Our new destination was a town called Taborenta. It lay pretty much due north and a bit west of Flumen Martii. That wasn’t where the Wicked Wizard of the East kept court. It was just the next major crossroads. There we’d get Via LXII and head north.
The archbishop and I had had a minor falling out over a point of philosophy. I maintained that the thing and its name were two separate things. His position wasn’t quite that the two were one, but that the two were closely connected. A rose by any other name remains a rose unless you’re Italian or Russian, in which case it’s a rosa, or a Greek, in which case it’s a τριαντάφυλλο (triantáfyllo), or Turkish, where it’s a gül. According to the archbishop, all Asmodeuses, while perhaps not exactly the same, were similar. He suggested, without coming right out and saying it in so many words, that any Asmodeus had the potential to be the very Asmodeus, because all roses smelled the same. Nevy could have made due with any Asmodeus who had shown up.
Or something like that.
That idea’s utter nonsense, of course, when it’s applied to people. I tried to be more polite about it than that: Not all Johns are alike, I explained patiently. Not all Betties are alike. Nevy’s reality stream had Emperor Athaulf the Great. In mine, the poor guy had been murdered in his bath – though I guess if he hadn’t been murdered he could have been great. But in our reality stream most people with half a brain hated Adolf der Führer; same name, different kind of guy. Lots of people had thought he was great at the time, not many do now. George Washington was a hero, George III was batty, George IV was a fop and a girly chaser.
We had to agree to disagree. I promised to let him know how it turned out, assuming I lived to tell the tale.
I have no idea where the money came from – I’m pretty sure Sabina didn’t earn it; she didn’t have time. The poor box wasn’t that big. Still, we rented two carts again, this time with one horse for each. Two-horse carts would have been better – easier on the horses – but that was what we could somehow afford. We went back to the baths one last time so we could at least leave clean. Nannakussi and Winky and Chulëntët took Sabina in hand and got rid of her stupid hair-do. Nevy gave her the dress off her back and bought a new one in off-white for herself. Slaves got cast-offs and mistresses got new dresses; that was the way of the world. I told Sabina she was now retired from the oldest profession. She knelt and kissed my hand and cried.
Then it was back to trotting across the Agus/Maryland countryside. In my realm the area’s got lots of asphalt, with traffic at speed limits of anywhere from fifty to seventy miles an hour, and lots of houses. Here it was small farm country and lots and lots of woods. The population had originally been Piscataway and Pamunkey in the immediate area, more generally Nanticokes, Susquehannocks, and Lenape. Everyone but the Susquehannocks were Algonquian speakers and got along pretty well. The Susquehannocks spoke an Iraquoian language but weren’t part of the greater Iroquois clans to the north. They were a truculent bunch, and lots of them chose military careers to get it out of their systems. There were significant colonies of them across Europe. In my own reality stream, they had gone extinct before 1800, killed off by a combination of disease and choosing the wrong sides in French-English and internecine Indian fights. Go figure.
Being the intended bride of a demon can sometimes be a frightening experience, by very definition. My lord Asmodeus’ lightning quick mastery of magic – not only the basics, but magic that my Mother and the Archbishop Simon had worked years to acquire and perfect – was frightening enough in and of itself. The forms he was capable of assuming were sometimes shocking. Once he assumed the form of a large green creature he called “Shrek.” Another time he became a blue eyeball three feet across, with skinny arms and legs and a mouth. He called that one “Mike.”
He did those and more, both trying to show me how to do it and to amuse Chulëntët. I’m not sure which was more important. He would turn into an odd-looking creature none of us had ever imagined and the child would collapse into giggles. Sometimes I thought he loved that child more than he did me, but she was so sweet there was no way I could take offense. My “demon” had room in his heart for many loves. I was merely in first place, but it may have been a tie with Nannakussi’s Little Treasure.
Our “lessons” took place on sparsely-traveled stretches of road, so as not to frighten other travelers. Taborenta was about fifty miles from the capital, an eight or nine hour trip at a steady four miles an hour. It was longer because we stopped for meals and rest. The carts were two-wheelers without springs, and the weather kept threatening rain. Chulëntët spent much of the time entertaining us and being entertained in turn. Mother and Sabina rode in our cart, which meant Nannakussi, Winky, and Blæda shared the other one.
Nannakussi had made a bow for his lord while we were in Flumen Martii, and they would walk off for an hour or so for him to learn the rudiments. The second trip, as we were approaching the village of Vegesela, they returned with a half dozen passenger pigeons apiece. He either learned the bow as quickly as he was learning magic, or he was using magic in learning the bow.
“How dost thou do it?” I demanded.
“Do what, my love?” he demanded right back. It always made my heart beat faster when he called me that.
“All of it. Learn the bow in an afternoon? Learn magic in two or three days?”
“Nannakussi’s a good teacher. I think the magic part might be connected with the same bump in my head that lets me pop from reality stream to reality stream. Maybe you can recognize when you do it too. Did you, when we did?”
“I noticed nothing,” I admitted. “Maybe my bump is smaller than thine? I’m still learning magic.”
“Could be,” he allowed. “Or maybe everything happened so fast you didn’t know what to look for. We can experiment at the inn tonight. Rather than everybody crowd into two rooms, we can sneak off to a timeline where there’s a vacant room and sleep without the sound of your mother’s snoring to keep us awake.”
“If Mother found out…” I started.
“… she’d calve,” he finished for me.
It was a new saying to me, though he told me it was common in his realm. The image of poor Mother giving birth to a cow caused me to laugh out loud for the next mile or so. When she asked me what I was laughing at I didn’t want to explain. Then I did and she swatted her intended son-in-law despite his ability to grow fangs and claws. Then she laughed for the next mile.
While she was laughing, Asmodeus kept trying to coach me into doing transformations on myself. He didn’t use an incantation, merely reaching for the power that was all around us, a different approach entirely from what I had learned. He certainly had the knack for it. I had to work at it. When I finally got it, I managed to make my nose grow so long that the tip of it fell into my lap. Chulëntët, who was sitting between us, giggled uncontrollably while I tried frantically to reverse what I had done. I had a sudden worry about going through life with a nose that dangled to my waist. I wondered how I would be able to eat with it, then imagined myself having dinner with my nose slung over my shoulder and started laughing again. I eventually discovered that just visualizing myself as I had been put things right. If that worked…
I turned myself green and grew a pair of fangs a foot long. Asmodeus and Chulëntët laughed until the tears ran.
“Not scary?” I asked when I had put myself back together.
“I think Sabina’s fainted again,” he told me. Then he drew my attention to Chulëntët, who was green and showing a pair of four inch baby fangs. “I think we’ve got a magical prodigy on our hands,” he said, giving the little show-off a hug.
“I hate to think what she’ll be able to do by the time she’s ready to join an Outer Circle,” I told him.
“It’s probably not good for her to learn all this stuff so early, before she can control it right,” he replied.
As though on cue, Chulëntët spoke, using another voice, silky and masculine, sounding out of true coming from her baby vocal cords: “Hello, Nevianne. It took some time to find thee. Thou realize’st thy shield be gone?”
“Who speaks to me through an innocent child?” I asked. To my own surprise, my voice was firm with anger, not squeaking in fear.
“’Tis I, Palégos, Eye of the Legate…”
“You know,” snarled my Lord Asmodeus, Prince of Wrath, interrupting him. “I really don’t believe he can do that. Not with a baby! It ain’t right! It just ain’t right!”
“I’m not a baby!” Chulëntët said with babyish irritation.
“Thou art not the Mouth of Palégos anymore, either,” I pointed out. Just like that, the wizard had been thrust out. In all the tales I had ever heard before, it had been demons who were cast out of people, not demons casting out people from people. “Rememb’rest thou any of what thou just said?”
“I ‘member all,” our Little Bird admitted, her brown eyes the size of saucers, figuratively this time. Meanwhile, poor Sabina had fainted again and Nannakussi had almost lept from his cart to ours.
“What happened to my child?” he demanded, his words and tone disregarding Asmodeus’ station. Winky had climbed aboard too and our horse had slowed from a trot to a slow walk with all the extra weight. Mother was trying to awaken Sabina again.
“Thy papoose, amicus,” Asmodeus told him, “was briefly possessed by the Wicked Wizard of the East.” That was my Asmodeus, addressing his servus as “friend.”
“I’m not a papoose!” Chulëntët shrieked indignantly.
“No, Little Bird,” Asmodeus replied, “I misspoke. Thou art a girl like no other and as thou growest thou wilt be bigger, stronger, and wiser. Thou art a child of destiny. Can’st thou tell us what thou rememb’rest?”
“I was him,” the child responded, “yet I was still me. He saw thee as merely a man, dominus Asmogee. He saw domina Nevianne clearly, but thou wast like unto a doll or a dummy, sitting next to her.”
“Huh. Probably because I don’t believe he can find me.”
“Aye, dominus. He cannot find my Daddy, nor Mommy. He saw only a pair of slaves, not to be noticed. Blæda he touched, but so lightly she felt it not, nor knowledge did he acquire from her. He knew not Sabina; she was asleep. He knew Grandmother Leofgif, but had not yet touched her Wit. He is afraid, dominus Asmogee! He is very afraid!”
“He fears me?” asked my lord.
“He thinks Grandmother Nevy failed to call thee, but that she has learned how. She will try again and succeed. He thinks my Daddy is dead, and that she killed him with a curse. He is sure he must kill her to protect himself and his lord!”
“And how would he do that?” asked my lord Asmodeus.
In fact, it was multiple people screaming, me among them. The horses reared, tipping our carts over and spilling us onto the ground. A passing coach went from a trot to a gallop to a dead run. Those walking ran for the fields on either side of the road. Asmodeus ran to control our horse with a strong hand, and Blæda got the other frightened animal.
A creature with bright red skin, short cow-like horns on a bulbous head, fangs, and a long tail that ended in an arrow head shape had appeared in front of us in a puff of brimstone-scented smoke. He was perhaps five feet tall, naked and pot-bellied, his pillicok dangling to his knees, and his overly large bollocks hanging almost as far. He had mean little piggy eyes and long, pointed teeth under a long pointed nose. As he breathed, bits of flame appeared in front of his mouth when he exhaled.
The imp crouched, snarling and passing sulfur-smelling gas. He looked around, searching for me.
He saw me not. He saw the same creature I had been earlier. It was only my second effort at transformation, not counting my drooping nose. I was off the cart and on my feet now, facing him. I had taken my lead from my lord Asmodeus and turned green with foot long fangs. I thought adding my version of the imp’s tail was a nice touch. Beside me, there was a half-size version of myself, complete with tail that she had slung over her shoulder. I wanted to tell Chulëntët to stay out of it, that I didn’t want her to get hurt. The little girl had more than her own fair share of bravery.
My fangs were a foot long. There was no way I could speak and be understood. It took me what seemed like a long time to form a real mouth behind the one with the fangs and a foot or so of forked tongue hanging from it, drooling. I had had no time to practice with this new skill!
“Where is she, creature?” the imp snarled. “Where is the maiden Nevianne?” Dust and ash and flame sprayed as he spoke. He would have been horrifying had he not farted continuously, stinking horribly of sulfur. Beside me, Chulëntët was giggling uncontrollably around her fangs. Farts are hilarious to four-year-olds. Continuous farts are continuously hilarious. I was afraid she was going to pass out laughing when flame erupted from between the imp’s ærse cheeks.
I crooked my fingers, displaying my foot-long metallic claws. Beside me, Chulëntët snickered one last time and did the same, mimicking all that I did.
“Return thee from whence thou came, smelly imp!” I ordered, my voice booming like a drum, the power surging from my belly.
“Return thee from whence thou came, stinky imp!” Chulëntët boomed, not quite as loud.
The imp threw a fireball at us. I could handle that easily enough. I had only been playing with them since I had been a girl. Witches pass the time with fireball contests when bored. The ball of fire dwindled in size to nothing before it reached us.
Brave little Chulëntët opened her mouth and breathed fire at him. It did nothing to him, because he was a creature of fire, but she knew no better. He laughed and did the same at her. I could barely stop it before it hit her.
An arrow appeared in the imp’s belly. It caught fire and burned away quickly, but the creature looked resentfully at Nannakussi. Before it could do anything, my lord Asmodeus flung Nannakussi’s tomahawk, catching the imp full in the mouth, breaking three or four of its spiked teeth.
“Ow!” it snarled, spitting out the steel head even as the tomahawk’s handle burned away.
“Earth, fire, water, and air!” yelled my lord, still in his human form.
The imp was a creature of fire. We needed water, but no water were we near.
A tiny cone of dust hopped over the edge of the road, to spin at my feet, growing slowly. A rock emerged from the ground and flung itself at the imp, bouncing off its oversized head. Another one flew, catching him below the belt, had he been wearing a belt.
“Owww!” It was a screech of rage this time, as the rock bounced off a testicle, causing it to double over. He really didn’t like that one. Another arrow appeared in his belly, then another beside it. He fell to the ground, then got back to his hooves. He bent over and farted a gust of stinking flame at us, causing me to gag. I caught the flame and sent it back at him, carrying the odor with it. He sniffed and momentarily looked interested.
Chulëntët got my lord’s idea before I did. Pebbles arose and sped toward the imp, followed by larger rocks, all bouncing off his big fat ærse as he passed gas at us, but still keeping him off balance. He fell on his face again as a big rock hit squarely in the fire in the hole.
I finally caught Asmodeus’ idea: Water isn’t the only thing good to extinguish a fire. The earth on either side of the road was sandy loam. I lifted it in large scoops of anger and loathing, using nothing but my intentions, flinging it at him. It bounced off, of course, but soon he was standing in a pile of it, loudly belching flame at us, attempting to approach.
“Return thee from whence thou came, loathsome imp!” I screamed again, hoping it might work, even though it had twice failed.
“Return thee from whence thou came, stinky creature!” Chulëntët echoed, holding her nose.
“Return thee from whence thou came, thou ugly thing!” Asmodeus yelled, bouncing a rock off its large, pointed ear.
“Disappear, creature of foulness!” yelled Nannakussi, not deigning to waste his breath on a longer sentence and putting two more arrows into its belly as the clouds gathered overhead. The sun dimmed, lightning flashed, and thunder rumbled.
Chulëntët spit a stream of water at the imp. It hit him and it immediately steamed off, but it left a visible sore as it boiled away, a three or four inch hole of oozing yellowish green. I did the same, knowing I would soon be dehydrated. Asmodeus emitted a gush of water that bowled the imp over, scalding it horribly.
Blæda and Mother had joined us in our efforts, conjuring the clouds overhead, building them thick with rain. The breeze turned to wind, then to strong wind. Finally, it started raining again. There were little puffs of steam with every drop that hit the imp. He liked that not a bit. Imps avoid the rain; it’s dangerous to them. The air around us was now full of water that the three of us need simply pull from the air as it fell. Chulëntët was emitting a continuous stream that played across the imp’s body. Asmodeus was doing the same, with greater volume. The imp had lost almost all his red color, and was now going from sickly yellowish green to dark, rotted-looking brown. I joined them, once I had figured how to do it. Lying in a puddle of mud the creature looked like it was frying in its own grease.
Then there was a great puff of steam and there was nothing there.