Have you ever heard anything that made your pucker-string draw so tight that you figure you'll be constipated for the rest of your life? My bowels pretty much started working backwards when Number One told me that they brought me here to kill the Baron.
Kill the Baron? Me? Stanley Nicholas Smith? I'm the guy that captures moths and wasps that are buzzing around the house and sets them loose outside. I scoop up spiders with the edge of a magazine or something and turn them loose in the great outdoors. Oh yeah, I can smack a fly or a mosquito with the best of 'em. But kill someone... me? I'm no Mother Teresa or anything but I'm not exactly mister gun for hire either. What the hell are these guys thinking?
Kill the Baron? Let me get this straight — here's a guy that can turn himself into a grizzly bear and munch people. Hell, he's a guy that enjoys munching people! And he can look at me from the distance of a football field and turn me into a statue! And this non-spider squashing, non-moth killing, basically cowardly guy is gonna walk up to him and off him? Yeah right, and then monkeys are gonna fly outa my butt and I'll fart the Star Spangled Banner! Gimme a break.
I just pretty much stare at that little guy sitting across from me, his face just inches from my own. I know my jaw is unhinged 'cos I can feel my chin resting on my chest. And I'm pretty sure my eyes are glazed over in this non-comprehending, non-believing way. You know, the porch light is on but the inhabitants are away on holiday sort of a stare.
“You can do this, Nicholas. We know you can. You might not believe it but we know things about you that you aren't even aware of.”
Well that got through to me, alright — and it didn't help one little bit, either. What the heck does he mean by that? They can read my psyche somehow? They know that under my mild mannered, Clark Kent disguise there is this 'Jack the Ripper' just waiting to emerge? Somehow that scares me even worse than the concept that they brought me here to whack the Baron.
“Now... now... now, wait a minute, guys,” I tell them, holding my hands up in front of me like a traffic cop.
“I think you dudes should have done a little more investigating before settling on me as some kind of knight in shining armor. I don't care what you say you know about me — killing people is way, way out there in left field. I mean... even if the capacity is buried in me somewhere, I'm sure it's not something I want to have brought up to the surface. Uh uh, nope, nay, nyet and shit, NO!”
That last remark was made with a rather emphatic slap to the table to add emphasis. I want to erase this idea from their heads from the get-go. I'm not only scared to death of that big, murdering, dumb bugger but I'm just as scared to find out that I might really have the capacity to carry something like this out.
The boys are doing that staring back and forth between themselves thingy again and it's starting to get a bit unnerving, to tell you the truth.
The baldy boy just smiles at me then and starts giggling under his breath. Now, call me Mister Dense, but I just don't see this as a giggly matter, to say the least. I'm about to comment on that when the kid says...
“All right, Nicholas. We just had to be sure. We can not really open you up and read you like a book like I have led you to believe. We needed to hear from you whether you had the capacity to do such a thing or not. And it is truly a relief to find that you could not.”
“What do you mean, a relief?” I respond. “I thought you guys needed me to kill this dude.”
“We do. But we cannot bring a murderer here to live among us. Our people are gentle, Nicholas. Well... for the most part they are. The Baron is an exception and there are, unfortunately, others as well. But you are going to eventually find yourself in a position where it's 'eat or be eaten', which isn't really a euphemism, you know.”
“Yeah, I know what a euphemism is - but I thought you said you couldn't see into the future here. So how do you know I'll eventually be in such a position?”
“Logic, Nicholas. You are attached to Minky. He is a part of your life now. If I were blind I could simply tap you with my cane and be able to recognize the feelings you have for him.”
Minky grins big time when he hears this. Then he snortles when he sees me color up like a stop sign.
“The Baron has a lot of people searching for him, you know. It is only logical to realize that he will eventually be found and taken to him. That means you will be captured, too.”
The boys look back and forth to one another again. Gawd... this telepathy thing, or whatever it is, is starting to drive me ape shit. It's number Two that continues their narrative, however...
“Nicholas, you don't believe you have the capacity to do such a thing, to take a life. That means you fit among us very well and we are able to welcome you. But people on your world have the capacity to do such a thing when absolute necessity drives them to it.”
“Let me give you an example,” he continues. “Let us say that a huge grizzly has his paw on Minky and is pressing him into the ground. He is about to open his immense jaws and use them to rip off one of Minky's arms. Let us also say you are standing right there with a shot-gun. What would you do, Nicholas?”
That boy just painted a graphic picture in my mind. And I suppose it's because I've already held that picture there and examined it. Only, when I visualized it before, it was me and not Minky that was under that monster's paw. But now I've just seen it in an entirely different light. Here is the monster of Minky's nightmares. Here is what he ran away to another world to try and avoid.
I look over towards Minky... at a face that has gone pasty white. He has obviously been placing that picture in his mind as well. Well, hell... there's no doubt in my mind about what I'd do in that circumstance.
Looking little Two in the eye, I say, “I'd blow that sucker so full of holes that the wind would whistle tunes through his carcass. If you sliced that sick bugger thin enough he'd look like Swiss cheese.”
There is a three way high five being smacked across the table from us and a chorus of... “YES!!!” And now three little eight-year-olds are dancing around in a circle like Indians at a campfire. Heheheh... I guess they got the response from me that they wanted.
Two of the boys grab me by the hands and pull me out into the center of the room. The other does the same to Minky and they commence dancing again. Dude... I haven't done a war dance since I was eight years old myself. So, you have to understand, I'm just a little reticent here. But Minky doesn't seem to be under any such macho restrictions and he is cavorting right along with them.
Oh, what the hell! “Whoop... ya, ya, ya, ya... woo, woo, woo... heheheh!” Gawd... I hope nobody peeks through a window! We are all waving our pretend tomahawks and having a grand old time. At least we are until I remember just what it is we are supposed to be celebrating. And that pretty much takes the 'whoop' out of my 'woo, woos'.
“HEY...” I holler. “Just why are we celebrating this murderous streak in me? I thought you guys had some kind of revulsion to this sort of thing.”
Number One plops down on his butt with a whoosh of air and a grin on his face. Then quickly there is a pile of collapsed boys, including one teenage one. They are all smiling up in my direction.
“You do not seem to understand the importance of this, Nicholas,” One tells me. “Not even Minky is capable of doing this thing to save his own life. It has been bred out of our people many ages ago. Sure, the goblins have the capacity, but they don't have the bravery or even the incentive to do it. We could send a band of whipples after him but he would just freeze them before they even got close.”
Freeze the whipples? Gawd... that just reminds me. That's what the Baron will do to me! How the heck do I take a shotgun to the critter when I'm frozen into a statue?
“Aren't you forgetting something, guys? I'm not exactly immune to the Baron's stare either, ya know? And how am I going to help keep Minky from being his lunch when I'll probably be frozen like a fish stick dinner?”
“Ahhh... Nicholas. We won't let you go without pwotection, you know. You will have some supwizes to hand the Bawon.”
“Supwizes? I mean, surprises? What kind of surprises? Are you guys gonna give me, like, superpowers or something? Hey, I know... how about if you make it so I can turn into a dragon like Number Three did? Then I could just step on the dude and turn him into toe jam.”
I guess that must have painted a pretty visual picture in their minds because now there are four boys rolling on the floor in laughter convulsions. Just as they seem to settle down, Minky hollers out, “TOE JAM” and they are all off on another round of belly-laughs.
Number One manages to pull himself together, wiping tears from his cheeks. “No, Nicholas, we aren't going to give you superpowers, sorry. In fact we aren't going to be able to give you any powers at all. This would be abetting you in the act of committing the deed. We had to bend some very stringent rules just to bring you here for this purpose. I mean, none of us three could have gone to your world and simply brought you here because we knew the reason we were doing so. It was necessary for us to trick Minky into bringing you here instead. And those same restrictions prohibit us from giving you any powers that would aid you in taking a life.”
“But... but... Number Three just said that you weren't going to let me go unprotected. Now you’re telling me that you are prohibited from giving me any powers. Just how do you plan on protecting me?”
There goes that three way look again. Any semblance of mirth has been eradicated from their features as they pick themselves up from the floor.
“Let us sit down, Nicholas and Minky. There is more we need to tell you.”
The five of us settle ourselves at the table again, Minky and I sitting on one side and the boys on the other. Number One clears his throat and begins...
“We can't give you any powers or charms or anything that will help you to do this thing, Nicholas. In fact, we can not do anything to protect you. You see, we were sent here to preserve life and protect it — all life, even if repugnant to us. But, Nicholas, we are not the only magical beings in this world. There are others, beings without restrictions as we have. You will cross their paths on your way to the barony: we can at least arrange that much. It will be up to you, or to Minky mostly, to recognize the beings who have the power to give you what you need. I'm afraid we aren't even allowed to tell you what to ask for or even which beings can help you. You will have to trust your own instincts and Minky's knowledge of the beings you come across to know if they have the potential to help you.”
They can see my crestfallen look. I feel like I've just had sand kicked into my face. Two and Three both reach over and grab one of my hands.
“We would do this for you if we could, Nicholas. Please believe me.” Number Two says. “And it is not just because we want to see the baron stopped, but because we have come to like you very much. We want to see you safe. And so we will do everything that is in our power to help. Unfortunately, that is very little. But believe me also when I say that you can get all the help you need. We will direct things where and when we can. We can bend the rules a little here and there, we just can not break any.”
“But we can give you one powah at weast,” little Three intones. “Evewyone has the powah of the changling. You pick the animal you want as yowa alternate self and we will give you the powa to change whenevah you want to.”
“But pick something small and fast and that is good at hiding and sneaking, like Minky's form, Nicholas,” Number Two warns me. “This will help you to travel fast, far and undetected just as long as necessary.”
“Cool,” I tell them. “I was hoping I would get that ability from you guys. Minky and I even discussed it.”
Then I think of something else the two of us discussed.
“Only... listen: Minky says that if I were to go back home, to my world I mean, that having an alternate self may not be a good idea. I mean, I could end up with a tail or fur or something that just isn't too acceptable back in my world.”
Minky reaches over and places his hands on my forearm as he nods in response to what I say. “Yes,” he adds, “you know how I ended up with the ears when I went through.”
“Think about what you are saying, Nicholas and Minky,” Two replies while looking at Minky. “You told Nicholas that you weren't going to let him go back to a world that would let him kill himself.”
He looks over to me and says, “You know how frightened Minky is of your world. It is totally alien to him. Do you think he would ever be happy living there, Nicholas? And, Nicholas, can you see yourself going home without Minky?”
Bingo, bongo, boingo... damn, this little blue-haired twerp sure knows how to push the right buttons. And he pretty much just said what I've been telling myself all along. My world is wherever Minky is. Even if that turns out to be in the stomach of a damn grizzly bear, then that's where I want to live, too. Shoot, I don't have anything waiting back there for me anyway, except a date with a train or a bus or something. No, by gawd, I don't have to concern myself with what will happen to me going back through that doorway to my old world. I don't have to concern myself because I have no intention of ever going back there. Minky's world is my world now.
I look over towards my minky boy with the world's largest grin on my face. “Hey, bud. I don't think that doorway thing is going to be a problem. Well, not unless you plan on us taking a vacation there sometime, I guess. Then we'll just have to hope for the best, I suppose.”
Minky grows a grin just as wide as my own and slides across the bench until he's pressed against me. What I get next is an arm wrapped around me in the way of an answer.
“Umm...” he says, “there are some pretty neat holiday spots right here, if that is all right with you, Nicky.”
“Hell ya,” I tell him, and give him a kiss on his cheek. “That's just fine with me, bud. You can be in charge of getting the brochures.”
“Yay...” Three hollers, “this is weally neat!”
The boys are about ready to leap up and go into another impromptu war dance when I holler out, “HOLD IT!” They freeze like little statues and look at me.
“I want to be a mink! I want to be able to go where Minky goes and do what he does and play the way he plays and... and...” I look over at my little buddy, “I want him to be able to cuddle me just the way I want to cuddle him.”
This earns me another hug and this time it's me that gets the kiss on the cheek. And it also earns me one of his killer smiles.
“Okay,” Three says, “you a mink. Now wets dance!”
I try to ask them when it's going to happen but they can't hear me over the racket they're making. But Minky just leans into my ear and whispers, “think mink.”
Now what the hell is that supposed to mean? Think mink? I'm about to lean over and whisper my response into his ear when I notice that it's about a foot above my head. Hmmm... that's strange. He's still sitting down, so why am I looking up at him? I start wagging my tail while I contemplate this. Then I think...
TAIL! I've got a frigging tail! And I look down at my little fur clad body with a pile of clothes gathered around me. Meanwhile, Minky bursts out in laughter.
“Why, Nicky... you ARE a cuddly little thing, aren't you?” And he reaches down and scoops me up. And the next thing you know I have these monstrous arms wrapped around me as I'm pressed against his chest. Gawd... I wish I could describe the sensation. Let's just say it's great!
He sets me back on the bench and says, “I'll bet you can't keep up with me.” Two seconds later there is another mink zipping out from underneath some green pajamas and streaking for the bed in the corner.
Heck, running on four feet is instinctive as can be, I discover. Leaping up onto the bed was a bit of an over-do though, I find, as I slam into the wall on the other side. No harm done though and I'm looking around to see where my racing companion zipped off to.
Meanwhile, the boys have given up the war dance in favor of mink-watching. We have a cheering section going, it seems. And that just spurs me into extra speed when I see the minky boy perched on a shelf on the wall above me. He sees me fly in his direction and turns and races down the shelf. Now, I hope the boys have spare toad parts and wartbane and whatever the crap is that's in these jars. I hope so 'cos I manage to knock over just about every other jar in my mad dash down the shelf. It doesn't seem to bother the boys any, though, as I can hear the volume of cheers rise dramatically.
We manage to run the entire circumference of the room in about four seconds flat without once setting foot on the floor. Right now I'm chasing him across some ceiling rafters. Ordinarily, you know, running full out across some ceiling rafters is something I'd normally put on my “dumb” list. But this is so darn much fun I'm just squeaking in excitement.
Minky leaps from the rafter onto the bed with me landing on top of him. We do a tuck and roll, wrapping ourselves together and end up slamming into the pillows at the head of the bed. I've got arms and legs (paws and legs?) wrapped around him and I'm in the process of giving him mink kisses. This consists of licking his face with my extra long tongue.
We find ourselves bouncing into the air as the bodies of three young boys land “kerplop”, right next to us. We are then forcibly separated and hugged and tickled. Who the heck knew minks were ticklish? Well, I'm sure squeaking my fool head off because this is one mink that it turns out is definitely ticklish.
“Stop, stop” I squeal. “Stop or I'll...” POOF... and I'm once again a full-sized boy squishing poor little Number Three underneath me.
“Umphh, umphh,” he says.
“What?” I giggle. “Speak up, I can't understand you. It seems I'm lying on your head... har, har, har!”
I roll off the poor little bugger and just grin at him. He grins back and says, “you awe weally heavy, you know, fow a wat!”
“Rat, huh?” I respond, digging my fingers into his ribs. Now it's his turn to squeal as he finds that turnabout is fair play. Well, a few minutes of tickles and counter tickles among the five of us soon has us lying in a collapsed heap.
“So,” one of the boys asks, “do you like being a mink, Nicholas?”
“Heck ya! It's radical!” I answer, while getting up to fetch my clothes. I toss Minky's to him. Slipping on my pants I say, “I can't wait to try swimming.”
“Or, maybe eat a few bugs,” Number One responds, chuckling.
Plopping back down into the center of the group I answer with, “Eeewww... well, maybe when I'm in mink form I'll feel differently. But that definitely doesn't sound appetizing right now.”
This has all four of them laughing. Then Minky, pulling on his clothes, says, “beetles are the best. They are really crunchy... mmmm.”
I stick my finger in my mouth and make gagging noises, but they go unheard over the boys' laughter. And pretty soon they're all calling out the names of the ugliest bugs they can think of. And Minky answers with “Yeah, that one is good,” or “no, that one is too slimy,” and they'd break up all over again.
It grows quiet after a minute or two and we can hear the songbirds outside. This causes Minky to sit up and turn towards the boys.
“Nicky and I saw a herd of deer in the meadow just below us. And now there is a huge flock of birds around your cottage. How is this possible? What is going on?”
Number One answers. “We changed the natural order of things here when we gave people alternate animal selves. We did it, as you know, to make animal life seem more precious to people. This has been accomplished. Now it is time to return to the natural order of things. Nicholas, Minky... there are now many animals on this world that are simply animals. But they all have a healthy respect and fear of humans, even the more dangerous ones. If you are threatened by an animal, simply revert to human form and they will run away.”
“Yes,” Number Two adds. “We had planned to wait another generation or two before doing this. But we thought this would help throw some confusion into the Baron's thinking and slow him down a bit. We need some extra time while Nicholas learns what he needs to learn to defeat him.”
“Guys, do you think Nicky and I really have a chance against the Baron? I mean, what do you think our chances are?”
There's no response for a minute and I feel my heart sinking. It's Number Two who breaks the silence and answers...
“It has taken a very long time, Minky, but a balance has been created in this world. The sanctity of life has real value here. My brothers and I, and our predecessors, have spent our lives fine tuning things to make everything work in harmony. This has become a world of peace and prosperity, something undreamed about in the world Nicholas came from.”
He rolls over and props himself on an elbow so he's looking directly at us. “We are not going to allow any of this to come unraveled. Sure, we have our mandates to follow so that we can not just walk up to the Baron ourselves and zap him, and so we have to rely on round-about means to defeat him. That is why we are forced to use you, Nicholas and Minky. But we will try to not let you walk into anything we do not believe you can handle. We may only be able to nudge things here and there, but the three of us can nudge pretty darn hard.”
Number One lifts himself up and sits on the edge of the bed. Looking directly at me, he continues with...
“We are not going to lie to you and say that this is not going to be dangerous for you. Because, in all honesty, it will be. The danger will not just be from the Baron, either. You are going to meet people and creatures that are dangerous in their own right. But at least this way you have a chance, a good chance. Because you know, do you not, that the Baron is eventually going to catch you and if you aren't prepared then you will have no chance at all.”
Well, he didn't exactly give us odds or anything. But I feel a little better after listening to them. I mean, they're right. If we just kept hiding or tried to run, we would eventually be spotted by someone and the Baron would have us. That would be a zero chance of surviving. And I'll just be grateful for any chance above zero.
What bothers me most, though, and I don't try to bring it up and scare Minky even more, is whether or not I'll actually be able to go through with this. What if I can't actually pull the trigger or do what I need to do at the time? I don't know. I guess I'll just try not to think about it and hope that those instincts of self survival or love of Minky will give me what I need to get the deed done. All I know for sure is, I wish this were all over. And what I'd like to do now is just curl up into a ball and sleep.
“WHAM... CRASH,” and the center of the roof gives in with an explosion of wood, straw thatching and dust. Something large and heavy crashes to the floor! The air is full of dust and slowly descending particles of straw.
Two and Three make a mad dash for the doorway while One trots over to whatever it is that's now lying on their floor. Minky has wrapped his arms around me and is shivering, but his shivers only match my own.
“What is it?” I manage to croak out to Number One, who's leaning over the object.
He rises up and looks at us. “It's a wooden statue. It's the Baron's handiwork. And, Minky, the statue, it's your friend, Sendol.”
“Oh, no... oh, no,” Minky cries, rising off the bed and rushing over to stand beside Number One. I'm quickly by his side and am staring down at the most lifelike wooden replica of a person you can imagine. It's a statue of a boy of about fifteen and just perfect in every detail. Of course it would be, seeing as it was a living, breathing person at one time. He had obviously been in a sitting position when he was frozen and so Minky and I lift it up and sit it on the edge of one of the benches.
Two and Three come rushing back through the door. “It was a phoenix that flew over and dropped something on us. We saw it flying back towards the East. What did it drop?”
Then they both look over to what is now sitting on their bench and they grow quiet.
“Is that not your friend, Sendol?” Number Two asks. Minky and One nod their heads yes. “Then this is a message,” he says after a minute, looking from the statute over to Minky and me. “The Baron is telling us that he knows you are here, Minky. He knows that you and Sendol grew up together and so this is the most personal message he could think to send.”
“But that's stupid,” I say, feeling a righteous anger build up inside of me. “Why would he send a warning? He should have just let us believe he didn't know where we were so he would stand a better chance of capturing us.”
One says, “I think he is just trying to frighten Minky as badly as he can. He wants Minky to believe that there is no chance of him avoiding capture. He probably thinks that if he scares him badly enough, Minky will just fold up and let himself be taken without a struggle. And also, it is a slap in my and my brothers' faces. He knows we are limited in what we can do to him. This is his way of showing his power, his strength.”
There are tears coursing down Minky's cheeks as he stands with one arm draped across the shoulders of his frozen friend. Finally he says...
“Maybe he is right. Maybe we are only dreaming and wishing when we believe that we stand a chance against him. Perhaps he does not even know about Nicky yet. Perhaps if I just go to him, alone, he will not bother with Nicky.”
Oh my gawd... the Baron's ploy is working. My little Minky is ready to throw in the towel. But he's willing to do it for me, to protect me! He's standing alongside the body of one lifeless friend, and he doesn't want to be responsible for it happening to another friend.
Arrgh... that just has me seeing red! I'm so pissed I could chew iron and spit out nails! That slimy, low-life bastard isn't going to get the satisfaction if it kills me. I'm taking him DOWN!
“Minky,” I say to him, rather harshly I'm afraid, “you do what you want. You do what you think you have to do. But whatever you do, I'm going to be right alongside of you. If you want to give up and just walk to your death, then let's go. I'll hold your hand on the way.”
“No... NO, Nicky! Don't you understand? It's me he wants, not you. You stay here and be safe. You...”
I don't let him finish. I walk over and grab his hand.
“Where you go... I go. Do you understand me? If you try to sneak away and give yourself up, I won't be far behind you. If you want me to live, then you are going to have to save me by helping me destroy this monster. That's the only chance I'm giving you. It's either death for both of us or life for both of us. Now you choose.”
He only looks at me for a couple of seconds, taking that all in, before he has his arms wrapped around me and is quietly sobbing onto my shoulder.
“Okay, Nicky. Okay. You win. I will not let him have you without a fight.”
I wrap my arms around my boy and just rock him while waiting for the sobs to die down. But during the interval, the other boys have been busy themselves. They are gathering ingredients, some from the shelves and some that Minky and I had knocked to the ground. And they are sprinkling them into that large cauldron.
“You two bring Sendol over to the cauldron, if you do not mind,” One tells us. I look at them in incomprehension.
“Sigh... do you want us to change him back into a living boy or do you not?”
WOW... that's right! These are warlocks, the most powerful magicians on the planet! The Baron wasn't using his noodle on this little gimmick. He probably forgot that he was dumping his statue in the one place on the planet that his handiwork could be undone.
I can see by the surprised look on Minky's face that he hadn't thought about it, either. But then his face lights up into a grin and he rushes over to Sendol: I know he's just turned on the porch light. “Come on, Sendol, we have a surprise for you... yahoo!”
Well, we quickly have the soon to be revived boy sitting in that oversized pot with three midget magicians waving crooked sticks at him. If those things are wands then these guys need to go to the store where Harry Potter bought his.
Number Three dips a gourd into the liquid mess the boy is floating in and pours it over his head. Then they mumble something that sounds a lot like Latin.
There are fumes and sparks coming out of that cauldron. It seems to be stirring up a breeze too as the dislodged roof thatching starts whirling around the room. Then there is a sound like thunder and the statue in the pot lets out a terrific sneeze. Then it says...
“What the heck? Are you guys cooking me? MOM... some sorcerers are going to eat me! How did you get in my house? MOM... where are you?”
Then he spies Minky standing a few feet away with a big-assed grin on his face. That causes him to take a look around the room and then recognize that he isn't in his own home after all. Mom isn't going to be coming at his beck and call.
“Minky, who are these guys? Where the heck am I? Why am I in a cooking pot? And what the heck is so darn funny?”
This sets Minky over the edge and he starts laughing... huge belly laughs. He's laughing so hard that he's bent over. I guess it's a combination of hearing his friend's voice again and the release of all the pent-up emotion he's been feeling for the last little while. But all that does is to cause the boy in the pot to start turning red in the face and getting a most belligerent look.
“Get away from me, you little ogres!” he yells at the boys. “I'm not anyone's supper. I'll take those little sticks and whip your butts with them!”
“Har, har, har...” Minky laughs, “that is no way to talk to the Warlocks, Sendol.”
The mouth on the boy grows doughnut-shaped into a big “O”. “Warlocks?”...he squeaks. “The Warlocks?”
“Yes,” Number Three answers. “And if we want to have boy stew then I guess we can have boy stew. Now, what kind of vegetables do you go best with?”
The boy's face blanches absolutely white! Number One and Number Two are struggling mightily not to start giggling. Minky doesn't care... he's rolling on the floor now. And I can feel my chortles about to turn into belly laughs.
Sendol can see by Minky's attitude that he obviously isn't in any real danger here. I can see his shoulders slump in relief.
“Very funny, you guys. Now would you please help me out of this pot and tell me what is going on here?”
The boys help the wet and shivering Sendol from the cauldron while I give the supine Minky a couple of prods with my toe. He looks up at me with tears streaming down his cheeks. At least this time they are laughter tears and they make me feel pretty good. My Minky boy deserves a bit of levity after what he's just been through.
“Peeuw... my clothes stink,” Sendol says, looking down at his sodden clothing. His clothes are basically a replica of Minky's except they're brown. “What's in that pot, anyway?”
“Ahhh... it must be the whipple poop,” Number Two explains. “That is some pretty stinky stuff, alright. We would normally use bog mud but someone knocked the jar onto the floor and spilled it,” he says, looking accusingly in our direction.
“Whoops — sorry about that,” I answer. “But, hey, it was my first obstacle course as a mink. What can I say?”
The boys just giggle in response. Then Number Two waves his bent stick at Sendol while intoning “Odorem extractum” and “dessicatus”. Sendol is now standing in perfectly dry clothing that has lost all trace of odor.
Minky rushes up to the guy and gives him a huge hug. “Cool,” Sendol says, “but what's that for?”
“You see that hole in the roof?” Minky asks, while pointing up.
Sendol looks up and nods his head in the affirmative.
“Well your goofy body made that hole when a phoenix dropped you on the house!”
“Yeah, right!” He answers. “And I am not all squished or anything. Look, Minky... I might like nuts but I don't have any in my head. You and your practical jokes.”
“But it's true,” I answer him. “You don't recall having seen the Baron lately, do you, by any chance?”
He pauses for just a second and a frightened look crosses his face.
“Yes!” He says. “I was sitting at the table eating my breakfast. Mom had gone to the neighbors. I heard the door crash open and smack against the wall. I looked up from my porridge towards the doorway and the Baron was standing there! I only saw him for a second or so... that's the last thing I remember before I found myself in that big cooking pot.”
“That is because the Baron turned you into a statue, Sendol,” Number One tells him. “He must hold family members of the phoenix hostage because he got him to fly you here and drop you through the roof.”
If the poor kid had a look of fear on his face a second ago, now every drop of blood seems to have drained from it.
“The warlocks changed you back into a boy again, Sendol. That's what you were doing in that cauldron.”
He looks over towards our collection of midget sorcerers and says, “Ohhh... thank you. Thank you so much. But why would the Baron do that to me?”
Minky and I spend a bit of time explaining the situation to him. Meanwhile, the warlocks have gathered into a little circle and are having a conversation of their own. After we fill Sendol in with all we know about the Baron, and our belief as to why Sendol was a target, the boys walk back over to us.
“Sendol, we want you to remain here as our guest for awhile,” Number Two says. “There is no use inviting the Baron to do a repeat performance.”
“And Minky,” he adds, looking at my little buddy, “we are going to fetch your mother here as well. We realize the Baron's gaze can not affect her. But he could still take her captive and use her against you. The only reason he has not done so yet is that he has been watching her house hoping you would go there. Three is going to leave now to get her.”
Minky picks Number Three up and gives him a giant squeeze. “You guys are the best,” he tells them. Three just grins back and when the mink sets him down he rushes to the door. Jumping into the air he transforms into that beautiful eagle we saw at the pond.
“He will change to a phoenix when he gets to your Mother's house so he can carry her, Minky. In the meantime, you two need to consider sneaking away from here and starting your journey. Any of the Baron's people watching the house right now will be busy watching Number Three. Change into minks now and slip out into the bushes.”
Both of us give the remaining sorcerers a quick hug. One whispers something into Minky's ear and I see a look of disappointment cross his face. His shoulders slump a little but then he seems to straighten up and walks over to his friend, Sendol. He gives the boy a huge hug and while doing so whispers something into his ear.
Sendol looks towards me with a big smile on his face and says, “Oh yeah? Well it is about time, you fur face.” Then he gives me a wink.
“Watch out for this one, Nicholas,” he tells me, “he will think he can get away with anything with you just because he is cute!” And that earns me a second wink.
Minky giggles and grabs my hand. “Think mink, Nicholas. Think mink.”
The next thing you know, I'm less than a foot above ground level and I'm following a little furry tail out the door and into the bushes. There is a huge patch of berry bushes that extend from the house into the edge of the forest. Although they are thick and full of brambles, there seems to be room beneath them for a couple of small bodied creatures to run full tilt; which we do. And we keep running full bore until we are way into the forest proper. Minky screeches to a halt and I darn near jam my pointed snout up his posterior! “Do you hear that, Nicky?” he whispers back to me. I tune myself into the background noise, wondering what it is he's listening to. Then I hear it... ravens or crows cawing back and forth to one another somewhere up ahead. He places his snout up against my ear and whispers, “I believe the Baron has placed some eyes through the forest. Maybe he expected me to run off after he had Sendol dropped on the cottage.”
“But, how will we know now when a bird is just a bird or an animal just an animal?” I ask him.
“Sigh... I guess we try to avoid them all as much as possible Nicky. If we see large groups of the same animal I think we are probably safe. But still, we shall try to avoid them when we can.”
We are fairly concealed beneath some underbrush. These smaller bodies do have some advantage in staying hidden.
“He can't cover the entire forest, though,” he whispers. “The further we get into it, the less chance of anyone seeing us. Follow me closely, Nicky, and try not to make a sound or disturb any brush.”
I nod my head that I understand and we are on our way once again. We aren't running full out now, instead we're taking care to stay as well concealed as possible. But we can still make pretty good time in these bodies. And to tell the truth, despite being in danger and all, I'm having a great time. You can't believe the stability it gives you to have four legs rather than two. And these lithe bodies just seem to be made for eating up the terrain.
It's been a couple of hours since we heard those crows. I've noticed a sharp increase in my hearing while in this form and have been listening to all the forest sounds as we've been scampering along. I've seen and heard a few flocks of birds, but their large numbers would make them seem to be just harmless animals.
Minky pulls up beside a rotting log and just slips his head over, checking out the terrain. “I do not think we need to worry much anymore, Nicky. They would not really expect us to be going in this direction, anyway.”
That pretty much perked my ears up. I'd not been paying any attention to the direction of our travel. I hadn't even thought about it, to tell the truth. I've just been kind of glorying in this new body of mine and enjoying my sharpened senses. In fact, I find myself sniffing around the log Minky has his head resting on. And I ask him...
“Just where are we going then, Minky? Aren't we heading in the direction of the barony?” And I'm really sticking my snout into the rotten carcass of that log.
Minky looks at me and snickers. “Heheheh, Nicky, you can smell the grubs inside the wood. They smell pretty good, don't they?”
In the way of an answer, I use my claws to pull some of the rotted stump apart and expose one fat looking white grub. BANG... I'm chomping on that sucker before I realize what I'm doing! Ewwww... Oh my gawd... is this what they call instinct?
Minky's helping me now and we are just tearing into that old log. And we don't stop until that sucker is totally demolished and our bellies are stuffed.
“Burp”... ahhh... what could be more satisfying than a good grub belch?
“Minky, you tell anyone I ate bugs and I'll... I'll... well, I don't know what I'll do but I'll do something horrendous to you.”
“Ha, ha, ha! That is alright, Nicky. It is not considered that strange around here. Just wait until we come across a pond and I introduce you to frogs... heheheh.”
A good meal requires some play to help it settle. So I jump on Minky and we roll head and tail down the slight incline. Then, after a two or three minute wrestling competition it's paw licking time. Hygiene is important, you know. Finally we just settle down with our bodies curled around one another.
Minky lets out a sigh and says, “Two told me something, privately, before we left that broke my heart, Nicky. I kept it from the forefront of my mind because we had a mission to escape undetected. But now I can not help dwelling on it.”
Oh — oh. More bad news, I'm thinking. As if we haven't already had more than our share.
“What's that, Minky? What did he tell you?”
“Their spell to revive Sendol was only temporary. They cannot completely reverse the spell until after the Baron's demise. Sendol will change back into his wooden form again sometime tonight while he is sleeping. And if we fail in our mission there will never be any awakening for him.”
“Oh my gawd, Minky. That's awful! Are they going to tell Sendol?”
“No, they think that would be cruel. If we defeat the Baron then the spell will be lifted totally and Sendol will waken without even knowing he'd reverted back. Time doesn't exist for you while you are a statue, it seems.”
“Poor Sendol,” I say, and 'poor Minky' I'm thinking. “Then he will be his normal self again because we aren't going to fail in this.” I squeeze him even more tightly. “You and I are going to find the powers we need to defeat that monster, Minky, I promise you.”
He squeezes me back and says, “if anyone else told me that, I wouldn't believe them, Nicky. But you give me courage. And for the first time since the Baron has been hunting me, I feel like I actually have a chance. Thank you, Nicky.”
I feel Minky expand and realize he is changing shape. It's a boy lying next to me and he rolls my little mink body up onto his chest. He's holding me with one arm and stroking my fur with the opposite hand. Wow... I had no idea it could feel so terrific to have someone scratch you behind the ear. Sigh.
As I'm slowly drifting off to sleep, I remember that Minky hadn't answered my question. “Where are we heading if it's not towards the barony, Minky?” I ask through a yawn.
“We're going into the Forest of Tears and the home of the goblins' god at the Mountain of Bones,” he answers through a yawn, and then nods off.
CRAP! My little eyeballs snap wide open! Now why did I have to ask such a dumb question?