Stalkers of the Tiger's Bride



Previously: The Ronin Fukitso is abandoned and locked in by his "friend" Dahika Khan in the tunnels  of the loathsome Pishacas under the desert city.  Deeper in the lightless lair, Almaz hears the sounds of battle but, still drugged, does not know it is on her behalf.  Then she hears another woman moaning in the darkness.  Who is this female companion in suffering?  Abruptly, the pishacas paint her naked hanging body with phosphorescent markings, indicating the location of her heart...lacking fire and light, the markings will guide them in the sacrifice to come!

Meanwhile, in the city above...

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Dahika Khan grimly studied the four nervous figures in the pale illumination of a single ghee lamp.  Including himself, only five men had made it out of that hellish hole alive.  Though he could not be certain Al Rih had perished, he had little doubt but that such was the case.  A last glance had shown the Ronin completely surrounded by a seething mass of whatever those things had been, his torch knocked from his hand and no way back or forward.  It would have taken a miracle to save him.

"Should I kill you now, Dahika Khan -- or should I stake you outside the main gate and let the buzzards tear out your guts?"

Fukitso stalked into the path of the wavering light, seeming to fill the pillared hammam with a blackness to match the terrible wrath in his grating voice.  "That is, if they can find any."

The five men sprang erect, some exclaiming with a superstitious dread, knocking over charpoys in their frantic haste.  Their blades flickered in the darkness, but out of Fukitso's looming silhouette grew a long streak of glinting silver and his laugh was like the vicious growl of a hunting hound.

"Al Rih!" Dahika Khan exclaimed, fighting to regain his composure.  "We thought you were dead, effendi."

"You thought, or you hoped?"

"Truly, you have to believe me.  Just look at us.  There were thirteen men went into that terrible tunnel, and look how few came out.  I had no choice but to retreat."

Fukitso's tone was a dangerous snarl.  "It wasn't your leaving me that matters.  You gave me fair warning on that score.  And you're right -- there was never any chance we could have made it through that way.  But you sealed the exit behind you with a dagger.  If I hadn't managed to force it, I would have died down there.  That's why I will kill you."

"But surely you see," Dahika Khan explained, with nervous amiability.  "We thought you were already dead.  I had these other men to think of and I knew it was only a matter of time until those monsters came after us.  That's why we sealed the hatch -- to plug up the lair you had discovered."  To prove the truth of his assertion, he warily lowered his talwar and motioned for the others to follow suit.  But Fukitso gave no indication his temper was assuaged by this explanation.

"There's only one thing might win you back your life," he said darkly.  Dahika Khan frowned.  "You are going to help me rescue that girl."

Dahika Khan burst into amazed laughter that echoed wildly in the depths of the bathhouse.  He flourished a hand before his face like a fluttering bird.  "You're mad, do you know that?  Your sanity has flown from its cage."

"Still, you'll help me or you'll die."

"But how can we save her?  You already said, there is no way to reach her."

"No way by that route.  Especially now they know we have discovered it.  But there's another way into those tunnels and you know where it is."

"Me?"  Dahika Khan laughed again, but there was a diminished conviction to the sound and a nervous gleam in his dark eyes.  "If I knew of another way, don't you think I would have told you?"

"No, you wouldn't.  But when I first told you I knew a way into the tunnels, your reaction told me you already knew about the opening."

"And so I did.  As you said, I had already been down there -- that was how I got hold of these two rubies."

Fukitso stepped forward and the soft light washed across his chiseled features.

"But not that way.  While I was looking for a secret door, you kept glancing behind you, afraid we might get caught in that alley.  If you had known there was a hatchway there, you wouldn't have been so concerned about an attack from behind."

This time Dahika Khan was slower to respond.  He regarded the scowling Ronin through narrowly glinting eyes, one finger casually sliding along the shining edge of his talwar.  "There are five of us," he said steadily.

"I have no quarrel with these other four.  You're the one I want.  Are you sure they're loyal enough to die for you?"

The words seemed to shake Dahika Khan's facade of confidence and he cast a quick glance at the four men shifting nervously in the sprawling shadows.  What he saw apparently did not encourage him for he returned his eyes to the Ronin and shrugged.

"All right then, Al Rih.  You win.  There is another way into those tunnels and I will agree to show you where it is..."  A crafty light kindled in his look and his voice became a purr.  "But there is a price for the life of this girl you crave.  Pay my price and I'll show you the way.  Refuse..."  He spread his hand carelessly.  "...and may the barapurs enjoy the weaker."

Fukitso's strange eyes narrowed.  "And what is this price?"

Dahika Khan grew braver, drawing strength from what he did best -- bargaining.  "It is a small boon to ask, especially for such a young, tender flower as this girl must certainly be.  Indeed, I would be tempted to make the price a single exquisite night spent sampling the rare pleasures of her straining loins...did I think there was any chance at all you might succeed in your quest."

"State your price."

Dahika Khan smiled mildly and gestured with his hand.  "Give me that map you carry."

Fukitso was taken by surprise and it was a moment before he replied.  "Why are you interested in this map?  You don't even know what it is for."

Dahika Khan chuckled maliciously, the light flashing in his hungry eyes.  "Come now, Al Rih.  You may question my courage but please don't insult my intelligence.  I don't know anything about that map, but I know you,  and I know you deflected the conversation when I mentioned the map before.  I also noticed the writing on the top corner, in the same language as the names on the map.  But then I doubt you can read ancient Haju, can you?  It says: 'A treasure to drive men mad.'  And that, I would think, would require quite a sizeable haul -- don't you agree?"

Fukitso regarded him with a steady, baleful glare.  Sensing his hesitation, Dahika Khan scratched distractedly at the stone floor with the tip of his talwar and added mildly: "Of course, if you don't think she's worth it, we can leave her down there and you can experience the pleasure of listening to her dying screams from this very chamber;  which -- based on previous experience -- should begin any second now.  That is, if she isn't worth it."

Fukitso snatched the map from his waist-cord and tossed it to Dahika Khan in smoldering silence.  Dahika Khan studied the map a moment, then pocketed it in his aba, a sly smile playing on his lips.

"Let's get going, then."

Shortly Fukitso found himself standing under the sharp, glittering stars, with the two moons casting a hazy half-light over the open maidan.  The moons reflected crisply in the black waters of the wide well, where the remaining bucket still floated languidly on its rope attached to the shaduf.  Fukitso studied the dark well and frowned.

"Here?" he asked doubtfully.

Dahika Khan scraped his crescent blade along the stone curb and nodded.  "There's a passage at the bottom of the well.  Swim through it and you come out in an underground grotto."  He glanced up at the highest moon.  "I would advise you to wait until the midday sun shines down the well to light your way...but I don't think your girl has that much time lef -- Hey!"

Too late he felt the tug that tore the cord from about his neck.  Wheeling in angry surprise, he found Fukitso emptying the two burning rubies into an open palm.  The dazzling glow played over their faces like a flickering bonfire.  The Ronin tossed away the empty pouch and brandished Kyodai, a deadly snarl tightening his lips.

"This is my insurance -- as well as to light my way."

Angered by this unexpected trick, Dahika Khan wavered uncertainly.  "Insurance for what?"

"I need someone to distract those things, to buy me time.  Once I dive into the well, you five will go to the other entrance and pretend you mean to attack again.  You don't have to do much -- just make a lot of noise."

"And you don't think I would do that if you just asked?"  Dahika Khan smiled ironically.

"This way you only get your stones back if I survive."  The Ronin thrust his wakizashi into its scabbard.  With an easy grace, he jumped atop the curb and dived smoothly into the jet water, barely rippling the surface with his passing.

For a time, Dahika Khan studied the shining surface through squinted eyes, mildly irritated that he had been so easily out-maneuvred by the less sophisticated Ronin.  His four companions watched him anxiously, their eyes constantly casting over the shadowed groves along the edge of the maidan.

Finally Dahika Khan inhaled deeply of the cool air and raised his talwar, scrutinizing its gleaming blade, dripping with starlight.  "Ah, Al Rih," he murmured softly.  "Did I not tell you -- you should never underestimate the keenness of my edge."

He slipped his weapon into his sash and stepped up to the well curb.  His men looked on with puzzled frowns as he gripped one of the bricks and pulled it smoothly upward.  He released the brick and it sat atop a short pole that obviously ran down through the bricks beneath.

"To be rid of you once and for all, those rubies are not such an unreasonable price, I think."

His fingers closed lovingly over the ends of the brick and he turned it slowly on its shank.  His wary companions glanced suddenly down at the marble beneath their feet, startled to feel a subtle vibration through the souls of their sandals.  After a moment, the vibration ceased and Dahika Khan pushed the brick back into its niche.

He turned to his men, his voice vibrant with the heady pleasure of his victory.  "I have sealed off the passage at the bottom of the well.  We will go and make sure there is no way he can get out through the other passage.  Then we will find some mounts in this dead city and see where this treasure map leads us!"

As Almaz realized for what purpose her slender body had been marked with phosphorescent paint, she drifted dangerously close to a brink beyond which there could be no return.

She felt as if she was already dead; as if, by marking her in this way, the ghastly deed was made inevitable, as surely as if it were, not a painting of a heart, but her pulsing heart itself that rested on the satiny skin of her chest.

For a moment, stark panic threatened to overwhelm her.  But, then, suddenly, something else snatched her attention and all other thoughts were instantly thrust to the back of her mind.

Something brushed her fingers.

So many factors interfered with her sense of touch that, for a moment, she thought it was merely her imagination.  The drug still coursed in her system, rendering her thoughts hazy and unfocused.  The incessant cold had numbed her flesh and the constriction of the thongs about her wrists had long since submerged the feeling in her hands beneath a dull throbbing.  But through both, a moment later, she dimly felt the sensation repeated.  There could be no doubt now -- some living thing stroked the damp knuckles of her hands...stroked with a gentle finger covered in bristly fur.

Her teeth clamped on her bottom lip as she fought down a scream.   Simultaneously she forced her fingers to remain perfectly still.  It was well she did so, for, almost instantly, the thing scrambled on spindly legs onto her hands from the hook between them.  Immediately the grotesque feel of so many furred legs straddling her knuckles told her what she least wanted to know -- it was a giant spider nearly as large as one of her hands.

Though she had frozen as soon at the creature touched her, the sudden rigid flexing of her muscles had caused her to rotate slightly on the hook.  In the tense silence, with even her breath locked tightly in her lungs, the dry creaking of her thongs seemed deafening.  The spider turned with a loathsome rustle of its many legs, disturbed by the slight motion, and Almaz bit even harder at her lip.  Gradually the rotation stopped.

The spider too ceased its nervous movements, but remained stiffly perched on her knuckles as if waiting to see if the rotation would resume.  Unable to hold her breath longer, Almaz exhaled in a long, shallow hiss, then inhaled ever so slowly, knowing that the tension in her body easily transmitted every slight spasm of her muscles up her arms to her hands.

Abruptly, she felt two sharp points pressing lightly into her right knuckles.  Tears squeezed from beneath her closed lashes, and, in spite of her attempted control, a pale frightened whimper escaped her lips.  The points were the needle-like tips of the spider's venomous fangs.  Though she had no way of knowing what type of spider this was, she had never yet heard of a large one which was not also deadly poisonous.  A single prick of its fangs and she could only expect a hideously agonizing -- and perhaps lingering -- death.

Slowly the fangs pressed harder at her soft skin.  But she forced herself to remain silent and still, grimly relaxing her entire body, knowing a single twitch might cause the spider to bite.  Then, finally, to her slight relief, the deadly tips withdrew.  Again the spider squatted with a strangely intense stillness.

Almaz shivered with disgust as she felt its bristling legs curiously fingering the edge of her knuckles.  With a sudden surge, the spider scuttled over the rim of her hand and down the sweat-damp length of her forearm.

She whimpered again, a high kittenish whine made through closed lips.  She had hoped if she did not move the spider would crawl away; now it seemed the spider intended to explore this newly-found terrain.  How much longer could she hope to keep from flinching?  What if it decided it prefered the warmth of her flesh to the cold dampness of the surrounding stone walls?

Slowly the spider crawled down her arm to her shoulder.  Mercifully, her face was turned to the other side, away from the creature.  She no longer tried to hold her breath, but drew air in shallow timorous sips.  She gritted her teeth with a despairing ferocity, her greatest fear being that the spider should find her mouth.

Her skin seemed unnaturally sensitized, in spite of the drug she had been given, and she could feel the hairy tips of its legs with excruciating clarity.  It scurried down onto her shoulderblade, then crossed her supple back in a bristling rush, pausing abruptly on her right flank where her lowest ribs tapered off in thin herring-bone arcs.

It was the slow gentle heaving of those delicate ribs which had caused the spider to halt.  And now fear increased the tempo of Almaz's respiration, no matter how much she wished to remain still.  She could feel the spider straddling her ribs on squat, fury legs, riding the rapid expansions and contractions of her smooth flank as if a bit of flotsam bobbing on a wave.

All along, Almaz had perched on tip-toe atop the smooth rock, using it to relieve her weight and to control the twisting of her body.  Now, suddenly,  she found her perch gradually rolling from under her desperate feet.  She struggled to recover the contact, fighting to grip the stone with her curled toes without shaking the rest of her body.  Even so, the straining of her abdomen disturbed the spider, which instantly rushed up her side to the curve of her throat, thence to the very tip of her chin.

Too late she realized her lips were parted as she breathed through her mouth, all her concentration being on the rotating stone underfoot.  Now she didn't dare close her mouth.

The spider seemed to sense the warm exhalations passing in frantic gusts from her throat, and paused curiously.  Tears ran down Almaz's cheeks.  The spider reached out with two horrible forelegs and pressed lightly on the moist curve of her bottom lip.

At that moment, she felt the smooth stone rotate gracefully beneath her toes.  She felt its strangely-wrought underside -- two deep holes, then a third hole shaped like a rough triangle.  She felt a row of polished teeth like tiny, fragile shells.  In an instant of horrible realization she recognized it for what it was -- a human skull!

Then the spider crawled inexorably forward and she felt its sharp fangs pressing on her trembling bottom lip...

Next episode...A Ship in the Desert

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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!)