BY JEFFREY BLAIR LATTA
In the dream, she knelt on damp, mossy ground, cool and clammy against her bare bronze legs. The air hung thick and humid tiring her lungs through the effort of breathing. She was naked but for the diamond-dusted fabric between her legs, the vestment given her by the Priests of the Tiger. Looking slowly around, she recognized her surroundings and hugged herself with a frantic strength as despairing shivers pulsed up her slender spine.
It was the horrible jungle glade, exactly as it had been so long ago.
A misty rain of shimmering moonlight filtered down through webbed greenery high overhead. The soft light served only to emphasize the thick shadows crowding close around. Through rotted boles and twisted creepers off to her left, the black putrid waters of the swamp gleamed like congealing blood, the heavy surface rippling sluggishly with the movement of unseen creatures beneath.
Directly in front of her, the brooding rampart of the stone cliff loomed starkly, the third moon -- Dajnar -- peering down from the broken, lofty rim. In the cliff's rough face, the blacker void of the cave yawned like a ravenous maw. Almaz cringed at the sight of it, striving to cry out but finding the sound strangely muted, as if screaming vainly into a cushion.
Her memories returned in a stunning rush, staggering her through an overload of frightful recall, the hateful images jumbled out of order and context, like leaves whirling in the grip of a storm.
She saw herself lying against the base of the cliff, her wrists bound with thongs, her naked body bruised and smeared with dirt and moss from her journey as captive through the tangled jungle.
Abruptly a giant figure loomed over her, his hair hanging thick over his burning eyes, his clothes in tatters revealing deep brown skin over tightly rolling muscles: Karim, come to save her.
Just as suddenly, she stood before the midnight cave, writhing in anguish as she felt a blade drawn ruthlessly across her supple back -- spilling her blood to better attract whatever lurked in the darkness, whatever had killed the four men who had already challenged its stygian dominion.
Again, the memory changed and Ghaffar -- terrible Ghaffar, who would later lose his sanity and burn her with a torch for the sake of a map -- was kindly helping her to her feet, where his companion, Ahmed, had thrown her in his savage brutality.
Then her powerful defender returned, this time fighting for his very life in the huge arms of a silent titan, Yakub, who steadily crushed the lungs in his body with a bone-smashing hug like the squeeze of a python. She saw herself picking up a spear dropped in the battle, then plunging it deep into the titan's spine with all the strength in her quivering body...
Then the memories dispersed and she found herself alone in the glade -- alone as Karim had left her when he had ventured into the cave to slake his thirst for bloody vengeance. Alone as she had been for too, too long.
Abruptly her body stiffened erect, her eyes wide white lights. Tiny hairs shivered on her flesh. From somewhere in the far dark recesses of the cave came an eerie sound: slow footfalls, heavy and lumbering, staggering with a strange disorder. There was something loathsome and brutish in the shambling sound, something deformed and ugly; and, suddenly, she felt her heart racing and her blood chilling, for she knew the sound was not made by human feet.
But this was no memory. This was something else, something far, far more terrible. Somehow, even in her dream, Almaz knew -- it was something yet to come.
She struggled to rise, but the damp humus was pliant beneath her hands, hampering her efforts, affording no solid surface against which to push. She twisted desperately on her knees and began crawling away from the cave and the approaching sound.
Ahead of her, the terrible phalanx of jungle and shadow, strangling creeper and black, nodding blossom, seemed nearly as threatening, but still she made for it, falling forward on the rotted earth and dragging herself, clawing and groping, on her belly. The weird footfalls grew louder and horribly distinct and, suddenly, the echo which accompanied them faded away.
The thing had reached the mouth of the cave.
Fighting an overwhelming urge to glance back over her shoulder, Almaz hauled herself forward, fingers raking furrows in the soft ground. She reached a tangled skein of branches, attacking them like the bars of a cage, spreading them with clawed hands, then lunging through --
Curtains rustled silkenly into place behind her and she blinked nonplussed.
A dreamly forest of diaphanous veils hung silently around, brazen incense lamps trailed braiding silver smoke, and black velvet tapestries adorned half-hidden walls, their rich fabrics stained with gilt-thread depictions of salacious degeneracy. She cried out in wretched despair, her small hands twisting together against her mouth -- for as much as she feared the dark glade, she feared this place more!
In front of her lay the sacrificial altar where she had been bound with chains, a hideous caricature of bridedom, a living writhing oblation to the lusts of the mad priests of the Tiger.
At the sight of its black, gold-laced stone, all her feelings of revulsion and debasement returned, and she flung herself backward, groping blindly for the curtained exit, eyes fixed on the locus of her horror.
She felt soft whispering material sliding beneath her clutching fingers, more delicate than the curtains should have been, then felt firm, lithe flesh molded over two long legs. She turned on her knees, looking up with enormous eyes -- even as slim, rigid fingers pinioned her hands to the naked legs.
The priestess, Zehabi, regarded her through narrow eyes, a taunting snear curling her full, scarlet lips. The burning emerald shone dazzlingly in her navel, set in the deep saddle of her brown waist. Her breastplates gleamed like misted honey and two veils draped fluidly from glittering gems high on her wide hips.
Almaz fought to free her hands, but her tormenter's fingers were imbued with an unnatural strength. Zehabi merely smiled at her pitiful struggles, only releasing her once the point had been made.
Almaz sought to draw back, but the woman caught her hair in a clenched fist, savagely tilting back her head. With sinuous ease, Zehabi folded to her sleek haunches and regarded Almaz, unmoved by the tears of pain squeezing from her captive's eyes.
"It's only a dream!" Almaz gasped frantically. "This is all just a horrible dream and, in a moment, I'll open my eyes and find I'm safe. A dream can't hurt me, no matter how much it might scare me."
The woman's features assumed a look of mild amusement.
"You killed two priests of the Tiger." Her tone was steely with menace. "That is crime enough to seal your fate, little one. But for what you did to the body of the magician Ti..." For a moment, she faltered, words failing her in her smoldering rage. Then, partially mastering her fury, she hissed: "Did you really think that would stop me? From mere ashes I created the thing you saw in the sarcophagus. The damage you did to it was nothing -- nothing! Bah! I have already reconstructed it. All I need is the sacrifice to complete the spell of resurrection!"
The anger had finally left her voice. Now, suddenly, she spoke with a soothing intimacy -- the tone horribly jarring with her savagely vengeful words.
"But I am no longer content to use you merely for the necessary ritual. What you have done deserves... chastizement... such as no girl has ever known."
A secret smile danced in her eyes. "As I told you, the priests know little of the powers once wielded by their ancient forebearers; they are mere bumbling tyros dabbling in the shallows of a vast sea they know nothing of. In my wanderings through the tower, I happened on fantastic books left forgotten and moldering, their crumbling pages filled with black, arcane knowledge which would blast the sweet reason from between your pretty little ears. " She ran a slim finger around and around the nautilus curve of Almaz's ear. The girl shivered miserably. "I will do things to your sleek young body and to your innocent brain beside which screaming death will seem like gentle release."
"It's just a dream!" Almaz sobbed, struggling wretchedly but in vain. "Let me wake! Please let me wake!"
Again the secret smile turned Zehabi's cruel lips. She opened her fist, freeing her captive's glossy locks as if releasing a bird into the air. But Almaz was too frightened to flee; she regarded the priestess in tremulous terror.
"Dream?" Zehabi asked, with a sharp laugh. "You poor naive child. Do you really think you have escaped me -- you and your brutish Ronin? There is nowhere you can hope to hide from the awesome powers of the Tiger. There is no country so distant that you can escape my reach. There is no place I cannot touch you, little flower."
With sinister gentleness, she put a tapered finger to Almaz's forehead, then slowly drew it down the girl's nose. Almaz squeezed her eyes shut, shuddering helplessly. Zehabi's finger reached the tip of the girl's nose, then stroked down to her quivering lips.
"No -- not even in your dreams," she said softly. Almaz felt the sharp fingernail suddenly cut into her bottom lip and she screamed at the pain, twisting desperately away...
Then she awoke with an anguished sob, bolting upright in a bed.
She glanced around with wide, frantic eyes, momentarily thinking this was but one more aspect to her terrible nightmare.
Dimly memories returned of the furious journey made along the rushing underground river, a mad voyage which had taken days. She recalled the endlessly thrashing whiteness of the fantastic rivercourse; remembered the many close calls, when the ship's hull had crashed glancingly against the rough stone walls, when the craft had groaned and screamed like a living thing, every seam deformed by the staggering force of the collisions.
Her Ronin companion had told her there was nothing either of them could do to steer the ship; they could only hope the hull was strong enough to weather the voyage. His greater concern had been reserved for the gold-skinned girl named Migoti.
He placed the girl on a bed in the captain's great cabin under the quarter deck, covering her with rich sheets found there. Though there was nowhere to find food, the Ronin procured water easily enough simply by catching the hissing spray in a bucket as the water leapt over the gunwale.
While, at first, Almaz had tried to help him by bathing the phosphorescent markings from Migoti's naked body and giving her sips of water, eventually her own exhaustion had forced her to crawl under the sheets beside the unconscious girl.
For a time, she had lain in a state of semidelirium, listening to the monster howling of the river, feeling the sudden jarring impacts as the ship struck rock after rock. Sometimes she sensed the Ronin watching them both in the darkness, his strange nearly-white eyes gleaming in the light of a swaying lantern.
The underground air was chilled and the constant spray kept her flesh cold and damp, so that she was glad of the warmth offered by the other girl's body and cuddled close to her beneath the thin sheets. Finally, at some point she could not recall, she had drifted off to sleep and not woken again -- until now.
Almaz studied her surroundings, seeing them clearly for the first time. Soft clear light breathed lustrously through dusty windows in the stern wall. It revealed a large room with carved wood paneling, brass-banded chests and a massive desk laden with charts. Beside her, the gold-skinned girl lay serenely sleeping.
For a moment, Almaz sat there, breathing quickly, remembering her terrible dream. Then, abruptly, a frightening conviction took hold and, against her will, she touched a finger to her bottom lip.
There is no place I cannot touch you, little flower, the dream-woman had said. No -- not even in your dreams.
And now, with horror-struck eyes, Almaz saw that it was true. Her finger came away from her lip gleaming with scarlet blood...
Could Zehabi really harm her even in her dreams? A short while before, such a thing would have seemed impossible -- but no longer. Had she not seen with her own eyes that horrible beast that nearly caught her while she was stuck in the portcullis? Had she not seen that grisly, deformed thing in the sarcophagus? No -- nothing was beyond Zehabi. Nothing.
Almaz sobbed in despair, a small, animal whine. Was there no escape from this dreadful nightmare?
And then, suddenly, another memory came to her -- the hooded figure tossing something onto the ship. She had forgotten all about it until now.
What could that object have been?
Abruptly, her thoughts were interrupted as her eyes fell on a paper on the captain's desk amongst the curling charts. Stepping closer, she saw it was a duplicate of the map to the treasure of Sultan Alkhar Shan. It was nearly identical, as near as she could recall, except for the place names which were written in a different language, in strange markings similar to those she had noticed on the Ronin's katana, Ginago. The Ronin had told her how he had lost the original map to a man named Dahika Khan. Evidently, he had reconstructed the map from memory.
Where was her weird-eyed protector? Quickly, with mincing steps, she hurried to the door, flung it wide and rushed out onto the deck.
The dazzling sun blazed hotly down from a cloudless porcelain sky. A glittering sea stretched away to the horizon like a million sparkling diamonds set on rippling blue silk. The wind caressed her slim brown body, bathing her supple skin, feeling both cool and warm together.
She cast about, searchingly. The entire waist was open to her view, the two masts, cut away and mere stumps, hiding nothing. But there was no sign of the powerful Ronin.
"Fukitso!" she cried. Her only reply was the gentle beating of waves against the hull. "Fukitso, where are you?" Still, there was only silence and the sea.
Slowly she crossed the waist, hands bunched at her throat. What could have become of him?
Abruptly, something caught her eye and she gave a horrified gasp. It was blood on the deck, a large, ghastly gout just beside one of the mast-stumps. Stepping fearfully closer, she saw a trail of blood leading away from the stain and, following this, she traced it to the raised coaming around the companionway leading down into the hold. Looking down into that hold, she could see only dismal darkness.
"Fukitso?" Her voice was a weak tremour, barely audible even to herself. What could have happened to him? What should she do? For a space, she stood there, agonized with indecision.
Then a sudden sound spun her about, and her eyes opened widely. It was the crash of breaking glass, and it came from back in the great cabin.
Almaz sprinted back to the half-closed door. She stepped cautiously through and into the darkened cabin.
But, even as she crossed the threshold, a slim but steely arm jerked tight about her neck, dragging her firmly against sleekly supple flesh the hardness of polished brass. Rigid fingers thrust deep into the tender curve of her waist and a sharp spike of pain shot through her spasming belly. She screamed at the pain and a female voice, speaking with the same accent as the Ronin, hissed in her ear: "If I press more, you will die in horrible agony."
Her point made, Migoti eased her deadly touch, and Almaz gasped at the sudden release.
"Where am I?" the golden girl snarled. "Who are you and what ship is this?"
Quickly, as best she could under the circumstances, Almaz briefly related as much as she knew. When she was done, Migoti was silent for some time, still holding the girl with fingers menacingly touching her waist. Finally, Migoti released the girl and, before Almaz could turn, the other had stepped smoothly out onto the deck. When Almaz followed a moment later, she found Migoti leaning over the coaming, looking down into the hold.
Though Migoti was still naked, there was such natural vitality in the golden girl, her nudity did not seem at all odd. Seeing her etched in sunlight, Almaz was amazed by the wonderful perfection of her smoothly molded form, her glossy skin shaping muscles at once softly supple and athletically firm. To cover that magificent shape seemed somehow petty and pointless. As if one were to wrap a dazzling ruby in sackcloth.
"There was a lantern in the great cabin," Migoti called across the deck. "Bring it and find some matches. I'm not going to hunt for that damned Ronin without something to see by."
Still in the doorway, Almaz returned to the cabin. A quick search found both lantern and matches and, gathering these together, she started for the door. But, even as she reached for the doorknob, her ears detected dull thuds made against the wooden hull of the ship. Instantly, her mind raced, back to the attack on the pirate vessel by the Jakaro headhunters, back to that night of horror -- for the sound was the sound of grapples biting the wood of the gunwale...
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Stalkers of the Tiger's Bride copyright 1999, by Jeffrey Blair Latta.
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