Stalkers of the Tiger's Bride

(Book Two)
A SERIAL of SHEMSHIRAN

BY JEFFREY BLAIR LATTA

Previously: Almaz and Migoti awake at sea on the mast-less ship found under the desert.  Fukitso is missing, a trail of blood leading to the hold.  Villainous shipwrecked sailors board the vessel.  Migoti fights them but is overwhelmed, tied up and whipped...until Fukitso climbs from the hold, having accidentally knocked himself unconscious, and kills the leader.  He had gone to the hold to investigate a sound, but never got the chance.  Nor does Almaz think to mention the mystery object tossed onto the ship by the minion of the Tiger Priests, an object which she never found.  Without masts, the group can only sail where the currents take them.  That night, one of the lascars (sailors) makes a horrifying discovery.

Meanwhile, in the city of Sahara...


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EPISODE 3: DEATH OUT OF THE NIGHT!


Darkness too lay over the city of Sahara.

Sullen shadows slept in the noisome alleys and in the doorways of buildings secured with sturdy locks.  The strange black clouds had finally dispersed from over the city, but still an aura of ominous forboding hung in the air like a swirling fog.

In the smokey serais, men whispered fearful things, their eyes wide and darting.  They said the black tower was to blame; the Priests of the Tiger had returned after a thousand years of sleep.  The great god, Ti, was rousing and woe to those who had forsaken him in the intervening millennium.

Those who had the money or the transportation had already left the city.  On camel or karmah, singly or in long, snakey caravans, they fled as if from a plague.  And those who could not leave, who did not have the means or the will, whose very life, for better or for worse, was in this accursed city -- for those there were only the sturdy locks and the sealed lattice screens to provide what protection they might against the terrible wrath of a god.

But Dahika Khan was only dimly aware of all this.

As he had sworn, after tricking Al Rih and locking the secret passage in the well, he had fled with his followers, fled the doomed city of Fakhd al Houri and crossed the burning sands until they came to the ancient city of Sahara.

In his khalat he carried the treasure map.

He did not know what treasure it pointed the way to.  He only knew that the Ronin had valued it highly and the Ronin's instincts were rarely wrong.  Still, although he had promised his followers equal shares, he had no intention of making good on that promise.  There might not be enough treasure to make the game worth While.

Instead, while his men slumbered in a serai, Dahika Khan arose and slunk furtively into the night, there to seek a suitable mount and supplies.  By dawn's light, when his men awoke, he expected to be away and high into the windy passes of the Jebel Qamar.  He did not see this as villainous betrayal -- merely good business sense.

At another serai, he pounded hard on the front door.  There was a startled shout from within, then heavy footfalls on stairs.  A wary voice called through the door: "What do you want?"

"A karmah, effendi," Dahika Khan replied, knowing that beast would serve him best in the jungle.  "And supplies for a long journey."

There was a brief considering pause.  A lock clanked and the door yawned wide revealing a burly man clad in a green dishdasha and dishevelled turban.  A wavy blade shone in his fist.  He appraised his visitor with a nervous squint, than gestured over his shoulder with the knife.

"Around back.  You're nearly too late -- I have only one left."

With undue haste, the door closed in Dahika Khan's startled face.  He scowled, shrugged, then turned to find his way around to the back of the serai.

But barely had he taken three steps than he noted the soft slap of sandal on cobblestone.

His reflexes were swift, honed by a lifetime of plot and counter-plot.  He had more enemies than he cared to count, and time and time again, that swiftness had been the only thing standing between him and the thrust of a khanjar in the dark.  But this time he was a split second too slow.  Even as he whirled, dragging his blade from his girdle, something struck him a thuddng blow across the head.  Without a sound, he tumbled unconscious to the cobblestones.

In seconds, the attacker, Ghaffar, had searched for and found the map.  He straightened with a fierce hiss of gratification, his eyes gleaming awfully with his mounting madness.

"The map!" he cried into the listening dark.  "The drunkard in the serai did not lie!  Now, at last, it is mine!"

With a terrible laugh, he flew away into the dark night, leaving Dahika Khan to rouse later in a gout of blood -- and bitterly curse the day he had ever met Al Rih.

***
Death out of the night, it was.

The eight castaways were gathered in a loose throng near the bow of the ship, the flickering amber glow from three lanterns painting eerily shifting shadows across their stricken features and haunted eyes.  Almaz, in her scarlet sari, hugged herself tightly and bit at her full lip.  It was one of the lascars who had cried out; now, that man stood with wide, horrified eyes, fearfully regarding the still figure slumped grotesquely against the gunwale.

"Well?  What happened to him?" asked Fukitso, one hand touching the banded hilt of his wakizashi.  "Who shouted?"

"It was I, Hussein," replied the frightened lascar, wretchedly wringing his hands.  "I had only left Abdul for a moment, I swear.  I was chewing betel-nut and went to spit over the side into the sea.  We had no lantern, but the moons cast light enough to see.  I heard no sound, though I was only a dozen feet away, but, when I stepped back, this is how I found him, slumped in death."

His eyes blazed with naked dread close to panic.  "How is such a thing possible, sahib?  I heard nothing.  I saw nothing.  Yet, we are at the bow of the ship.  No one could have come upon him without passing me -- no one!"

The Ronin grimly knelt and played his lantern searchingly over the corpse, his gaze narrow and weirdly gleaming.  With a baffled grunt, he straightened and stepped back.

"There's no blood," he said, scratching his bald head.  "I don't see any wound, either."

His words were greeted with a tremulous murmur from the gathered lascars, their eyes darting anxiously, beads of sweat starting out on their paling features.  Then:

"It is a djinn!" cried one, and instantly the others took up the song.

"The ship is cursed!  A djinn!  A djinn!"

"Gods preserve us!"

Fukitso saw where this might quickly lead.  He had no explanation for this strange death in the night, but he knew panic would serve no purpose at all.  With a bellowing roar, he broke through the frightened chorus, bringing instant, if uneasy, silence.

"You spineless curs!" he snarled in disgust -- an expression he had picked up in his travels.  "Be still and listen."

For a moment, he himself fell silent as his eyes pensively studied the corpse, struggling to fathom some explanation to this baffling mystery.  But he was hard pressed to produce a solution.  Hussein, he saw, was quite correct.  There was no way a murderer could have gotten by him without being seen.  Even without a lantern, the two moons cast light enough to see by.  Then too, there was the question of how the man had met his death.  There was no wound on the body; the neck was not broken.  No blood on the clothes.

Abruptly, Migoti spoke and Fukitso saw the golden girl carried her katana, Shogun, naked in her hand.

"You said you heard something down in the hold before."  It was a simple statement of fact, but one fraught with frightening implications.  "Perhaps there lies the answer to this mystery."

The Ronin looked at her, scowling as the lascars began to murmur again.  Her words had served to undo the temporary calm.  Just the same, he nodded slowly, his gaze travelling to the companionway which led down into the hold.

"Hai, I did," he agreed soberly.  Then, after some more thought: "You could be right, but we can't go down there tonight.  We'll wait until morning."

Turning back to the corpse, he instructed the lascars: "Get something to cover the body.  Tomorrow we'll bury him in the sea.  We'll take turns keeping watch tonight, in twos, each man with a lantern."

For a moment, the men hesitated, their nerves unstrung by all that had passed, by the corpse and by Migoti's ominous suggestion.

"Well -- move, you dogs!" Fukitso barked, and they woke as if from a dream, rushing away like swirling leaves, fretfully praying under their breathes, away to find a tarpaulin to cover the body of the unfortunate Abdul.

***
A smoldering scarlet dawn rimmed the western horizon, the sky bluing steadily into a clear cloudless dome.

Again the eight castaways assembled on the deck, their bleak eyes reflecting deep shadows of formless fear and dread.  Those eyes determinedly avoided the ghastly shape beneath the tarpaulin near the bow, as if to acknowledge its terrible existence would be to bring down a similar doom upon the rest.

But Fukitso noticed something else in the eyes of the lascars.  From time to time, they shot dangerously slitted glances at the two women, looks that burned with hot, unreasoning accusation.  It did not take a great deal of thought to discern the cause of those glances.  Lascars were a superstitious breed, their lives appallingly brutal and too dependent on the whim of chance.  Where explanations were in short supply, they too quickly fashioned their own.  No doubt, they felt the presence of the girls on this ship was to blame for the death in the night.

In their belief, there was no telling how far they might go to placate a malevolent djinn.

As the group clustered around the companionway, the Ronin lit a lantern, then smoothly drew his sword, Kyodai.  He turned to Migoti and their eyes met.

"Whatever killed Abdul is silent as a ghost," he told her.  "Watch your back.  Death might come from any quarter."

This last he said with a significant nod toward the lascars.  Migoti took his meaning and nodded in turn, a fierce smile caressing her full lips.  She had always been one to welcome a challenge.

She touched Shogun in its scabbard and offered: "But what about you, Ronin?  If there is something down there, two blades will stand a better chance than one."

Even as Fuiktso made to reply, from behind him one of the lascars cried out suddenly.  "Look -- in the sky!"

All eyes jerked to the horizon, following the lascar's dilated gaze.  Fukitso breathed a low curse and Almaz sobbed in pitiful despair.  Migoti inhaled sharply.  Against the pale sky, a distant angular silhouette flapped long, ungainly wings.

Even from that distance, both Almaz and the Ronin could recognize the flying creature which had tracked them to the desert city of Fakhd al Houri, a djinn set upon their tracks by the Priests of the Tiger -- or, as Almaz now realized, by the evil priestess, Zehabi, herself.

"Baka!  That's not possible," snarled the Ronin, as he strode to the gunwale.  "How can it follow us on the open sea?  How did it find us in the middle of the desert?  We left no tracks to follow, no scent to pursue."

"It is a djinn," whimpered Almaz, stumbling hopelessly to his side.  "It can follow us anywhere."

But Fukitso remained unconvinced.  His experience with magicians had long taught him that even their magic had limitations.  Even sorcerers  needed a scent to follow.

Unless...

He raised his hand and eyed the gold, curiously-engraved ring which he had taken off the body of the dead priest in the tower.  He snarled, disgusted at his own stupidity, and tugged the ring from his littlest finger.  He drew back his hand, meaning to hurl the cursed bauble into the deep, rolling sea -- but something made him pause.

He could not say what it was that stayed his hand, no more than he could have explained what strange compulsion had caused him to take the ring in the first place.  But dimly, in the back of his mind, a conviction stirred, an inexplicable assurance that the ring would yet serve a purpose -- that to throw it away would be to bring a later doom.

He grunted in confusion, his fist still raised for the toss.  The flying djinn winged steadily nearer, its implacable approach causing the lascars to mutter fearfully, their talwars leaping to hand like long blades of grass growing suddenly from pallid earth.  Then, in an instant, a thought sprang into the Ronin's baffled brain, an alternative possibility.

And with the thought came quick decisive action.

Setting down the lantern and replacing the ring on his finger, he whirled on Almaz so sharply she cringed with a startled yelp.  He grabbed hold of her sari in both hands and tore a long slit up the leg of the garment, from the bottom of the fabric to the slope of her supple waist.  Almaz exclaimed at the unexpected assault, but Fukitso hardly noticed as he knocked the fabric aside, unveiling a slim brown limb rising sleek to a glossily curving hip.

On that hip was the brand made by the priests of the Tiger.

"Your brand," the Ronin muttered.  "It's in the shape of an eye."

Still recovering from her shock, Almaz nodded nervously.  "The priest called it the mark of the Tiger's eye."

Fukitso's weird eyes shot back to the djinn closing quickly on the ship, growing steadily larger and larger as it came.  "An eye to see with," he murmured, as if speaking only to himself.  Then, his voice became a snarl of disgust: "To see us with!"

Casting quickly about, he bent and ran his fingers through the tar coating the base of the gunwale.  He fingers came away black with the stuff.  With scant concern for the girl's delicate skin, he proceeded to smear the tar over the brand on her hip.  With a cry of disgust, Almaz tried to pull away but she felt slim hands like polished brass seize her shoulders in an irresistable clasp.  It was Migoti, forcing her to stand still.  Almaz strained helplessly but could not break free.  Were they all mad? she wondered in desperate horror.  Was this some new torment created by Zehabi?

But then, the Ronin straightened and his gaze again leapt to the winged creature approaching over the rolling waves.  Fukitso watched, waiting for some sign that he had been correct in his surmise -- but onward it came, steadily onward.  Perhaps, it was the ring, after all, he thought.  Perhaps --

But, no -- suddenly the creature altered its course.  It began to fly in a wide circle, around and around, as if confusedly searching for something it had lost.

The Ronin laughed, a hardy shout of savage gratification, and Almaz, released by Migoti, just stared up at him, blinking in wide-eyed wonder.

"It doesn't have a brain," explained the Ronin, still laughing.  "The damn thing just follows the brand -- so long as the brand can see.  The creature must be able to see our ship, but it doesn't have brains enough to know we're the ones it was seeking."

Gradually, the djinn's circling began to carry it farther and farther away.  It dwindled with distance, finally vanishing away over the sharp blue horizon.  As it disappeared, there was a chorus of relieved sighs from the lascars and one by one they pounded tulwars back into silken girdles with gusty laughs and airs of bravado at odds with their terror the moment before.

Finally Fukitso returned his look to the girl beside him and grinned as he saw her expression.

"Sorry about that," he apologized gruffly.  "I didn't have time to explain."  His eyes dropped to her torn garment and the bronze smoothness revealed -- and a different light flickered for a moment in those strange blind-seeming orbs.  "Doji's fire, girl, but I think I like it better that way."

Almaz knew she should have been outraged, but, instead, for some reason she found herself taking strange pleasure in the Ronin's wolfish  glance.  And though she might have drawn the ripped garment closed, instead she left it as it was, feeling foolish and sensual both at the same time.

But the Ronin's thoughts seemed never to fasten too long on any one concern.  Almaz felt a dull pang of regret as he looked away from her and over at the lascars.

"Well, let's get back to searching the hold.  No point in putting it off -- What in Doji's name?!"

Almaz glanced over in surprise, startled by the Ronin's cry.  Then she gasped as she saw what it was he had seen, her hands flinging to her open lips.  The lascars too saw what Fukitso had seen and they fell back with wailing cries of superstitious dread and horror...



Next week...Horror in the Hold!


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Stalkers of the Tiger's Bride copyright 1999, by Jeffrey Blair Latta.  It may not be copied or used for any commercial purpose except for short excerpts used for reviews.  (Obviously, you can copy it or print it out if you want to read it!)