by D.K. Latta
This story is copyright D.K. Latta and may not be reproduced, or redistributed, for commercial purposes without his permission.
Around and over the young woman the thick, verdant jungle curled like the many-fingers of some jade god. Sunlight speared through the leafy canopy high overhead, sending golden beams spiraling through the humid mist. A bird cawed somewhere in the impenetrable greenery and was answered momentarily by its mate.
The woman flicked sandy hair from out of her oddly coloured eyes burning with a scintillant flame -- one eye blue, the other green. She was dressed in a brief loin-cloth and a purple blouse, knotted beneath her breasts; at her hip she sported a broad-bladed hunting knife. She drew the back of her hand across her upper lip, her exposed skin gleaming with sweat.
Something rustled behind her. Her ill-matched eyes flared, then she imperceptibly cocked her head. Listening. After a moment, the sound came again. Closer. She tensed, dropping a hand casually to her knife.
A twig cracked warningly. She threw herself to the soft, moldering blanket of leaves upon the jungle floor just as something whistled overhead. She looked up in time to see a small, spiked ball embed itself in the bark of a tree. The spines of the ball glistened with a black oil.
Three men emerged then from the wall of flora like breaking the surface of a placid lake. They were rattily dressed in vests and breeches or loin-cloths, but each bearing a bright yellow sash about his body. The foremost of the men grinned unpleasantly through his beard, waving a curved knife before him.
"Did you think to escape the wrath of the Brotherhood of Kalila, Neekin?" he asked in a guttural voice. "To meddle in our sacred business is to measure yourself for a burial shroud -- such is the certainty of our vengeance."
Neekin said nothing as she crouched cat-like. The Brotherhood of Kalila was nothing more than a drug-addicted cult of assassins whose reputation for tenacity had woven itself into the folktales of the towns in Falati Lana. She had come upon one of them attempting to carry out a contract on a minor merchant and had acted instinctively. She prevented the murder, slaying the would-be killer in the process. She was a wanderer and knew little of the cult or their reputation. The merchant had gratefully forced a pouch of coins into her hands, and then advised her to flee -- that now she was more of a target than he.
She had stolen away in the night, less out of fear than out of simple convenience. Why encourage a fight? she had told herself.
Now it was mid-morning. She might as well have stood her ground.
"Pray to your Gods, wench," hissed the leader as he came at her.
Neekin sprang forward, rolled, then kicked out with her bare foot and caught him in the groin. He doubled over and her other foot shot out across his jaw, snapping back his head. Then she was immediately on her feet as he tumbled to the earth. Her knife flashed free of its scabbard.
The next man ran at her, hollering a Kalila battle cry, his eyes glassy and red-rimmed from the black root the cult ingested as a sacred herb. Neekin was a flickering flame of pale limbs. She ducked beneath his glinting blade and tore open his belly with her knife. He fell to his knees, gurgling blood.
The third killer flung spiked balls at her from his gloved hands. She twisted, one missing her; the other tore the fabric of her blouse, the black poison curdling the fabric. Miraculously, her soft skin was unmarked. She threw her knife, burying it in the man's breast.
She turned as the leader gained his feet. For a moment, their eyes locked. He still had his curved knife and was a sinewy, hard-bitten slayer of men. She was unarmed and sensuous; hardly a threat. Then his eyes fell to the corpses of his comrades.
Without a word, he turned and stumbled back into the jungle.
She retrieved her knife, wiping it clean on the dead man's sash, then continued on her way, desiring to put as much distant as was possible between herself and the Brotherhood.
She journeyed northward for the better part of a day, feasting on fruits and, once, drinking from a creek that crossed her path. Eventually, the verdant boughs fell back and she emerged before a cliff. It was not high, and being thickly overrun by moss and vines, was not daunting to climb. But climbing was unnecessary. Crude steps had been carved into the living stone. Neekin backed into the bush and peered up, to see where they led.
A temple jutted from the top of the cliff in the middle of this dark and untravelled jungle.
It was ornately fashioned of powder-blue stone with fluted obsidian pillars and long, tapered windows framed in shiny gold. Glimmering emerald lion-statues stood proudly on guard under the ruby-veined, obsidian canopy.
Torn between caution and curiosity, Neekin set one bare foot on the soft moss of the first step, considering. Then she ascended.
She dropped suddenly against the hard stone and froze.
A cowled figure in a brown robe emerged from the entrance and started around the side of the temple. Neekin hesitated, then silently slipped after him, deciding it was better to know the nature of the temple's inhabitants before revealing herself. She reached the top of the cliff and glanced at the arched entrance, but no other figures came forth. Stealthily, she rounded the side of the temple.
A strip of sun-washed sward stood between the building and the jungle, wide enough that Neekin doubted her quarry could have crossed it and vanished into the surrounding leafy shroud before she had reached the corner. Certainly not without swaying branches to mark his passage. Yet neither did there appear any side ingresses to the temple. She scanned the lush grass for signs of footsteps, but found none.
She scowled, then relented and returned to the front of the building. She hesitated before the green lions, her hand draped unconsciously across her knife. Then she approached and made to pound on the black doors. They fell inward at her touch.
She stepped back, nostrils flaring with a sharp intake of breath, but there was no one on the other side.
The floor spread before her, a checkerboard of polished black and white tiles. The walls of the entrance hall were a smokey lapis lazuli rising to an arched ceiling. Beyond the short hall was a vast chamber. Bare feet padding softly across the smooth floor, Neekin emerged into the chamber beyond.
A gallery circled the entire room, and tall black and cyanic drapes depended from the brass railings to the checkered floor. In the centre of the room was a black altar and on a pedestal beyond it, a blue, gold-flecked chalice caught the sunlight falling through the long windows above. Neekin's eyes narrowed. The lip of the cup was stained the rusty brown of dried blood.
There was a deathly stillness in the temple. Surely a place of such opulence was erected to house an order and receive visitors. Why then did it seem so unpopulated? Where had the lone monk she had seen gone to? And where were his brethren?
Suddenly arms encircled her from behind. Neekin snorted in surprise, then kicked herself backward instinctively. Her assailant went down and she on top of him. He let out a gasp of air and his grip slackened. She twisted and straddled him, her thighs closing about his chest, the fine edge of her knife against his throat. She glared into the sagging features of a monk of advanced years. He struggled for a moment, then relented.
"What are you doing here?" he demanded. "You're in danger."
"From you, it seems."
"No! I sought to drag you away to safety."
Neekin hesitated. His words made little sense, but she inferred sincerity from his desperate expression. She kept her knife but rose, allowing him to do likewise. "Danger?" she prodded. "From whom? And were you the monk I saw outside?"
His eyes widened. "A monk? Outside? You're sure, girl?"
Neekin frowned. "Aye."
"Then it has already begun." He plucked at the sleeve of her blouse. "Hurry, we must hide ourselves."
Neekin stubbornly held her ground, unwilling to yield until she knew more of what he feared.
Exasperated, he ran haltingly for one of the drapes, glancing back at her pleadingly. "Come, girl! Hurry!" And then he was gone.
Neekin scowled, bewildered by his terror.
Then she whirled as the entrance doors clanged shut. Two cowled and robed figures stood in the hall, vicious wavy swords displayed in their hands. Her knife was puny by comparison. Suddenly the drapes were flung aside all around her and silent brown-robed monks emerged from passages beyond, encircling her.
Neekin crouched, eyes glinting, full lips pulled back subconsciously from her white teeth. She waited. A low, cavernous chanting swelled from the throats of the temple's inhabitants, filling the chamber with its unearthly melody. The monks moved forward and Neekin dodged one, hitting the floor with a shoulder and rolling to her feet. She stopped. The hooded figure went by her, ignoring her entirely.
Moving silently, Neekin backed warily away from the closing circle of monks until she reached the curtain the older man had slipped through. Following his example, she found brass stairs beyond it, leading up to the gallery. Taking the steps two at a time, Neekin reached the second level. She peered over the railing at the strange monks below, gathered about the black altar, hands raised, chanting their eerie ode to some ancient deity.
Suddenly she espied two armed monks approaching from the other end of the gallery. She turned to flee, but another two approached from that way as well. There was an oddly formal air to their steps, unhurried, as if merely making the rounds -- as if unaware of the young woman standing before them.
Was this a temple of the blind? wondered Neekin. Their pace seemed too sure for that. And, regardless, the pathway was too narrow for her to slip by them without brushing their robes.
Her only escape, other than the stairs leading back down to the monks below, was an engraved door. She hesitated, then slipped into the chamber beyond, closing the door behind her. She froze.
She was in a finely dressed boudoir with golden silk sheets on the bed, a dressing table, and other accoutrements. A small bathing pond of jade stones was at the far end, the water shimmering in the sunlight cascading through the golden bars of the overhead window. The heady scent of the jungle wafted through the window. A beautiful woman bathed in the pond, her soft skin gleaming wetly. Two hooded monks loomed over her.
"It is almost time for you to feed Allan'tra, princess. Are you prepared?"
The girl was shuddering, water rippling down her body. Salty tears mixed with the fresh water.
Neekin's eyes grew hard. Obviously the girl was to be a blood sacrifice, to fill the chalice she had seen below. Neekin had witnessed some such ceremonies where the intended victim viewed the coming atrocity as a boon, not a curse. Obviously this princess was not of those.
None of the three had heard her enter. Neekin glided forward. But a pace from the nearest monk, and still she was not discovered. She brought the edge of her hand against his neck and he crumpled soundlessly, unconscious. The second monk stirred, but sluggishly, as though waking from a dream. He turned toward her, and was left in a heap as easily as his brethren.
Neekin took the girl's arms and pulled her from the pond. Her ill-matched eyes instinctively surveyed the princess. She was no older than Neekin, perhaps younger, and beautiful, particularly with the way the sunlight played off her sheen skin, accentuating her curves.
"Who-? Who are you?" asked the princess. Like the monks, she seemed a bit lost; her eyes had a vagueness in them. She was also very pale, though Neekin could detect no other indication of infirmity or sickness in the firm figure displayed so openly before her.
"My name is Neekin. Do you want to be here, girl? To quench their bloodlust?"
"No," she said, growing more animated. "I was kidnapped by the devil monk, Moomand -- once my father's own advisor. Did my father send you?"
"I'm afraid I'm only here by happenstance. But I'll do my best to get you out."
The girl trembled with relief. "My name is Babeth and my father sultan of the city of El'Andu. We'd known about the dark rites practiced in open secret by Moomand and his followers for some time -- that is why my father stripped him of his position. But he did not pursue the matter to its conclusion, from fear of the monk's power, I guess. And now his reluctance has brought doom into his own house."
"Surely this Moomand threatens himself by kidnapping you?"
"He is a fanatic...and mad. He makes victims of the so-called unwashed; harlots, beggars, the like." Babeth laughed bitterly. "Perhaps that is why my father did not take the matter more seriously -- in which, case, perhaps I am being punished as much for my father's sins as my own."
"I became embroiled in a scandal; a matter of the heart. And in Moomand's eyes, I became unclean and fit for sacrifice." Babeth looked at her apologetically. "I had an affair...with a low-caste man."
Neekin grinned wryly. "I see no sin in following your heart -- or even the shallowness of your loins, for that matter. If it's reciprocated." She took the girl's cool hand in hers and said, "Throw some clothes on and then come. We'll have to move quickly."
Just then, the door was flung wide. Neekin whirled.
The old monk stood there, panting. "I've been looking for you-" He stopped, seeing the monks at Neekin's feet.
Neekin shifted Babeth behind her. "If you call for help, monk, I'll-"
"You must listen to me: you are in danger," wailed he. "You mustn't-"
"This girl's in more danger."
"Nothing can harm her anymore," he said sadly. "We, on the other hand, jeopardize ourselves just by being here. Don't you understand? These people are but echoes of things that were. A hundred years ago, the following of Allan'tra was corrupted by the mad Moomand, and transformed into a cult of blood. A dozen were sacrificed, including the princess Babeth, before a curse came upon the monks -- some said sent by the princess' father, others said by Allan'tra Himself. These are but ghosts, reenacting the dark deeds that have damned them forever."
Neekin felt a chill seize her spine. She glanced at the unnaturally pale princess, and thought of the cowled monks who seemed not to perceive her. She shook her head. "These monks at my feet are no illusions."
"That is why we must flee. I am charged with preserving this temple, as a reminder of our temporary corruption. But I always leave at the time of the Coming. The spirits repeat their past deeds, ignoring us, but if we accidentally make ourselves known to them, we can be drawn into their dark rites. Ask the girl if she sees me."
Neekin hesitated. "Do you recognize the man by the door?"
Babeth peered past her. "What man?"
"See?" said the monk desperately. "But she sees you. You have already blurred the line between the real and the ethereal. If you do not come away now, there is no telling what might happen."
"Her fear is real," insisted Neekin.
"An echo only."
"An echo of suffering is still suffering. What sort of curse damns the sinned against as well as the sinners?"
"Do you think I am unmoved? But what can we do? We must let the drama play itself out or be caught up in it...for eternity."
Babeth pressed up against her, as if to draw comfort from her body. "Listen," she whispered. "They come."
Suddenly the door opened again and hooded monks stood in the doorway. The old man shrieked and threw himself into a corner, hoping to escape the notice of the phantom intruders. Babeth stepped back. The monks surged forward, and Neekin realized instantly that they would sidestep her. They had perceptions only for the pitiful princess whom they had come for so many hundreds of times over the last century.
Neekin could not stop herself. Despite the old man's warning, she leapt and kicked out. One monk tumbled into his brethren. She landed lightly and launched forward, butting another in the stomach. Cold hands clutched at her; wavy blades made to cut her. She dodged and ducked, striking out with feet and fists since she doubted her knife was much use against the dead. She fought like a cornered panther, taking the sluggish monks by surprise. After all, they had not even perceived her a moment before.
They saw her now though.
A knotted fist took her across the jaw, and a knee to her crotch doubled her over. With a snarl, she head-butted one figure, and suddenly they were out in the hall, struggling against the railing, the main body of the monks below, waiting to reperform their ancient crime. She kicked out, sending one to his knees, then another caught her ankle and twisted and Neekin tumbled over the railing.
She caught a drape, but it tore free from its hooks and she hit the floor, hard.
She struggled dazedly to her feet, but the flat of a sword struck her across her temple. She sagged to her knees, phantom monks swarming about her. Her shirt was ripped from her back, her loin-cloth torn from her hips. Naked, she was dragged toward the altar.
She remembered the old monk's words, his warnings that they could become ensnared in the ghostly play.
She was flung heavily onto the black altar and suddenly she understood. She had taken Babeth's place in the drama! And, if slain by these ghostly fanatics, she would then become part of them, doomed to attempt her failed rescue again and again, and be butchered on a stone altar...for all eternity.
Screaming with frenzied desperation, Neekin struggled against the hands splaying her arms and legs. She writhed and twisted, but without effect. A robed figure's shadow fell across her face. Within the dark folds of the monk's hood, she saw gray, withered lips, and shuddered to think of what dead visages the hoods concealed. In one hand, the ghost of Moomand held the blood-stained chalice; in the other, a wavy dagger.
He raised his arm, the glinting point hovering over her ample breasts, ready to plunge between her quivering mounds. With a final cry, Neekin wrenched her feet free and jack-knifed her body, kicking out at the monk. He stumbled, but kept his grip on the knife. The chalice, though, tumbled from his gray fingers. Instantly, Neekin's ankles were seized and her legs slammed back against the stone with such brutality that she cried out.
Then she glimpsed a slender form standing amid the brown-robbed figures. Babeth stared dumbly at her, and in her hands she held the chalice.
"Do something!" screamed Neekin.
Yet the girl was a phantom, like the monks, and locked in her torpor. Neekin squirmed helplessly as the knife was once more poised above her beautiful breasts. Then she realized: Babeth had come on her own. Was that not an independent action? She had come because of the woman who tried to save her, the woman who had offered her freedom, even friendship. That had roused something in the apathetic soul of the echo. She could act.
"The chalice! Break the chalice! Hurry!" Her shout twisted into an instinctive shriek as the knife plunged. Then Babeth, stirred by Neekin's plight, smashed the chalice against the black altar.
Instantly, silence ensued.
Neekin lay still for a moment, drenched in sweat. Then she propped herself up on her elbows. The room was empty, while shards of blue pottery lay at the black altar's base. A drape rustled and Neekin stiffened, then relaxed as she saw the old monk emerge, tentatively.
The ghosts were cursed to repeat the sacrifice; even she had merely became a part of it. Therefore, she had realized, the way to break the curse was to make it impossible for them to complete the ritual. The chalice seemed the obvious solution. And Babeth proved something more. Though an echo, there was still something of the original woman, something that connected, however fleetingly, with Neekin and, through that attachment, threw off her shackles of ritual. There was comfort in that. After all, if even a phantom could have free will, did that not strengthen the human claim to such a quality? Neekin thought so at any rate.
The old monk helped her from the altar.
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