New Account Registration re-enabled - apparently the extension we use for ReCaptcha service had a configuration change and to utilize the more secure form it needed different parameters. We did not notice this when it occurred. Sorry folks!
It had been laid down with the kind of precision that you would only expect to see from an engineer. The pure white lines were each of uniform thickness and perfect length and had taken more than a month to get right. It was a perfect geometric pattern: A circle inside a triangle inside a square inside another circle.
Just like the text said.
Jack took a step back, then left the tiny, windowless room, being careful to lock the solid steel door behind him, and found his way back to the small lab he had set up. Round bottom flasks filled with clear and slightly yellowed liquids simmered along wall. A few brown bottles were lined up on a steel shelf nearby, each bearing the name of chemical supply houses from all over the world, and each containing laboratory grade metals and compounds.
Jack was leaving nothing to chance. There was no way of knowing what even the slightest impurity might do. It was why this home lab was so barren. There were no pictures, no unnecessary furniture. Even what furniture was there was enameled steel.
Nothing left to chance.
"Jack!" he heard the screech from downstairs, "Did you take the garbage out?"
Well, one thing left to chance. "Yes dear. I took it out this morning."
"Then it walked back in! Get your lazy butt down here right now!"
Jack bit back his tongue. There was so much he would like to tell that hag, but the timing wasn't right. He was too close to be stopped now. "I'll be down in a second." He checked the apparatus again, making sure that the seals on the equipment were still solid. He felt like he was walking on air all the way down the hall. In just a couple of hours it was going to be over, for better or worse.
She was waiting for him at the foot of the stairs, a smelly sack of trash in an outstretched hand. "I don't want to see this pile up like this ever again!" she snapped. "All you do is sit up in your study all day! I swear, I can't believe I married a man like you…" He tuned her out as he grabbed the bag. He'd heard it all before, after all. He walked out into the garage, hearing her barrage of insults from the foyer. They continued, muffled, through the closed door while he walked through the garage, into the yard, threw the trash into the can, walked back through the garage and opened the foyer door. "…You heard me! Your lazy, good-for-nothing brother isn't coming to this house again! All he does is eat and drink, all day long! Do you both think I'm just made of money?"
Jack continued to studiously ignore her. Talking only made her more angry. He walked past her again and into the living room. Margaret wasn't all that bad when he'd married her so many years before, but the simple fact was he'd have married the shrew even then if she _had_ been as bad. She was loaded, the heiress to her grandfathers shipping fortune, and Jack had needed a bankroll.
He found the manuscript sitting right where he had left it, surrounded by notebooks of translations and retranslations, some by him and some by others who had no idea of what he planned. As far as any of them were concerned, it was just a fascinating, ancient text. If any of them had known the full importance of it, Jack would have been put away in some asylum by now. At this point, he was sure Margaret would have gladly done it. It was just a damn good thing that she didn't give a rats ass about what he did from day to day. He could be working on this thing right in front of her and be assured she wouldn't even ask what it was. After twenty years, he was sure she'd never so much as picked it up.
He picked up the ancient tome carefully, mindful of how brittle the parchment had become. Jack wasn't clear on its origins, even after all this time. A few people that he had spoken with believed that the text was ancient, but it was hard to tell how ancient. It was in Latin, though it was an obscure dialect even for that dead language. Wherever it was from, it had found its way into the hands of an early Catholic monastery somewhere in what would later be the Slovak Republic. It had spent an untold number of years there and would probably still be there if the ancient collection hadn't been plundered so badly by the Nazis during the Second World War. It had passed from hand to hand until it had ended up in the hands of a used book dealer who happened to know both Jack and his special interests.
He sat down in his easy chair, noting silently that it could well be the last time, and started looking over his notes again. Translations of the meticulous records of an ancient Syrian magician. The text had no title, at least none that he had ever been able to find. It hadn't been originally written in Latin, a thought that had worried him more than once over the years. The notes were detailed, but much of it useless save for as historical information. A great deal of the book was devoted to recording how the ancient magician had fooled his clients with slight of hand or word games. Sometimes, he used real science that to the people of the day must have been like magic. There were sketchy notes about how to build low power batteries and prisms. By popular wisdom, the ancient magician had known much more than he should have.
But the true treasure in the tome were the spells.
Real honest to God spells.
Unlike the modern magician, who relied solely on the quickness of his hand to provide for himself, this ancient knew more. Far more. He had tapped into a source of power like none the world had ever seen before. How he had found the secret was a mystery, whether he found it himself or simply learned it as a part of his trade. What mattered was that he had written down what needed to be done. More than a dozen ways to manipulate the forces that governed reality and bend them, alter them. The ancient magician had recorded them in exquisite detail. He had learned to control the weather, transmutate base metals into valuable ones and even travel vast distances across the earth like he was crossing the street.
He had learned several ways to transform the flesh of man into beast.
The spells were written like the others, in meticulous detail. Few words were spared for details. The ancient magician had used the spell as a punishment on at least one of his servants, but it wasn't clear if it had worked properly. It didn't matter, though. He knew he had to try.
It had taken twenty years from that day to get to this point. In the beginning, it had taken months to figure out just what he might need. The first thing he realized he needed was money. Margaret, a young, rich woman who proved ugly went to the bone, was the ideal bankroll. After a whirlwind romance in which he promised to show her the world, they were married.
And show her the world he did. It had taken twenty years of scouring the world for what he needed. He'd shown her Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan, the Ukraine and Yemen. Sure, Margaret had wanted to see Paris, but none of the things he needed were in Paris. It had taken until just last year to find the last ingredient, an ancient herb found only in the mountains of eastern Turkey. Margaret had hated that trip most of all.
When not whisking around the world, he spent his time in study. He needed to be absolutely sure of what he was doing, and what the tome said. Translation was a dicey business. There is no such thing as a perfect translation. Words and concepts change, and mean different things to different people. As much as Jack could, he had not even that to chance. He had spent years perfecting his ability to read this ancient dialect of Latin as well as any man born of this century could hope. Even now as he scanned the document again, he had some of the same worries that he had been feeling for years.
The spell was not all that clear on what would happen, an oddity compared to the rest of the book, beyond that the caster would shuck off his human form and take that of some kind of horse. What kind was not at all described. Jack figured that it was some kind of horse common to the age, but it was impossible to say. For all he knew, the selection of form could be random, and he could end up as anything from a zebra to a mule, stallion or mare.
"Jack!" he heard the shriek from the kitchen. "We're out of bourbon again! Did you drink the last bottle?"
"I drink gin, dear," he muttered. "I never touch bourbon."
The heavy silence that followed those words hung for a moment, followed by angry stomping on the kitchen tile. "Don't you give me that! You drink it all the time! I've seen you drink it! You had half a bottle at the Phelps party the other night! So don't you dare tell me you don't drink it!"
He rubbed the bridge of his nose. "Margaret, the Phelps last party was New Years, 1982."
There was another angry pause. "So? Are you calling me a liar?"
With a final sigh, he pushed himself out of the chair. "Look, fine. I drank it and I'm glad I did. I haven't erased the liquor store from the speed dial. They deliver. I'll be upstairs." Torn between fighting with him more and her bourbon, she made for the telephone and left Jack in peace. The tome clutched tightly in his fingers, he walked up the stairs to his lab. He found the small beaker was nearly full of the dark liquid. Carefully, he removed the heat from the flasks and let their boil settle down. When the final drop of liquid fell, he picked it up, feeling the heat through the thin glass, and walked back to the pattern on the floor of that tiny, locked room.
He set the beaker on the floor and reached for another jar, this one by far the most expensive single item he had purchased: more than a pound of platinum powder. Stepping inside the pattern on the floor, he knelt to the floor and carefully poured the powder outside the patter, as the tome described. Once done, he reached over and picked up the beaker.
For a long moment, he stared at it. Every doubt in the world ran through his head. God only knew if this would work. If it didn't, he still had enough of everything for one more try. Assuming that he survived, of course. Assuming that the effects didn't cause Margaret to get some kind of instant divorce, too. For a brief moment, he was worried about that, too. What would she do if she found some kind of horse in the house? Probably scream and call animal control, but by that time he'd be out the door.
With a final deep breath, Jack tilted the beaker over and let a thin trail of viscous liquid fall into the file of platinum dust.
The reaction was almost instant. The flash was blinding, and Jack felt every bit of his exposed skin burn slightly from the heat. The smell of something burning filled his nostrils, but it was a faint smell, nothing too unpleasant, but it wasn't pretty.
But after several minutes of waiting, nothing else happened.
Slowly, as his vision returned, Jack saw what his senses were already telling him. His body was still human. The spell hadn't worked.
He mulled over everything in his head, every bit of the preparations, looking for the flaw, but none came. He had spoken no words because no such step had been indicated. He had done everything that the ancient tome had required, to the infinite degree. He had used some materials that were far more pure than those available to the ancient Syrian who had written down this recipe. So what had gone wrong?
Jack continued to mull this over when he realized something. _Something_ had happened. There was no way that the compound that he had created could have caused a flash like that. It was something like a magnesium flash, but there wasn't anything like that in this. Jack waited for several more minutes in the center of the pattern, hoping that it was simply a delayed response, but after a while gave up.
Dejected, he walked back the living room and plopped down in his chair, trying to think. There were a thousand reasons why this hadn't worked. If he could figure it out, then he could try it again by the end of the night. But racking his brain, he couldn't.
Margaret didn't start screaming at him from the kitchen, though he could hear her angrily stomping around while she waited for her liquor store order. With a sigh, he picked up the remote for the TV and clicked it on. Maybe clearing his mind would help. He flipped a few channels, finding that most of the Saturday afternoon line up was just old reruns of sitcoms and movies he hadn't liked the last five times he had seen them. He flipped quickly through the channels, looking for something…
He stopped, his finger frozen above the channel select button, but his eyes glued to the screen. One of the few live shows on TV on a weekend afternoon, the set of one of the umpteen cable news channels. The camera was cocked at a strange angle, like it had been knocked. The screen showed only a corner of the set that had made up some political roundtable show and the rest the technical areas of the set. Dispersed through the cameras and wires were horses. He could see three of them on screen now, one nibbling at a wristwatch that was still wrapped around it front right leg.
Shaking, he clicked the channel button again until he found another live show, a football game being broadcast out of Colorado. The camera was still trained on the field, but there were no players anymore. Easily a couple of thousand horses, mules, donkeys and even the occasional zebra were nervously milling about, many still wearing bits of clothes that hadn't completely torn off.
Jack dropped the remote. What the hell was going on? It wasn't supposed to work like that! It was supposed to transform the caster into…
The realization hit him. The magician hadn't written that he had transformed himself, but it had been punishment on a servant. The pattern wasn't to guide the spell, but to protect! As for the power of the spell, Jack guessed that it had to do with the purity. Somehow, after a certain point, it had grown exponentially. At the least, it seemed, any human within about 3000 miles was now a horse of some type. It seemed possible that Jack was the last man on Earth.
A sudden, strange thought struck him. Jack carefully looked around the corner of the kitchen door. Standing amid the remains of a bottle of rum was a stunned mare. What had sounded like an angry stomping was her repeatedly lifting a hoof and setting it down, as if it was a drink-induced hallucination.
She noticed Jack for the first time and turned her head to look at him desperately. She worked her mouth, though no sound came out. Her eyes spoke volumes about her confusion.
Jack smiled and walked up to her. "Margaret! I love the new look! I would have expected some kind of old nag, but you turned out a better horse than human. Of course, things will change now. I'll need to look into getting you stabled, and you're going to have to earn your keep. I'm sure there are some large stumps we can get you to pull out of the ground, or a millstone somewhere that needs a back up horse." The mare stared at him like he was the crazy one. He smiled a little wider, "Of course, we can always breed you…"
Margaret didn't wait to hear more, but turned, sliding on the slick tile, kicking over chairs and tables at random until she got purchase with her hooves and bolted through the huge picture window. Jack chuckled a little as he watched her race across the yard and over the back fence. "Fastest she's moved in years. She's going to kill me when she realizes I was playing with her."
Jack thought about the extra ingredients he had laying around upstairs. "That is, if she knows me." He checked his reflection in the mirror. "She'll have to look for the new stallion in town." Jack jogged up the back stairs for the lab.