The Jekyll Legacy
Victorian alchemy meets modern science and magic.
What could possibly go wrong?
Then felt I like some watcher of the skies
When a new planet swims into his ken;
Or like stout Cortes when with eagle eyes
He stared at the Pacific — and all his men
Looked at each other with a wild surmise —
Silent, upon a peak in Darien.
— John Keats On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer (1816)
“You did what?” Selene screamed reasonably. They were in a private antechamber off the throne room, which they’d commandeered as their quarters. The only light came from torches held in wall sconces, but it wasn’t half bad.
“Well, it seemed like a good idea at the time,” Phil said. “You see….”
“Never mind,” she sighed. “Once was enough already. I don’t expect that hearing it a second time will make any more sense. Please tell me that this was Rhea’s idea. This has all the earmarks of one of Hastie’s ‘Really Great Plans.’ We both know where listening to ‘Hastie’ leads us.”
“Well, to be perfectly fair,” he said, “it was my own idea originally, but Rhea was unconscious at the time, and dying by the looks of it. The centaur she’d been riding, Bluebell I think it was, but it’s difficult to say with them all looking so much alike, was definitely dead, and she had the same sort of bruise on her neck that Rhea had on her upper breast, so I believe that Mrs Utterson, your mother I mean, had it right when she said that she was dying. I couldn’t let her die, could I? I mean, she’s your sister and all, not to mention a fellow human being.”
Selene sighed. “Yes… I mean no, you couldn’t actually let her die, but this is exactly how I always get sucked into her crazy schemes; she makes a ‘simple plan,’ and it all sounds so very logical and reasonable, almost foolproof, but then it turns out that it wasn’t simple at all, except by then it’s too late to stop and I’m trapped on a roller-coaster ride straight through Hell.”
“Well, it hasn’t been all that bad this time, has it?” He looked worried, as well he might, but wanted to point out what she seemed to have overlooked, “If it weren’t for Rhea’s ‘crazy plan,’ we’d never have met… well, you know what I mean… certainly would never have fallen in love and gotten married, so I’m afraid I can’t be too upset about her original plan in this particular instance.”
She thought for a moment, then reluctantly agreed. “True, and I apologize for the careless implication. You’re absolutely right; her last plan turned out well, and especially so for me.” She smiled at him and leaned into an embrace to show she meant it. “This one time, she got at least part of the equation right, and I’m profoundly grateful, but you don’t know what Hastie was like. She had an uncanny ability to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory, usually when it came at my expense.”
“Sweetheart, we can’t blame her for Na-Noc, the Dark Gods, and the end of the world as we know it, because that was right on track to happen already, and we just stumbled along in time to… maybe… help to stop it, so that’s another time her schemes turned out to be… if not perfect, at least not so very bad.”
Her brows furrowed. “But isn’t polygamy illegal in Judaism?” she asked, grasping at a straw.
Unfortunately, he didn’t have a straw to spare. “Sort of. Although both legal and common among the Patriarchs, and thus encompassed within the purview of Jewish Law, it hasn’t been permitted for a thousand years, at least in the Western Jewish tradition, but like almost everything in the Law, there are ‘exceptions’ made where not allowing it would be dangerous, or even some sort of hardship. The usual case in which polygamy is definitely allowed involves a woman who is ill, or possibly infertile, but very much loved, and the husband wishes to marry again and have children, which is his obligation as a Jewish man. Theoretically, this sort of thing requires the agreement of a hundred Rabbis, but since there are exactly zero Rabbis available here, that would be classified as a hardship, so of course there’d be an exception made, if anyone were around to do it, and so the buck, as they say, stops here.”
“And as she cleverly pointed out,” Selene extrapolated, “if being consecrated to you in marriage might help to save her life if Na-Noc — or any of the Dark Gods — attacked her, which they’re almost certain to do eventually, since we mean to deliberately get in the way of their plan to destroy this part of the Universe, that would definitely be a hardship as well, and so permitted.” She sniffed. “Trust Rhea to find a sneaky way to look out for Number One and make it sound like it was someone else who did it for her.”
“That just about sums it up succinctly enough,” he admitted, “and you’re right in that staying married was her idea, in fairly pure self-interest. I’d immediately offered to have the marriage annulled, of course, once she’d recovered, but she refused in no uncertain terms, not to mention that she threatened to blackmail me if I even tried to annul the marriage by telling you that I’d made improper advances toward her, which I didn’t think that you’d believe, but one never knows, especially when caught in such an awkward situation, since you might reasonably take offense at my taking up a second wife, no matter how compelled I felt by desperate circumstance.”
“She can be utterly ruthless, when she wants something,” Selene acknowledged. “She’s such a sneaky conniver at times that I’m tempted to forget her good qualities.”
“I’d already formed the same impression of her — based, I have to admit, on prior experience with Hastie — but I truly don’t think that she ever means any real harm. She just wants her own way, and if what she sees as a ‘tiny little white lie,’ — or a tiny little bit of sneakiness — helps her to achieve her ends, so much the better. She’s an only child, with fairly distant parents, especially her father, who should have taken Hastie in hand from an early age, but he didn’t, which resulted in the happy-go-lucky Hastie we both knew and liked, at least, something of a child even as he grew towards manhood, but always fun to hang out with, with a reckless enthusiasm that many outgrow. I don’t think that we can truly blame Rhea for all her faults, and we each of us have faults of our very own, so it ill-behooves us to quibble about her particular selection.”
“Damn!” she said, “Just when did you get so smart and compassionate?” She reached out to ruffle his hair, and then she kissed him, just a little, just for luck.
“About the same time that I discovered how wonderful you are, I think.” He reached out to touch her hair, so gently that it seemed like he was afraid that she might break, despite observation and experience to the contrary. “It makes me humble, an attitude ‘Hastie’ was never encumbered with, and Rhea seems not to have developed in the interim. But you’re also getting the picture about Jewish Law, which isn’t nearly as inflexible as many Gentiles make out, and indeed seems much more compassionate than the doctrines of many churches, although I confess that I don’t know all that much about them. The official line is that we’re supposed to live by the Torah, not die by it, so where there’s any conflict between the strict letter of the law and either health or survival, life wins, and then it’s a positive obligation to break the rules as cheerfully as possible, and without messing around. In fact, when there’s any doubt, the most learned scholar of the Law present during the situation is obliged to personally violate the Law, if possible, although there are, of course, necessary exceptions for medical and other specialized types of intervention.”
“And since there are no greater authorities than you in this entire world, you’re ‘it,’ as far as the obligation goes, and I’m your necessary accomplice, since it’s down to me as well, as your wife and life’s companion.” She laughed with surprisingly good grace. “That little minx! Whenever she gets me into one of these awkward scrapes, she always comes out smelling like a rose.”
“But it’s not really your obligation, dearest, and there are ramifications that Rhea may not have considered. Marriage is meant to be a safe harbor for children, and I’m not at all sure that Rhea intends anything more than marriage in name only. Without forcing the issue in any way, since I have exactly no interest in taking advantage of her, I misdoubt me that a sham marriage would be spiritually valid.”
“Au contraire, mon bien aimé, it is my obligation. ‘Entreat me not to leave you,’ and so on. Wither thou goest, I go, and so we’re all one happy family. She’s absolutely right, I think — however reluctantly I admit it — to insist upon the validity of her marriage — even though she’s being irritatingly smug about it — since it’s already saved her life, and your marriage to her still stands surety for the life you’ve already saved, so it would be churlish of us to refuse her that safety and consolation. It also seems to me that it would be irresponsible of me to fail to point out the full implications of that marriage to her, since she will undoubtedly have failed to understand the full ramifications of her situation in a world without modern gynecological and obstetric care.”
At this, Phil’s eyes widened — visibly demonstrating his own sudden comprehension of their own situation and belated realization of his former insouciance — but he didn’t say a word, even as he contemplated any of many potential futures.
She sighed. “And so, in her best interest, I’ll attempt to both persuade and enlighten her. I’ve always loved her, in a sisterly way, so it’s not too much of a stretch for me to do the right thing by her, and to encourage you to do the same, even if it’s a little disconcerting to find myself confronted by the awkward necessity. I do insist upon one thing, however. I won’t have her flaunting her dowry at me as a point of superiority, and she’s already hinted at it, so I’ll want one of my own, and I believe that, as senior wife, I can insist that mine be larger.”
“I believe that’s not only fair, but in keeping with tradition, and your father is hardly in a position to supply one on his own. We can easily add it to the contract as a codicil, with signatures, witnesses, and so on.”
“Not too much, dear — that would be cruel — but a significant amount.”
“Whatever you say, dearest. Our marriage contract really only comes into play if I die, or if you sue me for divorce, so I sincerely hope that it’s not a problem I’ll face within my lifetime, on many levels. I’ll ask Akcuanrut for more of his fancy paper and his services as a witness, because I’ll have to set down Rhea’s Ketubah as well, with your parents as the primary witnesses, since they heard my declaration of the terms, the gifts I gave her, and can attest to its substance, if not its entire validity without further explanation on my part, which of course I’ll offer.”
She smiled very briefly, then said, “Let’s all retire for the night, then. We may as well start now.”
“But nothing. If I am only for myself, then what am I? If not now, when? It’s your obligation to provide whatever… comfort… she needs, as well as protection, and I won’t have you shame our household by neglecting our hospitality through fastidious modesty, so it’s my obligation as well, letting her play Leah to my Rachel. Neither will I lie alone in the dark letting my imagination run away with me.” She laughed with more humor than one might expect. “If I have to put up with her, then she has to put up with me. She made her bed, now let her lie in it.”
“We should probably tell Rhea’s mother as well, since he ought to marry all his mares if we’re going to war.” He furrowed his brow slightly. “That sounds weird, doesn’t it?”
“Yes, it does sound funny, and yes, he simply must marry them all, although I believe centaurs have a magic of their own, but Bluebell’s centaurhood didn’t save her, so formal marriage can’t hurt. It’s bad enough that one woman lost her life through lack of that protection, but it might save his life as well, since I can almost guarantee that their original ceremony didn’t include those exact words, and magic seems to be mostly about words and will.”
“Damn!” he said thoughtfully. “Do you think we have to find a wife for Akcuanrut? Maybe I could lend him one of mine,” he said meaningfully.
“Phil! Don’t you dare! I wouldn’t wish Acky on Rhea if I were twice as mad at her, and besides that, you promised to care for her, whether your oath was made rationally and with prudent care — as it seems to have been — or rashly, which I doubt. You’ve a cool head on your shoulders, Phil, and I trust you to have made the right decision for all of us, even on the spur of the moment. There’s also the fact that the lack of cellphone service here made prior consultation difficult, so I’m not even offended that I wasn’t notified before I was presented with the fait accompli. Anyway, I don’t know about Akcuanrut. We’ll have to ask him tomorrow. If he’s some sort of Priest, maybe he’s already consecrated to something, or maybe Wizards have their own system.”
“He’s supposed to be the ‘Dean’ of the College of Wizards, and I know that ‘Dean’ used to be a religious title, at least in England, something like Squadron Leader, but not about armies.”
“Who knows? Next time we save the world, let’s make sure to ask for the owner’s manual, so we can read up on it before we try to put it all back together. Maybe we could take a class or something.”
“Good plan,” he said. “Next time, let’s figure out how to set up a WiFi Hotspot as well, so we can access the Internet.”
She laughed at that, “Exactly! Primitive worlds with no hot and cold running water are one thing, but no Internet access is really a hardship posting.”
“Not that much of a hardship, dear,” he said softly. “Any world with you in it is luxury enough for me.”
She smiled again. “ ‘Here’s my hand’,” she said, matching action to her words.
He smiled back again. “ ‘And mine, with my heart in’t.’ ” Then he sealed his declaration with a kiss.
After a long while — during which they were otherwise engaged — she finally said, “Why don’t I pop out for a bit and invite Rhea in for a little chat?”
“As you wish, my love. I’m in your hands.”
Akcuanrut was moderately unhappy. They were in the throne room, the morning after Phil, Rhea, and the rest of the centaurs had arrived, although it was much changed from when he’d first seen it. The threadbare draperies had been removed and the whole place had been thoroughly cleaned, so the torchlight did a slightly better job of lighting the distant reaches of the hall, and of course the centaurs had taken over most of the floor space, leaving only an area around the throne itself and the well shaft clear. The lower cavern, although guarded, was so disturbing that they kept sentry duties short and scheduled lengthy periods off between shifts. “It’s bad enough that D’lon-Ra abandoned his duty so quickly,” the wizard said, “but he did it at a very inconvenient time. It would be very nice to know where Na-Noc is right now.”
“Well,” Phil said, “unless he’s managed to find more people to eat, he’s at least smaller now, so if he does show up, he should be easier to handle, and almost all our outer sentries are centaur mares, all married and sanctified to their husband now, so they should be very difficult for Na-Noc to subdue with his usual tactics.”
“Perhaps, but his lack of bulk just makes him more difficult to spot. At the size you described, he could masquerade as almost any small animal. It’s too bad we don’t know how D’lon-Ra kept track of where the Heart is, since it’s certain that Na-Noc will keep it close.”
“Yeah. I guess he had his own heart so set on having it, for whatever twisted reason, so he could probably smell it from a mile away.”
“So you think that he never had a link with Na-Noc, then?”
“I don’t think so, although it undoubtedly suited his purposes to say so. From what Mr. and Mrs. Utterson describe, they were kept strictly separated from the Heart itself, although they knew that it was there, because it ‘sucked the happiness out of everything,’ in their words. They have no link to it, however, unlike D’lon-Ra, so possibly he’d managed to contact it at one point, perhaps during the battle in which he was taken. Conceivably, the Heart itself may establish a link to those who are vulnerable to its enticements, or may have already been corrupted by it in some way. The Uttersons were an accidental capture, so perhaps the Heart simply didn’t have the opportunity to subvert them, or didn’t bother, because it was privy to some intention of Na-Noc to destroy them. As I understand it, D’lon-Ra knew a bit about magic, so perhaps that gave him some sort of potential advantage in the initial struggle to subdue him, or perhaps the Heart contacted him directly, to judge whether he might be a better custodian than Na-Noc himself, if it felt that a being trained in magic might be a better tool for its purposes.”
“Very likely,“ the wizard said. ”As I told you at the beginning of our adventure, the Heart has an intelligence and purpose of its own, so can adapt itself to the exigencies of every situation it encounters.”
“I see no reason to doubt this,”Phil said, “but I also think it must be insane. As you described it, the thing sat in a room alone for hundreds, perhaps thousands of years, time enough for the Lost Temple to fall into the decay we see around us. Intelligent creatures are typically social, and require contact and communication with others, or at least the outside world, to maintain their mental health. Sitting alone in a dark cave for an extended period is what we on Earth would call ‘sensory deprivation,’ which leads to severe psychosis in both humans and every higher animal. It seems incredible that a mere talisman could corrupt such stalwarts as Na-Noc and D’lon-Ra, formerly dedicated — one would think — to the cause of Justice and Law, with a mere touch. There must be, I think, some sort of adaptive purpose and interaction encoded in the thing, which is essentially a social skill. Such skills require practice, as I’m sure you must have encountered here if you have seen either hermits or prisoners kept long in solitary confinement.”
“Hermits?” Akcuanrut said, puzzled.
“People who remove themselves from contact with other humans for the purpose of meditation or other discipline. On Earth, hermits often become self-abusive, indulging in flagellation and other practices meant to cause pain to themselves, because they become desperate for any type of sensation or novelty.”
“I don’t think we have those here,” the wizard said. “We have quite enough of solitude and desolation in the wide world without going out in search of it, although of course there may be lands and customs somewhere that I’m not aware of, just as I was ignorant of your own entire world until I was hurled there by the Dark Gods. Our Wizards, at least, have a collegial tradition, since we learn from each other from our earliest steps in the field, so your own apprenticeship is part of a tradition of learning and teaching that goes back thousands of years. What would be the point of knowledge if one kept it to one’s self alone? What a crime against the larger world to keep any useful thing a secret!”
“A healthy attitude, I think. We have a book that purports to recite the beginning of the world, and one of the first things it says is, ‘It is not good that man should be alone.’ It’s pretty good advice, I think, although the women in my life seem intent upon overdoing it.” He rolled his eyes toward whatever passed for Heaven in these parts.
“Well, women do want they want, for the most part. Consider our friend Thundercloud, who has some one thousand, nine hundred, and eighty-four babies on the way, from as many centaur mares, most of whom are here right now. I’m sure your own difficulties will seem trivial by comparison.”
The notion took Phil aback, although he’d been the one to suggest marrying his herd, “That many?” he asked.
“Yes. One pregnancy was terminated when Na-Noc killed the mother, but all the rest of his new wives are alive and doing fine.” The wizard smiled benignly. “The ladies are quite pleased with this new innovation, by the way, which gives them a certain financial independence which they believe will stand them in good stead in the new social order they have planned.”
“New social order?”
“Yes, indeed. You’re aware, of course, that the centaur society is matriarchal, so the introduction of a system of payments and obligations by the stallions offers an entirely new criteria of selection, for the first time making intelligence and flexibility valuable in addition to physical strength and courage.” His eyes sparkled in amusement. “I daresay we’ll be seeing more like Windflyer, who look beyond mere prowess to scry out the needs of the herd and act upon their intuition, and less like bully boys. We live in interesting times, my friend, highly interesting times.”
“I thought that the stallions ruled the herd.”
“Oh, no, indeed,” he laughed at the thought. “The herd rules the stallions. A centaur stallion who doesn’t produce superior young, or who leads the herd in what the older mares perceive as the wrong direction, is discarded as casually as an overripe fruit. The mares simply won’t mate with them, and either sneak off to find mates more to their liking or encourage other stallions to come and take the old one’s place, often both, until the old stallion slinks off in shame.”
“Oh,” Phil said, and then began to think about his own situation, wondering if he’d been snookered. Selene and her twin made a frighteningly effective military force, all on their own. Would it make sense to break up that unit in what might be a hostile world, one in which the safety of their children would be of paramount importance? He suspected that some private negotiation had gone on between them, after the fact, and that he might have wound up in the same complicated situation even without Rhea’s life-threatening injury.
“Don’t spend too much time thinking about this, my dear Apprentice,” said the placid Akcuanrut. “It rarely pays to let one’s wife — or wives — know that one isn’t quite as obtuse as most women think men are in general. Too much subtlety makes them suspicious, and this is never a happy thing in a marriage. Far better to appear genial and well-meaning, which encourages family harmony and helps to prevent ulcers in the husband.”
Not for the first time, Phil wondered if the wizard could read minds. “I’ll try to remember that,” he said.
Na-Noc was concealed behind an outcropping of rocks just outside the main gate of the Temple of Zampulus, waiting for an opportunity to present itself to gain entry to the throne room, but there were hundreds of those dangerous centaurs parading around both day and night, and he didn’t want to chance drawing their attention. He felt safe enough where he was, partially-obscured by what was left of a bushy shrub that had drawn enough moisture from small crevices in the main mass of stone to scrape by in the wilderness, as well as by a feigned camouflage that allowed him to look like the rock he was hiding behind. He’d absorbed a little more than half of the shrub already, trying to build up enough weight to be able to handle any interference from the guards — although the scraggly desert vegetation was a poor substitute for living flesh — so he wasn’t making much progress. All he’d found so far in animal form were a few dozen ants, two lizards, and an unwary bird which had landed on his body. He wanted one of the centaurs, who had flesh enough to recreate himself even more powerful than he’d been before, but they traveled in large groups, too dangerous to take a chance with at his present weight. He hated them for their freedom, laughing and talking amongst themselves, prancing around, even galloping at speed, while he was stuck here baking in the light to the two suns with no access to his weapons and sigils of power.
‘They’d pay,’ he swore to himself, ‘They’d all of them pay with their lives! Oh, how he’d feast upon their blood and flesh!’
“I’ve been a fool!” Phil said forcefully. “We’ve had the key in our hand all this time without realizing it!” It was the third day of their watch and nothing had changed. Either Na-Noc had bypassed the Temple entirely, or he was still waiting for a propitious moment to attack.
“What key might that be?” asked Akcuanrut with interest.
“The centaur woman who Na-Noc killed with some sort of Voodoo deathwish, Bluebell, I think her name was. She’s buried back at the foot of that butte where we managed to corner and confront him. If I’ve worked out the logic correctly, if we can retrieve her body, and if any trace of his attack on her still lingers, we should be able to get a handle on Na-Noc, or the Heart — wherever the ‘death-wish’ originated — and track one or the other through the Law of Contagion.”
“Ahh! Another application of your Earth magic.” He nodded sagely. “The link to our ‘shortcut’ is still available, so perhaps someone should go look.”
“Why not the two of us?” Phil said rhetorically.
The wizard beamed. “Yes, indeed. Yes, indeed.”
It was hot and dusty on the fading trail from the Portal back to the butte where Na-Noc had attacked Phil and Rhea, but the wizard was as cheerful as a lark in the morning just to be away from the depressing Temple, lost or not. He had pack horses loaded with three days worth of victuals for what promised to a half-day trip, his apprentices to fetch and carry, a cart filled with magical paraphernalia, and an armed guard composed of a maniple of D’lon-Ra’s former troops. Leading the way, however, were Phil and his two barbarian wives, followed closely by a contingent of twenty centaurs from the herd, Bluebell’s personal friends for the most part.
“There it is,” Rhea said, “Up that dry stream bed.” She didn’t bother to point.
The place was unprepossessing enough, not spectacular at all. The butte itself was a dusty gray sand-color, not terribly imposing, and what little vegetation there was to be seen was either desiccated and scorched by the suns to a dull brown or just barely green, with a whitish waxy coating that made the plants look something like sculpted copies of the real plants that ought to be there, except that almost everything had thorns to defend itself against marauding predators, currently unseen, that mute hostility the only real proof of life.
The horses were a little skittish, perhaps caught up in the moods of their riders, since they all knew what they’d come for, and that it was just around the next bend of the shallow canyon, or perhaps the next after that. The centaurs either caught their own moods from the horses, or had feelings of their own, since Bluebell had been well-liked, and they were sad to be here, to need to be here.
Rhea, on the other hand, was working herself up into a proper fury, since anger was rarely far beneath her surface calm, even when she was cheerful, which she wasn’t right this minute, hadn’t been since they’d started out. “Crap!” she said, and they were there.
The site was undisturbed, as far as they could see. They’d rolled Bluebell’s body partway down toward the stream bed, or what would have been a stream bed if water were coursing through it. Then they’d covered her with flat stones, and then with sandy dirt, until nothing showed except the unnatural mound itself. It looked just like it had looked when those remaining from the previous expedition had left it where it was.
Rhea leapt from the centaur she was riding, and her jaw was jutted out, teeth clenched slightly, as she began to uncover the body of her friend.
Phil and Selene dismounted and went to help her without a word. It didn’t take long though, before it was obvious that something was seriously wrong. Bluebell had been a dappled gray and white pinto in her lower parts, a ruddy olive tone in her upper body, with straight raven-black tresses that reached almost to her waist, but the figure being rapidly unearthed was jet black, and far stiffer than any corpse ought to be. In a few more minutes it was obvious; Bluebell had turned entirely to black stone, like obsidian, like chalcedony, or something in between.
It took more than five hours to recover Bluebell’s petrified body. All of the wizard’s simples and supplies had to be shifted from the cart to bags, so the centaurs could conveniently carry a portion of the load, and then the men-at-arms were recruited to carefully manhandle the body into the cart, mostly upside down, unfortunately, since that was the only way she’d fit, but then they’d covered her with blankets to offer her a little more dignity.
“This,” said Phil, “is a horse of an entirely different color,” when they were finally on their way back to the Portal. It was almost dark, so they’d be returning to the temple of Zampulus in the wee hours after midnight, if they managed the entire journey before the next morning, since the heavily-laden cart slowed down their progress and they couldn’t rush, lest they break an axle or a wheel on the trail. Riding on horseback was interesting as well, since there were so many unique sounds and smells surrounding equestrianism, the creaking leather of their tack, the many hooves around them adding a sort of soft-shoe background to their progress that evoked every Western video he’d ever seen. And then there was the odor of the horses themselves, the similar — but different — aroma of the centaurs, less earthy, and the undercurrent of fresh dung, trodden in or not, that underlaid the smells of the wilderness itself. Riding was a much more coöperative activity than driving a car as well, demanding both less and more attention. Less, because one’s mount knew perfectly well how to amble along, and was very good at picking up cues from the other horses about the best way to go, not to mention the attention they paid to the centaurs, who seemed to be very high-status horses, as far as the horses proper were concerned. On the other hand, you had to be much more concerned about situations in which the horse might feel unsure of itself, when the footing was insecure, or when unexpected movements of animals — or even swaying shrubbery — in the dark frightened them. Then you had to be prepared for the horse to startle, jerk aside, or even rear — a challenge for a city boy — although Selene and Rhea seemed to take it all in stride, evidently one of the many eclectic skills they’d picked up during their changes, along with literally fantastic abilities with every sort of weapon, since they’d transformed themselves into nearly identical avatars of a single fantasy superheroine from an old movie they’d both seen on the TV.
After a pause, Rhea groaned. “Ya think? Good one, Phil. Way to show some respect for the dead girl, who was my friend, by the way.”
“Now, Rhea, dear. What Phillip meant was that this puts an entirely different complexion on things.” Selene snickered.
“Enough, already!” Rhea was really getting mad. “I so don’t want you to talk about her like this!”
“Don’t you see, Sweetheart?” Phil said, as Selene rolled her eyes dramatically, a movement he could see, even in the dark because it was already so familiar to him, “This may be a very good thing for all of us!”
“What? My friend Bluebell being deader than dead? Stone cold dead and turned to stone as well?” Rhea was disgusted by Phil’s callous remarks and behavior, not to mention Selene’s sniping, and twitched the reins to move her mount aside slightly, distancing herself from both of them.
“No, dear,” Phil said patiently, “because of the very important fact that her ‘death’ is beginning to look less like poison and more like evil sorcery.”
Rhea seemed taken aback and moved back slightly with another movement of the reins. “What’s the difference? Dead is dead, isn’t it?”
“Possibly,” he said, “but magic operates in the psychic equivalent of the physical universe, and just as most chemical reactions can be made to work ‘both ways,’ most psychic states and interactions are reversible, as I understand it, at lest to some extent, although there’s probably a psychic equivalent to entropy as well. The key fact is that physical entropy has apparently been suspended for Bluebell, and there’s no obvious sign of chemical or physical decay or deterioration, so my answer to your question is, ‘Let’s wait, and see what we can do,’ that’s all.”
“Do you think that you can help her?” She seemed poised somewhere between hope and disbelief.
“Let’s say that I’m guardedly optimistic,” he said, unwilling either to disappoint her or to give false hope. “I can promise you that I’ll try.”
They rode in silence for quite some time after that, before Rhea said, “Thank you, Phil.”
“I plan to strategize with Akcuanrut before I try anything, since I have no idea how the petrification was accomplished, and exactly what reversing it might do, but I managed to ‘cure’ your own nearly fatal encounter with Na-Noc, so I believe that we have cause to hope. Then too, it seems clear that the sorcery, whatever it turns out to be, is undoubtedly rooted in the Heart of Virtue, so I’m very optimistic that we can forge a link to it that will allow us to track its movements, and thus Na-Noc, which is a very good thing.”
“But if you can track him, can’t he track you?” Rhea asked, her free hand going automatically to her belt and the hilt of one of her many knives, as if the thought of Na-Noc might cause him to appear.
He shrugged with almost Gallic panache. “We already know that the Dark Gods themselves can do this, because it was they who sent you back to Earth the first time, as I understand it, implying that they were somehow aware of your entire journey. I don’t imagine that it would trouble them to tell Na-Noc where we were if it amused them to do so, so I can’t worry about it. It’s sort of like those ancient video shows where the ‘gunslinger’ always left a ‘calling card’ behind, whether a printed card or a silver bullet. On a psychic level, one inevitably ‘signs’ one’s work, just as an artist signs a canvas or a sculpture, because one invests a portion of one’s ‘soul’ in every working. Recognition comes with the territory.”
“So you’re famous already?”
“Oh, indeed. I imagine I’m the only Kohein — a direct descendent of Aaron — in this world, so it gives me a certain… je ne sais quoi” He grinned at this and presented his profile — both ways. “Did you notice?”
Both women rolled their eyes at this. “Not really,” they said in chorus.
“Well, according to our friend Akcuanrut, lineage counts for quite a bit in the wizard business, so having an unbroken legacy that stretches back well over three thousand years is a huge advantage. I’m more powerful than any of his other apprentices already, and I’m just getting started.”
“Can you really trace your ancestry back that far?” Selene asked.
“Not really,” he said, “but I do know that the DNA record tracing the Y chromosome is very uniform for Cohens in general, and keeping track of who descended from whom has been important for many thousands of years, so I imagine the genetic link to the original Aaron is accurate. It’s kind of spooky, when you think about it; that I have an umpty-umpth great-grandfather who’s mentioned by name in both the Bible and the Quran. When I was growing up, it kind of creeped me out.”
“So, it doesn’t any more?”
“Nah,” he said. “You get used to it.”
“I’m worried, Master Akcuanrut,” Phil confided privately, long after the body of Bluebell had been carefully lowered down the shaft in the throne room, and then carried to the terrible cavern below, where it was immediately obvious that the ‘sculptures’ and ‘carvings’ on the walls were suspiciously similar to Bluebell’s lifeless statue.
“As am I, Apprentice Phillip. We seem to be surrounded by actual death, rather than mere depictions of it.”
“With all respect, Master Wizard, I disagree. I believe that we’re in the midst of an ongoing torture chamber, and these unfortunates we see splayed and flayed upon the wals are alive and suffering even as we speak, caught forever like an insect in amber at the moment of their greatest pain and despair, and that their anguish continues in very slow motion, something very much like Earthly depictions of endless torment in Hell, a mindless cruelty that goes on and on without surcease or ease.”
Akcuanrut was horrified. “How can you know this?”
“Because of the nature of evil. This was a second, private, throne room. If these victims of depraved iniquity were merely dead, they’d be grim reminders of the final escape of their victims from torment, the mercy that the wicked perpetrators of this horror would never show, much less contemplate. The fact that these victims are visible implies that their suffering goes on, and their agony will never cease until we free them. The horror of it is that many of these poor people are so terribly wounded that freeing them undoubtedly condemns them to true death, which might well be mercy, but a ‘kindness’, which we’ll be forced to arrange, if we can.”
“But, are you sure?”
“I am,” he said bleakly. “Open your perceptions, Master Wizard. Can’t you hear them screaming? I can.”
“What I don’t understand is why you took Bluebell’s body down to that awful place down under the throne room,” Rhea complained later that afternoon in their quarters, where they were resting after their long overnight trek and its aftermath. “Don’t you think it’s just too horrible down there?”
“I’m sorry, Sweetheart,” Phil said. “I should have told you, but was too depressed. The wicked sorcery that killed Bluebell, the assault that almost killed you, and the evil miasma that lurks within the lower cavern seem to be related to each other, perhaps even one and the same — as far as I can guess — and so part of the same problem. I believe these things to be somehow linked to the Heart of Virtue, since the lower cavern existed long before Na-Noc was caught up in its evil. Akcuanrut and I plan to address them all at once, but we’re still working out how best to attack the problem.”
“Can’t you use the same technique you used to save Rhea?” Selene asked.
Phil shook his head. “I don’t think so. I’m pretty sure that I can’t marry Bluebell — not least because she appears to be dead, but also the logistics seem slightly daunting. In general, I think it’s probably best not to marry outside one’s own species — so dealing with the nasty business down below probably requires a different strategy entirely. It can’t be just consecration, because the church in which we finally cornered Na-Noc had presumably undergone some sort of consecration ceremony, yet Na-Noc was not only free to walk around with no apparent trouble, but was somehow able to draw upon whatever sanctity or psychic power it contained to open a Portal to this world and drag us all back through it.”
“But the consecration of a church is meant to be for the purpose of a church,” she persisted, “which is to be a ‘house of prayer’ for everyone. Even Na-Noc is included on the implicit guest list, since he’s undoubtedly a ‘sinner’ who might conceivably be ‘saved,’ in the religious sense at least. Whatever there is in common between the consecration of marriage and churches, exclusivity isn’t it. Most churches are, by definition, more or less promiscuous.”
Phil thought about this for several seconds before he said, “Excellent point, Selene. I hadn’t thought of it in those terms at all. So we need to find something that’s not ‘promiscuous,’ as you put it, doesn’t have anything to do with marriage, and is still a sacred consecration. My mind is a complete blank. The only things I can think of are the rituals surrounding knighthood in medieval Europe, but it doesn’t seem particularly germane, and I don’t really know anything about them, except that I saw a video once that had the hero doing some sort of vigil in a chapel.”
Rhea said, “Aren’t there places that allow only monks of a particular order to enter? Or religious women, for that matter? Surely those places are consecrated in some way….”
“Monasteries, I think they’re called,” Selene said, “and nunneries.”
“Yes…,” Phil replied, “…and the ancient Temple in Jerusalem had special sections that only certain people could enter. The Holy of Holies was supposedly the inner room where only the High Priest could enter, but we don’t happen to have the stone tablets that Moses purported to have carried down Sinai, so that’s no good.”
Selene added, “And of course women weren’t allowed past the outer courtyard. Sexist pigs!”
“That goes without saying, my very dears. Practically everyone — or at least the men — positively reeked of sexism back in those benighted days.”
“Unlike today, when everyone with any sense at all admits that women rule,” Rhea said charitably.
“Indeed,” said Phil judiciously. “I heartily agree, of course.”
The next morning, Akcuanrut addressed the assembled centaurs and humans. “By the powers vested in me by Emperor Elvi of Myriad, ruler of these lands, I hereby declare Na-Noc to be legally-deceased, since the Heart of Virtue has corrupted his heart and mind beyond all recognition. Whatever it is that purports to be Na-Noc is therefore declared by me in the Emperor’s name to be an usurper and an outlaw, with every man’s hand to be upraised against him, and all property controlled by him, each and severally, including specifically the Lost Temple of Zampulus and the Heart of Virtue, are forfeit to the Crown. As a reward for his exemplary service and actions in routing Na-Noc from a distant world he had no right to enter, I therefore grant to my Apprentice, Phillip Avraham Cohn, son of Isidore Cohn, the right to purchase the entirety of this Temple, and all appurtenances, fixtures, and denizens thereof, for the token sum of one gold coin. I’m given to understand that he intends to use this gift to provide for the general welfare of the citizens of this province, and not for personal aggrandizement, lest there be any question of favoritism or corruption.”
Phil went to his side and presented the Wizard with a single coin, receiving in turn a formal deed, drawn up, as it happened, by Phil himself. “Thank you, Master Akcuanrut. I accept this with my profound thanks, and with my gratitude for all you’ve taught me.”
“You’re very welcome, Apprentice Phillip. May your use of this property be productive.”
“I do so plan, Master Wizard,” he said and bowed slightly.
“Then we’re done here, I think, although I believe that Thundercloud has something to say,” the Wizard said.
Thundercloud took his time picking his way through the assembled crowd of centaurs, who held back from the throne itself, and the dias upon which it stood, because they could easily see over the humans, both men-at-arms and servants, while the reverse was not at all true, and then through the assembled humans, almost delicately, as he came up to where Akcuanrut and Phil stood standing. “Thank you, Master Wizard and your able assistant both.” He turned to address them all, dropping his magical disguise as he did so, startling many of the humans gathered, as they saw an ordinary — if very striking — stallion turn into a centaur male in the twinkling of an eye. “My remarks are first to the humans present,” he lowered his head to scan the crowd, and so fearsome was he in his revealed magnificence that they cowered, just as they’d been afraid of the engraved centaurs above the gate to the temple. “First, I am Thundercloud, and I’ve come to rain on your parade. The centaurs have returned, and we’ve returned in strength and power. We’re reclaiming all of our traditional lands with the full support of the Emperor, whom we now look to for overlordship and protection. Luckily for you, most of these are either unused or used for seasonal grazing, which will instantly cease henceforward without specific authorization from and payment to the resident herds. Most importantly, though, no longer will we tolerate any trafficking in centaur magic nor body parts for any purpose whatsoever. Think well on this: Any human found to be in possession of same…” he glowered at them from his full height …“will be instantly slaughtered and their bodies used as fertiliser for our green fields. A period of grace will be allowed for those currently in possession of same to account for the circumstances by which they came into human possession, pay restitution upon a fixed scale to the centaur’s human representative, currently fixed upon as Akcuanrut, Dean of the Imperial College of Wizards, but delegable to such persons as he selects.” Here he paused again.
Then, after observing the silence, he continued, “Know all present that as the Emperor’s boon for my oath of fealty and support, I am granted both the high justice and the low over my people and any who harm them in any way. Think on this and be wise.”
There was some shuffling of feet, and a few throats cleared nervously, but no one said a word.
Then he looked up, back toward the surrounding centaurs. “And now, I offer my closing remarks to you, my gentle mares, lead mares, and all present under my protection.” In consultation with the Wizard Akcuanrut, we’ve decided that Na-Noc, the enemy we came to fight, has probably fled the scene — doubtless terrified by the thought of facing the mighty centaurs in their glory — and as you know, this gathering is too large to sustain itself in our wilderness homes, so I offer you all the chance to leave as you will, to choose new stallions from amongst the many who follow us, and to form such groupings as seem wise to you. Any who wish to stay with me, within reason, may do so. I leave you to work this out among yourselves, having the wisdom to know which decisions are mine, and which are best left to the collective wisdom of our womenfolk.”
This brought forth a collective high-pitched laughter from the said womenfolk, one of whom stepped forward and called, dropping her own disguise at the same moment, “Well spoken, Thundercloud. We see your wisdom, as well as your strength. We will do as you suggest… for the most part.”
There was another wave of feminine laughter at her last ironic comment, and then the majority started to leave, sorting themselves through silent signals into small groups, then into larger ones, until they queued to exit ten abreast through the wide main doors.
After almost half an hour of milling around and fond farewells, the hall was much less crowded, with the women from Windflyer’s old herd — now Thundercloud’s — left behind, and an extra dozen or so who’d decided to join up and see the world with one of the instigators of the new order.
“Well,” Thundercloud said, “now that we’re alone….”
There was another burst of women’s laughter.
“…we can disclose the real situation. It’s true that Na-Noc is afraid of you, but he’s still out there waiting for all or most of the centaurs to leave, because of his essential cowardice. Hopefully, he’ll be confused by the mass exodus of so many of us, and so be emboldened to attempt to get past our defenses by stealth. We believe that he has some sort of weapon concealed here — we don’t know exactly what or where — which he’s desperate to obtain. We aim to stop him, and have several simultaneous plans in progress to do exactly that, of which we centaurs are the last stopgap, when other plans have failed, although I don’t doubt that, given the success of Wildflower and myself alone against him — with the assistance of our human friends — our strength will prevail, if finally put to the test.”
Windflyer answered, “Those of us who’ve seen the horrors of the cavern below the throne need no prompting, Thundercloud, and we’ve all seen what he did to Bluebell from ambush. It’s clear that he has little stomach for any sort of fight, but rather prefers to torture those already in chains.”
“Then let us set our plans in motion,” Thundercloud replied, and led them from the throne room into the recesses of the temple.
Copyright © 2000, 2001, 2002 Jeffrey M. Mahr — All Rights Reserved
Copyright © 2012 Levanah Greene — All Rights Reserved
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