For blood and breath.
When Gabi finally crawled into my eye I was feeling rather happy and relieved, because even after everything I did not quite trust Pascha. He spoke to her so unpleasantly and it seemed as though he did not care if breaking her curse would hurt her. And to be honest I had also worried that she would never trust me so much again after what had happened with the other golem. So with her safely inside I felt good.
I was thinking about the black toad, and wondering what it would look like if Gabi became a toad- she would be a red toad, for certain. Would she change into one if I asked? Because then there would be a red toad and a black toad and if we found a white toad, they would match the horsemen.
I thought this was sort of funny and was going to try to share it with Pascha, who was scraping his feet impatiently against the slick leaves, when I heard Gabi scream inside me.
My insides felt like they had erupted. I had never felt anything like that before. I put my hands on my belly in shock and felt something squirming, thrashing- was it Gabi? What-
And then she burst out of my eye, flapping and shrieking.
“Gabi?” I called, and then a spray of warm blood hit me across the face as she flapped and wobbled her way through the air. And away. And out of sight! I could not see her anymore!
I stumbled forward, squashing through the mud and the last of the draining flood, but Pascha jumped in front of me.
“What was that?” he shouted, right in my face.
“She is hurt!” I replied, at the same volume, and shoved him aside. “I do not know how!”
“But what hurt her?” he said, even though he was staggering from my shove. I was moving again, shouldering over a weakly-rooted tree that was in my path, and he jogged to catch up. “Is there something inside you that could…?”
I stopped abruptly, and he overshot me and had to turn around and jog back. I had not thought that far. Maybe Gabi had hurt herself on my stone knife.
I reached inside my belly to feel for it- I would throw it away, for ever and ever!- but then withdrew my hand very quickly.
“What’s the matter now?” asked Pascha.
“I do not know,” I said. I was suddenly feeling very troubled, because I had felt something in there. It had not been there before and I did not know what it was.
Pascha squatted down to peer at my belly, and slowly I reached back down and gently pulled the clay apart with both hands.
“Ah!” cried Pascha, falling backwards into the mud.
I looked down to where my belly curved outwards and saw something white. A sick feeling passed over me and I pulled the hole larger, widening it further up on my chest.
“I didn’t know that golems had ribs,” said Pascha, staring.
“We do not have ribs,” I said, but I understood his confusion, because when I looked down it almost did seem like the white lines cris-crossing through my chest were bones. But they were not, I did not have bones, and I thought I might know what these sweet-smelling things were.
Pascha reached his hand out but I grabbed his wrist.
“Do not touch it,” I said. “I think it will hurt you.”
Pascha’s nostrils flared, but he nodded, and I let go of his wrist.
“It’s not really ribs,” he said, tilting his head to one side. “Isn’t it more of a… kind of a bent tree?”
“Yes,” I said. “I think that it belongs to Mother- Mother Forest. I think that she put it inside me when she caught me. I think that she did it to hurt Gabi.”
“Eh? She caught you?”
I did not say anything, only reached inside the hole and grabbed one of the branches. As soon as I tugged I felt something odd- some shifting down below. It seemed to have dug its roots into my clay. I tugged harder, remembering the vines that had been wrapped around my chest when I woke up.
“Are you sure that’s a good idea?” said Pascha, crab-walking back a few steps. His nostrils were still flaring- my struggles were only releasing more of the sweet smell. “How on earth could a tree hurt her, anyway?”
“I think that it is the same thing that poisoned Zakhar,” I said, which made him shut his mouth and raise his eyebrows. I thought to myself that it smelled a lot like the white grove, where I had once led a man and a woman carrying a basket full of something rotten.
I gave the branch another vicious tug and it snapped. I dropped it onto the ground and stamped on it and then reached for another. The roots were strong, but I should have been much stronger- should have been. There was a strange weakness in my arms. Oh, and I was beginning to feel a strange fear. How deep had the roots gone? It seemed almost as though the tree itself did not want me to pull it out. Was it rooted in my limbs? Was I really under my own control? And Gabi…
Almost as though he read my thoughts, Pascha looked over his shoulder and remarked, “I hope the strigoi didn’t fly too far in this rain. We’ll have a beast of a time catching up to her again.”
I felt that like a brand. I had invited her inside to be safe and she had gotten hurt- so hurt- and if she saw me again, I might have really done it this time, she might turn from me forever. And how badly was she hurt? Could she even find more blood without me? And this tree, this tree, it would not come out!
I tugged and tugged and one of my legs suddenly collapsed down on itself. I fell forward face-first into the mud.
“Oi!” I heard Pascha shout, but it felt far away. The rain drummed loudly against my back, and I felt the wet clay of my body slowly collapsing against the weight of the water. If I lay there still enough I might meld straight into the mud.
I was earth, after all. Earth did not move by itself.
Maybe that was why I had gotten into so much trouble. I tried to move, but it was like the roots of the tree were twining through every part of my body.
Golem! Oh, all right- Kezia!
“What?” I said out loud, voice groggy. My mouth was pressed into the mud, but this did not stop me from speaking.
“I said get up!” cried Pascha, who had apparently been slapping the back of my head. “You’re melting!”
“Not you,” I said.
He’s right, you must get up. Find Gabi.
“She hates me,” I said, or more groaned.
Don’t be stupid. She adores you. Stop feeling sorry for yourself, or else you’ll lose her.
“I do not feel that way,” I said.
“Who are you talking to?!” Pascha said, tugging on big handfuls of his own hair. “I can barely hear you!”
“I do not feel sorry for myself,” I continued, “it is just that this tree has roots that are making it impossible for me to move.”
No, that is not true. I mean, I do think that it has roots everywhere, but they’re already coming out. The rain is helping. It should be easier. You just have to pull yourself together. Somewhat literally.
I considered this. It was true that my back was beginning to collapse into my stomach, and if the two areas touched on the inside I would probably have a hard time getting them unstuck. I tried to remember my shape, and with a kind of push, straightened my back.
Don’t stiffen up too much. Just sit up and pull it out quick as you can.
“Do not tell me what to do,” I said, and with a very great effort pulled my front half up out of the mud. My chest was plastered with leaves and the hole had fused shut again. I slowly raised one dripping arm and pushed it into my stomach.
Pascha, who had been squatting in front of me and biting his nails, raised his eyebrows at the motion but did not say anything. I think he probably thought that I was beyond reason by then. That was all right; it felt like I had to concentrate.
I had not given much thought before then about moving my body in any way aside from the way I thought I was supposed to: walking and standing up and grasping with my hands. And then blinking, because I saw Gabi blink. But I had no bones and I could open up my stomach. That was different from living things, or things that had once lived. My clay flesh could be molded by hand. If I could move my arms and legs, why not my skin itself?
It was not as easy as thinking it. I pulled my hand out of my stomach, and with great effort, opened my stomach by itself.
In the thinning rain, I heard Pascha swallow.
The inside of my skin felt like it was slowly roiling, but that was what I wanted. I could now feel, in a dull way, the places where the tree had laid its roots, spreading them out through the narrow layer of clay that formed my shell. The roots were much larger than the branches, and many of them were so fine… I felt weak. No wonder my leg had collapsed when I tried to pull them out. They were so densely woven throughout my lower body that I was beginning to be nothing more than clay spread over a white latticework of roots.
That’s a bit worse than I thought. I could hear something like nervousness coming from the voice in my head now. But all right- you can at least get most of it out.
“I will fall apart,” I said. “I…”
Mother had done this to me. It had to have been her. Why?
You really do know why. She’s not your mother, you know. Something like you can’t have a mother.
Perhaps the voice felt my rush of anger at this, for it hastily continued.
That doesn’t have to be a bad thing! It means you’re not bound to her, or anything. I don’t think she believes that you are her child. I saw her plant that tree in you, you know. She did something- shut you off, somehow, I don’t know. It was frightening. You still moved, but there was nothing- anyhow, she put a seedling inside your stomach and then sealed you back up. It was a trap all along.
“I know,” I said, feeling heavy with water. “I know.”
Get that tree out of yourself. Then go find Gabi.
“Why are you helping me?”
I felt a kind of wavery nervousness in the back of my mind. Because if you get destroyed, I think that I do, too. And I’d rather be around Gabi than that witch.
I said nothing to this, and the voice snapped, Don’t be jealous. Hurry up, now.
“I am not,” I muttered, but widened the hole in my stomach slightly so that I could fit my arm inside. I curled my fingers around the base of the little tree.
All those fine roots, woven everywhere through the clay. Well, perhaps I could not control myself to the extent where I could pluck each and every little bit out. But at least I could remove the bulk of the tree. I might be able to use the water weighing me down to my advantage.
What are you going to do?
I let myself squash down, the clay sinking and dripping and sliming. Distantly I could hear Pascha whinny as clay dripped down over my eye holes. I felt those innumerable small roots get displaced and disordered as the clay mashed down on them. Then I gripped tightly and ripped.
Out came the tree, with its branches all bent and curled from growing tight inside my belly, and after it came the roots- roots and roots and roots and roots, more and more, finer and finer, tinier and tinier, till they reached three times the length of the tree itself, and then more, and then more. I pulled them out hand over hand, letting the rest drop on the ground, and it almost looked like I was pulling hair out of my stomach- shining white hair that glowed a little in the reflection from Pascha’s light.
Finally the roots ended, and I let them trail and flutter to the ground, little fine wisps of white.
I began wearily pulling my clay back up, for in the process of squashing it down my legs had gotten enormously thick and my head eggshell-thin. I think it was the first time I really, truly did feel weary. Not a physical weariness, but a mental exhaustion. I had just used more effort than I ever had before.
Pascha took a step closer, and I noticed that he was a horse again. He dipped his head down, his long, wet mane sticking to his neck, and snuffed cautiously near the silvered pile of roots, flaring his nostrils.
The pile twitched.
Pascha whinnied and half-reared. “What is it?” he cried. “This is no tree!”
I took the roots and pulled the mass of them to one side so that I could see the branches again. They were really moving, albeit very slowly, and as I stared they stopped altogether.
Pascha pulled his head sideways to look at them with one eye, then stepped forward again and put his nose down. At once the branches started to move again, wavering in slow circles like little blind snakes.
Pascha shifted his feet and twitched his tail, but his eyes stayed fixed on the tree, almost like he was mesmerized. He stretched his neck out to get closer.
“Do not, Pascha,” I warned him, and he jerked back like he had been bitten.
“Something draws them,” he said, voice low. “Breath, or the smell of blood… It is some kind of predatory plant, like a sundew.”
“It does not have any leaves,” I pointed out, as the branches stopped their slow whirling. All of them were naked and bare, growing ever more slender at the tips, and they seemed to be covered in a very light fuzz.
“I suppose it isn’t bothered by a lack of sunlight, either, growing in your belly,” snorted Pascha. “And would you mind telling me just who you were talking to? You haven’t got any more bat-strigoi tucked in there, have you?”
“No,” I said. “Only a ghost that speaks to me sometimes.”
“Oh,” said Pascha, in a very exaggerated way. I ignored him, feeling around in my mind for that strange voice. I was inclined to be less angry at it now that it had helped me, and that it had not taken my voice a second time. I wanted to thank it, but it seemed to be gone again, or hiding.
“Oi, Kezia, how about we find Gabi, then? D’you know where she might have gone?”
“No,” I said, and I felt guilty. We had wasted a lot of time because of me, and Gabi could be anywhere… “Can you change into a dog and smell for her?”
“Excuse me? Sorry? Change into what?”
“A dog,” I said, patiently. “Gabi told me you could change your shape like she can. Zakhar was a…” I paused, unable to think of a word that would sufficiently describe what Zakhar had been.
“You misunderstand, I think,” said Pascha, stamping one hoof down on the leaves. “I might be able to tease my form a bit, but I can’t really change my senses. I’m not really transforming. It’s just sort of a different way of- er- expanding.”
“It is different from how Gabi changes herself?”
“I am told, though I am not utterly certain I believe, that a strigoi can only change into animals she has taken blood from before.”
“Oh,” I said, thoughtfully. “So she cannot change into whatever she wants to.”
“Who knows! I don’t think that is entirely correct. But we need to find her-” Pascha stopped talking, and both his ears suddenly pricked up. Something was coming shambling out of the trees towards us very quickly.
“I’ve heard enough,” said a voice I recognized. It was the gray and green figure of Muma Balaur, her pipe smoking and clenched between her teeth. Beside her hopped the black toad.
I think that both Pascha and I were so startled just then that we hardly moved. Muma Balaur’s green dress was ripped and singed, and there were numerous dark little marks peppered over her arm and shoulder on one side, but otherwise she did not look as though she had been harmed by her struggle with the dragon. She blew straight past us and glared down at the ground; I followed her gaze and realized that she was glaring at the white tree.
“You-” began Pascha, but Muma Balaur took her pipe out of her mouth and pressed one nostril shut with her finger so she could blow a thin stream of fire out of the other. It ignited the white tree and the entire thing fizzled wildly and burned away in an instant.
“Faugh!” said Muma Balaur, and stuck her pipe back in her mouth with a satisfied click of teeth.
Pascha and I both said nothing for a moment, just stood there watching the witch calmly smoke. With every inhale her gray face flushed with a pallor that was almost lifelike, though it drained away when she exhaled plumes of smoke from the corners of her lips.
Presently Pascha said, “Madam, we are so relieved to see that you escaped from the dragon unharmed.”
Muma Balaur removed the pipe from her mouth and chuckled. “Escaped? I beat his scaly hide and sent him to sulk back underground. He’s lucky I didn’t kill him this time.”
“Ah,” said Pascha, his tail flicking up against his flanks.
The black toad, which had been squatting in front of Muma Balaur’s muddy grey toes, croaked and hopped slowly in my direction. I leaned down and picked it up, and it sat on my broad palm quite calmly. Muma Balaur’s gaze had shifted to me.
“I do not think that you should treat the dragon like that,” I said, feeling a little bolder. “I do not blame it for attacking you. If you were kinder to it, you would have got your way.”
“Am I being scolded for my moral conduct by a golem?” wondered Muma Balaur, wisps of smoke escaping from between her teeth as she spoke. “Well, you are right. Perhaps I would have got my way if I were kinder to the dragon. If I pretended to care for it, even though it is my unwilling servant, and coddled it and loved it and tried to twist its mind into thinking it enjoyed obeying me, I would have got my way, all right. But I tend not to be the subtle type. I won’t pretend a slave is not a slave.” Her golden eyes seemed to get piercing just then, and I found I had to turn my head away, feeling a profound discomfort.
“I prefer honesty myself,” said Pascha, in a wry way. “Though the golem has a point; maybe manufactured kindness is better than none at all.”
“I shall certainly think on it,” said Muma Balaur, in a manner that suggested she would do no such thing. “But the treatment of my servant is, I think, not what our main topic of discussion should be.” She pointed the stem of her pipe towards the pile of ash that had once been the white tree.
“Oh, yes,” I said, finding this to be a surprisingly more relaxing topic. “Do you know what that was?”
“I am surprised that you don’t,” said Muma Balaur, pausing to take another puff. “But then again, I suppose I shouldn’t be. Why should she tell you any of her secrets?”
“Do you know what it is?” asked Pascha. “It seems to have done a Hora on our poor strigoi.”
“I don’t know exactly,” said Muma Balaur, turning some of the ashes with her toe. “But I know that Mother Forest controls it. She has a bit of an affinity with plants, as you may have noticed. I have seen little seedlings like that one snatching mice and flies near my border, though I always set them to the blaze. Different values, she and I. I am not a conqueror; I like my little valley and I have never tried to expand, but Mother Forest is a greedy one. I have had to do my best to make this land unpalatable for her purposes, though now that cursed dragon has ruined it.” She spat down into the mud.
“You mean when he broke the dam?” I said. “Were you trying to kill the trees by not giving them water?”
“Weaken them enough so that she couldn’t plant any of her festering brood here,” said Muma Balaur. “I saw what she did to a village once, and I shan’t take any chances with her. I’ll have to get this land dry and infertile again quick before she takes notice. And as for you-” She pointed at me with the stem of her pipe. “I feel sufficiently convinced that you aren’t currently her servant, so I shall let you pass through my forest. But you’d better watch your step, golem.”
“I do not think you can do much if I do not,” I replied, which made Pascha grunt and twitch his flanks. “Not without the dragon. And I am not sure he could have really hurt me either.”
Muma Balaur took a long draw on her pipe while she favored me with an appraising look.
“You are wrong. I could destroy you; only it would take far too much effort when I must busy myself drying out this forest. Though I think I shall save some of the water so that when the dragon recovers his temper he can use it to call on lightning again. That was quite useful.” She shot a rather unpleasant smile in Pascha’s direction, and he turned both his ears back.
“Don’t forget about our Baba,” he said.
“I hardly could.”
The toad, which had been sitting in my hand all the while, gave a little croak.
“Quiet, you,” said Muma Balaur, wrinkling her nose. “Golem, put her down. She gives herself airs if raised to that height.”
I put the toad down, and it hopped back over to Muma Balaur’s feet.
“Muma,” I said, “do you know where Ga- where the strigoi went? Since this is your forest.”
“She left it,” said Muma Balaur, and then grinned and knocked her pipe against a wet tree. “She fled my forest in the direction of Mother Forest’s territory. How unfortunate for her.”
“Mother-!” I stopped myself, feeling a kind of choked terror rise up from my belly. Back there! How could Gabi have gone back there? How could I go back there to find her?!
“Are you sure?” Pascha burst out, sounding nearly as dismayed as I felt. “Oh, thrush! I swore I’d never cross that border. That stupid strigoi!”
“She is not stupid, just frightened,” I said. “I do not think she could have gone very far. She was injured.”
“All the more reason for Mother Forest to catch her faster,” said Muma Balaur, her eyes twinkling. “I must confess, I haven’t seen her take an interest in anything unless it’s in her way. I am curious to see what she will do to the strigoi.”
I wished that Muma Balaur would stop talking. I looked over at Pascha to see him shifting on his hooves again.
“Oh, curse it,” he burst out. “I was hoping you were lying, but that is the direction she went in. Kezia, we shall have to go and fetch her if we want to break that curse.”
“We shall have to go and fetch her if we want to save her life,” I corrected him. “Or whatever she has in place of life now. But you should stay here, Pascha. I know that Mother Forest already has another golem and I do not want you to get hurt.”
“No, I will go with you; I might be able to help find her faster,” said Pascha, very nobly, but he was also giving Muma Balaur the whale-eye. I did not blame him; I would not have wanted to stay alone with her either. Anyway, the thought of his company cheered me a little.
“Thank you for the advice, Muma Balaur. And thank you as well.” I nodded down to the toad, which looked up at me and croaked.
“It seems the pot is going to be stirred soon,” said Muma Balaur, gazing up at my face. “I hope you manage to keep your free will, else I shall shatter you into a thousand pieces the next time I meet you.”
“All right,” I said. “Goodbye then.”
I do not think I ever actually lost consciousness, just a certain willingness to comprehend the situation I was in. For example, I was working very hard not to notice that I was in something’s mouth.
Hot? Yes. Unpleasantly moist? Yes, yes. Scimitars digging into my chest and shoulders? Probably the hardest thing to ignore, though in all fairness I was very painful all over, not just those particular spots. But those things didn’t necessarily have to mean I was a hair’s breadth away from vanishing down some beast’s gullet.
I opened my eyes slowly and only saw a blur. Well, I was moving, though not by my own will. And I was also still a bat. I had almost forgotten about that.
The blur was actually my own wing, bent awkwardly in front of my head. It was broken; I could see a white little splinter of bone sticking out. When I tried to move the wing it waggled like a seal’s flipper.
No flying, then. Not that I would be going anywhere by any means of locomotion. My captor was carrying me at a brisk trot, his jaws tight around the main part of my sore little body. Curse it, I knew who it was, and I didn’t even need the scent of flowers to remind me.
I did not remember coming back into Mother Forest’s territory, but then again I had been in quite a panic at the time. One does not expect to be attacked by… something… when one is inside their golem. Even wet, my fur prickled at the memory, and I licked my nose.
Ideally, I had to get out of this situation fast. But I was very sore and tired, and I had lost blood, and my ears were ringing just a little bit, and a pleasant fuzz of calm was drifting over my senses. Sustained panic, I think, will do that to a person. I twitched my sad broken flipper again and tried to think straight.
My captor suddenly paused, and then was airborne in a great leap, making me feel queasy. Which was sort of funny- who ever heard of a bat feeling queasy in the air? I gave a delirious little chitter as we soared upwards.
We landed hard, and the shock made his teeth dig harder into my fur; I let out a pathetic little squeak.
“What have you caught for me, Noroc?”
Not a good sign.
Noroc tilted his head downwards, and my wing flopped out of the way. I gazed up and saw cross-beams and thatch; we were in some sort of house. There was a table and a chair and a small fireplace- unlit- and some bundles of dried herbs and other things but most of all a witch.
She looked much the same as she had the last time I’d seen her- when she had been constructing the golem. How long ago that seemed! She was still a fair-faced woman with a modest air about her, dark hair tucked neatly beneath a headscarf. She had her hands gently folded over one knee, and they were the sort of hands that inspired trust: elegant but worn, long but not knobby. Honest hands.
I was almost puzzled by the sight of her, doubting my eyes. Could this really be Mother Forest? It seemed that we had spoken so much of her, spent so much time trying to fathom her thoughts and flee her grasp, that she should have made a much more imposing figure.
But I suppose that is the nature of witches, after all. They are not interested in being what you want them to be.
Noroc’s muffled meows vibrated around all my little bones as he responded to his mistress, and I shuddered, twitching my useless wings. The witch laid something down on the table- I couldn’t even see what it was- and came towards us. I could not stop a little chitter of distress, and tried to shrink even further into the cat’s mouth away from her.
“A bat, is it?” said Mother Forest, leaning down to peer closely at me. I noticed for the first time that she had black eyes; they almost reminded me of the golem’s. “Why have you brought me a bat?”
Noroc mrrowled again, his raspy tongue working painfully against my back. The witch looked up at him.
“Throw it away,” she said. “She won’t be interested in a bat.”
Despite her rather unnerving words, there was something in her derisive tone that made me prick up my ears. Who was this she?
Noroc growled this time; I thought he might have disagreed with something she had said. But she already had her back to him and was walking to the table, to all appearances uncaring. A disagreement between witch and familiar? I noticed her picking up something from the table with one of her long, slender hands. It was a dead rabbit, and she held it up by the ears.
“When you have disposed of that, come back for this. They are hungry of late. We will have to expand again soon, I fear; there is not enough left in this forest to feed them.”
Around me, the cat’s mouth seemed to tremble. The scent of his flower suddenly grew so strong it made me dizzy.
The witch did not turn back around, but she did let out a deep chuckle.
“What can you do?”
Noroc’s growl was even louder, a furious noise, and he whirled to leap back off the windowsill. I squeaked as his teeth dug into me once again as we landed outside.
Noroc spat me out upon the ground. I lay there dazed for a moment on my back, gazing up at the moon, which was shimmering through the clouds. I had not thought much of it before, but the air here was full of a sweet scent, and the skeletal branches that waved around the low-hanging moon were pale and ghostly.
Now would be the time to change back and get away, I thought, and twitched my tattered, broken wings in anticipation. Noroc stayed motionless, staring down at me with his mismatched gaze, and I hesitated.
The witch had seemed strange. Very strange, for someone who had been trying so hard to catch me. Here her familiar had me in his jaws, and it had almost seemed like… it had almost seemed like she did not realize what I was.
As this thought came to me, suddenly the cat moved, in a black, liquid motion. He lunged down on top of me, crushing me beneath one stabbing paw. I shrieked and fluttered. Noroc hissed, his pale whiskers quivering round his dark face.
I was filled with pain, and still crying out with my frail bat’s voice, but I was right, I had to be right, she did not know- He struck me again, and I squalled, spitting and hissing and showing him my tiny teeth. But I did not dare change. He was not just drawing out my torment. He was trying to make me reveal myself.
He battered me ruthlessly, and I sang out, struggling and hissing and shrieking, but never changing, no. His one green eye flashed with what could only be rage, his tail lashed like a horsewhip, and his claws grew clotted with blood, but he could not make me change.
Distantly, through the pain, I heard a clatter; a shutter opening.
“Noroc,” said Mother Forest. “You are making too much noise. I told you to get rid of it.”
Noroc made a furious sound then, a strangled scream, and snatched me, broken and dangling, and dashed towards the trees.
Somehow despite the pain and the weakness and the blood oozing out of me I kept my head, that stolid little bat’s head that had sheltered me. Noroc was running as fast as a cat could go, scrambling over leafless dirt- dirt, yes, despite the naked white trees all around us there were no leaves there- leaping through thick patches of soft toadstools, ducking under draping vines covered in white flowers. The terrible sweet scent was getting stronger. With great effort I twisted my little head around and gauged that we were far out of sight of the witch’s hut. Good.
I finally changed.
Noroc stopped short and gagged, for I had become most unpalatable, and I put my spiked forelegs on his nose and dragged myself upwards. I had become a dark red bush cricket, fat, wingless, and most importantly, equipped with a powerful pair of jaws.
Two of my legs were still broken, my body battered, but I cared not; for I had six legs and a hard carapace and an insect’s insensitivity to pain. I got myself out of the cat’s mouth as he continued to hack and crawled to his eye. Noroc yowled and swiped across his face with a needled paw, trying to scrape me off, but I dug in my sharp little feet and fixed my hungry mandibles around the stem of the flower in his eye socket.
The cat made a high-pitched noise then, as I chewed and chewed, severing the flower and pulping the stem. The flower fell to the ground, and I could feel the cat shaking around me; still I worked my jaws, pulling for the root, the root of that hated flower that was anchored somewhere deep within the cat’s skull.
He finally hit me hard on the side, dislodging my grip. I buzzed my shriveled, useless wings as I fell to the ground, but to no avail. I landed on my back, legs cycling at the air, completely helpless.
I expected to be very quickly squashed, and struggled and buzzed furiously to right myself. A shadow passed overhead, though I could not make much out with my insect’s confused vision. In my fear I returned to the shape of a bat, shuddering as the waves of pain returned. But now I could see.
The cat was staring down at me. One eye was green, one eye was black and empty: there was nothing behind it. The flower was crushed in the dirt.
Noroc took me in his jaws again and began moving swiftly, this time away from the white trees.