Stalkers of the Tiger's Bride



Previously: Again entering the pishacas' underground lair to rescue Almaz, Fukitso found himself double-crossed and sealed in by Dahika Khan.  Undaunted, he explored, discovering a strange ship interred beneath the desert and a massive dam holding back an underground river.  He also found a decidedly familiar sword stuck in amongst a cache of weapons taken from the dead inhabitants of Fakhd al Houri.  In the distance, he heard the pishacas fighting something...but what?  Then he came upon a grisly chamber.

Now, in that chamber...

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The floor was littered with bleached, shining skulls like stones covering a beach; the occasional white long-bone thrust up rigidly from the grisly carpet like the dead beckoning from their graves.  Here and there, hideous black spiders scrambled over the bones on rapid, bristling legs, instantly put to grotesque flight by the spreading edge of topaz light.
With a grim set to his jaw, Fukitso drew his short sword, Kyodai, from its scabbard, and warily advanced into the hellish chamber.  He stepped gingerly amongst the shattered bones and grinning skulls, his nearly-white eyes darkly noting the bloodied stone hooks carved in the low ceiling, the spiders scurrying away with a dry rustle like blown leaves.

Then, abruptly he stopped and his breath hissed through his teeth.

The girl hung nearly naked in the cruel light.

Her back was toward him, but turned slightly so he could see her face where it was twisted to the right.  Her wrists were bound by thongs to one of the ceiling hooks and shining blood webbed her slender brown arms.  Her dark lashes were sealed and, with so much blood, he thought he had arrived too late.  But he saw the loathsome spider perched on her small chin, its forelegs pressing on the full arc of her bottom lip.

With a furious snarl, he snatched the insect up in his bare hand and crushed it in his fist to a green dripping pulp.

He recognized the spiders as stantaras, deadly vampyre spiders frequently found near springs in the desert oases.  The loathsome creatures sucked the blood from wounds made in the living lips of their sleeping victims.  The girl, of course, wasn't sleeping, but, bound as she was, she served as ready fare just the same.

Scowling in disgust, the Ronin hurled the ruined spider to the bone-strewn floor.  The girl's dark lashes fluttered and light glinted off the suffering  eyes half-revealed.  Her lips closed, then parted again, struggling to form words, but only a small, frightened whimpered passed between them.

Instantly, Fukitso caught her in one arm while severing the thongs with the edge of his blade.  She fell easily into his arms, her dark head slipping limply against his shoulder, her slender body shivering.  He sheathed Kyodai, frowning at the terrible cold of her flesh.  She cried out in sudden pain as he grimly removed the thongs from her bleeding wrists -- the pain rousing her from her stupour.

"They put something in the drink..."  she mumbled weakly, her eyes repeatedly closing drowsily.  "Some sort of drug..."

Fukitso smelled her breath and nodded.  "Red kumiss," he said.  "Can you walk?  I may have a way out."

"I don't know," she responded, wincing as she brought her arms to her naked chest.  "They painted my body...."  She seemed disoriented, as if murmuring in her sleep.  "They wanted to cut out my heart...and there was a spider..."

A shudder of revulsion made her rigid in his arms, but he held her tightly, trying to warm her through his own body's heat.  He frowned as he noted the phosphorescent markings on her front -- and dimly divined their purpose.   She was to have served as a sacrifice to their blinded goddess, her young heart no doubt to be torn still beating from her chest.

"Ikimasho!  Come on," he said.  "I'll carry you."

Holding the lantern in one hand, he easily lifted her in his arms.  But he felt her slim fingers tighten convulsively on his shoulders and her features writhed with a desperate effort.

"Wait," she pleaded.  "There's another woman...I heard her before.  You must save her, too."

The Ronin frowned, hesitating doubtfully.  The girl's eyes were closed;  she could be dreaming.  Even if there was another woman, he wasn't sure he could save them both.

"Please," she begged him breathlessly.  "Look for her..."

Reluctantly he turned with the girl in his arms, more spiders scurrying away from the light.

In the distance, he still heard the sound of dune dragons spraying fire, but now there was an additional noise, a weird animal yowling which he had never heard before.  It was a horrible din made by a chorus of creatures, and the suspicion slowly grew in his mind that the sound was made by the pishacas themselves as they perished.  They had never made a sound before, not even when consumed by the racing fire of their own dune dragons -- he wondered what sort of foe could possibly make them wail now...

He advanced through the dark chamber pushing back the shadows in a hazy arc, feeling bones drily grinding under his sandals, the young girl shivering frigidly against his chest.  Then the pale rim of light washed over a second girl, also hanging from one of the ceiling hooks.

This girl too was naked, without even the scant fabric his companion wore between her legs, and her body burned like a twist of liquid gold in the flickering light.  She was from northern Dos Yamura -- her honey skin told him that -- but he knew, even before he saw her face, that she was considerably more.

"Migoti," he breathed, startled.

When he had happened upon the second katana, dimly the possibility had crossed his mind -- only to be rejected as absurd.  But now he saw it was true; it was her katana, Shogun.  Somehow the magnificent Migoti had allowed herself to be captured with the rest of Fakhd al Houri.

"You must stand," he told Almaz, gently lowering her legs until her feet touched the floor.

Her lashes still sat heavily on her cheeks, but she nodded determinedly, biting at her lower lip as her legs shuddered beneath her weight.  Then she straightened, opening her eyes, and leaned against him for support.  After a moment, she took her hand away and nodded weakly.

"I can make it," she said.  "Get her down... quickly."

Fuktiso cut away Migoti's bonds, catching her and carrying her back to his companion.  Migoti's naked body was also adorned with phosphorescent paint, but, turned away as she had been, the markings had been invisible until now.

If possible, her flesh was even colder than the other girl's, nor did she give any indication of rousing even slightly.  She hung limply in his arms and he might have thought she was dead if not for the shallow tripping of her heart against his chest.  The pallour of her skin and pin-prick wounds on her lips showed that the stantaras had been feeding on her for several days.

She was small like his companion, but her body was lean and lithe, so that even unconscious her flesh was firm to the touch.  But, to the Ronin, she weighed no more than an empty amphora.

"Can you walk?" Fukitso asked his companion.  "I could carry you both..."

Almaz shook her head quickly, her eyes anxiously watching the spiders hovering on the edge of the light.  "I want to get out of this place," she insisted softly.

"Follow me then."

He led her through the jade tunnel to the weapon room.  Even the strange sight of the bristling hoard made no impact on the girl.  She had noticed the sounds of battle in the distant tunnels and she clung to her  protector with trembling fingers, her wide eyes casting fearful glances into the blackness behind.  Fukitso noticed the din was moving steadily closer, but he couldn't travel faster without leaving his companion.

Then they stepped from the second tunnel out onto the narrow ledge overlooking the hissing riverbed -- and the girl gasped in amazement to see the massive gate which held back the underground river.

"What is this place?" she asked, half forgetting her fear in her astonishment.

"Never mind that.  This way -- there's a ship over here."

"A ship?"  The disbelief was evident even through the tiredness in her voice.  Then, after a moment of walking in silence, her brows knitted and she asked: "But what good is a ship?  We're in the middle of a desert."

"It's our only way out."  There was a note of fatalism in his tone which he could not conceal and he heard the girl swallow timorously.

Then they reached the ship and crossed to its dusty deck.  Gently he settled Migoti against one of the mast-stumps, grimly noticing the way her head rolled lifelessly against her smooth shoulder.

"Stay here," he told the other girl, rising quickly and rushing to the bow.

"But where are you going!"

Almaz had too many memories of being told to stay put by too many men who had not returned.  She staggered after him, grabbing the sleeve of his kimono with despairing hands.  He wheeled and caught her, holding her close a moment, feeling the fear thrilling through her like a current.  Gently he pushed her away.

"I'll be back in seconds," he said sternly.  "But you have to hold onto Migoti."

"But why?" she asked in an anguish of ignorance.

He sprang easily to the cliff ledge and called back to her.  "I'm going to open those gates.  In a few seconds a whole river is going to come pouring through here -- and I don't want you two washed away before I get back!"

Only after he had gone did Almaz realize how mad was the Ronin's scheme, and then it was too late to do anything but what he had told her to do.  Then, further, she discovered he had left his lantern beside the gold- skinned girl; how could he accomplished anything without a light?

She hurried to the gunwale and studied the darkness upstream.  Her slim brows knitted.  She could just make out a dim scarlet radiance hovering in the otherwise fathomless night.  It was no more than a mote of light, but raised high up as if on the ledge she had followed to reach the ship.

Though she had no idea what caused the light, she realized it must be Fukitso working to open the gates.  She could hear the swish and thud of his strange sword, perhaps cutting the heavy cable she had noticed near the gates.

Abruptly she stiffened as her ears detected soft padding feet alighting stealthily on the deck behind her.  She wheeled frantically and one hand flew to the oval of her lips...

Next episode...The Startling conclusion to Book One...Flight in the Flood!

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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!)