BY JEFFREY BLAIR LATTA
It was sheer madness to attack the thing in the pitch black, but Fukitso knew he had no choice. For a precious moment, he knew approximately where the thing was. That chance might not come again. He had to seize the opportunity, trusting to his instincts -- and trusting to the preternatural edge of Ginago.
Blindly, he lashed out -- and felt the Silver Jaw shudder in his hands as the blade bit deep into a mass cloaked in darkness. Something screamed shrilly, in pain, the sound made deafening in the close quarters of the hold. Ginago was nearly jerked from his fists as the monster pulled frantically away. He felt something long and ropey snake past his face, then another, and another.
Suddenly the darkness seemed alive with horrible, writhing tentacles. They battered him with powerfully stinging blows, knocking him this way and that, some as thin as whips, others a thick as fists. He lashed out again, left, then right, feeling the blade cleave the slithering members -- but there were too many of them. Doji's fire! They were everywhere!
Then, suddenly, there was a deafening crash of thunder, a sound so loud and so near it dashed the sense from the Ronin's brain and sent him staggering back!
A momentary flash lit the hold as the deck above exploded into flame, throwing everything below into stark relief. For an instant, he saw the creature clearly, a great misshapen mass of countless loathsome tentacles, without form or body, without a head or limbs. And even as he reeled back before the concussion, he realized why he had been unable to locate the creature in the hold. It was virtually indistinguishable from the heaps of cordage.
And then the ceiling was caving in. Boards smoking and shattered by a bolt of lightning tumbled wildly down into the hold. And amidst the falling debris, Fukitso caught a glimpse of slim bronze limbs twisting frantically.
It was Almaz, plunging full atop the monster!
He heard her scream in mindless terror -- even as darkness again closed in. The Ronin shook his head, his eyes struggling to recover from the blinding flash. In the dark, a great, slithering mass surged past him, nearly bowling him over even as he sought to regain his feet. A moment later, from out of the shadowed distance, another scream reached out to him, a wretched wail of despair, steadily dwindling.
He bounded to his feet amidst the wreckage, shaking his head to clear the cobwebs from his brain. Lighting played on his bald scalp through the massive hole overhead. A glance up showed him Migoti, staring down through the blasted deck, emerald eyes wide in amazement.
She was lit by a flickering orange glow and dimly the Ronin realized that that lightning strike had set the ship afire. A burning brand fell in a shower of sparks almost at his feet. But there was no time to worry about the fire.
"I'm going after her," he called up, snatching up the flaming brand.
"Wait," Migoti countered. "I have an idea. I think I know how to stop that thing."
But Fukitso was already bounding off into the darkness, torch in hand, headed for the ladder near the stern bulkhead.
He battered his way through the cluttered cargo, mindless of the edges that struck his legs, knowing only that Almaz was somewhere in the lower hold below, trapped in the writhing grip of that appalling horror from the stars -- knowing only that she needed him.
He reached the ladder, guided by the roaring torch in his fist, and clambered down, then spun at the base. The veering flame revealed nothing but a jumble of broken crates fading dismally into shadow, but through that clutter a path had been blasted by the creature's shambling passage.
With a snarl, the Ronin sprang after.
He had no idea what he would do once he caught up with the thing. His last encounter had not gone well; if not for that bolt of lightning, he would already be dead. But he knew that every second wasted in thought was another second in which the creature might ravage Almaz's soft, young body. That is, if she was not already dead...
But no -- another scream sounded out of the darkness, an anguished cry shivering with unimaginable horror. A moment later, the Ronin staggered to a halt as his torch breathed light over a scene out nightmare.
The monster had returned to the only home it had known for perhaps centuries -- the iron crate. It reared out of the darkness, a writhing heap of snake-like cords, a titanic bulk of repulsive tentacles, each tentacle tipped by a blackly glinting barb. And in amongst that gruesome mass, Almaz's slim, bronze body struggled and strained, her supple beauty contasting bizarrely with the monster's repellent shape.
For a moment, as the Ronin looked on, the girl's eyes met his, and he saw a flicker of hope kindle in her glimmering gaze. He didn't hesitate, but dropped the torch and sprang at the monster with a roar like a samadhi.
Ginago struck in a screaming metal-bright arc that lopped off a half-dozen tentacles at once. The Ronin didn't pause but pressed his attack with berserk, mindless fury, lashing left and right, hacking tentacle after tentacle, filling the air with a grisly scarlet mist, heaping the boards with a ghastly twitching carnage -- but it still wasn't enough.
There were simply too many of them. The very air seemed to writhe and twist. All around him the tentacles churned, baffling him by their numbers.
And then, with blinding speed, a sharp barb thrust out, impaling his shoulder and hurling him back against a post. The impact penetrated right through his shoulder and deep into the wood behind, pinning him there. He hardly noticed the pain, but snarled with savage frustration as he sought in vain to drag the tentacle from his flesh.
He had dropped Ginago, and now jerked the smaller Kyodai from its scabbard at his waist. But before he could land a blow, as if sensing his intent, a second tentacle thrust out, like a hurled spear. The barb just missed his arm, but the glancing blow knocked the wakizashi from his fist. It whirled into the flames now spreading amongst the cargo from the dropped torch.
Thick, billowing smoke was rapidly filling the air, making it difficult to breathe. In the haze, Almaz screamed again, a cry of pain that caused the Ronin's blood to boil -- but there was nothing he could do. He was stuck to the post, stuck tight, unable to pull free or to work the tentacle from his flesh...
Then, something flashed before his eyes, a silvery flicker that passed so close he felt a breath of air brush his face!
The tentacle fell away, severed a hand's width beyond his shoulder, leaving the end still stuck in his thews. Setting his teeth, he heaved away from the post, feeling the end of the tentacle slide painfully out his back, then turned to find Migoti standing there, her sword Shogun brightly echoing the leaping heat of the flames.
He wasted no time thanking his gold-skinned companion, but snatched up Ginago, and whirled back to the star-beast, ready again to spring to the attack.
"Wait!" Migoti's cry caught him just as he tensed to leap.
Still crouched, he glanced over his shoulder. She held something in her left hand, something that glittered and gleamed with gold. It was the bracelet which only a short while before had encircled her own trim wrist.
For a heartbeat, Fukitso didn't understand; his brain was too thoroughly occupied by the task of slaughter. But then, in a flash, he saw what she intended and his lips curled in a furious snarl-like grin.
"It's worth a try," he told her.
He turned back to the monster, now nearly hidden in the roiling clouds of smoke. Tentacles continued to thrust out of the haze. The Ronin slid Ginago back into the scabbard at his back, and grabbed randomly, catching a tentacle and grappling with it. It was not very thick, but, even so, it was like fighting a python. The whole thing seemed woven of steel cables.
"Quick, girl!" Fukitso shouted. "I can't hold it very long!"
But Migoti was already moving. She threaded the bracelet over the black-barbed tip and onto the flexing tentacle. Barely was it on than the member leaped from the Ronin's grip, hurling him back and almost into a flaming crate. Knocked to his knees, Fukitso bounded up again, Ginago again flashing in his fists.
For a moment, he lost sight of the bracelet as the tentacle retreated into the curling smoke, then it flashed into view again. Nothing had changed. How long might it take for the bracelet to react? With the spreading fire, did they have time to wait? Then, too, perhaps the bracelet might not work on a creature from the stars...
But, no -- suddenly, the gleam of steel shone amongst the tangled mass of tentacles. It spread like liquid silver, in seconds covering a dozen tentacles, freezing them to solid immobility.
The creature cried out with a shrill scream of animal rage. Soon, more and more tentacles were encased by the racing steel sheath. The boards underfoot began to creak and groan under the increasing load. Abruptly, Almaz tumbled out of the smoke, landing sprawled almost at Fukitso's sandaled feet. Her scarlet sari hung in tatters revealing the smooth brown of her trembling body. A frosty spray of water erupted from a ruptured seam in the hull -- then another, and another. In seconds, Fuktiso found himself up to his knees in swirling black water.
"We have to get out of here!" Migoti shouted over the screaming of the monster. "The ship is sinking!"
"Get going!" the Ronin replied, recovering Kyodai from under the bubbling foam. "I'll carry the girl."
He snatched up Almaz in his arms and followed Migoti through a nightmare of flaming crates bobbing on swirling ebony water. Climbing up to the upper hold, he found more fire, a veritable furnace that seared his lungs and blistered his skin. Somehow they made it through and up the companionway to the deck -- but here too there was fire. The whole deck was alive with roaring, leaping flame.
"We don't have any choice," Fukitso shouted. "We'll have to swim for it."
"Swim?" Migoti shouted back. "Swim where?"
The fire had them trapped with only the gunwale at their backs. Slowly, implacably, the blazing ring closed in, forcing them steadily back to the rail. Fukitso glanced over the gunwale and down into the sea. The storm was still at its height and the waves burst in white clouds against the curve of the hull.
Then, for a moment, through that frosty spray, Fukitso spotted a pale blur -- and shouted in disbelief!
"The lascars' boat! It's still hooked on with grapples!" Barely were the words out of his mouth than the Ronin bounded over the rail with Almaz in his arms.
He plunged down into the thundering waves, surfacing a moment later just in time to see the splash as Migoti hit the water beside him. He struck out for the pinnace using one arm, the other holding Almaz. The lunging waves threatened to dash him against the hull, but somehow he reached the boat and, heaving the girl over the gunwale, surged up and over beside her.
Seconds later, he reached out and dragged Migoti, glittering wet, into the boat with them. The Ronin drew Kyodai and hacked away the lines. Instantly, the angry sea hurled them away from the burning ship on the crest of a curling wave. Farther and farther they were carried, under a flickering sky, until the fire showed only as a distant dull glow like a coal sinking down into murky water -- and then even that faded into the darkness.
Almaz had finally woken from her swoon, and now stared fretfully into the bellowing storm, her glossy hair webbed to her smooth shoulders. For a time, after the burning ship had vanished, she was silent, her features shadowed pensively. Finally, out of the quiet, she spoke in a voice tense with fearful apprehension.
"Is it dead?" she asked the Ronin beside her.
He shrugged his broad shoulders in a strangely careless gesture. "Who knows. Between the fire, a sinking ship and that bracelet..." He shook his bald head. "I'd say nothing could survive all that, but, then again, that thing somehow survived all those years locked in that iron crate. It wasn't from this world. Maybe it can survive this, too." He gave a hardy laugh. "If it does, it will spend eternity on the bottom of the sea. I don't think it will bother anyone again!"
"Shh! Listen!" Migoti's hiss brought instant silence. The golden girl was only a dimly gleaming shape in the darkness, but, even so, Almaz could see that Migoti was tense, her sharp ears straining. "Do you hear that?"
Try as she might, Almaz could hear nothing, but the Ronin nodded, his strange, nearly-white eyes searching the darkness ahead.
"Breakers," he said. "There's land out there."
"And getting closer," Migoti added.
Soon, even Almaz could hear the thundering of waves against a rocky shore. She saw looks of concern darken her companions' eyes.
Then, without warning, a huge wave lifted the pinnace high into the air! For a breathless moment, Almaz could see cliffs as dark brooding shadows looming hauntingly out of the blue-black of the night. She heard the Ronin shout and felt a powerful arm seize her about the waist -- and then the pinnace overturned, plunging them all into the churning, crashing sea...
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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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