BY JEFFREY BLAIR LATTA
Though it had been long since last she had seen this place, nothing had changed. The heavy fog still hung in the branches like a funeral shroud. The glade itself was free of most vegetation, but trees and boughs so surrounded and enclosed it that, even at the height of day, little light penetrated its stagnant depths -- this further adding to the gloomy sense of perpetual twilight.
Even the presense of her powerful companion and saviour was not enough to dispell the overwhelming sense of doom and menace which seemed to exude from every bowing leaf, every mossy stone, and every twisting thread of mist. The very substance of the place seemed wrought of some foul alien stuff, potent with evil.
Even the altar room in the Tower of the Tiger, with its obscene tapestries and otherworldly atmosphere, had not seemed so fraught with grisly horror as did this haunting glade. That room at least had held some suggestion of human intervention, however warped and depraved. Here there was nothing human. Here was nature's hand alone -- but a dark, deformed side to nature. Almaz shivered as she had shivered once before.
Death was still in the air.
"Hai -- this must be the place."
The Ronin's grisly mirth was lost on the girl, as her eyes too fell upon the three corpses which lay sprawled before the mouth of the cave precisely as they had fallen so long ago. She pressed a hand to her lips to stifle a moan.
There was scant remaining by which they might be identified. The worst had ended long ago -- the period during which they would have bloated and turned black-green with rot and a hideous reek would have filled the still air as thick as the fog. Now bones were all that remained -- yellow bones, coated with a sickly green fungus and a slick black scum. Hungry thorned creepers wound in and out of the naked ribs, climbed grotesquely from the eye-sockets and curled tightly about the limb-bones as if seeking to pull free of their roots and to make off with their ghastly prizes.
Large fern fronds nodded slowly over one smooth skull like a mocking parody of a feathered fan. They had wished to never work another day in their lives.
Their wish was granted.
Seeing the skeletons of her captors suddenly gave unwelcome credence to what, over time, had seemed more and more a dream. Now the memories came to Almaz in a rush, each shade more cruelly distinct than the last. Again she wanted only to flee this place, to run and run until she could run no more. Why had she followed this accursed Ronin? He had been right that she wished to see the treasure. -- but no treasure was worth this!
Fukitso had none of her memories. The Ronin strode into the glade after only a moment's hesitation, his confidence unshaken. He too sensed the nature of this place, but he and death were old friends. He did not even bother to draw Ginago from its scabbard on his back.
But then, he ran a quick practiced eye over the bones, and frowned.
"Strange," he muttered, more to himself than to his companion. "The barapur should have found these bodies the first night. They use their mandibles to cut up their food. Then they carry off the pieces. These wretches haven't been touched."
His eerie, nearly-white gaze travelled slowly, suspiciously around the dark tangled perimeter. He still kept his sword in its sheath, but now he was less sure, more respectful.
Almaz knew what he was thinking, even if he did not speak it. Even the creatures of the woods had reason to fear this place.
Fukitso examined the bodies again. He noted that two had died of broken necks, the skulls facing the wrong way and the vertebrae of their necks being crushed to mere splinters. Whoever had done this had indeed been a powerful man.
Until now, the Ronin had assumed that the girl's tale had been an exaggeration, her memories being coloured by her young mind's tendency to be easily impressed. Now he saw that her description had been disturbingly accurate. The man, Karim, who had entered that cave had been, if not Fukitso's equal, at least a very close second. And yet, that man had not returned...
Ginago swished softly into the misty air.
"This one here," Fukitso queried, motioning toward the largest skeleton. "This is the one you killed with a spear?"
Almaz took one timorous step forward, still keeping her distance. She nodded quickly. "I think so."
"No need to keep back. You won't wake him. Doji's fire, girl! Where did you learn to drive a spear? You must have put the tip clear through his chest."
He seemed to derive great amusement from this, and he laughed in a dry guttural cough. Almaz felt the blood suffuse her cheeks at his praise.
"I had no choice," she answered truthfully.
"No, I suppose not." He coughed again and, without further comment, his attention turned to the black swamp which gleamed dimly through the net of vines to his left. Almaz was vexed to find that he so quickly dismissed her deed from his mind.
Having satisfied himself
as to the situation outside the cave, the Ronin now faced the shadowed
mouth itself. He faced it as he might face a living opponent -- with
his blade at the ready, his brow furrowed and truculent. Whatever
waited in that impenetrable darkness, however many lives it had claimed,
it had yet to meet a
In the jungle heat, Fukitso had carried his overmantle and kimono bundled under his arm. Now he dropped the bundle to the sward just in front of the cave.
"No!" Almaz grabbed him by the arm as she had grabbed Karim. But this time, she had no intention of being cast aside so easily.
"Be reasonable, girl. I can't be worrying about you in there."
"I stayed behind once before. Not again. If I have to, I will follow you on my own. I swear I will!"
There was fierce resolve in her tone, and her eyes blazed with a light of hard, unswerving purpose. Fukitso knew hers was no idle threat.
"All right. At least I'll know where you are. But do exactly as I say. If trouble starts, keep out of my way. And, if you value your hide, you'll keep quiet."
And, so, together they entered the cave...
Almaz recalled the warning written on the treasure map:
Beware the beast with a thousand claws./ Take care the thing with a thousand jaws./ In Gehenna it spawned, in darkness it lies./ Effendi, beware, for the beast never dies.
The faint glow of the cave-mouth quickly gave way to total darkness in which a thing with "a thousand jaws" could easily have crouched without their knowledge until far too late. Almaz shivered.
There was no way of knowing the extent of the cave, but it did not take long before she realized that they had already walked farther than a cave could encompass.
"It's a tunnel," muttered the Ronin -- and she wondered how he could see walls which she could not. Perhaps his strange eyes could see in the dark as well as into her soul?
"How do you know?"
"Can you not feel it?"
She concentrated, trying to feel what she could not see -- trying to see with her body what she could not with her eyes. The air was cold, almost frigid, and it numbed her naked limbs and waist. She wished that she might press closer to the man before her, to partake of the warmth which she felt radiating from the hard muscle beneath her fingertips. But she had promised not to be in the way. And she did not want to show weakness.
"I don't feel anything," she replied, resolutely biting her lip.
His grunted command was followed by the sound of his sword scraping gratingly on stone. It came from her left. Then the sound was repeated to her right and then above.
"See," he said, briefly.
From the impatient timbre in his voice, she knew that he did not want acknowledgement. He wanted quiet. So they continued on in silence.
The agony of the cold gradually became more and more unbearable until Almaz thought she would scream from its sharp caress. Then, abruptly, the temperature began to rise, and presently, the air, though not warm, grew temperate enough as to bring some life back into her tortured limbs. At the same time, she felt her companion's muscles suddenly tensen so that, what before had felt as hard as stone, now rose beneath her fingers like molded iron. She knew why.
Whatever awaited them, most likely lived in this warm section of tunnel.
Suddenly, Almaz gave a sharp cry of surprise, as she heard something crunch loudly underfoot. In the jungle, the Ronin had lent her his sandals to protect her delicate soles. They were far too large for her tiny feet, but they served well enough. Now they proved more useful than either of them had imagined.
"Shhh," came an angry admonishment in the dark. "It's just fragments of obsidian -- volcanic glass. Do you want me to carry you?"
The glass ground loudly with each step and, in spite of the sandals, occasionally small shards worked their way beneath Almaz's soles, where they pricked fiercely. In fact, as the two companions progressed farther and the crunching did not let up, so many bits found her delicate feet that the many pricks became a sustained burning.
The girl soon wished that she had accepted the Ronin's invitation to be carried, but she felt she could not change her mind now. Apparently his feet were not bothered by the sharp detritus, or at least he kept his pain to himself.
With some disquiet, she now found that she could indeed "feel" the walls around them. They seemed so close that she might touch them with but the slightest gesture.
She had never before experienced claustrophobia, but she did so now. The walls seemed so close and so massive, and the air seemed so warm and so stagnant. What had wrought this change? Had the tunnel truly shrunk to such an extent? Or was she merely more sensitized?
She would see.
She removed one hand
from the brawny arm of her companion. Her fingers were cramped from
prolonged tension. She wondered: left or right? It made
no difference. She reached to the left, and felt for the wall...
"Into my arms."
The Ronin's command interrupted her in her aim. His tone was hushed and strained, hissed through gritted teeth. She had agreed to do as he said. As well, she wanted nothing more than to be lifted clear of the glass.
But, even as she reached up to take hold of a neck which she could not see, she noticed a queer whining. She paused, wonderingly.
What happened next, happened very suddenly.
Almaz heard the Ronin curse and his thick arm seized her about the waist with a brutality which forced the breath from her lungs. She was lifted bodily to his side where he held her awkwardly, her head out in front, slim legs kicking behind. Her right arm was pinned against her by his hip and the other waved helplessly before her face.
And he ran!
It happened quickly. In the darkness, all seemed alien and surreal. The warm wind breathed along Almaz's nearly-naked length as she was borne through the tunnel at a furious pace. The whine rose in pitch and volume until it seemed almost tangible and she pressed her free hand to one ear in a vain attempt to escape the screeching bedlam.
Glass began to rain from above, filling the air and raking her skin as they passed beneath. A thousand hardwoven thongs seemed to lash into her flesh, burning like flaming ice. Dimly, through her anguish, she felt the warm trickle of blood as it flowed both down her quivering thighs and across her straining shoulders. She was forced to close her eyes against the stinging spray, but even with her last glimpse she had seen no sign of an exit. All had been darkness ahead.
Above the whine, she heard a higher shrill. It was her own frenzied scream. It was a scream born of the hideous wracking pain of her body and of the trembling fear of her mind. But mostly it was a scream born of utter all-consuming bewilderment and confusion.
There was nothing for her to hold onto, nothing that made sense. She did not know what was killing her. She no longer cared. She felt her sanity hanging by a tenuous thread, and, with strange detachment, she realized that this was how Karim must have felt. She had wanted to know how he had died. Now she knew.
Then the Ronin slipped.
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Stalkers of the Tiger's Bride copyright 1999, by Jeffrey Blair Latta.
It may not be copied or used for any commercial purpose except for short
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