BY JEFFREY BLAIR LATTA
The callouses on his feet protected him from the worst and he believed his sandals would protect the girl. Still, he offered to carry her. She refused, for which he had to admire her; he himself would not have balked at the offer of a ride at that moment.
Still, he slogged onward, painfully aware that the element of surprise was now lost due to the crunching of their footfalls. This was especially vexing, for he was convinced that the warm air around them suggested a lair of some kind. He gripped Ginago firmly, and was glad that the girl kept so close. In this Stygian darkness, he would not be able to find her were they to become separated.
He did not know what first made him suspect. There was a faint scent in the air -- a musty odour that seemed to awaken strange, half-forgotten memories. He felt his hackles rise, though he knew not the reason, and he tensed with instinctive expectancy.
He had always possessed an uncanny ability to sense dimensions even in total darkness. Now, he was intensely aware of the walls that crushed in around him. If it came to a fight, there would be scant room to maneuver.
Then he heard a soft rustling from somewhere up ahead. Or was it behind them? No, it was both. His keen ears detected that which the girl would not hear for another second -- a subtle whining which, like the rustling, seemed to come from both in front and behind.
At last he understood.
As quietly as possible, he returned his silver-guarded katana to its sheath on his back. He realized now that the mighty Ginago would be of no use to him here.
"To my arms," he ordered -- but even as he spoke, he knew there was no time for the girl respond.
He grabbed her up as the whining sound grew suddenly louder -- and he ran. He ran for his life!
He no longer noticed the pain in his feet. His entire concentration was centred on his legs, which pumped furiously in a mad race against death. He felt the tearing spray that abruptly filled the air and shook his head from side to side in an effort to keep clear his vision even if that vision showed him nothing but infinite night.
Another might have made for the cave-mouth. At least a known exit lay in that direction. But the Ronin knew the distance to that exit, and he knew he would not survive it. He did not know what lay in the opposite direction -- very likely the tunnel reached a deadend -- but at least in the unknown lay a chance, however slight.
He too felt the fiery lashes across his naked shoulders and back, and felt the blood stream down his hide. The pain was not overwhelming, but an agony of a different sort tormented him when he heard the frenzied screams of the girl and felt her anguished struggles under his arm. Her skin was slick with her blood and he felt her supple body slide in his grasp.
This drew his attention momentarily from his desperate flight. His footing faltered on the already slippery floor. He stumbled, tumbling headlong and losing the girl in his headlong plunge!
He landed heavily in something which burned and clung like molten rock. Instantly he regained his feet, the fiery stuff sticking to his hide with searing tenacity. He did not bother to brush it off. Doji had been kind; the girl had remained conscious in her fall and her hysterical shrieks directed him to her in the darkness. He lifted her in his arms and flung her over his shoulder. And again he ran.
But this time he ran for a definite goal.
A dozen steps and he lashed out with his foot. The impact swung open a broad door, beyond which a lurid white light shone. Through this he bounded, slamming the door closed behind him with a backhand. Without hesitation, he flung the girl to the stone, little caring if he bruised her in the process.
The light was dim but bright enough to see by. Nearly naked in her two-piece palm leaf garment, the girl's brown skin was mottled with angry orange splotches which seemed to seethe and spread, and from which a more sinister crimson seeped.
Thankfully she had lost consciousness so that she felt no pain as he smote the splotches with urgent blows of his open palms. With each blow the splotches were transformed into ghastly orange-red smears, until, in the end her body was slick with blood and gore. This task completed, he turned to the splotches on his own hide. These too were handled with equal ease. And finally, when he was done, he stood panting from his exertions, his brown skin agleam with crimson where it caught the light.
The whole adventure, from the moment he had first heard that warning whine until he now renewed his attentions to the senseless girl, had taken no more than a minute. He knew that had it taken any longer he would now be dead.
Fukitso knelt beside the girl and gently cradled her small head in the crook of his arm. Her smooth breasts gleamed damply in the white light, rising and falling with quavering breaths. Then her eyes fluttered abruptly and she looked up at the Ronin with a dazed, semiconscious stare. Slowly, like a curtain parting before a taper, reason lighted those dark orbs, and with it, fear and pain.
She began to cry, her slim body shuddering with terrible sobs.
"I burn!" she cried, writhing in his arms. "My body is on fire."
"That's the venom," he assured her. "It will stop in a moment."
And, indeed, even as he spoke, her body settled and she released one final trembling sob.
"Oh, what was it? It was so terrible. It seemed to be everywhere at once."
"It was everywhere at once," he agreed grimly. Then, he reached down and ran his finger along her belly. She winced at this assault on her aching skin, then gasped with horror as he held up that finger for her inspection.
The finger was tipped red with blood in which floated two small winged insects, each the size of the nail on her littlest finger. The insects were orange, sporting tiny serrated mandibles on their heads.
"Hai." With a look of disgust, he wiped the finger on the stone at his side. "In Dos Yamura they called them kajikuro -- the black inferno. In Shemshiran they have no name because they usually don't come farther east than the Zamba. I've only seen them once before, and that was just a glimpse caught as my host at the time sealed the shutters against their swarms, but it was a sight I will never forget. They filled the sky like a storm cloud, but a cloud which moved against the wind -- an almost sentient thing that boiled and sprouted great amorphous arms. Singly they can give you an nasty bite. In a swarm they can strip a man to the bone in a matter of seconds."
He cast a slitted glance at the closed door, and shook his head in amazement.
"Baka! We had a narrow escape that time." Then a slight smile bent his lips and he shook his head with self-chastisement. "I owe you an apology, girl."
Almaz eyed him quizzically.
"The warning on the map," he explained. "'A thousand jaws, a thousand claws.' I guess there is such a beast, after all. And while I don't know if it was spawned in Gehenna, it's true it cannot die. No matter how many you swat, there would be more to take their place."
Having admitted his error, the Ronin just as soon dismissed it from his mind. With less delicacy than the task called for, he brushed the gore off the girl's slim legs with the edge of his hand.
"The venom keeps the blood from clotting," he told her. "That's why we both look like we've been flayed alive. It looks a lot worse than it is."
At that, he laughed, but his laughter held a strange, nervous edge. Almaz noticed this and she noted too that his hand trembled ever so slightly as he brushed her soft skin. She was amazed. Could it be that this imperturbable Samurai had actually been frightened by these minute insects?
"You are shaking," she said, laying her hand softly upon his. "I thought you were afraid of nothing."
Fukitso looked at her and the smile vanished. Without a word, he withdrew his hand and helped her to her unsteady feet. Nothing in his white-eyed gaze gave away the thoughts in his head.
She was right, though; he had been shaken. But it was not the kajikuro which had disturbed him so. True, it was an unpleasant feeling to meet an enemy against which tempered steel was of no use -- but death at the mandibles of these tiny insects was as impersonal as death by fire or by flood. It was a natural end.
No. What had so upset Fukitso was the brief moment in that dark tunnel when he had dropped the girl. For an instant, he had believed he had lost her and a grisly image had flashed through his mind: he blundering blindly about in the darkness, while she was stripped of skin, muscle, tendon -- devoured to the bone at his very feet. It was this which had shaken the Ronin, not fear for himself. But he did not tell the girl as much. He did not want to give her a false sense of importance.
As Almaz scraped the last of the blood and dead insects from her body, she discovered that the insects had done no lasting damage. Where they had been concentrated remained red rashes, composed of microscopic dots. She shivered to think how many such dots it would take to devour a man.
Then, her legs grew weak as another numbing speculation took hold. She suddenly wondered what she would have encountered had she succeeded in feeling the tunnel wall as had been her want.
She was forced to sit again -- before she fainted.
"It seems your friend, Karim, was all that you claimed."
Fukitso had not initially noticed the skeleton lying sprawled in the corner because it had been behind the door when he had flung it open and, after that, he had been engaged in reviving the girl. But now he eyed it as he might eye a fallen comrade: with unfeigned respect. He recognized the skeleton by its impressive size.
"He almost made it. He must have stumbled in here and tried to close the door, but they were already thick upon him. He didn't have the strength. Lucky for us though. I saw the light as I picked you up after our tumble. He must have been powerful indeed to have come this far. I only made it because I recognized the scent and whine of the kajikuro and so I knew to run like Shaitan was on my heels. He probably never even knew what was killing him, and so he hesitated too long."
"But he didn't have me to worry about," put in Almaz bitterly. "You should have left me."
"Probably," the Ronin agreed coldly. "But I didn't leave you and I can't change that."
He turned from the skeleton, dismissing the conversation from his thoughts as he dismissed all that was irrelevant to the task at hand. With massive arms folded across his chest, he surveyed the chamber for the first time.
It was not a very sizeable cavern, being no more than a dozen strides from front to back. The ceiling bristled with long tapering stalactites of an icy green with frosty-white spirals. Thick green-white stalagmites squatted on the floor like heaps of melted tallow. The walls too were coated with the stuff frozen into fantastic patterns of winding, dripping stone. A subtle glow emanated from the frosty parts lending a hazy, nimbus-like illumination to the whole. The light gleamed off the small, oval pool sunk in the center of the chamber whose surface shone like liquid jet.
Fukitso knelt beside the black pool and eyed it suspiciously. Then, unmindful of possible dangers, he reached down and touched its surface. Slow, oily waves spread from the contact, light rimming the ever-widening circles. The Ronin curiously examined the tip of his fingers which were now coated with a greasy black substance. He shook his head in wonder, and then felt a light hand on his broad shoulder.
"It is al zet," Almaz explained simply.
She tilted her shapely head and frowned as if puzzled that he could be so ignorant of the most elementary of matters.
"It burns like ghee. In Sahara we sometimes use it to fuel our lamps. Do they not have this in Dos Yamura?"
"Not that I ever saw," admitted Fukitso. He exhaled and slowly shook his head. His voice turned suddenly gruff and bitter. "Well, we didn't come all this way for a pool full of zet, did we. Baka! All I know is that I see no treasure in this cavern. We can't even return through that infested tunnel so, for the moment, we seem to be trapped. Between the two of us, we've made a mess of this whole thing!"
He surged angrily to his feet and returned to the door. Running his hand around the jamb, he checked to ensure that the door was secure.
"At least we're lucky the insects did not make their home in here," he said. "They probably prefer the darkness."
He smote the door hard with his open palm. It thumped solidly. The door was a single panel of a white stone, which apparently pivoted about one edge. Though the cavern was natural, this portal was definitely manmade.
"Somebody went to a lot of trouble to put in this door," he observed pensively. "The kajikuro can't have been here then. I wonder if--"
His musings were sharply interrupted. From behind him came a sudden frantic gasp, then a scream. The girl!
He whirled, Ginago flashing into the light, his lips asnarl at this unexpected attack from the rear. But, quick as he was, he wasn't fast enough.
He caught only a flash of sleek brown legs as they disappeared thrashing into the black pool, and a grotesque grey-green tentacle that coiled constrictively about them. The oily surface bulged concave with their passage and rebounded in a fountain of jet droplets. Before it could settle, Fukitso plunged in after...
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Stalkers of the Tiger's Bride copyright 1999, by Jeffrey Blair Latta.
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