"Spawn" by Jon Eke

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The Flower and The Sentinel
by Steve Davison


The three main characters here are Edge, a city-born thief, Cynar, a mature hedge wizard, and Kerg the barbarian, from Thangar. Each believes themselves the leader of the group. Our team of "entrapaneurs" is currently in the reluctant employ of the dark sorcerer Syth Ramez, and have been sent into the southern desert lands to recover the demon sword Talonsbane. After picking up a well-tanned dwarf, Vultor, as their guide, they find themselves deep underground, beneath a ruined city...

Grim was the sight that met the tomb robbers at the base of the stair. Coffins lay strewn about, their ghastly contents disgorged in hideous positions, so that the thieves needed to tread carefully, for fear of hearing the unnerving sound of cracking, mummified bones. The low, vaulted crypt that stretched out into the dark was littered by portions of these powdered skeletons as if, during the performance of some ghoulish ballet, their dried bones had abruptly lost any semblance of life and collapsed where they danced.

Other corpses of the Rhi-Shalak drooped from rectangular apertures set into the walls, once intended as places of privilege. Now scant evidence of their wealth remained, having been removed long ago, along with any dignity the serpent folk may have had. Despite cautiously picking there way down the lengthy hall, the ashen dust of the dead filled their nostrils, causing them to choke and squint.

"Who did such a thing," coughed Vultor. "It looks more like a mass murder than a theft."

"Those were my thoughts, also, when first I gazed upon the tomb," said Edge, winding his way through the gruesome display. "Very unprofessional work, no doubt carried out by successful associates of those dusty corpses we found inside the obelisk above. I know of no one else who could have been here."

"There is one consolation." Kerg swung his torch in an exploratory arc. "That curse back there isn't worth the stone it's carved in, now."

"I hope your right," was all Cynar said as they moved onward.

Upon reaching the far end of the crypt, they found the damage to be less Pronounced, and the walls, which were covered in detailed hieroglyphics, surrounded a central, raised plinth on which rested a golden coffin.

"Those Khy-Azen looters didn't remove everything of value," jested Edge. "I spotted this from back there before I returned for you."

Vultor placed a hand to his mouth in reverence, and moved closer. "The sarcophagus of Jijjaresssh," he mouthed.

The entire cask was covered in minute etchings depicting the life of Jijjaresssh, last of the serpentmen emperors. Yet no attention was given to these, as thief, barbarian, and dwarf set about the lid.

Leaving the manual work to his companions, Cynar began studying the surrounding hieroglyphics. "I was correct; those caverns back there were created by the star walkers!" declared the wizard.

The barbarian was busy trying to find finger holes on the golden box, with which to prise off its lid.

"What now...?" he sighed.

"These glyphs give the legend of the Cthupar as the Rhi-Shalak knew it. They tell of how they came here, cast out from the realm of the gods, to dwell upon the face of Xorn as mortals. Because they came out from of the dark spaces between the stars, they created extensive caverns wherein they could live away from the sunlight."

Cynar allowed a smile to pass his lips. "Knew I was right." Then another part of the graphic held his attention. "And it says here of how these caverns span under all the lands."

"Denath-Kul!" gasped the dwarf. Like Kerg, Vultor had stayed his attempts to open the cask and, though unable to read the markings on the wall, moved over to where Cynar stood. "The wizard speaks of Denath-Kul -- the underworld."

"Yes, I speak so," admitted Cynar.

"Long has Thogarian legend told of the vast realm of underground caverns wherein much magic and treasure was to be found," the dwarf added distantly, his eyes focused upon a childhood legend.

"Still, as I said before, how could any humanoid race dig out such a huge place?" Edge had also begun to take an interest.

Cynar returned his attention to the hieroglyphics. "Denath-Kul was not dug by the Cthupar but by a race of colossal worm-like creatures they created called the Yithomugat, controlled by Cthuparian magic. Even then, they took over five thousand years to complete the work."

"Five millennia!" bellowed the barbarian. "How big is this Denath-Kul place anyway?"

"You don't yet grasp my meaning," said the wizard, "the underworld is exactly that, a world of caverns and tunnels. Those other three caverns we saw extending off into the distance back there, will stretch out in all directions as far as you can imagine."

"Even unto Pyzor or Norhiem?" joked the skeptical warrior.

"Beyond all the lands you know or may have even heard of, barbarian," answered Cynar. "In fact, if these caverns we wander are part of Denath-Kul I believe we could walk under the mighty ocean, Moeth Rythog, and find the continent of Thumeia, reputed to lie on the other side of Xorn."

"Less of the metaphysics, Cynar," said Edge soberly. "We have enough trouble believing what we see, never mind your fairy tales."

Kerg began forcing his sword edge through the gap between the lid and base of the Sarcophagus. "Aye, we can marvel all we like after the lid's off the box and we're on the surface again."

A few heartbeats later, and beads of sweat began to pop on to the barbarian's forehead. Then, giving one more mighty twist, the blade shattered.

"Curse the halfling's toy!" Kerg threw the broken weapon into a murky corner before sucking his right forefinger, in an effort to halt the flow of blood from a consequent scratch.

Vultor and Edge said nothing but immediately started on the lid with their shorter, more robust daggers. Kerg, sure they were grinning at him, simply shrugged and joined in again. Holding both torches now, Cynar viewed the strenuous efforts of the others as the minutes flew by until, soon, the gold lid lifted.

A low hiss was heard as the aeon-old air from within exchanged places with the disturbed tomb ash. Then, after a mighty effort by the three robbers, the top slid off the box, thundering to the fractured tile floor -- throwing up even more dust to engulf the area. Because of this, Cynar led them back down the hall of mummies a short way to allow the dirt to settle.

While they stood coughing, Edge ventured to speak through the layers of billowing powder. "The damn dust! It burns my eyes and throat."

"Presumably it's just the embalming essences used on the cadavers," said Cynar. "Take a drink of water to ease your throat."

"After all this, I hope the bloody sword's in there." The thief peered back up, into the cloud veiled, vault.

"For the sake of your friends?" Vultor rubbed his eyes.

"That," coughed Edge, "and the fact I hate wasting my skills."

The somber barbarian was apparently unaffected by the dust. "It's there," he said with more than a little confidence.

"Talonsbane?" the wizard asked between uncontrollable bouts of sneezing. "You've seen it?"

"Aye," answered Kerg. "I presume so, unless there is more than one great-sword with an opal-tipped hilt, hereabouts!"

"Come on, then." The wizard handed a rapidly fading torch to the dwarf and marched into the receding clouds of dust.

* * *

Cynar gazed into the flame-lit sarcophagus, licking his dry lips. Lying centrally amidst the skeleton, clad in dehydrated skin, rested a mightily forged broadsword with an iridescent, milky-blue opal set into an ivory white hilt.

"Is it...?" was all Vultor could say, as they viewed the contents.

"Well if not; like I said, it's a big coincidence." Kerg's mouth formed a grimace, when he saw the grisly snake king's mummified remains. Then, concentrating on the prize, he reached in to take the sword.

"Stop!" Edge grabbed at the barbarian's hairy forearm and pulled it back. "The hilt; I remember," said Kerg impatiently. "Not by the hilt!"

However, Edge kept his hold firm, saying, "Not only that." The thief pointed at the clawed ribcage, which seemed to grip the swords blade. "See the green tinge."

The barbarian's torch-shadowed eyes showed the question in his voice. "Aye. That's what graveroot looks like after a century or more." Kerg withdrew his arms sharply. "You must have gone through a hell of an apprenticeship thief."

With the skill of some latter-day surgeon, Edge snapped off each of the scabrous, Poison-tipped ribs one by one, placing them in a neat pile to the side of the serpentine corpse. With an audience of puzzled onlookers, he then took a tiny cotton bag out from his pack and, mindful of danger, scraped the rib fragments so that the graveroot powder fell into the bag.

"Don't tell me," said Kerg, "they don't make it like they used too."

"I know an alchemist in Pyzor who will give much gold for such a haul." Edge bobbed the string-tied bag, up and down. "Besides, the powder weighs next to nothing."

"Fine," said Cynar anxiously, "just put it away."

The rogue bent down, returned the pouch to the pack, then straightened up only to see the others still cowering away from the sarcophagus.

"The danger is passed," confirmed the rogue. "Powdered graveroot will only doharm if it touches an open wound, like that cut on Kerg's finger. Thus it was placed on the jagged tips of the ribcage."

"Good," sighed Kerg, "now may I remove the damn sword so we may leave this foul pit?"

Without waiting for a reply, the warrior eased the weapon from the ghoulish pile of bones by carefully grasping the blade. He placed it crossways atop the coffin, while Vultor withdrew a desert-worn shirt from his pack and helped the big human wrap the blade. As the warrior tied the sword to his pack the dwarf ignited a fresh torch from the dying embers of the old flame.

Vultor coughed and took a deep breath. "Let us be away from here. Though I am Dhokani and accustomed to caves, I am beginning to feel the pressure of the rocks above."

"I too share the sensation." Edge placed a hand to his head and nodded to Vultor hat the dwarf may take the lead. "I feel unusually exhausted."

Thus by retracing their steps the foursome eagerly exited the dreadful tomb and ascended the shallow stairway bearing the object of their quest. They reached the fiery red chamber and began walking to the chasm.

Suddenly, Cynar cried out in a fearful voice from the rear of the short column, "Back! Come back quickly!"

Bewildered, the three others turned just in time to see the wizard's unkempt robes fluttering as he sprinted back into the darkness of the archway. Then an acrid, briny odour assailed their nostrils, causing Kerg and Edge to stare at each other in puzzlement.

Facing forward, Vultor could see the pentagram of gold they had seen on their way to the tomb was now glowing intensely. Gripped by an unknown fear, the dwarf then fell to the floor and began pushing himself back to the archway, too horrified to stand.

Prompted by some fateful curiosity, both thief and warrior turned to face a swirling mist of blue sparks which was writhing into a solid form at the centre of the golden symbol of summoning.

"The sentinel!" Edge was frozen with terror.

"May Axan protect us!" mouthed Kerg -- the sound of his words drowned out by his own fear.

The Thangarian stood motionless, taking mighty breaths to quell the terror within. The very spinning of the planet seemed to slow, and the barbarian's mind fought to make sense of the cobalt apparition that writhed before him, back-lit as it was by the bloody radiance emanating from the volcanic rift.

Caught in some profane, chimerical dance, the thing shifted shape repeatedly, each form battling with another to gain sovereignty in this new plane of existence. It was at once a radiant silver starfish with festering pseudopodia bobbing in a current of alien ether. Then, as in the tilting of a mirror, it shifted again to resemble a many-hoofed, amethystine crustacean coated in sores of oozing puss, out of which sprouted many black shiny eyes, which in turn were mounted on swaying, antennae-like projections. Gradually over the passage of five laboured heartbeats, the forms began to curtail their rapid mutations as the trans-dimensional, conflict of genetics, resolved itself.

Vapour arose from the cooling phantasm spawned beyond the stars. Four times the size of the big barbarian, it stood at the centre of the charred pentangle, now glazed in a blasphemous layer of afterbirth. Like a greedy child in a store full of candy, the demon surveyed the chamber, its three yellow eyes aflame with a malignancy born on some elder world of immortal hate. Then its humanoid body shifted forward on leathery clawed feet, its black, webbed wings opening and closing in an oily stretching motion. And Kerg saw that what he'd taken to be white hair flowing over its head was actually tentacle like feelers, each sniffing hungrily at the baleful air of this new universe.

Unable to free himself from his dreadful prison of terror, Cynar looked on from the shadows of the curse-emblazoned archway. Vultor, still on the ground, clung to the tatters of the wizard's worn robe, eyes clenched, repeating a prayer to Thosk with spittle drooling down his beard. Edge, his skin drained of colour like some death-kissed zombie, had not budged.

Only Kerg remained free to act, somehow immune to the demon-fear, which gripped his companions. His heart tore at his ribs like a trapped rat and sweat ran in rivers of dread down his back -- but he could still reason.

The barbarian knew that the demon would toy with him, even as a cat plays with a spider, hence there would be no fleeing on this day. Neither could he attempt to fight the impious beast, even if his broken halfling sword had not been lost in the bone-dusted tomb below. Then Kerg thought of Talonsbane and the fateful story of possession tied to it.

Deep in his fear-stricken heart he knew that he had but two options, to try – or die.

Staggering back, the warrior slipped the demon-charged weapon from his pack and began to unwrap it. Then, as he bent over the sword, the thong-tied, golden ring fell out from his tunic, swinging in front of him like a subtle message from the mighty god Axan himself. Knowing that he would need all the strength he could muster, the warrior impatiently tore the trinket from the leather thong and slipped it on his moist finger. Energy infused his body again and his muscles swelled with blood from the increased pumping force of his heart -- hyper-powered as if by some benign yet violent narcotic.

With blinding speed the opalescent hilt found his sweat-dampened palm, and the kneeling warrior convulsed in an abrupt, psychic cramp that shook every fibre of his fright-riddled being. Though the spasm lasted but a biting second, to Kerg galaxies could have evolved and decayed in those apparent spirals of endless time, as he battled for his soul.

Within the darkness of his mind the supernatural monster of the sword tore at the warrior's naked spirit. The demon, Tal-Kuthaqua, had brooded for centuries and now wished to gain egress into the world, to loose the psychic chains that bound to the atomic sub-structure of the sword. Through a pernicious language of painful revelation, Tal-Kuthaqua exposed his celestial truth to Kerg.

The barbarian -- observer to all dimensions at once -- saw a billion species struggle out of primordial slime on as many planets and evolve into masters of their own destinies. Mighty wars dusted the heavens with the beloved dead of their sprawling empires and eternal loves drowned in the abysmal depths of time. All the races that had ever been or ever would be eventually expired thus, into the underlying chaos that was the stage, upon which law acted out its insignificant order. Even Kerg's gods, like all gods, were mere reflections of their followers -- driftwood, washed upon the cosmic shores of fate.

Whereas a man of reason such as the wizard would have absorbed all this and sank like a dry sponge thrown into a tempestuous rapid of white water; the barbarian could not begin to comprehend the aroma of the multi-sensual images. He saw only his life -- his ultimate and only possession -- being stolen by a thief of souls.

Kerg clung to the core of his identity with a savage aggression that snarled and wept, thankful for the meagre energies provided by the magic ring that rightly belonged to his tiny Deni companion.

Tal-Kuthaqua uncoiled from around the warrior's impenetrable spirit and, ceasing in its caressing kisses of truth, debased itself enough to speak the dialect of mortals. "Give me your body, human; your soul you may keep, if you believe you truly have one."

Unable to respond telepathically, Kerg repulsed the offer by a sickening mental disgust.

"Very well... I sense your body burns with the fires of death, I shall have it ere you leave the city," said Tal-Kuthaqua, before receding from the warrior's mind.

Opening his eyes, Kerg felt the hilt of the sword warming, the opal pulsing new life into its new master. Then he realised that he'd conquered one spirit, only to face another, more tangible demon. The huge beast had moved but a span during the momentary telepathic assault that had immersed the barbarian, yet still seconds flew by like a loosed arrow.

The great fiend took up the thief in one enormous claw before throwing the catatonic human six spans towards the fiery pit. Edge's body landed in a skidding movement like a rag doll, his legs half over the cliff which glowed orange from the lava far below.

As poured ale fills a goblet, Kerg's body now filled with the hideous power from Talonsbane, far surpassing the purely physical energies of the ring. His veins drank in this alien blood and he rose to his feet, glaring at the diabolical entity before him. The very skill of the demon-sword was his to command, and he no longer felt mortal fear.

Momentarily, as if unsure, the monster paused to pick at its swelling, many-nippled chest with a powerful taloned hand. Then swiftly it launched its lithe bulk towards the doomed human.

Kerg rolled aside, almost impelled by the sentient weapon in his grip. Then, as he turned to face the beast, a searing pain electrified his left thigh, which had been torn by the tip of an infernal claw. Blood poured freely over his knee, across his calf muscle onto the timeworn floor, and the almighty devil resumed its onslaught.

Though its membranous wings were of limited use in the constricted chamber, the demon still covered the ten-span gap in a single, brutish bound, heedless of the toothpick in the humans' hands -- and therein lay its error.

As the sentinel landed, the demon-infused warrior feigned a sudden jab at its face, causing the beast to uphold a paw of knife-like talons in defence. Almost simultaneously Kerg lashed the keen edge of the singing blade down in a line of shining death, opening up the creatures scabrous belly and allowing some of its steaming internal organs to splat heavily out onto the tiled floor. The creature roared in vindictive hatred as it poked at the vaporous gash that the small warrior had caused. The sweeping wound had produced only a trifling amount of physical pain, but the insult had infuriated the monster's spirit and weakened its position on this plane. Clicking its foam-soaked fangs in hate and leaving a bloodstained path of vitals in its wake, the archfiend approached the Thangarian again.

Kerg knew nothing of demon-lore but, upon seeing the intensifying blue aurora which crackled around the sentinel, he judged that Talonsbane had caused the creature considerable damage. This time Kerg thought that he would go on the offensive. So, roaring a Thangarian curse, he moved to meet the demon. Acknowledging that size was both his greatest foe and ally, the warrior strutted forward with Talonsbane held in both hands and slightly downcast, in an attitude of submission.

The sentinel now realised this mortal was a formidable opponent and thought to trick the warrior with a ploy of his own, faking a backhand strike with his right arm.

Instinctively, Kerg fought to withdraw, but the sword he held remained dynamically motionless.

Half-stooped, the confounded sentinel blinked momentarily; it was aware that the second part of its cunning ploy -- a grab with its left hand -- could not be completed, for the fearless human was unshaken.

Spurred on by Talonsbane, Kerg grasped at the divine opportunity, even as the monster blinked. The barbarian lunged the remaining three spans with the sword, point first into the demon's middle, lamp-like eye. The hell-blade punctured the glassy orb with a crisp pop and plunged ever deeper into the sentinel's brain. The demon felt its hold over the newly formed body fading, then its throat contracted, and all the nerves of the elephantine bulk froze.

Kerg fell backward to escape the huge form as it flopped heavily to the ancient tiles. The fleshy mass began to undulate rapidly, as if a thousand ravenous moles burrowed through the beast's dead arteries. Scenting a recognisable, briny odour, the warrior saw the blue aura regain dominance, encompassing the body, and he could just make out the transformations reshaping the form as it crumbled from this plane in a swirling haze of sparks.

The smell of the demon's burning flesh filled the normally sulphurous chamber. Dropping Talonsbane, Kerg rushed over to Edge, who had not moved. Dragging the semiconscious thief back from the rim, he began to notice a rapid loss of energy within himself and, becoming extremely light-headed, had to turn away, unable to control the vomit spurting from his mouth.

Murmuring thankful prayers to the gods of light, the wizard hurried over to the dizzy barbarian and awakening thief. Vultor followed, clinging to his axe like a monk to a holy symbol.

"Kerg!" Cynar placed a hand on the warrior's shoulder. "Are you hurt?"

"I feel," coughed the warrior through a blur of consciousness, "...feel..." and with that, Kerg collapsed.

Unhitching his pack and rifling through it, the wizard passed Vultor a small sack. "Turn Kerg on to his back and place this sack under his neck so that his head is held away from his chest."

"What?" Edge mumbled as he began to remember. "The beast!" He sat up, looking this way and that.

"Rest easy," panted Vultor. "It's over friend."

The companions spent a great while recovering their reason and eating some food for, notwithstanding the fearful surroundings, none of them felt fit enough to risk a return leap over the fiery chasm. Kerg's left thigh was dressed, although Cynar noted how the gash had already healed a great deal and had the appearance of a week-old wound. Sitting alongside the foreboding archway, they talked of how the battle between Kerg and the sentinel had seemed to draw on for an eternity, yet the whole brutal event had lasted scarcely half a minute.

"I saw your face contort for a second," spoke Cynar to Kerg, "then you stood up immediately. At first I thought you were possessed by the demon-blade but after the monster fell and you cast the weapon down I knew that it was you who'd won through."

"For a while I wondered myself if indeed I controlled the sword; it seemed to lead me rather than I, it," said Kerg. "But, by Axan - the power!"

"How did you prevent the demon of the sword from taking you over?" The dwarf was filled with respect for the barbarian.

"After putting on the ring, I recall only blackness when I try to think of it." Kerg replaced the ring on a cord at his neck. Then as the others began to slowly put the equipment back into the packs, he said, "Only the twisted words of the beast echo in my mind, yet those too whisk around so fast I cannot hear them."

"Come; I need to feel the sun on my face again to be sure I still live." Edge began to stand but had to lean on the wall to remain upright. "The air must be bad, for I feel worse again."

"I too, thief." Vultor also supported himself on the wall and breathed deeply.

"’I sense your body burns with the fires of death, I shall have it ere you leave the city’, were the words the blade spoke," said Kerg as waves of memory washed over him. "Yet, did I not avoid the graveroot?"

"And we all feel unwell," said the mage in shallow breaths. "Quickly, set up the small brazier, I fear the curse we read on the entrance archway is still potent and the flower has done what the sentinel could not!"

"After all these years?" said Edge in hazy astonishment as he collapsed to his knees.

Tugging at his belt the wizard said, "The tomb of Jijjaresssh was dusted with Cthmoluk."

"Blackstar!" The dwarf was alarmed. "Then we are dead, for the only cure is to become addicted to the black lotus and that is difficult enough to find in the living world, never mind a city of phantoms such as this." Vultor was becoming panicky.

"Blackstar..." the thief allowed his tired head to slump on to his chest. "...Shit."

"But you just happen to have some black lotus." Kerg's mouth curved into a worried smile, "right wizard."

"No," said Cynar, who withdrew the dull spores he'd plucked earlier from the mouth of the effigy of Yhibbo-Sabba, "but I hope this may help."

"We have no nettle sting, wizard, and that-" wheezed the barbarian. "Oh, I get the point. But how do you know that will cure us?"

"The spores are a derivative of Cthopias and may negate the-" Cynar burst into a phlegm-loaded cough, "...poison."

"Then hurry!" Sweat ran down Edge's pale, clammy face. "My arm's stiffening up."

* * *

"The physical pains and sickness are mere symptoms for the madness which will ensue should we survive." The wizard was working furiously on the drug. "Then we too shall be as Thymoor's master was -- insane for the remainder of our days."

The spores fried in the shallow bowl on the hand-sized brazier and time slipped by, draining their lives, breath by laboured breath. Edge was almost completely paralysed, Vultor had lost his sight and could not walk, whilst Kerg shivered in a burning fever. The barbarian thought of holding the demon-sword to give him extra strength but resisted informing the others. He'd already put the ring on again, and it had done no good. Cynar was holding out well enough but coughed constantly, bringing up black mucus.

When the spores had all but dried out, Cynar placed them in a bowl and ground them into a white powder. Then taking some herbs from his pack, he mixed them all together with water in a tin goblet.

Kerg reached out to take the container but Cynar stayed his hand, saying, "Not so fast, the process cannot be rushed."

The wizard placed the cup on the floor and leaned over it with a lit torch. The Pale, muddy liquid contained many wobbling reflections of the flame. Aware of the rapidity of the spreading poison, he muttered the required incantations over the precious fluid, knowing that to drink the elixir now could be just as lethal as any poison. By flame light, and accompanied by the audible formula, the liquid slowly cleared to look once more like water.

Cynar took five small sips then indicated to Kerg to do likewise. Vultor fearfully gulped more than he should have, whilst Edge could not even move his jaw. Thus, with great effort, Cynar poured the remaining concoction down the rogue's mouth.

They slept.

* * *

When Kerg finally awoke, his body ached and head pounded as if he had drank more ale than he believed he ever could. The others were motionless, but following a conscientious examination of their necks he was relieved to discover their arteries continued to pump life. Gradually, while the microscopic wars within their bodies ended, they too came to full consciousness, groggily at first then, more coherently.

Weak and spent, the four companions ate a small meal and drank as much water as they could without jeopardising their return journey to Birin. It was many hours later when they had worked up enough vigour and courage to attempt the jump over the sulphurous fissure.

Of all of them, only Vultor failed to make the crevasse in one leap, but a stout rope and Kerg's ever strengthening arms pulled the dwarf those last few inches, and soon they made their way back to the sculpted visage of Yhibbo-Sabba.

"The mystery is finally solved, wizard," said Edge when they paused below the god's mouth. "Not only did Kerg defeat the sentinel but at long last the riddle of the flower is unravelled."

"Yes," confirmed Cynar as he gathered more growths from the steps.

"How did you think to pick those spores before?" asked the thief.

"Of all this glowing fungi," the wizard gestured to the gaping cavern around, "only these steps seem to be home to this particular strain of spore. This prompted my curiosity. Upon closer examination I surmised that it was an unusual strain of Cthopias or starflower. Now, when forged with Molarash, it results in the deadly poison Cthmoluk, used of old to protect tombs and such places. The ancient priests of the Rhi-Shalak must have dropped tiny amounts of their preparation on these stairs as they tended to the sealing of the crypt below. Over the ages the powders festered and grew into this fungi."

"So you had your suspicions of what the flower reference meant all along," groaned Kerg.

"Not really; for as you can see this fungi looks nothing like a flower and, as I work with only the original names, it really only struck me when we all seemed to be suffering similar symptoms."

"Part luck, part astute thinking," said the dwarf. "But I thought Cthmoluk poisoning could only be cured by addiction to black lotus?"

"Molarash is the traditional escape but it is both lethally addictive and, due to its rarity, notoriously expensive. Besides, the potion I administered will need constant re-fortifying for many weeks to come." Cynar by now had amassed a great pile of the fungi from the fertile steps. "Thus we must take this, with us."

Leaving the grim rock face of serpent skulls with their unpleasantly glowing eye sockets behind, the foursome made their way back through the mist-shrouded ancient city. With great haste they followed the meandering path along that awesome cavern, all the while imagining phantoms of dead serpentmen pressing at their backs. Not soon enough for their liking did they reach the comparative wholesomeness of the maze of tunnels that led to the exit.

The clearings they'd created on their approach eased their return progress through the confined passages of the labyrinth. Even so, it was a full hour after vacating the mouth of the strange god that they eventually found themselves before the moving room, blocked again by the slab-like door. The wizard performed the now understood ritual of opening, and the panel rose, allowing them access into the cylinder where they breathed deeply from the cocoon of fresher air. Cynar set the chamber into motion by activating the simple, jewelled panel on the wall, and a deafening protestation of stone was heard from far above. No one said a word at this, for apprehension was inscribed deeply in their wearied faces. Abruptly, with a grinding jerk, the cylinder lurched upward, throwing the hopeful hearts of the passengers into their feet.

Out into the desert the companions staggered, away from the towering obelisk and, casting their fading torches into the golden sand, covered their eyes in pain as a newly rising sun flooded the ruined city of Pherox, greeting them with a burning glory of cleansing light.

Note: This story is excerpted from the book "Eye and The Sword", and in fact is "Chapter Fourteen: The Flower And The Sentinel". See the author’s bio on the "About the Authors" page for more details on the author and the book.

Story copyright 2001 by Steve Davison stevedavison@yahoo.com

Illustration copyright 2001 by Jon Eke jon@galaxy5.fsnet.co.uk

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