Stalkers of the Tiger's Bride



Previously: Captured by the creatures responsible for the decimation of the desert city, Almaz is hung from a hook, in darkness, in their underground lair.  There, miserably awaiting her fate and believing she is going to be eaten, she hears mysterious running water somewhere in the distance.  In a tussle with Dahika Khan, Fukitso finds his "friend" carries two strange glowing gems, which Dahika Khan insists he won from a sowar.  Fukitso clearly doesn't believe him.  Fukitso, Dahika Khan and the city's twelve survivors locate the secret entrance to the undergound tunnels by the scent of Almaz's burnoose dropped during her capture.

Now, in a tunnel beneath Fakhd al Houri...

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Fukitso had expected natural tunnels or perhaps crudely dug passages; instead he found narrow corridors walled with rough tiers of jade brickwork that met in a shallow vaulting overhead.

"Are these passages part of the city?" he asked Dahika Khan in a low whisper.

"Not that I know of."  Dahika Khan ran a hand appraisingly over the jade courses, his eyes burning with wonderment.  "These tunnels look as ancient as the ruins of Shalabad.  I've heard stories that the modern city of Fakhd al Houri was built on a site used by a more ancient civilization before.  This could be part of an earlier city."

This unexpected discovery unnerved Fukitso.  He too had heard stories, but tales weirder and more preternatural in content.  The stories were related in furtive whispers in the serais and the bazaars that breasted the rim of the Feverish Quarter.  The eternally shifting desert sands, it was said, sometimes swallowed cities whole in the space of a single howling night.

Some such cities lived on in a mythic nightmare realm of loathsome decay and degeneracy, their damned inhabitants, called pishacas, miraculously surviving beneath the dunes, sating their inhuman hunger through the flesh of travellers who lost their way on the Tariq al Asal -- the Honey Road.  Fabled Bir el Harami was one such place; mystic Aswad Tell was another.  Some said there were still older cities which the dunes had claimed, of which dark and blasphemous Kirikuzu, last capitol of the jewelled Empire of Ankaji, was the most famous -- or infamous.

Fukitso had experienced enough in his life to know such legends as the pishacas were seldom without some basis in fact.  Now, the discovery of these hoary structures interred and forgotten beneath the whispering desert sands seemed too eerily reminiscent of those grotesque tales.  His knuckles gripped his wakizashi that much more firmly and he brandished the torch before him like a mystic septre raised against unholy night.

"We are below the water table," Fukitso commented, indicating the dampness of the surrounding stones and the puddles which burned white in the glare of the torches.  "No wonder there is so much greenery on the surface -- there is water enough here to last --"

Abruptly he held up his sword, halting the others in a ragged line behind.  They blinked in the unsteady light as if woken suddenly from a deep stupor.

"Look," he said quietly.  "Up ahead.  Some sort of cavern, I think."

Dahika Khan nodded grimly, his lips set tight.  He seemed to have forgotten his insistence that he be the leader of his men, accepting the Ronin's guidance without question -- for now, at least.

Fukitso motioned them to continue.  Seconds later, the passage opened out into another chamber.  As the thirteen men stumbled from the tunnel and looked around, they gaped one after the other, each dumbfounded to think such a structure might have existed beneath Fakhd al Houri for centuries with none the wiser.

It was a domed chamber in which they found themselves, but a gargantuan cavernous dome as had not been built for millennia.  Six slender, emerald green arcades, one atop the other, circled the entire amphitheatre in a vast stone belt of serried pillars and black lancet arches.  Above the topmost tier, the immense jade sweep of the dome thrust gracefully up and up into a dizzy haze of illusive darkness.  So huge was the emerald dome that the moist air formed wispy, drifting clouds in the upper reaches of the shadows, as if in jealous imitation of the sky from which it had long ago been banished.

In spite of the impressive grandeur of the architecture, there was an odd unkempt air of decay and ruin about the place.  It would have been easy to imagine they were the first to stand under this green dome in centuries, were it not for the sickly stench that tinged each cool breath -- too well reminding them of why they were there.

Fukitso was concerned, aware they were too exposed in this open chamber, knowing an army of pishacas might, even now, be watching them from those shadowed arcades.  He could see the girl was not here and he wished to continue the search before they lost the element of surprise -- if surprise had ever been theirs -- but his interest was momentarily aroused by the wide stone altar set under the very centre of the echoing dome.

Behind the altar stood a wooden statue raised on a slender pedestal.

The statue was of a beautiful woman, naked save for a diaphanously flowing dress wrapped low on the glossy swells of her hips and split up the middle so it washed sensuously around her long legs as if parted by a howling gale.

The woodcarver had been a master of his craft, perfectly capturing the satin smoothness of the woman's bare flesh, the silken torrent of her long hair, the full, luxurious crests of her lips.  Her lithe body was arched like a strung bow, slender arms straight and slightly back from her sides.  Everything about her, the flow of her clothing and hair, the forward thrust of her body, even the smile on her lips, all suggested a woman revelling in the cool caress of a steady wind over her skin.

Only one thing marred the perfection of the image -- where her eyes should have been were instead two crude holes blasted in the polished wood.  In the midst of such exquisitely wrought beauty, the holes seemed like a barbarous desecration.

Under the circumstances, Fukitso suspected that was precisely what they were.

"What is it?"  Dahika Khan allowed his torch-light to play over the alluring statue, the sheen off the polished flesh merely emphasizing the ravished darkness of the absent eyes.

"A figurehead," Fukitso said in a sober tone.  "It's from the bow of a ship."

"A ship!"  Dahika Khan's eyes dilated and a sharp laugh spat from his lips -- until he noticed the dangerous set to his companion's heavy jaw.  "You're serious, aren't you?  But what would someone be doing with a figurehead out here in this sunblasted wilderness?  Do you think it might have been carried on a caravan?"

Fukitso seemed deaf to all but his own sober reflections.  "They have no torches," he said, as if talking to himself.  "Without our lights, we would be plunged into absolute darkness."

"What are you talking about, Al Rih?"  There was sudden unease in Dahika Khan's voice, a false note which had not been there before.  "Why are we wasting precious time with this wooden relic, anyway?  Wasn't there a lissome girl we were looking --"

Fukitso wheeled on him with a fierce bestial snarl.  "You stole those glowing rubies.  That's why the creatures attacked the city."

Dahika Khan stumbled back in surprise, his talwar flashing defensively.  "What are you talking about?  I told you, I won them from a sowar."

"You lie!  Those rubies were the eyes of this statue -- the glowing eyes.  You were an idiot not to read the signs around you.  These creatures have no knowledge of fire -- they live in absolute darkness; but I'm betting their ancestors knew the sun well enough.  Somehow they found this figurehead and brought it here.  Its fiery eyes must have seemed like a miracle to them, dispelling the darkness in this chamber as if a gift from the gods.  And a god was what they no doubt took her for.  But then you stole the glowing eyes and they thought their goddess had closed her eyes to them.  Don't you see -- they kidnapped your women to sacrifice them in the hopes the goddess would open her eyes again!"

Dahika Khan's dusky complexion had taken on a ghastly pallid hue and his eyes bulged from their sockets.  For a moment he seemed inclined to continue the pretense, but then he saw the expressions of stunned accusation on the shadowed features of his men and he knew the time for pretense was ended.

"I didn't know!" he snarled, stepping clear of the group so none might take him from behind.  "I thought this place was abandoned.  Anyway, there isn't a man here who wouldn't have done the same."  He turned on his men, his teeth flashing against the darkness of his face.  "Well -- which of you can say differently?  We're all the same here, all out for profit.  You can't hold me accountable for something like this."

"Then put the rubies back."  Fukitso's voice was the rumble of a gathering storm.

Dahika Khan whirled, his teeth clenched in a vicious snarl.  "Oh, no.  These rubies are worth a Sultan's treasury.  I'll die before I'll put them back."

"Then you'll die."

An abrupt silence froze the air like a finger touched to a chiming bell.  Both men stood poised with raised blades, thews tensed to a hair-trigger readiness.  In an instant, their argument would have been settled in a brutal court of flashing metal and misting blood.

But such was not to be.

Seemingly from the air above, a blinding blue-white bolt lanced into the midst of the gathered throng.  One of the men loosed a hideous dying shriek even as he was engulfed in a racing ball of searing sapphire flame.  Before the light died away, a second bolt crackled in the air, and a second man perished in a screaming hell of roiling unholy inferno.

The remaining men looked frantically around with horror-struck eyes, thrown into wild, blinding panic by the unexpectedness of the attack.

Fukitso instantly recognized they were doomed so long as they remained in the open.  He could not as yet determine the source of the sapphire flame but it was evident, with it, the creatures could pick them off at leisure without needing to strike so much as a single solid blow.  It occurred to him that these creatures might not know how to fight one on one; indeed, it was possible the pishacas -- if that was what they were -- were ignorant of steel as well as light.  If the men were to survive, they must carry the fight to their attackers.  But where?

Abruptly his eyes caught a pale movement in the shadows of the lowest arcade on the opposite side of the chamber from whence they had entered.

"This way!" he shouted hoarsely, even as he sprang across the wide emerald chamber with the lithe, bounding strides of a karmah.

As he approached the sheltered arches, the whipping flames of his torch gradually flickered over a loathsome sea of shining eyes and gaunt, fish-pale bodies.  The creatures huddled thickly beneath the arcade like a roiling mass of maggots on a rotting carcass, their flesh flaccid and wetly glistening, their faces wide and mottled with dark, crusted blisters.  Even as the light fell on them, their gleaming black eyes contracted to minute points set in bloodshot whites and they raised sinewy hands against the blinding glare.

In a surge, he was among them, swinging the torch to left and right, already aware it might be all the weapon he needed against such creatures.  But though some fell back in a hideous seething mass, others crowded in behind him and he felt damp, clutching hands spastically grabbing his legs and arms in numbers too great to count.  As small as they were, their vast numbers threatened to overwhelm him; he knew that, should he once lose his footing, he would not rise again.

Then the torch was dashed from his hand, to fall still burning amongst the gruesome host, casting them into grisly, ghostly silhouette.  With a nauseous shudder, Fukitso noticed the light shone diffusely through their sickly flesh revealing the living bones within.  Desperately he sought to hack his way forward through the things, but they dragged at his sword arm with a viscous tenacity, turning each bloody stroke into a ponderous, slow motion cut that accomplished little more than to wear away at his strength.

As he fought, he felt a searing rage at the thought of this loathsome press laying such hands upon the fragile flesh of the girl.  The terrible image of her bronze body even now writhing beneath their vile touch, pushed him to still greater ferocity and he began to shrug them from his thews like scraps of damp, tattered clothing.

The creatures seemed made of little more than bone and skin.  Kyodai licked again and again, flashing like a sheet of scarlet fire, weaving a grisly tapestry of death and spilling gore.  Fukitso strode through the creatures as if fording a racing river, ignorant of all but his unswerving determination to find the girl, even should that mean killing every last one of the ghastly things.

Dimly, he heard Dahika Khan calling on his men to pull back and Fukitso spat a black curse at the man's cowardice.  He cast a hurried glance over his heaving shoulder even as he smashed in a creature's skull with the  pommel of his wakizashi.

The others had not followed him in his attack but instead had remained ridiculously exposed in the middle of the green chamber.  The sapphire flames had taken a terrible toll and only four men remained with Dahika Khan.  The rear sheets of their kaffiyehs and loose ends of their turbans fluttered like flags of surrender as they turned their backs and raced madly for the far arcade and the exit.

Unable to spare a further glance, Fukitso returned his attention to the job at hand, grimly aware that his chances now were slim indeed.  He fought alone and, worse, the men had taken their torches with them, turning the domed chamber into a black impenetrable night at his back.  And, for all his effort, he had barely progressed more than a dozen paces.

At least he knew those twelve paces were heaped with a war's carnage as high as his waist and, so long as his humming sword continued to buy him even one more step, his mind held no thought but to find the girl or die with her in Stygian darkness.

Then, to his surprise, the attacking creatures parted before him even as others continued the assault from the back and sides.  Ahead he could dimly make out a jade lobate archway -- and his eyes narrowed truculently.

From beyond the black depths of the arch came a soft rasping as of scale armour dragged over rough stone.

He recognized the sound as that which he had heard passing the hammam in the night and recalled the low, ominous shadow which had accompanied it.  In spite of the many hands still tearing at him, his attention fixed on the archway and he grimly raised Kyodai two-handed and horizontal before his face.

Suddenly a monster surged from the archway in a single sinuous thrust that exposed it as far as the middle of its gleaming scaly flanks.

It was a massive reptile of some kind, with a long narrow snout and sprawling legs with clawed toes.  The hide along its back was a glistening red so dark it was nearly black, while its belly was a light pink and slithered over the ground as it moved.  There was a low, spiny sail along the length of its back which brushed nearly flat as it passed under the shallow arch and a curved horn on its nose gleamed like polished ebony.

The thing seemed like some sort of primevial monster raised up out of the vast gulfs of far-ancient past.  Yet the effect jarred disconcertingly with the leather harness cinched tightly around the creature's head and forelegs.  What was more, the beast was accompanied by several of the pallid pishacas who drove it with sharp blows from stone-tipped prods.  It was a pet then, somehow domesticated by these hideous pishacas who shared its dark exile.

Together the creature's drivers began rattling their prods along its scaly hide.  Frowning, Fukitso noticed the monster's broad ribs suddenly expand outward like billows and he felt the suction of its breath.

Instantly he understood his danger.

With a startled curse, he flung himself desperately to one side, crushing a welter of his attackers beneath his plunging weight.  Behind him, a blue-white jet of flame roared from the serpent's nostrils, inundating the group of pishacas who had sought to hold him in its deadly path.  Even in the midst of a roaring, searing death, the things made no sound but perished in ghastly silence.

At last he understood.  The serpent was a dune dragon; until now, he had thought they were merely creatures of myth.

Had he been a heartbeat slower, Fukitso knew he might have become a myth himself.

Having fallen in his lunge, he now found himself beset by a fanatical press of grasping claws, all fighting to prevent him from regaining his feet.  He had dropped Kyodai and had only his bare hands as weapons.  More prodding caused the dune dragon to adjust its aim toward him.  With his blood running like liquid ice, Fukitso understood that the pishacas holding him had no sense of self-preservation; they intended to restrain him until they too were consumed in the same sapphire inferno that was to incinerate their captive.

Furiously he heaved up against the clammy press, aware the dune dragon was again filling its cavernous lungs at the prodding of its masters.  But as small as the pishacas were, they were like a living net, yielding  slightly to his struggles yet never breaking.

In his scarlet rage of helplessness, Fukitso transformed into a wild beast.  Snarling and growling, his eyes blazed with mindless, inhuman ferocity as he savagely wrenched white limbs from bodies with his bare hands and bit away chunks of streaming flesh with his massive, flashing teeth.  But for every pishaca destroyed another clambered to take its place.

Instantly, the animal rage gave back to the cunning of the man -- or, more properly, the cunning of the Samurai.

Fukitso's hand slid into his kataginu and drew out a blue-metal shuriken star-dart.  With a desperate hurl, he sent the shuriken singing through the air, aware it was almost surely a futile final gesture.

But the razor-edged star-dart struck the dune dragon between two straining ribs, puncturing through its scaly hide and into the bulging lungs beneath.  Whatever effect Fukitso had expected from his action, he could not have anticipated what followed.

The dune dragon exploded.

A blue-white flash instantly filled the emerald space beneath the arcade, as dazzling as the full shine of the midday sun.  A bone-shivering concussion heaved outward like a roaring gust of wind, accompanied by a deafening clap that nearly stunned Fukitso through sound alone.

The force of the shockwave ruthlessly scooped up all in its path.  Fukitso felt the many loathsome hands tear away from his limbs as if caught in the grip of the whirlwind, but had no time to savour his freedom, as the explosion lifted him as easily as a feather and carried him, tumbling wildly, out into the open beneath the dome.  Even in his dazed state, he relaxed all his thews, aware, when he landed, he would land hard.

Had his body not been woven of cable-like muscle and steely bone, the fall would almost certainly have dashed him into a scarlet smear.  As it was, he struck the jade floor with a brutal force sufficient to render him insensate for a time.

When he groggily opened his eyes, he had no way of knowing how much time had passed.  His head spun and his temples throbbed painfully.  The cavernous green dome was no longer held in darkness; scattered fires fed hungrily off the shattered dead of the pishacas; the flames, no longer blue, thrashed the cool air with eerie yellow blades, painting the tiered arcades in flickering patterns of light and shadow.

Under the arcade where the dune dragon had exploded, a topaz furnace blazed furiously, incinerating the dragon itself as well as those who had stood near.  One glance told Fukitso there could be no path through that blistering inferno and so no way to reach the girl, even had he been in any condition to continue the fight.

In spite of the terrible carnage, already the surviving pishacas were regathering in the grisly light cast by the burning of their dead brethren.  In groups of twenty or more, they advanced between the islands of flames, their eyes made pure white by the flickering brilliance.

Though they were easy to kill as individuals, both their numbers and their staggering incessantness rendered them almost preternatural in their strength.  Had there been any hope of finding a way through the rising flames blocking the mouth of the archway, the Ronin would have fought, regardless of the incredible odds against him.  But there was no hope by that route and so, with a savage snarl of disgust, he heaved to his feet, retrieved Kyodai and, whirling, bolted for the tunnel by which he had come.

Behind him, the ghastly monsters broke into wild, shambling pursuit, their chase made all the more eerie by their unbroken silence.  Fukitso dashed along the low, jade-bricked passage, his sandalled feet stomping hissing sheets from the puddles, the darkness quickly engulfing him as he left the grisly pyres behind.

He could hear the echoing rattle of innumerable naked feet following like hungry salukis and he recalled with disquiet the amazing speed with which one of the pishacas had outrun him during the day.  In the dark, he was not even certain he would be able to find the way out when he came to it.  If they once caught up with him in this black, constricted tunnel...

But then he smelled the girl's body scent in the air and, a second later, his feet touched her burnouse where he had dropped it down the hole.  He reached up over his head and his fingers rasped along the cork underside to the flagstone hatch.  The damp patter of frantic pursuit approached steadily out of the still darkness like the dry rustle of a python.  He pushed up against the hatch -- only to find it refused to yield to his effort.

A chill far colder then the air crystallized in his bones.  Dahika Khan had betrayed him and sealed the hatch from the other side.

He was trapped...

Next episode...Glowing Hands in the Dark

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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!)