Signs and Portents
Written by: Christine Morgan (email@example.com)
Story idea by: Kathy Pogge
Illustrations by: Jessica Entis
Previously on Gargoyles…
"My books," [Michel] said, sitting up shakily, "you have done as I asked?"
Demona nodded. "Only I know where they are hidden now," she assured him. He managed a small, relieved smile at that, as though some great burden had just been lifted from his shoulders. Then a short fit of coughing overtook him, and Demona helped him lie back down on the bed. She was still trying to hold back the tears in her eyes as she moved the pillows to make him a bit more comfortable. Then she took his hand again and held it tightly.
"There is… one more thing… something I must tell you," the old man began, laboring for the breath to speak.
Demona could barely hear him. She leaned closer and stared into his dark eyes, her hands still clasped around his. "What is it, Michel? I'm listening," she said softly.
"When your child assumes two forms, a great evil draws near..."
"Child?" Demona whispered, "I have no child..."
~ Prophets and Angels ~
Una tapped a more lurid tabloid with one free claw. "This is one of my favorite's," she stated. "'Sprites and Pixies Lay Siege to Big Apple'," she read, "'People Claim Visions of Flying Monsters and Ghoulish Ghosts'. I find this highly entertaining. Ghoulish ghosts indeed. Those humans have no idea of what is going on."
"You mean we actually do?"
Cavall whined and started bumping his head against Arthur's leg impatiently.
"Odd that tales of pixies are occurring lately in both London and Manhattan," Griff interrupted thoughtfully, cupping his chin in one hand.
Arthur turned to his mentor to ask his opinion, but found that Emrys was staring ahead, paying no attention to him. "Merlin?" he asked in a worried tone, touching his shoulder. Emrys turned his head to stare up at him.
The boy's eyes widened. "I think my father's up to something. This can't be good."
~ Meet the Minions ~
* * * * *
Signs and Portents
* * * * *
The moon was waxing gibbous, a half-formed ghost's face against the dark shroud of the sky.
Una shivered though the night was not cold.
"I thought a breath of air would quell this unease," she murmured to the moon. "Instead, it only grows worse."
The moon did not reply.
She stared at it a moment longer, then retreated to the warmth and light of the shop.
In the back room, she opened a drawer and withdrew a wine-colored velvet bag heavy with rectangular weight. She swept her skirt under her and sat at the small round table.
No customer was opposite her, so she dispensed with her usual patter as she slid the deck of thick cards out of the bag and sorted through them until she found the one to represent the Querent. In this case, herself. As always, she chose Strength, the woman taming the lion, wishing briefly that Leo were here to tease her for it.
She laid the card at the center of the table, where its vibrant colors seemed to take on new life from the mellow gleam of the antique wood.
Clearing her mind, Una focused on one question as she began to shuffle the rest of the deck. "What is this foreboding?"
She mixed the cards until it felt like enough, then divided them into three piles, and chose one at random. The pattern she chose was the Celtic Cross, intoning softly as she placed each card.
"This covers one." The Six of Swords, reversed, atop the Querent card, Strength.
"This crosses one." The Seven of Swords, across the Six.
Already even more troubled, Una was tempted to sweep the cards together in a pile and put them away. But she kept on laying them out.
"This is beneath one. This is behind one. This crowns one. This is before one."
The cross pattern was established, and she began the staff, an ascending line to the right. Her hands began to tremble as she did so.
"This is one's fears. This is one's surroundings. This is one's hopes. This is one's summation."
She stared at the final card, her chill worse than ever. The Tower. Dark colors, screamingly vivid images. A spire of black stone against an ominous sky, its top shattered by lightning, flames issuing from the windows, a man and a woman plunging to their deaths.
A bell tinkled as the shop's door opened. Footsteps and voices approached the back room.
"-- haven't the slightest idea what he's so on about ..." Colin Marter was saying.
"Shh!" Griff waved him to silence, spotting Una. "I've seen that look before, gents. Something's up."
"Swords, many swords, the promise of conflict," she whispered. "And many from the Major Arcana. Oh, there are powerful forces at work in the world!"
* * * * *
"... the quarterly profits projection clearly shows a market trend toward ..."
Banks droned on, the pointer tapped against the viewgraph, and it was all Dominique Destine could to do keep her eyes open. She sipped at her coffee -- cold by now but still loaded with caffeine -- and picked up her pen to doodle aimlessly on her notepad.
Collins cleared his throat urgently, and Dominique looked up to realize that an expectant quiet had fallen over the board of directors, and they were all watching her.
"All right," she said, trying to sound brisk, efficient, corporate, and wide-awake. "Now the presentation on Project Ganymede --"
"That was the presentation on Project Ganymede," Rutherford said with thinly-disguised impatience.
Dominique floundered a moment, peered at her agenda, and recovered with a smile. "Then that concludes our meeting for today. Thank you, ladies and gentlemen. Until next week ..."
A round of muttered replies answered her, as the board members stood and gathered their paperwork. Dominique waited until they had all gone, leaving behind the usual detritus of coffee cups and muffin crumbs, then rose and stretched and yawned.
"Are you feeling all right, Ms. Destine?" Candice asked as she started clearing away the mess. "You look tired."
"I'm fine. Just haven't been sleeping well lately," she said. "Do I have anything else for today that can't be rescheduled?"
"You're in luck," Candice said. "The MegaCorp rep is stranded in Denver and can't make it until Monday. So you've got the rest of the afternoon free."
"Good! I'll be in my office, but I don't want to be disturbed unless the building is on fire."
She went to her office, checked her messages -- Darien again, undeterred in his pursuit of Angela -- found nothing that couldn't wait, locked the door, switched off the lights, and settled onto the couch with a sigh.
No sooner had she shut her eyes, it seemed, than they flew open with a start, and she found herself clinging by one claw to the crumbling brown stones of a tall tower. Flames leaped from the windows to her right and left. Winds, far too treacherous to glide on, battered her against the coarse curved wall. She risked a glance down and saw a leaping, turbulent sea foaming amid a bed of jagged rocks.
A high, piercing laugh cut through the wind. She jerked her head around and saw a woman in gold armor, floating in defiance of the storm, a sword in her hands. The blade was wreathed with blood-red roses.
"It begins!" a voice intoned from on high. At the top of the tower, lightning sheeting behind him, was a crowned man whose face was hidden in shadows.
The stones to which she was clinging gave way and she plunged ...
... and bolted upright bathed in a cold sweat.
"The crowned man ... the woman of roses ... sword, fire and destruction," she heard herself say in a high, wavering child's voice.
This did nothing to settle her mood, and she rubbed uncertainly at her eyes.
She exhaled shakily as the familiar surroundings of her office came clear to her. "Dream. Only a dream."
The details had already melted from her mind. The only thing left was a lingering hollow nameless dread.
"That's enough for one day," she told herself. "Go home and get some real sleep!"
Ten minutes later, she was comfortably ensconced in the back of her car, while her driver piloted her through the urban jungle streets of Manhattan.
Her eye was caught by a newsstand, and she pressed the intercom button. "Stop here for a moment, please."
The driver obliged, and she stepped out into the golden afternoon -- well, more of a copper afternoon, given the atmospheric inversion that had trapped even more of New York's daily output of pollution than usual -- and browsed through the selections of newspapers and magazines.
She picked up the latest issue of the Sentinel and the other must-reads for someone in her line of work: the Wall Street Report, the World and News, etc.
Adding a copy of Here and Now so she wouldn't feel that there was nothing in her life but work, she was about to pay when she noticed a headline blaring from one of the trash tabloids.
On impulse, she picked it up, but once it was paid for, tucked it inside World and News so her driver wouldn't see. It just would not do for her to be spotted reading any paper that specialized in reports of saucer people and Siamese twins marrying celebrity impersonators.
She arrived home with an hour to spare before sunset, and got ready for her nightly change.
After, Demona still couldn't shake the strange feelings that had plagued her all day. She sat down with the Sentinel and tried to concentrate, but her mind kept wandering. Finally, she picked up the tabloid.
"Nostradamus' Hidden Predictions Revealed!" shrieked the header. "Bizarre Happenings Worldwide are Proof of Ancient Prophecies Come True!" Below that, in smaller type, "Is this the end of the world as we know it?"
She opened it and began to read, scoffing at first.
"Made-up nonsense and lies!"
Then trying to scoff.
"Even if that was true ..."
Then reading in a grim silence.
When she had finished the article, she pushed away the paper ("Trained Ferret Saves Six from Burning Apartment," the next page proclaimed) and went to her computer.
"Those stories are rubbish," she said to herself. "But there must be some truth at the root of it ..."
Her talons flew over the keyboard, cross-checking sources and background material. The information on the screen was a near match to that in the paper, though the tabloid version had been embellished somewhat.
"I don't like this," she said, not even aware that she was speaking aloud. She rose and searched her bookshelf, coming away with a large leather-bound tome.
"We'll just see what Nostradamus himself has to say about all this," Demona said, and sat down to read.
* * * * *
Another bookshelf, another gargoyle.
Una ran her fingers along the spines of her collection, frowning. She chose one book, thumbed through it, rejected it, and chose another.
"I say, Una old girl," Griff said, doing his best to sound cheery. "What's all the hubbub, then?"
She glanced at him with a distracted half-smile, and returned her attention to the books.
Colin was staring at the cards spread on the table. "I thought she was playing solitaire, but that's not it at all, is it?"
"She was practicing cartomancy," Arthur explained. "The Tarot. A means of divining the future. And methinks she did not care for what she saw."
"Yes!" Una spun toward them. "I felt a strangeness earlier tonight. I still do. I hoped the cards would help me make some sense of it."
Arthur took one of the chairs, the Querent's chair. "Tell me," he invited.
She hesitated, then sat opposite him. "Something evil is about to happen. The world we know is changing in ways too terrible to comprehend. We are on the threshold of a new age, a dark age. There will be trial and conflict, upheaval."
She touched two of the cards. "These two ... the Emperor, reversed, and the Queen of Swords ... I have a very strong impression that they are linked, they are real."
"What do they mean?" Arthur prompted, ignoring Colin's incredulous snort.
"A man, a strong-willed powerful man who might fear the loss of his inheritance, who risks battle out of petulance. And a woman, beautiful but ruthless. Their forces are joined."
Arthur nodded. "What else?"
"The Six of Swords, reversed, warns of no immediate solution. The Seven of Swords is a card of theft, of ill-made plans gone awry. Together, at the heart of this reading ..." she trailed off and shook her head.
"Oh, come now," Colin said, chuckling. "All this doom and gloom!" He indicated the books. "Omens and prophecies and evil spells -- small wonder you're so worked up. Here, try something light-hearted for a change!" He took a newspaper out of his briefcase.
Una looked steadily at Arthur. "The Tower means change, catastrophe. Normally, it can be for a good end, but in conjunction with these other cards ..." she touched them one by one, "The Chariot, reversed, showing unethical victories and decadent desires. The Moon, a card of magic and misfortune. Here, the Ace of Wands, indicates some journey or adventure or new enterprise that shall touch us. The Ten of Swords, reversed, our hope, is for the overthrow of evil forces, and the courage to rise again."
"How about this, then?" Colin pressed on, determined. He rustled the paper, then read aloud. "Rooster lays egg! Soho farmer H. Cabot was stunned to discover --"
Una gasped and jerked around in her chair, scattering cards to the floor. Arthur shot to his feet.
Colin, unnerved by their sudden movements, dropped the paper.
Griff, taken aback, picked it up and returned it to him, then cast a questioning look at Arthur.
"Read that again," the once and future king commanded.
"Ah, yes, very well," Colin stammered, then found the page. " ... stunned to discover one of his roosters setting on an egg -- I say, there's a photo, if you'd care to --"
"Later," Arthur said.
"All right ... hmm, where was I? Streatley-on-Thames veterinary surgeon W. Knowlton is astounded, having examined the fowl and found no logical reason for the behavior. 'Roosters haven't the equipment,' Knowlton stated in a recent interview, 'and in fifteen years of veterinary medicine, I've never known one to go broody.' The strange situation isn't upsetting Mr. Cabot, however, who has taken to charging admission to his henhouse."
He finished the article, but rather than seeing amusement on the faces of the others, he saw concern on Arthur's and a stark fear on Una's that set him back a step.
"Here, now," he said. "That was supposed to cheer you up, not make you worse!"
"We must speak to this farmer!" Arthur announced.
"I suppose I could make some inquiries ..." Colin began, then broke off. "What am I saying? It's only a chicken, for mercy's sake! What is going on?"
"This may be no ordinary chicken!" Una insisted.
Griff snapped his fingers. "I say! You're not thinking what I think you're thinking, are you? Not that old story about basilisks!"
"Excuse me?" Colin said.
Una nodded and went for the bookshelf again. "In olden times, there was a great war between good and evil. The side of evil created many monstrous beings to serve as their soldiers. Most of these had humble beginnings, but were corrupted and made over into terrible beasts. One of those creatures, legend says, was a simple chick. The evil powers cast a spell upon it and sent it to dwell among the forces of good. It seemed just an ordinary rooster, except for its behavior. It did not crow, did not seek the attention of hens. One day, it disappeared, and was later found sitting on a clutch of eggs."
She flipped pages until she came to an illustration of something that resembled a cross between a chicken and a snake, with a long serpentine tail, feathery wings, and hen's claws.
"From those eggs, strange and deadly creatures emerged. Basilisks, they were called, or cockatrices. Their very gaze was sometimes fatal, their bite a lethal poison. They wreaked widespread destruction on the soldiers of good before the last of them was finally destroyed."
"You can't expect us to believe ..." Colin stopped when he saw that he was outnumbered in terms of who was believing what.
He sighed. "I still think you've gotten yourself all worked up over nothing. Probably a prank. Some half-wit stuck an egg under a rooster so the farmer could turn a few extra pounds. But if it makes you feel better, I'll start making some calls."
* * * * *
"Old man," Demona groaned, rubbing her temples. "Did you have to be so cryptic? I'm surprised you didn't write everything in Quatrains! What's the good of being a prophet, if you make it so no one can get any sense out of your predictions?"
She returned to the start of Nostradamus' journal and began skimming, looking for any specific passages that might help her understand.
"A great danger," she mused. She thought again of Michel's words and repeated them softly, bringing goose-bumps to her skin. "... daughter assumes two forms ..."
She didn't like thinking about Angela alongside all these other dark and disturbing thoughts, so she forced her eyes back to the journal. They fell upon the phrase "egg of doom."
Demona hissed in surprise, then pawed through her stack of magazines. Here and Now went flying and she snatched up the tabloid.
"Prize-Winning English Rooster Lays an Egg!"
She went back and forth between the article and the journal, her fear swelling until it was ready to pop like a balloon.
"And I thought the Quarrymen were trouble!" she said. "They're nothing, if this is true!"
She got up, half-ready to pack her bags and book a flight to some far-off tropical island. Then her shoulders sagged in defeat.
"That's the trouble with Armageddon," she muttered. "Nowhere to hide."
Her thoughts turned again to Angela. Angela, the single bright star shining in the hollow darkness of a long, painful existence. The terror that touched her was not for herself, but for her young and treasured daughter. Angela had no gift/curse of immortality to see her through whatever dangers the world might bring. The pendant Demona had given her was gone, destroyed -- perhaps another?
She seized on that brief hope until it flickered and died, knowing there was no time to craft another pendant even if she'd had the rare materials readily on hand.
Angela's own talent for sorcery, then? She had it, Demona knew she did.
"No," Demona murmured. "Not untutored, not without training."
She sighed, reluctantly admitting to herself that even if Angela were the greatest sorceress in all the world, it would be little help against this threat.
"I have to get her out of the city," she said. "Abduct her, if necessary, and take her ..."
Take her where?
She slammed her fist on the edge of the desk. "Nowhere to hide!" she repeated. "Even if I could get her away from the castle, there's still nowhere to hide! Except ... perhaps ... Avalon? She might not listen to me, but Goliath will. He could order her to go, and she would obey. He'll hear me. I know he will!"
Before she could change her mind, with no thought of what reception might welcome her at the Eyrie Building, Demona leapt out the window and spread her wings.
* * * * *
"I've got his number," Colin said. "First thing in the morning, I'll --"
"Now," Una declared. "Call him now."
"It's the middle of the night!" he protested.
She lowered her head, the tip of her silver-sheathed horn looking very pointed and very sharp. Her dark eyes regarded him seriously. "Now."
"Better do it, mate," Griff advised. "I've seen that look before, and I'd not want to be in your shoes if you cross her!"
"You're all so keen on predictions," Colin said as he began to dial. "Well, here's another for you. He'll give me an earful of abuse for waking him, and then he'll hang up."
Una folded her arms across her chest, unsympathetic and implacable.
At the other end of the line, the phone began to ring. Colin counted ten, and was about to give up, when a sleep-slurred voice mumbled, "Hello?"
"Mr. Cabot? Terribly sorry to disturb you at this hour --"
"What hour is that, then?" There came the rustling of a man turning over in bed, the clink and clatter as he picked up a clock from a nightstand, and then an oath that made Colin hold the receiver away from his ear.
"Like I said, sir, I'm terribly sorry --"
"This had better be good!"
"It's about your chicken." He winced even as he spoke the words, wishing he'd put it better.
"Is it! Well, let me tell you something! I've had it up to here with people trying to buy him! You can come and look and pay your admission just like everyone else, but he's not for sale! And if you think you can get him some other way, you should talk to the last bloke what tried to get into my henhouse without my knowing! I filled his sit-upon with birdshot and set my dogs on him, and I'll do the same to anyone else that tries!"
"Sir, I --"
"Good night!" The phone was slammed down.
The idiot buzz of a dead line hummed from the receiver. Colin hung up and gave an I-told-you-so look to Una and Arthur.
"There, are we done yet?" he asked.
"No," Arthur said. "I think we should talk to Emrys. Griff, you and Colin go find him and bring him here. Una and I will see what more we can find in the library."
* * * * *
AN UNDIVULGED LOCATION OUTSIDE OF LONDON:
"You ... failed?"
It was spoken softly, but even if it had been bellowed, it couldn't have upset the young man more.
"Sit down, Peake, and give me your report."
"If it's all the same to you, sir, I'd rather not sit."
One eyebrow arched. "Why not?"
"I've been ... shot, sir."
"I see." A hand moved into a circle of light, picked up a pen. There was a ring on the first finger of that hand, a gold ring in the shape of a pyramid, with an onyx oval in the center. "Shot, you say?"
"Have you seen the medical personnel?"
"And how did you come to be shot, Peake?"
The young man gulped. "I was halfway through a window, sir, and the farmer ... shot the part of me that wasn't inside."
The pen was set down with a decisive click. "You don't need me to tell you how disappointed I am in you. It was a chicken, after all, not the Maltese Falcon! Mr. Duval is going to be highly displeased when he hears of this."
The young man quailed. "Give me another chance, sir!"
"After you've botched the job once? The only way you'll get back in that henhouse, Peake, is as assistant to an agent who knows what he's doing! And failure will not be an option, do I make myself clear?"
* * * * *
"I have been looking forward to tonight," Goliath rumbled, his voice rich with promise.
Elisa brushed a wayward strand of dark hair from her face and looked up at him. "So have I."
"We have so little time to ourselves ..."
Broadway cleared his throat. "Uh, Goliath?"
"Yes!" he snapped, then saw Brooklyn, Sata, and Hudson all gathered behind him. He softened his tone. "What is it?"
"Company." Brooklyn pointed skyward, at the silhouette of a female form against the moon.
"Demona!" Goliath's lip curled, and he cast a quick look around, relieved to see that Angela was nowhere in sight.
"Oh, great!" Elisa muttered.
She landed in their midst, and silently took in the varying degrees of hostile stares. Her chin came up firmly. "Goliath, I must speak with you."
"You have no business here," he replied.
"I would not have come if it wasn't important!"
"Don't listen to her, Goliath," Elisa said, taking his arm.
"He must listen!" Demona insisted desperately.
"He's heard enough from you," Brooklyn said.
"Enough, all of you." Goliath regarded Demona, who met his gaze with earnest urgency. "I will hear her out. Alone."
Elisa opened her mouth to protest, then closed it, her eyes smoldering.
"I will only be a moment," he promised her.
She nodded curtly, and joined the others, leaving him and Demona with the courtyard to themselves.
"You're making no friends by coming here," he growled.
"That doesn't matter. I have to warn you, Goliath! Terrible things are on the horizon!"
"What could be more terrible than what we've already faced?"
"You have to send Angela back to Avalon. There, perhaps, she will be safe! She'll go, if you tell her to. Please, Goliath! If not for my sake, then for hers! For our daughter! Send her to Avalon!"
"I will not force her to go, and she would not leave her clan to save herself. A clan stands and falls together, Demona, or have you forgotten?"
She ignored the barb. "All I want in the world is for Angela to be safe!"
"Safe, with her clan, where she belongs," he said firmly.
Demona flung her hands in the air. "I knew it was a bad idea to come here! I knew you would refuse, but I had to try!" A sudden tear welled, and she dashed it angrily away. "Go on, then! Be blind, await your fate. But remember, I did try!"
She spun and ran from him, diving into the night.
He watched her go, scowling.
Elisa approached. "What was that all about?"
"I don't know. She seemed genuinely upset --"
"She's deceived you before."
"Still, this time there was something different about her. I wonder if I should have listened to her."
She gaped at him, stunned.
* * * * *
"All this fuss over one bad egg," Emrys chuckled, pushing up his sleeves. They promptly fell back down again, but he didn't notice.
"I see you've explained things to him?" Arthur asked Griff and Colin.
They nodded. "Just as you told it to me," Colin said. He still looked skeptical, but resigned to being along for the ride.
"We'll soon take care of it," Emrys said. He raised his arms, flexed his fingers. "I'll turn it back to a regular chicken, and that will be that."
"Good," Arthur said, pleased.
Emrys closed his eyes in concentration. The clock ticked several times, and then he opened them in dismay. "Slight problem, though," he admitted, crestfallen. "To do such a thing from this distance would take more power, more control, than I currently possess."
Una sighed. "I feared as much. None of my magic offers a solution, either."
"Well, there must be something we can do," Griff said.
"Not this night," Una said, as the clock began to chime. "It is nearly dawn."
Shortly thereafter, both gargoyles were stone. Arthur, face lined with weariness, turned to Colin and Emrys. "Who's up for a drive in the country?"
"I'll get my hat," Colin said.
* * * * *
Arthur consulted the map. "The Cabot farm should be just ahead."
"One consolation, arriving here this early, we should miss the crowds," Colin said. "If they're even taking admission at this ungodly hour."
"Farmers rise with the sun, my friend."
"You'll forgive me if I let you do the talking. Wouldn't want him to recognize my voice as the chap who woke him in the dead of night."
Colin turned onto a narrow lane as they left the village of Streatley-on-Thames. Moments later, a small, neatly-kept farm came into view.
A tall, lanky young man in an oversized red sweatshirt watched them as they drove up. "Help you gentlemen?"
"We're looking for the Cabot place," Arthur said. "Would this happen to be it?"
"That it would. Are you here to see Uncle Henry?"
Arthur grinned. "Actually, we saw the article in the paper, and were more curious about the chicken."
The young man nodded agreeably. "Come all the way from London for that, did you? Must be more boring in the city than I've been told."
"Fred! Who are you yapping at?" A stocky man with thinning brown hair approached, wiping his hands on a rag.
"Tourists, Uncle. They've come about Woostie."
"Woostie!" Colin groaned.
The man heard him, and his bristly brows crawled warningly over one another. "My grandson named him, and I'll brook no sassing about it if you want to see what you've come to see."
"Of course," Arthur said smoothly. "I understand there's an admission fee ...?"
Mr. Cabot's expression cleared at the sight of the money, and he motioned for them to park alongside the barn.
Chickens ran clucking every which way as Mr. Cabot led them toward the henhouse. His mood, now that he'd been paid, was expansive and far more proud than seemed justified by the occasion.
"I knew Woostie was special the moment I set eyes on him," he boasted. "Said as much to my wife, I did. And now, he's gone and made us famous!"
"So he actually laid the egg?" Arthur pressed.
"That he did, and has been setting on it ever since, as devoted a brooder as you could hope for." He unlocked a shiny new padlock, pushed open the creaky door, and let them into the low-ceilinged henhouse.
The floor was littered with loose feathers, seed, and eventual seed by-product. One wall was devoted to a three-tiered row of nests, some of which had fluffed-out hens perched atop them. A small window had a recently-added board nailed over it.
"There he is," Cabot said, beaming. "Woostie the Egg-Laying Rooster!"
The rooster in question blinked at the men and shifted position, snuggling down more firmly onto the nest. Woostie was white with no markings to speak of, a single red comb waggling atop his head.
"Not exactly the fowl harbinger of doom, is he?" Colin whispered to Arthur.
"Shh." Arthur watched intently as Cabot coaxed Woostie up enough to reveal the smooth pale curve of an egg beneath him.
"I was thinking I should have some T-shirts or bumper stickers made up," Cabot said. "But then it came to me that the egg might hatch by then, and I'd be out the expense."
"How near would you say the egg is to hatching?" Arthur asked, affecting just the right tone of mild curiosity.
"Any day now, I should think. Lady Jane there, she laid her clutch about the same time as Woostie, and hers hatched out two days ago."
"Thank you, Mr. Cabot. This has been quite the educational experience!"
Cabot shook their hands and followed them back to the car, reminding them to tell their friends all about it.
"Where to now?" Colin asked as they pulled away from the farm and headed down the lane. "Home and bed, I most sincerely hope?"
"After a brief stop at the market," Arthur said.
Two hours later, their brief stop had taken them to every marketplace between Cabot's place and London, before Arthur found what he was looking for.
"You wouldn't think a white chicken would be that much of a challenge!" he said as he paid for his purchase. "Oh, and Colin, be a good fellow and pick up a dozen eggs, would you?"
The man selling chickens lifted Arthur's choice by the feet and slapped it down across a chopping block. "I'll just off with his head, then, shall I?"
"No!" Arthur and Colin shouted as one.
He paused and looked at them both carefully. "No?"
"We need it alive," Arthur explained.
Now the careful look was tinged with wariness. "Not for some weird rite, is it? One does read such strange things in the papers these days --"
Arthur laughed heartily. "Not at all! It's a gift! For my friend here's son! A pet!"
"Oh. Well, that's all right, then." He deftly tucked the rooster's head under its wing, putting it to sleep, and popped it in a sack. "There you are!"
"My son?" Colin asked as they headed for the car with their packages. "On-the-spot improvisation?"
"I couldn't very well tell him what we're really going to do with it!"
"Now, home and bed?"
"Yes, now," Arthur said, putting the bagged chicken on the floor behind his seat.
* * * * *
"If he won't take steps to protect our daughter," Demona said, "I will!"
She picked up the phone and dialed, then waited impatiently, drumming her talons on the desk.
"Candice? Sorry to call you at home, but something's come up. A ... personal emergency, needing my immediate undivided attention. So I'll be working from home for the next few weeks."
She paused, listened. "I'll check in when I can, but unless someone attempts a hostile takeover, I don't want to be disturbed. So keep an eye on Rutherford while I'm gone!" The jest came out flat, but her assistant laughed dutifully all the same.
She briefed Candice on a few minor matters that might require attention, and then hung up with a sigh of relief. She couldn't focus her mind very well when she was constantly distracted with the demands of her corporation.
"Now, then," she said to herself. "I don't dare approach Angela in person, not yet. The letter will explain things, and once she's had a chance to look over the book, I can contact her, begin teaching her."
She touched the tip of her pen to the paper and began to write.
Enclosed, you will find a book of spells and a primer of the most important magical skills I know. You have the talent within you, just as I do. For your own safety, and that of the clan, you must learn to use it.
There isn't time to teach you everything, but it is my hope that the information in here will help you prepare for the troubles ahead.
It was a mistake to go to Goliath directly. It didn't matter that I was trying to warn him, trying to help.
I can't tell you exactly what is going to happen, because I don't know for certain. I only know that it is liable to be worse than anything you've previously faced.
A magical threat must be met by a magical response. It is the only way. Please, dear daughter, be careful, and be strong.
She signed the letter with a flourish and set it aside. A moment later, she picked up and empty journal and began to write. Something was nagging at her.
Demona picked up the letter and re-read it. "This won't do," she decided, crumpling the sheet of stationary and casting it into the fireplace. It caught quickly and a moment later it was nothing more than a memory. "First the primer. Then I'll figure out a way to tell Angela."
With a new sense of resolve she opened the journal and began to write. Page after page filled with flowing script. So intent was she on her work that sunrise caught her by surprise.
* * * * *
"So, it comes to this, does it?" Griff said, amused. "Arthur Pendragon, King of the Britains, reduced to a common chicken-thief?"
"Do you have a better plan?" Arthur challenged.
"You must admit," Una said, "it is bold. And clever. And for the best interest of the farmer and his family, not to mention the rest of us."
"Yes, but stealing ..." Griff protested.
"Replacing," Arthur corrected. "He'll never know."
"Well, all right," Griff said. "But I'm going with you."
* * * * *
AN UNDIVULGED LOCATION OUTSIDE OF LONDON:
Anson Sharp said, "Peake, we're going to do this and we're going to do it right."
"Yes, sir. No ... fowl ups."
"Knock it off, Peake! You already fumbled once and they've sent me in to pull your bacon out of the fire. Don't make it any worse."
Chastened, he muttered, "No, sir."
"Good. How's our passenger doing?"
Peake turned in his seat to look at the wire cage riding in back. A white rooster huddled at the rear of the cage, staring reproachfully at him.
"He's fine, sir."
"Those eggs haven't spilled, have they? I don't want a mess all over my upholstery."
Peake checked. "No, sir."
"I tell you, Peake, you're lucky they gave you another shot at this one. We're not taking any chances it might be a hoax. If it is, well, we'll worry about that later." Sharp grinned, a tight, humorless grin. "And I wouldn't want to be that farmer if it is a hoax!"
* * * * *
"Are you sure this is the best way to go about it?" Griff asked, shaking hay chaff from his wings.
A cow lowed mournfully in a stall, and a horse whickered softly, as if in reply. The other denizens of the barn paid no attention to the intruders.
Arthur pried the end of the crowbar between the boards and pushed. "He had the door locked, the window nailed shut. But I saw that the boards between the henhouse and the barn were loose."
* * * * *
"Peake, the lockpicks," Sharp whispered. "I'll have this door open in no time."
* * * * *
"There," Arthur said. "That's wide enough for me. You wait here, and pass me the rooster and the egg once I'm through."
* * * * *
"All right! Come on, Peake, we're going in."
* * * * *
Arthur found Woostie in the row of brooding hens. He slid a hand underneath, into the warm feathery darkness, and removed the egg.
He tucked it in his pocket and replaced it with one from the carton Colin had bought at market, then bent to open the sack holding the other rooster.
The henhouse door creaked open, and two men stood there.
"What the --?" one of them said, and flicked a flashlight on Arthur. "Put down the chicken, pal!"
Arthur looked right and left, at the two roosters dangling from his hands. "Which one?"
"Don't get smart with me!"
"I say, Arthur, something going on?" Griff poked his beak through the hole in the wall.
The other man, the younger of the two, cried out in alarm and dropped a wire cage. The cage door sprang open on impact, ejecting an indignant white rooster.
It flapped crazily across the dirty floor and pecked the first thing it ran into. Which, as luck would have it, was Arthur's ankle. He stifled a pained outburst.
At that moment, the man with the flashlight stepped forward and snatched the lone egg out of Woostie's nest, then made a grab for one of the roosters.
"Peake! Heads up!"
He tossed the egg to the younger man, who was still staring in horror at Griff -- who was wedged in the hole and muttering fearful curses.
Peake saw it coming, juggled it and caught it with a small whoop of victory. Then the enraged escapee scored a direct hit on his ankle, and he lost his grip.
The egg popped up, hovered for a moment in mid-air, and then landed on one of the hens. She hopped up in a torrent of scolding clucks, and the egg rolled into her nest, amid five others.
"Get that egg!" the older man ordered, still trying to wrest roosters from Arthur.
Peake tried to oblige. "Which one is it?"
Arthur broke free, and the other man stumbled over the dropped cage, slamming into the row of wooden frames that held the nests. Three eggs tumbled out, splatting on the floor in a smeary yellow and white mess.
"It better not be one of those!" the man shouted.
Arthur promptly slipped in the yolk and fell. His hard landing jarred both roosters from his grip.
Now all the hens were clucking up a storm. Griff freed himself, tearing loose another board as he did so. The three roosters, all identical and extremely annoyed, flew at each other in a flurry of claws and beaks.
"I got it!" Peake shouted, holding up an egg.
From outside: "What the blue mercy is going on in there?"
"The farmer!" Arthur and Peake chorused.
Griff snagged one rooster. "Is this him?"
"Out! Now!" the older man said to Peake, picking up another rooster, as the third one and a flock of hens ran squawking out the open door, poultry in motion.
"It'll have to do!" Arthur pushed Griff back toward the hole in the wall. "That way!"
Barking dogs could be heard above the chaos now, and then it was all drowned out by a shotgun blast. The front wall of the henhouse was peppered with birdshot. Peake covered his face with his hands and charged out, followed by the other man.
Arthur and Griff scrambled into the hayloft. Arthur stuffed the rooster in the sack, not bothering to put it to sleep, and tied a knot in the top.
"Egg?" Griff asked.
"In my pocket."
"Good enough. Hold tight!"
Arthur slung his arms around Griff's neck, and they jumped out the loft door and away.
* * * * *
Una blinked at the state they were in -- covered with hay and grit and dried egg and feathers. "What --?"
"No time to explain, I'm afraid," Griff said. "It's starting to hatch."
She led them swiftly to the cellar room, where she and Emrys and Colin had assembled a collection of mirrors and smoked-glass goggles.
"To avoid its gaze," she said.
"Good thinking!" Arthur gingerly deposited the egg on a heap of cloth in the center of the table. Already, minute cracks had appeared on its surface.
Griff set down the chicken near the egg. The rooster immediately jumped down and made a break for it, foiled only by Emrys' quick closing of the door at the top of the stairs.
Una spoke words of power, creating a glowing ring of magical light around the egg. "This ward will imprison the evil, I hope!"
They took up mirrors and circled the table with their backs to it, angling the glass so they could see the egg. It rocked, and a large piece of shell broke off. Then the whole thing split in half, and something tumbled out.
It was yellow-grey, coated with a gelid mass, with scabrous chitinous talons that scrabbled at the air ...
"It's hideous!" Colin gasped. "Kill it now, while it's still weak!"
Una exhaled in exasperation and turned, lowering her mirror and nullifying her wards. "It's a chick." She picked up an edge of the cloth and began rubbing away the remaining egg-slime. "Only a chick, perfectly normal."
"Peep!" said the chick.
"Are you sure you got the right egg?" Griff demanded.
"Yes!" Arthur said. "I put it in my pocket before everything started.
Cleaned, the chick was not the innocuous ball of fluff they expected from cartoons, but was still recognizably a plain chicken.
They all looked at it.
Then at the rooster, scratching in the corner.
"Well," Emrys finally said, "consider it practice for next time."
"If this was practice," Arthur said, "I think we could all use a bit more."
Emrys nodded. "I agree. This might have been a false alarm, but we might not be so lucky again. We should prepare ourselves for whatever ill times lie ahead."
"You can start with this," Una said, smiling, as she handed the youth a book of spells.
"Look there," Griff chuckled. "He thinks you're his mum, Una!"
* * * * *
AN UNDIVULGED LOCATION OUTSIDE OF LONDON:
The man with the gold pyramid ring held an egg between his forefinger and thumb. He moved it in front of a candle.
"What is the meaning of this?"
Sharp raised his eyebrows. "Is something wrong?"
"I'll say something's wrong. You've brought me the wrong egg!" He cracked it on the edge of his desk and raw yolk dribbled out.
"What about the rooster?" Peake asked.
They stared. Woostie had crawled atop a bowl of fake silver-gilt fruit, and was rustling and settling down atop the cold rounded objects, making contended noises.
"What we have here, gentlemen," the man with the ring said wearily, "seems to be nothing more than a chicken with gender issues."
"So it was a hoax after all!" Sharp said with unmistakable relief.
"Hoax or not," the man replied, fixing the two agents with a steely glare, "it is still considered a failure, and a black mark on both your records!"
* * * * *
A FARM OUTSIDE SURREY:
The rooster and the toad hunkered down on either side of the dung pile, watching over the clutch of eggs.
A small shape crawled over the heap, dragging a scaled tail behind it. Cold reptilian eyes stared unblinking at its parent creatures, then turned to greet its siblings as they emerged, one by one, from their shells.
* * * * *
From "The Book of Weird," Barbara Ninde Byfield:
"Confusion and uncertainty surround what knowledge there is of Basilisks, not for lack of the beast but because, of those who have come upon them, few have lived to tell the tale."
"... his look and breath are fatal; it is thought that even the direct sight of him will kill."
"Do not forget that the touch of his body splits rocks asunder; there is sure to be uncertain footing in his vicinity."
* have scaled bodies of serpents
* make loud hisses
* have feet and claws of fowl
* have ponderously long tails
* are hatched from cock's eggs matured on dunghills
* have faces of cocks
* have spotted and regal crests
* have wings of fowl
* cannot fly
* are hatched by serpents instead of toads
From "Encyclopedia of Legendary Creatures," Tom McGowen:
"People of the Middle Ages believed that once in a great while, when the positions of the stars were just right -- a rooster would lay an egg. Then along would come a snake, to coil around the egg, or a toad to squat upon the egg, keeping it warm and helping it hatch. When it hatched, out came a fearful creature called a Basilisk."