BY JEFFREY BLAIR LATTA
Almaz knelt at his feet. Her tormenter gripped her hair in one clenched fist ruthlessly twisting her head to the side. In his other hand, he held an ivory-handled khanjar dagger.
He pressed the tip fiercely to the line of her jaw just beneath the ear. A crimson thread trailed down her bronze throat to her shoulder. When she cried out, he laughed. It was a hideous, cackling sound that hinted at a terrible madness -- and even the three brawny henchmen who flanked him cast uneasy sidelong glances.
"Greetings, effendi," the madman nodded with mocking camaraderie. "I must admit, I didn't expect to find you here. And still with the slut! You are full of surprises, aren't you. For that matter, I thought you were long dead -- or so your friends told the tale in Sahara. It seems they underestimated you, didn't they. They thought you had perished beneath the city of Fakhd al Houri."
He laughed sharply, like a wild shout. "I suppose I should have known -- you could not be so easily killed, not after I had seen with my own eyes how you rescued the girl from the Tower of the Tiger."
His thin lips curled in a sudden snarl of vicious triumph. "But then, your fate was hardly of interest to me, was it? Not after I had taken the map from the fool who betrayed you."
At those words, it took no effort for Fukitso to piece together the story. Obviously Dahika Khan had made his way to Sahara with the map. One of his men must have talked, and Ghaffar, learning of the map, stole it from Dahika Khan. Was Dahika Khan dead, then? The Ronin could only hope.
Ghaffar continued, his recurved blade still touching the girl's shivering throat.
"You can imagine my astonishment when we reached this place only to discover your costume tossed in a bundle before the cave. Of course, I realized that somehow you had survived and found your way even without the map. And with that realization, I changed my plans. I had intended to enter the cave myself and, with these three henchmen, to face whatever it was killed Bahadur and the others. Instead, I decided to wait awhile to see if you returned. If there was anyone who might bring the treasure out of that place, I thought, surely it was the invincible Ronin who bested the Priests of the Tiger!"
His laughter rang on the misty air, and again his henchmen eyed him nervously. On her knees, Almaz shivered in fright, silvery tears squeezing from beneath her dark lashes. After a moment, the laughter died away and Ghaffar's sharp features grew suddenly puzzled.
"Ah, but you brought no treasure with you. Why? And why are you covered with this black substance? Speak!"
Almaz cried out in pain as the khanjar again jabbed her slim, brown throat.
Fukitso took in the situation. The distance was too great to rush the four and overwhelm them before this madman could use the blade on the girl. He had to move closer and to somehow separate the three henchmen from their leader. If he could accomplish that, he might quickly slay the madman, and then -- with the girl safe -- take his time with the others.
He started across the glade, katana down, hopeful that their advantage in numbers would make them careless. But he had only traversed half the distance when Almaz screamed again. Fukitso stopped in his tracks, recognizing the futility of direct action. Yet, perhaps, there was another way...
"Hai -- we found the treasure," he nodded. "Great mountains of the stuff. The wealth in fact of a kingdom -- just like the legends said."
The eyes of the madman smoldered with a ravenous light -- the fires of greed. Fukitso pressed on, gratified by the reaction.
"It was too much for one man to carry, so we came back out to build a sled. We had to wade waist-deep in this black stuff to reached the treasure."
"And the monster?"
"The monster? Hah! It was a...cave dughur. In Dos Yamura, we fought them for sport. I slew it with my wakizashi."
Ghaffar cocked his turbaned head to one side, his eyes narrow and suspicious. But after a moment he nodded and smiled a thin, crafty grin.
Fukitso's dark features were as unreadable as carven granite. Nothing in his strange blind-seeming eyes gave hint of his lie. They might have been fashioned of ivory for all they revealed his thoughts. Perhaps this was why Ghaffar believed him. Or perhaps it was because the man could never in his worst nightmares have imagined the terrible truth. More likely though Ghaffar believed the Ronin because he wanted to believe him. He had given too much, even unto his very sanity, to turn back now.
But he was no fool.
"Your swords. Throw them here. Now!"
Fukitso hesitated. Almaz whimpered and a crimson drop traced another path down her pulsing throat. Frustrated, the Ronin tossed the mighty Ginago to the moss, then Kyodai beside it.
"Yusuf -- take them and guard his back!"
A sullen henchman stepped forward, retrieved the two swords and made his way warily to Fukitso's back.
"Very good, Samurai. Very good. You know, I believe you when you say you slew this, uh, dughur. For all that you are a Ronin, I think you are an honourable man. But I never take chances. I shall go in there, but I am taking the girl with me."
Dragging her by the hair, Ghaffar forced Almaz to her feet, the dagger never wavering from her fragile skin.
"No," snarled Fukitso, taking one menacing step forward.
Instantly, the two henchmen flanking Ghaffar presented their long tulwars and Fukitso felt a third blade -- the head of a spear -- at the nape of his neck.
"What is this?" questioned Ghaffar, his suspicions instantly aroused. "If the monster is dead, why do you fear for her?"
Before the Ronin could think of a reply, Almaz spoke though teeth clench against the pain of the khanjar.
"I will go with you, Ghaffar. The monster is dead. I saw the Ronin slay it with my own eyes. He was simply worried about your friends. What if they kill him while you are gone?"
Ghaffar eased the pressure of the blade and considered this.
"No," he said finally. "I think not. I'm sure the Ronin was concerned for you. But perhaps he feared I would take advantage of you while we are alone in there. Eh? Was that it, effendi? Did you want the tender young slut all to yourself?"
Fukitso glowered darkly, but said nothing.
"Well, we'll just have to see, won't we," mused Ghaffar carelessly. "If that treasure is all you say, I could buy a thousand like her in the suq of Zanziam. Yet still, I find her strangely fetching bathed in this substance..."
Drawing his hand from her hair, he ran his palm slowly down her supple arm, from her round shoulder to her delicate wrist, his long fingers outspread as if in ecstasy. Almaz shuddered with revulsion. His voice was a purr.
"We will see, effendi -- we will see."
Without warning, Ghaffar gripped the girl's wrist and twisted it viciously behind her. She exclaimed as much in surprise as in pain.
"See that no harm comes to him," instructed Ghaffar to his henchmen, as he forced Almaz into the tunnel entrance. On the threshold, she fought him for a moment.
"Please. Please! Don't you recall, Ghaffar," she sobbed. "It was you who showed me mercy when Ahmed tortured me with his spear on this very spot."
"Aye," agreed her tormenter, with sardonic mirth. "The irony does not escape me."
Together they disappeared into the black mouth, where so many had gone before...
With feigned disinterest, he stepped to the cliff face and turned. At least now none lurked at his back.
He saw the one called Yusuf was the largest of the three -- though not so large as Fukitso. The man's black hair was bound at the back in a tail in the fashion of the northern tribes. He was naked to the waist, dressed only in baggy pantaloons and a cord belt in which he had thrust the Ronin's short sword, still in its scabbard. He carried a long, heavy-headed spear in one hand and Ginago in the other. The ease with which he bore the great katana one-handed denoted considerable strength.
The second henchman, though smaller than Yusuf, looked powerful nonetheless. He too was likely of the northern tribes. His hair was dishevelled and greasy, wrapped around with a ragged green turban. His brows overhung his wild eyes like a rock-ledge and a fiery red scar made a jagged line down the bridge of his nose and onto his cheek. He wore only a loincloth and a sash to support his scabbard. He held his tulwar with the confidence of a hired swordsman.
The third henchman was as tall as the scarred one but without the bulk. His lighter skin suggested a desert race, one of the nomadic tribes, as did his flowing white kaffiyeh head-cloth. He seemed unused to his tulwar, constantly shifting its weight in his hand.
Fukitso determined that this one was their weakest link. He would be first to die.
"What are you staring at?" challenged the scarred one, with a surly sneer.
Fukitso said nothing, because he did not hear the remark. Though his eyes gave no indication, his attention had been diverted -- and the situation had just changed dramatically.
"Quick! My sword! Give it to me!" he ordered.
"Your sword?" laughed Yusuf, brandishing the Silver Jaw menacingly. "You'll get your sword soon enough, effendi -- but not the way you wish!"
"Aye," nodded the kaffiyeh-clad one, with a chilling giggle. "Spit you like a worm!"
The scarred one grinned darkly.
"Don't be fools," growled Fukitso. "Look behind you."
Still laughing, thinking it was but a trick, they half-turned -- then gaped in disbelief.
From the black waters of the swamp climbed a creature out of nightmare.
A dozen or more thick, sinuous tentacles twisted and flopped on the glade floor, winding about the fungal boles and scraping deep furrows in the damp rotting humus. Each tentacle was a mass of loathsome red suckers that opened and closed like hungry lips and drooled a putrid green slime.
As the tentacles gained sufficient purchase, they dragged forth the floundering, cyclopean mass that was the creature's body. The waters of the swamp washed down its coarse grey-green hide in hissing sheets leaving behind clinging garlands of twisted black vegetation. It had two eyes, one on either side of its body, and each the size of a man. They were horrible, fluid lenses shot with angry red veins covering frightening black pupils that dilated and contracted as they adjusted to the light of the surface.
The three henchmen cried out as one and fell back to the cliff face.
"Now give me my sword!" repeated the Ronin.
But Yusuf still balked. He knew very well that with his sword this powerful Ronin could make short work of his captors.
"Baka! We'll need every blade to escape with our skins. Give me my sword or we're doomed. We can settle our differences later -- if we survive!"
Suddenly, the kaffiyeh-clad one let out a chilling shriek as one long tentacle wound about his waist and lifted him into the air. His tulwar fell from his grip as he was carried high above the glade, up and up among the overarching boughs. Another cry drifted down to the horrified party, a long howling wail -- abruptly cut short as the creature dashed its captive against the granite face of the cliff. A moment later the body tumbled to the earth, a red ruin of pulp and bone.
Yusuf stared at the remains of his comrade, his eyes wide with disbelief, his skin a sickly ashen. He turned to Fukitso.
"All right," he said, and returned Ginago to its master.
That this was the same creature the Ronin had fought in the subterranean river was revealed by the severed tentacle that writhed weakly at the water's edge. And, if he had bested it once, he could do so again.
He received Ginago not a moment too soon. A thin whip-like tentacle curled about his calf, and the suckers burned like molten lead even through the fabric of his hakama. With a single blow of the katana, he cut himself free, and the tentacle fell twisting and thrashing on the sward, a bilious green fluid pumping from the remaining member.
He dropped to his knees as another heavier tentacle swished over his head. His scar-faced ally was not so quick. The loathsome limb wrapped the stocky swordsman in its constricting coils, looping tight about his waist and neck. By a miracle, his sword arm remained free and he hacked into the grey flesh with all the grim fortitude of his calling. The sword was notched from past use and past success, but it had neither the edge nor the weight of Ginago. Though it carved fearsome gashes in the tentacle's coarse hide, the tenacious coils seemed unaffected.
Fukitso, seeing his ally's plight, sprang to his aid. The Silver Jaw roared and bit deep. A green froth bubbled thickly down the blade and the creature gave forth a deafening scream of agony. Dragging his weapon from the terrible wound, the Ronin raised the katana in both hands intent on completing the task with a single stroke.
But the creature had suffered the Silver Jaw's caress twice this day and, somewhere within its titanic bulk, a tiny brain the size of a man's fist decided that twice was twice too much.
A tentacle struck Fukitso like a battering ram, hurling him against the cliff face. The wind was blasted from his lungs, as he collapsed face down in the humus. Yet, though he retained his grip on his katana, there was nothing more he could do for the scarred one. The man gave a final defiant bellow as the coils constricted, effortlessly crushing the life from his body. Dark scarlet overflowed his open lips and trickled from his nostrils as his tulwar dropped from nerveless fingers to bury point foremost in the sod.
Then tentacles came at Fukitso from all directions. He staggered to his feet, hewing left and right with all the power of his thews, filling the air with green spray and chunks of torn flesh. But the tentacles seemed legion. They overpowered him and bound him in their crushing embrace. Ginago was struck from his fist, and flew out of reach.
Suddenly, Yusuf appeared, spear in hand. Throwing back his arm, he heaved the lance at the thickest of the tentacles which confined the Ronin. The gleaming head buried deep, so that the shaft stood out straight from the grey hide and even the furious rolling of the tentacle could not dislodge it.
Undaunted, Yusuf drew his tulwar -- but a massive tentacle fell upon him from above. He had time for but a single scream before he was crushed to the earth.
Now Fukitso alone remained and, without Ginago, he knew that it was only a matter of time before he too joined the others in death. Though the shaft of Yusuf's spear was within arm's reach, it seemed of little use against such a monster as this. Yet, once before had death seemed assured and Fukitso had bested the creature then. He was determined to fight until his last breath was drawn.
Growling like a wild beast, he was dragged inexorably across the glade, his fingers clawing long trails in the moss. Briefly, he cast a glance over his shoulder. He was being drawn toward the creature's titanic body. Even as he neared the loathsome bulk, a convulsion rolled across the thick grey hide and a portion arched up from the damp earth to form a sort of black cave beneath it.
Even had Fukitso not before faced this terrible fate, the calcareous clacking which exploded from that putrid darkness revealed all...
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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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