Pretty fuzzy cow
So cute, so warm and vicious!
Squee! Can I kill him?
THE EMPEROR’S road sign was easy enough to spot:
NEXT FIVE MILES SPONSORED BY:
Commodus and his colleagues may have been power-hungry murderers bent on world domination, but at least they cared about cleaning up litter.
Along the roadside ran a barbed-wire fence. Beyond this lay more nondescript countryside—a few stands of trees and shrubs, but mostly rolling meadows. In the predawn light, dew exhaled a blanket of vapor over the grass. In the distance, behind a clump of hackberry bushes, two large animals stood grazing. I couldn’t make out their exact forms. They looked like cows. I doubted they were cows. I spotted no other guardians, killable or otherwise, which did not reassure me in the slightest.
“Well,” I told Meg. “Shall we?”
We shouldered our supplies and left the Mercedes.
Meg removed her jacket and laid it across the barbed wire. Despite the arrow’s instructions to jumpest, we only managed a wobbly giant steppeth. I held down the top wire for Meg, then she failed to do the same for me. This left me with some awkward rips in the seat of my jeans.
We sneaked across the field in the direction of the two grazing beasts.
I was sweating an unreasonable amount. The cold morning air condensed on my skin, making me feel as if I were bathing in a cold soup—Apollo gazpacho. (Hmm, that sounded rather good. I will have to trademark it once I become a god again.)
We crouched behind the hackberries, only twenty or thirty feet from the animals. Dawn tinged the horizon with red.
I didn’t know how short our time window would be to enter the cavern. When the spirit of Trophonius said “first light,” did he mean nautical twilight? Dawn? The moment when the sun chariot’s headlights were first visible, or when the chariot was high enough in the sky that you could actually read my bumper stickers? Whatever the case, we had to hurry.
Meg adjusted her glasses. She started to edge sideways for an unobstructed view around the bushes when one of the creatures lifted its head just enough for me to glimpse its horns.
I stifled a scream. I grabbed Meg’s wrist and pulled her back into the cover of the hackberries.
Normally, that might have provoked a bite from her, but I was willing to risk it. It was a little too early in the morning to watch my young friend get killed.
“Stay very still,” I whispered. “Those are yales.”
She blinked one eye, then the other, as if my warning was slowly making its way from her left brain to her right. “Yales? Isn’t that a university?”
“Yes,” I murmured. “And one of Yale University’s symbols is the yale, but that’s not important. These monsters…” I swallowed down the aluminum taste of fear. “The Romans knew them as centicores. They are absolutely deadly. They’re also attracted to sudden movements and loud noises. So shh.”
In fact, even as a god, I had never been this close to yales before. They were fierce, proud animals, highly territorial and aggressive. I remembered catching a glimpse of them in my vision of Commodus’s throne room, but the beasts were so rare I’d half convinced myself they were some other manner of monster. Also, I could not imagine that even Commodus would be crazy enough to keep yales in such proximity to humans.
They looked more like giant yaks than cows. Shaggy brown fur with yellow spots covered their bodies, while the fur on their heads was solid yellow. Horselike manes trailed down their necks. Their fluffy tails were as long as my arm, and their large amber eyes…Oh, dear. The way I’m describing them, they sound almost cute. Let me assure you, they were not.
The yales’ most prominent features were their horns—two glistening white spears of ridged bone, absurdly long for the creature’s head. I had seen those horns in action before. Eons ago, during Dionysus’s eastern campaign, the wine god had unleashed a herd of yales into the ranks of an Indian army five thousand strong. I remembered the screams of those warriors.
“What do we do?” Meg whispered. “Kill them? They’re kind of pretty.”
“The Spartan warriors were kind of pretty, too, until they skewered you. No, we can’t kill yales.”
“Okay, good.” A long pause, then Meg’s natural rebellious streak kicked in. “Why not? Is their fur invulnerable to my swords? I hate that.”
“No, Meg, I don’t think so. The reason we can’t kill these creatures is that yales are on the endangered-monster list.”
“You’re making that up.”
“Why would I make up such a thing?” I had to remind myself to keep my voice down. “Artemis is very careful about monitoring the situation. When monsters start to fade from mortals’ collective memory, they regenerate less and less often from Tartarus. We have to let them breed and repopulate!”
Meg looked dubious. “Uh-huh.”
“Oh, come on. Surely you heard about that proposed temple of Poseidon in Sicily? It had to be relocated simply because the land was found to be the nesting area of a red-bellied hydra.”
Meg’s blank stare suggested she hadn’t heard about that, even though it had been headline news just a few thousand years ago.
“At any rate,” I persisted, “yales are much rarer than red-bellied hydras. I don’t know where Commodus found these, but if we killed them, all the gods would curse us, starting with my sister.”
Meg gazed again at the shaggy animals grazing peacefully in the meadow. “Aren’t you already cursed by the River Styx or whatever?”
“That’s not the point.”
“Then what do we do?”
The wind shifted. Suddenly, I remembered another detail about yales. They had an excellent sense of smell.
The pair simultaneously lifted their heads and turned their lovely amber eyes in our direction. The bull yale bellowed—a sound like a foghorn gargling mouthwash. Then both monsters charged.
I remembered more interesting facts about yales. (Had I not been about to die, I could have narrated a documentary.) For such large animals, their speed was impressive.
And those horns! As yales attacked, their horns swiveled like insect antennae—or, perhaps more accurately, the lances of medieval knights, who had been so fond of putting these creatures on their heraldic shields. The horns also spun, their sharp ridges corkscrewing, all the better to pierce our bodies.
I wished I could take a video of these majestic animals. I would’ve gotten millions of likes on GodTube! But if you have ever been charged by two woolly spotted yaks dual-wielding lances on their heads, you understand that camera work in such circumstances is difficult.
Meg tackled me, pushing me out of the yales’ path as they rushed through the hackberries. The bull’s left horn grazed my calf, slicing through my jeans. (My jeans were having a bad day.)
“Trees!” Meg yelled.
She grabbed my hand and pulled me toward the nearest stand of oaks. Fortunately, the yales were not as fast turning as they were charging. They galloped in a wide arc as Meg and I took cover.
“They’re not so pretty now,” Meg noted. “You sure we can’t kill them?”
“No!” I ran through my limited repertoire of skills. I could sing and play the ukulele, but yales were notoriously tone-deaf. My bow and arrow would do me no good. I could try to simply wound the animals, but with my luck, I’d end up accidentally killing them. I was fresh out of ammonia syringes, brick walls, elephants, and bursts of godly strength. That left only my natural charisma, which I didn’t think the yales would appreciate.