Stalkers of the Tiger's Bride



Previously: Rescued from the winged djinns sent by the Priests of the Tiger, Almaz finds her saviours become her captors as the creatures who burned the winged things and who are responsible for the extermination of nearly the entire population of Fakhd al Houri, carry her,  hooded and blind, deep underground into their lair.  Fukitso, with the city's few survivors, unware of her fate, tussles with Dahika Khan, revealing two glowing red gems which Dahika Khan claims to have won from a sowar.  Finally, Fukitso, Dahika Khan, and the survivors set out to rescue Almaz...if it's not too late.

Now, beneath the desert sands...

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Almaz told herself it was a nightmare -- one from which she must surely soon awake.

Though she had remained conscious throughout her ordeal, her mind now drifted in an obscuring fog of half-recalled impressions coloured by pain and indignity, helplessness and humiliation.

For a time, her silent captors had borne her through winding, damply- echoing tunnels, their feet slapping in shallow puddles, their fingers digging ruthlessly into her supple flesh.  At last they had halted here, though where here might be was impossible to discern, for when they dragged the cloth sack from her head she found herself swallowed in darkness so complete and unrelenting that it ached her eyes.

No longer fighting to resist, she waited passively while they bound her wrists close together using stiffly woven thongs which bit deeply into her skin.  They forced her arms straight above her head and, lifting her from the ground, hung her dangling by her wrists from a stone hook on the ceiling.  When their hands released her, the weight of her body drew the thongs even more sharply into her flesh causing her to scream and weep both at the same time.  But they were deaf to her suffering -- unless perhaps her suffering was their purpose.

They left her there, naked save for the slight fabric about her loins, her slender arms dragging her shoulders and ribs so forceably upward that it was an effort to draw breath, her dark head hanging back on the arc of her throat.

For a time she hung thus, her wrists searing anew with each laboured breath.  Slowly, fighting to reach beyond the pain, she noticed things about her surroundings for the first time.

Somewhere in the near distance, there was the whispering rush of waters flowing fast and free.  At first she thought it must be her imagination; in the arid desert, how could so much water flow?  But, as the sound continued unabating, she concluded that it was true just the same.  Water.  Some sort of underground spring, perhaps.

The though of so much water so near nearly drove her mad in her agony of thirst; yet one more torment to scourge her.

Then she noticed the terrible stench that permeated the air like a miasma.  It was the same odour she had smelled in the fabric shop, the smell of the creature beyond the curtained archway, only this was far stronger.  It was a charnal scent, putrescent and rank.  It made her eyes water and it was only through a determined effort that she could keep from gagging.

She tried to think about other things to take her mind off the pain and the stench, her thirst and the hungry knotting of her smooth tight belly.

She wondered about the hideous winged creatures which had attacked her on the maidan.  Dimly she recalled stories of similar monsters told in Sahara -- it was said, in older days, they were oft times seen perched grotesquely on the looming spires of the black towers.  Were these really the same such creatures?  Had they been sent by the priests?  Perhaps they had been dispatched to seek her once the black rider and his creatures lost the scent in the desert.  If so, since one had escaped, it was only a matter of time until the priests came for her again.

But then she realized it was unlikely even the Priests of the Tiger might find her in this hellish hole beneath the sands.  As for the weird-eyed Ronin, Fukitso, if he had survived, she no longer held out any hope he might rescue her from whatever hideous fate her captors planned.  Even if he had come back for her, now finding her missing, he would simply assume whatever fate befell the rest of the city had come upon her.

He had made it clear he did not hold himself responsible for her; he had been quite prepared to leave her on the mountain.  Doubtless he would be pleased to discover that one problem at least had been so easily solved.  He would not even bother himself to search for her, but, with his map in hand, he would set off across the desert to find someone else to translate it...

Suddenly stinging tears sprang to her eyes and, in spite of the thongs biting her wrists, her slender body began to quake with rigid, spasming sobs.

Perhaps he was already gone from the city.  Perhaps she was alone, truly alone, with no one to know or care when her terrible end came at last.  More than the pain, more than her thirst, this was the cruelest torment of all and, for a long, long time, she could imagine naught but the devastating vision of his strong, striding figure gradually dwindling into the wavering heat of the vast desert distance.

Finally, though, she was returned to her own body and suffering.  In desperation, she bit her lip against the pain and swept her daggered toes in a shallow arc around her.  The agony in her wrists was so terrible she nearly blacked out, but her effort was rewarded as her toes lightly brushed a smooth, round rock just to her left.  Steeling herself for another attempt, this time she succeeded in rolling the rock directly beneath her, allowing her to stand on pointed toes relieving the binding pressure at least while her strength held out.

It was a small victory, but it made her feel slightly better.

Though she had tried not to contemplate the frightening future which lay in store, she could not entirely avoid the implications of her situation.  The ruthless manner in which her captors had transported her made her wonder if they were even aware of her suffering.  Then there was the horrible sensation she had felt in the fabric shop -- as if the creature were listening longingly, covetously to the beating of her small heart in her breast.  Now, with her lithe, young body trussed nearly naked and dangling like a skinned antelope displayed on a meathook in a village suq, the significance loomed repulsive and terrifying.  Perhaps the sight of her suffering, brown form meant no more to these creatures than a succulent roast of lamb meant to a hungry man.

Perhaps they meant to eat her.

And that hideous thought brought another realization -- one of an even more ghastly aspect.  She suddenly began to wonder what the darkness held.  In this cold chamber of nightmare and death, with its terrible stench of rotting meat, why should she assume that she alone had been brought here?  Perhaps the black cave was thick with hanging carcasses, all crowding her with flayed flesh and exposed sinew, on display just like the meat in a suq.

She gasped nauseously, the grisly image swamping her mind, forcing out all other thoughts, stunning her by its hideousness, and for a moment a deeper darkness swam before her eyes, dizzy and numbing, before she managed to fight it back.

Then, suddenly, without warning, sharp, clammy fingers stroked the taut plane of her belly.

She screamed in surprise, her entire body flexing, nearly losing her footing on her round perch.

Instantly more hands poked and pressed at her crawling flesh, perhaps a dozen or more, reaching out of the darkness from all sides.  She bit at her lip drawing blood, stifling further screams and turning them into a closed-mouthed mewling of disgust and fear.

The damp, clutching hands moved insistently over her, prodding almost curiously,  working their way up her sleek length.

Was this the moment then?  Had they come to eat her as they had devoured the rest of the people of this poor, damned city?  Her mind cringed at the prospect even as her body strained against their loathsome caresses.  Surely they would have to kill her first.  Surely they must!  But then, if her suffering meant nothing to them, why should they care however much she might writhe and shriek as they glutted themselves on her flesh?  Horror piled on horror as her mind reeled, overwhelmed.  Perhaps they might tear at her, still living, like a pack of ravenous dogs, wrenching flesh from her sleek legs and round hips while she jerked and spun and dragged on her hook like --

Suddenly a cluster of eager hands grabbed her head, hung back between her shoulders.  Mindlessly she fought to twist her face away as the rim of a bowl was pressed to her lips, but they easily overpowered her.  She coughed and sputtered as a cold, thick mush flooded her mouth.  The bowl was taken away and cruel hands clasped her jaw forcing her mouth closed and holding it so until she swallowed gagging and choking.  Then the bowl was forced to her lips again and more of the stuff spilled between her teeth.

For a time the ordeal continued, brutal and denigrating, flooding her mouth with the disgusting concoction, then sealing her lips until she had swallowed it, then filling her mouth again.  Time and again she thought she would drown in the thick swill, only to draw desperate breath at the very last moment.  Finally, the bowl was pulled away for a final time and the forest of hands released her, leaving her shaking and weeping.

But, even in the shattering aftermath of her debasing assault, Almaz found herself wondering.  Why were they feeding her?  Why?

To keep her tender, young body ready and fresh for the feast to come?

The wide, marble maidan slept palely under the leaching glow of the two amber moons.  An expectant stillness hung in the desert air, a tense hush pregnant as the ready spring coiled in a samadhi's crouched thews.

Abruptly, as if by magic, a hair-thin crack shattered the unblemished plaster wall that lined one side of the maidan.  The crack yawned quickly heaving a shard of lambent light across the level space before it.  Through the flickering light, thirteen shades materialized, all but one moving with nervous, fearful steps, their kaffiyehs and turban-ends wrapped close about their faces revealing only the pearl-white gleams of their darting eyes.

Four carried magnificiently wrought torches of gilt filigree and shagreen grips.  The liquid flames danced in the silent wind's caress, painting dreamlike shifts of light and dark over the timorous throng while flashing white fire from the edged forest of talwars, khanjars and katar punch daggers they brandished in quaking, ivory fists.

Fukitso knelt stiffly, a grim frown hardening around his weird, nearly- white eyes.  His wide nostrils flared as he filled his lungs, testing the air as a beast might smell out its prey.

Though he alone gave no hint of fear, his every rolling muscle was primed for instant action, every sense keyed to a ferine preparedness.  He too had seen the loathsome moonshadows cast against the screen of the hammam and, more, the weirder serpentine shape which had followed after.  He was intensely aware the monsters, whatever they might be, had successfully vanquished an entire city, a city more than prepared to defend itself against fierce howling hordes of desert maurauders.  There was little reason to suppose he might fare differently, particularly as he no longer wielded his mysterious katana, Ginago -- though Dahika Khan had returned his smaller wakizashi, Kyodai, taken from him while he was unconscious.  But the thought of flight at no time entered the Ronin's consciousness.  It was not so much that his desire to rescue the girl outweighed his more basic sense of self-preservation; rather, it was that, having once set his mind to a task, his attention quickly became absorbed and focused to such an irresistable extent that no alternative impulse might sway him.

If he felt a specific concern for the girl, it was ill-defined and more foreign to his nature.  As his nostrils breathed in the clean musk of her body left behind on the stones, he dimly recalled how she had sipped precious water from his palm, so much like a tiny animal clinging with a fierce desperation to life.  Just as the outlanders spoke of eating another's salt, so had this bronze girl in a sense eaten his salt -- and so in a way he knew, by the fierce code of this land, he was obligated to save her... if he could.

As he knelt on the cool stones, he reconstructed the drama of her capture as vividly as if he had been there to witness it.  He could see the long scratches in the marble where the girl had dragged Ginago from amongst the fallen rubble -- where he had apparently dropped it; he could tell by her scent rising from the marble that she had crouched against this wall for a considerable time, perhaps the entire day.  That her musk still hung in the  moving air told him she could not have been captured long ago.  In the fine ash coating the maidan, he could make out the welter of footprints left both by the girl and by her many attackers when they had surrounded and taken her by surprise.

But where had they taken her?

"You see, Al Rih?"  There was no pleasure in Dahika Khan's tone, merely a grim acceptance.  "We are too late to save your girl.  Wherever she is now, only death can succour her."  He had previously gathered up his two glowing stones and replaced them in the bag about his neck.  His lean fingers fondled the bag as he spoke, as if afraid to lose them again.

"There are thirteen of us," Fukitso said, his eyes playing over the fearful huddle behind his friend.  "We are well armed and these things can hardly be large by the footprints they leave.  They are not expecting us to attack --"

"Your perseverance is astonishing."  Dahika Khan settled a firm hand on the wide, stiff shoulder of the Ronin's kataginu, a trailing smile molding his lips.  "This girl must have the loins of a houri to fire your passion in this way.  I begin to miss her myself."

Fukitso turned on him suddenly, a dark gleam smoldering in his narrow eyes.  "If you had more spine than humour maybe you would not now find yourself lord of a dead city."

The smile froze on the other's hawkish face, a dangerous light playing in his own slitted stare.  For a moment, a tension like taut hemp stretched between the two men, a deadly pull that threatened to end in the ringing clash of steel on steel.  In the crowd behind, nervous hands settled silently on jewelled hilts and hampering folds were brushed carefully aside.

But then Dahika Khan laughed with dark, roguish mirth and the moment passed away.  Without hurry, he drew back his hand from the Ronin's shoulder allowing it to touch, as if by accident, the hilt of his khanjar at his waist.  His smile was white with his teeth.

"You should take care, Al Rih," he said, with rigid amiableness.  "You don't have the lissome Migoti to guard your back this time, you know."  As if to emphasize the security of his own position, he turned his back on Fukitso and gestured out across the nighted maidan.  "Anyway, we have no way of even finding this girl of yours; there must be a passage somewhere, but we have yet to discover its whereabouts."

"I know where it is," Fukitso stated simply.  He rose easily to his feet as Dahika Khan wheeled to face him in surprise.

"You know?"  Something in the astonished timbre of Dahika Khan's voice caused Fukitso to glance over at him suddenly, a puzzled frown bending the Ronin's brow.  "That is -- how could you possibly have had time to search; you just got here this morning?"

"Still, I think I know where it is.  Follow me."

Without even waiting to see he was obeyed, Fukitso started away across the shadow-strewn maidan, walking with a quick but wary stride.

For a moment, the other men looked to Dahika Khan; they were confused and rattled as much by the Ronin's astounding arrogance as by the black, ominous night to which they now found themselves exposed.  Their leader watched Fukitso's broad, retreating back until the Ronin's black costume nearly blended invisibly into the thick shadows across the way -- then he shook his turbaned head in wry amazement and reluctantly followed after, gesturing his men to do likewise...

Fukitso moved in cloaken darkness, depending only on the moon-haze to light his path.  He climbed easily through the shattered lattice into the vase shop where he had encountered one of the creatures earlier in the day.  His Samurai eyes were honed by the sixth trial of the Doji temple and, even in the depths of the shop, he could find his way.  He stepped through the back archway, wrenching down the purple curtains as he went so they would not catch fire from his companions' torches.

He followed the back alley moving more stealthily still, already aware of the stench that stained the cool night, and knowing the odour was far stronger than when he had smelled it last.  Pausing in the vine-framed archway at the alley's end, he peered into the chamber beyond, Kyodai flashing in his fist.  Moonlight fell in sparkling shafts through the latticed vaulting, dappling the flagstone floor with diamonds and twisted serpentine shapes from the quisquali vines.

Behind Fukitso, wavering light suddenly played along the alley's length, stretching the Ronin's shadow into the dim room he surveyed.

A moment later, Dahika Khan appeared at his shoulder, the man's breathing tight and shallow with the fear he had tried so hard until now to conceal.

"Here?"  He made no such attempt to conceal the incredulity in his voice.  "You must be joking, Al Rih.  This may not be the most travelled spot in Fakhd al Houri, but someone would surely have found your passage before now if it were here."

"Why should someone find what they were not looking for?"  Fukitso crossed the threshold in an easy stride.  "Smell the air -- it's as foul as a barapur's den.  Your creatures have used this place often; their stench clings to the very stones.  But the smell is stronger than when I was here this morning..."  His eyes burned weirdly in the forest of moon-spears and his voice dropped ominously.  "They passed this way within the hour."

Though evidently unconvinced, Dahika Khan snatched a torch from one of his nervous followers and thrust it through the archway.  The roaring, liquid flames threw back the shadows, instantly filling the chamber with a harsh, lambent light.  "Then where is it?" he asked.  "The walls are plain and unadorned -- without even cracks to indicate a possible opening."

Fukitso turned to the plaster wall and began feeling its smooth surface with fast motions of his sensitve fingertips.  "There must be a lever or a catch somewhere," he said.  "It can't be very high either -- your monsters are not very tall."

"They must be sorcerers to be able to find levers invisible to our eyes."  Dahika Khan chuckled quietly at his own joke, but there was little humour in the nervous glance he cast over his shoulder.

"You would do well to watch your front more than your back," Fukitso commented darkly.  "If I do find a passage,  we may find ourselves fighting for our lives in an instant."

Dahika Khan wiped a streak of sweat from the line of his turban.  "If you find a passage," he said.  "If not, will you agree to forget this mad pursuit and accept that there is nothing more we can do to save your precious little strumpet?"

Fukitso ignored the challenge, maintaining his silence as he continued to search the wall, working his way slowly along it with far greater care than he had taken before.  Then, abruptly, he paused, his eyes narrowing to glinting slits, his fingers splayed frozen.

Slowly he turned and his gaze dropped to the flagstones beneath his sandalled feet.  As if struck from behind, he dropped to one knee.  His eyes scanned the flagstones with an urgent, questing stare, evidently searching for something specific.  Then they fixed on a single stone and his breath hissed through his nostrils like a karmah.  He reached out and lightly rapped the stone with the banded hilt of his wakizashi.  By the muffled quality of the sound, there was only close-packed earth beneath.

"There, you see?"  Dahika Khan cast another glance over his shoulder.  "There's no passage here.  Now, let's be gone from this place before we find ourselves trapped in this deadend alley."

"Give me your khanjar."  The Ronin's tone left little room for debate.

Begrudgingly, Dahika Khan passed over his weapon, puzzled creases striating his glistening forehead.

Fukitso stabbed the recurved blade into the soft soil around the edges of the flagstone, then began to pry the stone from its seat.  After a minute of steady pressure, the flagstone gave way with a sudden surge, and even Dahika Khan gasped when he saw the black tunnel that burrowed beneath.

Fukitso nodded with admiration as he studied the thick slab of cork fastened to the underside of the flag.  "It seems your creatures have the brains of men," he commented soberly.  "They knew how to hide even the hollow sound of their tunnel."

"But how did you know?"  Dahika Khan shook his turbaned head in amazement.

"I use more senses than just my eyes and ears," Fukitso replied.  By way of explanation, he thrust his arm down into the black hole and drew up into the light a pale rippling burnouse.  He brought the fabric near to his face and his nostrils flared ferally.  "They must have lost her burnouse when they carried her this way.  I smelled her body's scent left behind on the cloth."  He opened his hands and the burnouse fell back down into the hole.

Dahika Khan smiled wanly, his amazement tinged with a bitter anger - - for he knew what Al Rih would next expect of them and he did not hold out great hope for their prospects.

"All right, Al Rih," he conceded reluctantly.  "We'll do what we can to find this girl of yours.  But remember, these men follow my orders, not yours.  If we find ourselves overmatched, I won't hesitate to call a retreat, even should that mean leaving her -- or you -- to die."

Fukitso handed back the khanjar and lowered himself down into the tunnel, his muscled girth making for a close squeeze.  He reached up for a torch which Dahika Khan passed down.  The Ronin regarded the other narrowly a moment, the firelight dancing in his blind-seeming eyes.  "You were forged of stronger metal when we last met," he said harshly.

"I was young and impetuous," Dahika Khan replied with a shrug.  "My metal may not be as strong, but you will find that is more than made up for by the keenness of my edge."

Fukitso grunted, then ducked into the long darkness beneath the floor.  At Dahika Khan's signal, one by one the other men followed after, their licking torches limning the fearful whites of their eyes...

Next episode...The Blind Idol

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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!)