Stalkers of the Tiger's Bride


A SERIAL of SHEMSHIRAN

BY JEFFREY BLAIR LATTA

Previously: Fukitso was interrogated by Ghaffar, believing the Ronin knew where the map was hidden, since Almaz yelled: "The Ronin!" under torture.  Fukitso wasn't helpful and Ghaffar, hatching a plan, told him the map led to "a treasure to drive men mad", then apparently killed the Ronin with a knife-thrust from behind.  Meanwhile, Almaz awoke to find herself chained nearly-naked to an altar, a mysterious sarcophagus near by...whose contents she fears will soon be revealed.

Now, in the altar room...


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EPISODE 6: THE TIGER'S BRIDE


Again Almaz tried to move, twisting her ankles and wrists in their golden shackles.  It was no use.  She had been freed from one hideous fate, only to be cast into another one, perhaps more so.  And that thought made tears rim her silken lashes and roll back into her ebony locks.  She began to cry, her slim length shuddering with her emotions so long pent up inside.  She tried to wipe the tears from her cheeks, and was rewarded only with the metallic rattle of her bonds, and this made her weep all the more.

With almost detached reflection she was amazed to realize that it had been a long time since last she had shed tears.  Fear she had felt, and fury, and, at times, utter hopelessness.  But not since that morning in the jungle, when, lost and alone, she had finally accepted that Karim, her saviour, would not return from the cave -- not since then had she allowed herself the luxury of such a release as she now experienced.

"Little one, why do you weep so?"

Her sobs were quenched like a taper is extinguished, and she stared in stunned amazement at the author of the question.

The words, though sympathetic in syntax, had been spoken with a cynicism and callousness which belied any mere rules of grammar.  And the woman who had so spoken looked down upon her sniffling prisoner with a cruel smirk which left no doubt as to her true feelings.

No sound had she made in entering, nor had she disturbed a single filmy veil.  One moment Almaz was alone with her anguish, the next moment she was not.

Zehabi by Jeffrey Blair LattaThe woman was older than Almaz, but a handsome figure nonetheless.  A red cloth graced her loins, with two pleated veils hanging down her long brown legs from jewelled broaches high on either hip.  Breastplates of beaten gold crusted with glittering rubies were held in place by strings of pearls.  A great emerald was set in her navel, casting points of jade refraction across the glossy saddle of her waist.  On her high, insolent brow, sat a gold and silver circlet, half-buried by ebony hair, and on her slender wrists and ankles clear amber bangles clicked softly.

The woman circled the altar, dark eyes appraising the girl, hips swaying with each step in a way at once tauntingly seductive and fraught with menace.  She stopped at the girl's left foot, resting a hand upon the restraining shackle.

"Do you know where you are?" the woman asked evenly.

"No."

"My name is Zehabi.  You are in the Tower of the Tiger."

Understanding came to Almaz in a flash and a shiver coursed through her like the flick of a whip.  Could it be possible?  Did priests of the Tiger still walk the ancient tower on the rim of the desert?

"That is correct," acknowledged the woman, noting the girl's reaction with a secret smile.  "A thousand years ago, the Emerald Empire of Zomorrod ruled this land with a sure and mighty hand.  Over sultry jungle and blazing desert, over blue-peaked mountains and green, crashing sea,  Zomorrod was vast, powerful and, to some, seemingly eternal."  Abruptly, a melancholy light came into her eyes.  Her voice dropped to a whisper.  "But they were wrong.  Zomorrod was not eternal.  Out of the Rub al Harara came raiders on jet black camels, invaders with blazing eyes and flashing, blood-stained scimitars, warriors fierce, implacable and merciless.  They thundered out of the sandy wastes and put to the sword all those who dared stand against them.  For ten terrible years the wars were fought, and, when it was done, Zomorrod lay in ashes, her palaces in smoking ruins, the heads of her finest families heaped in grisly piles before the black tents of her savage conquerors."

Zehabi looked up suddenly as if from a dream and pierced Almaz with an angry, slitted stare.  "Zomorrod boasted many religions, but none was so powerful, so vast, as the Religion of Ti, God of the hunt.  That power frightened the Aswadi invaders.  Though they were tolerant of many beliefs, they were less so with the Priests of the Tiger.  Bint al Sahara was the centre of that religion.  There, two of the sacred temples the accursed Aswadi  destroyed, and the priests were butchered like krim in the streets.  Only the third temple was left untouched, and that was because magic was invoked -- strong, dark magic before which even the Aswadi fell back aghast.  Still, eventually, a way would have been found to breach the tower; an army would have been brought, if necessary.  The priests realized their only hope lay in invisibility.  They cloistered themselves in the black tower and sealed the doors for a thousand years."

Almaz listened with breathlessly parted lips, her lustrous eyes wide with awe.  In a voice like a gasp she whispered, "A thousand years?"

Zehabi nodded slowly.  "They placed a spell upon themselves and slept unchanged for a millennium.  Time marched on, Sahara fell farther and farther from her former illustrious state.  She became a loathsome travesty, a foul joke -- home to whores and beggars, convicts and haramis.  Then, ten years ago, the priests awoke at last, just as they had planned those thousand years before.  Still, they did not reveal their presence in the black tower.  They were astonished to find the Aswadi Empire still held sway, the land now called Shemshiran.  Long ago, they had believed their magic would allow them to outlast their enemies.  Now they saw, they had misjudged the tenacity of the foe.  Little had changed.  Their only advantage lay in obscurity.  And so they hid."  Sudden scorn rocked Zehabi, her beautiful features transforming in an instant.  She hissed her words through gritted white teeth.  "They skulked in the shadows like vermin -- less than vermin! -- afraid to venture into the light, afraid to face their enemies.  Priests of the Tiger?  Bah!  They are hardly fit to call themselves men!"  With a visible effort, she regained a measure of control, but still spoke in a voice shaking with disgust.  "To fulfil the ancient rituals, it was necessary to acquire sacrificial victims.  In this city of despair, that proved no problem.  At night, they slipped from the tower and crept through dirty alleys, slinking through the filth and ordure; guided by magic they sought their prey -- and who would notice one more woman's screams amongst the many cries in the night?"

Almaz found her mind reeling as she fought to assimilate all she was being told.  Her whole life she had been raised to worship Ti, god of the hunt.  Even without temples in which to worship, she had derived strength and courage from the stories of the martyred priests -- Priests of the Tiger.  But what was this she was being told?

"Rituals?" she asked in growing horror.  "Sacrifice?  Victims?  I don't understand."

"Don't you?"  Zehabi smiled, a derisive curling at the corner of her lips.   Then her dark eyes lifted to the sarcophagus.  She seemed to derive some comfort from the sight of its weirdly-carved top -- or perhaps, Almaz thought with a shiver, from the knowledge of what it contained.  "A thousand years ago, the religion of the Tiger held great influence in Zomorrod.  But it was not voluntarily that the people salaamed before her lapis-lazuli altars or brought sacrifices of lamb and krim to place in her temples.  It was fear gave her hold over the minds and souls of the peasants -- fear of the terrible magic which the priests could invoke, fear of the ancient spells contained in the libraries hidden in the three towers.  And when the priests demanded daughters, pure as the drifting sands, it was that same fear made the people comply and give up their children, like animals to the slaughter."

Zehabi laughed as at a cruel jest.  "But then, the Aswadi came and turned those same priests into martyrs.  Gradually, the people forgot the sacrifices and the fear and recalled only the power, recalled the religion of the Tiger with fond nostalgia."

Almaz could only listen speechlessly, horror compounding horror until she wished she might cover her ears.  But, of course, the chains would not allow it.

Zehabi returned her eyes to the girl on the altar.  She smiled as if regarding a mischievous child.  "For ten years now, the priests, having awoken, have resumed their rituals."

"What rituals?" blurted Almaz suddenly.

Zehabi was silent a moment, considering.  Finally, she said: "As it was a thousand years ago, so is it now.  The priests believe they are the instruments of their god's will.  They believe they are mediators between the mortal and the immortal realms."

Almaz's slim brows knitted in confusion.  "Mediators?"

"Or so they believe," replied the woman sardonically.

"What do you mean?"  But in Almaz's soul, she knew.

"Suffice it to say that, when the god partakes of your body, only the priest shouts in ecstasy.  You see, upon this stone you will be ravished, for many a day, night after night, until your loins can bring them no more pleasure and your flesh responds no more to their rude caresses.  This the priests will do in the name of Ti who they truly believe resides within them during their unholy tortures.  I was one such victim, but I was a different creature from the soft, petted girls they were used to.  I was a prostitute, hardened in the brothels of the most brutal quarter of the city.  I alone," and she smiled at the memory, "survived them.  Of all the women who have struggled upon this altar, I alone proved more than even the Priests of the Tiger could break.  Where others became empty, soulless husks, I grew to eagerly await the 'rituals'.  And, in the end, they unchained me from this altar.  But they could not let me leave the tower, for fear I might reveal their presence to the Aswadi.  So I remained, and I helped to prepare other victims for the rituals.  I wandered the tower, and, in my wanderings, I came upon the library with its moldering scrolls filled with ancient and terrible knowledge.  Reading the scrolls, I began to understand how little the priests really knew.  They are children, playing their insignificant games, unaware of the fantastic powers which might be theirs if they only knew where to look.  But I know where to look.  And, bit by bit, I have learned the ancient spells.  Now, at last, I am ready."

Weakly, Almaz whispered: "Ready?"

Again, the dark eyes drifted to the stone sarcophagus.  "The religion of the Tiger is based on a lie.  Ti was never a god, but rather he was a powerful magician who lived five thousand years before the first emperor mounted the jewelled masnad of Zomorrod.  In a dark corner of the blackest turret of this unholy tower, there I discovered his ashes contained in a canopic jar sealed with the carved head of a cat.  A scroll lay beside the canopic jar, a scroll containing a spell for resurrection."

Her eyes began to blaze with a fierce, fanatical gleam.  Her voice shivered deep in her throat.  "I mean to bring back the magician Ti and, together, we will crush the Aswadi into dust and bring back the ancient ways.  I shall be his bride and he my master and, under our rule, the Emerald Empire will rise again!"

For a moment, she paused, panting with her passion.  Then, calmer, she said: "That is why you have been chosen, little one.  Two days ago, I worked the first portion of the spell.  In this sarcophagus lies the results of that conjuration.  It is... unpleasant to look upon.  Ti had long delved in the black arts -- his form was no longer entirely human.  For the next part of the spell, I require a human sacrifice.  After consulting the stars, you were chosen.  First though, I will allow the priests their petty games.  But, when they are through with you, then they will give you to me."

Still smiling in that sardonic and mocking fashion, the woman took two sinuous steps beside the altar, slowly, obscenely running her long sharp nails along Almaz's leg to the knee, then along the thigh, where she stopped.  Her claws ever so slowly exerted pressure.  But Almaz could not fight the assault, so frozen was she by the look in the other's eyes.  "And I tell you now -- what the priests will do to you is nothing compared to that which is demanded by the ritual of resurrection!"

***
Fukitso was more than a little surprised to discover Doji had not yet summoned him to the final durbar.

He lay sprawled where he had fallen.  His bonds had been cut, and he ran a hand down his side to ascertain the damage.  His palm came back sopped with crimson.  Still, no ribs lay exposed and the blood had already clotted.  The thrust of the tulwar had merely cut through his kimono and sliced glancingly along his flank; he had taken worse chops and survived.  For a moment, though, he puzzled over his strange salvation.  How could they have thought him dead with such a minor wound?  Why, believing him dead, had they untied him?

Slowly his lips drew back in a grin like a snarl.  The explanation was obvious, so transparent it was childish.  The madman, Ghaffar, wanted the treasure map, but only the girl, Almaz, could tell him where she had hidden it.  The girl, though, had been captured by the Priests of the Tiger.  Before being captured, she had led Ghaffar to believe that Fukitso had the map.  Ghaffar's plan, then, was clear.  By pretending to think he had killed Fukitso, Ghaffar hoped that the Ronin would either lead him to the map -- which Fukitso could not do, since he did not know where it was -- or else he hoped the Ronin would rescue the girl himself.  That was why Ghaffar had told Fukitso about the treasure.  A temptation like that?  The Ronin's reputation preceded him wherever he went.

Kicking the toppled chair away, he rose unsteadily to his feet and brushed a hand across his strange, nearly-white eyes as if to sweep aside  cobwebs.  Stumbling against a wall, he swore angrily, righted himself, then took up his katana which had been left leaning against the bed beside the smaller Kyodai.  It felt good to have Ginago back in hand, and he waved it furiously in the air, smiting left and right at invisible djinns, as if to assure himself that the touch of a stranger had not somehow tainted his invincible ally.  Strapping the black scabbard to his back, he slid the flashing blade into its home.  Then he thrust the smaller scabbarded wakizashi into this cloth belt.  His seven shuriken star-darts lay on a table beside the bed.  Replacing these in his kataginu overmantle, he stomped out into the hall.

As the stairboards protested beneath his sandaled feet, a sudden silence fraught with guilt settled over the few turbaned patrons who remained in the tap-room below.  Fukitso had no doubt but that they had known of his peril, but he blamed them neither for failing to warn him nor for failing to come to his aid.  They were rogues, one and all, and only true to their natures.

Ignoring their stares, he strode to the bar, weaving drunkenly with each leaden step.  Without asking the permission of its owner, he seized the nearest tankard of kumiss and emptied it in four noisy gulps, throwing back his head to hasten its course.  Then, refreshed, he slammed the tankard onto the board.  Wiping the froth from his lips with the sleeve of his kimono, he nodded to his audience and clomped on out the door...



Next episode...Assault on the Tower


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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!)