Stalkers of the Tiger's Bride


A SERIAL of SHEMSHIRAN

BY JEFFREY BLAIR LATTA

Previously: Captured by Ghaffar, Almaz appealed to the Ronin, Fukitso, but he held a grudge for her scratching him, and deserted her.  To make her reveal where she had hidden the treasure map, Ghaffar used a torch and, terrified, Almaz yelled: "The Ronin!"  Just then, three robed figures intervened, a portal materialized, and a disembodied voice commanded Almaz to enter.  One figure carried a sack in which something made animal noises.  From that sack a black smoke flowed (still making noises), congealed, then began to move...

Now, in the serai...


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EPISODE 4: ATTACK IN THE SERAI


The room was not large, and there was little space to avoid the ebony apparition as it glided slowly across the wooden floor.  It made straight for Ghaffar, but he sprang aside, dimly understanding that death lurked in that roiling cloud.  The henchman behind him was not so lucky.  Backed against the wall, there was nowhere for the man to run.  Instead, he drew his tulwar and hacked desperately at the smoke, eyes bulging with naked fear.  The blade swished harmlessly through the cloud, trailing smoke like veils on its shining edge.  With a wretched wail, the henchmen threw up his hands, covering his face, just as the black smoke engulfed him.

Almaz watched, her skin crawling.  For a moment, there was a frenzy of animal cries, as if a dozen creatures were locked in mortal combat -- a  horrifying cacophony of shrieks and growls and roars.  Mingled with the din, a single anguished scream shrilled suddenly.  Then silence fell.  No one moved, no one breathed.

Abruptly, the henchman tumbled from the smoke, flung out as if by human hands.  His corpse sprawled on the floor, his clothes in shredded tatters, blood spilling across the boards.  Though she did not want to look, Almaz could not help herself.  His body was covered with wounds, but not the wounds of any single beast.  There were the marks of claws, wounds made by talons and beaks, punctures from the fangs of snakes, even, on his face, the round trail of suckers left by some tentacled creature.  It was impossible, but it had happened.  Almaz's mind reeled, trying in vain to comprehend the incomprehensible.

And the cloud began to move again.

Having seen what fate lurked in that awful clot of darkness, Ghaffar finally decided that enough was enough.  He cast a final searing look at the girl quivering in the corner, then turned and bolted from the room.  With a horrified shriek, the remaining henchman dodged around the cloud and sped after.  Almaz watched them go, her small heart quaking, sinking under the ponderous burden of despair.  She found herself alone -- alone with the three robed figures and the deadly smoke.  In the tap-room below, hard men gambled and drank unaware of the ghastly drama unfolding over their heads -- her fate having no more meaning for them than the death of a moth caught in a candleflame.

Now the smoke began to glide steadily toward her.

Though fully prepared to suffer whatever torture Ghaffar intended, this was something far worse, something appalling in its inexplicable, unnatural  violence.  With a frightened cry, Almaz stumbled to her feet.  The smoke was nearly upon her.  She threw herself back against the wall.  There was no room to get by the cloud, as the henchman had done.  She was trapped.  Worse, Almaz sensed that this was no accident.  The cloud moved with almost sentient purpose, cutting off escape, narrowing her options -- steering her steadily toward the whirling, scarlet vortex.

Finally, there was nowhere left to go.  The smoke continued to encroach, implacably, until the crawling blackness just caressed her smooth brown arm.  It was the coldest thing she had ever felt, numbing her to the bone like ice water.  Through the numbness, something jerked at her flesh, bringing sharp, lacerating pain.  Claws!

It was the final straw.  With a despairing sob, she whirled and threw herself into the howling portal...

***
The battered copper tankard sat untouched on the scratched and worn tabletop.  Rabab music quavered in air smoke-laden from the curling breaths of gurgling hookahs.  Dishevelled turbans nodded sleepily in the haze.

The Ronin, Fukitso, eyed his kumiss sullenly, hands spread on his knees, broad back pressing against its support so his chair creaked and groaned with the load.  He hadn't touched a drop, not since he'd entered the place an hour before, and now found his brooding thoughts far too sober -- both literally and figuratively.

Fukitso in Serai by Jeffrey Blair LattaHe was dressed in his native attire -- grey kimono under black, baggy-legged hakama, and sleeveless, sideless, wide-shouldered kataginu overmantle.  Hidden in the kataginu were a dozen blue-metal shuriken star-darts, deadly weapons when launched with the killing accuracy learned in the temples of Doji.  Both his short wakizashi, Kyodai, and much longer katana, Ginago, lay on the table in their black-lacquered scabbards.  Ginago, the "Silver Jaw", was so named for its unusual silver handguard; even in this dismal light, the round, traceried "tsuba" shone with an almost supernatural gleam.  The Ronin reached up and perplexedly scratched his bald, top-knotted scalp, as if pondering some deep and baffling mystery.  He raised his weird-eyed gaze and truculently surveyed the room -- as if sizing- up an opponent.

In his homeland, this place would have been named a "kurabu", a meeting place for the lawless and the disorderly, a shadowy den where lust was termed affection and gluttony passed as hunger, and where all appetites -- no matter how perverse -- could be slaked for the right price.  But in this unholy city of violence and ravishment, it was just one more watering hole.

Tonight, though, things were quiet.  The night wind off the eastern desert  breathed cool and dry, and tempers, so quick to ignite when the scorching, moisture-laden Derkiai blew over the blue peaks of the Jebel Qamar, were now controlled, after a fashion.  Fukitso had witnessed only a single incident during his time seated here, and, in that case, the boisterous instigator had collapsed from the drink in his belly ere a real blow was struck.  Fukitso disliked the quiet.  It gave him too much time to think.

And think he did.

Sahara was a dying city.  Some might well say that it was already dead, and better Shemshiran was for the fact.  It was at once a monument to past greatness and a testament to present neglect.  The architecture was grandiose, with thick-walled structures of granite and marble -- material most likely transported considerable distances for the task.  But most of those ancient buildings were fallen into disrepair and now tottered drunkenly, as if, resigned to the inevitable, they merely awaited a good breeze to bring them down.

In some parts of the city -- mainly in the western quarter under the shadow of the brooding crags -- some towers remained standing still, pyramidal pinnacles pointing triumphantly to the stars, black holes speckling the lofty heights where once had perched dark-robed magicians, thoughtfully cataloguing and studying the celestial diamonds for their own secret designs.  The roads and avenues of the city proper had been laid down according to a rude sort of plan, though what that plan had been was now difficult to discern.  The streets had long ago been abandoned to the whims of the elements and new ill-considered tracks had been carved through the growing fastness of huts and hovels.

Fukitso knew nothing of the golden age of Sahara except what his eyes told him.  Though he had once spent a winter as a sowar guarding the caravans on Tariq al'Asal, the Honey Road, he had come no farther west than Fahkd al Houri.  In the khans, he had heard tales told concerning this city, how it was once called Bint al Sahara, shining capital of some ancient fallen empire or other.  He had paid little attention.  There were so many fallen empires, it was difficult to keep track.

But whatever its past grandeur, those glory days were long since put behind.  No law was in evidence on the dark and dusty streets.  No soldiers patrolled the alleyways, nor enforced a curfew.  On entering Sahara the week before, Fukitso had noted a great ruin overgrown with black, tangled creepers and hanging drapes of moss.  Perhaps that place marked the fallen remnants of a castle.  If so, the structure was now as pathetic and obliterated as it had once no doubt seemed commanding and indestructible.  What peoples had laid it so low was impossible to guess.  Perhaps the former inhabitants of the city had turned on their masters in a bloody coup.  Perhaps the black war-camels of the Aswadi raiders had brought fire and destruction even this far to the west.  He didn't know.

A powerful religion had once held sway here, though, and still did to some extent.  It was in evidence in the form of strange, often obscene depictions of sacrifice and ritual hewen into the very walls of the older stone structures and in the shape of weird jade idols which squatted on scaly haunches in the shadows of forbidding abandoned hallways.  But, like the city itself, this religion appeared to have fallen on hard times.  Three towers of black basalt marked out the former boundaries of the city, one atop the western cliffs, one on the city's south side, and the third rising upon the rim of the desert to the east.  Fukitso had no doubt but that these had once been the strongholds of the priesthood.  But, today, two of the three had crumpled into black rubble, and the third looked ancient and empty.

Fukitso was no stranger to such cities as this.  Well he knew the number of abandoned settlements which dotted this ravaged world.  And, many a rough and lawless outland post had he made his temporary home in his travels.  If truth be known, given his choice between the clean, orderly splendour of Ejunika, Fort Balaki or Kari Zak, where justice balanced on the purses of the rich, and obscene perversions still were practiced but concealed beneath a mantle of deceitful words -- given the choice between these worlds and the brutal but honest desert worlds of Shemshiran, he would choose the desert.  Yet, still, there was such an air of decay and lost promise about Sahara, such a sense of broken dreams, that he was almost inclined to question his own values.  Almost.

Slowly, Fukitso allowed his eerie-eyed gaze to continue its survey of the room.  The time was late and only a half dozen customers remained.  They hunched over their drinks with bleary, half-remembering stares, or sucked pensively on hookah tubes with lost expressions born of opium- dreams.  None returned his look, and, after a moment, the Ronin turned back to his own sober musings.  He grunted in frustration as thoughts of his surroundings reverted to thoughts more personal.

He was bothered.  Bothered by a girl of all things.  The sensation was new to him, and disturbing.  Yet, not entirely unpleasant.  That girl (whose name he had not learned) surely had deserved whatever fate befell her -- or so he had told himself.  But now that the first waves of burning passion had passed away -- passion of lust and passion of revenge -- other feelings took hold.

The girl had been a djinn in female form, had she not?  It was a rare woman who would have dared such a desperate ruse to escape those three scoundrels -- for time and thought had allowed him to dimly discern the cause of her actions.  She was brave and resourceful, to be sure.

His hand moved unconsciously to his face where three faint scratches marked his cheek.  Hai, resourceful indeed.  The girl had branded him -- for a few days, at any rate.  That thought brought an ironic curl to his lips.  Even the lovely, gold-skinned Migoti could not match that distinction.

Again, he wondered if he had not acted too hastily.  He remembered clearly the look upon her face as she was borne away, as if it was etched upon the tankard before him.  And his ears recalled the shiver in her voice.  That had been real fear.

At the time, her pitiful cries had given him satisfaction.  Adequate retribution it had seemed.  Now the memory caused him to rub his knuckles along his leg and to frown pensively.  And her captor?  There had been a look in that man's eyes -- a look which had raised the hackles on the Ronin's neck, even at the time.  Those eyes hinted at a mind twisted and maddened beyond all reason.

The girl was in deadly danger.

There was nothing for it.  He must return to the serai and find her.  Not for a thousand other females would the Ronin have done so much.  It was none of his affair, after all.  A girl's screams were as common as the desert sand in this city.  But this was at least partly his fault, was it not?  Perhaps if he had not stalled her in the bed, she might have escaped.  Perhaps if she had not been fleeing him as well, she might have been more watchful.  And, no matter how much she had deserved it, three against one were rotten odds for anyone.

He pushed back his chair and rose heavily, dropping rupees beside the still-untouched tankard.  He slipped Kyodai into his cloth belt and Ginago into the loops on his back, then strode to the door.  Suddenly, a fat, greasy man barred his way, the jewelled hilt of a khanjar showing obviously above the top of a ragged sash.

"That's twelve rupees for the drink," said the proprietor, ominously fingering the weapon.

Fukitso stopped and turned.  He towered over the proprietor like a brooding cliff over a shallow foothill.  He regarded the man with his strange, mostly-white eyes, seemingly blind and yet penetrating like knives.  Somewhere in the smoke, the rabab-player abruptly paused.

Swallowing nervously, the proprietor stepped back and salaamed faint-heartedly.  "Of course, for you, effendi, we make an exception."

Fukitso grunted, then strode unmolested into the fathomless night...

***
It was a short walk to the serai and the Ronin arrived without incident.  Those his size alone could not deter were sure to give a wide berth to the fearsome blade strapped to his back.  Downstairs, the motley throng still drank and gamed, filling the stale air with angry shouts and boisterous song.  Fukitso passed quietly up the staircase.

Behind him a dusty red turban nodded and two burning-eyed figures slunk after.

The upper hallway was deserted and no sound issued from any of the seven doorways to his left.  Very likely, some of these rooms would be occupied.  But he had come for the girl, and he had not expected to find her without rousing a few ill tempers.

Moving to the first fretted door, he tugged open the curtain and peered in.  The room was empty.  Behind him, he noted the soft creak of a stairboard, so dim not a thousand other men could have done the same.  But he paid no heed -- not until something solid and heavy landed hard on his bald skull, bursting crimson stars into his vision and plunging him into roaring darkness...



Next episode...The Carven Sarcophagus


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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!)