The Mighty Ronin, Fukitso,
returns in...

Fukitso and the Lair of the Havok!

An 11-chapter Sword and Sorcery Spectacular!

By Jeffrey Blair Latta





Episode One:

A Cloud in the Desert


SAND EXPLODED OVER THE CREST of the dune a split second before the mounted rider reared into sight.  One moment, the tawny desert stretched empty of life, the next, the two-footed saurian karmah thundered up and over the ridge, nearly throwing its brawny black-clad rider, its clawed toes finding uneasy traction in the hot, shifting grit.  It snorted stentoriously through flaring nostrils.  The creature was exhausted.

It had ridden miles through the burning wastes, miles from the city of Adji Po, the whole way pursued by five devilishly relentless riders on far more rested and suitable mounts.  Now, the Ronin, Fukitso, knew the karmah could run no further.

Through the baggy black legs of his hakama, he felt the labouring of its lungs, the wretched shuddering that foretold a beast nearing the bitter end of endurance.  And even as the karmah lost its footing, stumbling, the Ronin threw himself clear.  He landed with a roll, coming up on his sandalled feet, whirling with a snarl to face his hunters -- his long-bladed katana, Ginago, flashing like fire in his fists.

Only seconds later, the five pursuers came to a pounding halt, so near the sand showered the Ronin like a wave.  As one, they bounded from their own bleating karmahs, surrounding him in an instant, their crescent tulwars throwing dazzles in his weird, blind-seeming eyes.

For a heartbeat, the scene held, a primordial tableau wrought of power and courage, challenge and desperation.  The huge, snarling-featured Ronin with his bald, top-knotted scalp, his flowing grey kimono, wide-shouldered black over-mantle, and belt in which his short sword, Kyodai, remained secured.  The five attackers, with hawkish features, dishevelled turbans -- and more than a hint of disgust at how long it had taken them to run their prey to ground.

And then:

"Banzai!"

The Ronin attacked.  He surged forward like a springing samadhi, catching his pursuers by surprise.  Ginago hacked right, then left, then right again -- and in as many seconds, three turbaned heads tumbled onto the burning sands, three abba-clad bodies flopped grotesquely in showers of spurting gore.

In a heartbeat, the nature of the contest changed.  In the eyes of the two remaining attackers, that knowledge showed as a sudden sickly flash of fear.  They reeled back, tulwars desperately fending off Fukitso's flickering, blood-slicked blade.  They had not expected this.  Though they had heard enough of the samurai's deadly technique, they had thought themselves safe enough whilst five in number.  Now there were only two.
 
Now they were fighting for their lives.

For a moment, the Ronin paused, himself battling exhaustion that weighted his mighty limbs like chains.  His strange, nearly-white eyes grimly scanned his two opponents, his emotions, his intentions hidden behind those two blind-seeming orbs.

In his fierce soul raged fury at his own stupidity.  In Adji Po he had allowed himself to become embroiled in intrigue and machinations, snared into a plot of which he had had no knowledge or understanding.  And when the whole thing culminated in the Royal guard "discovering" a part of the stolen treasury under his bed in the serai -- he had hacked his way clear and barely made it out alive.

On his heels, five riders had pursued.  Across the burning sands they had dogged his trail, slowly but steadily overtaking his ill-suited mount.  That had been their mistake. 

He would have been content to flee.  Now though, they had forced him to turn at bay.  Now they had forced him to fight.

Again the Ronin flew at them, singling out the man on the left.  Metal shocked metal in a wild clangour and whirlwind of sparks.  The Ronin fell back again, neither fighter having drawn blood.  He no longer had the advantage of surprise and his opponent was an expert swordsman, indeed.  The Ronin's lips curled in a feral grin.  The other man, on his right, was working his way around behind Fukitso, taking advantage of his distraction with the first.  The Ronin turned sideways to them both.  He laughed as if at a jest.  Metal rasped as he smoothly drew his shorter wakizashi, Kyodai.  Now he had two blades.  Two blades against two opponents.  The odds were even.

They attacked as one, springing at him from opposite sides.  He caught both blades, a crashing and slither of steel on steel.  And then, the one man, on his left, gasped as blood overspilled bluing lips, the longer katana sheathed in his guts.  He slumped to the sand, dead before his turban touched the earth.  The other man, on Fukitso's right, had the advantage of a longer blade.  But no longer.  Now the Ronin turned to face him with a snarl.

The man turned pale but held his ground.  Briefly his narrow eyes flickered to the karmahs restively waiting only a short distance away.  A short distance, but still too far.  The saurian beasts were made skittish by the smell of blood.  The eyes returned to Fukitso and a sardonic smile played on the lips.

"So, Ronin," he laughed.  "You're everything they said and more, aren't you.  They told me I had a samadhi by the tail when I planted the Rajah's diamonds under your bed, but I didn't listen.  I thought a handful of guardsmen would be enough to take care of you.  Fools!  I see I should have handled the job personally."

"You."  The Ronin snarled savagely, finally understanding who it was stood to blame for his troubles.  He took a threatening step forward.  The other man fell quickly back.

"Wait!"  Fukitso hesitated unsurely at the cry.  "Aren't you wondering, Ronin, what became of the Rajah's daughter?"

As Fukitso hesitated, the man saw he had the dark giant's attention and his smile grew.  "That's right, Ronin.  She came upon us when we were looting the treasury.  Poor creature, you should have seen her lovely face.  The confusion, then the comprehension...then the fear.  We sealed her away, somewhere where no one will ever find her, not in a thousand years.  And since I have killed my accomplices, I am the only one who knows where she is.  Kill me and she will die."

Fukitso growled like a beast.  "And why do you think I would care about this girl I have never met?"

"Because you have met her, Ronin," the other laughed sardonically.  "It was she who danced for you in the serai.  She was in disguise.  A silly whim of a petted child.  And -- so my sources tell me -- you also spent the night together.  I think perhaps you might care very much what becomes of her, eh?"

The Ronin was silent for a space, his eyes narrow, his lips tight.  When he spoke, his voice was barely audible.  "And what will it take to make you tell me where she is?"

"Ah, for that, effendi, I ask only that you give me your word you will not kill me."

"I won't be taken back to hang for your crime," the Ronin returned evenly.

"Of course not.  We are alone now.  I can let you go and claim you proved too much for us."  His eyes took in the four corpses and he added wryly, "Which isn't far from the truth."

Fukitso considered the offer a moment, then slowly lowered his two blades.  He slipped Kyodai into the scabbard at his waist, and nodded once.  "So ka -- I promise not to kill you.  Now where is the girl?"

"We sealed her in the older treasury vault, the one no longer used beneath the palace."  Warily, the other man began to work his way toward one of the karmahs, his blade still held before his face.  "Once I am gone, you can ride back and free her -- if that is your wish."

He reached the karmah and was just turning his back, stretching for the reins -- when the Ronin slipped a hand into his black overmantle and drew forth a blue-steel shuriken star dart.

"This is my wish!" he snarled, and hurled the shuriken with a single flick of the wrist.  The star dart thudded into the other man's leg and he dropped to his knees with a furious scream as much of betrayal as of pain.

"Damn you, you gave your word!"

Fukitso strode forward, his shadow falling blackly over his captive like the descending hand of doom.  "No, I won't kill you, you dog -- though Doji knows you deserve no less.  I'm going to take you back with me.  And, if you hang for your crime, well, as you people would say -- that is kismet."

***

The journey back was long and hot.  The smoldering orb of the desert sun beat down the whole way with a heat both relentless and exhausting.

In grim silence, Fukitso rocked back and forth in the high-horned saddle of his captive’s karmah.  His own beast, ruined by the earlier chase, was mercifully put out of its misery, its corpse left behind, even as fallon hawks began to gather on dark, circling wings.

The Ronin’s noble captive, Fadil Khan, followed afoot, with snarling downcast features, his hands bound by a rope to the saddle bow, the curled toes of his cloth-of-gold slippers kicking up bitter showers of sand with each stumbling stride -- the wound in his leg from the star dart adding an ungainly limp to the pathetic display.

Without landmarks to guide them, Fukitso could only hazard a guess at their progress, but his time spent as a sowar guarding the caravans on the Tariq al’Asal, the Honey Road, had given him an exceptional sense of both time and direction, even when lost in the featureless fastness of the desert.  By the Ronin’s reckoning, another hour should bring them in sight of the gilded minarets and stately peaked domes of Adji Po.  In the meantime, there was nothing between here and there but endlessly rolling dunes, like cresting waves on a frozen sea.  Neither oasis nor serai served to relieve the unceasing sameness.
 
Thus it was with considerable surprise that Fukitso, casually raising his weird-eyed gaze for what must have been the hundredth time, expecting to cast his glance once more upon monotonously undulating dunes, instead saw a vision that brought a startled curse to his cracked, dry lips, even as he hauled back on his reins with such force that his saurian mount bleated in pain and nearly reared back on its own thrashing white tail.

“Doji’s Seven Geishas!”  The Ronin gaped in stunned disbelief.

Having been forced to spring back to avoid the rearing karmah, Fadil Khan had landed in a most undignified sprawl.  Now, struggling to straighten the scarlet windings of his turban, disarrayed in the fall and covering his eyes, it was a moment ere he was able to discern the cause of his mishap.

“You buffoon!” he snarled savagely.  “What’s the matter with you?  Watch where you're going.  You could have killed me, damn your--”

Then, as finally he managed to raise the tangled wrappings from his eyes,  the curse caught in his throat.  He froze, in the act of rising, still poised on one knee  -- and, for once in his pampered life, Fadil Khan found himself at a loss for words. 

"What in the name of..."

The two enemies could only stare in dumbstruck silence, their conflict forgotten for the moment.  Neither had ever seen such a phenomenon as this.

On the crest of a near dune, there drifted a strange opaque cloud.

It was dark purple, shot with rippling streaks of blue and red, the size of a bull titantathor.  Though a vagrant wind teased sandy spume from the brink of the dune just beneath, the cloud itself seemed untouched by nature's will.  It held its billowing shape, merely hovering there, not a wisp stirring, as if a painting set against the cerulean sky behind.

Fukitso had spent much of his adventurous life criss-crossing the sandy wastes.  He and the desert were old friends, and there was little the samurai had not experienced in his travels.  He had seen whole caravans swallowed up in vast sand traps like quicksand.  He had found himself fighting to breathe in screaming sandstorms that blew for days, and swept men and camels away, never to be seen again.  He had even fought a real live Dune Dragon that breathed fire and wiped out the population of an entire city in a single night.  He had been many things, encountered many mysteries, strange and bizarre.  But never had he seen such a thing as this!

Fukitso might have thought the vision a mirage, an illusion brought on by thirst and exhaustion.  In his frantic flight from Adji Po, there had been no time to secure water, and, as a result, it was going hard for him now.  But, no.  Fadil Khan had seen it too, that much was plain.  So, whatever it was, the cloud was real.

And, more, seeing that weird violet thunderhead hovering motionless acrest the distant dune, the Ronin sensed imminent peril.  He had no idea what form that peril might take, but sense it he did, as surely as a samadhi senses the trap cunningly laid in the jungle pathway.  His samurai training had whetted his faculties to a razor sharpness, had rendered him keenly aware of details which other men would have missed.  But this was more than mere heightened sensation.  The Ronin felt a sense of approaching peril in his very bones, like a cold, knife-edged wind blowing through the thin grey fabric of his kimono.  He felt it in his soul.

In grim silence, the Ronin smoothly drew the long gleaming blade of his katana, Ginago, from the black lacquered scabbard on his back.  The sunlight flashed dazzlingly off the round silver tsuba, or handguard, for which the weapon had been named -- "The Silver Jaw".

Strange things were said of that sword, how it was supposed to possess weird mystic powers; how it was a living thing, possessing a soul and a mind of its own; how it had been forged in the fires of Mount Doji, its red hot steel quenched in the blood of a god.  But none of these things were said by the strange-eyed Ronin himself.  Fukitso was content to let his actions speak for themselves.  Ginago was keen and strong, which was all he could ask.  And, like his blind-seeming eyes with their tiny pin-point pupils, he kept his secrets close, and let others believe what they would.

"What do you suppose it is?" asked Fadil Khan finally breaking the silence and regaining his feet.  Absently, he beat the sand from his rich clothes, his eyes still fixed on the distant cloud.
 
"I don't know," replied Fukitso.  "I've never seen its like before."

"No," agreed Fadil Khan.  "Nor I."  After a moment's thought, he added nervously: "It's right in our path, between us and Adji Po.  Perhaps we should turn around and go back."

"And go where?  The nearest city is Kabal, and that's a good three day walk.  Without water, we'd never make it.  You certainly wouldn't, not on that leg."

Fadil Khan smiled wryly.  "I didn't know you cared."

"I don't.  I'd just as soon see you die out here as hanging from a gibbet in Adji Po, but I don't trust you.  You might have lied about where you hid the girl.  Until I find her, I mean to keep you alive."

For the first time, Fadil Khan tore his eyes from the distant cloud as he studied the mounted Ronin with a long, contemplative look.  "Hm, that girl really did make an impression, didn't she?  You surprise me, effendi.  I wouldn't have taken you for the romantic type."

Fukitso ignored the gibe.  "I promised not to kill you if you told me where the girl was.  I'm keeping my promise.  But if I find you've lied to me, and she isn't in the vault as you've claimed, or you've already done away with her -- I promise...you'll wish I'd left you out here to die."

To that threat, Fadil Khan had no reply, but his hawkish features grew just a shade paler, and, swallowing tightly, he returned his eyes to the violet cloud in their path.

At that moment, as if on cue -- the cloud began to change.

Though it remained stationary, still hovering over the wind-brushed crest of the dune, now it began to roil and stir.  It was as if another wind, one contained within its constricted dimensions, was rising suddenly, like a miniature storm, whipping the billowing violet cloud into a furious maelstrom, even as the thing itself remained stubbornly motionless.  And from the cloud, there came the crash and rumble of distant thunder, the sounds coinciding with dazzling flashes of lightning that lit the cloud from within, creating gaudy flickers of purple and red.  The whole produced a display at once beautiful, yet ominously threatening.

Fukitso's mount snorted anxiously and began to shift nervously on its great clawed feet.  Its tail thrashed from side to side.  The Ronin struggled to bring the karmah under control, even as he kept a wary eye on the flickering, rumbling cloud.

Then, suddenly, there was a single brilliant flash of lightning, blinding even in the glare of the desert sun, and out of the roiling cloud, a figure tumbled, a figure in baggy red clothes, who landed on hands and knees on the sandy slope beneath.  And even as the figure appeared, the roiling cloud seemed to grow calm once more, the only evidence of its former turmoil one final sustained crash of distant thunder.

As the sound steadily died away, for a moment, Fukitso and Fadil Khan could only stare in wonder.  The figure remained as he had fallen, on hands and knees, evidently momentarily stunned by the violence of his entrance.  Then he shook his head, to clear his rattled senses, and surged to his sandalled feet.  In the same smooth motion, a long gleaming blade materialized in his hands, drawn from a black scabbard on his back.  It was only in that moment, as he lifted his eyes and Fukitso and Fadil Khan saw his face for the first time, that the full strangeness of the thing finally revealed itself.

They were staring at a second Fukitso.  The stranger could have been the weird-eyed Ronin's exact double, right down to the silver tsuba on the katana he held in his hands...


On to Episode 2....A Universe Gone Mad!


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Fukitso and the Lair of the Havok! is copyright 2004 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!)