carcely anyone managed a civil word between them the first morning, nor, after a brief stop and a frugal lunch (because they had forgotten to pack half the supplies), the afternoon, and the Gnome, who appeared to have sunk into either a royal sulk or deep gloom (it was often difficult to tell the difference) didn’t manage a word at all, until Huw, tired of getting either a grunt or a distracted ‘hmm’ when he made a valiant effort at conversation, coaxed an ‘ow’ out of him by a slash of his crop over a convenient thigh.
“What was that for?” complained the Gnome, rubbing his leg.
“Speak, will you boyo? Or sing – you can do that quite well when you choose. I’m tired of riding in sullen silence.”
“I don’t . . .” began the Gnome, and bit off ‘want to’ before it could emerge and further endanger his rear. Besides, he hated having someone mess with his emotions, and if someone, somewhere, wanted him to argue with Huw then he’d be damned if he would. There weren’t many things at which he truly excelled, but at being contrary he could stand against anyone in Faery.
“Of course, cariad,” he said. He cleared his throat.
“‘They’re writing songs of love,
but not for me. . .’”
Carabosse glared at him, but the unhappiness in his face robbed it of force.
“Maybe not,” conceded the Gnome quietly. “OK, lets try something else.
“‘Twas on the Monday morning, the geis man came to call,
I’d messed up all his chant, I wasn’t getting geis at all.
He used my hazel dowsing rod as a sort of ersatz cane,
and I had to call a water witch to charge it up again.
Oh, it all makes work for the working elf to do.’”
By the time he got to the final chorus, Huw and the boys had joined in, and even Carabosse’s fingers were tapping in time to the beat.
“‘On Saturdays and Sundays, they do no work at all,
So twas on the Monday morning that the geis man came to call.’”
“What are you doing with your fingers?” hissed Huw.
“Shh, don’t interrupt me when I’m spelling. I’m taking a leaf out of Cobweb’s book and running power through the words. Any half competent bard can do that really, it was the way she combined it with a totally different school of magic that was clever. I’m not doing anything so complicated, but it does need concentration. Can you sing, so I can use that instead?”
“A part song with the boys would be ideal if you can do it.”
“Gnome, what are you doing?” asked Carabosse. “A shield spell?”
“Yes. This setting awry of normal feelings is getting on my nerves frankly. If I can shield us from it by running power through the song, can you find the end and give it a good yank to see if you can snap it? I did something similar to the wards in the castle, but this one is probably better suited to you since it’s a disordering of natural relationships, and you belong to Order.”
“I – yes, of course. Clever.”
The Gnome blinked. He didn’t recall Carabosse ever saying anything complimentary to him before, and he hoped that the Wicked Fairy wasn’t going to make a habit of it. It was disconcerting – one kept waiting for the unpleasant surprise. He shook his head. Concentrate, boy, concentrate.
Huw and the boys were interweaving something melodic and Celtic in a minor key, and the Gnome cautiously took up the pattern in his head, but using his own words: a cantrip of shielding and protection. Round and round the song went, round and round the words went in his head. He felt a loosening, as if a headache he had had for so long he was no longer aware of it had suddenly gone away. He nodded to Carabosse.
The Wicked Fairy gazed intently into the middle distance. Some detached part of the Gnome was reminded of a cat waiting to. . .
There was a sudden blaze of power, and something ineffable made a sound like a broken clock. A brilliant flash and a clap of thunder knocked Carabosse sideways into the Gnome, and spooked the horses, all of whom, save Barnabas, promptly threw their riders and bolted.
“Do you think you could give us some warning next time?” asked the Gnome pointedly, rubbing his elbow. Carabosse was still wearing scales, and he had come off rather the worse in the encounter.
“Sorry,” said Carabosse, in the offhand tone of one who was no such thing. “I must have yanked it a bit hard.”
“Barnabas, collect our four legged friends will you?” said the Gnome, dismounting and going to help up Huw.
Barnabas snorted, and eyed Carabosse as if he might be considering another kick. “What’s the magic word?”
“Umm. Abracadabra. Open Sesame? Oh, all right. Please, please, please, lovely Barnabas will you condescend to aid us lowly two-legs by retrieving the bloody horses. Thank you.”
“Sarcasm,” said Barnabas witheringly, “is the lowest form of wit, so I suppose we must expect it of you.” He ambled along the path, and whinnied. From close by, he was answered, and headed off into the bushes.
“Gods, but I do feel better for that, though,” said Carabosse. “I hadn’t realised quite how much it was messing with my head.”
The Gnome merely clutched his head and groaned.
“What’s the matter now?”
“I’ve just realised what an utter and complete fool I’ve made of myself in the last few days.”
Carabosse opened his mouth to say something snide, and then shut it again as his own behaviour was laid out for him by his newly improved thought processes.
“Yes,” said the Gnome acutely, watching his expression change. “Haven’t you just?”
“On which subject you and I still have some unfinished business to attend to,” said Huw, putting an arm around the Gnome’s neck and dragging him away.
“Not half as much as I shall have to attend to with Cobweb,” said the Gnome bitterly. “How could I ever have dreamed that she. . . that you and she. . . I mean, it’s just ridiculous.”
Huw raised an eyebrow. “I think you might want to rephrase that,” he suggested ominously.
“Oh I didn’t mean – well, maybe I did,” admitted the Gnome teasingly.
“Somebody is going to get his . . .”
“A Sign! A Sign!” whooped Luc, interrupting his lord’s prediction of the Gnome’s likely fate. “My Lord, we’ve found a Sign!”
“A Sign? What sort of Sign?” asked Huw and the Gnome in stereo.
“Come and see,” said Ianto.
He and Luc led them a little way along the path.
“Well, it’s a sign, right enough,” agreed the Gnome. Quite a large sign it was, accompanied by a flashing neon arrow. “‘Cumae Motel, Breakfast and Prophecies inclusive’. Well, it ought to beat camping in the woods.”
“It could be a trap,” warned Carabosse, who had been roused from his self-laceration by all the noise.
“I don’t care if it’s a trap as long as it has clean sheets and plenty of hot water,” declared the Gnome.
Not only did the Cumae Motel boast clean sheets and hot water, it turned out to have a creditable room service menu and well stocked minibars. Carabosse, with a mien that did not invite comment, disappeared into his room and pointedly locked the door. Luc and Ianto, making up, and making up for lost time, did the same with theirs.
“Well I intend to try the room service,” said the Gnome.
“I have a few services I can perform,” said Huw. “And you needn’t think I have forgotten what I was saying earlier.”
“You never do. It’s one of your charms,” grinned his lover. “But I’m going to shower first.”
He pushed open the bathroom door – and screamed, and shut it again. Huw was beside him, sword in hand, before the latch clicked.
“I – it – I’m sorry, I wasn’t expecting that.”
The outer door of their room smashed to kindling. Huw spun around to this new threat, to face a cross and worried looking Carabosse.
“What is it? What’s happened?”
The Gnome stared. “Haven’t you ever heard of knocking?” he asked, looking at the ruins of the door.
“I heard you yell. It didn’t sound like you getting your just desserts.”
“Nice of you to care. I just – there’s something rather odd in the bathroom.”
The Wicked Fairy pushed past him, and gingerly opened the bathroom door.
“A rather scary shower cap and some terrifying complimentary soap,” said Carabosse acidly.
“What? Let me look.” The Gnome stuck his head past Carabosse.
“But – when I looked there was this great void, and pillars and three . . .” He paused, as if struck by something. “Oh no. Oh no, it can’t be.” He reached out, closed the bathroom door. Opened it again.
A waft of incense floated out of the vast dimness. The pillars soared into invisibility. On the dais stood three figures, hooded and shrouded. One of them held out a beckoning hand. Come.
The Gnome slammed the door shut.
“I think it’s Cobweb’s boss.”
Carabosse paled. “Her?”
Huw opened the door again. The shower gleamed invitingly.
“Looks like it’s just you She wants,” said Carabosse, sounding distinctly relieved.
“No way. I am not going in there.”
There was a low rumble in the earth below their feet.
“I think you’d better,” said Carabosse. “Mother wants you.”
“But I never had a Mother. As such. We didn’t go in for them.”
“That accounts for a great deal. I still think you’d better go. It will be worse if you don’t, it always is.”
“No.” said the Gnome stubbornly.
The bathroom door flew open. An enormous blast of something like organ music at the lower limits of hearing, powerful enough to be felt in the bones, was accompanied by dizzying patterns of red and purple light, and somewhere at the end of it there was a sound like a trumpet the size of Denmark being played badly off key, that translated in all their heads to the command:
“. . . COME IN THIS INSTANT!”
“Yes, Progenitor,” mumbled the Gnome, slipping meekly into the bathroom. The door banged shut behind him.
“What was all that?” asked a scared and baffled Huw.
“I rather think that that was the Gnome being summoned by his True Name,” said Carabosse. “No wonder the little weasel has got away with so much for so long. His True Name is unpronounceable, unless you happen to be one of whatever it was he originally was. Or a Goddess.”
“Will She hurt him?”
Carabosse started to say: oh, I do hope so, but realised that it was unfair to Huw.
“I see no reason why She should,” he said carefully. “She is sometimes capricious, and very terrible when angry, but She has no reason to blame the Gnome for what has happened.” And I hope that he can keep a civil tongue in his head, for all our sakes.
Some trick of perspective made the three figures on the dais look huge, thought the Gnome as he trudged across the temple floor. He could hear the high chanting of castrato priests from somewhere. It made his own equipment attempt to withdraw into some safe internal haven that was no longer available to it.
As he got gradually neared he realised that it was no trick. The figures were huge, monumentally huge, and waiting for him with monumental patience as he crossed that endless floor. It seemed to take hours, days, centuries – maybe it did, for he was uncomfortably aware that since their divorce, Time wasn’t a frequent visitor to the Lady’s presence.
At last he stood by the sandalled feet of the Triple Goddess, barely coming to the top of Her big toe, exquisitely aware that with one small step She could reduce him to a stain on the marble. One of Her stirred, reached down, picked him up not ungently and held him in Her palm. He couldn’t see which one, for Their faces were shadowed by the hooded robes.
“WHERE IS MY PRIESTESS?” He braced himself against the wind and sound of Her voice, even though he knew She must have whispered.
“I think she is in R’lyeh, Progenitor.”
There was a momentary pause, and the temperature dropped about ten degrees. No, She hadn’t liked that at all.
“Someone has driven her to despair, cruelly worked on her feelings to divide her from her friends and family, and at the last, sent her to that place.” The chilly anger in the Gnome’s voice was met by a greater.
“I don’t know. I suspect. . . many things. I only know that she’s my friend, and I have to get her out of there.”
“Too bloody right you do, sonny,” She said. Abruptly She was normal size, standing next to him. She threw Her hoods back. It was the Old One doing the talking. That was good in some ways, not in others. “What in Our name do the lot of you think you’re doing, gallivanting all round the countryside on this pleasure jaunt? You’ve no proper supplies, you’re going in the wrong direction, any five year old could organise a better rescue party. That’s what happens when you don’t have a woman to organise you. Besides which, you know perfectly well whose business this is.”
The Gnome hung his head. “Couldn’t You . . .?”
“And you also know perfectly well that isn’t how it’s done. We have to work through others, even when that means such frankly unpromising material as you.” She eyed him coolly. “But I will promise you this. You bring me the name of the one who has done this to My priestess, and I’ll have the bastard’s balls for breakfast. And I do not speak metaphorically.” She smiled, terrifyingly.
The Gnome cringed a little.
“Now pay attention, we have a lot to get through,” said the Crone.
“Yes, Progenitor,” said the Gnome meekly.
“He’s been in there an awfully long time,” said Huw. Carabosse stirred slightly to interpose himself between the marcher lord and the bathroom door.
“Don’t even think it,” he said. “Even if you could get in there, which I doubt, your chances of meeting the Aspect that approves of Romantic Love are only 1 in 3. And none of Her has that much time for men. Really, Huw, I know how hard it is to stand and wait, but you can’t help, and you could easily make matters worse. I’m sure he’s quite safe.”
There was a bloodcurdling scream from somewhere behind the bathroom door.
“I’m coming!” bellowed Huw. With a tackle that his distant descendants would have envied, he sent Carabosse sprawling and began hammering ferociously at the lock of the bathroom door with the hilt of his sword.
“Wait, Huw, Carabosse, I’m coming out,” said the Woodgnome faintly from behind the door.
“Are you all right? We heard . . .”
“I’m fine, just give me a moment.”
“You don’t sound fine.”
“Just – don’t panic or anything, all right?” There was the sound of a bolt being drawn back, and then the door opened and the Woodgnome stepped out.
“You can pick your jaws up off the floor now,” she said tartly, closing the door behind her. “And we’re going to get soaked for the cost of fixtures and fittings. That’s two doors destroyed between the pair of you.”
“But you. . . but you’re. . . I didn’t think you did,” stammered Carabosse, who was at least familiar with the concept, and recovered his powers of speech a little sooner.
“I don’t. This form was imposed on me, so I can’t change it until I get to where I have to be. Huw, will you stop looking at me like that.”
“Like what?” asked Huw.
“Alternating between something unholy and something edible.”
Huw made a valiant effort to recover his scattered wits and his gallantry.
“You most certainly are edible. I should be delighted to prove it.”
“Don’t. It makes me uncomfortable.”
“It never made you uncomfortable before.”
“That was before. Believe me, it feels different now.”
“The Lady is not too pleased with us. She feels we need a woman to sort us out, and in the absence of suitable candidates, She made one.”
“Didn’t she just,” agreed Huw enthusiastically. He liked slender-waisted, dark, gamine women with their hair in a pageboy bob and small, apple-shaped breasts. The Gnome shook her head at him, light flashing off the three sparkling tears of amber hanging from the silver crescents of her earrings.
“You’re a bad man,” she said. His voice and that hungry look did things to her newly rearranged internal plumbing that were rather distracting.
“But we heard you scream?” asked Carabosse.
“I – yes. She touched me with Her mind.”
“Yes. At least She told me She was going to do it. When my Master did it, He just did it.”
Huw looked baffled.
“It’s like – think about being raped by someone much too big for you to take. Well, a God’s mind is much too big for a mortal or a lesser Power to take. It hurts. It’s like being torn asunder, relentlessly, in every direction at once.”
“She had a lot to tell me. No doubt it seemed good to Her to do it that way. I don’t know why, She didn’t bother to explain. Maybe” – she paused, grimaced as if confronting something unpleasant – “maybe She thought I deserved it.”
“So what happens now?” asked the Wicked Fairy.
“Supper is what happens now,” said the Gnome. “And a good night’s sleep. There will be time enough for talking business in the morning.”
The moon was setting as a stealthy figure slipped out of the room, leaving a letter propped up on the dressing table. It paused in the corridor to slide another letter under the door of the adjoining room and headed for reception
“Are you checking out, miss?” asked the night porter.
“No, can’t sleep. I’m just going to talk to my horse,” said the Gnome. She slipped out of the door, and walked with deliberately unhurried steps until she was out of sight, before racing for the stable block.
“Barnabas, are you awake?”
“I’m sorry miss, I’m not taking fares . . . Woodgnome??”
“Good – grief. I didn’t know you had it in you.”
“This is not by choice. The Mother commanded me into this form. Mind you, it does have some compensations . . .” she thought back to the sleeping Huw and smiled a private and rather smug smile. “In fact, if I’d known, I might have tried it before. But that’s all water under the bridge. Barnabas, I’ve treated you abominably, and I have no right to ask this . . .”
“Of course I will,” said the horse instantly.
“. . .but I don’t know if Cobweb will be in any condition to Fold and I wondered if you would . . . oh. Oh, thank you. Thank you so much.”
“I’m doing this for Cobweb,” said Barnabas sternly. “So don’t get ideas. Though I’ll admit your manners have improved. You’re right, you should have done this before.”
“What about the others?”
“I’ve left instructions with Huw and Carabosse, to – ow!”
“And what makes you think you have the right to give me orders?” asked Huw, furiously, his hand firmly clamped around the Gnome’s arm. “Or to leave me like a thief in the night, like some doxy slipping out with a man’s purse?”
“Huw, you’re hurting me.”
“Not as you have hurt me. Were all your words of love false, then?”
“You stupid man, it’s because I love you that I can’t bring you.”
“You will not go to this evil place alone.”
“I won’t be alone, Barnabas is coming.”
Huw glared at her. The Gnome bowed her head. “If I beg you,” she said quietly, “will it make any difference?”
Huw glared some more.
“Look, I need you and Carabosse to take the boys safely back to the castle and keep an eye on them. You can’t help here.”
“I can,” said another voice, and Carabosse, arms folded, stepped around the stable door. “And if you think you’re leaving without me, you’ve got another think coming.”
“And we’re coming too,” said Luc. Ianto, looking sleepy behind him, nodded in agreement and yawned.
“Oh hail, hail the gang’s all here,” sighed the Gnome. “Who woke you two up?”
“Sieur Carabosse. It was the thunderclap that did it,” added Luc. “Are you really Thingy, miss?”
“Yes, I really am. And you, all of you, are going back to bed.”
“NO!” “No way.” “Not without us.”
“Look, if we can just get a few facts through the fog of testosterone that is rising here: none of you knows a shoggoth from sugar. I can do Primordial Ooze, I can handle Great Old Ones, I’m kissing cousin to Cthulhu. I’m the only one qualified to handle this, and the rest of you will only get in the way. I don’t want to argue with you, but You Will Do As You Are Told!”
Huw blinked. There had been more than an echo there of that unfortunate incident with the lady Cobweb in his hall.
“But. . .” he began plaintively.
“No, Huw. Not this time. I’ll be much safer alone. And someone must look after the boys.”
“I agree,” said Carabosse, unexpectedly.
“Yes. Huw should obviously take the boys back. But. I. Am. Coming. With. You.”
The Gnome sighed again. Why were men so obtuse? She gestured, and Time obligingly withdrew, leaving Huw and the boys frozen.
“Carabosse, I don’t want to argue with you. We can do this the hard way or we can do it the easy way, but you are not coming.”
“And just how do you think you are going to stop me? I warn you, if you try fugue I am going to feed you your own. . .”
“I don’t have one anymore. And I will stop you, if I have to, by commanding you by your True Name.”
Carabosse stared at her.
“You’re bluffing. You couldn’t possibly know it.”
“She does. And She gave it to me. She also lent me enough power to flatten you and anyone else who gets in my way if I have to. So don’t, please.”
It was the quiet desperation in that last plea that caught the Wicked Fairy’s attention. The Gnome he knew would have gloated over that last sentence. Wouldn’t he? So maybe it was true, after all. Gods, what a bloody mess!
“She’s my love.” It was a cry of pure anguish. The Gnome knew instantly what ‘she’ he referred to, and touched his shoulder gently.
“I know. I know the hardest thing sometimes is to do nothing and wait. But this has to be. The threefold Lady has ordained it.”
Carabosse bit his lip. “I said the same more or less to Huw a few hours ago. Now I know how stupid I must have sounded.”
The Gnome smiled. “We will bring her back, I promise. Will you see that Huw and the boys get back safely for me?”
“Good. Then we must go. Something tells me we’ve wasted too much time already.”
“Aren’t you going to say goodbye?”
“I’ve said all the goodbyes that matter. I hate sentimental partings. Come on, Barnabas.” She vaulted lightly astride the horse, having troubled to put on a trouser suit.
Barnabas trotted away into the darkness, a white gleam with a shadow on its back, until the dark abruptly swallowed it and it was gone.
“You know the way?” asked the Gnome. Her voice sounded strange.
“Yes. Are you crying?”
“Yes. Sorry, must be hormones or something.”
“Or something,” agreed the horse. “What will you do when we get there?”
“That depends. In the best scenario, Cobweb is OK, I give her the Lady’s earrings – that’s what I have to do, apparently – and we head hell for leather out of there. In the worst scenario . . . well, let’s not go there.”
“Can you handle what we might find there?”
“In my original shape, I look enough like one of the natives that I can probably talk us out of trouble, at least as long as Cthulhu stays soundly asleep. If things get nasty, though, we’re in trouble, and you’re to get Cobweb out anyway you can.”
“What about all the power the Lady gave you?”
“What power? I mean the earrings are things of power, but it’s not for me, and I don’t think it’s destructive in nature.”
“But you told Carabosse. . .”
The Gnome smiled. “Yes,” she agreed. “I wonder if he plays poker? Well, one has to play to ones strengths, and I’ve always been good at lying. No, I’ve no more power than usual. We’ll have to hope it doesn’t come to that. But the thing is . . .” She fell silent.
“Oh come on, you’ve started now, you have to tell me.”
“Well, I haven’t said this to anyone, but why did they want Cobweb in R’lyeh? The letter of the law doesn’t mean too much there. And the thing that’s been keeping me awake nights is – well, whoever’s behind this has already made one gebbeth. What if we find Cobweb and she isn’t Cobweb anymore?”
“Gods, I wouldn’t want to have your mind,” murmured Barnabas, taking a left at Ys and ambling past the ‘Daily Planet’ building.
The Gnome smiled weakly. “That may be my only defence,” she said. “No-one does.”
Vast sea-slimed pillars of violaceous and iridescent porphyry rose around them, hideously carven with grotesques that might shatter the mind of any sane man, were he to contemplate them. Not even in the wastes of the accursed Plateau of Leng, or in gambrel roofed Arkham with its sinister secrets, was architecture of such chillingly transhuman ghastliness to be found. Its malformed domes cast black shadows upon a scuttling populace of curiously batrachian aspect. Upon the pediments of its tentacularly endited temples writhingly arachnoid glyphs sullied the mind of the onlooker.
“‘Welcome to R’lyehworld: Sea, Slime, and Sinister Transformation for All the Family’” translated the gnome. “Looks like we’re here.”
The horse eyed the prose with disfavour.
“It’s a bit – purple, isn’t it?” he said.
“Goes with the territory, I’m afraid. Now, we need to find – hmm, which temple would it be – Shub-Niggurath’s I suppose. I’ll ask. . .”
“Good Gods, what a hideous abomination. Isn’t that Mickey M. . .”
“Shh! Are you mad, saying that Name here? Do you want to summon him? That’s just a student being paid a pittance to wear a silly suit.” She strolled over.
“Hi there folks, are you having Fun?” asked the employee in the suit.
“Wonderful, just wonderful,” said the Gnome. “Can you tell me how to find the Temple of the Goat with a Thousand Young?”
“Sure thing! The Niggurath Ziggurat Experience is just down Main Street, and past the Pirates of Innsmouth ride. You all have a good time now! Enjoy the rats in the walls!”
“Thank you, we’ll be sure to,” said the Gnome. She headed away as quickly as she dared. Behind her the boy in the suit frowned and picked up his walkie-talkie. “Security, please. I have a code 470 heading down Main Street for the Ziggurat.”
“This way,” said the Gnome, heading for a step pyramid with particularly inventive and obscene carving. “My goodness, can one do that? Oh, I suppose if you come with one of those you can. What a fertile imagination the builders must have had.” She led the horse up the steps and into the darkness of the building.
It took a moment for their eyes to adjust to the dimness. Sadly, it was less easy for their nostrils to adjust to the foul stench.
“Ye Gods, what died in here?” muttered Barnabas.
“I really think that’s probably a question best not asked,” said the Gnome faintly. “Let’s find the priestess and get out of here.”
“You called?” The cracked voice reverberated in the blackness. “Can I . . . Nimuë?”
“No, I’m sorry, I thought you were someone I kn. . . do I know you?”
“I bloody well hope so dear. Wood, gnome of that ilk, ring any bells?”
“Woodgnome? Woodgnome? What are you doing here? Why are you a girl?” Cobweb stepped out into a shaft of dim light and the Gnome nearly bit through her lip with the effort of not letting her face show what she felt. Of all the things she could offer Cobweb, pity was likely to be the thing that broke her.
Her hair was a rats’ nest. It appeared to have been soaked with blood and dried into stiff spikes, and her robes were dishevelled and stained. Her skin was grey with exhaustion and there were huge violet shadows under her eyes. She didn’t look as if she had slept for a week. Above all she seemed shrunken, like someone bent under a burden much too heavy for them.
“I’ve come for you, sweetheart,” the Gnome said. “You don’t look at all well. You need to come away from here and have a rest.”
“I can’t. Go away, Gnome,” she said wearily. “This isn’t a good place for anyone to be. Go away and forget about me.”
“I’m afraid that isn’t possible,” said the Gnome gently. “I won’t, and the others won’t and Carabosse certainly won’t.”
Cobweb turned away, her shoulders shaking.
“Hey, hey,” said the Gnome, and pulled the weeping Fay into a firm embrace.
“Oh Gnome, I’ve made such a me-ess of everything,” sobbed Cobweb. “And I try so hard not to sleep, but I get so tired, and I sleep and then the dreams come.”
The Gnome grimaced. She could well imagine what sort of dreams would come here, and Who was sending them.
“You are coming away with me,” she said firmly.
“I can’t go back, I can’t. I don’t want them to see me like this. And I’ve nowhere to go.”
“We aren’t going back to Faery,” said the Gnome. “I’m going to take you to a little house with whitewashed walls and blue shutters, on a rocky hill overlooking an olive grove and a kingfisher blue sea full of dolphins. The nights there are warm and soft and have no fear in them, only the sweetness of the lemon blossom and the sound of the fountain in the courtyard. And in the morning you will get up from the simple pleasures of clean sheets and a firm mattress, throw back the shutters of your room, and welcome another long lazy day with a breakfast of watermelon, good honey, and croissants. And I shall read you the entire works of Barbara Cartland if you want. Not now, Barnabas,” she added to the horse, who was trying to attract her attention.
The ghost of a smile trembled at the edge of Cobweb’s mouth.
“It sounds good,” she said. “Oh, but I can’t.”
“Yes you can,” said the Gnome relentlessly. “And then when you’re rested and back to your old self, you can stay in my house in Faery for as long as you want or need. I’m never there anyway, these days, I spend all my time at Huw’s.”
Cobweb shook her head. “No,” she said. “It’s a lovely idea, but I couldn’t. I can’t live in Faery now. I have no power.”
“Why is it that of all your qualities you retain your stubborness longest?” said the Gnome. “You are coming away whether you like it or not. Yes, what is it Barnabas?”
“Trouble. Look out of the door.” The Gnome ran to the door, to see a growing mob of the toadlike locals, some in Security uniforms. Behind them. . .
“Oh shit,” said the Gnome.
“The Spawn have been summoned.”
“Lesser versions of You Know Who. Not as powerful, but not the sort of trouble we need right now. OK, Cobweb, I have some messages for you.”
“Yes. Carabosse says: come back to him. Huw begs his liege lady to return. The boys promise to be good if you’ll come back, and if you believe that you’ll believe anything, but it was well meant. But most importantly I have a message and a gift for you from Mother.”
“M- the Mother?”
“Yes. ‘Bid My priestess remember that she comes and goes at My leave, and none other’s. And bid her remember that I am the Binder of Grazed Hearts as well as Grazed Knees, and that she should have looked to Me for Aid and Healing in her Need.’ And the Crone added: ‘And not been so Bloody Stubborn and insisted on doing everything herself’. And They sent you some earrings – They were very insistent on that.”
“I don’t know what to say.” said Cobweb at last. “I’m not really fit to be a priestess at all, am I? I’m not fit to be anything,” she added bitterly.
“She thinks otherwise. She thinks enough of you to turn me into a girl and send me all this way to get you. Are you going to argue with Her too?”
“Turn you into. . . there’s a story I’d like to hear.”
“Later. Barnabas, can you get us out of here now?”
“Of course.” Barnabas flicked his tail – and screamed as if he had been gelded.
“Barnabas – what’s wrong?”
“The directions are wrong. It’s all wrong! Space is sick, I can’t bear it!” The horse’s eyes rolled in his head in terror.
“Calm down, it’s just . . .”
“You don’t understand, it’s my Talent. I can go anywhere. But everywhere is Wrong, as if Space was twisted. I can’t feel where to go.”
“Damn, it’s the Spawn. They’re bending the dimensions towards the place where the Idiot Sultan Azathoth drools and gibbers in Crawling Chaos. I’m going to have to try and bluff them. Give me some space while I Shift.”
The others stood aside and the Gnome frowned. “Odd.” She adopted an oddly strained expression that slowly dissolved into worry and then outright fear.
“I can’t Shift,” she said quietly. “And I really should be able to. Why can’t I Shift, Cobweb?”
“I don’t know. Because the Lady doesn’t want you to?”
“No, that geis was broken as soon as we arrived, I felt it. I should be able to Shift and I can’t. I’ve never not been able to.” The Gnome’s voice was growing distinctly shrill.
“But every fay can Shift, unless their power has gone or they’re. . .” her voice trailed off. “Gnome,” she said oddly. “What did Huw think of your change of sex?”
“Well, he was rather taken with it,” said the Gnome, mystified.
“Hmm.” Cobweb stepped forward, laid her hand on the gnome’s belly, and muttered something. A pink glow sprang up around her hand.
“So you celebrated by trying out your new arrangements?” she said.
The Gnome blushed, and nodded.
“Congratulations. You’re pregnant.”
The look of horror on the Gnome’s face would have heartened her many enemies.
“But I can’t be. I can’t be. You must have made a mistake.”
“You forget whose priestess I am. You are. Huw is going to be a real daddy at long last.”
“Charming as all this is,” said Barnabas, “if any of us are to get out of here, you need to Do Something.”
“Cobweb, you’ll have to do it.”
“I can’t. My power is gone, Gnome, don’t you understand? I can barely light a match with what’s left.”
“Quick, put on the Lady’s earrings.” The Gnome fumbled with the right one, took it out, handed it to Cobweb. “No time to be squeamish, just put the damned things on. Hold on while I put on the other . . .” With dawning horror the Gnome fumbled at her left earlobe.
“It’s gone! I’m sure I had it when I came in.”
“Then you must have dropped it.”
There was a clatter of feet, and a sound of slithering. The dim light from the doorway was abruptly blocked by something huge and monstrous.
“There it is, I see it,” said Barnabas, and lunged forward. As he did so the writhing bulk in the doorway oozed towards him, its tentacles reaching.
“Barnabas!” screamed Cobweb and the Gnome in unison. The horse’s left foot flicked something glittering towards them, even as the tentacles pulled it relentlessly towards a gaping, grinding maw.
A blast of power from the Gnome made the Thing shriek and writhe more furiously. Two of its tentacles were now charred stumps but the remainder still held Barnabas.
Cobweb was scrabbling on the floor for the other earring when they all heard, or rather Heard, something, that resounded across the astral planes like an over-amplified Nu-Metal concert.
It was the sound of a vast, stone sarcophagus somewhere in the City being slowly pushed open with a hideous strength. From the inside.
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All material © , 2005