BY JEFFREY BLAIR LATTA
Instantly, the girl recognized the three fearful intruders -- and felt a paralyzing wave of helplessness. They were the same three who had captured her in the serai in Sahara, inhuman servants of the Priests of the Tiger!
Once again, the foremost figure carried a sack in which something writhed and thrashed in bitter fury, something which, even from so far away, could be heard to make weird animal noises, sounds of cats and dogs and snakes and birds. She remembered too well what that sack contained, and sobbed with the crushing weight of utter, hopeless despair. [See Book 1, Episode 3]
Then she heard another sound, a scattering of pebbles behind her, and a low feral huffing -- which too awoke terrible, frightfilled memories. Almost against her will, she slowly turned to look. This time she did not scream, but only whimpered weakly, tears spilling down her satiny cheeks.
Out of the pass through which she had just come appeared three orange and black striped cats, the same massive creatures which she had seen beneath the city of Fakhd al Houri. Again, the three strange beasts jerked and strained at their leashes, snarling savagely, held in check only by a single black-robed figure who followed just behind.
With leaden limbs, Almaz stumbled backward several steps, her head shaking from side to side in desperate negation. When! she cried in her mind. When will this nightmare ever end!
Dimly she realized how it was her stalkers had found her once more. In spite of her horror, she dropped her eyes just long enough to confirm -- the brand on her hip was no long covered with tar. The magic brand placed there by the Priest -- the Tiger's Eye -- had once more given her away.
From Sahara they had followed her to Fakhd al Houri, from there they had found her even on a ship in the open sea, and now here, trapped on a high windy ledge from which there could be no escape, none but a terrible drop a hundred feet to a horrible, shattering death...
He had had enough dealings with the Tiger priesthood to recognized their minions. He dropped into a crouch and brandished Ginago horizontally before his snarling face. For just a moment, he puzzled over how they had found him -- then remembered the brand on the girl's smooth hip, realizing it must have become uncovered. He cursed his own stupidity.
But there was no time to worry about that. He shot a glance over his shoulder -- and saw the three weird striped cats lunging against their leashes in the mouth of the other pass. Compared to those great snarling engines, the girl seemed a mere tiny trembling child.
In that moment, the Ronin had no plan, no idea how he could possibly rescue her, but he whirled nonetheless, and started across the shelf in a wild bounding rush, his blade raised high, a shout roaring from his drawn lips:
But even as Fukitso ran, the black-robed figure holding the cats' quivering leashes raised one hand and gestured imperiously. Two things happened almost at the same time.
Near the cringing girl, a pink and purple light began to appear in the air, a whirling howling vortex, like some otherworldly doorway -- which Fukitso instinctively guessed it to be.
Simultaneously, the air shivered with a deep-throated rumble as a vast chasm opened up in the middle of the shelf, stone and boulder plunging away into the deep black rift, leaving behind only a cloud of billowing yellow dust.
The Ronin was barely able to stop his rush on the very brink of the chasm, tottering a moment with pin-wheeling arms before reeling back with wide, disbelieving eyes. He stared, amazed. The rift lay between him and the girl, and was far too wide to cross even with the mightiest leap.
There was no way he could get to her.
Powerless to intervene, he could only watch as the black-robed figure casually released the leashes, freeing the three terrible cats. As one they hurtled forward, the air resounding with their furious roars. The girl screamed frantically, and staggered backward, hands before her face.
Fukitso could see that the cats were not trying to hurt her, merely to drive her toward the spinning vortex. And he could well imagine where that doorway must lead -- back to Sahara, back to the Tower of the Tiger, back to the altar room. If the girl once fell into that vortex, there would be nothing Fukitso could do. In an instant, she would be wisked away, far, far away, back to the terrible fate from which he had thought he had saved her.
Just then, the Ronin's thoughts were interrupted by a sound behind him. He spun, belatedly remembering the three other black-robed figures. But, to his surprise, he found they still stood clustered just in front of the pass. They had come no nearer. Their draped hoods concealed their features in shadow, but the Ronin felt an instinctive crawling revulsion as he gazed upon their strangely lanky forms.
For the first time, he noticed that the foremost figure carried a brown sack. Seeing that sack, the way it kicked and bulged with the struggles of its living contents, hearing the weird cacophony of animal sounds which issued muffled from within -- even the Ronin felt his blood chill and the wind seemed suddenly colder than only moments before.
His skin crawled.
The robed figure bent and set the sack gently on the ground, the mouth falling open. Fukitso had not been with Almaz in the serai when this same scene had been enacted before. Thus, it was with narrow and suspicious eyes that he watched as thick black smoke oozed slowly out of the sack, a dense slithering darkness which seemed even to swallow the light of the sun.
In seconds the smoke congealed, rearing up into a mound half again as tall as the giant Ronin. Fukitso grunted and fell back a step, recognizing that death lay in that impenetrable cloud.
The smoke began to move. It glided slowly across the intervening stone space, toward the Ronin, moving against the wind with obviously sentient guidance. The Ronin fell back another half dozen steps, but then stopped as he reached the edge of the shelf. A breathless drop lay at his heels. He was trapped.
Onward the smoke glided,
closer and closer still. Animal sounds continued to issue from within
it depths, roaring cats, shrieking birds, hissing snakes, growling hounds
-- and worst of all, wild, all-too-human laughter.
With a snarl, Fukitso lashed out -- but his katana merely passed harmlessly through the stuff as through any smoky cloud. He frowned, baffled, then reached out with one hand, testingly. He had barely touched the cloud when he snatched back his hand with a shout, the fingers torn and red with blood.
He eyed the mound with a new look, finally recognizing the weirdly improbable form his death was to take. Another man would have frozen at that point, or perhaps, seeing the futility of resistance, might have turned and thrown himself over the edge, preferring that death to the supernatural horror contained within that cloud. But Fukitso was not another man.
A low bestial snarl rose to his lips. He raised his gleaming katana two-handed before his dark features -- then, with a shout, sprang full into the very heart of the cloud.
Though the cloud was only slightly larger than the Ronin himself, Fukitso vanished into its depths as if into a black pool. Then, from within, came a sudden flurry of shrill animal cries and roars, screams and howls. The air seemed alive with the frightful din, as if a dozen animals were waging war all at once. And over the appalling noise rose the grisly butch-shop hacking of a keen blade again and again biting into dense living flesh.
Slowly the blackness of the cloud was transformed. A ghastly scarlet hue spread like a creeping miasma, turning darker and darker, until the whole mass seemed like a hideous clot of roiling blood. Bit by bit, the animal cries fell still, one by one, until at last one final scream rang suddenly on the air and then was choked off with a sharp metallic chuk!
That final scream had been human.
Instantly, the crimson cloud began to disperse, at last responding to the steady blowing of the wind. As it blew away, it slowly unveiled a fearful image, like a vision out of nightmare. The Ronin stood there tottering, his sword sheathed in trickling blood, his mighty chest rising and falling, his clothes in tatters revealing bronze thews laced with innumerable bloody wounds made by the claws and fangs, the beaks and suckers of countless animals.
For a moment, he posed thus, blinking against the blood that ran in his eyes. Then, a woman's scream roused him like a dash of ice water. He shook his bald head sharply, then looked toward where Almaz still cringed just on the brink of that whirling screaming threshold, still menaced by the three great striped cats.
In an instant, he knew what to do.
He bounded forward to the edge of the chasm. Even as he ran, he slipped the ring from off his finger, the ring which he had taken from one of the priests and which had previously saved the life of Migoti.
"Girl -- the ring!" he shouted, stopping on the edge of the crevasse.
In spite of her terror, Almaz looked up at his cry. Her eyes were deep pits of hopelessness.
"The ring!" he shouted again. "Put it on!" Drawing back his arm, he hurled the trinket across the wide rift, seeing it land in the dust at her tiny feet. For a moment, she hesitated. "Damn it, girl, do it!" His angry bellow woke her from her daze and she snatched up the ring and slipped it on her finger. Still, the three cats pressed closer, their fangs dripping saliva. "Show it to them!"
Fearfully, Almaz held out her trembling hand. The ring flashed in the sun like a yellow star. Instantly, two of the cats fell silent. Their heads dropped almost to the ground, their ears flattening. Then their sleek, powerful bodies settled low, cringing subserviently, as if chastened by a whip.
But not so the third cat.
For a moment, that creature looked at its two companions. It snarled with a strange almost-human fury. Then its blazing eyes shot back to the girl and, with a savage roar, it launched itself full at her small, helpless form. Fukitso saw that this was no attempt to drive the girl into the portal. Defeated in its aim, the cat now meant only to kill her.
But even as it leaped, the other two cats leaped, as well. Both landed atop the back of the other cat, bearing it to the ground only inches from the terrified girl. Briefly the three cats formed a writhing mass of screaming orange and black, a lashing, clawing mound half hidden by swirling dust.
Then, the two cats sprang away and the dust cleared to reveal, not the third cat, but a naked woman, her supple brown length appallingly mauled and streaming blood. Fukitso could only stare in amazement. In spite of her terrible wounds, the woman was still alive.
Slowly, with shivering arms, she began to drag herself toward the whirling portal. But, roaring again, the cats leaped upon her, her slender form instantly vanishing beneath their huge rolling shapes. From out of that mass came a single horrible scream, a woman's scream -- and then, together the two cats dragged their hideous repast into the vortex, leaving behind only a grisly trail of glistening scarlet.
Like a candle blown out by the wind, the vortex vanished. To his surprise, Fukitso found that the four black-robed figures had vanished, as well.
As had the massive chasm.
The Ronin muttered under his breath: "Another damn illusion -- I should have known."
Slightly limping, he went to the girl who had fallen to her knees, her face buried in her hands, her slim shoulders quaking. Gently, he raised her to her feet and folded her in his brawny arms.
"It's over now, girl. I think that's the end of those priests. I don't know who that woman was, but it looks like she must have been the one leading them."
Almaz slowly raised her dark eyes, glassy with tears. She didn't tell the Ronin what she knew about that woman, nor about the ancient god, Ti, whose corpse that woman, the priestess Zehabi, had meant to reanimate -- in which the sacrifice of Almaz was to have played a principle part. [See Book 1, Episode 6] She only knew that the Ronin was wrong. It wasn't over. Not yet.
Gathering her strength, the girl slipped from the Ronin's embrace and stepped to the edge of the shelf. He watched her with a puzzled frown. She drew the ring from her finger, held it a moment in her small fist, then hurled it far out over the abyss, as far as her fading strength could manage.
Now it was over.
When she returned to his arms, the Ronin commented with surprising cheer: "So, where shall we go now? Safe or not, I don't think you'd be welcome in Sahara."
Almaz nodded weakly. "I will go wherever you're going. I just want to be with you."
Fukitso eyed her in mild surprise. "And how do you know I will have you?"
She studied him a moment in silence. Then: "Won't you?"
For several seconds more, the mighty Ronin regarded her without speaking, his weird white eyes unreadable. Finally, with a wry grin, he knuckled her lightly under the chin.
"Hai," he said.
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Stalkers of the Tiger's Bride copyright 1999, by Jeffrey Blair Latta.
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