User:Posti/Lost in Translation

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Lost in Translation

Author: Bob Stein

The car sputtered once as it crested the hill and immediately began to slow. Pushing in the clutch, Zack scanned the gauges and frowned. Turning the key did nothing. Everything was dead. He coasted off to the side of the road, starting to regret his choice of shortcuts. This road wasn’t used much, and almost never patrolled. Great for having fun with his car, but not so great for getting help.

Sighing, he pulled the hood release and got out to check. All of the cables were tight and clean, and there was no obvious problem with the wiring. He tried the starter again, and then flicked on the lights. Nothing. The battery was either completely dead, or had shorted out. He hoped it was just dead. A short could have also fried the alternator, or damaged the car’s very expensive computer ‘brain.’

It was starting to get dark, more from threatening clouds than lateness of the hour. Perfect. His rain gear and umbrella were in the house. Zack shut the hood and locked the doors. Naturally, he’d broken down almost exactly between towns. Roughly four miles to walk. Sighing, he started back the way he’d come. Maybe he could find a house or store before the rain started.

He made it about a hundred yards before the skies opened up. Far enough that he’d be soaked to the skin before he could get back in the car. Snorting in disgust, he slogged on through the torrential rain. The further he got, the worse the weather became. It was like trying to walk through a waterfall. He jumped at a sudden flash and crack of thunder. Cripes! He got the message! Turning, he began to run back to the car.

Another bolt of lightning hit close enough to leave an odor of ozone in the air. Zack was really scared now. He couldn’t see ten feet. If anyone were driving on the road, they’d hit him before they realized he was there. Not that he’d be much safer in the woods with the electrical storm going on.

Blocking the rain from his eyes with one hand, he squinted through the wall of water. A rough dirt driveway led off to the right. Overgrown and narrow, it didn’t offer much promise of shelter. At this point, even the faintest chance was worth investigating. He ran down the center, trying to stay as far from the trees as possible.

Stumbling on the slick, uneven surface, Zack fell face-first into thick mud. He screamed in frustration as he rolled over onto his back. Then he shook his head and started to chuckle incredulously. If it wasn’t for the electrical storm, this might be funny. Another close flash and crack punctuated the lack of humor.

Scrambling up, Zack wiped the muck from his face and looked around in desperation. Over there - a shape too square to be natural. He fought his way through the quagmire, feet sinking to his ankles. It was a barn or big storage building. The double doors were shut, but not locked. He yanked open the heavy metal latch and slipped inside, managing to pull the door shut before he collapsed in exhaustion.

Panting, he took a moment to catch his breath before sitting up. It was very dark inside. The scents around him were familiar. Straw and old leather. The dusty smell of oats mixed with a faint, acrid odor of manure and urine. A stable.

When his eyes adjusted, he saw one shaggy head regarding him curiously over a stall door. Either the stable’s other occupants weren’t interested in intruders, or he was alone with a donkey. Regardless of the answer, it meant that somebody owned this place. He hoped that whoever it was would ask questions first and shoot later.

Blowing through his lips, he stood slowly and approached the animal with one hand outstretched. Its ears flicked forward a bit, and black nostrils flared open as it drew in his scent. Encouraged, Zack moved all the way to the stall gate and let the donkey snuffle his dripping shirt. It seemed to be in good health, and well groomed. The beast nudged his chest, and gave a startlingly loud bray. Then it dropped its head and started to lip at straw on the floor, curiosity apparently satisfied.

A quick examination proved the other nine stalls to be empty. It was hard to tell if they had just been cleaned, or were unoccupied. The one to the right of the donkey had no gate, so it was safe to assume that it wasn’t in use. He pulled off his hat and shirt, wringing water out of both before hanging them on a hook. Then he pulled off his shoes and dumped the water out of them. It was tempting to strip off his soaked pants as well, but he didn’t need to risk being arrested for trespassing AND indecent exposure.

He plopped down in the corner and carefully leaned back against the coarse planks of the wall. The storm outside showed no sign of stopping any time soon, and he was exhausted. He worried about the car a bit, hoping that it was far enough off the road to be safe. Then fatigue hit hard, and he drifted off into dreamless sleep.

A wheezing bray startled Zack awake. It took a moment to remember where he was. He’d changed position sometime during his nap, and was now sprawled facedown on the floor. Stiff and sore, he sat up and spat a strand of straw from his mouth. At least the rain had stopped. He ran his fingers through his hair to dislodge clumps of drying mud, wincing as muscles protested the sod mattress. God, he must look like something out of a B horror movie.

There was a bucket he hadn’t noticed before, hanging from the back wall. It had been recently filled, if not cleaned, and he rinsed his face off. The cool water helped wake him up, and he stretched as he looked out through the cracks of a shuttered stall window. It must be late evening, at least. How long had been sleeping? Yawning, he rubbed his eyes and turned to see if his shirt and shoes were dry.

They were missing. He blinked, and looked around the floor. Nothing there. Then he realized something else was wrong. He was surrounded by four walls, not three. The stall now had a gate. Frowning, he tried to get his bearings. Had he somehow moved to a different stall? No, the donkey was still on his left. And the rest of the stable looked the same. He sighed and shook his head. The door must have been there all along, he’d just missed it somehow.

He could hear the donkey eating. Hadn’t its grain bin been empty before? Spinning, he looked at the container in his own stall and saw that it also held a full ration of feed. Someone must have come in. They’d have to have seen him lying there. He patted his pockets suddenly, and was relieved to feel his wallet and keys. Why take his other clothing?

Well, it was a safe bet somebody knew he was here. Even if they’d called the police, Zack wasn’t too worried. He’d try to find the owners and explain what happened. Maybe they’d even call a tow truck for him. He pushed on the gate. It was latched. Annoyed, he tried to reach over to unlock it, only to have his hand stop at the inner edge of the doorway.

Blinking, he stared at the empty air above the gate and tried again. There was no sensation of hitting anything, no contact with a wall or other obstruction. His hand simply stopped moving. Zack backed away from the invisible barrier, flexing his fingers. Even if there were a sheet of glass or plastic there, he should feel something.

He picked up a piece of straw and tried to see where the strand started to bend. It passed over the gate without any problem until his fingers reached the gate. Then his hand stuck again. A handful of grain flew over the gate without even slowing. Whatever was blocking the opening was selective.

And that, of course, was impossible. Zack looked around the stall, more than a little bewildered. He couldn’t remember ever dreaming in such detail. It was more than scents and sounds. His skin itched from contact with the fodder, the pull of mud in his hair was uncomfortable, and his pants and socks still felt damp. A quick pinch hurt. Well, dream or not, he wanted to get out of here.

A similar force field prevented him from opening the shutters of the outside window. Frustrated, he pounded on the gate with his fist. “Hey! Is anybody there? Let me out of here, please!” The noise attracted the attention of his neighbor, who brayed noisily and pressed its muzzle against the open slats that separated the stalls above the wall. Zack let the animal snuffle his fingers, and then slipped a hand through to rub its chin. “Sorry for the disturbance. I don’t suppose you have the number for room service?” The animal replied with a snort.

Wait a minute. His hand was over in the next stall. Pressing harder, he was able to slip more of his arm through the slats. The force field didn’t seem to be working here. He looked up and saw that the slats didn’t go all the way to the ceiling. He could just squeeze through and climb down into the donkey’s stall. The animal had looked out over its gate when he first came in, so maybe the barrier wasn’t set up there.

Climbing up the slats was harder than he expected. Either he was in worse physical shape than he’d thought, or he was paying the price for napping on the dirt floor. Muscles ached, and his joints were stiff. Still, he managed to work himself over the top and ease cautiously down into the donkey’s stall.

Even in the dim light, he could see it was a jenny. She snuffled him curiously and lipped at his pants. Probably looking for a treat. “Sorry girl. Don’t have anything for you.” He stepped around her to reach the gate, only to be blocked as she shifted position. Teeth clamped on the edge of one pocket, and he stumbled as she yanked hard.

“I don’t have anything!” He was reluctant to slap or push the animal, but she kept tugging at his clothing. When she dropped her head to snap as his socks, he pushed as hard as he could. “No!” That startled the beast long enough for him to slip over to the gate. He reached over for the latch, and encountered another barrier.

“Dammit!” How had the jenny gotten her head over the door? He moved to the window, having to sidestep as the donkey snorted and shifted to block him. “Quit it!” He pushed her muzzle away as she tried to grab his pants again. What was it about his clothing? “Ouch! Stop it!” She made a quick grab that pinched flesh on his thigh, and he jumped back. “Stupid donkey! Quit.”

Zack quickly discovered that her window had the same force field in place. And that donkeys could bite just as hard as his own horse. “Ouch!” He spun, rubbing the bruised flesh of his right buttocks. Only to feel his fingers sliding through coarse fur. Twisting around suddenly, he stared at his sore rump.

A large patch of his pants had turned into dense hair. There was more on his thigh, where she’d nipped him the first time. She took advantage of his distraction to clamp down on the back of his left foot, letting go when he yelled. There was a dull throbbing under the pain, and he saw the sock and lower pants leg merge and darken into coarse hide that immediately sprouted more fur.

His clothes! No longer concerned about modesty, Zack fumbled with his belt. The metal buckle fell apart as he tugged at it. Frantic, he tried to yank the pants off, but his fingers could find no opening between flesh and fabric. “No!” He yanked his other leg away from the donkey as teeth closed on it, watching in morbid fascination as cloth changed into a shaggy inkblot that spread in all directions.

He had to get out of here! Fear gave him the strength to push the jenny away, and he threw himself against the gate. It rattled, but didn’t give an inch. The only way out was up. Jumping up on the wall, he pulled himself up awkwardly. His legs weren’t cooperating, and the jenny caught an ankle in her teeth as he climbed. Ignoring the pain, Zack kicked at her and managed to catch the top of the solid wall with his other foot. The extra leverage allowed him to reach the opening, and he managed to pull himself back over into the first stall. At least, half of himself.

See-sawing painfully on his belly, Zack found that he could not get all the way through. The gap was getting tighter by the minute, and an important part of his anatomy was caught on the other side. A glance back revealed the reason – beyond his waist, his body was no longer human. And it was still changing, thighs flattening and getting deeper. And heavier.

The top slat started to crack under his growing weight. Although he was terrified by what was happening, Zack realized that he had to drop back into the jenny’s stall. He had to struggle against the added weight to keep from falling, unable to coordinate his legs. Even so, he landed on his back with enough force to knock the breath from his lungs. Gasping, he batted feebly at the jenny, trying to keep questing lips away from his face and arms.

She snorted and rubbed her snout down his side. His chest visibly expanded, distracting him from the struggle to breathe. Then his eyes widened as her nostrils brushed across what could no longer be called his manhood. No wonder he hadn’t been able to get over the wall. He was literally hung like a horse. Or a jackass.

The black sheath looked perfectly normal between shaggy hind legs that stretched up on either side. As he watched, the last traces of toes were swallowed by dark lumps that rapidly filled out and hardened into proper hooves. And a twitch of unfamiliar muscles in his butt had to be the movement of a tail.

Stunned, Zack didn’t even try to shoo the jenny away as she began to move back towards his face. Her lips pulled at his belly, causing a mild spasm of internal organs. What was the point in resisting? He couldn’t do anything like this. His body was a mismatched horror, animal parts oversized and set up for walking on four legs instead of two. Bad enough to be a freak, he was also crippled.

The jenny lipped at his left arm, sending a throbbing ache up into his shoulder. He could feel himself gaining mass, and see a subtle reshaping of muscles under the skin. Teeth dragged gently across his exposed throat, and then the donkey’s snout filled his vision as she brushed his face.

He closed his eyes, waiting for the end. Would this incredible transformation affect thoughts as well as body? His jaw pulled, teeth throbbing as his face began to swell. The thought of losing himself was terrifying. What was the difference between death and forgetting everything that made him who he was? In minutes, perhaps seconds, he would be an animal.

The ground shifted underneath him, and warm yellow light began to filter through his eyelids. He was torn between curiosity and fear of seeing the last traces of humanity fade. It wasn’t until he realized that the sensations of change had ended that he opened his eyes.

A cloudless blue sky had replaced the dark, rough timbers of the stable ceiling. He blinked and rubbed his eyes. And then stared in amazed relief at the hand in front of his face. Human arms, human hands. He wasn’t even inside! It must have been some sort of stupid nightmare. Relief flooded him, and he laughed out loud - only to fall silent at the coarse braying sound emerging from his lips.

Sitting up was difficult, for his arms and legs didn’t work properly. It was obvious that the transformation had been no illusion. He was still a jackass from the waist down. However, the animal parts were proportional now, human torso and donkey hindquarters matched in size, if not appearance. The shape of his upper body did look a little different, his chest more barreled out, and skin a bit darker and rougher.

Trying to feel his face required an odd rotation of his arm, and he saw that his shoulders had dropped down and forward. The hand itself was thicker and heavier, with shorter fingers and hard pads on the palms. Human enough to use normally, but probably clumsy with small items or delicate work. He didn’t have much of a sense of touch, either. His face seemed mostly normal, though it was impossible to tell without a mirror.

Sitting was getting increasingly uncomfortable, and Zack found himself dropping forward. Stretching out his arms, he felt the odd rotation of shoulder again. His arms were longer in proportion to his body, and rounder. Extended like this, they almost looked like donkey forelegs. He stood up with his hind legs, and found that being on all fours felt, well, normal.

A cautious step turned into two, then a dozen. Movement was fluid and easy, and he found himself galloping across the field. The sensation of speed was exhilarating, and he actually forgot about being a freak. At least until he burst through a small stand of trees and nearly bowled over a group of kids who took one look at him and started screaming.

Startled, he stumbled and went sprawling on the ground. The easy familiarity of his new body had vanished, and it took him a moment to coordinate enough to get up. Most of the kids were running away, but a few of the boys were staring at him from a safe distance. They all had yellow and red-striped long-sleeve shirts, floppy hats, and some sort of odd, wooly pants. The vanishing girls wore full-length dresses that matched the boys' shirts. And long green hair.

He blinked, looking at the closest boy. His floppy hat had holes cut out in the front of the brim for two horns that curved out from his forehead. And those wooly pants weren't pants at all. Below the waist, the kid was a kid. As in young male goat. A satyr. Which probably made the girls all nymphs.

A thundering bellow shook the air, and he saw one of the girls returning with a huge, two-legged bull and what looked like a stereotypical old school librarian on horseback. Bewildered, Zack tried to scramble back from the minotaur as it stomped over and glared down at him. The 'librarian' joined her bovine companion with a look on her wrinkled face that was somehow even scarier. Naturally, she wasn't on a horse at all. Below her proper gray suit jacket and frilly blouse, she –was- the horse. That is to say, a centaur. A very angry centaur.

"How DARE you? Even one of YOUR kind should know better than to parade around like that in front of children?" She leaned down and hissed through clenched teeth. "Well, young man, you'll be sorry you ever disgraced MY school grounds!"

"I'm sorry!" Zack cringed under the verbal assault. "What did I do? I was just running!"

"You were running stark naked through a school yard!" She yanked off her jacket and threw it at him. "Cover yourself!"

Zack grabbed the garment awkwardly and tried to drape it over his exposed nether regions. Still, given the complete and rather spectacular nakedness of the minotaur and the bottomless satyrs, he was more than a little bewildered by her outrage. Which only seemed to increase as he complied with her orders.

“WHAT ARE YOU DOING?”

The minotaur backed away nervously, leaving Zack to cringe alone on the ground. He frantically repositioned the jacket, trying to cover both his crotch and rump. Was there something about male equine anatomy that they found disgusting? From his vantage point, it was obvious that the otherwise prim-looking school teacher had no concerns about exposing her own rump.

One of the boys apparently thought Zack’s predicament was funny, but his giggle abruptly turned into a bleat when he suddenly fell to all fours as a normal goat. The other children scattered, except for a green-skinned girl who knelt by the newly-formed billy. Even the minotaur took off at a run.

Zack’s bladder chose that moment to release, soaking the gray tweed jacket. He paled and tried to sink into the ground. “I’m sorry! I couldn’t stop myself.” The centauress’s eyes actually glowed red, and the air around her began to crackle. “Please, I don’t even know where I am, or what changed me!”

“Dama!” The one remaining child stood and planted her hands on her hips. When the schoolteacher didn’t respond, she frowned and yelled. “DAMA WHISP!”

Still enraged, the centauress spun her head around and shot lightning bolts from her eyes. Both struck the girl, who ignored them as she started to walk closer. “Get control of yourself, Dama! Transforming one of the students like that. The spell will take weeks to wear off, and he’ll never be normal again. What are we supposed to tell his herd?”

“But this.. this..” The schoolteacher sputtered in rage, but the glow was gone from her eyes.

“This is obviously a Translation.” The nymph clucked her tongue. “Honestly, Dama. Have you forgotten everything I taught you? Look at him! Use your Sight, not your anger.”

Zack winced as Dama frowned and looked down at him again. However, this time her expression softened, and then changed to obvious surprise. “Oh my!”

“See? He doesn’t know any better.” The nymph stood next to her and then squatted down with a smile. “ I apologize for my subordinate’s actions. It’s been at least a century since the last Translation, at least around here.” She held out a slender, pale green hand. “Let me have the jacket.”

Still shaking from the schoolteacher’s wrath, Zack reluctantly gave the soaked garment to the nymph. She snorted and shook her head. “As if this would fit him anyway. What were you thinking, Dama?” The tweed jacket glowed in her hand, drying instantly and growing in size. “Now, I hope you know how to wear this?” The garment she handed back was a smartly-cut man’s sports coat.

Nodding wordlessly, Zack pulled the jacket on. It was a perfect fit, but the fabric itched against his skin. Realization dawned as he saw the centauress nod in approval. These people regarded human skin to be obscene!

“Much better.” The nymph smiled. “My name is Silvermaple. I am the headmistress for this school. You’ve already met Dama Whisp.” The centauress flushed slightly as she nodded her head in greeting.

No longer feeling threatened, but completely bewildered by events, Zack had trouble finding his voice. “I’m Zack.” He had to swallow a couple of times before realizing that a wheeze in his voice was apparently normal. “Zack Schneider.”

Silvermaple raised her eyebrows. “A sphinx with only two names? That makes you a Translation for sure.”

“Sphinx?” Zack frowned in puzzlement as he looked down at himself. Half jackass, half human. Weren’t sphinx’s part lion? “But, I look like a donkey. I thought I was turning into an animal.”

“What were you before?” Dama seemed to have forgotten her anger, and now looked at him with open curiosity. Her eyes widened suddenly. “A human! You were a human, weren’t you!”

He nodded. “I got caught in a storm, and ran into an old barn. There was this jenny there, and she started pulling at my clothes. All I had on was pants and socks, and they turned into donkey skin. Then I woke up in a field.” He pointed towards the woods. “Over on the other side of those trees.”

“A phooka. Or maybe a faerie playing around.” Silvermaple shook her head. “Sloppy work, really. You should have turned into a normal jackass. The spell is still active, just stuck in a loop.”

Zack looked up in alarm. “You mean I’m going to keep changing?”

“Perhaps. Your condition is very unstable.” The nymph seemed very matter-of-fact about his plight. “However, you got stuck partway through the transformation, and ended up here.”

“I don’t understand. Why did I get changed, and why did I end up here? Wherever –here- is.”

Silvermaple shrugged. “All of your world’s theriomorphs end up here. Some sort of ancient, universal transport spell that only works on human/animal hybrids. I don’t know why you were transformed. Probably just because you were in the wrong place at the wrong time. Turning humans into animals or plants is a form of entertainment. Whatever creature worked on you was obviously untrained, probably very young.”

He thought about that for a moment. “The jenny. She was alone in the stable. There should have been other animals.”

“Starting with you.” The old centauress nodded her head. “Now I understand. A human wouldn’t have any concept of decency.”

Zack stood up, indignant. “What do you mean? I’m the only male around here who even tried to cover up. All the rest are hanging in the breeze!”

Both females burst out laughing. Silvermaple recovered first, wiping tears from her eyes. “You think sexual organs are supposed to be covered? Oh, I had forgotten about humans!” Her eyes widened and she started laughing again. “Dama! Can you imagine what would have happened if he’d shown up in the middle of recess instead of at the start? Surrounded by satyrs and nymphs…” She held her stomach, doubled over in mirth. “Oh, please. I can’t even think about it.”

It took a moment for him to realize what she was referring to. “But they’re just children!” His face flushed, and he tried to squelch the image of that popped into his head. Then he realized that Silvermaple didn’t look any older than the nymphs who had run off. “I mean, they –look- like children.”

The centauress snorted. “Of course they are!” Then she grinned. “Silver, let me do an Equivalency on him. I’ve never had the chance before.”

“OK. But be careful.” Silvermaple seemed to study Zack for a moment. “You may break the loop.”

Zack backed away nervously. “What’s she going to do? And what happens if she breaks the loop?” Dama was already mumbling.

The nymph smiled. “It’s called an Equivalency. Time and aging work differently here than they do on your world. I dare say that every one of our students is a good bit older than you are. In effect, she is resetting your body’s clock to local time.” She stepped back as the centauress began to wave her hands. “Don’t worry. If she breaks the loop, the transformation spell will complete and you’ll be returned to your own world. As the donkey you should have become.”

“Wait a minute!” He felt a surge of panic. “I don’t want…” A flash of light blinded him and his body seemed to heat up tremendously. When vision cleared, both of the females looked larger, and the tweed jacket hung loosely on his chest and arms. It was a relief to see that he still had a human chest and arms. Even if they were now thinner and smoother.

Twisting around, he saw that his donkey hindparts had also gotten smaller and spindlier. Colt instead of jackass. Younger. Zack felt a little lightheaded. The centauress had turned him into a child!

Silvermaple nodded in approval. “Excellent work, Dama. The original spell is intact, as well as the transport links. Which means that if and when the loop breaks, somebody back on his world will end up with a very long-lived donkey.”

An old fashioned bell rang in the distance. The centauress twisted around to look towards the sound. “Gracious! Recess is over already! What do we do with him?”

“Enroll him as a student, I suppose.” Silvermaple sighed. “We might as well try educating him, just in case he ends up staying a sphinx. It might be interesting to have one of his kind around. They usually don’t socialize with other races.”

Zack resented being talked about as if he were a stray dog. Still, he was in no position to argue. “There are others like me?”

“Of course.” Dama wrinkled her nose. “Although even they are usually more civilized. Sphinxes are solitary creatures. They usually think they know everything. Especially the feline variety.” She shuddered. “The last one I ran into had such stupid riddles.”

“One quick adjustment.” The nymph reached for him. After the other ‘adjustments’ he’d been through, Zack tried to twist away, but she was able to grab the jacket sleeve. “Oh, calm down! I’m just going to fix your clothing!” The jacket closed in around him, smoothing out to become a bright blue and green striped pullover shirt.

The schoolteacher frowned. “Blue and Green? Don’t you think that’s a bit optimistic? I’d start him out in the nursery Purple.”

“He’ll fit in better age-wise with the Second Level. We can always drop him down to the nursery if he can’t handle the class work.” Silvermaple sighed. “Of course, that will mean working up a special infancy spell. I suppose we should have gone ahead and regressed him when you did the Equivalency.” Then she brightened. “Think of the stories he can tell us! We’d have lost all that. Besides, I really don’t want to deal with a baby sphinx.”

Zack shivered. These creatures were talking about turning him into an infant! If the colt’s body was any indication, he couldn’t be more than seven or eight. Which meant he might be the equivalent of a child for decades. Maybe centuries. Assuming that the spell didn’t complete and return him home as a jackass.

“Come on then, Eh-rik Schn-eye-der.” Dama snapped her fingers. “I’ll put you in with the equine class. You’re physically similar to the Sileni twins. And their kind is almost as uncouth by nature. Maybe their herd will adopt you.”

He held back a moment, afraid to speak. It was hard to get a grasp of everything that had happened in the past few hours. Still, he wasn’t sure he wanted to trust in these teachers. At best, they seemed to regard him as a marginally sentient creature to be tolerated as long as he wasn’t an inconvenience. Otherwise, they would make him an infant without a second thought. Finally, he swallowed and looked up at them. “Umm, maybe I should try to find some other sphinxes?”

They looked amused by his question. That was better than angry. Silvermaple squatted down and patted his head in a condescending manner. "Spinxes can’t be found unless they –want- to be found. Besides, you aren’t really a sphinx, at least as long as the spell remains active. A real sphinx would consider you an imposter, and probably eat you.”

“Can you cancel the spell?”

Dama chuckled. “Are you sure you don’t want to put him in the nursery? Such infantile questions!”

The nymph smiled and tousled his hair. “Such a funny little fellow. I suppose you don’t know anything, do you? No, I can’t just cancel the spell. If you work real hard, you’ll learn how things work in our world. The other children will help you. And if you can’t keep up, well, there’s always the nursery.”

Zack shivered. “I’ll work hard. Really.”

“Good.” Silvermaple stood and headed for the unseen school. “Come along then. Time to join your class.” Her tone indicated that she wanted no further questions.

He followed nervously, noting that the two females were already discussing some other school business. Perhaps they were treating him as they did all of their young. The transformed satyr had been left to graze, apparently a goat in all respects. What was that Silvermaple had said? He’d never be normal again. Yet their only worry had been what to tell the boy’s herd. No matter that the child might spend the rest of his life with hooves instead of hands, or caught halfway between satyr and goat.

Zack didn’t have much choice for now. He needed to find out what other dangers lurked in this world, and hopefully, where he might find help. There was a magical time bomb ticking away inside him, one that would strip everything that was left of him if it went off.

He did have one idea. The other sphinxes. Despite the nymph’s warnings, he suspected they might be his only hope. In ancient legends, the mythical creatures knew the answers to any question. Maybe they could tell him how to cancel the spell.

They came up over a rise, and he saw dozens of different creatures gathering in a wide green pasture. The bright clothing was obviously some sort of uniform, and he spotted a group wearing blue and green stripes.

He fought back an urge to sprint ahead, realizing that his sudden eagerness was evidence of changes still going on inside his head. Zack the man was slowly giving way to Zack the child, even if that child was half donkey. Which meant he had to find his answers quickly. Time was running out, and he’d already lost too much in Translation.

The pasture turned out to be the school. There was a mad scramble of creatures as the three of them approached, each ‘class’ easily identified by the matching clothing. Zack was amazed at the variety of monsters from his own world’s mythology. It wasn’t just limited to the Greek and Roman types, either.

Several students had animal heads on otherwise human bodies, looking like juvenile versions of Egyptian gods. In contrast, he saw a foal and a lion cub with human faces as their only non-bestial features. The centaurs, satyrs, and nymphs seemed to be most numerous, with at least two or three each of the other species. There were about fifty students total, most of who were staring at him.

“Resume your classes.” Dama clapped her hands once, and the groups formed circles in the grass and sat. Something about the action made Zack think of a trained animal act, and he shivered slightly. The two adults walked around the edge of the pasture with Zack in tow. The centauress slowed as they passed a large, enclosed section. All of the creatures inside were very young, some obviously near-infants, and those that were dressed at all wore purple. The Nursery.

Zack stopped to look. This was where the centauress thought he belonged. A couple of tiny satyrs and a baby minotaur were playing in a shallow mud puddle, with a mix of bizarre toddlers scattered around playing with crude toys. The children were dirty and unsupervised. It looked more like a petting zoo than any kind of class.

“Formal instruction starts at First Level.” Silvermaple squatted down next to him. “The Nursery is a place for all the different species to get used to each other, and learn basic interaction skills. There are no pressures, no homework. It would be much easier for you here.”

It wouldn’t be much of a change, Zack realized. Some of the Nursery kids were just a few years younger than he now was. He was lost on a different world where magic worked and your shape and age could be changed as easily as a shirt. Did it really matter if he was eight years old or four? Zack stared as a werewolf cub used the bathroom like a dog, not even stopping as it toddled across the grass. “I think I’d have a little trouble fitting in. Even if you made me younger, mud pies and sucking my thumb don’t exactly appeal to me any more.”

The nymph chuckled. “Is that what you are worried about?” She pointed at the muddy minotaur calf. “That one almost completed Final Training two sessions ago, but he picked a fight with a centaur classmate and then lied about it. As if anyone would believe a minotaur brute over the Class Leader and a Chosen herd stallion.” She shook her head. “Anyway, he is perfectly happy here now. All of his lies and bad feelings are forgotten, for he is truly the infant he appears to be. We would do the same thing for you.”

Zack paled and jerked back from the enclosure. “You’d take away all my memories? I might as well be dead!”

Dama snorted. “All you will lose is the pain of separation from friends and family you will never see again, and the confusion of skills and knowledge that do not apply to this world. A fresh start with the open, curious mind of a child. And if your donkey transformation finishes up, you will be spared the fear of losing your sentience.” She moved behind him and glanced at Silvermaple. “We’re here, and it is obvious that he won’t fit in with the others. I’ve worked out the infancy spell.”

The nymph pursed her lips, actually considering the forced regression. Zack looked desperately around, trying to think of a way to escape. Even if he could get away from them with this strange body, he had no idea where to go or what to do. Fortunately, Silvermaple shook her head. “No, I think we’ll give him a chance in Second. It will be a learning experience for the other students. Besides, once he finds out what a handicap he has here, he may ask for Infancy himself.”

“Very well.” The centauress gestured towards the Blue and Green group he’d spotted earlier. “Join the class there. For now.” She looked down at him and shook her head, muttering, “A waste of time.”

Zack bolted for the Second Level students, anxious to get away from the spell-happy centaur. Why was she so eager to turn him into an infant? He drew some satisfaction knowing that she’d have to eat her words. Even if his computer background had no value here, Zack was a college graduate and well read on a number of subjects. Plus he had an adult’s life experience to draw from. It shouldn’t take much effort to graduate from this one-field schoolhouse.

The circle of creatures opened up as he approached. There were a few whispers, but most watched in wide-eyed silence. A centaur filly, a human-faced colt, and two identical horse-satyrs – obviously the sileni twins - sat on one side. The rest of the class was made up of a minotaur calf, two nymphs, a satyr, and a little girl with a cat’s head.

These were his classmates. It was actually easier to accept the minotaur and feline-headed girl because they didn’t have kid’s faces. Those with human faces appeared to be about eight years old. He couldn’t quite accept the idea that he was now their age, even though his voice and visible human body parts were those of a boy.

No one spoke, and he suddenly felt very shy. If what Dama had said was true, these kids had never seen a sphinx before. As strange as they looked to him, he might be a freak to their eyes. Well, not in appearance. The twin sileni were very similar to him, with horse parts instead of donkey. However, their lower backs were structured to allow sitting upright and walking on two legs. They also seemed to have normal shoulders and arms. Both boys were pretty homely, with protruding faces and tangled, dark brown hair that had the texture of a horse’s mane. Although their shirts were clean, they had a general aura of scruffiness.

In contrast, the young centauress was like a child model on four legs. Her long blonde hair framed the face of an angel, all bright blue eyes and rosy cheeks. Even her clothing was fancier, with ruffles and lace in matching colors. The human-faced black colt seemed more like an animal wearing a Halloween mask, staring at him curiously with large, equine eyes.

The nymphs were different shades of green, but otherwise looked like younger versions of Silvermaple. He had noticed that the satyr was darker than the others, but it still surprised him to see Asian features on a creature from European myth. Something about the cat-girl’s expression made him feel like a bird being sized up for dinner, and he shifted his gaze to the minotaur. It was easy to see how this squat, ugly creature could grow up into the monster he’d encountered earlier. Zack hoped that the smaller version was friendlier.

One of the sileni suddenly grinned and moved aside to make space between him and his brother. Grateful for the invitation, Zack took the offered seat and plopped down awkwardly. It took a few tries before he realized he could not sit up like the other students. The most comfortable position turned out to be lying on his belly with arms outstretched – just like the Egyptian Sphinx.

As he was trying to get settled, Silvermaple stepped into the center of the circle, followed by what looked like an overweight vulture with the head of a sharp-featured, middle-aged woman. The nymph glanced at Zack. “We have a new student joining your group today. He is a Translation, just arrived. Who can tell me what a Translation is?”

The centaur girl raised her hand. “I know, I know!”

“Showoff centaurs.” The sileni boy on Zack’s right muttered softly. “Bet she quotes the scroll.”

Silvermaple raised an eyebrow and looked at him. “What’s that, Jhared? Do you have a comment you want to share with the rest of us?”

His eyes widened and then dropped to focus on the ground. “Uh, no, mistress. I was just, uh, saying hello to the new student.”

“Really?” The nymph’s tone was chilly.

Even though it was obvious she had heard the sileni’s comment, Zack found himself coming to the boy’s defense. “Yes, m’am. He was just introducing himself.” Thinking fast, he turned to the boy and held out one hand. “Nice to meet you, Jahred. I’m Zack.”

The sileni looked puzzled, but raised his hand to match the position of Zack’s. Shaking hands was obviously not a standard greeting here. However, there was no mistaking the gratitude on Jahred’s rather homely face.

“It appears that you will fit in with the sileni even better than I thought.” Silvermaple smiled, but her expression was not pleasant. “A liar and conspirator to boot. Since you get along so well, I’ll keep the three of you together. Even if our new student has to go to the nursery.”

There were a few gasps from other students, and both sileni looked as if they had been struck. “That’s not fair!” Jahred’s brother jumped up and moved away from Zack as he spoke. “I didn’t do anything! It was Jahred!”

“Not fair, Whik?” The nymph took a step towards them, her eyes narrowed. “You wish to be different from Jahred? Maybe you’d like to be like Darby?” She indicated the human-faced colt. “Or perhaps be completely an animal?"

The outspoken sileni paled and dropped his eyes to the ground. "No, Mistress! Please, I'm sorry. I shouldn't have said anything." Tears ran down his face and he trembled violently.

"Sit down then, and quit disrupting the class." Silvermaple sighed and shook her head. “Sometimes I wonder why we bother.” Then she turned back to the young centaur, looking pleasant again. “I think you had your hand up, Daedra?”

Zack only half-listened as the prissy filly more or less repeated what he'd been told earlier. Whik immediately plopped down next to him, huddled with arms around his furry colt's legs. Still shivering, eyes fixed on the ground, the sileni was obviously terrified.

Although he was physically a child, Zack couldn't help a grown-up's impulse to comfort the boy. He reached out and touched the sileni's shoulder gently, smiling when the tear-streaked face turned towards his. Only to snatch his hand back when he saw cold hatred in the twin's eyes.

So much for making friends. Zack crossed his arms and focused on the rest of the class. One of the nymphs giggled and looked at him as she raised her hand. “Does that mean he isn’t really a sphinx?”

“That’s correct, Willowbranch. He just happens to look like a sphinx for now.” Silvermaple smiled. “Which means that he doesn’t know everything. In fact, he probably doesn’t know much at all, so I am counting on the rest of you to help him out. Our new friend is here on probation. If he can’t keep up, we’ll send him back to the Nursery.”

Zack flushed in embarrassment, even though none of the other students laughed or made fun of him. Considering what he’d seen so far, it might be normal for a bad student to get regressed. You could flunk fifty times and never be older than the rest of your class. Still, he was determined to prove his critics wrong.

The nymph gestured to the Harpy next to her. “Happily, we can start with some basics today. Glhajixsu is here to review your Elemental Rules lessons.” The harpie’s name sounded like Silvermaple was clearing a really nasty wad of mucus from her throat.

From the relieved reactions of his classmates, Zack could tell that this must be pretty simple material. Whatever Elemental Rules were, he hoped he could figure them out quickly.

“All right.” The harpy’s voice was as harsh and ugly as her wrinkled, pointy face. “Who can tell me which Elemental Rule keeps us all from floating off into the sky?”

All of the hands shot up, including Zack’s. Everyone else looked surprised to see him volunteering, and he couldn’t help feeling a bit smug as the Harpy nodded in his direction. “Our new student. Air-wick?”

“It’ Zack.” He pushed himself up and tried to work out an answer that elementary students could understand. “Gravity. It’s field of physical attraction generated by the mass of the Earth or other large planetary bodies that draws all objects on or near them towards their centers.” His confidence faded when he saw the puzzled looks surrounding him. “Um, the greater mass that something has, the heavier it is because the attraction is greater.” A couple of students smirked and shook their heads, and both of the adults were frowning. “I mean, that’s how it works where I come from.”

“How convenient.” Glhajixsu sneered at him. “I suppose you can come up with any wild story and claim ‘that’s how things work where you come from.’”

“Now, now.” Silvermaple shook her head. “He may not be making that up. We don’t know that much about his place of origin.” She turned towards him and smiled condescendingly. “Perhaps you should just listen to the others for a while, dear. Give yourself a chance to learn. Especially now that Jahred and Whik will be joining you.”

Zack’s stomach knotted. Nodding wordlessly, he hunkered down between the two sileni. Daedra raised her hand and beamed when the harpie nodded to her. “Negative buoyancy. Everything is charged with negative buoyancy. We can change buoyancy with magic spells, and some creatures can do it naturally. That’s how the Pegasus can fly.”

“Excellent.” The harpy smiled. “It’s nice to see that –some- students remember their lessons.”

The filly actually primped before she sat down. Zack was starting to understand Jahred’s attitude towards her. Daedra brought a whole new meaning to the term ‘Teacher’s Pet.’ Maybe it was a centaur thing – that air of superiority that Daedra seemed to share with Dama. Except that sphinxes were supposed to be the ones with all the answers. He was detecting a pattern in the social structure. Centaurs and nymphs were on top, at least here. Was that only because sphinxes lived away from other creatures? Maybe Dama was jealous of his being a sphinx. Or almost a sphinx.

Zack sighed and focused his attention on the harpie. If he couldn’t even count on gravity being constant, most of his knowledge might be useless. Which meant he needed to learn things as quickly as possible. This temporary placement could end any time, and he would do everything possible to prevent Dama from sending three new toddlers to the Nursery.

“Come on!” Whik trotted ahead impatiently, his hooves streaked with yellow pollen from trampled flowers. “Can’t you move any faster than that?”

Jahred snorted. “Why? If you’re that anxious to get kicked, I’ll give you one right now.”

“Kicked?” Zack padded cautiously through the meadow, having already sprawled face-first into the grass when a hand dropped into a sink hole. “Who’s going to kick him?”

“Nheyro, the Herd Stallion. Shlera, our dam.” Jahred sighed. “And probably half of our herdmates. We’re gonna have bruises for weeks.”

His twin spun around suddenly and glared down at Zack. “And it’s all your fault! We was doing good in the class, and then a freak like you comes along and ruins it for us!”

“He’s not a freak!” Jahred stepped protectively in front of Zack. “And he was saving my butt. If he hadn’t said something, I’d have probably been sent back right then for lying. You know Glhajixsu’s been looking for an excuse to get us ever since we salted her tail.”

“Maybe you’re gonna end up back at Schlera’s teats, but not me.” Whik scowled at his brother. “When Nheyro finds out you’re the one who got us linked up with this half-ass, he’ll have Dama clear me. Then you and your new buddy can make mud pies in the Nursery while I grow up to be Herd Stallion.”

Jahred looked like he’d been slapped in the face. “Then we wouldn’t be twins anymore!”

His brother sneered. “That’s right. No more sharing everything, no more having to watch you get all the grooming and nibbles because you suck up to all the others. A proper Herd Stallion rules with his hooves, not by being buddies with everyone.”

Zack flushed. What had seemed like normal sibling rivalry was turning really ugly. “I’ll talk to your Herd Stallion.” The two sileni both stared at him, dumbfounded. “Maybe he can get both of you off the hook. Or I can just quit the school now.”

“You really don’t know anything, do you?” Jahred looked at him in amazement. “An outsider talking to the Herd Stallion? Your world must be a really weird place. And you can’t just quit school. Do you think we’d be wasting our time with all that history and science junk if we didn’t have to go?”

“I can run away. Even if they caught me, I’d just end up in the Nursery.” Zack tried to shrug, but found that his shoulders didn’t work that way when he was on all fours. “The way things went in class, I’m surprised Dama didn’t send me there today.”

Whik opened his mouth to speak and then stomped off, leaving imprints in the soft ground. His twin looked frightened. “You can’t quit! Even the Nursery is better than…” His voice trailed off, and he started scuffing through the field after Whik.

“Wait a minute!” Zack trotted after him. “What could be worse than the Nursery? It’s not like they kill you for quitting school.” The sileni stopped suddenly, and Zack felt a shiver. “No! They do?”

Jahred stared at the ground. “Maybe not true dead. But at least you can come back after the Nursery. Make new friends, learn stuff all over. If you stay away from school too long, you get Purified. And then you don’t ever come back. Not even the Herd Stallion can stop that.”

“What’s being Purified? And why does anyone have to go to school if they don’t want to?”

“A lot of the races don’t want to get civilized, at least, not the way the centaurs and nymphs set things up.” The sileni plucked at the sleeve of his shirt. “They want us to wear these stupid colored bags when we are away from our herd, and learn all about history and stuff.” He snorted in disgust. “Centaur history. Nymph’s ways. They don’t bother teaching us anything about sileni, minotaurs, or any of the other races. We’re ‘inferior.’”

“Why? Because they are more human than you?” Zack was baffled. “That’s crazy! I mean, your face is sorta horsey, but you can’t look that much different from a centaur boy from the waist up.”

“Human?” Now Jahred looked baffled. “What has looks got to do with anything? Centaurs and nymphs control the magic. The rest of us are inferior because we can’t do spells.”

“None of you?” Zack started to understand. “How come just those two races can work magic?”

The sileni kicked idly at a pebble. “Nobody knows. Maybe because they’ve been studying it forever. Silvermaple is at least a thousand seasons old, and Dama is more than four hundred. Most of us other races don’t live that long. Satyrs are old when they are ten or twelve. I got maybe twenty-five seasons left. And I don’t want to spend six of them stuck in school.”

Zack stared at the boy. Equine features, equine aging? That would explain the much shorter life span of the goat-like satyrs. It also gave him a different perspective on his own regression. Being part donkey, he probably had the same amount of time left as Jahred. “If none of you want to go, why not just stay away?”

“A lot of the races did. At first.” Jahred slumped. “So the centaurs tried forcing the races to send all their kids. There was a big fight with the minotaurs, and some centaurs got killed. That’s when the magic users all got together and cast the Geas.”

“Geas? Is that a spell that makes you want to go to school?”

“In a way. The Geas affects every sentient creature under the age of maturity.” Jahred stared at his hands. “It’s always there, trying to Purify you. If you go to school every day, nothing happens. But if you stay away, even for one day, you start to Purify.”

Zack frowned. That must be why Dama was so anxious to make him a child. It put him under the Geas. “What happens? What does the Purify spell do?”

Jahred pulled off his shirt and threw it on the ground. His chest was slightly barreled out, and the horsehide of his lower body swept up above his belly before it thinned into tanned skin. “Whik and I used to be more like the satyrs, hairless down to the waist. And our faces were smoother, too. We were suspended a week for playing a joke on a nymph last season. Nheyro convinced Dama to let us back after five days so it wouldn’t mess up the herd bloodline too much.”

“If you don’t go to school, you turn into horses?” Zack’s jaw dropped.

The sileni picked up his shirt. “Is that what you call them? Like Darby, but with long, furred faces?”

Nodding, Zack followed as the sileni started to walk again. “They are animals on my world. But I haven’t seen any here.”

“That’s because they go away. I guess it’s like the opposite of the Translation Spell that brought you here. When a person is Purified all the way, they get sent to some place where they fit in.”

Silvermaple had told Zack he’d go back to his own world if the donkey transformation completed. Of course, she’d also told him that the Equivalency Spell adjusted his age to match this world’s time frame. An obvious lie, considering that the sileni were probably just a few years old.

They continued in silence for a while, following Whik’s tracks through the field. Zack felt helpless. Dama and Silvermaple seemed to have conspired against him, trapping him on all sides. If he didn’t give spend the next six seasons getting crammed with centaur and nymph propaganda, he would either have to start over as an infant on this world, or as a jackass on his.

There had to be a reason for this absolute, ruthless control. A child’s joke had resulted in permanent transformations that would make future sileni more bestial. What was so important that the magic users would damage the other species to get their way? Zack was determined to find the answer. Which meant that he had to find a way to escape.

Zack started to pay more attention to the land around them. The pristine meadowlands of the school quickly gave way to coarser fields and dense forest. He spotted movement every now and then, but never actually saw any other creatures.

Whik had run ahead, leaving Jahred to lead the way home. The boy looked depressed, probably convinced that he would be back in the Nursery soon. Unable to offer any argument against that fear, Zack remained silent. Still, he was determined not to make Jahred suffer for trying to be friendly.

After maybe an hour, they reached a copse of trees and stopped. Jahred pulled off his shirt and folded it carefully before hiding it behind a rock. “Better take yours off, too. Nheyro hates anything that reminds him of the school.”

Considering the trouble he’d already caused, Zack didn’t argue. Besides, any concerns about modesty were for his lower half. Sitting up was awkward, but he managed to get his garment off and folded. The sileni placed it on the ground next to his.

Jahred sighed. “Whik will be telling Nheyru his version of what happened. He’s always been frustrated about having to share the Herd Stallion position with me. I guess this gives him a perfect chance to fix that. If I get sent back to the Nursery and he doesn’t, then he gets to rule the herd alone.”

“You can tell Nheyru it was my fault.”

“No.” The sileni shook his head. “I knew better than to make fun of a centaur. And I chose to go along when you covered for me. Whatever happens, I gallop my own path.”

“But you’d never be in this position if you hadn’t tried to be nice to me.” Zack pursed his lips and sighed. “What happens if I run away? I mean, I know I’d probably turn the rest of the way into a donkey. But what about you and Whik? If I’m not in school any more, would Silvermaple release you?”

“No way. At least, not both of us. It would be like her saying she was wrong.” Jahred looked at the ground. “The only way she’ll release Whik is if Nheyru agrees to double punishment for me. Which means I’ll probably end up in the Nursery or Purified in front of class tomorrow.”

No wonder the boy looked depressed. “Neyhru wouldn’t agree, then.” When there was no reply, Zack frowned. “Would he? After all, you are his child!”

“Just what can he do against a magic user?” The sileni shrugged. “Anyway, there’s no reason for him to care. I’m just one of two heirs. It will make things easier if Whick doesn’t have a twin.”

“Easier?” Zack was confused, and more than a little surprised

Jahred turned suddenly and headed for the trees. “Come on. We might as well get this over with.” The conversation had been terminated.

After a moment, Zack followed. He hoped that the boy’s fears were unjustified. It seemed impossible that any parent could stand by while a child was essentially killed. However, memory of the callous treatment he’d received thus far caused cold dread to form in the pit of his stomach.

The trees were so close together that Zack barely had room to pass between them. With vast areas of open land around, he was surprised that the sileni would choose such an isolated spot. He was about to ask Jahred about it when they broke through the other side.

Tall weeds and wild flowers blocked his view, and he had to sit up to get a look at his new home. A wildly overgrown pasture stretched out maybe a half-mile, bordered by dense forest on three sides, and sweeping up a craggy mountain on the fourth. Jahred was heading for a break in the foliage, leaving a trail of trampled grass for him to follow.

Forced to push through on all fours, Zack was dismayed to find the odor of the greenery offensive. He hadn’t really thought much about eating, assuming that grass and clover would be his normal foodstuffs. Pausing to pull up a clump of coarse weeds, he forced himself to chew it as he followed the sileni blindly. It had a sour, bitter taste, and took real effort to swallow. Instead of satisfying growing pangs of hunger, he ended up feeling slightly nauseous.

The dense growth thinned out into rough pasture, and the break turned out to be a pond or small lake. Sileni were scattered in small groups around the water, picking at each other in some form of mutual grooming, or just lying in the sun. The herd was smaller than he expected, with maybe two dozen adults and a handful of offspring. Two foals were wrestling nearby, only to stop suddenly and run for an adult when they saw Zack.

Life here was quite different from the relatively formal school. Most obviously, none of the sileni wore clothing or jewelry of any kind. Yet nudity was only part of the difference. They showed no signs of civilization at all. No tools, no buildings, no organized cultivation. The overall image was a photo out of National Geographic depicting some primitive, lost tribe. Or more accurately, he realized, a herd of wild ponies.

He quickly attracted a curious crowd. The twin’s ‘purification’ was more obvious in direct comparison. Their herd-mates looked fully human from the waist up, more like oversized satyrs. Well, almost fully human. It took a moment to pinpoint what was wrong. The females were completely flat-chested, with mare’s teats nested between their legs. Likewise, the males lacked any signs of nipples.

There were a few variations. One mature male had the full head of a horse, and a number of the sileni had equine ears poking up through their universally wild and tangled hair. Zack wondered if the differences were genetic traits, or the result of magical punishments.

Up close, it was also obvious that cleanliness was not a normal sileni trait. Jahred and Whik, who had both looked scruffy and unwashed, were immaculately groomed by comparison. Dirt, grass, and even old manure stains were apparent on all of the creatures, and the collective odor of his audience was powerful, though entirely unpleasant.

Whik was on the far side of the pasture, talking to a large, heavy, dark-skinned male who had to be Nheyro. With his lower half obscured by tall grass, the herd stallion looked like a sterotypical plumber at a nudist colony. The boy was waving his arms in dramatic punctuation to whatever he was saying. Given Whik’s attitude towards his brother, it was likely that Jahred was getting all the blame for recent events.

Nheyro snorted and began trotting towards them while Whik was still in mid-tirade. Despite the fairly obvious belly, he was very solid. Maybe a construction worker instead of a plumber. However, as soon as he saw the stallion’s eyes, Zack knew he was in the presence of a leader.

The stallion bristled as he approached, glaring directly at the newcomer. Zack dropped his eyes to the ground, suddenly remembering the equine nature of this society. Best to show proper submission, at least until he knew what was going on here. Especially when he realized just how huge this sileni was.

“This is my new friend, Eh-rik! Silvermaple said – “ Jahred’s excited introduction was cut short back a viscous backhand from his father that sent him flying backwards.

“I know who this is.” Nheyro’s voice rumbled up from some place deep inside, like James Earl Jones in a barrel. “This is the freak who has put my herd’s future in danger. I hope that you and he are good friends, Jahred, for the two of you are going to be sent to the Nursery together tomorrow.”

Zack’s mouth fell open in shock. Apprehension and fear combined with the sour grass, and any plans to provide a brilliant defense for the boy ended as he vomited directly onto the herd stallion’s hooves.

There was a collective intake of breath from the herd, followed by absolute silence. Zack stared at the partially digested grass as it oozed down Nheyro’s hooves. No. He hadn’t just puked on someone critical to his future. Afraid to look up, he braced himself for a violent kick or blow like the one that had sent Jahred reeling.

Someone chuckled. Zack blinked and looked up hopefully, but the stallion was still glaring down at him. Then another sileni laughed. Nheyru’s face twitched, and the hard stare wavered.

“Jahred.” The stallion’s voice was tight and he spoke through clenched teeth. “Take your friend to the pond so he can wash his mouth out. And see if you can teach him not to eat swiffle grass.”

Zack felt a tug on his arm, and followed the lead blindly. As he slunk away, the rest of the sileni exploded into laughter. What else could go wrong? He shut his eyes and tried not to think about the answer to that.

“Here.” Jahred sat down at the edge of the water. “Wash out as much as you can. Swiffle grass is really nasty stuff. Didn’t it taste bad to you?”

Flushing slightly, Zack tried to cup some water in his hands without overbalancing. “It tasted awful. But I thought it was just because I wasn’t used to grazing.” After several failures, he gave up and stuck his face in the pond. The water was cool, and he started to feel better immediately.

As he pushed himself up, he suddenly caught sight of his reflection and froze. He waited for the water to grow still, staring at an image that was both familiar and strange. His face was recognizable, if only from old pictures of his childhood. There were some slight differences. His teeth looked a bit oversized, and his ears seemed larger and slightly pointed at the top. Still, he looked like the results of some bad photo manipulation, with a human head pasted onto a mostly animal body.

God, that was him! Events had been so fast and frantic since he woke up here that he hadn’t really had time to think. Now the truth hit him harder than any kick Nheyro could manage. Magic had done this to him. Real magic, the kind that he’d thought was the stuff of fantasy and imagination. Or madness. There was a possibility that he was actually locked away in a loony bin somewhere, having really detailed hallucinations. Everything seemed real enough, so in the end, it didn’t matter.

He was a bit surprised that he wasn’t upset or terrified. The prospect of being regressed to an infant was frightening, of course, and he didn’t care for the possibility of becoming a true animal. As for being transformed into this strange hybrid creature, and made a child again – it was fascinating. He grinned suddenly, thinking of Mr. Spock. The Star Trek television character would make a perfect sphinx. But would Zack? Assuming he actually did become one of the mysterious creatures, instead of remaining some half-donkey creature. A freak even on a world of freaks.

“You primp more than a nymph!” Jahred looked amused. “If I was that ugly, I’d try NOT to see myself.” The comment stung slightly, even though he knew the sileni meant it as a joke.

“I hadn’t seen myself before. At least, not like this.”

“Really? Oh, that’s right!” The boy flopped back in the grass and looked at him curiously. “What’s it like to be human?”

The question took Zack by surprise, and he wasn’t sure how to answer. “A lot different than this. I mean, not just what I looked like. We don’t have magic, or centaurs, or nymphs in my world.” He stopped, remembering his own transformation. “At least, not out in the open, like here.”

“No centaurs forcing you into school? No busybody nymphs trying to run your life?” Jahred sighed. “I wish I could go there. Without magic, they can’t make you do anything you don’t want to! Bet all you do is have fun!”

Zack had to laugh. “Not hardly. We have to work so we can pay for houses and food. And there are laws and customs we can’t break.”

“You have to pay to graze?” The sileni looked shocked. “Not even the centaurs would try to do that!” His nose wrinkled. “And what is a ‘how-se?’

“House. It’s a building we live in.” A blank look. Zack tried to explain. “A structure? A cave made from wood and other things?”

“Why? Are humans cave creatures? Like minotaurs? And what do you eat, if you don’t graze?”

This wasn’t going well. “No, not like minotaurs. We eat vegetables and fruit, meat, fish. All sorts of things. But most of us don’t spend our time growing food. We do more important things, and get paid money that we give to other people who raise food.”

Jahred looked even more confused. “What’s more important than food? And why can’t you just eat what’s available? Why do you pay people for special food?”

“There isn’t anything available for free. We have buildings everywhere, and we have to have places to work, and build things.” Zack stopped. There was no way he could explain human society to this child. And the more he thought about it, the harder it was to understand himself. Just what was so important about rewriting code for obscure computer programs? For that matter, what did most of human endeavors accomplish, in the grand scheme of things? Pollution, noise, garbage. Of course, there was also art and music. He wondered if the sileni had music.

“I guess my world is controlled a lot more than this one.” Zack sighed. “It’s just that we make all the rules up ourselves and allow other people to make us live by them. You have to follow the rules, or you can’t have a job. And if you break the laws, you can get locked up. Made to live in a really small cave, with no place to run.”

“That’s horrible!” Jahred shook his head. “I guess I don’t want to go there. It sounds like a bad place.”

Zack was troubled to realize that he agreed with the sileni’s assessment. Especially since he might return there on four hooves instead of two. Depending on where he appeared, an unclaimed jackass might be an abused beast of burden, or even meat for some third-world table. Unless his longevity was discovered, and he became an object for scientific study or medical research.

He pushed the thought from his mind and tried to change the subject. “Are you OK? Looked like Nheyro hit you pretty hard.”

The boy shrugged. “That? No big deal. He left a bruise, but it will go away. I shouldn’t have blurted out like that. It was my fault.”

“I thought he would hit me, especially when I threw up on him.”

“Nah. We get manure and stuff on us all the time.” Jahred chuckled. “That was pretty funny, though. I don’t think anyone has ever introduced himself that way before. Anyway, he was probably afraid that he’d hurt you.”

Zack tried not to let his embarrassment show. “It looked like he was starting to laugh. Do you think he is in a better mood now? Maybe he’s not so angry with you.”

“Nheyro wasn’t mad at me, exactly. Or you, either.” The sileni looked sad. “He’s the Herd Stallion. And we have put the herd in danger.”

“Danger? How?”

“The centaurs and nymphs will be watching us. Which means they will be watching the herd.”

Puzzled, Zack looked back at the other sileni. “What difference does that make? The Geas takes care of making the children follow their rules.””

“They want more than that.” Jahred picked at a clump of grass. “Most of the other creatures wear clothes now, and follow rules like they were in school. Centaur’s rules. They are afraid to fight.”

“The centaurs are trying to control the adults, too?”

The sileni nodded. “They want to ‘civilize’ all the races. And the only way you can be civilized is if you obey the centaurs. Nheyro is trying to keep our race free. That’s why we live so far from the main valley. It’s too hard for centaurs to get through the trees. As long as we aren’t too obvious, they leave us alone. The grazing here isn’t as good, but most of the herd can run free and live as they want.”

A rush of indignation faded as Zack thought about the situation. It was a lot like his own world’s treatment of primitive people. How many unique cultures had been lost to progress? Whole tribes uprooted from ancestral homes to make room for ‘civilization.’ Trees leveled and replaced with artificial caves. The young ‘educated’ in the ways of the most powerful.

Jahred sat up and looked towards the scattering herd. “I guess we’ll be adopted out tomorrow. Schlera hasn’t foaled in two years, so one of the younger mares will have to take us.”

“Take us?” Zack frowned. “Why?”

“The Nursery, remember?” The boy stared at a tiny foal nursing from its mother. “We’re gonna be little kids.”

“Not right away!” Zack looked at the sileni in alarm. “Silvermaple said I had time to learn! There’s still a chance I can catch up to the class.”

Jahred rose to his hooves. “You heard Nheyro. He’s going to trade you and me for Whik’s immunity. And the herd’s safety. When you’re a baby, they will have complete control over you. You’ll grow up thinking what they want you to think. And they won’t have a reason to watch the herd.”

“Why is Whik so important? Why would Nheyro sacrifice you over him?”

“Because we’re the only males of his lineage suitable for Herd Stallion.” The boy brushed his hairy chest absently. “It was bad enough when we both got Purified. Now I can’t be a Herd Stallion even when I grow up again because I’ll be influenced by the centaurs. I won’t put the herd first. Whik can stay independent, and think for himself.”

Erik felt helpless anger boiling up inside him. It was wrong, unfair! At the same time, he could understand Nheyro’s reasoning. Even if he thought it was barbaric.

“I’m gonna stay with Schlera tonight. She won’t be my dam afterwards.” Jahred’s eyes were suddenly tired and old. Tomorrow, they would be bright, happy, and empty. “If you get lonely, you can join us. But I’d like a little time by myself, OK?”

Nodding wordlessly, Zack watched as the sileni trotted back towards the herd. One of the flat-chested females, a roan with streaks of gray in her hair, met him halfway and nuzzled his head. The two wandered away from the others, probably saying their good-byes. Something Zack had not been given the chance to do.

He thought about his family and friends back on his own world. What would they think? At best, any search would turn up his car and some scraps of clothing. People disappeared every day. Maybe not in rural Massachusetts, but with no body and no clues, the police would simply file his name under Missing Persons. It was almost funny to think that his new face would be right at home on a milk carton. Not that anyone would connect this child’s visage with a missing adult. And tomorrow, that picture would be of a toddler.

No. Zack felt a slight chill of apprehension, even though his decision was made. There would be no Nursery for him. Better to end up back in his world on four hooves. That way there was at least a small chance that Jahred would be spared. If their fates had been linked, then Silvermaple and Dama would have to punish them together, or not at all. At least, that was one way to look at it.

He looked at the low, craggy mountains that rose up on the far side of the pond. Perhaps he’d had some good luck after all. He would have never found his way this far on his own. The sileni lived on the outermost fringe of the flatlands, already beyond the prying eyes of the centaurs. Any future he had was hidden somewhere beyond the hills.

It was strange thinking about the future. Zack was barely able to accept recent events as anything more than wild hallucination. The physical changes and strange environment had been overpowering enough without considering what was going on inside his head. Not that he thought that his mind had changed in any fundamental way. At least, not yet.

His relatively calm acceptance of being transformed into a half-donkey freak and regression to childhood wasn’t all that surprising. He’d thought about such things for years, if only as unobtainable fantasies. And in truth, he felt perfectly comfortable in this strange new body. Using his hands was awkward at best, and grazing like an animal still felt a little silly. At least Jahred had shown him the ‘eating’ grasses, which smelled and tasted pretty good. His mouth and nose seemed to know what was safe.

Even the strange surroundings were fascinating and beautiful. He was reminded of some of the best parts of Ireland, with brilliant green foliage and crystal blue skies. True, none of the trees actually matched up to anything he’d seen before and there were flowers far more exotic than anything Earth could offer. It was still familiar enough that he could imagine himself on vacation somewhere on the Emerald Isle instead of marooned in some alternate world of magic.

However, as he watched the dark, foreboding hills back-lit by a gold and purple sunset, he was overwhelmed by loneliness. The magics that had transformed and transported him had also stripped away friends, family, and everything else familiar. There was nothing to grasp for stability, no anchor to keep him from being swept away in the stormy seas of change.

And then he was thrown a life preserver. Schlera and Jahred came looking for him as the sun dropped behind the hills. The twin’s dam was a bit heavy and somewhat weathered looking, but radiated genuine warmth that made her appealing. It was obvious which parent Jahred took after.

The mare fussed over him like a new baby, a somewhat unpleasant reminder of what was supposed to happen tomorrow. However, he found that her presence was oddly comforting. At first he was afraid that some mare-foal dependency was already developing. Then he realized that Schlera was the only person other than Jahred who showed any real concern for him.

Her attention was a little surprising, considering that he was indirectly responsible for Jahred’s troubles. Yet she accepted him without question or reservations, pulling him close against her. Pressed against her coarse, dirty hide, Zack’s fears and frustrations finally burst free in the form of tears. The sileni mare stroked his head gently as he sobbed unashamed. Even Jahred stayed away, allowing Zack some private time to be comforted. He was still huddled against Schlera when exhaustion finally won out, and he drifted off to sleep.

Zack woke in the darkness, partially sandwiched between the two sileni. Jahred had one arm draped protectively over his shoulder, and Schlera was curled around both of them. It took tremendous willpower to leave the warm huddle. Moving very cautiously, he slipped out from under the boy's embrace and managed to work clear without waking either.

He felt greatly refreshed in both body and spirit. What sleep had done physically, the sileni mare had done spiritually. Interestingly enough, he found himself filled with an even greater resolve to survive and succeed. It was obvious that Jahred was important to the old mare, and he would do anything he could to keep them from grief. Yet he also felt less apprehensive about failure. The idea of starting life over here wasn’t so terrifying now that he’d met Schlera.

They hadn’t moved from the edge of the pasture where Zack had watched the sun go down. He stared at the rough, craggy hillside. What lay on the other side? Witches? Ghouls? Some form of monster he’d never imagined? It didn’t matter. He started picking his way over the rocky ground. His hooves slipped a couple of times, sending down a faint clatter of dirt and pebbles. None of the sileni seemed to hear him, and he made it to the top just as the sun started to peek over the horizon.

Looking back over the sleeping herd, he was startled to see a lone figure observing his progress. Nheyro, the ever-watchful herd leader. The stallion nodded once in acknowledgement or approval, and then deliberately turned his back.

Zack took a deep breath and started down the far side. There was no telling what hid in the dark forest below. He could only hope that somewhere among the strange creatures and unknown dangers might lurk one or two answers.


After hours of pushing through dense underbrush, Zack was getting unnerved by things he wasn’t sure were really there. A flicker of movement in the corner of one eye, or a shadow that seemed to follow him only when he wasn’t looking directly at it. Leaves rustled and branches popped, stirred by the slight breeze or something else?

It could almost be written off to paranoia. Almost. The stench of a half-eaten corpse he’d almost fallen over still lingered in his nostrils. He’d taken little comfort in the fact that what remained seemed to be some sort of large deer. Given the same sort of predator, his own remains would be hard to distinguish from a normal donkey’s.

He was also tiring fast. Dama had regressed him to a point where energy came in spurts better suited for games than cross-country travel. On the flip side, his smaller size and donkey’s hide made travel through the heavy foliage easier. Between thorns and briars and the close quarters, his adult human self would have been reduced to hamburger miles ago.

At least, he hoped his travel could be measured in miles. With no landmarks and no map, he could only head away from the sun. However, as midday approached, even that guide lost effectiveness. He decided to rest somewhere, and resume his journey when he could follow the afternoon sun.

His nose led him to a small pond of clear, cool water, and careful experimentation determined that several of the flowering plants around it were good eating. With hunger and thirst satisfied, he plopped down next to the pond and stared at his reflection.

Did the boy staring back at him have a slightly broader forehead? Zack tried to remember details from yesterday. Had his ears been that furry on the tips? He wondered if Purification would start after only a half-day. It beat the certain ‘death’ of being sent to the Nursery. Hopefully, Jahred would be spared both once Silvermaple found out Zack had run away.

Pushing thoughts of the Centaur School from his mind, Zack concentrated on more immediate problems. Like what the Hell he was doing in the middle of a weird, dangerous forest. Just what did he expect to find out here? Some of the real sphinxes that supposedly lived on this world? Or maybe a giant Customer Service Desk that could direct him to the exit back to Earth.

He snorted and shook his head. If Dama could be believed, his magical ‘brothers’ on this world were more likely to eat him than help. The most encouraging aspect of that was his growing belief that the psychotic school teacher –wasn’t- trustworthy. And any creatures that managed to make the self-righteous centaurs and nymphs feel inferior were OK in his book.

How did you go about finding a sphinx? According to legends, they were usually guarding temples and roads. So far, he hadn’t seen a grass hut on this world, much less a temple. And roads were equally scarce. At this point, just finding a faint path in this wilderness would be a major breakthrough.

Whatever he did, he needed to do it quickly. The sileni twins had changed noticeably in just a few days of exile. Zack had far less human percentage to lose. And once he lost his hands or the ability to speak, it would be better to let the process finish up and return him home.

His ears twitched suddenly, and a prickly sensation ran down his back. Danger. The feeling popped into his mind like a red light flicking on, and he had to fight an urge to bolt. Without knowing what the danger was, he might run straight into it. Scanning the brush, he strained to listen for any unusual sounds.

There! Some movement off to his right. Easing up to all fours, Zack searched for a large rock or stick he could use as a weapon. God, he felt so helpless! Memory of the shredded carcass returned in grisly detail, and it wasn’t hard to imagine the chewed legs ending in equine hooves instead of cloven ones. The danger sense was screaming now, and he began to get a vague impression of something moving on two legs. Stalking him. Remembering his experience with grazing, he realized he should have trusted the instincts that seemed to come with this new body. Then it was too late, for a shape burst from the brush and tackled him from behind.

He screamed as he was knocked to the ground, flailing his arms and legs in a desperate attempt to ward off cruel fangs and claws. The attacker stayed on his back, and managed to pin Zack to the ground by grabbing his arms and pulling them roughly to his sides. Certain he was about to die, Zack braced himself for the final attack. And heard laughter.

“It’s me, Eh-rik! Jahred!” The weight on his back vanished, and he rolled over to see the sileni boy grinning down at him.

Zack’s flare of anger over being frightened so badly was quickly replaced by relief and confusion. “What are you doing here? If you don’t get back to school, you’ll start Purifying!”

“Better than getting stuck in the Nursery.” The sileni sighed and plopped down on the ground. “Isn’t that why you ran away? I thought we were supposed to be friends – grow up together again.”

Flushing slightly, Zack felt a touch of guilt. “I was hoping that they’d leave you alone if I wasn’t there.”

“Not Silvermaple. They have to maintain discipline at the school, and that means they can’t back down. If they don’t punish us, the rest of the students will start thinking they could get away with stuff, too.”

“I guess.” Zack frowned. “Why did you follow me? And how did you find me? I had a big head start, and I just stopped to rest a little while ago.”

The sileni grinned. “You leave a trail a blind mare could follow. And you can’t move as fast as I can. I knew you’d need help.”

“I’m doing OK, really.” Dropping his eyes to the ground, Zack scratched absently in the dirt with one hand. Jahred deserved the truth “Look, I don’t know where I am going, or what I can do. But I’m sure that if I go back to the school, you and I are both gonna end up as babies. It’s not so awful for me, but I hate to see that creep brother of yours becoming the Herd Stallion.”

The boy blinked, and then nodded slowly. “Nheyro isn’t too happy about it, either. That’s why he sent me after you.”

Zack looked up in surprise. “Nheyro? But he saw… I mean, I thought he knew I was leaving. Why didn’t he stop me then?”

“That was before Schlera woke up. You don’t know what that old mare can be like when she gets angry. She could topple a minotaur bull if it got in her way.”

It was hard to reconcile the fierce image with her gentle compassion of last night. But then, she would probably fight to the death to protect her offspring. Perhaps she now included Erik in her concept of family. That was a pleasant thought, however impractical or dangerous for the sileni dam. “What good will it do for me to come back if they are going to put you back in the Nursery anyway? At least there’s a chance my memories won’t go away when I get Purified.”

“That’s why I came after you!” The sileni crouched down and stared into Zack’s eyes. “There may be a way out for all of us! Nheyro has a plan that would get you and me off the hook, or at least fix it so we don’t get put in the Nursery. Maybe we’d get sent back one year, but that’s not so bad. Lots of the students have that happen, and they don’t lose anything except a little school stuff.”

“But Jahred, what about becoming Herd Stallion? If you lose a year, that makes Whik older instead of a twin. Wouldn’t you lose the chance to lead the sileni?”

“Not if he gets sent back with us.” The boy’s eyes darkened. “Nheyro was going to make a deal to save just him, but Schelra changed that this morning. So we’ll still be twins. Maybe triplets!”

Zack blinked. “Triplets?”

“Sure! That’s part of the idea. You get changed into a sileni like us, and then Schera is your dam, too. We’d all be identical, except that you couldn’t be Herd Stallion because you aren’t a born heir.”

“I didn’t think they could do that!” Zack shook his head. As if he had any idea what the limits of this world were. Thinking about the arrangement, he could come up with some benefits for Dama and Silvermaple. It would dramatically shorten his expected life span, and eliminate the slight possibility of him becoming a true sphinx. He would be truly bound to the herd, and prevented from assuming a leadership role.

Although it would mean giving up any hopes of returning to his own world, the plan would at least salvage the memories that made him who he was. And he’d rather spend a quarter-century as a sileni with his own mind than two hundred years as a jackass with no concept of self. Besides, the danger sense that Jahred had initiated wouldn’t turn off now. It had been foolish to think he could survive out here on his own. The decision was easy. “OK. Let’s go back. As long as there’s a chance for us I can’t wait to see Whik’s face when he finds out I’m going to be his brother.”

The decision might have been easy, but the trip back was not. As they plodded through the brush, Zack realized he had gotten completely turned around. If anything, the going was harder. The sileni’s arms were bloody with deep scratches, and even Zack’s thick hide didn’t protect him completely from painful scrapes. After a while, he began to fear that they were lost, and his guide was too stubborn to admit it. At least until he caught the boy sneaking a peak at small stone in his right hand.

“What is that, Jahred?”

The sileni started, and then grinned sheepishly. “A Direction Stone. It’s leading us back to the herd.” He held it out for Zack to inspect. Contrary to the flashy jewels and glowing energies of myth, this magic item appeared to be an ordinary brown rock. “See the little chip on the edge there?” He pointed to a natural-looking blemish on the side pointing away from Zack, and then turned the rock around with his other hand. The chip continued to point in the same direction. “All we have to do is go the direction it tells us.”

Useful magic! Despite the obvious benefit, Zack was surprised. “I didn’t think the sileni used magic.”

Shrugging, the boy turned and started walking as he answered. “Not like the nymphs and centaurs. And some of us don’t even like to trust them for healing magic. Nheyro almost lost a finger last year because he refused to let the nymphs use a spell to cure an infection.”

“Where did you get that?”

“Even Nheyro uses magic when he has to. Besides, this is hardly magic at all. All it does is point to a matching stone back in the pasture.”

Not all that different from a magnetic compass. Zack shook his head as they fought viscous vegetation. Nheyro was a puzzle of conflicting impressions. Sentencing the two of them to infancy and then letting him run away, only to send one of his own sons after him later. And using magic to do it, a force that he hated enough to risk losing body parts. Maybe the sileni leader wasn’t all that hard to understand after all. He was simply acting in the best interest of his herd.

“Hurry up!” His guide looked back impatiently, and then plunged ahead.

Zack wondered if Jahred was feeling the same danger that still plagued him. It was almost as if someone was screaming a warning directly into his brain. He had hoped that it would fade as they got closer to the hills, but when they finally broke out of the brush at the base of the mountains, it was still in full force. Despite exhaustion, Zack picked up his pace. After the harrowing journey and constant sense of threat, he could use a little time with Schlera.

Jahred must have brought him back a different way, for the top of this hill was covered in thick forest, not open pasture. Zack looked around, trying to get his bearings. Nothing looked familiar. He called up to the sileni, who was already halfway up the slope. “Where’s the field?” The boy didn’t seem to hear him.

“Eh-rik!”

A familiar-sounding shout came from his left, and he saw his guide’s twin galloping towards him along the edge of the trees. What was Whik up to? The boy looked panicked, and as he got closer, Zack could see cuts and welts all over his body. Whik must have tracked them through the forest.

“No!” The sileni above him screamed and started back down the hill. “You can’t stop me! It’s too late!”

Zack stared at the two sileni in confusion. The danger sense was still present, but it was radiating from the top of the hill, not the forest. A figure broke through the trees above and looked down at him. Not sileni. A centaur. Dama.

The boy above gave a shout of triumph when he saw her, and Zack realized with sick certainty that he had been following Whik. The school teacher was already waving her arms, and he found he couldn’t move. Oh, God. They’d tricked him. The little bastard must have worked some sort of deal with her.

Dama’s frantic movement and screamed chants climaxed, and a crackle of energy seared the air just as Jahred hit him in a flying tackle that sent them both sprawling backwards into the brush.

Zack hit the ground hard and flailed arms and legs wildly as he tried to get out from under the sileni. He heard Dama scream, though he couldn’t tell if it was in rage or triumph.

“What did she do?” Jahred rolled off him and scrambled up, looking at himself in obvious fear. “Am I changing?” The boy felt his face, eyes wide and starting to tear up. “What did she do to us?” His voice cracked, and Zack was suddenly reminded that this brave, selfless rescuer was just a child.

What had Dama done to them? Something drastic, to be sure, considering the tremendous display of power. Zack gave the sileni a quick look. “You don’t look any different.” Other than a slight tingling, he couldn’t detect any changes to himself, either. “Maybe she missed.”

Jahred shook his head. “Magic doesn’t work like that. Once a spell is cast, it always hits.” He looked back up through the brush. “I never saw that kind of magic before. She must have done something awful. A curse, maybe. Something to make us sicken and die.”

Now that Zack thought about it, something did feel different. The Danger Sense was gone. He felt no threat from the woods or the mountain. Could the huge crackle of power been used simply to strip him of instincts? A few cautious steps proved he was as comfortable in this form as ever. Considering the instant results of the centaur’s initial regression spell, they should be showing some signs of transformation by now.

“We have to get out of here!” Jahred peered up through the brush. I can’t see her or Whik. They may have gone to get Silvermaple.”

Zack looked at the forest he’d just left. “I don’t know where to go. Even the forest isn’t safe. Whik tracked me once. He can find the two of us even easier.”

“He won’t come alone, not with me to fight. Dama is too big and old to make it through the forest. Which means Silvermaple will come with him.” The boy’s eyes darkened. “Whik betrayed herdmates to a centaur. If Nheyro finds out, he’ll cave in his skull.” Jahred spoke with such conviction that Zack had no doubt that the statement was true.

“With Whik to track us, can we get away from them?” Zack looked back at the forest. “I can’t sense danger like I did before. And I still don’t have any idea where to go.”

Jahred shut his eyes for a moment in concentration. “Those who seek questions must follow the sun, where life’s source is hardened the journey is done. Winter meets summer, there is but one try. Great rewards for the answer, in failure you die.”

“What’s that?”

“Schlera made me memorize it this morning.” The boy sighed. “It’s supposed to be a way to find the sphinxes.”

Question seekers who answer or die. That would be the two of them. “Even if we could find a sphinx, I don’t have any answers. It’s too dangerous. Maybe we should go back to the herd and let Nheyro know what is going on.”

Jahred shook his head. “That would put him between us and the school. We’ve been threatened directly. He’ll fight to the death to protect us.”

“But he was going to let us both be turned into babies!” Zack frowned. “Why would he fight now?”

“Because they broke the rules. Even if they are rules that the centaurs and nymphs forced on us, he agreed to follow them for the good of the herd. But Dama attacked us outside the school, and used Whik against his own kind.” Jahred’s voice was bitter. “If there is a fight, they’ll use magic against him. They have to cover everything up so that the other races don’t find out. Maybe even Purify the whole herd. And they’ll find some way to justify everything.”

Zack couldn’t help shudder. Schlera, Nheyro, and all the other sileni transformed into common animals. Would the centaurs be so callous as to wipe out a whole herd of innocents rather than admit one of their own was wrong? He was sure Dama would do it without a moment’s hesitation. Was the rest of her race that cruel?

Things were snowballing out of control. It seemed that the only way to prevent this disaster was finding the elusive sphinxes. If Silvermaple and Whik didn’t find them first. “I have to try, then. My people have legends about the sphinxes. I even remember a few of the riddles from them.” Zack was pretty sure that the creatures would have come up with new material in two thousand years, but Jahred looked a little reassured.

“Come on!” The sileni started moving into the woods. “We still have all afternoon to travel. And there’s no telling how long we have before Whik comes after us again.”

Zack followed, doing his best to ruffle the old leaves and ground cover behind him. Jahred stopped to watch him, puzzled. “What are you doing?”

“Trying to make it harder to track us.”

The boy snorted. “He doesn’t look at the ground. We track herdmates by scent. That’s why Dama had to use him to find you. To anyone but a herdmate, you’d be impossible to track through here. There are too many stronger smells.”

“But I’ve only been with the herd one day!”

Shrugging, Jahred turned and continued through the brush. “Doesn’t matter. Once you were adopted by the herd, you became a sileni. Any of us could find you with our eyes closed. But no sileni would ever betray a herdmate.” It was obvious from the boy’s tone that he no longer considered his twin to be a sileni.

As they trudged on, Zack realized that he could actually ‘see’ Jahred with his nose. Scents had been stronger ever since he had arrived in this world, but he hadn’t really given the increased ability much thought. There was a mix of odors all around, some faint and some sharp. His own smell was quite different from the sileni’s, and he could detect a trace scent that he ‘knew’ belonged to Whik. Left from their earlier passage, not fresh.

The loss of his Danger sense made Zack even more nervous than when it was screaming all the time. He could still pick up movement all around them, and different scents drifted in the wind. Most were unidentifiable. He took guilty comfort in seeing that Jahred was just as nervous as he was. Although Zack was physically smaller and maybe even younger, it grated on his adult mind to have a child continually assuming the leadership role. Of course, he’d been bound to the herd, and Jahred was in line to be the Herd Stallion. Maybe it was just instincts.

After a while, even the trace scents of his earlier passage vanished. They were exploring new ground now, still following the sun as it began to sink into the treetops ahead of them. The brush thinned finally, allowing easier travel, and there was no immediate sign of pursuit.

Zack was running on empty, forcing himself to follow the seemingly tireless sileni by sheer force of will. He started to fall behind, stumbling slower through the dead leaves and twisted roots of the forest floor. Even so, they pushed on until their compass was nothing more than a dull red-orange glow on the horizon.

Either luck or natural instincts guided Jahred to a small clearing that contained a clear, fresh pond. There was also a large purple vine with leaves and berries that smelled and tasted safe, if bland. After drinking their fill, they moved as far from the water as possible. Other creatures that used this pond might view trespassers as a threat. Or a meal.

Plopping down under a huge tree that looked like an oak with hot pink flowers, Zack looked up through the branches and stared at the night sky. There was no moon visible. Did this world even have a moon? None of the star clusters looked familiar, but then, he was no astronomer.

Jahred stretched out on the ground next to him. Fatigue had limited conversation to grunts and nods during the long hike, and there wasn’t much to say, anyway. However, food and drink revived the sileni enough to give in to curiosity. He dropped his chin onto his folded arms. “Tell me more about your world, Eh-rik. Tell me about your herd.”

“My herd? Oh, I guess that would be my family.”

“A family is the same as a herd?”

Zack shrugged. “Sort of. A lot smaller, though. With humans, a family is made up of a mother and father and their children. The mother is the children’s dam, and the father is the sire. The stallion. And the children are the offspring of that sire and dam.”

“What about the stallion’s other foals?” Jahred frowned. ‘I mean, he doesn’t just mate with the one mare, does he?”

“He’s supposed to stay with the one mare. We call it marriage. When a man and woman promise to love each other the rest of their lives.” Sighing, Zack shook his head. “It doesn’t always work that way, though. A lot of marriages end in divorce.”

“What’s divorce?”

This was getting a bit awkward to explain, but Zack plunged on. “That’s when the two people decide they don’t want to live together any more. They cancel the marriage.”

The sileni looked shocked. “They break up the herd? What about the foals? Who defends the grazing lands?”

“We don’t graze, remember? And the foals, er, children, go with one of the parents. Usually the mother. Sometimes the parents share custody, and the kids get moved back and forth.”

“Sounds really confusing. Who is in charge when they live with the dam? If the colts are too small, or maybe they don’t have colts at all?”

“Humans don’t always assign leadership to males. Females can be leaders, too. Especially in the herd. They run businesses, lead Governments. Some people think women make better leaders than men.”

Jahred snorted. The sileni were definitely not ready for Women’s Lib. “All those rules, and females trying to be stallions. Hew-mans sounds more like two-legged centaurs.” He blinked and then flushed. “Oh, I’m sorry!” He obviously felt he had just said something very insulting.

“That’s OK.” Zack managed a sad smile. “In a lot ways, I guess we are.”

“But you aren’t! You’re like us! Schlera said you had a sileni soul. That you belonged with us!”

“That’s probably the nicest thing anyone has every said about me.” Shifting a little, Zack looked at one of his thick, dark hands. “I’ve always loved horses and donkeys. Maybe that’s part of the reason this happened to me.”

“Tell me about horses.” Jahred looked down at the ground. “That’s what we become when we are purified, right? Like Darby, but with long hairy faces like a minotaur.”

“I guess.” It was a little disturbing to think that some of his equine acquaintances might have once been sileni or centaurs. Though he wouldn’t mind seeing Dama turned into a mare. “Most of our horses are born animals, though.”

“How do you know?”

That brought Zack up short. “Well, we keep records. And we control the breeding most of the time, so we know which stallion sired each foal.”

Jahred stared. “Hew-mans decide when a stallion and mare can mate? How do they know when the time is right? And what keeps the inferior stallions from mounting the mares?”

“Um, we keep the stallions and mares apart. In buildings. The artificial caves I told you about. They are called stables.” Zack decided not to mention gelding.

“Why do horses need stay-bells?” The sileni wrinkled his nose. “Living in a cave? It sounds awful! Why not just stay in the pasture?”

“They have to keep some of the horses apart so they won’t fight each other. So we share the pasture. Everyone takes turns. The horses stay in the stables most of the time, but they get let out to run every day. At least, most of them.”

“They get locked in a cave with no place to run?” Jahred paled. “Isn’t that what you do to hew-mans who break the laws? What laws do the horses break?”

“No, that’s different!” He struggled to come up with an answer that would satisfy the boy. And himself. “They are animals! See, it’s punishment for humans, because they know they are in jail. But a horse, well…”

“Horses don’t know the difference between being outside where they can run and being inside where they can’t?”

Zack chewed his lower lip, thinking about the horses he dealt with. Their eagerness to get to the turnout. “I guess they do. It’s just that there isn’t enough room for them to be out all the time.”

The sileni frowned. “Do all horses have to live in these stay-bells? There aren’t any living free?”

“Some. There are wild herds. But most of them are in places where it is hard to live. The places that humans don’t want. A lot of them go hungry, or get sick and die because there isn’t any medicine.”

“The humans take all the good grazing land? Why? If they don’t graze, why do they make the horses live in bad places?”

“We use the land for other things.” Zack looked away, feeling a sudden shame. “Shopping malls, and gas stations, and convenience stores. It’s not fair, Jahred. I know that. It’s just the way things are.”

There was a long, awkward silence. After a few minutes, the boy rose and placed a hand on Zack’s shoulder. “You’re not a human, Eh-Rik. Shlera was right. You belong here with us.”

Zack’s eye’s stung, and he nodded wordlessly. The sileni lay down with one flank pressed against him. The contact was reassuring, providing a sensation of protection and belonging. But as he drifted off to sleep, Zack also realized that those sensations were signs he was slipping deeper into the equine mentality.

He woke at first light, and immediately realized that Jahred was gone. He scrambled up and looked around in alarm. The sileni was by the pool. Relieved, he took a moment to check himself. He flexed his hands, and felt his face. There were no obvious signs of change, even after a day.

Encouraged, he trotted over to his friend. “Jahred! Nothing happened! Dama must have messed up her spell!”

The sileni didn’t respond, and Zack felt growing apprehension. Even in the dim light, he seemed a bit larger and darker than he had last night. Jahred turned as he approached, revealing a tear-streaked and fully furred face. The golden-brown hide of his equine lower half had swept up to replace all of his human skin.

Regardless of the centaur’s failure, they had not escaped Purification.

The overall effect was startling, but the sileni’s actual transformation was relatively minor. Jahred’s face and upper torso looked unchanged under the new skin. His additional size came from longer, thicker legs. Although they did not interfere with his walking, some slight rearrangement of his spine forced him to hunch over slightly.

Now that Zack knew the curse was in full effect, he checked himself again as morning light increased. It was hard to spot differences after just one day in this body, but his arms did look a little hairier. The pool’s reflection revealed ears that might be a little larger and more pointed, and his face seemed to be slightly pushed out.

He sighed. Apparently the first stages didn’t show much. Between the earlier punishment and yesterday’s missed school, Jahred had been subjected to almost a week of Purification. If the curse continued at this rate, the boy would be more deformed colt than sileni in a matter of days. Zack probably didn’t have much longer, given his higher starting animal percentage.

That created a deadline of sorts. They had to find the sphinxes while one of them could still speak to answer any riddle. Assuming they were given a chance to talk before the creatures ate them. He was not encouraged by the fact that most sphinxes of legend were part lion.

Zack took the lead this time, keeping the sun at his back as he trotted ahead. The sileni followed, but the spark was gone from his eyes. Attempts to start a conversation were ignored until Zack finally stopped and confronted his friend. “It’s not over for us, Jahred! The sphinxes might have a way to stop the Purification. Maybe even reverse it.”

Shaking his head, the boy plucked at the thick hide covering one arm. “Like this? Even if we found them right now and got the Purification stopped, I could never be Herd Stallion. I am too polluted. I’ll be kept from breeding for the good of the herd. Useless. And if I go all the way, I’ll probably end up in one of those artificial caves in your world. I’d rather die than spend my life locked up.”

“Sphinxes are supposed to have great power.” Zack forced himself to be cheerful. “I bet they can change us both back, even take away the Purification you had before.”

Jahred’s eyes looked very tired, and very old. “Schlera told me that it would take three days just to get through these woods. And nobody knows how far away the sphinxes live.” He sighed. “I won’t even be able to talk when we find them. If we find them.”

Three days! Zack paled in spite of himself, unable to keep up the happy facade. “Are you sure? How does she know?”

“One of her foal-mates was a stallion who lost a challenge to Nheyro. He went off to find new grazing lands where he could start his own herd. Two seasons later, he came back and asked her to come with him. He told her about some of his travels, and other pastures he’d found. And he claimed that he had met sphinxes. When she told him she was already bound to Nheyro, he left for good.”

“If you knew all that, why did you come?”

“You needed someone to help you. And I don’t want to go to the Nursury. I was hoping Purification might not work if I got far enough away.” Jahred managed a sad smile. “Guess the centaurs did a pretty good job after all.”

They had only been able to travel for a half-day yesterday. Which left more than two days hiking to get out of the forest. Zack tried not to give in to despair, but it seemed that this whole world was working against him. Against them.

He looked at the faithful sileni. Jahred had more backbone and maturity than most adults he knew. Including himself. Ever since Dama had regressed him, Zack had let himself be treated like a child, submitting to whatever authority claimed control. Maybe some of his mindset had come with this new body, but he wasn’t helping matters by giving in so easily.

Dammit, if this world wanted a fight, he’d give it one! “Come on. We’re gonna find the sphinxes.” Zack spun and started trotting at a brisk pace.

Jahred scrambled to catch up and then fell in behind him. “What happens if we can’t talk? What happens if they decide to eat us?”

“I’ll draw in the dirt with my hooves, or bray morse code. And if they eat me, I’ll give them indigestion.”

The sileni snorted, but offered no more arguments.

By mid-day, Zack was ready to collapse again. Muscles screamed in protest at every step, and he was starting to stumble on the uneven ground. Though time was short, he was more than ready for the long break forced by having their compass directly overhead. This time, he was able to find a wonderful rest area himself. His nose picked up the crisp scent of water, like the smell of rain on a Spring day. The source was a winding creek with good grazing on both banks.

They plopped down with mutual sighs of relief, stretching out aching limbs. Jahred lay on his back and squirmed in the thick grass. It was the sileni version of equine rolling. Curious, Zack tried the exercise and discovered that it was extremely pleasant – a combination of muscle massage and a good back scratch. No wonder it was so hard to keep his horse clean!

Although the site was perfect for their needs, Zack was a bit troubled by his success. He’d known this spot would be here. Instincts were obviously getting stronger, assembling information from enhanced senses in ways his human mind could not. Evidence that his mind wasn’t fully human any more. Was Purification working on him all the time?

Jahred’s changes had seemingly occurred overnight. However, that impression might be a trick of yesterday’s excitement and the long night. He looked over at the boy. At first he couldn’t pick out any differences. Then he realized that the thin hair on the sides of his head had been replaced completely by golden horsehide. The remains of Jahred’s unruly brown mop had turned coarse and darker, spreading down the back of his neck in an obvious mane.

Was the sileni aware of the changes? Purification was an insidious process, eating away at your body painlessly. If you were travelling alone, and didn’t look at your reflection when you drank, it might be possible to ease from therimorph to animal without even realizing the transformation was occurring.

And what about any creatures living beyond the forests? It was obvious that the centaur’s curse extended far beyond their domain. Schlera’s friend had talked of other pastures. If he had established a herd of his own there, any foals of ‘school’ age would transform and vanish for no apparent reason. Zack wondered if the centaurs who cast the spell had thought about such complications. Or if they really cared.

They rested for several hours, dozing off for short periods. When the sun dropped enough to follow, they roused up with groans and started off again. As before, there was little conversation beyond grunts and nods. His muscles were still sore, and Jahred was only a bit more developed physically. The only way to keep going was to focus on the next step, ignoring aches and pains.

The air was getting a little cooler now, and Zack couldn’t help envying the sileni’s coat of dense fur. Of course, he’d have one of his own very soon. An uneasy feeling flickered across his mind. Not danger, exactly. Worry. Something important he was missing. About the one following him. Jahred?

He looked back without stopping. The sileni was trudging a few yards behind him, looking about the same as he had when they stopped. “Are you OK?” Jahred blinked and snorted, too tired to speak. Sighing, Zack continued on a bit. He felt the same way. So why did that uneasy feeling keep nagging at him? It was like an idiot light glaring at him from the dashboard of his car when nothing seemed to be wrong.

“Jahred? Are you sure you are OK?” Another grunt. Zack began to feel a cold prickling on the back of his neck. Stopping suddenly, he turned and looked directly at the boy. Jahred looked momentarily confused, and then stood there calmly. “I have this weird feeling that something is wrong. Can you sense anything?”

The sileni frowned for a moment, and then shook his head.

“What? You don’t sense anything?” The prickling was getting worse. “You don’t believe me? Say something!”

Jahred opened his mouth to speak. A gutteral whicker emerged. His eyes widened, and he shook his head. Another attempt produced something like a colt’s whinny. It sounded more like a child imitating a horse than an actual animal, and for a moment Zack thought the boy might be playing around. However, Jahred’s panicked expression made it obvious this was no joke.

“Concentrate!” Zack grabbed the boy’s shoulders, only to get knocked back suddenly and pinned to the ground. The sileni’s eyes were filled with rage, and teeth snapped in front of Zack’s face. Then the anger faded, and Jahred scrambled back looking confused and scared.

Shaken but uninjured, Zack got up slowly. The sileni was reacting like a frightened stallion. He cursed himself mentally for not picking up on the danger before now. All these hours of plodding along, focusing on nothing past the next step. The way a horse would think. He’d put the dulling of his mind off to fatigue, not realizing that Purification must be at work. Why was it working so fast now? Maybe because they weren’t providing any resistance.

Making sure that he presented no threat, Zack backed away a few steps and then sat facing the boy. “It’s the Purification. Can you understand me? Just nod your head.” To his tremendous relief, Jahred immediately indicated ‘yes.’

“OK. I think we’re making the change go faster by not talking. You know what I am saying, so you haven’t lost words. You just can’t remember how to make the sounds.” Zack chewed his bottom lip. “Maybe stuff in your head is getting rearranged. Try to say something. Just one word. Say your name.”

The sileni’s mouth worked in an exaggerated fashion. “Rhuhuh.” Clenching his eyes shut in fierce concentration, he tried again. “Ehruhd.”

“That’s it!” Zack forced himself to remain still so he wouldn’t trigger the fight response again. “You’re getting there. Take a deep breath and try to relax little.”

“Dya-rhad.” The boy’s black nostrils flared, and he seemed to think for a moment. “Jah-red. Jahred.” He blinked, and then grinned. “Muh-eye nah-muh esss Jahred. My name is Jahred.” Speech was still a little slurred, but understandable.

“We need to keep talking. About anything.” Zack started to get up, only to freeze as Jahred’s faced darkened in warning. The expression vanished immediately, and he walked past as if nothing had happened. Zack scrambled up and followed. “Wait up!” It was obvious that the boy had just assumed lead stallion position, and Zack had to struggle with mild resentment. They had enough problems without getting caught up in domination battles.

“Tell me about the sileni. Are there any stories about your race? How you came to be here?”

“That’s history.” Jahred snorted. “The centaurs and nymphs are big on that.” He sounded more like the disgruntled school boy now. “We don’t waste our time with what went on before.”

Zack tried to come up with something else. He had to keep the boy’s mind working. “What about sphinxes? Are there any legends, any stories about them?”

“Some. Hardly anyone has every seen one. Why don’t you tell me more about your world?” Jahred sighed. “We’ll probably end up there, anyway.”

“We can take turns. I’ve told you a lot about my world already.”

After a moment, the boy shrugged. “OK. Schlera used to tell me and Whik stories before we went to sleep. I don’t know if they were true or not.”

“That’s OK. I used to think centaurs and sileni were fictional creatures.”

“Fick-shun-all?”

Zack had to grin. “Fake. Not real. Stories that weren’t true.”

That satisfied the boy, and he began a rambling narration. It was obvious that Jahred hadn’t been paying a lot of attention to his dam when she read, but Zack picked out some useful details. The story was about a stallion that traveled far from his herd in search of better grazing. He wandered for days, discovering many strange things. Rocks that sang, water that stripped away seasons of growth, and carnivorous trees that snagged victims in spiked vines and devoured them. And most importantly, this adventuring sileni found a sphinx.

In the story, the sphinx had golden fur and soft hooves that could slash and cut. Its mane framed the face instead of running down its neck, and it had huge, white wings like a Pegasus. The creature sounded like one of the more familiar lion-based sphinxes from Greek mythology. However, this sphinx was in trouble. It had been caught by one of the meat-eating trees, and was being dragged towards the jagged teeth in the plant’s trunk.

The sileni managed to free the sphinx, but ended up trapped by the tree himself. In gratitude, the sphinx turned the stallion into stone so he wouldn’t suffer a painful death, and kept the statue in a place of honor forever afterwards.

Not exactly a happy ending. Zack wondered if the stallion of the story was Shlera’s old herd-mate. He also hoped that the sphinx’s reward’ wasn’t typical.

The afternoon passed quickly as they exchanged tales. Zack would try to explain why humans used artificial legs called automobiles, and Jahred would talk about his first days at the Centaur school. A long story about computers was followed by a detailed and sometimes embarrassing report on the twin’s exploits with nymphs and other creatures.

Dusk was falling when Zack first noticed a bright flash in the distance. White clouds hung close to the ground, looking almost solid. An occasional flicker danced across the top of the mist, giving the appearance of a sharp edge. The electrical display had a slight reddish glow, as if it trying to compliment the setting sun.

He started watching the storm, worried that it might be approaching them. It didn’t seem to be moving. At all. Puzzled, he looked harder, and realized that the clouds were locked in place. It took a slight shiver to remind him of the colder air, and then realization came instantly. That wasn’t a storm. It was a glacier!

A mountain of ice. Zack had never seen one for real. The glaciers on his world were supposed to be millions of years old. He wondered what kind of fossils might be buried within its frozen depths. A wooly minotaur? Saber-tooth centaur? Billions of gallons of water in solid form.

Solid form. He whispered to himself. “Where life’s source is hardened.”

“What did you say?” Jahred turned to look at him.”

Pointing at the glacier, Zack grinned. “Water is the source of life. And ice is water in a hard state. That’s where the sphinxes are!”

Jahred peered over the forest, frowning. “I don’t see anything but the tops of trees. What are you looking at?”

“That big white mountain! I thought it was a storm at first. It looks sorta like a thick cloud, but it isn’t moving.”

“All I see is plain sky. Maybe a little red glow.” The sileni seemed uncertain, and then dropped his head. “I can’t see that far, Eh-rik.” His voice dropped to a whisper. “I think I’m going blind. Even you look a little blurry now.”

Zack sighed. “Let me look at your eyes.” He had been watching for further transformation in the boy all afternoon, noting a gradual lengthening of mane and tail. Jahred had been leading, however, so he hadn’t been able to see the sileni’s face.

As he suspected, Jahred’s eyes were larger, with enormous horizontal irises. They had also migrated further apart, crowding the outer edges of the boy’s skull. The bridge of his nose had widened to fill the gap, though the lower part of his face was still human in shape.

“You aren’t going blind. It’s just that horses see differently.” Zack tried to remember what he’d read on equine vision. “I think you’ll still be able to see some color, and you should be able to detect movement a long way away. But everything will probably be sorta blurry and distorted. Green colors may look white.” That explained why Jahred couldn’t see the Glacier. It was merging into the reddish blur of the sky.

He looked at himself. Purification must be exponential – the longer it worked, the faster you changed. Any effects on him were still minor. Of course, Jahred had looked mostly normal after four days. It could also be some delayed effect of Dama’s spell. Instead of trying for regression, she may have done something to accelerate the process of Purification. That fit in with his theory about the spell being exponential. The sileni’s transformation might normally be twice as fast in the later stages. Boosted by whatever magic Dama had hit them with, he could be Purifying a dozen times faster than Zack as the process accelerated towards completion.

They continued on until the sun was nothing more than a faint glimmer. Zack was reluctant to stop, even though he was tired beyond description. They had kept each other mentally alert by talking continually as they traveled. As badly as they needed to rest, sleep meant a half-day of further transformation without that needed stimulus. Unless his own change accelerated rapidly during the night, Zack felt that he would be OK. However, his friend had already slipped into an equine mindset once. With the further changes, he doubted the boy’s mind would survive a night of sleep.

He resolved to continue hiking towards their goal. Jahred grumbled when several good rest areas were passed up, even after Zack had voiced his concerns. It was obvious that the sileni was struggling to keep going. His emerging stallion’s nature was probably helping for once, fueling an unwillingness to show weakness first.

There was no energy left for conversation. Even the burning pain of Zack’s muscles faded to a dull throb as he pushed his frail body far past its limits. Heartbeats pounded like a tympani, gradually increasing in tempo. Vision blurred, and a reddish haze began to creep in around the edges. His lungs strained with each breath. And he never even felt the ground when it rose up to knock him into deep, dreamless sleep.

Zack was startled from deep sleep by an almost tangible sense of dread. Blinking against the bright sunlight, he pushed himself up from the ground. Muscles were stiff and aching, and it took a moment for his head to clear. There was no memory of stopping. He must have collapsed in mid-step.

The danger sense was back with a vengeance, and he looked around nervously. Curiously, his uneasiness didn’t seem to stem from any danger to himself. The woods were clear as far as he could see. Then he heard a faint, high-pitched squeal. He looked around frantically. Jahred! The sileni was nowhere to be seen.

There was an impression on the ground next to him, and a strong lingering scent where his friend had slept. Zack took off at a gallop, following the herd-mate scent. It was joined by the familiar tang of water, though the new odor had a slightly different feel in his mind. At the same time, a faint rumble began to increase in volume.

Another squeal, louder now. There was a clearing up ahead, the first real break he had seen in this thick forest. The rumble had grown into a familiar-sounding roar. Water. Lots of it moving at high speed. Pushing through the last wall of tree trunks, he found himself on the banks of a wide, raging river. It looked like pictures of the Colorado River rapids, where people risked life and limb on rubber rafts. And just beyond the woods on the opposite bank was the Glacier.

At least they had made some real progress last night. The ice mountain looked to be only a few miles away. He hoped that the nearness was not some optical illusion of size and clear skies. That thought was interrupted by another scream. The roar of water made tracking by sound impossible, but the sileni’s scent led up river.

Running full tilt, Zack came around a bend and saw his friend stretched out on the ground. The boy seemed to be frantically clawing himself towards the water, yet as Zack approached, he actually slid backwards a few inches. His left leg was being pulled back by what looked like a thick purple rope. Zack followed the bright snare back to a willow-like tree with brick red leaves and six-inch black thorns. His danger sense seemed to center on the tree.

The vine snapped tight, jerking Jahred another foot closer. At the same time, a second vine snaked its way out from the trunk. This had to be a carnivorous tree from the sphinx story. Reacting instinctively, Zack pounced on the rope-like appendage already wrapped around Jahred’s leg. Thorns had already cut deep into the sileni’s hide, and he felt his own flesh gets punctured as he landed. The second snare was closing fast. If it caught either of them, both would be lost. He grabbed the vine holding Jahred and bit down as hard as he could.

Foul, burning poison filled his mouth and sprayed his face. Blind and choking, he ground the thick, pulpy tentacle between his teeth. The sileni yanked again, this time managing to break free, and scrambled away dragging the severed vine. Zack kicked back and stumbled after his friend. The plant’s sap had to be some kind of powerful acid.

It took tremendous willpower not to simply plunge into the river. Instead, he forced himself to lower his face into rushing water. Rinsing eased the burning sensation, but the inside of his mouth was swelling at an alarming rate. When the back of his throat started to close up, panic took over and he pawed at his neck. He fell over on his back, screams strangled into gurgles as lungs strained to draw in air. His frail body convulsed, and vision collapsed around him into a red haze.

And just as suddenly, the pressure eased. Zack shuddered, gasping in needed air as his throat opened up. Saliva and mucus ran from his mouth and nose, and his eyes were blurred with tears. However, his tongue dwindled back to normal size and he found that vision was clearing. His panic finally subsided, leaving him weak and sobbing on the ground.

That tree had one Hell of an effective defense mechanism. Given a choice, he’d almost rather be eaten. Sitting up weakly, Zack took grim satisfaction in seeing the severed vine flipping around on the ground. The tree’s branches were swaying even though there was no wind, and he caught a glimpse of a huge, gaping hole in the trunk. He hoped it was in agony.

The sileni was a couple of hundred feet down the river bank, biting at the vine on his leg. Still shaky, Zack stood up and started towards him. “Jahred!” The boy turned when he heard his name shouted, but his face brought Zack to a standstill. Nothing recognizable remained of Jahred’s features. His face was pushed out into a muzzle, not fully formed yet, but obviously equine. Worse, his skull had deflated behind bony, protruding brows that protected the fully formed eyes of a horse.

Swallowing hard, Zack forced himself to approach the deformed creature. Jahred’s shoulders had rotated down and back, much like Zack’s. His lower arms had lengthened as well, ending in swollen, dark lumps that no longer qualified as hands. Pointed ears, now positioned on the top of his head, lay flat against his skull. A deep rumble emerged from his throat, and he snaked his head.

“Jahred?” Zack felt his stomach clench as he got closer. The creature in front of him was lathered from its ordeal, eyes still showing white. Quivering nostrils sampled the air, and then the boy’s ears pricked up. Giving a snort, he resumed picking at the withered tentacle with his teeth. There was no sign of his friend’s intelligence. Jahred might have been overwhelmed by the situation, unable to fight off the tree and Purification’s instincts.

No! He’d brought the boy back once before. “Think, Jahred! You’re not a horse! Talk! Try to say your name! Jahred. Say Jah-red.” Nothing. Maybe he was asking too much. “Look, just nod your head. Lift your head up and down.” The animal eyes regarded him with mild curiosity, but there was no response.

His friend was gone. Even though he’d known this might happen, realization hit Zack hard. Damn the centauress! She was responsible for this. If he survived this journey, he would make it a point to track Dama down and make her pay. If it took the rest of his life, he would make her pay for doing this to Jahred.

Of course, there might not be that much left of his life, anyway. Despair over his friend turned to cold assessment of his own likely demise. They had made it this far without directly encountering any other creatures. And focused on travel, he hadn’t noticed the moving shadows and flickering shapes that had followed him the first time. That didn’t mean they weren’t out there. Waiting for the right moment to attack.

Even with his danger sense seemingly restored, he felt doubly exposed without the protection of the larger sileni. Part of that reaction was probably caused by the submissive donkey foal sensing the loss of the herd stallion. His dependence might have started out as a physical necessity, but it was an instinctive reality now.

It wasn’t fair! To be so close. Zack looked over the raging water and stared wistfully at the blue-white wall of ice beyond. Another few hours. A day at the most. Then he blinked and gave a bitter laugh. This fool’s journey never had a chance to begin with.

The river. God, his mind must already be going. There was no way he or Jahred could have made it across that boiling torrent. Even a fully human expert swimmer would be dashed to bits against the jagged boulders that protruded from the foam like vicious teeth. In a world without houses or roads, there wouldn’t be any bridges. The tantalizing Glacier might as well be a thousand miles away.

The afternoon sun was starting to slide further down in the sky. Zack stared dully at the golden orb, no longer concerned by the passage of time. They had not even left the small clearing by the riverbank. What was the point? He had no way to cross the river, and Jahred was a colt.

At least their injuries had healed. The sores and swelling in his mouth had faded immediately, and even his puncture wounds from the tree’s thorns had vanished in minutes. However, the nasty cuts on Jahred’s leg had taken hours to close up, leaving obvious scars on his hide. Zack didn’t understand why either of them had healed up at all, much less the difference in results. Perhaps it was some complication of Purification.

He sighed and flexed his hands. That was another mystery. After almost another full day, he couldn’t detect any signs of change. Either the transformation was largely internal during the early stages, or he had escaped the curse for now. The former sileni was not so lucky. If there was anything left of the boy, Zack couldn’t find it. Jahred could fade away any moment, transported to a stall or stable somewhere on the world that Zack belonged to.

Like most things that had happened so far, it was bitterly ironic. Honesty and kindness had been rewarded with extreme hardship and punishment. For all of its wonders, this strange world was turning out to be a cold and ugly place. Sick, twisted creatures like Dama were making life miserable for everyone, while Schlera and the rest of the sileni were persecuted for wanting to live their lives as they chose.

He tensed as his danger sense kicked off again. Something was out there. Maybe several somethings. The warning signals had been fading in and out all afternoon, but had gotten stronger over the past hour. There was no point in running. He doubted if he could escape any kind of predator, and he certainly wasn’t going to abandon Jahred. Once the boy was gone, perhaps he would try to backtrack by following their scents.

All that kept him going now was the desire for vengeance. Against Dama, against Silvermaple. Against the whole damned system that the centaurs had set up. It was hopeless, of course. He was physically a child, almost totally defenseless against the magic and monsters that ruled this place. Dama could choose between caving his skull in with a well-placed kick or magically reducing him to a drooling infant while he kicked and bit ineffectively at her legs. And it would be years, perhaps decades, before he grew up again.

Move. The sudden instinct was so powerful that Zack actually jumped aside without thinking. At the same moment, he heard a solid thud from behind and looked back to see an arrow quivering in the trunk of the tree he had been leaning against. Move. He jumped again, this time hearing the bolt whiz by his head. The attack was coming from further upriver, from somewhere in the trees.

They were sitting targets out in the open. Zack ran for the forest, weaving madly in hopes of throwing off whoever was shooting at him. Another arrow buried itself in the ground ahead of him. Jahred was watching him curiously, unaware of the danger. So far, at least, none of the deadly shafts had found him.

There was no ignoring the danger sense now. It screamed pain and death. If the colt wasn’t out there, Zack would have kept running. Instead, he managed to fight down the panic and stop as soon as he was within the trees. Peering cautiously from behind a thick trunk, he tried to spot his attacker. There! He could see the shadow of something large moving just behind the trees on the far side of the clearing. Why was his attacker hiding? Certainly not because of any threat from him or Jahred.

The colt gave a loud squeal, and Zack feared his friend had been shot. Jahred seemed uninjured, but he was facing the intruder with ears back and head down. It was like a five year-old assuming a martial arts pose. Unfortunately, his posture drew the attention of their attacker, and an arrow thudded solidly into the ground next to him.

“Come out, sphinx!” Zack was startled by the command, shouted in a strong, young female voice. Then Jahred screamed again, this time in pain as a shaft embedded itself into his left flank. “Step back into the clearing, or my next arrow goes into the colt’s eye.” Her tone left no doubt that she was willing to kill Jahred.

He stumbled out from the trees and looked towards the shadow in bewildered fear. “Why are you attacking us? We’re not doing anything!”

“You’re alive, sphinx. And that is enough of an offense.” The words were spat out with obvious hatred as the shape moved out into view. A centauress, with her bow aimed at his heart. Damn! Did all of them hate spinxes? This one was a young amazon, like something from a fantasy painting. Blonde hair cascaded past her shoulders, framing impressive breasts only partially covered by scraps of clothing.

Zack shivered, expecting death at any moment. “Look, I’m not a real sphinx! I’m…” He struggled to remember what Silvermaple had said. “I’m a Translation! This isn’t even my world!”

The centauress maintained her distance. “You’re right about one thing, sphinx. This isn’t your world. It belongs to my kind. And the fewer of you we have to deal with, the better.”

God, she was going to kill him. He looked over at the colt who was biting at the arrow in his hind leg. “Why did you have to hurt him? He wasn’t doing anything to you.”

“I knew you’d come out. Don’t worry. Your meddling little friend won’t suffer long. I take care of him when I’m done with you.”

Zack was so taken aback by the casual savagery of this creature that he almost missed the reference to Jahred. Meddling little friend? He stared at the centauress, mouth dropping open as he recognized the tattered blouse and the cold glint of her eyes. “Dama?”

She glared at him. “Is that just a good guess, or did you plan to do this to me?”

What the Hell was she talking about? Zack was completely lost. How could the magic-wielding schoolteacher possible think he had done something to her? Besides, if he did have such power, he certainly would not have made her young and beautiful again.

“You really don’t know, do you?” Dama took a step forward, her arrow still poised. “Still just an unfinished Translation waiting to become a jackass? Well, freak, it isn’t going to happen. You turned into a real sphinx.”

Zack blinked as the centauress shivered a moment, and seemed to change slightly. Was she slightly smaller? “I never asked for any of this. And I never did anything to hurt you.” Hopelessness fueled his anger. “You’re the monster! Using magic against me from the start, then doing everything you could to turn me into some mindless baby. Even Silvermaple was willing to give me a chance!”

“The nymph is blind.” Dama’s knuckles whitened, but she did not release the arrow. "She didn’t think you would really turn into a sphinx. Age has made her careless. I warned her of the risks, but she ignored me. So I took matters into my own hands. For the good of everyone.”

“This is crazy!” Zack nearly screamed in frustration. “What risk could I be? You turned me into a little kid, and stuck me with that damned Purification curse! Even if I am a sphinx now, what difference does that make? You’re the one with all the power!”

She snorted. “Oh, really? So, how come you don’t show signs of Purification? It’s been days now. And why do I look like this? Just because you don’t know how to use your powers doesn’t mean you aren’t a danger. You’ve killed me, you freak, but I’m taking you with me.”

“At least let Jahred go! He never did anything to you.” Zack felt tears start to form. “Damn you! He never did anything but try to help me, and you turned him into an animal!”

Dama’s lips twisted into a cruel smile. “You think I did that to him? Oh, how perfect. Take a long, hard look at your precious friend, freak. Purification works very slowly. At most, he should have a little more hair, or maybe bigger teeth. You want to know the real reason he changed so fast? It’s because he was with you!”

“No!” She had to be lying, yet Zack could feel the sincere pleasure behind her words. “You threw a spell on us! I felt it! There was a big flash of light. You’re the one who cursed us!”

The centauress shivered again, this time getting noticably smaller. And younger. She nodded grimly as Zack’s eyes widened. “I did try to stop you with a spell. The two of you should have dwindled into toddlers on the spot. But you had already crossed over. Sphinxes cannot be spelled against their will. And once a spell is cast, it must find an outlet. Instead of regressing you and Jahred, it hit his brother and me.”

“Whik?”

“Is already a newborn foal sucking from a sileni dam. I told everyone he was Jahred so Silvermaple wouldn’t find out. It takes a lot longer for the spell to affect an old centaur than a young sileni. I had time enough to track you down.”

“But I didn’t do anything!” Growing dread began to build. “Maybe I would have done something to you if I knew how, but I’d never hurt Jahred!”

“All you have to do is exist, freak! I was a fool to try magic against you, but I thought there was still time. Repelling the curse was automatic. That flash of light was the clash of my spell against the magic aura that surrounds you. If you were trained, you could see the glow yourself.” Dama had dropped into her late teens, looking more like a costumed cheerleader now than Amazon warrior. “Why do you think sphinxes live apart from the rest of us? They have the real power here. Just being near one accelerates any spell, any curse. Like Jahred’s Purification. You turned him into the colt just by staying with him.”

Zack felt sick, recognizing the truth in her words. Oh, God! He was responsible for the sileni’s fate. He was the reason Jahred was lost forever.

Not Lost. He felt the words in his head so clearly that he believed them. But where had they come from? This couldn’t be the danger sense, yet it had the same urgency. Something about Jahred. He glanced over at the animal, seeing only an injured colt.

The Mind, not the Body. Confused, Zack struggled to understand the unspoken guidance.

Dama’s eyes widened and she drew the arrow tighter with a snarl. “Don’t try your games on me, freak! You can’t touch my mind. I’ve been trained against your kind.”

Touch her mind? Zack concentrated on the colt behind Dama, trying to imagine a link to his young friend. He felt faint impressions of pain, confusion, and fear. Animal thoughts, simple and direct. Yet buried under all that was something else. A curiously familiar essence stirred, reaching out with delicate tendrils of hope.

“It’s time to end this, freak.” Dama pulled her bowstring taut, aiming the arrow carefully.

Too late! Zack braced himself for death, filled with despair. He saw her fingers release and instinctively shut his eyes. There was a searing pain along his right side and a scream of frustration from Dama. Startled, he looked down to see a bloody but superficial cut on his hide, and an arrow stuck in the ground next to him. The centauress had missed! It only took a glance to see why. Jahred had thrown himself against her just as she fired off the arrow.

She lashed out with a vicious kick that sent the colt flying backwards, and reached over her shoulder for another arrow. Zack spun and ran for the trees, thinking frantically. It would take too long for Dama to become young enough for them to handle themselves. Even if he could escape, the wounded sileni was trapped.

A plan popped into his head suddenly. It was desperate, dangerous, and crazy. Perfect for his needs. Veering away from the forest, he galloped down river along the shore, heading back the way he and Jahred had come. Dama charged after him, blind with rage. She was closing the distance quickly. Maybe too quickly.

He could feel the centaur’s hooves hitting the ground behind him as they burst into the next clearing. Digging deep, he managed a short burst of additional speed that took him just out of reach. His objective lay off to the left, and Dama followed him as he angled towards it. Purple vines twitched and snaked for him as he dove through the killer willow’s branches and emerged on the other side. Dama screamed and tried to stop, but her mass worked against her and she tumbled head-first into the clutches of the carnivorous tree.

Zack and Jahred had barely escaped from one stray tentacle. The centauress was engulfed by dozens. To her credit, Dama Whisp put up a valiant struggle, and for a few anxious moments it looked like she might actually escape. Then her screams were cut off suddenly by a sickening crunch. She convulsed once, and then went limp as the tentacles dragged their prize towards the waiting trunk.

Although Zack wouldn’t normally characterize himself as a vindictive person, he remained to watch the centaur’s body get ripped to pieces. He tried to tell himself that it was the need to make sure she was really dead. But he also had to admit to a small sense of grim satisfaction seeing his tormentor ground into pulp by the thick, dark maw of the tree.

Remembering Jahred’s injury, he tore himself away from the gory spectacle and trotted back to his friend. The colt was lying on the ground, nosing the arrow gingerly. Zack reached out with his mind, and was relieved to feel the boy’s presence. There was no actual communication, at least not in words. However, he could tell it was still the sileni behind those deep brown eyes.

The arrow had penetrated the colt’s thigh completely. Zack managed to break off the tip and pull it out backwards. It had to be terribly painful, but Jahred held rock still. Only his labored breathing and distressed eyes gave evidence of his suffering, and he nuzzled Zack gently when the ordeal was over. The bleeding stopped quickly, but the wounds remained raw and ugly.

Zack gave his friend a worried look. There had to be damage to the muscle, which meant that Jahred would have trouble walking. The white scars on his other leg was evidence of imperfect, if rapid healing magic. If the boy’s flesh knotted or scarred internally, he could end up crippled for life.

Dama had said something about his protection being automatic. Perhaps the same magic aura that had accelerated Jahred’s transformation had also provided a small measure of healing. He glanced down at his side. The deep cut on his side was already fading, and there was no trace of any of his other injuries. His own body obviously had tremendous recovery powers. Maybe he could channel some of that magical energy to his friend.

The problem was recognizing that energy and isolating it. There was –something- there. A tickling inside, faint tingling all over his body when he concentrated. Much like what he had felt when his defense mechanism had bounced Dama’s curse back. He couldn’t lock it down, however. Awareness of the power only frustrated him more. He could sense it, almost see it. But he couldn’t quite grasp it.

Zack ran his hand gently over the damaged flesh. He shut his eyes and struggled to project some of that odd sensation. Nothing happened. It wasn’t fair! He –knew- he could help Jahred. The ability was within him. Taking a deep breath, he tried again. And again. Nothing.

Picture what you want. Zack blinked. That weird inner voice again. Was it instinct, or something else? He pushed that out of his mind for now, focusing on the injury. What he wanted was to heal the sileni’s leg. But he lacked the medical knowledge to know how the muscle and flesh grew.

He frowned. Maybe he was working too hard at it. Closing his eyes, he tried to picture Jahred’s leg as it had been before - glossy, unbroken hide and firm muscle. This time, he felt a faint tickle in his hand and looked. Small sparks played around his thick, dark fingers, like static electricity. At the same time, a sharp pain lanced through his head. Concentration broke, and he fell back feeling shaken and nauseous.

By the time the terrible throbbing faded, Jahred was nuzzling him in concern. Shaking his head, Zack rolled unsteadily back up to all fours. After his head cleared, he realized that the colt was prancing around easily. The injury was gone. Zack was relieved at that, though he wasn’t anxious to try his newfound power again anytime soon.

What now? If his danger sense could be trusted, they were safe where they were. However, he didn’t know how much longer his friend had. Jahred’s essence was locked in what seemed to be a perfectly normal colt. The animal was well formed, healthy, and strong, probably a quarterhorse-Arab mix. But his head was a bit large, and his coloring common. In Zack’s world, he was the kind of horse that usually ended up as gelded riding stock.

Perhaps he had the power to reverse the Purification itself! That thought was squashed almost instantly. It was more than just the violent reaction he’d had to his first use of power. Some inner sense told him that he was not ready for such things. Trying to wield too much too soon could not only kill him, but leave Jahred worse off than he was now.

That left two choices. Stay here and wait for his friend to fade away to an uncertain future, or try to reach the sphinxes. Zack looked at the raging torrent. It seemed impossible. Still, as long as there was a chance, as long as Jahred was still with him, he had to keep trying.

It seemed logical to go back upstream. The carnivorous tree should be sated, and they could stay clear of the purple vines just in case. If they were lucky, the river might have several smaller tributaries that would be easier to cross. He started that way, and then looked back down the rapids.

Dama had been ahead of them, not behind. Why? If she’d tracked them through the woods, she should have emerged the same place they did. There was no advantage in going around them. In fact, she’d have been much closer for her first shot if she’d come from behind. Zack might have been dead before he knew she was there. He shivered slightly, and then returned to the original question.

The most obvious answer was that the centauress had not followed them. If that was the case, how could she possibly have found them in the first place? Dama had been smart and resourceful, but he didn’t think she was psychic. And she’d needed to use Whik to track them before. All she had to go on was the probable knowledge that Zack would seek out the sphinxes.

Faint hope stirred. For all her apparent hatred of the creatures, Dama seemed to know a lot about them. More, perhaps, then even Silvermaple. That hinted at greater experience, even direct contact. It was a bit of a stretch, but Zack started to wonder if the old schoolteacher had actually visited the sphinxes herself. She might have known a faster way to the glacier, and started searching backwards from their goal. There was only one way to find out. He trotted back towards where Dama had first shot at them.

Jahred snorted and pawed at the ground, but eventually followed. His mind registered confusion and a touch of annoyance at being supplanted as leader, but he was willing to follow Zack for now. Although continued proximity to Zack might be dangerous, the risk was less than leaving him alone in this strange area. And the mental link seemed to have strengthened Jahred’s essence a little.

Dama’s hoof prints were easy to find in the soft ground next to the river. However, they led off into the woods. Zack backtracked a meandering search pattern for a few minutes before Jahred whinnied loudly and tossed his head. The colt projected thoughts of the river, and a sense of impatience. Puzzled, but sensing no danger to him or Jahred, Zack continued a bit longer before he realized what the sileni was trying to get across. They didn’t need to trace Dama’s steps, just her general direction. Any crossing would be accessed from the bank.

Feeling a bit silly, Zack made his way back to the colt. Jahred assumed the lead with a prancing gait and playfully superior attitude that was annoying and heartening at the same time. Such teasing seemed more sileni than colt. Even so, he had serious doubts about his friend’s chances of survival. The boy’s essence was still present, but most of the images and senses projected through the mind link had a disturbingly abstract quality that was a little difficult to follow.

They continued along the bank, occasionally spotting the centaur’s tracks. She had apparently run from something, bursting out of the trees with enough force to leave broken branches. Her hoof prints were joined here by impressions of large paws, and a widely trampled area indicated the two had fought. Dama had appeared uninjured when she attacked them, so the blood splattered on the grass must belong to whatever chased her. Zack’s danger sense did not kick in, but they started moving a little faster.

As the sun began to drop, Zack had increasing doubts. The white rapids were getting even wilder with no end, and more importantly, no crossing, in sight. He was continuing solely on the gut feeling that his hunch was right. They were still picking up the centaur’s tracks. However, that might only lead to an easier path back to the valley. He also felt a growing sense of urgency. Part of that might be attributed to his concerns for Jahred, but there was a vague uneasiness nagging at him. Not quite in the nature of the unpredictable danger sense, yet similar enough to keep him on edge. Of course, it could all be in his head. They had both been nervous since discovering the scene of Dama’s battle. Either her attacker had survived and run off angry and wounded, or something even bigger had dragged the body off whole. Neither prospect was comforting.

What if they didn’t find the sphinxes? Up to now, he’d figured his options were starting over in the Nursery as an infant sphinx, or back on his own world as an animal. Both of those possibilities were gone. Given his inadvertent power to amplify hazardous spells like Purification, he would be a risk to all the other students. And he had apparently become a sphinx, effectively ending any chance of completing the transformation to jackass.

The terrain was rougher now, and he was surprised to note that his breath was forming clouds. It must be getting much colder now, but he felt completely comfortable. His friend showed no signs of discomfort yet, thanks to his shaggy hide. The change of temperature was encouraging. Zack looked across at the glacier. It was much closer now than it had been before.

More of Dama’s tracks appeared ahead. This time, they stayed close to the river’s edge for a long ways before branching back to the woods. Curiously, her tracks were doubled up here. As they continued, it became obvious that the centaur had gone down river first and then come back this way. Had she been looking for access to the glacier, or for the two of them?

Jahred stopped to graze, giving Zack a welcome chance to rest. The colt’s legs were longer than his, and he had to work to keep up. Although he was tired, last night’s forced sleep and their late start had postponed the exhaustion that had plagued him yesterday. He felt like he could manage a few more hours of travel, long enough to reach what appeared to be the end of the trail.

For the past hour, Zack had been looking ahead at a dark wall looming over the treetops. Now he could see that it was a high plateau with vertical facings, part of a mountain group that merged with the glacier on the other side. The river either went through the mountain or under it. Any crossing would most likely be there.

The uncomfortable prickling of his danger sense stepped up a notch, and he glanced back down river. Rushing water made his ears useless and masked most scents with high humidity. The forest was thick enough to hide an elephant a few hundred feet further in, so he couldn’t trust his eyes either. His danger sense had served him well so far. Which meant that someone, or something, was following them.

He got up suddenly and started moving again, prompting an annoyed snort from Jahred. It took a couple of tries to get the concept of danger across, and even then the colt was reluctant to leave his sweet grass. For a few anxious minutes, Zack was afraid he’d have to choose between finishing his mission and leaving the boy behind. Just when he was about to give up, Jahred kicked up his heels and scampered ahead. His ears were back, indicating displeasure, but he was still cooperating – if only to maintain the illusion of leadership.

Either Jahred was starting to pick up the sense of threat, or he wanted to make the going harder. The pace was definitely faster, and though Zack stumbled a bit, he was actually grateful. His warning system relaxed a bit as whatever he sensed dropped further behind. Then it suddenly gained intensity.

Alarmed, he focused on an impression of great danger and the mountains ahead. The colt stopped and spun around to test the air, and Zack nearly ran into him. “No! Run! Danger!” Desperate pleas didn’t seem to work, and Zack struggled to project appropriate images. Before he could break through Jahred’s aggressive mood, there was a crack of splitting wood, and some small trees shook as a huge shadow passed between them.

The air carried a rancid predator stink mixed with the metallic tang of blood. Then the shadow stepped out into the light. Its flank was matted in dried blood, and the goat-like head dangling from one neck had a crushed skull. However, the Chimera facing them still had very active lion and serpent heads. Big, hungry-looking heads that had just discovered a two-course dinner.

Zack stared at the monster in shock. Somehow, he’d been able to accept the centaurs, satyrs, sileni, and other strange creatures around them without much difficulty. Perhaps because he had seen such things at Fantasy and Science Fiction conventions, even if they were humans in costumes. This stinking, slavering nightmare was far beyond anything he had ever experienced or imagined.

Despite aggressive posturing from the colt, he could feel Jahred’s terror through the mind link. It took all of Zack’s willpower not to simply bolt and run. His danger sense was screaming to do precisely that.

Of course. He realized that the beast was moving stiffly, movement hampered by its injuries. One of Dama’s arrows was still buried in its side, the shaft snapped off and dripping blood. Given his own healing powers, Zack didn’t want to bet that any injury was mortal. However, it had to slow the thing down some.

“Run!” He shouted at the sileni, and tried to project the command into his mind at the same time. Intent on protecting his ‘herd,’ the stubborn little stallion wouldn’t back down. Frustrated, Zack threw himself against the colt, nearly knocking him down. Jahred spun around and snapped at him instinctively, but followed as he galloped full tilt towards the distant plateau. The Chimera charged after them with a roar that seemed to scrape his very bones.

Blind terror took over, forcing even greater speed from tired muscles. Unfortunately, the rapid pace burned up Zack’s strength quickly, and he could feel himself fading. The Chimera had dropped behind, but showed no sign of giving up pursuit. If they stopped to rest, even for a moment, it would be on them.

His mind raced. They could try losing it in the trees, hoping that its larger size would slow it down even more. However, the chimera had the home advantage – this was its turf. And Jahred wasn’t all that much smaller than their pursuer now, having been Purified into an adolescent stallion. He had to stick to the riverbank.

He could see what looked like a fog bank up ahead, a rolling, thick mist high over the trees. It seemed to be hanging directly over the river, completely covering a section of the plateau’s edge. Oh, God! Sudden realization hit Zack as they approached. The low mountains ahead had sheer cliffs, forming natural walls more than two hundred feet high. If there wasn’t a way to cross the river there, he and Jahred were trapped.

Lungs ached and muscles burned. Zack couldn’t go on much longer. They were very close. The boiling rapids jogged to the right ahead, shaking the ground with thunder that obliterated all other sounds. As they came around the bend, Zack faltered and nearly fell as he saw the source of the noise. Raging river met rocky wall a thousand feet ahead, but there was no crossing. The torrent of water shot up the side in a reversed waterfall, spraying up into the air before falling back to continue somewhere over the top of the plateau.

There had to be a way across! Gasping for breath, he scanned the ground ahead in desperation. If Dama had come this way, there should still be hoof prints. A fresh set of tracks filled him with hope until he realized that his friend had charged ahead. “Jahred!” Cursing loudly, he forced himself to chase the sileni, ignoring painful protests from his body. “Come back! Don’t go up there yet!” He tried to use the mental link, but fatigue and pain were hampering concentration.

The young stallion reached the bottom of the cliff and ran back and forth searching for a break. Zack screamed in frustration, knowing that his friend couldn’t hear him over the thundering waterfall. Jahred was obliterating any tracks Dama had left, tracks that might have led them to safety.

As he staggered up to the dead end, Zack looked back to see the chimera coming around the bend. It was moving slowly, but steadily. A desperate glance towards the forest provided no solutions. The trees were thick and close together near the cliff face, promising difficult passage. Even if Zack could escape through there, his friend wouldn’t have a chance.

Jahred’s eyes were showing white all around, ears laid back and tail flagged as he pranced nervously. The vibration of raging water crushed in all around them, and the spray created a constant rainstorm that saturated the area. If they stayed here long enough, they could probably drown from breathing the dense mist.

The chimera approached with almost arrogant certainty. It was the cat about to finish off a pair of wayward mice. Zack shook off paralyzing terror and ran to the base of the waterfall. Water-rise? This wasn’t the time to worry about semantics. They needed a way across. Now.

Jumping into that violent turmoil was certain death. So was the advancing chimera. They were running out of choices and time. Then a hoof print caught his eye. It could be Jahred’s but the colt had been shying away from the river. A quick scan up and down the bank indicated a different path than they had followed. The hoof prints had to belong to Dama.

Encouraged, he followed the tracks to the sheer cliff. The centauress appeared to have walked directly into the river at the point that it shot upward. It seemed like yet another method of suicide, but Dama had survived to track them down. He reached out cautiously. As his fingers extended past the bank itself, they began to sparkle slightly. He drew back and moved to the actual cliff facing, closing his eyes against the hard spray.

Stretching out again, he had to fight against the force of flowing water. Familiar tingling indicated that magic was present. What was that Daedra had said in class? Negative buoyancy was what kept things on the ground, not gravity. And buoyancy could be changed by magic. Bracing himself, Zack pressed against the slick rock and edged further in. Dama had said sphinxes could not be spelled against their will. If that didn’t apply to the buoyancy spell affecting the water, he was about to take a very quick trip up.

The water pressure began to ease, and he opened his eyes to discover a shallow chamber behind the water. It was difficult to see through the spray, but there seemed to be an opening on the other side. Excited, he eased himself back to get Jahred. The chimera couldn’t follow them here! It would get swept away. Relef was short-lived, for he realized suddenly that his friend couldn’t pass this way either.

When he got outside, Jahred was backed against the cliff. The chimera was stalking his friend cautiously, no doubt remembering Dama’s attack. Its serpentine head fixed Zack with a cold stare while the lion head snarled at the cowering stallion. It was obvious that Zack was not considered to be a threat.

He shouted, trying to distract the monster’s attention, but the sound was swallowed up in the deafening roar of water. Rearing back, he waved his arms wildly. No effect. The chimera lashed out with a massive forepaw, slicing the air next to his friend’s snaking head. Jahred squealed and spun, kicking out with his hind hooves. Both missed, but the monster backed away a few steps.

Dropping back to all fours, Zack ran behind the chimera. The snake head continued to watch him, eliminating any kind of surprise. He could see the creature crouch slightly, preparing to spring on the young stallion. Turning suddenly, Zack charged the beast at full tilt. Before he could ram the chimera’s side, it spun and caught him with one forepaw. The blow sent him flying backwards to land in a stunned heap by the water.

Zack struggled for breath, his body broken and bleeding from severe gashes. His right arm was twisted unnaturally, broken in at least two places. The chimera turned both heads to Jahred now, not even bothering to watch the injured sphinx. It knew that Zack was helpless, and turned its full attention to the sileni.

Let Him Go. That strange inner voice came to him, dimly perceived through a haze of pain. What did that mean? Allow his friend to be slaughtered? Do nothing while the chimera ripped the boy to shreds? That choice had been forced on him. His supernatural healing abilities were kicking in, but Zack knew he would not recover in time to help Jahred. The chimera was already closing in for the kill, maneuvering the colt into a corner.

He Does Not Belong Here. Let Him Go.

This time the words were so forceful that they seemed shouted. Zack struggled to understand. Jahred had been born to this world. How could he not belong here? And Zack was hardly in a position to do anything to help. Worse than that, he was responsible for the sileni’s rapid transformation to a normal animal. He could feel Jahred’s mind even now through the link, unmistakably equine in all aspects. It was amazing that his friend had not been been transported to Zack’s world a long time ago. And then he had his answer.

The mind link. That was the anchor that kept Jahred in this world. But the sileni was Zack’s anchor. Breaking the link would take away his only friend, leaving him truly alone in a strange and frightening world.

The chimera lashed out again, narrowly missing the young stallion’s throat. Jahred reared back, scoring a hit with flailing forehooves that drove the monster back a few steps. Before his friend could drop back, the monster spun and clawed at the horse’s exposed underbelly. Jahred twisted awkwardly, managing to avoid the cruel talons. But the action caused him to overbalance and he fell over to land heavily on his side.

Roaring in triumph, the chimera sprang for the helpless stallion, claws and teeth promising quick and bloody death. Zack screamed, and an instant before the monster struck, severed the mind link. The chimera landed squarely on empty ground and snarled in confusion and rage. Its prey was gone.

Zack sagged, relieved and sick at the same time. He’d saved his friend from certain death, but at what cost? Jahred would appear somewhere on Zack’s world as a horse with no owner, no papers, and no known history. Realistically, the best he could hope for was being gelded and spending the rest of his life locked in a stall.

Grief was interrupted by renewed clamoring of his danger sense. The chimera had already turned towards him, and fixed all four eyes on its sole remaining entrée.

“Nice kitty…” Zack looked towards the cliff face, trying to gauge the distance. If he ran, he might be able to reach the hidden chamber before the chimera caught him. He tried to rise up, wincing as his arm began to throb. Damage from the monster’s crushing blow was still healing, and he wasn’t sure he could even walk.

His attacker wasn’t taking any chances. Either the creature was intelligent, or picked up his intentions from his body language. It moved squarely between him and the rising wall of water, heads weaving in anticipation.

Desperate, Zack reached out with the mind link he’d used with Jahred. Maybe he could connect with this monster, convince it not to attack. He felt the link open – and cried out as the chimera ripped into his thoughts with brutal force. Zack collapsed, trying to force the monster from his mind. The chimera was like a burglar tossing a house, flipping through his memories in search of something valuable and tossing what he didn’t like on the floor.

He finally managed to break the connection, but only with a level of effort that left him weak and shaken. The experience had been a violent rape of the most private parts of his soul. The monster had learned everything about him – hopes, dreams, the names of childhood friends. It also knew that Zack was essentially helpless, and that he was responsible for sending the better prey away.

In exchange, Zack had gotten a confusing jumble of impressions underscored by pain, rage, and hunger. This beast might be intelligent, but its mind worked too differently to understand. However, there was no mistaking its intentions. Amid the strange whirl of thoughts were distinct images of Zack’s death. The chimera was still deciding on the best way to kill him.

Risking a rapid glance around, Zack looked for any options. Open riverbank stretched out behind him, with the forest off to the side. The bank offered his greatest chance to outrun the injured chimera, assuming his injuries had healed enough. However, the forest was much closer, and he was small enough to slip between the thick growth.

Taking a deep breath, Zack shifted just enough to stretch out his arm. It was still a little sore, but he was pretty sure he could run on it. The chimera had taken a more relaxed stance, almost casually regarding him. It was now or –

An explosion of pain announced the chimera’s strike. Zack was knocked ten feet down the bank without having seen the monster leap. Before he could recover, a second blow reshattered his newly healed arm and probably broke several ribs. A hot, stinking breath choked his lungs as the monster stood over him, and he knew he was going to die. Filled with hopeless anger, he decided to make use of information gained from his vantage point. Chimeras got nards.

Lashing out with his legs, he slammed the beast’s testicles squarely with both hooves. Its screech was extremely satisfying, even though he knew it represented his last act of defiance. The chimera fell back, writing in agony. It recovered far too soon to be of any help, and the cold hatred in its eyes promised a very long and painful death.

Except that Zack had other plans. If he had to die, he could still choose a method that would deny the monster its meal. Flashing a triumphant grin at his foe, he rolled off the edge of the embankment and dropped into the crashing rapids.

The chimera was not so easily cheated. He saw the monster launch itself after him even before he hit the water. Claws snagged his legs and dug in deep. It didn’t matter any more. The river had them now. If the jagged rocks at the base didn’t kill them, they’d be ripped apart by the force of the vertical rush.

Zack slammed into a boulder, and sucked in water. They tumbled together for a moment before hitting the raging current at the base of the cliff. The chimera was swept up first, dragging Zack with it. Then the claws ripped out of his flesh, and he was thrown against the rock face of the cliff. Crushed and drowning, Zack was only dimly aware of a crackling light that flashed around him. Then he dropped suddenly, landing in a sodden heap in the chamber behind the river.

He convulsed, coughing up water and blood from tortured lungs. The slightest movement brought mind-numbing pain, and he unable to do anything more than suffer. Why was he still alive? It took a long time before regret changed to grudging relief. And even longer before he could think clearly enough to come up with some answers.

His immunity to magic had saved him from being shot up the cliff face along with the chimera. Even so, the force of the water alone would have been enough if he hadn’t been thrown clear. That the blow probably shattered any intact bones he had left was a moot point. The fact that he was breathing and conscious was testament to a sphinx’s survivability. His concern now was that the injuries he’d suffered might be beyond even magical recovery.

Pain gradually faded to a dull ache. Still unable to move, Zack was forced to contemplate his situation. Assuming he healed up, what could he do next? Jahred was gone, Dama was dead. His motivations, both positive and negative, had been removed. Going back to the sileni was not an option, as his very presence would turn them into horses. Too bad he couldn’t move in with the centaurs and give them a taste of their own medicine.

Muscles cramped in his back and legs, and he gritted his teeth. When the spasms passed, he found that he could actually move one leg slightly. Progress. Not much, but at least he knew his healing powers were still active. Breathing had gotten markedly easier, pressure and in his chest easing.

Recovery was a lot slower than before. The cut from Dama’s arrow had vanished almost instantly, and more serious damage from the chimera’s first attack had mostly healed in minutes. It was difficult to tell without a watch, but Zack was sure he’d been lying there for at least half an hour. Light was already fading inside the chamber, remaining sunlight being absorbed by the wall of rushing water. His body shivered again, and an unpleasant prickling started deep inside. It was similar to the sensation of having his foot fall asleep and then ‘wake up,’ except that his stomach and lungs were affected. His belly cramped, and wracking coughs brought up congealed blood and watery mucus. However, when the sensations passed, he found that all of his internal aches had vanished.

He should have been elated, but the only reaction he could muster was tired resignation. It appeared that he would survive. Whoopee. For what purpose? So far, he’d been forced from one bad situation into another with no real choices. This world had made him a pawn in a game he didn’t even understand. He’d made it to the goal, and was rewarded with the loss of his only friend.

Where were the sphinxes? Zack shivered miserably and turned his face away from the icy spray. For the first time in his life, he felt utterly alone. He had no place to go, no future. Being sent to the Nursery might actually have been a kindness. Blissful unawareness of fate’s cruelty, now denied to him. He was locked in this helpless form for the rest of his life, which might last hundreds of years, or just another few hours.

Sleep was elusive. His limbs were still twisted and unresponsive, and the thunder of the water had given him a throbbing headache. However, the day’s events finally weighed down his eyelids. He drifted off, tortured by fears that he might wake paralyzed, helpless, and alone.

It was still cold and wet when he woke, but the chamber was lit by refracted sunlight. Another day, another disaster. Rolling up groggily, he stretched out muscles aching from his stone bed and shook his head. The first thing that struck him was that he was able to move normally. Then he realized that he wasn’t alone.

Spinning, he saw a lion’s paws and body. Another chimera? Then he blinked the spray out of his eyes enough to make out a woman’s face. A sphinx. Her fur was plastered down with water, and he had the feeling she had been there a long time. The creature showed no reaction to him, though her eyes followed his movement.

Come.

He felt her in his head, and immediately recognized the ‘voice’ he had thought was his own instincts. She rose gracefully and padded past him, exiting the chamber on the glacier side. Nervous, Zack followed at a respectful distance. Was she here to help him or eat him?

The female continued up the bank without looking back. He stumbled a few times as the barely discernable path wound its way up rocky slopes, obviously heading towards the looming glacier. His guide did not slow or check his progress, even when he fell on some loose gravel. Zack was just barely able to keep up.

Frigid air stung his face, and began to creep into his wet hide. They were actually walking on chunks of yellowish ice now, directly along the face of the glacier. Some of the chunks were as big as he was, and he found himself looking up nervously as they traveled. It was right after one of these safety checks that he discovered his guide had vanished.

He panicked for a moment before seeing a large opening just ahead. Scrambling madly, he looked in to see a tunnel leading directly into the heart of the glacier. The sphinx was already vanishing at the far end, and he galloped after her. They had to be close to the top. Sunlight was refracted through the ice, illuminating the tunnel with brilliant rainbows.

Stop.

Confused, Zack almost heeded the warning too late. The tunnel ended abruptly at a bottomless cavern disguised by textures and reflections. He stared down into the glittering depths, heart pounding. Another two steps and he would have gone over the edge.

There was movement off to the side. His guide appeared to be walking in midair along the cavern wall. Looking closer, he realized there was actually a ledge protruding from the ice. He couldn’t walk on that! It was too narrow, and his hooves might slip on the ice. “Wait a minute!” His shout echoed in the open chamber, but the sphinx ignored it.

Taking a shaky breath, he pressed himself against the wall and followed. If the larger creature could walk on it, so could he. At least his unwanted youth came in handy for something. His adult form would never have made it. Even so, he nearly collapsed in relief when he found a wide, flat chamber on the far side.

There was no time for that, however. The sphinx was nowhere to be seen, and he moved as quickly as he could while watching for new traps. Zack realized that the floor was sloping up now, and saw a bright glow ahead. He slowed as he approached the source, wary of another precipice. A warm breeze filled his nostrils with the sweet scents of grass and clover, and he found himself looking out over paradise.

A small valley stretched out before him, nestled within the glacier itself. Lush fields beckoned to his empty stomach, and he stumbled down to the open pasture in awe. Through some trick of magic or reflected sunlight, the temperature was perfect. Everything was perfect. There had to be a catch.

He stood at the edge of the grass, afraid to be suckered in by yet another trap. Hidden patches of quicksand, perhaps. Or Giant Rocs that swooped down from the sky to snag unwary little sphinxes as snacks. His danger sense was dormant, but now he didn’t know if that had been something internal, or projections from the female. Who was nowhere to be seen.

Reaching out with his senses, Zack tried to pick up any scent or sound that indicated a threat. There was something about this place, a feeling that was almost tangible, yet difficult to identify. It took a few minutes to come up with the answer, and he laughed aloud in delight when it popped into his head.

He was home. The valley surrounded him with a sense of safety and belonging deeper than he had ever experienced in his life. Schlera’s maternal love magnified a thousand times and embedded into the very earth. A joyful shout burst from his lips, and he launched himself across the field in a full gallop.

It wasn’t until sunset the next day that he thought of the world outside. He’d enjoyed a banquet of different grasses and plants, drunk from crystal springs, and rolled in clouds of lavender dandelions. The anger and pain of the past few days was forgotten, and he was finally allowed to actually be the child he was physically. It was the most supremely satisfying time he could remember.

However, as the setting sun turned ice walls into ruby, he thought about Jahred. And Schlera. What had become of the gentle female? She’d lost both sons because of Zack. The entire herd could be at risk because of him. All because of the centaurs and nymphs wanted to play God. They had used magic to strip others of freedom, to turn a paradise like this into a struggle for existence that kept the sileni huddled in remote pastures. There had to be a way to help. If only for Jahred’s sake, he needed to look for an answer.

That is your purpose.

Zack was startled by the soft voice in his head. The sphinx was nowhere to be seen, but he could feel her presence nonetheless. “My purpose? What do you mean? I came here by accident!”

But his coming here wasn’t an accident. Zack frowned. It was as if a light had popped on in some dark corner of his mind. The flood should have been overwhelming. Infinite information on every conceivable subject, even subjects that he could not comprehend. The ultimate database, hidden from view, yet always ready. Waiting for the right question. Along with that knowledge came power. Magical power that could change a single blade of grass into a flower or transform the entire race of centaurs into donkeys with little more than a thought.

And he had thought he was defenseless. No wonder Dama had hated him. She had studied her whole life to master less power than he had in one finger. Zack looked up and gasped. The valley had become a carnival of lights, plants, rocks, even the ground itself emitting a unique glow. This is what Dama had meant when she spoke of magical aura. The fae permeated everything, creating a shimmering tapestry of light that was so beautiful it hurt to look at it.

You must choose. All or Nothing.

He could see them now, brilliant stars scattered across the valley. Only a handful, perhaps two dozen. Where were the other sphinxes?

Gone. That came from his own mind. These were the only ones of their kind left. She wanted him to stay. He could feel that. Yet there was something more important. His purpose.

All races had the ability to wield magic, but only on a limited scale. With great practice, one creature could affect one other creature. Like Zack’s efforts to heal Jahred. However, the centaurs and nymphs had combined their forces, merging power to create the Curse. A tool to dominate, leverage to force their opinions and beliefs on the other species. This world’s version of the nuclear bomb.

He could diffuse that bomb. Sphinxes were the exceptions to the one-person rule. They could manipulate vast energies, equaling and even exceeding the combined forces of entire races. Once. And then he would vanish. Doing big magic was like puncturing a balloon. All of his fae expelled in one explosive burst. Instant and total Purification. Jahred had not been transformed into a horse. The creatures of this world existed in a transformed state, their forms maintained by magical energy. Purification drained that energy away, restoring victims to a ‘natural’ state. And when the last energy was gone, so was the link that kept them here.

Zack felt a flare of resentment. Any of the sphinxes here could have taken care of the problem. Why had they forced this decision on him?

“Because we do not care enough to make the sacrifice.”

He was startled by a harsh male voice behind him. Spinning, he saw a lion sphinx regarding him with slitted yellow eyes. “This is your world! Why should I have to lose everything. I haven’t had time to experience anything.”

“You have experienced the centaurs’ arrogance, the casual use of power that disrupts lives. And you have come to know some of the victims.” The creature regarded him for a moment. “You are the only sphinx with that background. If you do not feel that the sacrifice is warranted, then do not make it. You are welcome here as an equal.”

Zack frowned. “And if I choose to stay, what happens to the sileni?”

A shrug of the feline shoulders. “They will be dominated by the centaurs and nymphs. Eventually, all of the other creatures will fall victim to Purification, and we will be alone on this world.”

“What!?” Zack’s mouth fell open.

“The Curse is getting stronger, leeching away traces of magical energy from every creature. And as it expands, those who created it get weaker. In five seasons, perhaps less, Purification will have too much fae to control, and it will fulfill its purpose. Only those immune to external magic will survive.”

“Sphinxes.” Zack swallowed. “Why don’t you just tell the centaurs? So they can stop the spell now?”

The big male raised an eyebrow. “An attempt was made when Purification was first cast. One of us went to their leaders and told them of the danger. They claimed it was a trick and killed her.” His eyes narrowed to slits. “But not before she took out two dozen of their cowardly fighters.” The vaguest hint of anger crept into his voice, the first emotion Zack had picked up.

Two dozen centaurs dead. That might explain Dama’s hatred of sphinxes. It also explained why none of the other sphinxes would make the sacrifice. Zack felt a hot flash of resentment. All of this, from his car trouble to the battle with the chimera, had been carefully orchestrated to bring him to this exact moment in his life. He’d been set up, tricked and betrayed by his own kind. They had put his life at risk, and allowed Jahred to be lost. For what?

The survival of a world. Truth allowed no room for bitterness, no space for anger. He had been brought here to fulfill a purpose. Pain and loss had been necessary for him to fully understand that purpose, so he could make an educated decision. The sphinx nodded once, and almost smiled. Then he turned and walked off into the brush, leaving Zack alone to make the choice.

That he would sacrifice himself was a given. The sphinxes had planned well. Zack wondered if they somehow manipulated events so that he would meet Schlera and Jahred. As improbable as that seemed, he could not discount the possibility. The question now was what he could do about it.

The most obvious choice was to simply negate Purification. That would solve the immediate danger. But it wouldn’t prevent the centaurs and nymphs from simply coming up with another version of the same spell. He had to come up with a solution that took power away from those who would abuse it, or at scare them enough that they wouldn’t try.

Stripping away the ability to work joint magic was not viable, either. The mutual sharing of power that allowed the two races to create major spells was necessary for them to come up with the counter spell. That was the problem faced by the sphinxes. Their immunity to external magic included fae energies generated by other sphinxes. Although they were far more powerful individually, sphinxes could not combine their spellcasting.

Immunity to all external magic for the other races would protect them from any oppressive curses that might be set, but it would also take away the advantages of healing and rejuvenation spells. Only sphinxes had built-in systems to handle such problems. Besides, he was reluctant to force changes on the victims. It was the centaurs and nymphs who needed to pay for their crimes.

If he couldn’t limit their magical abilities, then he needed to make those abilities too dangerous to risk using. The problem was that the curse creators could also come up with an appropriate counterspell. Just as the centaurs and nymphs had worked the system for the school.

This was sort of like the old joke about the genie who granted twice what the wisher asked for to that person’s worst enemy. Anything good he wished for overall would also benefit the centaurs and nymphs, without limiting their power. And any enforced limits would hurt those he was trying to protect.

Zack smiled as he recalled the punch line to the joke. ‘I wish a dozen beautiful women would screw me half to death.’ Too bad he couldn’t work something like that with the centaurs and nymphs.

Maybe he could. Not kill them, of course. But there was something about that ‘doubling’ idea that clicked. Maybe there was a way to them more susceptible to their own spells than those they were casting them on. It would be nice to be able to block them from their own counter spell. But that was actually just a shield against Purification itself. He needed something that would target just the centaurs and nymphs.

If he couldn’t affect the cure, perhaps he could do something to boost the affliction. Zack blinked. Of course! Thinking the idea through, he nodded to himself in satisfaction. By making the two races doubly sensitive to magic, any spell would work twice as fast on them. Purification included. Where the other species needed to spend only a half-day within the protected area of the school, the centaurs would have to remain within the small valley all the time. It would only take a few days for the first signs to appear in their own young. He had no doubt that Purification would be dispelled immediately.

It wasn’t a perfect solution. Those lost to the curse could not be restored, and he couldn’t even repair the damage done to those partially affected. Worse, it did not punish those truly responsible. The offenders’ offspring would suffer. But it would end the current problem and make the two races reluctant to try general magic again. It also made them more vulnerable individually. Perhaps some of the other races would pick up on their former oppressors’ weakness and use it against them.

With his decision made, Zack was suddenly filled with sadness. This was it. He looked over the glittering valley, still awed by the beauty. There was time for him to enjoy all of this. To revel in the joys of his new form. Staying here a few days, a few weeks wouldn’t hurt anything. He deserved the chance for some happiness before he sacrificed himself to this world. Before he ended up as a dumb beast somewhere on Earth.

Except that he wouldn’t sacrifice himself if he stayed. Days would turn to weeks. Weeks would stretch into months. His resolve was already weakening. If he didn’t take action now, he never would. And the sacrifices made by Jahred and Schlera would mean nothing. It would be nice to see the results of his magic – sphinx or not, he still retained curiosity. But even that was not to be.

It was time to go. He didn’t even have any preparation to delay him. Activating his spell was a matter of one thought. There was a warm, gentle touch in his mind. The sphinx he had talked with. Then another, from the silent female who had led him here. Followed by a third, five, a dozen. He felt sorrow, regret, and even remorse from them. But most of all, he felt love and gratitude. Basking in that glow, he smiled and made his magic.

A wheezing bray startled Zack awake. It took a moment to remember where he was. He’d changed position sometime during his nap, and was now sprawled facedown on the floor. Stiff and sore, he sat up and spat a strand of straw from his mouth. At least the rain had stopped. He ran his fingers through his hair to dislodge clumps of drying mud, wincing as muscles protested the sod mattress. God, he must look like something out of a B horror movie.

There was a bucket he hadn’t noticed before, hanging from the back wall. It had been recently filled, if not cleaned, and he rinsed his face off. The cool water helped wake him up, and he stretched as he looked out through the cracks of a shuttered stall window. It must be late evening, at least. How long had been sleeping? Yawning, he rubbed his eyes and turned to see if his shirt and shoes were dry.

He froze suddenly, confused by a rush of memories. A world of mythical creatures and magic spells? He could picture some of them so clearly they were like old friends. Jahred and Dama, even Nheyru. He’d had vivid dreams before, but this one included remembered pain and emotions that still pulled at him. The sensations and images were so intense that he actually had to look down at himself to verify he was still human.

Catching himself, Zack had to laugh. Yeah, right. He’d been transported to another world, turned into a sphinx to save that world, and ended up right back where he started. If the dream was to be believed, he should be on all fours. Maybe not such a bad fate, given the proximity of the jenny. If he could remember of the dream, it would make a neat story. With a different ending, of course. This conclusion was just too boring.

Sighing, he picked up his shirt. Still a little damp, but he pulled it on anyway. His shoes were a total loss – almost unrecognizable under the drying mud. He poured out the water that had collected inside and grimaced as he stuck his feet into them. Not the best conditions for a long walk. He decided to go back to the car – there should be some dry boots in the trunk.

On the way out of the old barn, he stopped to scratch the donkey’s ears. She lipped at his sleeve, and snuffled at him curiously. Zack had the distinct impression of invitation, and flushed slightly as he realized what kind of invitation he was imagining. The weird thing was, the union that popped in his mind had been between two sphinxes. Two donkey sphinxes. That dream had really left an impression. Maybe this was one story best forgotten.

As he turned to leave, Zack was startled by a movement from the back of the stall across from the jenny. He was sure the place had been empty when he came in. Now it held a familiar-looking young stallion that snorted and tossed its head.

Eh-rick.

He blinked, feeling the faint contact in his mind. No, it was impossible. Reaching out tentatively, he rubbed Jahred’s bristled chin with fingers that gave off a glimmer of purple light. Eyes wide, he turned back to the jenny and gasped. She smiled back, her face now that of a dark-haired and beautiful woman. A sphinx who lit up the stable with the brilliant fire of magic.

It was true. All of it. Zack looked at his glowing hand and laughed incredulously. It was so obvious to him now. In order for the sphinxes to set everything up, one of them had to be here in his world. Now there were two. He could feel the magic stir within him. Not much, but it was a start. And he knew that his power would grow. Just as the sphinxes had known.

Why hadn’t they told him the truth? A test of his character? Perhaps the decision had been too important for an easy choice. Zack grinned as Jahred lipped his shoulder affectionately. It didn’t matter. For he had regained everything lost in Translation.

end