“I hate sheep,” Naoko said. “They’re creepy.”
Ten raised a tufted eyebrow in disbelief. “I’ve seen you literally swimming in blood and guts. These are sheep.”
“I didn’t say they were gross, I said they were creepy.”
“White, fluffy sheep. Little baby lambs.”
“Lambs by definition are babies.” She shoved at a nearby animal, which was hard not to do with them crouched just inside the fence amid the penned flock. “What if this thing comes and we don’t notice?”
“The sheep will notice.”
They were quiet for a while after that, listening to the occasional baa and the wind scouring the Wyoming prairie. The scudding clouds of this March afternoon had given way to thick-piled cumulus toward evening, and with the lights above the barn turned off, the darkness was complete. Fortunately they could both see in the dark.
“When did you ever see me swimming in blood?” she asked finally.
Her fae companion shrugged. “It happened all the time in the arena.”
Naoko looked skeptical. “Sure, there was lots of gore, but I don’t know about ‘swimming.’”
“What about the gutters?”
“The gutters were maybe knee-deep.”
“You never fell into one during a fight?”
“I’m sure I did.”
“Well, there you go.”
“You said ‘literally swimming.’ So, presumably, waving my arms and legs around as a means of locomotion.”
“Didn’t you swim across the Styx during the War of the Rats?”
“I guess that would qualify,” she admitted. “Although I don’t recall you being there to see it.”
“I was with you in spirit.”
“Weren’t you passed out drunk back at Vyre’s palace?”
“Like I said,” he grinned, “in spirit. Or spirits.”
She punched his arm, laughing quietly. Her sly fox. “Thanks for coming on this trip,” she said. “It’s nice to have –”
Ten’s head jerked to the side and he lifted a finger to his lips for silence. They both froze, one end of Naoko’s magical runechain slipping into her hand in readiness. But whatever Ten’s pointy ears had picked up, it seemed to have faded. “I thought I heard –”
A sheep screamed. Naoko hadn’t realized a sheep could scream like that, a surprisingly human sound, and it raised the hair on her neck. Reflexively she and Ten stood up, and in the darkness saw a struggling animal being lifted violently over the slatted fence on the other side of the pen – lifted by something long-limbed and ten or twelve feet tall. “What is it?” Ten gasped as they vaulted over the fence.
“Not human,” she said, which came as no real surprise. The ranch’s owners – the Bixbee family – had already been convinced it was a supernatural entity that had killed the old man, Ed Bixbee, and was preying on their animals, and after repeated efforts to capture it had failed, they’d contacted Naoko. Apparently this had been going on for months now.
The other sheep raised a terrified chorus, baaing for their lives and pressing desperately away. The creature took the animal’s neck in its jaws and shook it like a terrier would a rat, and with neck broken, the sheep fell limp.
The beast was definitely nothing natural. Its flesh was gray, head shaggy, and it appeared clad in sparse rags. It reminded her of those circus performers who put stilts on both arms and legs, writ big, dirty and hungry. Its head jerked as it spotted them. Without dropping the sheep, it turned to lope off into the night.
In its first two paces it covered twenty feet. They were going to lose it. With a flick of the wrist Naoko let the runechain drop from her arm, then spun it overhead and released.
She hadn’t had time to make a lasso, but the runechain was plenty smart enough to form one on its own, looping around one rushing ankle. Naoko felt an instant’s satisfaction at her throw before she was pulled off her feet and dragged along the turf, finally having the sense to let go. Right. Guess cowboys tied the ends of the lassos to their saddlehorns, or maybe they just weren’t trying to wrangle sheep-stealing demons.
Fortunately, her lasso was also not a normal rope, but a highly ensorceled weapon that excelled at tying, tripping, ensnaring, impeding and otherwise entangling anything it got a hold of. With a shrill cry the monster tripped and fell, finally letting go of the animal in its mouth. Screaming with anger, it thrashed wildly at its new bonds, one hind leg and foreleg tied together.
With a reddened eye, it saw Naoko running up with sword now in hand, and tried anew to flee, twisting back toward the pen. She took two quick steps and darted in to land a flying kick to its rib cage, knocking it onto its side still five yards from the pen. She raised her sword overhead. “Knock it off!”
Of course she had no idea if it understood English, or any language, but now that she was close she saw that it was definitely humanoid, albeit grotesquely large and distorted. It fell onto its back, fear in its eyes. “Don’t kill me,” it said in a low hoarse voice, eyes wide. “If you do, the old man dies too.”
Ah. She’d been wrong about it not being human: the sheep-stealer was Ed Bixbee, or his body, anyway, possessed by some wayward demon. Shreds of blue jeans and flannel shirt still clung at hips and shoulders. “Don’t let it touch you,” she said to Ten as he drew near behind her, though she doubted a bodiless demon would have much luck possessing a fae prince.
“Don’t worry, I wasn’t going to,” Ten said, wrinkling his nose.
“Let me go,” the demon begged. “I’ll leave here. Feed off deer and mice.”
“Yeah, a few problems there,” Naoko objected. “First, we were hired to catch you, kill you, or otherwise dispose of you, and letting you go seems outside the spirit of our agreement. Second, I feel like Ed Bixbee, and his family, would like his body back. Third, demons always lie. If we let you go, you’ll be back, and eventually you’ll start killing and eating humans. It’s the pattern. So I think instead we should exorcise you and then take old Ed here to a hospital.”
“If you try, I’ll kill him.”
Hm. Demons, in her experience, tended to hang on for dear life, but it might make good on its threat out of spite. And the exorcism would likely kill Ed Bixbee anyway, even if they could effect some physical transformation back to a more human form. “Doesn’t seem to leave us many options,” she said. “Better a dead Ed than a free demon.” She hefted her sword.
“Wait!” it cried. “The sheep! Let me enter a sheep, and I’ll let the old man go.”
“Fine.” She exchanged glances with Ten, who shrugged. “Want to go fetch one?”
“Will do.” He trotted off toward the pen.
Naoko felt a drop of rain on her cheek, then another, but she kept her eyes on the demon. Tied as it was, it just looked pathetic. She couldn’t see how being a sheep helped it (the ending was likely the same either way), but when you’re facing a blade, she supposed you’d grasp at anything.
What was taking Ten so long? “Ten? You okay?” She heard an indistinct reply – something about a rope – and the barn door slammed open in a gust of wind. She glanced involuntarily in that direction, and in nearly the same moment, a bolt of lightning cleaved the night with a bright flash and ear-splitting crack!
Before she knew it, she was on her back, the demon having taken advantage of that second’s distraction to kick out its very long free leg and sweep her feet from under her. She cursed and sprang back up, but the demon sprang too, toward the pen. She might have hacked off its extremities or plunged the sword into its back, but the thought that they might still save the old man’s life made her hesitate. Besides, where did it even think it was going?
With Naoko close behind, it scrabbled over the fence and lurched toward the milling sheep. They scattered, but there wasn’t room enough in the pen to avoid the possessed rancher, and its free hand caught the wool of a new victim and drew it close.
It pressed its head against the sheep’s. A red light seemed to flare between the two, and then it released its grip.
“Shit,” Naoko said, trying to grab the sheep, but it darted toward its brethren and pressed its way into the flock. In the dirt of the pen, Ed Bixbee’s body was writhing and spasming, shrinking like a falling soufflé. She knelt to retrieve the runechain and it helpfully wrapped itself again around her forearm. Bixbee was alive, at least. Who knew if he would ever regain consciousness, much less his sanity.
She looked up and the thunder cracked. In a searing blue flash she saw the sheep suddenly still, staring at her as one, their horizontal-pupil eyes shining like six hundred spotlights. Oh, shit. Could this thing possess more than one creature at a time?
Well, the solution was obvious, if distasteful. Same option ranchers usually took when a flock was infected. She hefted her katana, lip curling. She hated it, but it looked like it was time for another swim.
In that lull she heard the creak of a gate opening. Ten, retrieving a sheep like he’d been asked. “Ten! Close it!”
Too late. Three hundred animals stampeded toward the gate, chased by a chagrined and cursing supernatural investigator. She just hoped Ten had gotten out of the way.
He was fine, of course. As much weasel as fox, he’d jumped over the open gate as the flock dispersed into the night. “What happened?”
She set her hands on her knees, panting a little. “It’s in the sheep.”
“Shit. Should we try to round them up?”
“Fuck it. We got the old man. Let ’em run.”
They each took an arm and started carrying Bixbee’s limp form to the Jeep. “I was thinking of doing one of those coding boot camps,” she confided.
“You know. Job security. Old age.” But Ten just laughed at her.
Joel Tagert is a fiction writer, artist and longtime Zen practitioner living in Denver, Colorado. He is also currently the office manager for the Zen Center of Denver and the editorial proofreader for Westword. His debut novel, INFERENCE, was released July 2017.
Dave Danzara has spent most of his life creating art. Born and raised in California, Dave won a scholarship to Laguna Art Institute of Southern California in 1994. His influences can be found in pop culture, sci-fi, fantasy, film and music. Graphic design and digital collage art have become Dave’s passion and signature. Thanks to social media, Dave has attracted the attention of musicians worldwide and has created album artwork for several bands of various genres. From Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, to Los Angeles, California, Dave’s art has been featured in many art galleries. He has 10 years of experience as a freelance videographer and is the Director, writer and Producer of “The Video Craze” documentary film. He is the owner of Vector Invader Productions. He has been involved in numerous freelance projects and short films. Dave enjoys the challenge of creating art; for him, it is a lifestyle. Find Dave’s work on Instagram: @lostintimedesigns