Stalkers of the Tiger's Bride


A SERIAL of SHEMSHIRAN

BY JEFFREY BLAIR LATTA

Previously: Fukitso and Almaz found the desert city of Fakhd al-Houri mysteriously abandoned.  Having chased something which ran with inhuman speed, Fukitso fell into a trap, waking amongst the city's male survivors, led by his "friend" Dahika Khan who told a terrible tale.  In a single night, the city had been attacked by strange creatures from beneath the sand who slew the men and took the women away to be killed horribly.  Then the light was dashed out and Fukitso saw the creatures for himself.

Now, in the darkness of the hammam...



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EPISODE 14: RAVISHERS IN THE NIGHT


Almost instantly, ebony forms cast their ghoulish moonshadows against the long marble screen outside, and Fukitso felt the cool prickling of the hair on his arms.  The figures moved in a low, bestial crouch, like apes, their heads slung grotesquely forward on thin, swaying necks.  There were five or six of them.  They were eerily silent save for the soft, sinister padding of their naked feet, and Fukitso was in awe of the nameless man who had hissed the warning.

For just a moment, the ghastly shapes paused outside the screen, perhaps having already been alerted to the men cowering in the darkness of the hammam.  Fukitso imagined their night-bred eyes staring hungrily through the star-shaped perforations, eagerly searching the shadows for their prey.  Then, abruptly, they passed from view with lopping, effortless strides.

Fukitso made to rise again, but the grip tightened on his arm.

He stiffened.  Something else was approaching along the screen.  Something much larger and more primordial in contour.  It passed low against the moonlight, its body long, sleek and serpentine, its hide rasping against the cool pierced marble like a file.  Then it too slithered into the night and the Ronin released his breath in a thin thread.

In the ebony space at his side, Dahika Khan repeated bleakly: "Your girl -- it is too late for her."...

***
There had been no sleep for Almaz. As the long, lingering heat of the day built steadily toward a blistering noontime swelter, she had suffered in miserable, lonely silence.

Her thirst had soon grown fierce and consuming.  She licked her parched lips and swallowed precious spittle to soothe her raw, dusty throat.  But she did not dare return to the main maidan to drink from the well.  She knew it was likely her strange-eyed companion was already dead; the spilled blood, the terrible rain of stones -- who could have survived such a thing?  But there was still a chance he lived and a chance he might return.  And, while he might not care about Almaz and her safety, she was certain he would never desert his fabulous katana.  If he could, he would come back for it.

And so, here she must wait, clutching his gleaming blade, even if, in the end, the baking sun and the cocooning heat finished her more surely than Ghaffar and his burning torch would have done.

With only the meagre shelter provided by her burnoose -- soon dried by the sun -- she languished oftentimes on the brink of delirium, her slender  bronze body curled tight on her side, her face clove to her knees.

She held Ginago viced in her legs, the banded black pommel pressed between her naked breasts against her beating heart.  Perhaps it was merely part of her delirium, but at times she imagined she felt strange, almost organic vibrations emanating from the curious metal which she noticed was inscribed with odd designs, perhaps lettering.  She imagined that in some way the feel of the instrument pressed to her flesh linked her to Fukitso wherever he might be, and it gave her some small comfort in her suffering.

With tired reluctance, the wavering sun eased down into the eastern  sky, and cooling shadows grew in the lee of buildings.  For a time, the sun burned the horizon to a gorgeous maelstrom of golds and turquoises and trailing voilet fleece.  A fresh breath whispered in from the south, washing away the heat and quenching the baked marble stones of the maidan.  Then a deep, silken darkness drew across the sky, and stars rained overhead like a great spangled parasol.  Soon one moon, then another, rocked gently up into the firmament, both thin crescents like scimitars reflecting the pale, orange light of the errant sun.

Gradually, like a moonflower spreading its petals to the lunar glow, Almaz roused from her delirium.  She struggled weakly to her knees allowing her cloak to fall open and back between her shoulders.  The pallid light dusted her breasts and limbs with a subtle amber radiance.

Her thirst was as terrible as ever, but the crisp, fragrant breeze fondled her ebon bangs and bathed her tired skin like a sudsing current.  She inhaled the night wind, luxuriating in its exotic fragrances, a thrill coursing through her flesh, her dark lashes hanging low and tired over her eyes.

For a time, she forgot all she had suffered and all the suffering which might lie ahead, and she drank the precious night like the coolest, sweetest draught of tari.

With time, though, the grim reality of her situation returned to her.  She opened her eyes and her slim fingers constricted about the pommel of the sword.  There were shadows everywhere.  Threatening and inpenetrable, they draped the ranged arches and pressed at the marble screens of the kiosks.  They spread across the wide maidan liquescent and black.

A stillness hung over the maidan, so silent she might have heard a whisper from the opposite side or a footfall from the farthest quarter.   Against the star-spread sky, the vast distant domes showed only as vague starless spaces except where misty moonglow played.

Almaz remained motionless, shining eyes seeking in vain to fathom the fathomless darkness, ears listening with fearful acuity.  The glossy curve of her back was rigid with concentration.  For a time, her head tilted this way and that like a timid bird at every blustering gust of wind.  But, as the moons ascended higher, the breeze grew chill and she was forced to seek refuge in the swaddling folds of her burnoose, relaxing her posture though not her wide-eyed vigil.

As she shivered in her cape, the dreadful truth only slowly grew apparent -- her dark companion had not returned.

Somehow, against all the evidence, she had remained certain he must come back before nightfall.  But now darkness had come and she was alone.  He would not have left the city without his katana, this she knew.  That he had not returned for it indicated either that he lay injured somewhere, perhaps as a prisoner, or he must already be dead.  Somehow she could not bring herself to accept the latter choice.  It was impossible to imagine him vanquished by any foe, man or beast.  He seemed so fierce and unconquerable, imbued with such raw, animal vitality.  He was like a natural force, as imperishable as the desert itself.

But then she recalled another man, Karim, who had seemed, if not quite so powerful, still similarly charged with an indominable strength, but who had disappeared into a dark and hateful cave never to return.

Silver tears sparkled in her dark eyes.  She drew a long quavering breath, biting on the pale arc of her lip.  Was history repeating itself?  Perhaps she could not believe Fukitso was dead because, to accept that would be to live through her nightmare all over again.  She told herself she hated him for all he had put her through, hated him for the way he treated her and the way he deserted her.  In her mind, she cursed him further for putting her through this terrible agony of not knowing.  She wished him dead.   Then she wished he would return and take her away from this terrible place.

For a time she lay in a rack of wretched despair, shuddering with contained sobs and tasting salty tears drying on her quivering lips...
 
Then, from somewhere across the maidan...she heard a sound.

For a moment, she was uncertain and she paused in her misery, sniffling as her ears listened tensely.  Then she heard it again -- a rustling like damp fabric caught in a fresh breeze.  She bolted upright, every sinew taut with alarm.  Her white eyes searched the darkness with frantic darting stares.  She looked up just as a shadow played before the larger moon, too quick to make it out.

With a heaving cry of horror, she threw herself back against the plaster wall, her hands forming claws before her eyes.

The thing had been flying!

What new horror was this?  In her movement, she dropped the heavy katana.  It clattered on the marble stone with a deafening ruckus, easily revealing her location.

Immediately she discerned motion palely silhouetted against the stars overhead.  Looking up, in one nightmarish instant, she saw loathesome bat-like wings and gleaming crimson talons, yellow eyes with black-slit pupils and vicious hooked beaks -- yes, beaks!  For, with mounting terror, she saw there were at least three of the hideous things, all descending on her in a flapping, clawing mass of raptorous delirium.

She screamed, all her breath surging from her lungs in one sobbing cry, arms crossing over her head in a pathetically futile defense.  Her body hunched, her spine bowed, all her muscles tensed to the expected agony of rending talons in the supple flesh of her back --

Then there was a blinding flash of blue-white brilliance and something shrieked shrilly with an inhuman din that seared her ears and left her sanity reeling.

She uncovered her eyes just in time to witness one of the creatures consumed by a ball of blue flame nearly over her head.  As the light faded, a fine ash was all that remained of the thing, repellently beautiful as it caught the moonlight before dispersing on the wind.  She remembered the ash her companion had wondered about spread in a fine layer throughout this empty city -- and she felt a numbing wave of nausea.

But two more winged-things remained.  They seemed confused by the death of their brother, but quickly regrouped, diving on her with renewed fury.  Then, another burst of blue-white fire engulfed one of the two like a horrible muslin cloak, rendering bone and muscle and claw and beak to silver ash before her dilated eyes.

The one remaining creature finally realized its danger and broke off its attack with a startled squawk.  For a moment she lost sight of the thing in the black sky, but then saw its angular silhouette pass before the smaller moon as it retreated westward out over the barren desert.

She had no time to wonder at the miracle of her salvation, however.  Without warning, a cloth sack was thrown over her head and powerful, sinewy fingers pinioned her arms at her sides.  More hands caught her shoulders and she was lifted and borne along, her lithe body twisting and flexing, straining in vain against the irresistable press of limbs.

The air in the sack was rank and foul, and the rough fabric stretched over her mouth stifling her weeping cries.  Her captors raced in eerie silence, with only the rapid huffing of their respiration and the frantic patter of their naked feet to accompany their flight through the night-black city.

She had no way of knowing where their course was taking them, but several times they passed her roughly between them as if easing her struggling form through a narrow doorway.  Another time they lowered her down through a hole, indicating their destination was somewhere underground -- a revelation which planted a core of ice behind her hammering heart.

The sheer suddenness of her capture, the ease with which they forced her submission, the degrading feel of their hands on her body -- all these combined to crush her will to fight.  Then, even as they passed her down through the hole, her burnoose caught on some random projection and tore from her with a momentary jerk to her throat.

It seemed the final, soul-breaking indignity.  All-but-naked, shivering, she gave up all hope, allowing her slender brown body to stretch limp and defeated in their grasp as they carried her down, down into their lair...

***
No sooner had the final low and serpentine shadow passed beyond the marble screen to the hammam than Fukitso sprang to his feet, one hand grabbing for Ginago over his shoulder.  He snarled in disgust as his fingers caught empty air and he recalled the loss of his katana.

"Baka!  Light a damn lamp and show me the way out of this place," he ordered hotly.  "I brought the girl to your blasted city and I'll be flayed alive before I'll let those things have her."

In the blackness at his side, Dahika Khan was harsh.  "Don't be a fool, Al Rih -- there's nothing you can do."  Then he added more reasonably: "And I have my men's lives to consider.  We can't open the doors until morning -- you can see that.  If we let you out, you're liable to draw those creatures down on our --"

Still in the darkness, Fukitso lunged like a blast of sand, snarling and catching the smaller man by the breast of his aba.  The Ronin's keen ears caught the rasp of a khanjar dragged from its scabbard.  Another man would have died then, skewered by an invisible thrust in the dark.  But Fukisto was raised as a samurai of Mount Doji and he could fight as well with his ears as with his sight.

He lashed out, grabbing Dahika Khan's sinewy wrist in a vice-like clasp that caused bones to grind and a sickly gasp to spit from the other's lips.  The recurved blade clattered on the stone floor, and Fukitso followed up his assault with a titanic heave that sent them both tumbling over the charpoy and crashing heavily against the marble screen.  Dimly he heard a stuttered chorus as other blades were drawn in the darkness.  His fingers closed on the straining cords of Dahika Khan's neck.

"Call them off!" he growled thickly.  "Or you'll never rise from this floor."  To emphasize his point, he tightened his grip viciously.

"Stay back!" Dahika Khan cried, coughing and wheezing under the Ronin's steely pressure.  "Do as I say before he kills me.  And sheath your blades!"

For a space, the men hesitated uncertainly and Fukitso wondered if he had over-estimated Dahika Khan's importance amongst them; on the answer balanced his life.  Then he heard blades returning to sheaths and sashes and the tension went out of his broad shoulders.

With his weight still confining his friend beneath him, Fukitso released his killing grip.  But, as he drew his hand away, his fingers tangled in a slim cord looped about the other's sweat-slicked neck.  Dahika Khan gasped desperately as the cord came away, his body uselessly heaving against the  weight pinning him.  Then Fukitso gaped in astonishment as two blindingly luminous gems scattered like white-hot coals across the floor from the small pouch which the cord had held.

The jewels were each the size of olives, both ablaze with a dazzling ruby brilliance that threw into gaunt relief the wolfish pack, the light reflecting in their eyes wide and awestruck by the discovery.

For a moment, the Ronin was too dazzled by the sheer corruscating beauty of the stones to react.  Then his attention was regained by the struggling figure beneath him.

"What are those things?" he questioned gruffly.  "Why do they glow like that?"

"Those are mine," Dahika Khan grated back, with a defiant toss of his turbaned head.  "I won them from a sowar.  As for the light, your guess would be as good as mine.  Now unless you plan to knock me over the head for them like some common dacoit, I'd ask you to get off me.  You've got your light now and, as you can see, there's the door."

Glancing up, Fukitso saw the carmine glow reached even further into the pillared hammam than the light from the ghee lamp had, revealing a massive pointed horseshoe arch set in a far wall, with thick doors of shittim wood and bronze bands sealed by a beam as thick as his thigh.  He hesitated a moment, knowing he would lose his advantage the moment he released his struggling hostage.  Sensing his indecision, Dahika Khan continued in a lower voice, dripping with bitter venom.

"Of course, if getting yourself killed for a stripling strumpet means so much to you, the least I can do is show you the secret passage we used to bring you here in the first place."

Recognizing he had no choice if he hoped to rescue the girl, Fukitso rose to his feet in one fluid shrug and stepped back, putting his broad back to the marble screen.  In his fist gleamed Dahika Khan's khanjar dagger, the weird light staining the recurved blade a gaudy, burning scarlet.

"Show me," he said...



Next episode...The Den in Darkness


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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!)