Stalkers of the Tiger's Bride



Previously: One of Ghaffar's henchmen, engulfed by the smoke-mound, tumbled out dead, ravaged by the marks of countless different animals.  Ghaffar and the remaining henchman fled and, terrified by the smoke, Almaz leapt into the portal, to an unknown fate.  Meanwhile, in another tavern, Fukitso had second thoughts and resolved to rescue Almaz, after all.  Returning to the serai, he was bashed on the head from behind.

Now, a short while later...

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Consciousness returned in an instant, or so it seemed to Fukitso.  But time had passed.  Of that he could be sure, now finding himself bound tightly with hardwoven thongs to a rattan chair in what he took to be one of the rooms in the serai.  Fragments of another chair lay heaped in a corner, and a smoky smell filled the air.  But, even through this olfactory assault, the Ronin recognized another scent.  It was the girl.  It was her smell, the fresh tang of her skin, the fragrant spice of her hair -- the odour of her fear.  She had been here.  Her aura marked her as surely as if she had carved her picture upon the wall.

Involuntarily, he drank deep of her spoor, filling his lungs like bellows, then turned on his captors with a deep-throated growl.

He instantly recognized the madman in the red turban.  That man just laughed.

"I have no fear of you, Ronin," he chuckled, tauntingly.  "The cords will not give easily -- not even to impressive muscles such as yours.  You thought it quite comical to force me to walk around you before.  Now the tables are turned, are they not, effendi?"  Sinuously he reached out his hand.  "My name is Ghaffar.  Lick Ghaffar's hand, Ronin, or the man standing behind you will strike off your head."

Fukitso tilted his head to assay the truth of the threat.  The dusky figure behind nodded, and displayed a gleaming tulwar.  The Ronin turned back and chuckled with black mirth.

"A fair trade," he said cryptically.  Ghaffar looked puzzled.  "My head for your hand," explained Fukitso -- and he grinned broadly so as to reveal his strong white fangs.

Ghaffar snatched back his hand with a gasp, the colour draining from his face in an instant.

"I warn you now," he threatened, trying to snatch back some slight air of dignity, "should you even try to break free, you will die as surely as if you had cut your own throat.  My acquaintances tend to be rather jumpy, so I would advise you to be very careful.  Oh, and I am sorry for the knock they gave you.  We were waiting for you downstairs and we followed you up here.  Salah here thought you had noticed us and...well, you're lucky your skull is like steel.  Speaking of which, is this truly the great sword they call Ginago, the Silver Jaw?"

Ghaffar lifted the heavy weapon with a gasp which he was unable to conceal.  Fukitso gave no hint of the black rage which filled him as he saw his precious katana in the hands of another.  But it gave him some satisfaction to note that this weak-limbed fool could barely lift the blade even with both hands.

"Remarkably heavy," commented Ghaffar, replacing it next to the wakizashi against the bed.  "What is it made of?"

"Steel," grunted Fukitso simply.

"Steel?  And nothing else?"

"Steel and blood."

Ghaffar regarded him doubtfully.

Fukitso explained: "When forged, it was cooled in the blood of a dragon."

Ghaffar laughed again, but unsurely, wondering whether the Ronin was mocking him or not.   But when he himself spoke again, there was less mockery in his tone.   "I think I could learn to like you, Ronin.  I could at that."

"Where is the girl?"

"The girl?"  Ghaffar seemed genuinely surprised.  "You mean, Almaz,  the stripling slut who raked your face?  But you do carry a grudge, don't you?  Well, I can promise you that she is paying dearly, even if it is not at my hands.  You see, no sooner had I set a torch to her tender young ribs than Priests of the Tiger -- or rather, their unnatural representatives -- burst in upon us and claimed her for themselves... accursed wizards!"  For a moment, his features transformed.  His eyes bulged and his teeth gnashed, and the madman within stood starkly, hideously revealed.  Then, with an effort, his mask slipped back into place.  He laughed carelessly.  "Apparently, she had been chosen for some purpose or other.  I tried to intervene but..."  A hint of fear flickered in his eyes.  "I lost one of my henchmen to some sort of weird black smoke.  An appalling death, too."  With a shrug, he dismissed the memory.  "Now then, about the map -- Almaz said that she had given it to you."

"Me?  And when was this?  While you were driving her mad with fire?"

Ghaffar placed a tapered finger to his thin lips, and frowned thoughtfully.  "No.  She was not mad.  I believed her.  You may not know that you have it, but you do.  You must."

"Then tell me what it was and what it looked like."

Ghaffar smiled slyly.  "What it looked like was a hide cloth, folded so that it could easily be concealed, say in the palm of the hand.  What it was is none of your business."

"It was small, then?"

"When folded."

"With a map drawn on one side?"

"Yes!"  Hope flicker hungrily in the eyes of the interrogator.

"And the girl, Almaz, had it upon her, say in her shift?"

"You have seen it, then?"

"No.  But I will keep my eyes open."

With a shrill oath, more like a scream, Ghaffar struck the Ronin across the face, leaving white marks on the dark skin.  He might as well have struck a granite statue.  Fukitso grinned at him, challengingly.

"We have searched your room.  We have searched your clothes while you lay senseless.  Nothing!  Where is it?!"

Suddenly, Ghaffar paused.  He began to chew musingly upon the end of his thumb.  Then he motioned to his two henchmen and together they slipped out into the hall.  Instantly, Fukitso set to work, stretching his bonds, tensing his thews until his cords creaked and twanged like the string of a rabab.  But there was no time to complete the task before the three filed back in, a look of smug satisfaction painted on each dark countenance.

"I am going to tell you what that map was," stated Ghaffar, without preamble.  "It pointed the way to a great treasure.  A treasure said to have driven men mad by its sight.  Many men have died for that map."

"Why tell me this?" asked Fukitso warily.

Ghaffar smiled and signalled to the man behind the Ronin.

"So you will know, Ronin, that you are not the first to have died for this thing."

The words were barely out of the curling lips.  Fukitso heaved his tremendous weight to the side, unbalancing the chair.  But he was too late.  The burning thrust of cold steel lanced his chest, and warm liquid cascaded down his side.  Then, the chair toppled.  His head crashed against the floor.  And he died...

Almaz awoke slowly.  Her first confused thought was to wonder how she had survived to think at all.  Her next thought was to wonder where she was.  She tried to move, but found that she could not.  Fear taking hold of her racing heart, she rolled her head to look about.

She voiced a faint Oh! of disbelief.

Altar by Jeffrey Blair LattaShe lay stretched on her back upon an altar of ebony marble shot with veins of white and gold.  Her wrists were secured above her head, each  chained tightly to a ring at either corner.  Her legs were fastened likewise to the opposite corners.  Straining to lift her head, she surveyed the length of her slender brown body.  She was clothed only in a scarlet thong garment between her legs which glittered along the edges in a V of diamond dust.  Her firm breasts were low domes upon her chest.  Around her shoulders she wore a robe of some scarlet diaphanous material, now fallen open and draping  the sides of the altar.  Through this material, the marble pressed cold and unyielding as ice.

In a rush, memories returned.  She recalled what had happened in the serai, the pain, the terror, the torch.  Then -- the black robed skeletons, the hideous smoke cloud... the whirling, howling portal.  And now?  Where was she?  The chamber was of indeterminate dimensions; red veils, fashioned from the same translucent material as her robe, trailed down from above like boughs of moss in a swamp.  Yet, through that forest of wisps, she could just make out vague tapestries of black and violet, arras decorated with gold drawings so loathsome and perverted she was forced to look away with a shiver of disgust.

Also depending from above were gold-wrought censers encrusted with precious stones.  From these censers, thin streams of multi-hued smoke rose twisting and winding in languorous spirals.  The air was heavy with the stuff imparting a fantasy-like unreality to the whole and filling her brain with sweet, otherworldly scents.

Looking to the left, Almaz noticed a massive stone sarcophagus braced up at an angle so that she could see the intricately carven lid.  Weirdly fantastic animals stood out in low relief on that lid, deformed creatures surely born of some bhang-induced nightmare.  Seeing the sarcophagus, Almaz felt a sudden crawling chill ripple along her slender spine.  What did it contain? she wondered.  She didn't know.  But somehow she knew she would soon find out...

Next episode...The Tiger's Bride

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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!)