The Pasture Watch – Part Five: The Furnace of the Sky

It was a zonnestrider, a diurnal spirit that exhaled a deathly aura of fury and violence. No weapons were permitted on or around the pasture, not even the fairy blade. The fathers of Otto, Else, and Kitty were livid that they were not allowed either. Dr. Kikkert, as the least physically dangerous of the older men, was placed outside the gate with a radio transceiver to contact Prof. Morhier, who waited up the road in a car. Morhier taught Otto a ward to repel the enemy for a time; after at least a day he would be able to prepare a more permanent solution.

Kitty walked out into the pasture, repeating the ward over to herself, and praying it would work. Otto and Else were standing hand in hand: she loved to see them hold hands, it made her feel like skipping inside. They rehearsed the ward together, and waited as the sun’s light filled the sky. It was strange to feel her apprehension battle with the lovely dullness of the place, and the tiresomeness of standing so long. She waved to Dr. Kikkert in his lawn chair, who waved back nervously.

A rustle, and as suddenly as the lights go out when the power fails Kitty realised they were weak, young, unlearned, unarmed, and alone. Somehow she had not prepared herself to see a material form, and now that something was actually moving towards them she was unmade. It was low, broad as a stingray, grey as pipe smoke, and almost as amorphous – she could not make out any of the limbs, but saw many bony joints. Though it pushed the grass, it also seeped between the stems like polluted clag or soft, colourless scum. A smell like the heat of a fevered sore infused the air. There were two dark spots in it; whether eyes or nostrils she could not tell. A butterfly attacked her face so suddenly and fiercely that she screamed and smashed it against her forehead; hastily she shook and brushed off what she could of the remains. The girls looked at Otto, and Kitty was trembling; he took a breath, and on his mark they spoke the ward together.

Whether because they had not learned it well enough, or for some other reason, nothing happened. Kitty was struggling to control a feeling of wild anger towards her friends: the influence of the approaching enemy. She looked at Otto. If she couldn’t keep from attacking him, like the butterfly had attacked her, she was glad Else was there, so she would understand. But what use would it be in the end? The ward had failed, they were at the mercy of a zonnestrider, and she was sure “mercy” was not a word that its cunning sentience comprehended.

Else leaned forward, caught Kitty’s eye – and winked at her. Then she whisked Otto’s glasses from his face and held them out of reach. Otto stood in complete shock for a moment, and in that moment the zonnestrider advanced again. Otto groped, and beads of sweat rolled down his face. He was shaking as much as when he had been stung by the guardian spirit.

“Else, what are you doing?! Do you want us to die? Give me my glasses! I can’t see it! Else!”

Kitty could hear the wretched panic in his voice, as he tried to fight his terror and confusion along with the hot influence of the zonnestrider’s presence.

He failed. Kitty gagged when she heard a low, bestial snarl come from Otto’s throat. He found Else by a random blow with both his hands, then savagely took her by the throat. Else grunted faintly as she tried to loosen Otto’s fingers with one hand, the other hand holding Otto’s glasses behind her back. Kitty was petrified, her stomach leaden with sick despair.

Otto was only a few inches taller than either of them, but now this detail had become something horrible. His face, without his glasses and gnashing with rage, was like some transformation taken from a nightmare and unnaturally revealed in the sunlight. It was troubling to see how calm Else was, though her mouth worked and strangled sounds escaped her as his grip prevailed over her one small hand. The fairy’s power was defeated, there was no guardian now. Kitty realised this was what had happened to her goat, Ari. The image came into her mind of Else’s body lying along the ground, staining the grass, with the flies coming…

Else was leaning back, and her legs were starting to give way, but from under her eyelids she caught Kitty’s eye again. With the hand that still clutched Otto’s glasses, she pointed. Kitty looked directly at the low, hoary beast in the grass, the thing that had killed Ari, and was killing Else. Seeing it before her, all Kitty’s resistance to its rage broke down. Her teeth clenched, heat filled her body, she rushed forward – and jumped with both her bare feet into the middle of the zonnestrider’s back.

It writhed under her like some large, soft cat, or a halibut’s skeleton clothed in a spider’s belly, and she jumped again and again, stamping furiously. She felt the bones break and foul organs burst against the soles of her feet – while it sent a revulsion stinging through her, it was also immensely satisfying.

Else was hurriedly taking Otto’s hands from her throat, not as if she was afraid, but as if she was embarrassed for him to see his hands in that position. Then she slipped his glasses back onto his face. She smiled at him, trying to move her head to hide her bruises.

“Else…” he said, and there isn’t any describing how broken his voice was. He clung to her, and wept disconsolately on her abused neck. Still rather faint, she sat down on the ground, and he got on his knees without loosening his hold on her.

“I’m sorry Else, I’m so sorry…”

She comforted him, resting her hands on his shaking back.

“I’m alright, I know you would never hurt me Otto. Now, take me to the others, so we can tell them our enemy is dead.”

“I can’t go, I can’t stand this, I can’t look at anyone, I can’t see my father…” His sobs cut off his voice.

“I made you do it, and I know it hurt you terribly, but don’t feel guilt, or that would shame me. Just be very sad for me, then take me to your father. He’ll forgive what I did to his son, and understand that I love you truly.”

“Else, I…” His voice broke again, but the tightening of his embrace made it clear what he meant to say. Else looked up at Kitty.

“Kitty, you’re standing in dead zonnestrider.”

Kitty looked down. The foul carcass was blistering with decay, oozing up around her feet and between her toes, smoking like a smashed haggis stuffed with puffball mushrooms and mould. She yelped, leaped away, and frantically dragged her feet through the grass.

They made their way to the gate (Kitty still wiping and shaking her feet), where Dr. Kikkert sat, rubbing sweat and tears out of his blinking eyes. He had radioed Prof. Morhier, who was now getting out of his car. Kitty told them what had happened – Else shyly put Otto’s arms around her shoulders to hide the marks on her throat, and where his hand had struck her cheek. Morhier used his car-phone to inform the others who were waiting at the Bauers’ house. Otto had never seen the professor this way: he was happy.

“Miss Verboom, you are to be admired,” he said to Else. “Only if the rage of the zonnestrider was turned against it could one pass its influence to attack it physically, and this only while it was diverted; in one act you did both of these things. You had also either the foresight to consider this beforehand, or the insight to comprehend it in the short period after the attempted warding. You astonish me.”

This unexpected praise made Otto protectively fearful, not wanting Else’s quiet soul tainted by even slight conceit. Young as he was he understood his feeling was not ungrateful: he owed her his life, not a snare. He was glad she did not blush, and that her smile was unchanged. But he himself blushed for a quite different reason when she said,

“I don’t know, I may be cruel: I may have done it because I knew Otto would hug me.”

“Otto Kunger the Second is free from the mortal curse. My enemy is dead, you are my great saviours; when I have need I will come to you; when you have need, come to me.”

This was the message of the fairy prince. However, Prof. Morhier gave them a warning:

“A fairy is nearsighted, seeing only one enemy at a time. The zonnestrider was a servant, as you were; and if you crush one wasp, it draws another.”

Go here to read: The Pasture Watch – Part Four: The Cure

Go here to read all posted so far of: The Kitty and Otto Stories

I’m cross-posting this here and on Hope, Hearts, and Heroes: a blog of six authors in Romance and Speculative fiction.

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