“Fight!” the irrepressible Mugza yelled, and flung himself on Podrang, only to be felled by a well-placed foul blow.
Crockett’s throat felt dry. He raised his voice, trying to keep it steady.
“Your Majesty! If you’ll just wait a minute—”
“You mushroom-nosed spawn of degenerate black bats,” the enraged Emperor shrieked at the top of his voice. “I’ll enchant you all! I’ll turn you into naiads! Strike, will you! Stop me from having my mud bath, will you? By Kronos, Nid, Ymir and Loki, you’ll have cause to regret this! Yahi” he finished, inarticulate with fury.
“Quick!” Crockett whispered to Cm and Brocide Buhn. “Get between him and the door, so he can’t get hold of the Cockatrice Eggs.”
“They’re not in the throne room,” Cm Magru explained unhelpfully. “Podrang just grabs them out of the air.”
“Oh!” the harassed Crockett groaned. At that strategic moment Brockle Buhn’s worst instincts overcame her. With a loud shriek of delight she knocked Crockett down, kicked him twice and sprang for the Emperor.
She got in one good blow before Podrang hammered her atop the head with one gnarled fist, and instantly her turnip-shaped skull seemed to prolapse into her torso. The Emperor, bright purple with fury, reached out—and a yellow crystal appeared in his hand.
It was one of the Cockatrice Eggs.
Bellowing like a musth elephant, Podrang hurled it. A circle of twenty feet was instantly cleared among the massed gnomes. But it wasn’t vacant. Dozens of bats rose and fluttered about, adding to the confusion.
Confusion became chaos. With yells of delighted fury, the gnomes rolled forward toward their ruler. “Fight!” the cry thundered out, reverberating from the roof. “Fight!”
Podrang snatched another crystal from nothingness—a green one, this time. Thirty-seven gnomes were instantly transformed into earthworms, and were trampled. The Emperor went down under an avalanche of attackers, who abruptly disappeared, turned into mice by another of the Cockatrice Eggs.
Crockett saw one of the crystals sailing toward him, and ran like hell. He found a hiding place behind a stalagmite, and from there watched the carnage. It was definitely a sight worth seeing, though it could not be recommended to a nervous man.
The Cockatrice Eggs exploded in an incessant stream. Whenever that happened, the spell spread out for twenty feet or more before losing its efficacy. Those caught on the fringes of the circle were only partially transformed. Crockett saw one gnome with a mole’s head. Another was a worm from the waist down. Another was—rclp! Some of the spell patterns were not, apparently, drawn even from known mythology.
The fury of noise that filled the cavern brought stalactites crashing down incessantly from the roof. Every so often Podrang’s battered head would reappear, only to go down again as more gnomes sprang to the attack—to be enchanted. Mice, moles, bats and other things filled the Council Chamber. Crockett shut his eyes and prayed.
He opened them in time to see Podrang snatch a red crystal out of the air, pause and then deposit it gently behind him. A purple Cockatrice Egg came next. This crashed against the floor, and thirty gnomes turned into tree toads.
Apparently only Podrang was immune to his own magic. The thousands who had filled the cavern were rapidly thinning, for the Cockatrice Eggs seemed to come from an inexhaustible source of supply. How long would it be before Crockett’s own turn came? He couldn’t hide here forever.
His gaze riveted to the red crystal Podrang had so carefully put down. He was remembering something—the Cockatrice Egg that would transform gnomes into human beings. Of course! Podrang wouldn’t use that, since the very sight of men was so distressing to gnomes. If Crockett could get his hands on that red crystal .
He tried it, sneaking through the confusion, sticking close to the wall of the cavern, till he neared Podrang. The Emperor was swept away by another onrush of gnomes, who abruptly changed into dormice, and Crockett got the red jewel. It felt abnormally cold.
He almost broke it at his feet before a thought stopped and chilled him. He was far under Dornsef Mountain, in a labyrinth of caverns. No human being could find his way out. But a gnome could, with the aid of his strange tropism to daylight.
A bat flew against Crockett’s face. He was almost certain it squeaked, ‘What a fight!” in a parody of Brockle Buhn’s voice, but he couldn’t be sure. He cast one glance over the cavern before turning to flee.
It was a complete and utter chaos. Bats, moles, worms, ducks, eels and a dozen other species crawled, flew, ran, bit, shrieked, snarled, grunted, whooped and croaked all over the place. From all directions the remaining gnomes—only about a thousand now—were converging on a surging mound of gnomes that marked where the Emperor was. As Crockett stared the mound dissolved, and a number of gecko lizards ran to safety.
“Strike, will you!” Podrang bellowed. “I’ll show you!”
Crockett turned and fled. The throne room was deserted, and he ducked into the first tunnel. There, he concentrated on thinking of daylight. His left ear felt compressed. He sped on till he saw a side passage on the left, slanting up, and turned into it at top speed. The muffled noise of combat died behind him.
He clutched the red Cockatrice Egg tightly. What had gone wrong? Podrang should have stopped to parley. Only—only he hadn’t. A singularly bad-tempered and short-sighted gnome. He probably wouldn’t stop till he’d depopulated his entire kingdom. At the thought Crockett hurried along faster.
The tropism guided him. Sometimes he took the wrong tunnel, but always, whenever he thought of daylight, he would feel the nearest daylight pressing against him. His short, bowed legs were surprisingly hardy.
Then he heard someone running after him.
He didn’t turn. The sizzling blast of profanity that curled his ears told him the identity of the pursuer. Podrang had no doubt cleared the Council Chamber, to the last gnome, and was now intending to tear Crockett apart pinch by pinch. That was only one of the things he promised.
Crockett ran. He shot along the tunnel like a bullet. The tropism guided him, but he was terrified lest he reach a dead end. The clamor from behind grew louder. If Crockett hadn’t known better, he would have imagined that an army of gnomes pursued him.
Faster! Faster! But now Podrang was in sight. His roars shook the very walls. Crockett sprinted, rounded a corner, and saw a wall of flaming light—a circle of it, in the distance. It was daylight, as it appeared to gnomic eyes.
He could not reach it in time. Podrang was too close. A few more seconds, and those gnarled, terrible hands would close on Crockett’s throat.
Then Crockett remembered the Cockatrice Egg. If he transformed himself into a man now, Podrang would not dare touch him. And he was almost at the tunnel’s mouth.
He stopped, whirling and lifted the jewel. Simultaneously the Emperor, seeing his intention, reached out with both hands, and snatched six or seven of the crystals out of the air. He threw them directly at Crockett, a fusillade of rainbow colors.
But Crockett had already slammed the red gem down on the rock at his feet. There was an ear-splitting crash. Jewels seemed to burst all around Crockett—but the red one had been broken first.
The roof fell in.
A short while later, Crockett dragged himself painfully from the debris. A glance showed him that the way to the outer world was still open. And—thank heaven!—daylight looked normal again, not that flaming blaze of eye-searing white.
He looked toward the depths of the tunnel, and froze. Podrang was emerging, with some difficulty, from a mound of rubble. His low curses had lost none of their fire.
Crockett turned to run, stumbled over a rock, and fell flat. As he sprang up, he saw that Podrang had seen him.
The gnome stood transfixed for a moment. Then he yelled, spun on his heel, and fled into the darkness. He was gone. The sound of his rapid footfalls died.
Crockett swallowed with difficulty. Gnomes are afraid of men—whew! That had been a close squeak. But now.
He was more relieved than he had thought. Subconsciously he must have been wondering whether the spell would work, since Podrang had flung six or seven Cockatrice Eggs at him. But he had smashed the red one first. Even the strange, silvery gnome-light was gone. The depths of the cave were utterly black—and silent.
Crockett headed for the entrance. He pulled himself out, luxuriating in the warmth of the afternoon sun. He was near the foot of Dornsef Mountain, in a patch of brambles. A hundred feet away a farmer was plowing one terrace of a field.
Crockett stumbled toward him. As he approached, the man turned. He stood transfixed for a moment. Then he yelled, spun on his heel, and fled.
His shrieks drifted back up the mountain as Crockett, remembering the Cockatrice Eggs, forced himself to look down at his own body.
Then he screamed too. But the sound was not one that could ever have emerged from a human throat.
Still, that was natural enough—under the circumstances.