by D.K. Latta
This story is copyright D.K. Latta and may not be reproduced or redistributed for commercial purposes without his permission.
Five armed figures trudged wearily through the dense, sweltering jungle; three men and two women. The men were tall and battle-scarred, as was one of the women, who was broad-shouldered and sullen-looking. The woman in the lead, though, was not particularly tall. She was also breathtakingly beautiful.
She was dressed in a brief G-string and a tattered vest, open at the front and laced over the inner swells of her generous breasts. At her hip was a broad-bladed knife, useless against the multitudinous foe that was the jungle flora. Her firm, young body glistened with sweat as she hacked at the vines and branches with her sword, swinging her blade with less and less force.
A bearded man in a blood-stained kirtle and fraying breeches put a hand on her shoulder. "My turn again, Neekin," he said. He stopped, momentarily paralysed by her mostly unclad beauty, noting the way the rosy disk of her left nipple peeked out from around the frayed fabric of her vest. Then, with great effort, he turned to the task at hand.
Neekin did not argue with him, but let him slip in front of her. She cleared the emerald sap from her sword by drawing it across broad fronds, then sheathed it upon her back and wiped a hand wearily across her brow. Her ill-matched eyes glinted in the steaming, emerald-hued twilight collected beneath the jungle's canopy; one eye blue, the other the verdant glare of a hunting cat.
They were all that remained of a mercenary army that a deposed king had fired with a passion of righteousness and led to reclaim his throne. They had failed. Now she and her companions fled through an unknown land. The enemy camp was three days at their back, but they had lost the sounds of pursuit only within the last hours. That was no proof that their hunters were not still on their trail, though. The usurper king, Sheriago, was notoriously thorough when it came to his enemies. His soldiers might well follow them to the gates of perdition before turning back empty-handed.
The dark, sultry jungle was eerily unwelcoming -- Neekin might even have said it was malevolent. She had not heard a bird nor a monkey, nor witnessed a snake slithering overhead, for many miles. Even the cough of a predator would have provided at least an ironic comfort, yet they were denied even that. To make matters worse, the fruits she could identify she knew to be poisonous and the ones that were unknown remained -- without birds or beasts to observe and mimic -- equally unsafe. As well, many of the vines and thorns guarding the flora like spiked battlements were poisonous. The others bore red and swollen patches on their limbs from where they had brushed against them. Neekin, a little more delicate in her step, a little more cautious, was largely unmarked.
The night before they had come upon an easterly river for bathing and drinking, but they had found nothing since. She was grimly aware that the future was less than inspiring.
"You've been in these parts longer than I, Olgar," she said to the bearded man. "Where are we headed? Where can we head?"
Olgar shrugged as he hacked at the vines confounding them. "I was born in Gavinok, to the north and east, but I know little of these lands. Rumours, superstitions, yes, but little fact."
"Is there a city?"
"Perhaps," he grunted obliquely, but added nothing more.
With the arrival of midday, at long last, the oppressive, seeming unceasing jungle came to an end. A yellow plain spread before them, long grass a rippling, golden ocean in the sultry breeze. Gnarled trees sprouted here and there and occasionally small berry bushes flashed red and green between the undulating stalks. The sky was an unblemished azure and the sun cast its radiance down like warm mead poured liberally over the land.
In the distance, a city twinkled behind a great wall.
The others laughed with relief: Vanjo, Ankar, and the woman, Elgi'an, clapped each other on the shoulders. Neekin allowed herself a weak grin, then frowned as she saw the concern etched into Olgar's features.
"What?" she prodded.
He looked at her, then back across the plain. "Rumours," he said quietly. "Only that. In these parts was erected the city of the Sh'tatha by the Harol'lan -- an off-shoot of my own Gavinokian blood. It was said to be a city dedicated to the highest ideals and learning, where great men thought wise thoughts and dreamt glorious dreams."
"These Sh'tatha were people of learning?"
Olgar shook his head. "The rulers of the city were not called Sh'tatha, but rather their servants."
"A classed society?" She frowned.
He shrugged. "The Harol'lan believed that in order to think great thoughts and ruminate upon the problems of their day they must first be freed from the fettering tasks of seeing to their daily needs and wants. They created a servant class to minister to them. Through sorcery, some said. Others said they merely employed -- or even enslaved -- a race that lived here already. Not of human kind, if the stories are to be believed." He scratched at his beard. "But no one from the city of the Sh'tatha has been seen nor heard from in over a hundred years. I myself took it to be a myth -- or at least a half-truth."
Neekin was quiet for a moment, then asked, "That's the city?"
"It would seem likely. I know of no other people in this land and, from this distance, it looks to be no mud and straw encampment, but a city of fine spires and glory -- much as the Harol'lan were said to have erected."
Neekin studied the distant shapes. "I question whether one can become truly wise without effort, but I'll not debate them. They may not be travellers, but let's hope they're hospitable to those who are."
Vanjo, Ankar and Elgi'an assented and only Olgar was left to frown silently. They started across the plain with the sun shimmering high in the cloudless blue heavens. Trudging wearily, mouths dry, feet sore, they came at last before the city.
Encircling it was a towering white wall, softly reflective as if constructed of some manner of white marble, though scoured in spots by the elements. Elegant golden etchings glittered in the sunlight, but even some of these were obscured beneath verdant webs of clinging vines. Over its high lip could be glimpsed the unusually reflective spires of the city, and set over the gate were oddly-shaped watchtowers, the nests broad and flat with low rails. They were empty. The towering gate was closed and, as Neekin approached, she observed how the dirt swelled against it at the bottom, and weeds sprung out from the cracks.
"I'll wager they haven't swung wide these doors in decades," she said.
Olgar nodded, looking up. "Nor manned the watchtowers."
She slapped her palm against the smooth door, pounding as loud as she could. "Is anyone there?!?" she called. For a moment she thought she heard a response, then realized it was merely her own voice, echoing faintly from the other side. She frowned.
"The devil take them!" snarled Vanjo. "Where is everyone?"
A mammoth visage was carved into the doors: the face of a man, serene, wise, the embodiment of the city's ideals. About the chin like a necklace was carved the likeness of a string of crabs or shellfish. This stony mask said nothing to Vanjo's question.
"Look," exclaimed Ankar, pointing back the way they had come.
Tiny figures could just be seen emerging from the jungle.
"Sheriago's men," spat Neekin. "Do you think they've seen us?"
Olgar considered. "Not yet. And there's only a few -- one last push before they give up and return empty-handed?"
"Only if they don't spot us now," said Neekin. "Come."
They followed along the outskirts of the wall, looking for some easier ingress: a small window, a secret exit, a sewer ditch, something. Forcing the massive, age-hardened gates was a task well beyond the efforts of five tired travellers. Fortunately, the earth was dry and left little in the way of tracks to alert their pursuers.
Long shadows trailed behind them by the time they finally found that which they sought. Coarse, intrusive vines and the battery over time of the elements had dislodged chunks of white marble and carved a small sliver in the wall. Enough to squeeze through, though only just. The obvious disrepair of such a gap left them even more ill-at-ease than they had first been. Neekin squirmed through first, her soft breasts squishing against her ribs as they rubbed against hard stone. Vanjo and the other two followed. Olgar brought up the rear.
Neekin stumbled out into the city avenue, her bare feet touching smooth flagstones. She looked around, and an involuntary gasp escaped her full lips.
The city was utterly, hauntingly, desolate.
She heard no sound, viewed no movement. Even the wind seemed kept at bay by the great wall. As Vanjo and the rest joined her, their heavier footfalls echoed forlornly, serving to accentuate the stillness.
The still buildings were sheathed entirely in gleaming gold and silver. Neekin doubted the building blocks were that all the way through, more likely it was plating on more conventional, and sturdier, building materials. But the sight was breathtaking in its splendour. The highest towers boasted crimson and jade stained-glass windows which peered sagely down upon them, while the street level doorways were trimmed with glimmering emeralds.
Neekin tossed back a lock of hair and glanced at her companions. "Do your legends say why the city might be deserted?"
Olgar shook his head, then shrugged. "An enemy army?"
"Here? In the middle of Hell and gone? Besides, the gate wasn't forced and there are no signs of battle." She gestured at the jewels set in the walls. "Nor has the place been looted."
He seemed to draw his limbs closer to himself, hearing the vast silence. "It wasn't I who wished to come here," he muttered at last.
Neekin took the lead, her bare feet padding panther-like as she entered the first building. It opened onto a grand, high-ceilinged hall. The floor gleamed in the light cascading through the long windows set into the arched ceiling, but as the sun was in its westerly descent, the room was painted as much in shadow as in light.
Towering tapestries lined the stone walls while, sprouting throughout the room on great, black pedestals, carvings of human figures grew like obsidian trees.
They discovered torches beside the entrance in a teak wood cupboard set with mica. Neekin lighted the torches by sparking her sword against her knife. As they spread out through the room, their torches cast a fluttering, sullen glow, and Neekin could almost imagine that the reason the shadows licked and slithered over the carvings was because the statues themselves were breathing with life. There must have been a hundred of the constructs in the one hall alone, she thought, and in this silent city, these dark, immovable inhabitants affected an unsettling sentience. As if the city's vanished denizens had been frozen in mid-step and left to decorate their own chambers for all eternity.
She frowned, finding them far and away too life-like. Setting down her torch, she nimbly climbed up onto a pedestal sporting a woman.
"What're you doing?" asked Olgar, bewildered.
Neekin let out a sigh of relief. "The heads are foreshortened a little."
He scratched at his beard, coming below her. "Huh?"
She patted the statue's crown. "The heads are flat. It makes them appear taller, more impressive, when viewed from the floor -- but less convincing when seen up close. For a moment I had feared-" She stopped, staring at the vivid stone features. "Nothing." She leapt down.
"Had they nothing better to do than erect all these things?" demanded Ankar contemptuously.
"They were a society of leisure," Olgar reminded him.
"Perhaps it was more than a hobby," Neekin said. "Sometimes figures are erected to ward away evil, either by being frightening or, as in this case, imposing."
Olgar glanced at her, frowning. "It must have been a powerful evil to require so many totems."
They set off then, moving onto a sunbathed courtyard and then into another vast building. What they found wherever the went inside were wide, breathless halls brimming with statues of men and women. The living chambers themselves were spacious as well and ornately decorated, with hanging drapes of reds and blues and greens, and finery: cups and plates of gold, multi-tiered candlesticks of silver, and richly woven arras depicting idealistically beautiful men and women lounging about, no doubt debating the philosophies of their age. But dust dulled the sheen of the gold, and the colour of the fabrics were dulled by age.
The servants, the so-called Sh'tatha, appeared not to be represented anywhere.
The richness of the rooms merely reinforced the notion that it had been no army that had come, slain and looted. Yet everywhere was an almost hallowed stillness. But if a plague or other natural disaster, as the statues might have been erected to ward away, where were the sick rooms? The graves?
Settling upon a chamber that would sleep them all for a night, they split up to ferret out what they could in the waning light of day.
Olgar returned to a well they had passed in one of the plazas to retrieve a bucket of drinking water while Neekin and Vanjo split up to find sleeping blankets. From a window a garden had been spied; wild, untended for many seasons, but overgrown with fruits and vegetables. Ankar and Elgi'an were sent to gather what they could.
Neekin had taken to an upper floor in her search for blankets, moving through the halls with a torch in one hand, while her other rested on her knife. The dead city made her ill-at-ease. On a gallery overlooking a large hall on one side and an open window on the other, Neekin stopped, her eyes narrowing. Across the city, close to the great wall, a yellow glow betrayed a campfire in the darkening dusk. Instantly, she ground her torch into the floor, plunging her into darkness. She peered out again, but the light had not moved.
Sheriago's men, without a doubt.
Turning, Neekin set off with a panther-like stride to find Olgar and the others.
Something rustled behind her.
She whirled and crouched, hand on her knife. Her chest heaved as she waited, listening, inhaling, relying on her other senses to expose whatever it was that lurked in the darkness. No scent came to her. "Who's there?" she hissed. "Olgar?"
There was no response at first, and then only another noise. It was less a rustle, she realized, than a scuffling -- as of feet scuttling across a floor. Her knife flashed in the silvery moonlight lancing through the window. The gallery was narrow; not the best place for a fight. She took a step backward and instantly was echoed by more scuffling. Her full lips pulled tight across her teeth as she realized there was more than one figure in the shadows. She reached for her sword still sheathed on her back and suddenly a shape erupted from the darkness. She was hit hard in the side and tumbled, rolling nimbly away even as fear crawled scaley fingers along her spine.
In the instant that the thing had glanced off her soft skin, she knew: it had not been human flesh.
Shapes seethed in the darkness.
They were set low to the ground, but more than that she could not tell -- save that they were coming for her in an eerie, voiceless silence. Unwilling to beard an unseen, unhuman foe in the narrow gallery, Neekin took her only option. She bit her knife between her teeth and leapt through the window. Even as she did, something hard and cold struck her calf. She hit the courtyard below, rolling to diffuse the impact, and came to her feet, both blades flashing immediately to hand. She spun and peered up at the dark window, eyes burning like a predator's. Yet nothing moved within.
She had no more time to contemplate, though, as suddenly the air was shattered by the distant clang of arms and the screams of men. Neekin turned, hesitated, and then raced toward the sound. Had Sheriago's men come upon her companions? she wondered.
Or did the shadow dwellers live in other rooms of the dead city?
Like a pale fish darting through the dark rivers of the city's avenues, Neekin hurried, her knuckles burned to ivory as she clenched her weapons.
Next: >Death Crawls at Night
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