The Jekyll Legacy
Victorian alchemy meets modern science and magic.
What could possibly go wrong?
Vixi Puellis nuper idoneus
et militavi non sine gloria…
Once I lived on easy terms with girls,
and in love’s battles was not without glory…
— Horace (Quintus Horatius Flaccus), Carmina iii:26
Akcuanrut felt very pleased with himself, and with his Apprentice, who’d performed his part flawlessly, extending his range beyond the immediate horde to include every willing centaur mare in the immediate vicinity, all of whom were pregnant now, if they hadn’t been before. With those he hadn’t changed during his first conjuration, the results would be a little more uneven, but it was certain that a new and more robust race of centaurs would be worthy allies against the Dark, and that Thundercloud’s seed would eventually fill the world with his distant progeny. “Shall we be off?” he suggested.
“Sounds like a good idea. Time and tide wait for no man,” Phil said.
“What?” the wizard said, baffled by Phil’s words.
“It’s an Earth saying. It means that natural processes tick right along, whether one is ready or not. It’s getting on toward dawn, and the more distance we can cover before full daylight the better, I’d think.”
“Oh. Why not say so, then?”
“It’s a habit of obscurity, very popular amongst the wizards of Earth. One can speak the most ridiculous nonsense, and if one says it with enough conviction, a great many people will believe you.”
Akcuanrut, that great Wizard, merely rolled his eyes.
Phil was in charge of leading the pursuit, while Akcuanrut was to go off with the supposedly disaffected larger party, so they staged a loud public quarrel, complete with appearances by some of the other centaur stallions as a supporting cast, to stage public battles — a common enough occurrence amongst the stallions in any case — and a milling confusion amongst the larger herd slated to go off toward the rear in a huff. The mares had all thought the whole process was delightfully droll, but D’lon-Ra had assured them that this sort of fractious tension would be exactly what Na-Noc would expect.
Oddly enough, both Selene and Rhea were out of sorts, since Selene had been selected to go ahead with Akcuanrut’s larger group, while Rhea was to carry out the ‘pursuit’ with Phil’s remaining group, which included, through necessity, Thundercloud, as the most visible new centaur, and a number of his wives, all of whom were similar enough to Wildflower as to make no difference at any sort of distance, but neither Wildflower nor Windflyer were coming, since they had very high status amongst the mares, as the two who’d actually mated with Thundercloud, and would be able to hold them together as a unitary force without the ‘help’ of any interloping stallions.
Phil had had the devil of a time convincing Selene to go ahead without him, despite all the intellectual arguments in favor of having her there to supervise their initial investment of the Lost Temple. “Don’t you see, Honey?” he’d said. “I love your sister dearly, but she hasn’t quite the head for strategic planning that you do. I’d trust her with my life in a heartbeat, were we set upon by an army of villains, even two armies! but with all deference and respect, would hesitate to trust a shopping list written by her without your assistance.”
She scowled and said, “Yes, but neither do I trust her fully against the wily Na-Noc. What if he takes the opportunity to turn on the reduced Army, so as to defeat us in detail?”
“I doubt it, Sweetheart. He knows well the power of even two centaurs against him, and we have hundreds, in addition to what must seem to him a powerful Wizard, having seen — or at least we suspect he saw — me ‘defeat’ Akcuanrut with spectacular displays of sound and fury. D’lon-Ra will be able to keep me apprised of his whereabouts, so it seems unlikely that he could arrange any ambush other than a boobytrap, and without explosives it’s difficult to imagine any effective deterrent that could be arranged by a blob on the run, without support. There must be something back in the Temple which he believes will aid him, and since he has no higher purpose or belief than the survival of himself, he’ll have to take advantage of whatever it is. I can’t imagine him sacrificing himself to the ‘Lower Power of Darkness’ for any feelings of loyalty or love, since he has neither.”
She’d grumbled, but she’d left on schedule, after telling him that if any harm came to him, it had better be fatal, since she’d be sure to kill him if he came to any hurt. Phil was pretty sure that she was only indulging in a little hyperbole to make a point, but had assured her that he was probably immortal now, since he’s married a Goddess, and she was slightly mollified, kissing him when they’d parted as if she’d never let him go, but of course she did, and now Phil was faced with executing the biggest, boldest, ‘Hail Mary’ play he’d ever tried.
He called D’lon-Ra and Rhea over, after Selene had finished kissing her sister goodbye, and threatening her as well, if their mutual scowls were any indication, Rhea having been warned to bring back Phil intact, or suffer the consequences. Phil smiled. He loved his wife dearly, but was glad that they were here instead of back on Earth, since her socialization skills tended rather well away from the ‘ladylike’ norms in upstate New York, even in these modern times. He could imagine her discussing the latest issue of House Beautiful only with difficulty, and seeing her perusing the latest trends at Bergdorf Goodman with fashion magazine in hand seemed as ludicrous to him as the two of them flying to the Moon.
“D’lon-Ra, can you tell us where Na-Noc is right now?”
“Of course.” He pointed out across the plain before them toward a deeply-carved butte that rose starkly in the middle of the flat area they were travelling through.
There were other, similar, weathered outcroppings scattered across the plain, but this was the largest of them, about five miles away, if Phil could trust his sense of space and scale in this new environment. “What do you think, Rhea? Shall we make him nervous?”
Rhea grinned, much as a wolf might grin, with no sense of humor at all. “Oh, yeah. I’d like that very much.”
“Then let’s ride, guys and gals!”
With that, they swung aboard the largest of the centaur mares remaining for the trek across the intervening distance, aiming directly toward where Na-Noc lay hidden, spying on them to discover what they were up to.
Rhea whooped in delight to be involved in action at last. “Let’s give the nasty bastard something to really worry about!”
“Exactly!” Phil shouted as the herd of centaurs thundered across the plain, closing on Na-Noc’s lair with most excellent dispatch.
Na-Noc was frightened, panicking, although he’d felt a rush of loathing and triumph when he’d seen the disagreements break out amongst his pursuers. The remaining force was headed straight towards him, a war party of them, a mounted troop led by that cursed off-world Wizard and at least one of the barbarian warriors, galloping at him boldly, as if they could see where he lay hidden and were closing in in triumph, sure of victory. Although there didn’t seem to be as many of them as before, there were still hundreds of the cursed centaurs, and only two of them had been able to cut him almost to pieces with their burning hooves. Plus, that unknown Wizard who’d defeated Akcuanrut had powers that he couldn’t understand — and therefore feared — and he’d just seen the sort of spectacular power he could raise, lighting up the sky in weird rituals the like of which he’d never seen, evidently some intrinsic property of the strange world he’d come from, to judge from that room of hurtful wickedness he’d just barely escaped from there, half-filled with magical tomes whose sole property seemed to be enmity toward those like him, and magical snares, the glass windows which had exploded when he’d cast his Portal spell, burning him like fire, wasting his substance like a candle flame might wither cobwebs. He cursed his own stupidity in coming back to spy out the reason for their delay, because there was no way to retreat in safety until darkness, which was a good ten hours away, and the ice tower was at least two days beyond his present position. From the looks of them, they’d be here at his little impromptu fortress within the hour, probably sooner if they kept up their present pace. Unwilling to face them, he did the only thing he could, and poured himself down through the largest cracks in the rocks, trying to find some place of hidden safety in which to coalesce before the attenuated portions of his body could revolt against his mastership and betray him, either through splitting off to form a rival body, by absconding with the Heart, leaving him powerless, or by mere desertion, like that nasty piece of work, D’lon-Ra, whom Na-Noc could feel headed back toward the Heart, as inexorably as an iron nail drew towards a lodestone.
Akcuanrut, after studying the landscape, thought that they were sufficiently removed from the area that Na-Noc might reasonably have kept under surveillance, and so began his preparations for the masterstroke. As his clever Apprentice had pointed out, magic depends upon one’s stance upon the ground, and upon one’s knowledge of his tools, so he brought out the arrow and string he’d used in the Cave of Despair and levitated it, just as before. To his immense satisfaction, it pointed straight towards the point where it had last felt the mysterious force that twisted the corridor back upon itself, so from there it was a fairly simple task to open a small Portal, sized to fit the corridor itself, so people didn’t inadvertently walk into a wall. “Who’d like go first,” he said cheerfully.
“I will, of course,” Selene said, taking up a torch handily prepared and burning by the entrance to the open Portal, which glowed as a soft amber outline in the air. Without a further word, she ran lightly through the entrance and disappeared without a sound, nor indeed any indication that she’d ever been there.
There was a long silence as they all stood in a sort of inchoate dread and awe, caught between fear that something might have happened to her, and amazement at her casual courage, running boldly into the unknown.
After what seemed like an eternity, she ran out again and said, as nonchalantly as if she’d just stepped out to check the weather, “It’s all just as it was, clear to the entrance to the well we descended from the throne room, and back again to the awful room we found Na-Noc cowering in. I didn’t call up from the entrance to the corridor to see whether your party was still encamped in the throne room, but figured a sudden appearance would be safer, all in all. There’s plenty of room in the corridor for quite a force, especially if we use the cavern off the corridor as a staging point, so I’d say we were ready to proceed.” With that, she turned around, as if she planned to run back in.
“Wait!” Wildflower cried out, forestalling Selene’s impetuous intention. “I’d like to prepare the women to let them know what they’re walking into in slightly more detail. It won’t take but a moment, and we’ll need them to understand exactly what they ought to do. We don’t want them wandering around in areas we haven’t already explored, because there might be more traps, so I’d like Akcuanrut available before we wander off into any sort of unknown territory.”
Selene considered that for only an instant before she nodded her head and said, “Good idea. Go ahead, Wildflower. If we stage the herd in the room off the corridor, it’s immediately to the left, and I’ve already marked the entrance with two white rags on the floor of the corridor and scratched soot marks on the wall to either side. It’s a little difficult to see where the doorway is disguised, so it might be better if you went first to lead them in. Be sure to tell them not to touch anything until we can verify that everything is safe. Once we get up to the top of the well, we’ll hopefully find Acky’s lesser Apprentices waiting for us, and at least a few men-at-arms from D’lon-Ra’s retinue.”
Wildflower asked the obvious question, “What do we tell them about the centaurs.”
Akcuanrut answered, after a moment’s thought, “Nothing right now, I think. I’ll let them know that these are magic horses under my authority, and are not to be interfered with or disturbed by anyone, to prevent either fear or greed if any of the retainers discover that there are centaurs near enough to touch. The sheer size of the supposed ‘horses’ ought to be enough to discourage casual inspection, and fear of me, and of my magic, should disuade the exercise of any further curiosity.”
“In which case, perhaps we should clear the throne room before we clutter it with too many ‘horses,’ and make some provision for sanitation, ”
Akcuanrut blinked, obviously unaccustomed to handling mundane details. “Well, yes…. I suppose I can ask some of my Apprentices to handle that.” Then he brightened and said, “That will give me a reason to clear the throne room as well, to create a stable big enough for all my ‘magic horses.’ Just remember to tell your friends not to let their magic slip until we’ve prepared the way to make this startling revelation in safety.”
“Good enough, I’d say,” Wildflower said. “Shall we start? I’ll just tell everyone to follow the woman in front of her, and lead the way into the cavern off the corridor. It ought to be big enough to stage our forces for an hour or two, but I don’t want to be cooped up down there for any length of time.” She made a face. “Quite frankly, it’s too icky.” Then she had a thought. “Do you think any of the Dark Gods are still hanging around there? That’s where we encountered them before, after all.”
The wizard said, “No, not as I understand their powers, because the presence of Na-Noc gave them access to the room, and the presence of the Heart of Virtue, of course. With both absent, their purview and capabilities will be limited.”
“Okay, just wondering,” she said. With that, she walked back to the gathered centaurs and began talking to them quietly.
“Shall we start?” Selene asked the wizard, obviously anxious to be on their way.
“Yes. Phil will be able to find this spot easily, and restore the Portal now that it’s been set.” He beamed at her. “He’s quite talented, you know. By far the best of all my apprentices, from first to latest.”
Selene grinned back at the portly wizard. “I think he’s pretty darned swell as well,” she said. Then she called out, for the single cogent reason than she’d once seen an ancient John Ford video in monochrome, “Wagons, Ho!” and set off back through the Portal. Akcuanrut followed close behind, in case his magical services were needed, followed by Wildflower, Windflyer, the pair of them almost inseparable now, and the rest of the centaurs with most of the supplies they’d hauled along. It took quite a while before the last centaur had walked through the glowing door into the space hidden somewhere between the wide expanses of the world.
Inside the cavern, the physical darkness was held at bay by hundreds of flickering torches magically conjured by Akcuanrut as he explained how the corridor they’d just passed through was the entrance to the throne room high above their heads, but that they’d have to float up the well-shaft before they could actually see what the situation above them was. “First, though,” he said, “I’d like you all to take a look at the images sculpted on this wall, images in which our enemy so delighted that he chose them to decorate his private antechamber. This is what we’re fighting, a monster dedicated to the most depraved evil. Pay particular attention to the large relief above the doorway into the hall, because it shows centaurs being butchered for their hooves and bones. Our enemy, the Dark, is the being who corrupted human men by tempting them with centaur magic, but only by means of the expenditure of centaur blood and lives. Notice too that the images also depict the butchering of men, because our enemy hates all of life, men, centaurs, even the birds that fly through the sky, the mice that scurry through the grass, and the air we breathe.”
There was an angry murmur of voices that rose to a crescendo of fury. “Let our enemy beware,” one voice rose above the rest.
“Exactly!” said the wizard. “Now, let us go see who’s waiting for us in the throne room above, our one true enemy, or all our friends,” he declared, and with that led them through the door.
Wildflower followed close behind, anxious to be first, whether to encounter friend or foe, because she’d faced their enemy before. At the well shaft, she didn’t hesitate, but allowed the wizard to swing himself onto her back, which he did with surprising grace for such a stout fellow, and leapt out into the middle of the air, then began rising as the wizard began speaking in some foreign tongue, presumably a cantrip of some sort.
As it turned out, it was a good idea, because the wizard’s apprentices and some of the retainers were gathered around the edge of the well and two of the archers had already loosed arrows when the reached the upper edge of the shaft. The arrows halted in mid-flight and the wizard cursed, “Fools! Cowards!” he shouted. “Do you start at shadows and attempt to murder your friends and Master though timidity and nervous fits of utter folly? Use your nerve! Make yourself steel for the sake of our struggle, for our enemy has many tricks to do us hurt, not least of which is encouraging dolts to act in haste! Stand down! All of you, stand down!”
Their weapons lowered, the men at arms knelt and the apprentices quailed before their master’s wrath. “Pardon, Master, but you’ve been gone for so very long, we thought that you’d been killed.”
“So naturally thought to finish the job, now you see me returned from the dead?” he asked with caustic irony. Then his anger abated slightly, and he said, “As you can see, I am unhurt, but the same cannot be said for all our party. D’lon-Ra was sorely hurt, but still alive, I think, and will follow eventually. A caution, though, in that he was touched by our enemy, and is diminished from what he was, and in fact I know not exactly what he is now, so do me the courtesy of treating him well, but with some lingering suspicion. In other words, keep an eye on him when you see him, but with considerably more circumspection than you’ve shown just now. He’ll be the one impossible to recognize, but try very hard not to do him anything but outward honor, since he lost much in our battle with the Dark, which is currently personified in the empty shell of Na-Noc, once the Emperor’s great Champion. We may see more of him later, so beware.”
“Yes, Master,” said what seemed to be the head apprentice.
“My friends will follow at length, including an entire herd or two of enchanted horses, with whom no one is to meddle, nor will anyone make inquiry, other than to ensure that the arrangements are sufficient. Make the throne room ready as a stable immediately, with clean straw for the floor, and fresh grasses and grains and fruits for fodder, and bring me and my friends some food! Too long have I been made to endure camp rations.” Then, as an afterthought, almost, he added, “And someone send a swift messenger to the Emperor, that we have encountered the Heart of Virtue, but have it not yet in hand.” Then, as a second afterthought, he said, “And be very sure that the fodder is of a quality you wouldn’t mind eating yourself, because if I detect any filth or impurity, you will.” And with that he smiled, vaulted heavily off his mount, and took a seat at the same table he’d commandeered so long before.
When no one seemed to be stirring, seemingly still dumbfounded, he shouted, “What? Waiting for a formal invitation to be about your work? Get moving! All of you, get moving! Before I roast your lazy bums with fire!” and there was a sudden burst of energy and people started running….
…which was just as well, because Selene and Windflyer were next up the shaft, followed closely by a large number of centaurs, what seemed like an unending fountain of wild horses, to judge from the startled looks the servants gave them as they went running in many directions, all trying to comply with all the Wizard’s imperious demands at once. “That’s better,” he said.
“Hi, Acky!” said Selene, as she vaulted lithely from Windflyer’s back, who looked about herself in amazement, never having seen the interior of a human structure, nor indeed the outside of a structure big enough to contain the throne room, much less the throne room plus the abominable cavern in the basement.
“Just so you know, Selene, this temple is grandiose even by Imperial standards, made possible only by the fact that they seem to have carved most of its structure out of solid rock.” The wizard spoke as if to Selene, but addressed Windflyer’s obvious concern, confident that she would let the others know. “We didn’t have a chance to tour the entire edifice before we were so rudely called away, so perhaps we can take a ride through the empty corridors, to familiarize yourself with the layout.”
“Good idea,” she said. “In fact, let’s start now, so we can check out possible weak points and potential defenses.”
“Now?” he asked, somewhat wistfully, as he saw his apprentices bringing the first delectables from his store.
“Well, maybe we should grab a sandwich first. It’s been a busy day.”
Akcuanrut rolled his eyes and nodded, gritting his teeth in manful discipline, unwilling to speak just then, lest he regret it later.
D’lon-Ra was screeching in his squeaky little voice, pointing, “Up there! There it is! You can catch him now! Destroy him!” He was still on the back of one of the centaurs, but looked almost set to leap from her back, so eager was he to investigate a cave set high up on the side of the butte, worn and pitted as if by water, but dry as a bone right then. The slope below the cave looked slightly carved as well, possibly by a seasonal stream and waterfall, but the opening wasn’t all that big, and the putative waterfall was at most modest in size.
Phil turned to look at them, “We’re here to harry him, D’lon-Ra, until the main body of our warriors arrive. What do you mean by taking it upon yourself to order me about?” It hadn’t escaped him that D’lon-Ra had said, ‘There it is.’ so his deep suspicions were aroused.
“You! You’re just Akcuanrut’s Apprentice! And this woman is beneath contempt! I’m still the Emperor’s Champion, so I’m in charge here.”
“Shut up, D’lon-Ra!” Phil was instantly wary. That idiot D’lon-Ra obviously had an agenda of his own, and it was making him reckless and foolishly puffed up with his own cleverness and importance, all at once, a dangerous combination in a being less than one foot tall and a brain the size of a cocker spaniel’s.
“You! You!” D’lon-Ra screeched again. “He’ll get away, he’ll take it….”
High above the troop of centaurs and their three riders, Na-Noc was both listening and delighted. He’d evidently been mistaken about the identity of the Wizard from the other world, so the news that this one was merely an apprentice was welcome news. He crept toward the edge of his hiding place, just barely big enough to contain his body. Extending one eye carefully, as if it were a snake creeping toward the edge of the small cave, he managed to catch a glimpse of the centaurs below him, because he knew that it was these who held the power to burn him. There weren’t too many, and it looked like there was a rocky way back up the cliff above him, so if he could capture that noisy little D’lon-Ra again, they’d lose their ability to track him. Perhaps he could kill that apprentice wizard at the same time, weakening his enemies while making him that much stronger. Making his plan swiftly, while D’lon-Ra was still screeching, he gathered himself into warrior form and leapt towards his enemies below.
D’lon-Ra was the first to fall, snatched from the back of a centaur with one hand and clasped to his naked chest, to be instantly reabsorbed, along with all his memories, and Na-Noc then sneered at the pathetic presumptions of these amateurs posing at dangerous adventurers. “Now die, fool!” he cried as he turned from the spot recently occupied by D’lon-Ra toward the amateur apprentice, who stood his ground armed only with a dagger. Na-Noc reached out with one lazy hand, contemptuous of his laughable foe. He only hoped that Akcua… but when he touched the puny thing, something went horribly wrong.
Na-Noc’s screams were almost palpable — shifting up and down a desperate discordant scale at random — as Phil, ever quick at thinking on his feet, grabbed at Na-Noc’s disintegrating arm with his bare hand and began hacking at him with his dagger, and everywhere he struck the evil flesh beneath his blows melted into liquid, and then boiled away into fetid gas, releasing a foul stench into the air. Even the touch of his hand seemed like poison to the creature, the faux-skin and faux-bone melting beneath his fingers like warm gelatine, so it was difficult to maintain his grip, having constantly to shift his faltering hold closer to the thing’s main body, finding new undead flesh to hold, new parts to carve away with his knife, and all the while Na-Noc screamed, “Mercy! Mercy!” wailing in what seemed like agony, not that Phil cared overmuch. In the end, it was as if Na-Noc was pulling himself apart in trying to get away, his attack forgotten, the various bits of him stretching out in all directions, and some clumps were even fighting amongst themselves, such a hive of chaotic activity and disgusting seething that it resembled a time-lapse video of a decaying body, except that bodies don’t usually eat themselves, and don’t usually bubble and vaporize into thin air. Just then, a portion of the body about the size of a jackrabbit managed to separate itself from the main mass, reïntegrate itself into something ugly with four legs, then bolted off toward the cliff, scrabbling upward to escape, and the other bits of the still churning Na-Noc body began to coalesce into four distinct portions, shrinking themselves inward, separating from each other with what seemed almost like aversion once they reached a certain… firmness and structure. it seemed… almost… like meiosis! that form of cell division that creates both gametes and spores, where each part winds up with a different mixture of genes.
In wild surmise, he reached toward the separate portions with his hands and two particular lumps, diametrically opposite and still churning, tried to escape, while the other two showed no such reaction. Steeling himself, he plunged his hands into the mass of squirming not-flesh that didn’t like his touch, grasping all those bits that seemed averse to contact but leaving the rest alone, but every portion that attempted to escape withered and burned away, like Na-Noc himself, so he was left at last with two separate lumps struggling toward coherence and integrity, two nascent shapes emerging from the deliquescing goo that had been Na-Noc, until they looked like two dolls, quite a bit smaller than D’lon-Ra had been, but similar in structure, soft around the edges.
One of the lumps managed to form arms, then legs, a head, eyes, a mouth, and then the other, as if learning from the other’s experience, following along in slightly-tardy synchrony, and then the first helped the other to stand, at first faltering, then stronger, as they supported each other into shaky bipedalism.
Phil looked at the two ‘dolls’ in dawning comprehension, “Mr. and Mrs. Utterson, I presume.”
Both ‘dolls’ looked at him directly, their faces still blurry, not yet not fully formed, seeming twins still, and nodded.
One of the figures, it must have been Mrs. Utterson because he thought that he could see the slight swelling of her bosom, finally managed to open her mouth and speak, pointing toward him at the same time, “Behind you!” she squeaked, so shrill as to be almost beyond hearing.
He looked at her, puzzled. “What?”
She squeaked again, by now very angry, for her reactions were very quick, which made her voice rise to an almost ultrasonic pitch that he could barely comprehend. “Look behind you! You moron! That woman! She’s dying!”
“Woman? What woman?” Belatedly, he remembered Rhea charging with him across the plain to this very spot. “Rhea!” he shouted. He whirled around and looked behind him. Just as he’d been told, Rhea was sprawled across the path, her head hanging over the edge into the dry stream bed that led down from the dry waterfall, while the centaur she’d been riding lay dead on the path below, arms splayed, legs and eyes glazed over.
“Rhea!” he yelled, as if yelling could wake her. He knelt down to look more carefully, but she appeared uninjured except for a dark bruise on one breast, so he undid her watchamacallit to inspect the area more thoroughly. She was breathing, but just barely, and quite unconscious. He was inspecting the bruise, which seemed to be her only real injury, when he felt a tugging at his belt. When he looked down, the tiny woman was shouting at him again.
“She’s poisoned, you idiot! You’ll have to get the poison out of her somehow. If you diddle around like you’ve been doing, she be as dead as her horsey friend in two shakes of a lamb’s tail,”
“But how was she poisoned?”
She looked at him as if he’d suddenly sprouted a carrot on the end of his nose. “Really, does it matter? I assume your mother wasn’t quite as stupid as you are, because you’re still alive rather than being flushed down the toilet with the dirty diapers. Get it through your thick skull, dimwit, she’s poisoned! She’s going to Dee—Aye—Eee die while you sit here dithering. She was poisoned by Na-Noc, of course, and I presume his motive is obvious, or would you like to discuss the subject at length? I don’t know where he lived as a child, but doubtless you’ll find it a fascinating topic of conversation. Perhaps you could wander off and find an atlas of the world so we could try for a lucky guess. Nice weather we’re having today, isn’t it? Say, how about those Nicks? Twit!” She kicked his ankle in disgust, but he could hardly feel the impact.
Finally, his brain seemed to be working again, but it wasn’t doing him, or her much good. His touch had been inimical to Na-Noc, but he had no idea why, and when he’d touched her breast to inspect the bruise, not only had there been no entry point that he could see, but his touch hadn’t affected her. The bruise must be significant, though, and then he remembered something about Vodun and what they called ‘spirit arrows’ that could magically penetrate the skin and cause death through the ill wishes of the sender. Caught in time, the Mambos — the Vodun Priestesses — could supposedly cure the death wish with a blessing of some sort, but he had no idea what was involved. A chicken? No chickens around that he could see. Then he had a thought; if Na-Noc could kill with a wish, why wasn’t he dead? The only difference between them that he could see was that she was female and he was not, but that didn’t make sense, and he was married… she was not… “Eureka!” For some strange reason that he didn’t have time to figure out, kiddushin must have made the difference. The blessing? Quickly, he spoke the bracha of Refuah Sh’lemah, no joy. He had no water to wash his hands. Damn! He tried it again, this time touching her, laying his hand upon her breast, right on top of the bruise, which was growing rapidly draker as well as larger. Nothing, except she sighed as if she were giving up. Then in desperation, he did the only thing he could think of, a consecration, since a consecration requires no particular belief, a quality of existence and personal faith that he was a little behind on, even on his better days.
Quickly, he turned to the Uttersons behind him, “Be my witnesses,” he said, and conjured up about a pound or two of gold, surely enough, he thought, as a token.
“On this day, before these witnesses,”he said, speaking as quickly as he could, “I consecrate and sanctify you to me as my wife according to the laws and traditions of Moses and Israel. I will work, honor, feed, and support you in the custom of Jewish men, who work, honor, feed, and support their wives faithfully. I will give you the settlement of virgins, two hundred silver zuzim, which is due to you according to Torah law, as well as your food, clothing, necessities of life, and conjugal needs, according to universal custom. I further give you an additional two talents of gold, these sums to be paid from the entire best part of all the properties and possessions that I own under all the heavens, whether I own this property already, or will own it in the future. I further give you on your father’s behalf a dowry of some odd sheqels of gold, the amount to be determined upon weighing later. The obligation of this marriage contract, this dowry, and this additional amount, I accept upon myself and my heirs after me. All of it shall be mortgaged and bound as security to pay this marriage contract, this dowry, and this additional amount. It can be taken from me, even from the shirt on my back, during my lifetime, and after my lifetime, from this day forward and forever.”
Then he turned to the Uttersons and said, “Say that you have heard this contract made between us.”
Startled, they nodded, then said, “Yes.”
“Good enough.” He began to chafe her hand, saying, “Rhea, do you accept?”
She roused slightly, her color already improving. “Wha… yeah, sure. What’s going on?”
“Na-Noc poisoned you with some sort of death-wish, like a Voodoo curse.”
“So am I dead?” Now she was feeling much better. She struggled to get up but Phil put his hand on her shoulder to stay her.
“Lie still, Rhea, because you were very badly hurt and fell off your friend the centaur, who is dead through Na-Noc’s malice. I certainly hope you’re not dead, but move slowly until we can see whether the fall injured you or not, I’d hate to save your life and then lose you through over-zealous exercise of what might be broken bones, although I might be dead soon, when Selene finds out how I saved you.”
“Where is the nasty little turd, anyway?” She looked around them suspiciously.
“Na-Noc? He ran off like a jackrabbit, literally, only quite a bit uglier than the average jackrabbit. Bugs Bunny, he was not.”
Then she looked down at herself. “And could you please tell me exactly why my boobs are showing?”
“Look for yourself. See that bruise? That’s where the death-wish struck you, as far as I can tell. Ask her if you don’t believe me.” He pointed at Mrs. Utterson.
She blinked in surprise. “Who are they?”
“As far as I can tell, Mr. and Mrs. Utterson, distilled by magic out of what was left of Na-Noc’s body.” He thought about that for a moment. “Selene will be very pleased, I think. Perhaps enough to forgive me for the other thing.”
“What ‘other thing?’ Is that why someone removed my cute little leather bustier?” Oddly enough, she made no particular effort to cover herself, indeed, none at all.
Phil felt very awkward. He swallowed to clear his throat, then blurted out, all in a rush, “Well, Na-Noc tried to eat me, after he ate D’lon-Ra, which was after the little shit betrayed us, because he was after the Heart all along, just as Akcuanrut had feared. Anyway, when he — Na-Noc, that is — tried to absorb me, he started to burn up, and he was screaming, which was very distracting, but I managed to take advantage of his disadvantage to burn up quite a lot of him. Then, after a while, it became clear that there was more than one entity inside what was left of his body, one of whom I think was Na-Noc himself, but he escaped with the Heart off up the cliff, but very much diminished in size. There were four ‘lumps’ inside the body evidently struggling for control, and it reminded me of meiosis for some reason, the process by which eucaryotes create gametes for sexual reproduction, sorting out different characteristics into segregated haploid eggs or spermatozoa, so at that point I decided to use my newly-discovered ability to discourage creatures of the Dark by eliminating the two lumps who seemed to be evil — or at least they burned up when I touched them — so I think one of the two evil figures must have been D’lon-Ra, reverted to his natural state after being eaten for the second time. I have no idea who else was in there, but the two ‘good’ lumps got stronger over time, and gradually resolved into the two tiny people you see here, whom I firmly believe to be Mr. and Mrs. Utterson, Selene’s parents who were captured and absorbed by Na-Noc in the church. So thinking about the church made me think about how we were able to burn up Na-Noc with the hymnals, but I couldn’t figure out why he didn’t just burn up inside the church itself, and that got me thinking about the similarity between the hymnals,the stained glass windows, even the pulpit, and me. Every one of them — the hymnals and all, that is — had a dedication at the front, or on a brass plaque on or underneath it, where some family or person had dedicated them to the church as a particular gift set aside for religious services. Then I thought about our marriage, which uses a phrase that essentially does the same thing, consecrates and sanctifies one’s spouse as one’s wife or husband, so that’s when I had the sudden flash of insight: Dedication to a higher purpose must be inimical to the Dark, probably especially marriage, because it exists — at least in part — to sanctify sexual relations and the creation of new life, so I thought that Selene’s consecration of me as her husband is probably what saved me, nothing to do with me at all. Anyway, you were clearly dying, and Mrs. Utterson thought so too, and goaded me on, saying that I was an idiot — begging your pardon, Mrs. Utterson, but it made me mad — so I did the only thing that I could think of to ‘sanctify’ you enough to counteract the poison, and so married you with the non-egalitarian ceremony — which goes back to the olden days and only requires the wife to assent, not participate in the ritual of consecration as such — and you weren’t exactly capable of coöperating, for what it’s worth. And when you started to recover, you said ‘Yes,’ sort of, and were raring to go just a few seconds later. So there we are. Anyway, here’s your dowry,” he handed her a leather pouch he’d found among their supplies, but looked strong enough to safely carry the gold, so it was wasted on what looked like oatmeal, “and we can have the ‘marriage’ annulled later, so Selene won’t kill me.”
Rhea shook her head in instant negation. “Hold on a minute, cowboy! You say that this marriage will protect me from Na-Noc? Why on Earth — or wherever we are at the moment — would I want to give up magic armor like that in the middle of a war?” Then she looked at what he’d handed over, hefted it in her hand. “Say, this seems to be a whole lot more than what you gave Selene!”
“Well, I was in a hurry, and I didn’t have time to calculate how much I needed for the old-fashioned ceremony, and your father wasn’t there, so we couldn’t negotiate the necessary dowry, so I just sort of guessed what would be appropriate and gave you the required dowry on his behalf. It was all very irregular.”
“But it seems to have worked, didn’t it?” She looked thoughtful, an expression he’d seen on Hastie’s face many times, and didn’t fully trust at all.
“Well, yes,” he said reluctantly. “Although of course Na-Noc has other weapons. Knives, swords, even clubs are just as efficacious against us, but his peculiar horror, the ability to kill with a touch, and to absorb people into his undead body, seems ineffective against a consecrated opponent. The amounts are really symbolic, in any case, since they merely represent a moderately comfortable retirement in ancient times, so any amount will do, actually, as long as there is something of value given to the bride, so your consecration is spiritually valid, whatever the civil authorities back home might say.”
Her eyes narrowed suspiciously. “What about my ring? Where’s my ring? Isn’t that customary too? It’s a lucky thing you didn’t kill me, forgetting an important detail like that!”
“Well, yes, but….”
“I want to see a ring on that finger pronto, Mister.” She waggled her left-hand finger under his nose. “If I’m going to be protected, I want the first-rate stuff, the real McCoy. I might have a relapse otherwise. You never can tell about Voodoo curses. One has to be very careful for years afterward, and even then might turn into a zombie.”
“Do it now! Sweetie, or I’ll tell my sister you took advantage of me, and so had to marry me.” She smirked. “You certainly had my top off quick enough, and who knows what else you were up to while I was unconscious.”
“But…. Rhea,” he pleaded, “be reasonable about this! I can’t…. Selene….”
Rhea only smiled. She was quite sure that they could work something out between them, and she’d always been able to talk Selene into just about anything. If being married made her safer from that Na-Noc creep, then married was what she planned to be.
Copyright © 2000, 2001, 2002 Jeffrey M. Mahr — All Rights Reserved
Copyright © 2012 Levanah Greene — All Rights Reserved
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