Stalkers of the Tiger's Bride


A SERIAL of SHEMSHIRAN

BY JEFFREY BLAIR LATTA
 

Previously: Fukitso, Dahika Khan and twelve survivors enter the underground lair where they discover Dahika Khan is to blame for the city's destruction, having stolen the glowing "eyes" from the pishacas' "goddess" -- really a ship's figurehead.  But what is a figurehead doing in the middle of the desert?  Attacked by the pishacas and their fire-breathing "dune  dragon", the others retreat, leaving Fukitso alone.  Though the Ronin causes the dune dragon to explode, there are too many pishacas, and he too retreats, only to find Dahika Khan has treacherously sealed the exit.

Meanwhile, in the lightless lair...



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EPISODE 17: GLOWING HANDS IN THE DARK


Almaz had listened to the distant din with small shivers of trepidation.

At no point did it occur to her that the noise might in any way involve a rescue on her behalf.  But she was at a loss to account for it.  So far, her vile captors had given no indication they would or could speak, and yet she had distinctly heard voices raised as if in desperate alarm.  What language those voices spoke was lost in a welter of bouncing echoes, but the cadences in the voices suggested civilized men, at least.

Unlike Fukitso, she had no reason to believe anyone still lived in Fakhd al Houri; she had long since come to the conclusion that all the city's inhabitants had been devoured by her captors, just as she would be soon enough.  Yet, the strange voices served to raise the slight hope in her mind that someone had survived and that that someone might find her here in this cold, black dungeon.  Who that someone might be, she could not imagine, but she knew, whoever it was, could be no worse than the things they fought against.

Then a fantastic explosion sounded in the distance, and shortly after that a choking stench of charing flesh had reached her delicate nose -- making her gag, for she guessed its source.

For a time, she continued to listen, urgently hoping for a renewal of the sounds, knowing in them lay her only hope.  But the sounds did not resume and, eventually, with a sinking heart, she forced herself to accept the most likely explanation for the cessation.  No doubt, whoever the attackers had been, they had met with the same grisly fate as the winged monsters which had menaced her on the maidan: they had been consumed and rendered into fine ash by that eldrich sapphire flame which her captors somehow produced.

Once again she was alone.

Though she still stood perched on her smooth rock, the trembling exhaustion in her straining calves and thighs had gradually taken its toll.  Now she hung suspended almost entirely by the thongs cruelly biting into her wrists.  The pain was no longer as intense however, prolonged suffering having muted its sting to some extent, but the agony flared up again in wrists and arms at every little movement of her body.

The cool air had not bothered her at first, concerned as she was with other matters, but slowly, as time passed, her chill surroundings drew the living heat from her naked flesh, so that now she shivered constantly and her teeth chattered wretchedly.

Ironically, if there was a bright side to any of this, it was the liquid her captors had so brutally forced on her.  As terrible as had been the ordeal, she found at least that her stomach no longer knotted with hunger and her thirst, which before had seemed likely to finish her, was assuaged to a limited extent.

She had long since lost track of time, and now had no way of knowing whether she had hung here for hours or for days.  It could not have been much more or she would have perished of thirst.

Gradually the agony of her tormented flesh grew numb and distant; her thoughts became vague and clouded, and she dangled in a strange, dreamlike daze.  Dimly it occurred to her that the liquid had been laced with some sort of drug.  It had the effect of sapping her will and rendering her frighteningly submissive and unconcerned.  In spite of the throbbing pain, her muscles grew supple and relaxed as if she reclined luxuriously on a silk bed.

In spite of the darkness, she closed her eyes and allowed the soothing lassitude to suffuse her anguished frame with a tranquil, spreading warmth.  She inhaled in shallow breathes through parted lips, moaning weakly with sensual pleasure, licking her lips from time to time as if to savour a taste like rich honey.  The cold air, the creaking thongs, even the knowledge that she was soon to die -- all these were problems to ponder only at a later time; for now, there was only the precious cocooning influence of the drug.

Through the mist-veils of her languorous stupor, she listened to the distant musical rushing of water, a gently soothing song which enhanced the soporific working of the drug.  Dimly she wondered again what might be its source in the midst of this dry, illimitable wasteland.

But it was difficult for her drifting mind to stay fixed on a single question, and she quickly forgot the water, harkening back instead to the mysterious voices which she had heard before.  A dream-smile played on her open lips and she giggled child-like as she pondered how one of the voices had sounded much like the deep bellow of her Ronin companion.  Even in her confused state, she knew it was a silly fancy, a cruel trick of resonance and echo; a final mean deception to torment her and to complete the horrible suffering of her captivity and death.

But then, abruptly, her ears detected another sound in the darkness.

Fighting against the unrelenting lassitude, she struggled to raise her heavy head and to open her eyes.  With no light to see by, the effort was made in vain but still she stared into the surrounding night half-lidded -- for the sound had been very near.

Again she heard it -- a weak, suffering moan, wretched with pain and exhaustion.  It was a woman who cried out -- a woman held captive in this very chamber with her.

Desperately Almaz wanted to speak to the woman, to establish a bond of friendship if only to strengthen them both for the coming ordeal.  But her eyes were so very heavy and her lips felt numb.  The simple act of drawing enough breath to speak, both against the power of the drug and against the  tension stretching her chest, called for a greater will than she could find in herself.

With a weary, anguished sob, her head fell back between her shoulders and her eyes closed once more...

***

Sometime later Almaz awoke, aware she had drifted off but ignorant of the duration of her sleep.  She suspected she could not have slept long, for the drug remained as potent as before.  Her eyes were partly open and, for a moment, she thought she must still be dreaming.

In the darkness before her, but slightly to the right, an oval shape glowed with a ghostly carmine light.

In spite of her listlessness, her eyes widened and she studied the drifting oval as if hypnotized by its strange, steady luminance.

As she watched, the oval floated magically in the unfathomable darkness, mysteriously shrinking to a thin line, then widening almost to a circle.  Abruptly it passed in front of her.  With an exhausted groan, she lifted her head enough to peer through the space between her rigid arms.  She gazed in dreamly fascination as a small spot of light abruptly detached from the larger oval and began to make odd movements in the blackness.  There was a strange unreal beauty to the thing, and it held her spellbound and breathless as it danced and swerved like a glowing insect in the night.

Then, suddenly, the small light expanded in her vision, instantly filling her startled gaze with its scarlet brilliance and she felt something cold press firmly against her forehead just above her nose.

Instantly a wave of revulsion and horror swept through her.  She finally understood the source of the two lights!

The largest was a bowl filled with a phosphorescent liquid; the smaller was the tip of a finger which had been dipped in the glowing fluid and then touched to her forehead, painting a spot there.

Desperately she wanted to scream in disgust and loathing, but the drug maintained its crushing hold and her cry was no more than a weak, shivering sob as if mumbled in the depths of uneasy sleep.  Nor could she summon the strength to struggle in her bonds, but hung spent and passive, her head again dropping back between her shoulders.

Now she sensed movement in the surrounding night; but not through sight, for the dim illumination of the phosphorescent liqud was too faint.  Rather she detected  the subtle shifting of naked feet on the stone floor and the soft, urgent breathing of countless creatures ranged thickly around her in a hideous, watching throng.

She squeezed her eyes tight and fought to close off her senses to the nightmare, but even the soothing lassitude of the drug could not swaddle her against its cruel reality.

A lean finger touched the damp arc of her throat, then began to paint a line down the centre of her body, pulling away periodically to replenish the glowing fluid.  Almaz could do no more than shiver helplessly as the finger ruthlessly stroked the line down between her smooth breasts, then into the tautly breathing depression below her ribs.

She winced and weeped with shame as the line was extended onto her sleek belly, dipping as it crossed the well of her navel, then continuing lower until the finger touched the slight fabric over her loins.  For a moment, the finger pulled back and she felt a hand pluck curiously at the cloth, heedless of the sudden tightening of her lean muscles beneath.

Then the exploratory probing ended and, seconds later, the finger began painting horizontal lines along her upper chest.  The painter's other hand pressed strangely into her skin with insistent, crawling motions just ahead of the paint-tipped finger.  Slowly Almaz realized that the one hand was feeling out the lines of her ribs which the other hand then delineated with glowing paint, rendering her living skeleton hideously visible to the observing horde in the dark.

No longer able even to summon tears, she could only hang dazed and submissive as her lower ribs were similarly marked out below her breasts in steep scalloped arcs.   She no longer felt burning humiliation at the clammy touch of their hands on her naked body; they had rendered her numb to their caress by the sheer thoroughness of their violation.  She hoped only that, whatever they planned for her, it would come soon and end this endless nightmare.

Finally the last rib was marked and both hands drew away.

For a while she waited in silent, dreadfilled anticipation.  She remained uncertain of their intentions.  She had concluded the phosphorescent paint was intended to make her body visible in this world of unfathomable night; she had already surmised that these creatures had no knowledge of fire beyond its use as a weapon.  Beyond this lay a frightening realm of abhorrent speculation -- a country into which she dared not tread.

Abruptly, she felt the paint-tipped finger stroking at the supple skin just beneath her left breast, making there a strangely complicated symbol which she could not imagine through feel alone.  When the intricate symbol was complete, the hand again withdrew.

A moment later, she heard the soft rustling of innumerable feet as the grisly audience slowly left her, shuffling off into the cool blackness of their subterranean lair.

For a time, she fought the urge to reflect on what had been done to her; fought it with a despairing strength born of a terrible suspicion.  Eventually, though, her scattered thoughts coalesced and she dimly grasped the significance of the savage markings adorning her flesh.

Without light, the creatures used the phosphorescent paint to reveal the central line of her body and to indicate the position of each of her slender ribs.  It was thus simple enough to divine the meaning of the final symbol, and so to imagine its appearance.  The symbol had been painted directly over her rapidly throbbing heart and the symbol itself was no doubt a crude diagram of that heart.

Her naked body had been carefully prepared as if a living, breathing treasure map...
 



Next episode...Fangs of the Spider


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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!)