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The Witch's Menagerie (Moondust Sonatina)

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My name is Danny Moonlight, friends call me Danny the Cat.

Being an animal on this side of the wall is rough; you never know when you're going to run into a witch and end up being butchered for entrail divination. Or, if there was no immediate need for an extispicy, she might transform you into a different form.

My friends and I used to serve Snowwater Noshiko. She's not that bad as witches go, but we knew we would end up butchered, one way or another. One day, when all four of us had on human forms, we decided to leave and try our luck elsewhere.

Harley pointed out that unlike four wandering animals, humans traveling together would not invite strange looks. For a dog, she sure is smart and plans ahead (don't tell her I say that). In addition to me and Harley, there were Cock Finstock and Greenberg, who was either a donkey or a donkey who was a goat.

We felt bad for leaving our cardinal friend behind; unlike us, she was tethered to Noshiko's wagon with an unbreakable magic thread.

Considering the predicament we landed ourselves in, Claudia is better off where she is. The next witch we met was much, much worse than Snowwater Noshiko.

~ ~

“Did anyone bother bringing along something to eat?” Cock Finstock demanded.

Greenberg reached into his pocket.

“Not you, Greenberg. Nobody asked you,” Finstock said without looking in his direction.

“Well sorry for not packing a picnic,” Harley the Hound retorted. “It's not like a chance for all of us to escape comes along every day.”

Finstock looked around the surrounding dense forest. It was nightfall and the temperature was dropping. “I heard tell a human male can lose a testicle to exposure. Not pretty.”

Harley made a disgusted face. Greenberg looked squeamish at the thought.

“Why don't I climb to the top of a high tree to see if there's a place we can stay?” I hurriedly offered, not wanting Finstock to say more about the topic.

“Good thinking, Danny!” Finstock grinned and thumped my shoulder. “I knew we can count on you!”

I wasted no time climbing to the top. Perching on a tree limb, I looked around in four directions and immediately spotted a clearing.

“There's a clearing not too far away!” I yelled down at my friends. “And I think there's a small cabin there. I can see a light shining.” I got enthusiastic whoops in reply.

I climbed down to the ground carefully, unwilling to test the flexibility and durability of my human form.

“Good job, team!” Cock Finstock exclaimed. “Lead the way, Danny!”

For once, Harley didn't roll her eyes at Finstock's manic energy. “I sure hope you're right. My bones can do with a little meat on them.”

I smiled and bumped her shoulder companionably. When I thought of the miles we've put between ourselves and Snowwater Noshiko, I felt giddy. Things were definitely looking up.

~ ~

Not half an hour later, I cursed my past self for getting prematurely hopeful.

“Well, well, well—what do we have here?”

If my current form had a tail it would've stood up. I tried backing away from the now sinister-looking cabin but my feet seemed stuck to the ground.

“A cat, a dog, a rooster and...hmm, how interesting,” the witch said, lips stretched around a grin.

Harley tried to catch my eye, looking panicked. Greenberg looked equal parts frozen and resigned. Finstock, that crazy cock, brazenly looked at the witch in the eye.

“How fortuitous of you to come here; I happen to be in need—”

I couldn't help a little flinch at that.

“—of people to populate my inn. You animals will do nicely.” Her eyes landed on Greenberg, and her smile turned sharp.

“Not much of an inn, is it?” Finstock blurted. “I can't say I'm impressed with your patch-up job.”

The witch's gaze swung to Finstock. We held our breath. Is she going to start zapping around?

“I like you, rooster. I'll save your entrails for last.”

She cocked her head and regarded the rough cabin walls. “For an inn that will house the fallen moon, it does lack a certain something.”

She flung both arms wide, and the cabin juddered. The entire structure took on a greenish tinge as the walls rapidly warped away from us, and the floor spread in all direction like an oil spill.

There was an unwelcome sensation on my skin, as if someone vigorously brushed my fur in the wrong direction. Everything felt out of joint.

When the witch brought down her arms scarcely a minute later, we were standing in the middle of a two-storey, sumptuous inn.

“I am the Lilim known as Kate,” the witch intoned. “Tonight I am the owner of this inn. You are my husband and you're our son.” She tapped Finstock and Greenberg on the shoulder, transforming their clothes. “You two are the servant girl and the stable boy,” she told Harley and me.

I was glad she didn't deem it necessary to transform our clothes, since I didn't relish feeling her magic right next to my skin.

Perhaps you feel we should spare some sympathy for this fallen moon. Well you're asking the wrong animal. Cats are not concerned with morality. Not to say that we don't care, we're just more pragmatic. Right now the number one priority was to survive our brush with Kate with our skin intact. Helping Kate's future victim was secondary at best.

~ ~

“Welcome, weary traveler,” Kate said, all smiles, to her newly arrived victim. She wanted him for his heart and us for our service and entrails. Given the choice, I'd take a chest wound over a gut wound any day.

“Why don't you come in and rest your head for the night?”

Kate introduced herself (leaving out the witch part) and offered the fallen moon a warm meal and a hot bath. The fallen moon was less talkative than Greenberg, if that was even possible.

Nobody told me that fallen moons go about their business half-naked. I'm an animal, but I have the forethought and self-awareness to clothe my human form properly. Not that I'm complaining about the view. The fallen moon had nice shoulders and an extremely defined torso. And he was riding a pure white unicorn between his powerful thighs. Gods preserve us.

...and he just ignored the unicorn's warning whinnies and entered our inn. May the gods save him from himself, if he'd pay no heed to helpful magical animals.

Harley was set to watch over a cooking pot of “beef” stew, and Finstock and Greenberg went back and forth carrying pails of hot water and pouring them into a roomy brass bathtub.

“The stable boy shall put your horse in the stable.”

I immediately dashed outside to look for the unicorn. Her white flank stood out in the darkness; she was whickering softly at the edge of the clearing. All attempts to entice her into the stable did not move her; the witch's hold over me made me continue my attempts regardless. The unicorn paced restlessly, keeping a cautious distance from the inn.

I could appreciate that she meant to stay nearby for the fallen moon's sake.

So focused was I on my task, I almost missed the young man walking with purpose to the inn's entrance.

“You don't want to do that,” I immediately blurted out. The witch's geas made us unable to warn the fallen moon, but we can warn others, it seems.

He paused, hand poised to knock at the door. “Why not?”

“This inn; it's a magical trap.”

He looked at me curiously. There was something familiar about his honey brown eyes and upturned nose. “A trap. By whom?”

“A witch you should pray you never meet.” I hoped that would be enough. It's bad enough the fallen moon would die tonight; there was no need to involve an innocent passerby.

Gaze turning contemplative, he said, “Thank you for your warning, kind stranger. My name is Stiles; what's yours?”

“Danny Moonlight.”

Stiles smiled. “Well Danny Moonlight, if my guess is correct, this magical trap is meant for my friend Derek. And I cannot just leave him be and do nothing.”

I gave him a half-smile. “I should have known you are also chasing after the fallen moon.”

“Well then.” Stiles pulled himself up to full height. “Wish me luck.” He knocked at the door twice.

Silence.

“Huh.” He pounded at the door in quick succession, but we heard no voices from inside the inn.

“I went out the door just now; maybe I can—?” I tried the door, but it wouldn't open for me either. “Kate knows you're out here,” I said slowly, “and she doesn't wish to be disturbed.”

Stiles' brown eyes widened in alarm. Stepping back, he ran at the door, smashing his shoulder against it to no avail. He stumbled back and tried it again.

“It won't work,” I said, a little helplessly. “The whole building is enchanted.”

Stiles punched the door in frustration. “Well, what about the foundation? If we dig the dirt underneath, we can pry open—”

A loud neigh came from behind us. We stumbled away from the door and narrowly escaped being trampled on. The unicorn charged full tilt at the door, splintering it into dozens of pieces.

Stiles stared after the galloping unicorn. “...that works too.”

~ ~

“Goat-boy, get him!” Kate's voice rang out.

Greenberg crouched down and took position in front of the unicorn. I wasn't sure what one magically transformed donkey/goat/human was supposed to do against a unicorn.

I winced as the unicorn lowered her head and charged at Greenberg. There was a flash of bright light upon impact. To my relief and surprise, instead of goring Greenberg, the unicorn had just tossed him against the wall.

“Greenberg!” Finstock hurriedly ran to Greenberg's side.

“Is he alright?” Harley asked.

Greenberg groaned and opened his eyes blearily.

“Greenberg, how many fingers am I holding?” Finstock asked urgently. “Say two.”

I helped Finstock get Greenberg to a sitting position. “There's no point if you tell him the answer, Cock.”

Greenberg sat against the wall and blinked. “Two?”

“...since when is Greenberg a soprano?”

~ ~

Later, I pieced together that Greenberg was not a goat turned donkey turned human boy, but a girl turned goat turned donkey turned boy. Greenberg and Claudia had already been there when Snowwater Noshiko captured me, so I didn't know his—her—story. I doubt even Greenberg remembered.

Meanwhile, at the opposite end of the inn:

“Come on!” Kate shouted, brandishing a ruby blade. The unicorn had knocked her down, but she was back on her feet. “Come on! Is that your best shot?”

The unicorn tossed her head and charged at the witch.

Stiles and the fallen moon—Derek—stood frozen, watching the fight.

I heard the sound of blade slicing into flesh. The unicorn let out one painful whinny and collapsed, blood seeping over her white coat. I turned my face away. There was nothing I could do for her.

Harley came to stand next to me and gripped my hand.

Where's Greenberg? I mouthed.

She tipped her head to the wrecked doorway, where I assumed Greenberg and Finstock had gone. When the unicorn restored Greenberg's first nature, the witch's geas over Greenberg had also been broken. Finstock had somehow fought Kate's compulsion long enough to leave together with Greenberg.

Harley gripped my hand harder. I could hear squelches of organs being shifted around and resolutely kept my head down.

“I thought unicorn entrails would be more interesting than this.” Kate sounded disappointed. “In the end, you're just a stupid horse.”

Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed Stiles creeping toward the wall. He exploded into motion and grabbed a sword hanging there. For his sake, I hoped that the sword was not just decorative.

Stiles stepped in front of Derek and pointed the sword at Kate.

Kate slowly pulled out bloody hands from the unicorn's gaping stomach. She stood up and gave Stiles a toothy smile.

Stiles' sword arm shook as she walked towards him.

“What are you going to do with that sword, boy?” Kate asked, looking amused. “Didn't anyone ever tell you not to bring swords to a magic fight?”

Stiles swallowed hard and said nothing.

~ ~

Stiles' stupidity must have infected me, because I found myself stepping into the shadows, further away from the entryway.

“Danny, where are you going?” Harley whispered urgently. “We should slip out when she's distracted!”

I held a finger up and gestured at the fallen unicorn.

I heard her softly muttered aw, hell. I didn't look back to see if she came after me.

The unicorn looked nothing like the majestic creature she was earlier this evening. Her pure white flank looked dull and splotched with rusty blood.

A set of knives, screws and other tools were laid meticulously in a row. Near her head was a discarded handsaw. Kate had sawed her horn halfway off before she decided to turn her attention elsewhere.

I could see the unicorn's flank rising and falling ever so slightly. She was dying slowly and painfully.

“I'm sorry, but your horn can free a friend from her magical enslavement,” I said in a hushed voice. I gently ran my human hand down her snout. “I'm sorry.”

Her uncovered eye, feverish with pain, gazed into mine. For those long seconds, I felt as if my soul was measured nine times over. At last, she closed her eye in acquiescence.

Her horn glowed briefly and fell onto the ground with a soft clatter.

“Thank you,” I said reverently, slipping the horn inside my coat.

Harley placed her hand on the unicorn's snout. “Thank you,” she said, “and good bye.”

Long knife in hand, she made a long incision on the unicorn's neck.

“Good bye,” I echoed. Better to have her bleed out in minutes than suffer for hours.

Harley turned toward me. “We need to get out of here now.”

It was not a moment too soon, as black flames started shooting up in a circle. We ran toward the entryway, feeling no tug keeping us there.

~ ~

We ran past the edge of the clearing, back into the forest that we just left half an evening ago. Catching my breath against a tree, I spared a moment's thought for Stiles and Derek. The unicorn's horn felt warm against my skin. Somehow I felt that the two of them were going to be alright.

“So, Greenberg,” Harley said. “Who would've thought.”

I chuckled. “Considering how many transformations that must have been, it's a wonder Greenberg's brain isn't more scrambled.”

“Finstock's with Greenberg. They'll be okay.”

I nodded in agreement.

Looking at the evening sky, I asked her, “Why did you come back?”

Harley huffed, arms folded in front of her chest. “We're friends, aren't we? Plus, I figured you have enough abandonment issues what with that lizard and those wolf twins.”

I rubbed the back of my neck and didn't contradict her. For a cat, I'm pretty needy.

Harley thankfully changed the subject. “That friend in need—were you talking about Claudia?”

I nodded. “We're not the one meant to wield the horn, but we'll keep it safe until the right person comes along.”

Harley frowned. “How would you know who the right person is?”

I shrugged. “The horn will tell me.” Truthfully, I have no idea.

~ ~

We walked until daybreak and rested at the first non-magical inn we saw. Two villages over, we ran into Finstock and Greenberg, who were settled and as happy as you please. During our subsequent travels we heard whispers of Stiles and Derek traveling with the lightning pirates, and of the powerful witch Kate, dead.

And the unicorn horn remained in our safekeeping until the right person came along. To the surprise of absolutely no one, he also happened to be Stiles' father. But that's a story for another day.