Stalkers of the Tiger's Bride



Previously: On his way to the Tower of the Tiger to rescue Almaz, Fukitso heard Ghaffar and his henchmen secretly following, their desire being to let the Ronin save the girl, so they could torture her to learn where she had hidden the treasure map. Inside the Tower, Fukitso encountered a wizard whose weapons were illusions drawn from the Ronin's own memories. Defeating the wizard, the Ronin took a ring off the wizard's finger, sensing it might come in handy later. Then, he heard Almaz scream twice from somewhere far above.

Now, a short while before, in the altar room...

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After Almaz's encounter with the woman, Zehabi, she had been left alone.  None had entered the dream-like, veiled chamber in the Tower of the Tiger, and no sound had disturbed its crypt-like silence.  There had been no means by which to measure the passage of time.  Even an ebony candle which burned steadily at the head of the altar had remained a constant height, as if in subtle mockery of natural law.

Finally, at some point, she fell asleep.  Her dreams were rampant with fearful, cackling shadow-creatures and loathsome, ravishing hands in the dark.  And overall floated the mocking aura of the woman, Zehabi, and her words echoed sinister and foreboding, like a funereal dirge: Then they will give you to me.

Suddenly, Almaz's silken lashes parted, and she awoke with a start to find a man standing beside her.  His face was not unpleasant, seemingly carved from the selfsame stuff as that upon which she lay -- an ebony hue seldom seen even among the jungle races beyond the Jebel Qamar.

A rich purple robe hung easily from his shoulders.  The hood was drawn back and the wide sleeves were pulled to reveal wiry forearms, held crossed upon his chest.  His eyes were squinted as in weighty contemplation and, at first, she thought it was she they regarded her with that absorbed and pensive stare.  But then she realized it was the weirdly carven stone sarcophagus beyond her which he studied with such intensity - - and she sensed an odd flicker of fear behind that gaze.

As she started into wakefulness, he pulled his eyes from the sarcophagus and looked down on her.  A slight smile stirred his lips -- a smile that held none of the scorn of her previous visitor.

"Welcome," he said, and his voice was deep and soothing.  "I am glad that you could sleep.  This place brings naught but sleepless nights to many.  Were your dreams pleasant?"

Astounded by his kindly manner, she responded in spite of herself.  "No."

"I am sorry.  I suppose we could expect no less.  I understand that you were badly mistreated before being brought here?  You are fortunate that we found you in time.  The madman would have killed you, I am certain of it."

His attitude had almost caused Almaz to forget her peril and the shackles that held her -- but now all returned in a rush.

"Who are you?" she sobbed.  "What do you want with me?  Why must you torment me?"

"Torment you?"  The man seemed honestly disturbed by her outcry.  "I have no wish to torment you, little one.  We are Priests of the Tiger, followers of Ti, god of the hunt.  You have been chosen as his bride, as our bride.  This is an honour, not a torment."

"But I do not wish to be his bride!"

A mournful shadow passed over the priest's finely-chiselled features and he shook his head sadly.  Reaching out, his fingers barely brushed the golden shackle confining one of Almaz's wrists -- and it fell away with a brief clatter as if alive.  One by one, he touched her remaining fetters, each dropping from the slender limb it confined, until she lay free upon the altar.

"There," he said, stepping back.  "There is no need for chains here.  We are not monsters.  It is better if you give yourself freely to us."

Abruptly, his eyes glazed with sudden reminiscence and his voice took on a sad and longing tone.  "There was a time, little one, a thousand years ago, when we did not have to hide in the shadows, when we did not have to seek brides in the night.  Then the brides came to us.  Perhaps not entirely willingly, but they came just the same.  Then it was a privilege to be called...nay, a fulfilment.  But it has come to this.  Where once our god was worshipped from the Pearl Coast to the gilded walls of Kari Zak, where once our god was honoured and feared throughout the Zomorrod Empire, today even the people of Bint al Sahara are loath to speak his name.  Oh, these are bleak times indeed when men turn from their god and know him not.  Still, such times have been before and were transcended.  I foresee a future when the Tiger will again be mighty, and mortal rulers will bend their knees as they did in former days."

For a space he had seemed lost in his melancholy reflections, but now he turned back to Almaz, and made a sweeping gesture with his arms.

"Until that time we priests make do as we must, isolated in our temple, worshipping our god, Ti, and fulfilling his desires.  We are but the tools of the immortal one, allowing him to touch where he has no hands."

There was no mockery in his tone, and Almaz was reminded of Zehabi's scornful claim that some of the priests truly believed in what they did.  For some reason, this frightened her all the more.

"You have no cause to fear me, little one," he assured her, brushing a hand gently through her glossy hair.  "Know that what Barak does, he does for a higher purpose than mere mortals can possibly comprehend.  And if at times I may cause you pain, know that this is the will of Ti, that the will of Ti is the will of the Tiger, and that you are blessed -- for you are the Tiger's bride!"

And, so saying, he made a peculiar sign in the air with his hand, then stepped to a gold-wrought brazier beside the altar.  Though Almaz told herself that the brazier had stood there all along, she knew this was not so.  Curling wisps of grey-blue smoke rose from within the silver-worked rim, and, even at a distance, she could feel the white-hot heat from the coals it contained.  She felt the chill hand of hysteria take hold of her beating heart, and blinding panic rose within her.

Barak again made signs, causing the smoke to writhe and disperse.  Then he reached into the brazier and brought out a slim, metal rod.  The end was twisted into a curious lozenge shape, with a circle in the center.  It glowed a fiery red.

Almaz whimpered and tried to move, to twist off the altar, but she found her body would not respond to her will.  He had lied.  She remained chained as surely as if material shackles confined her.  She could only watch with wide, terrified eyes as the small brand was brought steadily toward her, blue smoke coiling from the glowing end.

"Before the rituals may begin," the priest explained with appalling tranquillity, "you must wear the Tiger's Eye."

"Please..." Almaz sobbed desperately.  "No..."

He pressed the hot brand to the soft curve of her hip.  She bit her lip at the sudden searing pain, her breath sucking quickly through white, clenched teeth.  A cry sounded in her throat, like the whining of a small animal, more of despair than pain -- and then the pain eased and the priest replaced the brand amongst the coals.

"Now," he said placidly, "we are ready to begin."

Still shivering, Almaz's mind raced, tears squeezing from her eyes.  Frantically, she sought some escape, or at least, some means to postpone her fate.  Before she knew what she was going to say, words tumbled from her quivering lips in a desperate cry: "Why do you fear the sarcophagus?"

Instantly, the priest paused and his eyes leapt to the stone container.  She saw it again.  She had not been mistaken.  Fear shone in that look.

"The sarcophagus?  What do you know of the sarcophagus?"

Almaz swallowed tightly, stalling for time.  She had no idea whether what she knew could help her or not, but it was her only hope.  Obviously, he was frightened of the contents of that container -- but why?  She remembered what Zehabi had told her -- how the sarcophagus contained the results of the first part of the spell of resurrection, a spell worked upon the ashes of Ti, the real Ti, an ancient magician who lived five thousand years before the first emperor of Zomorrod.  The contents, Zehabi had said, were unpleasant to look upon, for the magician had delved too long in the black arts and was no longer entirely human.

"Speak!"  The priest had transformed.  His voice was no longer soothing or gentle, but caught her like an angry blow.  He took a threatening step toward the altar, hands rising menacingly, eyes wide.  "What do you know of the sarcophagus?"

"I know that Zehabi used the spell of resurrection!" cried Almaz.

The priest stopped as if he had encountered a wall.  He gasped and again his eyes jerked to the stone sarcophagus.  Suddenly Almaz found that she could move the fingers of one hand a little, although the rest of her remained frozen.  Whatever force confined her was evidently controlled by the priest's thoughts.  If she could distract him...

"I know she found ashes in a canopic jar hidden in a dark turret of this tower."

"Yes!" the priest hissed, fear shivering in his voice.  "I knew it.  Oh, curse the day we brought that harlot into our temple!  She meddles with powers she does not understand.  The spell of resurrection?"  He looked at her again, his features frantic.  "But who does she seek to resurrect?  Tell me that!  Who!"

Now Almaz could move both her arms, albeit sluggishly.  The priest did not seem to notice even though he was staring directly at her.  What would he say if she told him the truth?  Surely, he would not believe her.  But what choice did she have?

Her words tumbled from her lips: "She told me your god was never a god at all!  She said he was a great magician who lived long ago!  It is his ashes she has used -- the ashes of Ti!"

The priest gasped, his features gone ashen.  One hand, like a claw, leapt to his face as if to ward off a dazzling light.

"No!" he cried.  "You lie!"

Almaz had nearly complete control of her body now.  As he sprang at her, she twisted lithely and rolled off the altar onto the floor.  But he did not seek to press the attack, remaining as he had fallen, arms on the altar.  His burning eyes shot to the sarcophagus, beads of sweat starting out on his forehead.

"It is the truth," Almaz insisted.  "That is what she told me -- I swear it!"

"It cannot be.  She lied to you -- she must have!"  The priest clambered over the altar, as if there was not even time to walk around it.  For a moment, Almaz thought he was pursuing her -- but then he stumbled past and to the sarcophagus.  It was obvious to the girl that this revelation was not entirely a surprise to the priest, whatever he might want to pretend.  Clearly, in his soul, he had suspected something of all this.  It was merely the unavoidable confirmation which she provided which so shook his reason -- that and the knowledge that proof, final proof, lay in the container before him.

He had only to open it...

With a desperate shout, he grasped the carven stone lid and heaved it off, so it tumbled to the floor, shattering into heavy slabs.  He drew back with a horrified gasp, and Almaz, looking past his flowing purple robes, was able to see what it was had frightened him.

Then, seeing it, she screamed.  And then, sucking in a frantic breath, she screamed again.  It was these screams that the Ronin heard in the crystal chamber far, far  below...

Next episode...The Thing in the 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!)