The bus shook and jounced as Strap moved onto the rear platform; the Giant Caterpillar, all coppery rivets, steel joints, and leathery fanbelts, chuffed through Middle Air like a cross between a Victorian Dirigible and a Steel Butterfly. Strap lost his balance for a second, and accidentally trod on the rattler of a giant Ur-Python, which flashed its fangs at him: “Watch your step, Yoddleboy, or I’ll swallow you in an instant!”
“Sorry,” mumbled Strap, and reached for a safety handle, which turned out to be the dangling ear of a chimera. These creatures were sensitive, able to hear a sailor’s whisper on the open sea at forty fathoms; it yanked itself back, out of his way; Strap fell forward, and—horror of horrors!—onto the lap of the golden-haired nymph, who had just taken the seat of an elder-gnome who was getting off the ‘bus at Fairisfoul Alley.
“Ow!” the nymph cried, “Get off my foot, Kobbieboy!” while Strap scrambled to his claws, folding back his wings quickly, so as not to dash them in her face.
Her friends covered their faces with their mothy wings, and tittered softly: Isn’t that like a Yoddly boy—all clumsy—and he smells like ashes!
Strap grabbed for a coppery safety-pole and tried to haul himself up—the Law stated that it was forbidden to fly inside a demomnibus—and, his claws slipping on the polished marble floor, landed near the nymph again. Her lips frowned, or seemed to, but her eyes, blue as the starry firmament, flashed at him, and he almost could not find his legs beneath:
“I—I—“ he stammered.
“Are you all right there, Strap?” called Karkadal, who began walking slowly, swinging from pole to pole, towards the back. Seeing him, a pair of over-muscled satyrs muttered something in their Grecian patois, and moved toward the nymph, cracking their knuckles.
“Gots to keep them Yoddlepunks away from our womenfolk, so we do,” said the smaller, grinning like a jack-o’-lantern, while the bigger satyr reached behind him, unlimbering a small brazen chainmace with sharp, wiry tips.
Suddenly, a tinkling voice came from the loudspeaker, along with a puff of heliotrope perfume, and a shower of yellow daisies: No weapons, no fighting, no warring, no biting; no evil, no fuss; All peace and tranquility, loving and sing-to-me, and all aboard our demomnibus.
The Pixie-Conductor who had announced the Travel-Warning hung up her loud-hailer, flitted down from the roof of the bus, and wagged a tiny golden finger at the two satyrs.
“Don’t you boys want to go back to your seats?” she asked, in her tinkling tones.
The two hairy, goat-footed beasties scowled first at Strap, and then grinned at the pixie:
“We was just takin a stroll, here on the bussie, Miss Pix,” said the shorter of the two, snapping his yellow-clawed fingers. The other, bigger satyr, plunged a claw into his nose, pulling out a spider, which writhed as he popped it into his mouth, and then, smacking his lips, he looked straight at Strap:
“But we’ll visit with you, Yoddlepunk, when we get off this ship, never fear—so keep you far away from our womenfolk.”
“I can take care of myself,” snapped the nymph, “and the daughter of Lord Pan and Lady Flora needs no help from a pair of smelly earthpushers—keep away from us, Lares and Penates!”
By this time, Strap had stood up, flexed his wings, and pushed his way between the two satyrs, on his way back to his seat. He was careful to poke the two of them with his horny wing-tips as he squeezed between: I must show these satyrs that I’m tough, even with a Daemon Yeshiva klippah on my head.
He gripped his incense-sprayer in his right hand, though.
As he squeezed past the bigger satyr, he never saw the goat’s-foot thrust under his claw; suddenly, he was tumbling forward, into a bugeyed gnomewoman carrying a big Troll-Mart sack of mushrooms and roots, which stank hellishly.
“Careful, ye kobold scamp—I just picked those!” screamed the Goodgnome, but Strap did not hear her; he found his balance, twirled, and flicked out his incense-sprayer, all in one swift movement. His mates saw the trip-up, and spun to the back of the bus to help him.
The satyrs saw, too: “All the little Yoddlepunks, standing in a row—“ sang Lares, softly, as he and Penates leapt toward the three kobolds—
That was the last straw, for the werewolf-driver. He slammed on the airbrakes, bringing the Demomnibus-‘Pillar to a halt, and all the passengers tossed forward, crying, shrieking, or honking from the shock. The werewolf sprang from his seat, easily leaping between the satyrs and the kobolds, pushed them apart—Karkadal slammed into a pair of elves, who plummeted out the window, and were never seen again—and hooked his foreclaws around Penates’s throat.
“It’s like this, see—“ the Werewolf rumbled to the satyr, in a low voice, “You and your mugugly pal, there, Mr. Tripster, and these yoddly fellows will all get off my bus, right now. Then, you can bang heads til the End of Days, for all I care. To hell and blazes with all of ye, I say.”
Up close, his breath smelled like the raw meat and bloody bones which werewolves preferred, but neither satyrs nor kobolds dared to cross him; Wereys drove demomnibuses for a reason: they were pure wolfen muscle, from head to foot, and—as the Werey showed when he smiled to emphasize his words—they had a full set of shiny white sharpened teeth, canines all.
“Why, what did we do?” asked Coxnbox, “we were just riding along, minding our business….”
“Are ye having words with me, Yoddlepunk?” hissed the werewolf, turning on Coxnbox so quickly, and pinning him beneath a sinewy, brown-furred arm, digging his claws into the little kobold’s chest, while Cox squealed from pain and lurched back against Leatherstrap.
“This here’s my bus, my responsibility, and if the Lord High Asmodeus His Own Self were crocheting a shroud for Beelzebub and Moloch, right there”—pointing at the seat occupied by the Gnomewife, who clutched more tightly as her shopping-bag of roots, and shivered—“and ‘is Lordship’s ball o’ twine ‘appened to roll beneath me seat, thereby distractin’ me from the lawful OUT-come of me chosen DU-ties—“ –pointing at the seat occupied by the Gnomewife— “I would have his balls betwixt my fangs, so I would.”
He leaned forward, narrowing his yellow eyes, and breathed mold and bloodyguts into the faces of both Coxnbox and Karkadal, who had just struggled back from his corner of the ‘bus—
What had this terrorbeast had for lunch? They wondered. Never mind.
Coxnbox, wisely, said nothing more.
The doors hissed as they opened for the kobolds and satyrs to dismount, making a sound like busha v’cherpa busha v’cherpa busha v’cherpa, and the caterpillar tires, made of real caterpillars, wound, unwound, and re-wound as the blueblack demomnibus slowly recoiled into itself and spun into the setting paleyellow moonlit sky, surrounded by bats and straggle-feathered vultures.