BY JEFFREY BLAIR LATTA
He laughed a low bestial cough of triumph as his muscles rose in twisting cables beneath his glistening hide. His teeth ground blood from his gums. Incredibly, his barbaric thews proved capable of holding him against the furious pull of the tentacles, however temporarily.
Yet, in that titan's battle of man against monster, it was the field which proved the traitor. Slowly, the rock was torn from its bed, ploughing the earth to either side. Fukitso bellowed an angry roar of frustration as the stone came free, his fingers sliding slickly from its surface and he again found himself a powerless prisoner of the hungry monster.
Now the shear force of his frustration gave the Ronin the strength to twist in the coils until he faced that awful organic cave that housed the creature's ravenous beak. Yusuf's spear still stood out of one of the confining tentacles, and Fukitso grabbed the shaft and tore the weapon free.
In this remained his only hope.
He drew back his throwing arm. A stray beam of sunlight -- a rare thing in this unhallowed place -- exploded brilliantly off the heavy blade of the spear. He did not pray to Doji, nor to any other god, because it was not his way. If he lived, it would be by the deeds of his own thews. But he spared a breath to lay a dark curse upon the creature -- and let the spear fly with all the strength in his body and all the skill of his Samurai training.
The lance whistled shrilly through the intervening air, effortlessly piercing the mist like a gossamer veil. With equal ease, it tore brutally through the creature's unblinking right eye. It pierced the scarlet-lined lens, entered the black pupil and, passed through the soft tissues beyond until only a quarter of the spear stood out.
Around the shaft gushed green, black and yellow fluids -- gruesome evidence of the weapon's success. For, somewhere in that mountain of heaving bestial flesh, the bronze point had transfixed the tiny brain and the monster died without a sound.
Yet, in its death throes it proved perhaps more dangerous than in life. Fukitso was instantly thrown aside by the spastic convulsions of its mighty tentacles. He surged to his feet and staggered to the cliff face as the giant members twisted and writhed convulsively around him, dashing massive branches from the surrounding trees and exploding great sods of humus from the earth.
Then with awesome slowness, the creature's gargantuan corpse rolled backward, revealing its pink-black underbelly and the hideous beak still mindlessly clacking, and it tumbled into the swamp dragging its thrashing limbs behind. The black waters of the swamp rolled away to accommodate the great mass, then rushed back in an explosive spray of putrid rot, burying the corpse like the earth of a grave.
Fukitso retrieved both his swords even before the waters had settled. Kneeling beside Yusuf, he saw that the man, incredibly, was still alive, through his body had been half-crushed in his attempt to rescue his unexpected ally.
The ruffian stared up at the Ronin and tried to speak, but found he could not. Then his eyes glazed over, a shudder ran through his mangled form and he lay still.
Fukitso felt no great sorrow at his passing. That the man had tried to save him had only been natural under the circumstances. If the monster had not killed Yusuf, Fukitso would have.
The Ronin rose to his feet and started for the cave entrance. Logically there was nothing he could do for Almaz. She would already have reached the insects in their lair. But it was not logic that drove Fukitso. And he could not leave this place without having tried to save her...
But even as Fukitso made to enter the midnight cave, he paused suddenly, then drew back, brandishing his katana warily. From the depths of the tunnel...
They echoed hollowly out of the dark distance, quick with desperate flight. Closer and closer they approached, until even the breathless panting of their maker reached the keen ears of the Ronin.
Then, out of the dismal dark staggered Almaz, her slim brown arms outstretched as if in frantic supplication. With a shuddering sob, she hurled herself into the arms of her protector. For a moment, Fukitso held her tight against his broad chest. In that moment, he discovered, not without a certain wry amusment, that he drew comfort from the contact of her warm and supple flesh.
Then, he pushed her gently away, and uptilted her delicate chin with one finger of his free hand. Her wide eyes sparkled with tears but she bit hard upon the ruby arch of her lower lip to stifle her weeping.
"Girl?" queried the Ronin. "What happened in there?"
"Al zet pr-protected me," she responded in a fearful quaver. "Bu-bu-but Ghaffar--"
With a startled oath, Fukitso swept her to his back, and again he raised his sword to the granite maw -- for now his ears detected another sound.
Someone else walked in that tunnel of death -- someone who moved with slow faltering steps. A chill shiver passed between the Ronin's rolling shoulders. Surely, Jadbar could not be alive!
He fell back farther, still keeping himself between the girl and whatever might emerge. But now she too heard the strange, staggering footfalls, and her curiosity overpowered her fear. Hesitantly, she peered around her companion's brawny arm -- and so saw a sight which nearly pushed her young mind to the very brink of insanity.
She screamed shrilly with horror. Even Fukitso blenched a sickly pale and cursed beneath his breath.
Stamina was the thing Ghaffar possessed above all else. Alone in the jungle, he had survived the hunger and the thirst where most others would have perished long since. Then, captured and tortured by the Jakaro headhunters, he had survived that, as well -- in body if not in mind. But stamina can also be a curse. In Ghaffar's case, he was well and truly damned.
In the unsure gloom of the glade much was mercifully hidden from the two observers. But they saw enough. What staggered from the tunnel mouth was not, properly speaking, a man. At least, the man himself was not visible. Instead, what passed within arm's reach of Fukitso was a seething, whining, crimson and black mass of kajikuro.
Among them, the feeding swarm of insects formed a gruesome parody of the struggling form beneath. Two thick stumplike arms waved sluggishly at the sides. The barrel legs, distinct only below the knees, left a trail of scarlet gore. A hideous lopsided clump engulfed the head and rolled sickly from side to side with each drunken step. The fearful form shed boiling clots which burst into angry swarming clouds on contact with the earth.
It was a sight from nightmare and even Fukitso felt the cold hand of horror claw his chest.
Across the glade, in terrible silence, the grisly mass staggered, to the very edge of the black swamp. For a moment it struggled in a final futile bid to rid itself of its ravenous garment. Then, mercifully, it tumbled backward into the stagnant waters and was instantly swallowed from sight.
They crossed over the roaring white waters of the Nyaslan on a swinging hemp bridge, creaking and perilous with age, long left unattended by its original architects -- if indeed they still lived. Then, on again for another day, until at last the grim black cone of Mount Shimir reared mightily ahead, stark and terrible against the porcelain sky.
As night cast its pall upon the world, the two weary adventurers stopped to sleep in a glade softly bathed by the tangarine glow of the two crescent moons. The Ronin built a fire which quickly fought back the dismal darkness with bright, cheering bursts of sparks.
Then, at last, out of a long pensive silence, Almaz spoke in a quiet, wondering voice.
"Why did you leave the treasure behind?"
The Ronin had just settled on a hollow log on the other side of the fire. Again garbed in his black kimono and kataginu overmantle, he seemed but one shadow among many, a frightening apparation, a haunting djinni lurking on the edge of flickering light. Almaz saw the shadow shrug in a dismissive gesture and a low grunt reached her ears over the crackling of the flames.
She was silent for a space, then, tentatively: "Was it because I asked you to?"
This time the Ronin laughed, a fierce feral rumble rolling suddenly out of the dark. "You value yourself too highly, girl," he chuckled harshly. "Do you think, after all I had gone through, I would have given up that treasure just because you asked me to! Baka!"
"But, then, why?"
"How was I supposed to get the treasure out of there and past the kajikuro, eh? Did you think about that? I told Ghaffar the truth when I said we couldn't carry it. Hai, it burned me to have to leave it behind, but I didn't have any choice, did I? Sultan Alkhar Shan knew what he was doing when he made that tomb. That treasure will sit there until the end of time."
Almaz knew that his explanation made sense, but, just the same...
Perhaps it was the fact that, for once, she could not see his strange, blind-seeming eyes, his eyes which so perfectly deceived, masking his own emotions even as they laid bare the thoughts of others. But, somehow, in that moment, she knew he was lying. He would have found a way to bring the treasure out, she was sure of it. He who had rescued her from the very stronghold of the Tiger religion, he who had saved her from the clutches of the ghastly pishacas under Fakhd al Houri, he who had destroyed a writhing monstrosity from the stars -- he would have found a way.
Instead he had left it all behind. And that knowledge filled her breast with a strange, powerful thrill.
Without another word, she settled wearily on a bed made of leaves and moss. That night, for the first time in so long she could not remember, Almaz slept soundly and without nightmares.
Fukitso watched the girl with his weird-eyed gaze as she lay upon the bare moss and leaves. Her supple brown flesh shone gently with the celestial light and velvet shadows caressed her body like other-worldly hands. After a time, he grunted again, almost like a laugh of self-deprecation, then drifted his eyes back to the dancing flames and settled down for a long sleepless night.
In the morning, they set out once more. Where were they headed? Neither of them could have said. Wherever their path took them, it had to be preferable to those places they had left behind.
By midday, they had reached the foothills of Mount Shimir. The terrain became more difficult, transforming into a daunting jumble of granite outcrops cloven here and there by slim, knife-edge passes, a stony wilderness of slopes and ridges, ravines and drops. Carefully, they picked their way amongst the brooding broken crags, slowly but steadily working higher and higher, finding their way along perilous trails where a single misstep would spell instant doom.
All at once, the way opened out onto a broad stone shelf. The wind blew with a constant, dismal moan and the sun beat down with a draining heat. Almaz was exhausted by the long hard trek, and her slender limbs seemed weighted with thick iron chains.
So it was that she had fallen some distance behind and Fukitso was first onto the wide open shelf. By the time she reached it, the Ronin was nearly across to the opposite side where a rough pass in the cliff face revealed another pathway. She saw him pause before entering the pass and he turned to await her.
She raised a weary hand to wave -- then froze. Her dark eyes dilated with sudden horror and a wretched cry surged from her lips.
Out of the pass appeared three black-robed figures...
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Stalkers of the Tiger's Bride copyright 1999, by Jeffrey Blair Latta.
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