BY JEFFREY BLAIR LATTA
To his amazement, the Ronin discovered that the oily black substance -- al zet -- was only a slick on the pool's surface. Beneath was water, numbingly cold, turbid with roiled sediment, and now crimson with the blood that washed from his skin.
Yet, for all that, the water was still clear enough to reveal the shadowy bulk of his prey moving away in the distance with slow massive undulations. Fukitso clamped his heavy blade between his teeth and set off in pursuit with long, powerful strokes.
The lighting was dim and diffuse, likely coming from the tunnel walls hidden by the murk. Other loathsome creatures might well have lurked in this subterranean broth, but he had no time to worry about that. He stroked and kicked until his thews burned like molten lead and his pulse pounded in his skull. Then, abruptly, the creature chose to turn and fight. Out of the drifting clouds of grit, its charge came like a living avalanche.
In an instant, the hunter became the hunted.
The beast was titanic, spanning the stream with its girth. A turbulent wall of water was pressed before it, catching Fukitso unexpectedly and hurling him up and against the curved roof above. No stalactites hung here, but the abrasive surface tore violently into his shoulders causing him to lose his grip on his katana with the pain and violence of the impact.
Infuriatingly powerless, he watched his blade plunge spinning down into the murk. Then a thick tentacle, fully the width of his thigh, slipped about his waist and dragged him from the roof.
The great bulk of the thing rose beneath him like a submarine mountain, but a mountain which sprouted a dozen or more tentacles, some large and some small, that curled and twisted hungrily in the water about him. Three of those tentacles were wound tightly about a lithe, brown figure which twisted and writhed with ever-weakening struggles.
The girl was no more than a half-dozen strokes away. She might as well have been a world away for all Fukitso could aid her.
The tentacle inexorably constricted about his chest, slowly forcing the precious air from his aching lungs. One arm was free, but it was of little use against the heavy, barnacled hide, nor could he draw his short sword, Kyodai; the wakizashi was pressed tight to his hip by the thing's implacable embrace.
Yet, then he cast a glance downward at the main body of the creature and, in that glance, he discovered both possible salvation -- and almost certain doom.
By a miracle, Ginago had landed on a kind of pink and black soft-tissued part of the monster from which the tentacles radiated. If the Ronin could but recover his steel ally, he might yet stand a fair chance against even this tentacled monstrosity. But also in the center of the flaccid flesh a terrible, black beak opened and closed with bestial hunger, its calcareous clacking reaching his ears like the whetting of giant knives.
And, as he was rapidly borne closer to that voracious mouth, he knew that it was for him that it hungered!
Timing would be crucial. His katana lay just to the side of the beak. He could not reach the one without exposing himself to the other. But, then again, the strength of the tentacle which carried him assured that he had no real choice. He struggled to work his other arm free but it was in vain. He could only hope that the grip would loosen before it was too late...
That it did -- just as the hideous maw opened to receive its wouldbe repast, and just as he gazed in disgust upon the mottled, salivating flesh which throbbed and quivered therein.
He twisted free, tearing his hide on the coarse barnacles. He stretched and grabbed up the hilt, pulling clear of the beak even as it snapped closed on the bubbles in his wake. Kicking against the yielding flesh, he swam with all his remaining strength to retrieve the girl above.
For Almaz's part, she had only seen the Ronin for an instant, and then he had seemed as hopelessly pinioned as herself. Once more in her life, there seemed no hope.
The largest tentacle -- that which had initially dragged her into the black pool -- held her tightly, twisting between her thighs like the swollen trunk of a tree, then around her waist, across her back and over her shoulder. Two smaller, but nonetheless powerful tentacles pulled at one slim ankle and wrist as if seeking to dismember her alive. Though the blinding pain in those limbs told her that they might well succeed, she doubted she would live long enough to suffer that terrible fate.
Her young lungs cried out for breath. Though she had managed a single gasp before she had first struck the water, that breath was fast running out. Soon she ceased to notice the coarse hide that pressed her naked flesh, nor the tentacles that worked at her tortured limbs. Her lungs were all that mattered.
Just one breath. To inhale anything, even water...
Suddenly, the bloated member released her with a convulsive heave, and the smaller tentacles too fell limply away. The water was clouded with a dilute green mist that felt nauseatingly warm as it curled about her legs. The Ronin burst from below catching her by the wrist and bearing her upward, steadily and swiftly.
Her dazed mind could not fully comprehend that she was being rescued, but dimly she fought to hold her breath that little while longer. Yet, try as she might, there was a limit to her endurance. Her lips parted hungrily. To breathe...to breathe!
Then, in an explosion of cooling relief, she burst to the surface, her panting lungs desperately flooding with welcome invigorating air.
"That's it. Slake your thirst," gasped Fukitso, furiously gulping air himself. "I cut that tentacle clean off. That devil won't be after us too soon. Go ahead. Breathe!"
Coughing and hacking, Almaz cast her dark-eyed glance around her. They had surfaced through another hole in a different chamber. This one was not slick with al zet, but it did present another unpleasant aspect. Seeing that, Almaz would well have screamed had she yet recovered enough breath to do so.
A shrivelled, mummified corpse lay at the water's edge.
It gazed at her with dark eyeless sockets. Its parchment skin seemed painted on the bone beneath and its lips were drawn back from its teeth creating the illusion of a ghastly grin.
Fukitso heaved the girl up onto the stony ledge that rimmed the pool, then surged up beside her. The water ran down their bodies in glistening sheets. Almaz's eyes never left their ghastly companion, nor the expression of horror leave her face.
"Rest a minute," advised Fukitso, rising with a tired grunt. "But keep your legs out of the water -- unless you want to end up like our friend there."
At first Almaz did not take his meaning. Then, with horror, she noticed that the mummy was missing half of one arm, as if it had been torn away at the elbow. The remaining portion of the member reached to the edge of the pool -- but not beyond.
"Maybe that tentacled monster did that. Maybe something else hunts down there."
With a squeal of fright, Almaz jerked her slim legs clear and folded them protectively beneath her. She regarded the pool with enormous, fearful eyes.
"What was that thing?" she gasped.
"I don't know. But then I don't know much about the damned beasts said to inhabit these jungles. Whatever it was, Ginago taught it some respect."
The Ronin brandished his katana gustily. A grisly green fluid trickled sluggishly down the blade, gathering in dark clots against the silver traceried wristguard. He lowered the weapon and glanced around.
This cavern too displayed stalactites and stalagmites, and was illuminated by the same odd frosty-white stone. As far as Fukitso could tell, the pool was the only way in or out. They were as much imprisoned here as they had been in the earlier chamber.
He knelt beside the mummy and, with furrowed brows, he eyed the shrivelled remains of this man who had come so far before them. Faded red breeches covered the scrawny legs and a sleeveless jacket hung limply about the ribbed torso. A tattered turban adorned the ghastly grinning head.
Fukitso grunted in surprise.
"I owe you another apology." Quickly he drew the map from his belt and unfolded it into the ghostly light. With delicate care, he placed the material next the jacket's edge where a ragged tear matched perfectly with the torn edge of the map. "I told you before that one man at least had escaped to tell of this place -- the man who made our map and left us that strange warning. But I guess even our mysterious map-maker never found a way out again. You may have been right, after all: perhaps no one has ever returned from this place."
Then he looked into the forbidding clarity of the pool, as if half expecting a grey-green tentacle to snake out in search of revenge. He shook his topknotted head in frustration.
"I'd be willing to bet that that river empties into the swamp we passed on the way in. But it's too far for a man to swim and no doubt well-guarded by other creatures. This wretch decided he'd rather meet his end here than chance it down there -- but not before he first sent off his warning. Perhaps he was crazy, or perhaps he truly only told what he knew -- that the place was guarded by a beast with a thousand jaws and a thousand claws. He may never have seen the kajikuro before. He probably came here in search of the fabled treasure and was attacked by the insects in the cave. Perhaps he managed to close the door in time, as I did, or maybe he accidentally stumbled into that black pool. Somehow he survived, though mortally wounded, and made it here to die. With his last strength he tore a piece from his jacket, scrawled that warning with his own blood and tossed it into the water. Not a moment too soon from the looks of things."
And Fukitso nodded meaningfully at the splintered stump of arm.
Almaz shivered and hugged herself closely as if it were merely the cavernous chill that caused her flesh to quiver so.
"But why would he bother to draw a map?" she questioned.
Fukitso looked at her in surprise. Then he began to laugh with full, unfeigned mirth, and even that guttural cough sounded curiously comforting in this strange, forbidding place.
"He didn't draw the map as he died! No. Look." He again placed the map to the torn jacket. "The map was on the inside of the jacket. He probably copied it from another map and his jacket was the nearest material at hand. The map itself is drawn in ink. He copied it on the inside so that even if he was searched, it wouldn't be found. I should know; I used the same trick myself when I got hold of the map to the Labyrinth of Pashishi."
"Perhaps," suggested Almaz sadly, "he was hoping someone would find the map and bring help. And someone did find it -- against all odds as it lay in that stagnant swamp. But they did not realize that it indicated a destination only a few steps away from them."
"Maybe," agreed Fukitso. "But I have a more likely thought. Whatever took off his arm, probably swallowed the map at the same time. Later, the creature was probably caught by some hunter and, when he cut it open, he found the map inside."
Then he stood and proceeded to quickly pace the chamber, back and forth, like a samadhi on a tether, his attention roving the glowing walls in search of...what?
Several times his katana rang sharply on the luminescent stone, but the sound gave back no indication of a hollow passage beyond. Yet there had to be. Somewhere there had to be another chamber.
"What are you doing?" asked Almaz, astonished. "Looking for the treasure? We are trapped in here. We will die here. How can you worry about a treasure you can never spend?"
He gave her no more than an impatient sidelong glance, as he continued his quest.
"I came here in search of a treasure 'to drive men mad'. If I must die here it will be because of that treasure. So, by Doji's seven geishas, I will know what I am to die for! Ah! Here!"
Almaz had detected no change in the timbre of the katana ringing off the stone this time. But many times before had the Ronin demonstrated his superiority in sense, as well as might. She did not doubt him now. With a cry to echo his own, she leaped to her feet and hurried to his side -- all pain and protest swept aside by the sudden thrill that intoxicated her like an ale.
The Ronin's hands fell upon the twisting, ropey stone, feeling gropingly up and down the irregular surface. This time he merely nodded with satisfaction and worked some lever or button too small for the girl to see from where she stood. There came the muffled sound of metal gears, old and rusted with antiquity, laboriously but loyally fulfilling their intended purpose.
With a bass rumble and a spilling of choking dust, a section of the wall, no larger than a door, fell steadily backward, pivoting on its lower edge and sinking into a depression beyond. When finally the dust cleared, the stone facade rested level with the smooth floor -- which surface stretched away into the impenetrable darkness of a tunnel...
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Stalkers of the Tiger's Bride copyright 1999, by Jeffrey Blair Latta.
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