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The tea was cold by the time Tess finally pulled her attention out of the slim booklet she'd been perusing. Maxwell watched with resignation from his assigned post in the corner of the room as she took a sip. She made a face as if the teacup had contained live scorpions. "Maxwell!" She called out, the slim figure of her corseted waist belying the bellowing power of her lungs. "Max-"
"M'lady?" Maxwell stepped forward and she startled again, having forgotten that he was present and neglecting to look around for him before calling.
"Oh, there you are," she huffed. "I need my tea freshened."
"Of course, M'lady." He'd of course suggested various better arrangements in the past - keeping a hot teakettle present, delaying the delivery of the tea - but she was almost superstitious about tea and how it was served. Almost any variation was dismissed as tainting the flavor. The result was an endless stream of the drink being made to her exacting preferences and then going to waste because of her inattentiveness to the actual drinking.
Still, such was the way of things. She had the wealth and the high birth, and he had the reasonably prestigious job of sustaining her in that role. He collected the teacup and headed down the hall toward the kitchen where a new pot was already brewing.
The L'Arren family was "new money", as these things went - no more than three or four generations since their founding patriarch had risen to wealth and fame in his African expeditions, returning with spoils form the heart of that dark continent of great value both cultural and base. His descendants had continued in that adventuresome tradition and the halls of the estate were decorated with museum pieces from the far reaches of the Empire, and beyond. Headdresses, spears and primitive weapons, intricately carved ivory and wooden sculptures...
It was a bit of a mish-mash, actually, with items piled willy-nilly on display stands without regard to their origin or meaning. Maxwell was no patron of antiquities himself, but even so he was more than most L'Arrens had been. At times he wondered if anyone would notice if he started rearranging them into more meaningful collections.
Tess would, he reflected as he brought the fresh cup back into the room. She was no raider of tombs or captain of sailing ships, but she was a scholar. He just wondered why she didn't seem to pay attention to most of the things she could be studying, focusing herself on just a few odd obscurities.
She didn't notice when he set the cup down, and Maxwell sighed silently in anticipation that this, too, would go to waste. She had put the booklet away - a notebook her father had kept during his deep foray up the Nile decades back - and was now intent upon the small ceramic jar that had been one of the many products of that expedition. He began to withdraw back to the corner of the room again.
Tess looked up. "Oh, Maxwell. Excellent, you're here. I wonder if you could help me with something."
"M'lady?" Maxwell hesitated, puzzled.
"This inscription here, it indicates a pairing or duality, does it not?" She held up the jar and pointed to a glyph composed of two intertwined lines.
Maxwell blinked. "I'm sure I don't know, m'lady."
Tess gave a wry grin. "Well, it does. I'm quite sure of it. Do you know, there was an entire civilization in the region of Egypt before the pyramids ever came along? So ancient that their legends were legends even in the Pharaohs' time. This jar actually dates from that period, I think."
It was an odd jump in topic but Maxwell was used to that sort of thing from her. The jumps always seemed to be guided by a deeper insight, though, so he did his best to follow along. "What role did duality play in their legends?" He asked.
"Godhood," she answered in all seriousness. "The Pharaohs, they were thought to be gods. That was a corruption of the original belief, though. Their ancient predecessors believed that gods came in pairs, one half a mortal servant and the other half supernatural and powerful."
"Not a trinity?" The similarity to Christian doctrine was just barely present, but Maxwell felt it worth exploring anyway.
Tess laughed. "No, not a trinity. A yet later development, in no way connected as far as I can tell. The basis of our religion lies in Babylonian tradition, such as it was." She turned the jar over in her hands. "No, this was much more... tribal. Primal. Animistic, even. The power of a god would infuse into a mortal, I think, who would be its avatar. To be passed down through the priesthood presumably."
"And this jar?"
Tess shook her head. "I don't know. Father called it a canopic jar, but it was empty when it was found so there's no way to know. Or, at least, it seems empty." She traced her fingertip along the shallow lines of the inscriptions still visible in its side. "Spirit, vessel, a barge on a journey... the goddess Bast..." Her expression was very thoughtful and distant.
Then she blinked and glanced down at the table. "Oh, my tea. Thank you, Maxwell. Could you shelve this?" She proffered the small jar.
Maxwell startled, having actually forgotten about the tea himself for a moment. "Of course, M'lady." He reached over to take the relic gingerly.
He very nearly dropped it. There was an arc of static electricity as he touched it, just enough to make him flinch, but fortunately Tess still had a hold on the jar and he recovered before she let go. Breathing a silent sigh of relief, he set the jar on an empty spot on a nearby bookshelf. Is it going to rain? The spark, and the lingering tingle in the air, suggested an approaching thunderstorm. He moved to the open balcony to look outside and secure the windows if need be. But the harbor was calm, the sky clear and the ships rocking gently at their berths with no sign of preparations being made for rough weather.
Maxwell closed the panes anyway. The tingle was getting stronger and he felt strangely unsettled, his hair rising slightly on the back of his neck. He turned to head back toward his customary corner.
The moment he was facing Tess again, though, he froze in astonishment. Not at the fact that she was sipping her tea, though that in itself was a minor event of note. But her hands, her entire forearms right up to the elbow, were now clad in strange gloves coated in tawny fur. And there was something strange about her face...
Tess paused in mid-sip, noting Maxwell's demeanour and finding it odd as well. "What are you staring at so intently, Maxwell? Is there something amiss?" Then she raised her eyebrow, perturbed. "And... are you unshaven? I could have sworn..."
Maxwell put a hand to his cheek and was surprised to find a dense bristle of whiskers sprouting, more than could have been explained through mere lack of hygiene. But the change Tess was undergoing before his eyes was dramatic enough to keep his attention focused even so. Her nose was flattening and developing a triangular patch of dark skin at the tip, her eyes had a distinctly yellow tint, and those were no gloves she was wearing. "M'lady, your hands..."
Tess looked down and let out an alarmed gasp, almost dropping the cup of tea. Fur wasn't the only thing she was sprouting; her fingers were now tipped with rapidly growing black claws, and the palms of her hands had developed thick black leathery pads. The tableau held for a moment, even as the changes continued to rapidly progress before their very eyes. Then a grimace of pain passed over Tess' distinctly feline features and there was the sound of her dress' fabric popping seams. "Maxwell, help, please." She staggered unsteadily to her feet.
The situation was beyond comprehension, yet Maxwell leaped quickly to the correct conclusion anyway; Tess was swelling in some way from the changes and her foundation garments were resisting the growth. He hurried around behind her and tore open the fasteners at her back, not thinking this was any time for modesty or restraint. The laces popped open and more tawny fur sprouted out where skin should have been exposed.
The cup finally fell to the floor. Maxwell looked up to see that her hands were simply no longer capable of holding it, her fingers shortened and thickened into crude paws. "Mrrlay!" He growled in alarm at the sight, and the clumsiness of his own tongue against strangely altered teeth reminded him of his own ongoing changes. His hands flew back to his face to discover a mask of fur covering his features and his face beginning to protrude into a leonine muzzle.
Released of his support and no longer able to balance on legs that had been changing unnoticed under her flowing blue dress, Tess fell forward. She managed to catch herself on those paw-like hands, however, the wickedly sharp claws digging into the carpet. "Ah! Maxwell! What is this?" Her voice held a panicked tone, but her enunciation was perfectly clear; her face and head had suffered only mild cosmetic changes that didn't seem to be advancing further. The rest of her body, on the other hand... She groaned and arched her back, cloth tearing where it hadn't already been unfastened, and a furry tail with a tuft of longer hair on the end flicked out from under the hem.
It had all taken only a matter of seconds, and just as suddenly as it had come upon them the changes seemed to cease. Both were left panting and confused, Maxwell standing back against the wall with tufts of his now quite voluminous lion's mane clutched tightly in his fists and Tess down on all fours with her paws spread to steady her in that unfamiliar posture.
"I... I appear to have become a beast, Maxwell," Tess made the shaky observation at last. It wasn't quite true; her head retained almost all of her human features, and her bodice remained filled with the traces of a feminine figure. But it seemed a fair assessment overall.
"Mmr... rrah," Maxwell tried to concur but found his mouth no longer suited to the task. He blinked, trying to focus past the protrusion of his muzzle, and carefully probed his features with human fingertips and bestial tongue. His teeth were mighty and as he flexed his jaw he felt immense strength in his muscles - not just in his head and neck, but throughout his human body too. He could probably bite out the throat of a wildebeest like this. But the power of speech had been taken in exchange. "Rragh!"
"Maxwell! Quiet!" Tess' tone was still distinctly panicked, but it was commanding enough to reach through Maxwell's own discomfiture like a slap to his face. He fell silent and Tess breathed heavily for a moment, taking the time to gather some of her own wits as well. "I... I think I may have misinterpreted," she said at last. Maxwell could only nod in mute agreement.
Attempting to take a step, Tess immediately got the claws of her hind paws caught in the fabric of her ruined dress and nearly collapsed. "Damnation. Maxwell, help me with this."
A snarl tugged the corner of Maxwell's muzzle. I'm having trouble of my own here! But the reaction was stifled quickly. There was something about her need that was strangely reassuring... and at least it took his thoughts off of his own needs for the moment. Moving cautiously away from the wall, he knelt down next to his mistress and helped her extricate herself from the entangling garments.
Pretty much everything was 'entangling' right now, though, and so in short order Tess was standing naked except for her fur. At least there's rather a lot of it... Maxwell thought. The lady was almost completely lioness in body now, most of her bearing no trace of human form. There was no way she'd be able to stand up properly like that.
With the restrictive clothing gone, however, Tess was able to pace a few hesitant steps on all fours and found the gait disturbingly comfortable. "Oh, Maxwell, I see what I've become. I'm a sphinx! Those were among the half-forgotten legends passed down to the Egyptians too, were they not?"
Maxwell had no idea, so he just let out a noncommittal growl. Even half-hearted as it was the rumble from deep in his chest still managed to startle him, and Tess looked up at him with a moment of alarm. Then her expression faded to a rueful grin and she settled back onto her haunches. "But what of you? I'm not familiar with any lion-headed gods of Egypt... Is that all that has changed?"
Maxwell cocked his head, realizing he was a little unsure. He was still upright, and his hands were obviously still human, but he'd carefully avoided exploring any further. He was afraid of what he might find and preferred a solid dose of denial for the time being.
"Oh, come now. This is hardly a time for concerns of modesty!" Tess raised a forepaw and patted it clumsily to her chest, which despite a fine coat of fur was still quite human in outline and scandalously exposed. "Expose yourself, I must see what we're dealing with here!"
Unsure of whether lions blushed but feeling like he was doing it all the same, Maxwell reluctantly began undoing the fasteners on his own clothing. He really didn't want to. But it was his mistress' desire, so... Wait, what? Embarrassment became blended with an increasing dose of confusion. He was as loyal a servant as might be expected, but surely such obedience in a situation like this was more than should be expected. Why did it feel so important?
Tess told him to stop undressing while he still had his undergarments on, fortunately, and he distracted himself from his confusion by joining her in an examination of what had happened to him. His own changes were essentially an inverted image of her own; his head was almost completely leonine and the coat of fur extended partway down his chest, but the rest of his body was still human. Though somewhat enhanced from his normal physique, his muscles toned and his skin bronzed. It would have been a welcome development if not for the rest of the baggage it had come with.
"I think I see, I know what it meant..." Tess murmured under her breath, and Maxwell waited with grim resignation while the wheels finished spinning in her mind. "Maxwell, fetch me down that jar again, please?"
He'd rather have smashed it into a million pieces, the accursed thing, but he brought it down so that she could have a closer look at it. She retraced the lines with the tip of her claw, chewing thoughtfully on her lip and licking her nose in an eerily feline gesture of contemplation. "I see. We are the pair, the two of us. The spirit of a lion god is contained in this jar. By dividing it between two mortals, splitting it unequally, its power can be controlled."
Maxwell gave a snort. Tess was more of a scholar than the rest of her family, perhaps, but this was too much. How could she be drawing conclusions like that with such certainty?
Tess looked up at him with a sympathetic smile. "Oh, Maxwell. I know, this is confusing... so strange, so wrong. I can't really believe it and I can barely move without falling over. But I can feel it. I don't want it, but... I think I'm a goddess now. A living goddess."
Ludicrous! But if so, did that make him a god? He concentrated, trying to discover if he could feel anything to hint at that. No... No, he was definitely not a god. But there was something else. He had something to do with controlling the god's power. How do I know that?
Tess was gingerly starting to pace, stretching her feline limbs and overcoming some of the shakiness in her unfamiliar form. The expression on her face was the same combination of confusion and confidence that Maxwell himself was feeling. She paused in front of the closed balcony doors, staring intently out through the glass and unconsciously flicking the tip of her tail back and forth as she concentrated on something.
Maxwell felt the surge of power, wild and uncontrolled and inexplicable. It came from him somehow, though he had no idea how or how to stop it. Then an urge that spoke with Tess' voice seized him. Wind! Maxwell took a deep breath and let out a roar, unable to stifle himself. The balcony doors burst open as the wind swept down and through and across the harbor to make the docked boats sway.
Maxwell's roar trailed off as the gust died down, leaving only Tess' slightly delirious laughter. "I did it! I used the power!"
Used his power. Maxwell groaned under his breath as he remembered Tess' earlier musings. She'd already been partly right; every god came with a servant. He held the power, she wielded the control. On the one hand it hardly seemed fair. But on the other hand... Same as it ever was, he sighed.
Though he somehow doubted that the rest of Britain would be the same for long. Tess had inadvertently revived an ancient power beyond comprehension and Maxwell could only wonder how she would use him once she got her bearings being a sphinx.