Dwellers in the Darkness
by D.K. Latta
This story is copyright D.K. Latta and may not be reproduced, or
commercial purposes without his permission.
"Aieee," wailed the old beggar melodramatically, holding forth a bowl of cracked clay beseechingly. "For but a few coins, girl, I will give you a warning you would do well to heed."
Neekin regarded the old man skeptically. He squatted in the dry dust of the empty street, at his back the horizon was a simmering crimson smear as the sun receded beyond the lip of the world, taking with it the light. It left, however, the implacable heat to remain among the rickety huts of the shanty town. The old man was dressed only in a dirty cloth wrapped about his loins, his limbs thin and bony, his face creased and all but toothless. Only his skin still retained the ebon hue of his more vibrant youth.
He returned her gaze impassively. Neekin knew what he saw. A beautiful, sandy-haired woman, white-skinned -- a rarity in these parts -- dressed briefly in a silk bra and G-string; her feet bare with cheap anklets her only jewelry. A broad belt crossed her middle from which dangled a hunting knife and a couple of pouches. One of the pouches jingled. Nothing in his eyes betrayed what he thought of this beautiful foreigner, or the weird hue of her eyes: one eye being pale blue, the other a glimmering emerald.
Instead, he shook his bowl again. "A coin for your future."
"I'm more interested in directions than prophesy," she said dryly, though in truth she was a little curious as to why the streets were so utterly devoid of bustle here in the slums outside the walled city of Zanolatheh. "I seek the home of Imano, wife of Goran."
The old man squinted at her in the waning light. "Goran is gone, many months. He went to fight."
"Goran is dead, on a battlefield far, far away. I promised him I'd tell his family." She held up a coin between two fingers.
The old man's tongue worked over his dry, wrinkled lips. "Follow this street past four intersections, then turn left. Look for a hut beside a well."
Neekin tossed him the coin and made to move on.
"Hear my warning," he called quickly. "Heed me, girl, or you will be dead by morning."
She stopped and looked back at him. Pursing her lips, she flung him another coin. "All right old man, I'll bite."
He snatched up the coin from where it landed in the bone-dry dirt, like a striking snake. "Beware They-Who-Come-at-Night. Find shelter, else the ghosts of Zanolatheh will take you too." Leaping to his feet with surprising fleetness, he whirled and scurried into the deepening shadows. Belatedly, Neekin wondered if he went to heed his own advice. Ghosts? she mused. Then she looked around. She was, indeed, the only living soul on the street.
Though unwilling to entirely credit an old man's ravings, she strode hurriedly through the winding, narrow avenues.
She would have believed the people had been evacuated, but the smell of cooking stews graced her nostrils and, occasionally, her ears lifted the sound of muffled voices from the sultry air. The population was simply indoors, and oddly subdued.
She stopped before an ill-framed door nestled in a hut to the right of a drinking well, matching the old man's description. She rapped on the door. Her brows knitted as she heard the sound of scuffling feet, then abrupt silence. She knocked again. "I'm seeking Imano, wife of Goran," she called.
After a moment, eyes peered out from between the poorly set planks of the door. "Who are you?" hissed a voice.
"My name is Neekin. I was...a friend of Goran."
The dark eyes stared at her. Then, haltingly, a rope latch was unhooked and the door pulled inward. "Inside, hurry."
Neekin obeyed. A woman, wrapped from breast to thigh in a purple shuka, shut the door behind her. They studied each other for a moment in the flickering candlelight emanating from a little table. The woman was ebon-skinned and quite beautiful, though the hardness of her life had begun to mark her around her eyes and the corners of her full mouth. A little boy sat in an unlit corner.
"Was?" she whispered.
Neekin shrugged helplessly. "He died bravely."
Imano collapsed onto a rude stool, her shoulders shuddering with mute sobs. Neekin glanced at the boy, unsure what the child understood.
"He -- he promised to take us away from here," the woman whispered after a moment. "Once he had made some money fighting in other people's wars." Her gaze darted nervously to the door. "Gods preserve us, it was the only thing keeping me going. Did he," she looked up at Neekin, "did he send anything?" She said it hesitatingly, realizing how insensitive it sounded. But Neekin understood the pragmatism of necessity.
There had been nothing to send. Only survivors of the campaign had been paid. "Yes," Neekin said quietly, unhooking her own money pouch from her belt. She tossed it with a jingle of coins onto the table. "Now tell me what you're afraid of? Why are the streets deserted?"
Imano looked at the pouch, then at the half-naked woman. "I don't know, that's the horror of it. No one knows. For months now we've lived in fear of something that steals us away, never to be seen again. But no living man has ever seen its face."
"Zanolatheh lives in fear-?"
"Not the city," she said bitterly. "Only we outside the walls." She touched the money pouch with a finger. "You must stay the night. The streets aren't safe."
Neekin glanced around the room, spying a wooden tub against
one wall. "In that case, I don't suppose I could trouble you for a bath...I've
been on the road many days."
While Imano put her son to bed behind a frayed green curtain, Neekin undressed and slipped into the luke-warm water that the two women had drawn from the well outside and warmed over the hearth. Imano quietly came and sat beside the tub, then, without a word, picked up a cloth and began washing the back of Neekin's neck, her shoulders. Neekin languidly closed her eyes, allowing the sensations of the water, and Imano's almost rythmic strokings to roll over her after her many days of wandering alone through the hot, dry region. She sighed. She felt the woman's hands move down her front, stroking her firm breasts, rolling them. Neekin's breathing grew more heavy. Abruptly she realized there was no longer a cloth separating Imano's hand from her skin. She opened her eyes and caught the woman's wrist, looking at her questioningly.
Imano looked away. "I'm sorry...I've been...alone for so long..."
Neekin reached out with her other hand, knotting her fingers in Imano's thick mane, and pulled her closer. She kissed the woman, her lips hungry, her tongue inquisitive.
As their lips parted, slowly, after many moments, Imano said, "I did love Goran. Truly."
Neekin nodded, finally deciding to admit what had been gnawing at her during her entire trip to Zanolatheh. "So did I."
She rose from the tub and Imano led her, still dripping, to her cot. They made love in a hushed, breathy silence, so as not to wake the boy.
The old beggar's warning was quickly driven from Neekin's mind by more pleasurable, more carnal, interests...
* * *
She woke with a grunt as the rickety door crashed inward and Imano screamed. Neekin stumbled to her feet, the glare of moonlight bursting through the door momentarily blinding her. She saw vague forms pour into the shack as she clawed unseeing for her knife. Cold, clammy arms wrapped around her waist. The sensation made her skin crawl and an instinctive cry escaped her lips before she drove her elbow into a soft belly. She whirled and brought the heal of her hand across where her assailant's face should be. Cartilage cracked. Then she was flung aside and the patter of footsteps faded rapidly.
Belatedly, Neekin realized Imano was screaming her son's name. The grown women had obviously proved too feisty a prey, but not so the little boy. Snatching up her knife, Neekin leapt out onto the hot, moonwashed street. Keen senses pinpointed the retreat of stealthy treads, and Neekin was off like a hunting cat, her full lips pulled back from white teeth. She had dressed after their lovemaking, because Imano did not want her son to wake and find them entwined compromisingly. As such, she now raced through the streets clothed in her bra and G-string.
The moon glared down on her with its etiolated radiance as she darted through silent avenues, her feet seeming to barely grace the packed-earth of the streets. No one came to see what the screaming had been about. Neekin could well imagine the occupants of the huts she passed, wide awake, quivering with nameless terror. Thanking their Gods that, at least for tonight, it was some one else. If Imano was following, which seemed likely, she had been left far behind, no doubt unsure even of the direction Neekin had taken. Yet Neekin knew if she slowed, to allow the woman to join her, she might lose the kidnappers altogether.
Just ahead of her, always around corners, just vanishing from view, she glimpsed her elusive quarry. Her skin crawled across her svelte muscles with every barely gleaned sighting. The figures were white. Not pale, like her, like northerners, but literally white. The unnatural ivory of a grinning skull.
Imano had said no man had seen the assailant, but the old beggar had known that there was more than one, and had said they were ghosts -- a reasonable description of their pale hue. She shuddered instinctively. Obviously the old man had seen them come in the night, observed them from the concealment of a ditch, or hidden beneath old boards, or wherever it was he found shelter. How much did he know? she wondered. What had he seen?
Was it just their colouring that made him call them ghosts, or was it something else? Something more insidious?
When Goran, her lover, had revealed as he lay dying that he was married, and begged her to bring word to his wife, Neekin had felt betrayed, angry. But she had made the promise -- what else could she have done for a dying man? Now she had slept with his wife and was seeking to rescue his child from the clutches of only the Spirits knew what horror. A simple promise, made in a moment, had become complicated. Possibly even lethal. A deep, scared, animal instinct told her to break off. The child meant nothing to her.
She continued nonetheless.
Gradually she was aware of leaving the rude shacks of the slum behind and of approaching the impenetrable blackness of the surrounding jungle.
And then she realized -- her prey had vanished.
She staggered to a halt, breasts heaving beneath the flimsy cloth, sweat gleaming off her flat stomach. Crouching, blade bristling from her hand, she pivoted slowly, seeking some sign of her quarry.
Her ill-matched eyes flared as she espied a crude stone mouth, so overgrown with vines and weeds as to be almost invisible. It was an aged, man-made aperture leading down, beneath the soil. Creeping soundlessly to the opening, she discerned cracked stone steps descending and a faint, unsteady luminescence emanating from below. Her breaths were shallow as she drew them between her strong, white teeth. She did not like the feel of this at all.
She set one foot on the first step. Then, firming her nerve, she started down. Each step was cooler to her bare soles than the last, till she reached the bottom and a dirt tunnel spread before her. A tunnel that was decidedly chilly, and damp. Goosebumps pinched her bare flesh as her toes squished into the muddy earth. She started cautiously forward, torches fluttering half-heartedly at irregular intervals, lighting her way. The tunnel wound back beneath the shanty town and, beyond it, perhaps even under the walled city itself.
She wondered what this place was. It was old, that much was obvious. If built by the city's inhabitants, it was not a common destination. Yet someone maintained the torches.
Neekin stopped, feeling a chill that had little to do with the air. She stepped forward into a wide chamber, her nose crinkling as a familiar musty stench washed over her. Stone tombs lined the walls.
She was in the catacombs of Zanolatheh, she realized, where rested the corpses of the city's nobility, dating back hundreds of years.
What had the old man said? she wondered.
The Ghosts of Zanolatheh.
She edged closer to a stone casket, its rune-etched lid lying in shards upon the ground. Inside, revealed by the sputtering ruby half-light, a decomposed corpse lay in disarray, chunks of rotted flesh torn free and an arm and both legs missing entirely. The other dead were in similar states. Obviously graverobbers had looted the place looking for jewels and trinkets, Neekin decided, and left the bodies exposed. Rats had done the rest. Rats or perhaps larger predators, jackals and the like that had emerged from the jungle and discovered this bounty beneath the earth.
Such thoughts, she reminded herself after a moment, brought her no closer to those she pursued. Clutching her arms across her round bosom for warmth, shivering just a little from the cold, Neekin pressed on, though she had long since lost the sound of her quarry. She passed through other sub-chambers, each representing a separate dynasty. She moved slowly through the catacombs, but the lighting was so dim and the earth so wet and slimy beneath her feet that she knew she was making the best time that she could.
Abruptly the passage yawned open and she found herself peering down upon a wide chamber. Neekin stepped out onto what might almost have been an altar, its centerpiece a huge clay vat. The dark ceiling was marked by rows of hooks dangling like weird stalacites and the floor below was comprised of rows upon rows of gutters, each filled with stagnant groundwater. Frail torches nestled into the chamber's corners cast eerie, rippling patterns over the black water. Neekin peered into the vat at her side. A metal pole nestled inside a metal casing, sunk into an unknown liquid. Her lips pursed, unable to fathom its purpose. Then she looked at the hooks and the gutters beneath and her eyes narrowed. This was no doubt where bodies had been brought for embalming, hung upside down and drained of blood and fluid.
Suddenly a shriek shattered her macabre musings. A little shape burst from an aperture at the far end of the chamber, arms flailing. Neekin pounced instantly, landing in the water below and feeling its oily cold lap up around her knees, splashing her thighs and hips. She cringed, then caught the racing child.
"Hush," she whispered as Istafhel squirmed blindly in her arms. "I was at your mother's house, remember?" Panting almost hysterically, the little boy stilled slightly, his eyes flaring with vague recognition. "Come," Neekin said, taking his little hand and splashing back toward the steps leading to the altar. If the boy had squirmed free of his captors, Neekin knew they would not be far behind.
She turned slightly, hearing the slapping of broad feet issue from the tunnel the boy had just exited, and knowing she could not out run them, not in their domain. She pushed the boy up the steps. "Hurry back to your mother, child. Now!"
Istafhel hesitated, darting a glance at the darkness and the sounds of hurried, shuffling feet. Then he bolted up the steps, vanishing into the chamber beyond.
Neekin turned, knee-deep in icy water, her hunting knife held out warningly. Her feral eyes were hard and unforgiving as she waited grimly.
The sounds of pursuit halted abruptly and silence rushed in, carrying with it an even more eerie sense of the forbidden than the noises of a moment ago. Only the hollow sound of the dark water lapping sluggishly about her legs and the echo of her breathing disturbed the sudden quiet. Inaudible to any but her, Neekin's heart thundered in her chest.
A single shadow appeared in the tunnel's mouth. It stood there, perhaps regarding her as she guarded the child's retreat. Then the shadow moved forward.
A beautiful woman stepped into the sullen torchlight, a yellow loin cloth about her hips, gold breastplates glinting in the dim light. Her kinky black hair tumbled past her shoulders while her features, though southern, were light. Dusky, even grey. The woman smiled slyly at her. Though she looked nothing like the nightmarish images Neekin's fancy had begun to construct of the kidnappers, that smile unnerved her. It was colder than the water encasing her legs.
"You are a brave trespasser," said the woman silkily. "I commend your spirit." She lifted a black wand and pointed it at Neekin. "In this chamber necromancers of ancient Zanolatheh once performed weird experiments; causing the dead to dance, so some say. The secret of their powers has been lost with the ages. The secret, but not the power itself."
Before Neekin could react, a weird crackling sounded as something very like a bolt of lighting licked out from the clay vat upon the altar, momentarily touched the black wand, and then erupted from its tip -- at her.
Neekin screamed as energy coursed through her, spasming her muscles, and sent her plunging into darkness...
* * *
"Ah, awake at last," she purred. "Good. It has been sometime since I've had anyone to converse with. Anyone...lucid, that is."
Neekin stiffened. Beyond the woman, in the darkness, crouched vague shapes, their eyes, and only that, catching the light of the torch near Neekin's head. The woman followed her gaze and smiled.
"I am Marissanno. Princess Marissanno. Usurped by those city-dwelling curs within the walls of Zanolatheh. And confined here. To die."
To be locked within the catacombs, Neekin reflected with horror. Essentially, the princess had been buried alive. The paleness of the woman's skin attested to how many months she had been here. Of course, that left a question burning in Neekin's brow. "But you didn't die," Neekin said, speaking for the first time.
"Aye. I found...allies." She gestured at the dark shapes. "I gained their...allegiance and, in return, they showed me how to live. I stayed alive, though, sometimes, I fear I may have lost my sanity somewhere along the way." She grinned at Neekin, her eyes glowing like phosphorescent ice. "And I plotted my revenge. My 'followers' and I will return to the city and none shall be spared our wrath. First though, I needed to strengthen their rather sickly physiques. Subsisting on what lies beneath the earth does not make for great warriors -- nor great thinkers. Purely by chance I discovered the old steps leading outside the city walls, long since buried over. We excavated and I sent them out to secure fresh meat."
"Fresh-?" Neekin stared as the import of the princess' words dawned on her.
"People make easier prey for my awkward minions than any beast of the jungle. And as they were just low-born scum, I knew their disappearances wouldn't arouse the interest of the inner city, nor betray my hand too soon."
"You are mad," Neekin hissed. "And your followers are...are..."
Marissanno dropped to a crouch, knotting her fist in Neekin's sandy hair. She savagely yanked Neekin's head back, eliciting a cry from her lips. The princess grinned even wider and sneered through gritted teeth. "Are what, girl? Or can't you guess? Don't you know who I found, here, in the tombs?"
From the corner of her eyes, Neekin eyed the mysterious, slouching shapes. She began to tremble.
Suddenly the fluttering torchlight glinted off her own blade, clutched in Marissanno's hand. She gasped as the ice-cold metal was laid flat against her warm belly, then slowly slid down her soft flesh and slipped inside the heat of her G-string. "I paid for their loyalty," whispered the princess bitterly. "By the Gods, I paid!" With a flick of the blade, one side of Neekin's waistcord was severed. "They would have slain and eaten you too, as they did the others. But I have a better use for your body. You shall be my surrogate in my bargain with them." Then the other was cut and the knife tossed away. Marissanno drew the brief scrap of cloth covering Neekin's womanhood and dangled it mockingly before her face. "And perhaps you can produce the heirs for them that my body could not." The princess stood and, without a backward glance, strode from the room.
Neekin frantically rattled the chains binding her to the wall as the first of the shapes shuffled forward. The air stilled in her lungs as an ill-shaped form staggered slowly into the tentative embrace of the half-light, the flickering torch exposing white skin mapped by blue, thin veins. He was hairless, his ears large and tapered, his mouth yellowing teeth behind blue-black lips. His eyes were as wide cups brimming with black tea.
And Neekin knew suddenly that the tombs had not been desecrated by looters nor ravaged by wild beasts.
The ghoul lurched forward, his brethren stumbling after him, mumbling gutturally and incoherent.
With a scream half of rage, half of terror, Neekin kicked out as the first came within range of her shapely-but-savage legs. He groaned, discharging a noxious breath from his lips as he tumbled back into his comrades. For a moment, a befuddled grunting echoed in the chamber as the ghouls swayed unsteadily, considering their next move. The princess had said they were not particularly clever.
Neekin looked around desperately, then spied a long-handled hammer in one corner. The chain was rusty, but appeared sturdy as she rattled it desperately. But obviously the spike that pinned her had only just been driven into the wall -- by Marissano no doubt -- and might not be as secure as it appeared. Scrambling to her feet, Neekin crushed her fear beneath her determination and turned her back on the ghouls, feeling her stomach heave just at the thought of not being able to watch them. She grabbed the rough head of the spike and began yanking it -- not out, but left, right, up, down. Attempting to wiggle it loose. Stone granules rained from around the dark metal, attesting to a marginal success. Behind her, Neekin heard steps shuffling closer. She braced one bare foot against the cold stone and, looping the chain more tightly about her wrists, yanked. A groan burst through her gritted teeth as her muscles stood up along her shoulders and tendons bulged in her thigh. Tears welled in her eyes as she felt her muscles burn with the strain.
Then the old stone grunted. It hissed. And the spike securing the chain came free. Neekin fell back into a seething cloak of clammy, unhuman flesh. Hands groped at her hips and roughly pawed her breasts, tearing off her bra. She screamed as one of the creatures bit hungrily into her shoulder, obviously missing the entire point of the excercise. A heavy hand clamped between her legs -- she grunted as something roughly entered her. She hoped it was just a finger. Flailing wildly, she squirmed free of their cold, desperate hands, then whirled to face them.
The body of the group was between her and the door, and as one, the mass of them surged forward.
Neekin swung the heavy chain manacled between her wrists around and around her head, then snapped it out at them. Thin, watery blood spattered across her face and chest and a horrid cry went up, like the groaning of the wind. The moaning ghouls stumbled away as Neekin whipped them frenziedly, wading into the thick of them -- if not quite fearlessly, at least with the illusion of such --; using the instrument of her captivity now as the instrument of her freedom. She wanted to vomit from the smell of them, the touch of them...the very thought of them. Instead, as they spread away from her, she grabbed up her discarded knife and bolted from the chamber.
An anguished cry washed icily over her from behind, chilling her to her marrow. The ghouls would not be so easily deprived.
She ran blindly, both to escape the lumbering pursuit behind her and to find the steps leading to the surface. She hoped both tasks could be accomplished as one.
She snatched a torch from where it was nestled in the cavern wall and hurled it behind her, at the feet of the oncoming creatures. The nearest of the ghouls stumbled back fearfully, but the torch sputtered and went out as it settled into the moist ground. Neekin cursed and ran, slipping and stumbling on the wet earth as she went. She fell twice, smearing her pale skin with dark mud, but struggled to her feet and kept on.
She stumbled, panting, out into a wide cavern, instantly sinking to her knees in frigid water. Heart fluttering, Neekin recognized the chamber of the hooks and gutters, beyond which was the tunnel leading to the surface.
Marissano stood on the dry steps to the ancient altar, her back to Neekin, obviously lost in her own dark thoughts. Startled, she turned at the sound of the completely naked girl splashing toward her, and recognized the fury blazing in Neekin's ill-matched eyes.
Marissanno raised her black wand and lightning licked out from the clay vat to her wand and was, instantly, redirected at Neekin. But barely had the princess started to raise her arcane weapon than Neekin leapt. She snagged her chain on one of the hooks above their heads. The tongue of lighting raced beneath her swinging legs and Neekin kicked out, grazing Marissanno's shoulder. The princess stumbled, putting one foot into the water.
Instantly, lightning bathed the room in a momentary brilliance as the mad princess screamed and the air was clotted with the stench of burning flesh. Then Marissanno toppled over, vanishing into the shallow black water.
Neekin did not fully comprehend what she had observed, other than to realize that somehow and in some way the ancient magicks had malfunctioned. She clambered up her chain to the hook where, once her chain was slack, she could disengage it. She dropped down to the black water and raced up the steps of the altar. Behind her the sound of shuffling steps drew closer. Heart pounding, she sped through the next length of tunnel.
She tripped and sprawled across cold steps. Raising herself on her arms, she squinted up and realized she had found the entrance. What was more, a welcome honey-glow smouldered in the aperture at the top of the stairs. Dawn! She doubted the ghouls would follow her into daylight.
She could make it back to Imano's hut, who could then pass on what had happened to her neighbours. The entrance to the catacombs could easily be boarded up before another nightfall.
As for those inside the walled city, Neekin doubted the simple-minded ghouls would maintain Marissanno's purpose now that she was dead. Yet if the creatures should find another entrance, and make their way inside the city, she could not help but think that, on some level, it would be deserved. After all, it was the elite in the inner city that had driven the princess to her madness.
Just deserts, Neekin thought grimly. In more ways than one.
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