@Copyright E. Charles Tucker, all rights reserved. Please do not reproduce without the expressed written consent of the author.

Rites of Passage (Part II)

The imp squealed in pain as the Minotaur's hoof came crashing down, ending it's life with a sickening crunch. The young bull stepped back, his chest heaving from over-exertion. "Gods curse them!" he spat, his red-shot eyes darting back and forth in the murky darkness. There were several more of these creatures, he knew, scores more just lurking in wait within the shadows. He'd already killed over a dozen and still the sewerspawn contined to harass him!

He moved forward, satisfied that the area was, for the moment, secure. Blackish water oozed around his ankles, stinging the dozens of fine cuts and gashes he'd suffered at the hands of the tiny demons. M'Kowh paused a moment, inspecting the wounds; the first signs of infection were showing, the edges of the cuts puckered and discolored.

The Minotaur gave a silent thanks to Krag, God of Strength, for helping him past the first wave of imps. They'd swarmed him, their small size and natural maliciousness making it impossible for him to stand his ground against a horde of the demons. He'd ran, trying desperately to find an escape; blinded by a cut along his brow he'd stumbled through a false wall, tumbling into a deeper part of the labyrinth that constantly tested him. He fell hard, crashing into the muck with a heavy splash; from the scent he knew he'd fallen into an old sewage system, the gods-cursed scent nearly turning his stomach.

The imps gave him little time to reflect on his surroundings. He'd heard the nearby sounds of chittering laughter and water splashing; the demons had found a way to reach him, and were hot on his trail. "I'll not be dinner to those beasts!" he'd growled; his jaw set he waded through the tunnel, hoping to find an escape from his pursuers.

The sewers turned out to be an extension of the labyrinth itself, much to M'Kowh's fortune. The imps soon became as lost as he was, separating in the twisting, branching tunnels. He'd only encountered the imps in pairs or alone since, giving him the greater advantage; still, he was wounded, hungry, and tiring. Very little of his body remained unscarred by the attacks; his arms still dripped blood from recent wounds. Most were superficial and would leave little scars; some, however, needed attention - and soon. A nasty gash on his leg throbbed incessantly; with a grunt he tore a strip of hide from his loincloth and tied the makeshift cord around his leg, just above the wound. It would keep, for a while; nodding in resigned approval he trudged on.

After a few minutes walk he came across a network of smaller viaducts, branching off in several directions. One, he reasoned, must lead to another larger tunnel; from there, perhaps, he could find his escape. The young Minotaur closed his eyes, relying on his innate sense of direction to give him insight as to which passage would suit him best. His nostrils flared - a warm breeze, subtle but there nonetheless, wafted east to west. He could feel the slight imbalance in the ground - the path west inclined ever-so-slightly upwards, its appearance flat to untrained eye.

M'Kowh decided to trust his instincts; crouching low to fit into the viaduct he stepped into the western tunnel, crawling along his hands and knees through the fetid water. The smell threatened to overwhelm him; he stopped often, nesting his muzzle into his armpit to catch his breath. He moved on, soon rewarded as he noticed the water's color losing it's blackish taint and taking on a greenish film instead. He'd never try drinking it, and he was certain this water was as dangerous for his wounds as the black ooze had been; still it gave him hope, the green coloring a sure sign that plant life - and the surface - was nearby.

The tunnel began to widen dramatically, much to the delight of his aching back. He stood, standing shakily on his wounded leg; a sudden image of a wounded warrior, his leg amputated, poured adrenalin through the Minotaur's body. Determined not to fail he strode confidently down the tunnel, taking a passing notice of the rising level of water. It now sat acorss his waist, threatening to rise ever further if he continued along the path; a throb in his thigh gave him renewed purpose, pushing him forward.

Rounding a sudden bend he froze, his eyes wide; before him lay a giant pool of moss-covered water, surrounded by an immense cavern of crystalline stone. The pinkish-quartz stone reflected what little light drifted down from the ceiling, bouncing off the green water of the pool and shining it back onto the walls in a rainbow of light and color. He stood, transfixed - and caught his breath as comprehension dawned upon him. Light! He jerked his head up, inspecting the ceiling; there, in the far corner - an opening! A beam of light broke through, reflected across the walls a hundred times; if he could swim this pool he could climb his way to freedom!

Excited, the youth waded deeper into the murky water oblivious to the strands of green moss that drifted past his head. Something thick and wet slapped against his leg; he idly kicked it away, his eyes focused the wall beneath the opening. Already he could see the best path to climb, seeing purchase for his hands and hooves along the cavern wall. He stepped foward - and stumbled, his left leg suddenly jerking spasmodically. He cursed, maintaining his balance and testing the pool's floor - and nearly fell again as his leg buckled beneath him, all feeling gone from it! "What socery?!" he roared, whipping his head about; nothing moved within the cave, either in the water or without. Panic gripped him; was it the wound, some poison in his blood taking root and spreading? Would he lose his limb and die here, within this cave, alone and honorless?

Noises echoed from the tunnel he'd left; all-too familiar noises. His eyes narrowed, trying to pierce the darkness and distance as the splashing and chittering began to slowly increase. The imps had found him - and from the sounds echoing back at him they'd regrouped, coming at him en masse. He needed out of this cavern, leg or no leg - and now. M'Kowh thrashed about, determined to reach the other side of the pool in spite of his numbed leg; without it, however, he knew he'd never reach the other side before the horde advanced upon him.

Unless...he could buy himself a few minutes of free movement. Rearing back his head he gulped a full breath of air and dove, using his good leg to propel himself under the water. Here, he realized, he could move much more freely than stumbling along one leg - and keep himself out of sight of the imps for precious moments more. He'd always loved swimming, and often played games with other calves underwater, the loser being the first to come up for air; for once his childhood games would serve him in good stead.

The floor of the pool dropped sharply; the water was much deeper than he'd expected. His eyes stung, the water filled with particles and debris. Still, he thought, better this than facing the full mass of demons head-on. Movement caught his eye; a dark shape drifted lazily towards him. Fish, here? Not impossible, given all he'd encountered within the labyrinth. He kicked out, using his arms as an oar to turn away from the oncoming object. As expected, the shape turned to intercept; M'Kowh rose to the surface, gasping for air. "Not now" he grumbled, turning towards the tunnel entrance. He could see the first imps hopping about, clinging to the walls and ceilings; one pointed his way, sending the Minotaur diving back beneath the water.

By now the shape had come within reach; it was a frond, some extension of plant life living in the middle of the lake. Inwardly he chuckled, careful not to open his mouth. Only a sea-bush of some kind, searching for food; he ignored the waving tentacle and kicked forward, his massive arms propelling him ever closer to his goal. Something solid brushed against his side, turning his head back; it was the plant frond, again inspecting him for food. M'Kowh lashed out with his good hoof, kicking the leaf aside; he hadn't time for this, not with the imps trying to find a way to reach him.

Annoyed he turned - and gasped aloud in pain as his side went ice-cold, completely numb to the touch! The extended frond was looping back around towards him, several more of it's kind following behind. Gods curse me for a fool! he chided himself, even as his lungs filled with the infested water. He rose once more, his chest tight and heavy from lack of air. How in Krag's name would he get out of this? he cried, searching frantically for the imps that even now paddled determinedly towards him, water frothing before and behind them. He glanced back towards his goal, less than half the distance across the pool away - and yet, seemingly miles and miles from his reach. He couldn't escape the plant beneath the water, not while it kept paralyzing his body!

Or, he quickly thought, could he? An idea formed within his mind; M'Kowh dove under the water, tracking the progress of the ever-slow moving fronds. Judging by their motion it would be another minute before they reached him; just enough time, he grinned. With a grimace of pain he broke the surface, keeping himself aloft. "Come, motherless spawn!" he shouted, waving one arm in the air. "Come, then, and face me!" The imps shrieked in reply, excitedly climbing over each other in their haste to reach him. The Minotaur roared back, slapping his open palm onto the surface of the water defiantly.

He waited until they were only yards away before diving back under the water, quickly searching for the plant tentacles he knew would be close. Darkness loomed up before his face; he twisted to the side, barely avoiding the wafting leaf. He could see the small puckers on the tip of the plant, eagerly grasping at emptiness; he guessed the plant released a mild poison, using it to incapacitate its victims before pulling them close. With a strong kick he dove further, avoiding the mass of leaves that even now wafted towards the new disturbances. Behind him the water churned as the demonic creatures scrambled hungrily along, following blindly in his wake.

Another tentacle reached towards him; M'Kowh lunged forward, grasping the twisting limb in his hands. He spun around, thrusting the plant before him and into the face of an overly eager creature. Surprised by the action the imp froze, just enough for the plant to adhere itself to it's face; the tiny monster cried a liquid scream as another frond reached out, wrapping itself around the imp's torso.

More creatures swarmed the Minotaur; here in the water, however, their numbers were more of a hinderance than an advantage. M'Kowh grabbed one by the throat, squeezing and forcing it's mouth open. It's struggles became more frantic as water filled it's hellish lungs; the young bull flung the creature from him, sending it tumbling towards the mass of plant tentacles that eagerly grasped his way. Rearing back his arm he flung out, knocking another group of imps back into each other.

The plant moved too slowly, M'Kowh realized; he'd have to draw the creatures even further down, putting himself at greater risk. Rising to the surface for a quick burst of air he splashed through the water, letting his own body weight drag him closer to the source of the grasping plant extensions. Blinded in their hunger and rage the carniverous imps swam after him, just as the Minotaur hoped they would.

A murky shadow grew ever larger as he kicked through the water; M'Kowh froze momentarily as the darkness took on shape. It was massive, one pulsing mound of plant life nestled on the floor of the cavern pool. The entire creature seemed made of the grasping tentacles; at a glance he guessed over a hundred vines fluttered out from it's central body. Even now he could see one of the imps being brought into the bulbulous body, the frond pulling the demon to its hidden core. M'Kowh shuddered involuntarily; he could only image what process the plant monster used to consume it's prey.

Not, he reflected, that he had any intention of finding out. Claws grabbed at his back, the imps having gained while he was distracted. Instead of fighting, however, he curled into a defensive ball and allowed the imps to surround him. Some foolishly cackled at his seeming helplessness, clutching at their throats with the loss of air. One bit down hard on his leg, nearly forcing a roar of pain from his mouth. M'Kowh gave a hard kick with his good leg, slamming a hoof into the diminutive demon and sending himself tumbling head over hoof towards a group of reaching plants. The vines hungrilly surrounded him, plucking imps off his curled form like fruit from a bush. Angrilly the imps swarmed the tentacles, seeing them as the greater threat than the Minotaur. They attacked the vines in earnest, slashing and biting with wild abandon; more and more of the imps became entangled within the paralyzing fronds, others finding mindless glee in shredding the sentient plant life. One overly-eager frond clutched at the minotaur's face; he twisted, using his horn tip to slash at the offending appendage. Pushing away from the melee M'Kowh allowed himself a grin; satisfied that the imps would find themselves occupied for a while he propelled himself forward, onwards towards the cliff wall and away from the combatting creatures.

He soon burst back onto the surface of the water, pleased to see he'd nearly covered the remaining distance. A mild tingling sensation gnawed at his leg; it was regaining feeling, a good sensation. M'Kowh spared a look back, noting the wild chaos in the water far behind him; the imps, mindless in their assault, simply saw the attacking plant as another prey to be victimized - with M'Kowh now a forgotten memory. The plant, of course, saw a vast supply of food; the Minotaur chuckled. "A good match, they are" he mused, gently swimming towards the cavern wall. With a smile on his face he grasped the crystalline rock facing, freedom from the sewers a tedious - but welcome - climb away.

- to be continued -