by D.K. Latta
This story is copyright D.K. Latta and may not be reproduced, or redistributed, for commercial purposes without his permission.
Neekin cranned her neck tentatively over the lip of the yawning precipice.
The densely wooded jungle plunged over the edge like a mute, verdant waterfall, the massive, moss-trimmed trees continuing to sprout at angles from the perpendicular face, as if the world itself had been tipped on its side. She hesitated, unable to discern anything but the tangle of trees and vines below, and contemplated detouring around the valley. Conversely, she generally just went where her feet led her, and had no pressing business that demanded she keep to the travelled paths.
After a moment, she began to descend.
She was a beautiful young woman with a shock of sandy hair and a feral glint in her oddly coloured eyes. One eye was an angry green, the other pale blue. She was dressed in a G-string and a brief, crimson vest, laced at the front. At her hip she sported a hunting knife.
Her feet were bare and her toes as much as her hands gripped the mossy bark and curling vines as she climbed from one horizontally sprouting tree to another. As she descended, the shimmering light became more elusive as the trunks and branches interlocked above her like giant fingers. She plunged through a perpetual jade twilight, the silent air humid and heavy to breathe.
She halted suddenly, eyes growing wide.
A still body lay in the crotch of a lower tree. Her delicate nostrils flared momentarily, then she dropped soundlessly beside it.
The man had been dead for no great time; a day, perhaps two. The insects had only begun their work upon his corpse. She squinted up through the leafy canopy, deciding he must have attempted the descent, but been less nimble than she. There was nothing upon the body, no icons, or even tattoos, to identify him, to say where he was headed, or from whence he had come. There was nothing she could do for him, so she gave a mental shrug and swung down to the next trunk.
At last she came to the floor of the isolated valley and dropped to the lush carpet of grass. The air was thick and steaming here, as if the warmth was trapped by the overhanging brush, and the sleak contours of her body gleamed with sweat. The flora was dense and almost violent in the intensity and variety of its colouring, and the air smelled sweetly of growing things.
Nonetheless, Neekin frowned.
High overhead, a bird cawed. At some great distance, she could make out the chatter of a monkey in the jungle above. Here, though, in this lush cauldron of earth, there was only stillness.
Padding cautiously forward she slipped away from the cliff face, out from under the weirdly jutting trees and into the jungle proper of bushes and vertically sprouting trunks. She whacked at the boughs crossing her path with a dead branch she retrieved from the ground. After a short time of wading through the brush, the flora fell aside to reveal a little clearing.
Neekin froze in mid-step, gawking.
A boat sprawled in the middle of the valley floor, a mighty vessel accustomed to plowing the seas with impunity. Indeed, it looked for all the world as though it still did. In her mind if she painted the brush blue, the grass and bushes became the sea foaming and seething before its prow, the vessel tilted slightly, as though riding mighty waves.
All that was an illusion, of course. The vessel was as still as death, the flora no yielding sea.
How it came to be here, she could not imagine.
She approached it, her shock giving way to curiosity. She took a run and a leap and caught the rail, then, squirming, dragged herself up so that she could peer upon the deck. The vessel was old -- ancient even. The boards were warped by the incessant humidity, and dark around the edges with rot. Creepers dragged across portholes and moss coated the railing, making her grip uncertain. The rail itself bowed under her weight. Her eyes narrowed as she made out the yellowing bones of a skeleton amid a tangle of creepers. Her nostrils flared uncertainly. Then she made to throw a leg over the rail, and instead slipped and fell to the sward. Only the lushness of the grass saved her from injury.
She regarded the hulk wryly, contemplating a second attempt, when a new sound impressed itself upon her ears. A welcoming sound. Rising, Neekin hurried off into the jungle. The vessel had lain undisturbed for centuries, another few minutes would not matter.
She came at last to a pond at the foot of the valley wall, the sound she had heard being water trickling down the cliff face. She began to glean some of the mystery here. Presumably there was a body of water beyond the wall. Once the little valley had been part of the sea, then a massive shake-up, an earthquake or landslide, had split the valley from the body of water. In time, the water level had dropped and the trees and grass took hold.
And all that remained was this little pond and a forgotten ship.
Neekin stripped eagerly out of her garments and dived into the pond. The water was cool after her long climb, and she splashed about for a time, bathing and playing simultaneously.
Refreshed, she crawled at last out of the water. She saw the shadow a moment before something struck her across the back of the head. She hit the sward, lights exploding before her eyes and, before she had time to react, callused hands bound her wrists behind her back.
"Ho ho," mocked a voice. "A water nymph rises to greet us. A good sign."
Glaring, Neekin looked up. Three men stood about her, dressed in ragged clothes, and well-equiped with knives and swords. More than was necessary simply for self-defense. The leader, a darkly-handsome man with a goatee, grinned at her.
"And such a comely sight. Come, girl, don't be shy." He grabbed her under her arm and dragged her to her feet, his eyes greedily consuming her nude body. "Lovely," he said. Then he curled an arm around her throat, spinning her to face away from him, and slammed her back against his body. His hot breath whispered in her ear as his body rubbed knowingly against her's. "Don't cry out, sweet," he cautioned. "Where are your companions, how many, and what are you doing here?"
Though for the moment at their mercy, Neekin took some delight in recognizing their ignorance. They obviously believed her to be part of a larger party. That was an advantage she thought could be exploited. "My retainers will slay you if you harm me," she warned, doing her best to affect the voice of a nobleman's spoiled daughter. "They'll --"
"Kashtan," hissed another man, taller than the others. The one holding her glanced over. "Look at this." The big man who had spoken was holding up her dusty, sweat-stained garments and hunting knife.
"Your retainers should be flogged, letting you jiggle about in such scanty -- and shabby -- clothes. And the knife? Don't your men protect you well enough?" Kashtan laughed in her ear. He looked about them. "I see no sign of a larger party, no footprints or anything. I think you're alone, girl. Another orphan of the road, like us. Why are you here?" he demanded again.
Neekin realized the strangers were obviously concerned about something, a secret they worried was not so secret.
"Nothing," she said, seeing no profit in further pretense. "I'm just on my way to Dunah-bal."
"And you aren't after the treasure of Dyrymm Kai?"
He turned her to face him, and stared at her for almost a minute. Then his features softened, marginally. "I think you're telling the truth."
"Then I can go?"
He looked her up and down. "No, I don't think so, girl." Suddenly he grabbed her head in his hands and crushed her lips in a bruising kiss.
Neekin rammed her knee up into his groin, and he doubled over, groaning. She turned, arms still bound behind her, but the big man was blocking her escape. She ducked nimbly beneath his swinging arms and drove her head into his belly. He wheezed, stumbling back, big arms clutching at his gut. He failed to stop her, but he slowed her down, and that was enough.
Neekin was thrown roughly to the ground, and twisted so that she stared up into Kashtan's rage-crimsoned features. The icy coldness of a knife was at her throat. "You've just made things worse for yourself, witch!"
He continued to glare at her for a moment, then angrily wrenched his gaze away to stare at a fourth man emerging from the brush. "What?!?"
"I've found it," the man said simply.
Kashtan stared dumbly for a moment, then the fury drained from his face, to be replaced by joy. Or at least a twisted approximation of joy. He looked at Neekin again. "First dinner," he said, "then you for dessert."
He rose and dragged her to her feet. Then he shoved her ahead of him. "Lead us," he said to the newcomer.
As the small party wound back through the humidity-heavy jungle, Neekin kept her bound wrists flush against her buttocks. The pond water dribbled down her smooth skin, and she kept her head tilted slightly back, so that the water caught in her hair also dripped backward, following the indentation of her spine. The dry ropes confining her slowly grew wet; wet and loose. She bided her time.
Suddenly Kashtan shoved her wrists to one side. "Don't conceal what the gods gave you, girl."
Chagrined, Neekin bent her elbows and nestled her crossed wrists against the small of her back, obediently permitting her captor an unobstructed view of her lovely bottom, while still allowing her bonds to drink up the droplets licking her body. But knowing his attention was focused on that part of her anatomy, she could not risk testing the ropes without his noticing.
Still, she was fairly confident that if she could free her hands, she could lose the men in the trees. It was now obvious that the dead man she had come upon had been one of their party, that they had tried, and failed, to make the descent she had accomplished, and had found an easier ingress into the little valley. That implied they were less agile than she.
At last, they came to a familiar small clearing. Kashtan stepped past her, staring at the time-moored vessel. He laughed. "Dyrymm Kai's ship -- so it isn't just a myth."
The four men started forward, momentarily forgetting Neekin. Then Kashtan turned and gestured with a finger. "Don't dawdle, my sweet."
She followed, but now that he was in front of her, she was able to strain at her ropes unobserved. She could feel the fibres stretch, just a little.
"They say that Dyrymm Kai was a wealthy merchant, many, many centuries ago," he explained to her, no doubt because he liked to expound, but his comrades had already heard the tale. "And that he became wrecked by some foul sorcery with a cargo of gold and rare jewels. I guess, 'they' were right."
"I don't like it," Neekin said frankly. She considered mentioning the skeleton she had seen, but decided against admitting she had already viewed the vessel. It might re-inflame their paranoia. As well, she owed them nothing...nothing, save the keen edge of a knife. "It smacks of something foul." She looked at Kashtan coldly. "You're well suited to each other."
The men threw lines over the moss-encrusted railing and began scrambling up. Without a word, Kashtan grabbed Neekin about the thighs and tossed her lightly over his shoulder. She made a surprised "ooph", but did not struggle. In moments, he had clambered up onto the old deck where he tossed her aside like an old sack, so that she sprawled upon the deck, her legs splayed indecorously. He grinned hungrily at her display, then turned back to his men.
Now that she was actually on the old vessel, she liked it even less. There was an aura to the thing, an aura that combined with the stillness of the surrounding jungle, and the skeleton, to make her hackles rise. Kashtan and his fellow looters seemed not to detect any morbid ambience as they laughed and slapped each other happily.
One of them stopped laughing. He pointed at the skeleton.
"A poor sentry without flesh on his bones," quiped Kashtan.
"But what's it doing here?" asked the tall man. "It's not like he was marooned at sea. Why didn't he just climb down and walk away?"
"Who cares?" Kashtan said. "Perhaps he died of sickness. It was centuries ago and can't harm us anymore. Let's find the treasure, quickly," he glanced at Neekin meaningfully, "because there are other treasures I wish to sample before nightfall."
The men spread out upon the deck, to verify no chests were lashed to the boards. One headed toward the deck house, and vanished into the dark interior. Neekin noted that, as he went, he unconsciously laid his hand upon the pommel of his short sword. Obviously, she was not the only one to sense something malignant about the ancient wreck. The clump of his steps welled up to them from the darkness as he descended stairs. Then there was a loud crunch and a startled scream. Kashtan and the others raced to the aperture.
Neekin struggled to her feet, half-tempted by curiosity to follow, but quickly cautioned herself that this might be her chance. She strained at the ropes. They yielded a little more, but not quite enough. She peered over the rail at the drop awaiting her. Another few moments and she was sure she could get her hands free. If she waited, they might surround her again, yet if she attempted the jump now, bound as she was, she might well twist an ankle. Then, tied or untied, she would have little chance of escape.
"..the step gave out," she heard called up behind her. "This vessel is so old, even the footing is uncertain."
"Any treasure?" called Kashtan.
"Too dark to be sure."
She decided to chance it and threw one leg over the rail. Suddenly fingers knotted in her hair and yanked her back. With a yelp, she was flung heavily against the wall of the deck house.
Kashtan looked at her mockingly. To him, she was as a lame sparrow to a cat. She narrowed her eyes at him. He did not realize that she was not just a wanderer, but a skilled warrior, as well. She had fought and triumphed over more trials than he could probably imagine. She had little doubt but that, even bound, with the right placed kick, she could cripple, or even kill him. Had he been alone, she would have attempted it already, but she knew that unarmed -- literally -- she could not hope to best all four of them.
He pinched her earlobe between thumb and forefinger, eliciting a cry from her, and dragged her stumbling to the doorway. Below, lights flickered as his men moved about with torches.
Once more he tossed Neekin over his shoulder and descended, careful to avoid the broken step.
"Ye gods," one of the men muttered, then cursed under his breath.
From her ungainly position, Neekin looked about. Skeletons were strewn about, many, and seen this clearly, without the concealing growth of vines, she realized just how old they were. One of the looters toed a rib-cage with his boot, and it crumbled into dust. No wonder Kashtan had wondered if the story of the ship was just myth, she realized. Whatever had transpired had done so long before the rise of the current city-states. It was a wonder the vessel was still intact at all -- and another aspect that smacked a little of the unnatural.
"What happened here?" asked the tall man.
"Nothing that concerns us now," snapped Kashtan, his tone belying his words. He too was obviously not pleased by the signs of so much death.
"Up here, Kashtan! I think I've found it."
Kashtan stroked Neekin's bare bottom still displayed over his shoulder and kissed the swell of her hip. "Won't be long now, my sweet."
His fellows clumped up the rotted ladder and out onto the deck. Kashtan followed, once more dropping Neekin unceremoniously to the deck.
Neekin looked around, and saw one of the men kicking aside a great sea of vines that had become entangled across the forward deck. The other two went to help him, while Kashtan approached more leisurely.
"It's the hold," explained the first man. "These vines hid the trap." After another minute or two, they succeeded in exposing the trap doors covering over the ancient ship's hold. Eagerly, like children frantic to unwrap a new toy, they grabbed at the doors and heaved. The aged wood hinges creaked as wood, swollen by the humidity, rotted by the years, resisted petulantly.
"Damnation!" hissed Kashtan.
The bigger man casually pushed Kashtan aside, flexed his massive arms, then gripped the door and heaved. A snort burst through his clenched teeth, and veins stood out upon his forearms. He trembled for a moment, the door unyielding. Then, with an angry rumble like the snarl of a hunting beast, the entire door tore free as the rotted hinges fell to pieces and he stumbled back.
"Well, that's one way to get it open," remarked Kashtan wryly.
One of the other men leaned over the opening. "It's dark, too dark to see. We -- Wait!" He stopped, as though bewildered. "I thought I saw something move down there."
Neekin squirmed up into a crouching position, straining even harder at her bonds. A nameless terror had grabbed hold of her heart.
"I must have been mistaken -- No! There it is again!"
Kashtan frowned, edging closer, though not too close. "What? Rats? Snakes?"
Suddenly Neekin wrenched a hand free. She quickly threw aside the rope, then rubbed at her raw wrists. She looked to the rail, judging whether she could make it across the deck before any of the men noticed.
Instantly, though, Kashtan and his band of ruffians became the least of her concerns.
"It's too big to be --" The man screamed as a tentacle erupted from the dark hold, curled about his head, and snapped back. He vanished into the ship's interior. His scream was silenced soon after.
"Gods!" wailed the big man. "What? What?"
"Back," roared Kashtan. "Back!"
It was too late. More tentacles lashed out of the dark hold as whatever it was that had lain there dormant was now fully aroused. Kashtan ducked beneath a coiling limb. Another of his fellows was caught about the thighs by one tentacle, while another curled about his head and shoulders. He was lifted high above the deck, squirming and screaming hysterically, then there was an audible crack as the tentacles wrenched in opposite directions and snapped his spine. Still now, the body went to join its comrade in the hold.
Neekin had no idea if the thing in the hold struck out at random, or whether it had some way of sensing where they were. She sprinted toward the rail, to flee this death ship, when a tentacle coiled painfully around her ankle and she went crashing to the rotted deck. It dragged her toward the dark pit at the ship's centre, but in a slithering, back and forth manner. Unintentionally, the tentacle swung her by the deck house and she lashed out, catching hold of the door frame. Momentarily anchored, she kicked out with her other foot, dislodging the clinging tentacle. Scrambling to her feet, she jumped into the dark deck house and looked back.
The big man was digging great furrows in the soft, rotted boards with bloodied fingers as he was dragged, screaming, toward the hold. It did him little good. He vanished down into the darkness.
Neekin slammed the old door and dropped the bar across it, to hold it against the creature. A round window had been cut in the door, and through it she could see out upon the deck. All was stillness. Suddenly a face erupted before the portal, sending her stumbling back in fright and almost pitching down into the lower area.
Kashtan's handsome features were twisted by terror. "Open the door, wench. Hurry! By the gods, hurry!"
Neekin stared at him, coldly. She could not forget what he intended to do to her.
"You stupid bitch, open the --" His roar was muffled as a tentacle curled around his face and dragged him back. The last thing she saw of him was his eyes, wide with utter horror.
She turned and, ignoring the ladder, leapt to the floor below. It was only then that she realized how foolish had been her action. The interior of the old vessel was a dead end. She was trapped.
Beyond the door, all was utterly still, like a burial mound. Kashtan and his fellows were dead. If the creature -- whatever it was -- was still hungry for destruction, it would come for her next. Neekin waited, barely breathing, sweat streaming down her naked skin. She shrugged a lock of hair out of her eyes.
She almost jumped, startled by the sound of a voice. And equally repulsed by the timbre of the tones. It was not a human throat that had issued such a sound.
"You can't hide for long." It was a gently mocking voice, almost playful. It had slain four men in an instant, and now intended to make her a fifth victim...but it was obviously just a game to the thing.
Suddenly the vessel shook, everso slightly. The old boards trembled beneath her bare feet.
The thing was on the move.
Neekin spun about wildly, looking for an exit that she had missed, and knowing there was none. Suddenly a glint of sunlight in the darkness caught her eye. She raced toward the back wall, where a fissure had formed over time between the warping boards, allowing a sliver of light into the vessel. Remembering Kashtan's big comrade clawing his way across the deck, Neekin scratched at the old boards. Mouldering slivers of wood came loose beneath her nails. She stepped back, heart racing at this possible hope, and jumped and kicked out. The rotted boards trembled beneath her foot and a thin ray of light stabbed through. She kicked again, and again the boards creaked and a little more light spilled in, causing the sweat upon her body to gleam. She kicked again and again, and the old, rotted, moldy boards gave more and more. Finally, she threw her shoulder against it and, with a rumbling crunch, she spilled out upon the grassy sward, flakes of wood raining across her back and buttocks.
She rose dizzily, shaking her head, then stumbled for the jungle. She glanced back...and an involuntary squeak escaped her lips.
Tentacles flowed out over the rail, and a dark, hulking shape loomed behind.
The creature's voice echoed through the dense flora. "Dor the Wynn had crossed my territory in the far western ocean, and so I gave him the honour of making his vessel my transport, to take me to this young continent. But he sought to thwart me."
She stumbled, rolled to her feet, and kept on running. All the while, her brain sought to make sense of the thing's words. 'Dor, the Wynn' was presumably Dyrymm -- the centuries had obviously corrupted the true name. And the creature's reference to a 'western ocean' she feared could only mean the dark and mysterious Xarolouth ocean that all seaman feared. An even greater sense of terror closed about her.
Behind her, trees rustled and branches cracked and tumbled before the oncoming monstrosity.
"He knew my power came from the ocean, so as we closed upon the shore, he cast a great spell -- more powerful than I thought you hairless apes could muster. He collapsed the shore and brought up a great ridge, so that his vessel fell into this artificial hollow. Cut off from my life-giving ocean, I was trapped...but not entirely powerless, as the Wynn soon learned. But once I had slain him and his crew, I had nothing to amuse myself with, save the occasional interloper who fell into my grasp. Such a little thing to keep me amused over the centuries."
Neekin collapsed to her knees, panting, her jaw growing slack as she saw what faced her. The sheer valley wall. It was not the tree studded cliff that she had climbed down, but the largely featureless face at the bottom of which was the little pond. She rose to her feet with a sense of futility and grabbed up her knife, still where she had left it. She ignored her clothes, modesty seeming the least of her concerns at the moment. Biting the blade between her teeth, she started clawing at the rocky face, dragging herself up the short cliff with deadly slowness.
Trees cracked and tumbled at her back and she glanced over her shoulder.
The creature flooded out into the clearing. Its massive body was a dirty brown and corded over with tendons or muscles. A multitude of thick, flailing tentacles rippled and whipped about its great form as it fairly undulated over the grass. She could detect no eyes, nor mouth, though she doubted not that it had the latter.
Redoubling her efforts, she scrambled higher, in her haste almost slipping and plunging into the thing's embrace.
One tentacle caught easily about her ankle. Another licked leisurely across her round bottom.
"They desired you," it said. "The one who called itself Kashtan, and the others. I sensed their unseemly corporeal lust as I drained their essence. I do not see the attraction."
Neekin gasped as the tentacle probed roughly between her legs.
"Still, perhaps it would amuse me to experiment..."
Freeing one hand from the rock, she snatched the knife from her mouth and slashed downward. The tip of the tentacle tumbled end over end to the grass below, spewing turgid blood.
The creature screamed, momentarily loosening its restraining grip on her ankle. She bit the knife once more in her mouth, wincing at the almost unbelievably foul taste of its blood, and dragged herself higher, hoping against hope that she could get beyond the thing's reach.
"You will die badly for that," wailed the thing. "Slow and without dignity." The tentacles whipped upward again, and just missed coiling about her. The creature screamed again, but this time it was not a sound of pain, but of rage and frustration. It threw its massive bulk against the stone face, as if to climb the valley wall. The force of its impact sent a shudder through Neekin's fingers and one hand lost its grip. She slipped, losing her footing as well, but held with only one hand. Dangling precariously, she peered down, wide-eyed.
The nameless thing laughed at her seeming helplessness. Then it stopped laughing. "What is this?"
The small trickle that fed the little pond had swelled to a virtual spray. The creature's pounding had loosened the stone barrier. Neekin realized that the rock wall must not be very thick at all.
"Water" exclaimed the thing. "Water, at last! No more shall I be imprisoned here! No more!!"
It flung itself again at the stone barrier, much as Neekin had flung herself at the ship's rotted hull and, too her horror, seeming with as much potential for success. Stones tumbled free, rocks cracked open. More and more water sprayed out from the previously dry wall.
Clinging desperately to the face, scratching for purchase with her fingers and toes, Neekin tried to get higher, before the entire thing collapsed and either drowned her, or sent her back into the monster's unholy embrace. She prayed to the spirit of the wall to hold, then, to be safe, she uttered a prayer to the spirit of the lake to be merciful. Her skin was scraped bloody as she scrambled recklessly up the valley cliff.
"Water" screamed the thing. "Blessed water! I -- What is this?"
Unwillingly, she glanced back. A great torrent of water was tumbling over the creature, but, for the first time, its glee seemed to have vanished.
"Wh-what is this? What is this water? It hurts! By my ancestors, what sorcery is this?" It began to scream and flail about, its tentacles dragging at the ground that was rapidly disappearing beneath the flood of water. The creature sought to flee the torrent it had brought about. "Bad water! Evil!"
Its scream echoed throughout the valley as the thick cords of its body seemed to blanche and deflate, as its tentacles snapped and slithered with less and less fury. Then Neekin shook herself from her momentary shock as the stones beneath her issued an ominous rumble. She scrambled higher and higher, the stones literally falling away beneath her feet. Finally she gained the lip of the cliff. Before her was a tiny lake, scarcely more than a quarry in size, and beyond that glimmered the diamond-blue waves of the sea. She turned and raced for solid ground as the earth beneath her crumbled, as the water sought to fill its neighbouring vacuum. She leapt and hit solid ground just as the last of the earthen wall collapsed in a deafening thunder of exploding stones and water roared into the valley.
She lay there for a moment, drenched by the fresh-water spray, gasping for breath. She spat out her knife and laid her face in the grass, waiting for her strength to slowly return.
Only gradually did she realize what must have happened. In the centuries since the creature's incarceration, the salt-water sea must have retreated, or become blocked off by a landslide or something. Gradually a quarry had formed next to the valley -- a fresh-water quarry.
And obviously, such a thing was anathema to a creature spawned in Xarolouth's briny bosom.
Neekin rolled over and propped herself up on her arms, letting the sun warm her nude body. She watched the light glimmer off the water, something she had feared she might never be able to do again.
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