The large vehicle was buried under the accumulation of odds and ends from over a half-century. Uncovering it was a tremendous effort. If only Zhanna and Mary had been working on it, unburying it would’ve taken them days. Showing an organizational skill that Zhanna had never suspected, Mary had asked for help from the village in general. Two of the mercenaries that were in town between assignments had volunteered to help. Willie and Mark were middle-aged and serious, veterans of many contracts. They had both worked with Zhanna’s brother and came in to help, silently and without looking her directly in the face. She wasn’t sure if it was guilt or something else but was simply pleased with their assistance.
The two mercs were joined by a young man that was not from the village. In fact, no one in the village had ever seen him before. He had arrived earlier that morning, walking in from the main road. His body showed the gangliness of teenage years. Looking a bit like a mobile scarecrow, he had jerky movements and hunched shoulders. His dark hair and eyes reminded Zhanna of others in the village, and he looked faintly familiar. She just couldn’t remember where she had seen him, but she was positive that she had seen him before.
His mumbled introduction had been simply his name, Ivan. He asked no questions. Instead, he got to work immediately and continued with a focused ferocity that surprised all of them. The two women were glad he was there because his efforts added to that of the mercs made sure that the job was done quickly. Every once in a while, Zhanna would look up to see that he had been watching her. His quickly shuttered expression of desperate hope made her uncomfortable, and she had hoped that he would say something to her about why he had come.
It had been several hours, and he had not said anything to her. However, he certainly knew how to work. With the five of them all doing what they could, it only took a couple of hours to dig out the vehicle so that the tarp could be pulled away.
Zhanna feared that after all this work that the vehicle was not going to be any good. Mary had insisted that the car was something that her great-grandfather had gotten as a reward for his mercenary work and that it should be in working order. Zhanna hoped Mary was right.
Finally, they were at the point where the vehicle was no longer buried, and the surrounding floor space had been cleared. It was time to see what they had.
<< If I had a horn, I would blow it. But since I don’t, I won’t. >>
<< Dascha! This is serious so stop trying to make me laugh. >>
Willie and Mark each grabbed a corner of the tarp and peeled it away from the car, like a banana skin being pulled off the fruit. In the dim light of the shed, they could all see the vehicle.
At first, Zhanna did not know what she was looking at. The car was massive, with dusty dark blue paint and chrome trim. The Russian-made Buick looked more like a tank than it did a modern car. But the glass windows were without defect, and even the paint seemed to be in good condition. Considering its age, it was better than she had any right to expect. Breathing a sigh of relief, Zhanna looked over at the other woman happily. Smiling tiredly, the young witch said, “It looks amazing! Thank you so much, Mary.”
Mary just nodded, offering up her own exhausted smile. The two women watched quietly as the three men dusted off the vehicle, closed opened valves, checked a variety of fluids, and added gasoline to the empty tank.
Dascha was watching these preparations with an unblinking stare and motionless pose. Turning her eyes to follow the cat’s intent gaze, Zhanna watched for a while before addressing her familiar, << It looks like some form of arcane ritual, complete with chanting. >>
<< A new spell of transportation? Not one I’m familiar with. >>
<< Oh dear, first snark now bad puns. >>
<< It’s a new skill. >>
The car had seen better days. It was filled with dust and anonymous debris gathered through decades of hidden existence. The three men had been extremely enthusiastic throughout the process. Zhanna had heard but never experienced before, the affinity men seemed to have for vehicles. It was on full display as the men exclaimed in the discovery of features and functions, happily analyzing the size and capability of the car.
The younger man, Ivan, was especially taken with the vehicle. His rather solemn face lit with enthusiasm and he became far more animated than when Zhanna had first met him. She was conscious of the fact that he kept glancing sideways at her when he thought that she wasn’t looking at him. Briefly, she wondered what it was that he saw or wanted.
<< It’s a bit curious. I don’t think he is particularly attracted to you, but he really wants to ask you something. I just can’t tell what. >>
<< I know, Dascha. I can almost feel a desperate need for an answer, but I don’t know what to do about that. It certainly isn’t because he’s attracted to me. >>
<< Da, I know. I’m sure he would want you to have his kittens, but that’s not what he’s thinking about. A cat can tell these things. >>
<< Really!? Sometimes you are just disgusting! >>
<< It’s a feature. >>
Before Zhanna could continue their discussion, the tone of the men’s conversation changed. There was a note of worry that crept into their voices. The young witch straightened up from where she had been leaning against the wall and walked over to them.
“Is there some sort of problem?” she asked.
Mark answered her quickly, “Almost everything looks good, Zhanna, but this car has been sitting for so long that it is possible that it may not start. We are going to try helping it to start with assistance from one of our cars to see if it is capable of running. Whoever wrapped it up was smart enough to drain the gasoline and most of the other fluids out of it, so we don’t have to deal with a big mess. We replaced most of them and we think it should start but the battery obviously is worn down by age and lack of use.”
Zhanna’s look of incomprehension encouraged him to continue talking. He smiled briefly and said, “I think it will run, and if it does then everything but one problem will have been solved.” The young witch tilted her head in inquiry, so he finally got to the point she wanted to know. “Its tires are too old. They are almost powdered. We cannot patch tires that are this flat or are this full of holes.”
Willie chimed in, “Let’s first see how the engine is. That would be the biggest problem, and if that works, we can then deal with the tires.”
Just then, there was a sputtering and a ragged response from the engine. Spinning in surprise, Zhanna and the two mercs saw that Ivan had climbed into the front seat and started the car. It ran raggedly at first but soon evened out and began to produce a powerful but muted roar. The men excitedly hurried over to talk with Ivan and look inside the hood of the idling car. Ivan had a broad smile on his face and was cheerfully responding to the two older men.
<< Zhanna? That boy is a witch. He helped the car to start, magically. >>
<< That’s an interesting twist. Now I really need to know what he wants from me. >>
<< I will watch him. >>
Willie called out to Zhanna, “It’s running really well. Now if we had good tires it would be all set.”
Zhanna thought for a moment. All of the practice that she been doing with the spell books from Blagogarsk had been pure practice and drill. She hadn’t done anything that was practical with the spells yet, and it worried her that she didn’t know how to apply the theory of the base spell to the reality of need. Perhaps this was the place where she could try something.
Taking a deep breath, she said, “I think I may know something to do. It may not work, but I think it’s worth a try.”
All three of the men stared at her, some in question, some in challenge.
Dascha asked, << Are you sure you want to try this? >>
<< I am not sure that I want to, but I think I need to. >>
“Mark, tell me what a sturdy tire would look like and its characteristics. I know nothing about cars, and I need to have an understanding of the tires before I can try a spell.”
Willie interrupted, saying, “I have never heard a spell that would do something with a tire. Are you sure this is something that you can and should be doing?”
Although she had expressed her doubts to Dascha, Zhanna was tired of putting up with disparaging remarks. She responded evenly and forcefully, “I think it’s a reasonable way of testing a spell. It’s one that I’ve learned recently, and this seems like a good place to try it out, providing that you two can tell me what a tire is supposed to be like. If you can’t tell me, I will find somebody else who can.”
Mark said placatingly, “I can certainly tell you what a tire is supposed to be. Just because we’ve never heard of a spell like the one you’re talking about, doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. And I, for one, would be interested in learning useful spells if you find and test them out.”
It was obvious from the expression on Willie’s face that he didn’t necessarily agree but he wasn’t willing to confront Zhanna again right now. He simply stepped back with a skeptical look plastered all over his face, folded his arms across his chest, and waited.
Mark began to explain the use and shape of a car tire. He talked about the tire shape and that it was attached to the vehicle with bolts. He covered the desire to make the tire impermeable so that it did not easily go flat. He also explained that the tire outside was made of rubber. He stressed the need for sturdy tires that would not wear out quickly on rough roads. It was a very short introduction to a topic that he obviously loved, distilled down into only a few sentences for the young witch’s understanding.
Once Mark was done, Zhanna motioned the men away from the vehicle. She could feel the weight of Mary’s gaze on her back and the comforting presence of Dascha along their familiar bond. Mentally centering herself, Zhanna waited until she felt stable and subvocalized the words of the spell just like she had done in practice. Holding the shape and characteristics that Mark described in her mind, she gathered her will and intent, channeling them along her arms and through her open hands toward the car.
There was an explosion of light and a muffled sound. The car jerked and raised as the old tires were replaced with unflattened versions. The air resonated with a curiously muffled clanging sound that shivered through the spectator’s bones and rattled the walls of the shed.
All three men wore identical looks of disbelief on their faces. Willie slowly approached the vehicle as if he were afraid that it would either disappear or somehow attack him. He touched the fender of the car with a hand that shook slightly and bent over to examine the tire. Straightening quickly, face paled in surprise, he took one step back and spun in place to stare at Zhanna. “It looks like a new tire!”
Looking slightly calmer, Mark walked over to the vehicle. He didn’t bend down, but he looked at each of the tires in turn. After going around the vehicle once, he marched over to Zhanna, planting himself directly in front of her. He looked her in the face, half in entreaty and half in challenge.
“They look perfect. Totally perfect.”
“I just tried to create the things that you had told me about,” responded Zhanna.
Mark stared at her wordlessly for an instant more before walking back to the car. Ivan had approached it while Zhanna and Mark were talking, carefully examining each of the tires in turn. As Mark rejoined him, Ivan addressed the older man, “There are no tire valves. How will we refill the tires?”
“Zhanna, how much air pressure did you put in the tires?” asked Mark.
“Air? You didn’t say anything about air!” answered Zhanna.