Stalkers of the Tiger's Bride


A SERIAL of SHEMSHIRAN

BY JEFFREY BLAIR LATTA


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EPISODE 1: SOMETHING IN THE CAVE

Death was in the air.

The jungle glade was thick with its stench, as dense, as tangible as the white ghostly mist which webbed the great fungal trunks and rolled menacingly across the black waters of the swamp.  It was the smell of death which hung from every ragged vine and every knotted creeper; and it rose from the rotted humus floor like the very souls of the dead -- souls rising to seek revenge on those who had wronged them in life.

Five dark figures crouched shivering in the damp mossy glade.  Their turbans hung in tatters, their white abbas rent and streaked with grime.  They recognized the stench in the air and they huddled closer still -- though not so close as to touch.  These men knew death, for they had been its tool.  And they had reason to fear the souls of the dead, for had they not but recently added a full two score souls to the ethereal ranks?

Oh yes, their betrayal had been complete and without mercy, and they had heard the screams of their comrades without remorse.  They had watched unmoved while their friends were cut down to a man, while the deck of the pirate galley was slickened with blood and brains, and while severed heads were hung three abreast from the yardarm like some ghastly ceremonial procession leading the damned ship on its final voyage to the underworld.

The battle had been swift and brutal, the defenders caught unawares.  Fully a quarter of their number had been slaughtered with eyes closed, destined never to complete whatever dreams had been their undoing and to awake in the hereafter without even having seen the faces which had dispatched them thither.  Those few who had noted the rattle of grappling hooks on the wooden gunwales and had sought to investigate had died equally as swift with throats opened from ear to ear, their cries of warning  stifled in a spray of crimson gore.  The rest had fought bravely but in vain.  The Jakaro headhunters had swarmed over the sides in numbers too great to count.  Lanterns had been instantly dashed to the deck plunging the scene into darkness -- darkness filled only with a wild confusion of flickering obsidian blades and thrusting blood-tipped spears.

Four days had passed since that night of damnation, though in the eternal twilight of the jungle, time was difficult to measure.  The devilish alliance having fallen apart, as in a feverish nightmare the traitors had fled for their lives through dense grasping foliage, pursed by the beating of the kundu drums, through swamps humming with insects and bogs which sucked and bubbled like living things.

Now, once more, as they had so many times before, the men stared at the impenetrable shadows which hemmed them in on all sides, and at the black swamp to their right where unseen creatures splashed and floundered.  Their eyes shone whitely against the grime and blood which caked their skins.  And they turned those wide and fearful eyes on the slight shape which showed light brown against the black basalt cliffs behind.

The shape rolled over into a stray spear of moonlight, and tangled, midnight locks parted to reveal a face soft and beautiful even beneath the streaks of dirt and green.  The young girl, named Almaz, sobbed softly to herself, doubly fearful.  For, as much as she feared the monsters of the jungle night, she feared her captors more.

"This is all her fault," hissed one of the men, voicing the silent thoughts of them all.  "The girl has brought this upon us.  She is cursed.  We should kill her and be gone from here.  Bahadur will never return from that cave!"

He motioned fiercely toward the black hole barely visible in the side of the cliff face.

"Nor Muhammad nor Mirza," added Yakub, a giant of a man.  "They went in there this morning.  Where are they?  They are dead.  Dead!  We all feel it!"

"Maybe there was another way out," suggested a third figure.  "Maybe they left us here to die, while they ran away with the treasure.  Maybe -- uh!"

A fist slammed home in the darkness, and the third man spat teeth and blood upon the moss.  A fourth figure, Ahmed, was on his feet.  He shouted at the other four, imbued with a newfound sense of power, believing as he did, that their previous leader was gone forever.

"Bahadur would never have left us!  I will kill the man who dares to insult him so!  Do you hear me?  I will kill him!"

He gave them no time to challenge him.  He would lead now.  He should have led them from the beginning.  He would not have allowed a girl to affect his judgment.

"The girl," he agreed, "is the cause of all our troubles.  It is true.  She bewitched the leader of the Jakaro.  She bewitched Bahadur.  She made them to fight, changing our allies to our hunters.  Yes?"

The others mumbled their assent, and shot vicious glances at the bound and helpless figure against the cliff.  She stared back through eyes red with tears and wide with terror.

"Yes!  She is a witch.  And she has released some monster against our leader and our friends.  Some monster which now lies waiting in the cave -- waiting for us!"

His companions gasped as one and looked toward the cave, to the girl and back to the cave.  They were tired and confused by their journey and they were easily convinced.  Ahmed recognized this, and so he used it to his advantage.  He did not believe in monsters, but there were many creatures of the jungle unknown to him.  Something had prevented the others from returning. Something, he was sure, had taken their lives.  And that something most likely still remained between him and the treasure.  He knew how to get past it, but, by building the magnitude of the deed in the eyes of the others, he could ensure their loyalty when he succeeded.  After all, the sight of treasure did strange things to even the most trustworthy men.  And, as he well knew, these men were the least trustworthy of all.

"Therefore," he concluded, "we must use the girl to pass the monster."

Stooping, he caught up his spear and walked over to the captive who cringed at his approach.  He stood over her a moment, looking down at her slim figure, clothed only in a tattered loincloth, wrists bound together by a piece of twine.  Brutally he prodded her with the long point of his weapon.

"Get up," he ordered.

She winced and awkwardly tried to protect her body with her open hands.  He thrust between her arms.  With a sob, she pulled away, but he bent impatiently and, grabbing her arms by the cord between her wrists,  yanked her roughly to her feet.  Her weakened legs would not answer to the task and she fell full-length upon the loam.  Cursing he dragged her as she was, the cords biting her wrists.

The other four were already on their feet, mystified.

"What are you going to do with her?" asked the giant, Yakub, as Ahmed dragged his limp captive past and toward the cave entrance.

"The monster is waiting for someone to enter the cave," responded the other.  "The girl will enter first.  When the monster attacks her, we will kill it.  Yes?"

"But, if the monster is the girl's creation, can she not warn it?" asked another suspiciously.  "She could tell it not to harm her, but to wait for us."

Ahmed had reached the cave, where he released his struggling burden.  Quickly she drew her wrists protectively to her chest and sobbed quietly, her face pressed to the dirt in which she lay.  Ahmed looked at the one who had spoken.  It was Ghaffar, perhaps the most intelligent of the four.  Intelligent, but not knowledgable.

"No," said Ahmed, with assurance.  "She could not.  That is not the way of witches."

Ghaffar seemed to accept this.  Ahmed gave him no time in which to change his mind.

"Get up," he instructed the girl once more, this time prodding her sharply in the ribs.  She moaned and pressed her face firmly to the earth.

"Enough of that," objected Ghaffar, hurrying to her side.  "What good is she if you kill her.  Her monster will remain.  We can at least help her to stand."

With that, he took hold of her under either arm and eased her to her feet.  This time her legs held, though unsurely, as she slumped weakly against her helper.  But he in turn pushed her gently away until she stood on her own, shoulders rolled forward, head hanging down, like a puppet suspended by strings.  Her body was smeared green from her rough handling, her features streaked with dirt.  Slowly she lifted her head, strands of hair falling across her eyes, and stared bleakly into the black depths of the cave.  She saw nothing.  She heard nothing.  But she felt it.

Death.

Her head dropped weakly upon her chest and she shuddered with tears.

"The monster will want blood," declared Ahmed solemnly.  "The blood of the sacrifice."

In a single motion, he placed the point of his spear to her smooth shoulder and cut swiftly down and across her back leaving a cruel gash that seeped blood down her spine.  Her head came up and she flung back her shoulders as she cried out, falling against the entrance wall.  But the spear found her there, as Ahmed prodded her on.

"In you go," he order, forcing her to stumble a few steps into the darkness.  "Onward, witch.  Your monster awaits you."

He looked back at the others who crowded dimly silhouetted in the entrance but who would advance no farther.

"Come, effendis.  This will only succeed if we stay together.  She is the one who bleeds.  She is the one it will attack.  What are you?  Cowards?  There is treasure ahead!  Treasure to..."  He stopped abruptly and the point of his spear fell absently to the rocky ground.  "But where is Shuja?"

The three others drew quickly back from the cave mouth, glancing about in confusion, then fear.  Forgetting his captive, Ahmed stepped from the cave just in time to be struck by something which tumbled from above.  As he rose from where he had fallen, he looked upon that which had hit him -- and his dark skin turned an ashy grey.

It was the dead body of Shuja, his neck having been twisted so he seemed to stare with horror-filled eyes over his own shoulder.

Then, just as suddenly, something else dropped from the branches above -- but this something landed on its own feet.

"Karim!"

Ahmed stumbled back even as he shouted the name, his hands spread before his face as if to ward off the attack of a djinn.  And, indeed, the intruder might well have been some monstrosity hatched in the worlds that lie beyond, for in his appearance he certainly seemed less than human.

Karim by Jeffrey Blair LattaHe crouched low as he had landed, his muscular frame clothed only in shredded rags, his smooth bronze hide striped with scarlet wounds.  Blood clotted around a savage cut on his chest.  His mane was matted with muck, and it hung down upon his brow like seaweed on a shelf of coral.  One eye was swollen closed, but the other burned with such hatred and loathing that it was by far the more fearsome of the two.  Seeing that look, the men fell back as if before a wounded samadhi.

For a moment, no one spoke.  Then Karim broke the silence, and his voice, low and steady, finally completed the scene -- for his voice was the voice of death.

"You thought I was dead," he told his frightened audience.  "You should have known me better than that, Ahmed, you bastard.  It takes more than a thrust to the heart to stop me.  The spear glanced off my rib.  I managed to roll over the side of the galley, just as you monsters began your devilish work.  I made it to the opposite shore and there I lay, watching helplessly, as you hung the heads of my friends -- aye, of your friends -- from the yardarm.  There was nothing I could do against the Jakaro headhunters but, when you had your falling out over the girl and they chased you away, I followed.  Through this accursed land I've trailed you, until I began to believe that I had died and that this was my punishment for failing in my revenge.  But then I heard a scream -- the girl's scream -- and I knew that I lived.  For, whatever my crimes, I knew that no god would banish her to such a hell as this.  And  now, Ahmed, before I kill you, you will tell me why.  There were no goods on board.  Why did you betray us to the Jakaro?"

The initial shock and surprise had worn off, and Ahmed could see that his opponent was worn and tired.  There still remained four of them, all armed, and if they could not dispatch such as he, then they were not fit to be called men.  In his confidence, he responded to the question.

"For a map.  The nakuda kept it in his cabin.  Bahadur learned of it from the cabin boy.  He claimed it pointed the way to great wealth and treasure -- a treasure to drive men mad."

"So," mused Karim, nodding slowly.  "You delivered us unto our enemies for riches.  But where then are the others?"

"They went into the cave.  They have not returned.  They are dead."

Unsure, Karim looked toward Almaz, who had crawled from the cave and now knelt on hands and knees, watching him intently.  In her wide shining eyes, for the first time since this nightmare trek had begun, there was hope.

"He speaks the truth," she agreed weakly.  "The others are gone."

But even as Karim allowed his attention to be diverted, one of the four -- Liaquat by name -- seized the opening.  In a flash, he hefted a spear and let it fly.  But swift and devious as was the attack, Karim was swifter still, as he dodged the missile, gratified to hear it harmlessly strike the stone wall at his back.  Deftly, he snatched up the weapon and turned it upon its master.  He threw back his arm and hurled the missile with all the strength in his knotted shoulder.  Liaquat screamed, which scream was instantly choked as the obsidian point tore through his chest and stood out a foot between his shoulders.  Blood gushed from his mouth and he slumped to the ground.

Even before the dead man had fallen, Karim was upon their leader, Ahmed, and bearing him to the earth with the force of his attack.  The traitor wheezed and gasped, clawing at the fingers which dug into this throat.  But Karim was the larger and he had suffered long for this moment.  Three of his victims had been snatched from his vengeance.  Ahmed would pay for them all.

His muscles rose like massive creepers upon his arms and his gritted teeth shone against the dark of his snarling face.  Slowly, inexorably, he crushed the life from his opponent, whose struggles grew steadily weaker with each passing moment.  Then, suddenly, an arm even mightier than his own closed around Karim's neck and he was lifted clear of his victim until his feet hung a full head's height above the moss.  His struggles were in vain, as a second arm crossed his waist and he was crushed firmly to a chest with muscles like smooth marble.  Too late, he realized that he should have dealt with Yakub before anything else.  The giant had been known to break men's spines without even trying -- and, as Karim felt a blinding pain radiate from  his back, he knew his antagonist was trying determinedly indeed.

Ahmed too was back on his feet, unsteadily, but up nonetheless.  He gripped a spear, and murder burned in his eyes.  Pinned as he was, there was no way for Karim to avoid the blow, as Ahmed struck him sharply across the face with the haft of his spear.  Crimson streamed from his open lips, through which he sucked quick, desperate gulps of air.  His senses reeled, growing numb and distant.  His pulse thundered in his ears.  Then -- he landed facedown in the damp moss, inhaling deep, mystified by his unexpected escape.  But a single breath was all he allowed himself.  He sprang to his feet once more.

One glance revealed to him the source of his salvation.  The giant lay sprawled in a twisted heap, the shaft of a spear rising with grotesque precision from between his shoulder blades.  Almaz lay at his side where she had fallen, having done the deed with what little strength remained in her.  Karim wasted only a momentary glance, then twisted to one side as Ahmed thrust murderously with a spear.  The point thudded harmlessly into the earth at his back.  Karim surged to his feet before his attacker could manage to pull the spear free.  He sprang at Ahmed, snarling, and seized the traitor, twisting his head upon his neck, until a dry, grisly crack told him that the deed was done.  His task was accomplished...or so he thought.

He wheeled with a curse as he heard frantic footfalls stumble wildly off into the jungle undergrowth.

"Ghaffar!"

Then he felt a soft hand alight upon the arch of his foot like a butterfly upon a stone.  He looked down.

"No," pleaded Almaz, wrapping her slender arms tight about his ankle in wretched desperation.  "Do not leave me.  He was not like the others.  He tried to help me.  Let him go.  I beg of you.  Stay with me!"

Moments before, he should have thought nothing in this world or the next could have swayed him from his sworn path.  But, as his gaze fell upon the fragile, broken thing at his feet, all his fury left him as the wind leaves the sail of a dhow.  He fell heavily to his knees and took her in his arms.  She shivered with the cold and the damp, and, having nothing but rags himself, he slipped the khalat from the torso of his fallen foe, and placed it about her trembling shoulders.

"You said the others are dead," he told her, "but I must be sure."

With a fearful sob, she hugged him tightly, pressing her body to his with such hysteria that he could feel the frightened racing of her heart.  But gently he lifted her in his arms and laid her upon the ground as far from the corpses of her tormentors as could be found.  Then he rose and walked to the mouth of the cave, jerking the spear from the body of Yakub as he passed.

"You will die!" sobbed Almaz, reaching out imploringly.  "There is something in there! Something horrible!"

"I have to know that the others are dead."

And, so saying, he vanished into the darkness.

***

It was not a cave.  That Karim discovered in short order, from the simple observation that he could find no end to it.  He was following a tunnel which bored a straight path deep into the bowels of the mountain.  He walked in darkness so complete that it hurt the eyes, and in silence so total that it tired the brain.

Then the silence was broken by the sound of his own footfalls, which crackled and popped as he entered a portion of the tunnel whose floor was littered with shards of volcanic glass.  The fragments tore into the soles of his feet, but he had no mind for the pain.  His attention was concentrated on a dim glow barely visible in the distance.  At first he thought it to be a mere trick of the eye.  But, gradually, the light grew brighter and he discerned a kneeling figure silhouetted in its eerie warmth.

He advanced slowly, wary of a trap.  But the black shadow remained motionless.  Even when he stopped within spear's reach of the huddled shape, the light was too dim to show him anything more than a vague, ill-defined bulk.

"Bahadur?" he asked, every muscle tense and expectant.  Silence was his only reply.  Suddenly he felt a sensation which was entirely new to him.  The hairs rose upon the back of his neck and drops of sweat trickled down his brow.  His hand gripped the spear with knuckles numb and cramped.  He glanced quickly about, but the light was too dim.  He felt rather than saw the walls and ceiling which pressed close upon him in the dark.

"Bahadur?" he asked again, this time giving the huddled form an experimental jab with the tip of his spear.  The action unbalanced the figure, which slumped heavily to one side landing limply on the floor.

Then his blood ran cold.

The figure began to change.

Arms, head, body, all began to boil and flow, growing, rising, spreading.  His brain wanted to reject the evidence of his eyes.  But he could not so ignore the testimony of his ears, as they detected a soft, sinister rustling and a high-pitched whine which rose in volume, up and up and up.  Panicked, he thrust his spear into the shape which now towered over him, but the tip passed harmlessly through, as if through a spectre.  The monster embraced him with wide winglike arms.  And Karim screamed.  His cry was one of incomprehension more than fear, of shock more than pain.  It was thrown back and magnified by the confining walls, echoing on and on into the distant darkness.

When it was over, silence once more filled the nighted tunnel.  And death was in the air...



Next episode...Fugitive in Sahara


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Stalkers of the Tiger's Bride is copyright 1999, by Jeffrey Blair Latta.  It may not be copied or used for any commercial purpose except for short excerpts used for reviews.  (Obviously, you can copy it or print it out if you want to read it!)