Dark Fiends of the Jungle
Khaden slunk through the night shadows of the jungle like a mongoose preparing to strike. Fronds brushed his bare calves, tickling toes through his sandals. Insects shrieked, voices buzzing together in a jarring, discordant note. Fear-sweat, smoke, and ash combined to sting his nose. He shouldered his way through ranks of cultists and into the clearing. Single-minded in his lust for adventure, especially in quests for treasure, he turned his hand to the fulfilment of his present task—the ending of his present task, which lay before him on a sacrificial slab.
The stone altar vibrated to the pounding of tribal drums that ringed the clearing. Khaden watched the victim’s naked form quivering in the torchlight, pearls of sweat beading on her supple flesh. He might have been short and pot-bellied, but he stood taller than her now. Ashamed at himself, but taller. His appearance sent her into deeper throes of panic.
“I’ll show you where to stick that puny blade,” she spat. He hadn’t known where the priests had kidnapped her, but the woman’s dialect marked her as a southerner, from near the deserts. “Please rescue me from these barbarians. Please!” She continued, alternating begging and demanding, switching from imperious to pathetic from moment to moment.
Her wretched screams aroused the cultists, those things with skin black as their hearts, working them into a frenzy. Khaden endured her ravings. He had wished her gagged, to soften the blow her death would have upon his already taxed conscience. He might have become a villain, and he’d committed more than a few regrettable crimes in his day, but he loathed the thought of killing an innocent.
He didn’t have a choice, for without this vicious token of faith, the fiends he’d inadvertently summoned would strike him down. He might attempt to flee before the murderous throng, but it would be a bitter end to a grueling expedition even if he managed to survive. Sweat slicked his swarthy hand, making the knife slippery in his grip. Too bad Khaden wasn’t as dark skinned as these deep-jungle cultists, for it would have helped hide him in the night, should he need to flee.
“Silence your tongue,” he muttered without moving his lips. She couldn’t have heard. Khaden only whispered it to assuage his own guilt.
He stopped before the altar and stood with his short legs braced wide. His eyes found hers and their gazes locked. Her face twisted into a rictus of bleak despair, and her cries tailed off as she sagged helpless on the slab. Freed at last from her condemning screams, Khaden raised his knife. The tempo of the drums rose to an expectant crescendo, yowls of bloodthirsty anticipation climbing with the arc of his arm. Tears flowed down her cheek as she gave him one final, pleading glance before screwing her eyes shut against the end.
Even as Khaden stood poised above her, his body taut with preparation, he let out a long, low sigh, relaxing into the moment. His knife flashed down in a blur; his blade struck four times, and the screech of the naked horde around him ululated into the jungle night.
Shock held her in place when the ropes fell away from her limbs.
“Come on,” he urged, “or they’ll hack us to pieces.”
Holding her hands before her, and staring at the slashed cords on the stone slab, she sat amazed.
“Why do I always have to do all the work?” With a strength that defied his frame, he hefted the girl across his narrow shoulders. She was much taller than Khaden, but he didn’t miss a beat as he picked her up. A flick of his wrist buried his knife in the throat of an onrushing drummer, dropping him and opening a space in the circle. He raced past the gushing corpse, took up the drummer’s (stick/mallet), and lay about him as he ran.
Two more madmen fell as they closed in from the sides, skulls cracked. Their bodies dropped at the feet of the horde, checking its progress and giving Khaden time to plunge into the thick undergrowth. He fled the torches in the clearing and drove into the night’s stygian gloom. The savages took up the chase, but he drove on with the unflagging endurance of a bull.
A few minutes later, when the sounds of pursuit had faded behind them, Khaden stopped. He dumped the woman unceremoniously; and stood arms akimbo, breathing with exertion. The ground’s impact brought her back to her senses, for she stood abruptly, rubbing her wrists.
“Who are you?” she demanded in high hauteur, despite the nakedness she did her best to hide. “And why the hell would you ally yourself with such devils?”
He brushed aside a curtain of vines and started digging through a pack he pulled from the bushes. “I’m Khaden. It’s a long story with no time for the telling.”
With a look of profound indignity, she cocked her hand back and slapped him. He turned his head with the blow to soften it. She tried to hit him again, but he caught her wrist in an iron grip. He pulled a ragged sack out and shoved it into her hand.
“We need to put more jungle between them and us,” he said.
In moments she had ripped the sack here and there and pulled it on. It hung badly on her, barely reaching her thighs, but it served. “Well why were you with them, if you were just going to rescue me anyway?”
“Gods, girl, you’re full of questions. Didn’t you hear what I just said?”
“Fine. But call me Zersta, not girl.”
“Then follow me, Zersta, and by my belly, keep up.”
He sprinted deeper into the jungle. Zersta kept outpacing Khaden, much to his chagrin, and he pumped his short legs to regain the lead on the taller woman. He knew where they were going, so he suspected she kept allowing him to catch up. She hounded him when he slowed, threatening to slap his bottom. This role reversal reminded him of past times when he had treated women thus, and the shame goaded him into further exertions.
After a time he slowed, setting one careful foot before the other. He sensed a cavern’s maw close in around them, consuming sight, the orifice dwarfing the jungle growth to swallow all who entered. Khaden stopped and searched, his fingers tracing patterns on the stone. He cleared some brush away to uncover a cache containing a torch, flint, and a dagger. He went around a slight bend and lit the torch. The soft, flickering light limned Zersta, clad in the sack, her arms goose-pimpled. It also revealed cryptic runes carved deep in the cavern walls. The runes accompanied patterns of ungodly engravings: orgiastic rituals and weird contortions, depicting depraved sexual acts alongside hideous rites of torture, mutilation, and sacrifice.
Zersta stood frozen before the engravings until Khaden led her forward, farther and deeper into the earthen lair. Side passages slipped by, marked by cressets on long poles. Khaden lit a few of these, to show false paths, and found a second torch for Zersta.
They passed through small, empty chambers, and halls of varying sizes, some sweeping to unseen ceilings and supported by columns thick as a man, others that befitted a small manor house. Not a few contained altars, all covered with black crust, some blasted with ash. It was as if the world outside were no more, and their existence had dwindled until they were as earthworms burrowing deep in the loam. This was no hidden jungle temple, or secret keep; it was a city of the underworld.
“I’ll tell you why you were dragged into this tangled mess, if you like,” Khaden said, walking side by side with Zersta. She nodded for him to go on. “You don’t know this place,” he said. “It’s the site of an ancient evil, a race of cultists that thrived on terror and death.”
“Sylheria,” she murmured.
“What? How do you know that name?”
“Mothers speak it in jest to children when they misbehave,” Zersta said. She made a silly face. “The mothers would say, ‘If you don’t do as you’re told, we’ll sell you to the priests of Sylheria.’ That sort of thing.”
“They weren’t storybook monsters meant to scare children into behaving,” Khaden said. “Not always.”
“They ruled this jungle as a mighty kingdom, eons ago.” Khaden looked sideways at Zersta, impressed despite himself. “Tales tell of an underground place, Lu-Sylher, their most secret and sacred city. The people of the jungle, and the deserts around it, all the way to the seas beyond, appeased this evil, and the cult, with sacrifices.”
“I was to make you one of them,” Khaden said, reproaching himself.
“But you didn’t.”
“Even still.” He went silent for a space before continuing. “No one, not even their own people, were safe from the dark priests of that time.”
Zersta brushed past some cobwebs and playfully dropped them on Khaden’s head. He growled at her, but she laughed him off. “So who were those maniacs back in the jungle howling for our blood?” she asked.
“The same lost race,” Khaden answered grimly. “The same accursed priests. It’s my doing, bringing them back, but not my fault.”
“Oh, how nice. You riled up an ancient band of homicidal savages, bound me to a stone, and held a knife over me, and it’s somehow not your fault?”
“Listen.” Khaden stopped and regarded her in the torchlight. “All I know is how I got here, and how I woke them up.”
“Fine. How’d you find yourself in this…this charnel house?” Zersta asked.
They moved on. “I heard secret whispers of the great treasure of a long-lost tribe, buried deep within the jungles of the South. They weren’t just whispers, though. I knew they were real, felt it in my belly. Greed and the promise of never having to scratch out a living again, brought me hither. I fought long and hard to discover the location of this hellhole. I’ve searched for many years, and shed rivulets of blood and sweat to reach this place.”
“Sounds like you scratched out a living anyway.”
He gave a bitter laugh. “That I have.”
“So the cultists are the descendants of those dark priests?”
“The cultists are the dark priests.”
She scoffed at his outrageous claim, but Khaden paid her no heed. Whatever she believed, the cultists were real, and no doubt hunting them.
After an hour or more’s winding march into the subterranean, a narrow tunnel spilled out into a chapel of the damned. A sacrificial slab lay in the center of the huge chamber, and more hideous depictions were carved here than anywhere else. There were no other exits than from where they had entered. Turning back to the door, Khaden pressed a stone in the wall. A panel slid with grinding protest across the mouth of the passage, leaving them in solitude, safe for the moment, but trapped inside.
“Why’d we come all the way down here?” Zersta asked.
“They’re jungle rats, and we’re not. If we made for the coast, or the desert, they’d catch us. Our only hope is in this room. There has to be a way to counter the magic that raised them. I’ll search the crannies of the room, and you watch the door.” He set about his task.
“How’d you discover that secret stone to open the panel?”
“I found my way in here by accident before, by pressing the stones around it, on the other side of the wall,” Khaden said. “Thinking it led to a secret treasure room, I rushed in. A mechanism in the floor tripped, and a sudden fog arose from the earth. I wrapped a cloth around my face to keep from breathing it in. The cloud dissipated quickly enough, and I thought myself safe from the trap, but somehow I had summoned the dead. A howling began far off down the tunnels, spurring me to flee. Too late–they already had me surrounded.”
“How then did you keep your life?” Zersta bit her lip in consternation. “How did you escape?”
“By cutting you loose and running here. I knew some snippets of their ancient tongue, learned in the years I’d searched for this place. I couldn’t make out everything they said, but I convinced the devils I had summoned them on purpose. There was nothing for it but to go along. My life depended on the lie. After all,” he continued with a cocky grin, “they still might have been able to lead me to their hidden treasure.” His grin evaporated. “I was present when they captured your carriage. I watched, helpless, while they slaughtered your retinue. That’s how I came to stand above you with a knife, ready for a sacrifice I could never have executed.”
“You didn’t help capture me, then?”
“Gods no. I never would have done that. I swear it, Zersta.”
She nodded at his words. “If you get me out of here and back to my people, you’ll be rewarded,” she said. “My family may not be rich, but they aren’t poor either.”
“Perhaps I’ll earn a kiss too?”
“Hmph,” she sniffed. “I’m far too tall to stoop so low.”
Khaden laughed. “So you are.” He rose and clutched his lower back. “Damn, where is it? There must be a hidden trigger or something.”
Zersta turned and stepped towards him, stumbling over a loose rock. She tripped and sprawled flat upon the ancient altar, crying out in disgust as she wallowed in the filth. Her palm skidded across the rough stone, scraping her hand and leaving behind a trail of blood.
The altar sank beneath her. Khaden grabbed her wrist and yanked her back. The small crimson stain crept across the altar in the floor until it had coated the entire stone. The reek of burning flesh reached his nostrils, coming from everywhere and nowhere. The stain spread to other stones, like a gruesome blanket, far surpassing the volume of blood Zersta had lost. It lapped at their feet as they backed away.
“You’ve done it now,” he said. Then Khaden whirled, senses afire with panic. Behind them an opening now yawned into darkness, a colossal arch that beckoned doom. A foreboding, preternatural silence emanated from it. Not for nothing did he gaze up in awe at the arch, and wonder why it was so large.
“For all we know, there’s a way out through there,” he said. “I’ll check to see where it leads.” He handed her his dagger. “Stay here and watch the door.”
Khaden held his torch high before him, striding forward. His first steps through the arch showed him nothing but space. He couldn’t see the ceiling, or the walls to either side. He shrugged and set to the task of defining the limits of this unknown hall.
Turning right, he followed the stony edge of the wall next to the arch. He had to be doubly wary as he explored. If forced to fight, his torch would have to serve as a weapon, since Zersta held his only blade. He continued along, nerves taut and muscles coiled for action, until he came to a corner. He mentally calculated the distance from the arch to the edge of the room, and his mind reeled at the enormity of it.
Such a measurement paled in comparison to the length of the new wall, as Khaden found it trebled the width of the arena. He had started to think of it as an arena, because why else would anyone carve such a gigantic hollow within the bowels of this hellish nether realm? It was a place for a giant beast to roam, and hunt down condemned human offerings, he suspected. Thankfully that had been eons in the past, the imagined creature long dead. Of course, he’d thought the priests long dead too.
He took a turn along another wall, and walked a great distance, trailing his hand on the stones. Khaden stopped when his open hand found something slimy in the wall. He held forth the torch, discovering what had been a set of large, metal-bound wooden double doors, little more than a mass of gooey rot now. He waved the torch slowly from side to side and walked along before them, noting the double doors were as large as the archway they faced across the massive hall. Perfectly matched in all measurements, he guessed in grim amusement. Something had once lived there, something long dead and buried in the nightmare city.
Soon after reaching the far edge of the massive doors, he found a smaller arch. Khaden placed his back to the wall and pushed the torch ahead of him, peering inside. His eyes lit brighter than his torch. This had been a guardroom. A few skeletons lay on the floor, wisps of cloth adorning their browned and mold-softened bones. Clasped in each skeletal hand he found a short sword. Caked in rust, those weapons were like sacred relics to the tubby warrior. He picked one up, cradling it like an infant, then slid the hilt into his grasp. It fit well, for the cultists were as slight of frame as he. He gripped the hilt harder, and slammed the blade edge-first into the stone wall. Rust fell away in puffs, but the blade held true. He grinned, but just as he prepared to resume his explorations, there came a great animal bellow that chilled his blood.
A rending crash sounded through the caverns, thrumming the marrow of his bones. Khaden gaped towards the arena, his instincts screaming what had happened and his ears reporting the truth, yet he wished it were not so. Still, he had steel in his fist and his wits about him, and, after all, he’d been in tighter spots before.
The initiative had been stolen from him through his moments of denial. A sound like boulders colliding shook the floor, and he felt through the ground some giant bulk moving at a swift speed. Before he could react, an eldritch horror loomed in the doorway; more frightful than anything he had found carven in the stone of the burrowed city. Its front limbs were twisted and misshapen, ending in claws the length of a sword. The length of its body was lost to the darkness of the arena beyond, yet the face on the head, too small for such a colossal beast, was clear. How the shivering little man wished it all a dream as he gazed into blazing coals that could only be eyes. And the fangs, glistening and dripping with venom that hissed and smoked where it contacted the ground. As impossible as it should have been, the monster’s warped face was undeniably human in origin, though its human lineage had long since been forgotten.
The thing paused, regarding Khaden as a tiger might a weasel, a thing almost not worth slaying. A growl emanated from deep within its bowels, from the very ground and up through its abominable mockery of a muzzle. The roar washed over Khaden, and he clutched tight at his sword. Its breath was rancid; the stench of ancient flesh long rotted blowing at him from between its fanged jaws.
If Khaden were to perish, he would jump to meet his end with all the strength at his command. He had measured the size of its thick limbs and matched it to the narrow arch, and in an instant decided he had a chance. He struck, bounding forward and leaping after his third step. Khaden was airborne by the time it heaved to motion. Before it had backed far enough from the arch to bring its massive claws into play, his sword darted out like a lizard’s tongue, slashing across the eyes. He landed with a somersault, tumbling out of the way of flailing extremities. He had blinded the creature, but it was not slain.
Khaden circled around it, trying to find a weakness as it howled in wounded agony, thrashing around ineffectually. Far off in the darkness, from the other end of the arena, came the low, echoed sounds of a woman’s shout, followed by the babble of many voices. They were caught; there was no way out. Khaden saw nothing for it. He ducked under a massive claw and, with a reckless leap, landed on its back, jaws snapping closed in the air behind him. He brought the sword crunching down into its neck. The sword was too small to decapitate it outright, though he must have split the spinal cord, for the monster crashed down with an earthquake and began to quiver. A few seconds’ hacking severed the head, and he grasped it by a handful of greasy stuff. Feathers or fur, he couldn’t tell, but he had an inkling of what to do with it.
Zersta came streaking towards him, her torch tracing a bright trail through the darkness, reflecting off the dagger she carried in her fist. She checked her flight, staring at the monstrosity Khaden had just slain.
He hefted the head, heavy in his grasp, and turned away. “Follow me,” he said, running right through the smashed doors and into the beast’s den.
If a bloodthirsty horde hadn’t been on their heels, Khaden would have exulted at fulfilling his quest. All about them, in great piles and heaps, lay treasure. Countless ingots of gold, multi-faceted jewels twinkling like buried stars, suits of silver armor chased with platinum filigree. And coins, thousands of them. Enough to forge a mighty empire, buried for centuries in the miscreation’s sullied lair. It all reflected brightly in the torchlight, igniting his forgotten greed anew. He ignored the overpowering stench of ripeness and decay; gold spends just the same, stained or clean.
There was no other exit, however, so their story would end there. Zersta went to the other side of the chamber, putting her back against a wall of stone bricks.
“Hold them off as long as you can,” she said, her dagger held at the ready. “I’ll cut my own throat when you fall. I won’t let them sacrifice my soul on that damned altar.”
“Try to take a few of them with you,” he said, throwing her a crooked grin.
She returned it. “I’ll do my best.”
Khaden heaved his breast as a beast brought to bay. He was no longer the hunting animal, chasing prey to ground. There he waited, the lone tooth of his dull sword brandished despite the odds, the monster’s head clutched in his other hand. Like any creature of nature, he would not sell his life cheaply. The payment of blood would be dear for them to rip the breath of life from him. They would know this when they beheld the trophy of their demon god’s head in his hand. It might buy him some few moments to wreak havoc.
Then the maniacs were upon him, dozens of small, dark cultists, priests, screaming and charging into the room. They keened their fury when they saw what he held high, and they sought to bear him down under their combined weight and blades They knew no mercy and showed no hesitation, cutting into one another when Khaden danced out of the way. Several fell in their own blood as he did so, making use of the great space and escaping their press with a few rapid cuts. He circled back towards the door, trying to lure them away from Zersta.
He cursed aloud as one enterprising little cultist slipped from the pack and stalked towards her. She slashed the cultist’s face, who fell away screaming, then buried the dagger in another’s neck. More broke off to attack her. Before the rest pressed Khaden again, he did the only thing that came to mind, and heaved the monster’s head at the cultists around Zersta. The mob before him paused, turning to watch as the remnant of their terrible monster-god spun over them. Khaden missed his mark wide, and the head slammed into the wall behind with a sick crunch of bone and dead flesh. A puff of loose mortar fell from the spot of impact. Then the mass of hatred once again surged towards him.
While Khaden cut and evaded and slashed and ran, his arm tiring with each stroke, Zersta cried out. Knowing he would be too late to help the girl, he nevertheless engaged in a quick corps-à-corps with a slavering foe, pushed him back into the others, and dashed towards her. As he churned his short legs, his eyes took in something he had not at all expected. A little segment of the wall had given way, falling out into an empty space beyond. Light flooded in through the space, and the cultists around Zersta cringed away from it. The light did not reach far, but she stood there, outlined in golden splendor.
Khaden kept running, enemies in hot pursuit. He dove past her and slammed his shoulder into the stone, just above the hole, bringing the wall down atop him. He almost met his end right there, at the bottom of a pile of stones, but he felt Zersta pull him back. He twisted his body around and rolled into a tiny protective ball. Though his ribs and limbs were pounded mercilessly, and though he ended up half-buried with her, they lived through it.
Natural light bathed the room, reflecting off the treasure like a million mirrors. Even as sunlight poured through the chamber, the dark men shimmered in its rays. Their outlines wavered and their shrieks of protest faded. In one moment, all that remained were ghosts. Another twitch of an eyelid showed nothing but a faint cloud of ash and dust speckling the beams of light. The echoes and screams of frenzied battle died out.
Khaden grunted, pushing stones off their battered bodies, rising with aching slowness to his feet. Zersta rose alongside him. They stood pale as ghosts, covered in dust. She snorted and giggled at him.
“Laugh it up, Zersta, now I’ve saved your neck.”
“Like I saved yours.”
“For that I thank you. And, ah, sorry I got you tangled up in all this.”
She gestured at the priceless treasure that lapped around their feet, like a sea of gold with a foam of gems, islands of larger pieces standing out amongst it. “My family’s gone from tradesmen to lords as a result of your mistake. I imagine I’ll become a baroness with seventy-five percent of all this.”
“Seventy-five’s a bit high,” he countered. “A fifty-fifty split’s perfectly fair, I’d say.”
“Did I say baroness? Ninety percent of this treasure will make me a duchess. Or perhaps a queen.”
He chuckled and cleared his throat. “Seventy-five/twenty-five sounds more than fair, Your Majesty.”
She looked at him with a bold eye. “Turns out I’m just as greedy as you.”
Khaden squirmed under her scrutiny. “There’s a shaft here. That’s how the light’s getting in. Slopes up to the surface, I’d wager. We’ll have to climb up it and out.”
“Good,” she said. “We’ll find a creek and take a bath—you’ll sponge me yourself—then you can carry me home to a hero’s welcome.” Her eyes smoldered.
“Wait a minute, now,” he protested, holding up his hands. He was the one used to wenching. He was the hunter, not the hunted. Zersta was turning his world upside down. She may as well have licked her lips and rubbed her hands together, the way she was ogling him.
“What’s wrong?” she asked, slipping close to him.
Khaden gazed up at her and gulped. “I thought you were far too tall to stoop so low?”
Zersta leaned down, grabbed his head in both hands, whispered “Height’s all the same when you’re lying down,” and kissed him.
Brandon Ketchum is a speculative fiction writer from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. His stories include dark and weird horror and fantasy, science fiction, science fantasy, tech noir, high and urban fantasy, and pulp. He has attended Cascade Writers Workshops, In Your Write Mind Workshops, the Nebulas, and has been published with Perihelion, Daily Science Fiction, Mad Scientist Journal, and many other publications.