Stalkers of the Tiger's Bride


A SERIAL of SHEMSHIRAN

BY JEFFREY BLAIR LATTA

Previously: A beggar witnessed three robed figures apparently tracking someone through Sahara's streets.  One carried a sack in which something struggled with the sounds of many creatures, including human laughter.  Meanwhile, Almaz, pursued by men, sought sanctuary in a serai in the arms of a man with strange white eyes.  Then, to escape that man's embrace, she scratched his face, then hid something beneath a candleholder.  Fleeing again, she found herself cornered by Ghaffar...last seen escaping into the jungle.

Now, in the serai...


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EPISODE 3: THE SACK OF DEATH!


The fight was gone from her.  Almaz could flee no more, even had there been somewhere to flee to.  She sobbed wretchedly as she was roughly flung over the shoulder of her gloating captor.  Whimpering, she could only reach out her arms pleadingly toward the hard, turban-clad jumble of customers who crowded the tables below.  For her efforts, their laughter followed her up the stairs.  There was no law in the city of Sahara.  And, for such as she, there could be no hope.

But, just as Ghaffar reached the upper hallway, he stopped and his fingers tightened around her thighs.

"Step aside, Ronin," he ordered, to someone she could not see.  "This is none of your affair."

"And how would you know what is my affair?" challenged a voice, coarse and threatening as the snarl of a samadhi.

Almaz's heart fluttered wildly with excitement.  She recognized the guttural voice and twisted so as to see the weird-eyed stranger whom she had so recently wounded.  If any man could save her, surely it was this powerful giant.

Fukitso by Jeffrey Blair LattaSince last she had seen him, he had donned his costume, an alien affair to match his alien features.  He wore a loose grey robe beneath wide flowing pants and an odd sideless, sleeveless overmantle with broad, stiffened shoulders.  Both the overmantle and the pants were black.  His shorter sword in its black scabbard was secured at his waist with a cord, and the two-handed hilt of his longer sword thrust up behind his top-knotted head, secured to his broad back.

A "Ronin", Ghaffar had called the stranger.  Now Almaz recalled hearing men discussing just this man in the suq the other day.  He was a Samurai, they said, from a land beyond the Rub al Harara, beyond Shemshiran, beyond even the furthest fringe of the Aswadi Empire.  A Samurai warrior, but one without a master.  A ruthless, brutal killer without code or honour.  A Ronin.

Now, the Ronin's weird-eyed gaze seemed not to notice her as she hung draped over Ghaffar's shoulder -- but a thin smile bent his cruel lips.

"Walk around me," he instructed, his voice a purr.

"What?" Ghaffar was as astonished as was Almaz.  His two companions looked to their leader for instructions, though both were eager to avoid a confrontation with this muscular warrior.

"Hai -- you heard right.  Walk...around me."

Ghaffar was insane but he was far from stupid.  He had the girl; there was no need for a fight which they might even lose.  With as much dignity as he could muster, he sidled past the Ronin, tense and ready for any sign of treachery.  And, while Almaz too anticipated a trap, neither were ready for the peculiar form it was to take.

Without warning, the Ronin scooped a powerful hand beneath the girl's small chin and raised her head and torso until she looked into his demon-orbs with wide and startled eyes.  Then he slipped a hand behind her hair and pressed his lips furiously to hers.  Her frightened cry was smothered by a cruel kiss.  When he released her, he grinned with a fearsome baring of fangs.

"Tame her if you can!" he snarled, then, turning on his heels, started heavily down the stairs.  "But watch her claws -- she has the talons of an afreet!"

For a heartbeat, Almaz was too stunned to react.  She watched him go, her trembling lips still numb from his brutal assault, her mouth forming an O of astonishment.  Then, in sudden breathless terror:

"Wait!" she sobbed.  "You don't understand!"

But it was too late.  The Ronin was already gone, and Almaz was carried weeping into one of the rooms...

***
As the curtains rustled closed, she was deposited unceremoniously upon the hard floor.  With a savage wrench, her shift was torn from her slim, brown body.  With a despairing cry, Almaz dragged herself to a far corner of the room.  She crouched in the shadows, shivering miserably in her nakedness.  She had been running for so long, always hiding, always afraid, and now to find it come to this.  What was the use?  Better to have it over with than to live this unending nightmare.  Better to end it here and now.  She had no more strength left in her to resist.  Submissively she awaited her fate, whatever it might be.

For the moment, though, Ghaffar was more interested in her tattered garment.  This he tore into long strips, analyzing each in turn and finally hurling the whole to the ground with an angry spitted curse.  He wheeled on her and his slitted eyes blazed from the shadow of his scarlet turban.

"Where is it, Little Diamond?"  His voice was the slithering rustle of a snake through tall grass.  "What have you done with it, eh?  Where is the map!"

With all her soul, Almaz wanted to answer his question.  It would have been so easy.  But she recalled the brave Karim -- Karim who, having killed all her tormenters save Ghaffar, had then vanished into the terrible jungle cave, never to return -- and remembering, she swore she would not betray him.  She would never give up the map to such as Ghaffar.  Never!

As if divining her defiant thoughts, Ghaffar's hawkish features grew suddenly dark and crafty.  He took one threatening stride toward her.  With a sob, she cringed back against the wall.  He stopped and chuckled sardonically.  "Oh, Little Diamond, what do you hope to gain by this childish obstinacy?  I will have the map eventually, you know I will.  Why not give it to me and save yourself the pain which you know I will inflict?"  His lips curled repellently.  "Do you remember, Almaz, how it was I who stopped Ahmed when he was tormenting you before the cave?  How I helped you to stand?"

Wordlessly, Almaz nodded, tears shivering on her satiny cheeks.

"I was kind to you then.  I can be kind to you now.  Just give me the map.  Tell me where you have hidden it and I will let you go.  Is that so very  unreasonable, Little Diamond?"

He was insane.  Almaz could see it in his burning eyes, in the sweat that beaded the line of his turban, in the trembling of his clenching hands.  Like herself, after the battle at the cave, Ghaffar had wandered through the stifling, tangled jungle for days and days, but, unlike Almaz, who eventually found her way to civilization, he encountered Jakaro headhunters -- the same headhunters who had been hunting him relentlessly since the collapse of their devilish alliance.  What they did to him, Almaz did not know, but, when at last he escaped, he had been driven mad.  In his mind was a single all-consuming goal -- to return to the cave and claim the treasure.  But he could not find his way back there without the map, the map which he knew Almaz must still carry on her.  For a week, he and his two henchmen had chased the frightened girl unmercifully throughout the streets and alleys of Sahara, hounding her without respite.  They allowed her little time to eat, little time to sleep.  Now he told her he would let her go if only she would give him the map.  It was a lie, she knew that with absolute certainty.  In his madness, he blamed her for all he had endured in the jungle.  Map or no map, he would never let her go.

"Very well, have it your way!"  In one smooth motion, Ghaffar heaved up a chair and smashed it to kindling against the wall.  He took up a leg from the shattered pile and, retrieving the rags of her shift, wrapped these loosely around the broken end.  "That candle," he ordered, his features twisted with malevolent urgency.

Perhaps there are some things too terrible for the mind to accept.  Almaz's mind recoiled from the truth until the very last moment.  For only as the candle was passed and Ghaffar set fire to the rags, did she finally comprehend the grisly torture which he intended for her.

"You had the map with you earlier tonight," he hissed, the roaring flames reflecting orange and blue in his eyes as if he gazed madly into the very fires of Jehanna.  "I saw you with it.  There are only so many places where you could hide it.  So, I will ask you only once more...Where is the map?"

***
With a dreadful moan, Almaz drew back into the corner of the room.  Her knees drew tight to her chest, her arms crossed before her face covering her eyes as if she could thus hide from this hideous nightmare.  But she could not hide.  Ghaffar granted her no quarter -- with two swift strides, he reached her side and swept the blazing torch slowly along her trembling brown body, from her round shoulder to her curving hip, only inches from her naked flesh.  As she felt the searing heat of the flames, as the very sweat on her skin turned to sudden sizzling steam, she let out a shrill mindless scream:

"The Ronin!"

Then, suddenly, one of the two henchmen cried out a startled warning.  The roaring torch was jerked away and Ghaffar looked up, his features furious at the interruption.  Almost instantly those features melted into a look of uneasy suspicion.

Three black-robed figures had appeared just inside the doorway.

Their coming had been silent, without even the rustle of the curtain to mark their arrival.  Now, in eerie silence, they watched the ghastly drama, their faces hidden by sagging hoods.  Seeing them, Almaz suddenly forgot the burning brand in the hands of a madman.  Her soft skin, too, forgot the blistering heat so recently inflicted.  She shivered as if with numbing cold.  Somehow she sensed that here was something more frightening still.

Something evil.

"Who are you?" snarled Ghaffar, eyeing the intruders warily.  "This room is taken, can't you see that?  Find your own."

For a moment, the three figures looked on in silence.  Then, abruptly, a voice rang out -- a voice which came, not from the robed figures, but from the very air itself.  It was a female voice, a-thrill with fierce exultation.

"She has been chosen!  The stars have spoken and the constellations are in alignment.  Stand aside or die!"

The two henchmen looked frantically about with wide, frightened eyes.  This was magic, black and forbidding.  But Ghaffar, in his madness, was less impressed.

"Chosen is she?" he hissed, dragging a recurved khanjar dagger from his silken girdle.  "Well, you'll just have to wait in line!"

He thrust at the nearest figure, the wavy blade sinking easily through the black robe just below the ribs.  Almost immediately, his eyes dilated and his breath hissed through his teeth.  There had been no resistance to that thrust.  Almaz watched in amazement as the khanjar blade was withdrawn.  No blood flowed from the wound.  Ghaffar stumbled back a step, dim fear gradually taking tenuous root in his shattered mind.

One of the figures raised an arm and the sleeve rustled back to reveal a hand without skin or flesh, merely bones.  A skeleton finger pointed to a corner of the room.  Slowly, a spinning scarlet light, like a luminous whirlpool, began to take shape just in front of the wall.  There was a howling of titanic winds, a building roaring maelstrom, as if the room itself perched on the brink of an immense, illimitable void.

Now the whirlpool was an oval the height of a man.  Though it shone with its own eerie glow, its light had no effect on the surrounding chamber.  Frozen with horror, Almaz could only stare, her dark eyes enormous.  Again, the woman's voice rang from the air, sharp, commanding.

"Enter the portal, child.  You have been chosen.  Enter the portal now!"

The two henchmen were terror-stricken by the sight of the whirling, howling thing in the corner.  But Ghaffar was less so.  He saw what was happening and, in his deranged mind, knew only one thought: that the map -- his map -- was about to be snatched away.  He could not let that happen.  Not when he was so close.

"The map!" he screamed, whipping a flashing tulwar into the light.  "You fools!  Don't you see, if they take the girl, we will never find the treasure!  There are three of us.  Attack them, I say!  Whatever magic animates them, our blades can still hack their bones to pieces!"

By their expressions, it was evident the henchmen were less sure.  They hesitated, wide eyes casting between the three figures, the whirling portal and the door to the hallway.  Then, before they could register their decision, two of the robed figures moved aside and the third took one flowing step forward.

He -- or it -- carried a black cloth sack.  The sack bulged and rippled with the animal struggles of whatever it contained.  Almaz felt a tingling surge through her supple flesh.  Sound emanated from the sack.  A cat howled and hissed.  A camel bleated.  A bird screamed.  Then, laughter -- shrill and shivering with villainous glee.  Human laughter.

Ghaffar had again fallen back.  Even his mad mind was over-awed by the weird thing in the sack.  The robed figure bent and placed the sack on the floor.  For a moment, it sat there, the coarse fabric jerking and humping with the struggles of its contents.  Then the sack opened.  Almaz held her breath.  All eyes regarded the black opening with baffled anticipation -- anticipation mixed with vague, almost-primordial fear.

Out of the sack, a black smoke began to flow.  It spilled in thick, curling wisps, like glossy tresses crawling in a slowly blowing wind.  In seconds, the smoke began to gather, then thicken, congealing, rising steadily into a hulking black mound the height of a man.  From the smoke, animal sounds continued to spit and roar and screech, but nothing could be seen of its contents.

Then, with dreadful purpose, the smoke began to move...
 



Next episode...Attack in the Serai


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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!)