BY JEFFREY BLAIR LATTA
And the walls continued to sink into the floor.
At first there was naught but darkness unveiled by the widening space between the ceiling and the top of the walls. Then a faint, lurid glow was discernable -- a multi-hued reflection that danced and played upon the ceiling, like the ghostlights said to blanket the midnight skies in the distant north.
The wall in which was set the tunnel entrance was apparently immovable, being part of the mountain flesh. Grooves set in its planed surface allowed the walls which contacted it to slide unhindered into their slots in the floor. And this they did -- halfway, three-quarters, four-fifths. With a final satisfied report, the three walls halted their downward motion with only a thumb's width of stone projecting above the floor -- and Fukitso no longer had need for the light cast by the glowing shard in his hand.
Mechanically, as a man drugged, the Ronin returned his katana to the scabbard at his back. Slowly, leadenly, he crossed into this new chamber. To Almaz, it seemed he waded into a sea of liquid fire -- a treasure flowing from the vaults of the gods themselves.
The Ronin looked slowly, hungrily around, the gem-glow smoldering in his weird blind-seeming eyes. The treasure was piled in great spilling heaps about him.
It lay swirled upon the floor like mighty swollen rivers, a dazzling flood of crimson rubies, blue-green opals, scintillating diamonds, and lustrous milk-white pearls. Amethyst, jade, jet, mother-of-pearl, and wonderful, glimmering stones totally alien to the samurai all sparkled and shimmered and blazed with a furnace-heat all their own.
And gold! Never in all his travels, in all his adventures, had Fukitso seen such gold! Walls of gleaming ingots reared here and there, erected with wild abandon, some rising as high as the Ronin's broad chest, others forming golden walkways which wound in and out of the fiery tide.
But, however beautiful was the raw stuff, more wonderful still was the craft to which much of the treasure had been put.
A large, intricately wrought model of a dhow sailed upon a ruby swell, its hull of beaten gold, its sails of violet silk. A gilded chariot, chased with gems, was drawn by jet stallions whose harness glittered with diamond dust. A throne carved of lapis lazuli, piled high with luxurious pelts, was flanked by two gold-worked braziers filled to the rims with sapphires, like coals smoldering with a purple-blue flame. Gold-worked chalices, gem-crusted bowls, silver cutlery. Ancient armour of a forgotten era -- helms, gauntlets, bucklers, and blades, all inscribed with strange, elaborate hieroglyphs and designs.
Against the far walls, where creeping shadows waged a vain war against the flickering lights, eerie, inhuman statues were ranged in silent splendour -- ancient icons once worshipped by followers of an ancient faith, the elder gods of Tarkistan.
Fukitso gave these marvels a wary glance and then turned away. Treasure was one thing but gods had a way of protecting their own. There was enough wealth in this chamber to satisfy any man. No need to be greedy.
"By Doji's seven geishas!" he gasped, kneeling amongst the treasure like a supplicant.
Fiercely he thrust deep with both hands into one fiery mound and brought forth a Daimyo's ransom. The rubies trickled luxuriously between his fingers like spilling blood, the scarlet light dancing weirdly along his mighty arms.
"So ka! The queen wasn't the only treasure buried in this place. Look at this, girl! Just look! Our broken-hearted Sultan must have sealed the wealth of his kingdom here. The wealth of a kingdom for the taking. And no-one but us knows--"
"Leave it be."
There was a weary, edged tone to Almaz's voice that Fukitso had never heard before. He looked up, startled. She had not crossed over into the treasure chamber, but stood where he had left her, beside the sarcophagus.
"What was that?" He had heard but he did not understand.
"This treasure was a Sultan's farewell to his Sultana," she said slowly, almost longingly. "This is a tribute to their love. We have already desecrated her corpse. Leave the treasure alone."
This time the Ronin understood and his mouth dropped open in amazement. Then he began to chuckle, and his mirth grew in force, until he rocked on his haunches and his booming laughter filled the chamber.
Almaz winced at the sound. To her it was a cruel noise, a hard, callous din that smote her ears like an open palm. Then the laughter quieted, and the Ronin shook his head with wonder.
"I'd never have thought it, girl. You, a romantic! What Doji wills. Come in here and don't be a child."
His attention shifted back to the treasure and he scooped up another fistful.
There was none of the edge to her tone this time, but he paused just the same. He looked at her from beneath furrowed brows. The gems flowed from his hand with a soft sustained hiss. Almaz's skin crawled under that gaze. It was a searching look -- a look fraught with an animal curiosity, as if she were some tiny hitherto unnoticed insect which had suddenly come to the attention of some great beast of the jungle. His weird eyes scrutinized, inspected, explored. As before, she felt a nakedness of the soul that was frightening in its intensity. But she stood her ground.
The Ronin rose from his knees and strode toward her -- the jewels crunching dryly beneath his feet. Then he reached her side and continued on past, disappearing into the tunnel.
"Wait. Where are you going?" Almaz exclaimed, bewildered.
From the tunnel the Ronin's voice came back as a harsh growl.
"To the east. Maybe the south. Come on, girl, before you trigger some other hidden surprise."
While Almaz kept close to her companion, nonetheless she trembled fearfully. Dead men lay in that tunnel -- men who had forced ritual daggers into their own breasts to keep the secret of this place. More than once she thought she heard the whispered rustle of movement near her feet. Her mind's eye conjured terrible images of dry, shrivelled mummies reaching out with crawling claws, stale air whistling softly through drawn lips, rotted teeth and parchment lungs. Reaching for her ankles. In the dark...
Then they passed into the end chamber, well-lit by the surrounding stone, and Almaz nearly collapsed in a flood of relief. Without pausing, Fukitso bent and lowered himself into the pool. Almaz pulled back as he reached for her.
"If that thing's still waiting for us, it makes no difference if we face it now or tomorrow," the Ronin explained encouragingly. "Now, come on."
With considerable trepidation, Almaz allowed him to help her down into the cool river.
"The current will carry us in the direction we want to go," he instructed, drawing his short sword, Kyodai, from its sheath. "Let it. Just hold onto me. And if there's trouble--"
"Stay out of the way," Almaz finished, with the shade of a grin.
"Hai," he grunted, and dived.
The current was more powerful than she remembered. It carried them swiftly through the twilight gloom of sediment and algae. Things moved on the edge of her vision, swift darting shapes, and slow amorphous things. Something large and scaly passed slowly beneath them -- first the blunt whiskered snout, then the bloated body with translucent dorsal fin, then the webbed tail, sweeping side to side propelling the titan with frightening power.
They surfaced, and Almaz cried out in disgust to find her face and hair coated with al zet which floated atop the pool. She tried to wipe the oily stuff from her but Fukitso grabbed her hands and shook his head.
"Leave it," he said. "We'll need it."
He hoisted her out of the pool and climbed up after.
The black oil now coated them completely, turning their brown hides to a gleaming black. Almaz looked at Fukitso, then down at her own slim, oil-slicked body and she smiled.
"I see," she said. "Al zet will hide our scent from the kajikuro?"
"Hopefully," Fukitso acknowledged. He returned Kyodai to the scabbard at his hip.
"Do they hunt by scent?"
"I guess we'll soon find out."
Placing a hand on her supple shoulder, Fukitso lead her to the door. Wincing, she drew back and shook her head desperately.
"I can't," she pleaded. "I can't go through there again. Not again!"
"Girl," explained the Ronin patiently, "we have no choice. Now, come. I'll carry you so we can make better time."
"You dropped me last time!"
But her cries went unheeded. Carefully Fukitso drew open the door. Crawling scarlet patches of the insects clung to the opposite side. At the sight of these, it was all Almaz could do to keep from screaming. The soft glow of the chamber penetrated only diffusely into the tunnel, revealing a hint of shadows moving on the walls and ceiling. A few of the kajikuro crossed the threshold, and circled around the two as if aware that prey was near, but confused by the scent of the oil.
"Quick -- into my arms."
Almaz obeyed without objection this time. She wrapped her slender arms tightly about his massive neck and drew some slight comfort from the thickly corded arms that lifted her from the ground. But then her comfort turned to dismay.
She had assumed that they would hurry through the tunnel at a run. Instead Fukitso began to walk -- hurriedly, but still a walk. Instantly she understood that he did not wish to disturb the creatures by his passage, but comprehension did not make the task easier.
They moved through the darkness with agonizing slowness. The hum of the insects, which before had been all but unnoticeable, seemed now almost deafening. What before she had taken to be the brittle crunching of glass shards underfoot, she now understood to be the sound of innumerable carapaced insects being ground beneath the Ronin's bare soles. She wished she could cover her ears, but it was all she could do to keep her grip on her companion's neck.
For the moment she sat cradled against his broad chest, but, slowly, inexorably, the oil was taking its toll. Though his left fingers dug painfully into her back, and his right fingers raked her thigh, bit by steady bit she slipped through the Ronin's grip. Each step caused her to slip a little more, moved her ever so slightly closer to disaster. Then her own grip began to falter...
"I'm slipping," she whimpered desperately, though she knew he was as well aware of the fact as she.
One slender leg fell free of his grasp and she struggled with all her remaining strength to keep the limb clear of the ground. Oh, why had she enter this tunnel again? Better to have stayed behind to starve, or to have taken her chances in the underground river. Anything was better than this. Anything was better than to die in the dark, stripped alive of skin and flesh by a swarm of biting, buzzing insects--
She screamed as she slipped through his arms and felt her feet contact cold, damp stone.
"It's all right," whispered Fukitso in her ear. "We've passed the warm part of the tunnel. There are no insects here. Can you walk?"
"Yuh-Yes," she stammered, trembling with relief, hardly able to believe that they could have succeeded.
"You were brave," he said, so briefly and so quietly that she was not sure she had heard it at all.
He took her hand and led her on through the dark. They came upon the tunnel mouth suddenly, because so little light filtered down into the glade beyond. Yet, however dank and gloomy was the glade, to Almaz it seemed the most wonderful place in the world compared to what she had just experienced.
She collapsed just outside the tunnel mouth and laughed and kissed the soil in the very place where once she had lain bound and sobbing seemingly a million lifetimes ago. She would perhaps have given thanks to her gods had she had any gods left.
For Fukitso there could be no giving thanks. He had known many gods, in many lands and many religions. He had yet to find one in whom he could trust. He would respect them, or curse them, but never thank them.
He left Almaz where she had collapsed, and crossed the glade to the fetid swamp. Kneeling at the edge, he scooped handfuls of the stuff and splashed it across his broad shoulders and back. It stank with a choking, rotten stench, but it was water and it was better than the slick, clinging al zet.
"Come here, girl, and I'll wash you down. You can kiss the earth all you want once we--"
He drew Ginago even as he sprang to his feet. He spun about spraying the moss with oily droplets -- but he was too late...
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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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