BY JEFFREY BLAIR LATTA
The golden girl's lithe, trembling figure still lay against him, her shuddering only slowly beginning to subside as she drew desperate strength from his strong embrace. Gradually, her panting eased and her damp flesh grew quiet, and she lifted her head, raising her glittering emerald eyes to regard the Ronin with a confused, searching stare.
Fukitso looked down into her beautiful upturned face, and, for a moment, Almaz thought something passed between them -- something quick and fleeting as a spark struck off steel. And, watching, she felt a momentary pang of jealousy. They were so different, those two warriors -- the brawny, dark-featured Ronin; the supple, gold-skinned girl -- and yet, not so different, after all.
Almaz knew nothing of their history, of the many adventures which they had been through together. But the look in their eyes told her everything. There were depths to their relationship of which even they were not aware. Almaz swallowed tightly and bit her lip in despair.
Then, with a fast intake of breath, Migoti shoved away from her giant comforter as sharply as if he were a red hot stone. She turned quickly away, her eyes searching over the bed until she found her dropped katana. Fukitso followed her with a grim expression hardening his features, his nearly-white eyes still hot with the embers of the fire which had burned there only a heartbeat before.
Migoti reached for her blade, but paused as her hand shook with a palsied trembling. The Ronin grunted and moved to fetch Shogun for her -- but she hissed and batted his arm aside, then snatched up the katana in her own rigid fist.
The feel of her gleaming weapon seemed to soothe her shocked nerves and her fist was steady as she brandished the blade before her face. For a space, she studied its sheening length, curiously, turning it this way and that while the light rippled silkenly along the edge.
Then her eyes narrowed and, without turning, she muttered tightly: "We will never speak of this -- ever."
Fukitso was silent, his dark features inscrutable as carven stone. But it seemed no answer was expected of him. Migoti merely turned toward the lascar still standing in the open door and barked: "Well -- what has happened to the corpses?"
"Come see!" the lascar responded, gesturing into the flickering storm. "Please, come see what has happened!"
The four of them hurried out onto the windy deck. Instantly, Almaz was nearly carried off her feet by the howling gale, the reeling deck damp and slippery underfoot. She caught hold of Fukitso's wide-sleeved kimono and, with his help, made her way to the bow with the rest.
Frosty spray leaped in torrents over the bow, drenching them all with shocking cold before draining away through the scuppers. Lightning dazzled in the air overhead, and by its light they could see what it was had so unnerved the lascar.
The two corpses were still covered by a tarpaulin, but the canvas had been lifted to reveal a glimpse of what lay beneath. Even that small glimpse was enough to chill the bronze girl's blood.
Something had been eating the cadavers.
Chunks of flesh had been stripped from them revealing grisly white bones, their faces turned into hideous masses of red, glistening flesh and pale, staring skulls. Seeing the ghastly condition of the bodies, the four witnesses were momentarily speechless.
Then Fukitso shouted above the storm: "Why did you cover the bodies again?"
The lascar shook his head, his turban sagging damply over his frightened brow.
"I did not cover the bodies again, effendi. I found them like this but still beneath the tarpaulin. I merely lifted the corner so that you might see."
The Ronin looked back at the corpses and his eyes burned with sudden suspicion. But it was Migoti who voiced the thought in his head.
"Why would a creature cover the bodies after eating them?" she asked.
Fukitso nodded grimly. "Just what I was wondering. It doesn't make sense. Unless..."
Abruptly, he grabbed a corner of the tarpaulin and jerked it off the corpses. The wind caught the canvas and wrenched it out of his hand, sending it whirling away into the darkness. Almaz turned away with a horrified sob, made dizzy by the sight of those glistening, ravaged cadavers. When she turned back, she found Fukitso kneeling amongst the gruesome display, seemingly searching the deck beneath -- but searching for what?
Suddenly he gave a shout, apparently discovering whatever it was he sought near the hip of one corpse. Immediately, he grabbed the corpse's leg, lifting it with appalling unconcern, as if it were a piece of driftwood found on a beach, rather than a human limb nearly devoid of flesh. He studied the sole of the foot, where the tissue was still intact, then gave another shout.
Dropping the limb, he shot to his feet. Now his eyes cast about, blazing with a wild, hunted look, a look which bothered Almaz more than the corpses themselves. He seemed to be searching the deck -- but what was he searching for?
"What is it?" Migoti asked, her own dazzling eyes sweeping the deck, Shogun clenched in her spray-jewelled fists. "What did you find?"
"A hole." He drew Ginago from the scabbard on his back. Lightning played along the silvery blade. "There was a hole on the deck, a small one. And there was a wound in the sole of his foot."
He paused abruptly as his gaze fixed on something across the deck, near where the second lascar had died. Bounding over, he knelt, examined the deck, then shot to his feet.
"It comes through the deck!" he shouted, turning slowly with his blade held before him -- as if surrounded by a pack of barapurs. "That's why they kept it in an iron crate instead of in a cage with bars -- the thing can penetrate wood. It must have some sort of barbed tentacles. And that's how it killed those lascars without anyone seeing a thing and without leaving wounds -- it stabbed them through the soles of their feet!"
For a brief moment, Almaz couldn't quite make sense of what the Ronin was saying. A hole in the deck? In the soles of their feet? Barbed tentacles?
Then, in a breathless rush, she understood, and she gasped in frantic horror as her dark eyes flashed to the wooden boards under her slim bare feet. It could reach them through the deck! The monster could attack them anywhere on the ship! There was nowhere to hide! Nowhere!
The ghastly inevitability of the situation left her weak and dizzy, her brain spinning. What could they possibility do against such a creature? How could they hope to protect themselves? She felt an appalling sense of vulnerability. No longer did the presense of the Ronin and his gold-skinned companion offer comfort; there was nothing either of them could do to save her. Should the monster decide to kill her, it could take her any time it wished, in any part of the ship.
Her wide eyes continued to stare at the deck, the wood boards made suddenly sinister and fraught with deadly menace. She drew one slim leg up against the other, lifting the foot clear of the deck and standing on the other limb. It was a useless gesture, she knew, but instinctive nonetheless. The mere feel of those tarry boards against her naked feet sent a shiver of revulsion through her slender brown body. She wanted to spring over the gunwales and into the sea, to swim far, far away from his terrible monster-blighted craft.
It was Migoti who shouted suddenly, her voice barely carrying beneath a sudden deep-throated clap of thunder. Almaz looked up to see the girl gesturing with her katana toward the lascar, still near the bow. Fukitso too looked over, his expression questioning. Then, a series of lighting flashes strobed the scene, highlighting details in a grisly, flickering staccato.
At first Almaz could see nothing strange about the lascar, only that he stood oddly still. Then, in the dazzling light, his face was revealed and she saw his eyes were all white, rolled up in his head.
She exclaimed in horror, even as he slumped to the deck -- then her exclamation was choked in her throat, throttled by a numb, sickening fascination to see the thin, rope-like tentacle that hideously withdrew, blood-soaked, from the bottom of his foot.
It slithered like a snake, fully six feet of glistening member, the whole retreating down into the hold through a hole in the deck. Her mind reeled and spun, made giddy by the sudden realization that those six feet of tentacle must surely have reached the lascar's brain.
Fukitso too had watched the tentacle slither from the lascar's foot, but he had felt disgust more than horror, rage more than fear. The challenge posed by such an implacable foe served to fire the Samurai's blood in his veins, filling him with a surge of ferocious, unbridled savagery. Against this thing, he was as helpless as a newborn babe -- and if there was one thing Fukitso could not stomach, it was his own helplessness.
With a furious roar, he bounded to the companionway and sprang down into the darkness of the hold...
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Stalkers of the Tiger's Bride copyright 1999, by Jeffrey Blair Latta.
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