Snakes In Their Lane

This month’s commission is courtesy of Kalik Long, who wanted to see something about Jormungandr, or something involving Horace, Betty, and Li Xue Zi; I ended up compromising, as you might guess from the title! This commission goes out to all the great friends and fans who have been supporting my Patreon, and because of their generosity, comes to you free! I’ll be posting it in two parts; one today, one on this coming Tuesday! I’m nearly halfway finished with Skin Hunger, so hopefully I’ll be having it started out in not too long.

While Betty has been busy in Paradise, Horace has had his own adventures- But where has Li Xue Zi been through everything, and what happened to Jormungandr after she took the meteor head-on?

Somewhere in Florida

In the middle of the swamp-like heat, I was cold. I shivered, and drew my kimono a bit tighter around my shoulders. It didn’t help. The cold was not a result of weather, nor of air conditioning, nor even of my clothing, revealing though it could be. It was a result of my decisions. My decision to do as Horace asked of me.

A few days before, he had asked me to go, to find Betty, and to protect her. And I had agreed, because I was hard pressed to refuse Horace anything. I loved him, and I trusted him. That was the basis for many foolish acts on my part.

The last three days had been spent waiting for this window to open. A hurricane had formed, which had prevented me from travelling to the island where Betty had been sent. Three days I had been waiting for this moment, and I had regretted every second of it.

Horace was alone. Unprotected. There had been no sign of a threat to him, but that didn’t matter. What mattered was that he didn’t have me there, to protect him. I sank down into the diner’s seat, my heart pounding.

The real problem, I supposed, was that all three of us- Betty, Horace, and I- were alone. That was no good. We were most vulnerable when we were alone, and I couldn’t stop thinking about what might be happening.

I wanted to curl up in the warmth of his Hearth again. I wanted to be close to him. I wanted to make him safe, to protect him, to be with him.

But if Betty died, I knew that Horace would do something… foolish. He had been affected badly by the deaths in his life, the loss of the people closest to him. I had never seen him more furious, more prone to self-destructive behavior, than when someone he loved and cared about was threatened. I needed to protect him from that. From himself. No matter how uncomfortable it was to be so far from him.

I lifted the cup of coffee, and the words drifted to me from across the room.

“Wow. Is she cosplaying something? What’s with the cat-ears?”

I turned my head. I saw a tail flick briefly in and out of view from around a corner, and a voice rose. “I said, I’m looking for one of the roots of Yggdrassil! Come on, it can’t be that hard to spot! Colossal tree sprouting from the ground and rising up into the stars! Do you think I’m an idiot? It’d be impossible to miss!”

I stood up, and quickly stepped forward.

It was not- despite my first hopes- Betty. Skin the color of milk instead of coffee; hair a mottled gray instead of black. And fluffy, whereas Betty’s fur was all smooth and fine. But even had she been a perfect doppelganger, I would’ve been able to tell the difference. Others might not have been able to taste it, through the haze of their own assumptions, their own confidence. But I was uniquely qualified.

The woman was a snake.

The woman was one of the snakes. One of the primordial snakes, a creature of such power that I could taste it from here. A figure of godlike power. I had seen such things only a handful of times in my life, when Randall and Oliver had gotten in far over their head. And I could identify her, in a moment.

The Jormungandr.

Standing there, harassing some young man who looked as bemused as I felt, dressed in a colorful yellow-and-blue patterned dress that looked like something she’d gotten out of a tourist trap.

“I said-”

I stepped forward suddenly, and held up my hands. “I am so sorry, she’s from Barcelona. Please, I know where to find the world trees. Come along.”

She did not protest as I led her out of the restaurant, into the comfortable swelter of the Florida summer. The two of us made our way to a corner of the parking lot near a rather sleek and glossy sports car sitting under the shade of a large tree. I turned towards her, and tried to figure out how to say ‘why the fuck are you here’ without insulting her. She didn’t give me the chance.

“Alright, then, lesser creature, where is the World Tree?”

“I believe it was… cut down is not the right world, but it is inaccessible from here,” I said.

“And the nine worlds?” she said, a look of shock and horror on her face.

“I venture that they are difficult to access. The world of gods and the world of men has been divided. Badly.”

“Incredible,” murmured the creature who I might have worshipped, if I were inclined to such things, and if she were not currently pretending to be a cat. Her tail swayed back and forth. “To think that the gods would go to such lengths… I’d heard stories, but I never believed they could be so mad-”

“Not to be blunt, but you must hide your tail.”

“What? Why?” The woman glowered. “Betty certainly didn’t.”

I stiffened. “You met Bastet? That is, Betty?”

“Yes. Almost fought her, but things… intervened.” She rubbed her neck, looking aside, coughing. “Bit embarrassing, really. It wouldn’t have been a good fight. She seemed very… distracted. Seemed to have some human she was worried about.”

My heart went cold. “Horace?”

“I seem to recall that name, yes.” Jormungandr rubbed the side of her head. “Lucky I remember anything after that met- where are you going?”

I stepped up to the sports car, surreptitiously glancing to either side as I slipped the delicate sprung steel bobby pin out of my sleeve, letting it loosen, and began to work the lock. I had had plenty of time to practice skills in the years since I had become immortal, and such things were always my favorites. Even with the long and painful hours Randall had sometimes taken to train me. My hands didn’t shake even as the memories slipped in. “My master is in danger.”

“Your master?” asked Jormungandr, her eyes narrowed. “A master? You, a proud snake? You have fallen so far that you must curl up in the bed of a human?”

She took two quick steps towards me, and grabbed me, her arm around my neck. She was strong, impossibly so, pinning me, face-first, against the door. I squirmed in her arms, wriggling around to face her, and grabbed her hand, straining with both hands. The hand was not choking me yet, but it was tight enough that it might start at any second, the pressure just on the edge of pain. I writhed and clawed at her, but she just stared into my eyes.

“We are serpents. The betrayers. We are the poisonous ones, the vipers. Do you know what we do to those kind people, who take us in and out of the cold? Who hold us to their breast? We bite them.”

I gritted my teeth. “You are wrong-”

“Am I? What has become of your masters before this one, little white serpent? Can you tell me what they did, what became of them?”

My stomach twisted into a guilty little knot, because the filthy bitch was completely right. Three masters, and each of them had died- because I betrayed them. Just being around me had killed them.

“Do you think that the right thing to do is to go back to this human? If you really cared for him, if he was really dear to your heart…” She leaned closer, her eyes narrowed, the slits visible- Cat eyes, or snake-eyes? Who could tell? “Do you think there is any kinder thing you could do for him, than to leave before you get him killed, too?”

I thought of Horace. His warmth. His gentle kindness. His determination to protect and care for the people around him, and his utter inability to do so. He needed me. I opened my mouth, and let my lips move soundlessly.

“Oh, come on, now. I’m not holding that tight.” She smirked, and lean forward a bit. “What was that?” she purred out, her face inches away from mine.

I cracked my forehead into her nose, hard. She sprung back, more shocked than harmed, no sign of blood running down her nostrils. I drew myself to my feet, my hands up. “I can change for him.”

Jormungandr stared at me for a couple of seconds, her head tilted. Then she began to chuckle. “Well, I wonder, what kind of man could drive you to such lengths? Betty, I could expect. She is that kind of creature, dependent on humans. But making a serpent want to not bite…? That I must see.”

“What,” I asked, rubbing my throat, “could EVER make you think I’d want to bring you anywhere close to him?”

“I swore an oath. To Betty, and…” She was quiet for a moment. “Well, Betty’s name should be enough for it. To do no harm. I was quite gentle there, wasn’t I?” She grinned sharply. “No harm. I just want to learn what this human is like. Besides, I might be able to help once we get there.”

I stared for a moment. “Can I stop you from coming with me?”

“Not easily!”

“Fine.” I sighed, and bent down, springing open the lock. An older car, it was easy to hotwire. A sports car, perhaps one of the 1990s models; I didn’t pay close attention to such things, outside of the locks and the proper way to hotwire their ignition. I unlocked the doors, and Jormungandr took the seat next to me while I fiddled with the steering column.

“Hey!”

Its owner was not inclined to let it go without a fight, though. I gunned the engine, and sped out of the diner’s parking lot, pushing the car to its limit.

 

 

Somewhere in Georgia

The two of us ran through the woods, as the distant sound of the police sirens faded away. There was a brief and quite spectacular explosion as the beleaguered Jaguar exploded. I tossed the keys, with their tiny embossed XJ220, off into the woods of rural Georgia as we ran. Before long we had outpaced any sounds of pursuit, and were well and properly on the lam.

“Well,” said Jormungandr, grinning. “That was fun! And technically, I did absolutely no harm, as you were the one who crashed us into that ditch.”

I rubbed my neck. It had been a rough crash, and I had gone through the glass. Not nearly enough to do serious injury to me, but I was sore, and feeling somewhat guilty. Not so much about the car; I’d seen the amount of cocaine in the glove box, and frankly, the man was lucky that he had us to blame it on, now.

I hope that cocaine was his.

I would feel incredibly guilty if I’d just gotten a man sentenced to being chainsawed in half in a shower.

“So, is there a reason why you needed a car, and you didn’t just sneak on board a plane?” asked Jormungandr, innocently, as we hiked further into the woods.

“Planes are inconvenient, travel infrequently, are very difficult to stay hidden aboard, and would not take me as- How the hell do you know about planes?”

“We were kept appraised from time to time where I was captured.”

“Ah. And where was that?”

“Hell.”

I paused a moment, and looked aside at her. She kept running, her expression in the same state of amused distraction it had been during the entire chase. “I’m… sorry?”

“It wasn’t that bad, really. Not many people there could take me on, and the few that could didn’t want to deal with the pain I could dish out to them. I was the big fish in a small pond.” Jormungandr chuckled softly. “Of course, I was always the big fish in the small pond, even when I swam in the ocean.”

“So why did you leave?”

“Because I was forced out. Pretty much like always,” she said, and her voice dripped with venom. So did her mouth, and a glance over my shoulder revealed she was leaving a trail of smoking holes in the underbrush. I coughed politely, and she wiped her mouth, flushing slightly. “Sorry. But I would have been just as happy staying there, if things hadn’t… forced my hand.” She sighed. “All I want is to be left alone. Really, does that strike you as such an unreasonable request?”

“To be left alone, we must be isolated from everything, forever. There is no room in the world for someone who wishes to be left alone, it seems. My first master actually was rather like you in that. He lived atop a mountain peak, he shunned all contact, dedicated only to his rock garden, his meditation, and his studies. And you know what happened to him?”

“They built a monastery around him?”

“They built a monastery around him. It started slow, with people who were curious about him. He ignored them, and so they began to come in greater numbers. Finally, they devoted themselves to him, aping his habits and style.”

Jormungandr stared at me. “That is the most horrible thing I’ve ever heard.”

“Humans are strange creatures. Paradoxical. The farmer helps the serpent, sometimes. The point is that over time, he became fond of the people who studied around him. He began to open his heart. He found that perhaps he had given up on his fellow human beings too soon.”

“Really?” asked Jormungandr, an eyebrow raised. “What happened to him?”

“He cared too much about me and died, withered, his heart stopping after he had kept it beating through force of will for four hundred years straight.”

“… He must really have cared about you,” murmured Jormungandr. And I stopped for a moment, staring at her.

“That, as remarks go, is either intensely thoughtless and cruel, or profoundly kind.” I raised an eyebrow.

“Probably safe to assume the former,” said Jormungandr, and shrugged. “Maybe given enough time, he would have hated it again.” She stopped, and frowned. “I think we’ve outrun them.”

“We outran them a while ago. Now I’m just hoping we get lucky.” I came to a stop, a few feet ahead of her, and sighed, brushing my forehead. I did not sweat, but I was feeling a little low on energy. So long since I’d been around Horace. Since I’d been around any human who could have helped me.

I’d considered contacting the government; getting in touch with the Colonel. But Betty had not waited for the plane coming. She had believed that there was some threat to Horace, and it needed to be reached, as quickly as possible. I could travel very quickly overland. We had been driving for barely an hour, after all.

I paused, and lifted my head. There was the sound of…

I smiled, and began to sprint, hitting a dead run.

“What?” asked Jormungandr, when she caught up with me, half a minute later, leaping over logs and across the terrain. “What- are you- running so fast- for-”

We entered the clearing at a dead sprint, and I leapt towards the train. To her credit, Jormungandr did the same. Unfortunately, it was half a second later, which means that I landed safely in the hay, and she struck the side of the train car. She pulled herself in, cursing and spitting, nails tearing gouges in the steel skin of the train car, and slumped down onto the hay, glaring at me. I smiled innocently. “Train. Going north. Should carry us for at least a few hours in the direction we need to go, and a chance to get a little sleep while we are carried. Convenient.”

“You could have told me.”

“There was no time, and also I would still like to lose you, if I can.” I looked aside. “I don’t trust you.”

“Why on earth not?” she asked, grinning, as she leaned back, slumping into the hay, settling back. For most humans, hay would not constitute a particularly comfortable bedding material; stiff, prodding, and prone to getting caught in clothing. Jormungandr and I were tough enough that we had no such concerns, and it was quite relaxing to take a moment to breathe and consider for the first time since I had begun running.

“Well?” asked Jormungandr, a minute or so later.

“I’m sorry, was that question not rhetorical? You are a deific creature who has escaped from Hell, and had some kind of unnamed conflict with Betty, a person who I consider to be…a friend, roughly, and you are also rather frightening, to be blunt.”

“Well, sure, but besides all of that.”

“And I am sure that Horace would take you in, take care of you, and worry about you incessantly. And he has a cat and a snake already.”

“You assume I even want him,” said Jormungandr, innocently. “I am a being of great power and majesty. I’m sure that I could find any number of humans who would be happy to worship me. To give me the power I’m searching for.”

“And what power is that?”

“Well, I’d hate to give it all away,” said Jormungandr, her expression spread into the smuggest grin I’d ever seen as she leaned back on the hay. “Suffice it to say, it would be in everyone’s interest that I get what I’m looking for. And if your human can do all that…” She giggled softly. “You know, we could double-team him. Snakes versus cat. I wouldn’t mind stealing something of Betty’s, especially if it wasn’t, technically, doing harm.”

“God. All of that do no harm stuff. Who made you promise to do something so… vapid? It doesn’t sound like Betty.”

“A weird guy,” said Jormungandr, frowning, rubbing at her throat. “Kind of… scary. I’d rather not run into him again. He had this weirdly persuasive way of beating people. I challenged him to an arm-wrestling competition.”

“Oh? I had the impression that when it came to contests of strength, you didn’t really ever lose.”

“So did I,” she murmured. “Like I said, scary. But you know, there was another side to what he was asking me to do. Not just to not hurt people. But to help people. Do what I could.”

“Really?” I frowned over at her. “That’s… actually quite interesting.”

“Yeah. But…” She sighed, and shrugged. “I’m not really sure how to help people. That’s the problem, isn’t it? I tried, and I guess I succeeded, there, when it really counted, but it was… scary. Putting my life on the line… And for what? Some stupid oath.” She shivered.

“For what it’s worth,” I said, kicking back, crossing my arms under my head, and letting my eyes slowly close. “The best way to help other people is to grow close to them, and do right by the ones you love. There are worse ways to spend your immortality.”

“Hmm.”

I fell quickly into sleep, my senses remaining attuned for anything that might require sudden attention, my memories beginning to drift before my eyes. Horace’s warm features, his gentle touch on the crown of my head, came unbidden to my memory. The warmth of his embrace, the touch of his Hearth, the glow of his soul warming me.

It was a very happy thought that settled around me like a warm blanket.

 

 

Somewhere in South Carolina

“Hey, honey,” murmured a voice. My eyes snapped open. Jormungandr was giving a distasteful eye to an extremely rough looking man who had leaned against the wall next to her, his clothes rather tattered and dirty. The other man, similarly scroungy and distasteful, crouched low over me. He possessed an unpleasant grin with a gap or two, hinting of abuse of methamphetamines. “Want to have a little fun?”

He grabbed my kimono, and tugged it open. There was a moment’s shocked silence as he and his companion stared, and he growled “Why, you little-” as he drew a switchblade.

A few minutes later, the two of us walked out of the trainyard, into the streets of the city, as I fixed my kimono, frowning at the place where it had been cut. “What unpleasant men,” I murmured. “You didn’t wake me when they got on?”

“I was curious how you would react to them. I’m surprised you didn’t go further. They might wind up hurting someone very badly, in the future.”

“Yes, that is a distinct possibility. But broken knees make it very hard to catch up to people. I’m sure they’ll have a nice, comfortable jail cell, and terrifying nightmarish flashbacks any time they consider harassing young women in the future. Stabbing someone only to find it doesn’t work tends to change a man.” I sighed as we walked along the main drag out of town, holding out a thumb as the two of us walked on the shoulder.

It was perhaps midday. We had, it appeared, well outpaced the police, and any news of our crime. They might well have assumed we simply died in the crash. At any rate, I was not about to worry about that while I still had to find Horace. The forests along to our right and our left were great oaks, coated with kudzu, the green vines twining along them, reaching from their roots up to their boughs. Like snakes, strangling the life out of their hosts. Too many of them for the tree to bear, growing, choking it off from everything, until it collapsed, leaving nothing but the vines, multiplying.

“You’re thinking about a metaphor, aren’t you? I can tell by that look on your face,” said Jormungandr, frowning. “That nonviolence reminds me of him. What happened to the days when people simply killed their enemies?”

“It’s less socially acceptable, nowadays. The widespread nature of information means that murdering someone cannot often be kept secret or covered up as an accident, leading to a greater possibility of feuds and vengeance killings… And also, perhaps, because in the long history of the world, killing has more often created problems than solved them.” I sighed. “I was thinking about Horace. Wondering if he will be okay with so many people gathering around him. Feeding on him. He seems so strong, but…” I frowned.

“So, you’re a guy.”

“Ah?” I tried to catch up with the sudden change of topic. “Yes?”

“You caught me by surprise with that. Certainly, you smell female enough.”

“Something I learned from garter snakes,” I said, somewhat more tartly than I really needed to. “Do you have a problem with it?”

“Heavens, no. My father was a great fan of crossdressing. Why, he once gave birth to one of the finest stallions ever to walk this world as part of a wager. Well, specifically, as part of cheating someone out of a wager.” Jormungandr pouted her lips. “Oh, nobody ever called Sleipnir a monster, did they. Nobody ever prophesied that HE’D have to get his skull cracked open or do something incredibly regrettable at the end of the world.” She huffed, in a manner entirely appropriate to someone commenting on the way a half-sibling was favored by their grandparents. I decided not to remark, as the two of us walked. After a while, she looked up. “So, why do you do that?”

“What?”

“Dress like a girl. My father mostly did it to stay out of trouble, or get out of trouble. Or once, for a wedding.”

“I do it for attention,” I said.

“And you don’t change yourself all the rest of the way?” Jormungandr asked, an eyebrow raised.

“My feelings are complicated and indistinct.”

“Do you know how to?”

“Hah! What a ridiculous question!”

“It’s alright if you don’t.”

“How hard can it be?!”

“Ah, so you’ve never actually tried. Are you nervous?”

I crossed my arms, frowning down at the ground. “It is a… serious step. I already am a lie, after all. How many lies can this body of mine take? How many ways can I shift?”

“So you’re scared,” said Jormungandr, amused. “You’re worried about what might become of you if you try to change yourself physically. A rather curious issue, considering you already have gone to such lengths to change your mind. On top of that, why not change your body?”

“Because…” I looked down. “I might lose it. Lose hold of who I am. It’s hard, sometimes, you know? To remember what kind of human I’m supposed to be. I don’t want to be just an animal again.” I shook my head, staring down at my feet as we kept walking, now a fair distance out of the town. “It’s scary, changing. And the worst part is, I don’t think it would make him like me any more.”

“Are you sure? Most men are fairly hormonal-”

“He’s had Betty walking around naked for nearly a year.”

“Hmmm. Perhaps he’s a eunuch?”

“I am afraid not,” I said, and sighed. “Simply… hurt. Very badly hurt. It would be nice if I could heal him, the way he heals me.”

“Mmmm,” said Jormungandr. “Well, it’s always easier to solve someone else’s problems than your own, isn’t it?” She sighed, and glared at the road. Then she stepped into the road. There was a screech of tires, and a trucker came to a sudden and shocking halt, the massive vehicle’s bumper a mere foot or so from Jormungandr’s face. The trucker opened the door, clearly building up to a tirade, when Jormungandr smiled up at him. “I noticed your Ass, Cash, or Grass sign,” she said, fluttering her eyelashes. “We don’t have any Grass, but perhaps this will do?”

She held up a small packet of cocaine. The trucker’s tirade died in his throat as his eyes glittered with avarice. He looked from side to side, then nodded his head at the truck’s other door. “Get in. Where you headed?”

“New York,” said Jormungandr.

“I can take you to Charlottesville, but then I’m headed West,” said the man.

“That will do,” I said, as I carefully climbed into the cab, soon becoming sandwiched between the man and Jormungandr.

“So, you two goin’ to one of them big anime conventions?” The man asked, his drawl lazy and pronounced as he started the truck, shifting it back into gear, and set off down the road, his eyes on the road ahead. “Been to a few of those in my times. Real nice kemonomimi look you’ve got going on there,” he said, nodding to Jormungandr. “Never been much for the whole catgirl thing myself, but I can appreciate it when it’s done well.” He then peered down at me. “You cosplayin’ as someone?”

“Snow Princess Hebi-chan,” I said, and the man nodded.

“Couldn’t spring for the scales, huh?”

 

 

Somewhere in North Carolina

“Well,” said Joel, “I can see how that’d be difficult. Transition ain’t an easy thing. Met this girl- used to be- well, you know. She was worried about the procedure. Hell of a thing, but medical science manages some amazing stuff nowadays.” He leaned back in the seat as I nodded, considering his words. “Anyway, you like this fella?”

“It’s not really that simple, Joel,” I said. “I care for him. Deeply. But he is…” I sighed. “I feel obligated to him.”

“Well, do you stay with him because you have to, or because you like him?”

I smiled to myself. “The latter.”

“Well, there you go. I’ve always said, wanting that which you cannot have is the surest route to suffering. Either make him respond to you, or find happiness in another place. Plenty of fish in the sea! And as for you,” he said, nodding his head to Jormungandr, “I think you’ve got plenty to find in the world. Getting back in touch with your family sounds like a damn good idea. No matter how much bad blood there might be between you and your foster-uncle, kin is kin, and you just gotta remind him of that.”

“Thank you, Joel,” said Jormungandr, nodding politely as the two of us stepped out of the cab, into the parking lot of the airport. The two of us took a seat, and Jormungandr chuckled as she leaned back, tail flicking, her eyes running across the gravel as the truck crunched back towards the interstate. “Interesting man. A bit full of shit, though.”

“He meant well,” I said. “He didn’t have the whole story; it would hardly be fair of us to expect perfect advice.” I paused for a moment, and looked at Jormungandr. “I know your story.”

“You know the human’s story,” she said, chidingly, but not unkindly. She smiled. “It catches the salient points, yes. Twice, I have crossed paths with Thor. Twice, our conflict was cut off before it would grow any greater. I am fated to face him on the day of Ragnarok, kill him, and die at the same time.”

“Why?”

“I don’t even know! I don’t have any interest in fighting the madman, I don’t have any interest in poisoning the sky! And… I really, really don’t want to die. That’s why I allowed myself to be captured.”

“Allowed?” I asked, an eyebrow raised.

“Even the Archangel Michael would be sore-pressed to place me in hell against my will. I can be very hard to move. I went along with it, out of… well, any number of reasons. But then they wanted me to help end the world.” She frowned, staring at her feet. “I can’t understand it, though.”

“You know, I’m beginning to feel rather like you’re just using me as a sounding board, here.”

“When that man asked me to stop the meteor… He didn’t hold a grudge against me when I told him no. He just stood there, and faced it.” She looked up, staring at the sky. “It could have killed me. I think it even was supposed to kill me.”

“You’re not even listening to me, are you.”

“So why did I do it…?” She paused, and then frowned, turning to give me a baleful glance. “This is serious!”

“You had someone touch you. The meteor would have meant the death of someone who believed in you, who thought you could be better. You wanted to be that kind of person, because of the way he’d treated you.”

She glowered. “I think it was mind control.”

“The two are often difficult to tell apart.” I sighed, leaning back against the bench as I stared at the planes arrayed on the runways.

“Tell me… You were working with those strange military people. Yes?”

“The United States Esoteric Forces.”

“So. Why didn’t you ask them for a ride?”

I was silent for a moment, and frowned down at my feet. “I have not told anyone about this. But I do not truly trust them. When I worked with my second and third masters, we worked with a private group, the Order of Set. It was a religious society once, but over time, it became secular, a gradual shifting of its mandate. We were in contact with many other forces that fought against those creatures which hunted in the night, lost gods and other fell beasts. The Order of Saint Michael, the Devil-eaters, the Brilliant Sect. Even many of the circles of wizard colleges, even on rare occasion one of the courts of the Fairies, the Undead, the Demons.”

“And?”

“And I never heard anything about them. They are either very new and untested, older and so secretive that they never contacted any private group, or…”

“Or, perhaps, they were not fighting monsters,” said Jormungandr,  an eyebrow raised. “That is quite the accusation.”

“Yes. Which is why it remains merely a thought in my head, rather than something I’ve shouted at anyone.” I stared at the planes. “So I am not certain I wish to make a deal with them. I am, in fact, not even sure that this is not the result of some ruse of theirs. That they have baited some kind of hook. They dangled quite a piece of bait in front of Betty, all the while insisting that Horace could not join her. I do not know the specifics. Only enough to be… deeply suspicious.”

“Enough that you don’t want to take up their possible offers of a ride. Well, I can understand that.” She smiled, and stood up. “How are we going to get there in any kind of proper time?”

I slowly eyed the airfield. “I have an idea.”

“Oh.” She eyed the plane, and then looked back at me. “I had the impression it was difficult to fly one of those things.”

“I have absolute faith in my abilities,” I said, and smiled pleasantly. “We can do this. Look, that plane’s just finished refueling.”

I transitioned smoothly into movement, running forward across the parking lot. One good leap took me over the fence, and I heard Jormungandr running after.

I should perhaps be clear that at this point, it was less innate distrust of the serpent, and more the fact that I was interested in seeing how hard I could push her before she would stop trying to keep up. Not a test of her physical abilities, because I knew those far exceed my own. Rather, a test of her resolve.

Apparently, she really wanted to meet Horace. She was keeping pace with me as I raced across the tarmac, sandals slapping the ground and my soles with each step. The pilot looked up, his head tilted curiously. A smile spread across his face at our approach, then gradually shifted to confusion, then shock. Anger or belligerence would have followed, but my arm went around his neck, locking in tight in a sleeper hold. I counted out the seconds, keeping it just tight enough to knock out without doing permanent damage, and released him a few seconds after he went limp, on his back. I gave a brief look into the cockpit. The number of gauges and dials within were intimidating, and their purposes were only loosely hinted at by the signs on the instrumentation. I had used Microsoft Flight Simulator once, at Randall’s insistence. I was pretty sure I could figure it out, though.

“You aren’t in a very subtle mood, are you?”

“I’m quite good at subtle and quiet when the situation calls for it. Our current situation calls for as swift a trip as we can manage.”

“I am beginning to think you are not considering issues with a very clear mind, here, Li Xue Zi.”

“I will confess this is true. Are you going to get into the damn cockpit or not?”

It was tight in there with the two of us, and there was the kind of tension in the cockpit that can only be created by two extremely territorial predators finding themselves much too close together. There was a siren somewhere, and furious comments from an air traffic controller. I flicked off the radio as I tried the key in one place, then another. The third time, it slid in, and turned, the engine coughing into action. I grabbed a likely lever, pulled, and was rewarded with a rumble as the brakes disengaged. Another lever, and the engine revved up. I grabbed the control stick, and remembering my twelve minutes of training, gradually pulled up as the plane accelerated, gradually rising into the air, but not so hard that we stalled out. The plane shimmied and shook somewhat alarmingly as we raised into the air, but soon, I had it flying. The ground dropped down beneath us, the bright green of the countryside spreading out below us.

I did not fly often. I had never, in fact, flown a real plane before. Suspended now, it was a strange feeling, but liberating. In this thing, I could go wherever I wanted. Be wherever I wanted. Do what made me happy.

I checked the compass, adjusted towards a northerly course, towards Horace, and increased the throttle.

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