The Mighty Ronin, Fukitso,
An 11-chapter Sword and Sorcery Spectacular!
Madman in the Court
FUKITSO AWOKE TO THE MUFFLED ROAR of a crowd. The girl, Kimia, with whom he had spent the night, stirred restlessly as he climbed from the bed, but she didn't rouse. Naked, he strode cat-like to the open casement and looked out on the wide palace courtyard below. He squinted against the glare of the sun reflecting off the marble pave. A crowd of peasants was gathered by the broad, front steps to the palace. A line of palace guardsmen struggled to keep them back, clearly finding the task more than could be managed whilst so few in number.
The peasants were clearly upset about something, but what that something might be, the Ronin couldn't tell; not from so great a distance. They were too far away to make out anything more than an indistinguishable bedlam of shouts and cries.
Frowning, the Ronin went to pick out appropriate attire from King Shakara's expansive wardrobe -- something suitable for the royal court. Even if it was only for a few days, he was their king, after all. He felt a certain responsibility to play his part to the best of his ability. And, whatever the cause of the commotion outside, these people had obviously come seeking the aid of their king. He could at least hear them out.
A short time later, having wandered lost and confused through the palace hallways, Fukitso finally found his way more by chance than design to the royal throne room. As he entered the vast, vaulted chamber, magnificently adorned with rich, velvet tapestries and colossal, marble pillars, he was spotted by the vizier, Karim, who immediately hurried over, a look of deep concern etched on his face.
"Your Majesty," he called, when he was still some distance away. "I was just about to send someone to wake you."
Palace guardsmen stood arrayed about the cavernous chamber, resplendent in gleaming cuirass and plumed morion. Handsomely robed courtiers hovered between the pillars in small, intimate groups, chattering together with much hand waving and meaningless gestures. At the vizier's shout, they all fell silent and turned as one to look at Fukitso as he crossed the chamber to the great ivory throne.
Even as Fukitso stopped to await the vizier, out of the corner of his eye he noticed one of the guardsmen calmly drawing his sword. The sight barely even registered, and his attention returned to the vizier -- until he heard a woman's shrill scream!
Whirling back, Fukitso was astonished to see the guardsman with the drawn sword standing over the fallen body of a courtier. The rich robes were now stained a vivid scarlet -- as was the keen blade which had done the deed.
"What in Doji's name..."
For a moment, the guardsman's back was turned to the baffled Ronin. But then, he spun slowly around to reveal wide, blood-shot eyes, bright with a terrible madness, and champing jaws from which white foam slavered hideously. Those scarlet eyes fixed suddenly on the Ronin and, with a shrill, inhuman shriek -- the guardsman charged.
Fukitso rarely went anywhere without his two swords, Ginago and Kyodai. But this morning, in dressing the part of a king -- and an invincible king, at that -- the Ronin had left his blades in the bedchamber. Now, as the shrieking guardsman hurtled towards him with uplifted steel still wet with blood, Fukitso could only turn with empty hands, preparing to meet his insane attacker without the benefit of so much as a dagger.
But the Ronin had been trained by the Doji Brotherhood. He was a samurai. The first lesson taught him was that no man is unarmed, who has a hand with which to fight.
And Fukitso had two.
Fukitso dropped into a fighting stance, partly crouched, hands raised with curled fingers. His concentration narrowed to a focus. His breathing slowed, his pulse steady. The guardsman reached him and lashed out in a deadly silver arc meant to cleave the Ronin's head from his shoulders. But Fukitso was a blur of motion, his attack so inconceivably swift no one in that chamber could claim to have seen how it was done.
Ducking beneath the blade, he seemed barely to have brushed the madman with his hands but, when he stopped moving, the guardsman lay sprawled on the royal carpet before the ivory throne -- the grotesque position of his head telling of a broken neck.
As the vizier finally reached Fukitso's side, he stopped and regarded the dead guardsman. The other guardsmen had reacted belatedly, too late to prevent the attack on their king. Now they too rushed to surround him with drawn swords, each man casting nervous glances at their fallen comrade.
Turning to Karim, Fukitso asked in amazement, "What the devil got into him? Did you see that? There was madness in his eyes."
The vizier nodded. "That was what I wanted to tell you...Your Majesty. It began in the night. Some sort of sickness has come among the people. It strikes without warning. One moment, they may be as sane as you or I, the next..." He gestured to the slain guardsman. "You saw for yourself. There have been thirty deaths already -- men and women murdered by the sick, or the sick themselves who were killed in the process of subduing them. The peasants are filled with terror. They don't know who will be the next victim. The disease is spreading so quickly, in a week the dead will outnumber the living."
Fukitso regarded the dead guardsman with narrowed eyes. "Well, what do they want me to do about it?"
Before the vizier could respond, a sudden voice rang out: "Your Majesty, you are their king. They expect you to find a solution."
All eyes turned to discover the court sorcerer standing in the shadows behind the ivory throne. The heavy velvet tapestries were just rustling back into place. In the darkness, his eyes seemed to glow like two red coals. Vultan gestured with his jewel-crusted sceptre, pointing it like a spear at Fukitso's broad chest.
"You alone have the right to consult the Idol."
Fukitso glanced questioningly at the vizier. "Idol?"
Quickly, Karim sought to hide Fukitso's ignorance. To the sorcerer, he said, "His Majesty is well aware of that, Vultan. But what good would it do to consult the Idol?"
Lowering his sceptre, Vultan strode imperiously from behind the throne in a swirl of black. He raised his voice, obviously playing to the crowd. "This sickness is a curse sent by the gods. We have angered them in some way. The King must consult the Idol to discover why."
Immediately, the watching courtiers began to mutter in agreement. Karim glanced at them nervously, then leaned closer to the Ronin. "This is surely a trap," he whispered tightly beneath his breath.
"Of course, it's a trap," Fukitso snarled back. "And it's a damn good one. I don't dare refuse. Not with these fools on the edge of panic."
As if on cue, at that moment, a commotion broke out in the hall as yet another guardsman succumbed to the dreaded sickness and turned his sword on his fellows. In seconds he was hacked to pieces. But the damage had already been done. Now the crowd of courtiers was frantic. They rushed forward, clawing wretchedly at the ring of palace guardsmen, shouting and screaming, "The Idol! The Idol! Consult the Idol!"
Wryly, Fukitso looked at the vizier and raised his voice over the bedlam. "Trap or not, I guess we're going to see what this Idol of yours has to say!"
Fukitso entered the Temple of the Idol followed by a
vast entourage made up of guardsmen, courtiers and peasants.
There had been no way to leave the palace without encountering the crowd at the front steps. As soon as they learned their king was going to consult the Idol, the news filled them with hope. Word spread like wildfire, so that, by the time Fukitso reached the pillared portico of the Temple of the Idol, he led a parade of nearly two hundred men and women. Together the tumult they made was deafening.
But as Fukitso passed through the great double doors into the cool, cavernous interior of the Temple, the noise gradually died down to a low sullen murmur, and then to silence. Timorously the crowd hung back so that, alone, the giant Ronin strode down the central aisle, walking with even, confident strides, his sandals clacking on the polished marble floor, all the while his weird, white eyes taking in the magnificence and splendour around him. Then at last he stopped and grimly regarded the Idol squatting on its dais of lapis lazuli.
It was fashioned in the form of a man, clothed in a toga, glimmering gem-stones adorning his brow. But the figure was grotesquely shortened, with stalky legs and arms, and a round barrel-like body. The head was huge, and the mouth was bizarrely drawn out at the corners to form the impression that he was grinning.
A grinning idol.
Fukitso heard no footsteps, but suddenly Vultan was at his elbow. The sorcerer carried a wax tablet and a reed pen along with his customary sceptre.
"What are those for, sorcerer?" Fukitso asked impatiently.
"Every word the Idol speaks is precious, Your Majesty. This is to keep a record."
The Ronin's attention returned to the statue. "And how do we make the Idol speak?"
"Surely you know as well as we, Majesty," Vultan returned searchingly.
"Refresh my memory."
The sorcerer studied Fukitso a moment, then gestured with the sceptre. "Prostrate yourself before the sacred Idol. He will speak."
Fukitso hesitated. It wasn't in his nature to bow before anyone, even a god. Grimly, he knelt and pressed his forehead to the cold, marble floor. For several seconds, nothing happened. The entire watching throng seemed to hold its breath. With all eyes on the idol, no one noticed as the sorcerer began writing on the soft wax surface of his tablet -- writing the words which, a moment later, suddenly boomed forth from the grinning mouth of the statue.
"YOU SEEK TO KNOW WHY THIS SICKNESS HAS BEEN VISITED UPON YOUR PEOPLE?"
Fukitso raised his head. His brow arched in surprise. He had expected a trick, perhaps some crafty priest speaking from the concealment of a secret chamber behind the idol. But this? This voice clearly rang from the idol's own gaping mouth. And there was a quality to the voice, an impressive echoing reverberation impossible to fake. Had he misjudged the situation? Was the idol real, after all?
Suddenly, he was concerned. He might be able to fool a bunch of foppish courtiers, but fooling a god was another matter. If the idol was real, it would know he was a fake.
"So ka," he replied, still on his knees. "I seek to know why this sickness has come upon the people of Pandrakiam."
"YOU HAVE ANGERED THE GODS. YOU HAVE NEGLECTED THEM AND THEY ARE DISPLEASED. YOU MUST MAKE AMENDS."
"How have we angered your...our gods?" Fukitso asked.
"YOU HAVE NOT BROUGHT SACRIFICES AS IN OLDEN TIMES. THE GODS ARE ANGRY. YOU MUST MAKE AMENDS."
"You already said that," muttered the Ronin -- then, louder: "How can we make amends?"
"YOU YOURSELF MUST GO TO THE CAVE OF THE HAVOK AND BRING BACK ONE EGG. BRING THE EGG TO THIS TEMPLE AND PLACE IT BEFORE MY IMAGE AS A SACRIFICE. ONLY THEN WILL YOU HAVE MADE AMENDS. ONLY THEN WILL THE SICKNESS END."
The Cave of the Havok? What was a havok? Fukitso didn't like the sound of that at all.
"I will gather some men and--"
"NO! YOU MUST GO ALONE!"
Fukitso scowled. "What the devil for?"
"BECAUSE IT IS WHAT THE GODS WISH! NOW, GO!"
Frowning grimly, Fukitso stood and stepped back from the dais. Vultan discretely slipped his wax tablet into his black robe. "Fear not, Your Majesty," he said, voice dripping with false sympathy. "For you it will not be a difficult task. You are, after all, invincible. Only for a normal man would the Cave of the Havok mean certain death."
Fukitso merely grunted...
On to Episode 9...Ambush in the Courtyard
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