BY JEFFREY BLAIR LATTA
The wretch lay on his
side, his face chalky-white in death, but with no sign of spilled blood
or injury. His features were hideously twisted, as if from terrible
pain. And his eyes bulged grotesquely as if his final vision had
been such as to shatter his very soul...
On the wooden boards, a second lascar lay sprawled precisely where he had been standing only the moment before -- barely six feet behind the other men.
The wretch lay on his side, his face chalky-white in death, but with no sign of spilled blood or injury. His features were hideously twisted, as if from terrible pain. And his eyes bulged grotesquely as if his final vision had been such as to shatter his very soul...
A second time Migoti had offered to accompany him, but Fukitso had stubbornly insisted she remain up here. Of course, she knew very well why he was so adamant that she stay behind. He had already warned her about the lascars, dangerous men who seemed to harboured ill-will toward both girls. Obviously, were Migoti to go with him, she would have to leave the soft girl, Almaz, behind, leaving her to the mercy of the lascars.
Thinking about that, Migoti narrowly eyed the supple brown thing in her torn sari, and sniffed in disgust. How like the Ronin. He was too soft by far. A wonder he had survived as long as he had.
If it were up to Migoti, she would had tossed the girl into the sea. Dangerous and implacable forces followed in Almaz's wake; that winged creature -- whatever it was -- had proven as much. For now, Fukitso had put them off her track, but for how long?
At the very least, he should have used a keen khanjar to cut the brand from the girl's smooth hip. Migoti had suggested as much. She had even made to do it herself -- much to the pathetic girl's quivering horror. But no -- the Ronin would not let Migoti do that, either.
Again, she sniffed. So soft. So stupid.
Then she rose with a supple stretching of glossy limbs and sauntered casually over to the gunwale. She gazed pensively out over the sparkling waves. Still, she reflected, she supposed she did owe the Ronin her life. If he had not rescued her from the pishacas under Fakhd al Houri, by now her heart would have been torn still beating from her breast.
Strange how often their paths seemed to cross. It was only chance which had placed Migoti in Fakhd al Houri on that terrible night when the pishacas attacked with their fire-breathing dune dragons. A day before or after and she would have been elsewhere. She had only stopped in the oasis city to water her camel on her way to Dolman Adji. Perhaps, as they said in Shemshiran, it was kismet.
Dismissing the thought with an unconscious shrug of her splendid shoulders, Migoti turned suddenly from the gunwale -- and found four pairs of eyes tightly watching her with harshly accusing glares.
Even as she spun, all but one lascar quickly dropped his gaze, the three feigning sudden and intense interest in the wood grain of the deck. But the one who did not drop his eyes continued to stare at her with a fierce threatening gleam, making no attempt to mask his true feelings -- a look which Migoti knew could not go unchallenged.
She strode slowly across the deck, menace in every stride, stopping only feet away from the lascar. Even though he was seated on a crate and she standing, her dark head came barely higher than his own. She looked hard into his eyes.
"You think we are to blame for those two deaths, do you?" she asked in a low even voice like the deadly hiss of a cobra.
The lascar stared back. Though he tried hard to conceal it, Migoti sensed his intense awareness of the katana in her fist.
"It is bad luck to bring women on a ship," he stated bluntly. "We are being punished for your presense."
Migoti allowed the silence to stretch unbearably, purposely building the tension.
Then she said: "And what will you do about it?"
For a moment, the scene held, not a muscle moving on either girl or lascar, their burning eyes locked like two snarling samadhi's fighting over a fresh kill. Migoti felt not the dimmest sense of fear. She knew the wonderful speed of her reflexes, knew Shogun could carve this little man into a dozen scarlet pieces ere the first piece struck the tarry deck.
As for the lascar, he too had seen Migoti's golden form in dazzling, breathless motion, had seen how quickly she could move and how much damage she could inflict even without her sword. Now that she had that sword...
"You'll see," he muttered bitterly, and finally dropped his eyes.
Migoti knew the issue had not been resolved. Perhaps she should have forced a fight, but there were four of them, after all, and, swift as she was, she was not certain she could defeat them all, should the others come to his aid. With a disdainful toss of her head, she strode on past him and over to the bow of the ship.
For a moment, she noticed the two bodies, laid side by side underneath the tarpaulin. Her slim brows crinkled over her nose in a puzzled frown. Strange, she thought. The shapes of the bodies seemed oddly formed, albeit in no way she could put into words. It must be just the way they were laid out.
Then, before she could ponder the mystery further, something else caught her eye.
Her frown melted into a vague, wondering smile. She lithely bent and snatched up a magnificent gold-chased bracelet from off the wooden deck. It was a richly wrought and fantastically expensive tricket, and one bizarrely out of place aboard this hoary wooden derelict.
How had it come to be here? she wondered.
Migoti knew nothing of the object tossed onto the ship by the hooded figure in the underground cavern beneath Fakhd al Houri, the minion sent by the Tiger Priestess Zehabi. Almaz had forgotten to mention it -- had, in fact, forgotten all about it in the ensuing excitement.
Had Migoti known, of course, she would have hurled the bracelet far out to sea, would have flung it away with all the strength in her wonderful thews, as if it were the deadliest of serpents.
Instead, not knowing, with a surprisingly feminine and fetching laugh, she slipped the bracelet over her hand and onto her slender golden wrist...
The ship was surprisingly deep, he knew, with two levels to the hold. This first level was heavily cluttered with wooden crates and tarry barrels and tangled heaps of thick hemp cordage. The cargo had evidently taken a terrible pounding during the turbulent ride down the underground river and now the lantern light played over a daunting jumble of edges and corners, broken panels and shattered barrel staves, through which Fukitso knew he would somehow have to find his way.
He scowled in irritation, not relishing the prospect one bit. But of far greater concern was the possibility of concealment offered by that confusing mess, concealment facilitated by the dismal darkness that lingered just beyond the lantern's amber reach.
Again, the Ronin's thoughts reverted to the strange deaths of the two lascars. How had they died? he wondered. What manner of thing could kill and yet not be seen or heard?
The first death, coming in the night, might possibly have been explained. Perhaps, even with the two moons, the darkness had been enough to conceal a dark-hued creature, something with soft, silent paws.
But not so the second death. That lascar had died in the full light of day, only feet away from Fukitso and the others. True, all eyes had been turned away when the dreadful deed was accomplished, but still there should have been a sound -- as the monster crossed the short space between the companionway and the lascar, as it killed him... however it killed him.
Then too, it had to have passed by at least one of the other lascars so close that that man would surely have noticed its presence. And the speed of the attack -- the victim had been alive only seconds before, for Fukitso recalled noticing him laughing with the others as the flying creature sent by the Priests of the Tiger wandered confusedly away over the horizon.
What manner of monster, what strange alien presense could attack with such swiftness and such stealth?
Perhaps the lascars were right, after all. Perhaps it was some sort of djinn they faced. And yet, in the Ronin's experience, even djinni had tangible forms. This thing had more the nature of a ghost. A decidedly deadly ghost.
Warily, Fukitso began to work his way through the cluttered crates and smashed barrels, his progress made all the more awkward by the lack of a free hand. The lantern's lambent gleam seemed only to increase the sense of menace he felt. It heaped the jumbled spaces with thick, moving shadows that flowed and lurched and reared in his path like darkly living things themselves. Nor was his task helped by the knowledge that he did not know what he was looking for. How large was the thing? What colour its hide? Did it have wings? Claws?
Abruptly, Fukitso paused, a frown weighting his brows. Smoothly, he slid Kyodai back into its scabbard, exchanging the small blade for the greater, gleaming Ginago. Now let the beast attack, he thought challengingly. Whatever it was, it would find the Silver Jaw less easily taken than a quaking lascar.
He started forward once more and soon reached the stern bulkhead. Again, he paused. So far, he had found nothing out of the ordinary, no living thing, no sound to disturb the steady nerve-racking hush. Here, a second ladder led down through the floor -- down into the utter darkness of the lower hold. The Ronin raised his light over the hole but the lantern's glow showed only aged ladder rungs melting down into deep, concealing shadow.
Awkwardly, he clambered down the ladder, his hands filled with the blade and the lantern. At the bottom, he lifted the light once more and cast slowly about, his weird eyes straining into the confining darkness, his ears listening with razor-sharp acuity. Still, nothing but a further jumble of crates and barrels and mountains of coiled cordage met his glance. No sound reached his ears.
He started forward once more, headed toward the bow, grimly forcing his way through the broken battered cargo, irritably kicking crates aside with his sandalled feet. He scowled and cursed under his breath, angered by the ruckus he was forced to make, but knowing he had little choice.
And then, all at once, something loomed out of the darkness, something massive and angular, unveiled with startling suddenness by the lantern's flickering heat.
The Ronin stopped short, his breath hissing through his teeth. What was this?
Warily he took one step forward, allowing the light to draw further detail from out of the cloaken darkness. His eyes slowly surveyed the object revealed, his gaze narrow with the suspicion of the cornered beast.
It was a massive crate of some kind. But a crate made of solid iron, with heavy chains looped about it again and again -- chains with links as thick as the Ronin's thumb. The container was large enough for Fukitso to have fit inside slightly crouched, and it was ancient, very ancient. The iron was ravaged with brown, flaking rust, as were the chains which, for all their size, looked brittle enough to break apart with but a single blow of a sturdy tulwar.
Seeing the crate, Fukitso felt a chill breeze crawling over his bald scalp. Something had been kept in that crate, something alive and large enough to warrant such massive chains. And he realized, too, that now at last, some of the mystery was explained -- the mystery of the ship's presense in the underground cavern under the desert.
Whoever this ship had belonged to, they had turned it into an eternal cage, going to unimaginable lengths to transport it far out under the desert, there to entomb the vessel where no one would ever find it again -- or so they had believed. But Fukitso had found it. And Fukitso, unwittingly, had set free whatever it was they had so clearly feared.
No doubt, when the Ronin had first heard a noise from the hold while the ship was back in the cavern, the beast was still locked in its crate. But the tumultuous journey down the river to the sea had done the terrible deed. That and the rust which over the ages had steadily weakened the iron sides.
By the light of the lantern, Fukitso could see where wooden crates had tumbled hard against the larger crate's side. The impacts had shattered the rusted iron like brittle ancient glass and left behind a yawning and ominous hole.
Then, even as the Ronin stepped closer to peer warily inside the broken crate, his lantern, reaching the last of its oil, flickered suddenly...and went out...
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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
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