Shinobi’s Quest – fragment #2

Read the first fragment here

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He was running down a dark corridor, as cold as the void. The torches burned blue in their brackets, briefly illuminating the beads of sweat on his naked body as he flit by. He was tired and his legs felt full of lead but there was a rising whisper around him, like the sound of a thousand cloaks cutting through air as they sped towards him, and he dare not stop…only, he wasn’t moving now, and the whispers grew into a crescendo all around him, swirling, the cold biting deeper until he was curled up in a pool of his own blood…

With a gasp, Kiyoshi was awake, staring wide-eyed at the leafy canopy above him. He thought he had left the nightmares behind when he renounced his Shogun, and with him, the Clan of Yoru, the night. But it seemed like the nightmares weren’t ready to leave him yet. Wiping the cold sweat off his brow, Kiyoshi climbed to his feet and picked up his katana, watching the sunlight as it seeped through the pine leaves and danced over a dull, unadorned hilt. He took a deep breath of the fresh morning air, and struck out towards the rising sun.

It was almost noon when he spotted the first village, just a smattering of huts close to a large, open ground. None of the houses were built even close to the shoin-zukuri way. So no warriors here, that was good. He could do without trouble for one day.

Everything here was built by peasants – low grass huts dotting the earth like moles, burrowing into the ground, a granary that seemed to be struggling to stay upright, and a particularly large hut on a corner of the village, a tavern maybe. Kiyoshi spotted a few farmers tending to their fields in the distance, and a handful of children frolicking amongst the houses, chasing their mothers as they went about their daily routines. A few aging relics squatted outside their huts, basking in the sun.

He looked at them silently, already beginning to dissociate himself from the mundane. There was work that needed to be done.

As he moved to a well and brought out his gourd, one of the children spotted him. Kiyoshi ignored her, but pretty soon, almost all the villagers were staring at him. Strangers were rare in these parts, particularly samurais. Kiyoshi looked at his clothes and cursed under his breath. First he had to kill a samurai who’d gotten too suspicious, even taking his garb was the right move since it would offer at least some anonymity, but then he had to pass through the only area where he would stand out.

The sound of distant hooves caught his attention. Kiyoshi looked up sharply. It was coming from the east, so it was unlikely to be a pursuing party. It could be a trader, but he didn’t hear a wagon and the source was at a gallop. Instinctively, he knew who it was. The deliberation took barely a moment, and as quickly as the wind, he was off, sprinting towards the large hut.

Years of a shinobi’s gruelling training had taught him to master his emotions and think clearly; that was the first thing they learned. Any attempts at espionage would not even get off the ground if the shinobi’s centre was adrift. The approaching dust storm parted, and a party of mounted soldiers burst upon the village. The clueless villagers’ eyes bounced from the racing stranger to each other’s faces to the horsemen bristling with weapons.

At the head was the unmistakable form of a samurai, decked in scaly armor from head to toe, gleaming despite the dirt.

Kiyoshi reached the large hut and put his back against the wall, spinning around just in time to catch the soldiers halt in the center of the village. A scouting party personally led by a samurai, interesting. He clenched his jaw.

The leader of the horsemen reached up with an exaggerated motion and removed his helm, glancing around at the villagers, and, at the robed figure standing near a hut. Signalling his men towards Kiyoshi, he scoffed, ‘I hear a ninja is afoot. What a waste of a perfectly good day. My ashigaru, bring the filth to me.’ Kiyoshi ignored the jibe, and just loud enough for him to hear, intoned, ‘The list of samurai I have killed grows longer today.’

The leader bristled. He motioned to his swordsmen to stop. The archers behind him lowered their bows. ‘I am Rijiku kano, of the clan of Tadega. I am called Ribingoburedo, the living blade. I am called Hi no yumi, the bow of fire. My ancestry sprouts from the line of great Hachiman himself. And what are you, eh? A filthy spy with no honor and no creed, disavowed and thrown aside like a dog. You are not fit to deserve my blade. Yes, we know who you are Kiyoshi Yoru, my daimyo wants you before him, preferably alive. Preferably. Men, pin him to the wall, I want him easier to collect.’

Before the first arrow reached him, Kiyoshi had already cut down one of the soldiers advancing towards him. He saw the arrow approach out of the corner of his eye, and spun, deflecting the tip with the flat of his blade, into a soldier’s neck. A black wisp of death, he flit from soldier to soldier, severing a major artery here, a hamstring there, leaving in his wake blood, bodies, and a ground littered with arrows launched in vain.

Seeing him approach, enraged, Rijiko leapt off his horse, drawing his katana in a single fluid motion. Armor moving like a second skin, he ran to his last soldier, but Kiyoshi was there before him, decapitating the now-lifeless body. Rijiko’s archers lowered their bows, their lord was too close to the shinobi.

Kiyoshi’s advance was halted as Rijiko fell upon him with a fury. The samurai’s blade seemed to possess a life of its own, seeming to spawn hundreds of clones that attacked from every possible avenue. It was all he could do to parry them with his own blade. This one was obviously skilled, and this was obviously not the way to best him.

Instead of blocking Rijiku’s next flurry of blows, Kiyoshi let him gain ground and confidence, keeping just out of reach. Deftly, he removed a hand from his katana. The samurai took it to be a sign of exhaustion and advanced hastily, exposing his lower body, and before he could react, a shuriken was buried in his thigh, a second one flying towards the milling archers on horseback. Rijiko grunted and lashed out in fury, but Kiyoshi was ready, and using the samurai’s momentum against him, he flipped him onto his back. The second shuriken struck a horse’s flank. It reared and flung its rider off its back, kicking up a cloud of dust, causing the other archers to hastily reach for their horses’ reigns, trying to bring them under control.

When the dust cleared and the samurai struggled upright, he could see a figure galloping away into the distance, growing smaller with time. He squinted, ‘T-That’s my horse…’. An enormous roar followed, and the cowering ashigaru promptly sped out of the village, giving chase.

 

 

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