Stalkers of the Tiger's Bride


A SERIAL of SHEMSHIRAN

BY JEFFREY BLAIR LATTA

Previously: The Ronin, Fukitso, makes a trade with his "friend" Dahika Khan -- the treasure map for the location of the second secret entrance to the underground lair where Almaz is held prisoner.  But no sooner does Fukitso dive into the well leading to the lair than Dahika Khan works a switch sealing the entrance and locking him in.  Meanwhile, still hanging in the darkness, awaiting her sacrificial death, Almaz cannot protect herself as a large spider crawls down her arms, then to her open lips.

Now, a few moments earlier, in the well...


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EPISODE 19: A SHIP IN THE DESERT


As Fukitso dived into the well, he carried the two luminous rubies, one in either hand, pressed against this palms by his thumbs.

He stroked steadily downward quickly leaving the topaz moonglow behind in a shimmering trail of rising bubbles.  The rubies threw a weird scarlet radiance over the curved stone sides of the well, staining the swirling fluid so that it seemed as if he swam through water tainted with blood.  The wide legs of his hakama and sleeves of his kimono dragged in the water, slowing him in his descent.

The well was as wide as a Daimyo's bed, with ample space for his heavy strokes.  It occurred to him that this was almost certainly the way by which the dune dragons reached the surface; a thought which caused him to stroke all the harder.  He did not relish the thought of encountering one of the creatures on its way up the well.

Abruptly he came upon the masonry floor of the well and the crimson lighting played in rippling ribbons over a massive circular hole in the curved wall.  The dive had taken much longer than he had anticipated and now his pulse throbbed in his head for want of air.  He kicked off from the stone floor and swam lithely through the hole.  Beyond, the ruby light glimmered off a horizontal stone passage, circular like the well but more narrow.  As the Ronin followed the tunnel with sharp, powerful strokes of his corded arms, he began to wonder if this might not have been some trick of Dahika Khan's meant to lure him down here to drown.

But then the stones fell away and he swam from the tunnel, instantly heaving upward, reaching for the surface which he knew must be near -- if only because he knew Dahika Khan could not have swum farther.  He broke the water's roof in a spray of sparkling droplets that glittered like tiny rubies in the carmine light.  Even before he had regained his breath, he glanced quickly about, raising the fiery stones above his head while treading water with his powerful legs.

The light reflected off the water's glossy swells, throwing a sea of veils over damp stone walls, clearly natural in origin, forming a large underground cave.  The curved ceiling was thick with dripping stalactites and a massive natural archway led to an adjoining chamber, from whence came the steady hissing of rushing water.

Before Fukitso could puzzle over this phenomenon, he felt a bass shudder ripple through the cool water, and a deep mechanical groaning filled the cave like the sounding of a brazen gong.

With a snarled oath, Fukitso dived straight down and swam furiously back into the stone tunnel.  He reached the farther end just in time to witness a vast stone disk rolling smoothly from a slot, closing the exit.  He knew there was no use spending his strength trying to move such a massive seal, nor could he hope to shatter it.  He twisted sharply and kicked off from the stone, swimming quickly back out and to the surface.

Barely had the glinting spray once more rained down around him than he stroked cleanly out for a stone shelve jutting into the black pool.  There was no time for recriminations or regret; he had gambled and lost.  Dahika Khan had betrayed him and would no doubt ensure Fukitso did not escape through the other exit a second time.  Nor did he hold any illusions regarding the instructions he had left; there would be no pretend attack to distract the pishacas while he searched for the girl.

Whatever actions he took would be taken alone.

It was possible the girl was already dead, of course, but until he saw her body, he remained steadfast in his mission.  Though, with no particular plan and no way out even should he find the girl alive, success began to look increasingly improbable.

He climbed from the black water with fluid ease, his bald, top-knotted scalp gleaming.  Holding both rubies in his left palm, he drew Kyodai from its scabbard and circled around the pool to the massive archway.  He moved in a low cat-like crouch, gliding on silent sandalled feet, aware the game now depended on cunning and stealth far more than strength.  As he approached the archway, he closed his fist around the rubies, cutting their burning light to a dim nocturnal radiance.

His ears searched the darkness beyond the archway, trying to detect movement in the steady rushing of water.  Satisfied, he spread his palm, allowing the scarlet glow to flare up like twin stars caught in his hand.  His eyes widened and his breath hissed through his teeth.

"By Doji's fire..."

He gazed into a fabulous grotto, incredibly huge and cavernous, where even the brilliant glare of his rubies could scarce limn more than the most meagre portion.  Down the centre, shimmering ribbons of musically gurgling water flowed thinly over stone smoothed to a satin gloss.  Sometime in the past, a far more substantial torrent had poured through here, but now Fukitso could easily cross to the other side with the multiple streams barely rising above the soles of his sandals -- in some places, without even wetting his feet.

But, more amazing by far, and the thing which stopped the Ronin's breath in his lungs, was the sight of a large, wooden ship perched delicately on its rigid keel astride the ancient riverbed nearly crosswise to the meagre flow.

So amazing was the sight that, for a moment, Fukitso thought it might be some sort of desert mirage, an illusion wrought by a thirst he wasn't yet aware of.

Instantly he glided from the archway and out into the trickling water, pausing only once he stood under the heavy curve of the ship's hull.  He raised the rubies curiously, his weird, white eyes wonderingly studying the dead barnacles and ancient teredo worm holes maring the sturdy boards.  Immediately he noticed the great keel was sewn to the hull with thick rigid windings of coconut husk; no nails had been used in her construction.  From this he deduced she was an Andu vessel.

Her thrusting bowsprit lightly pressed against a narrow ledge high up on a cliff beside the stream.  With quick, easy strides, Fukitso climbed a steep jumble of fallen stones until he stood on the ledge and turned to regard the vessel from deck-height.  He observed that the wood beneath the bowsprit was pale and shattered like exposed bone where the figurehead had been crudely hewn away.  Now, at least, the mystery of the pishacas' diety was solved.  This was where the idol had come from.

He crossed lightly to the deck, constantly wary of any rotten boards which might break beneath his weight.  Under the circumstances, a twisted ankle would be as deadly as a knife thrust through the heart.  But the deck seemed solid enough underfoot, though the ship itself reeked with the musty ages it had sat steeping in the dark and damp of this trickling grotto.

Of the three masts, nothing remained but broad stumps and Fukitso at first thought they had been shattered in a storm.  But a closer inspection revealed that all three masts had been cleanly sawed.  This and the massive, hemp cables wrapping the capstan like coiled pythons, explained something of the mystery of this craft...

Fukitso glared over the carved gunwale into the unfathomable blackness downstream, the ruby light glinting in his unearthly eyes.  This grotto had once been part of a massive underground river, he surmised -- a river snaking beneath the sprawling Rub al Harara desert for an unimaginable distance before it had emptied into another water course far to the east.  This ship must have happened on the entrance and, for some unknown reason, the nakuda had decided to follow the underground river.  The masts had been cut down to facilitate passage through the many narrow spaces which must have lain along the subterranean route.  Using thick ropes and anchors, with men straining furiously at the capstan, the ship had been warped slowly but steadily up stream.

It was impossible to conceive of the fantastic, back-breaking labour which must have gone into the task, nor the patience and time required to warp the ship over such an incredible distance.  How long must it have taken them?  A week?  Two weeks?  Depending on the strength of the current, it might have taken even longer.  Almost certainly men must have perished; some from the strain, others swepted away in the white grip of the racing flood.

And when they finally reached this point?  Did those lascars even know of the howling dune-choked wilderness spread just above their heads?  Did they explore the jade ruins buried here with them?

Did they encounter the pishacas?

Almost certainly that was the grisly fate which had befallen them in the end.  No doubt, when they arrived at this point, they had no more knowledge of the hideous monsters lurking in the subterranean darkness than Fukitso had when he arrived.  As there was no evidence of a prolonged seige, the Ronin guessed the attack, when it came, had been swift and unexpected, much like the pishacas' night time assault on Fakhd al Houri -- and, no doubt, just as effective.  If the dune dragons had been employed, not even skeletons would remain of those doomed lascars.

And the ship's sensual figurehead?

Possibly the glowing eyes had served the purpose of lighting a path through the neverending night of the river's tunnel.  More likely, the astonishing gems had been merely ornamental.  But to the pishacas -- living their lives in abysmal darkness -- the burning scarlet eyes set against the smoldering beauty of that naked wooden woman led to the formation of a strange, deadly religion, a religion which, perhaps many decades later, through the stupidity of Dahika Khan, would accidentally unleash a nightmare on the sleeping populace of Fakhd al Houri.

The whole thing was so ludicrously improbable that Fukitso found himself laughing with a dark, grisly mirth.

Then, abruptly, he fell silent, his keen ears alerted by a sound too dim for any but a student of the Doji samurai to detect.

For some moments he waited, intently listening, his blind-seeming eyes scanning the hoary boards beneath his feet.  He had thought he had heard movement from somewhere within the echoing hold of the ship.  But the noise, if there had been one, was faint and concealed by his laughter, and now was not repeated.  He considered investigating the sound, but quickly realized he had wasted too much time already.

Briefly searching the binnacle, he discovered a lantern along with some matches.  Striking a match, he lit the lantern, then slipped the rubies into his kimono -- their scarlet blaze no longer necessary in the lantern's topaz glare.

He spun, rushed to the bow and sprang lithely back to the narrow ledge.  Previously he had climbed to the ledge from the right.  Now he turned left, ducking under the bowsprit, and silently followed the slim ledge travelling upstream.

Barely had the ship faded into the darkness behind than the swaying lantern-light washed like a lemon tide across a thick hemp rope tied tightly around a huge steel bollard secured with pins to the solid stone surface of the ledge.  He analysed the rope and bollard a moment, his eyes narrow, noting the hoary dust mantling both.  The thing was obviously of a more recent vintage than the ancient jade city, but still old for that.  Most likely it had been left by the lascars when they brought their ship here.

Wondering where the heavy rope might lead, he began to trace it as it stretched away into rustling darkness, tension holding it rigid a hand's width above the ledge.
 As he walked, he could hear the steady hissing of the meagre streams rising up to him from the ebony drop on his left.  Gradually, though, the gentle sound was subsumed by a far greater din pounding out of the darkness ahead and swelling steadily with each stride he took.  Finally, his lantern light revealed the source of the sound and he halted abruptly, awe and amazement arching his brows like scimitars.

The river had been dammed off by a gargantuan wooden gate as tall as the ship itself.  There were two massive doors to the gate, each mounted on steel side hinges, the whole strengthened with studded bands of brass.  A silver crest of flashing water spilled over the top of the gate, plunging thinly down the face in tattered gleaming sheets and white twisting streams.  Arcing spray jetted bluely from the seam where the two gates met in the middle and more water seeped from beneath the great obstruction.

So this was the source of the mild flow which still followed the ancient underground riverbed.

From atop the ledge, Fukitso could see over the lip of the gate.  A vast lake of placid ebony water stretched away into the dark tunnel upstream, its titanitc pressure held in check by this single manmade marvel.  The huge rope he had been following reached past the gate for a short distance, then looped around another bollard before returning to its anchorage on the upstream face of the left gate where it served to secure the gate against the incessant force of the reservoir.  The glow of the lantern only dimly played on the other ledge across the riverbed, yet Fukitso had no doubt but that a second rope held the gate closed on that side, as well.

Pondering what he had discovered, Fukitso decided the lascars had dammed up the river to ensure their ship was not washed away.  It was even possible that, by creating this deep reservoir, they had diverted the raging flow into some other channel farther upstream.  What he could not imagine was why anyone should have gone to so much trouble.

That he could not divine their motives bothered him immensely;  the eerily abandoned vessel, the staggeringly impossible journey, now this incredible structure -- it all seemed so totally disproportionate to any imagined purpose or intent.

What did it all mean?

But then, with a shrug, the Ronin put aside such pointless speculations.  Instead another notion took root in his thoughts, a desperately reckless plan which had little if any chance of success, but one which, at the moment, was the best he could muster.

He scrutinized the massive gate through squinted eyes, his lantern held before him, swinging slowly on its hook.  Then, with a grunt, he ducked into a low tunnel burrowed in the wall to his right...

***
The Ronin's greatest concern was that he should be discovered before he found the girl.  Because of the lantern, he could not even hope to hide should one of the pishacas cross his path.  But the tunnel was empty and it soon opened into a jade-bricked chamber with a low domed ceiling.

As he glided from the tunnel, his lantern light splashed white fire off a bristling heap of scimitars and talwars, pikes and punch daggers.  Here and there a ruby-crusted bracelet or emerald-studded earring smoldered luxuriously amongst the flashing hoard but nothing of especial value met the Ronin's experienced gaze.

It was doubtful the pishacas even knew what these weapons were for; more likely, they were attracted to shiny objects which would have once gleamed magically when held under the burning eyes of their figurehead "goddess".

Abruptly, Fukitso laughed in savage triumph.  Thrusting his arm into the hoard, he whipped out the long, sleek blade of his katana, Ginago.  Pleased again to grip his weapon, he deftly slashed figure-eights in the stale air, the metal humming with weird vibrancy while throwing dancing lights across the walls of the chamber.

Then, abruptly, the Ronin paused in mid-cut, his eyes falling accidentally on another blade buried amongst the cache.  A dark frown pressed his brow and he lowered his weapon until it rang lightly on the stone floor.  He grunted in surprise.

Reaching into the mound, he drew out another blade, almost identical to his own except that it was shorter and had a black circular guard instead of Ginago's silver one.

Another katana.

He frowned, puzzled -- a vague suspicion stirring in the back of his mind.  The katana was a weapon specific to his people, the Ioni, a rare object to turn up in this part of the world.  Where had it come from?

But now was no time to ponder that question.

He slipped Ginago smoothly into the black lacquered scabbard at his back.   Searching the cache, he found a similar scabbard and, thrusting the second katana into this, he slipped it into his cord belt next to his wakizashi, Kyodai.  Then, retrieving his lantern, he glided swiftly into another tunnel with no more noise than a gust of wind.

As he followed this second tunnel, there came to him, out of the distance, the roaring sound which he now knew was made by the dune dragon's fiery breath.  A moment later the noise was repeated, and then again.

He was mystified; why should the dragons breathe their sapphire flame except to vanquish enemies?  But what enemy would there possibly be down here?

For a brief moment he wondered if perhaps Dahika Khan had relented and followed through with the plan, after all.  Was this the diversion Fukitso had asked for?  It seemed unlikely.  But, if not Dahika Khan, then who?

Before he could further ponder the question, the tunnel debouched suddenly into a chamber vastly more spacious then the room he had just quitted.  Immediately his senses were assailed with a noxious, choking stench and he brought a hand to his mouth, coughing at the noisome assault.

Worse still was the scene revealed by the lambent glow of his lantern...



Next episode...The Return of Migoti!


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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!)