Stalkers of the Tiger's Bride


A SERIAL of SHEMSHIRAN

BY JEFFREY BLAIR LATTA

Previously: Chained in the Tower of the Tiger, Almaz was confronted by the beautiful, frightening Zehabi, who revealed that the Priests of the Tiger had awoken after a thousand year sleep and resumed their former "rituals" -- the ravishing of young women.  Zehabi, one "sacrifice" who proved too decadent even for the priests, was freed and, roaming the tower, came upon the ashes of Ti, supposed Godhead of the Tiger religion but, in truth, an ancient, powerful wizard.  Using a "ritual of resurrection", Zehabi partially recreated Ti's body (who wasn't entirely human to begin with), and now plans to employ Almaz in the ritual's completion.  Meanwhile, Fukitso found he wasn't dead, after all, and realized Ghaffar hoped he would rescue Almaz, the only one who knows where the map is.  Unconcerned, Fukitso set off to rescue her.

Now, in the nighted streets of Sahara...


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EPISODE 7: ASSAULT ON THE TOWER


The night wind struck the Ronin's face with gusts at once soothing and invigorating.  The confusing clouds were quickly dispelled from his brain, and he began to consider more carefully his next course of action.

His destination was the black tower that loomed on the eastern edge of the city Sahara.  If the priests had a stronghold, it had to be there -- although, whether they had a right to be called priests was an open question; while Fukitso knew nothing of the tenets of the Tiger, in his experience, priests who slunk about in the thick of night, obsconding with young girls, were no real priests, at all.

Of course, it was not the girl alone which he sought.  For no other woman would Fukitso have gone to this much trouble, not even if she had had the body of a geisha.  But, mad or not, Ghaffar had proven an excellent judge of character.  The treasure, as described by Ghaffar, sounded rich beyond compare -- "a treasure to drive men mad"  -- and the Ronin's pulse pounded just to think of it.

All he had to do was snatch back the girl from a coven of aging priests belonging to a forgotten, and all-but-defunked creed.  If the rest of this blighted city was anything to gauge by, how hard could that be?

Then, once he had her, Fukitso could get the girl to show him the map and, with the map, the treasure.

Hai, thought the Ronin.  As simple as --

Abruptly, Fukitso's sensitve ears detected the soft patter of sandals in the darkness behind.  Three men were following him -- Ghaffar and his two henchmen, of course.  A fierce grin played across the Ronin's dark features.  Let them follow, he thought.  Once he rescued the girl, he could lose them easily enough. Or, if necessary, Ginago might teach them all a lesson they would never forget.

It was a short walk from the serai to the black tower.  In little time, Fukitso found himself gazing upward with amazed eyes, even his imperturbable nature struck dumb with awe.

The tower seemed fashioned according to the insane whims of some inhuman builder.  It obeyed no laws of geometry, no principles of architecture, but defied both with supremely arrogant disregard.  It twisted and writhed like fauna run riot, branching and reaching upward and upward, hungrily straining to touch the cosmic, star-crusted vault.

Its substance was of a jet black stone, with neither joint nor mortar to explain its construction.  In fact, it seemed to be built...rather, hewen from a single incredibly titanic boulder.  But the longer Fukitso stared, the more he became convinced that that impossible structure had never felt chisel wielded by human hands.  It would have required little imagination to believe that it had in fact grown as a plant grows, rising from the desert sands, feeding on some unholy nourishment -- perhaps rising still.

How high it reared, he could not tell, for it melded into the distant upward night, so far and so vague that only the brief eclipse of a star could attest to its presence.  Though Fukitso sensed turrets and spires, parapets and balconies underneath the soft hazy glow of the two moons, the tower showed only as a black, formless monolith cut from the star-dusted night.  During the day, seen from a distance, Fukitso knew the structure had appeared merely as a curiously topheavy minaret.  Now, it was transformed.  He began to wonder if perhaps there was more to these priests than he had imagined.  Had they woven some spell about their stronghold, hiding its true nature from curious eyes?

It was hard to accept that humans inhabited such a frightening, inexplicable monument.  It might well have been impossible, were it not for the single door set in the base -- a door wrought of some strange silver metal, whose surface was shaped into grotesque, malformed images of salacious decadence.  The base was enclosed at a distance by a high wall of a more earthly make, a forest of spikes bristling along the cornice.  And it was through a massive iron portcullis set in this wall that he could see the entrance to the tower.

The Ronin's strange white eyes narrowed.

He had taken these priests for the pathetic survivors of some obscure cult of antiquity, a dying enclave making a last doomed stand against the world which had spurned it.  Now he realized that, however low these magicians might have fallen, they clearly looked back upon a great and potent lineage, and terrible forces indeed were yet at their beck and call.  Even he felt his courage waver under the sensory and psychic assault of that terrible edifice.

Then, the cool breeze brushed his face, stinging the scratches on his cheeks with desert sand.  The sensation turned his grim thoughts again to the girl, captive within that tower.  Of what defense would be her tiny nails in there?

Baka, he cursed in disgust.

With a growl of angry resignation, he swarmed up the portcullis.  In spite of the jagged spikes, he clambered easily over the cornice and descended the other side.  On the sandy ground again, he eyed that weird-wrought door and the hackles rose at the nape of his neck.  It was too easy.  Not as if they wanted someone to enter, but as if they had no fears should anyone do so.

Ginago swished softly into the breathing moonglow.  Its mirror-smooth blade reflected the stars like beads of rain strung along its edge.  And, as the winds caressed its surface, it seemed to hum softly as with powerful energies temporarily held in check.

The Ronin had told Ghaffar the katana, when hot from the forge, was cooled in the blood of a dragon.  It was, of course, a lie.  The truth was far, far stranger.

It was cooled in the blood of a god.

A moment the Ronin hesitated.

It would be the work of a dozen strides to gain the door -- but a dozen strides taken across a sandy enclosure with no shelter to conceal him.  He waited a breath, listening.  Then, satisfied by what he did not hear, he glided into the light, crouching low, more silent than even the wind which whistled outside the wall -- as if even nature herself shunned this accursed place.  But barely had he crossed half the distance than he pulled up short, furrowing the sand by his momentum, muttering a startled oath under his breath.

The door stood open.

So, they knew he was here.  The ever-important element of surprise was lost.  But the Ronin started forward nevertheless, though no longer crouched, and with a firm, if wary tread.  In fact, in a way, he was more inclined to proceed now than ever before.  They had opened the door as a challenge, and Fukitso had never been one to balk at a challenge.  A fault?  Perhaps.  A weakness?  Certainly.  But he responded to a challenge as a shark responds to the scent of blood, or the barapur to the stench of carrion -- with a primitive reflex as much a part of him as the head on his shoulders, and just as integral.

Then too, the open door was the first sign he had seen (other than the kidnapping of the girl in the first place) which revealed a human mind at work.  They were playing with him for their own sadistic amusement.  Whatever demoniac powers they possessed, the Priests of the Tiger still displayed human emotions -- and petty ones at that.  With human emotions came human foibles, and imperfections.  Underneath the elaborate trappings, they were just men, after all.

He paused on the verge of the beckoning threshold only long enough to confuse the timing of anyone waiting on the other side.  Then he was across in a single bound, spinning as he landed, the Silver Jaw swishing hungrily as it cut the air with a sinusoidal sweep.  But no assassin crouched in the shadows, nor trap sprung with his passing.  He was alone in the entranceway.

The corridor was considerably longer than he would have expected judging by the tower as seen from without.  But not impossibly so.  An archway showed at the farther end, lit from beyond by a lurid red light.  This he made for, holding Ginago before him two-handed.  He made no attempt to soften his footfalls.  They knew where he was and they would attack as it pleased them.  This was to be a battle of strength and agility, not stealth.

Beyond the archway was a domed chamber, unadorned and well-lit by a sparkling jewel-encrusted chandelier depending from the top of the dome.  The curving walls were of a red crystalline substance, which threw back the light, staining the powerful invader as if bathing him in blood.  On the whole, Fukitso mused that it was very much as a man might feel if he stood within a gigantic ruby, or else perhaps --

"In the fires of Jehennum?"

He started at the voice, not so much because he had been alone only a moment before and, to his eyes at least, no other doors opened into the chamber, but, rather, because the intruder had spoken the very thought in his mind.

"I have known people who believed in such a place," Fukitso rumbled steadily.

And the voice replied cryptically, "They were correct."

The priest stood at the opposite side of the chamber.  He stepped forward, drawing back the hood of his crimson gold-embroidered robe -- or was it the light which made it so? -- revealing a countenance seemingly chiseled of dead bone.  Even in the deceiving glow, Fukitso could see that the man's skin was of an unnaturally pallid tint and it clung to the bones beneath with barely a fibre of muscle showing.  Yet, the man was no corpse animated by unhallowed rituals, of that the Ronin was sure.  He had seen priests in Kari Zak who starved themselves thus in the name of worship.

And not one of the lot could have survived a flick of the Ronin's littlest finger.

"I have come for the girl!"  Fukitso expected no response to his snarled  challenge, and so he was taken by surprise when the priest waved one emaciated hand in the air, and a portion of the chamber wall was suddenly taken over by an image of cruel clarity.

"This girl?" queried the priest sardonically.

Yes, it was the girl, Almaz.  And Fukitso tensed at the sight.  She was bound to an altar, her lips opening and closing in silent screams, her slender limbs twisting futilely in their golden bonds.  Over her stood a priest in black robes -- and what he was doing to her straining young body made the Ronin's blood run cold.

"Or perhaps...this girl?"

Suddenly, another image appeared, taking up another portion of the wall.  It was Almaz again, still bound to the altar -- but now an entirely different torment was portrayed.  A low growl purred deep in the Ronin's throat.

"Or perhaps this is the one you seek -- or this -- or this?"  The priest laughed a wild, mocking cadence as image after sadistic image played vividly upon the surrounding crystal dome.  Each image showed the girl bound to the black altar, the robed priest leaning over her writhing, anguished length -- but each showed a different, equally terrible horror being perpetrated upon her supple quivering flesh.

The priest just smiled a smile to freeze the blood, and, with another wave of his hand, the images vanished.

If their purpose had been to goad the strange-eyed Ronin into reckless action, they had certainly succeeded.  Raising high Ginago, and letting lose a bestial shout which caused the crystal dome to sound a knell, Fukitso charged the priest.

"Banzai!"

He bounded across the room like a karmah, his wide sleeves flapping, his katana a silver line horizontal before his snarling face.  His powerful legs propelled him swiftly and unstoppably, massive thews supercharged by his fury.

Then, even as his enemy fell nearly within the reach of his flashing blade, the priest reached placidly into his crimson robe and, with a disdainful flick of the wrist, cast a cloud of queerly sparkling powder full into the Ronin's contorted features.

The effect was instantaneous.  The floor seemed to collapse from beneath Fukitso's feet, and he plunged with flailing arms.  Landing hard but without injury, he bounded up again in a flash and glared about him with a look of both truculence and astonishment.

At first Fukitso thought he had been blinded.  He smote about him with wild, aimless swings in hopes that, even so crippled, fate might guide his hand.  Then he realized that he could still see Ginago, as well as his own body.  But, stare as he might, nothing else met his gaze.  Nothing but infinite blackness.

It was as if he floated in the all-pervading eternal midnight of the heavenly abyss without even the light of the stars for succor, the sound of a sinister alien wind howling in the distance.  Yet, he did not float at all, for his feet were still firmly pressed to some sort of surface, even if he could not see it.

An illusion, he thought.  The damned magician had hypnotised him with his blasted powder.  But, if an illusion, what was the reality?  If Ginago cut the air, was this real, or was he merely imagining the action?  Perhaps even now he lay stretched senseless upon the floor of the crystal chamber, helpless as a babe, awaiting death like a beast on the altar.  Perhaps that accursed priest was standing over him with dagger in hand, or something far more diabolical.

He must not think of such things!  That way lay panic.  But, try as he might, he could not banish the dreadful picture from his mind.  Beads of sweat began to dot his brow.  He turned round and around, crouched like a cornered samadhi, swinging with his sword at what might be but which most likely wasn't.  For Fukitso was a man of action; even believing that he was doomed, he had to act on the assumption that he was not.  If he were to die, it would not be for want of a struggle -- even if that struggle took place only in his mind.

"Fukitso?  Here?"

He spun at the words.  At a distance, yet undimmed by the encompassing night, stood the girl, Almaz.  She was dressed as last he had seen her, in a soft shift, bound at the waist with beads, one slender brown foot bare.  But he was not surprised by this, nor did he wonder how she had come to know his name.  His gratification crowded out all other thoughts.

"Doji's fire, girl!  I'm glad to see you.  What is this accursed place?"

"I don't know," she replied breathlessly.  "One moment, I lay writhing on a black altar, suffering torments of body and soul -- the next moment I am here with you.  Oh, Fukitso, I am so frightened.  Hold me!"

She ran to him with slim arms outstretched.  Illumination of unknown origin cast dazzling highlights across her rounded limbs, and her ebony tresses were teased by a tempest unfelt by the strange-eyed Ronin.  Against this background of ultimate nothingness, she seemed a goddess, prancing upon the roof of the world.  And, for the second time this night, Fukitso spread his arms to receive her...

But, this time, the thing which he caught had not the warm pliancy of female flesh.  It was hard, and cold -- and inhumanly strong.

Instantly, the blackness was dispersed and red crystal shone down upon him once more.  There was no time to wonder at this.  He had been knocked from his feet by the terrific impact, losing Ginago in the fall, and now lay on his back, a powerfully-muscular, golden-skinned collosus astride his straining chest.

Fingers like iron bolts closed on his corded neck, exerting fantastic pressure and cutting off his breath.  The titan knelt with his huge knees across the Ronin's arms, so that Fukitso could do nothing to defend himself.  While strangling the Ronin with one hand, the giant drew Fukitso's wakizashi with the other and tossed it disdainfully away.  Fukitso fought for air.  Blue dots obscured his vision, and a strange wind screamed at his ears.  A moment more and consciousness would desert him.  Then, he knew, with his muscles relaxed, the giant would finish the job with a simple twist to the head...

Strange.  How did he know that? Fukitso wondered.  How was it he knew that his assailant wished first to strangle him into unconsciousness?

Then, it came to him.  And with the realization came hope -- and action.

The priest had vanished.  Apart from his opponent, no human eyes were there to witness the deed.  But, had they been, they would have disbelieved the evidence of their own senses.

Fukitso's brawny arms were pinioned beneath the full weight of the giant, a weight fully twice his own.  The angle was against him.  But, still, he gripped the thick golden ankles in his own iron grasp, and heaved upward.  The giant's expression of astonishment was almost comedic.  He was raised bodily from his victim's chest.  His grip loosened, even as he was thrown clear over Fukitso's head, and landed with a crunch of shattering bone against the crystal wall.

Fukitso was on his feet even before he had filled his aching lungs.  His head was not yet clear, but he threw his full weight atop the giant and aimed a furious blow to the pink scar which showed faintly against the gold skin at the base of the giant's spine.  The blow birthed a bellow of agony, as Fukitso had known it would.  A second blow did likewise.  And a third and a fourth --

The collosus twisted to his back, knocking Fukitso aside with a broad sweep of his tremendous arm.  But the Ronin was upon him again, and this time it was Fukitso who sank iron fingers into a thickly-corded neck.

Under ordinary circumstances, the Ronin would have been no match for such a mountainous opponent, but the blows to the giant's scar had done their job.  The giant's face was green with agony, his lips flecked with spittle.  Try as he might, weakened by the pain, he could not summon the strength to tense his neck.  Slowly, inevitably, his head was turned, and turned, and turned...

Even as Fukitso felt the grisly sensation of bones grinding beneath his fingertips, he felt the figure under him begin to change.  It seemed to expand  and deform.  Black wirelike hairs sprouted from a hide grown coarse and pocked, and claws like scythes sprang from the fingertips.  The face of the collosus seemed to elongate and broaden, and yellow-crusted fangs grew from slavering jaws, and a fetid stench rose from the whole.

But, before the metamorphosis was complete, the bones gave into the incessant pressure.  The body sank in upon itself like a bubble burst.

Fukitso held in his hands the scrawny, white neck of the red-robed priest.

With a muttered oath, he sprang from the corpse.

So ka, he thought.  An illusion, after all.  Yet, by the ache in his neck, he believed it had been no less lethal for that.

He had recognized the gold-skinned giant as the Collosus of Aji Po, a monster of a man whom Fukitso had slain many seasons past.  The Collosus had been infamous for his method of dispatching the victims tossed to him in the arena, strangling them into unconsciousness before breaking their necks.  Then, it had been repeated blows to the man's healed wound which had won the day -- his only weakness.  Illusion or not, Fukitso had guessed that such a tactic would succeed here, as well.

The girl too had obviously been illusory.  Had these visions all been recruited from his own memories?  What then of the third beast?

Though it had not been given the chance to fully form, Fukitso was certain he had never seen such a hideous creature in all his travels.  Yet, just the same, a dim memory nodded half-forgotten at the back of his mind.  A remembrance of a story told to him as a child.  A fantasy, intended to scare him to sleep, but which only gave birth to many terrible nightmares.  His skin suddenly tingled, his hands grown cold and clammy.

Hai, he thought.  From the nightmare of a child...

With a shrug, he shook off the memory and his eyes returned to the dead priest at his feet.  Something glinted on the claw-like left hand -- a large gold ring etched with a mysterious hieroglyphic pattern.  Without knowing why he did so, the Ronin bent and slipped the ring from the priest's finger, transferring it to his own smallest finger -- and, even then, finding it a tight fit.  He did not know why he had taken the ring, but, somehow, he felt it had a purpose.  His experience with the illusory Collosus had shaken his confidence; these priests were more powerful than he had anticipated.  If there was a chance he might use their magic against them...

Suddenly, his ponderings were cut short as a scream rang out -- her scream.  The outcry had come from beyond the crystal wall before him, near where the Collosus had struck.  If that sound could reach his ears, the wall could not be so thick as it seemed.  And crystal was not the most resistant of materials.

He retrieved Ginago and Kyodai, shoving the latter into its scabbard -- and charged the barrier.  He struck as he leaped -- but, instead of shattering solid crystal, Ginago sliced harmlessly through the wall.  Another damned illusion, thought Fukitso, as he hurtled on through and found himself at the bottom of a stone stairway.

From far above, another scream began, only to be silenced in mid-cry as if by death...
 



Next episode...The Burning Brand


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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!)