by D.K. Latta
Previously: Trapped in the lost city by unseen, and unhuman, creatures, Neekin and Olgar settle down for the night. But Neekin awakens to find herself alone in what she had thought was a sealed room. She discovers a secret tunnel, and sets out to find her missing comrades...and their mysterious adversaries...
Chapter Three: The Secret of the Sh'tatha
As she moved forward, Neekin detected a faint glow ahead, eventually realizing that slits had been cut in the low-ceiling, through the thick stone of the building, allowing moonlight to bleed into this quiet place. The moon was high and its silver beams speared downward through the slits, casting droplets of pale light like phosphorescent flagstones trailing away through the inky blackness. As she went, she passed branching corridors, no doubt leading to other rooms, other halls. An entire network allowing the strange creatures to move about undetected, unnoticed.
Neekin stopped and cocked her head. Noises wafted to her, half-heard, half-inferred, from down the long corridor. She started down the hall again, running soundlessly, her lips tight, her heart racing.
Following the sounds, she turned off onto another corridor, then another. Unease gripped her heart as she realized she might become lost in the dark maze of secret halls in this dead city. But she neared her destination. Noises came to her more clearly. The shuffling of-not-quite-human feet mixed with moans of decidedly more human origins.
A slight coolness to the air suggested that the corridor had descended, that she was now beneath the city proper. Light burned ahead of her and she hurried forward, barely halting herself in time before she stumbled out of the tight corridor into whatever waited beyond. She crouched and peered into the huge chamber, torches set into niches flooding the place with illumination.
Creatures teemed in the room beyond.
They were great crustaceans, moulting grey and purple not unlike lobsters the size of large alligators, flowing over the stone floor like a living tide. They sported antennae and tails and many-legs and even great, lethal claws, but in addition they had forelimbs that resembled crudely-formed human hands.
Slabs were laid out in the room, and Neekin felt bile rise in her throat as she observed the progressive fates of their victims. Olgar and the warrior woman, Elgi'an, were against one wall, bound and helpless, staring with expressions of horror that no doubt mirrored her own. Ankar and Vanjo were laid out on slabs, blood matted about their heads which were angled away from her. She had little doubt but that they had been bludgeoned to death. On two other slabs were what looked to be statues, the clay still gleaming wet. The markings of the too-finely realized uniforms she recognized. Sheriago's men.
The statues! Neekin realized. Her initial grim intuition had been correct. The statues were not carvings of unliving stone. The reason they had not found graves was because the Harol'lan had not been buried.
With their incongruously human limbs, some of the creatures -- the Sh'tatha, no doubt -- set to work patting wet clay about the dead bodies of her comrades, preparing them for their macabre exhibition. Others of the creatures scurried forward and began dragging Olgar forward. He struggled and kicked out at them, his eyes wet and wide with terror.
Neekin physically shook herself, shrugging off her momentary paralysis. Blinding herself to any consideration of the fate that awaited her at the mercy of the scuttling creatures, she leapt from the dark corridor into the light, landing upon one's back.
The dry, hard shell shifted beneath her bare feet as the creature bucked and writhed. She stabbed it again and again, but her sword rebounded harmlessly off its impenetrable exo-skeleton. Then it twisted and she tumbled onto the cold stones. She shrieked instinctively as a flurry of the mute creatures surged forward. Her blade hewed back and forth frantically, slashing harmlessly off their snouts and plated claws. By accident she cut across one's gaping mouth and a fetid ooze spilled out upon the floor. Seizing the moment, she rammed her sword half-way to the hilt down another's maw and twisted. Gore spilled out and the creature began flopping spasmodically.
She wrenched her sword free then cried out as a claw snapped about her leg, twisting, and clammy unhuman hands clutched at her. She stabbed into the joint of the claw, slipping between the shells, and twisted. The vicious appendage cracked into two and the still voiceless thing scurried backward, away from her...and, incidentally, away from Olgar and Elgi'an. Gaining her feet in the momentary lull, Neekin drew her knife and slashed at Olgar's bonds.
"They -- they -- gods, I -" he stammered.
"Keep your wits," Neekin yelled as the shelled creatures surged toward them again. "And free Elgi'an or we'll never win our way out." Then she could say no more as the first of the things was upon her.
A heavy claw smacked her across the belly and she was flung half the breadth of the room. Instantly her lithe body was crushed beneath a hard, nerveless shell and unnatural, thick-fingered hands closed about her throat. Grappling too close for her sword to be of any use, Neekin scraped and punched uselessly at its shell with her bare hands, feeling a greater blackness than had existed in the musty corridor close about her as her lungs burned without air. Suddenly stinking gore poured over her face and the hands about her throat relented. Spitting and gagging, Neekin dragged herself free to find Olgar over her, his sword sprouting from the lifeless creature's eye. Elgi'an stood beside him, the woman hacking at the oncoming monstrosities.
"Where-?" began the other woman.
Neekin reeled around, and for the first time spotted a wide, double-valved door. She grabbed up her sword. "That way. Perhaps we can block it from the other side."
Hacking and slashing, they backed blindly toward the second room, the silent creatures flinging themselves at them with a kind of implacable determination. Suddenly Neekin's round bottom bumped wood and with a gasp of relief, she and Olgar flung themselves against the portal. It yawned wide, and the three were through in an instant, shutting the doors immediately. Her relief was short lived.
"There's no bar or bolt," moaned Olgar.
Neekin looked around wildly. The room appeared to be a storehouse of some kind. The walls were lined with shelves, five, six levels high. On the shelves were clay jars; hundreds, perhaps thousands of them, jostled one against the other. There was also a rear door.
"Grab one of those shelves," Neekin said. "We can brace it against these doors. It might hold long enough for us to get away." Leaving the stronger Olgar to brace his shoulder against the portal, grunting as it vibrated under the assault by the creatures on the other side, Neekin and Elgi'an grabbed the nearest shelf and lifted it from its braces. The clay jars rained down on the floor, shattering, spraying their wet contents everywhere. Neekin ignored them as they jammed the slate against the door.
Panting, the three of them stepped back, unsure if it would hold.
"What are those things?" gasped Olgar. "What nameless hell spawned them?"
"The Harol'lan did," Neekin grunted, breathlessly. "Those are the Sh'tatha, I'll wager."
"Goddess!" gasped Elgi'an.
Neekin turned at the woman's exclamation. Olgar went white.
Upon the floor, amid the shards of pottery and what Neekin now realized was a preserving fluid, were clumpy grey gobs that she belatedly recognized as brains. Human brains no doubt. The reason the "statues" had seemed foreshortened and flat-headed. Numbly, she looked around at the thousands of jars lining the room.
"Gods!" Olgar muttered. "The hound turns upon his master!"
Neekin turned toward the opposite door, too late realizing that this latest discovery had delayed them, perhaps fatally so. Suddenly the door at their backs burst inward, the slate snapping like a dry twig. The twitching crustaceans surged through the gaping portal, and Neekin hefted her sword, knowing that any extended hand-to-hand battle would quickly go against them.
But the Sh'tatha seemed to hesitate, scuttling back and forth at the entrance. Finally one, after a moment, broke the silent impasse and started toward them, haltingly. Neekin looked at the smashed brain matter upon the floor and her ill-matched eyes flared. "The brains!" she said. She instantly hefted a jar from one shelf and held it above her head, as though about to dash it upon the floor.
The creature froze.
"Grab a jar," Neekin said. "Quickly. Don't you see? The Sh'tatha haven't turned on their masters. In their insane way, they're still devoted to them. They think they're still alive! " And suddenly realization came to her.
The Sh'tatha had been charged with freeing their masters from earthly matters so that they could devote themselves to purely intellectual pursuits. Had they not accomplished that, in their own macabre way? The Harol'lans' bodies were safely protected within their skin of clay, no doubt capable of lasting a thousand years, while their brains had been freed of all physical constraints. She wondered if the Harol'lan had appreciated the irony of their doom as their servants fell upon them, cracking open their skulls. She shuddered. The Sh'tatha, it seemed, were too efficient by far.
"Back toward the door," Neekin hissed as both of her companions each held a jar threateningly.
The creatures shifted and shuffled by the door, barely containing their agitation, but made no attempt at pursuit. Once the second door had closed behind them, and they were in a one of the main corridors, they placed their jars on the floor. Then, as one, they turned and ran up a sloping corridor.
For a moment only their breathing, and the slapping of their feet upon the floor could be heard, then the door burst in behind them, as the Sh'tatha, finally, decided to pursue.
They ran faster, the eerily voiceless demons scurrying after them with an insatiable, unflappable, drive. Neekin glanced over her shoulder, but in the poor illumination all she could see were vague flashes of purple and grey as the creatures darted through the spots of light. It was as if the very ground seethed behind them.
They burst out into a courtyard, silver moonlight flooding down on them in stark contrast to the Stygian interior of the building. The gold and silver plate and the emerald jewels glimmered from the surrounding structures and coloured their bodies in ironically warm hues as they raced frantically for their very lives. Neekin spared a glance behind her only to see the Sh'tatha, their coiling antennae waving before them, come scuttling out after them, a tide of twitching nightmares. Her heart sank. For some reason, she had allowed herself to hope they would not be followed outside. She turned wildly about, seeking some escape, some sanctuary. At full pace, they could keep just ahead of the rending claws. But she feared the creatures tired less easily than they.
"There!" she shouted. The golden single-story building across the courtyard sported thin gaps between the building blocks. Enough for finger and toe holds. She raced across the moon-painted flatland, tossing aside her sword as she did. Olgar and Elgi'an were close on her heels. Nimbly, almost more monkey than human, she scampered up the side of the wall and, muscles glistening with sweat, heaved herself up onto the level roof, the clack of an enormous claw sounding just beneath her toes.
Elgi'an was not so lucky. The creatures reared up on their hindmost legs, effectively doubling their height. Unhuman hands grabbed at her legs and she was pulled screaming beneath the thrashing shelled limbs. One final shriek, cut off in mid-breath, told Neekin she was beyond rescue.
Neekin looked over. Olgar was half upon the roof, but his legs dangled over and one sandalled foot was caught by a clammy hand. Other hands and claws strained upward for him. She instinctively swung over the side and kicked out at the inhuman hand, once, twice, before the creature relented and fell back upon its many-limbs. Her fingers slipped and, with a shriek, Neekin plunged toward the forms writhing below.
She jerked in mid-fall as callused fingers curled about her wrist and she was pulled up onto the roof, to land gasping beside Olgar. He slumped and let out a great sigh of air. "I just hope those abominations can't climb," he muttered.
They spent the remainder of the night trapped on the roof, while the Sh'tatha milled about tirelessly below, eagerly determined to fulfil their centuries old mandate. Neekin studied them with a mixture of horror and fascination, not at all sure how they would ever escape. Death by starvation seemed no more preferable to the grim fate that had claimed the Harol'lan.
Yet as the first hints of golden honey seeped into the eastern sky, the Sh'tatha seemed to grow more agitated. And as the warm sun finally began its daily odyssey, the creatures scuttled back into the dark buildings, no doubt returning to their dark corridors.
Neekin grinned weakly at Olgar. "We have till night, I'd guess, to gather what fruits and vegetables we can and a canteen or two before the Sh'tatha rise again."
"And if there are more soldiers outside the city wall?"
"I think we've seen the last Sheriago's mean." Then she smiled grimly. "And if not, what of it? We'll fight our way past them, the Spirits willing, or die in the trying. But I'm damned if I'll spend another night in this city of the Sh'tatha."
And finally, even Olgar allowed himself a mirthless laugh. "Aye," he said. "Aye!"
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