I looked at Dragon, standing there in her familiar guise of an elf maiden. She was trembling, her breathing was rapid and shallow, and her eyes were wide in terror, terror that was reflected in the eyes of all my characters.
My brow furrowed, and I tilted my head to one side. “Calm down! You’re shaking like a leaf! And what do you mean, Mystery could be something much more sinister? What on earth do you think she is?”
Dragon swallowed hard and tried to steady her breathing. Her voice, when she finally spoke, was thin and shaky. “I am not sure, Mistress. We found no evidence during our physical and magical examinations that Mystery is an illusion. However, I question the possibility that she is nothing more than a real horse. None of us, not even Cleric, have been able to communicate with her. Also, we know that she can walk right through my solid and substantial illusions as if they were not there, something a real horse should not be able to do. And now . . .” She paused and looked around nervously. “Now you tell us there have been hordes of snow devils in the yard and around the shed.”
I scoffed. “Well, I wouldn’t say hordes. There were a lot, that’s true – maybe dozens – but the word horde implies sentience. A snow devil is not a living creature – it is no more than a rare meteorological phenomenon.”
“Perhaps in your world, Mistress.” Cleric joined the conversation.
I raised an eyebrow at Cleric’s statement. “Do I need to remind you we’re in my world? So the snow devils I saw here, in my world, are exactly what I just said – rare meteorological phenomena, rotating columns of snow, mini snownados or snowspouts. They are certainly not sentient, nor are they anything to fear.”
“You don’t understand, Mistress!” Cleric pushed her hair out of her face and sighed deeply. “You said that, in your world, a true snow devil is rare; yet you saw dozens of miniature snow devils in the yard today. Perhaps these small snow devils are not from your world. Perhaps they have crossed into your world through some magical conveyance.”
“Yes, Mistress. A conveyance such as the magic conduit that, for a time, linked our world with yours. Or the passage that afforded entry into this world to that milky-eyed grackle who was the familiar of the evil wizard, Morcant.”
I blinked. “You think these snow devils are from a different world?”
“I think they may be, Mistress.” Cleric lifted her eyebrows, and raised her hands, palms up, in a gesture of uncertainty. My other characters all nodded.
“Well, why are they so scary? In your world, what are snow devils?” Even though he asked the question, Miles looked as if he really would prefer not to hear the answer.
Dragon grimaced. “In our world, Master Miles, snow devils are evil creatures that live in the coldest regions of our planet. They are similar to your world’s mythical vampires, only instead of feeding on blood, they feed upon a person’s soul.”
I raised an eyebrow and folded my arms over my chest. “And you think the snow devils in the yard have come from your world and have eaten Mystery’s soul – presuming an animal has a soul?”
“Perhaps not from our world, Mistress, but they may have come from some other world; and perhaps they have not consumed the horse’s soul, if she has one, but they may have possessed Mystery, or at least taken control of her mind. That may be why we can not communicate with her.” Dragon nervously glanced over at the small, scruffy horse, calmly munching her hay.
I snorted. “And why, exactly, would a snow devil want to possess a small, scruffy horse? What would be the benefit of such a deed?”
“Who knows?” My Gypsy was leaning against the wall of the shed, studying his silver stiletto. “My grandmother said that devils, demons, and other evil spirits often do things for no discernible reason.”
“Your grandmother was the village witch, was she not?” My Young Hero walked over to stand next to his friend.
My Gypsy nodded. “She taught me many spells to safeguard against evil sprits.”
“And I know a ritual for exorcising demons.” Cleric sounded grim. “Perhaps the two of us should combine our efforts and make certain Mystery is no threat to anyone.”
I balked. “Whoa! Let’s slow down and think about this. I still tend to believe that the snow devils I saw are harmless meteorological phenomena. Is there any way to find out for sure without involving Mystery? I think today’s experiments were more than enough for her to endure.”
“She looks none the worse for wear to me, Mistress.” My Foreman was standing next to Mystery. He reached out and patted the little horse on her neck. “And she was very calm through the entire procedure. She even took a brief nap while the magic users worked.”
I sighed. “Well, if you really think there is a need for it, I suppose it wouldn’t hurt anything. Maybe first thing tomorrow, after you have rested.”
Cleric shook her head emphatically. “That may be too late, Mistress. If the snow devils are sentient creatures, evil spirits, then they must know by now we are aware of their presence here. We should start right away.”
I looked at the assembled group. “Are you sure you don’t need to rest first? I imagine what you’re proposing will be grueling. You have already been hard at work for more than five hours.”
“Well, we are exhausted.” Cleric chewed on her lower lip and rubbed her arm. “But I fear what may happen if we leave Mystery alone while we sleep, if perchance we are correct about the snow devils.”
“Could someone stay with Mystery and keep watch? Perhaps my Old Dwarf?”
Cleric and my Gypsy considered this, but before they could answer, Dragon shook her head. “No. It would not be safe for him.”
I frowned. “Aren’t dwarves immune from most magic?”
Dragon nodded. “But this is not magic, Mistress. These are malevolent entities. No, your Old Dwarf would be as vulnerable as the rest of you.”
“The rest of us?” Miles furrowed his brow and rubbed his jaw. “Are you saying that you are not vulnerable?”
“Not as vulnerable as the rest of you. At least, not in my true form.”
I raised an eyebrow. “How would Mystery react to you in your true form? Even if she is possessed or controlled by malevolent beings, we still don’t need to frighten the poor horse to death.”
Dragon raked her hand through her hair and heaved a huge sigh. “I have no wish to frighten the little creature, but the only way to tell how she might react is to let her see me in my true form.”
I nodded, albeit reluctantly. Miles and I watched as my characters moved everything away from Mystery that could potentially pose any danger of injury to the little mare. Then my Foreman slipped her halter onto her head, and fastened the lead. “Do you think we need to hobble her again, or perhaps use a twitch?”
Dragon shook her head. “I think, should she become terror-stricken at the sight of me in my true form, she would be safer not being so rigidly restrained. Just keep a tight hold on her lead, and do not allow her to flip over backward should she panic.”
My Foreman nodded, and my Gypsy and my Young Hero positioned themselves to lend a hand if needed. Cleric and Sorceress joined Miles and me by the door, well out of the way of potentially flailing hooves.
Dragon approached Mystery. She held out her hand to allow the little horse to sniff her, and she crooned to the mare in a reassuring tone. Mystery snuffled at her and nickered softly.
When she was sure the horse was calm enough, Dragon looked over at me and nodded. “When I transform, I will take on the appearance of my true self, but I will remain, at first, small and – hopefully – unthreatening.”
Slowly, Dragon began to shimmer. The beautiful elf maiden gradually shape-shifted into a scaly, reptilian figure about the size of a Chihuahua. Everyone present held their breath, but the only reaction from Mystery was a huge yawn and a slight wiggle of her ears.
After a few moments, Dragon began growing. She expanded to the size of a Beagle, then to the size of a Labrador Retriever. Mystery watched, bobbing her head up and down.
Dragon continued increasing in size. Soon, she was as large as a Mastiff, and moments later she was the same size as the small horse. At that point, Mystery started fidgeting and pulling on her lead. Stretching her neck as far as she could, Mystery snatched a mouthful of hay from the pile behind my Young Hero, and stood there munching on it while eyeing Dragon.
Dragon looked at me. I shrugged and chuckled. “She reminds me of someone at a movie, munching on a handful of popcorn while enjoying the film.”
Dragon waited a few minutes, during which Mystery helped herself to a few more mouthfuls of hay. Then, the beast continued to grow, until she was almost double the height of Mystery. The little mare continued to wiggle her ears back and forth, bob her head up and down, and chomp on her hay. She showed no fear of the large, reptilian creature in front of her; in fact, she seemed entertained by the transformation.
Dragon looked rather confused. Her color morphed to a pale blue, and smoke bubbles dripped from her snout.
“Well, that was anti-climactic!” Miles ran his hand through his hair and stared at the small horse, who looked for all the world like she was ready to fall asleep now that the show was over.
“Well, at least we know I can stay with Mystery this night while the rest of you get some sleep. I do not believe she will suddenly decide to panic in the middle of the night.”
My Foreman slipped Mystery’s halter off and hung it up. “Okay, we will take all of today’s paraphernalia back to the house, and return here in the morning.”
Dragon turned to me. “Remind your Old Dwarf to keep your Arrogant One and your Bounty Hunter away from the shed. I do not want any interference from them.”
I nodded. Once we had gathered all the books and equipment again, I opened the shed door. I yelped, and there was a chorus of shrieks, squeals, and screams from the rest of the group. We all jumped out of the way as a horde of whirling snow devils whooshed past us and headed straight for Mystery.
What is happening? Where did these snow devils come from, and why are they after Mystery? Can Dragon and the rest of us protect the little horse from the demons? Be sure to come back next week and find out! We’ll leave the porch light on for you.