*****chapter three: crawling Terrors
Cold chills danced up and down the American’s spine as the Sorceress approached. It wasn’t so much the weird aura that unnerved him, although that was bad enough. Rather, it was the inhuman something he could sense lurking within the depths of her predatory gaze - an emanation as icy as the lightless void of space. Here, he was certain, was the source of the people’s dread, and he was hard pressed not to flinch as she drew near.
Carson wasn’t normally given to superstitious fears and lacked firm belief in either God or devil, but the utter weirdness of what confronted him called up all those crawling terrors that lurk within the mind’s dark recesses where reason’s light can not penetrate. Blind panic threatened to overwhelm him, and for a moment he teetered upon its black abyss, barely hauling himself back with chains of self-control.
The Sorceress’s eyes caught his own and he felt as if he was falling into their sable depths, drawn downward by whirlpools of dark hypnotic force. Sibilant tendrils of inhuman thought probed his mind, rifling memories like some demonic thief.
Fear turned to anger at the violation of his innermost privacy, and he rallied against the alien force, matching his will in opposition to its own, seeking to drive the unwholesome presence from his brain.
Perspiration stood out upon Carson’s brow and his limbs trembled with the effort, as if he were pitting himself against a physical foe. Suddenly, after long moments of silent struggle, the pressure eased - the alien presence had withdrawn in defeat. He glared defiance at the woman, his muscles quivering, body slick with sweat, as was her own, hoping he looked braver than he felt.
Again, the Sorceress sent a stab of mental force at Carson, but it petered out, failed to even reach him. She could not draw upon the full power of the thing within, and had exhausted herself in the struggle. It was only by a supreme effort that she managed to stay upright.
I’ve won, thought Carson, shakily. But it’s a temporary respite at best. God knows what’s going to happen next.
The Sorceress returned his hard stare, nostrils flaring; anger burning in her gaze, her mind a strange mixture of human and inhuman thought. Never before had anyone resisted her will, defied her so. She had only gained fragmentary information from his mind, and if this man were typical of his age, then his people would not cower before her like the superstitious fools she ruled. He must be made an example of, and quickly, least others take courage and rebel.
“No one defies Nefret, Sorceress of Amonubis, and lives,” she cried. “Guards, seize this ignorant savage, drag him to the Square of Death, where I command he be executed for his insolence.”
Human rage? Yes, but a mere façade that hid a deeper strangeness that held no kinship with the race of Man: An unfathomable something that lurked within – dark, incomprehensible, the quintessence of otherness.
Her speech staggered Carson. Good Lord, he thought, grasping the meaning of her words. This really is the lost city of legend, its buildings intact, its people alive.
Two burly warriors grabbed him with callous hands, reminding Carson of the danger he was in. Damned if I’m going quietly, he thought, quickly stomping on one guard’s toe.
The man howled, fell to the floor clutching his injured foot as Cason aimed a kick at his second foe. This warrior, more agile than the other, jumped back avoiding his attack and quickly countered. The thrusting spear narrowly missed Carson as he sidestepped, and tripped the fellow with one sweeping leg that sent him crashing to the floor.
“Fools!” Screamed the Sorceress, eyes flashing dangerously. “I said he is to die in the Square of Death, not beneath your spears. Take him alive.”
More guards rushed at Carson, confidant of overpowering him because his hands were tied behind his back. But he was far from helpless, being a practitioner of savate - a French style of fighting that employs both feet and hands with deadly efficiency.
Striking shins, knees, and groins with smashing kicks, he sent three men tumbling to the floor in as many seconds, but in the end such valiant efforts were doomed to failure, for he was soon overpowered by sheer numbers as half a dozen warriors piled on him all at once.
Hauling his battered body upright, they marched Carson from the hall to an adjoining courtyard containing a central wooden square set flush with the granite flagstones, a square whose cedar timber was carved with stylized skulls about its border. Upon its broad surface they cast him, and then retreated.
Carson struggled to his feet and looked about, noting the ominous stains upon the polished wood; the stormy features of the Sorceress as she and her court approached to witness his destruction. He thought of protesting against this injustice, confidant he could now make himself understood, but dismissed the idea, thinking:
That woman, or whatever it is, is determined to see me dead. Better if I think of something quick, rather than waste time on useless words.
But it was too late for any plan of action - at a dramatic gesture from the Sorceress; the platform began to sink smoothly, the muffled rumbling of hidden machinery coming to Carson’s ears as he descended into a deep pit whose walls were of carefully fitted stone. The square came to a halt fifteen feet below the surface, and Carson beheld a low portcullis in the far wall through which he discerned the glint of hungry bestial eyes.
Carson went cold at the sight of those feral orbs, for in them he saw certain doom.
I must hold fast to bravery, came his desperate thought. It’s an old cliché that where there’s life there’s hope, but it’s all I’ve got.
Slowly, the grating began to rise and as it did Carson desperately fumbled for what was in the rear pocket of his trousers. His fingers, numb from the constricting bindings, struggled to open the pocket knife, and it was more by luck than skill that Carson stopped it from slipping between sweaty fingers when he jumped at the creature’s ferocious roar.
Keep calm, he thought, breathing deeply to steady his trembling limbs. If I panic now I’m as good as dead.
Carson’s hands steadied, unfurled the blade. With frantic haste he sawed at his bonds, nicking himself several times as he backed against the far wall, eyes locked upon the ever-rising door. The grating opened fully as the last thong parted; the savage lion stepped forth with a stalking gate, its ravenous eyes upon the puny man.
This story is copyright by Kirk Straughen. 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.)