A SERIAL of SHEMSHIRAN
BY JEFFREY BLAIR LATTA
Now, on the ship's deck...
Three of them had just clambered over the downstream gunwale and now crouched in a loose line, eagerly watching her with bulging white eyes that glistened damply in the wavering light. A horrible surge of revulsion shook her slender body as she saw their flaccid skins, bleached to a sickening white like a fish's belly, saw their wide frog-like mouths, the bestial forward thrust of their heads, the dark blisters mottling their horrible faces.
Having been so long a prisoner of these loathsome things, for a moment Almaz imagined that she was still their captive, bound and helplessly hanging from a hook. Even as they began shambling across the deck toward her, she could only watch them come, dreadful tears spilling from the corners of her eyes, a suffering whimper passing with her tremulous breath...
But then the creature in the middle of the three halted abruptly as its path would have carried it too near the burning lantern. For a moment, it batted clumsily at the light with a claw-studded hand, its other hand held before its glistening eyes. The other two paid no heed to the first creature's actions but continued steadily to approach, strings of yellow saliva drooling from their wide lips.
Then, suddenly, they noticed the gold-skinned girl lying insensate against the base of the broken mast. They halted a moment, hesitating as if unable to decide which girl they more desired.
Making up their minds, all three creatures turned on the unconscious girl and clustered about her, squatting, their hands sliding urgently over her naked body. The girl's face was hidden by the terrible group, but Almaz heard a feeble sob rise from amongst them and she saw the golden body strain rigidly beneath their touch.
Slowly, as if rousing from a dream, Almaz awoke from her paralysis, in her mind remembering what task the Ronin had set for her. He had told her to hold Migoti -- for that was apparently the golden girl's name. He was trusting Almaz to protect this woman and now she was betraying that trust by not striving to her utmost to save the girl from the creatures!
Though all three creatures were small compared to her Ronin protector, they were only slightly shorter than Almaz herself and, from her previous experience, she knew their sinewy thews belied the fragility of their appearance. She could not hope to fight against three of the things, for they would merely turn their attentions back to her and overpower her as they had done before.
But then she thought of the way the one creature had reacted to the blazing lantern; perhaps they were bothered by the bright light. Perhaps it was even painful to their eyes, living in absolute darkness as they did.
With the thought came a surge of hope and, steeling herself, Almaz sped desperately across the deck. She circled around the knot of creatures, intending to reach the lantern on the other side of them.
But one of the group noticed her and perhaps even divined her plan, for it sprang at her suddenly, easily catching her by the ankle and tripping her so she sprawled just out of reach of the lantern.
She felt repulsive hands clambering rapidly up her leg -- and lashed out blindly with the other foot, gagging nauseously as her heel sank into a soft, blistered face.
The other creatures had noticed the fight and now rose from their gold-skinned captive, eager to join in the task of subduing the brown-skinned girl. But grimly she kicked out again and this time the monster lost its grip sufficiently for her to drag herself free. Clawing at the hoary deck, Almaz hauled herself forward on her belly, her breath hissing between clenched teeth.
With a final surge, she caught the lantern's hook and rolled on her side, swinging the lantern so its light blazed full in the eyes of the creatures.
All three fell back abruptly, their hands leaping before their faces. They struck uselessly at the air as if they thought the light was something they could touch. Almaz struggled to her knees, brandishing the lantern and knowing only its intangible luminance stood between her body and their eager hands. The lassitude of the drug still weighed at her supple limbs, hampering her effort to regain her feet.
Slowly, relentlessly, the creatures advanced, moving as if struggling against a howling headwind, their deformed heads turned from the light, their sharp claws thrashing the air futilely.
Still on her knees, Almaz retreated miserably before them, stopping only when she felt the carved gunwale pressing at her shoulders. Gradually the creatures crowded around her, their claws narrowly missing the brazen lantern, the light still dazzling them by its nearness.
With an urgent cry, Almaz swung the lantern and felt it jolt in her hands as it connected with one of the creatures. She lashed out again, and again it resoundingly smashed a monster.
Momentarily surprised by her unexpected resistance, the creatures fell back slightly and Almaz staggered erect, swinging the lantern wildly before her like a mace. It crashed on a monster's skull, dazing the thing, which stumbled drunkenly a moment before toppling awkwardly over the gunwale.
Emboldened by this success, Almaz marshalled her fading strength and attacked the two remaining creatures with a ferocity which she had not known she possessed. The lantern landed full on one monster's head, dashing the thing to its knees, dark blood bubbling thickly from a gaping wound. A second blow caught the same creature across the ear and it sprawled stretched on the deck in a widening pool of glistening scarlet. But before Almaz could ready herself for another blow, the final monster leaped forward, catching her body in its sinewy arms and pinioning her struggling limbs to her sides -- the lantern tumbling uselessly to the deck.
Almaz writhed vainly in the monster's constricting embrace, unable even to draw breath against the unrelenting crush. She cried out wordlessly, thrashing wildly, driven to a frustrated frenzy by the knowledge that escape had seemed so tantalizingly near.
But so many things had already sapped her strength that her frantic struggles were too quickly spent and she felt the lank arms tighten convulsively around her as her slim body relaxed, exhausted. She could only shake her dark head in hopeless negation as the monster began to drag her to the gunwale...
But, suddenly, the creature released its hold, spilling her onto the deck at its feet.
Though startled, she had sense enough to crawl desperately away, before finally twisting to glance back. The monster's bulbous eyes stared into the empty blackness beyond the ship upstream.
In its mein, there was the unmistakable sign of uncontainable fear.
Without even bothering to turn, it stumbled awkwardly backward, then flipped grotesquely over the gunwale, disappearing instantly down the side of the ship. At the same moment, Almaz detected a dull, gong-like groaning swelling steadily out of the night at her back.
Jerking to her feet, she weaved a moment, then caught up the lantern and staggered to the upstream gunwale. Holding the lantern out over the edge, she stared intensely into the thick darkness, her eyes enormous.
Mingled with the groaning was the distant din of brutal struggle, the unmistakeable sound of keen blade thudding home in quivering flesh. She could still see the mote of scarlet radiance and, now, as she watched, she heard the Ronin's bass bellow raised as he cursed furiously. At the same moment, the red light plunged downward in the darkness, then disappeared.
Almaz gasped in horror, for she knew the Ronin had fallen from the ledge down to the riverbed below. Could he have survived such a terrible drop?
She leaned far out so that the carved gunwale pressed against her slender waist, swinging the lantern back and forth so that its flickering warmth flashed off the damp stones and thrust back the night in a bulwark around the ship's hull. If her companion had survived his fall, he would have to reach the ship from below.
But now the low groaning had given way to another sound, a noise like the earth itself being torn asunder -- a loud thundering roar that grew steadily louder with each rapid pulse of her thrilling heart.
Beyond the edge of light, the darkness was made thin and dilute. In that weaker night, vague movement caught her huge eyes and she strained to make it out against the concealing shadows. She shouted gleefully as she recognized Fukitso racing madly down the riverbed and she swung the lantern with even greater vigour to let him know he had been seen, nearly overbalancing from her perch in her excitement.
But her joy was short-lived and her lovely features gradually assumed a frown of curious amazement.
In the thicker darkness just behind the running Ronin, the black air seemed to shimmer magically, reflecting the light of her lantern like a dreamly whirlwind of dancing silver dust. As her companion sped furiously across the light's rim, a foaming white tide surged heavily about his ankles, rising behind him in a steep, looming arc nearly as high as the gunwale!
Almaz yelped and almost dropped the lantern in her surprise.
"Get back!" the Ronin shouted breathlessly.
At the same moment, he sprang upward with all the power in his legs, his wide-sleeves falling back to reveal corded arms outstretched. His strong fingers hooked on the gunwale next to Almaz and, at the same instant, the wall of water crashed full against the side of the ship.
It swirled in a roaring maelstrom over the Ronin's bald head, casting blinding spray over the gunwale that gathered in a bubbling broth around Almaz's legs. The force of the water dragged at the struggling Ronin, his fingers barely managing to cling against the terrific suction.
Because the ship straddled the riverbed, it acted almost like a second dam. Even as the white water climbed the hull, the massive ship rocked ponderously on its keel like some great sea serpent lethargically rousing from sleep. Almaz felt the deck lurch sickeningly beneath her sliding feet. She grabbed the gunwale and held on tight as the ship bucked like a rearing karmah, then crashed down again, heaving a curtain of water over her head that left her choking and coughing.
Slowly, under the steady press of thundering river, the ship began to turn, its bow dragging heavily along the rocky cliff, the bowsprit shattering into a ruin of pale kindling. The forward curve of the port bow struck the cliff and rumbled as it rubbed against the stone face.
Though barely able to maintain her footing on the foam-washed deck, Almaz's greater concern was for her companion still clinging precariously to the gunwale. She could see the ship was being swung against the cliff face. In seconds, the Ronin would be caught between the stone wall and the wooden hull, smeared like an insect in a mill stone. Though the Ronin saw the danger, the deadly current dragging relentlessly at his baggy clothes prevented him from climbing out of the steadily narrowing cleavage.
Frantically, Almaz grabbed the sleeves of his kimono below the elbows, her fingers sliding on the wet fabric. But the task called for far greater strength than her supple muscles could supply.
For a moment, the Ronin's head emerged from a hissing trough and his strange eyes stared up into hers. The stone cliff emerged out of the darkness at his back, materializing like a granite nightmare, overwhelming in scale, gleaming with the scattered spray. The Ronin reached out desperately, one huge hand clasping her small shoulder, almost dragging her over. But she heaved back bravely, bracing herself against the gunwale, her sleek spine exploding with agony...
Then the Ronin surged up and over the gunwale, tumbling heavily atop her like a stone statue even as the hull shuddered and groaned, and the cliff face scraped the gunwale at his heels with an almost feral roar -- as if furious to be cheated of its prize.
For a moment, Almaz found herself pinned under the massive body of the Ronin, the breath knocked out of her lungs, the deck-wash spilling over her face. She felt his muscles flex and he straddled her on hands and knees, looking down into her face with an expression of wide-eyed amazement.
"Baka! Damn pishacas attacked me while I was busy cutting the gate-rope," he shouted over the pounding roar. "Knocked me off the cliff. For a second there, I didn't think I was going to get out of that one."
He touched her bruised shoulder testingly, like an animal pawing, and she winced. "Sorry about your arm, but it isn't broken." He raised his head and she knew he saw the dead monster lying on the deck. His gaze returned to her face and his smile spread. "Looks like you had some excitement yourself. Migoti won't be happy to hear a soft thing like you had to save her thick hide."
With a smooth heave, he sprang to his feet and grabbed up the lantern.
As the roaring current grew steady, the ship eased gradually away from the cliff and began moving downstream, picking up speed as it went. It wallowed dizzily from side to side in the dancing torrent, and Almaz could only struggle weakly to her knees before desperately clutching the Ronin's leg in her arms and holding on with all the strength remaining in her exhausted frame.
Fukitso held the lantern out over the gunwale as Almaz had done before, the amber light throwing a wide mantle over the cliff ledge as it rushed steadily past Watching him from below, Almaz found there was a tension in his thews that had nothing to do with his need to maintain balance on the rocking deck.
He seemed to be searching for something in the lantern light.
Then, abruptly, the topaz glow washed across a cluster of dark shapes gathered on the ledge, having just come from a side tunnel. The ship was far enough from the ledge that the light reached it only dimly -- but enough was revealed to leave Almaz shaken and trembling, her mind reeling with hopeless terror.
She saw a dark figure dressed in an ebony robe, the face hidden by a wide hood. Though, before, she had only seen the shadow from a distance when fleeing on karmah-back over the stoney harrat desert, she recognized it easily enough now.
It was the tracker set on their trail by the terrible Priests of the Tiger.
Instantly she understood that the winged creature, which had attacked her on the maidan, had returned to Sahara to inform its masters of its find. The inhuman hunter had come to Fakhd al Houri and tracked her scent into the underground tunnels; the sounds of battle heard before had been the tunnels' loathsome inhabitants vainly defending their home against the hellish intruder.
Gathered around the hooded figure was a weird pack of massive feline beasts which Almaz had never seen before. Their powerful muscles rolled smoothly beneath glossy orange hides with jagged black stripes. Their slitted amber eyes reflected the light like burning flares and their dripping fangs flashed like sabres. Instantly, she knew -- these were the things which had nearly caught her on the mountain, which had tracked her all the way from Sahara. Even now, she was allowed only a glimpse, but that glimpse was enough to make her cry out in wretched despair.
As the ship rushed past, the striped cats bounded to the brink of the ledge, screaming shrilly, dragging at a fan of leashes held by their black-robed master. Almaz writhed against the Ronin's leg, afraid the cats might leap a chasm which no normal animal could possibly cross. She pressed her face to the wide leg of his hakama, afraid to look.
But then, out of the corner of her eye, she saw the black-robed figure make a casting motion with its arm. Something glinted in the air between the ledge and the ship as if reaching the pinnacle of a high trajectory. Dimly she thought she heard something fall rattling across the deck near the stern.
Then the tracker and the cats vanished into the darkness behind. A moment later, the ledge ended and the ship rushed into a narrower tunnel, where the current howled like starving barapurs and the lantern light gleamed off the low ceiling racing by in a damp, grey blur.
Gradually the doomed city of Fakhd al Houri was left far, far behind...
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Stalkers of the Tiger's Bride copyright 1999, by Jeffrey Blair Latta.
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