Stalkers of the Tiger's Bride


A SERIAL of SHEMSHIRAN

BY JEFFREY BLAIR LATTA

Previously: Having eluded the winged djinn sent by the Priests of the Tiger, Fukitso and Almaz entered the desert city of Fakhd al-Houri, the Ronin searching for a friend to translate his treasure map. But they found the city deserted, a strange ash everywhere, and Fukitso, hearing footsteps, left Almaz alone while he gave fruitless chase, his quarry mysteriously vanishing in a cul-de-sac. Then, distracted by Almaz's distant scream, Fukitso stumbled into a trap.

Meanwhile, back in the shop...


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EPISODE 13: THE SHAPE IN THE SHOP


When Almaz first found herself alone in the fabric shop, her initial reaction was to set out after her companion whether he wanted her or not.  But then she thought better of the idea.  If she failed to catch up with him, she might very well end up lost and that was the last thing she wanted.  At least if she did as he had told her and stayed put, she could be sure he would know where to find her.

But as time passed and he failed to return, her uneasiness grew in proportion.  She stood in the very center of the shop, her slender arms tightly hugging her round shoulders as if against a terrible cold, though in fact the opposite was the case.  She had been better off under the peepul trees than sheltered in the stifling furnace-heat of this shop.  Even the soaked fabric of her burnoose was too warm by now to afford much relief as, with damp suction, it clung uncomfortably to every curve and line of her supple young body.

For a time she shifted from one foot to the other, squirming miserably in her wet vestment, her dark eyes fixed fast on the archway, willing her protector to return at last.

Then, suddenly, she froze.

Something was rummaging about in the back storeroom behind her.

She turned very slowly, hardly daring to breathe, but could see nothing beyond the curtain covering the archway.  For a moment, the sound stopped and she prayed with dreadfilled intensity that the intruder might have left.  But then the ruckus resumed, this time louder, closer to the curtain.  She felt a giddy swimming of her senses and, though she wanted to flee with every tingling fibre in her flesh, she found herself rooted to the floor.

Then all sensation died away except for an insistent prickling on her scalp.  She noticed a noisome odour permeating the close, stifling air.  It was a disgusting, gagging stench that reminded her of the noxious smell that sometimes wafted from the graveyard of Sahara when the Puhjoli blew from the east.  It was a grisly, putrid scent of rotten meat and decaying carcasses left to the flies and the barapurs.

And it was coming from beyond the curtained arch.

With mounting horror, she watched as something jostled the curtain from the opposite side, momentarily suggesting the slouched outline of a shoulder or, perhaps, some sort of snout.  A shudder shook her slim frame and she drew a single involuntary breath.

Immediately all movement ceased in the storeroom.  The thing had heard her gasp.

Suddenly, what terror she had felt a moment ago was as nothing compared to the matchless fright that seized her now in its constricting coils.  There seem no air to breathe in the confined chamber; no sound save the unbridled hammering of her heart.  She knew the thing was listening for her as intently as she was for it.  But what bothered her more, indeed what pushed her now inexorably toward sharp, uncontrollable panic, was the unreasoning sensation that the creature was able to hear the pounding of her heart.

In her mind's eye she could see the creature listening -- listening with rapt fascination and covetous delight, drinking in the rapid throbbing of her young, vital organ, treasuring its every pulse, picturing it warm and scarlet and beating like a living jewel as it nestled exposed and unprotected in the fragile cage of her brown body -- a cage which the creature might open as easily, as heedlessly as the soft skin of a peach...

Suddenly something snapped in her like a rabab string drawn too tight, and all her fear and loathing finally found voice in a quavering, rising scream of revulsion and horror.  She had no way of knowing that, at that very moment, her cry was heard by her brawny companion, nor that it would serve to distract the Ronin into a careless misstep.  All she knew was that her slim legs at last responded to her will, after a fashion, as she stumbled awkwardly backward toward the front archway, only half turning as if afraid to take her wide eyes off that terrible curtain.  But in her haste, the damp folds of her burnoose tangled about her struggling limbs, upsetting her balance.  Too late, she wheeled, throwing out her hands as she fell sprawling on her belly amidst the richly woven carpets and cushions.

Dimly she heard the ragged tearing of the curtain behind her and soft, urgent feet padded on the stone floor.  With no more breath to spare for a scream, she flung herself for the front archway, half-crawling on hands and knees, fighting the hampering folds of her garment.

Then, miraculously, she regained her feet and plunged through, not even daring a backward glance.  She turned right, following the arcade, as she had seen her companion do, and her sleek legs flashed like whickering sabers as the cape finally loosed its grip, billowing from her shoulders like the sail of a dhow.

When she reached the roadway, she turned right, thinking only to put as many corners between her and her hideous pursuer as possible.  Beneath the ivan she sped on frantic, pattering feet, then out onto the second maidan where she rushed to the nearest kiosk.  Behind this she finally spun and stopped, dropping to a cowering crouch in its shadow, her tawny shoulders quaking uncontrollably, ears intently listening, expecting any moment to detect the hideous sound of inhuman feet padding in pursuit.

But there was no sound of pursuit and, after a time, she peered timorously through the pierced marble screens.  The tall archway stood empty and she could see the road stretching beyond all the way to the main maidan -- it too was deserted.  Hesitantly she rose and stepped out into the light.

An angry frown creased her brow.

In her mind, she felt a sudden burning flush of rage and betrayal.  What had happened to her giant protector?  Where was he when she most needed him?  Surely he would have heard her scream -- why had he not come to help her?  In fact, he should never have left her in the first place.  How could he desert her in such a place as this -- telling her only to stay put as if somehow staying put would make up for his absence?

The more she thought on the matter, the more her dark eyes blazed with anger and her fists clenched and her fury grew like a small storm gathering.  It was his fault.  All this was his fault!  If he had not delayed her in the serai, Ghaffar might not have captured her and the priests too would not have found her.  If he had not brought her out onto this terrible desert without water -- if he had not dragged her to this unholy city -- if he had not led her into that hideous shop -- if he had not left her there, abandoning her all alone as if her safety meant no more to him than...than...

All her body trembling with her passion, she stamped furiously on the marble surface with one bare foot, raising a small cloud of dust, and shouted wordlessly into the dry air.  She vowed, if somehow she escaped this horrible, dead city, she would leave him and the map outside the gate of the first town they reached.  She hated him with a vengeful, seething wrath that shook her to her toes and she desired nothing so much as to see his evil, loathsome face again just so she might spit in it!

Then, abruptly, she stiffened, a numbing coldness blowing over her like a crawling breeze.  Across the maidan, at the base of a blank plaster wall, something reflected the sun's rays with a fiery brilliance.  Swallowing against a sudden tightness in her throat, she crossed the maidan on rapid slapping feet.  Then she staggered to a halt, tapered fingers pressed to her parted lips.

It was his katana, Ginago.

The sword lay amidst a rubble of scattered boulders, some as large as her head, all spread out in a wide fan.  The marble surface was pitted and chipped as if the boulders had struck it with tremendous force.  Stepping lightly between the stones, she crouched and regarded a glistening scarlet pool that lay congealing in the heat.  The terrible constriction in her throat now spread to her belly as if some great python had thrown its gleaming coils about her and was slowly squeezing the very soul from her body.

Her dilated eyes noted a trail of carmine drops leading away from the terrible gout.  Fearful, frightened of where they might lead, she followed the drops only a short distance until they vanished with eerie suddenness against the blank wall.  Thread-like seams showed in the plaster surface outlining a secret door.

With a great tortured sob, she threw herself flat against that surface, clawing frantically at the seams with her naked nails, fighting with a despairing strength to pry open the door.  But her efforts were in vain. The door was sealed from the other side and, if there was a lever on this side, it eluded her search.

Finally, with nothing else to do, she returned to the scattered rubble.  Finding the Ronin's strange sword too heavy for her to lift, she dragged it by the pommel along the base of the wall, its sheening blade rasping on the marble stones.  Then she settled down on the warm, hard surface and rested her weary spine against the wall beside the secret door.

Folding her legs tightly beneath her, she clutched the sword-grip miserably to her chest and wrapped her damp cloak close over her shivering shoulders, the cowl covering her head.  The maidan spread before her vast and empty -- rimmed with countless shadowed archways like black watching eyes...

***
Fukitso opened his eyes and grunted.

He lay in darkness save for grey-blue moonbeams threading through the lace-like sieve of a marble screen to his right.  His skull ached with a terrible, throbbing torment and the moonbeams danced in and out of focus as he fought his way back to hardwon consciousness.

"Al Rih!"  The name was spoken in a low, threatening timbre and he tensed as he felt the keen edge of a recurved khanjar dagger pressing at his corded throat.  "I'm surprised even you would be fool enough to return to Fakhd al Houri after what you did.  I'm tempted to kill you right now."

"If you were going to kill me," replied the Ronin, casually easing the khanjar aside with his hand, "you would have killed me while I was unconscious -- when I couldn't fight back."

With a pained grimace, he sat up on the edge of the rope-strung charpoy on which he had been lying, fully aware there was little more than bluff to his words.  He already knew both his scabbards were empty and, at the moment, he could barely carry on a conversation, let along fight for his life.

A grim, mirthless chuckle greeted his words, but he heard the rasp of the blade being returned to its sheath.  "I always said you had the nerves of a samadhi, didn't I, Al Rih?"

Al Rih was the name Fukitso had gone by during his days with the caravans.

"Don't you have any lights in this place?"

There was a pause, then he heard his friend give a brief command to another man hidden in the dark.  A moment later, a ghee lamp flared to life, casting a lurid illumination that fell off into the surrounding darkness of slender columns and ornate, engrailed arches.

The wavering light and playing shadow dimly defined a throng of dirty, haggard faces crowding forward like a pack of curious jackals, their turmeric turbans dusty and awry, their gown-like dishdashas streaked with sweat and grime.  Fukitso was dumbstruck when he saw their disheveled condition, their gaunt features and wide, staring eyes.  Even his friend, dressed in a loose sleeveless aba and blue tarboosh with turban, was only a pale ghost of the man Fukitso had known -- and he realized they would indeed have needed to kill him in his sleep if they had hoped to kill him at all.

Whatever had happened here, though, had not served to dim the wolfish gleam in his friend's burning eyes.  The man tossed something distainfully into the Ronin's lap.  It was the map.

"You're headed the wrong way if you hoped to follow that map.  You have to travel east to reach the Nyaslan River."

The Nyaslan!  Now Fukitso knew why the lines on the map had seemed so familiar.  And he had been correct in thinking his friend would be able to translate the writing.

"We ran into trouble in Sahara," he replied easily, hoping to change the topic now he had the information he desired.  "I stole a young girl from their heathen priests and they set someone on our trail.  We came out into the Rub al Harara, hoping to lose them."

"A young girl?"  The man laughed in a sharp shout.  "I might have known.  You should learn to curb that impulsive nature of yours."  But then his hawkish features hardened grimly.  "The priests of Sahara..."  He nodded slowly.  "I've heard things recently...Easy, Al Rih!"

Attempting to stand, Fukitso swayed drunkenly, throwing out a hand against the marble screen.  He fingered his blood-caked scalp and swore luridly.

His friend, Dahika Khan, nodded without sympathy.  "You're lucky to be alive.  Our little trap was meant to crush a man like a bug.  That bald skull of yours must be as thick as a wall to have survived."

"Trap?"  Fukitso regarded Dahika Khan doubtfullly.  "What were you hoping to catch in the middle of a city -- merchants?"

At his words, the atmosphere grew suddenly charged and garments rustled in the darkness.

"Then you don't know?"  Dahika Khan was genuinely surprised.

"Know what?  I only know that I reached this city to find it deserted, that I gave chase to something that ran like a karmah and vanished into thin air, and that I've had a mountain of rocks dumped on my head.  I don't know the why of any of it!"

Dahika Khan touched the sleeve of Fukitso's kimono, motioning him to sit once more.  Grudgingly, the injured Ronin complied.

"Something came in the night," Dahika Khan began softly, a rigid set to his jaw.  "No man here saw what it was -- at least, not clearly.  There were many of them, very fast, we know that, at least.  They attacked us in our beds.  When the people ran screaming from their homes, the things chased them into the streets.  There they slew the men with a terrible blue flame -- I don't know how it was produced.  There was nothing anyone could do.  Those of us who were fast enough sought shelter here, in the hammam, the public baths.  We barred the doors against the creatures and, by dawn, they had disappeared as suddenly as they came.  Since then, we have lived here, venturing out only to seek food and water.  Recently we began setting traps to kill the monsters when they return in the night."

He chuckled bleakly.  "So far, our traps have only been successful in capturing you."  Then his features grew dark and disturbed.  "As for this thing you say you chased -- that is very bad news.  So far, it seemed the creatures were afraid to venture into the light of the sun.  We think perhaps they come from beneath the sand, rendering them sensitive to bright light.  If they have overcome their fear, it is only a matter of time before they starve us out."

There was silence for a time.  Then Fukitso asked in a husky growl:  "You say they slew the men with blue flame -- but what of the women?"

There was more rustling of tattered dishdashas and a shameful averting of blood-shot eyes.  Only Dahika Khan kept his gaze steady.

"They took the women," he replied evenly.  "For many days and nights we could hear their shrill anguished cries -- their screams echoed in this pillared space like the knelling of a dreadful bell.  They were being tortured,  tormented beneath our very feet but we could not reach them.  There must be a passage -- perhaps several -- somewhere in the city but we don't know where.  Since then, there has been only silence."

Finally he lowered his eyes, his narrow shoulders slumping beneath his dusty aba.  Fukitso's sullen frown deepened like blood spilt in a clear pond.  He rose to his feet, steadier this time, and pushed his way past his friend,  then through the haggard crowd.  Dahika Khan called to him in surprise.

"But where are you going, Al Rih?"

Fukitso paused, unable to find the door in the nighted hammam.

"I told you I brought a young girl with me," he replied.  "I have to find her."

Dahika Khan smiled sadly and shook his turbaned head.

"The moon has been up for some time, my friend.  If she was out there, it is already too late for her."  He glanced significantly down at the stone floor beneath his feet.  "But you will hear her soon enough, I thin --"

"Listen!"

The warning was a fearful hiss in the shadows.  On the tail of its echoes, a frantic hand dashed out the light, plunging them into moon-dappled darkness.  Fukitso heard the swish and scuff of figures scrambling for concealment.  He felt sinewy fingers clasp his arm, dragging him to his knees.

Close in his ear, Dahika Khan whispered urgently: "On your life, do not speak!"



Next episode...Ravishers in the Night


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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 excerpts used for reviews.  (Obviously, you can copy it or print it out if you want to read it!)