The Jekyll Legacy
Victorian alchemy meets modern science and magic.
What could possibly go wrong?
It is better to light a single candle
than to curse the darkness.
— W. L. Watkinson (1907)
“Are we ready?” The Empress D’Larona-Elvi was mounted on a huge and highly-trained jet-back warhorse — a recent purchase — and armed with a consecrated sword in a golden scabbard at her side, one of several symbolic objects she carried as tokens of her participation in an ancient ritual of knighthood, a red tabard emblazoned with her ceremonial arms, a cingulum of spun gold, and golden spurs. Other than these, though, she was clad in the formal gown and robes of a Mistress Sorceress and Scryer, and her primary weapon was a wand of ash, although she also had a crystal ball wrapped in cloth of spider silk tucked away in one of her saddlebags.
Before her was the broad opening of a largish portal quite recently created using a combination of a new portable version of Wildflower’s Trans-Spatial Portal and the information gathered by ancient Centauran analysts, which opened on the nearest outlier of those places mapped out by the ancient centaurs as being at least partially in thrall to the Dark. Behind her, their small army was arrayed down the Catskill Ramparts valley, more than a thousand strong, with a large number of Selene’s many twins riding centaurs, individual centaurs, and quite a few Imperial soldiers on horseback. Master Wizard Akcuanrut, also mounted on a warhorse purchased on Earth, answered for all, “We are, my Lady Empress.”
“Then I suppose we ought to be on our way,” she said, and rode boldly through the glowing amber portal.
The others followed as quickly as they could, and quickly found themselves in a very strange world indeed, with an overcast yellow sky above them that cast a ghastly pall over a snowbound forest of stunted and misshapen trees that stretched out in every direction, equally ugly no matter where one looked. Things rustled through the underbrush as they rode by, too big for rats, but with the sorts of sounds that rats might make, if they were the size of small dogs. Whatever they were, they were careful to stay out of sight.
“Cheery sort of place,” Rhea remarked conversationally. “Now that I think about it, Niagara Falls is looking better and better.”
“It sure doesn’t look like the skiing would be anything to write home about,” Selene replied. “The place seems just about as flat as Kansas, but with lots less corn and sunflowers.”
“Doesn’t the smell remind you of something, though? I don’t mean roses, either.”
“It does, in fact, seem vaguely reminiscent of those stinky little guys who ambushed us beside the river.” She put her thumb and forefinger into her mouth and let fly a piercing series of whistling notes, and all her sisters responded with increased wariness. The men-at-arms loosened swords in scabbards, and swung their bucklers off their backs to carry them ready on one arm.
“Does it seem a little dark to you, dears?” Phil seemed concerned, but not overly so.
“It does seem a little dim, Sweetheart,” Selene said. “Why don’t you prepare a few lights so they’ll be handy if we need to peer into any dark corners? Just in case, of course.”
“As it happens,” he rode up to the head of their advancing force, where Selene and Rhea rode right behind the Empress, and handed each a leather duffle, which they both immediately opened and looked through, Rhea holding up one roundish lime-green object, like a small egg — but obviously an egg laid by a green hen — with a puzzled look on her face. “I took the precaution,” he said, “of preparing a handy set of portable tools for adventurers, including a few thousand little ‘flashlights.’ You throw them like an egg, and they break about as easily, once thrown, although they’re surprisingly tough otherwise. You’ll be pleased, I think, by the amount of light they’ll shed upon any vexing puzzle. Now that we have a better idea what we’re facing, the Wizard’s apprentices have many more of them in the cart, so I’ll have them passed out to one and all.”
“How thoughtful, Sweetie,” Rhea said, weighing the one she held in her hand. I love these things!
“These are an improved version of the hand-crafted originals,” he said, “because they keep track of whoever threw them, and focus most of the light away from the thrower, so they don’t have quite the tendency to dazzle.”
“Oh! That is special!” Selene said, pulling one from her own bag. “Can I try one?”
“Of course! There are a lot of really dark places in this scrumpy little forest that could use a little light.”
Quicker than thought, Selene and Rhea both threw their little easter eggs at separate shaking bits of low-lying shrubbery that seemed interesting and which turned instantly into screaming flight on the part of what were obviously a good number of dwarves, their hiding places exposed for what they were. “Well, that was revealing,” Selene said.
“Isn’t it, though?” Rhea answered loudly. “I’m hurt, simply crushed to note that no one’s come out to greet us.”
“Well, to be perfectly fair,” Selene said, “our last welcoming committee met an unsavory end, so they may be having some difficulty finding volunteers.”
“There’s no excuse for bad manners,” she said primly, “even if they started out by behaving abominably.”
“Hey! Little creepy guys!” Selene called out in a clear alto voice. “We come in peace, but if you keep sneaking around, we’re going to have to assume that you mean us mischief.”
“You won’t like that,” Rhea added, perhaps unnecessarily, since they obviously didn’t much like them already.
After an extended silence, one of the dwarves stepped out from behind one of the scrubby trees, black-bearded, with bushy black eyebrows and long black moustaches that seemed to merge imperceptibly with the long hair that hung lankly from his scalp, his skin was as pale as a dead fish, or a mushroom, which made at least some sense, if this was the best this dark land offered in the way of sunlight. Against his black hair, though, the effect was ghastly. “What do you want with us?” he snarled. “This is our land, and you have no right to be here! Go back where you belong!”
Akcuanrut rode up and said, “I am Akcuanrut, Master Wizard and Dean of the Imperial College of Wizards of Myriad. I’m not accustomed to speaking to sneaking cowards who conceal their names, so who are you to speak so boldly to us?”
The little man’s scowl grew deeper — if that were possible — and he answered, “Alvís is my name, and I am King of this land.”
“Alvís, eh? A King, you say? Then you’d know about those of your people who attacked me and my companions on my own world, wouldn’t you?”
“I do not,” he blustered. “My people are not slaves, to cower and cringe in supplication before undertaking any task!”
The Wizard was contemptuous. “So you’re saying that you’re a so-called ‘King’ in name only? A ‘King’ whose ‘authority’ runs only as far as the end of his nose? If that’s the case, I see no particular difference between you and any random brigand or thug.”
The little monarch gnashed his teeth in rage, then blurted out, “They were Dáinn and Náinn, together with their people, all outlaws who trafficked with wicked sorcerers!”
“So you do know who they were, do you? Why didn’t you say so before?”
He sneered before answering, “There’s no profit in spilling information on the ground like piss. We Dvergar are accustomed to payment before we offer anything of value.”
“A grim approach to life, I must caution you,” said the wizard. “It will yield you a bitter harvest if you persist in it.”
“And exactly when has our lot been anything less than ‘bitter,’ as you put it? You see the poor homeland we have, with its stunted trees and crops so sparse that we’re forced to barter for the very food we eat, and poor bargains we’re offered for it too, by greedy men and elves. Our only visitors come with demands and threats and tricks, ‘Make me some magic golden hair, O clever Dvergr!’ ‘I need a ship! A spear! A war hammer! A necklace! A ring!’ and even then they usually refuse to pay!”
“You work in metal?” Phil asked.
The dwarf King snorted. “Work in metal, indeed! We Dvergar are the finest craftsmen in all the worlds!”
Phil smiled. “Please allow me to present an example of my own poor efforts as a gift then, and as a token of esteem for a fellow craftsman.” He produced an intricately-carved armband, sized to fit the dwarf himself, and handed it over.
King Alvís looked at it with some suspicion, weighed it in his hand, then stuck out his tongue and tasted it. “It’s solid gold!” he said.
“Of course it is!” Phil said with some indignation. “Do you think I’d try to pass off plate to a metals connoisseur?”
He was still suspicious. “What do you want for it?” he asked.
“Nothing. It’s a gift, just as I said.”
“Does it have any special power?” the Dwarf asked.
He was taken slightly aback. “I’m afraid not. When you say, ‘special power,’ what exactly did you have in mind?”
“Well,” he said craftily, a shrewd concupiscence playing over his features, “some distant relatives of mine made a gold ring once, and every nine days, eight new rings dropped from it.”
“It was just a ring, not an armband?” he asked.
“It was, and rather plain at that, the sort of thing a king might give a thegn, and not crafted with any notable skill, like this is, although the multiplying thing was rather nice,” he admitted, grudgingly it seemed.
Phil thought about this for a moment, and then had a thought. He turned away and concentrated for a moment, then turned back holding out an identical armband. “Try this one. If I’ve got it right, tapping the two of them together will create another pair. I’d avoid doing this too often in any one place, if I were you, because it will increase magical entropy locally, at least to some extent, so eventually it will stop working, at least until you either move to another location or allow the magic to regenerate.”
The dwarf King took it in his other hand, looked at it, then clicked it together with the one he still held, whereupon two bands fell from their contact point to the ground, too quickly for the King to catch them.
Both Akcuanrut and the Empress D’Larona-Elvi gasped involuntarily, and both began to work some charm but….
…since the King was very small, they didn’t have far to fall, and luckily, the two new armbands didn’t fall in quite the same place, and rolled harmlessly away from each other. “This is a princely gift,” the King said, oblivious to the danger.
“Uhm, King Alvís? I’d be a little more careful with them if I were you,” Phil said. “If they happened to fall together, you’d have quite a pile of them very quickly, quickly enough to be a nuisance, or even a danger, if you were trapped in a small room with a growing pile of them.”
The King seemed very pleased to hear this. “Ah, good! Excellent! So it has a curse attached as well! All the best treasures do.”
Phil nodded, a little puzzled. “The moral is, I suppose, not to be greedy.”
The King agreed very happily, saying, “To be sure, but the best lesson to be drawn is to keep this curse quite secret, because the chances of your enemies being caught in it and destroyed are very great. Where better to create magical golden armbands but in some secret place? Perhaps even behind a locked door, to prevent jealous spies from learning of one’s secret source of wealth!” He appeared to view this prospect with great enthusiasm. “How quickly would this happen?”
Phil thought about this for a bit, then said, “It’s difficult to explain; do you know what an exponential progression is?”
The King looked blank.
Phil started over, “Think of it this way; in the first instant, two bands bump into each other, which makes four bands, which in the worst case all bump into each other in turn, which makes sixteen bands at most, then these bump into each other, which makes a maximum of, let’s say, two hundred and fifty-six, since each new armband can bump into any number of its fellows almost simultaneously, and the more bumps, the more likely it is for each ring to jostle against still more bands, for a maximum of sixty-five thousand, five hundred and thirty-six new armbands in just four generations… less than a second, surely. You’ll understand, of course, that this is just an approximation; it might be less, or might be many more, depending both on how much magic was available and sheer luck, or bad luck as the case might be. By that point, depending on how small the chamber was, the metal might fuse into one piece, melted together by the heat of compression and thereby stopping the reaction, or the chamber itself might explode, with devastating local results. Eventually, the magic would run out, either through exhaustion of the local supply, or through distortion of the armbands into unrecognizability, and thus non-functionality.” He thought a few seconds longer, then added, “Of course, you’d probably have quite a lot of gold, which would be exactly as useful as gold ever is. If you’re inclined to experiment, though, I’d advise you to be very cautious, and even then I’d appreciate it you’d give us a few days to get well away from here, because it might be a very dangerous place to hang around.”
The dwarf King laughed uproariously, enormously pleased. “Say, when you fashion a bit of cursed gold, you don’t just go about it half-way, do you?”
This time, Phil smiled as well. “No, I don’t suppose that I do. I just have the knack for it, I suppose.”
The wizard and the Empress just looked at each other — both scandalized — while the King laughed again in gleeful admiration and Phillip’s wives just rolled their eyes.
So pleased was King Alvís that there was nothing for it but to stay the night, because he wanted to throw a little feast in honor of his noble guests, the most important features of which seemed to be vast quantities of some dark ale, roast meats of various sorts, and heaps of coarse slabs of bread they used as plates, or sometimes missiles, which they hurled at those who failed to drain their horns of ale with sufficient panache, evidently best displayed by a tremendous belch. When the women asked for vegetables, they were met with incredulous laughter from all the dwarves. “Pig food!? Why would anyone eat pig food!?” one said, to hoots and whistles and raucous laughter from the assembled dwarves, which pertinent witticism demanded, of course, another round of ale, although the ladies were supplied with mead in several varieties, a sweetish spicy honey flavor, somewhat less sweet fruity versions, and one even more bitter than the ale, at the separate ‘ladies’ table’ at the foot of the hall — furthest from the King’s seat, which was placed upon a simple dais at the head.
Later, after they’d finally managed to retire for the night, Rhea said morosely in the darkness of their tent, “How long does it take to develop scurvy?”
“A few months, I think,” Phil tried to reassure her. “As I understand it, though, beer does have at least some vitamins, mostly B-complex, but some recipes have a bit of vitamin C as well. I don’t know about the mead.”
Selene added, “Don’t worry, Dearest, the high cholesterol would probably kill us long before vitamin deficiencies did us any harm. Hopefully, we’re just passing through, so we can get back to a healthy diet before too long.” She sighed heavily. “I do miss yoghurt, though, and decent salads, and garlic breadsticks, and….”
“Enough! Next you’ll be complaining about the notable lack of chocolate!” Rhea said with some heat, to which complaint Selene only groaned.
Phil had a sudden vision of a succession of overlapping imperious and conflicting demands for chocolate, pickles, anchovies, ice cream, and other exotic viands, all at inconvenient hours of the night, and ardently wished that his talents included conjuring things to eat. Wisely, he said nothing.
King Alvís had made such good use of his magical golden armbands that he’d hammered out hundreds of plain gold rings overnight, then distributed them to his most loyal followers, explaining that their visitors so loved the Dvergar that they’d offered gifts for all and sundry, which made their departure a stark contrast to their arrival, with what seemed like hundreds of dwarves standing cheering by the side of the narrow path that led onward toward their destination. To corroborate the King’s genial deception, Phil, with the King’s approval, produced two largish sacks of gold coins — each about the size of a US dollar coin, impressed with King Alvís’ likeness with the dwarven runes which spelled his name subscribed on one side, and the image of a horse and human rider on the other, to commemorate their visit — which he asked some of their men-at-arms to toss from side to side as they progressed, like Mardi Gras throws in New Orleans. To forestall any possible resentment on the part of the King, he left two similar sacks behind, and fondly hoped that their gifts might help to alleviate their general poverty, since the King had explained — after most of the guests at the banquet had fallen asleep either on their benches or the floor, their heads perhaps slumped over the table, in some cases lying in the soggy remnants of the bread plates, in others sprawled in the dirty straw that covered the floor — that they were once as tall as any man, but had gradually declined in size over many generations, which sounded vaguely like nutritional dwarfism to Phil, at least. He hadn’t bothered to ask either Thundercloud or Wildflower about the medical aspect, since there was really nothing else that they could do. They had, he thought, enough on their plate already.
King Alvís had given him a parting gift, a folding bridge, he’d said, between the worlds, which he thought might be useful to them if they found their path blocked. “Of course it has a curse on it, but a very useful one,” he’d said. “It will support the passage of an entire army, but the very instant that the last member of your party passes, the bridge refolds itself, returning to your hand.” He grinned at that. “It can be very satisfying to watch it fold up into its compact little pouch,” he’d said, giggling, “if anyone just happens to be hot on your heels.” And at that he’d laughed out loud.
For all the dwarf’s bloodthirsty sense of humor, Phil couldn’t quite help liking the guy. “Thank you, Sir,” was all he’d said. “I’m sure it will prove very useful.”
“If I were you,” he said, pointing straight up, “I’d head south. This is Svartálfheimr, the most pleasant of the northern lands, and there’s little profit to be had from the Hrímthurs, much less Hel.”
“Hrímthurs?” Phil asked.
“Frost giants, a very nasty bunch, but also very stupid, which is good luck for us all.”
“How so?” he asked.
“Well, they’re man-eaters, for one, and they make no particular distinction between Men and Dvergar, although, on the whole, they’d prefer a Man, but only because they make a better meal for a giant.”
“Oh,” Phil said.
“They’re better than the Fire giants, though. They want to destroy everything.”
This captured Phil’s interest completely, because it sounded like the Dark Gods. “Really? Tell me more.”
“Not much to tell, really. Surtr is their King. His name means ‘Black,’ but he’s supposed to fight Freyr, the ‘Lord,’ at the end of all things — which of course he’ll do, and win, because that idiot Freyr traded away his magic sword for a woman — and after that little debacle Surtr and his fellow Fire Giants will devour everyone and all the nine worlds.”
“He had a magic sword?”
“He did, a sword that would fight by itself, but it only worked if the owner of the sword was wise and, as we’ve seen, Freyr was and is a fool.”
“What happened to the sword?”
“That faggot Skírnir, his manservant, carried it off with him, and who knows where? It’s certain that he won’t be anywhere near the battlefield, in any case. His only claim to fame was in bullying the Jötunn woman Gerðr with Freyr’s former sword, threatening to cut her head off if she didn’t consent to allow Freyr to fuck her, and then swishing around his sissy-boy magic wand — as if he were a Völva — by means of which he meant to turn her ugly and give her dread diseases, so that all men would flee from her, unless she gave in to his many threats. He made one ashamed to share the same sex with him.”
“A Seeress and Sorceress — as is proper among womankind — like your friend the Empress D’Larona-Elvi, who styles herself a Sorceress and Scryer. Same thing, different words.”
“But I’m a Wizard. Isn’t that the same thing?”
“Not at all. I myself can and do wield magic, but I use it to make useful things, just as you do. Sometimes those things are weapons, which can be used to hurt people, but by no means would I — or any decent man — use magic to harm people directly. Women are different,” he said with sturdy logic, “because they have not a man’s strength or will, and so may properly use magic to defend themselves, their homes, and family. No one would dare to think less of them for it.”
“So this Skírnir fellow crossed the line between manly and unmanly behavior by threatening her with magic, but not when he threatened her with the sword?”
“Well,” he said reluctantly, “the magic was much worse. A man may be overcome with lust and rape — or threaten to rape — a woman, and still be thought a man, even if something of a coward, because he should have gone to her father, or other male kin, and demanded her hand in marriage, in which case he might make any threats he wanted to, as well as offer gifts, because there’s at least one man present to dispute his claim. But even then, her father and brothers would have a claim at law against him, and could demand either wealth or outlawry for her honor.”
“So what happened to Skírnir? Was he outlawed?”
“No one knows. Who cares where poofters wander? Mind you, Freyr should have done his own wooing, so that was more than a little limp-wristed in itself. What kind of man is such a coward that he sends another man to court his bride? Is the other man to have his wedding night as well?” He laughed coarsely. “Of course, with Skírnir he wouldn’t have had to worry about that problem, but I wouldn’t turn my backside to him in the sauna.” He winked in sly implication.
“So what happened to Gerðr? Did she marry Freyr?”
“She did, worse luck to her, the foolish girl. What pride could she take in a husband so foolish as to doom the entire world to destruction because he was too cowardly to declare his love for her directly, as a man ought to do? Instead, he sends a sneaking servant to abuse her, to intimidate her, and to degrade her while her father is away! Bah! With Gods like that, who needs enemies?”
“Freyr was a God?”
“Still is, as far as I know. He doesn’t get out much, as you might imagine, since people will laugh at him behind his back, and quite a few in his face. He’s one of the Vanir, who are supposedly wise, virile, and have the ability to see the future, but obviously Freyr is… an exception to the general rule, and he did employ Skírnir as a go-between, so there’s many as say he’d gone before, if you know what I mean.” He smirked.
Phil ignored the implication. “So if I wanted to meet this Surtr fellow, where would I find him?”
“Just keep heading south, toward the Sun. The brighter it is, the warmer you get, the closer you’ll be. You’ve got some balls on you, though, if you want to meet him!”
Phil smiled. “Well, you’ll notice that I have two wives.”
The King laughed. “That’s the spirit! It would be nice if someone dared to face him. As scrawny as we Dvergar may be in this age of the world, and as poor as our homeland is, I’ll miss it when the nine worlds all burn to a cinder.”
“Would you like to see it, the supposed End of things?”
The King was astonished. “You’d ask me to fight beside you?”
“I would, though I’d like to see a little Dvergr guile as well. You faced our party boldly, though we clearly outnumbered you, so your courage is obvious. I have the beginnings of a plan in mind….”
The little King grinned, straightening his spine and standing tall, for a little guy. “Guile or no guile, I’ll be proud to fight beside you!” the King declared.
“Stout fellow!” said Phil, “I’ll let you know how my plans work out, and what you’ll need to bring with you, besides your weapons, of course.”
“Late that night, they were camped on the edge of an impossibly-tall cliff, so high above whatever it sprang from that they could see only clouds float by below, with no hint of whatever lay beneath. To the south, above them, there was another precipice, nearly vertical from the looks of it, and just as tall, towering above the clouds that surrounded whatever land — or world — that distant island massif supported.”
“King Alvís says that it’s the land of the Giants, Jötnar, he calls them. They’re in our way, but a mixed bunch, some are fairly nice, but quite a few are rather nasty. Of course, there’s no particular equivalent to the Golden Rule here, or any thought, evidently, that one really ought to try to get along with people, so many are quite boorish, even the nicer ones, ready to start a blood feud at the drop of a slighting remark, or an imagined insult. In fact, insult contests are a kind of party game with them, with the winner being the guy who provokes someone into trying to kill him, whereupon everyone laughs.”
“How do we get there?” Rhea asked practically.
“Well,” Phil said, “we have several choices. The centaurs could theoretically fly us across, but it might be too far to support us all, since it’s difficult to judge exactly how far away it is. We could try to establish a portal, but never having been there, this might be difficult, although the centaur science of portals might help. According to their book, though, they never progressed beyond our present location, so it would be a shot in the dark, as they say. Finally, King Alvís gave me something he calls a ‘bridge,’ which can supposedly span any distance. It’s obviously some sort of magic, but I have no idea exactly how it works.”
“Well,” Selene suggested, “why don’t we see what this magic bridge thing looks like? If it seems too dicey, we can always try something else, but it has the advantage of being something from this world, and obviously something that your pal the King thinks will work.”
“Good point,” Phil said. “Should we try it now?”
“Darkness might be advisable,” Akcuanrut agreed, “to avoid drawing unwanted attention from any potential observers, although it looks like a very long way to travel in one night.”
“What the heck? Let’s give it a try. The King thought it would work, and the curse is relatively minor.”
“Curse?” Rhea said suspiciously.
“Well,” he said, “the bridge disappears as soon as the last of your party steps off, so it can be rather hard on anyone who tries to follow you. But the King said that all the best magical gadgets have curses. I trust him, as far as that goes.” With that, he took out the King’s ‘bridge,’ held tightly to the handle provided at one end, and flicked the rest toward the land of the Giants, something like casting a lure with a fly rod and reel, except it didn’t look like one. It actually looked quite a bit like a very fancy yoyo.
With a low musical throb like the lowest few notes of an antique cinema organ, the business end shot off into the darkness, trailing a very faint multi-colored glow behind it.
“Uhm, Sweetie?” Selene pointed out. “It looks a lot like a very dim rainbow.”
“I noticed,” he replied glumly, and tested the glowing end on the ground before him with one toe, as if it were a dead snake — or a live wire, as it turned out — only to be caught by the thing and carried along on it as if it were the escalator on the ground floor of Macy’s Department Store in the City. Before he quite realized what was happening, he was rising majestically, if unwillingly, into the air, while those on the ground followed his stately progress with open mouths and eyes wide. The worst part was that he could see them quite clearly beneath his feet, since — despite the glow — the ‘bridge’ was quite transparent. He resisted the urge to close his eyes, and instead smiled and waved, determined not to make his last moments — if these were them — appear pathetic.
After a moment of stunned inaction, both of his wives leapt onto the dim rainbow with a desperate shout, beginning their own slow rise toward the cloudy heavens, and Phil called back, belatedly, “Follow me! I guess…. It’s like the moving walkway at the airport!” before he was carried high enough that he could no longer see their army, still huddled on the edge of the precipice.
Akcuanrut was the last one across the bridge before it suddenly retracted itself into the handle, which Phil still had firmly in hand. It was night, and the sky was filled with strange stars. He wasn’t happy at all. “How many times” he said bitterly, “have I told you to be careful with magic! It’s a lucky thing we were all paying attention, or who knows how many might have been left behind!”
“Sir, I’m very sorry, but magic in this world appears to be inherently untrustworthy, perhaps because it’s seen as ‘feminine,’ and so mysterious in a relentlessly patriarchal and sexist culture. King Alvís regaled me last night with what seemed like dozens of what he thought of as ‘hilarious’ stories about men who used magic to disguise themselves, all of whom apparently wound up pregnant through rape, forced marriage, or other misadventure, eventually giving birth either to ordinary babies or monsters, depending — evidently — on exactly who the father was, ‘invincible’ magic weapons that turned out to have a secret weakness, which inevitably led their owners into fatal errors, and many more of that same ilk. What I failed to do was to take his stories to heart as something applicable to me, since in my experience — and probably yours — magic is both controllable and reliable.” He shook his head slowly from side to side. “Here, on the other hand, it seems to be unruly and capricious, with who knows what consequences for our mission. My only bit of optimism comes from the fact that it will probably be similarly unreliable for the ‘Dark Gods,’ since this magical mischievousness seems to be inherent in this universe, or set of ‘worlds,’ whatever it is. It’s certainly not the sort of universe we all came from, since ‘worlds’ don’t typically sit perched on top of some other thing, which for all I know is a giant turtle, or perhaps a lotus leaf.”
Both Akcuanrut and Empress D’Larona-Elvi looked nonplused. “What do you mean?” the Empress asked, but the wizard obviously had the same question in mind.
“Look over the edge of that cliff,” he said simply. “The tallest mountain on Earth is a tad less than five and a half miles above sea level, and the air up there is so thin that people quite regularly die trying to climb it.” “How far below us do you suppose those cloud tops are? Ten miles? Twenty? How far below that is whatever these island ‘worlds’ actually rest upon? How is it that we can breathe? How is it that these cliffs — which from the hazy shift toward a dark blue coloration they display as they recede below us must be many miles in height — don’t form valleys? Why are there no waterfalls? Gigantic piles of rubble extending up from the base?” He gestured back across the gulf between their new ‘world’ and the home of the dwarves. “It was overcast back there, but here it seems clear. Why would clouds respect the edge of a mere cliff? What keeps those clouds down there,” he pointed down over the cliff’s edge, “separate from those clouds over there?” He pointed back toward the land of the dwarves. “And why,” he said, “can we see those clouds so clearly in the darkness? From our ordinary experience we’d expect the bottom of a very deep valley to be darker than the mountain heights, yet the opposite seems true here.”
Akcuanrut blinked, and then closed his eyes in some sort of inner contemplation. “You’re right,” he said at last. “There’s plenty of magic, but it’s wild and unruly in comparison to what we’re used to in our world. I hate to think of what it might be up to behind our backs.”
“That would explain,” Phil said ruefully, “why my armband spell didn’t work the way I’d planned it, since the two duplicates were supposed to stay out of each other’s way without help.”
“The magic here seems actively intent on trickery,” the Empress observed. “I can feel it working against me even when I attempt a simple scrying. Phil’s light balls should still be untainted by wild magic, since he made them before we left Earth, but we must all be very careful with any magical working in the future, and try to be prepared for the unexpected.”
Both Akcuanrut and the Empress looked worried, as well they might. Unlike Phil, who’d stumbled across magic well past his childhood, both of them had grown up with well-behaved magic all around them, and were accustomed to casually using spells to accomplish even simple tasks like lighting a candle, the sort of thing one did naturally, like scratching an itchy nose, or flicking on the light switch when one walked into a room back on Earth. For the first time, he felt that they might have bitten off a bit more than they could safely swallow, and felt a frisson of fear as he looked south, toward the looming shadows of the unknown hills and mountains of the giant’s homeland.
They passed a night of miserable cold, despite their tents and blankets, and the view wasn’t that much more inspiring when the sun rose low in the sky the following morning. The hills and mountains were perhaps even more uninviting in the cold light of day, the mountains even more barren of life than the dwarves’ scrubby forest, and the hills directly before them more notably covered with lichen-covered boulders and broad fields of jumbled scree than anything like green vegetation. Still, their road lay south, and the oblique angle of the rising sun made that direction plain at least. It looked to make a short day, and nothing would be gained by dawdling with nothing but the cloudy abyss at their back. “Well,” Phil said to no one in particular, “isn’t this just a lovely day.” It wasn’t a question.
“Don’t be gloomy,” both Rhea and Selene scolded him in unison, “it’s unbecoming in a Master Wizard. You have a responsibility to project an air of confident command, lest your bad mood infect the people whose lives depend upon you.”
He blinked, surprised to be called on his lack of command presence by both his wives at once, but then realized that it wasn’t really different from a football game; as quarterback, he hadn’t been free to mope around, however short his tenure in the position had been. He was a team leader, although of course he’d had to take orders from the coach, but his leadership had depended on inspiring his team mates with his own enthusiasm as much as it had on his ability to strategize and think quickly on his feet. “I apologize, dear hearts. I had the good sense to follow your advice when first we met — well, except for Selene’s well-intended advice to ‘get lost,’ for my own safety —and should have been more firmly resolved to carry on in the same vein. I stand corrected, and let’s go kick some Jötunn butt!”
“That’s better,” they both said archly, “and see you keep it up!”
He wasn’t exactly sure how to take that last remark, but decided firmly to ignore any possible double entendre. “Yes, Ma’ams,” he said.
Neither Akcuanrut nor the Empress were in visibly better moods.
“Not the most enchanting view,” the Empress said.
“And no breakfast ready,” the wizard added.
“Yeah,” Phil said, “next time we try to save the world let’s see if we can arrange a better class of arch-fiends and villains. It would be nice if we could chase these guys through a series of delightful resorts and three-star restaurants worth a special trip to experience on their own.”
“There’s no need to be snippy,” the wizard said, while the Empress merely arched one perfect eyebrow.
“Don’t mind him,” his wives said. “He got up on the wrong side of bed this morning,” they said, and glared in his general direction.
Phil blushed and cleared his throat. “In any case, I’d like to start out as early as we can, since the less time we spend here the sooner we can get to where we’re really going.”
“Then we should start with breakfast,” Akcuanrut said. “Both horses, centaurs, and troops must be fed to be effective, and there’s obviously no forage to be had locally.”
“Share out from the supply wagons,” Phil called out to the soldiers, “and let’s be quick about it, so we can get this show on the road.”
Both of his wives smiled in approval, which was good enough for Phil, despite the disgruntled look from Akcuanrut, who doubtless had a leisurely breakfast in mind.
They hadn’t been traveling for more than an hour when they heard the first indications that their progress might have been observed in the form of a strange sort of brittle drumming, as if someone were rhythmically slamming a large boulder onto a very hard rock, both of which seemed especially ready-to-hand in this rocky place.
“Do you suppose,” Selene asked, looking up toward the heights, from where the sounds seemed to come, “that they’re talking about us?”
“One must presume so,” said Akcuanrut. “The timing is odd, at very least, though what the sounds might convey is a mystery.”
“Nothing good, I suspect,” was all Phil said, but he kept a wary mental finger on the slow throbbing pulse of the magic around him, in hopes of detecting any malevolent impulse aside from the random mischief inherent in the local magic itself.
With no warning at all, a giant chunk of the mountainside came crashing down in front of them, not twenty feet from the head of their loose column, and Phil reacted instantly, seeking out the origin of the push that had dislodged the mass of stone, and then the spite behind the impulse, then gave the Jötunn magic — which itself had a particularly malevolent impulse toward bellicosity and murder at the heart of it — free rein to drop the ground out from beneath the instigator of the first mischief — who already had a similar project in progress to follow his first effort — allowing the villain to follow the natural inclination of his body, which was to approach the gravitational center of this world’s mass. “Whoops!” Phil said, when a largish Jötunn hurtled down the mountain from above their heads and then landed, splat! on top of the very rocky heap of rock he’d already arranged for his arrival. It was a he, though not a very handsome one, especially since he looked much the worse for wear after his fall, or at least he did until he was swatted flat and buried by the very slab of mountain he’d meant next to push down on top of them.
“That,” Phil called out loudly, “was the fellow who caused the problem, although he seems to have arranged it very clumsily. I sincerely hope that no one else is inclined to follow his inept example.” He looked up toward the steep hills and cliffs around them, where he felt the presence of unseen watchers. “If so, they should be very careful to watch their step, since the mountainside seems a little damp and slippery this morning.”
Just then, another giant on a jagged ledge above the path picked up a very large rock with obvious intent to hurl it down upon their party, but Phil saw to it that the spirit of mischief that infected this place persuaded him to overbalance slightly as he threw his boulder, and managed — through some quirk of momentum and the physics of rotation — to wind up beneath the very rock he’d thrown, well off the path.
“The trick is,” he explained to no one in particular, “that the local magic sincerely desires every conscious act to fail, so it doesn’t take very much encouragement at all to ensure that every wicked purpose defeats itself.”
Rhea whooped, then said, “It’s Klown Kollege and the Krazy Klownflagration!” naming a circus act she’d seen once as a child, which had been punctuated by silly slapstick and pratfalls in profusion.
“Indeed,” Phil said, “but possibly harder on the participants, since they’re not using seltzer water syphons. We must all take care to watch our steps, and especially not to place ourselves in danger by thinking negative thoughts, much less initiating any hostile action, since the local balance between evil intention and the end result has been very slightly changed. In the words of a famous televangelist, ‘It’s nice to be nice.’ As the Buddha might say, or Hippocrates, ‘First, do no harm.’ Ahimsa, the first principle of peace, is also the first step on the path to true enlightenment.”
Both Rhea and Selene rolled their eyes. “Where’s the fun in that?” they asked rhetorically.
“Staying alive,” he answered succinctly. “We see before us the unfortunate results of two separate hateful actions. Let’s all strive to emulate the principles of non-violent resistance and satyagraha espoused by Mahatma Ghandi and many others across the ages.”
“Satyagraha?” said the Empress.
“The firm insistence upon truth in every interaction, by which he meant a common truth which respected the human dignity and rights of everyone. Of course, he wasn’t faced with existential enmity between supernatural forces — perhaps something like to Gods — involving at least one party who denies the right of other parties to merely exist. It’s difficult to imagine a middle ground between someone like Na-Noc — who feels that he has the right to eat people, both body and soul — and the people he tortures and consumes. I personally think that Ghandi was probably overoptimistic in some of his theories. They worked against the British, who were basically rather civilized, but I doubt that they would have worked against the Nazis, who weren’t, by and large.”
“Nazis?” enquired the Empress.
“An Earthly version of Na-Noc and his pals who did their best to conquer most of the world and then rewrite it to include only those people who seemed desirable to those in power.”
Akcuanrut was skeptical. “But what did they do with the others?”
“Killed them, of course, somewhere between twenty and thirty million people, taking all in all, then looted their bodies of anything valuable. As I said, much like Na-Noc’s little gang, but they did it the old-fashioned way — with weapons and poisons — all without the advantage of godlike powers.”
After those two belligerent encounters, the giants stayed away, although the lithic drumming continued, until they came to what seemed like a large settlement around a central hall, itself about the size of a World War II blimp hangar, and all surrounded by large but barren fields of broken rock and sand with neat rock walls around them. There, they were met by an affable Jötunn — dressed in patchwork garments of leather and fur, including a phrygian cap, each separate scrap evidently a whole hide, because the skin and fur of the legs and heads had been left to dangle — who wished them a good morning and asked them where they were going.
“Actually,” Phil said, looking way up to where his face was, but seeing mostly the underside of his thick blond beard, “we’re just passing through on our way to Vanaheim. Is it far from here?”
“Not too far. Visiting friends? Relatives?”
“Not really. We just heard that it was a nice place to visit, and the views of course are spectacular. Of course, your own world is very interesting as well. The mountains are very interesting and scenic.”
“Have you met any of our local residents?”
“I can’t say as how we have, since the local inhabitants seem terribly shy, although we did chance to see a tragic accident in which there was at least one fatality. The poor fellow was buried in a landslide, though, so there was nothing we could do.”
“That would be Baugi. He was always a clumsy fellow. I can’t think what he was doing in the mountains, though, as he was a farmer, and much more accustomed to the plains.”
“I have no idea,” Phil said. “Perhaps you could notify his family?”
“Already done,” the giant said. “News travels fast around here.”
“I thought somehow it might,” Phil said. “My name is Phillip, by the way, and these are my friends, fellow sightseers.”
“Loki is my name, but no relation that I know of to the other one. I see that you’re well-armed for a group of tourists.”
“Well, you’ll also notice that more than half of us are women, so please put your mind at rest. As for arms, one never knows but that one might meet brigands on the road, or wild beasts, so of course we carry those weapons that any traveler might require. I can’t, in good conscience, apologize for being prepared for any eventuality, especially with helpless women in our party.”
Both Rhea and Selene snorted derisively, but were ignored.
“I suppose not. Being well-supplied is always commendable. With so many women, are you minded to offer any as brides? We have many young giants with good prospects.”
“I’m afraid not. All are either married or have taken holy vows, as one might expect with pilgrims and sightseers.”
“All of them?” The giant frowned.
“Yes, indeed.” Phil said rather cheerfully. “Ask them if you like. I wouldn’t lie.”
The giant shouted out in anger, “You women! This man says that you’ve all taken vows! Is that true?”
The women answered, one and all, “Yes!” they said in chorus, since they all — except for the Empress D’Larona-Elvi, of course — had the same knack of it. It made quite a din.
The giant’s brows knitted themselves together, which wasn’t much of a trick, since he had what was close to a monobrow already. “Almost all of them sisters, I see. The other one’s married too?”
“That she is. I know her husband, a very nice man. You’d like him, I’m sure.”
“I’m sure I would,” he growled, so deep in tone that it was almost subsonic, and with such menace that Phil was quite sure that he didn’t mean the words with any benevolence at all.
“Perhaps,” he said, temporizing. “One never really knows, of course, until one meets in person.”
“We’ll just see about that!” the giant shouted, and stomped off toward the Empress, then fell to his knees, gasping and clutching at his chest.
The Empress D’Larona-Elvi said kindly, “I see that you’ve having a heart attack, probably brought on by bad diet and an excess of choler. Would you like me to help you?”
“You’re a Völva!” he said accusingly.
“I suppose I am,” she agreed, pleasantly enough, “if by ‘Völva’ you mean an extremely powerful Enchantress, Seer and Witch. Do you want my help to save your miserable life, or do you not? I’m rather busy just now.”
“Yes!” he gasped, clutching now at the ground, having been brought down to his face with a heavy thud, scrabbling at the ground with his fingers.
“Then be at peace, and you are deeply in my debt, since you owe me your life itself, despite your cruel intentions toward me, of which I am well aware.” She gestured toward him with a negligent wave of her hand.
He inhaled deeply, in a shuddering gasp for breath, and seemed slightly better, but was still prostrate as he managed to choke out, “I beg your pardon, Honored Lady! I had no idea who you really were.”
“See that you don’t make the same mistake again, since I can see your wicked thoughts before you form them.”
“Yes, Great Lady, and thank you for my life.”
“It’s a trivial thing, please think nothing of it,” she said ambiguously.
“Thank you, Lady,” he said, missing the point completely. “May I offer you all the hospitality of my hall?”
Phil made a show of thinking, then said, “I think not. We have ample supplies, and the ladies are very fond of their horses, are inseparable, in fact, and we wouldn’t want to impose’….”
“Think nothing of it!” Loki said, grinning broadly, “My hall is the largest within many miles, and can easily accomodate five times your number!”
“Well….” Phil seemed to hesitate.
“It’s settled, then! Throw open the doors!” he said to some unseen retainers, and the doors were opened.
With some hesitation, Phil, his wives, the Wizard and the Empress, and then the rest of their troop followed Loki into his hall, which was constructed of logs about the size of old-growth sequoias, and with a foundation of dry-laid boulders, each ten to twelve feet tall and three times as many wide. It seemed twice as large inside as out, and there was room enough inside to park a fleet of Boeing 797s.
Inside, there were row upon row of trestle tables and benches, in all sizes from those suitable for dwarves, to those for men, to those for the largest of giants, and all of them suspiciously already well-supplied with meats, ale, and viands of almost every kind.
“Welcome to my hall!” the giant said expansively. “As you can see, there is enough for all!”
“It does look nice,” Phil said cautiously.
“Before we eat, we always like to play a few parlor games to pass the time, and settle our stomachs.” He smiled winningly, or at least he thought he did. In reality his attempt to gull them was quite transparent.
The Empress spoke up directly, “I believe I’ll play your game, and wager that I’ll be able to wrestle that old woman there to the ground in three throws. As it happens, I have a spare life to wager, yours, my dear friend Loki, but of course you’ll be in no danger, because she is, after all, just an old woman, and everything is just in fun!” She laughed as blithely as a girl….
…but Loki blanched white. “Of course, Great Lady! In fact, we’ll just pretend that you’ve already won the contest, since it’s all in fun, and I’ll grant you any boon you ask.”
“I’ll take all the boons you have to give, ‘Friend’ Loki, since this is all in fun. You’ve remembered, I see, that I can read your thoughts.”
“Yes, Lady. I am your slave.” He knelt before her.
“Don’t try to trick us ever again, ‘Friend’ Loki, or it will go the worse for you. Any of us here could have told you that that ‘old woman’ there is Death herself — whom none can overthrow — and all your other proposed wagers will have similar tricks attached, as transparent to us as if you were a child who thought he was invisible because he’d covered his own eyes. Now you owe me three lives, your own twice, and the old woman’s, oddly enough, since you forfeited her life along with your own again.”
“But Noble Lady,….”
“Silence, Slave!” she screamed at him in fury. “I name you thus, and I’m quite accustomed to being obeyed, not argued with by churls and villeins.”
He blanched, to be so named before his fellows, who crowded the hall, but fell to his knees again. “Your pardon, Lady. It was a just a harmless joke….”
“Liar!” she screamed again. “Poltroon! You forget again that your thoughts are open to me, and your wicked lies transparent, despite having being warned, so I’ll name you ‘Nithing,’ and ‘Fool’ as well.”
“Yes, Great Lady.” This time he groveled on the ground, and there was laughter from his people in the hall, together with a few unintelligible jeers.
“Now, as my slave, tell me of the forces arrayed against us, and beware lest any jot or tittle be concealed, or I’ll take some portion of just one of your forfeits.” She thought for a moment, carelessly. “Perhaps both hands, since they seem rather too busy doing mischief, or perhaps that which you carry a little closer, since your people would be much improved without your contributions to the ancestry of any more Jötunns.” She gestured with an idle flick of her hand and there was a tall white staff instantly in her hand, exactly as tall as she herself was, carved with runes and headed with a faceted emerald as large as a goose egg.
The quiet laughter and muted taunts from the hall ceased instantly. “Your pardon, Lady!” said one of the largest, aside from Loki himself. “We meant no offense, but are rough warriors here, not members of a large Court, such as yourself. Our manners may seem coarse, I’m sure.”
“What’s your name, Warrior?”
“Gangr, Lady.” He bowed low.
“You have his place in the hall,” she gestured toward Loki, still flat on the ground, “if you can keep it.”
“I can, Great Lady and Völva. I’m one of the eldest here, and have wealth to rival his besides.” He looked at her slyly. “Am I to be gifted with that which was Loki’s?”
“You are, but if he has a wife, or other female dependents, they’re to keep their personal articles and clothing, including especially jewelry, gems, and other treasure, and have their own choice of where and with whom they wish to live.”
“As you wish, my Lady. You have my word on it.”
“Good. See that you keep it.” She turned to Phil and said, “Dear Phillip, would you mind tossing him one of your little bags of gold? I’m sure that this dear fellow will have a few extra expenses to make on my behalf, and I’d hate for him to be at all out of pocket.”
“Of course, Empress!” he said, and rummaged through one of the wagons for the largest he could lay his hands upon, which he lugged over to the giant Gangr. “Here you go, Gangr.”
Gangr addressed the Empress as if Phil had not spoken, as was proper in these sorts of transactions, “Thank you, Lady. It’s not necessary, of course.”
“But handy, none-the-less, I’ll warrant. I prefer that any services which I require be performed instantly and with a cheery good will, and there’s nothing like the lubrication of a little gold to make everything go smoothly.”
“You are wise beyond your years, Great Lady.” He bowed and smiled ingratiatingly.
“Wiser perhaps than you,” she said and flicked out her staff toward the hall, upon which tiny motion every bit of the proffered food disappeared from the tables like the illusion that it was. “I see that your predecessor neglected to properly serve the feast, so I’ll give you a few minutes to prepare, and be sure to include clean grain, apples, carrots, and other things that horses find good to eat, and be prepared to eat the same if I discover any filth or dirt.” She smiled. “In short, I will not be easily satisfied.”
“Nor should you be, Great Lady,” he said smoothly. “Everything will be exactly as you wish.”
She had a thought. “Oh! Gangr, please remember that we are not cannibals, so don’t dare to serve us man flesh, as is your wont, nor feast upon it ever again in this, my hall.”
He blanched and made haste to stammer, “Uh…uh…Of course, Noble Lady.”
“Good. We have an understanding, then,” she said.
“We do,” Gangr replied, and bowed very low.
The Empress merely smiled, then nudged Loki with her toe to prompt him to answer her previous question, which he did.
Copyright © 2000, 2001, 2002 Jeffrey M. Mahr — All Rights Reserved
Copyright © 2012 Levanah Greene — All Rights Reserved
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