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Bob grabbed at the dash as the car bounced through a rut. "Jeez! If this is supposed to be a reward, I'd hate to see where that guy sends people he doesn't like. It's gonna take some real bargains to make this trip worthwhile."
Eric grinned and waved as Bob and Abigail left through the side entrance. "Well Hella, I guess that just leaves you and me."
The younger sister just glared at the smiling man and gripped the skeleton key tight. Her hardened countenance served to make her seem even less appealing than her older sister.
"You can look at those saddles over there." She pointed a crooked finger towards a rack of saddles at the far end of the barn as she gave Eric a critical look. "Sure 'nuff there'll be sumpthin' to fit ya."
Eric wandered over to the saddle racks and begins to sort through the tack piled there. He was struck by the obvious age of the saddles, that style Pariani saddle hadn't been manufactured for over seventy five years. But the condition... Under the dust, the leather was glassy smooth with an odor of freshness. The other saddles, possibly even older, were of an equally fine condition.
As Eric bent over, examining the Pariani more closely, he felt Hella's bony fingers run across his shoulders and down his spine. "Need to find ya something narrower, boy. You'll be a bit narrow in the withers for that one."
He just chuckled and shook his head. Silly old woman. "I'm sure it'll fit just fine." he replied as he knelt to pull a box of martingales and breastplates from beneath a pile of saddle pads. Their condition was the equal of the rest of the tack. "Hella, how do you keep your tack in such fine condition? It's truly amazing."
"You can't hardly fathom what amazing is 'till you see Abigail's bridles." whispered Hella. Her words were punctuated by the quiet snick as a padlock popped open. She raised the lift-bar and silently slid the door open. Hella glided back to Eric's side.
A prismatic glow drew his attention from the martingales he had spread across the floor. Looking up, Hella towered above him as the brilliantly black bridle in her hands gathered and reflected the room's light hypnotically.
Eric watched spellbound as Hella bent over and dropped the shimmering leather over his head. The spell was broken only when he felt the bright bit stretch his lips and force its way into his mouth...
Abigail led Bob outside and around to the back of the stable. He thought they would stop at the open lean-to where he could see weathered, mouldy old tack lying in a pile. Instead, she continued to a closed shed with a lock similar to the one Hella had opened. This time, however, the key was stuck under a rock next to the door. It seemed sorta silly to lock up junk tack. Maybe there was some other stuff in there as well.
She reached inside and pulled out a bridle. The large leather flaps hanging above the bit were easy to identify. Blinders. Tack for a working horse or mule. Probably a draft horse, judging from the size of the bit and the long straps. The metal was tarnished, but the leather looked clean and solid. "This 'un would be just right for ya. " She hesitated for a moment, and then held the tack out to him for inspection.
Bob was hesitant. The blinders were in nice shape, obviously still useable. Still, they would look nice, especially with the metal polished up. "How much would that be? I mean, I just want something for decoration."
She shook her head and smiled. "Dont worry about that, Bobby, my boy. We ain't had no draft animals here in coon's age." She hobbled closer and held it out in front of his face. "You got a big head on ya, boy. Why, I think these blinders would just about match up with your eyes just the way they are." She moved closer, apparently planning on testing her theory.
Grinning a little self-consciously, Bob squatted a little and let her drape the straps over his head.
The flaps were actually way too far apart, but they did seem to be in the right position. He started to pull back, only to feel a firm hand grab his shirt and yank him forward so that his face was thrust fully into the harness.
"Wha-uawh?!" His startled cry was cut off as the straps suddenly and painfully tightened around his head, jerking the bit into his mouth hard enough to draw blood from the corners.
Instinctively recoiling, he almost fell backwards as equilibrium went haywire. The pain in his mouth was overwhelmed by searing heat which filled his head and rushed down into his body. Clothing shrank around him, cutting into his throat and joints. Frantic, he tried to pull at the choking collar of his shirt, only to find that his arms wouldn't bend far enough. Then a violent convulsion of muscles sent him sprawling on the ground. Cloth and plastic exploded off him, even the metal buckle of his belt pulling apart.
He flailed helplessly in the mud, certain he was dying. Maybe this was a heart attack. Or poison. Poison on the bit? Vision was blurring, and his other senses were going wild. The heat built to unbearable intensity, and he screamed.
A loud squeal startled him out of his panic. And just as suddenly as it had started, the burning pain vanished. Stunned, he lay on the ground a moment, trying to clear his head. What the Hell had happened? Abigail was standing over him, reaching down to help him up. Still dazed, he tried to take her hand. His arm moved, but not the way he intended. Her fingers closed around the bridle, which somehow protruded far out in front of his face. She gave the straps a firm, commanding tug, which his body automatically obeyed. Rolling up awkwardly, he found himself standing again.
On four legs.
How many? A mental recount confirmed the initial impression. Legs, four. Arms, zero. Tail, one. Tail!? He wanted to look at himself, yet was unable to move. Abigail's hand was still on the halter, and realized that she was holding him still. It seemed impossible that such a tiny old woman could restrain him. All she was doing was loosely touching the straps. The problem was that his mental commands to run, to fight, were being ignored by his muscles.
It was hard to clear the confusion. Comprehension was nearly overwhelmed by powerful sensations, some new, and some simply magnified. There was an incredible feeling of mass and strength washing over him. He shivered in pleasure, feeling muscles ripple over his massive frame. Awareness was intensely sensual without being exactly sexual. It was hard to describe the reason, but everything was somehow different.
Abigail stepped back suddenly, the movement oddly magnified by his perceptions. Control returned, and he was able to twist his head around. The shaggy, black form which met his eyes was familiar, but definitely not human. Some sort of draft horse, probably a Clydesdale or Shire if the thick white feathering on the legs was any indication. And most definitely a stallion. It took a moment for his still-befuddled brain to make the connection. This was his body. Which meant he was a horse?
Rational thought refused the possibility. Yet there was no denying the evidence not only of his own eyes, but of all his other senses as well. The cause was obvious, if just as impossible. Magic. Not phony stage mumbo-jumbo, or even the Copperfield brand of illusion. Somehow, Abigail Pratchett had used supernatural forces to reshape his body. Most likely forces from Hell, judging from the fire which had burned away his humanity. She was a witch. Probably both of the sisters were. Which meant Eric..! Even as he thought of trying to warn his friend, Bob heard a strangled scream from inside the stable which told him it was already too late.
Eric gripped at the bridle as the nose band cut into his skin, but each tug at the straps served only to tighten their hold on him. Hella had caught him by surprise, flipping the harness over his head as he crouched down to look at a box of old hardware. He struggled to his feet as the bridle began to glow, its harsh white light painting the tack room walls with distorted shadows.
The sharp silhouettes of bridles and reins painted the walls like thick iron bars. Eric staggered about blindly as he struggled against the halter's magic, banging roughly against the rack of saddles, toppling them to the ground.
As he stood gasping amidst the overturned tack, the white light turned inward. The room darkened for a moment, then Eric began to glow. And burn. A squeal escaped around the bit as his very bones began to glow and shine through his skin.
His clothing began to smoke from his inner heat. Wools and cottons gave off an odor like burning hair as his sweater and shirt blackened and cracked. He pawed frantically at the charred fabric and it broke apart, exposing graying skin damp with sweat and streaked with ash.
Backing away from the ruined clothing, he was restrained by the pull of reins in Hella's gnarled hand. Time to end this sick game! He tried to snatch the reins from her, only to freeze at the sight of what tangled in the leather.
His hands weren't human. It was as if his very bones had warped in the heat, hands stretching and thinning, fingers shrinking and turning black, stuck fast to each other as if his sweat had turned to treacle.
Anger turned to fear as Eric turned to flee. Hella jerked the reins again, the bit cutting into his soft mouth. The inner fire began to throb and he felt a strange twitching at the base of his spine that spread and stretched, flowing between his legs and sinking deep into his hips.
He bent low and dropped to his hands as his pelvis twisted and his chest swelled. Looking down, he saw his body supported by two dark forelegs. "No!" he cried, but his scream was distorted into a strangled squeal that echoed in the small room.
Hella shortened the reins and grinned evilly as she pulled his face close to hers. He could sense her foulness as he stared into her eyes across the length of his own long nose. "Yes," she cackled. The bridle's fire had made the tack room into a kiln, the sudden heat causing her leathery features to glisten with sweat. Eric was repulsed as his nostrils were filled by the acrid stink of human before him.
Hella gave a light tug on the reins and Eric stepped forward. He wanted to rise. To scream. To drag off the cursed bridle. But he could do none of that.
His form bristled and swelled. Hella prodded his back with callused fingers, shifting his bones and putting final details to withers and haunches. Then the fire faded and Eric shivered in the rapidly cooling room, his lathered hide twitching against the chill. He was on all fours...a horse. Yet he thought, I am a man... Again, he tried to rear, to stand upright, an effort that was stopped by a tightening of the reins. Immobile. Held by that strip of leather. Then he felt the weight of the Rider settle on his back. And with a kick and a whoop, they burst from the tack room door.
Outside, Bob stood helpless in the grip of Abigails magic. He heard the pounding of hooves emerging from the barn behind him, but was unable to even turn his head. As the sound drew closer, he could just make out the shapes of a horse and rider in the edge of his vision. Abigail looked back and nodded in approval. "Turned into a showy bit o horseflesh, didnt he? Bet you'll keep 'im fer yerself." Then she jerked the reins visciously, bruising Bob's mouth. "This brute wont be good fer much but pullin' wagons or plows. Though we could get a good price fer him from the packers."
As the two sisters shared cackling laughter, Bob felt sick. It was hard enough trying to come to terms with the idea of being a horse. Now they were talking about taking his life as well as his humanity. It wasnt fair! Why had they transformed him in the first place? His bitterness only increased as Hella and her mount moved into view.
The new horse was magnificent, even viewed through equine eyes. Long-legged, sleek and powerful. It was hard to be sure, but the animals coat looked to be an even gray, with black socks, mane, and tail. It took a moment for him to remember who this stallion probably was. "Eric?" Of course, the word came out as a short wicker. He'd forgotten that he could no longer speak.
"Is that you, Bob?" Erics voice sounded in his head, strained, but recognizable. "Can you hear me?"
Bob realized that the words in his head were actually being translated from wickers, snorts, and even certain movements of the other horse. "Eric? Oh, God. Whats happened to us?"
His friend's answer was cut off by simultaneous yanks on both bridles. "Enough!" Abigail twisted the reins in her hand and pulled Bobs head down to hers. "Yer ours now. Ferget any life you might a had afore now. Cause yer horses. Both of ya. Do what yer told, don't cause no trouble, an we'll keep ya fed and sheltered. Maybe even sold to some place fancy later on. Cross us, and yer gonna find out just how much an animal can suffer afore it dies."
"Oh, no you're not!" A new voice came from the barn. The owner was a woman in her forties, looking out of place in a business suit. Bob felt a brief surge of hope. Which vanished when he saw the cruel smile on her face. "Remember, its my turn to deal out the next punishment. You two can't have all the fun."
A witch? The newcomer looked like she belonged in an executive board room, not stirring a cauldron. Passing Eric, she walked straight to Bob and started to check him out. Like an animal. Her touch was cold, and her hands were none too gentle. "Not bad. I like his coloring. Might be fun to ride a mammoth like this." She reached for the reins. "Mind if I give him a try?"
Abigail pulled the straps back. "Not now, Katie. Gotta get ready for the meetin'. Besides, I ain't got tack to fit Bobby."
Eric shuddered in relief as Hella got down off him. Even with the barrage of new sensations this body provided, contact with the witch was an almost overpowering feeling of revulsion. Until now, he'd never really had a good concept of what evil was. Hella waggled his reins at the younger witch.
"You can take that 'un if ya wants. But I'm stakin' claim to this beauty." She wrinkled her nose. "Eric? Pha! Well, I'll come up with a good name fer ya, me boy."
"Gray and black. How about Storm?" volunteered Katie. "Or Smoke?"
Hella looked at Eric. "Smoke? That's not bad. It'll do fer now." She handed his reins to Abigail. "Take 'em out to the pasture. Might as well let 'em meet the other boys. Katie and me will start settin' up for the meetin'."
As the younger sister began leading them towards the fenced-in pasture, Katie yelled back to her. "Look for the keys to their car. Glenda wants it moved into the woods in case anyone comes looking for them. It's too unusual to try reselling."
Remembering the moss-covered hulks they had seen on the way here, Eric felt a momentary flash of dismay. His lovely BMW was going to end up as just another rusted-out junker. Then he realized how ridiculous it was to be worried about his car. Neither of them could even fit inside the little coupe now, much less operate it with hooves and forelegs.
Surprisingly, Abigail unhooked the reins from their bridles before letting them loose in the pasture. As contact was broken, both of them felt full control return to their bodies. Well, almost full control. Bob reared up angrily, but found that he could not make himself actually hurt the witch. She watched him calmly, not even backing away from his massive hooves.
"That's one. I'll give ya that much, Bobby, me boy. Try anything like that again, and I'll cut those oranges between your hind legs off with a rusty knife."
Eric watched from the center of the pasture, where he had bolted as soon as he was free. The other horses had huddled as far from the witch as they could get. He understood. All three of the women radiated a vileness which made his flesh crawl. Still, his normally mild-mannered friends attack came as a surprise. He was too far away to make out Abigail's words, but from Bob's immediate calming, it must have been a potent threat.
The witch locked the gate securely, and headed off to the house. As soon as she had vanished around the corner, Eric shuffled over to Bob. God, he was huge! Erics head was just barely up to his shoulders. Some sort of Shire, most likely. Probably 24 hands and over two tons. Certainly show-quality. And despite having been middle-aged as a human, he seemed to be fairly young. Maybe 5 or 6 years old. The oddest thing was, he had no problem thinking of this massive animal as being his friend. In fact, when he tried to picture the man hed just spent the day with, this draft horse came to mind. Must be part of the magic. That worried him. Just how much did the transformation affect?
Bob remained still for a long time. Moving alongside, Eric saw that his eyes were tightly closed. Very gently, he brushed his muzzle against Bobs black-furred side. "You OK, bud? Talk to me."
"I'm OK." With a shuddering sigh, Bob opened his eyes and twisted his head around to look at his friend. "Geez. And I thought I had a weight problem before." The Shires lips wrinkled as he attempted a smile. "Can't talk much. I'm feeling a little horse."
Eric snorted and shook his head. "The spell didn't improve your puns. I'm serious. Are you OK? I mean, you aren't going to freak out or anything?"
There was a moment of silence as Bob pondered the question. He looked at himself carefully, and trotted around a few steps. "This is gonna sound crazy. I like this." He pawed at the ground absently. "Oh, I don't mean the witches, and what they said. Being a horse, though." He stretched his neck out and shook himself, ending with a little hop and kick. "Damn, I feel wonderful! It doesn't make any sense. My whole world just got turned upside down. I've probably lost all my family, friends, everything I have. I mean, I know I should be upset or scared. But none of that seems to matter."
Eric blew through his lips, this time really equine. "If it makes you feel any better, I'm pretty much the same. Smell that grass! And the other horses over there. You, even. There's an odor in my head that's like, your name. I know it's not the way I used to think, but it all seems perfectly normal." He looked back at the other horses, a few of whom were starting to amble their way. "Still, I don't think we want to stick around this place very long. From some of the things they said earlier, I figure most of our pasture mates are fairly new to hooves as well. Which means the witches have a pretty high turnover rate. Either they just use us for a little while and sell us, or they..." His voice trailed off, not wanting to finish.
"Or they ride us into the ground." Bobs head dropped. He had no doubt that these women were capable of such cruelty. Still, Abigail had mentioned the possibility of selling them to a fancy place. Probably one of the established horse breeders. He didn't know much about horses, but Eric was surely championship material. And he had to admit that he was impressed with what he could see of his own new body. It would make sense, in a way. The witches could use them for whatever purpose they had been transformed for, and then sell off the lot to stables. Probably making a tidy profit on the deal. Well, he could hope that was the case.
Eric snorted and turned towards the horses approaching them. "Looks like the Welcome Wagon. Maybe we can find out something from them."
Nodding in agreement, Bob moved to stand beside him. Although the scent of so many stallions made him nervous, he found a certain satisfaction in the knowledge that he was by far the largest. He was dimly aware that his reactions were more equine than human, but what should have concerned him more was that he really didn't care.
The herd continued to approach. Bob wrinkled his nose and took in their scent. He closed his eyes. So many horses... With a shake of mane and tail, Bob walked forward. "Wait..." rumbled Eric from deep within his throat. "Not yet."
Bob was lost in the scents from the herd. He was amazed by the uniqueness of each herd member, how he could tell who had rolled in this patch of mud or that.
A big roan broke from the group and approached them with a purposeful stride. As Eric stood back, he noted that unlike most of the herd, this horse didn't wear a bridle. Bob pricked up his ears and wuffled a friendly "Hi!" as he walked to met the roan, nuzzling his neck to drink in his scent.
The roan rose up on his hind legs, snaked his neck around, and bit the Shire on the throat. Squealing, Bob hastily back-pedaled, only to catch a set of shod hooves in his ribs as the roan wheeled around and kicked.
Eric dropped his head and charged the roan that was at that moment chasing the much larger Shire along the fence line, periodically nipping at haunch or wither to keep the big draft moving.
"I always hate introducing new horses to a herd." he muttered as he cut the roan away from the Shire' flanks. "Stay. Away. From. Him." was the squeal as Eric bit the Roan hard in the belly, then reared to flail away with his forehooves.
Bob slowed to a walk as he gasped from being chased himself. He watched in amazement as Eric chased the herd leader about the field, occasionally using an extra burst of speed to pull ahead of the Roan and deliver another kick with his hinds. Watching the scene made him wince at his own wounds and chastised himself for walking up to the stallion the way he did. Why didn't he just hang a 'Kick Me' sign around his big fat neck!
At least Eric had worked enough around horses to know better. Bob watched from the fence as the roan rejoined the herd. Eric circled the herd once, then twice, finally coming to a halt a little above them on the hill. He waited for a moment, still as a statue. When none moved from the herd, he let out a shrill whinny. "Now that that's settled, I've got some questions for all of you."
Bob plodded up towards where Eric stood, making sure not to approach too closely. He was still sore from the Roans kick, and even though he trusted his friend, some inner instinct was guiding him now. Eric looked back at him and snorted. "Come on, then. We better find out as much as we can." Given official permission, Bob found it easy to move next to him.
So far, there hadn't been any reaction from the herd gathered before them. At least the two had a chance to get a good look at their new family. They were all quite different, with a wide range of color and breed represented. However, all of the stallions were absolutely prime examples of horseflesh, young and vital. Apparently the Pratchett sisters had worked some special additions to the basic transformation spell.
Feeling a little braver with Eric backing him, Bob took a tentative step forward. "Uh, are all of you people? I mean, did you used to be human?" After a moment most of the horses nodded. A few pricked their ears forward, curious, but not seeming to understand. A Palomino near the back finally pushed through to the front and looked up at them.
"My name's Joey." As before, the actual sounds were animal, yet they translated into the voice of a young boy. His head dropped. "I was hitchhiking. My mom wouldn't drive me to a movie I wanted to see, so I snuck out. Some old lady stopped to give me a ride. I thought it would be safe. Next thing I know, I'm like this." There was no mistaking the anguish in his voice. "I don't wanna be a horse! I'm only eleven!"
Eleven? Bob felt a tightness in his throat. These damned halters worked both ways. The kid was a mature stallion, just the same as everyone else. At least the older victims might enjoy the same total life span they would have had as humans. Joey would probably die of old age before he was forty. He cleared his throat and tried to sound positive. "There's got to be a way to undo this. The bridles seem to cause the transformation. Maybe if we can find a way to get them off"
"Forget it!" This outburst came from a Paint. "Once they change you, you're a horse forever. Taking the damned harness off only makes it work faster."
Eric glared angrily at the speaker. "And what makes you such an expert? You're still wearing your halter. And you sound OK to me."
The Paint snorted defiantly from the safety of the herd. "I've been here a few weeks. Seen some of the ones who was here before me lose it. Danny, there?" He indicated a grey Thoroughbred that seemed oblivious to the conversation. "Told me what was goin' on when I was first got zapped. He talked pretty good, even had some ideas about escaping. I guess the witches found out somehow, cause they took him and a couple of the others into the barn. When they came out, they didn't have halters on no more. And they was animals. For real. No more talking."
Although he had noticed that some of the stallions didn't have bridles, Bob hadn't made a connection with behavior. Sure enough, those were the ones acting like normal horses. Still, when he watched his friend's body language, he saw a horse working that herd. And his own reaction was instinctual as well. Somehow, he knew what every throw of the neck and whisk of the tail meant. It seemed like both he and Eric were adapting pretty quickly. Maybe too quickly.
"Been here a few weeks, huh?" Eric trotted up to the Paint and sniffed along his neck and withers. "You still have a human smell to you. Or haven't you noticed? Danny over there" Eric swung his muzzle towards the grey, barely visible in the growing darkness. "He ain't got that."
Before the Paint could answer, a squeal went up from the Palomino. Bob heard a harsh metallic rattle and let out a whinny as the danger scent spread through the herd. Necks arched, ears pricked, and trembling legs froze as the horses waited and watched. He was dimly aware that his own reactions were starting to match those of the animals around him, and then even that much awareness was pushed aside by fear.
The Shire peered into the blackness beyond the pasture. His eyes strained to pick out shapes as his equine ears twitched and tracked the sound of tyres crunching over dirt and gravel. An occasional stone pinging off a wheel well. The distinctive squeak of leaf springs compressing and releasing as something mechanical approached from the other side the barn.
He started to get nervous as an acrid stink wafted over the field. Familiar to his human memory. Diesel fuel. A truck. Muscles tensed and his hooves pawed the ground in anticipation as the vehicles sounds were drowned out by violent banging. The Shire's ears flattened at a piercing, equine scream that washed over the pasture and echoed through the valley. Danny squealed a mournful reply as the bridled horses listened to the exchange. A glow appeared, followed by a long, unnatural silhouette. The brightness arched toward the pasture, spotlighting the herd in a harsh glare. There was another anguished whinny as the truck halted, the engine rattling loudly before falling silent.
The commotion was too much for the gentle Shire, and he bolted. His massive hooves sprayed Joey with mud as he thundered past, panicking the boy as well. In a moment, the entire herd was in flight, not stopping until they reached the dark safety of the far side.
Eric found himself running with the herd instinctively, and forced himself to hold back. Equine thoughts were strong, yet he was able to recognize them and resist losing himself. Bob wasn't faring as well. His human personality seemed to be completely submerged, leaving a nervous draft horse who pawed the ground anxiously.
Catching his breath, Eric looked into the glare to see a man dropping the ramp to a horse trailer. The banging stopped as he entered and for a moment all was quiet. Then the man reappeared, leading a large and vaguely familiar shape out into the grassy field. He felt his stomach knot as the two were illuminated by the glow of the headlamps. "Oh my God..."
Eric's pained squeal snapped Bob out of his bestial mentality. He could smell fear and guilt waft from his friend, and moved free of the herd to search out the cause. Then he froze as the figures on the hill came into view. It was Hank. And the stallion Eric had caught at Montpelier.
They both stared, transfixed, as Hank led the black horse over to the pasture and released him through the gate. As soon as the man let go of the halter, the animal bolted away from him, eyes showing white all around. Hank watched him run until he saw Eric and Bob. Then he grinned broadly and waved. "I see you boys found the place all right. Told ya you'd find some interesting tack."
Eric squealed in rage at the cold humor, and charged the fence in hopes of trampling the cruel bastard. One of the herd shouted at him, but he didn't quite catch what was being said. Then it didn't matter, for he was knocked back by a powerful shock that left him convulsing on the ground. Still grinning, Hank watched calmly from the fence. "Guess they fergot to tell ya bout the perimeter spell. Keeps you beasties from gettin' loose." Looking up, he saw Bob approaching with ears back and head snaking aggressively. "Don't waste your time, big boy. It'll knock you on your ass just as quick. And you already gone down once today."
"Hank!" Hella Practhett's angry voice startled all three of them, and despite the transformed mens' terror, they both took some satisfaction in seeing the colour drain from Hanks face. "Bout time you showed up! What tha Hell took you so long? We ride in two hours!" The old woman hobbled up to the fence and looked over the pastures occupants. "Well? How many did ya bring?"
Obviously nervous, Hank pointed at the new arrival. "A pure black. Lean and mean. Just the way you like em."
"And?" The witch leaned on her cane, fixing him with a harsh stare.
"That's all. You got the thirteen, right?"
"Only if you count that worthless brute!" Hella gestured angrily at Bob. "We need good, fast, riding mounts, not plow horses."
The man fidgeted. "I did the best I could, Ms. Pratchett! Drove all the way to Montpelier lookin' for good'uns. With the weather bein' so bad, hardly anybody showed. I got real desperate towards the end of the day. Had a bit 'o bad luck, but then these two showed up."
"I heard." The witch scowled. "Let the black get away from ya. You know how bad it'd be fer us all if one of these beasties got loose! Careless, Hank. Damned careless. Why didn't cha have that no-account buddy hold onto him? Didn't he go up with ya?"
"Well, uh" Hanks eyes cut over to the still-agitated black, and then dropped to the ground. "Like I said, I got real desperate. What with you and your coven needin' rides fer toni..."
"No!" Hellas cane hit him solidly across the face, leaving a bleeding gash. "You thrice-damned idiot!" If the ancient hag had looked angry before, she positively burned with malevolence now. The witch had to visibly calm herself before she could continue. "I'd throw a halter on you now, if I didnt know you'd just become a bigger ass than you are now. Come! The Coven must decide how to deal with this."
Hella spun and stormed back towards the barn. Hank hung back only a moment, pressing his hand against the bloody cut. It was clear he wanted to run the other way, but he was apparently more afraid of not obeying. The man didn't even take time to turn off the lights of his truck.
Bob and Eric stared after the two until they had vanished into the barn. Both were bewildered by the witch's sudden outburst, and Hank's obvious fall from favor. Whatever was going on involved the black animal he had just dropped off. However, it didn't seem like the new arrival was in a mood to talk yet. He was still screaming and kicking at the air, either in fear or rage.
Eric recovered from the tremendous shock, and managed to stand again. All of his spirit and energy had vanished, and he stared dully at the black. It was his fault. The poor guy had managed to escape Hank, only to be stopped by Eric's well-intentioned meddling. What was the saying? About the road to Hell being paved with good intentions. His throat tightened. In this case, the road they were on could very well lead to Hell.
Bob whickered softly and nuzzled Erics side, trying to soothe both physical and mental pain as best he could. The gray Andalusian seemed to have aged 20 years. He wanted to say something, but couldn't find the words. It took him a moment to comprehend the extent of that problem. Words. The concept was still there. But the jumble of sounds which came to mind made little or no sense. Worse, he realized that a good part of his confusion over the trouble between Hank and Hella was due to his inability to understand their conversation. Sighing heavily, he pushed that particular worry to the back of his mind and stroked the grays back with his chin.
Eric shuddered at the Shire's touch, but didn't pull away. The sight of that black Thoroughbred and the reminder of what he had done made him want to sink into the ground and disappear. He watched the beast dart back and forth in the glare of Hank's headlights for a long time, kept from total despair only by the reassuring contact with the draft horse beside him.
After a while, the lights dimmed to a barely visible yellowish glow. The Thoroughbred's anger seemed to fade with the dying battery. Finally, he stood still in the growing darkness. His foam-flecked hide twitched, then sagged as the Andalusian's aggressive stink turned to an odor of fear and resignation. An odor that spread across the pasture like a silent moan.
"We're gonna have a heap 'o trouble if Nicholas lays claim to that black..." Hella! Bob recognized the sulphuric stench even before he picked up her muttering. His ears pricked and swiveled, following the sound. His nervousness increased as his nose caught her scent growing stronger. The witch was coming back to the pasture.
He and Eric were joined by the remainder of the herd as they edged away from the woman's approach. The gate creaked open and slammed shut, and Bob could make out her twisted shadow hobbling across the pasture. He wuffled a sigh of uneasy relief as he realized that the witch was heading away from them. She wanted the newcomer. At his side, Eric tensed, neck arching as his ears followed the witch. He began to prance and jig.
"Easy, Eric. It's ok. She's going..."
Eric squealed and drove the Shire back with a lunge. He took a step forward. His fear of the witch was slowly being overcome by the rage and horror he felt for his own complicity.
Eric's jaws ground at the bit as he watched Hella reach for the Thoroughbred's bridle. Muscles bunched and tendons bulged as his anger built. He started to trot forward as she bent the Thoroughbred's head to hook on the reins. Joey and Bob wuffled and shied away from him as an aura of savage fury turned his scent sour.
The witch had just turned to lead the black back to the barn when she heard Eric's charge. Bob wasn't sure what scared him more: the blind rage that was at this very moment driving his friend to murder or the mad lust in Hella's gleaming eyes as she watched him come. The gray horse dropped his head low and screamed as he closed on the witch, intent on running her into the ground.
The witch hardly moved as the galloping beast reached her. Instead, Hella sidestepped and deftly hooked an arm around Eric's neck. As he spun and lunged, she used his momentum to lever herself up and drop lightly onto his back.
"Hee, Smoke!" cackled the Hag as she dug her hands deep into the gray's mane. "Seems I was right about yer spirit, but I h'ain't gots the time for yer shenannigans now!"
It seemed impossible that the old crone could hang on. As Eric twisted and bucked, Hella laid about him with leg and stick until he stood still. His sided heaved. Bob felt sick, helpless to do anything but watch as blood ran from his friend's flanks. The beating seemed to break whatever spirit Eric had mustered. Head down, he plodded forward, and then turned in obvious response to commands from his rider. Eric let loose an equine groan. Hella cackled, a sound that sent shivers down Bob's back. With a cluck and a kick, she trotted Eric up to the Black, and after retrieving the reins, used him to pony the newcomer across the pasture, where Hank waited by the gate. The man opened it as she approached, shutting it as soon as the two animals cleared.
Bob watched them go into the stable with a growing sense of dread. His sensitive ears could pick up activity all over the farm. Excited voices, distant but recognizable. Creaking hinges on gates and doors. Everything seemed to be converging on the barn. What were they going to do? Prancing nervously, he began to pace back and forth along the fence. Some of the herd moved closer, curiosity overriding fear for the moment.
An inhuman chanting rose from the barn. Under it, a harsh rhythm of metal striking metal began to swell in volume and power until he could feel each pounding stroke rise through his hooves. A thin pencil of flame soared from the other side of the barn, illuminating the pasture like lightning. The chant rose to a crescendo, then stopped. The silence was broken by an equine scream which sent the herd running.
Only Danny remained by him, watching the barn with ears flat and head lowered. The former human sniffed the air, and let loose with a mournful squeal. And then Bob smelled it himself. The iron odor of the forge and the smell of burning hoof.
How long it lasted, Bob didn't know. Time was already a difficult concept. Yet it seemed that he stood there, helpless, for a lifetime. The flashes of light and sharp clangs continued steadily, joined once more by chanting halfway through. There was no further sound from the horses. Finally, Hank emerged from the barn, leading Eric and the black by lead ropes. Bob called out to his friend, nervous and concerned. The Andalusian perked up his ears and regarded the Shire curiously, but made no answer.
Bob swallowed hard and forced himself to remain calm. Hank turned the two animals out into the pasture and watched them for a moment before heading back. As soon as the man had left, Bob trotted towards his friend. Eric whirled around as he approached, snapping and pawing the ground aggressively. Shying away, Bob felt sickness fill his heart and mind. It had been too dark to see clearly until he got close, but his friend's bridle was gone. And, he realized with growing despair, so was Eric.
The Andalusian trotted around the pasture, herding the rest of the stallions much as he had done earlier. This time, there was no demand for attention. Once the animals had gathered, the Herd Leader simply began to graze. Bob made a half-hearted attempt to speak to him, only to get chased back. There was no recognition, no sign that the gray stallion saw him as anything other than just another subordinate male.
"He's gone, too." Joey tossed his head to indicate the Black, now calmly grazing in the pasture. The boy's voice was full of fear. "They're gonna do that to all of us, aren't they? I won't remember school or friends, or my mom and dad." Dropping his head, the Palamino stallion shuddered. "I can't even cry." As much as he wanted to comfort the kid, Bob was too lost in his own grief to do more than nod in silent agreement. They did not have much time to grieve over their fate. A horde of cackling hags burst from the barn, shrieking in delight as they ran for the corral. It was time for the Ride.
The entire herd broke and ran for the far side of the corral, bridled and unbridled sharing the same overwhelming fear. Memory of Eric's nasty experience with the fence brought the panicked animals up short of the barrier. Those closest to the approaching women spun and reared up, flailing hooves and squealing. Hoping his size would help, Bob pushed through and snapped his powerful jaws menacingly. Let those hags come! He'd make them pay for Eric, for the others.
Amazingly, Hella and Abigail Pratchett were in the lead. Either the crones were a lot spryer than they looked, or the younger women were holding back in deference. That suited Bob just fine. He'd nail the sisters with the massive hooves they had given him. Once he'd caved in their skulls, maybe the others would have second thoughts. As his intended targets came into range, he threw his massive body back and lashed out with deadly force.
And missed. The sisters didn't even try to avoid him, almost brushing against him as they went for horses deeper in the herd. None of his corral-mates fared any better. Another try failed just as miserably. Bewildered, he fell back to all fours as the other women went past. Both times, his hooves had been forced aside by some instinctive reflex. It had to be the halter. As long as he wore it, he wouldn't be able to act against them.
Twisting around, he watched Hella make a beeline for Eric. Abigail snagged the Black newcomer. And then a hard yank on Bob's neck signaled the arrival of his own rider. Katie's trim business suit had been replaced by loose black rags. And her eyes glowed insanely from a harsh face no longer disguised by makeup. Grabbing a handful of mane, she slid forward on his broad back and dug her heels into his side with amazing force.
There was no resisting, no holding back. The magic of the bridle took hold and propelled him into the darkness. There were others ahead of him, thundering through the gate which Hank held open. He followed blindly, driven by fear and the commands of his rider. They were heading past the barn now, probably towards whatever road Hank had come in on. Then the line turned towards thick forest. Even though the human part of his mind knew he'd never make it through the close-set trees, Bob couldn't slack his pace. The horse ahead of him shimmered as it reached the edge of the clearing, dissolving suddenly like smoke. Bob's terror was almost enough to break the bridle's control. Almost. But not quite. In another moment, he crossed the barrier himself and the world went mad.
He could feel the ground beneath his hooves. The thick odor of the stallions around him, mixed with the acrid stench of the hags. And Katie's sharp heels gouging bloody furrows across his ribs. He could hear the beating of his heart and the pounding of his hooves, but the sounds were deep and attenuated, as if he was galloping underwater.
The ashen outline of trees packed closer and closer together as the forest compressed under his hooves. The bark formed a swirling wall around him as branches tore at his hide like greedy talons. Bob twisted and lept as he threaded his way through the ever tightening gauntlet of trees.
Hella cut Eric in front of Bob, almost cutting him with his hooves before he disappeared ahead. Bob squealed at the sight of his friend. As he passed, the gray stallion blurred in the otherworldly light and became skeletal; tendons and bones visible beneath his pumping haunches. And the hag that gripped his neck...
Hella was little more than a skeleton in rags herself. Her cackle cut through the swirl of blackness which seemed to leech warmth and life like a vaporous vampire. It was the chill of death.
Katie leaned forward, her boney arms embracing his thick neck like a lover. "My master waits for us." Her voice was husky with lust. "Run, beast. Run towards your fate. He will rip your soul out and devour it like candy."
Raw terror filled him. For the first time in his life, he truly believed in evil. Not simply evil acts or thoughts. Even the incredible transformation wrought by the bridle had been as wondrous as it was frightening. What surrounded him now was the essence of hatred and cruelty. Horror fueled his legs and he drove ever faster through the night. The witch on his back shrieked with delight, her fists pulling chunks hair from his mane. And still he ran. And ran. And ran.
A squeal sounded off to the side, abruptly cut off by the sickening thud of a heavy body impacting the ground. One of the transformed men hadn't lived to finish the ride, most likely bursting his heart. The only consolation was the slim hope that he had taken his rider with him. Which of them had died? Was it Eric? Joey? Perhaps it didn't matter. For Bob's own heart was pounding as if it would break through his ribs. Air wouldn't come, and his vision began to cloud. Perhaps he should try to throw himself down now, use his last strength to crush the vile creature who even now was pressed sensually against his neck.
Almost as he thought that, the blackness around him cleared into the comparative brightness of normal night. Trees, women, and lathered stallions appeared all around him as he staggered to a stop, bracing himself to keep from collapsing. Katie slid off his back slowly, patting his heaving side. He shuddered at her touch, the movement lost amidst the spasms of tortured muscles. She laughed, and then joined the rest of the witches as they headed for the center of the clearing. There was no fence, no tether to hold him here. Perhaps because none was needed. He could barely stand, much less attempt an escape.
After a few minutes, he had recovered enough to look around. His nose was more help than his eyesight, and he soon picked up Eric's scent. Not quite the same, though. What was that his friend had said about Danny? That he lacked the human smell? Bob hadn't been able to tell a difference then. Now, it was easy to detect the change in the gray Andalusian's signature. Obviously the same, yet different. The scent of the lead stallion. The dominant male. But no longer his friend.
Another familiar smell. Joey. Bob couldn't help wonder if the boy's survival was a blessing or curse. Danny was there as well, head down and gasping for breath, but still alive. Not knowing all of the herd members, he figured out the identity of the dead victim by the one scent missing. The grouch who had dashed the boy's hope. Justice, perhaps? He berated himself for the thought. What did he know of the mans sufferings? And maybe the grouch was the lucky one.
An eerie chanting filled the air, and he looked over to see the witches gyrating wildly. Some sort of ritualistic dance. Between the darkness and his odd equine vision, he couldnt make out much more than general movement. An underlying pulse grew in strength, becoming a physical pressure that rippled through the air. The horses nearest the women began to back away nervously, their bodies silhouetted by an increasing brightness from the center of the clearing.
Now Bob picked up what the closer animals had detected. His own scream was echoed by the rest of the herd as the witches chant built to a piercing crescendo. A brilliant flash of light blinded him momentarily, and the clearing fell strangely silent. The evil which had surrounded them in the void was suddenly repeated here a thousand fold, and he shivered as a low chuckle came from its source. The witches prostrated themselves, revealing a dark figure standing in the center. Their Master had arrived.
"Good evening, ladies." Bobs ears pricked forward. The voice was male, smooth and cultured with just a trace of a European accent. "You are all looking lovely tonight." An excited murmur rose from the women, who remained bowed. Bob couldn't make out much of the demon, but its shape, like the voice, was hardly what he expected. Certainly man-sized, and seemingly human in form. He watched the thing move around the circle of witches, occasionally dropping a hand to touch one of the bowed heads. Then it looked up towards the shivering horses. "And what have you brought me tonight?"
Scrambling up, the crones followed as the demon strode out into the pasture. Bob was able to get a better look now, but the image only compounded his confusion. A trim, nicely dressed young man in his twenties, looking like he had just stepped out of a magazine ad. A movie star, perhaps. Or a model. But hardly a minion of Hell. At least, until the thing looked in his direction and Bob saw his eyes. They were solid black, like bottomless holes in its skull.
Although all of the horses were nervous, the bridled stallions were the ones who scattered at the things approach. Their unbridled companions simply watched cautiously, no longer able to comprehend what it represented. Eric and the black were close by, and the demon stopped when it saw them. "These have been ruined. Do you seek my favor by keeping the best for yourselves?" There was an edge to that refined voice now, a sense of displeasure which was not wasted on its audience.
"Forgive us, Master!" Hellas voice. The old woman threw herself at the demons feet. "They was a danger. We wanted to protect you..."
"Protect me?" The demon gave a short laugh, though the sound carried no humor. "Have I sunk so low in your esteem that I receive lies as well as your culls?" The handsome features twisted in a sneer as he reached down and grabbed the witch's neck and lifted her off the ground with one arm. The old woman screamed as blue lighting crackled over her skin, flailing helplessly as her body convulsed.
"Mercy, Master!" Abigail, this time. "She didn't mean no disrespect! It's Hanks fault! He broke the pact that kept the church away. He used a halter on one of the locals! We hadda shoe 'im afore anyone could find out!"
The demon tossed Hella to the ground like a rag doll and glared at her cowering sister. "And why did Hank do such a stupid thing?"
"He didn't have enough horses for us!" Abigail's voice took on an accusatory tone. "He took your favors, your gifts. But he ain't done his work. Waited till today to bring the last three, and two a those was no good!"
"And where is my good friend, Hank?" The demon leaned over her, his words hissed through clenched teeth.
"There! There!" One of the other women gestured frantically towards the herd. "We used a bridle on him! I told them you would wish to punish him, Master! They wanted to protect him, but I knew! I."
"SILENCE!" A bolt of light sprang from the demons hand and hit the babbling snitch, knocking her a good twenty feet. "You are all guilty!" Spinning, he stalked towards the indicated animal. Bob realized that there was indeed a new addition to the herd that he hadn't noticed before. Mud brown and shaggy, Hank was as coarse-featured as a stallion as he had been as a human. The animal backed away from the approaching monster, eyes wide in terror.
The demon clucked his tongue. "For shame, Hank. Do you think I would harm one of my faithful servants?" He smiled, reaching out for Hanks bridle. "Mistakes happen. You simply forgot about the Ride, didn't you?" Manicured fingers began to unbuckle the straps. "No need for this, now. You will serve me better without it."
The harness fell away, yet nothing seemed to happen. Then the demons hands actually slid inside the horses head and yanked something out. Hank let loose an agonized squeal, sending the rest of the herd charging towards the woods. Only to be stopped by a wall of fire which flared suddenly around the clearing.
The demon wrinkled his nose in distaste and looked at a dimly glowing object in his right hand. "I suppose I shouldn't have expected anything better. Your soul was already mostly Hell's. However, since you have no further need of it" The demon raised his hand in the air and squeezed. . Blue fire washed over the animal, burning away hair and flesh. Hank screamed once more, and then fell silent.
The gruesome thing that stood before the demon now was equine only in shape. Coal black and skeletal, Hank had become some sort of hellish monster with blood-red eyes and cruel fangs. "Go, minion. They will find a use for you somewhere." The shadowy creature that had been Hank flickered, and was gone.
"That was disappointing." The demon turned and looked around the pasture. "Lets see if I can find something a bit more stimulating." He started towards another bridled stallion, shaking his head with an amused smile as the animal bolted for the far side. Fiery walls appeared around the terrified beast, forming first a box, and then a flaming chute that led back to the demon. The walls contracted, forcing the animal towards the monster.
As the stallion came close, the demons hands reached up and grabbed its halter. "Oh, yes. A good soul here. Not perfect, though. Been naughty a few times, havent we, Alex? Cheating on your wife two years ago. And killing that cute little kitty when you were ten." Once more, his hands slid through flesh and bone. Alex shuddered, his eyes showing white all around.
The demon closed his eyes, concentrating like a wine taster with a rare vintage. "Love of family, kindness to strangers, even some smattering of Faith. Not enough to save you, though. Not nearly enough." The demon withdrew his hands to reveal a sphere of iridescent crystal. "Don't fight me, Alex. You have already seen what I do to those who displease me. And you cannot win. Surrender yourself freely, and discover the joys I can offer."
A wisp of light rose from the globe. "That's it, Alex. Relax." The demon stroked the crystal gently, raising more streamers of glowing mist from the surface. Alex began to take on a soft, dark glow, as if he were bathed in black light. A stain spread across his back, turning roan hide into onyx. Instead of becoming skeletal, the stallion gained height and mass, new muscles rippling under glossy black hair. A heavy musk filled the air, and Alex shuddered again, this time in pleasure. At that moment, the sphere in the demons hands broke up into a shimmering cloud, which he inhaled with one, long breath.
For a moment, Bob actually felt his own fear lessen just a bit. That didn't seem so awful. Alex seemed to actually enjoy what was happening. As the last of his soul was sucked away, he blinked for a moment in confusion. And then his eyes darkened suddenly into dead black pools. Bob shivered, backing away in revulsion. Unlike Hank, the black stallion pawing the ground with huge, sharp hooves was a magnificent animal. Yet it radiated a foulness which made the Shire's blood run cold.
The demon admired his newest victim, and then looked around the remaining herd. Bob felt the cold, dead eyes sweep over him, and did his best to press back into the background. When they continued past, he almost fainted in relief. Only to suffer renewed horror as the demon cried out in obvious delight and seized the halter of a familiar Palamino. The next soul to be taken was Joey's.
Bob lunged forward instinctively, intent on protecting the child. The demon grinned at him and made a casual gesture. The huge Shire flew backwards, landing in a sprawl. Either by design or luck, nothing was broken. However, Bob was too stunned by pain and shock to do more than watch as the monster turned back to his newest victim.
"Why ladies! This makes up for everything!" He stroked the furred cheek lovingly. "Joseph? Don't be afraid, my boy. I'll make your change even nicer than Alex's. And just think! No more homework. No chores. And that bully at school? Well, we'll pay him a little visit. You can eat his heart, if you like."
A couple of the other bridled horses neighed and pawed the ground, but they all knew that none of them could do anything. Sickened, they watched the demon rub his hands together, and reach up to Joeys head.
Only to fall back as the horse next to him suddenly reared back and flailed at him with flashing hooves. Eric! The gray Andalusian charged the demon before it could recover, and actually knocked it to the ground. Witches screamed and cursed as the herd leader trampled their master, crushing the handsome face into bloody pulp. A few tried in vain to shoo Eric away, only to fall back from snapping teeth and lashing hooves. The controlling magic they used must depend on the halters, and Eric no longer wore one.
As the demon's body was crushed under his hooves, the flaming barrier around the pasture faltered and then flickered out. A few of the transformed humans took the opportunity to bolt from the clearing, but Bob ran towards the battle. Had the demon simply run afoul of an angry herd stallion, or had Eric somehow survived?
Joey was still in shock, watching his rescuer pound the demon into the earth. Bob nuzzled him gently at first, and then shoved hard enough to make the horse stumble sideways. "Snap out of it, kid! These witches arent gonna stay confused forever." As he said that, Bob looked around. Sure enough, the women were spreading out, obviously planning some sort of attack. Lowering his head, he snapped his huge jaws menacingly and scraped furrows in the earth with his hooves. Joey turned and faced the other side, neighing a challenge to his tormentors.
"Go." Erics voice sounded in his head, weak but recognizable. "Go quick."
"We'll stay with you, Eric! They won't attack all three of us!" Bob was elated. "We beat them! You killed the demon! All we have to do is get away!"
The Andalusian squealed as it continued to trample the shattered thing under its hooves. "No! Go quick. Go now!" Eric's efforts seemed to become more frantic. "Not dead! Can't!" His warning stopped short as the crushed demon suddenly vanished.
There was an explosion of fire around the pasture as the demons barrier returned in full force. One of the escaping horses was caught halfway across, and had time for only a short agonized scream before it tumbled onto the ground in two charred pieces. The center of the clearing split apart, unleashing steam and noxious clouds. And then the demon climbed out.
There was no pretense of humanity this time, no illusion of youth and beauty. What emerged was a rotting corpse with tentacles, a gaping mouth full of sharp teeth, and a thick purplish ooze covering its mottled skin. The only recognizable features were the empty black eyes. Eyes that were fixed on them.
Even the witches were terrified now, screaming and running from the apparition. Apparently, they hadn't dealt with the demon's true form before. He snared one of the fleeing women with a tentacle and hoisted her in the air. The witch screamed as her flesh withered, aged half a decade in moments.
Tossing her crumbling body aside, the demon turned back to the three horses.
"Fools!" The cultured voice had been lost with the body, for now the creature spoke with a rasping, gurgling sound that matched its loathsome form. "Did you think that you could defeat me? One who has lived ten thousand of your puny lifetimes?" It rose up, flexing claws that sprang from its hands like switchblades.
Perhaps because there was no place to run, no escape, Eric and Bob found the courage to stand their ground. Whinnying defiance, they pawed the ground with ears back and teeth bared. And then Joey pushed in between them, adding his own challenge to the gruesome creature.
The demon stopped his approach, staring at the three horses in apparent amazement. Its bloated body began to quiver, slowly at first, then increasing in violence until a hideous scream exploded from its mouth. Only after the sound had softened a bit did the three transformed humans realize it was laughter.
"I have discovered treasure beyond my wildest dreams!" The demons claws vanished and it sank back down to the ground. "To find but one of your caliber is rare, but three? I shall present you to Lucifer himself!"
"I don't think so."
Horses and demon alike were startled by a powerful voice which came from the other side of the flames. "It is too late for you to return to your cursed master." The flames parted, and a man stepped into the clearing. "Your ten thousand years come to an end tonight, monster."
Bob stared. The man looked frail, white-haired and slightly stooped. Yet he approached with confidence which belied his size and age. What could this old man do against a millennia-old creature of Hell? If the demon had found the three of them humorous, he must be ready to fall over laughing at this.
Except that the demon was terrified. "You cannot! It is impossible!"
"The seal is complete." The man gestured around the clearing. "While you gloated and postured, we formed the lines with salt and blessed water. And these three gave us time to say the words. You are trapped."
"Nooooooo!" The demon screamed and vanished. At the same time, the old man leaped towards them.
"Stay where you are!" Moving rapidly, he drew an odd-shaped box round the three horses and stepped inside. "It's testing the seal, but that won't take long."
Almost on cue, the vile creature appeared in front of them. "Release me! Or I will have your soul along with theirs!"
"Too late." The old man pointed at the ground. "If you hadn't panicked, we could all have been yours. Let your last thought be of your own failure." He gestured to someone in the woods, and it began to rain. The demon screamed as the moisture popped and hissed like acid on its mottled skin. Bob flinched as his own body was soaked, yet felt nothing but cold wetness. His nostrils could scent only normal water, and still the demons body melted and burned under the downpour.
"Blessed water isn't hard to come by." The old man smiled and nodded towards the source of their impromptu shower. A squad of men in yellow slickers were washing the entire clearing with hoses that snaked from a huge fire truck. "In fact, all you need is a preacher and a convenient tanker."
The demon launched itself at them with an agonized wail, only to bounce off an invisible wall where the old man had drawn the pentagram. Falling in a heap, it gurgled once more, and fell silent. The old man raised a hand in warning, watching the rotting mass dissolve. He waited until the last traces had crumbled away before finally signaling an end to the artificial shower.
Still shivering, Bob felt Joey lean against him either to comfort him, or seek comfort himself. Looking over the Palamino, he whickered at the third member of their group. "Eric? Can you talk?"
The gray Andalusian shook his head and snorted. "Some. It. Be. Hard." There was an odd double layer of communication between them. Part of Bob's mind was picking up signals of acceptance, nervousness, and aggressiveness from a dominant stallion. At the same time, human emotion and meaning was being expressed with his strained words.
"Come on, then." The old man sighed, looking far older and frailer than he had before. "Lets see if we can get you back to normal." Gesturing wearily with one hand, he led them over to the woods. There was a path here, a path rich with the scent of their vanished herd mates. Remembering the nightmarish ride, Bob hesitated, pawing the ground nervously. The old man shook his head. "Dont worry. Its just a short walk to the farm. No witches, no magic. Just a couple a hundred feet of ordinary trees."
It was hard to fight the memory of his last passing through this forest, but there was no reason to doubt the man. Bob plodded after him, picking up his pace as he detected another clearing immediately ahead. Sure enough, as they came out of trees, he found himself back on the Pratchetts farm. Or what was left of it. The cabin was blazing, flames rising high into the night sky. People and horses were clustered over by the barn, and their guide led them in that direction.
As they approached, a man and a woman broke away from the group and met them halfway. The man was carrying blankets. "Jack! Are these the last ones?" The old man nodded and pointed at the Palamino. "Take care of this fella first, Agnes. I think he might be that missing kid from over in Hanover County." The woman reached up and unbuckled Joey's bridle. As she pulled it off, the horse shimmered and shrank, muzzle drawing back into a flat, hairless human face. A child's face. Joey gasped as he found himself on hands and knees. "I'm human again!"
Well, almost. As Joey stood, it became evident that the halter had left its mark. A layer of yellow hair covered his body, and there was a coarseness to his features that carried more than a suggestion of equine influence. Bob snuffled the childs shoulder, picking up a trace of stallion within the human scent. Joey stared at his arm, and then began to rub frantically at the thin fur. "Make it go away!"
The younger man shook his head sadly. "Sorry, son. You musta been here a while." He wrapped Joey in a blanket. "It's not so bad. You probably don't look all that different. Your family is going to be so happy to see you, they won't care." He gripped the boys harness in a tight fist. "Come on. We'll dispose of this, and call your parents."
As they headed off, Agnes turned and reached for Bobs harness. He felt the fingers pulling at the straps, and then a strange tingling which spread across his body. The world began to expand around him, until the humans and Eric towered above him. Dizzy and disoriented, he staggered to his feet and looked at himself. Unlike Joey, he seemed to be fully back to his old self. The other man offered a blanket, which Bob wrapped himself in to ward off the chill. Then they turned towards Eric. The gray Andalusian regarded them calmly. Swallowing, Bob chewed his lower lip a moment before turning to the couple. "Can you do anything for my friend? He's still human inside!"
Once more, the man shook his head. "What has been done to him cannot be undone. You saw the boy. He was lucky. One of the men came out looking barely human, and another was so bad he asked to stay a horse."
The woman scowled at the burning buildings. "We should never have tolerated..."
"Agnes!" The man cut her off abruptly and turned back to Eric. "Your friend here is a fine stallion. If you want, he can stay at one of the local stables. We're gonna take care of all the horses. But you can't tell anyone what really happened here."
Now it was Bobs turn to frown. "What!? You gotta be kidding! Witches, magic, even the forces of Satan! We have proof of things nobody would ever believe!" He picked up the blinders from the ground. "We have to show people! Make them believe!"
The man's expression hardened. "We don't have to do anything. If it wasn't for us, you'd be a soulless monster in Hell. Remember that. Nobody is gonna be tellin' anyone what really happened here."
Bob stared at him incredulously. "And just how do you explain Eric? Or those who died? Maybe you think nobody is gonna notice that Joey and the others are part horse? If you think I'm..." He froze at the unmistakable sound of a gun being cocked behind him. Turning slowly, he saw Jack aiming a double-barrelled shotgun at him.
"I reckon we can think pretty much whatever we want to, young fella." This was the man who had just faced a demon for them? The old man pursed his lips. "Go on over to the house, Martin. Make sure they get everything there burned. I'll deal with this one."
Martin nodded, and headed off, leaving the two of them alone. Jack shook his head and smiled slightly, although the gun remained pointed at Bob's chest. "So, you want to go on Sally Jessie? Tell the world all about the Pratchett sisters and how magic really exists here in Virginia?" He grimaced and spat on the ground. "I guess you don't care what that would do to us around here, do ya?"
Facing a gun barrel, Bob wasn't sure if he should answer or not. "I, uh, hadn't really thought about it. But you guys are heroes! I mean, you stopped a demon! What's wrong with letting people know..."
"Shut up!" The old man glared at him. "What, are you stupid? Even if that was true, we don't want no reporters, and scientists, and Gawd-knows-what snoopin' around here. Every fruitcake in the country would be crawlin' through the woods around these parts, lookin' for magic."
Then he sighed. "Besides, the truth of the matter is, we ain't no heroes. How do you think we knew where to find ya'? Or how to deal with that cursed demon? Did you really think we came up with all that in a couple of hours? We've known about the Ride for years. Been goin' on at least since I was a boy."
Bob's mouth fell open. "You knew? All those years?" He looked over at the burning house. "All those people? You knew what was going on and didn't do anything to stop them?"
"We had a sorta unspoken agreement." Jack's voice took on a bitter note. "As long as they left everyone around here alone, we'd leave them alone. Worked fine until today. Guess ol' Hank thought he could pull a fast one. But we've been watchin' them all like hawks."
Thinking back on the horrors he had witnessed tonight, Bob began to get angry. "So the only reason you saved us was because the witches took one of your buddies?" He balled up his fists. "It was OK for them to send some little boy to eternal damnation, but don't go touching one of you beer-swilling pig farmers?"
The old mans eyes widened and his face turned red. "Damn you!" Bob swallowed hard as the gun barrel lifted towards his face. "Who do you think you are, city boy?" Jack hissed the words between clenched teeth. "You ain't got a clue what happened here tonight. Us beer-swilling pig farmers went up against the forces of Hell and Damnation. And, oh, by the way, we saved your stinkin' hide. "
Afraid to speak, Bob simply stared into the dark tubes of the shotgun. There was anger in the old man's eyes, but behind that was an even deeper and more powerful emotion. Terror. If anything, the man holding the shotgun was even more frightened than Bob was. Which made him all the more dangerous.
"Satan couldn't interfere. But he was payin' attention." The gun wavered, and dropped slightly. "Most folks, they don't really believe. And they don't get involved. Sorta like bein' a neutral country in a war." Jack's expression hardened, and the gun came back up. "Well, bub. We ain't considered neutral any more."
Eric whinnied suddenly, and pushed between them. "No!" Bobs scream was lost in the thunder of a shotgun blast. The noise got everyone else on the farm running towards them. Eric spun around, holding the blinders in his teeth. There didn't seem to be any injury. Yet Jack had been knocked to the ground, and was scrambling up with gun in hand. Desperate, Bob launched himself at the older man. "Run, Eric! Get out of here!"
It was easy to pin Jack down. However, two men grabbed him and knocked him to the ground just a couple of minutes later. The old man got up and looked around. "Get the horse! The gray stallion! He has the last bridle! We can't let him get away!" In the darkness, it was nearly impossible to tell one horse from another. Eric had bolted through the herd, scattering them as he ran for the back of the barn.
"Wait!" Jack stopped the men who started running after the stallion. "Fire the barn. Make sure every piece of leather is thrown inside." Then he turned to Bob, held prisoner on the ground. "I've had just about enough of this crap, buddy." Shoving the shotgun into Bobs stomach, the old man turned and yelled out into the darkness. "OK, horse. I'm gonna count to five. If you don't bring that harness back, I'm gonna blow your buddy here in half and throw the pieces into the fire. One."
One of the men holding Bob to the ground looked up. "Jack, you can't be seri..."
"Shut up, Mike!" Jack glared at the man. "You want proof getting out? You want to spend the rest of your life ducking religious fanatics and Government agencies? Two!"
"Three!" Flames began to flicker inside the barn as torches were thrown through open doors. The fire spread rapidly, fed by dry, ancient hay and straw.
"Four!" Bob felt his throat constrict. What if Eric couldn't understand what the man was saying? His friend had been having trouble back at the pasture.
Twisting to face Bob again, Jack gritted his teeth together. "Five!" Shaking his head, he actually looked sad. "God forgive me."
"Jack! Wait a minute!" One of the men pointed over towards the barn, now almost fully engulfed in flames. Incredibly, Eric was standing less than twenty feet from the fire, still holding the harness in his teeth. Illuminated in the harsh orange glow, the Andalusian looked somewhat demonic himself. Shaking his head, the horse pawed the ground nervously, but then actually walked towards the burning building. When he was within ten feet of the blistering heat, Eric tossed his head violently, sending the harness flying into the inferno. Then he backed away and trotted towards the awe-struck group.
The old man seemed to deflate, withering before Bobs eyes. Then he jerked violently and sent the firearm sailing into blazing barn. Jack motioned for Bobs captor to release him. Then he turned and shuffled away without another word.
By the time the sun started peeking over the horizon, The Pratchett farm was a pile of smoldering embers. Of the thirteen victims, all but four were dead, snatched to Hell, or permanently horses. A farrier had taken care of the half-horse freak, returning him to full stallion and sealing his fate with the pounding of nail into hoof before throwing his bridle into the flames.
Joey's parents had given their only child up for dead, and the fact that he was a bit hairy and homely didn't reduce their joy at finding him one bit. There was talk of going away for a while, so that friends and relatives wouldn't know his altered appearance had occurred in one night. The other survivor was a drifter who got bought off with some clean clothes and a wad of cash. Which left Bob. His wallet had been recovered, and Erics BMW was parked by the pasture where his friend and the rest of the transformed humans were waiting.
He walked over to the red sedan, dreading the long drive home. Eric's family had been notified by the police, so at least he didn't have that chore. The story was pretty good. He and Eric had come to the farm to look at some old tack. A fire had broken out, and Eric had been killed trying to save one the sisters. Of course, there wasn't much left to identify, but there were plenty of witnesses. Not that it made much difference, but Bob was glad his friend had gone out a hero.
A hard nudge in the back made him shake his head and smile sadly. "Can't even give you a medal." He turned and stroked Erics muzzle. The big gray snuffled his shoulder, and whickered softly. "I can't understand you any more. Guess that was part of the halters' magic." His throat tightened, and he felt his eyes begin to water. "They're going to take good care of you. All of you here are real top breeding material. And I guess they feel guilty."
Eric snorted and tossed his head . Then he pranced around the corral in a tight circle, kicking up his hind legs in a show of high spirits. Bob felt a twinge of hope rise. "Are you trying to tell me you're happy like this?" Another toss of the head. "I'll have to hang onto that, then." Bob scuffed the ground with one foot. "If I could take you back with me." His voice trailed off. Both of them he didn't have the resources to board and care for a horse. "I'll come visit as often as I can. And Joey's gonna be by a lot when they get back."
The big Andalusian regarded him quietly for a moment, and then stepped close to brush his shoulder in an affectionate nudge. Sighing, Bob stroked the sleek neck. "You know, I would give just about anything to have that bridle back. It was incredible being a Shire. Not all the time, maybe. Just a day here and there. We could have run and talked and had a great time together. And when I got older, well, a new life as a young stallion would beat retirement any day."
"Ready to head off?" Bob was startled by a voice from behind. Mike, one of the men who had been holding him down for Jack. Bob wondered if the old man would have really pulled the trigger or not. He'd vanished afterwards, probably wondering the same thing.
Nodding, Bob opened the Bimmers' door and reached in to start the engine. "It's not too far. I'll be home in a few hours." He looked back at Eric. "Make sure he's happy. Anything I can do, call me." Mike nodded wordlessly and trudged back towards the smoking ruins. No point in making goodbyes. They were letting him go, but there was no love lost here.
He sat in the car for a few minutes, staring at the guages. Half a day ago, he'd been blissfully unaware of the real horrors that existed in this world. And of other possibilities, now forever beyond his reach. Both would haunt him for the rest of his life. He looked back towards the pasture. Eric was already gone, probably re-establishing his leadership of the herd.
Pushing the clutch in, he shifted carefully and started rolling. He'd take care of the fancy little sedan until Eric's family could arrange to either sell it or pick it up. The road wound around the back of the pasture, and was rough enough that he kept to a crawl. Which was fortunate, for Eric appeared suddenly in front of him. Startled, Bob slammed on the brakes and hopped out of the car.
"Are you out of your mind?! I might have hit you!" Eric snorted, and trotted over to a bush by the side of the road. He picked up something and tossed it at Bob with enough force that the man almost fell ducking out of the way. "Damn it, Eric! You tryin to..." His voice trailed off as he saw at the dirty collection of leather straps and metal buckles splayed across the cars hood. "The blinders! But I saw you throw them in the fire!" Eric snorted and shook his head. Understanding finally dawned. "That was one of the junk harnesses from the shed! You switched them, somehow!" A nod this time, followed by a bright neighing.
Bob gathered the bridle in his arms and grinned up at his friend. "I... I don't know what to say." The stallion snorted, and then galloped off. Once more, there was no need for goodbyes. Except that in this case, it was because Eric had given Bob a return ticket to a world full of possibilities.