Beyond Reason by Maggie Hoyt

Ayome floated in the sea water a few feet below the multicolored stone square with the unusual inscription. Her companions rested on the island, waiting for her to decipher a few sentences of some mad Azlanti’s code. The power of the ocean ran in her blood and powered her spells; she loved the deep, but it was always so eerily quiet.

Well, not completely quiet, not this time. “Flank,” she communicated telepathically with the shark circling below her, “you’re humming again.”

The shark mumbled a dejected apology. Flank was not very helpful, but at least the wandering creature had kept her from going mad in the silence.

“Flank, I need you to focus. Now. Do you see that one word, with five strange symbols? Since it’s repeated so many times, if I can guess it correctly, I should be able to substitute enough letters elsewhere to decipher the code. I’ve already ruled out everything but the irregular third declension nouns. Are you with me so far?”

Flank circled slowly as he repeated the word noun to himself.

“Typically, one would systematically check every five-letter third declension noun in the Azlanti alphabet. I’ve already done that. So I think I will limit myself at the moment to words with the highest probability of occurrence.”

She looked around the chamber. She floated inside a ring of eight columns on a raised circular platform, in the center of which was a white marble basin. The inscription was on the ceiling, directly above the basin.

Column? Too long. Platform? Even longer. Eight? Creates nonsense in the second sentence. Hatch would be an obvious choice, but then the second sentence wouldn’t make sense.”

Ayome studied the inscription. That repeated word should be the Azlanti word for hatch. That was why she was here. When she and her companions had found the giant metal hatch set into the island’s soil, all four of them had become as giddy as puffer fish. But their excitement faded when the hatch defeated Jaene’s nimble fingers and Ayome’s best magic. Then Ayome had found an Azlanti inscription reading: “Underneath.” Her companions erupted in fury at what they suspected was a useless clue.

“Underneath?” Perandor bellowed.

“It’s like they’re taunting us,” Rennick, her friend since childhood, had cried.

“Not underneath the hatch,” Ayome had whispered, understanding. “Under the island. Follow me.”

She’d then led her companions to this chamber embedded in the underside of the island. Realizing that this chamber was the key to unlocking that hatch, they had left Ayome to decipher the inscription.

Ayome swam off the platform and studied the outer edge of the room. Seven braziers burned with a heatless violet flame, staggered at even intervals between the pillars.

Brazier? No. Seven? No. Purple? No. Violet? Much too long. I really should be doing this in alphabetical order.”

Ayome’s training insisted on logical thoroughness, but she was beginning to feel hopeless. She’d already eliminated every possibility once. Would she have to admit defeat?

She approached the mirror hanging in the back of the chamber and frowned. Her eyes were a little wider set and her lips a little fuller than her human friends’, thanks to her heritage. Her mother had always claimed relation to a mermaid, but Ayome suspected that was a romantic invention. Far more likely a gillman, or—Gozreh forbid—a skum. She pinched her extra layer of blubber and wondered how she would look with scales.

Mirror? No.”

“Skum—” Ayome froze. That was Rennick’s voice, and he sounded anxious.

“—advancing. Jaene says too many. Blocking escape off island. By the time message reaches you they’ll be on us. Open the damn hatch. Hurry.”

Panic struck Ayome like the fluttering tails of a school of fish. She had a matter of minutes to provide an escape for her friends from an onslaught of fish-men; certainly not enough time to continue this futile exploration of her Azlanti vocabulary. But if she could not translate the inscription, how could she possibly know what to do?

She swam to the center of the chamber and stared at the basin. It was too bad basin didn’t fit into the inscription, but the Azlanti word for basin was a whole five syllables…

“Oh, Flank! I’m an idiot! This is a syllabic code. Every symbol stands for a syllable, not a letter.”

“Silly bull? Hm,” Flank muttered.

“So, if that says basin, then that’s a preposition…into? And that first word is push. Push something into the basin, push something…”

Bending down, Ayome began to press the carvings. Tentacled amphibians and fanged fish jutted from the basin with life-like monstrosity, but none would budge. Finally, she came upon a tiny ordinary fish lurking behind a sculpted rock. The marble object retreated into a depression in the basin with a click.

Flank whistled in admiration as a bronze spiral emerged from a hole in the basin bowl.

“I think I can fit a brazier in that,” Ayome said. “The third brazier is loose.” Glad her hours in the chamber were coming to some use, Ayome sped to the third brazier without even looking at the inscription. She lifted the rod supporting the brazier and slipped it neatly into the spiral.

She returned her gaze to the inscription. “Push fish into basin. Check. Place lamp into sprial. Check.”

“The shiny!” Flank cried, and Ayome heard the rushing of water as he swam away.

She turned in confusion toward the mirror. The violet flame now reflected eerily in the glass, and she watched as the image of the flame drifted over her own reflection and mimicked her form. Ayome started as her fiery reflection then stepped from the mirror. The flame in the brazier nearest Ayome drifted to the image’s open hands and coalesced into a rectangular plaque. She recognized the object as similar to the artifacts of Azlanti lore she had studied.

As she grasped the plaque with both hands, the flame burst in a blinding flash of light, covering Ayome’s pale skin with ancient runes. Pain wracked Ayome’s chest and she watched as the inscription above cracked and chunks of the brightly colored stone sank to the ground. Had she fallen prey to a trap? Would the chamber now come crashing down on her?

To her relief, the falling stone revealed a panel in the ceiling. As the pain subsided, Ayome propelled herself toward the panel. A glass tube containing a reddish liquid was fixed to the center of the panel, and Ayome saw that she could easily tip the tube and send the liquid pouring either right or left. Below both ends were crescent moons, one green, one blue, each labeled in the wizard’s syllabic code. Ayome closed her eyes and visualized the inscription. Had she seen these symbols yet?

“I don’t remember these symbols at all,” she said, speaking as though Flank were still there to listen. “What if one of these sets off wards? Oh, gods.”

Ayome dove down to the floor and began searching the broken inscription. Fragments of stone crumbled in Ayome’s hands as she tried frantically to put them back together. She cried out in frustration at the accumulating pile of colorful dust.

“What did the end say? Come on, Ayome, remember! You stared at it for hours!” But the truth was, she had never paid close attention to the ending, since it had all unraveled so quickly once she had cracked the beginning. How much time had passed since Rennick’s message?

“I’m sorry, Rennick, I’m so sorry,” she cried. If she didn’t open the hatch soon, they would be overcome by skum. And if she chose incorrectly, the Azlanti’s defenses would probably do far worse.

She could recall no significance to these colors on the island or in the chamber. She swam back to the ceiling, lost as to how to make this decision.

“What would you pick, Rennick? Blue, of course, for Desna. But kelp is green, and I love kelp. Really, isn’t that all that matters now? My favorite color? Your life rests on my favorite color. Such a random choice wouldn’t bother you and your lady of fortune. Green is good. Everyone always says my eyes are green. But you’ve always said my eyes are blue. I…I’d rather trust you.” She tipped the tube toward the blue crescent.

A tremor rocked the island. “Was that the hatch? Gozreh, let that be the hatch.” She sped out of the chamber and toward the shore. When she surfaced, she saw Rennick slit the throat of a skum as Jaene and Perandor climbed through the open hatch. He glanced quickly at the skum advancing on the horizon, then ran toward her.

“Cut things a little close there, Blue-eyes,” Rennick said as he helped her up on the shore.

“Oh, Rennick, thank the gods for your golden luck!” She grasped his offered arm in relief.

“Nah,” he replied, running a finger along her cheek. “Who needs luck when we’ve got a mind like yours?”