The Stone Heart's Lament

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There was something pulling on his leg. That was the first thing Rashari realised as he slowly returned to consciousness. He blinked open his eyes. The air rippled in front of his face, warping and twisting in strange swirling patterns, like blobs of oil swimming on the surface of a bowl of still water. Colours throbbed against his eyeballs, lurid and brilliant, driving spikes of pain into his brain. His head ached and his stomach roiled. He could just make out the shadowed hulks of trees and the occasional spectral glow of a clump of toadstools in the inky dark distance. He was in a forest, then, or maybe a swamp. The air tasted of fresh turned earth, mulch and decay. He tried to lift his head to get a better grasp of his surroundings (and in so doing realised that he was laying face first on the ground). It was then that he felt another tug on his leg. Rising up on his elbows he twisted around to glance down at his feet.


Scrambling to sit up he kicked out violently, at the...thing...that had a hold of his foot. It was a vine, dark green and traced with purple-black veins. The vine was wrapped around his ankle three times and it pulsed as it moved, snaking higher up his calf. It was about as thick around as his wrist, and strong; it didn’t budge when he kicked at it with his free foot. The length of the vine snaked along the ground several feet before slinking down into a deep pit. That was not the worst of it though. Oh no. The worst part was the plant. The bloody gigantic plant rising up out of the same hole in the ground the vine disappeared into. It was the size of a child and its bulbous head was mounted with vivid orange petals. Leathery purple leaves stretched out from its base and a host of sinuous vine-like tendrils writhed and bobbed around the giant flowered head, snake-like. Some of the waving tendrils had their own smaller flower heads. Slimmer vines criss-crossed over the ground, rising from the pit to snare unlucky prey, much in the way Rashari had been snared. Madame Chimera lay on the ground a few feet away. One long serpentine vine was coiled around her waist, drawing her closer and closer to the pit. Her hair was snarled with fallen leaves and petals and her limbs flopped uselessly as she was dragged along.

Rashari surged forward, acting without thinking. He lunged toward Madame Chimera, only to have his foot whipped out from under him by the vine constricting around his ankle. He fell heavily, chin hitting the ground as he smacked down face first. The impact rattled his brain in the cage of his skull. He kicked at the vine, stamping down on the end of the vine with his free foot as he tried to pull his trapped foot out from the coils. The vine closed around his leg, squeezing, moving with him as he struggled. He clawed at it with his fingers, almost recoiling at the hot, rubbery texture of the vine’s flesh. Under his nails the vine’s outer skin flaked away leaving behind shallow runnels that filled up with sluggish red fluid. It stank like rotting blood and burned Rashari’s hands when it touched his skin.

Above him a swaying tendril shuddered, whipping back and forth through the air. Its flowered head opened, petals peeling back, and a cloud of orange spores erupted in the air. Rashari threw up his arms, covering his face. The hideous reek of rotting meat and rancid blood hit him like a mallet between the eyes. He gagged, biting down on his coat sleeve. He could feel the orange spores landing on his clothes, his legs, in his hair. They caught like burs and stung his scalp. Gods alone knew what they would do to him if he breathed them in. Instinctively he knew that he had to avoid breathing any into his lungs. The vine wrapped around his ankle yanked him forward. He was dragged toward the edge of the pit, right under the bobbing flower heads waving and dancing above him. The smell was overwhelmingly, sickeningly, eye-wateringly awful. So bad it was stunning, leaving him almost too dazed to fight.

His coat tails bunched up around his ears, pieces of stone and broken twigs digging into his spine he left shallow tracks in the soil as he clawed the ground. Another sharp tug and his feet were dangling over the edge of the pit. He kicked and squirmed and flipped over onto his belly. He managed to wriggle a few inches away from the edge, and out of the clutches of whatever hideous thing waited at the bottom (because of course there was something even worse at the bottom; that was just how these things went). His hand closed around a stick, short and blunt, but solid in his hand. A second vine, as wide as his forearm, lanced downward and snaked around his throat.

He came face to face with a lurid orange flower the size of his own head. It hung in the air in front of him, swaying with a viper’s grace. The middle of the flower was full of protruding barbs, fat as a man’s thumb. The barbs glistened with a foul smelling liquid, undoubtedly as poisonous as it was odorous. The flower’s offensively orange petals quivered; it almost seemed like it was watching him. The vine wrapped around his throat pulsed in time with his own frantic heartbeat. The flower moved closer, its movements graceful and obscene. Thick globules of stinking poison dripped from the twitching barbs in the centre. The smell made his eyes tear; the stench filling his senses like the vanguard of an invading army. The flower’s petals flared like a cobra’s neck and the vine squeezed down around his throat. He struck out with the stick. It was an awkward blow without much power, but the impact was solid.

The flower’s head was knocked to the side. The spray of razor sharp barbs aimed at his face perforated the ground an inch to the right of his ear. Dropping the stick he wrapped his hands around the flower’s stem, just under the head. The flower whipped and writhed like an actual snake. He grappled with it, keeping the head up and away from his face as it spat out another wave of poison coated barbs. The vine contracted around his throat even further (He thought his eyeballs might pop right out of the sockets). Ugly black and yellow spots exploded his vision into a million dancing fragments of light and shadow. His pulse thundered like a waterfall in his ears. Somehow he managed to get to his knees, the flowering vine still doing its level best to throttle him to death. He was losing the strength in his hands, unable to keep his grip on the writhing flower. He only had one weapon left, and only seconds before he asphyxiated. He opened his mouth wide, jerked his head forward, and bit into the vine’s pulsing flesh.

Hot, scalding liquid exploded like battery acid on his tongue, filling his mouth with indescribable foulness. The vine sprang loose from his throat, but not before Rashari saw the pumping red hole his teeth had left. Horribly human-seeming blood gushed from the bite mark as the flowering vine recoiled, its head lashing back and forth, shedding blood and petals into the air. Rashari spat out the lump of plant flesh he’d bitten loose, gasping and choking as he collapsed onto his hands and knees on the ground. Blind he groped on the ground and seized up the stick he’d dropped. He brought the stick down on the vine still wrapped around his ankle. He struck it once, twice, thrice, not even caring if he broke his own ankle in the process.

The entire plant reared, its many swaying tendrils moving in frenzy. Another wave of noxious spores filled the air and a second flowered vine struck, arcing down through the air with terrifying speed. Rashari reacted on instinct and smashed the stick into the flower’s poisonous face. A half dozen broken barbs rained down on the ground around him. He seized one between his index and pointer fingers, so the pointed end protruded from his closed fist like a claw and drove the barb into the vine around his ankle. He stabbed the vine again and again, leaving bloody, oozing canyons in the plant’s flesh.

“Two can play at that game,” He snarled finally kicking his leg free of the shredded vine. He scrambled across the ground, reaching Madame Chimera’s side, using his body to cover hers as a wave of stinging spores and poison barbs erupted from the plant. He felt several of the barbs strike into his back, but none managed to penetrate the tough leather of his coat. He stabbed at the vine coiled around Fantel with the barb he still held pinched between his fingers.

The plant reared again and struck at him with one of the primary tendrils. The force of the blow sent him rolling across the clearing in a disordered tangle of arms and legs until he hit a tree. The impact ignited starbursts behind his eyes. A vine whipped up from the ground and snagged his foot once more. It yanked him across the ground with enough force he thought his leg might pop loose of his hip. The plant wasn’t done. He was whipped up off the ground and slammed back down again. His head struck the hard earth and the world went black for precious seconds. He opened his eyes and saw a wave of poison barbs coming straight for his face. He threw up his arms, covering his head. Most of the barbs imbedded in his sleeves but one struck home, impaling the soft flesh of his left hand just below the little finger. Rashari swore and wrenched it out of his skin. Blood welled up from the wound and spilled over the filaments of quick-silver running under his skin. Immediately his hand started to feel hot, a tingling numbness creeping in on the tail end of the initial shock. Gripping the barb between his fingers Rashari slashed his arm through the air warding off another snake-like vine. He rolled onto his stomach, digging his fingers into the soil as another bone jarring tug on his ankle hauled him closer to the pit edge.

“SMITH!” Hollering at the top of his lungs Rashari kicked and clawed at the ground. He could feel more of the creeping vines wrapping around his legs, lashing them together and climbing higher and higher up his body. He couldn’t find purchase. His legs were already over the edge. His fingernails tore through the mud, but there was nothing he could do. The last thing he saw before he was pulled down into the pit was a flash of metallic gold as Smith dropped down from a nearby tree into the clearing. Then he was over the edge, suspended for a terrifying second between falling and floating, left dangling in the plant’s tentacle grip. He saw dark earth and the rough fringe of grass framing the top of the pit and below him...something so horrible it stopped his heart, froze his thoughts.

Two huge, bulbous eyes looked up at him from the bottom of the pit. They sat in a face that was as wide as a plate, filling the entirety of the bottom of the pit. It looked like someone had stretched out a canvas of mottled, flaccid skin across the bottom of a well and painted upon that obscene canvas a parody of a human face. There was no nose, save for two quivering holes for nostrils above a massively distended mouth. The lips were torn and bleeding and the tongue flicked up and out, probing the air. The mouth stretched into a hungry, slavering grin. Blunt teeth stained brown with blood and spoiled flesh poked out from that grin at odd angles. Vines and tendrils rose from the face like unruly facial hair.

The face smiled up at him as if it recognised him, and its gelatinous eyes fixed him with a baleful, vengeful regard. Its green tinged tongue flicked out to wet its torn lips. It didn’t speak (thanks be for small mercies) but somehow he knew it was going to enjoy eating him. The reek of decaying meat and old blood rising from its mouth was even worse than the smell above ground. A swarm of short, hair-like vines burst forth from its cheeks wrapping around his legs and arms and drawing him down toward that smiling mouth. The longer vines released him. Rashari couldn’t move, couldn’t even gather his thoughts to try and move. He was hypnotised by the bright glow of those wet, glittering blue eyes and the slow, greedy motions of the huge tongue. (Of all the horrible ways he might have imagined he would die – and he had suspected that he might die horribly given his life style – being eaten by a humanoid plant had never once made the list.)

No time to be ingested! Smith jumped and landed on Rashari’s shoulder, skittered down his spine, and stabbed the ends of his eight sharp legs into the thickest of the tendrils wrapped around Rashari’s waist.

Rashari had time to yell before the creature released him and he fell straight toward that gaping mouth. He landed hard, bouncing off the rubbery skin of the giant face. Twisting to the side as the reaching tongue lashed out toward him.

Smith landed a moment later, his sharp edged legs digging into the monster’s forehead, drawing small wells of thick red blood. Rashari felt the undulation under his hands and feet as the monster’s jaws worked, shifting and distending to bite at him. Its giant nostrils flared, scenting him. He scrambled to his feet, the soles of his boots scuffing over bouncy, stretchy flesh. He clutched at the pit wall at his back, searching for handholds, exposed roots, pieces of stone, anything he could use to help climb out of here. The monster lashed its tongue to the side, knocking his feet out from under him. He slipped, one of his heels striking against a giant tooth. Under his feet the monster opened its mouth wide and he teetered.

Smith jumped from the monster’s forehead to land neatly on the softer flesh just above the flared nostrils. He pranced back and forth in a bizarre jig, stabbing the ends of his feet into the monster’s face. The monster rolled its jaws, massive face contorting in pain. Rashari was able to use the movement to roll clear of its mouth. He caught a fistful of the smaller vines rising up from its cheeks, and yanked on them, tearing them loose. They came free with a sickening sucking sound. The monster’s big saucer eyes swam with tears. Vines from above the pit dove toward them. They pricked and poked at him, driving Rashari around the edge of the pit, while the monster’s mouth opened and closed, causing the flesh of its face to ripple. At any moment Rashari thought he might slip, lose his footing and then, quite literally, lose his foot to the monster’s jaws. (The part of his brain that never quite lost a detached nonchalance toward near death experiences noted that this was, by far, the weirdest potentially fatal encounter he’d ever had.)

Smith was having a lark. He leapt and twisted like a flea riding a dog’s back, his feet driving into the monster’s face again and again. Blood arced through the air. Rashari caught one of the longer flowered vines as it lunged downward into the pit. Pivoting to the side just as the vine struck, he caught it in a modified bear-hug and grabbed the flower by its petals, forcing the head down until it was hovering over the monster’s mouth. When the monster opened its jaws wide, tongue lunging upward, Rashari shoved the flower into its mouth just as those jaws clamped down. The monster convulsed, jaws opening on a silent scream. Rashari seized Smith in mid-prance.

What – No! Rashari slammed Smith down, feet first, into one of the monster’s huge quivering eyes.

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