Story no. 51! I had to take a brief hiatus to work on an illustration for Lackington’s issue 18, which should be released sometime this month. I was very excited both about the watercolor I finished and the story which inspired it, so I am very much looking forward to having everyone see it! Besides that, there is also cow art.
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The magic that rushed forth out of the human as it shouted – from its mouth, sure, but also from its hands, eyes, and curiously, its left ear – formed a thin skin between us and the pressure of the whispering. The onslaught of hostile magic from the voices of the dead sparked and slapped against the barrier, turning it various nauseating colors.
The human took another deep breath and the power of the mummies shoved it back toward us, wrapping the membrane tight against our faces. This seemed like the sort of thing that would be a problem for the human, so I wriggled my way over its shoulder and put my elbow up against the magic near its nose. A bit of pressure, and I was able to make a fist-sized opening; a bit more more peeled the magic away from its lips.
It shouted again, this time a little louder and a little longer, and the bubble expanded. This time when it ran out of air, it threw the little book up in front of its face, sending a shock wave of light out into the room.
The whispers abated for a moment, before exploding into a howl.
The human had gotten the edge it needed, and the circumference of the protective bubble around us grew steadily, pushing the tide of whispers farther and farther back. I climbed on top of the human’s head, trying to get a better look at what the magic was doing. It wasn’t, to my horror, shoving the physical stuff in the chamber away from us; as the membrane approached the arcane objects scattered across the floor, it skimmed over their forms and then left them. I briefly hoped that the magic was only concerned with things that were actively threatening us, but it didn’t seem to catch on the mummies either. A particularly nasty-looking specimen, its jaw almost totally unhinged despite the silk ties of an enormous hat tied under its chin, was already mostly inside the bubble.
It didn’t seem like a great time to interrupt the human, so I bunched my hind legs under me and jumped over its shoulder onto the offending corpse—
—whereupon it crumbled into a profoundly unmagical pile of dust, except for the giant hat, which flopped malignantly toward me. I punched it, and it flopped away hastily in the other direction.
A bit befuddled, I kicked one of the ritual objects on the floor. I was pretty sure it had been a large knife when we’d appeared inside the chamber, but now that the spell had run over it, it had reverted to a wooden drop spindle. It cracked in half.
When I looked up, the spell had encompassed three more mummies. These three were in worse shape than the first; only one of them had a proper large hat. The other two just had felt caps. I poked them. They were not whispering.
The membrane hit a wall with a reverberating clang. I jumped several feet in the air and hit my head; when I turned around the human was stooped almost to my height, a wry expression on its face.
“Wait—what—” I spun around. The room had shrunk from a massive, shadowy amphitheater to more of a closet, with a scattering of dried bodies on the floor.
“I knew most of it was fake,” the human said, by way of explanation. “Just not, ah, how much. I cast a be-as-you-are spell – all I could think of at the moment—but there isn’t much of them left, underneath all the whispering, and when I hit the wall they fled.”
“They?” I repeated.
The human gave me a significant look. “Perhaps not very far, though.”
“I hope not,” I said. “They’ve taken Bill with them. He was just –” I waved a claw in the direction I’d seen him hanging from the hook, but he, and the hook, were both gone, vanished or transformed into a very shabby basket hanging from the ceiling. The shriveled corpse of the sand-goblin was similarly absent.
The human jerked upright, hit its head on the stone ceiling, and snarled out a curse that vaporized the nearest mummy. “You didn’t say that before!”
“I only just saw him for a moment before they were trying to kill us!”
“Oh, you’ve smashed one of them,” the human said, noticing the pile of dust next to me. “That might have been my great-aunt, you know. That looks like her hat.”
“And what a charmer she was,” I snapped.
“Indeed,”it said, rubbing its scalp. “I think it’s time to ask for some help, modest manikin. I don’t particularly want to go rushing around underground until we trip over them.”
“Them,” I repeated. “Have they—ah—been down here long?”
“I imagine so.” The human hung the book on an invisible stand and began to page through it. “Though I don’t think there were quite so many, before one of my brilliant ancestors decided that we ought to be preserving our dead in catacombs.”
“You don’t want to give magic that sort of material to worth with,” I said fervently, thinking of a truly unfortunate scene with dead camels, goblins, and cactus artwork I’d seen on the Yellow Earth.
“I never claimed to be descended from intelligent people,” the human muttered, before squinting at the book and jabbing a finger into the page. Its hand disappeared into the paper, and I saw its forearm flex as though it were taking hold of something.
The human’s brow furrowed. It took firm hold of the volume in its other hand and pulled mightily.
“Got hold of too much help?” I asked, but before the human could answer a cloven hoof appeared out of the page, then an enormous, hairy leg, then a muscular, hairy shoulder –
By the time Aunt Thompson had unfolded herself from inside the tiny book, I was vibrating with so much suppressed relief that I didn’t even notice that her housedress had gone missing.
“Ma’am!” I said.
“Teapot!” she said. “Get me something to put on this moment.”
Aunt Thompson hadn’t gotten any smaller, and the space hadn’t gotten any bigger, but she wasn’t stepping on any mummies or particularly crowding the human, who had fallen over backwards when the first hoof had popped out of the book.
“You,” she said, when her eyes fastened on the human. “What do you want?”
I didn’t see its expression, as I was doing a fiddly conjuration that would vanish a size XXXL polyester slip dress off a mannequin in the display window of Jill’s Boutique, located in Santa Barbara in May 1974. I heard, however, the consternation in its voice as it addressed Aunt Thompson.
“Shadow lord—I call upon you and—most sternly enjoin you—”
“Give me that,” I heard Aunt Thompson say, before the sounds of brief squabble broke out. I glanced up just as she flicked the small book away from the human with a triumphant gesture.
“I don’t need that, you know,” the human said, sounding very pained. “I can still do curses and so on.”
“No doubt, but you haven’t answered my question,” Aunt Thompson said.
“There’s something mucking about in the root of this world,” the human said, running an aggravated hand over its shaved head. “Of course it’s them—it always is—but this time they’ve got something else with them, something new, that I haven’t felt before. And they’ve got your Bill, whoever or whatever he might be—”
Aunt Thompson stood up properly at that. The tips of her antlers hit the stone ceiling and kept going, drilling upward into the granite. Her massive head followed, breaking open a hole the size of a Volkswagen.
Daylight streamed through. The mummies looked even more pathetic in direct sunlight.
“How—what—” the human spluttered. “We’re underground! Hundreds of feet down! Just by the root!”
“Are we?” Aunt Thompson asked, her nostrils flaring.