by Trevor Hopkins

Without conscious thought - at least on my part - all three of us rushed over to the now near-invisible hemisphere. There was a moment's pause out of a re-emergent instinct for self-preservation that caused us to turn and check Madonna's reaction. She seemed unperturbed; presumably she was quietly confident that the resistance of the shield was proof against anything a few puny Goblins might try. We pressed our noses to the glass like children outside a sweetshop.

Within the protective casing were seven eggs: not oval eggshells like that of a chicken but almost spherical in shape. Each was two or so feet in diameter, each was set in its own individual shallow depression in the floor, and each depression was lined with one of the red-tinged windows into the deep fires far below us all. The shells themselves were translucent, flecked with dark speckles and veined delicately. Being lit from below, it was possible to see indistinct dark shapes twisting intermittently within, and I could even see the occasional distortion of the soft leathery container caused by a particularly energetic movement.

Doonira pressed her face to the transparent protection over the nest - there was no other adequate word to describe the enclosure - and stared with intense fascination, her eyes wide and shining with emotion, almost in a state of rapture. Bragrum and I stood one either side, equally engrossed. The flickering red light and the movement inside the eggs were hypnotic. Somehow we just could not tear our eyes away.

I have no idea how long we stood there, transfixed. A minute or an eternity later, we jerked backwards when one of the eggs rocked in place, the unexpected violence of the movement dragging us back to what passed as reality hereabouts.

"They have been called 'Living Jewels'," Madonna said gently, adding more softly as if speaking only to herself, "Although I haven't heard that particular turn of phrase for a very long time."

Again, there was no movement, no gesture from the Old One, but the transparent cover misted up, exactly as if a thin film of milk had been poured over it from a hidden source at the top. The clouding thickened quicker than it takes to explain it, swiftly returning it to the smooth opaque condition which we had first experienced.

There was a long moment of silent contemplation, broken eventually by Doonira.

"When will they hatch?"

The academic Doctor Quaig seemed determined to push the bounds of politeness - long regarded as important in dealings with the Old Ones - to the absolute limit in the interests of scientific enquiry. Or whatever it was that drove her. But Madonna seemed inclined to humour us. Her gaze twisted towards the ceiling for a second, then turned back to face us all with that expression on her face I had previously, and somewhat tentatively, associated with smiling.

"Our young grow quickly, for all that we live a long time," the Old Ones said patiently, "Now the eldest of my children tells me she will be ready to break out of her shell in a little over three days time."

"You can talk to them already?" Doonira asked breathlessly, already ready with a follow-up question.

"Oh yes," Madonna said, sounding genuinely surprised, "A few days after I laid the eggs, I was already able to sense the new minds forming in their shells. Now all of them are fully awake, and I have been teaching them the basic tenets of our existence."

"Wonderful"!" Doonira gushed. Bragrum's grin widened still further.

"That it is, deeply so," Madonna said, raising her voice and adding an extra measure of authority to her sub-sonic rumble, "But now that you know my all my secrets, or at least some of them, I have to decide what to do with you two."

There was yet another moment of stunned silence. It suddenly occurred to me - and, I suspected, Doonira too - that the reason that the Old One had been so forthcoming with her answers was because neither of us could expect to leave here in any state to be able to reveal those secrets.

"I have a question," I interjected, "Before you decide on what to do with us."

The Old One's face bent to show her teeth, impressively long and sharp that they were.

"Go on," she said with no expression I could determine.

"How have you managed to hide your presence here from all the rest of your kind, despite their frantic search for you?" I said promptly, "And, more importantly, why are your compatriots so totally opposed to your motherhood?"

Part 31 Part 33