Stalkers of the Tiger's Bride


A SERIAL of SHEMSHIRAN

BY JEFFREY BLAIR LATTA

Previously: Having murdered their "friends" for a treasure map, rogues followed the map to a jungle cave, the beautiful Almaz as prisoner.  When four, entering the cave, didn't return, the rest suspected a monster was to blame.  Karim, lone survivor of their treachery, tracked them down, killing all but Ghaffar, who escaped into the jungle.  Leaving Almaz alone, Karim entered the cave...only to encounter his own death in the clutches of a creature without form.

Now, weeks later...


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EPISODE 2: FUGITIVE IN SAHARA


Something was coming.

From out of the whispering darkness no sound betrayed its approach, but the beggar, Ali, sensed it just the same -- like a chill zephyr carrying just ahead of the rising storm.  He drew his burnouse close about his bony shoulders and huddled into the shadow cast by an empty stall.  His eyes shone ivory-white, wide with fearful anticipation.  Something coming.  Something evil.

The suq lay empty of life beneath the glow of the two rising moons.  Vacant kiosks and closed shops loomed out of the night, cluttering the wide sandy space like angular, sleeping beasts.  Striped awnings rattled with the wind off the desert and slender date-palms swayed like dancers with each sudden gust.  Somewhere, a dog howled dismally.

Now the area was empty.  But, during the long hot day, the suq hosted a polyglot melange of skins and tongues gathered together from all parts of the compass.  Here haggling, turbaned shopkeepers mingled with imperious, Shaykhs clad in flowing, coiffed kaffiyehs; or fierce-eyed, hooded nomads snarled at the begrimed, loincloth-clad mendicants begging for "baksheesh".  It was a centre of startling contrasts, where sultry, smooth- limbed harlots, unabashedly naked, poised seductively beside bleating, scaly, foul-smelling karmahs, and the finest Tarkistan rugs and bolts of rich Melesian silk shared space with the bloody carcasses of slaughtered sheep and krim.

In spite of his fear of the approaching menace, Ali found himself momentarily reflecting on the strange ways of kismet.  Once, a thousand years before, they had called this city Bint al Sahara, the "daughter of the desert".  Then it had been the principle city of the great Emerald Empire of Zomorrod which stretched from the shores of the Pearl Coast clear across the baked expanse of the Rub al Harara.  For five hundred years, Zomorrod held dominion, a magnificent empire of towering, bejewelled beauty -- and unspeakable, eldritch evil.  Then, one thousand years ago, invaders came from over the desert, berserk killers with dazzling swords and hungry eyes, thundering out of the howling dunes on jet-black war-camels.  For ten years they raped and pillaged and, when they were done, the Emerald Empire, for better or for worse, was no more.  The invaders -- the Aswadi -- established their own empire in its stead.  They allowed the people of Zomorrod to retain their own language, their own customs and their own religions.  But now the land was called Shemshiran, for it had been conquered with the shemshir -- the scimitar.

Bint al Sahara still stood, but she was no longer the jewel of empire.  Now she was merely the last well on the long, dry haul across the baked desert -- a journey of a thousand burning miles, of many paths linking hundreds of wells and oases, which men came to call the Tariq al'Asal, the "Honey Road".

Bint al Sahara perched at the termination of that illimitable track, on the edge of the sandy waste, the Jebel Qamar -- the "Mountains of the Moons" -- rearing mightily at her back, the jungle beyond that.  Men still came to her as to a favourite whore, to buy and to sell, to slake their thirst and to settle old scores, but it was never the same.  Gradually, the gleaming green onion-domes fell into dusty ruin, the minarets toppled one by one, and the people forgot the old ways as they might forget a distant dream.  Even her name was corrupted with the passing ages.  Men no longer knew her as Bint al Sahara, the daughter of the desert.

Now she was just "Sahara".

Nothing could stand in the way of such unrelenting neglect.  Nothing.  Even the three black towers rising imposingly around the city's verge -- towers belonging to the terrible Priesthood of the Tiger -- crumbled steadily with the passing years, until only one remained.  And that one sat in lonely silence, its ponderous portal forever sealed, until men came to believe that the fearful priests themselves had either departed or perished.  Still, the religion of the Tiger was kept alive by the faithful, taught to their children and to those children's children.  Even if the priests were dead, the great god Ti might someday return to his people -- and those who recalled the old penalties were loath to take the chance.

Ali stiffened, his breath catching as he detected the soft padding of sandalled feet approaching slowly out of the darkness.  He could feel it in his bones.  Yes.  Something evil.

Recently there had been omens, signs that the final remaining tower might not be as uninhabited as was formerly thought.  Eerie, lilting music was heard drifting down from the weird, branching turrets and, on some nights, strange, dancing ghost-lights were seen to play about the topmost spires.  Karmahs shied and bleated fearfully when passing the ancient structure, and, only the week before, blood had flowed in sudden grisly trickles from the stones of the surrounding wall.

Then, just the day before, Ali himself, begging in the suq, was a witness to the most bizarre omen of all.  Suddenly, above the steady clamour of the haggling multitude there sounded a deep, sullen booming as of a great gong struck once.  As all voices fell silent and startled faces cast about in wonder, a woman's shrill laughter rose unmistakable and abrupt, ringing out of the clear air over the central well -- and, a moment later, the water of the well itself burst into roaring, leaping flames.

Yes, omens they must be, Ali had no doubt of that.  When walls began to bleed and water caught fire, there could be only one explanation.  Dark, threatening forces were coming to life, rousing as if from a long, unholy slumber.  Something walked the halls of the dark tower as in former days.  And tonight, something walked the midnight streets of Sahara, as well.

Something evil.

Ali gasped.

Abruptly, three figures emerged out of the darkness.  They were clad in long, black robes that rustled like cobras as they walked and their heads were hidden by wide sagging hoods.  There was something unspeakably repellent in the way they moved, in the slow monotonous strides of their sandalled feet, in the steady way their bowed heads seemed to search the dusty ground just ahead, scanning intensely back and forth as if following a trail visible only to themselves.  Seeing them approach, a shiver raced through the beggar's meagre flesh and he tried to draw back even farther into the shadows.

As the three figures came abreast of his hiding place, Ali noticed that the last in line carried a coarse black sack slung over one shoulder.  Seeing that sack, Ali fought down a sudden sob of horror.  Something was alive in the sack, something the size of a small dog, and which kicked and struggled and thrashed at the surrounding fabric with a bitter animal fury.  Through the fabric came strange sounds which caused the beggar's hair to prickle on his scalp and his teeth to clamp his tongue until the blood ran in his mouth.

First there was barking, like a small dog.  Then, abruptly, the barking became the mewling of a cat.  Then, just as suddenly, this gave way to a thunderous roar, as if made by some great clawed beast, a samadhi perhaps.  Ali could only listen in mounting disbelief.  A moment more and a shrill cawing was heard, like a bird of the desert with narrow eyes and flashing beak.  Then the sibilant hissing of a snake.  And then, worst of all, all those sounds gave way to wild, manic laughter -- human laughter.

Ali could stand it no longer.  He let out a wretched scream and stumbled awkwardly to his feet.

Immediately, the three figures stopped.  For a moment, they stood there, still facing forward as if trying to decide whether to acknowledge the beggar or not.  With eerie synchronicity, they turned as one to face him and he felt a chill breeze stroke his naked spine.  Though he could not see their faces, he felt the crawling of their eyes.

Thankfully the thing in the sack had fallen silent at Ali's scream.  Now there was only the steady whisper of desert wind and the distant murmur of voices in a far serai.  Ali, however, could hear neither of these, not over the thundering of his own terrified heart.  Abruptly, the wind caught the wide hood of the foremost figure, tugging it open just enough to reveal what lay within.  It was only a momentary glimpse, before the wind eased and the hood fell mercifully back into place -- but, for Ali, it was a glimpse which would stay with him the rest of his life.

Just as suddenly, the three figures turned away once more and resumed their midnight stalk, fading away into the deep and dismal shadows like three djinns returning to a cave.  His legs no longer able to stand, Ali collapsed in a trembling heap, his features ashen.  Pulling his burnouse tight, he stared into the tainted darkness where they had vanished -- and breathed a long, shuddering prayer for whomever it was they sought...

***
The shadowed courtyard lay desolate and serene in the soft glow of the two moons.  Expectant.  Then, from the street beyond the enclosing wall, there arose angry shouts.  Small sandalled feet padded swiftly across dusty cobbles.  An explosive sob, and slim fingers hooked atop the narrow coping of the wall.  A frantic scrambling, and Almaz surmounted the barricade, which stood fully twice her height -- so desperate was her flight.

Almaz by Jeffrey Blair LattaFor a moment her sleek, brown legs straddled the marble cornice, and she sat limned in the celestial light, clothed in a thigh-length shift, bound at the waist by a string of dully-coloured beads.  Her dusky skin glistened with sweat and her tousled ebony tresses tossed wildly in the cool breeze like lush black smoke.  But this was no time to savour the desert winds off the Rub al Harara.  She slipped from her perch and landed heavily in its shadow.  For a moment, her eyes shone in the darkness like black jewels.  She crouched breathlessly, waiting for her pursuers to pass.  This they did, uttering such vile curses and obscene threats that she whimpered involuntarily.

Rising from her hiding place, the girl scurried quickly along the length of the wall, around the corner, and along this wall until she reached the building upon which the courtyard fronted.  Flickering light shone from a  balcony above.  She hesitated only a moment.  There was nowhere else for her to run and it would be short work for her antagonists to again pick up her trail.  She took a deep breath of the cold night air and sprinted toward the balcony.  Her leap carried her high but she caught the short stone balcony with a grip none-too-secure.  Her legs kicked frantically in the air beneath her, flashing like newly-wetted sabres, accidentally losing one of her sandals in her struggle.  Then she was up and over the railing, tumbling clear of the edge just as the sound of pursuit passed below.  Having no time to catch her breath, she sprang nimbly to her feet and bounded into the building through an engrailed archway.

She found herself in a tiled corridor, lighted by a row of flickering cressets mounted along the left wall.  On the right, seven fretted doorways indicated private apartments, each hidden by curtains, and a flight of stairs lead down at the end of the hall.  A low rumble of voices drifted up the stairs from the tap-room below.  It was a serai, then -- an inn for desert travellers freshly arrived after the long, hot journey on the Honey Road.  Quietly Almaz started down the corridor on tip-toe.  But barely had she taken a dozen steps than she heard her trackers again beneath the balcony -- and this time, their shouts were born of triumph.

They had discovered her sandal.

Frantically she cast about like an animal cornered by hunters.  Even as dark meaty fingers grasped the balcony's edge, she parted the nearest curtain and slipped noiselessly into the room beyond.  The curtain fell rustling into place behind her cutting off most of the light from the hall and plunging her into darkness.

"Doji's fire!"

The cry was an explosive breath.  A small flame flickered to life in the blackness, leaped to the wick of a taper and cast a dancing glow upon a fierce, nightmarish visage which regarded her with a look of almost comical astonishment.

The man lay stretched upon a bamboo-frame bed, naked to the waist.  His powerful muscles gleamed like dark, polished wood.  His countenance was scarred and weathered, his features broad and flat.  He was bald save for a small topknot, folded double atop his head.  A slightly-curved, two-handed sword gleamed ominous and steady in his hand, and along its edge the light trickled like blood.  A much longer blade was propped beside the bed in a black lacquered scabbard, its circular, traceried handguard made of gleaming silver.

But it was not the blade in his hand nor the one beside the bed which caused her blood to run cold in her veins.  Rather, it was his eyes.  They were oddly narrow, almost squinted and, stranger still, the pupils were tiny pin-points, like a blind man's eyes.  Yet at the same time, they seemed intensely penetrating, almost hypnotic.  As they warily watched her standing in the doorway, they seemed to look through her as if through still water -- and suddenly, she felt naked and exposed even in her shift.  Her flesh crawled at the sensation.

But then she was galvanized into desperate action.  There was a shout just on the other side of the curtain.  Almaz hurtled forward, heedless of the sword, and leaped full upon the bed into the startled stranger's arms.  So abrupt had been her course that she had nearly impaled herself upon the tip of his weapon before he had time to move it.  But move it he did, dropping it solidly upon the tattered mattress as his massive arms closed to catch this stunning and unexpected gift from unknown sources.

Her tiny hands clawed frantically at his massive shoulders herding rather than pulling him atop her wisplike form.  He needed little encouragement, however.  He rolled upon her with a villainous, deep- throated chuckle, so that she gasped breathless beneath the weight.  His large hands sought her hungrily, handling her warm, pliant flesh with hard, brutal caresses.

Then the curtain rustled over the door and a tunnel of light fell full upon the scene.  The girl felt the stranger raise his head and she pressed her face to his massive chest and moaned as if in the throes of passion.

"We are looking for a girl," explained the intruder nervously.

The stranger's response held more in common with the growl of a carnivore than with any human tongue.  The intruder mumbled his apology and backed quickly out of the room.

Barely had the curtain closed behind him than the girl braced a slender arm against the stranger's broad chest and heaved with all her might.  Her plan -- if it could be called a plan -- had been to use this stranger for camouflage, but now the camouflage itself was proving more than she could handle.  She might as well have sought to move a mountain or dislodge a samadhi from its prey, for all she could sway this monster from his want.  She smelled kumiss on his breath and knew her struggles only served to further arouse his passions.  He gripped her naked thigh as a sailor might grip the sweep in a hurricane, tore at her delicate shift as a beast tears at the net which restrains it.

She felt the fabric part and a coarse palm brushed her breast.

"Enough!" she gasped, vainly battering his iron muscles with her fists.  But he was mindless to her entreaties.  In danger of losing what dignity remained to her, she raked her nails down his cheek.  This time he noticed.  With a shout of surprise more than pain, he fell away clutching his face.

"Baka!  Damn it, girl!  What was that for?!" he snarled, in confusion more than anger.

But there was no time for explanations.  Quickly, slipping from the bed, Almaz drew something from the pocket of her torn shift and, lifting the tallow holder on the nightstand, she secreted her treasure beneath.  Still befuddled by drink and nursing his wound, the stranger didn't notice.  Then, extinguishing the flame, Almaz crept to the doorway and peered out into the hall.  All seemed clear.

"Hey -- wait a minute, damn you!"

Almaz slipped out into the hallway, praying that the stranger's shout would not attract attention.  She paused a moment, her eyes flaring with sudden apprehension.  Someone was climbing the stairs.  Instantly, she ducked into the next room, gratified to find it unoccupied, a candle burning beside the bed.  She leaned weakly against the wall beside the door, panting with exhaustion.  Through the curtain, she heard someone stumble drunkenly down the hallway and into the room she had just quitted.  There was an angry feral snarl and almost instantly the drunk lurched back out, stammering apologies, sobered in an instant.  For a terrible moment, she thought he would now enter this room, but instead he staggered on past, cursing under his breath, and then back down the stairs.

For a while, she remained as she was, thankful for this brief respite to catch her breath.  But how long before someone else came up the stairs?  She had barely escaped the weird-eyed stranger's ravishing embrace.  What if some fiercer ruffian happened upon her?  A serai made a poor hiding place for a supple creature such as herself.

Whatever the risk, she couldn't stay here.

Quickly, she adjusted the torn front of her shift, then, checking that the way was clear, she slipped stealthily out into the hall.  But no sooner was she exposed than a shout from the balcony behind told her that all was undone.  And that shout gave wings to her feet.

She ran as if Death himself were at her heels which, for all intents and purposes, he was.  She fairly flew down the hallway, nearly colliding with one of her pursuers exiting another room in response to the alarum of his cohort.  He cursed hotly as she sped past.  At the end of the hall she started to descend the stairs, two steps at a time.  But, suddenly, a terrifyingly familiar figure loomed at the base and she pulled up short, weeping in frustration and despair.

"You run like the wind, Little Diamond," mocked Ghaffar, as he stalked up the stairs, grim menace in every gliding motion.  "But you could not hope to escape me -- I whom the gods protected in the depths of the jungle.  They have delivered you unto me, and who would I be to refuse their generous sacrifice."...



Next episode...The Sack of Death!


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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!)