Stalkers of the Tiger's Bride



Previously: Left alone by the sorceress, Zehabi, still chained to the sacrificial altar, Almaz was visited by Barak, a Priest of the Tiger. Though Barak removed her chains, Almaz found herself unable to move, still a prisoner of his sorcery, unable to protect herself as he branded her hip with the "Tiger's Eye" in preparation for the terrible ritual to come. In desperation, to distract him, Almaz told Barak of Zehabi's plan to resurrect the ancient magician, Ti, (putative godhead of the Tiger Religion) whose unfinished, and inhuman body lies in the sarcophagus. Barak was horrified by this revelation and, refusing to believe it, flung open the sarcophagus, revealing its contents to a horrified Almaz.

Now, moments later, in the altar room...

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Almaz woke to find she had fainted, but sensed that she had lost consciousness for only a few moments.  Even as she roused, a great gleaming sword swished suddenly through the forest of veils beyond the altar -- and a very incarnation of unfettered wrath strode through the swirling gap.

The Ronin seemed to fill the room by his presense, his gleaming top-knotted scalp rising to the height of the hanging censers, his powerful, rolling thews barely hidden even by his flowing grey and black attire.

He carried his longer sword two-handed, the blade metal-bright before his face.  So malevolently twisted was that broad, dark visage that Almaz would hardly have recognized the Ronin from the serai, if not for his unseeing white eyes and, of course, the three faint scratches on his cheek.  She heart throbbed in her bosom.

The priest, Barak, whirled in surprise, in an instant forgetting the thing in the sarcophagus as he faced the savage, weird-eyed intruder.  He did not hesitate, nor show more than the slightest flicker of fear, but made an almost imperceptible gesture.

Instantly, a fountain of violet, blue and green smoke rose in a torrent between the Ronin's legs, engulfing him completely.  For a moment, the smoke swirled turbulently.  Then, onward came the Ronin, apparently unaffected, veils of smoke trailing from his limbs like pennants whipped by a tempest.

Now Barak was impressed.  He fell back with flaring, horrified eyes, shouting for help in an entirely unwizardly way.  The Ronin sprang atop the altar to reach his prey on the opposite side.  Almaz squealed as he leaped down again, nearly stomping on her where she crouched trembling against the stone altar.  Briefly the terrified priest was hidden from view by the bulk of his attacker.  Almaz saw a flash of silver lightning, heard a sickening chunk, and something collapsed heavily dragging down one of the hanging pink veils -- which colour was slowly transformed to a grotesque spreading scarlet.

"Damned degenerate," muttered the Ronin.  "Now he can worship in Jehennum..."
 His voice trailed off suddenly and his features grew pale as he saw what lay in the open sarcophagus.

"Baka," he muttered amazedly.

The thing in the sarcophagus was a grotesque mixture of yellow deformed skeleton and red tangled sinew, like a butchered carcass, without skin or covering flesh.  As Zehabi had said, it was only the result of the first part of the spell of resurrection, and so was unfinished.  But it was not so much this ghastly uncompleted appearance which had horrified the priest, appalled Almaz and astonished the Ronin -- rather it was the all-too-obvious fact that, whatever it had been in life, it had certainly not been human.

Bipedal it was, with a physical structure vaguely approaching the human type, but there the similarity ended.  The bizarre curvature of the spine, the weird elongation of the limbs, the queerly numbered toes and long, spidery fingers -- the sum total of its disharmonious features uneasily combined to suggest a nightmarish, chimeric creature assembled rather than born, jumbled haphazardly together according to no sane definition of anatomy.  It was a biological distortion, a shape without reason, a cynical affront to life and creation.

Seeing it again, Almaz could barely contain the scream that gathered in her slender throat.

But then, with a snarl of disgust, the Ronin lashed out with his gleaming sword, slicing the hideous thing nearly in half from crown to crotch.  Shattered bones and severed sinew spilled onto the floor in a tangled heap.  The Ronin paused only a moment to survey his dreadful handiwork, then, with a rumble of satisfaction, he turned to the girl and dragged her up by one slim wrist.  Immediately, she threw her arms around his corded neck, her sobbing head buried rigidly against the broad arch of his chest.  She could hardly believe that salvation had come.  The Ronin grunted with embarrassment, and pushed her gently away.

"Hai -- you're real enough, all right!" he grinned.  His strange eyes took in the hazy, veil-draped room, noted the gold chains attached to the altar, the slim brand in the hotly glowing brazier -- and his gaze narrowed to burning slits.  "Damn degenerates," he snarled again.  Then, at a sudden thought, he looked down on her.  "You hid a map," he said.  "Where did you put it?"

"A map?"  Almaz raised her glimmering eyes blankly, still too stunned to think clearly.

"That madman, Ghaffar, said you told him you gave it to me."

Now she remembered.  "Under the lamp beside your bed in the serai," she told him, her eyes closing weakly, dark head settling again.  "I hid the map there."

For so long she had carried that map, treating it as a sacred trust, safeguarding it and keeping it from the evil clutches of Ghaffar and his many hired henchmen.  She had sworn never to give it up, not to anyone, ever.  Why then had she told this frightening alien from another land?  Even she did not know.  Perhaps he had taken advantage of her exhaustion.  But, no -- she was so very tired of carrying this burden alone.  Tired of the flight and the fear and the never-ending agony of suspense.  Here and now, she felt that, if anyone could help her, if anyone could be trusted, it must be this strong, weird-eyed protector.

His grin was almost impish.  "The lamp beside the bed?"  He laughed in a gusty shout.  "By Doji and his seven geishas, you made fools of us all, didn't you?"

But then his amusement gave way to a grimmer mood.  He took her tiny hand in his massive paw and led her quickly around the altar, then through the torn veils which marked his path of entry.  Beyond hung one of the salacious gold-embroidered arras.  This the Ronin rent with his sword, revealing an archway and a stairway descending into ominous darkness.

"Follow me," he instructed her sternly.  "Don't stop until we reach the bottom.  And if someone throws smoke in your face, stop breathing.  Don't even finish your breath.  Just stop breathing."

Without further explanation, he plunged down the stairway ahead of the girl, though not so far ahead as to disappear from sight...

Fukitso was eager to be free of this unholy haven.  He suspected that the priest just slain by Ginago was of some importance among these fiends, and they would make quite a fuss when the body was discovered.  Then, too, he had no idea what that thing had been in the sarcophagus, but he could imagine they might be a trifle upset when they saw what he had done to that.

Still, he took the stairs at a slow pace to avoid leaving the girl behind.

The stairs, like the rest of this insane structure, descended with no set order or direction.  Torches lit the darkness at uneven intervals, with sometimes several crowded together, and sometimes total blackness for a disturbingly prolonged space.  They wound downward, now this way, now that, occasionally pausing for a landing.  Then, downward again.

Unlit arches showed blackly on either hand -- grotesque arches seemingly fashioned according to the rules of some strange alien geometry.  From beyond these nighted portals drifted chilling, unnameable sounds.  It was because of these that Fukitso had warned the girl to descend clear to the bottom without stopping.  Yet, the distance seemed greater now than when he had first ascended.  In fact, the staircase seemed too massive and too winding to even fit inside the tower.  He began to suspect that the tower was not a temple in itself, but was rather some sort of preternatural threshold to another, larger structure built perhaps in another world.  At that thought, it was all he could do to keep to his pace.

A crimson glow suddenly appeared and, a dozen steps later, he stood at the bottom.  Then, the girl reached his side, gasping and panting from the descent.  Together they entered the crystal chamber.

Almaz stiffened as she saw the corpse of the priest, but she did not cry out.  Looking back the way they had come, she was stunned to find that the archway had vanished.  But, before she could question the Ronin at her side, a sound reached her ears.

It came from beyond the crystal wall, yet seemed undiminished by either distance or material obstruction.  At first, it sounded like a mournful wail filled with sorrow and heartache.  But then, in an instant, it transformed, sharpening into a terrible, unrestrained scream of anger and raging vengeance.  It rose and rose, octave by octave, until it became a shrill soul-chilling shriek that set the crystal walls to humming.

Almaz pressed her hands to her ears with a moan, paralyzed with fright.  She recognized the voice, and it struck her cold with fear.

His hand on her naked shoulder, Fukitso sensed the girl's reaction, but did not entirely comprehend its cause.

"A woman's cry?" he asked mystified.  "Well, whoever she is, she stumbled over my mess.  Come on!"

They crossed the chamber at a run, Almaz being dragged by the wrist.  To the girl, they seemed caught in a cul-de-sac, for no exit showed in the opposite wall.  But the Ronin struck the crystal with the haft of his sword.  It rang solidly.  He knocked again at a different point on the wall, and again.  This time, to Almaz's amazement, the sword sank into the wall without hinderance, and she remembered the disappearance of the other archway.

The Ronin gave a grunt of satisfaction, and, catching her by the wrist, he dragged her through the illusory facade.  On the other side, the open door to the outside was a haze of moonlight, beaconing them to freedom.  Yet, Almaz's legs could carry her no farther.  She had passed her limit.  She slowed, and stumbled.  Fukitso felt the sudden tug of her wrist and caught her before she struck the floor.  He would have lifted her in his arms and carried her the remaining distance, had not another problem presented itself.

The door was closing.

With a black oath, he lowered her none-too-gently to the ground, and raced for the exit as he had never raced before.  He had no doubt but that, with the door sealed, so would be their fate.  With frightening speed, the moon-glow dimmed.  It shrank to a luminous strip too thin for a man to squeeze through, then to a gleaming bar so slender that even his fingers might not have fit -- then to a silver thread suspended against a background of black velvet, and then...

Ginago roared!

The Silver Jaw sliced between the door and its jamb showering the darkness with blue sparks and emitting a shrill screech never before heard by mortal man -- the scream of cold steel meeting unholy alloy.  For an uncomfortable moment, the blade shivered with the titanic forces waging against it.  Then it settled and the katana overcame even the black powers of the ancients.

"Get over here, girl!" bellowed Fukitso.  "If I can pry this thing open, it will only be for a moment.  You'll have to make it through on your own two feet."

Almaz could no longer see the Ronin at the other end of the hall, but she heard his urgent command.  Though her lithe young legs were numb in some parts and seemingly lined with ground glass in others, she struggled weakly to her knees, then to her feet, and staggered toward his voice.  She moved as in a dream, without thought or reason, stumbling to an unknown goal, lured on by a mastering call in the dark.  And now she could see him, faintly limned in the soft blur of light which passed the thin blade of his sword.

"Wait till it's wide enough."

With one white knuckle clutching the hilt and the other hand pulling at the blade, he threw all his weight and strength into the impossible task.

In the dim glow it was difficult for Almaz to see the superhuman struggle being fought only a hand's breadth from her side.  The Ronin made no sound, except for the occasional short hiss as he sucked in a breath.  Diamonds seemed to sparkle in the air, as the light glittered off the beads of sweat shivering on his straining features.  And, slowly, almost imperceptibly at first, the crack began to widen.  Wider and wider it grew.  His one hand released the blade, switching its incredible grip to the edge of the door.  It opened wider still.

"Now girl -- now!"

There was barely space for even her slender body.  She ducked beneath the sword, brushing his leg with her arm.  Through the fabric of his wide pants, the leg felt hard as polished marble.  Then she slipped through the crack and tumbled out onto the cool welcoming sand.  There she lay, eyes closed tightly, her naked chest rising and falling as she savoured the familiar kindly scents of the desert.

A muffled thump at her side awoke her abruptly from her reverie.  She rolled to her side and found a sword lying half-buried in the sand.  The Ronin had dropped the weapon as he put both hands to the job of forcing the door wide enough for his gigantic form.  Already he had managed to brace his body between the door and its frame.  With a final heave, he was clear.

The door crashed in its frame with an almost sentient air of chagrin.

"Up girl," he shouted, retrieving both his sword and his weary charge in the same instant.  "We aren't safe yet."

Fukitso refrained from mentioning the sounds which he had heard in the hallway behind him -- sounds belonging not to human feet.

Almaz was half-dragged and half-crawled to the massive portcullis.  The Ronin dropped her unceremoniously at its base.

"A wisp like you could squeeze through this grate," he mused, assaying the obstacle.  "Anyway, it would be a lot safer than my trying to haul you over the spits up there.  Come on -- through you go."

Where her passage between the door and its jamb had been questionable, trying to fit though one of the tiny squares of the portcullis seemed like sheer lunacy.  But, before she could object, the Ronin was already scaling the towering grille like a lascar climbing the rigging of a ship.  There was no choice.

She put her arms through first, then her head.  Her glossy brown shoulders caught and, for a terrible moment, she thought she was stuck.  But she squirmed free and pushed through until the cold iron bars pressed into her wriggling waist.  Briefly, she glanced back through the grille -- and froze in abject terror.

The door again was open.  Across its nighted threshold bounded a thing spawned in no sane world.

She caught only a glimpse, so quick was its approach, but that glimpse was enough to momentarily unseat all sense of reason and self-preservation.  There seemed no point in further flight.  How could anyone hope to escape from fiends who counted such allies as this?  Better to accept death now.

It crossed the sand in a streak of ebony fire, jaws slavering white foam, lips drawn back to reveal row upon row of jagged fangs, eyes tiny balls of crimson flame.  It sprang, covering the final distance in the air.  A hairy paw brushed her leg, hot fetid breath rolled across her naked skin...

And strong, sure hands gripped her shoulders yanking her though the grate and clear.

Robbed of its prey, the demon attacker vanished in the air, as if it had never been.

"An illusion?" gasped Almaz, staring with dilated eyes and trembling with every fibre of her being.

Fukitso gave no reply.  The gust of air which had reached him through the portcullis, like the bowwave of a ship, owed its origin to no powder-induced hallucination.

He slid his katana into its scabbard on his back, causing clotted blood to cake the silver guard.  Picking up the girl, he held her as easily as a child.  Her slender arms entwined about his neck.  Her nearly-naked body pressed close to his, warm and throbbing with her emotions.  He ran a hand caressingly down her back, gently brushing away the sand which had stuck there.

"What is your name?" she asked breathlessly, her eyes closed.

It seemed an odd question, but the Ronin answered easily enough.  "Fukitso."

She was silent a space, then: "The cliffs," she whispered.  "Amongst the Jebel Qamar there are places to hide where even the Priests of the Tiger could not find us."

But before the Ronin could respond, three figures formed suddenly out of the dark mouth of an alley across the way.  Three silver blades shone in the moonlight, and a savage laugh echoed mockingly on the stirring air.

A savouring voice said: "We'll take the girl, effendi -- if you don't mind..."

Next episode..."Take the Girl Alive!"

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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!)