The Eye Of Thugrusian

Michael Fantina

Erude, a young man highly skilled in the arts of stealth, all the better to disencumber a pearl necklace, a money belt over-heavy with its burden of gold or silver, or to make room on dusty shelves that previously had been cluttered with the sparkle of precious and semiprecious stones, bethought himself that the stars perhaps now announced greater things for him. So he made ready to throw off the mantle of a common pilferer and embark upon a great enterprise.

Now, scarcely out of his teens, he had stolen the Eye of Thugrusian, a fist-sized many-faceted blue jewel, of this Cyclops god, guarded by ill-tempered eunuchs in the god's temple on the Plain of Uluium. The eunuchs had chased him for four days through the treacherous peat bogs and swamps teaming with crocodiles, vipers and giant vampire bats, but ended their pursuit when Erude entered the Haunted Marshes. Erude had expected to pilfer the idol's eye and run for an hour or two before the irate eunuchs would call off their chase. But the sexless servants of Thugrusain had pursued him with a will. Now he lay exhausted, hungry, thirsty and unsure of his surroundings. From where he lay on a small matted island of rank grass he heard the eunuchs arguing in the near distance. It was clear that they feared this place more than death itself. They retraced their steps home to their now eyeless idol.

Erude was only partially pleased at this turn of events. Now, instead of being torn apart by his pursuers he seemed destined to die a slower death from starvation or thirst. He had tried to drink the turgid water of the swamp without much success. He had eaten different kinds of berries as he went, but some or all of them made him ill. At this rate he could not last much longer.

He forced himself up and into the water which came to his waist and he continued through the fen. A heavy mist hung over the place like a pall. Slimy and rough creatures brushed against his legs and bare feet as he went. Occasionally he spied a snake twisting through the gray-brown water, or the snout of a crocodile appear and then submerged. At the end of a line of immense banyan trees he spied a stone structure pushing up into the fog. The building must be extremely old as parts of the towering banyans sought to encompass it.

He came ashore, or what he thought was "ashore", for the only places that seemed to offer respite from the filthy waters were the occasional grass-mate island and the towering Banyans themselves. He pulled himself up with the help of a low-hanging branch to get a better view of the pile. The base seemed immense, its sides rose massively into the fog and mist. He walked for what seemed like hours around the base of the circular tower but could find no opening. At length he looked up and saw what appeared to be either a window, or an aperture created by huge blocks of basalt which had tumbled from the structure some forty feet from the base. Into this opening the huge arm of a giant banyan had infiltrated some years before.

Carefully securing the Eye of Thugrusian in his small leather satchel and tying it to his belt, Erude began to climb the tree. He was an agile boy and the tree offered many hand holds and foot holds, so very quickly he found himself at the irregular entrance in the wall. He shimmied along the branch and lowered himself into the darkness. His feet hit solid stone beneath him. There was light in the room coming from a nearby arched doorway. As Erude moved toward the light he could make out what appeared to be rotted pieces of furniture.

He steped through the doorway into the light. A narrow corridor led in three different directions; on the walls were small pieces of thread, which he assumed to be bits of long-rotted away arrases. Here and there hung the antique remains of ancient swords, wooden handles long gone and the once grey steel blades now black with rust. He chose the middle corridor as it afforded the most light. At the end of this corridor he found an even smaller spiral stairway. This he began to ascend. After an interim the stairway ended at a moldering iron-hinged door. It opened to his pressure.

His surprise now became considerable. The chamber was of moderate size and seemed perfectly kept. Their was a table spread before him with plates of fruit, peaches, quinces, apples and trenchers of cured meat, fowl, beef and swine. A jug of wine or water was also in evidence as well as utensils of polished iron. The walls were covered with plaster and painted finely in colors of green, red, yellow and various shades of blue. These depicted mythological scenes from the earliest days of Ar, the great city, which had once ruled all the lands in a great empire from which the world he knew drew its present name.

Starving he wasted no time in devouring the repast set so providentially before him. Pulling up a low, curiously carven cushioned chair of teak and ivory he sat down and make quick work of the food and drink.

No sooner had he completed this meal than out of the corner of his quick eye he noticed a large standing bronze mirror. He sat and stared at it in wonderment. Erude was certain that the mirror had not been in the room when he entered. The object was nearly six feet tall and fashioned from ancient bronze, about its borders writhed dragons, snakes and fabulous gorgons. He left his chair and stood before the mirror gazing at his image within. Never having directly experienced the influence of sorcery before, he felt now that the air was thick with it. He slowly turned to look around the room once more. All was as it had been. There was still no sign of a human being anywhere. He turned back to admire himself again within the glass. He was of medium stature, dark hair and eyes, wiry in frame and, all in all, he mused, quite the charming rogue. His meditations were interrupted by a hoarse rasping cough. Quickly he spun around. Seated in the chair which he had just vacated was an ancient crone. What hair she had fell, or crawled, in spidery gray stands, from under a conical wizard's cap. She wore the red gown and robes of a sorceress. This raiment was sewn with strange sigils of gold and silver thread. Her nose was incredibly long, her skin, like antique brown parchment on the verge of turning to dust. Her eyes, in contrast to the fragile nature of her external appearance were deep, penetrating brown, indicating a preternatural force.

Erude, usually not at a loss for words, stood, stunned and speechless.

The old hag brought a long and boney finger to her nose. "Welcome, thief, I see that you have escaped the eunuchs and the creatures of the fen and have arrived intact."

Erude, unsure of himself, but determined not to show it, bowed deeply and said: "Ah, grand dame, I perceive that you know of me and my humble exploits. Surely, you are a great practitioner of the dark arts. I am at your service."

"Do not mock me!" Rasped the old woman. "Such things should be beneath you. I have led you here to make you a proposition, which I hope, that in your astounding arrogance you will accept."

The youth stared blankly at the old crone.

"Let me begin by telling you what it is that you see before you. I am a simulacrum. A simulacrum of a young and powerful sorceress, left behind to show the way."

"The way?" Interjected Erude quizzically.

"Listen to my story and I will indicate that which I require of you. Some two hundred years ago I was a girl barely in my teens--remember I am her simulacrum--when my father sold me to be apprenticed to the sorcerer Valistig, a mage of great renown. Valistig did not wish for his competence in sortilege to die with him, so he began to teach me the high calling of a sorceress. I was devoted to him like a father, and I was, indeed, an apt pupil, learning quickly all that he taught. But after a five year span the old mage began to lust after me as I blossomed into young womanhood. I found his lust repulsive and abnormal and I refused him. This sent Valistig into a paroxysm of rage. We quarreled in this very room. He attacked me with hard magics in an effort to kill me, but I thwarted him with my own quick spells. I had learned his art well by then. At length we struggled together and I plunged a small enchanted dirk, which he had given me as a present, into his black heart. He fell near the mirror and as his life's blood poured from him he muttered a terrible curse. He sent me to dwell eternally within the world of the enchanted mirror you see before you. The realm of the mirror is a semi-nether principality peopled by gorgons, demi-gods and creatures both beautiful and perverse. I am unable to leave until such time as someone with a desire to aid me would agree to enter the world of the mirror and free me, so that I may again return to the world of the living. Fortunately the sorceress, Vileen, was able to invoke a quick spell leaving behind this simulacrum of herself that perhaps one day she might be rescued from a horrible exile."

The simulacrum seemed exhausted as she finished her incredible tale. Her head began bobbing on its long skinny neck as though she were ready to fall asleep. Suddenly she perked up, stared at Erude and mumbled, "Ah, dim-witted boy, I, the simulacrum of Vileen have aged these centuries, though she is, most likely, still at her own age of some twenty years."

The thief quickly sized up the situation, and spoke in a friendly conversational tone. "Ah, good mother, I see your predicament! You need a brave young man to go into the enchanted mirror and rescue you or your real self! Believe me I am not that man. I am a mercenary, a thief. There is not an altruistic bone in my humble body. Almost anyone else you might choose would certainly be more successful than I in prosecuting this dilemma."

The old crone waved an ancient hand. "Fiddlesticks! I believe you will do this for me for what you will receive in return."

"And what, prey tell, is that, mother?" He inquired.

"You will receive the Eye of Thugrusian in return." She coughed hoarsely.

"Ah, but, good mother, I already possess the…" At this point Erude grasped the leather pouch in his belt where he had safely placed it, only to discover that the jewel was gone!

"Evil witch!" Shouted Erude, he was furious. "You have robbed me of my rightful wealth!"

"Rightful? I think not." Wheezed the old woman. "This object was stolen and I will send a messenger to the eunuchs of Thugrusian to come and fetch it along with its thief."

"Spiteful old woman!" He shouted again. "What would you have me do?"

In a slow practiced voice she said: "Enter the mirror world and release Vileen, bring her out of the mirror realm and you may have the Eye of Thugrusian and safe passage through the fens to a place of your own choosing."

The young thief was furious, he was not in the habit of being robed or tricked. However it appeared that the old woman had done both to him.

"What do I have to do?" He asked through gritted teeth. The anger was rising in his voice as he continued, "I am no magician and no warrior."

"You are better that either," crooked the simulacrum. "You are devious to an incredible degree, and nothing will thwart you once you have set a task for yourself."

These words were barely out of her mouth when she hastily arose from her chair with an amazing agility, took a few quick steps toward the thief and before Erude could raise his hands to ward her off she had shoved him powerfully backwards into the mirror.

He felt himself fall through the glass. It was an odd sensation, almost like falling into water, but without getting wet. He tried to find his footing and fell on his back in thick, soft grass. He was lying beside a quiet pool. He heard the sweet song of strange birds nearby, the crooking of frogs and a soft wind in the rushes. The sunlight was fast fading due, apparently, to a combination of dusk and an ominous overcast sky. He quickly picked himself up and began rubbing the mud and grass from his clothing. Suddenly he heard a woman's voice.

"Hurry, hurry, boy! It is almost nightfall and the creature from the pool will soon be abroad to feed!"

Erude turned and saw a young girl dressed in green britches, black boots and a short tunic of yellow. There was a quiver of arrows over her shoulder as well as a bow. Her eyes were a deep brown and her hair was like gold, coming to her shoulders. He was speechless.

She quickly grabbed him by the hand pulling him away from the pool as he heard something break the surface, something huge.

"Quick," she whispered, "we must reach the mantic oak before it senses us!"

They ran together toward an immense oak tree on the side of a nearby hill that was dotted with dozens of ancient cairns, many collapsed and all overgrown with every manner of vegetation. The huge mantic oak overshadowed them all with its brooding presence.

As they ran, now nearly breathless, Erude heard an incredible bellow of some unknown beast. This spurred him on to new efforts. The girl matched him stride for stride, which was no small feat as Erude could out run everyone he knew.

Scarcely fifty feet from the oak the girl jerked his hand to stop him. She closed her eyes and whispered something in an unknown language. Then again she pulled him forward. The earth behind them was shaking, trembling from footfalls of the thing from the pool. At the base of the great tree he saw a rope ladder. The girl jumped the rope and began to climb. "Do likewise," she shouted over her shoulder, "If you value your life."

The thief needed no urging. He quickly began the ascent. He climbed like one possessed but soon saw that the girl had greatly outdistanced him in the climb. He looked up to see her disappear into thick fog. He was now about one hundred feet up the rope ladder. He looked down. In doing so he nearly lost his grip. Scarcely twenty feet beneath him was the improbable head of something out of his worst nightmare. The head was as huge as a horse, roughly shaped like a giant banana that was impossibly fat. The thing was covered with dozens of huge eyes peering in every possible direction at once. There seemed to be two mouths, one at either end of the banana head, and each was loaded with a plethora of dagger-like teeth. He could see no appendages like arms or legs, but the awful head would swivel alternately snapping it hideous jaws.

Erude redoubled his efforts. He was now up into the fog where he could scarcely see anything. Finally, when he thought that his strength would leave him he felt hands on this shoulder that pulled him upwards and inwards. He fell heavily on a solid wooden floor. He heard a terrible bellow far beneath him.

The low flame from a candle flickered. He saw two young women standing a few feet from where he lay. Around them where immensely huge branches of the great tree and near by what looked like very large bird's nests. One of the girls was the yellow-haired one who had preceded him up the tree. The other was a few inches taller and of uncertain age. She could have been anywhere from eighteen to fifty. She was nearly naked. Her skin a dusky hazel-green, her eyes a preternaturally deep green and her hair too was a light green, though quite without clothing she did not seem naked. This seemed a surprising conclusion on the part of Erude, who was no stranger to the allure of the female. He sat up and gaped.

"Is it human?" inquired the green girl. "A sorcerer, perhaps, a warrior?"

"No," answered yellow hair. "I think he may be dim-witted. He did not respond readily when I spoke to him."

Erude introduced himself to the two females. He explained quickly and succinctly to them who he was and how he had gotten there. However, rather than referring to himself as a thief he implied that he was a young student of some means. And in turn he asked them who they were.

Yellow hair told him that she was called Vileen, and the green girl introduced her self as Slyla, the spirit of the oak, and not human.

The quick witted thief was not remiss in recognizing the name of yellow hair. This girl, Vileen, was apparently the counterpart to the simulacrum which had so unceremoniously dispatched him through the mirror.

"Then it is true," said yellow hair. "You have been dispatched to bring me back to my own world. After having arrived here by way of Valistig's enchanted mirror, I was befriended by the spirit of the oak. My arrival through the portal of the mirror deposited me in the identical place where I found you. Spirit fetched me immediately as it was near time for the creature to arise from its pool.

Vileen, smiled at him. "I see that my simulacrum has quickly sent a hero to fetch me back. What is your name sir?"

Erude smiled back at her. "My name is Erude, and I must disagree with you. Your crusty old simulacrum took her sweet time in sending someone back to fetch you from this place wherever it may be."

"Surely, sir, a month is not so long?"

The thief frowned. "A month? A month? You have been gone nearly two centuries!"

Vileen sighed and closed her eyes. "I was afraid of this. Two hundred years, then everyone I knew in Ar is now long dead."

"And tell me, my wily little sorceress, why is it you have not used your considerable powers to return to Ar?"

Vileen studied him closely with her penetrating brown eyes. "The rules of magic and, apparently, the rules of physics are different here than they were in my beloved Ar. Very few of my spells work in this place, some to a greater or lesser degree and some not at all. I have had to rely on the sorcery of Slyla here who a is most potent natural magician. She is as old as the oak where we live, and her magics are considerable."

"Let us eat, Vileen" announced Slyla.

The two girls pulled a small stove from a corner and with flint lit a fire. They took long sharpened sticks and speared what proved to be cured pieces of beef, chicken and some unknown meat onto the sticks and roasted them. Slyla gave Erude his own stick to roast.

"I will become an oracle again, Vileen, so that you might learn how best to return to your world now that you have a champion to lead you." The spirit of the oak addressed the sorceress. "Though I feel he may prove to be less than the champion that you sought and hoped for."

Erude looked daggers at Slyla but remained silent.

After the meal they put away the stove and Slyla pulled both of them into a circle. They sat crossed legged holding hands. Slyla sat with her back straight. She wore a type of blue loin cloth of some fine fabric, but nothing else save for a necklace of polished acorns strung with a hammered silver chain. She began to chant in a tongue unknown to Erude. The youth's head began to swim. He saw a village of farmers and shop keepers, and the small cobbled street that went through the town. There was a jewelers shop. In the window Erude saw bracelets of platinum jeweled with opals, carnelian, agate and almandine. There were anklets of hammered gold crusted with tiny emeralds and aquamarine. He saw rings of green and orange jade, brooches with huge stones, jet, diorite and diamonds. It was a thief's paradise, and the local populace seemed extremely gullible. The scene changed. He was now in a large city where the buildings were tall and narrow and seemed to list at odd angles. Few people were abroad on the streets but those that were wore the robes of sorcerers and other adepts. This was some bizarre city of sorcerers. Then he was upon a plain where grew odd flowers some six feet in height. These plants were of yellow, mauve chartreuse and indigo and had the odd and eerie ability to mimic human speech!

Erude's head seemed to clear. He was still in the circle. Slyla released their hands and addressed Vileen. "It is up to you to choose which route you should take for you to effect your release."

"A moment, please" interrupted the young thief. "But is not there a portal by the monster's pool? If we wait for the most propitious moment we my escape easily back to our world, may we not?"

"No!" Came the flat reply from Slyla. "One cannot enter and leave by the same portal." Effortless and athletically she jump up from her sitting position and began to walk toward the far end of the room. Erude was still amazed that he felt no attraction to this strange beauty, but wrote it off as some weird effect of Slyla's magic. Suddenly she let out a scream and collapsed. Her two companions rushed to her side. Erude took her in his arms. She whispered: "Some fiend has driven copper nails into the oak, many, many nails. The tree and I are doomed!"

The youth carried the green girl to a nest-like structure and laid her in it. As Vileen ministered to her Erude moved to the edge of the platform and gazed down beneath the tree. Far below he saw what appeared to be an army of dwarf-like beings carrying hammers and nails--he assumed copper nails. He had no idea what their source of animus was for the tree or for Slyla.

"Hurry, boy!" commanded Vileen. "I will try to cast a spell to take us away from here. But to which place shall we go?"

"Ah, my sorceress, that is easy" winked Erude, "to the little village with the cobble stone road that is where we have the best chance of leaving this world."

Vileen stared at him. "Really? Do you not think the city of sorcerers would afford us greater opportunity in this regard?"

"No, Vileen," Erude was thinking quickly now. "That city of wizards might consider outsiders a threat, especially, such a lovely and powerful witch as you are. Out best chance is the village where we may make discrete inquiries as to the best place to accrue information concerning a portal out of this world."

"Perhaps you are right, boy" Vileen looked a bit unsure of this possibility but agreed. "I must now cast a spell to remove us and Slyla from the tree to the village. I hope that my magic proves efficacious in this regard."

"Should we not leave the spirit of the tree here with her oak? She may prove to be more excess baggage than we can handle." Erude tried to present this proposition in the most humane manner possible. However, he failed in this.

"Dog!" shouted yellow hair. "Would you leave your only friend behind you in such a place? Here, take her hand in yours I will take hers and yours and recite my spell."

Vileen began chanting for what seemed like a very long time. Suddenly Erude grew dizzy. He then fell, he was with Vileen and Slyla lying upon a low hill in some vast savannah. There were tall, delicate trees scattered here and there. In the distance were mountains barely discernable. It seemed colder, much colder. Slyla shivered on the ground.

"Remove you jerkin, boy" softly commanded Vileen.

"I think not, girl," he responded testily. "I am the one who needs my strength to save you from this place."

Vileen fixed him in stare with huge brown eyes.

"I like not that look, Vileen." He offered.

"Indeed, I am not surprised, for I am wondering if it is best that I put an arrow through your heart."

Erude, astutely, could see that he had tried the patience of the young sorceress. He quickly removed his jerkin and wrapped it around Slyla as she regained consciousness. "Where are we? Oh, my poor, poor oak."

"Slyla, I thought it best that we leave the doomed oak. We were surrounded by those wicked dwarfs who I believe are now in league the beast in the pool. Tell me can you survive long without your beloved oak?"

"I know not, Vileen. I do know that I am grief stricken. What is this place?"

"We are near the field of giant flowers that you showed us in your vision."

"What?" shouted Erude. "I told you to send us to the little town with the cobbled street!"

"So you could the better pilfer the jeweler who lives there? Do you take me for a fool, boy?"

Erude realized that Vileen was no yokel whom he might easily hoodwink.

They decided to stay there for the night, though there were no signs of the tall flowers from Slyla's vision. The sorceress started a fire, using the tried and true method of flint and steel. Poor Slyla was curled up near the fire. She was in and out of consciousness. As night began to fall a small caravan was seen crossing the great savannah. Squatting by the fire Erude and Vileen eyed the train suspiciously. The youth began to think how he might regain the trust of the suspicious Vileen, for he desperately wanted his Eye of Thugrusian returned to him when they got back to Ar, whenever that might be.

As the winding caravan approached them Erude addressed the girl. "Sorceress, I have a small plan which may assist us and the ill Slyla." Here he removed a thin, small flat rectangular piece of wood from his satchel, along with three walnut shell halves and a hardened pea.

Minutes later the caravan stopped to rest. The three wayfarers could offer the passengers on the caravan nothing more than the heat and light from their small fire. Erude began speaking to some of the people and was able to induce them into trying their luck at a game of chance. He put the pea under one of the three walnut halves and had his visitors guess under which half the little pea resided after he had moved them around his board several times. On each occasion the visitors were correct in their guess. They found the pea each time. Erude suggested that they make the game more interesting and he wagered a small knife he kept with him. The visitors offered a new blanket. After 10 minutes had passed Erude still had his knife as well as three new blankets, a long women's woolen robe, a pair of women shoes, a large piece of cured mutton and two wine skins filled with water. Vileen was forced to intercede when the scene turned ugly and a particularly large camel driver began to draw his scimitar as he suspected cheating.

The caravan eventually left in a huff. Quickly, Erude got his jerkin back from Slyla and they dressed her in the warmer brown woolen robe and covered her with one of the blankets and put shoes on her bare feet. She was given water.

Vileen seemed to have softened just a bit toward the young thief.

"That is an excellent thing that you have done for Slyla, boy. She and I both appreciate it. However, I am still reluctant to trust you. I mean no disrespect when I say that I believe that you are capable of stealing the pennies from a man's eyes."

Erude feigned outrage and turned away.

The night became very cold. They built the fire up and all three slept nearby crowding each other under the blankets for warmth. During the night Erude became a bit too free with his hands lying near Slyla and she delivered a very well placed elbow to the youth and was able to spend the rest of the night in peace.

The warm dawn sun on the face of Erude awoke him. He sat up stiff and still tired. She stared out before him and rubbed his eyes with his knuckles. He could not believe what he saw. Scarcely three feet from where they slept by the dying embers of the fire, grew two parallel lines of flowers nearly six feet tall. They stretched off into the distance as far as he could see.

Slyla was the next to awake. She seemed to have recovered physically, but not emotionally from the death of her beloved oak tree. "What is this, warrior?" She said, addressing Erude.

"I know not Slyla."

Vileen threw off her blanket. "Apparently the flowers have found us!"

The fire was rekindled and hot purloined tea was prepared. Slyla said that she felt much better though very sad. She told them that she was not even aware that she could survive the death of her oak tree, but apparently she had. She now had no idea what to do with her life without the tree. Although he said nothing Erude now found he was terribly attracted by Slyla. He wondered at this. He guessed that this attraction was some kind of bizarre artifact of the oak tree's demise.

"This is all most strange" announced Erude as he sipped his hot tea.

"This is all most strange," they all heard repeated.

The three turned to the strange flowers.

"I think they spoke" whispered Vileen.

"I think they spoke" answered the flower closest to them.

"I spoke, I think!" The flower said.

"This can not be possible." Erude was amazed at the flower.

"This is most possible." Announced the flower.

Vileen and Erude were spellbound, but Slyla seemed barely phased.

"It is trying to use your words to speak to you. It can only use the words that it hears you speak aloud. You do not have telepathic communion with it." Slyla sipped her tea.

Vileen turned to the green girl. "Slyla, can you speak to it? Can you explain my problem, my desire to return to my time and place and leave this land behind?"

A stiff morning breeze began to sway the tall flowers and their gigantic heads of yellow and blue petals began to nod like the sleepy children of giants.

"Yes, Vileen, I can speak with the flowers." Slyla stood up and removed her robe. This sent a shiver through Erude. He quickly got up and threw the brown robe over Slyla's shoulders. Both Vileen and the green girl were touched by this, not knowing his reasoning behind the gesture.

She moved to the first flower and placed her delicate green hand on the broad stem. Slyla closed her eyes for a moment. Then she smiled. "It is now ready to answer your questions Vileen."

The sorceress took a step toward the plant, and buttoned up her green jerkin as the morning air seemed cold. "Where can I find a portal to return me to my world of Ar?"

"You look like one of us with your yellow hair, only not so pretty as we."

Vileen frowned. "That my very well be true, but it is my hope that you are more intelligent than I am. Can you lead me and my friends to a time portal?"

For some reason the flower began singing a song that Vileen had often heard Slyla sing.

Like a thousand tiny towers
In the early morning breeze
Nod the frail and blue-green flowers,
Tickling my calves and knees,
Here they banish grief and doom
And take away the evil hour,
Nod above the lonely tomb
Splendid and primeval flower…

Here Erude thought it best to interrupt the singing flower. "Ah, great and lovely, unequaled flower, we love your song! Marvelous, but it is wasted on us lowly animal types who can scarcely appreciate such beauty and intelligence as we see before us at this moment. Take pity upon these wretched animals you see here and send us home, we beg of you."

Vileen gave the youth a subtle nod of approval.

"Ah, I will do this for you animals provided you feed me first."

"Anything my lovely floral friend," said Erude as he bowed low to the flowers. The next words form the vegetative form of life shocked the trio.

"We are carnivorous and would love to ingest one of you, the largest one. Then I will tell you how you may get home." As the flower spoke it opened its petals to reveal a mouth the size of a bull's head, lined with numerous serrated teeth.

All three raised their eye brows. Erude shifted gears swiftly. "Oh, passionate and hungry flower, I have a more excellent idea! If you deign to tell us the way home you have my word that we will not set fire to you and your brethren. What say you to that deal?"

"I think," spoke the flower, "that we will eat all three of you instead. You see we are not like other flowers. We are mobile."

Much to the horror of the three the lead flower and a few of his fellows lifted root-like feet from the ground and slowly began to move toward them. In unison the prey grabbed their belongings and fled.

They were several hundred yards away as they turned to face their pursuers. Though slow, the two long lines of carnivorous flowers moved steadily toward them and seemed to gain in speed rather than to lose it.

"I must cast another spell to escape this place" huffed Vileen. She pulled her two companions closer and began to chant. After some time had passed and Vileen's chanting continued Erude looked out of the corner of his eye and saw the giant hungry flowers rapidly moving toward them. In the next instant they were transported. They all fell onto the middle of a cobbled street. Erude lay on his back and looked up. A huge Moon shone in the night sky. He saw the spiky tops of odd narrow buildings pierce the night sky. They were in the city of sorcerers. He jumped up from the wet and dirty street and assisted Slyla. The sorceress had been too quick for him and she was already standing. They were in some back alley of the odd city. The street was narrow and full of shops most of which were closed for the night. They saw a stream of yellow light coming from a tavern door and next to that a bordello was still open. He could tell it was a bordello by the universal symbol of the odd mandorla painted on the wooden swinging sign above the entrance.

They picked up their blankets and their other possessions and moved down the street uncertain of where they were going. They moved passed the noisy tavern where they caught snippets of cursing and ribald songs. They were approaching the bordello where they could hear female laughter and stringed instruments playing. The door was slightly ajar and a blade of yellow light fell out on the sidewalk and into the street.

No sooner had they reached the door when it sprung open and two huge men and two women almost as large jumped out and grabbed Vileen and Slyla and pulled them into the building. As they began to protest they were rendered unconscious by blows to the head.

"You idiot, Creeswid! You will kill them! Easy!" It was a man's voice.

"Why, these two are very easy on the eyes, are they not? But not much meat to them, they won't last long. Look, one of them is green!" Said one of the behemoth women involved in the attack.

Erude had been left unscathed as he deigned not to become involved, but ever quick witted he shouted out: "I've got three more, but with more beef on them. Pay me for these and I'll bring you the others in a trice!"

At first the kidnappers did not know quite what to say, but each seemed to think that one of them knew Erude and had worked with him before. Ere they could discuss the matter one of the behemoth women answered him. "Two pieces of silver, not a copper more!"

"Two pieces of silver each and I will bring the others back--and you can give me three pieces of silver each for them. What say you?" Erude acted as thou he and the huge woman had known each other and discussed such matters in the past.

She agreed to his terms.

The youth turned and retraced his steps. He could do nothing for Slyla and Vileen, he reasoned, so why not turn a small profit at their misfortune? No harm in that certainly. He now began to turn his mind toward a way back to the tower of Valistig and the return of this stolen jewel, the Eye of Thugrusian.

He climbed an elm tree in a nearby park after frightening away a pair of lovers. He found some secure branches laid out his blankets--he now had three--and went to sleep.

Next morning he breakfasted at a shabby inn called the Sensuous Sorceress. While he enjoyed his toast and tea he came up with a story to regale the old simulacrum that he would have to face upon his return. He would tell her that poor Vileen had met with an accident, that she had been devoured by carnivorous plants. He would say how he had single handedly slain several of the evil beings, but was knocked unconscious and left for dead, and that when he had awakened all he found was her severed hand with a stylus between thumb and index finger lying over a piece of parchment. The note told of Erude's bravery and of Vileen's last request that her simulacrum return the Eye of Thugrusian to him and wish him god speed.

Looking out the inn's window as he sipped his tea he noticed a faded sign in the narrow alley. It was apparently a sorcerer's shop. He could see an old man shuffling about through its dusty windows. Erude thought that he would try his luck there. Bolting from the inn without paying he went across the street to the shop.

He opened the door carefully and went in. In one corner of the tiny shop sat an ancient pale green parrot in a cage. It eyed Erude suspiciously and prattled:

A customer, a bride, a groom,
Come step right in and meet thy fate,
A thousand treasures, or swift doom,
For spells we charge the going rate!

The old wizard wore a conical hat crowning his head of long gray hair. He had his back to Erude. At the singing of the parrot he turned to see who had come into the shop. His white beard was nearly three feet long and in stark contrast to his purple sorcerer's robe. "What can I do for you, my boy? A love potion to make a maid fall in love with thee, eh?"

"No," replied Erude. "I…"

He was interrupted by the old man. "Then a spell to cuckold the husband of your beloved? But you seem like such a nice boy, why would want to do such a thing, really! There is a brothel just around the corner, which I can happily recommend as I…"

"No!" Shouted the youth. He saw that he was not going to get anywhere with this ancient unless he made himself entirely clear. "Time portals! I am interested in time portals!"

The old wizard looked at him as though he could not believe his ears. It would be difficult to imagine a more surprised look if he had heard an ape speak. "Time portals?" he whispered. "No one has asked about time portals in years."

The ever shrewd Erude gazed wistfully into the air and said, "Oh, well, perhaps a sorcerer with more erudition and skill could be of assistance to me."

"No, wait, young man! If you are certain that it is not a girl you wish to woo, but a time portal I can be of assistance to you. Follow me!"

Erude walked behind the counter and followed the old man to an iron door. The wizard fumbled with a key and then unlocked it. He pushed it inward and it groaned mightily. Erude saw a winding staircase leading downwards. As they began to descend they heard the loud screeching of bats as four of the creatures flew up out of the darkened deeps and passed them on the stairs. A foul stench filled the place. The wizard pulled an old torch off the rock wall and magically lit it. The torch flamed up and cast an odd shadowy light about the pair.

They descended for what seemed to Erude an extremely long time. At length they reached the bottom. There was water everywhere when they reached the bottom step, though it occurred to Erude that the steps may have gone many feet past the surface of the water. There was a rotting wooden bridge from the steps that led to a small pier and a heavy wooden door. The old sorcerer led the way across the rickety bridge and the youth followed. The old man opened the door at the end of the pier.

Erude found himself in a musty room filled with dozens of Mirrors like the one through which he had come into this world. In the center of the room was a large table with an immense book resting upon it. The wizard placed his flaming brand into a notch in the table. "Well now, I'm assuming that you wish to return to your world, as that is the only reason that anyone has any interest in time portals. To what world do you wish to return, and what was the name of the portal through which you entered here?"

"My world is called Ar, and the portal through which I left it was called Valistig's Tower."

The old man licked his thumb and began to turn the pages in the gigantic book. After several minutes he let out an "ah, ha! I have it! Looking glass 714!" Here he snatched up the torch and led the way down a long corridor of mirrors. "Here it is, young man. This looking glass will return you to the tower of Vastilig. Now the payment for this will be…"

Erude politely interrupted him. "Sir, you recall I left a bag of gold coins, three times your requirement near your parrot."

The old wizard's face looked strained as he tried to remember. "Yes," he said, "yes, of course, and thank you very much! Now stand close to the mirror while I recite the spell."

The ancient sorcerer sang a tuneful spell which lasted but briefly. "Step," commanded the gray beard, "step though the mirror."

Erude obeyed and found himself once again in the Tower of Valistig in the Haunted Marsh. He looked about him. Almost all was as he had left it. There sat the old hag of a simulacrum at the table, little more than a skeleton. "Ah," she said, and there was a very odd twinkle in her watery eye, "so you have returned, and where pray tell is the sorceress Vileen?"

Like a seasoned actor Erude launched into his role as the brave youth who tried in vain to save Vileen. There were tears in his eyes when he related his highly original, but dubious tale of the finding Vileen's severed hand and the note that she had written to her simulacrum. All in all he was quite proud of himself.

"Well," enunciated the old hag, "under those circumstances it seems that I have no choice but to award you the Eye of Thugrusain. Bring in the Eye!" She commanded, and from the hall way he watched in abject terror as Vileen and Slyla walked into the room. They were both dressed like strumpets with garish rouge on their face and lips, and in the case of Slyla this looked quite funny as her skin was green. He also noticed blood on their garments, but he had a terrible suspicion that it was not their blood but the blood of the hapless quartet who had shanghaied them the night before. Vileen had her quiver of arrows slung over her bare shoulder and Slyla, who he had thought was a pacifist held an ugly looking cudgel. The look in the eyes of the two women was indecipherable except to say that it was something like animus laced with pure malice.

"Ah, my dear Erude," spoke Vileen, and her heavily rouged lips quivered with pure hatred as she spoke. "Perhaps you would like to take the Eye of Thugrusian from me?"

Erude found himself in a position unlike any other in his short life. He saw no way out. Then, he thought, this must be the end. I am to die today. He began to whisper prayers to the great goddess Slid that he might keep his worthless life as well as the Eye of Thugrusian. The first prayers he had said since his early childhood.

Suddenly there was a commotion in the hallway. He saw the eunuchs of Thugrusian rush in with pikes at the ready. The two girls turned upon them with their magics. Flame flew from the hands of Vileen and Slyla, as the eunuchs dropped left and right, but still they came. After a brief minute they plunged into the room. Erude, ever cautious, jumped under the heavy table upon which he had dined several days before, and listened to the life and death struggle going on around him. There was a scream and he saw the ancient simulacrum fall in a pile of dust with a pike through her middle. He saw the door way clear for just a second and then made his move. He bolted through the doorway and out into the hall but fell among the charred bodies of the slain eunuchs. He got up and ran, and as he did he heard Slyla yell: "He escapes, Vileen, he escapes!"

Desperate he ran down the corridor only to find a fresh group of enraged eunuchs armed with broad-headed axes and long, tapering swords. He was forced to flee back the way he had come. He nearly ran into Vileen who had just finished off the last of the pike wielding eunuchs. He ducked into a side door just as the charging axe bearers arrived. Another vicious fight ensued, though the poor eunuchs had little chance against the two angry and magical women.

Once again, Erude was able to make his way out of the door and as he did he looked down and saw that Vileen had dropped the Eye of Thugrusian. He scoped it up and was off, running faster than he had ever run in his entire life, out past the rushing eunuchs who now gave him no notice as they were intent upon slaying the girls. Somehow he found the room by which he had gained access to the tower originally. He shimmied out onto the branch of the banyan tree and was about to start down the tree when he heard his name called. "Boy, now you will pay for your treachery."

He turned to see Vileen. She had blood streaming from one ear and there was a pike protruding from her chest. She raised her hand and uttered a few unintelligible words, and then fell back. Suddenly Erude dropped from the tree like a stone and hit the mossy, swampy grass. The great gleaming gem fell in front of him. It seemed immense. He realized that he was naked. He looked down and saw that he was standing on his hands, but no, they were webbed like the feet of frogs. An ant moved in front of him. It seemed gigantic. Suddenly he lashed out with his tongue, corralled the insect in a second had swallowed it. He now became aware of his plight. He was no longer human, but a bull frog! With her last breath Vileen had changed him into an amphibian. The huge jewel gleamed in front of him. His mouth was now extremely large in proportion to his body. He reached down and swallowed the Eye of Thugrusain!

He later watched a handful of fleeing eunuchs run off into the swamp to escape the wrath Slyla. Erude sunned himself on a rock near the swamp and the giant banyan tree by the tower. The Eye of Thugrusian stuck in his gut, to big to pass. He would have it with him always. He ambushed a dragon fly as he watch the lovely Slyla emerge from the fetid swamp after washing off her rouge and the blood of the angry eunuchs. She was singing as she moved to the huge banyan tree. She stood before it and began to sing to the tree caressing it lovingly. This went on for upwards of an hour while Erude devoured several dragon flies and a numerous horse flies. Lazily he watched the spirit of the oak become the spirit of the banyan as she climbed up into the safety of its branches. She had her tree and he had his precious jewel. During the next several weeks their paths often crossed and on each occasion he would admire her beauty and agility. On one occasion he even called out to her in his great croaking voice. She looked at him in alarm and shouted something back to Erude, but he never heard it as a large alligator gobbled him up in a single bit.

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