Astamur translated. "Then what do you want?"
"There has to be something."
Fine. "Ask him if he would share the magic word with me."
Atsany froze and said something, the words coming fast like rocks falling down the mountain.
"He says it might kill you."
"Tell him I already have some magic words, so I probably won't die."
"Probably?" Astamur raised his eyebrows.
"A very small chance."
"He says he will, but I can't look. I'll check on the sheep." Astamur got up and went toward the pasture. "Try not to die."
"I'll do my best."
Atsany leaned forward, picked up a skewer, and wrote something in the dirt. I looked.
An avalanche of agony drowned me, exploding into a twisting maelstrom of glowing lines. I rolled inside, each turn hurting more and more, as if my mind were being picked apart, shaved off with some phantom razor blade one tiny, excruciating layer at a time. I turned inside the cascade of pain, faster and faster, trying desperately to hold on to my mind.
A word surfaced from the glow. I had to make it mine, or it would kill me.
The pain vanished. Slowly, the world returned bit by bit: the green grass, the smell of smoke, the distant noises of sheep, and Atsany wiping the dirt with his foot. I'd made it. Once again, I'd made it.
"You didn't die," Astamur said, coming closer. "We are both very glad."
Atsany smiled and said something.
"He wants me to tell you that you are kind. He is glad that you have the word. It will help you in the castle with all those lamassu. He doesn't know why you have them up there anyway. Don't you know they eat people?"
* * *
My brain screeched to a halt.
"He thinks we have lamassu at the castle?"
"He says you do. He says he saw one of them carry off a body and then eat it."
"Something is killing people at the castle," I said. "But I've seen pictures of the lamassu statues. They have fur and human faces."
Atsany waved his pipe around.
"He says it's a, what's the word . . . allegory. There are no animals with human heads, that's ridiculous."
Look who's talking. An eighteen-inch-tall magic man in riding boots, werejackals, and sea dragons are all fine, but animals with human faces are ridiculous. Okay, then. Glad we cleared that up.
Atsany stood up, walked a few feet out into the grass, and started walking, putting one foot in front of the other, as if he were walking a tightrope. He turned sharply, walked five steps, turned again, drawing a complex pattern with his steps.
"The atsany have long memories. Watch," Astamur said. "This is a rare gift. Not many people will ever see it in their lifetime."
The small man kept going. A shiver ran through the grass as if it were fanned by invisible wings. The grass blades stood straight up in Atsany's wake. A faint image formed above the grass, semitranslucent, shifting like a mirage. A vast city stood, encircled by tall textured walls. Two enormous lamassu statues stretched along the city wall, facing an arched gate, and two others, smaller, guarded its sides. Just inside the gates a tall narrow tower rose, so high I had to raise my head to see the top. It was early morning. The sun hadn't risen yet, but the heat had already begun its advance. I smelled a hint of turmeric, smoke, and moisture in the air-there must've been a river nearby. Somewhere a dog barked. It was like a window through time had been opened just a crack.
This was my father's world.
A column of smoke rose from one of the towers. A man in a long orange robe walked out of the gates, followed by two others. All three had long textured beards and conical hats, and each carried a gold ewer with a wide spout.
A distant howl rolled through the morning. The image turned and I saw a pack of wolves running hard across the plain. Light gray, with long legs and large ears, they were too large to be natural.
The pack closed in on the gates and stopped. The wolves shook, their bodies twisted, and men rose in their place. The leader, an older bald man, stepped forward. The bearded man said something and handed him the ewer. The werewolf drank straight from the spout and passed it on. The ewers made the rounds until every shapeshifter had drunk, and the pack returned the ewers to the bearded men.
The robed men stepped aside and two soldiers emerged from the gate, wearing lamellar armor shirts over kilts. They dragged a man bound by his hands and ankles, dropped him on the ground, and stepped back.
The man curled into a ball, babbling in sheer terror.
The shapeshifters went furry. Lupine lips bared fangs and the pack ripped into the man. He screamed, howling, and they tore him to pieces, snarling and flinging blood into the dirt. Acid rose in my stomach. I looked away. I could kill a man or a woman in a fight. This made me sick.
Finally he stopped screaming. I looked up and saw Astamur watching me. He nodded at the mirage. "You'll miss it."
I looked. The bloody shredded ruin of the man's body lay by the gates. The wolves sat, as if waiting for something.
A minute passed. Another.
The alpha's body split open. He grew, the flesh and bone spiraling up. Wings thrust from his shoulders. Scarlet scales sheathed his body. The bones of his skull shifted, supporting massive leonine jaws. The alpha roared.
Holy shit. Doolittle was right.
One by one the werewolves turned. The leader dashed through the gates and into the tower. The rest followed single file. A moment and the alpha leaped from the top of the tower, spreading his massive wings. He swooped down and soared and his pack glided behind him.
Atsany stopped. The mirage faded.
The small man began to speak, pausing for Astamur's translation. "Long ago there was a kingdom of Assur past the mountains to the south. The kingdom had many wizards and their armies were often gone to conquer, so the wizards made lamassu. They used tribes of gyzmals and changed them with magic. That's why there are many different kinds of lamassu: some have bull bodies, some have lion, some have wolf. They chose bulls and lions for their statues, because they were the largest.
"When not needed, the lamassu were just like normal gyzmals, but when a city was in danger, the wizards would feed lamassu human meat, and then they would grow strong and vicious. They would gain wings and terrible teeth, and then they would fall on the enemy from above and devour them."
I'd never heard or read anything remotely like this, but just because I'd never heard of it didn't make it impossible.
"The statues are a warning. They mean 'This is a city protected by lamassu.' The human heads to show that they are both human and beast, and the five legs to show that they are not always what they appear. We have known of lamassu for a long time and we stay clear of them. Not all lamassu are evil, but those who choose to eat human flesh are."