Pulp and Dagger Fiction Webzine presents

Blood of the Lynx

A four-part tale of swordplay and sorcery
by
Fred Blosser



PREVIOUSLY: Zhangi has persuaded the pirate king, Iochus, that he seeks an alliance and is, therefore, welcomed as a potential ally. But that night, after making contact with a spy within the pirate king's castle, Zhangi is taken to a door where, he is told, the kidnapped princess lies beyond...enchanted...


CHAPTER III

Oh, lady dear, hast thou no fear?
Why and what art thou dreaming here?
~ Poe

The room was neither large nor small, its dimensions curiously undefined. Zhangi expected to see a rude, bare cell, but the room was white, with strange, gorgeous designs on the walls in lavender, amethyst, coral, and rose. Similar designs were faintly etched on the polished white floor beneath. Light existed from no visible source. It was bright enough to see by, yet seemingly not bright enough to illuminate the far corners and ceiling of the room, where dark shadows crouched.

“Who –” a young woman’s voice questioned behind him, tremulous beneath a brittle shell of bravery – “who are you, in the name of the gods?”

Zhangi turned to see a woman of less than twenty summers, with plaited, dark-brown hair and a pale, luminous complexion. Her face was heart-shaped, the eyes unwavering but shadowed with fear. Her full red lips were parted in surprise. A finely embroidered robe draped her slender form, and a pearl circlet sat above her smooth brow. By description, Zhangi knew that this was the Princess Cimele.

“I am a friend, your highness, come to take you from this place of captivity.” He dipped the tulwar in a flourish of respect.

She took a step and sank onto a couch of white silk. The couch formed one of two pieces of furniture in the room. The other item was an ivory stand, next to the couch, on which rested a gem the size of Zhangi’s fist. Glints of color and radiance sparked in the depths of the jewel, daring the eye to follow them. It was unlike any other stone that the warrior of the Lynx had ever seen, alluring but disquieting in the elusive way that it toyed with light. This must be the jewel of which Haukon had spoken.

“How long have I been here?” the girl whispered. “An hour? Or a day? I know not – only that I have seen no one, until now, since grizzled Iochus put me here. I have searched for the door through which we entered, but it has disappeared.”

“How disappeared, princess?” Zhangi grated. “It is right here –” He pointed in the direction from which he had entered, then swore, baffled. “By the dark gods of Xor!” Only the white wall with its intricate designs met his gaze. “What devil’s illusion is this?”

He strode forward and reached out to touch the wall, but his hand encountered nothing of substance. It was as if the intricately worked surface had receded just far enough to be out of reach. Yet, to the eye, it seemed to be exactly where he expected it to be. It was like a dream in which distance has no fixed meaning, and material things have no substance.

He closed his eyes, opened them again. Even the delicately colored designs on the walls and floors were impermanent, changing shape and hue from one moment to the next when the eye blinked away from them, then returned.

The shadows in the far corner knelt and slunk, elongated and wavering one second, bunched and still the next. They were like the half-formed fears and terrors that lurk at the back of one’s consciousness, even in the mind of the bravest man or woman. Forgotten in the light of noon, they emerge in the small hours of the night, when vitality is at low ebb, to disturb sleep and sap the will.

Through the shadows rippled a low rustle of sound. It was a tittering like a faint laugh of lunacy, a dry susurration such as ancient bones might make, scraping one against the other. It raised the hairs on the back of Zhangi’s neck.

Cimele clapped her hands to her ears. “Do you hear it too? I lie down to sleep and I cannot, because I fear to close my eyes, lest something spring from those shadows to seize me.”

Firmly but gently, Zhangi grasped her wrists. “The shadows cannot harm us,” he said, although fear gnawed his vitals, fear that something malevolent waited there, capable of shattering his will, leaving him in gibbering helplessness.

“Who are you, sir?” she asked again. “Do you come from my father?”

Zhangi thought swiftly. Would it do any good to tell her that she had been here in captivity for more than a year? That her father was dead, and a tyrant ruled Melgwen? Such knowledge would shatter her already shaken composure. It would make the task of escape even more difficult.

“Aye, my lady, I do, in a manner of speaking.” The lie grated in his teeth, but Cimele seemed not to notice. He continued quickly: “Know that I am here to help you. Some glamour permeates this place, blinding our vision. It is as if we see and move in a dream where nothing is real, and our surroundings alter from one moment to the next. Yet there must be a way out.”

Again the whispered mockery from the shadows. Helplessness washed over the man of the Lynx. He could meet a human foe with cold steel, with a slashing blow from his tulwar, but the shadows had no flesh to rend, no blood to spill. He was trapped in a dream, in a place where reality as he knew it did not exist.

Instinctively, he realized that the shadows were only the reflection of his own innermost fears and doubts, normally held in check by his waking mind. But here they were given dark shape as they would be given shape in a nightmare. In this waking dream, they emerged from the depths of his being to intimidate and frighten.

“Truly, these are the most difficult foes to face – one’s own nameless terrors,” he muttered.

He glared helplessly at the shifting walls of the room, the boundaries of the delusion in which he and the princess were trapped. He told himself that he must wake from this phantasy. But how does one wake from wakefulness? As one part of his mind insisted that nothing around him could have any basis in reality, another part shrieked in dispute. How could he argue with the solid weight of the tulwar in his hand, with the cold dread that gripped his stomach? If those sensations were real, then equally real must be all that he saw and heard.

He dragged his gaze to the jewel that winked and glinted on its ivory pedestal, and as he did so, he acted instinctively. A wild thought galvanized his sword-arm, and he followed it unhesitatingly. To pause, to think, would be fatal. Vacillate but a second, and the slavering shadows would spring. They would scratch their way into his brain, and devour his sanity as a wolf pack consumes a frightened hedge-rabbit.

His sword swept around, stuck at the gem. Cimele recoiled, startled. “Princess, I must shatter the Jewel,” Zhangi panted. “The stone is bound with this dream of timelessness and illusion, Haukon said. If that be true, may not its destruction end the spell?”

For one brief, terrible second, as the shadows coiled and whipped like serpents, he feared that he would not be able to smash the Jewel. Like a diamond, it would turn the sword-blow, dent the edge of the weapon, snap the blade, and remain intact and mocking, indestructible –

But the Jewel itself was no more substantial or lasting than a dream, when waking reason finally intrudes. It splintered under the sword-stroke like a glass bauble, and the blade sank into the ivory stand beneath, cleaving the delicate base in two. Shards of the gem tinkled to the floor, and a dismaying sigh ran through the shadows. Zhangi stamped furiously on the shards, grinding them into powder.

The light began to ebb, the gorgeous pastels on the wall congealed and ran like slime, bleeding into the fading shadows, and as Zhangi watched, the outlines of the door reappeared. He kicked it open, grasped Cimele’s slender wrist, and pulled her through the door – out into the corridor where Haukon gaped in the fluttering light from his torch. Zhangi felt a moment of confusion, as if the reality to which he had returned was no more to be trusted than the delusion that he had just escaped.

“By Xor!” the pirate breathed. “Not a second ago, the door closed. I was prepared to wait for a time, not knowing what web of magic might ensnare you inside. Yet it took but the space of a breath for you to emerge!”

“Surely not,” Zhangi rejoined. “It was hardly that easy. I was in there for …” he stopped, bewildered, for the whole experience now seemed as elusive as a dissipating memory. Had he been enthralled for ten minutes, half an hour, an hour, two hours? He could not say. Freed from the influence of the Jewel, he could not now measure the experience in crude terms of time. His mind could not find a comparison.

“Hell,” he said abruptly, “no matter, it is ended, and here is the princess.” The warrior released her wrist with a nod of apology.

“Follow me,” Haukon beckoned. “It is close to time for the guard at the water gate to change. I will slip you through before the next watch comes on duty. A skiff awaits, and you may follow the shoreline south for a mile. There, on a point of land, your horse awaits, and one for her highness.” They set off down the corridor, ghostly figures in the uncertain torchlight.

on to Chapter IV

back to Chapter II


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Blood of the Lynx is copyright by Fred Blosser. It may not be copied without permission of the author except for purposes of reviews. (Though you can print it out to read it, natch.)