Eye of the Tempest
Page 21

 Nicole Peeler

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“Of course I can,” the gnome replied, her kindly voice gone bizarrely irritable for someone who was telling us everything was going to be okay.
“But not this one,” Nell concluded, to our regret. “It’s gotta be not only the lock, but it also is locked. And until it’s unlocked, it’s unreadable.”
It took me a moment to think my way through that, but eventually I nodded to myself. The lock was locked. Or something.
Iris asked the question we all were thinking: “Well, can you unlock it?”
“I have no idea,” Nell replied, staring at the hieroglyph in contemplation. “But there’s only one way to find out,” she finished, as she stepped toward the pedestal.
We braced ourselves as the first waves of magic crashed through the cavern. The force of Nell’s power pushed us back, until Caleb, Iris, Anyan, and I were all pressed against the walls, trying to avoid being shish-kebabed by the decorating scheme of priapic crystals. Meanwhile, the grandmotherly little gnome stood facing the pillar in the middle of the cave, forcing her power upward toward the dangling mirrored surface with its ever-changing sigils.
She pushed and she pushed and she pushed… and nothing happened.
Lowering her arms, she swore a blue streak. I’d first noticed when Conleth had attacked us in Rockabill, all those months ago, that Nell became Pirate Nell, Swearer of the High Seas, whenever she got frustrated with something magical. And today was no exception.
After she’d finished reveling in her theories regarding the probable connection between the ancient Alfar and people who enjoy sexual congress with their own mothers, she lowered her little arms. And then raised them again only to yell, “Motherfuckers!” one last time, before finally lowering them to her side.
She took a long, deep breath before she finally turned around to face us.
“Anyan,” she said, very politely for someone who’d just made even my jaded ears turn purple. “Could you help me, please?”
He grinned and walked toward Nell.
Iris, Caleb, Trill, and I just gave each other sideways looks as we settled ourselves firmly against our safe, relatively crystal-free patches of wall.
Nell’s power had felt strong enough to level mountains. But combined with Anyan’s formidable strength, I wasn’t sure we wouldn’t be crushed. So I quickly threw up the strongest shields I could muster around the four of us against the wall, and I soon felt the others join their own power with mine.
In the center of the room, dust and small chunks of crystal were swirling through the air as Anyan and Nell really poured on the juice. As for the sigil, it had continued its wild changing, but now that I was watching it closely again I could see that every once and a while the permutations would stutter, as if it were starting to wind down.
“Something’s happening!” I called, pointing at the mirrorlike surface.
Anyan’s sharp ears picked up on my shout, and he peered upward before he nodded, letting me know he saw it, too. Then he nudged Nell, gesturing for her to look. When she’d seen what we’d seen, the two of them bombarded the sigil with even more power.
That’s when it started to glow.
I amped up the shields I’d thrown around my friends, knowing I’d need a swim very soon. But I was also beginning to get a bad feeling about all this. Nell had seemed pretty confident she knew how to unlock that sigil so we could read it, but what they were doing felt more like the magical version of kicking in a door. Whoever created that mirror obviously didn’t want it to be read easily, so what else had they done to protect it besides making it hard to find?
The air in the cavern was really getting stuffy as all of Anyan and Nell’s mojo blew the dust around. It was also getting dark as our mage lights winked out, all of our magic channeling into either unlocking the sigil or protecting each other from the unlocking of the sigil. Only that mirrorlike surface floating in the center of the room glowed eerily, until its light began to pulse. I squinted upward, trying to see through the gloom and grit.
It’s not pulsing, I realized, as I blinked away the grime from the eyes. It’s spinning.
Sure enough, the mirrorlike oval was spinning like a top, moving faster the more Anyan and Nell sent their mojo winging its way. Then, suddenly, its light went supernova and became tinged with pink as the mirror began to glow an angry red.
I was just about to scream for them to stop when it exploded. Despite having thrown so much of my power into our shields, we were still badly shaken. I had moved a little bit forward, about to yell, so I had enough space between me and the wall that when I was flung back, I hit my head pretty hard. I didn’t pass out, but it was touch and go there for a second, as I felt myself slide to the floor with a plop.
Blinking in the darkness, all I could hear was coughing, barking and a… baby crying?
Why is a baby crying? I wondered, trying to shake the ringing from my ears. I sat up, weakly, and then flopped down again with a splitting headache.
“Eww, gross, stop licking me, Anyan,” I heard Iris say, from a few feet away. Then I heard a doggie whine, which explained both the barking and why Anyan was licking Iris. Sort of.
Once I no longer felt like a chisel was being driven through my brain, I lit a weak mage light, although I didn’t try to sit up again just yet. As soon as the light went up into the darkness, it was blocked out by a big hairy beast lapping at my face.
“Anyan, dude, what the hell?” I said, swatting his big dog’s head away. Even though he looked like a giant puppy, he was still Anyan inside of there. And while I definitely wouldn’t mind a thorough licking from man-Anyan, it was decidedly weird coming from dog-Anyan.
The barghest whined again, sitting back on his haunches to scratch at his ear with his back leg. Then he stopped and sat, staring at me, till I finally raised myself up on my elbows.
“What is wrong with you?” I asked him. “Go help the others.”
Anyan whined again before he hunched over to his left side in order to nip at an itchy place on his hindquarters.
I was about to ask him if he’d also gotten hit in the head when I heard it again: the distinctive wail of a baby’s cry.
I stood, shakily, to find Caleb helping Iris to her own feet. Trill was standing, dusting herself off just to my left. We all lit more mage balls to find the cavern a wreck. Most of the crystals had broken off the walls and were heaped about the room. The pillar still sprang from the dirt, and above it still hung the mirrored oval, showing off its ever-changing sigils. But it had stopped spinning and was no longer glowing with its own light.
“Did you guys hear a—” I began, just as Iris pointed to my right, her eyes wide. I peered over, sending a mage ball trailing in the direction of her finger.
“Nell!” I cried, as my eyes lit upon the gnome’s large, gray bun. She must have been lying with her head pointed toward me, for that was all I could see of her.
We all hurried over to Nell, Anyan bounding in front of us, barking and wagging his tail maniacally. I couldn’t begin to understand why he was acting like that, and it was driving me nuts. In fact, I was just about to yell at him as he scampered about our feet when I heard Iris cry out.
“Holy shit!” I exclaimed, staring down at Nell’s bun… and the baby attached to it. For where there should have been the grandmotherly, if tiny, shape of our local Territory’s guardian, there was a baby, swaddled in Nell’s little homespun dress.
Trill’s voice swore behind me, as she echoed my shock. We all stood there, staring at each other with wide eyes. All of us except for Anyan, who was thoroughly laving his fuzzie doggie balls with his tongue.
“What the hell is wrong with you?” I shouted at the barghest, what little decorum I had left snapping like a twig. “Nell’s a… baby! We need your help!” I waited for that gravelly voice I knew so well to speak from the barghest’s throat. But instead he only panted at me, and then went back to his tongue bath.
Dread washed over me as a horrible thought raced through my head, but before I could pursue it, the baby started wailing. Iris and I looked at each other, and then walked forward. She picked it up, cradling it gently against her chest just as I felt a very foreign, yet distinctly familiar magic shimmer through the cavern.
With a very loud pop, Blondie appeared in the middle of the cavern. Her hair was still in a Mohawk, still tipped pink, and her tattoos glimmered in the light shining from the few forgotten mage lights we still had strewn about the cavern. She wore low-cut jeans, and a tight white wifebeater displayed her lithe, muscular form.
“What the hell happened?” the Original demanded, her magic sparking off her like enraged fireflies. “Is Nell dead?”
All of us in the cavern still standing on our own two feet looked at each other, not quite sure what to tell Blondie. It was like we were saying to each other, with our eyes, What we think happened couldn’t have happened, right?
“Because her Territory is now unprotected,” Blondie snapped, causing us all to freeze. I gulped, looking at the baby in Iris’s arms.
In that case, I thought, thinking of Blondie’s assumption that Nell had to be dead. I hope my worst fears are actually correct. Then I looked at Anyan, who’d moved on from his testicles and was now contentedly lapping at his own anus.