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     I knew better than to argue or waste time asking questions. I sprinted back for the car, fear churning in my stomach. Nothing like this had happened before. Cooper had said that the ritual couldn't be interrupted, no matter what.

     I got to the Lincoln, ran around to the driver's side and and dove into the seat. Smoky was whining on the front seat, his paws pressed against the window. Before I could get the door closed, he'd jumped over me and was running towards his master.

     Cooper started to scream. His voice sounded like a band saw blade grinding against a rusty iron post.

     Should you run away like this? I cranked the key in the ignition and slammed the car into drive. Don't think. Just do it. Cooper knows this stuff way better than you do.

     The storm was gathering with alarming speed. Thunder rumbled. In the rearview mirror, I saw the wind whipping a dust devil around Cooper's rigid form. The sound of the gale was drowning out his scream.

     I hit the accelerator just as a massive bolt of lightning shot down from the sky.

     The earth around Cooper exploded. A shockwave whipped across the park, and I was thrown forward into the steering wheel as the back of the Lincoln jerked off the ground.


     The car tilted, and the gale blasted into the Lincoln's passenger side, lifting it and knocking it over onto the driver's side. I fell hard against the window, helpless as the car spun like a carnival ride across the grass. My clothes and the ferret flew off the dashboard. He scrabbled for purchase on my sweaty skin to keep from being hung on his leash.

     The car slammed into a steel-framed picnic bench bolted to a concrete slab beside the goldfish pond and stopped.

     I untangled myself from the steering wheel and set the frightened ferret on top of the passenger side headrest. I grabbed my scattered clothes and got dressed as quickly as I could. The ferret had left a dozen pinprick scratches on my side and hip. Once I was no longer in danger of being arrested for public indecency, I unrolled the passenger side window and stuck my head out to see how Cooper was doing, hoping against hope this would turn out to be just be another one of those funny little Babbling-gone-wacky incidents where he'd be standing there amidst smoke and debris with singed hair and a sheepish oops-did-it-again look on his face.

     No such luck. There was a steaming crater the size of a child's wading pool where he'd been. I couldn't tell how deep it was, but the charred sides reflected a bright red glow, as if from live coals or lava.

     "Cooper! Cooper, where are you?" I shouted, feeling sick bile rise in my throat.

     No answer.

     Smoky lay near the crater, his flanks heaving as he gasped for breath. His body looked strangely bloated.

     I bent down to make sure the ferret's lead was still secured to the stick shift. "You stay in here," I told him, my voice shaky, not certain if he understood. "I'll come get you when I'm sure it's safe."

     I pulled myself up through the window and slid down the curved door, landing lightly on the grass. Where was Cooper? Had he been knocked unconscious and thrown into the trees? Or was the crater all that was left?

     No, no, no. He couldn't be dead. He just couldn't.

     "Smoky?" I called. "Smoky, where's Cooper?"

     The terrier was trying to get to his feet, dragging his hindquarters as if he'd broken his back. Bloody foam flecked his muzzle. He saw me and started to howl.

     Oh, Jesus, poor thing, I thought. 

     The crater smelled like a gangrenous wound, like bad magic, and I was getting the same stink off Smoky.

     I stepped closer to the crater. And then it hit me: I was looking at an intradimensional portal. I couldn't have been more stunned if I'd put a cake in the oven, left it to cook, smelled smoke, and opened the oven to discover the cake had transformed into an angry firedrake. Actually, the cake-to-firedrake I could have explained away as a prank from the Warlock, but this?  This was off-the-chart bad and unexpected. How in the name of cold sweat and stomach cramps had we created an intradimensional portal from a simple storm-calling chant?

     After a couple of beats, my brain shifted out of shock and into more practical questions: where did the portal go? I had no clue, but by the look of it, it sure wasn't a beachside resort. Had Cooper been pulled inside? It seemed likely. I couldn't see any trace of him nearby. If he'd been blown apart in the explosion, there'd still be blood or -- I swallowed sickly against the thought -- scattered bits of his flesh. 

     My first instinct was to call Mother Karen and get her to send help, but I realized I couldn't just stand there and do nothing while I waited for the cavalry.  God only knew what might come through. Might come through at any moment. I realized I had to do my best to get that sucker closed, and fast.