At the far side of the tree break, the newly reunited Susan party looked out over what was left of Malmort. Rik, the only one who had seen that land before - albeit under a different name - sobbed openly as he viewed the devastation.
"Here," he said when speech returned to him, "were verdant grazing lands, park lands where children played, and there - the most fertile farmland you could imagine. The profusion of plant life was unparalleled. And now ..."
The barren scene before them could not even be called desert, since much beauty blooms in a real desert. No, this was a vision straight out of a hellish nightmare. Sickly fetid streams dribbled between humps of some cracked grey substance that may once have been dirt. Flaccid broken stumps rose up, and frayed, blackened fronds straggled this way and that, up and down the gouged-out landscape.
"I would hesitate to even consider crossing this waste," Esther said, "were we not protected."
She adjusted the magical cloth over her face - even Lero deigned to wrap her nose and mouth against the stench - and stroked the panther who cowered in her shadow.
But Ayelet, who had just finished dabbing their eyes and ears with her counter-evil elixir, saw her rat rush forward towards a tiny, almost invisible spot of green about two yards in front of them. She watched in silent trepidation as the rodent gripped something in his sharp teeth and tugged mightily. When whatever it was yielded, the little fellow nearly toppled over backwards. By the time he raced back to his human companion, all eyes were upon him and all breath was held as he triumphantly laid the fruits of his labours at his mistress' feet.
"Lev v'rosh," Ayelet murmured in wonder, picking up the plant sprig and holding it carefully under her nose. "Heart and head," she translated for Crane's benefit - for the others were all conversant with the language of Esther's people. "It brews up into a most enlightening beverage, though we certainly can't consider stopping to build a fire and decoct ..."
Her rat had already made several more forays into the wasteland. The end result was a handsome bouquet of the plants, which Ayelet held and regarded pensively as the party gathered around her.
"Remember how I told you, Crane," she mused, "that you would one day be grateful for our ratly companion?"
Crane bowed his head in assent, then looked up thoughtfully. "Do you think we might simply eat a small amount of this ... Lev V'rosh ... with no ill effects? I have told you how a mere drop of sap cured my paralysis, and how proximity to the spider's web was enough to fully restore me. I am not one to disrespect ritual, Lady, but perhaps when the aim is already so focussed it allows the substance to work directly."
Ayelet grinned. "Just what I was thinking, though you phrase it most eloquently, my dear friend!" She distributed the leaves and flowers to her fellows. "Do not neglect to share with our non-human and - er - other companions," she added, looking meaningfully at Hench.
"Unk," he said, as Crane handed him his portion.
Once they had all chewed and swallowed the pleasant morsels, every one noticed a most lovely aroma arising around them. It was sweet and fresh like a new day dawning.
And then something even more amazing happened.
Nicky and Elvis did not find Monty at the greenhouse. Not at first.
First they found the plant lady who had been quoted in the newspaper interview. She was trimming a small, pointy-leaved tree that flanked the fishpond, pulling off some yellowed fruits about the size and shape of a fist.
"Buddha's hand," Elvis explained to Nicky.
The worker smiled at him. "The man knows his ornamentals," she said.
"My name's Elvis, and this is my daughter Nicolette. Plants are a hobby of mine. Not like you," he added. "You're a professional. Read about you in the paper."
"And that piqued your interest, did it? I'm Jane, by the way. And if you look here you'll see what I was talking about. I just clipped this one off -" she displayed a shrunken fruit that looked like its juice had been drained "- but look there. It's like the plant is fighting back."
On close inspection, they could see several juicy buds appearing among the papery leaves.
"It's growing two new ones for each one it loses," Elvis observed.
"Right again," Jane said. "That kind of thing is happening all over the conservatory, now that I've started dead-heading. First we tried the usual anti-fungals and insecticidal soaps, even though we couldn't see any bugs or mold. But the plants kept ailing so I started cutting. It was either that or call a shaman."
Elvis coughed. Nicky started to say "My dad's a -" but he interrupted her.
"Could you show us some of the other sick plants?" he asked Jane.
They paced the entire structure from the orchid wall to the cactus room, looking at death and rebirth. Finally Jane had to leave them and get back to work. There was no obvious sign of Montgomery Dickson.
They felt somewhat cheered by the signs of life, but the situation was still disturbing.
"This stinks," Elvis pronounced, when the Lightfoots were alone again.
"And that's not just the damaged vegetable matter," his daughter agreed. "But he's been here."
"Hmm-mm. Look there, Nick - what's that in the corner?"
Lero's scarf had slipped off of her ears when she wrapped her nose and mouth. After savouring the plant Ayelet gave her, she shook her head and pulled at her earlobes.
"I think it's another one of her tricks," she told the others. Fastening the fabric once more over one ear, she listened thoughtfully for a moment before saying, "Everyone cover your ears and tell me what you see."
Her comrades did as she bid them. The sweet scent of Lev V'Rosh surrounded them while its clarifying essence infiltrated their bloodstreams and rose to their heads. As the evil voices ceased - voices that only became noticeable when silenced - they saw the land before them as it truly was. To their collective relief, it was not nearly as barren as it had previously appeared. The fumes and the voices had bewitched them into overlooking the brave and delicate fauna that persisted despite Merwa's predations.
And then they became aware of an unwieldy, ramshackle structure that squatted like a huge fungus at the edge of the open land, close by the city's gates.
"Crystal palace," Hench said clearly, pointing. "Merwa's home."
The dull, semi-reflective surface of Merwa's palace, like a polluted pond or a tarnished mirror, had caused it to be camouflaged as long as the land appeared grey. Once the party perceived the subtle green shades of the surrounding fields, the palace stood out like rotten fruit on a healthy tree.
Finally the goal was in sight. All that remained was to find the sorceress, take her down off her ill-gotten throne and definitively defeat her.
"The problem is," Sam complained to Tova as he cooked dinner that night, "although I know what's going to happen - Crane's gonna win, he always does, there's no question about that - I just can't seem to ... to orchestrate it."
"Maybe you're not completely over Monty's, um, curse, for want of a better word. Careful, your garlic's about to burn."
"My garlic's just fine; you'll enjoy the caramelized flavour," he retorted. "And you're probably right about the curse. I sure will feel better when he's caught. Ah -" he nodded at Tova as the buzzer sounded "- can you let the detective in? I got to stir these here vegetables."
A few minutes later Jewell was inside their apartment door, standing at a sort of uneasy Attention with her feet firmly planted and her mobile features expressing a range of emotions as they described the latest developments. She had refused their offer of dinner. When they got to the part about Elvis and Nikki going to the greenhouse, she rolled her eyes and said "Damn! I better go rescue them. 'Scuse me."
And she ducked back out their door.
YOU ARE READING
Once upon a time there was a warrior queen who loved peace ... Mild-mannered writer Samuel J. Burnside is working on his latest adventure story, set in ancient Susa, where Queen Esther is teaching former harem slaves how to fight! But can Sam's new...