The Mighty Ronin, Fukitso,
An 11-chapter Sword and Sorcery Spectacular!
Ambush in the Courtyard
VULTAN TURNED OFF THE BUSY STREET into a deserted courtyard surrounded by high, brick walls. He walked at a leisurely pace, absently fondling his jeweled sceptre. He was in no hurry, preferring to take his time returning to his chambers in the palace -- time in which to gloat at the success of his cunningly laid plan to trap the imposter. For an imposter Vultan was quite certain the stranger must be. Fadil Khan had told the truth. How else to explain the giant's ignorance of the Idol? And, if not the real King Shakara, the imposter was not invincible. He could be killed as easily as any mortal man.
A cruel grin stirred the sorcerer's lips. The imposter had set out an hour ago for the Cave of the Havok. In another hour, he would reach the cave. Shortly after that, he would die. Then, with Vultan's blessing, Fadil Khan would seize the ivory throne, becoming king of Pandrakiam. King...with Vultan to pull the strings.
Everything was as he had foreseen.
For a moment, a slight frown touched the sorcerer's brow. There was something he had forgotten. Some little detail. Something yet to be delt with--
Vultan stopped abruptly as a figure entered the courtyard ahead of him. Ah, yes, he thought wryly. A detail.
"Vultan," said the king's brother, Drandal, his voice low and bitter. "I know all about your plan. I know how you intended to betray me and put someone else on the throne instead. There's no use denying it. I know everything."
Vultan's laugh was a contemptuous slap in the face. "You sad little man. Why should we deny it? Of course we planned to betray you. We have no more use for you. You always were too weak. We have found a candidate more suited to our purposes."
Drandal's eyes dilated, the very brazen honesty of the confession leaving him breathless. "You admit you were going to betray me?"
"Were going to? Rather, are going to, puny fool -- are going to!"
Suddenly Drandal reached into his robes and a gleaming dagger leaped into his trembling, white-knuckled fist. "You are a devil," he croaked, his voice choked with disgust. "I should never have had anything to do with you."
"It is far too late for that," Vultan said, sadly shaking his head. "Far, far too late."
"Too late for you, yes!"
At a gesture, a dozen men rose from behind barrels scattered conveniently around the perimeter of the courtyard. A glance was enough to characterize them. They were coarse, brutal men, dangerous men, no doubt used to such work, willing to do anything for a price. The sunlight gleamed off their tulwars and daggers. In silence, they encircled the sorcerer like a pack of hungry barapur, cutting off any hope of retreat.
Vultan barely gave them a glance. "And what is the meaning of this?"
Drandal smiled, savouring the moment. "You should never have told me your secret, Vultan. I'm not like those other fools. I know from whence your power comes. I know how to defeat you."
This time Vultan was silent -- silence which Drandal mistakenly interpreted as fear.
"No clever replies, Vultan?"
In a low, smoldering tone, the sorcerer returned: "Knowing is one thing -- exploiting that knowledge is something else."
"My men know what to do! Very well, then -- now!!!"
As one, at the signal, the twelve men rushed in, twelve blades raised murderously to strike...
In the street outside the courtyard, a little girl named Nina played with a wooden toy cart in the swirling dust. She had been playing there for more than an hour, long after her mother had told her to come home. But she was having so much fun she lost all track of time. Such is the life of a child.
Now, she looked up, blinking puzzledly at the chorus of screams that drifted suddenly from the entrance only a short distance away. A moment later the screams stopped and there was only silence from the courtyard. She waited for the sounds to resume, but then, as the silence continued, the little girl rose from where she was playing and gathered up her cart. Eaten up by curiosity, she began walking toward the entrance to the courtyard. One sandal on her foot had a broken strap and she was forced to stop to adjust it. Then on she went, closer and closer, until she could look around the corner into the--
Suddenly a tall man dressed in black robes stood before her, barring her way. She stopped, dropping her toy cart in surprise. Her wide eyes looked up but she could not see his face against the glare of the sun. All she could see was a jeweled sceptre in one lean hand. Then the other hand touched her shoulder, pushing her ever so gently back.
"Don't go in there," said the stranger. "Go home. Your mother is waiting for you."
For some reason, the man in black frightened the little girl. She turned and hurried home, not even bothering to recover her toy cart.
In the courtyard left behind, there was only silence. A long, lingering stillness, it hung over the scene like a fog shrouding a battlefield after a war. Birds began to gather, great black creatures with flashing eyes and gleaming beaks, carrion feeders attracted by the scent of death and blood. Their dark forms landed atop the surrounding walls. A few of the bravest hopped to the ground, daring to approach with flapping wings. Suddenly, as one, the birds exploded into the air, frantically flying away and leaving the courtyard again silent and still.
And then, amongst the stillness...something moved...
Fukitso stared into the fathomless darkness of the entrance to the Cave of the Havok and his strange, white eyes narrowed truculently. In one smooth motion, he drew his gleaming katana from the black scabbard on his back. Invincible he was not, and, according to Vultan, no normal mortal had ever entered this dreaded den and returned alive. Then again, it was a safe bet the havok had never encountered such a weapon as Ginago.
This was to be a night for surprises.
The shimmering sword seemed to hum and throb with weird, uncanny energies barely held in check. The ancient runes inscribed along the blade seemed etched with a barely discernable glow, eerily visible in the sullen gloom. Not even the Ronin knew the meaning of those runes. They might have been a curse or a blessing, it made no difference to him. So long as the Silver Jaw served him, he was content to live in ignorance.
It was his way.
There was a broad open space before the cave's black mouth, as if the dark and dismal jungle itself drew back from so fearful a place. The late afternoon sunlight filtered spectrally down through the overhead boughs, affording just enough light to see by, but the Ronin carried a flaming torch to light his way. The amber flame coiled restlessly, nearly motionless on the end of the brand, the air being still and stagnant as the fetid water in a swamp. He grimly adjusted his grip on the banded hilt of his katana -- and entered the Cave of the Havok...
The Ronin found himself following a twisting tunnel that burrowed deep into the granite heart of the mountain. Dripping stalactites hung overhead, glittering veins of some obscure mineral banding the walls. Loose stone crunched drily under foot. Soon Fukitso detected a rank, animal odour that grew stronger the further he forged into the havok's den. It would not be long now.
But why had he accepted this challenge? He knew it was a trap meant to kill him as surely as if a blade were slipped between his ribs. Why had he not refused?
Back in the Temple, for a moment he had wondered if perhaps the Idol was real, so convincing had been the illusion of its speech. But that it had not detected his deception convinced him otherwise. A true god would have known he was an imposter. No, as he had originally suspected, this was all some elaborate plot fashioned by that crafty dog, Vultan. But what was Vultan's game? Did the sorcerer know that Fukitso was an imposter? Or did he still believe Fukitso was King Shakara? Clearly he at least suspected the deception -- why else send Fukitso on this mission, a mission which would not have been dangerous for the real King Shakara? But equally obvious, Vultan was not entirely certain. He was not prepared to move openly against Fukitso, lest he be wrong.
But trap or not, the Ronin could not refuse the Idol's command. In a dim sense, he felt a certain responsibility for these people. Perhaps that blow to the head he had taken when first he fell through the doorway between the worlds had scrambled his brains. But in playing the part of their king, he commenced to identify with the part. He wasn't their real king, but, at the moment, he was the closest thing they had. In their fear and suffering, they turned to him, believing in him, trusting in him. However unintentionally, he had taken on a responsibility. He would lie to them, but he could not betray that trust.
And if there was even a chance this quest might end the sickness ravaging Pandrakiam...
Fukitso stopped. The flickering torch threw its amber light upon the curving walls of the tunnel. Up ahead there was a narrowing -- beyond that only darkness. The Ronin knelt and planted the pointed end of the brand in a crack in the floor. He scraped up some loose dirt and sniffed it. It was pungent with the rank, animal smell. Fukitso scrubbed the dirt over his samurai attire, working it into his kimono, kataginu and hakama, thinking to mask his scent.
Taking up the torch again, he resumed his advance.
He had no idea what this havok was and the vizier had been little help. All Karim could tell him was that it was some sort of animal, very strong and dangerous, and much feared by the people of Pandrakiam. Well, Fukitso had fought dangerous animals ere now and he still lived to tell about it. Why should this beast be any different?
The Ronin squeezed through the narrowing in the tunnel and his torchlight fell off into a fathomless well of impenetrable black. For a moment, he paused, raising the torch and straining to see into the shadows. Then he saw it.
In the darkness, two eyes stared back. Two animal eyes, reflecting the lambent light like the eyes of a cat. The Ronin scowled belligerently, his own weird orbs only slightly less inhuman in the dark. Moving carefully so as not to startle the creature, he slowly lifted his katana, brandishing it before him.
The eyes blinked, eerily flickering, but the creature made no sound. Nor did it move. It merely watched him, no doubt taking the measure of this foolish intruder into its sacred den.
An egg. The Idol had instructed Fukitso to bring back an egg from the Cave of the Havok. To find the eggs he would have to first get past the havok itself.
Grimly, Fukitso took one step forward...
Instantly, the darkness came alive with a veritable constellation of flickering lights. The Ronin froze and the skin prickled on the backs of his hands. More eyes. Many more. Countless eyes blinking in the dark. And immediately Fukitso saw how foolish he had been to have assumed there would only be one havok in the den. There was not one havok but an entire nest!
And then, together, they attacked...
On to Episode 10...Talons in the Dark
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