Monday, January 11, 2010

THE FALLEN GUARDIAN'S MANDATE: 4

by David Agranoff




Chapter Four

Demon Slayer Chamber




The gates to the village were tied open. The city walls had no one posted to guard them. The shops and street vendors carried on. Kui nursed a sore shoulder, and thought with considerable bitterness that Xu was wrong. He did not warn the people of this large village about the destruction, just three days walk to the south. Shun smiled and danced as they walked past street musicians who performed an opera from the three kingdoms.

Xu looked up at the sky, the hour of the rooster was almost over; the sun had dipped, and they had only an hour or two of light. Xu grabbed the imperial scroll from Shun's pack and waved it at Kui.

“I'll get horses, see if you can get us some food.”

Xu walked away and Kui breathed a sigh of relief. The last two days of training had been hard. He rubbed his shoulder. Kui walked deep into the marketplace. He smelled all kinds of foods cooking, but didn't know where to start. He stared at a small piglet, slaughtered and cooking. It made him feel homesick. He never had to see anything so barbaric at the temple.

He went over the last training Xu had given him, and it still didn't make sense to him. Xu had asked him to bring his sword...

*



“Give me your best sword stance.”

Kui spun quickly and lifted his sword over his head. He looked ready to attack. Xu waited. It took almost three minutes, but Kui weakened in the stance. His leg shook and his arm grew tired.

“Your sword, a bow...these weapons mean little to demons. To tree spirits, to fox demons, to tiger shifters...your sword will only delay them.”

Kui shook in his stance. Just seconds from falling apart.

“You don't even believe.” Kui muttered under his breath.

Xu kicked him square in the chest. Shun cringed from his seat by their campfire. Shun watched from two eyeballs sitting on his palm. Kui jumped back up.

Xu kicked the sword out of his hand and grabbed him by his yellow robe. “Listen, you little snot. I have seen things in this life that would turn your hair white.”

Kui looked around for his sword, and Xu slapped him with his free hand. “Pay attention.”

Xu dropped him and shook out the arms of his robe. “You believe a dark dragon attacked you yesterday. Then, you need more than your sword.”

Xu whistled and Shun reached into his bag and threw a scroll. Xu grabbed it out of the air and in a single motion, unrolled it on the ground. He placed four slips of yellow paper beside it. Kui got up and stood over the scroll. It had blood-red calligraphy as a header:

The Scroll of Spirit Disposal

Kui leaned down to grab it. Xu kicked his shoulder; this time pain shot through Kui's body. As the young monk hit the ground, a second wave of pain came from the hit. When the young monk opened his eyes, he saw the face of Xu grinning at him. “This is more than a weapon; it is also a key, it is the door. It is above all things, power.”

“I understand.”

Shun laughed, off to the side.

“I hope that is true.”

Xu rolled up the scroll and put it in Kui's hand. It felt warm, like its slats of bamboo were generating heat. Kui squeezed it and felt its power.

“Do you feel its strength?”

Kui nodded.

“Good, but you're still not ready to wield it.”


*




...As Kui stood in the marketplace, he wondered about Xu's words. “--you're still not ready to wield it.” The scroll remained in Kui's pack. Kui walked until he made it to a noodle stand. It wasn't the smells or the large display of vegetables that stopped him. Behind the cart of vegetables, a woman smiled at Kui. She was slender, just an inch or so shorter than him. Her long black hair hung in curls over her shoulders, one of which was bare. The dress hung over the curve of her shoulder. She noticed Kui's look against her skin, and lifted the dress up.

Kui cleared his throat. The woman's father was enormous, a sweat-drenched fat man standing by the fire and large wok set up behind the cart.

“Monk?” She said in voice so sweet Kui almost tasted fruit.

Kui nodded.

“We serve the best vegetable dishes north of the capital.”

“Can you pack enough for three travelers?”

She smiled. “You're not staying the night?”

Kui shook his head.

“The Opera troupe is performing the story of Sun Wukong. Very funny.”

“Sounds wonderful,” Kui pointed at the vegetables he wanted. “But my Master insists that we keep traveling.”

“Towards the capital? I've always dreamed of seeing the emperor's city.”

“I wish I could take you.” After Kui said that, his face grew red. She laughed and smiled. No harm done. The father stepped closer and watched their interaction. Kui wanted more than anything for the father's concern to be warranted. It wasn't.

“We are not going to the capital...we are headed north.”

The father stepped closer, under the guise of selecting vegetables. He had a bucket of chopped veggies at his cooking station. “Only thing north is the wall and Venara. What could a monk need in Venara?”

“We are on a mission for the emperor...I am...”

Kui gasped as a hand locked on his arm and squeezed. The father and daughter laughed at his reaction. After the beating he received in the last training, Kui was ready to turn and punch Xu. Kui turned around and gasped a second time. A man six and half feet tall held his arm. Kui could not see the stranger's face under the large hat he wore.

“Kui-Jun?”

Hearing his name made his heart race. Kui pushed off and tried to run, but with little effort, the man held him in place. The tall man looked at the noodle vendors. “He will be back for his food in less than an hour.”

The tall man spoke Mandarin with an accent. It was either Korean or Japanese, he couldn't tell. The man pulled on Kui, who watched the noodle lady with a look of desperation. The tall man pushed Kui into an alley. In the waning light, he still could not see the man's face under the wide hat tied in place under his chin. His sword was Japanese--that much he could tell.

Kui pulled his sword free. It shook with a twang. The tall man didn't grab his own. “You won't kill me, Kui.”

Kui squeezed the grip on his sword. He was afraid of this man. The last thing he wanted to do was to test his skills on a samurai. Or worse, a Ninja. “Who are you? How do you know me?”

“My name is irrelevant. If you must know, you can call me Hosakai. I have been watching you since you left the guard's station.”

“You're a Japanese spy.”

“In a former life, perhaps. I don't work for any government.”

Kui lowered his sword a bit, then thought better of it. He squeezed the grip again.

“Your master, for lack of a better word, doubts your mission. He think the emperor is a paranoid fool. He is in for the gold, plain and simple.”

“So?”

“I want to help you. Aid your mission to expose the evil.”

“Ok, lets talk to Master Xu.”

Hosakai laughed.

“If I am to help you...I must remain secret.”

Kui stepped back and ran down the alley. Hosakai jumped into the air--taking huge steps through the air past him--and landed in front of him just as Kui swung his sword down. Hosakai pulled his sword up straight with one hand. Kui put all his strength into the blow, but Hosakai held the sword in place easily with one arm.

They were closer than before, but when Kui looked at the man's face, all he saw was a black mist. Kui kicked at Hosakai, but was blocked by his shin. Hosakai pushed on the sword, and knocked Kui back. Kui hit the ground and couldn't see for a split second. That is all it took. The Japanese blade was under his beads and its hot steel burned at his skin. Kui feared taking too deep of a breath.

*



Xu walked the two horses he was able to get. Shun would have to ride with Kui. Shun sat at a table with a group of acrobats still in their opera make-up. Shun had a scroll out and was taking down their story. They pointed at the sky. Shun sat up. He'd somehow sensed that Xu was there. The blind man jumped and ran to Xu.

“You're just in time!” Shun yelled and held his eye up to the sky. Everyone in the village began to run. The cooks and vendors took off toward the main hall. The shoppers and acrobats ran to their homes and wagons. Xu laughed as one after another, a hundred doors and windows slammed shut.

Xu sniffed himself. “Was it something I said?”

*



Kui heard the commotion but could not move. Hosakai held his blade steady, and didn't move.

“What is happening?” Kui begged.

“You're safe. As long as you listen to me, you'll stay safe.”

“Why should I help you?”

“We'll help each other. Tell me, do you ever wonder about your family?”

“My family?”

Kui had, but he was so young when he came to the temple, he had no memory of his family. The temple had taught them that attachments like that would only cause them suffering. He had seen no point in wondering about his family. He was committed to the temple.

“I have not found them yet...but I have leads on your family in Korea.”

Kui dropped his sword at his side. “I'm Korean.”

Hosakai pulled his blade back slowly. “You have an older brother and a sister. They miss you.” Hosakai swung his sword around, and placed it in its sheath. He held up his finger and "Shhhed" Kui. “Time for the show.”

*



Xu realized that the village was dark: no lanterns, no flames, except for the ones left under the vendors' woks. Shun held an eyeball to the sky.

“Shun, you have an explanation for this?”

“Watch!”

From a distance, a shriek echoed through the night. Inside the homes and buildings around the village, a few people screamed out in terror. Shun tied the horses to a post, and pulled Xu to a vegetable stand they could hide behind. Xu began to feel nervous, and felt a tightening in his stomach. Could this be what happened to the the other village? He pulled his sword free.

“Just watch.”

The half-moon lit the sky just over the horizon. They could not discern its shape, but its light reflected against the clouds. Suddenly a train of large shadows sped across the sky like a thousand demonic arrows. They passed with a deranged howl. The earth and buildings shook as the black spirits passed.

Xu stood up straight. He watched them headed to the north--toward Venara. He swallowed and considered what they might find.

*



Kui's jaw dropped as he saw the black spirits fill the sky above the alley. Several screamed, some howled, and the choir of horror shook the ground. Hosakai pointed his blade to the sky.

“Creatures of the night. Warriors of evil. You cannot defeat them without my help.”

The buildings continued to shake. Kui glanced about, worried one might fall on him. “How can you help us?”

“I'll find you, keep you informed. When the time is right and the emperor is safe, I'll return you to your family.”

Hosakai put out his arms and rose into the air so fast Kui lost him.

“Wait.”

Just like that the storm of spirits passed.

*



It took twenty minutes of silence before the villagers carefully stepped back into the night. At sundown, every night for the last week, the demons had flown over. Kui stepped out of the alley and found Shun and Xu waiting on two horses.

“Where have you been?” Shun asked.

“Hiding with the villagers.” Kui said. In that moment he had decided he had a secret to keep. “Where were those things going?”

“Where do you think?” Xu said and gave his horse a pat before hitting the trail.


Click Here For Chapter Five

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