BY JEFFREY BLAIR LATTA
"What in the name of the seven geishas!"
The Ronin gaped in wide-eyed disbelief. Whatever he had expected to find, it was not this!
Migoti knelt beside the bed--only it was not Migoti. It was a gleaming steel sculpture, a perfect replica of the gold-skinned girl, exact in every detail. From the lithely-shaped form of the limbs to the delicately molded features on her face, every supple curve, every satiny contour was precisely replicated--but in steel.
Weirder still, the sculpture was not nude but wore the silk fabric about its breasts and hips which Migoti had worn only a short while before. And, strangest of all to Fukitso's mind, the statue held in its upraised left hand Migoti's katana, Shogun.
The blade was brandished in a manner almost as if raised with the purpose of hacking off the statue's right arm, which was stretched on the bed.
Slowly Fukitso approached the statue, studying it up and down with an almost superstitious intensity. His gaze fixed on the face--and a frightful suspicion began to stir in his brain. That face--it was more than just a replica of Migoti's beautiful features. There was horror written on that countenance, stark, soul-searing fear such as no sculptor could ever have placed there.
"What has happened?" Almaz asked fretfully, standing well back by the door. "Is that a statue? Or is that..." Her voice trailed off.
Fukitso knelt and placed an ear to the statue's smoothly gleaming breast. For a moment, he listened. Then, with a muttered curse, he straightened and lurched back, his features now dark with rage.
"I can hear her heart pounding like a kundu drum," he said. "That's her inside there, trapped in that shell of steel. She's terrified and I don't blame her."
"But how?" sobbed Almaz, wringing her hands against her throat. "How did this happen? I saw her only moments ago."
The Ronin studied Migoti in silence, pondering. From the doorway, the lascar fatalistically ventured: "It is the monster, effendi. It has killed your friend just as it killed Abdul and Melkas. Just as it will kill us all...in the end."
Fukitso slowly shook his topknotted head. "No--I don't think the creature, whatever it is, had anything to do with this. This is something else."
He regarded the upraised Shogun, his weird eyes narrow with thought. There was a clue there, he felt certain of it. What had she been trying to do in those final moments? Before the steel encased her? Trying to cut off her right arm? But why?
His gaze dropped to the outstetched limb on the bed. He grunted as he noticed the golden bracelet which encircled the slender wrist. The bracelet rose slightly above the steel casing, but was fixed into the metal as if the steel had flowed around it while molten. Around it...or from it...
"That bracelet," Fukitso asked sharply; "where did she get it?"
Almaz took one timid step forward and closely regarded the bracelet. "I saw she had it when she went into the cabin. I don't know where she found it, but I assumed she had had it all along."
"No," the Ronin disagreed. "I would have noticed it if she'd been wearing it when I went down into the hold. She picked it up somewhere since then."
All at once, Almaz gasped with sudden dawning comprehension. "I remember now! When we were in the undergound cavern, when we saw that robed figure with the giant striped cats--he tossed something onto the deck of the ship, near the bow. I forgot all about it!"
Fukitso cursed under his breath. "I might have known--those damn priest friends of yours. What does it take to put them behind us?"
He studied Migoti a moment longer, thinking, then slowly nodded. "It's damn clever of them, though, I'll give them that." Then, to Almaz's puzzled look, he explained: "That bracelet was obviously meant for your pretty little wrist. They figured if you were encased in steel you couldn't outrun them. Like a sort of leg-hold trap, I guess, but less destructive. I think they want you back alive and whole, and this was one way of doing it."
"That was meant for me?" Guilt quivered in the bronze girl's throat. "But Migoti found it first. Then this is all my fault. Oh, poor Migoti!"
Fukitso was grim. "'Poor Migoti' is right. This thing isn't meant to kill her--you can see she can breathe through a hole over the lips--but she'll die just the same if we don't get her out of there. She'll die for lack of food and water. Obviously, the priests have some way of freeing her, but we can't very well ask them for help, can we."
Even in the Ronin's smoldering tone there was little hint of the real rage he felt at seeing Migoti caught in that hellish trap. He had known the golden girl for many years, ever since that first encounter when, high in the windy pass of the Jebel Harami, they had battled blade to blade, Ginago against Shogun--the outcome remaining hotly contested to the present day.
Though they had argued often enough since then, and always seemed to find one reason or another to go their separate ways, still there was a bond between them which neither was prepared to acknowledge. Migoti was as fearless a warrior as Fukitso had ever met, her courage matched only by her splendid, glossy-limbed beauty. And yet, having listened to the frantic thundering of her brave heart, Fukitso knew she was afraid now. He knew she was knowing terror as few could imagine, encased in that suffocating shell of steel, unable to move so much as a muscle, barely able to breathe except in small sips taken through the tiny hole over the frozen lips...
And he was helpless to free her.
While the afternoon wore on and the sun melted like liquid ruby into the distant eastern horizon, he sat on the side of the bed, chin on fist, broodingly studying that gleaming steel shape. Eventually, he told Almaz and the remaining lascar, Hassein, what he had discovered in the ship's hold.
He described the iron crate with its massive rusted chains, obviously meant to contain something very powerful and very dangerous. And he told them about the hole in the side of the crate through which the monster had obviously escaped sometime during the wild ride down the underground river. Now that monster was loose on the ship--but what that creature might be, Fukitso could not guess.
It was probably as large as a man, to judge by the size of the crate--but why then had Fukitso seen no sign of it when he searched the two holds? The holds were not so large as to offer concealment for something so huge, not from the keen eyes of the Ronin. And yet, Fukitso had found nothing. It was yet one more mystery to baffle his already confounded brain.
It was Almaz who discovered at least another piece to the puzzle.
If the Ronin felt rage at his own helplessness, Almaz felt awful guilt to think that Migoti had fallen into a trap laid for herself. Like the Ronin, she kept a steady vigil, watching over Migoti, hour after hour, her lustrous eyes teary and aching with anguished sympathy. At some point in the night, she found herself drousily fingering through the papers and charts on the heavy wooden desk, and so happened upon papers marked with strange drawings. The crude illustrations seemed to depict some sort of fiery meteorite crashing to earth in the midst of lush, tropical jungle. Then out of the smoking ruins of the meteorite shambled... something.
The artist seemed oddly reluctant to detail the monster, showing it only as a vague dark mound, half-hidden by the fronds and vines of the jungle setting. Further illustrations told the rest of the frightful tale. The monster was depicted carrying off its screaming victims, snatched from their very huts, men, women and children. Bodies were found by searchers, grotesque heaps of savaged corpses, hideously torn. A trap was laid, the beast was caught in a huge iron crate, the crate was placed in the hold of a ship--and finally the ship itself was winched and warped up the long, underground river, there to be entombed...supposedly forever.
When Fukitso saw the illustrations, he merely grunted, as if it was only as he had expected. But Almaz sensed that, behind those blind-seeming eyes, he was hiding something. Not fear, for she doubted that the Ronin knew the meaning of real fear. But those drawings had served to shake him just a little. At an earlier time, he had told her he feared nothing of this earth. But this thing, whatever it was, was decidedly not of this earth. It was from the stars.
How could he not wonder if even the mighty Ginago could defeat such a beast?
Eventually, in spite of Almaz's determined efforts, she fell asleep curled on the bed with her dark head nestled against Fukitso's hip. Near midnight, a storm began to gather in the darkness outside, ominous ebony clouds that thickly blotted out the light of the two moons and stars.
The wind rose with fearful speed, building quickly to a wild, howling gale that swept debris overside and caused the walls to shudder and groan with the fast, buffeting gusts. The waves too began to surge over the gunwales, washing the deck with sheets of salty foam, too much finding its way down into the black hold, and the ship itself tossed and rolled in the heaving swells.
And then lightning--fiery, dazzling bursts of blue-white flame that lashed and danced, leaped and swerved, all to the music of sharp, crashing, cacophonous thunder.
To Fukitso, there was something foreboding in the sudden maelstrom. It was as if, in the flashing storm was reflected the nightmare being played out aboard the ship below--as if events were rushing headlong toward a terrible climax.
Still seated on the side of the bed, a momentary thought entered the Ronin's head. It was only a brief fancy, flitting a moment through his brain and then gone a second later.
Why an iron crate? he wondered. Why not a cage to keep the monster contained?
And then the thought was gone, as if swept away by the screaming wind--replaced by another, more pertinent to the situation.
For the first time, the Ronin noticed delicately engraved hieroglyphics on the bracelet about Migoti's wrist. The markings were contained in a circular cartouche no larger than the Ronin's thumb. Seeing them, he felt a strange, dim stirring of familiarity. He had seen similar hieroglyphics somewhere before--but where?
Desperately, he racked his brain, struggling to recall where before he had encountered those same markings. Then, suddenly, he gave a savage shout and sprang up from the bed! Almaz awoke with a start, yelping in surprise. She looked at him in amazement, blinking confusedly.
"The ring!" he told her, raising his hand to display the trinket. "The ring I took off that priest in the Tower-- it has the same markings as that damn bracelet!"
Still, Almaz could only blink, uncomprehending. But Fukitso was not a man given to explanations--not when actions could speak louder than words.
Bending over the steel-sheathed Migoti, he made a fist and pressed the ring to the cartouche on the bracelet. The effect was instantaneous. In seconds, the steel began to recede, flowing like quick silver, slipping off the golden curves and glossy contours of the golden girl's supple shape with seemingly mocking ease. Soon, only her right arm remained encased, and then the steel retreated from that, too, trickling back into the bracelet like water swirling down a drain.
With a sob, Migoti dropped Shogun, hurled off the bracelet, and threw herself into the Ronin's powerful arms, her whole slim body shuddering, her limbs and torso molded with white gleams of sweat. Her head pressed desperately against his chest, her face buried deep in the grey fabric of his kimono.
She breathed pantingly, her fists clenched together against her throbbing chest. Fukitso held her tightly, gently stroking her dark head--knowing she would regret this show of weakness later on, but also knowing he didn't care. For the moment, she needed his strength, and to Gehenna with her stubborn pride.
After a moment, he caught Almaz's amazed eyes, and a wry grin tugged at his lips.
"Well, at least one thing worked out," he muttered. "I guess it was a good thing I took that ring, after all. And to think I was going to throw it overboard. Strange, but somehow I knew that it would come in hand--"
He was interrupted as the cabin door flew open and Hassein staggered in off the storm-washed deck. Lightning flickered in the threshold. The lascar's features were ashen, his eyes almost starting from his head.
With the door still open, over the howling gale and roaring thunder, he cried: "The corpses, effendi! Come see what has happened to the corpses!"
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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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