by D.K. Latta
Previously: Pursued by an enemy army, Neekin and four companions come upon the lost city of the Sh'tatha. However, they discover the city to be completely deserted, with no explanation for where the people had gone. Splitting up, Neekin spies the light of a campfire, indicating their enemies have followed them into the walled city...but Neekin herself is suddenly beset by shadowy, inhuman creatures. She escapes, then races off toward the sudden sound of combat...
Chapter Two: Death Crawls at Night
The sounds of conflict ceased as abruptly as they had begun, plunging the moonlit streets once more into an unrelenting stillness. Even the pad of Neekin's feet on the warm flagstones was muted, while the summer wind continued to play only outside the city wall, leaving the dark buildings almost petrified in their antiquity. Twinkling gemstones winked knowingly at her as she slipped like a phantom in the direction of the glowing campfire.
She flattened herself against a gold sheen, inhaling quickly, then pounced into the clearing beyond. She landed in a crouch, legs braced, sword and knife raised -- facing an empty courtyard.
A fire still crackled, bathing Neekin and the surrounding buildings in its rippling orange warmth, but the fire's makers were nowhere to be seen. Blankets lay strewn about, a canteen or two, even a spear. Soldiers had definitely been here, she knew. But had they set upon, or been set upon? And by whom? Slipping her sword into its scabbard on her back, Neekin dropped to her knees and scanned the stones for telling signs of what had transpired. Instantly she espied great swaths of shimmering crimson staining the ground in puddles. She approached and touched one such puddle; the blood was still warm. Clumps of hair clung to the earth like macabre weeds sprouting from the flagstones.
If the soldiers had been the victors, they would still be here, she knew. Yet if Olgar and the others had won, why remove the bodies?
She rose and turned as thudding footsteps preceded new arrivals. Olgar and Vanjo burst into the campfire light, swords bared. They stumbled to a halt on seeing Neekin.
"We heard fighting," Olgar said simply.
"Sheriago's men, by the looks of it. But they're not here now." Then her eyes narrowed. "Where are the others?"
Olgar and Vanjo exchanged glances. "We met up just a few streets back. I don't know about Ankar and Elgi'an. Perhaps they didn't hear."
"Or chose not to respond," added Vanjo bitterly.
"Perhaps," muttered Neekin dubiously. "The city is not uninhabited. Have either of you seen any sign of living creatures?"
"I have...and no doubt the men who were here did as well."
Olgar looked around them slowly. Black windows gaped down upon them from the gold and silver buildings, like hollowed out eyes in a boiled skull. He shuddered unconsciously. "But if the Harol'lan still dwell here, why do they hide? Surely an entire city has nothing to fear from a handful of travellers."
"I'm not so sure it was the Harol'lan. I didn't get a good look at them, but the sounds they made weren't the sounds of human feet, nor were their shapes the shapes of men. And their touch had a cold, hard feel to it."
Olgar's eyes widened. "The Sh'tatha?"
Neekin shrugged. "Whatever the case, I think we should find the others, then camp outside the city for the night." She glanced at the fresh blood at her feet. "The Sh'tatha, if that's who they are, seem unwelcoming. We can return in the morning for food and water, when daylight deprives them of their advantage."
"I say we leave now," said Vanjo. "We owe the others nothing."
Neekin studied him, the unsteady fire glow making her ill-matched eyes blaze momentarily. Then she shrugged. "As you wish. I'd rather have no man at my back than a dastard in any event. I'll meet you outside the front gates." Without another word, she started back the way she had come. After a moment, footsteps caused her to glance over her shoulder.
Olgar's teeth flashed white between his whiskers in the moonlight. "You won't object to the company, I trust?"
She grinned, but said nothing.
Some avenues later, they cautiously entered a dark building. Moonlight streamed vaporously through the overhead windows, cutting columns of silvery light into the inky blackness of the interior. Swords at the ready, they moved through the great hall, slipping past the dead gaze of the black statues. Neekin took the lead, moving with an almost ghostly grace, as though more spirit than flesh and blood.
Olgar followed behind, his concentration worried at by the maddeningly alluring sight of her firm, round buttocks, brazenly exposed by her almost non-existent G-string. To distract himself, he tried to count all the scars upon his body, recalling how he had acquired each one. This, though, merely served to remind him of how Neekin's pale, soft skin was largely unblemished by any such permanent marks; a result of a combination of skin that just naturally mended well, and a fighting technique he had seen in action. She fought like a darting snake, dancing in and out, striking and then rolling away, rather than the stubborn blow upon blow method of most mercenaries, where combat was as much about how much a warrior could take as it was about how much he could give. Though Neekin was strong, on a battlefield populated mainly by men who had the better of her by size and weight, she was physically out-matched. But she had her speed, her agility, and her technique. Many men had lain bleeding at her feet, failing to correctly assess her threat. Olgar himself knew that, though he had the strength to crush her to death between his arms, if ever they were to go against each other, even he could not be sure of victory. But he had no desire to crush her between his arms...at least, not in anger.
As they moved from vast chamber to chamber, Neekin's gaze darted into the still shadows and over the unmoving figures. She could almost believe she had imagined the shapes lurking in the darkness, if not for the grim evidence of the devastated camp, proving that someone or something was about the unlit city.
They found wide, emerald stairs and mounted, eventually coming to the room they had agreed upon as their resting place. It was deserted. The Harol'lan figures woven into the opulent tapestries were ill-defined in the dim light, as if reverting to phantoms with the coming of night.
"Now what?" asked Olgar in little more than a whisper.
Neekin scowled. She was bothered by more than the fact that they had lost their comrades in a city peopled by unseen shadows. What had become of the bodies of the soldiers? she wondered. For what reason had they been secreted away? It suggested a greater purpose than simply the striking down of possible invaders.
"Do we wait here?" insisted Olgar. "Do we search for the others? Or do we just leave?" It was obvious what course of action the bearded man preferred.
Neekin hopped nimbly up onto the sill of the room's sole window and peered out over the dead city, the buildings shimmering more like a delicate table top ornament than a true city. There was no sound, no sign of life. Ankar and Elgi'an could be anywhere, Neekin knew. Most likely, they were already dead. She could call their names, but that would just alert the city's unseen inhabitants to their location. She hopped down. "Let's go," she said reluctantly.
Olgar breathed out and nodded. "We've done all that we can...certainly in the darkness. Perhaps come morning we can look for tracks and-"
Neekin raised a hand for silence, standing just in the doorway. Olgar edged up beside her and peered out into the hall. "What?" he whispered.
She stood rigidly, pupils dilated, head canted, breathing shallowly as she sought to pluck from the air a sound she had heard a moment before. Then she succeeded. Something was scuttling down the hall to their left. "This way," she said quickly, turning toward the right. Her bare feet made little sound on the dusty floor, but Olgar's heavier, booted footfalls sounded like heavy drum beats to her ears. They ran through the dark corridor, splotches of moon light leaking through overhead windows here and there.
They came to a fork in the corridor. Neekin hissed as she breathed through her strong teeth. The weird sound came from the fork to her right. She made to go left, when she realized that the noise came from that way as well. They were trapped.
"Spirits!" she cursed. Olgar made to unsheathe his sword, but Neekin bumped past him. "Back," she said. "Hurry! Before they cut us off."
Discarding any attempt at stealth, the two raced back they way they had come, the dry, shuffling noises growing more and more agitated, swelling in sound as whatever the things were surged in pursuit. The noise was at their very heels and coming to meet them from ahead when Neekin suddenly ducked into the chamber they had recenty quitted. Olgar slipped in behind her, and together they slammed the door shut and threw the bolt.
Something heavy hit the door from the other side, shaking the dense wood. With a frightened gleam in her ill-matched eyes, Neekin glanced at the old hinges. The door shook again and again. From just the other side they could hear the tap-tap of dozens of feet scuttling back and forth across the floor in a frenzied dance of frustration. That was the only sound.
"Gods," wailed Olgar, grabbing at his hair with his big hands. "Why do they not say anything? Why do they not threaten or rage or laugh or bark or growl or...or something? What manner of man or beast are they?"
Abruptly, the assault ended. Neekin pressed her ear to the wood as Olgar moved away.
"Are they out there still?" he whispered.
"It would seem likely."
"And it's too high to jump."
She glanced over to find him peering out the window. "We're safe...for the moment. The door should hold," she said, not sounding as confident as she had intended. "In the morning we'll have a better advantage. We can see what we're fighting at least. Mayhap, they're night dwellers, even. After all, they stayed hidden until the sun went down."
Olgar slumped against one wall; Neekin glided over and sat upon the sill.
"And to think this was to be my last campaign," muttered Olgar. He chuckled mirthlessly. "I guess it will be at that. I thought perhaps I'd give up soldiering and get a safe, steady job as a guard, perhaps in some small village that saw little action." He looked at her. "And what of you, little Lioness?"
"Where were you headed? And why? You strike me as a strange mercenary. You don't have the temper for a life of obeying orders, nor do you seem to relish the bloodletting like a soldier should...like I did in my youth."
She shrugged, realizing that he wanted, needed, talk to take his mind off their predicament. "I don't live to fight, or to kill, if that's what you mean, though I don't shrink from it. I'm restless, always have been, and a hired sword seems to be the easiest way to earn a traveller's living. When I was a child I was a handful, so my adopted father sent me away -- to train with the warrior-priestesses of Hiotchri; I know how to fight. It's really the only skill I have." She was silent for a moment and found her gaze lingering upon the sealed door. She shook herself, not wishing to dwell on it anymore than did Olgar. "I feel like I'm searching for something, but don't ask me what, because I don't know. I just hope I'll know it when I find it. Perhaps a home, a history. I have no memory of my toddler years, nor any knowledge of my real kin."
"There are other ways a beautiful girl can earn her way," he said quietly, perhaps feeling a momentary twinge of regret for his own life spent living by the sword.
"Perhaps, but not without running the risk of becoming a victim around every new corner. I'd have had to learn how to defend myself in any event. And if you mean as a harlot," she grinned wickedly, "I enjoy giving it away too much to charge for it." Her legs yawned open provocatively.
Olgar had not realized how truly brief Neekin's garment was. Wisps of delicate hair caught the moonlight as they curled teasingly around the edges of the fabric. The cloth of her G-string was so thin, and made clingy by her sweat, that the secrets beneath were not very secret at all. He licked his lips at the enchanting sight, his throat suddenly very dry.
"We have a night to waste," Neekin mused with exaggerated casualness as she glanced over her shoulder at the city. As if unconsciously, she traced her fingertips across the soft skin of her inner thighs. "What should we do with it?"
He rose and approached her.
Suddenly she closed her legs and looked at him, a mischievous twinkle in her eyes.
He hesitated, knowing that to misread Neekin was to invite a stretch of steel in his gut. She seemed to be teasing him, luring him on, but... Throwing caution to the wind, he caught her up in his big arms, crushing her to him, feeling her soft breasts squeeze against his hard chest. He knotted a fist in in her unruly hair, angling her face toward his mouth. He held his breath, as if awaiting the hiss of steel.
Then she laughed and he knew he was right. He kissed her hungrily, her tongue like honied fire in his mouth. He snagged his fingers in the waistcord of her G-string and pulled it down around her knees. She stood and he dropped to his knees, nuzzling her soft thatch. She let out a little gasp, then twisted around to lean against the window sill. He playfully bit the plump roundness of her buttocks.
"Don't be too eager," she advised him. "We've got all night." For a moment she frowned darkly as she gazed out over the gleaming scintillance of the mute buildings, then she let him drag her to the floor. He pushed her vest up, bunching it above her round breasts, while she pulled at his kirtle, dragging it off his muscular frame.
Soon the silence of the streets below was disturbed by the soft cries of a woman, becoming throaty moans as time progressed. Then, a satisfied silence.
* * *
When Neekin woke it was still dark, the full moon painting the stone floor in silver squares. She stretched luxuriously, then rolled over to peer at where Olgar was seated, having taken the first watch. She blinked.
He was not there.
In a graceful pounce, she was instantly perched on the balls of her feet in a feral crouch, her nude body gleaming in the faint light. The room was empty. "Olgar?" she muttered, noting the bar was still across the door. She slipped soundlessly to the window and peered out, but there was no sign of the man on the avenue below. Her eyes narrowed to suspicious slits, all vestiges of sleep swept away in an instant. He was not in the room, yet he could not have left it; nor was there any reason for him to have left either. Not voluntarily.
Something rustled to one side.
Neekin launched herself from the window, hit the floor, rolled and came to her feet, scooping up her sword and her knife as she did. She stood there, tensed, utterly naked save for a glimmering blade in either hand. She blinked, willing her eyes to penetrate the murky shadows that surrounded her.
The room was breathless again -- like the city.
"Olgar?" she hissed softly.
Something rustled again, and again the sound seemed to come from one side of the room; behind an ancient arras, in fact. She looked around quickly, not wishing to face unaware what must have secreted away her companion with ease and with all the noise of a sultry breeze. She looked up; the elegant tapestries punctuating the room rose to the ceiling. There, crossbeams formed a stony spider web above her head. She tossed her sword away and it landed with a clatter, then she bit her knife between her teeth. She grabbed the ancient fabric and began scaling it with all the speed she could muster. The material was worn by the passage of hollow generations and made deceptively fragile. It tore and began unravelling as she clawed at it. The rustling grew louder. With a final, desperate lunge, she caught a beam and swung up onto it as the tapestry fully unravelled and collapsed in a heap upon the floor below.
Peering down from her hiding place, she witnessed the arras by the wall ripple, bulge, then flutter to the side as a shadow discharged from the very stone. Then another and another. They were not at all human-shaped, but in the darkness she could not even begin to imagine what they were. They were much larger than a man, and appeared low to the ground.
One went instantly to the spot where she had been sleeping, then pulled up short. It moved in quick starts and stops, as if bewildered by her absence. The other two went to the fallen tapestry and she held her breath. But though obviously recognizing it was out of place, they seemed not to look up. At least, so she surmised, unable to distinguish where the heads were or how the creatures were shaped. They made no vocal sound, as eerily quiet as the city itself. Nonetheless, they were obviously in some form of communication since, after a moment or two, they turned as one and shuffled unhurriedly from the room, disappearing behind the arras.
They left no lingering odour, no sign that they had ever been.
Neekin shuddered, then, steeling herself, dropped soundlessly to the floor. She crouched, bare breasts heaving with nervous breaths as she stared at the now-still arras against one wall, her wide-eyes scintillant in the moon glow. Satisfied that they were not returning immediately, she quickly dressed and retrieved her sword. She crept to the arras, hesitated, then flung it aside. The black mouth of a tunnel lurked in the wall beyond. She ducked to peer better into the low-ceilinged passage, but was unable to see into the darkness even as far as she could stretch her hand.
If not for Olgar, she would have been inclined to take her chances in the main corridor, or leaping from the high window. But neither alternative would necessarily have uncovered the fate of her companion, or their comrades.
Knuckles white about the handles of both blades, Neekin crept into the darkness, her bare feet soundless, her ears trying to lift from the stillness any hint of approaching danger.
Next: The Secrets of the Sh'tatha
Back to The Neekin Chronicles