There was no room for emotion in a hate crime. I had to be cold. Heartless. This was just another victim. Nothing more. No face, no name.
Frosted blades of grass crunched under my feet, sounding to my ears like the symbolic glass that one would shatter under a napkin at a Jewish wedding. The noise would have threatened to give away my stealthy advance as I stalked through the moonlit field, but I was no novice and had planned accordingly. Being a wizard, I was able to muffle all sensory evidence with a fine cloud of magic—no sounds, and no smells. Nifty. But if I made the spell much stronger, the anomaly would be too obvious to my prey.
I knew the consequences for my dark deed tonight. If caught, jail time or possibly even a gruesome, painful death. But if I succeeded, the look of fear and surprise in my victim’s eyes before his world collapsed around him, it was well worth the risk. I simply couldn’t help myself; I had to take him down.
I knew the cops had been keeping tabs on my car, but I was confident that they hadn’t followed me. I hadn’t seen a tail on my way here but seeing as how they frowned on this kind of thing, I had taken a circuitous route just in case. I was safe. I hoped.
Then my phone chirped at me as I received a text.
I practically jumped out of my skin, hissing instinctively. “Motherf—” I cut off abruptly, remembering the whole stealth aspect of my mission. I was off to a stellar start. I had forgotten to silence the damned phone. Stupid, stupid, stupid!
My heart felt like it was on the verge of exploding inside my chest with such thunderous violence that I briefly envisioned a mystifying Rorschach blood-blot that would have made seasoned homicide detectives and psychologists drool.
My body remained tense as I swept my gaze over the field, fearing that I had been made. Precious seconds ticked by without any change in my surroundings, and my breathing finally began to slow as my pulse returned to normal. Hopefully, my magic had muted the phone and my resulting outburst. I glanced down at the phone to scan the text and then typed back a quick and angry response before I switched the cursed device to vibrate.
Now, where were we?
I continued on, the lining of my coat constricting my breathing. Or maybe it was because I was leaning forward in anticipation. Breathe, I chided myself. He doesn’t know you’re here. All this risk for a book. It had better be worth it.
I’m taller than most, and not abnormally handsome, but I knew how to play the genetic cards I had been dealt. I had shaggy, dirty blonde hair—leaning more towards brown with each passing year—and my frame was thick with well-earned muscle, yet I was still lean. I had once been told that my eyes were like twin emeralds pitted against the golden-brown tufts of my hair—a face like a jewelry box. Of course, that was two bottles of wine into a date, so I could have been a little foggy on her quote. Still, I liked to imagine that was how everyone saw me.
But tonight, all that was masked by magic.
I grinned broadly as the outline of the hairy hulk finally came into view. He was blessedly alone—no nearby sentries to give me away. That was always a risk when performing this ancient rite-of-passage. I tried to keep the grin on my face from dissolving into a maniacal cackle.
My skin danced with energy, both natural and unnatural, as I manipulated the threads of magic floating all around me. My victim stood just ahead, oblivious to the world of hurt that I was about to unleash. Even with his millennia of experience, he didn’t stand a chance. I had done this so many times that the routine of it was my only enemy. I lost count of how many times I had been told not to do it again; those who knew declared it cruel, evil, and sadistic. But what fun wasn’t? Regardless, that wasn’t enough to stop me from doing it again. And again. And again.
It was an addiction.
The pungent smell of manure filled the air, latching onto my nostril hairs. I took another step, trying to calm my racing pulse. A glint of gold reflected in the silver moonlight, but my victim remained motionless, hopefully unaware or all was lost. I wouldn’t make it out alive if he knew I was here. Timing was everything.
I carefully took the last two steps, a lifetime between each, watching the legendary monster’s ears, anxious and terrified that I would catch even so much as a twitch in my direction. Seeing nothing, a fierce grin split my unshaven cheeks. My spell had worked! I raised my palms an inch away from their target, firmly planted my feet, and squared my shoulders. I took one silent, calming breath, and then heaved forward with every ounce of physical strength I could muster. As well as a teensy-weensy boost of magic. Enough to goose him good.
“MOOO!!!” The sound tore through the cool October night like an unstoppable freight train. Thud-splat! The beast collapsed sideways onto the frosted grass; straight into a steaming patty of cow shit, cow dung, or, if you really wanted to church it up, a Meadow Muffin. But to me, shit is, and always will be, shit.
Cow tipping. It doesn’t get any better than that in Missouri.
Especially when you’re tipping the Minotaur. Capital M. I’d tipped plenty of ordinary cows before, but never the legendary variety.
Razor-blade hooves tore at the frozen earth as the beast struggled to stand, his grunts of rage vibrating the air. I raised my arms triumphantly. “Boo-yah! Temple 1, Minotaur 0!” I crowed. Then I very bravely prepared to protect myself. Some people just couldn’t take a joke. Cruel, evil, and sadistic cow tipping may be, but by hell, it was a rush. The legendary beast turned his gaze on me after gaining his feet, eyes ablaze as his body…shifted from his bull disguise into his notorious, well-known bipedal form. He unfolded to his full height on two tree trunk-thick legs, his hooves having magically transformed into heavily booted feet. The thick, gold ring dangling from his snotty snout quivered as the Minotaur panted, and his dense, corded muscles contracted over his now human-like chest. As I stared up into those brown eyes, I actually felt sorry…for, well, myself.
“I have killed greater men than you for lesser offense,” he growled.
His voice sounded like an angry James Earl Jones—like Mufasa talking to Scar.
“You have shit on your shoulder, Asterion.” I ignited a roiling ball of fire in my palm in order to see his eyes more clearly. By no means was it a defensive gesture on my part. It was just dark. Under the weight of his glare, I somehow managed to keep my face composed, even though my fraudulent, self-denial had curled up into the fetal position and started whimpering. I hoped using a form of his ancient name would give me brownie points. Or maybe just not-worthy-of-killing points.
The beast grunted, eyes tightening, and I sensed the barest hesitation. “Nate Temple…your name would look splendid on my already long list of slain idiots.” Asterion took a threatening step forward, and I thrust out my palm in warning, my roiling flame blue now.
“You lost fair and square, Asterion. Yield or perish.” The beast’s shoulders sagged slightly. Then he finally nodded to himself in resignation, appraising me with the scrutiny of a worthy adversary. “Your time comes, Temple, but I will grant you this. You’ve got a pair of stones on you to rival Hercules.”
I reflexively glanced in the direction of the myth’s own crown jewels before jerking my gaze away. Some things you simply couldn’t un-see. “Well, I won’t be needing a wheelbarrow any time soon, but overcompensating today keeps future lower-back pain away.”
The Minotaur blinked once, and then he bellowed out a deep, contagious, snorting laughter. Realizing I wasn’t about to become a murder statistic, I couldn’t help but join in. It felt good. It had been a while since I had allowed myself to experience genuine laughter.
In the harsh moonlight, his bulk was even more intimidating as he towered head and shoulders above me. This was the beast that had fed upon human sacrifices for countless years while imprisoned in Daedalus’ Labyrinth in Greece. And all that protein had not gone to waste, forming a heavily woven musculature over the beast’s body that made even Mr. Olympia look puny.
From the neck up, he was now entirely bull, but the rest of his body more closely resembled a thickly furred man. But, as shown moments ago, he could adapt his form to his environment, never appearing fully human, but able to make his entire form appear as a bull when necessary. For instance, how he had looked just before I tipped him. Maybe he had been scouting the field for heifers before I had so efficiently killed the mood.
His bull face was also covered in thick, coarse hair—he even sported a long, wavy beard of sorts, and his eyes were the deepest brown I had ever seen. Cow-shit brown. His snout jutted out, emphasizing the golden ring dangling from his glistening nostrils, and both glinted in the luminous glow of the moon. The metal was at least an inch thick and etched with runes of a language long forgotten. Wide, aged ivory horns sprouted from each temple, long enough to skewer a wizard with little effort. He was nude except for a massive beaded necklace and a pair of worn leather boots that were big enough to stomp a size twenty-five imprint in my face if he felt so inclined.
I hoped our blossoming friendship wouldn’t end that way. I really did.
Because friends didn’t let friends wear boots naked.
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