We made an unseemly but hilarious celebration around the glassy cast where the imp’s body had been. When he had gone up, he had gone up spectacularly; the sand we had thrown at him had turned to glass, the bits of clay in it had turned to ceramic, and the organic parts of the soil – leaves and mulch – had simply vaporized. All of us had felt the last blast of heat.
The personal war cry of my lord and his servant was “yee-hoo!” The two men bumped bellies, wiggled their butts, and then lifted Chulëntët so she could bump bellies too. The three of them did an impromptu victory dance, shuffling in a circle around the glassy cast, howling like animals, and interrupting the howls by patting their hands against their mouths, going “woo-woo-woo!” The noise was horrific. I helped them make it, joined by Mother and Blæda and even Winky.
It was fun for all of us, a reaction to the horror of fighting off the evil creature called up from some nether region, wherever it was. Even timid Sabina joined in the little celebration, once she stopped shaking, actually laughing and dancing.
Eventually we had to stop, of course. For one thing, even though this stretch of road wasn’t heavily traveled, there were still some people using it. One group was a squad of cavalry, a half turma of sixteen men. They had been coming our way at their normal walk, on routine patrol. A passing carriage had told them about the carnage ahead of them. The troops had arrived at a gallop, to find us congratulating each other. Their decurion asked us what had happened. I told him, leaving out the parts about Chulëntët and Asmodeus’ magical participation and the imp’s involvement with Palégos. His report would go higher and it would draw attention to us, so we wanted no mention.
The decurion was a Susquehannock, with a dark tough guy’s face and as many tattoos on his arms that fit. He dismounted and squatted next to the glass and ceramic cast. He could make out the outline of the creature. He poked it with a stick, and the stick broke. The broken end started to smoke. “Pretty hot,” he said in poor Saxon.
“He was breathing fire at us,” Asmodeus told him.
“He threw fireballs at us too,” Mother told him.
“And the the pair of you fought him off?” he asked.
“All but Sabina and my daughter took part,” Nannakussi told him.
“I helped too!” Chulëntët said indignantly.
“My daughter helped too,” Nannakussi said, in the fond tone of a father indulging his daughter, even though she was telling tall tales.
The decurion’s expression said he discounted the child’s part in the defense. He gave a quick order in Latin and two troopers dismounted. He measured the cast with a length of string, cut it and rolled it up, putting it in his pouch. The troopers took hammers from their saddle pouches and started breaking up the cast that was a hazard to navigation. They tossed the pieces into the grass to one side of the road once they were cool enough to pick up.
The decurion remounted while they were busy, resting a notebook on one knee. “I’ll need your names for my report,” he told us, “and a description of what went on.”
“I am Iacus Flavius of Flumen Martii,” Asmodeus lied to him through his teeth, “a grain merchant by trade. We are on our way to Cascina on business. I and my servants are traveling with Nevianne, her mother Leofgif, and Blæda, all of Sandy Isle.”
“The servants’ names?” he asked.
“Sekappi, his wife Weeji-pahki-helex-kwe, their daughter Chulens, and Sabina, my concubine,” my Prince of Lies said with a straight face.
“Lucky you were traveling with three strong witches,” the decurion grunted as he made his notes.
“We were very lucky,” my lord agreed solemnly.
I figured that if my lord could lie like that, so could I. “We had heard there was an imp or a demon terrorizing passers-by. We felt bound to try and help. Citizen Iacus and his servants helped us by shooting arrows at the thing. Mother called the rain showers. I deflected fireballs. The rain was what did the real work.”
“I don’t doubt it,” said the decurion. His tone suggested that if we’d done nothing, the rain would have washed the imp away. I felt a mild sense of resentment at having our efforts discounted like that, but we didn’t want to be remarkable. The imp was what was remarkable, and if we weren’t forgettable the episode was likely to come to the attention of Palégos. He already had his eye on us, and we wanted to slip out from under it. Just the hope that we would was small enough.
I just hoped the Wizard hadn’t gotten to the actual story when he had been trying to control Chulëntët. She had seen his thoughts. Chances were good that he had seen hers.
The knowledge that my tiny daughter, barely as tall as my waist, was already a witch, made me both proud of her and fearful for her. Not only was she a witch, but she was among the most powerful witches I had ever encountered. Yet even great witches had been defeated in times gone by, some of them by me, and would be again. A tiny witch with almost no experience would be in much more danger than she realized. All I could do was rely on my domina and my dominus to protect her. My own powers were too small to provide serious help. Until being taught to make fire, I had had no power but the Wit.
Serving the King of Demons was a more pleasant life for me than ever had been serving the Wizard of the East. Lord Palégos had a wide streak of cruelty to him. When I had dispatched his enemies before, he had chided me for not making them suffer. I made it as quick and as painless as I could. Someday I too would be on my way to the next world, as Lord Asmodeus had demonstrated with my men. That had been reinforced by the Evil Imp of Vegesela. If I preferred my own trip to the West to be smooth, why deny others? We will all eventually go to live in the West, but not all of us will be allowed where the hunting is good. The gods in concert weigh our deeds at the end.
Asmodeus was the opposite of Palégos. He was like a mirror image, in fact. He had a wide streak of kindness to him, coupled with the ruthless core that had cost me ten good men. The fact led me to think hard on the subject of demons; if he was a fallen angel, as the archbishop described him, had he renounced his fall? Had he rejoined the gods? There was no answer for me. He told me often that he was no demon, merely a man like me, only six inches taller. He said he had no knowledge of the gods, neither denying nor accepting.
Perhaps that was the key. I felt the will of the gods in all that I did. Nanapush was my patron deity, as he was for most of my people. I tried to live my life in a manner I thought he might approve. Kishelamàkânk had created the world and all who live in it. He didn’t bother to rule it. He had sent Nanapush to resolve the disputes of men. He had made tobacco grow and he had made the first pipe, so that men might smoke and resolve their disputes with clear minds.
Dominus Asmodeus had not the advantage of my gods. The only time I had seen him smoke had been at the feast on Assateague Island. He was actually much more learned than I in the ways men sought the gods. Great thinkers of his realm he had read. Yet his people had pruned the tree of their gods down to one, a proud God that demanded to be adored with men’s faces to the ground. If a god had created all, why would he require men to grovel before Him? Was His ego that tiny?
In our world, Kishelamàkânk had created all, but he had entrusted the the affairs of men to Nanapush. Yet Nanapush, even after he saved the world in the Great Flood, is not arrogant. He demands not to be adored, nor even worshiped. He prefers to be obeyed, but if not, be it on thine own head. There are other gods, including those named Luck, Destiny, and Fate, besides the many spirits of the woods, of the corn, and of the animals around us. Contend with them at thy peril if thou please not Nanapush.
Winke and I came to the conclusion that dominus Asmodeus was a man, but that he was also a demon, or at least had the demon inside of him. Two names he had: Asmodeus and Jack, yet both were the same. Rather than one being possessed by the other, Jack and Asmodeus were two faces of one animus, what the Christians call a soul. Now Lady Nevianne had her own demon – we didn’t know the demon’s name; we would have to ask. And my own Little Treasure, the light of our lives, had her own. She was a short little demon who giggled and who could roar out fire or water. She could turn green and grow fangs, and then she could complain when we called her our baby, and then she would demand to be hugged and petted.
Hard it was that I pondered as we traveled through Vegesela on our way to Taborenta. Then the thought occurred to me: Did all men (and women) have a demon available inside them? If that was so, would they not also have an angel next to the demon, if demons and angels be not the same, as the Latins claim? It had been my fear for Chulëntët that had raised my own nameless demon within me, making me shoot arrows into the fat belly of the imp when he could have toasted me to a cinder. Yet I could often feel the angel that lived in me, when my child smiled, when she played, when she accomplished a new task. Neither the demon nor the angel had any name but my own, at least not yet.
Once back on the road, all of us – except perhaps for Our Treasure – were wrapped up in thought. Nannakussi worried on the subject of little girls who could become demons at will, but who were too little to comprehend real danger. Winky worried on her child for the same reason, and on her man for being foolish enough not to show his heels at sight of a fire-breathing imp. Mother and Blæda worried on their lack of power, something they had never worried on before. They could not have contended with the imp on their own.
Sabina worried on being part of the family of a demon. For all the hard exterior we had seen on first glance, she was usually frightened. She was a middle child of a dozen. Her father had sold her when she had become a woman, to her first pimp. He had auctioned off her virginity to the highest bidder. Since then she had gone from pimp to pimp, brothel to brothel, a sad, hard life. She looked my mother’s age or more, yet she was ten years younger. She knew how to cook, though not very well, and my lord assigned her the duty of helping Winky, who prepared our meals, that she might learn better. Mother, the senior lady of our household, was in charge of all our slaves, and Sabina was terrified of her. Not only was she the senior lady, which meant she could have a slave beaten, but she was also a witch. To Sabina meant that she could turn her into a mouse and set the cat on her, assuming we had a cat.
My lord thought about imps and fire and the danger to us all from Palégos. First we had to search out the wizard’s castellum, his fortress, and then we had to get to him inside it. It was said to be on Bear Mountain, near the spot known as Bear Place. There was no guarantee that this was so, but a Wit back in Falacrīnum had suggested it. He hadn’t actually seen the wizard, but he had seen the mountain, with a cloud of evil hanging over it. None of us had ever been there, of course, or even knew where it was, except vaguely “north.” That was assuming it was the right Bear Mountain.
I watched as a flock of passenger pigeons took to the air. We had eaten squab when my lord had learned the bow in record time. The birds had been tasty, and I could happily eat more, should the men hunt again.
Then the flock veered away in a different direction. There was a flock of something else approaching – I couldn’t see what they were, but for some reason they looked ominous. For one thing, as they got closer I could see that they were a lot bigger than passenger pigeons or even turkeys. They were five or six feet long, not counting their tails. For another, we seemed to be their objective. That could not be good!
They drew closer and I could see that they weren’t natural creatures. They had very wide, reptilian-looking wings, not that I had ever seen a flying lizard. Bat wings, perhaps it was that they had. They had long triangular protrusions on the backs of their heads, but their faces looked flat, almost human, maybe like a monkey’s. They had birdlike feet and long, flexible tails.
There was a “clunk” sound and my lord Asmodeus sagged as I was putting together a spell to protect us against these creatures. I looked around and Sabina dropped the length of wood she had used to clobber her lord. Her eyes grew wide and filled with tears as she put her hand to her mouth. “I didn’t… Domina, I didn’t want to hit him!”
I knew that. She knew that her life was forfeit for striking her master. I ignored her for the moment as I grabbed for my love. I was holding him by one arm when two of the creatures grabbed him, screeching like jackdaws, one by the other arm and one by the leg. I was lifted from my seat as they tried to carry him off. When I and Mother together tried to grab him back, two others beat at us with leathery wings. The creatures were even uglier close up, their apish faces and flat noses at odds with their leathery skin. Their eyes were yellow and slitted like a snake’s, and they had long meat-eaters’ teeth. Their breath was foul, like rotted meat mixed with rotted cabbage.
Nannakussi shot one of those grabbing at Asmodeus. The arrow lodged in the arm that stretched the skin of its wing. Another arrow followed it, lodging in its thigh. It fell to ground, fluttering and flopping and mewling piteously, sounding like a kitten, of all things. Another took its place, and yet another grabbed my love’s leg.
One of them bit me, and I lost my grip, falling into the cart with my dress around my waist, kicking my legs without effect. I landed with my head in Sabina’s lap, watching as the creatures carried off my lord to who knew where.