“Kiss my dimpled white ass!” Dave said.
“Then die!” the Darkness said.
The worm struck. However, despite the speed of the attack, as the head reached out with curved, clicking mandibles to seize Dave, Manny pushed him out of the way. Dave fell on his face in the dirt, rolled over just in time to see the mouth snap closed over Manny’s neck and shoulder. The priest didn’t even scream as it lifted him off his feet, shaking him back and forth. Drops of blood showered the desert as the abomination flung Manny’s limp body aside to land several yards away.
“No!” Dave screamed.
The worm arched above him. Once again its jaws gaped wide. A long, thin tongue protruded between the two segmented mandibles, dangling. The maw dripped a mixture of blood and venom. Dave braced himself for the strike, but it never came.
From out of nowhere, Brian hurled himself on the gargantuan worm. He locked his arms and legs around the thing’s neck, his weight and momentum bearing the head almost to the ground. He held on as the beast began to thrash. It drove him against the hard desert soil, trying to dislodge him.
“Alderman!” the Darkness cooed.
“Brian, no!” Dave shouted, struggling to his feet.
With a jerk powered by its massive coils, the thing flung Brian from it. Time seemed retarded as Dave watched the culmination of the brief struggle. The worm reared back and struck, sinking its mandibles into Brian’s side, almost biting him in half.
“No!” Dave’s scream became lost amidst an explosion of blinding light and thunder. Dave saw the head of the centipede blown away in a flowering of blue fire. Then the shockwave reached him, carrying him off his feet.
Dave felt as if he were on fire, as though he had been struck by lightning. Then a cold chill passed through him, followed by a strange tingling. He rolled onto his hands and knees, his ears ringing. He noted with little interest that the sand on which he lay had been turned to glass. One thing demanded his attention as he heaved to his feet. The old man ran to where Brian lay on his face in the dirt, naked. The explosion had turned Brian’s clothes to ashes. Dave touched Brian to roll him over, pulling his hand back with a jerk as it was burned, Brian’s flesh being hotter to the touch than the embers of a dying fire.
“Brian!” Dave tried again, succeeding in rolling him onto his back. Brian looked like he had been cut into with a power saw, a deep, jagged wound opened between his lower rib and hip, exposing torn muscle tissue and the gleam of bone. Dave saw no bleeding, though the wound and the skin around it had turned a repulsive purple. Cauterized. Dave checked for a pulse.
“Oh, God!” Dave felt a faint heartbeat under his fingertips. Sucking in a deep breath, drawing upon all his strength, he tried to lift Brian from the ground. He ended up half carrying, half dragging him toward the back door of the church.
Dave looked back over his shoulder at the worm and the dwarf. The former, lacking a head, was crawling away. The dwarf lay wallowing on the ground, moaning in the voice of a little girl that made the scene all the more repugnant. It had burst apart, now sprawled amidst a quivering mass of viscera; a black pulpy lump beat with the regularity of a heartbeat. Dave gagged and looked away as the entire organism began to seep into the ground as though melting.
Dave managed to get Brian into the church and down the stairs to the shrine and the healing pool. Collapsing next to the crater in exhaustion, he allowed Brian to sink down into the mud, his own heart pounding with such violence that Dave feared he might have a heart attack. After a few moments, though, he felt a little better, and turned his attention to Brian.
“Come on, Champ,” Dave said, smearing the mud all over Brian’s exposed skin. “You did good. Real good. You can’t quit now.” He thought of Manny, the priest’s ravaged body lying discarded outside, beyond all help. Dave chanted a Navajo prayer for his lost friend, then a prayer of healing for the one still breathing, albeit not by much.
The strain of exertion overcame him and Dave slipped into unconsciousness on the cavern floor. He slept as a dead man next to the pool of the Sacred Earth. Thus he did not see Brian begin to sink into the muck. Little by little it covered him, until even his face slipped below the surface. At length he vanished altogether, the Earth having claimed him.
Neither did Dave see the tiny stem that broke the surface of the mud pool. With incredible rapidity, a bud formed, then a bloom. A little flower opened its petals in the cavern, a starburst of color in a world of stone. From the mud bloomed a blue lotus.