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South-west of Giza Plateau, Egypt, 2000
Eric "Boston" Schneider brushed the dust from his flat cap and regarded it thoughtfully. Popular legend had it that it had begun life as a fedora but had suffered a few too many descending-ceiling traps. Whatever the cap's colourful history, it had just been augmented by the addition of a small black dart.
"Okay, Mr Science," Eric admitted to his companion, standing with silent complacency behind the famous adventurer. "You warned me. Follow the mule prints that go across the left-hand side of the room and not the human prints that stop on the right. Hmm. Wonder where the bodies go?"
His companion, not given to verbosity, made an exaggerated chomping noise.
"Eaten by their mules, heh?" Eric nodded thoughtfully. "Makes sense. If I was a mule from around here, I'd want to eat my owner too." Cairo was not a haven for animal lovers. "Okay, you've made your point. You lead. We'd better hurry up though." He checked his watch. "It'll be noon in twenty minutes."
His companion sighed, considered the room carefully, and then followed the faint mule prints. Eric carefully removed the dart from his cap and tossed it into a corner before donning the garment once more.
It hadn't been easy finding this place. Hints in an old Nazi document thought to be of no value whatsoever had set him on the trail: sometimes it was astonishing where these equine shape-shifting tales sprang up. Hitler was of course well-known for his obsession with the occult and his search for a supernatural advantage for the forces of the Third Reich, and this had obviously been turned up during the course of that research. But the goal of this expedition would confer no benefits of any military value and so the record had been discarded.
That had led to the exploration of the labyrinth beneath the chapel of Sir Gregor of Dornoch, a Scottish knight noted for his exploration of Africa following his duty in the Third Crusade. That had been a nasty one: the band of vicious Shetlands that grazed the land around the chapel had nearly made this adventure his last. Only swift intervention by his companion had saved him. At that, it had required some fast talking and the diminutive equine guardians had grudgingly let him in.
Sir Gregor's tomb beneath the chapel had been uninspiring: the only information Eric could find was an inscription noting that his beloved wife Megan had vanished in the north of Africa, and that he hoped he might be reunited with her in Heaven.
In an adjoining chamber however, in a substantially larger sarcophagus, were the mortal remains of Righteousness: Sir Gregor's war horse of the crusades who, so legend said, had lived almost as long as his master, and had died at the age of four score years and ten, when an unwilling mare had dealt him a nasty kick. Eric supposed he had died happy.
Here, on the floor of the tomb in the seemingly random characters of the equine runic alphabet (a writing system unique in that it can ONLY be expressed in characters composed of old hay-stalks, discarded coat hairs, and small quantities of mud and dung - it is surprisingly durable, as it has to be: humankind, for reasons unknown to the equine race, has taken it upon itself to destroy all trace of equine writing wherever it finds it, by means of brooms, shovels, and wheelbarrows), it confirmed the fragment from Hitler's archives: hidden away beneath the Giza Plateau was a gate to another world, a very special world.
Eric's companion led the way down a long corridor with periodic dark passageways leading off to unknown chambers. Eric stayed in his companions footprints and resisted temptation, and temptations there were. Some of the side chambers were visible from the main corridor: a room of golden artifacts and a room of astonishingly well-preserved papyrus scrolls, waxed against time presumably. And contact-poisoned against intruders. Eric noted that though the main corridor was tall enough and wide enough for his companion to walk at ease, the side ways were carefully small enough only to admit much smaller, slimmer forms, and the contents visible were clearly intended to distract human intruders. One room was even full of illusory houris. It was a very good illusion, Eric had to admit, rubbing the back of his collar ruefully. Almost against his will he had taken a step toward the beckoning beauties, only for his companion to once again step forward and save his life. He was quite gentle about it: the teeth-marks faded after just a few days.
Other traps were more conventional: the spikes, descending ceilings, slashing blades were all there, augmented by some more unusual ones. Eric had to admit he'd never seen a sprung-loaded gelding trap before.
There was of course a traditional ten-foot-pole- thwarter, essential for dealing with those tiresome adventurers that tapped every surface ahead of them with a long rod or bar (or had a line of expendable "associates" walking ahead of them). His companion's left forefoot came down upon a seemingly loose tile, and the floor beneath Eric's boots swung open. It was fortunate that the trap was little used, and neglect caused it to pivot rather more slowly than was intended. With long-practiced skill, his schooling whip hissed through the air, the thong at the end finding tenuous purchase around part of the trap-door's latching mechanism. Swinging at its end, he crashed painfully into the pit wall but held on grimly.
Wasting no time, he scrambled up and got a hand over the lip of the pit, where it was seized in his companion's teeth. A surge of powerful muscles and he was lifted effortlessly to safety, managing to free the whip just a split-second before the door swung shut with a solid finality.
"I'm fine, really," Eric told his companion, who was currently favouring him with one of his well-known, "What did you fall down there for?" looks. Eric probed a sore rib which gave slightly under pressure. He winced. "I'm perfectly fine."
His companion snorted and turned back to face the corridor. Just ahead, it turned a corner, and when the two explorers peered around it, they found a large, vaulted door of beaten copper. Looking like yesterday's stable sweepings, more equine runes spelt an inscription on threshold. "Traveller, be very sure that this is the way you seek. Leave your Questions here, for beyond only Answers will save you."
Eric and his companion exchanged a glance. "Well," Eric sighed. "This is what we came for. Perfect timing, too: five minutes to noon."
Scanning the door carefully, he found no means of opening it. He wondered if it was as solid as it seemed. He tapped it with his knuckles and was much surprised when the door then opened into a large and richly appointed chamber lit by dancing flames.
It was the archway across the room that drew their gaze first: two stone columns rose gracefully before bending toward each other and meeting at a shining jewel of some kind, large as Eric's head, shining with a soft, blue-white light. Through the archway, gently wavering as though through a heat-haze, could be seen a broad green valley of wild meadows and gentle woodland. It did not look like any part of Egypt hereabouts. It looked more like Eric's homeland, Massachusetts, or maybe England or Ireland. He could see horses there: some grazing, some grooming, some running for the sheer exuberant hell of it. There were other creatures he thought he could see too: centaurs, pegasi, and wasn't that a unicorn, drinking from that small waterfall?
The clearing of a throat distracted him from the glowing Gate, and he turned with some shock to confront the large being whose presence here he had completely missed.
She was a Sphinx, but not the lion or goat hybrids of Egyptian lore. This was an equine sphinx, reclining gracefully upon a large couch covered in velvet of a deep amethyst colour. Her body and hind-legs were that of a small mare, perfectly formed and red-chestnut in colour. Her fore-quarters were human however, though much enlarged to meet the proportions of her equine parts. She rested upon folded arms, her ample bosom modestly covered by an elaborate golden device that was part clothing, part ornament, part badge of office. Her handsome though severe face was framed by a rust-brown mane through which peeked the tips of her ears, slightly pointed to just suggest a hint of equine, though they were basically human.
She rose to a more upright position, and Eric saw that the backs of her fingers bore horny outgrowths on the second joint, on which she bore her weight.
"Welcome to my abode, bold adventurers," she said in English. Her voice carried an exotic, resonance that made it slightly alien to the ear, though not unpleasant to hear. Her accent, faint though it was, surprised Eric until he recalled Sir Gregor's missing wife: an unmistakable Scottish burr.
"Lady Megan, I presume," Eric said, bowing. His companion did likewise.
The Sphinx blinked in surprise and looked pleased. "Thou knowest my name!" she exclaimed. "Never did I think to hear it spoken by another again. But you have me at a disadvantage, Sir Adventurer. Who art thou?"
"My name is Schneider; Eric Schneider, and this is my companion and soul-brother, Prophet."
"Not Boston Schneider, the famous adventurer, discoverer of the lost Pleasure Island, and the discoverer of the Salve of Lucius?" the Sphinx exclaimed.
"You've heard of me?" asked Eric. It was his turn to be astonished.
"Why, certes! Of wide renown are your deeds among the children of Equus. Was it not thou that featured so prominently in the ballad of The Steed of Martha McGinn and the Picnic Table?"
"Ah," Eric said, colouring. "I did play some small part in that shameful deed... an unwitting one to be sure..."
"And never have I laughed so much as at the Tale of the Rowing Boat! I thought mine sides would burst! Scarce could I stand on all fours when word of that exploit reached my ears!"
"Um, that must have been another Eric Schneider," muttered Eric, sparing Prophet a cross glance. The big bay was lying on his back making little effort to contain snorts and whinnies of equine laughter.
Attempting to change the subject, Eric asked, "If you don't mind me asking, have you always looked the way you do now? I mean, I take it Sir Gregor did not wed a Sphinx?"
"Nay, good adventurer," she answered him, smiling. "'Tis the magic of this place. The land through yonder portal is the realm they call Equestria, where all things of equine lineage may dwell in peace and freedom. 'Tis the nature of the place that no human might be tolerated - that thou hast endured this far speaks of the love thy companion hast for thee. And 'tis my solemn duty to advise thee that no human might pass from this chamber unscathed, for the entrances to this room will admit anyone, but should someone not of a race of Equus attempt to leave, he shall in that second cease to exist."
"Right. Important safety tip. Thanks. Egon," muttered Eric. "You mean I'm trapped here?"
"If thou meanest to remain a human being, yes," the Sphinx told him. "Or thou mayest take the out that I did. Thou needst only become of the race of Equus. Then you may pass back or advance forward with no fear."
"And how did you achieve this?" Eric asked.
"Simply partake of the waters in this chalice," she said, indicating a golden cup standing beside an ornate stone font. "It will transform you as it did me, and so long as thou remaineth here, it shall also extend your life indefinitely."
"Never mind the immortality," Eric exclaimed, eagerly making for the font, but with a fluid move, the Sphinx was between him and his goal.
"Nay, not so fast, good sir! First thou must prove thy worth, in the answering of a riddle I set thee, and if thou canst not, 'twill be my sad duty to slay thee, though such an act will sadden me."
"It won't thrill me too much either," Eric said warily. "What is this riddle?"
"Only this," said the Sphinx. "What goes upon four legs in the morning, two legs at noon, and three in the afternoon?"
Eric glanced at his watch and saw that it was a minute or so to twelve. Perfect! Without hesitation, he answered, "Prophet!"
The Sphinx reared in dismay. "Nay! Not so! Oh, woe, that I must now slay one who hast been such a faithful friend to the children of Equus! Oh, woe!"
"Wait a second, wait a second," Eric cried, backing up as she advanced upon him. "It's true! Prophet is the answer! I cannot be held responsible if it isn't the answer you were thinking of, can I?"
"But the answer is Man, as he progresses in life," exclaimed the Sphinx. "He crawls upon all fours in the morning of his life, walks upright on two legs at noon, and in his twilight years walks supported by a cane. How can your companion satisfy this riddle?"
"Observe!" Eric said, showing her his watch. "You see it is a few seconds to noon, yes?"
"I cannot read thy strange time-piece," said the Sphinx, "But the sun is near zenith, yes."
"And you can clearly see that Prophet is standing on all fours?" The bay was now standing, watching his companion curiously.
"Aye," the Sphinx admitted, brow furrowed.
"Now, see the second hand here? When it points upwards, it will be noon, yes?"
"Prophet, hup!" Eric commanded, and Prophet reared and stayed up, poised upon his hind legs in a perfect levade.
"Three, two, one, noon!" Eric cried. "Two legs at noon, you said!"
The Sphinx began to smile. "Aye, certes, I did!"
"And now, as we begin the afternoon," Eric prompted, and on cue, Prophet descended to earth once more, but with one foreleg raised. "You see? Three legs! Thus my answer is entirely correct!"
The Sphinx clapped her hands - a clever movement involving a half-rear. "Oh, that was very well played!" she exclaimed in delight. "In truth, your companion does indeed fit the riddle." She bowed then and stood aside. "Then, noble adventurer, thou mayst partake of the water of Equestria."
Eric stepped up to the font and lifted the golden chalice, examining it. It was entirely without ornament or marking, and as heavy as one might expect, given that it appeared to be pure gold.
The stone font was also quite simple in design, and filled with clear water. Some trick of the light, or possibly a property of the water, made it seem to be lit from beneath. He cupped a little in his hand and it glimmered then with the same brilliance, as if lit by an unseen sun that glowed for it alone. It was very cold.
Eric took the chalice and plunged it into the font, filling it, then with a deep breath, drank the contents, feeling the chill liquid all the way down to his stomach. Immediately the chill seemed to spread, but it was a refreshing, invigorating feeling, like a cold rain can sometimes be. His sore ribs stopped aching and a cautious touch showed the broken one to be mended once more.
His fingers began to tingle and he held them up to see the backs of them begin to darken and thicken, growing hard calluses, like pads. When he made a fist, the pads formed a solid oval of hardened skin. Tufts of grey-brown hair sprouted from his wrists.
The cool tingling spread lower and Eric began to feel the strange sensations of his legs changing proportion: his feet lengthening until he was obliged to remove his footwear. His thighs thickened and his pants began to stretch ominously. He felt a little awkward about removing them in the presence of the Sphinx, who seemed to be a person of gentle birth, but a few moments and the issue was forced upon him: stressed seams began to give way. He had to undo a belt made suddenly far too tight, but the rest of his lower garments soon split and burst and fell to the floor like so many rags. Beneath, his legs had become equine in profile, covered in soft rust-brown fur, and ending in small, neat hooves.
A little preoccupied by his state of undress, Eric was surprised to find that the room seemed somehow smaller, until he realised that his entire body had actually grown larger, so that his body was now equal in size to the Sphinx, who was watching his transformation with a frank interest that he might have appreciated more had her gaze not kept turning to his manhood - no longer perhaps the most accurate term.
Then his hips and abdomen began to shift, his pelvis rotating so that he was obliged to adopt a quadrupedal stance, just as he felt his tail begin to grow. As this began to lengthen, blossoming into a tuft of dark hair at its extremity, he became aware of perhaps the most surprising element of his transformation. His upper clothing had retailored itself and altered size so that it was still as perfect a fit as it had been when he'd entered. His riding jacket had ingeniously remodelled itself so that it fit comfortably over his still-human shoulders, and still fitted nicely where his torso assumed the more rounded cross-section of his equine hind-quarters. The fur that covered his legs and hind extended only half-way up his back, but covered his belly and chest almost to the neck.
The transformation was complete, he decided, though the feeling of invigoration was as strong now as when he had first drunk the water. He turned his head: some of the change was quite subtle: an increased suppleness in neck and shoulders and spine for instance. And standing upon all fours felt perfectly natural, as if he had been born for it. Well. Many maintained that he had.
He examined what he could see, critically, and admitted he was pleased with the result. Rather exotic. And the four-legged stance definitely aided his sense of modesty: instead of poking prominently to the fore, his genitals were now largely hidden between his legs.
"Why," the Sphinx said in wonder, "Thou art an ass!"
It was true, and Eric would not have had it any other way - he suspected it was no accident. Where the Sphinx was slender filly, with short coat so smooth it had an almost metallic sheen, Eric was donkey, with rough, grey-brown fur. "Such has always been my desire," he admitted.
"Thou art pleased with thy transfiguration?"
"What do you think?" Eric asked Prophet, taking a few prancing steps and turning in a circle.
Prophet cocked his head and snorted.
"Well of course I won't be riding you now," Eric said. "I thought that was what you wanted: a life of pampered laziness. We'll give Martha the English saddle - I've never been entirely comfortable leaving it to her in my will. I mean, who knows what she whispers to Lance before I ride him?"
The bay gave a laughing whinny and tossed his head.
"That was deliberate? I knew it!" Eric shook his head sadly. "Never trust a horse whose portrait appears in Lizzie Borden's drawing room."
"And now," the Sphinx said, "Thou art a fit replacement for me."
"I'm sorry?" Eric asked, jerking his head up.
She laughed. "Nay! Look not so worried. 'Tis simply that I have stood this lonely vigil for many a century now, and do sorely feel the need for a rest and a good roll. Thou wouldst not be so churlish as to deny me that boon?"
"I guess not," Eric sighed. "How long did you think you might be gone?"
"Oh, a month or two, mayhap. I shall cross the Portal into Equestria. Worry not: thou art not trapped here, and Equestria is not so large that thou need fear me vanishing for good. Time slips by but lightly here, and thou wilt find much of interest, I have no doubt."
Eric, who had spotted a rack of shelves bearing ancient books and scrolls, readily nodded agreement.
The Sphinx turned toward the glowing portal, preparing to depart, but before she did, she added, "And thou should know, if other humans find their way to this room, that it is for thee to set a suitable riddle to test them. Fare thee well, and I shall see thee anon."
With that she stepped through, the portal rippling as if it were water. Eric saw her on the other side. She nodded to him and then swiftly cantered away across the wide grasslands.
"Well now," Eric said, ambling over to the shelves. As he had hoped, they were devoted to equine lore and magic, including several on transformation. He pulled out Ocyrhoe's Pathways to Perfection : A Guide to Self-Transformation. "See if we've got anything to eat," he told Prophet, who was in the process of making himself comfortable on the Sphinx's velvet couch. The bay grunted and gave his companion a Look as he struggled up again.
"Now then," Eric wondered aloud as he flicked over the first couple of pages. "What riddle shall I ask any human visitors? Ah, yes. What goes on two legs in the morning and four in the afternoon?" He grinned. "I do."