAY TO BE RID OF ME AND THAT IS THROUGH YOUR DESTRUCTION!”

“Shut up, Fluffington!”

“FALFEKFH’TON!”

Taryn pointed her wand at the demon and began chanting. “Daemonium in umbra, transgrederis et feles! Daemonium in umbra, facti sunt felem!”

A wind picked up in the store and Falfekfh’ton roared. “SUMMONER! WHAT ARE YOU DOING!? I CANNOT BE CONTAINED BY FLESH!”

Daemonium in umbra!”

Falfekfh’ton erupted into thousands of tendrils that spewed in every direction. Red dropped her light spell and put up a shield around the crew. The tendrils bounced off the shield, but they also pushed back Jordan’s lone light spell. The demon turned on Taryn.

“SUMMONER! YOU CANNOT STOP MY DESTRUCTION! YOU SHALL BE—”

Transgrederis et feles!” Taryn shouted as Falfekfh’ton leapt toward her. An inch closer and she would have been demon food, but her spell kicked in, and Falfekfh’ton dissipated into a formless shadow. She pointed her wand at the scruffed cat. New April winced. “Facti sunt felem!

A wind blasted through the store. The cat hissed and yowled as the amoebic shadow poured into it. When no more shadow could be seen, Taryn shouted, “Jordan! NOW!

Jordan clasped the charm bracelet around the cat’s neck, and New April dropped him. He landed on his feet, and the wind in the store died. Taryn dropped her wand to her side and collapsed.

Trudy leaned over the cat and poked it with her toe. “Did it work?”

The cat glared at Trudy; the bracelet surrounded its neck like a collar with twelve charms, adorned with the same sigils that were painted around the store. A familiar voice boomed into their heads, but not powerful enough to shake their bones. “HOW DARE YOU CONTAIN ME IN THIS VESSEL?”

“It worked.” Red relaxed.

“But, what do we do with him?” Jordan looked to Taryn for an answer.

“Don’t look at me! I’m all out of plans.”

Trudy shrugged. “We could keep the store warded so he can’t leave. He could be our cute fluffy mascot.”

“FALFEKFH’TON IS NEITHER CUTE NOR FLUFFY!”

Red shrugged. “I’m okay with Lord Fluffington being our store mascot if no one else objects.”

“FALFEKFH’TON!”

New April picked up Lord Fluffington and scratched behind his ears.

“WHAT IS THIS HUMAN DOING? YOU CANNOT LIFT A DEMON OF THE SHADOW REALM! WE ARE FAR TOO GR— OH! THAT IS PLEASING. THIS VESSEL APPROVES OF YOUR EAR SCRATCHES. NOW DO SO TO ITS POSTERIOR!”

“I’ve never heard a demon purr before.” Red laughed. “So, Taryn. You never answered me. The job’s yours if you want it.”

Taryn glanced around at the disaster of a store. “Is there even a job left?”

“Oh, we’ll have this cleaned up in an hour.”

Taryn looked Red in the eyes. After everything that had happened, answering that question made her more nervous than facing Fluffington. After running for so long, did she really want to commit so fully to her old life?

“It’s okay if you don’t want it. I understand what it’s like looking for a job. But if you don’t mind, may I ask what’s making it so difficult?”

Taryn swallowed. “I grew up with magic. I even had a magical education. It was kind of the family business. But…I’ve never really been interested in it.”

“What are you interested in?”

“Art. Illustration. Painting.”

“Tell you what. The job market is crap right now. And you’re good at this. Take the job, get paid, and no one here will hold it against you if you keep looking while you’re here. And you can paint in the breakroom all you want.”

Taryn gazed around the store again. “Would you still want me if I told you this wasn’t the first MagiMart I destroyed?”

Red laughed. “Of course!”

Taryn’s eyes swept back to Red. Taryn’s parents and everyone else from her old life were far away. She could start over with these people. Maybe she could have it both ways. She thrust out her hand. “Alright, I’m in.”

Red shook her hand, and everyone cheered. Well, everyone except Lord Fluffington. “HUMANS. MY VESSEL REQUIRES SUSTENANCE. I DEMAND NOURISHMENT!”

“I guess I’ll go feed the cat.” New April, demon cat in hand, spun and shuffled toward the Purple Robe breakroom.

“Excuse me, are you open?” The crew turned to a customer stepping over some rubble. They glanced from him to the disaster of a store then back again. “It’s nine thirty, so you’ve gotta be open. It’s the law.”

Trudy rolled her eyes and darted toward the back of the store. “Not it!”

Red shrugged. “I mean, we’re technically open.”

The man pulled out a potion bottle. “These things are a piece of crap! I should sue you for false advertising!”

“Not it!” Jordan pivoted and limped after Trudy.

Red grinned and slapped Taryn on the back. “Looks like you’ve got your first official customer. Good luck!” And with that, Red was on her way to the back as well.

Taryn gaped at the man. “Uhhh . . .” As he launched into his story that included way too much unnecessary personal background information, Taryn wondered if she had made the right decision. But even through all the uncertainty, there was part of her that could not wait to tell this man to read the directions and then go try on her blue robe and hat.

The Conjure Crew will return in Factory Defect