The Jekyll Legacy
Victorian alchemy meets modern science and magic.
What could possibly go wrong?
Unto the woman he said, I will greatly multiply thy sorrow and thy conception; in sorrow thou shalt bring forth children; and thy desire shall be to thy husband, and he shall rule over thee.
— Bereshit (Genesis) 3:16
Without a word, Emily sidled close to her — which made her suddenly conscious of the difference in their relative size and strength — then leaned down and bit her back, right at the curve where her human top melded into her animal lower parts, not hard enough to break the skin, but firmly enough to hurt, which strangely excited her, made her yearn for him. “Emily….”
“Be quiet, Herbert. I’ve given you space because I thought you were ashamed and frightened of our sexual changes, and wanted to make light of them, not because I didn’t want you. We’re married, Herbert, for better and for worse, and of course I want our sexual lives to continue, just as it did before our changes. You should have told me sooner, and I suspect that you were ashamed or you wouldn’t have been so hesitant, or so fearful.” He leaned over and bit her again, further back, right at her withers, but more gently, and she shivered, strangely soothed, but struck dumb in a new and almost overpowering excitement and anticipation. “Now, Herbert, turn and look at me again. Look at my size in comparison to Windflyer. Do you think that I could possibly feel threatened by him? I probably outweigh him by eight hundred pounds or more. Look honestly at yourself, in comparison to the other mares, you’re beautiful and strong, Herbert; strong enough that you could probably defeat Windflyer on your own, if you had a mind to do so. We’re something like Percherons on this world, Herbert, with an admixture of something like a quarter Arabian for speed and agility, great warhorses of both breeding and lineage, not common wild mustangs, so keep that in mind. Windflyer is far beneath you, Herbert. I’ll take you when you come fully into heat, and not before. You’ll hold yourself ready for me, not some mongrel upstart.”
Herbert was astonished to feel that this new arrogance in Emily both excited and calmed her, together with his casual dominance of her body. “Thank you, Emily. I was all flustered for a moment, but you’ve set me straight again. Whenever you want me, I’m yours, and no one else’s. I belong to you, Emily.” She sidled up to rub herself against his withers, and then her hand sought his.
He took it. “Of course you do, Herbert,” he said brusquely. “I was remiss not to make that plain, and it won’t happen again. I’ll make very sure that Windflyer knows it too, although I’ll also make it plain that I don’t want any of his mares, since it would be troublesome to carry along so many when we find our way home, and I’m not at all sure I’d want to cover his mares in any case.” He briefly let a look of scorn cross his face before saying, “Give me his herd indeed! As if I couldn’t simply take them, but it would be unfair to burden the herd with my genes, because we’re creatures of high civilization, you and I, where they’re much smaller, and perfectly suited for living in the wilderness. I’ll explain that to him, but we’ll speak no more of it.”
“Yes, Emily,” Herbert said meekly.
“Emily! We’ve been looking for you,” Akcuanrut seemed genuinely glad to see him when they met upon a small hill overlooking the town. “How are you feeling? Quite recovered? Since we know that Na-Noc is still somewhat less than a day ahead of us, it would be an excellent plan, I think, to follow his trail as quickly as possible. If he reaches the Lost Temple of Zampulus before us, he may well be able to draw upon magical resources hidden there, which will make our task more difficult.”
“Quite well, thank you, and I agree. I’m afraid that there will be complications if we stay any longer in any case.”
“Really? What sort? I thought you’d solved their problems quite nicely, and at no little cost to you.”
He snorted. “Except that now Windflyer is trying to talk Herbert into persuading me to stay. Since their only Healer, the mare Red Paint, was killed by Na-Noc, he’s worried about his herd.”
“I see. I can understand why. Healers are very rare among the centaur people, and offer a significant advantage, although it must have galled him to say so.”
“Indeed. Herbert told me about his plan to give me his herd and go on in my stead, but that makes no sense. With my genes, the herd would never survive in the wild, no matter what advantage Healing give them.”
Akcuanrut looked thoughtful. “Actually, you may be wrong, Emily. As we see here in this isolated area, humans and centaurs find it possible to live together, to the advantage of both peoples, but the average centaur is Windflyer’s size or smaller, so they’re at a relative disadvantage in human lands, and the powers inherent in human-style magic — like your own healing powers — are very rare among them, although their innate centaur magic is partial compensation. Were they your size, with the gifts you bring with you….”
“Just a darned minute, Sir!” He was very angry. “I don’t know what sort of man you take me for, but if you expect me to take my ease back here while my husband and only child go waltzing off into dreadful danger…”
“Patience, hasty centaur,” he admonished Emily gently. “I made no improper suggestion, but perhaps there’s a way in which we can help the centaur people as a whole, and perhaps gain their assistance in defeating Na-Noc, thus preventing the destruction of our two worlds.”
He stopped his incipient tirade, then said, “Oh. Well….”
“Exactly. We must try to keep our eyes on the larger prize, rather than becoming bogged down in less relevant details.”
“Okay,” he grudgingly admitted. “What’s your idea.”
“First, you said that your husband presented this notion for your approval; is that true?”
“Well, yes, but….”
“Would you characterize her behavior as normal? Has she ever suggested that you take on multiple sexual partners before?”
“Of course not! We….”
Akcuanrut gave him no time to object, but pressed on. “And how did you react? Were you shocked? Horrified? Disappointed? Anything that would remind you of your previous attitude toward your husband?”
“Well, no, but….”
“Remember the first rule of magic here, Emily, function follows form, and you are now a centaur stallion, your husband is a centaur mare, and you both think and act approximately as your new form dictates, although there’s obviously some hysteresis. You are neither of you ‘mere ghosts’ in the abstract machinery of your bodies, floating around pulling levers to make the machinery do this or that. Your minds are created by your respective bodies, so both your situations and biological imperatives have inevitably changed, just as your former son is becoming more your daughter every day. You must have noticed that all of your individual attitudes have… ‘adjusted’ themselves to suit your individual new realities. Your lives are going forward, a perfectly healthy response to a major life change, and in time you will consider this a blessing.”
This all sounded very reasonable, especially when the wizard said it with such confidence, but Emily couldn’t quite share his confidence, nor did he fully believe Akcuanrut’s glib assurances, even as the wizard sauntered off down the hill, smiling placidly in benevolent beatitude.
After a long few minutes pondering his situation, he suddenly realized that the wizard hadn’t actually said anything, other than vague platitudes that might have been copied from one of those workplace ‘motivational’ posters, and that he’d been left in exactly the same position he’d been in before.
For the very first time in her life, Emily Lanyon said, “WTF!” aloud.
Emily was still standing on the same low hillside, thinking about his problem, when she saw Akcuanrut, Phil, his new apprentice, his son Rhea and her friend Selene, plus the entirety of Windflyer’s herd, Windflyer himself, and Herbert, come streaming out the town gate and troop up the hill to where he stood. Surprise was the least of his feelings.
“Akcuanrut,” Emily said. “Back so soon?”
“Of course,” he said. “I thought we’d agreed that our prompt departure was of great importance, lest the world be destroyed while we dither.”
“Well, yes, but….”
“Well? Here we are, ready to go,” the wizard said.
“But… but… but….” he stuttered. “All of you?”
The wizard looked at him with something like pity. “We talked about this, didn’t we? Seeing how well you and Herbert were able to handle Na-Noc with your flashing hooves, it must have struck you that having all the local centaurs working as a whole to trap and contain Na-Noc would even the odds a little, even if he managed to get back into his lair beneath the Temple proper.”
Oddly enough, it hadn’t, but he agreed anyway. “Yes, I suppose it would.” He did, however, see where this was going. He and Herbert had been instrumental in their first victory over Na-Noc. It would require both of them to corral him again, especially now that he’d seen how he was defeated before. It wouldn’t be easy to pull off the same trick twice. Having the herd behind him would be a huge advantage, and one which Na-Noc probably wouldn’t expect, especially if they managed to conceal their involvement. To do that, he’d have to be in charge of them, and everything flowed from that central fact. However much he resented being railroaded into taking the first step on a path that would lead him away from his comfortable life as a wife and mother, he was enough of a scientist to see that it was inevitable and necessary, given the present emergency, so by the time Herbert came cantering toward him, he was quite prepared for the first words out of her mouth.
“Oh, Emily! I’m so proud that you’ve decided to lead the herd after all! I’ve talked with all the other mares, and they’re excited too. Did you know that they have a prophecy about this moment, when a giant stallion they call Thundercloud comes out of nowhere in a blinding flash of lightning? The centaurs we saw that first day reported our arrival, in exactly the manner described by prophesy, so of course everyone was on edge, waiting for the promised Stallion who would lead the centaurs to a stunning victory over all our enemies, and to think that it’s you, my own dear Emily. Imagine it!” Her eyes were shining with pride and love, and Emily didn’t have the heart to disabuse her of her fantasy. ‘Prophesy, indeed!’ he thought to himself, somehow resigned to be a creature of legend, if only Herbert were pleased with him….
“Prophecy?” he said aloud.
“Oh, yes! The prophesy describes you to a ‘T,’ Emily! Your color, which is very rare here, in fact I’m not at all sure that there are any chestnut centaurs. We certainly haven’t seen any. Most are pintos, grey, or black, but we seem to be the only chestnut centaurs in the world. Of course I’m not mentioned in the legends, not by name in any case, or even by description, but your blue eyes are an integral part of the story — or legend, rather, because they’re the color of the sky from whence you’re supposed to have descended in that astounding lightning stroke. And, Emily, the legends say that you’re a powerful Healer, the Chosen One who will bring Human magic to the Centaur race, and end their long oppression by the two-legged men.” She paused as pleased as if she’d just completed a difficult proof in predicate logic, as precise and neatly bundled up as a formal Chomsky grammar.
Emily was nonplused, to say the least. Since her marriage to the moderately famous Dr. Herbert Lanyon, MD, PhD, she’d put her own career on hold, so to speak, and had given up medicine entirely, knowing full well the sort of schedules she would have had to maintain if she’d kept up any sort of practice. Luckily, his income had been sufficient to pay off both their student loans, although his had been smaller to begin with, since he came from old money, at least by American standards. “I had no idea,” she said, then looked toward Akcuanrut, whether in supplication or irritation he couldn’t say, just at this particular moment in time.
That worthy shrugged, then said, “There is surprisingly little knowledge of the centaur people, even amongst the wise, my dear Sir, so I’m just as taken aback as you are, although it augurs well for the success of our enterprise, I would think, if the prophesies are true, and I have no reason to doubt them. Stranger things have happened; witness the fact that I myself have traveled between the worlds and survived, that I’ve seen ‘cordless power tools,’ and ‘traffic lights,’ and magic lamps that give no heat and require neither flint nor steel to light them.”
“True,” he said, by now resigned to what was increasingly seeming like his duty, since even his husband had been swept up in a general enthusiasm for his leadership in this enterprise. “The ancient formula that had spawned only horror tales, long kept a closely-guarded secret by my husband’s family for fear that it would be misused by ruthless agencies intent on domination of the world, just as the original Jekyll had tried to dominate London in his prideful madness, seems now that it might be the precursor to something entirely unforeseen, something wonderful, the salvation of both our worlds and the liberation of an entire people from terror, assuming the prophesies are true, and that we succeed.” He looked to the wizard for guidance, since he seemed to be the only one entirely sure of himself just now. “So, what now?”
“Now this formality:” The wizard turned to address the current leader of the herd, “Windflyer, are you now prepared to yield up your leadership of your people to Thundercloud?”
“I am, Wizard. My people need his gift to survive, and we all need his leadership to defeat this Na-Noc and save this world from destruction by the Dark Gods.” He bowed his proud head, submitting himself to the wizard, and to Emily.
The Wizard raised his arms, bright sparks and clouds of light coruscating from his open, empty hands, and spoke, “Then bright blessings to you, O Windflyer, who shall be in future generations be renowned as first amongst your people to embody the full promise of increasing life and power for all the generations of centaurs to come.” With that, he released the light into the surrounding air, where it expanded and intensified to suffuse the entire herd, including especially Windflyer, Emily, and Herbert, dazzling adamantine islands of pellucid clarity within a general brilliance, a light so preternaturally illuminating that one could see their very bones and internal organs, if one had the strength of will to avoid covering one’s eyes or turning away.
The Wizard spoke a series of words, “Kabayong Babae! Kabayo! Ale!” and the swirling vortex of brilliance that was Windflyer blazed brighter. “Palitan!” he cried out, and the maelstrom of light changed color, spinning into gold. “Mayari!” he intoned, and all the roiling nimbus of light froze instantly in place, like the snapshot of a violent explosion, and then rushed backwards, pouring into the bodies of every centaur there present on the field, themselves seemingly frozen by the implosion of color and brilliant light, and then everything went suddenly dark, except it wasn’t truly darkness, but only the contrast between the bright power of magic now fading into the normal light of the sun above them in the sky.
Emily blinked away the fading spots before her eyes and saw that Windflyer — or what had once been Windflyer — was now a chestnut mare who appeared to be the very twin of Herbert, both in coloring and size, right down to her pretty green eyes.
As if she’d recognized a long-lost sister from across the space between them, Herbert trotted up to the reborn Windflyer and hugged her close to her ample bosom, both of them somehow gracefully aware of exactly how to lean into each other without discomfort. “Windflyer,” she exclaimed, laughing in unfeigned delight, “I’d be much more comfortable complimenting you on your beauty if we didn’t seem to be identical twins, but seeing you finally makes me realize exactly how beautiful I must be.” She smoothed her luxurious new tresses back from her face with tender care and smiled. “Welcome home, dear sister, and all my love be with you.” Then she looked her up and down, this time judiciously. “We’ll have to see about getting you some sort of brassiere. Unfortunately, when we left home, I didn’t have time to pack.”
Windflyer’s eyes went wide. “Brassiere?” she said, extremely puzzled.
“What I don’t understand,” Emily said irritably, “is why you changed the entire herd to look exactly like my husband.”
“Parsimony,” Akcuanrut said simply.
When the wizard failed to expand upon this rather oracular ambiguity, Emily asked again, “What on Earth… wherever this is, anyway… does that mean.”
“It means that we’d agreed that a larger and heavier type of centaur would be more successful both in fighting Na-Noc and in holding their own against those wicked humans who prey upon the centaurs to make use of their dismembered bodies as magical talismans.”
“We did?” Emily asked. “I have no memory of it.”
“Well, I did, and my Apprentice agreed with me, although you first brought up the issue, albeit on the conservative end of the spectrum of possible concerns, but you had little or no local knowledge to inform your opinion, so I discounted it more than slightly. Since I had only two models of this new breed of centaur available — that is, yourself and Herbert — those two were what I used, much more frugal than attempting to compute and juggle many different types, none of which I had ever encountered before, especially when my magical powers were at a relatively low ebb. We didn’t have any opportunity in your world to encounter any other centaurs, so I used what I had to hand.”
“But didn’t you stop to think that they might not want to be changed?” he complained.
“Of course I did, and I did consult with Windflyer, whose herd this was, and who saw the advantages right away, seconded by the older mares. There are over a hundred centaur mares in this herd alone, which should give the new species a good head start on turning from prey to predators.” He smiled benignly once again. “In the real world, being a predator is much more satisfactory, taking all in all, than the other rôle, and you and Herbert bring much more than mere size to the table, but rather an increased talent for both centaur and human magics in addition to your other powers. When combined with speed, imposing size, and strength, your many offspring will be formidable. In fact, though, if we’re eventually able to establish a controlled gateway too your world, it would wonderful if some of your people were able to visit our world, either to establish residence or for extended visits. Our world is very sparsely populated, so I’m sure land grants with ample savannah, pastures, and farmland could be made available for permanent settlement, if we can work out the details regarding long-term residency.”
“And Windflyer agreed?” Emily was startled, even amazed, despite Herbert’s admiring assessment of her former character as a stallion.
“Of course she did. I told you that she saw the clear benefit to his herd, and so did the mares, which is much more important.”
“What? Would you like to take her place? Perhaps Herbert would prefer to be the stallion of the herd. She, at least, seems to be properly concerned for the welfare of the herd as a whole, and is not nearly so truculent and obstreperous, so her contribution might be even more effective than yours, I think. Here, let me fix this for you,” he said as he hiked up his sleeves a bit, raised his hands, began to chant, “Kabayong simarrón!” as the light began to build.
“Wait!” Emily shouted desperately, suddenly panicked, although he didn’t know exactly why.
The wizard raised one supercilious brow. “Well?” he said.
“Don’t bother,” he said sullenly.
“Oh, it’s no trouble at all,” he said, “now I’ve gotten warmed up. Just stand there quietly and in two shakes of your tail you’ll be a happy young mare, so you won’t have to trouble yourself about any responsibilities for anyone but yourself… and your foals, of course. I’m quite sure Herbert will be able to see her way clear to perform her duties without shilly-shallying or procrastination.”
“No!” he said forcefully. He thought about the issue of justice in what the wizard proposed, ‘Wasn’t this taking them one step further toward our presumptive goal? After all, doesn’t Herbert deserve to be a real husband again? Even if they remained centaurs for some time to come… No! Herbert was too much like Hastie had been, too wrapped up in her own private dream worlds to be effective in the very real world they inhabited now! If I’d been in charge of that darned formula, I certainly wouldn’t have left it lying on a shelf for the irresponsible Hastie to find, and it wasn’t as if Hastie hadn’t amply demonstrated her lack of foresight before, many times over, one near disaster after another, often rescued by Jack, who’d always had a good head on her shoulders, and seemed only to have been improved by her recent transformation, just as their own family has been improved by all these changes.’ “No,” he said again. “Whatever has to be done, Wizard, I’ll take the responsibility. Herbert was rarely able to take things all that seriously, for all her strengths as a scientist and researcher.”
Akcuanrut smiled benignly. “I wondered exactly how long it would take you to admit that, Emily.”
He pursed his lips in irritation, but then nodded. “Well, you made your point. I think I should call myself Thundercloud now. It can’t hurt to embrace the prophesy, and may make it possible to enlist the help of other centaurs. I noticed that you left the yearling males alone, in the midst of your spellcasting, and had wondered about it.”
He smiled again. “Very perceptive of you, Emily, or Thundercloud, as I should say. As messengers, the colts are unsurpassed, fleet and tireless. We may be able to lure other centaur herds to our aid, if the stakes become known widely.”
“But I don’t understand how any prophesy of this world could have predicted our arrival on it.”
“Do you think the Dark Gods are the only powers in the world, ‘O Thundercloud of Legend?’ Long has the Dark warred against the Light; ancient are our Enemies. Doesn’t it strike you as… interesting… that humans are identical, as far as I can tell, on both our worlds. I don’t doubt that centaurs are as well. Certainly you seem so to me, although obviously greatly improved upon the mostly-feral centaur population here, just as we are better-fed and generally larger compared to the scattered hill tribes far to the South and East. Whether this is because our worlds are close to each other, I don’t know, since our records pertain only to this world, as far as I know. We’ve had travelers come through Portals before, but nothing wildly exotic, other than this thing that Na-Noc became, and I’m not sure that he’s not simply self-created, as you yourself may have explained back in his throne room, where our adventure really began. He’s driven by hate now, but the human body is a harmonious whole, each part working in coöperation with all the others. What would a human body look like if all the parts of it were at war with themselves, the bones refusing to be just bones, the lungs filled with envy for the heart full of blood? I think it might look like Na-Noc, a protean being who can only hold a particular form through force of will, forcing the submission of the rest of his body for whatever time seems necessary, but inevitably relapsing into formlessness when the impetus of external threats grows less pressing.”
“But on our world, centaurs don’t exist! We changed ourselves into these forms with the aid of science.”
Akcuanrut blinked in surprise. “You may think of it as merely ‘science,’ Thundercloud. but you knew what centaurs were, didn’t you? If the centaurs of your world possessed inherent magical powers, as they do on our world, perhaps they were hunted to extinction, or perhaps they’re in hiding somewhere; I don’t know. But the fact that you recognized them — and were able to change your forms into perfectly-functional centaurs without close examination of our local centaurs — suggests that there was an underlying reality to draw upon, and it certainly wasn’t from this world, because centaurs of your size and strength are unknown here. Even your coloring is exotic. From where, exactly, could you have magically imagined a centaur of this particular shade of reddish brown, with a physical conformation more robust and powerful than any centaur that exists upon this world, if not from some dimly-remembered model inherited from your own world’s past? Magic doesn’t come from nothing, but rather from an underlying ur-reality that gives it shape, the form the magician calls into being with his working. The fact that your minds already contained the memory of the ur-centaurs of your own world made your bodies possible, so the fact of your presence on this world in these forms is an existence proof of ur-centaurs in your own world, whether past or present, open or concealed.”
Emily — he still thought of himself as Emily, he’d used the name for many years, so ‘Thundercloud’ still seemed a little odd, perhaps even pretentious — thought about that for a long moment. “That actually makes sense,” he said. “The family history of the formula doesn’t actually make sense in terms of modern genetic and developmental science, so I’d simply accepted it as an entertaining fable, until the efficacy of it was demonstrated in the persons of my former son and husband, plus Selene, of course. But why does the change always involve a gender switch?”
Akcuanrut considered this question with some care, then the light dawned. “Of course! The ‘formula,’ as you call it, is what we would term a ‘magical trigger,’ possessing no inherent power of its own, only the power to unleash a parasitic wish. To perform so radical a transformation, though, requires real power. The amount of magical potential that exists between basic alignments, like male and female, is enormous, so the changes are powered by the shift in alignments, the transformation fed by the wisher’s own gender.”
“Would good and evil be such an alignment as well?” he asked. “The original creator of the formula changed back and forth between a basically good man to a depraved and evil monster.”
“It would, I think, although I’d question whether a truly ‘good’ man would willingly transform himself into a villain. It would be a strain upon the wisher’s sanity, one would suppose, for a good man to wish to be evil, or for an evil man to wish to be good. The male/female dichotomy isn’t be nearly as wrenching, since most sane men and women like — sometimes quite admire — each other, and of course there’s quite a bit of natural overlap.”
He thought about this for a few minutes, during which Akcuanrut showed no sign of impatience. “I think that’s true. The first Jekyll was evidently evil in both forms, but moderately so in his original form, and wanted only more power to do evil and get away with it, so his transformation must have been at the expense of his good looks. I suppose physical beauty might be a lesser ‘alignment,’ or perhaps there was some other essential difference between the two to function as the opposite poles of a sort of psychic ‘battery.’ His further transformations were motivated by the desire to conceal his crimes by disguising himself, so he became trapped in a cycle of transformations in which he became steadily more grotesque, and moved along a progression in which both forms became ever more wicked and depraved, then finally insane in both forms. I love my husband very much, but it doesn’t seem to matter which sex we are, as long as we’re together.” He thought for a moment longer. “Actually, I think it’s better. I seem to have more of a talent in balancing family life with external obligations, where Herbert tended to let one or another slide at times, sometimes both at once. Then too, I somehow feel more ‘natural’ as I am now, more… powerful… liberated… more like me!”
“Well then,” the Wizard said, “now that we’re all reading from the same grimoire, as it were, should we start organizing the pursuit of Na-Noc?”
“Excellent idea!” he cried, rearing up suddenly in eagerness and fury, looking about from a new height, more than twelve feet above the ground. “Where’s what’s left of D’lon-Ra? I’ve a bone to pick with that Na-Noc, and D’lon-Ra seems to be the key.”
It was early the next day before they were able to organise everything, mostly supplies for the humans in their party, but also an assortment of swords for the most athletic of the centaur women, strong bows and fitted quivers of arrows for Selene and Rhea, who seemed most likely to be able use them effectively, as well as Windflyer, Herbert, and… Thundercloud, just in case. Emily knew that he couldn’t put off taking on a new name forever, so decided to bite the bullet and just do it. Most of the herd was already calling him Thundercloud in any case, so it simplified things to have everyone reading from the same script, so to speak. He’d encouraged Herbert to choose a new name for herself as well, since the one she had was outside the norm for centaurs, and it drew attention, since the typical centaur response to hearing it was ‘What’s that mean?’ and neither ‘Bright army’ nor ‘Shining host’ really made the grade.
She’d said that she’d think about it.
The two barbarian women, on a lighter note, had taken to their new toys as if they were familiar relics of childhood, nostalgically fondling them for a second or two, then testing their draw weight, running their eyes down the limbs of their bows with the eyes of the true connoisseuse, judging their trueness and workmanship with a finely-tuned discernment, then putting a rapid flight of six arrows each into the air so quickly that they were all still in fight before the first struck the distant tree they’d both aimed at. Then they’d turned to each other and grinned, very pleased to possess yet another beautiful means of dealing death, and the fact that these lovely things worked from a distance was just the perfect cherry on top.
Thundercloud shivered. The two women were a little scary at times, like kung fu warriors from a Hong Kong action film, only lacking the ability to fly though the air by means of their mystic chi power — or at least he didn’t think they could fly. He was suddenly glad that this was a low-tech world, since he’d had a horrid vision of the two of them with automatic weapons and shoulder-launched missiles, leaping laughing through a wall of flames to a soundtrack of machine gun fire with a backbeat of exploding hand grenades and land mines.
Then, when all was ready, the great host moved toward the north, toward the entrance of the Lost Temple of Zampulus, and hot on Na-Noc’s trail.
There was plenty of time for observation as they made their stately progress northward, the leagues passing by each an individual experience, quite unlike the travel by automobile or passenger jet he was most familiar with. Although there were more than a thousand centaurs — and their numbers were growing day by day, as the colts and unattached stallions spread the news, that Thundercloud had manifested in their age, and would lead the herds toward victory and freedom — at any given time he could see only a few dozen, because they’d spread out to make the most of the limited pasture available along their way. Akcuanrut was keeping track of everyone by mystic means that he’d declined to elaborate upon, but the extent of their army was primarily visible by the sudden appearance of yet another small group of centaur mares over the crest of a low hill in the near distance before descending out of his sight again, hidden by another rise of ground.
Phil had surprised him, although he supposed that both girls were old enough to be interested in boys, but it was difficult to say which one or both found Phil more fascinating, and why. They both went out of their way to talk to him now that they were on the move, although it was clear that Phil’s own heart was set on Selene. He’d been a fullback, as he recalled, or something else, since he wasn’t exactly au courant with the various positions on a football team. He’d tried to be — or at least seem — interested for Hastie’s sake, but had never really cared for team sports in general, much less football in particular, a game which — in his own mind at least — made cricket look exciting. Phil seemed much more intellectual than either Hastie or Jack had been, before they became Rhea and Selene, not the stereotypical ‘football jock’ at all. He came to an instant decision, since he was fortuitously ambling through an area of meadows and sparse woodland with Phil at one side of him and no one particularly nearby. “Phil, pardon my curiosity, but I was wondering why on Earth you took up football. You seem more interested in the sciences and liberal arts than physical fitness.”
He looked up at the imposing centaur stallion with no hesitation at all, saying, “It’s simple, really. My parents don’t have much money to spare, and a football scholarship seemed like a good idea at the time, but then I met Selene and I couldn’t abandon her when she was in trouble.” His eyes were shining brightly, and he grinned to let him know that this wasn’t any sort of hardship, nor were his services to Selene, to all of them, begrudged.
Emily found himself liking this very earnest young man. “So football was a means to an end, rather than an end in itself?”
“Yep,” he nodded. “I was taking a heavy scholastic load as well, much more intensive than was usual amongst my fellow ‘jocks.’ But believe me, I was being ribbed by the guys in my advanced chem class for the football a lot more than I was by my teammates for taking the ‘nerd’ courses. There were quite a few guys on the team with very realistic expectations — not everyone is picked straight out of high school, and injuries can shut down a football career at the drop of a ref’s time-out flag. There were a lot of my teammates with some sort of ‘Plan B’ beyond going to work at their Dad’s gas station held firmly in mind. For me, though, my Plan B was football, and I’d never wanted to go beyond college ball.” He thought for a moment, then added, “Of course, if a scout had walked up offering three million dollars for my first year, I might have put rocket science on hold for a bit,” he grinned as an aside, “but I wasn’t holding my breath. I think Jack… Selene… was the only one on the team with a serious shot at the Pro leagues, and she wasn’t really interested. Like me, she would have preferred a career with more likelihood of a Nobel Prize than a Heisman Trophy.” He gestured around them. “I reckon the question is moot just now, and magic is this world’s science, so here I am, the Sorcerer’s Apprentice.” He grinned again, then laughed. “I hope he doesn’t set me to filling up a vat with buckets of water.”
“Do you want to go back?”
Again, Phil surprised him. “It depends…,” he said judiciously.
“I’d like to see my mom and dad again,” he mused as he strode along, “and I worry about them not knowing what’s become of me, but if going back means that Selene has to go back to being Jack,” his face fell into a frown, “I’d rather stay here forever. Maybe I can write to my mother somehow, or arrange a spiritualist vision or something.”
“Well,” Emily said smiling, “if it’s any consolation at all, I’m pretty sure that Selene feels much the same about you.”
“I’m pretty sure she does too, Sir, but Selene has a very well-developed sense of duty.” He looked up at him again, but this time his face was bleak. “I’m pretty sure she’d go back to being Jack if she felt that she ought to do so, and of course there’s her parents gone missing, with no way of knowing if we can get them back, or if they’d wind up like D’lon-Ra if we do.”
“You know, there’s nothing to prevent you from going back with Selene if she does go back, whether to help in her parent’s recovery or to wind up their affairs.”
“But what if she decides that she has to be Jack in order to do something, say if they have to go into a hospital, and she has to prove that she’s their legal next of kin?”
“Phil, you can’t cover every contingency. Herbert and I — mostly Herbert — made elaborate plans with insurance, trust funds, living wills, advance directives, preselected guardians for Hastie, with backups if anything went wrong in our own lives, but not one of our myriad plans covered evil beings intent upon destroying the entire world, nor ourselves changing into centaurs, much less changing sex.” He threw up his hands in an elaborate shrug. “In a long life, one must be prepared to abandon one’s luggage once in a while, and be willing to improvise. Ordinarily I’d say, ‘Give it time, you’re young, after all,’ but that’s not really true any longer. You’re both of you, in your way, warriors, risking your lives for people you don’t even know back home, doing adult jobs, and you both deserve the right to make adult decisions, because it’s all your lives at stake, and both your possible futures. You both deserve whatever happiness you can give each other, Phil, so don’t second-guess yourself trying to make any decisions for Selene. Sit down together and talk. Ask her what she wants, tell her what you want, and make sure that neither of you work yourselves into the sort of corner where neither of you gets anything even near what you both really want, because the other party is trying to make it easier for the other to say ‘No’ without an embarrassing scene.”
Phil looked up at him in sudden realisation. “That’s what I was doing, wasn’t it?”
“It was. If I were in your shoes — and this is just a suggestion, mind you, — I’d find a moment alone with her and tell her how much you love her, and that you want to make some sort of future with her before it’s too late for anything. I know that if the end of the world comes along, I’d bitterly regret not marrying my own true love first, rather than waiting until everything is safe and boring again.”
“Do you think we might die?”
“Of course,” he said. “Our straits wouldn’t be nearly so desperate were it not for the fact that our enemies — the Dark Gods, as I understand it — are intent upon the destruction of all life. Although I’m not sure how, the so-called Heart of Virtue is meant to accomplish this. We can even see how this might come to pass, in that the Heart is greedy, and attempts to incorporate all of life into itself, the volitional equivalent of a cosmic Black Hole.”
A bitter expression came upon Phil’s countenance then, and he said, “How can you stand it? Knowing that everyone you love might die? That this… thing might take everything from all of us?”
Emily stopped then, and reached down to clasp Phil’s shoulder. “Son, I’m a lot older than you — although I know that this might seem like the clichés that many old people drone on about — but all of human existence is defined by birth and death, the two endpoints of every merely human life, and as you grow older you’ll come to recognize the sweetness in that. It’s bearable, even a joy, because it gives us the opportunity to give ourselves to something that will outlive us — in the simplest biological sense our children, but also our human societies, or even all existence. As a man intent upon a career in science, you’ve surely noticed that you learn from the selfless examples and lifeworks of countless other scientists, who’ve generously passed on the accumulated works of their hands and minds to whomever wants to take it up, the gift that truly keeps on giving, as it were. Scientia, knowledge, is an immortal human construct whose only real purpose is to be passed into the future when our own hands and minds grow too weak to grasp even the smallest part of it. Our children are much the same, our gift to humanity, carrying our genetic heritage, whatever that might be, but also our family values, whatever they were, forward into a future of which we’ll inevitably fail to see the full extent.” He shrugged, then grinned. “As the song says, ‘That’s life.’ ”
Phil grinned back at him. “Isn’t that a magazine?”
“It’s whatever you make of it, Phil, whatever you want. I think Selene’s just over there, by the way, not that it’s any sort of hint….” he pointed off towards the left, ahead of their path as led by Akcuanrut and D’lon-Ra, following Na-Noc, who was evidently headed towards Zampulus, but with curious side jaunts at long intervals, which the two evidently felt obliged to investigate, not trusting that these excursions by Na-Noc from the direct path to his Temple and Throne didn’t constitute a threat of some sort.
With a cheery wave, Phil ran off in that direction and Thundercloud carried on at an amble, feeling awfully pleased with himself as a matchmaker and lonely hearts advisor. Emily couldn’t help but smile, though, at the portentous name he’d taken on, ‘Or should that be pretentious?’ he thought.
When next the centaur stallion saw Phil, he and Selene were walking hand-in-hand back toward the main group, Selene as impeccably outfitted for the buxom barbarian babe trade as ever, but Phil was looking a little… disheveled, so Thundercloud was very pleased indeed. If there’s one thing more satisfying to a parent than dispensing sage advice, it’s having that advice acted upon with such alacrity. He waved at them and called out, “Selene! Phil!” feeling an expansive bonhomie. “What news from the front lines?”
Both of them blushed very prettily, and Thundercloud smiled. As they approached, he said more quietly, “I take it, then, that your… conversation went well?”
Selene answered for both of them. “It did. We’re going to get married officially,” she said and grinned. “I never thought I’d say that with such happiness, and from the extremely interesting perspective on marriage I now possess, but here I am.”
“That’s wonderful news, Selene. I’m very happy for you both. I suppose Akcuanrut would be the nearest civil and religious authority, and I’m sure that he’d be glad to perform whatever ceremony is appropriate to this world.”
“Actually, we’d like you to officiate at the ceremony, Thundercloud,” she said. “My Phil is Jewish, and the Ketubah is a contract between the woman and the man as individuals, as well as members of the larger community, so anyone can lead the service, more or less, as long as the proper formalities are adhered to.”
“I’d be honored, of course, Selene. What would I have to do?”
“Well, first we’ll have to draw up the Ketubah, the formal marriage contract, which spells out our obligations to each other.” She smiled and said, almost whispering, “Did you know that in Jewish law the husband is required to give sexual pleasure to his wife? The wife can bring a legal claim against him if he doesn’t live up to his legal obligations! Think of how many marriages might have been saved if that were part of every marriage.” She rolled her eyes expressively, then raised her voice again. “Anyway, we’re going to use an egalitarian format, because we both know who’s going to be doing the lionesses’ share of the ‘protecting,’ at least from physical dangers. Once we get back, we can have it copied over in fine calligraphy, but for now the plain text will do. Phil will tell you what we agreed on. We’ve already taken care of many of the details, since Phil was able to conjure up two very nice rings already.” She held up their hands, still entwined, to show off their wedding bands, rather elaborate by modern standards, but she was a barbarian, after all.
It wasn’t at all lost on Emily that they were already wearing their rings, so he imagined that Phil’s rumpled appearance was probably the result of their practical embarcation on their intimate married life, a bold initiative which he heartily approved of, given their circumstances. ‘Gather ye rosebuds while you may, \ Old Time is still a-flying: \ And this same flower that smiles to-day \ To-morrow will be dying,’ he thought to himself. Since a touch of melancholy added a certain poignancy to every happy occasion, he felt somewhat pleased to feel bittersweet tears well up and begin flowing down his cheeks.
That very evening, when the centaurs had to rest and eat in any case, they held the ceremony. Somehow, Akcuanrut had managed to scare up enough white fabric to create a makeshift canopy, or chuppah, held aloft on sapling poles held in turn by four young centaur fillies from the herd. Thundercloud had set down in his most careful script two copies of the marriage contract — as dictated by Phil — on the finest linen paper they had — a part of Akcuanrut’s magical kit. Wine and ale they had in plenty, since neither of the two native humans — assuming that D’lon-Ra was still fully human, despite his odd appearance and size — thought that ordinary water was fit to drink.
At first he’d been confused by the contract, because it talked about the coming ceremony as if it had already occurred, but then Phil explained that they’d already agreed upon the wording and had exchanged their betrothal vows and gifts privately, so the ceremony was primarily to obtain the required witnesses to the document itself, which belonged, in some sense, to Selene, because it also spelled out her bridal gifts and the payments she was due if Phil died or divorced her. At this point, Selene had interrupted, explaining that the last phrase was actually redundant, since divorcing her would be the very next to the last thing he did in this life, excluding only his last breath. She did promise to make his demise very quick, however, and painless, for ‘sentimental reasons,’ as she put it, which both males present had agreed was very considerate, considering that they didn’t exactly know if she was joking or not.
At the last minute, Phil had suggested that they include three witnesses, to preserve their options, as he’d put it, since some courts might insist upon male signatories with an unclouded history, so they finally wound up with both Mr. and Mrs. Lanyon as witnesses, with each being the backup for the other, plus Akcuanrut as either second or third witness, and a local resident to boot, as well as the duly-constituted local civil and religious authority, a servant of the Imperial Crown.
First Herbert signed as Dr. Herbert ‘Wildflower’ Lanyon the Sixth, MD, PhD, explaining as she did that she’d finally decided on a new name, and had deliberately chosen it to be similar to Windflyer, since, as she’d said, ‘Windflyer is my sister now.’ Then he signed as Emily Anne ‘Thundercloud’ Kennedy-Lanyon, hyphenating his maiden name as a remembrance of his patrilineal heritage. Acky signed last, of course, and had an elaborate series of names, dozens of titles, and a very intricate gold seal, which he applied to both copies of the contract with sealing wax and embedded ribbons, and which all made a fairly impressive document, even without formal calligraphy and elaborate colored inks. Then he cast a spell on both, which he explained would protect both copies from fire, flood, theft, and any possible damage or destruction.
Then came the fun part.
Akcuanrut and Thundercloud led Phil beneath the chuppah canopy, perhaps one of the more notable sights one might see, with an unclothed centaur and a formally-robed Wizard in ceremonial garb leading a young man in Highland dress — kilt, sporran, plaid, ruffled blouse and all — beneath the wedding canopy, where they waited while Windflyer and Wildflower led Selene — tastefully-attired in her leather bustier and not much else, aside from her ubiquitous knives — three times around the chuppah, which Phil explained reënacted through symbolism a wife’s particular power and duty to protect her husband, and her future family, from both moral and physical harm.
Then Phil took Selene’s hand, placed the ring he’d made upon her ring finger and said, “With this ring, I, Philip Avraham Cohn, consecrate and sanctify you, Selene, to me as my wife according to ancient Jewish tradition and betroth you to me in everlasting faithfulness forever. I shall treasure you, nourish you, and respect you as have all those husbands who have devoted themselves to their wives with love and integrity throughout the generations. ‘Set me as a seal upon your heart, like this seal upon your hand, for love is stronger than death.’ Let our home be built on truth and loving-kindness, rich in wisdom and reverence. May we always keep these words from the Song of Songs in our hearts as a symbol of our eternal commitment to each other: ‘I am my beloved’s, and my beloved is mine.’ I joyfully enter into this covenant and solemnly accept its obligations forever and for all time. My promises to you, in the presence of our loving friends, are valid and binding under the laws of this and every world.”
After Phil had finished, Selene took his hand in turn, placed the ring he’d made for them upon his ring finger and said, “With this ring, I, Selene Utterson, consecrate and sanctify you, Philip, to me as my husband according to ancient Jewish tradition and betroth you to me in everlasting faithfulness forever. I shall treasure you, nourish you, and respect you as have all those wives who have devoted themselves to their husbands with love and integrity throughout the generations. ‘Set me as a seal upon your heart, like this seal upon your hand, for love is stronger than death.’ Let our home be built on truth and loving-kindness, rich in wisdom and reverence. May we always keep these words from the Song of Songs in our hearts as a symbol of our eternal commitment to each other: ‘I am my beloved’s, and my beloved is mine.’ I joyfully enter into this covenant and solemnly accept its obligations forever and for all time. My promises to you, in the presence of our loving friends, are valid and binding under the laws of this and every world.”
Then they held hands and faced their guests, saying together, “We are now husband and wife, and joyfully enter into this covenant with each other in the presence of our loving friends as token and pledge of our eternal troth, and solemnly accept its obligations and joys. Our promises to each other, made in the presence of our loving friends, and including the full terms and written promises made in our marriage contract, are valid and binding under the laws of this and every world.”
Akcuanrut then stood before them both and began chanting in an arcane language that no one but he actually knew, but he’d assured them privately were the traditional marriage blessings on this world, and perfectly compatible with their own traditions. Mercifully, this part didn’t last too long, but then it came time for the toast, in which Phil raised a glass of wine to toast the good health of his new bride, something like RAF pilots toast the King, drank the wine, then wrapped the glass in a linen handkerchief and broke it, crying “Mazeltov!” so that the glass he’d consecrated to his bride could never be used for any other purpose, although of course no one present really knew exactly what the last word meant, other than Selene and Phil himself.
The guests knew enough about theater, however, to realize that it was time to cheer, the which they did with great enthusiasm.
After what seemed like an endless round of congratulations, hugs, and best wishes, the happy couple were shooed off into the darkness, toward a secluded bower wherein concealed were held private conversations in which we have no further interest.
Copyright © 2000, 2001, 2002 Jeffrey M. Mahr — All Rights Reserved
Copyright © 2012 Levanah Greene — All Rights Reserved
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