QUEEN OF THE DESERT, by Alex Marshall:

Throughout the endless afternoon he walked the trackless waste.  With his coat held above to shield him from the sun’s brutal rays, Derwent toiled — his shadow and his hopes stretching to the empty distance.

Near sunset, dark clouds boiled up overhead and rain fell briefly but the sky cleared again as the sun sank behind distant hills.  With darkness came an end to the scorching heat but the rain was too brief to pool in the barren ground and there was no relief for his parched throat.  So beneath the coldly glinting stars his search for water continued.

At last, Derwent felt firmer ground beneath his feet as drifting sand gave way to rock and baked mud.  Great cliffs grew up from the desert upon either hand as he entered the mouth of a gully or canyon.  His steps slowed as the floor of the canyon sloped sharply downward.  Instinct told him that his best chance of finding water lay in following the gradient deeper but something within him balked as the strip of glowing sky narrowed and the shadow of the towering walls closed in.

In total darkness, the echoes raised by his boots upon the rock unnerved him. Presently he found softer ground and his spirit grew a little as the echoes faded.  With his outstretched hands, Derwent felt moss and lichen on the canyon’s walls.  His fingers brushed something that moved and rustled.  He recoiled, choking back a cry and then reached again to find the ponderous fronds of some kind of desert plant.  It was big, huge in fact; towering above him and overhanging the narrow way.  Derwent felt something sticky upon his finger.  He held it up to the starlight, seeing the dark stain and thinking at first that some substance had rubbed off from the plant.  Putting the finger to his lips he tasted blood and realised that he had cut himself on the serrated edge of a blade-like leaf.

A breeze stirred the leaves above his head and glancing up Derwent saw that the plant bore fruit in bunches.  They were round and golden, about the size of a child’s head and they glowed in the darkness beneath the leaves.  Instantly an image formed in Derwent’s mind.  He was sinking his teeth into the cool, sweet flesh and drinking the delicious juices that welled up and ran over his tongue.  With an audible groan he reached and plucked a glistening orb from a branch.  Heedless of the warnings from his rational mind he did as he had just imagined.  The skin of the fruit was tougher than he expected but, once punctured, the inside was every bit as sweet and refreshing as he could have desired.

“Eat your fill of Cleandra’s bounty, man from the desert.  Surely it will do you no harm.”

The voice startled him.  Mouth crammed full, he turned right and left searching wide-eyed in the darkened canyon for the speaker.  Feminine laughter dripped from above and he raised his head to gape at the sight that awaited him.

A great blossom lowered upon a gracefully extending stalk.  Soft white petals spread wide casting a ghostly light.  Reclining within like some incredible jewel within an opalescent shell was what appeared to be a woman in the full flush of her beauty.  The huge bloom came to a rest above the path, nodding gently as though in an unseen breeze, its occupant almost on a level with him.  Unselfconsciously, the flower-woman stretched her shapely limbs and yawned as though newly awakened from long sleep.  Then she fixed Derwent with wide, lustrously rimmed violet eyes.

“Welcome to my abode stranger,” she said.  “I am Cleone and this is my valley.  What do you seek here?  I see that you have travelled far and your journey has not been easy.”

Derwent looked down at his clothing — the details visible now in the soft radiance that bathed them both.  His bindings were loose and ragged; his boots grey from the desert.  His military coat, which he had donned against the night chill, was rimed with salt and dust-stained.  He imagined his face; etched with grime and exhaustion beneath stiff and unkempt hair and realised that he must indeed make a wretched sight.  She, by contrast, would not have been out of place in a Primus’ pleasure garden.  Her garment was diaphanous and so scant as to be almost superfluous.  Her skin was pure white and as faultless as the petals upon which she sat.  Like the flower, her skin seemed to be a source of the pale luminescence that clothed them and about which the night gathered more deeply and more jealously.

“My name is Derwent Glass,” he ventured, swallowing and wiping the sticky juice from his mouth.  “I was . . . I am bound for Sukur over the Topaz Sea.  I bought passage on a Coaster out of Punt but on the second day from port a storm hit and I was washed up alone upon this shore.  That was yesterday and since then I have been walking and seeking water.  At first I tried to keep the sea upon my right hand but thirst soon drove me inland and I became lost.

With my shadow behind me in the morning and in front in the afternoon, I’ve tried to stay true to my original course — though I confess, I have no inkling of where I am now or how far from the Sanctuary of the Meluhans.  Perhaps you can tell me how many days we are from Sukur?  Or maybe there are other cities nearer at hand?”

“Alight here, Derwent Glass.  I see that you are most weary.”  The woman bade him sit upon one of the flower’s enormous petals.  Derwent sat carefully, marvelling at how easily it bore his weight.  He wondered if she had heard his question at all, but then she spoke again.  “Rest, eat and take your ease while you can for there is no other comfort to be found within many days of this valley.”

Derwent’s heart sank into the empty pit of his stomach.  His shoulders sagged and it was all he could do not to collapse into the flower’s soft, enfolding depths.  Suddenly his body felt like stone, his eyelids unbearably heavy.  With vision blurring, he saw the woman lean in close.  Breathing deeply, he inhaled a rich odour — floral but with a pungent edge like richly spiced meat.  Her face loomed before him, round and child-like, its bland innocence contrasted by the wide scarlet slash of her mouth and her avid gaze.  Her hair was the same deep hue as her eyes and appeared to be piled or lacquered on the crown of her head.  Either that or, Derwent thought, she wore some sort of pointed cap.

“Surely, there is somewhere!” he implored, his voice thick, his tongue no longer his own.  “Some watchtower, keep or roadhouse . . .”

“There is nothing,” she replied, “only the desert and the valley.  There is only Cleone and Cleandra, nothing more.”

“But how do you survive, all alone out here?” he wondered aloud.

“I am not like you,” she said.  “I am not alone.  There is Cleone and Cleandra; always the two together; never one by themselves.  That is how we survive, Derwent Glass.  Two may thrive where one would wither and die.  Cleandra is my shelter and my keeper and I am hers. Cleandra’s roots reach deep to find sustenance beneath the stones of this place — this dry husk the Earth has shed like a sloughed skin; sucked of all vitality — all life!”

Derwent heard a faint scratching from below.  In his mind, sinuous roots groped down in darkness, blind and worm-like seeking out moisture from deep within the arid soil.

“Yes, Derwent Glass.  We, Cleone and Cleandra, understand your need, your hunger.  We too thirst night and day — though it was not always so!  Once this valley was lush and green and drenched in sweet rain.  Plant and flower bloomed beneath moon and sun and a great many of my kind dwelt here.  That was before he came and destroyed everything with his spells and his malice!”  Cleone’s voice was suddenly loud in Derwent’s ear, rousing him from near slumber.

“Spells? I . . . who came, lady?”

“Dustava,” she hissed. “May the bitter memory of all that is green and gone follow him to a meagre grave.  He lurks in a cave not far to the south of here.  He is an evil magician and the desert is a barren, broken witness to his fell power.  It is his spells that prevent the rains from falling.

“Yes, this is so!  In the dawn and at sunset, oftimes he walks alone in the hills.  The sound of his chanting and his spell-casting carries across the empty leagues to daunt and torment us.  And the rain comes less and less.  What smattering fell upon the eve of this night was but a phantom of rains past.  There will be many burning days ahead before the sky musters strength enough to resist him again.  And yet our strength fades beneath the onslaught of each shimmering dawn.”

“Incredible!” Derwent mumbled and the flower-woman mistook his amazement for doubt of her words.

“It is the truth, I tell you!” she said.  “Look around, the proof surrounds us.  There is nothing left in this valley but sadness and echoes.  We are the last, Cleandra and I. Soon we too will go the way of the others — the way of all of my kind.  Dustava will be lord of the silence and he will dance upon the dust that hides our bones.”

“But why would he wish that?” said Derwent.

“I have told you!” she said, her eyes burning into his.  “He is an evil wizard.  He loves stone and rock only, caring nothing for living, thirsting beings.  Dustava was grown from dust; his throbless heart carved from some unyielding ore.  He is a part of the desert and the desert runs in him — its sands flowing in place of blood and vital juices.  You must aid us Derwent, for we are failing.  You must help us.  You must kill him!”

Derwent’s head reeled as Cleone’s tragic face, pleading voice and heady perfume filled his senses.

“You have strength, use it!”  The thrill of her fingers over the muscles of his shoulders and chest was augmented by the power of her lustrous eyes.  “Your flesh is firm and vital.  You are strong enough to break him like dry twigs.  But beware his voice!  Frail he may appear but never forget he is a magician.  On entering his cave you must strike before he can use his voice to work a charm upon you.

Go now, before the sun rises in all its fearful heat.  You are fortified from Cleandra’s fruit, which is meat and water to a weary body.  Now is your best chance to prevail against him.  We will await you here.  You must promise faithfully that you will return with tidings of evil’s undoing.  Promise us . . . promise and we pledge you knowledge that you will find useful in your journey onward.”

Derwent’s heart ached with sadness for the flower-woman though she was not of his kind and he could not comprehend her life in that place.  Her connection to the huge plant, Cleandra — that she spoke of as a sister — was also a mystery to him.  But Derwent easily understood her plight.  He too was alone and struggling for survival in that barren wilderness.  When Cleone spoke of her people and the green, flowering valley of times past, he heard the yearning in her voice and he understood the depths of her grief.

For Derwent yearned.  He too yearned for belonging and to find and cherish others like him.  Ever since he had stormed hurt and raging from his father’s house he’d been searching.  The home he’d left in those dark days of fear and confusion long months previously was no home at all.  The Black City of Khefu, its hatreds and its wars lay far behind as now he sought something different for himself in the strange lands of the east.

And yet it seemed that the world was set against him as misfortune dogged his travels.  There was no single entity, no ‘evil wizard’ upon whom Derwent could vent his blind, thwarted anger.  But if there were Derwent — warrior son of a warrior people — knew that he would not hesitate to seek him out.  For Cleone there was such a presence and maddeningly close at hand, its very existence threatening everything that she valued.  Her beauty had dazzled him, her strangeness confounded him but now Derwent knew what he must do.

Her hands were upon him again but Derwent brushed them gently aside to stand tall in the rustling darkness.  “Have no fear Cleone, I will take your part against this evil.  I’ll rid the valley of this scourge and then perhaps the rain will fall and your people return to thrive here again.  It’s the least I can do in return for your kindness and information regarding the lands to the south.  But those questions can wait until I come back.  Farewell!  Wish me luck or better than that, if there is such a tradition among your kind, grace me with your prayers.”

“Follow the valley and seek for the upward path,” said Cleone, her crimson lips parting in a smile.  “Fare you well, Derwent Glass, until you return.”

* * *

Derwent found the path easily enough despite the darkness.  Cleandra’s fruit seemed to have given new power to his eyes as well as a careless strength to mind and limb.  He followed the path as it wound up from the valley and into the hills beyond.  The shadows were sinking into the chasm behind him and light was growing in the eastern sky when he saw the opening at the base of a great sandy outcrop.  He climbed the short climb to the cave’s mouth, arriving just as the sun bled over the horizon and the desert awoke with sudden fire.  Creeping forward Derwent picked up a jagged rock and peered within.

“Hah! Got you!” came a cry.

Pain exploded in his left shoulder.  Derwent twisted under the sudden impact and dived forward.  He rolled, gasping as his injured shoulder smashed into something hard.  Through falling debris and the shattered trestles of a table he staggered to his feet; facing his attacker; rock poised in his fist.

It was small, grey and bent.  On its head was a battered conical hat of some rigid material.  From beneath this, straggly hair and whiskers poked and wild eyes glared.  One filthy hand grasped a small hammer or mallet, flattened at one end and pointed at the other.  It was the pointed end that had so nearly buried itself in Derwent’s ear.

The creature hopped from foot to foot, ragged robes flapping. “Assassin!” he cried.  “I know what you’re about!  So she’s sent another has she?  You’re not the first, boy, and you won’t be the last!”

With a screech he leapt at Derwent, swinging the hammer — blunt end this time — for another strike.  Derwent parried the blow easily with his left hand and swung in underneath with his right.  Fist and rock smashed into the side of the wizard’s head.  The blow landed above the jaw-line but below the helmet’s protection and his assailant dropped like bundle of dirty rags.

Silence closed around him as Derwent’s pounding pulse subsided.  His skin prickled with heat and sweat.  Outside the light was becoming unbearably bright.  He looked down at the small, ragged figure.  All malevolence had departed leaving a pitiful, broken thing that lay unmoving but murmuring slightly in the red dust at his feet.  Suddenly Derwent felt incredibly weary.  Thirst goaded him savagely and he turned from the body, lurching deeper into the cave.

Spirit lamps burned in niches.  By their dusty glow he could see that the cave was quite large, roughly circular and stuffed full of benches laden with pieces of rock, books, charts and strange tools.  Upon one of the benches he found a stone drinking vessel.  Seizing it he drank deeply of the chalky-tasting but mercifully cool contents.  Pausing between gulps his eyes fell upon the pages of a journal, heavily bound, that lay open amongst a riot of evenly-sized stone fragments.  His gaze traced sparsely inked line drawings and the ragged script of a faltering hand.  The last entry was dated to the previous night.  Derwent read.  There was a great deal about various types of rock and semi-precious stone and where they could be found in the vicinity.  There were meticulous map references, which meant little to him, and a good deal concerning the depths, dip and outcrop locations of various strata, which meant even less.  Cleone’s imploring words re-echoed in the heavy silence: ‘. . . he loves stone and rock only.  He cares nothing for living beings . . .’

The entry ended with the ominous observation: ‘Rain at dusk.  She will be stirring.  I must be wary for what may come in the dawn . . .’

Cold dread clutched at Derwent’s heart.  The wind, passing the cave’s mouth, voiced a low and mournful note.  A coughing sigh issued from the prone form on the floor and the wizard shifted slightly.

Crossing quickly, Derwent knelt at his side.  The battered, conical hat — protection from falling rock, no doubt — had come off.  Beneath the wild hair dark eyes stared up at him, blinking.  Within them Derwent saw fear and hurt but also intelligence and a great depth of wisdom.

Derwent still held the water jug.  Without thinking he held it to the wizard’s lips. The side of his head where the blow had landed was pulpy and black with blood.

“First you try to kill me, now you give me water!  Indeed, you are a strange assassin,” he said.

“I . . . I am sorry,” said Derwent.  “I don’t know what to tell you.  Everything seemed so clear and so certain but now I am filled with doubt.  Who are you?  And who is She to whom you refer in your journal?  Is it the same who is to be found in the valley below?”     

“My name is Dustava,” he said.  “Doubtless she told you that I am the very embodiment of evil and that I wished evil upon her.  No doubt you were expecting to find some kind of monster that you might slay and then return to her as the all-conquering hero?  I am right, am I not?  She will have pledged you to return, of course! Though I fear you would find her gratitude lacking and altogether contrary to your hopes.  She understands gratitude and other such human notions only enough to imitate; to dissemble, beguile and ultimately to ensnare.  Nay, friend assassin!  Don’t go back for you will find her harder to overcome than a poor and aged scholar.”

“But who is she?” Derwent stammered.

“Listen,” the wizard clutched at him with crooked hands, “and I will tell you of Cleone.  After all, she has told you about me!  You must then decide whose version of the truth you prefer.  And I pity you, friend assassin, for my death can only make understanding more bitter for you.

“How long she has dwelt in the valley none can tell, but it has been many long years since the last of her kind perished, leaving her to linger in solitude beneath sun and stars.  The Narcopsids are an ancient species, you see.  They were spawned during the Long Night that fell upon the world and brought an end to the First Times.

“It seems that darkness ruled the Earth for many lives of man and much that relied upon the sun’s light was wiped out.  There is a thin bed of black shale that lies at the start of the Secunderal Boundary.  I have studied it where it emerges in the Indus Mountains to the north east and I am certain that this is what remains of the trees and plants that perished at that time.

“Anyway, not all died — some things flourished.  Those plant species that did not depend upon photosynthesis but drew their energy from other sources thrived and grew strong.  At some point a relationship was formed between certain of these plants and the struggling, indigenous people of that nighted land.  Out of this weird symbiosis the Narcopsids were born.  And they multiplied and grew in size and strength for they alone among the many carnivorous species, were able to feed upon the largest and most difficult of prey — man!”

“No!  But how . . .” Derwent was aghast.

“You know how!  You have seen, you have tasted . . .” Dustava’s eyes were pain-bright and curiously free of accusation as they locked upon his.  “As well as the siren’s lure there are the intoxicating fruits and grasping, emergent roots.  Aye, you were fortunate, last evening — fortunate that her hatred for me proved stronger than her hunger. Otherwise you would have gone the way of countless others — to crushing doom in the dark heart of that solitary flower.”

“She told me that the desert was slowly starving her — as it had the others.  She said that this was your doing.  She said it was your spells that held the clouds at bay — ”

Dustava gave a pitiful laugh.  “Not I!  I am no sorcerer; just a simple hermit; a student of what is past — a scholar of stones.  I have no more power over the desert than she or anyone else.  However, I do warn people away from the valley and for this I have incurred her tireless enmity.

“The desert tribes know well enough to keep away but there are pilgrims and travellers from Sukur and the cities to the south who pass this way from time to time.  These I make it my business to warn or turn aside.  As years pass and the desert marches inexorably south, her desperation, her hunger and her malice grow.  Why, even the rodents and snakes that she must resort to feeding upon are becoming fewer!

“All things change, friend assassin.  This fact, if nothing else, the long years of study have taught me.  Once, long ago, this region was a green and verdant lowland.  Long ages before that; upon this spot, vast mountains reared and their shining summits speared the very roof of the world!”

Wonder momentarily transformed Dustava’s care-worn face and his voice was hushed.  “The stones speak to us, boy, and the things they tell us the mind can scarcely comprehend.  I have pieces over there,” he indicated the tumbled darkness behind them, “taken less than two hundred paces from this very cave.  Samples from the Upper Himellian system that were deposited in upland valleys by vast rivers of ice!

“Now she could never understand this.  No, the Narcopsid is a simple creature, for all its guile and cunning.  She needs a more tangible foe and so, in recent times, she has sought my death — sending her victims to do her bidding before she devours them.  If they come, it is always after rain.  I think that she needs it now in order to renew and restore her bewitching beauty.  Without rain you would see what a wasted and ravenous creature she has become . . .”

Dustava faltered, raising a hand to his ruined head as pain tore at him.

“I’m so sorry,” Derwent said.  Overcome with regret and shame he tried to make the old man as comfortable as he could upon the stones of the floor.  “If there is anything I can do for you . . . anything?”

The hermit’s face broke into a smile.  The fractures and fissures that time had eroded in his grey and dusty countenance minded Derwent momentarily of the creature of stone that Cleone had warned him of.  But only briefly, for the old man’s smile was warm and full of charm despite his pain.

“Do not punish yourself,” he said.  “I am an old man and I have lived long in this wilderness where the very silence devours the unwary — those without wit or will to withstand it.  Perhaps you have done me a service!  Better a quick end than to die a lingering and lonely death.  It is one thing to make a life in these naked hills, it is quite another to end it here far from the rest of humanity.  Yes, perhaps you — and Cleone of all creatures — have given me that which I could never have provided for myself.”

Dustava’s courage and generosity stabbed Derwent deeply.  From out of the pit of his shame, anger rose and burned its way up through his chest. “You will not be unavenged, I swear it!”  His hands balled into fists and his eyes fixed upon the picks and shovels that were piled against one wall.

“No!” croaked Dustava.  “Hear me out!  You must not seek revenge on Cleone.  She is cunning and strong, whilst you are still weakened from the desert.  You forget the power of Cleandra’s fruit has faded now.  Your mind is your own again and your body will soon feel weariness and hunger once more.  Do not go back for that is what she wants — what she is relying upon.  Walk away while you can, do not slake the vampire’s thirst for blood!”

Dustava paused, his head nodding onto his chest.  Derwent thought that he was drifting into unconsciousness but suddenly he roused and spoke again.

“If you would do something for me, then take my journal to Bharamin Obur, the gem dealer in Sukur.  He is my friend and he will make good use of it.  In this way some legacy at least will I leave from a lifetime’s toil.”

“It will be done, just as you say,” said Derwent solemnly.

“One last request,” the hermit’s voice had sunk to whisper now and Derwent had to lean in close.  “I would go to my resting place whole — not reduced by fire.  I place my bones into Pangaia’s care.  One day — who can tell — they may emerge again to enlighten the wise and the curious in distant days as yet undreamed.”

Dustava’s stare seemed to rest upon this far-off land until Derwent drew down the shutters of his eyelids.

* * *

Derwent gathered up the slight, ragged form in his arms and strode from the cave.  The desert sun burned down from above.  Cold fires of fury raged within him.  He took a shovel and dug a shallow depression in the hillside, casting the tool aside when the blade rang against unyielding rock.  Gently, he laid Dustava in the ground.

Over the next two hours he laboured, building a barrow of stones over the body to keep it safe from scavengers.  When he was satisfied that his charge could rest undisturbed, Derwent wedged the shovel upright at the head of the mound and upon the jutting handle placed the old man’s battered helm by way of a marker.  Retiring to the cave, Derwent drank deeply from the water jug and filled a large flask that he found among the hermit’s meagre possessions.  He then took a hefty stick and bound the end in cloth which he soaked in spirit from the cave’s many lamps.  Finally he drew out the old man’s fire-lighter.  He removed the cover and thumbed the sparking-wheel.  Orange flame leapt in his hand and awakened an answering gleam, blue and cold beneath his brow.

“Come, creature!  Show yourself!”

He stood once more before the huge plant, Cleandra.  The sun blazed directly above him, filling the canyon with harsh light that leached all colour from the surrounding rocks.  Derwent’s features were set like a mask against the light’s painful intensity.  One hand held the makeshift torch, as yet un-lit.  The other was closed about the fire-lighter.

No reply came to him from above.  In daylight the jagged leaves were grey and drooping.  Cleandra looked old; desiccated, dead.  Shielding his eyes, Derwent peered upward seeking the great bloom amid the foliage.  He did not see it but he could make out, on high, a darkly mottled shape.  A huge bud, closed tightly against the fierce heat of midday.

“Come out!  Face me without the veil of darkness, drug and delirium.  Face the one whom you have wronged, who speaks now for the foully and unjustly murdered and whose soul must forever bear the stain of your treachery.”

The great fronds above him shifted as by wind — though the canyon was entirely airless.  Derwent heard movement nearer to hand.  He glanced down just in time see a thick root, like a serpent rearing to strike.  He bounded backward, at the same instant striking sparks from the fire-lighter and igniting the torch.  Then, with a cry, he thrust with the flaming weapon.

The horrid appendage recoiled, smoking and writhing.  And Cleandra awoke.  She shook and trembled all the way from the ground to her dusty crown.  Every leaf curled and thrashed.  Huge tendrils emerged from central stem coiling and uncoiling along their lengths while the canyon’s walls reverberated with her inhuman, mewling screams.

Horrified, Derwent stood his ground, raising the burning brand.  “Come out Cleone!” he demanded.  “Your sister’s boughs are tinder-dry.  She will light up like a beacon.  Do not try my patience or my mercy.  You will find both less reliable than before.”

And slowly, creaking like a badly rusted machine, the great bud lowered.  Derwent’s eyes narrowed as cracks appeared in the hard, horny casing and it split apart.  The flower spilled like a leprous tongue from an unclean mouth.  The stench of decay was almost overwhelming.  Covering his nose, Derwent peered within for the occupant.  He did not see her at first but then his eye was drawn to something that crouched at the back of the flower’s throat; something grey and wizened with great glowing eyes.

Derwent swore, recoiling in disgust.  The creature that blinked at him from the darkness bore no resemblance to the flower-woman.  Its limbs were stick-like shrunken things — not Cleone’s full, sweet-fleshed curves.  Its skin was the colour and texture of mould — not the snow-white of his memory.  Her eyes alone Derwent knew and without the illusion of luscious lashes, soft cheeks and a smooth brow they were livid coals blazing with boundless hunger.

“So now you see me, Derwent Glass,” she said, eyeing the torch fearfully.  “You see what I have become, what work the desert has wreaked upon me.  Have you no pity for Cleone?  Can you not think of me as once I was — as I appeared to you in the cool of evening — and stay your hand?”

“Pity?” Derwent spat.  “All my pity is laid upon the grave of the poor wretch whose life I took while labouring under your filthy spell.  I reserve none; not even for myself.  Don’t speak to me of pity.  It is a word that rings hollow from your lips for you are entirely empty and devoid of such feeling.”

“Empty, yes!” she said.  “You do not know hunger as I do.  You came to me on the verge of death after only the shortest spell in this wilderness.  Think how we feel after days and years beyond count!  We must feed!  You must understand that!  But he has denied us — starving us to death in this misery of heat, dust and bitter memory.  And you say that I have no pity!”

She shuffled forward reaching out to him.  Derwent saw that her thin, grasping fingers were tipped with thorns.  Emerging from her crooked back a thick cord snaked away out of sight, attaching her in some vital, grisly way to her host.  Shuddering Derwent thought of how he lay helpless in her clutches the night before.  How he was stretched out upon that yielding slab whilst she stroked him with those talons and lisped her poison in his ear.

There was a wet, crunching sound and a tendril appeared with something gripped fast in its coils.  As it weaved its way past them, Derwent saw the broken legs and wing cases of a large, desert insect.  This twitching morsel was deposited into the flower’s throat and then the limb withdrew.  Derwent’s stomach lurched and his legs trembled under him, but he steeled himself, readying the torch.

“Spare me!” Cleone pleaded.

Derwent held himself in check.  He remembered Dustava’s words: “Better a quick end than to die a lingering and lonely death.  It is one thing to make a life in these naked hills, it is quite another to end it here . . .”

In the end, Dustava judged a quick death to be a blessing.  Perhaps it was more fitting that Cleone should be left to wither — like the rest of her degenerate kind.  And Derwent had the hermit’s blood on his hands.  Further killing could not lessen the burden he already bore.  Cleone’s time was passing. He need involve himself no further with her.  He could just walk away.  Derwent lowered the torch and turned to go.

“Wait, Derwent Glass!” she cried. “I know you now for a good man.  There is no cruelty in you.  I am glad that I spared your life.  Will you not bestow a final kindness?  Will you not fetch for Cleone the hermit’s body?  Now that the spark of life is gone, it is of no use to him.  Please, I beg you — not for spite or revenge — but for necessity’s sake.  Surely you can see the sense of this . . .”   Cleone’s tongue had snaked out to moisten her thin lips.  Now it withdrew again behind needle-like teeth. “Or will this be the second time that you leave me hungry?”

Derwent had endured a lifetime of manipulation.  As a child, he had been raised and schooled with lies.  His own father and mother had lied — even about his own birth and origins — to suit their own unfathomable ends.  Nobody was going to use him so again.

He rounded upon her, trembling with rage and revulsion. “Enough!” he bellowed.   Derwent hurled the torch and watched the last of the Narcopsids burn.
Alex Marshall lives near London in the UK with his wife and young family.

His story ‘Beyond the Lizard Gate’ was featured in Heroic Fantasy Quarterly issue #1. His novella ‘The Crimson Tower’ is available through Damnation Books.




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