“Please don’t kill me!” Sabina begged, an expression of horror on her face. There were tears dripping off her chin as I got myself back erect, pulling my dress back into place.
The poor thing was terrified, and with good reason. Nannakussi was furious. He already had his knife out. Sabina’s eyes were fixed on it, seeing death glinting in the sun. Mother was furious. Blæda was furious. Even sweet, imperturbable Winky was furious. Chulëntët was beyond furious; she resembled a little green walrus with her too-long fangs, and she had puffed up to twice her normal girth.
“We’re not going to kill you,” I told Sabina, as comfortingly as I could. I was furious too, so it was hard to be comforting. I probably sounded more chilly. I was thinking of my lord taking that whack on the back of his head. She could have killed him!
“Why shouldn’t we kill her?” demanded my mother. Nannakussi echoed her in his own language, then echoed himself in English. “Cut the bitch’s throat and be done with her! She’s nothing but trouble,” he added helpfully.
“It wasn’t her that did it,” I snapped. “It was that damned wizard again. He’s been watching us remotely. One of us must have called our lord by name. Asmodeus… Jack wouldn’t kill her for something she had no control over. You know that!” I had decided on the spot not to use my lord’s demon name again.
“I would put her down like a dog,” said Mother contemptuously. Both she and Nannakussi were more old-fashioned than I or my lord were.
“You’re sure it was Palégos and not her?” Nannakussi snorted. “You’re sure she’s not his creature?” He didn’t trust Sabina, probably as much because of her past as the way she swung a chunk of wood. To me, it was hard to imagine that she was a plant of the wizard’s. Adding her to our family had been too random, unlooked-for by all parties.
“Tell us, Sabina,” I demanded. “Tell us what happened. You said it wasn’t you who did it?”
“No, domina! No! My will was seized from afar! I was myself, but yet not myself. I was another and the other was in control. All I could do was watch, try though I might!”
“You see?” I demanded.
Nannakussi looked doubtful, but Chulëntët said: “That’s what happened to me, nuxa! It was the wizard who hit dominus Asmogee!” The fangs – more like tusks, actually, were gone and she looked liked herself again.
“So leave her alone,” I told Nannakussi, more crossly than I intended. “What about the creature you shot?”
The creature had tried to crawl away, but Nannakussi had caught it by the neck. Winky found a length of leather strap in their travel bag and he used it to tie the thing’s neck to the wheel of our cart. He gave the monkey thing a good slap across the face when it tried to bite him. “Try that again and I’ll cut your throat,” he told it. He wanted to see someone’s blood!
It started to cry, sounding very human, but then it imposed control on itself, trying to look defiantly impassive. It succeeded in looking impassively frightened, assuming there is such a thing.
“Come and help me, Sabina,” I ordered our slave. “Nannakussi, give me your sharp knife.”
He turned it over without argument and Winky gave me their water bag. Sabina held the creature still while I cut into the flesh around the arrows. It took me a bit, but I pulled them out of the creature’s wing and leg. Neither had hit bone, but both had ripped up muscle. They were steel broadhead hunting arrows. Luckily, both arrowheads were still attached to the shafts, so they came out, rather than remaining inside or having to be pushed all the way through. We had to wiggle them to get the barbs to release. That caused the creature to faint. The thing’s flesh looked human, and its blood was as red as ours. When it revived we already had both arrows out. It stared at us with intelligent but sick-looking eyes as we cleaned and bound its wounds. I laid a spell to keep down infection, and I added another one for pain relief. It took a drink of water and kept it down. It looked like it wanted to take a nap. I didn’t blame it. I hadn’t enjoyed cutting it anymore than it had enjoyed being cut, but we had more important concerns.
“Can you speak?” I asked it.
It turned its yellow eyes to me and tried to speak. The sound was an inarticulate gurgle. Its teeth were too big to shape its words, and I think its lips and tongue were formed wrong. Its tongue looked like it was too broad for its mouth. Still, it tried.
“You understand our language?” I asked it in Saxon.
It simply looked at me. I tried the same question in my ungrammatical Latin.
It hesitated, then nodded. We were communicating at least.
“Are you a demon?” I asked it.
It shook its head. I had been sure it wasn’t, but I had to ask. There was always the possibility they were lesser demons who hadn’t recognized or who had rebelled against their lord.
“You are a slave of the wizard Palégos?” I asked it.
It nodded again. Good. That meant it wasn’t some other denizen of the underworld, like the imp had been. I had no idea what else resided under the sway of the highest of devils, or even if they had names.
“Now,” I pointed out, “you are our slave. You understand? No longer are you the property of the wizard, but of the family of Lord Asm… our lord.”
It hesitated again, for a long time. Then it sighed and nodded dejectedly. A tear rolled down its cheek. It had been defeated. It was our spoil under the law, just as Nannakussi, Winky, and Sabina belonged to our family.
“Can you write?” I asked it. It had three fingers and a short thumb at the joint of its wing. A fourth finger, corresponding to the little finger of my hand, extended to the end of its wing. That was the way the web of the wing was attached. It looked like the fingers were usable for some tasks. I hadn’t noticed when it was flying, but there was another joint halfway between its shoulder and the “hand,” like an elbow. I guessed it was lockable.
It nodded its head, surprising me.
I had a notebook I kept recipes and spells in. I gave it to him along with my stylus and ink pot. Nannakussi reluctantly untied the strap around its neck. It was family now, whatever it was.
“Meum nomen Kogwahee est,” he wrote clumsily in capital letters.
It was an odd sounding name. It made me think of the northern native clans, the Haudenosaunee, or Iroquois as they were called. As far as I knew, none of them had wings and very few of them had monkey faces, and that only individually ugly, as with any other group.
“My name is Nevianne,” I told our new servant. “This is the family of Jack, King of Demons. Where are thy people?” It occurred to me that “Jack, King of Demons” sounded ridiculous, no matter how much I loved him. I decided just “King of Demons” would do.
“We are of the Onondaga,” it wrote in Latin. “Palégos has put his spells on us. We must serve him or die.” The Onondaga were in fact one of the northern clans, of the Iroquois country. They had a reputation for cruelty to prisoners, which meant I worried even more for our lord.
“Will you die now?” I asked. If so, I would set him free. Some spells ended in death if the bond was broken. Until he healed up he was no harm to us.
Again it hesitated, then shook its head.
“Thou art transformed?” I asked. It had finally gotten through my fuzzy head that the creature was human. Sometimes it takes awhile. Often I wish I could think as quickly as my lord. Such a creature had never been seen before, therefore it was a product of magic.
I conferred with Mother and Blæda, both of whom had much more experience than I. It had never fallen to me to undo someone else’s transformation. It wasn’t very long ago that I was panicking because I couldn’t get the tip of my nose out of my lap. Luckily, Mother knew a counter spell that might work. It required only a fire, oak leaves, acorns, a pinch of salt, a dash of gunpowder, and blood – animal blood would do. We had a bit of salt with our cooking supplies, and we were close enough to some red oaks to gather leaves and acorns, though it was early for them. There would be enough still on the ground from last year. Even the wild hogs couldn’t eat them all. Nannakussi set off with his bow and Sabina gathered wood for the fire. She was a dutiful enough servant when she wasn’t fainting or conking our lord on the back of the head.
It didn’t take long for Nannakussi to return with a rabbit, freshly killed. We had the fire going already. It was a lively fire, stirred by a breeze. I saw visions in it that I couldn’t understand, but that made me sad. Somehow I knew they were of the past, of my father and his death, so I worried not. I watched and listened as Mother intoned her spell, trying to learn. Sometimes she would pause and check her own notebook. The salt went into the fire first. Next Mother wrung the body of the rabbit, squeezing the blood into the fire while she chanted. I could hear its bones breaking and felt sorrow for it, even though it was dead. The first oak leaf went into the fire as she started the next verse, followed by an acorn that exploded with a “pop!” She added more blood, followed by the second oak leaf and another acorn. She started the third verse, then added the gunpowder, which fizzed, burned a noxious yellow, smoked, and stank.
I wondered how my lord would have handled this problem. Probably more directly than casting a spell, I guessed. I don’t think he even knew any. He would probably just refuse to believe in the creature. I wondered if it would revert to its true form when he did, or just disappear entirely.
Regardless, Mother’s spell left us with a boy. I guessed he was fourteen or fifteen years old. He was slender and lithe, looking very confused and scared. He was of man age for his clan, but only barely. He was skinny, though not to the point of emaciation. He had a northern-style scalp lock, on the back of his head, and he was, of course, naked.
“Hello, Kogwahee,” I said. “Thou art much more handsome this way.”
He was looking surprised and even more wary, but he had his own form back. My comment made him blush.
Maybe I didn’t mention it before, but I’m scared of heights.
No, that can’t be right. After all, I’m a big tough guy, named after a demon. I’ve successfully learned how to jump out of airplanes, even when there’s nothing wrong with them. Grrr! I ain’t a-scared of nothin’. Let’s just say I have a really, really profound respect for heights. I have an imagination that’s probably too active for my own good. I can look down at the good earth from six hundred feet while being carried by four ape-faced pterodactyls and see myself hitting the ground after falling at thirty two feet per second or whatever it is. So maybe I’m just scared of gravity, rather than heights. I mean, everybody’s scared of gravity, right?
My headache wasn’t helping matters much, especially when it came to thinking. I felt like whoever had hit me had tried to knock my head out of the park. I could have sworn my entire brain was a half-inch pancake smeared along the inside of my forehead. If I didn’t have a subdural hæmatoma I should have. Maybe I could find a job on a soap opera?
Probably not. All I could do was hang there while they flew. My arms were held in what felt like grips of iron, likewise my ankles. I was face down, which did nothing to sooth my hearty respect for the force of gravity. My shoulders felt like they were being pulled apart, my arms pulling out of their sockets. The flock flapped north, occasionally grunting or squealing at each other, sometimes rising on air currents. I watched the tops of trees, a strip of road, and occasional farm land roll by. It looked like an animated Google map without the labels. Every once in awhile I’d see a town or a village in the distance. Other once in a whiles I’d see a large scorched circle. Nevy had told me the Wizard sometimes rained fire on people who displeased him. The flock was pretty meticulous when it came to avoiding inhabited areas, not wanting to run into random arrows, I guessed. At least the air was fresh, except when one of my captors pooped, which they did periodically. The smell was somewhere between fermented cow and fresh dog with overtones of piggy. It was not pleasant at all. I wouldn’t have wanted to be standing under one of those loads when it landed. Pigeons or sea gulls were bad enough.
There weren’t any landmarks I could recognize. There was a good-sized river that might have been the Susquehanna, but might have been something else. I don’t have a detailed knowledge of Maryland and Pennsylvania’s river network. The sun was to my left and I was pretty sure it was after noon, so we were heading north; it wasn’t the Potomac or the Patuxent or something; they’d be to the south. I didn’t think it was the Ohio because we were headed northeast. We were making maybe twenty five or thirty miles an hour. I didn’t know how long I’d been out, but from the time I woke up I guessed we traveled for a couple hours. That meant I was better than fifty or sixty miles from my party.
A couple of the flying monkeys broke formation and circled a clearing by a creek below. They made a couple grunts and squeals loud enough for the others to hear and the whole flock started to descend. I’d have started planning my escape, except that I had no idea what was going to happen when we landed. Besides, I had that splitting headache. I badly wanted a drink and a nap.
We landed next to a small stream. I got tied to a tree, while my captors drank muddy-looking water from the stream and ate what looked like greenish, slightly decayed meat. They grunted, squealed, mewed, and giggled at each other in what I took to be intelligent conversation. I figured they were discussing the weather, or what they’d do when they got off work, or maybe which monkey chick had the cutest wishbone. Then one of them got up, casually walked around the tree they had me tied to, and broke my little finger.
I’d been feeling woozy and groggy and pretty much out of it, except for being thirsty and having a massive headache and being afraid they were going to drop me as they flew. The searing pain of having a bone casually snapped like that reinflated my brain. I wanted to shriek, but the way I gasped stopped it. Sound can’t go in and out at the same time. Instead I got angry.
In fact, I got Incredible Hulk-level angry. I swelled up to seven or eight feet, turned green, looked mean, and broke the rope holding me by my sheer size. I caught my tormentor by the ankle as he started to fly away from me. I swung him by the ankle against the tree, leaving his monkey bird brain smeared on the bark, then used his remains to swat another pterodactyl like a fly. That one went down and I tromped him with a bare size thirty eight foot, his brains squirting out from under it. My sneakers had simply exploded; a size eleven and a half shoe simply won’t contain a size thirty eight foot.
The rest of flying monkeys took to the air, sounding panicked, which they had every right to be.
I held up my hand, having a look. It was very large and green, and the little finger had snapped at the first joint. It was still hurting. I roared at the flying monkeys, sounding something like a lion mooing, and then repaired my finger, simply pouring the ambient power around me into it until it was healed. It was a little crooked, but at least it didn’t hurt.
I could still see the flock, winging it for the east as fast as they could flap their wings. I grew a pair of wings for myself, sprouting out of my shoulder blades. I ignored the fact that I wasn’t aerodynamic, and added feathers, which I assumed were superior to bat wings. I shrank a foot or two and hollowed my bones. You have to be a lightweight to fly under your own power. I reshaped my head to resemble an archaeopteryx – long and birdlike, with lots and lots of razor sharp teeth. Then I took to the air.
Going up, in pursuit of enemies, is a lot different from being carried along limply facing downward. I didn’t think about the ground. I thought about blood, and not mine. They had a head start on me, but not that head. I let my wings grow out a little as I rose, and I made myself still lighter. I have no idea where the muscles were that flapped my wings, or even how I figured out how to fly. I concentrated on catching up with the bastards.
It didn’t take that long, once my wings were bigger and I was lighter. I caught up to Tail End Charlie and I caught him by the neck – I had arms and he didn’t. I used my archaeopteryx teeth to take a big bite out of that neck, savoring the taste of his blood. My teeth were made for rending raw flesh. I let him go and he dropped at the recommended thirty two feet per second, a relatively straight line between my hands and the ground. I couldn’t hear the “splat” when he reached the ground, which was disappointing.
Didn’t matter, except that the splat would have been the guarantee of my satisfaction. I caught up to the next one while tuning my hearing, and I did the same with him. I heard that one hit. I did it again with the one after that. Instead of chewing his neck out, I snapped one of his wing bones. Listening to him scream all the way to Splatsville was as satisfying as the taste of his blood would have been. It was too bad that archaeopteryxes couldn’t smile. I had to hold the joy inside.
Out of about a dozen, they’d lost two on the ground when I’d Hulked out, and another three in the air. I sped up, caught the next last one, and chewed on his head while holding him by the neck. He screeched and wiggled and tried to fight back. I found that big blood vessel on the side of his neck and chewed until he stopped flapping. Once I got it just right, the red blood squirted five or ten feet beyond the distance we traveled. I let go as we were falling together and he became another asterisk on the countryside, nothing but skunk food. The sound was very satisfying.
I was covered with his blood and I didn’t mind. I’d reduced their numbers by half and they’d lost their prey, which was me. Nannakussi had suggested the Wizard would have a penalty for that, which would be painful. I followed the survivors at a more leisurely pace, since they were headed where I wanted to go as fast as they could.
As I flew, I experimented with changing my size and making myself more aerodynamic. I hadn’t realized how flexible transformation could be. I shrank, seeing how small I could make myself, until I was about the size and shape of a sparrow. I have no idea where I kept my brain. It wasn’t in that tiny head, but I was still thinking.
I chirped. It was too bad I couldn’t sing. I’d have been singing “We’re Off to See the Wizard!”
The last time I had sung that, Nevy had poked me. She had thought it was asking for trouble from Fortuna, the goddess of luck. At the moment, I was thinking Fortuna liked me.