by Jon F. Merz
The stone fortress looking skyward looked as if it were erupting from the lush green of the valley floor. Towering walls of granite mined from a quarry many leagues to the east overlooked the river hewing its way between the Daigawa Mountains on either side. High above, towers and ramparts afforded the guards a perfect vantage point on every approach. It had been designed to thwart attack from any angle. To a traditional warrior, the fortress appeared insurmountable; it would take a large army prepared to lay siege for months to overcome its defenses.
But Ran, hidden in the shadows of the thick fragrant pine boughs, saw opportunity where others did not.
Two weeks previously, he had sat motionless in this same spot, watching the full moon cast its glow upon the eastern side of the keep. Bathed in the soft glow of moonlight, the imposing walls had revealed weaknesses. Divots in the stone blocks ran all the way up to the underside of the lowest rampart.
Where others saw mere imperfections, Ran saw handholds and footholds. They weren’t uniformly spaced. Nor would they made for an easy climb. But it was possible.
And possibility was the foundation of success.
Sinking back into the looming shadows of a massive pine, Ran waited. There would be a new moon tonight for his infiltration. Just as he had used the full moon to aid his observation a fortnight before, Ran adhered to the teachings of the ancient scrolls he had spent years studying by letting nature aid him whenever possible.
From a very young age, Ran had been schooled in the legendary arts of the Shinobujin, whom the outside world called Shadow Warriors. Masters of spying, infiltration, and nontraditional warfare, outsiders considered Shadow Warriors to be supernatural warriors able to bend the universe to their will and bewitch a stalwart sentry with a mere glance.
Ran smiled at the thought. Certainly, there was much he had yet to learn about the higher levels of the art, but magic? More likely those stalwart sentries had dozed off. Rather than face harsh punishment for sleeping on duty, they had simply concocted a tale that a shadow warrior wizard had cast a spell over them.
And Ran knew something else: his brethren at the Nine Daggers clan were happy to let others believe in the myths and legends because it would invariably aid them in their missions. So whether or not it was actually true – it may as well have been.
A light breeze lifted the branches around him, and the fragrant pine tickled his nostrils. Ran closed his eyes and opened his mouth to amplify the night sounds. He heard the cough of a guard far above him float down. He caught the clink of a spoon against a cauldron over a hearth in one of the homes in the tiny village nearby.
But little else stirred.
It was time to move.
Using a low-crawl, Ran eased himself out from under the tree and waited until the breeze rustled the grass against the foot of the fortress before moving again. Each time there was an ambient noise, Ran used it to cover his own approach. He resisted the urge to rush while moving across the open expanse of ground. Instead, he focused on controlling his awareness and his breathing, forcing him to take more time.
He finally arrived at the foot of the wall and looked up, centering his position beneath the lowest rampart, trying to visualize the location of the first handhold. He stepped up onto the lowest stone, keeping the pressure he exerted between his hands and feet equal. While one hand or foot would search out a new position, the other three maintained solid contact to hold him in place.
It was highly unlikely the guards would expect a solitary intruder to free climb a wall in this fashion. People, like animals, preferred the easiest routes. It was a natural instinct Ran would exploit as he made his ascent. And while he did indeed have a grappling hook whose ends had been wrapped in soft silk to absorb noise when thrown, he didn’t want to risk relying on it when one reasonably alert guard might discover its existence during the long climb ahead.
A line of sweat broke out along his hairline and cooled in the breeze as he continued his climb. He felt the muscles of his arms and legs stretching and flexing as he moved ever higher. Ran kept his breathing slow and steady, carefully flushing his system with enough air to power his muscles but also mindful that too much would cause him to become dizzy. One mistake at this height would mean certain death.
While he focused on the climb, Ran replayed what the leader of his clan had told him a month previously back at the training school hidden deep in the mountains of Gakur, nearly a hundred miles from where he was now.
“There is a relic of importance that we must have.”
Ran, fresh from a soak in the heated stone baths after a grueling day of staff practice, sipped the tea in front of him. “What is the relic?”
The leader of the Nine Daggers, a man by the name of Tozawa and a legend among the Shinobujin, had only smiled. “It is a special sword, forged by the smith known as Daisuke over two hundred years ago. Its blade is reputed to be the finest known to any warrior…alive or dead.”
“Do the dead have need of swords?”
Tozawa grinned. “As I am still fortunately among the living, I cannot answer that question.”
Ran had frowned. Only the traditional Murai warriors had such an unnatural love for their sword blades, believing them imbued with the souls of their ancestors. Shinobujin were pragmatic; they appreciated the sword blade for its ability to deliver killing blows.
Still, hearing one spoken of in such lofty terms unsettled Ran.
Tozawa had smiled at him. “I know what you are thinking, Ran. As skilled a pupil as you are, you still have much to learn. Bring back the sword. Accomplish this mission and you will graduate.”
Another breeze caused Ran to momentarily sway on the side of the fortress wall. He glanced back down and saw that he was perhaps a hundred feet up now. More than halfway to the top. He redoubled his efforts, ignoring the aches and pains from his arms, back, and legs. He moved in silence, always alert. A few minutes later, he paused just under the rampart.
Ran let his jaw relax and waited for the sounds of the immediate area to introduce themselves. Hearing nothing nearby, he reached up, grabbed the rampart, and folded his body over it. If anyone had been looking at that exact spot, they might have seen a small undulation in the wall as Ran’s body slid over. It was the moment where he was most exposed, but it was also extremely unlikely any of the guards would be watching the top edge of the wall, even if they were actually trying to do their jobs.
Ran huddled under the inside wall, swathed in deep shadows. Dressed from head-to-toe in a mottled array of deep blues and grays, the fabrics broke up his body lines and made him harder to see than if he’d been wearing absolute black. Around his head, Ran wore the traditional two piece mask of his kind. One part was carefully wrapped around the top of his head and the other over his mouth. He had also blackened the area around his eyes and other exposed bits of skin with bits of charcoal from the fire he’d cooked over earlier today. Only the whites of his eyes might give him away.
His scanned the scene before him. From this rampart, he could access the first tower to his left that spiraled up another fifty feet. At the top of this tower, he would be able to access the walkway leading to the main part of the keep.
Ran drew in a deep breath and exhaled smoothly. Forty feet further down the wall, he could see the back of one of the guards on duty. They’d been evenly stationed atop the battlements, and his scouting mission had revealed there were no roving patrols. These guards would remain at their posts until they were relieved at dawn, just a few hours away.
Ran was confident they wouldn’t hear him. He had spent years practicing how to move silently in all types of environments and conditions. The teachers at the Nine Daggers had shown him how to cross loose gravel, thick leaf litter, and even how to emerge from the water without any sound at all. Stealing across the thick stones that made up the rampart was easy by comparison. Of course, while his teacher’s punishments for failure were often very harsh, his life hadn’t been at stake. Ran took a few cleansing breaths to calm his racing heart.
With his eyes fixed on the entrance to the tower, Ran eased out of the deep shadows and used the special sideways walking method to cross the open space. He kept his body level knowing that any sudden motion would increase his likelihood of being discovered.
He reached the tower entrance and paused, sinking down low and easing just enough of his head around the corner so he could see what lay before him with one eye.
Torches burned in braziers high on the wall, their dancing flames throwing weird shadows all over the smooth interior. The staircase corkscrewed up to the next level. Able to move from shadow to shadow, Ran silently crept up the stone steps, keeping his back to the wall, hands spread to the sides to aid his balance during the ascent.
He heard the guard a moment before he saw him. Ran froze, sinking into the shadow he stood in—almost willing his body to become part of the wall. At the top of the stairs, a single guard loitered, looking out of the high window. If he’d been there a few minutes earlier, he might have seen Ran creeping over the wall, but only if he’d been paying attention to the spot where Ran had climbed over. The scrolls had taught Ran that most sentries did not pay attention when their castle stood towering over the rest of their world. It was this sense of impregnability that Ran and his Shinobujin brethren exploited.
But Ran still faced a problem: how to get past the guard? He had waited until the hour of the ox before starting his infiltration. If he was delayed too much, he risked exposure when the first rays of dawn broke the horizon.
With another cough, the guard suddenly moved off. Ran counted to ten and stole up the steps. He paused for only a moment and then nodded to himself when he saw the guard slumped in a chair nearby already settling himself down to sleep. Ran was relieved to discover this was not a roving guard; a guard walking on patrol was a much greater danger; they were much more alert and more likely to notice something out of the ordinary. Ran had assumed any guards on duty inside the fortress would also be at stationary posts, and he feared his assumption would be his undoing. Ran counted to sixty and then crept past the guard, hands ready to silence him if something happened. The guard never stirred.
Ran crossed the walkway and paused next to the entryway to the main castle.
Back in the safety of the shadow warrior stronghold, Tozawa had revealed a floor plan of the castle. Ran had studied it.
“Don’t you want to know how we acquired this?” Tozawa asked.
Ran frowned. His teacher was testing him. “Did we pay someone off for it?”
Ran shook his head. “Purchased information is always suspect. The seller may feel regret afterward and inform the authorities thereby possibly leading to an ambush when we act on the information.”
“Correct,” said Tozawa. “The task of gathering this information was the graduation assignment of another student. It is reliable.”
Ran felt a measure of relief. One of his brothers or sisters had crept into the craftsman’s offices and copied the floor plan without being discovered. There was no risk of compromise from using the information.
Now, as he huddled in the shadow of the heavy door that was deeply recessed into the thick outer wall of the keep, Ran kept the image of the floor plan in his head. Once he got through this door, he would need to move quickly.
He sensed the presence of the guard a moment before he heard the shuffle of footsteps. Ran froze and allowed his ears to pinpoint the location of the sentry, rather than risk turning his head and having the movement seen. The guard was off to his left and moving toward the door Ran huddled by.
There were no easy options: Ran couldn’t move away from the recessed door without the guard spotting him. He had to get through the door and fast.
The latch on the door was locked. With his heart hammering in his chest, Ran bent close and examined the simple mechanism. His ears were still attuned to the movement of the sentry and Ran knew he had precious little time to make his entry.
From his sleeve, he drew out a fine sliver of metal bent at an odd angle. Fitting this into the lock, he twisted twice and then applied pressure. The lock held.
The shuffling guard drew closer. Ran risked a look over his shoulder and saw that while the shadows he hid in were keeping his presence concealed, they soon would not as the guard moved closer. He turned back to the lock and reapplied the pressure.
The guard coughed and Ran could swear he felt the wind on the back of his neck.
But then the lock slid open. Ran felt the door give and he slid inside and closed the door behind him.
Barely a moment later, he heard the sentry pass by.
Ran allowed himself a sigh of relief. He’d avoided the guard just in time.
Now he had work to do.
For perhaps a minute, Ran stayed motionless in the narrow recess to the side of the door he had just entered. He watched and listened, trying to determine if he had somehow disturbed the tranquility of the fortress and prompted a guard to come investigate. But as he counted down in his mind, he saw nothing and heard nothing to indicate his presence had been detected. Ran scanned the area again, but this time with the intent of figuring out which direction he needed to travel.
A few more torches burned in this chamber, leading out to the main reception area. Ran disregarded the wider passageway and headed left toward the narrow side corridor. Further down, he paused and listened. The interior sounds of the castle were different from those outside and he needed to give himself some time to acclimate.
Ahead of him he saw a single winding staircase that looked old and rickety. Ran eyed the wooden steps and wondered if they would squeak when he put his weight on them. He had little choice but to risk it. As he stepped up onto the first tread, he made sure to put his foot closest to the wall where the stair was strongest.
No sound betrayed his presence and Ran moved up the stairs in this manner, testing each step for noise before placing his full weight upon it. Despite all of his intense physical training, his legs were burning from the strain of the slow climb to reach the door at the top of the stairs. Beyond it, he thought, there should be the room where the sword would be. At least that was what Tozawa had told him. Ran saw no guards and frowned. Odd that such a priceless relic would be kept in a room with no sentries. But he moved closer and then tried the handle to the room. It was also locked.
Ran frowned. He was exposed on the staircase and the longer it took him to get through the lock meant greater chance of compromise. He felt reasonably certain this staircase would be a priority for any guards given that it led to the sword room.
He knelt in front of the door and peered into the opening. He saw little in the flickering torchlight, but judging by the keyhole, this lock was much more complex. Ran removed his picks and took several deep breaths. A calm state of mind was imperative for successfully picking any lock. If he allowed his anxiety to intrude, he would fail.
Ran slid the first pick into the lock and began working, aware that each click and clink sounded like an thunder clap of noise in the still corridor. He eased his breathing further and visualized the lock opening. Twenty seconds later, his patience was rewarded with the dull clunk of the bolt sliding back into its recess.
He crept into the room. A candelabra overhead dripped wax as the candles burned low. But there was enough light to see around.
Ran stood in a room about twenty feet by fifteen feet. It looked like a library of some sort, and Ran saw books and scrolls piled high on elaborate tables carved with ancient runes. What drew his attention most, however, was the stone altar in the middle of the room. He moved over to it and saw grooves running all around the rectangular flat top that descended toward a recessed basin, presumably used to gather liquid.
Ran’s eyes grew stony. No doubt, the altar was used for sacrifices.
He glanced around the room and saw the elaborate tapestries depicting scenes of bloodshed and carnage. In each of the garish depictions, a wizard seemed to be sacrificing an animal, woman, or child to some sort of ebon demonic overlord.
Ran frowned beneath his mask. He’d heard whispers and legends, of course. But to see the implements of evil in this manner. It caught at his gut and twisted him up.
He took a breath and shrugged off the feeling of doom that hung over this room. The sword was supposed to be here somewhere. He crossed to the back of the nearest table and froze.
Someone was in the room with him.
In an instant, the shorter curved sword he wore flashed out at the ready. Ran’s eyes darted around the room, but he saw nothing. Was this more sorcery at work?
And then he turned and saw something he’d missed earlier upon entering. There was a smaller door leading off of this room. And at the top of the door, there was a metal grate covering a window into the room that lay beyond.
Ran crossed over to it and peered inside.
A slave girl lay on the simple plank bed that had been covered in straw. She was asleep and it was her breathing Ran had heard.
A heavy lock hung on the door and Ran looked at it. The girl was being kept prisoner, presumably to be sacrificed.
He turned away. He didn’t know what gods they worshipped here, but he had a tough time believing that any decent god would want an innocent life taken in his name.
Enough. Ran was annoyed with himself and his lapse of discipline. He was there for the sword, not to debate theology. But where could it be? Was there a chance that the wizard had it moved to another room? Ran didn’t have time to search the entire castle.
He started to move away from the door when a small voice, but one tempered with strength, broke the quiet of the room.
“You’re here for the sword, aren’t you?”
It was a whisper that sounded like an explosion. Ran wheeled around, his sword already at the ready.
But no one stood behind him. As Ran calmed his nerves, he realized the sound had come from behind the prison cell door. He resheathed his blade and moved toward the door. A shadow moved behind the bars. And peering closer, Ran could see the pretty face the voice belonged to. He smirked. So, she hadn’t been asleep after all.
“I know where it is,” she said. “I can tell you where he keeps it hidden.”
“Why would you do such a thing?”
She looked at Ran like he was an idiot. “Does it look like I want to be here? You’ve got to free me, obviously.”
“And risk my mission? I can’t do that.”
“You’ll never find it then,” said the girl. “He keeps it well-hidden. No doubt because he’s afraid that the likes of you will come looking for it.” She sighed. “But if you’re going to be stubborn about it, then be my guest and keep searching. I suppose by the time you find it, he’ll be back already and then you’ll have to fight your way of here.” She eyed Ran. “You might do well for a short time before you’re outnumbered. Then you’ll either die quickly or else you’ll join me in here and become a sacrifice as well.”
Ran frowned. “Do you always negotiate like this?”
She shrugged. “Are we negotiating?”
Ran sighed. If he let the girl go, his mission could be compromised. He was supposed to leave no sign of his presence. Only the missing sword would ever point at the fact that someone had infiltrated the castle.
Freeing a captive girl hadn’t been on his agenda. Worse, the likelihood of discovery went up immensely if he had to drag her around. On the other hand, the girl had already seen him, and if he tried to leave her, she might call for the guards, hoping to bargain for her life with his.
He glanced around the room. How much time did he have to search? Every moment in the castle meant a greater chance that something else would go wrong. Ran’s eyes narrowed as he thought through the various scenarios and then reached a decision.
He drew close to the prison cell. Even with her tangled hair, he could see the slave girl was beautiful. She drew away from the door and Ran saw she was dressed in a gauzy tunic with a rope braided belt about her waist that accentuated her slender form.
“Tell me where he keeps it and I will free you.”
Her green eyes danced. She hesitated only a moment. “If you don’t free me when I tell you, I will scream and have the whole castle down on you within moments.”
Ran nodded. He could kill her, of course, but he disliked the idea of taking a life for no real purpose. Besides, it would be nearly impossible to kill her quickly and quietly with heavy door between them. “I will do as I said. Tell me.”
She pointed. “Behind that furthest tapestry lies a hollow brick in the wall.”
Ran crossed the room and drew back the fabric that depicted a particularly garish scene of a demon suckling blood from a woman’s breast. Trying to ignore the image, he ran his hands over the bricks and found one that moved. He slid it out of its resting place and reached into the dark hole, wondering if this might be a trap. But his hands wrapped around the silken bag and he drew out the sword.
Carefully, he replaced the brick and then slid the tapestry back into position. It should not have been obvious to anyone that anything was amiss.
He turned and bowed to the slave girl. “Thank you.
She kept her voice a whisper. “I’ve kept my end of the bargain. Keep yours.”
Ran crossed to the prison cell. “And how will you escape once I free you? You’re not coming with me.”
“Let me worry about that. Just unlock the cell.”
Ran bent and examined the lock. It was a fairly simple mechanism and he opened it with ease. When he drew back the door, the slave girl passed so close to him she might have brushed his body.
Ran nodded. “Our arrangement is now complete.”
Her gaze roved over him and he could see the wonder in her eyes. “You are one of the ones they call the shadow warriors.”
He paused only a moment. He could have lied, but what was the point? “I am.”
“I could come with you.”
“No.” Ran hefted the sword. “This is all I have come for. I must leave now. And so should you. Judging from the paintings, you will not have long to live.”
“He worships an evil god, you know. One that crawls from the deepest pools of filth and depravity.”
“That doesn’t matter,” said Ran. “But how did you come to be his prisoner?”
“He kidnapped me from my lands far to the west of here. I was a princess there.”
Ran frowned. “And how do you know of my kind?”
She smiled. “I take the time to study the legends of various lands. My name is Cassandra. What is yours?”
“I am known as Ran.” He regarded her. “How will you leave the castle?”
“I will find my way.”
Perhaps, he thought. But without help she would have little chance of getting past the guards. He sighed. The way he saw it, he had three options. He could kill her right then and there. Fast and quiet before she could alert the guards. He could hide her back in the cell and be away before anyone discovered her body. But was murdering her out of expediency for his duty to his clan elders much different than sacrificing her to some dark god? He smirked. Akimoto, one of his instructors back in Gakur, would have no doubt slit her throat without a second thought. But he wasn’t Akimoto.
Ran could simply turn her loose. While her escape attempt might distract the guards in a way he could exploit, more likely it would raise the alarm, bring lots of reinforcements, and make Ran’s own escape that much more dangerous.
Or he could help her escape. He mulled it over. There was no risk of alerting the guards with a potential struggle, corpse, blood trail, or any other signs. If they succeeded and went on their separate ways, any pursuers from the fortress might think Cassandra had the sword and chase after her. Regardless, Ran would take steps to mask his own trail, so they would undoubtedly follow Cassandra.
He had to act.
From inside his jacket, he drew out a a single-edged battle knife, its blade blackened steel but otherwise unremarkable. It might have come from any forge around, but it had been crafted by the smiths in Gakur and would never break. He handed it to Cassandra.
“Take this and you may indeed have a chance.”
She hefted the blade and took a few slashes in the air. He appreciated her skill. Someone had taught her to wield a knife.
“I must leave now.”
Cassandra held his arm. “If you ever find yourself in the lands to the west, inquire at the court of Valrus and tell them you are the one who freed me from the wizard they call Seiryu.”
Ran held her gaze for a moment and then turned away. “I will guide you as far as the castle entrance and then we will part ways.”
He relocked her cell and then checked the room. It would pass a cursory inspection, but he suspected within an hour she would be discovered missing. Then the sword disappearance would be noted. Both of which would make his exfiltration more difficult if they closed down the passes leading from the valley. Time was of the essence.
They left the room and Ran relocked the door. They encountered no one on the stairway, but at the main entrance, they had to pause while two guards walked dangerously close. Ran pressed a hand over Cassandra’s mouth to keep her from crying out and she responded by pushing her body into his. Ran may have waited an extra few seconds before moving again.
They slid through the shadows and despite his reservations, Cassandra was fairly adept at moving in silence. Ran found himself admiring her more and more. He wondered what sorts of things they taught to princesses in the strange faraway land of Valrus.
He led them down toward the entrance and past the guard that had fallen asleep on duty. Each step they took made Ran’s heart beat faster and he could tell from the way Cassandra breathed that she was terrified. But never once did she utter a sound.
Near the lower rampart, Ran brought out a length of black silk rope. It was strong enough to hold him, but not two of them at once. He frowned and then whispered to Cassandra. “You go first and I’ll lower you down.”
Cassandra smirked, took one end of the rope and wrapped it about herself in a way Ran had never seen before and tugged once to make sure it held. From what he could see, the harness was expertly tied.
Cassandra winked at him and disappeared over the rampart, easily rappelling down to the ground below. Ran looked after her and then shook his head. She was full of surprises. He quickly doubled the rope up and rappelled down after her, tugging the rope loose immediately afterward. As soon as he coiled back up inside of his tunic, he pointed out their direction of travel and they headed away from the castle.
Ran led them into the copse of pine trees a half mile away. The night had grown long and he knew dawn was perhaps an hour off. A breeze blew through the boughs and he felt it cool the sweat the had accumulated on his brow.
Cassandra glanced around and then peered into Ran’s eyes. He could almost read her thoughts.
“It is safe to talk.”
She exhaled in a rush and pushed herself into his arms. “Thank you, thank you.”
It was as if the weight of her predicament had been lifted. But Ran knew she still had a long way to go before she could truly think of herself as free.
Her hand came up and touched the silken cloth that wrapped around his face. “I have no right to ask given what you have already done for me, but may I see your face?”
Ran hesitated and then unwrapped the mask. The cloth came away in his hand and he could feel her eyes boring into him. Ran had never given much thought to his appearance before, thinking it only another tool that might enable him to complete his missions. But as Cassandra’s fingers slowly traced his jawline and then touched his cheekbones, he suspected there might be other ways to appreciate this asset.
Before he could break contact, he felt Cassandra’s lips brush his and then press themselves fully upon him. He tasted her fear, her excitement, and the salty brine of sweat that showed the measure of her exertion. She pressed her whole body into his and he felt himself respond.
They stayed there for perhaps a minute before Ran’s mission once again intruded on his consciousness. He broke their seal and allowed himself a small grin. “You must go now if you have any hope of making your escape.”
Cassandra smiled at him. “I would thank you even more, but for our current situation.”
“I will consider it a debt to be repaid at a later time.”
Cassandra laughed. “Make sure you come to collect.”
“Valrus,” said Ran. “Its name is locked in my memory. But not nearly as much as you.”
“Good luck, Ran.”
Ran looked once more into her eyes. He gave her a deep bow and then turned toward the trees. To Cassandra, he was there one moment and the next it was as if he had simply dissolved into the darkness.
In the glow of the torches, Tozawa, the elder master of the Nine Daggers clan, unsheathed the two hundred year old Daisuke sword blade and allowed the light to gleam off its edge. He smiled and then returned the blade to its scabbard. He turned to Ran. “You have done well.”
Ran bowed. “Thank you.”
“And how did you find the mission itself? Surely it was not easy.”
“It was not without its challenges.”
Tozawa helped himself to some more tea, cradling the delicate porcelain cup in withered hands that belied any indication of strength. “Please elaborate.”
Ran looked at him. “What do we know of the sorcerer they call Seiryu?”
Tozawa sipped from the cup and then placed it off to his left side. “Seiryu is said to be a master of black magic. It is no surprise that he holds most of the Chibu valley under his sway. From the reports we have gathered, he is intolerably cruel.”
Ran sipped his own tea. “Why then have we allowed him to remain in power?”
Tozawa looked at Ran a moment. “What happened in his castle?”
“The sword was not where it was supposed to be. It was hidden. Had there not been a prisoner in the same room, I doubt I would have been able to locate it. Seiryu had disguised its resting place well.”
“A kidnapped princess from the court of Valrus to the west. She was to be sacrificed to whatever master claims Seiryu as his servant.”
“Indeed.” Tozawa sipped his tea again. “And what became of this prisoner?”
“I do not know. She revealed the sword’s hiding place. And in return I gave her freedom.”
Tozawa eyed him, a vague frown creasing his forehead. “Did you?”
Tozawa sighed. “And did you first think about the repercussions of such an action?”
“I did indeed. I would have been forced to kill the girl to keep her from screaming and revealing my presence. But then her death would have also alerted the castle to my presence. The best way to continue the mission was to make a bargain and then part ways as soon as possible. That is exactly what I did.”
Tozawa was silent for a time. Finally, he reached into his robes and brought out a small scroll, unrolling it before them both. Ran recognized it as a coded dispatch from one of the clan’s informants. They had eyes and ears everywhere, such was the vastness of their network of spies.
“Would you like to know what has happened since your mission? Since you freed the girl?”
Ran frowned. “What?”
Tozawa turned the scroll so Ran could read it and pointed. “Seiryu was furious about both the theft of the blade, but especially about the escape of the slave girl. He has exacted a heavy toll on the villages closest to his fortress. Instead of killing that one girl that you freed, he had his troops march into the villages and kidnap twenty women, all of whom were put to the blade early this morning.”
Ran took a breath, but Tozawa cut him off. “Your action in saving one life resulted in the death of twenty.”
Ran flushed the memory of Cassandra’s face and the sensation of her lips from his mind. “My action was not motivated by anything but the success of the mission. I did what I deemed necessary to preserve the parameters set forth by you.”
Tozawa took another sip of tea. “Do not blame this on me, Ran. You were successful in acquiring the sword of Daisuke. But in so much as the mission itself, it was a failure.”
“I disagree,” said Ran. “The mission was as successful as it could have been under the circumstances. Further, I achieved each of the goals set by you in order to earn my graduation scroll. I have earned my place in the clan; I have earned my rank.”
Tozawa regarded him for a moment. “And what have you to say about the twenty villagers put to death because of your actions?”
“Regrettable,” said Ran. “And their deaths may well be on my conscience forever. But Seiryu should not be allowed to live another day.”
“That is not for you to decide, Ran. Such decisions are above you.”
Ran bristled. “I would have my scroll.”
Tozawa nodded. “You are correct, of course. You did fulfill your mission objectives. You have earned the right to graduation.” From the small table beside him, Tozawa brought forth a tightly bound scroll and unfurled it. “This will serve as your documentation of what you have achieved with us. The clan will be in touch regarding your first mission.”
Ran slid the graduation scrolls into his robe and stood. “I already have one.”
Seiryu had clearly learned from his mistakes.
Often times, a boastful enemy would not change their defenses, such was their arrogance. But Seiryu obviously did not suffer from such vanity. Where once he might have been exploited, now he was immune to attack. The entire castle was lit up with blazing torches that hung off the ramparts casting light into every nook and crevice that Ran had used previously to infiltrate the castle.
The number of guards had also dramatically increased. Ran counted three times the number on the ramparts and towers. They were mercenaries, most likely, bought with promises of gold and power over the terrified local villagers.
No, Ran would not be entering the castle the way he had the first time. He smiled and walked back into the depths of the forest. Fortunately, his teachers had been thorough. And there were many ways to infiltrate a fortress.
While Seiryu might have thought himself invulnerable from attack now, he had also inadvertently given Ran the opportunity he needed.
The next morning, Ran showed himself in front of the castle gates. He was dressed like a wandering traditional warrior, with his curved long and short swords thrust through his belt.
The guards at the gate regarded him with a mixture of amusement and disdain. One of them approached Ran with a swaggering step. “And what do you want?”
“Tell your master that his new chief of guards is here.”
Ran spoke using the Fudo Kiai, the immovable voice. Judging by the way the guard glanced at his partner then quickly went inside the castle grounds, clearly Ran had gotten the tone just right. Apparently his years at training had not been for naught.
When he reappeared ten minutes later, Ran was standing in the exact same spot. He had not moved a muscle during the entire time the guard was gone, knowing that he’d been under observation for at least five minutes.
The guard waved him up the steep ascent and into the castle. Beyond the gate, the actual captain of the guards, a hulking behemoth of a man whose hands looked like they could crush stones without any effort at all, met him. He looked Ran up and down and then burst out laughing.
“You must be joking.”
“Are you the lord of this castle?”
The captain of the guards looked surprised. “No, I am not.”
“Then I have nothing further to say to you. Tell your master that I am here and would like an audience with him immediately.”
The captain chewed his lip thoughtfully. “And why would I tell him that and risk offending him?”
“Because if you do not, he will be even more upset with you.”
The captain turned as if to go, but in the next instant, he had unleashed a thundering punch aimed directly at Ran’s face. Ran waited until he was certain the captain had fully committed himself, and then stepped inside, delivering an elbow to the man’s solar plexus. The captain buckled to his feet. Ran looked down at him, disdain clear on his face. He heard a gasp from somewhere close by and saw another squad of guards staring in amazement at what they had just seen. Ran was almost a head shorter and easily fifty pounds lighter than the captain, yet Ran had dropped the huge man with seemingly no effort.
Ran let the wonder hang there a moment before waving at one of them. “You there, go and find the lord of this castle. Tell him he now has an opening and I am here to fill it.”
The guard needed no further encouragement and vanished into the castle. Ran folded his arms and waited while the captain gasped at his feet. Certainly, he was battle-hardened once before, but years in the service of Seiryu had softened him.
“What is your name?”
Ran looked up. On one of the balconies, he saw Seiryu for the first time. He was a shrunken wrinkled weasel of a man with beady eyes that betrayed his true intellect.
Ran frowned and pointed at the captain who was now trying to get to his feet. “Your captain is no longer employable. I’m here to take his place.”
Seiryu looked at the man who was now standing, albeit shakily. “He has been with me for years. Why would I replace him?”
“Because he’s incompetent.”
“Is he now?”
Ran sighed. “You recently lost something. It is this man’s fault that happened.”
Seiryu narrowed his gaze. “And how would you know that we lost something recently?”
Ran shrugged. “Men gossip worse than any garrulous woman. News of your loss is widely known. It is why I am here.”
Seiryu was silent a moment. Then he pointed at the captain. “And what of him? I cannot have two captains. That would confuse the rest of my men.”
Ran shrugged. “It is easily solved.”
In a blink, Ran’s long sword shot out and flashed through the soft tissue, hard muscle, and bone of the captain’s neck. Ran had flicked the sword over, hit the back of the pommel to further clear the blood, and then resheathed the blade in the briefest time it took the captain’s head to fall to the ground and loll to one side. He fought back the lurch of his stomach and the excitement that coursed through his veins; this was the first man he had killed. On the other hand, this man served an evil and corrupt master, and undoubtedly the blood of innocent villagers were on his hands.
Seiryu’s eyes widened. “Impressive.”
Ran tossed a small bag of gold to one of the other guards. “Take him into town and see that he is buried properly. If I find that you’ve spent any of that money on anything but this man’s burial, your head will join his.”
Seiryu waved at Ran. “Come inside and we will speak of your employment with me.”
Ran strode forward, aware that the eyes of every sentry in the compound were on him. He acted as though they mattered less than the dirt on the soles of his boots and went to meet Seiryu.
“Where…did you learn swordsmanship like that?”
Ran let his gaze wander the breadth of the reception room. On the walls hung elegant tapestries woven with gold thread depicting landscapes, and decidedly unlike the horrid ones he’d seen during his infiltration. Pedestals held silver jewel-encrusted vases overflowing with long-stemmed roses and orchids while elaborate sculptures bracketed the room. Before Ran and Seiryu, a low table dressed with a silken cloth held platters of fresh strawberries, melon, and grapes. Seiryu himself had already plucked several of the dark grapes from a bunch and plopped them into his mouth.
“My father,” said Ran simply. “He served under a master to the far north. In Kageyama.”
“Kageyama is beautiful, untamed country. The winters there are nature at her fiercest.” Seiryu smiled. “I used to study there. Perhaps I would know his name?”
“Doubtful,” said Ran. “Nor is it a name I wish to share. My father was a horrible man who beat his family mercilessly. I still bear the scars of his wrath after his drunken nights of debauchery.”
Seiryu nodded. “Understandable. No doubt we all have things we wish not to see the light of day.” He clapped his hands. “Still, it couldn’t have all been bad if he taught you how to handle a blade as well as you seem to.”
Ran smiled. “When I was old enough to fully appreciate his teachings, I used the skills he had shown me to kill him with my own blade.”
Seiryu paused in mid-gulp and then smiled wickedly. “An interesting summation of your life thus far. Still, to see such skill in one as young as you are… You cannot be more than twenty-eight summers old.”
“That’s a fair approximation. However, I’ve found that age and skill do not necessarily go hand-in-hand. Certainly there are many older than I that could never grasp the subtleties of combat.”
Seiryu nodded. “Granted. And yet you have experience. You must have gotten it from somewhere. Who else have you served under?”
“Matsumune was my first lord. He fell during the battle of Sekigomo. I took my leave and went to serve with Junkoniwa. He died from dysentery after a winter campaign to Hanayabe. After that, I decided my wallet would be better served if I wandered for a time and found employment to the south. A few days back I was in Nyoha drinking by myself when I chanced to overhear about your recent misfortune. Your name was whispered as if you possessed the might of a thousand suns and I thought that perhaps I would see for myself if I might improve both our fortunes.”
Seiryu smiled at the subtle compliment, but waved his hand around. “I would think that my fortune has been doing well enough as late.”
There seemed to be more wealth in the reception room than in all the rest of the surrounding area. But Ran merely smiled. “One could hardly argue that you have not been most prosperous. You are surrounded by such wealth as I have never seen. That said, you are not immune to the prospect of thieves trying to rid you of your hard-won possessions. I would suggest that with my appointment, theft would never occur within these walls.”
Seiryu clapped his hands and a pair of eunuchs brought tea forth. Ran waited for Seiryu to sip first before he sampled the sweet jasmine tea. After several moments of silence, Seiryu’s eyes narrowed on Ran and a small chuckle escaped from him. “The might of a thousand suns? Is that truly what you heard?”
Ran shrugged. “Am I your new captain of guards?”
“It would appear that I have a vacancy in need of filling.”
Ran smiled and bowed. “I may have perhaps embellished the thousand suns part of my tale.”
Seiryu hoisted his cup and Ran did the same. Seiryu smiled. “It was a good embellishment. And one that I happen to appreciate.”
They drank and then Seiryu leaned back on the thick cushions of the lounge. “For someone who has traveled far, you don’t seem to have much in the way of possessions.”
Ran drank the tea and shrugged. “I left my bag hidden in the woods. I wasn’t sure what sort of reception I would receive. And while I am confident in my skill, there’s no point appearing haughty.”
“I suppose that would depend,” said Seiryu. “Confidence is not such a bad thing.”
“Arrogance is never attractive,” said Ran. “And the ground is filled with the bones of men who could not back up their words with action.”
Seiryu said nothing for a moment and then nodded. “Tell me where your bag is located and I’ll have someone fetch it for you. There’s no sense is making you walk all the way back for it.”
“Under a towering pine that tilts to the left, not far from the main road leading into the valley. Have your man go a quarter way round the trunk and he’ll find a large stone. Dig down there.”
Seiryu called one of his guards and relayed the information to the man. The guard only bowed and then vanished. Seiryu stretched his arms overhead as if he was exhausted. “You must be tired after your journey.”
“Some rest might be welcome,” said Ran. He lifted his tea cup. “And this is especially soothing.”
“It should be,” said Seiryu. “It’s been treated with a special botanical distillate to induce paralysis in whomever drinks it.”
Ran froze. He had felt a subtle calming effect coming over him. But Seiryu showed no signs of adverse effects. In fact, even as he watched Ran, Seiryu continued to drink the tea.
“The plant has no effect on those who regularly consume it. And as you might have gathered, I drink this every day. It gives me the ability to neutralize those who might not otherwise trust my hospitality.”
Ran felt his muscles stiffening. Seiryu leaned over, plucked the tea cup away from him and placed it down on the table. “Tell me something, did you really think it would be so easy to fool me? That you could simply walk into my domain and not expect me to know your plans?”
“I don’t know what you mean.” Ran’s tongue felt thicker now. He slowed his breathing to combat the effects of the drug—that was what his instructors had taught him back in Gakur. But he’d never had the chance to practice it.
Seiryu waved his hand as if Ran were a pesky mosquito. “It matters not, we will soon have all of your secrets. Whether you wish to divulge them or not. None can resist the power that is at my disposal.”
Ran sensed movement around him and then his swords were taken out of his belt by unseen hands. Powerless to stop them, Ran felt himself lifted and carried down from the lounge.
Seiryu’s face swam in front of his. “And then after we find out who you truly are, your blood will feed my master.”
When Ran awoke, he wondered briefly if was already dead. He had no memory of losing consciousness, such was the power of the tea he’d drunk. He cursed himself for being too trusting of Seiryu’s hospitality. Black magic, he frowned. Would that all the sorcerers in this world could be expunged with a simple thought. The world might be better off.
But he couldn’t concentrate on his mistakes. The safety of his home in Gakur seemed so very far away; he was alone and only he could save himself. The Nine Daggers would not ride in to rescue him; that was not their way. Ran opened his eyes.
He recognized the room; it was the same one he’d stolen the sword of Daisuke from.
The candles had been replaced by thick black, waxy ones that oozed as they burned and smelled like pitch mixed with human feces. Ran’s eyes watered from the pungent stench, but he could do little to stem the flow of tears since his arms and legs were stretched out akimbo on the stone altar.
He’d been stripped down to just his leggings; his bare chest rose and fell toward the ceiling and he saw at the top there was a circular window. A sliver of the full moon appeared at the edge of the glass. Once the moon filled the window, Ran had little doubt he would be sacrificed.
He tested the ropes that held his wrists, but the cordage seemed pliable and without compromise. He tried to relax his breathing, but his heart thundered in his chest. He forced himself to remain calm. Panic would kill him as surely as the evil sorcerer would.
A hand appeared above his face and then Seiryu placed it atop Ran’s heart. After a moment, a wicked smile slithered across his face. “Your heart trembles in fear of the future.”
Ran bit his tongue and the pain refocused his mind. “It pulses with my desire to cut your head from your shoulders. Do not mistake it for anything else.”
Seiryu laughed. “Predictably, my men were unable to locate your belongings in the location you suggested.”
“Perhaps they chose the wrong tree,” said Ran. More of the moon filled the window overhead now.
“Doubtful,” said Seiryu. “They know these woods quite well. Which leads me to believe that you are not what you say you are. Not that I believed that story in the first place.”
“There are few of your young age who are as skilled as you. And any that are do not come from the traditional Murai warrior schools.”
Ran smiled. “Then that makes me rather unique. Perhaps I’m even more valuable to you.”
Seiryu shrugged. “Not necessarily. For there are those who have the same abilities you do. I have heard rumors and whispers of your kind. Legends, they say. Supernatural warriors able to do most anything. Even scale the walls of a castle as high as this.”
Ran said nothing.
Seiryu leaned closer and spat the word. “Shadow warrior.”
Ran tested the ropes again, but they held fast. Seiryu smiled. “But you are not supernatural, are you? You and others like you take advantage of those superstitious fools who are scared of their own shadows. You use their fears against them to accomplish whatever ends motivate your clan.”
The moon grew larger in the window and now Ran heard a low chanting he hadn’t noticed before.
“Unfortunately for you, shadow warrior, I am able to bend the darkness to my will. But it levies a heavy toll, which must be paid. Tonight, you will be my payment. And it is one that I think will ensure I have more power than I need for some time to come.”
Seiryu gestured above. “When the moon fills the portal above, your end will come. I shall spill your blood and cut out your beating heart and offer it as tribute to my master. He will consume it whole…while you watch. Such is the power of his dark magic.”
Ran’s mouth grew dry. The weapons he had concealed upon himself had all been taken. Seiryu moved around and then held aloft Ran’s long sword. “This is not nearly as beautiful a piece as what was stolen from me.” He rested the blade against Ran’s chest and Ran caught his breath as he felt the razor edge slice his skin. “Tell me where my sword is.”
Ran frowned. “I don’t know anything about your sword.”
Seiryu smiled again and pressed the edge further. Ran grimaced as the blade bit deeper into his chest.
“I know that you are trained to reveal nothing under duress. But you should know that I have spent a lifetime studying the weaknesses of man. And I know that there comes a point in every man where he will break and reveal even those things he wishes most to keep hidden.”
Ran licked his lips. “You’re wasting your time.”
“Perhaps,” said Seiryu, “the sword rests even now with others in your clan? I have heard talk of a school for those like you that lies deep in the mountains. Protected by snow and fog and dead-end valleys and rockslides. Few dare venture there.”
“Fewer still would make it back alive,” said Ran. “Given such precautions.”
“But for one such as myself,” said Seiryu, “I could easily make the journey and find what belongs to me. And I could do it without even leaving the comfort of my home here, such is my power.”
The candles overhead flickered and a breeze swept up through the room. Ran caught a strange new scent and the chanting seemed overpowered by a low growl emanating from all around them.
Seiryu pointed at the portal overhead. “The time grows near and my master hungers for the blood of one such as you. Strength and vitality flow within your veins. Shortly, they will slake his unnatural thirst.”
Ran bucked against the ropes but even with his strength, he could do little to free himself. Seiryu’s laughter filled the chamber and the wind in the room grew even more powerful. The tapestries flapped against the stone walls and the chanting increased.
“Look at me now,” said Seiryu. “And you will look upon the visage of one who controls the depths of night and shadow. Where your kind only play, I rule with the power of the mighty overlord of darkness.”
Ran gasped and saw Seiryu’s features changing. His skull seemed to lengthen and draw out to an absurdly narrow shape. His eyes vanished and became blackened pools of obsidian. Serrated teeth burst from a gaping maw dripping with a greenish bile.
Seiryu turned around and lifted his hands to the open portal high overhead. He started chanting in a dialect Ran had never heard before.
Ran yanked at the binds holding his wrists.
And then felt one of them give.
He jerked his head to one side and saw a figure cloaked in black clothes slicing through the cordage with a darkened blade. It cut his left hand first and then his right.
Ran turned to keep his eyes on Seiryu, who still had his back to him.
The figure rushed to Ran’s front and cut away the binds holding his feet.
Ran rolled off the altar.
Seiryu turned and saw Ran free and roared. “No!”
Ran glanced at the figure that had cut him free and felt something thrust into his hands. His long sword!
Ran ripped it from its scabbard and held the blade in front of him.
Seiryu eyed him for a mere moment and then seemed to sigh as if Ran’s sudden freedom were nothing more than a slight delay in the inevitable procession.
From behind Seiryu six armed warriors rushed to either side. Ran recognized them as some of the guards he’d passed on his way into the castle earlier. They bore an assortment of short swords and other weapons.
Ran took a deep breath and moved to meet the first attacker. The guard swung a short sword down at his head and Ran stepped to the outside of the blade’s arc before cleaving up and through the man’s midsection with his long sword. He gurgled and dropped.
A second guard stabbed at Ran who barely managed to chop down and then backhand his blade up into the man’s throat, severing his neck almost entirely.
Ran spun and dropped, evading the third attack from his left side. He cut up and under the swordsman’s armpit, driving the blade deeply into it, hearing the man gasp and then slide off the blade.
More wind burst about the room and Seiryu continued chanting as if it would somehow aid his men.
But Ran was his own tempest now, sweeping left and right as his blade executed the finely honed movements that he had been burned into his muscle memory for many years.
He stepped under a fourth assault and drove his blade into the man’s heart, yanking it free and cutting horizontally as the fifth attacker attempted to cleave his skull with a war hammer. Ran sliced him open and then faced the sixth and final guard, who started to cut down at Ran’s head, only to suddenly freeze as the blade of a small knife suddenly exploded from his chest. He dropped and Ran saw the cloaked figure that had freed him standing there, still holding the blade.
Ran nodded curtly at the figure and then wheeled to face Seiryu.
The evil wizard now looked more like some bizarre creature than the man he had once been. But if Ran expected to see fear in its face, he was sorely mistaken. Seiryu seemed completely unfazed by Ran’s sudden quest for freedom and the death of six well-trained warriors in the space of mere moments.
The dark mage spoke now and the rasping gargle of words that spilled forth reminded Ran of a rabid animal, sick and evil as disease twisted its very soul. “You will never leave this room alive.”
Ran kept the altar between him and Seiryu, doing his best to use his environment to his advantage.
But then Seiryu—now more beast than man—bounded across the room and leaped over the altar, landing on Ran before the shadow warrior could even sense the motion. Seiryu’s fingers had become claws and they tore through the open wound on Ran’s chest, drawing deep crimson blood that stained the air and the ground alike.
A growling purr arose in Seiryu’s throat. Ran gritted his teeth and rolled, bucking the wizard from his chest. Seiryu wheeled and then sprang again, but Ran’s blade flashed in the air.
He felt the long sword bite deep into Seiryu’s side. He twisted his hips, driving the blade through bone and organ alike, spraying the room with the vile stench of innards and gristle.
Seiryu fell sprawling at the base of the altar, his blood spilling about him in an ever-widening pool.
Ran stepped forward to deal him a death blow, but the wizard lifted one quivering claw and a bolt of purple energy sizzled in the air, slamming into Ran’s stomach, knocking him back across the room. Ran slammed into the stone wall and felt his wind go rushing out of his lungs. He struggled to breathe, desperate to finish Seiryu off.
On the other side of the room, Seiryu clamped one of his claws across the wound Ran had given him and tried to rise. His features melted again, a swirling miasma of flesh and scale that defied anything natural. It was if his body was caught between two different beings.
Ran couldn’t afford to let either win.
He managed to rise, his breathing coming in short spurts. Seiryu caught the motion and sent another bolt of energy at him. But Ran ducked out of its path and moved across the room. The howl of wind attacked his ears, but Ran ignored it and reached Seiryu.
Seiryu’s voice croaked from his throat. “You will not kill my master tonight.”
“Perhaps not,” said Ran. He raised his sword and slashed down, cleaving Seiryu’s head cleanly from his shoulders. “But your death will do just fine.”
Seiryu’s head rolled to one side of the room and then stopped, his eyes open and opaque.
A sudden stillness dropped over the room.
Everything went silent.
Ran blinked. Sweat and blood ran down his torso; he let out a long shuddering breath.
He sensed movement behind him and whirled around, his sword at the ready.
The figure swathed in black approached. Ran frowned. Something about it seemed familiar.
And then the figure drew back the cloth wrapped about its head and Ran gazed upon the eyes of the woman he’d freed only a short time before. He smiled in spite of himself. “Cassandra.”
She glanced about the room. “It would appear as though the debt I owe you has been repaid.”
Ran frowned. “I rather thought that debt would be repaid by other…more pleasurable means.”
Cassandra laughed lightly. “No doubt. Who knows what your future may bring? You may yet live to see such bliss.”
Ran sheathed his sword. “But why did you come back here? He would have killed you if you’d been recaptured.”
“I never left,” said Cassandra. “Fleeing would have been futile; I made it as far as the western passes and found them closed. I would have never gotten past them alive. So I came back, biding my time until I could steal back into the castle and get close enough to kill him. Only then would I have been able to return to my home.”
“You meant to kill him?”
Cassandra eyed him. “Better I try and die in failure than live a coward’s life.”
“How did you get into the castle again?”
“You are not the only with certain skills, Ran. I’ve been watching the timings of the patrols that he sent out each day. This day, a squad of men headed to the place where we last parted ways. I heard them talking about someone who seemed to resemble your appearance. Getting back into the castle was far easier than escaping.”
Ran pointed. “I see you still have the knife I gave you.”
She smiled. “And a good thing you did give it to me. It saved your life tonight.”
Ran shook his head. “My life was spared not because of that tool, but because of the bravery of a woman to whom I am now indebted.”
“You owe me nothing. I would have languished in that cell until he saw fit to feed me to whatever creature he called forth from the depths of hell.”
Ran stepped over to the side of the room and slid his tunic back on, feeling the material quickly absorb the sweat and blood. Cassandra pointed at his chest. “You should get that treated. Seiryu’s claws might have had some poison under them.”
Ran frowned. “There will be time enough for that later. Right now, we need to get out of here.” He grabbed his long and short swords and thrust them into his belt. “Come on.”
They turned and froze. Seiryu’s body suddenly ignited with a bright green flame that devoured every inch of his flesh. It grew hotter in the room until they could stand it no longer. Flames leapt to the tapestries and then the scrolls blew into the rising inferno.
Ran grabbed Cassandra’s hand and they dashed from the room. More fire exploded in the hallway. Overhead, they heard a rumbling of bricks and stone. Bits of the ceiling crashed down around them.
From elsewhere in the castle, screams and moans filled the air. Ran pointed around them. “Whatever gave Seiryu his power seems to be taking it back.”
Cassandra gripped his hand and they ran back toward the main entrance. Flames and explosions rocked the castle around them, but they ducked back out onto the ramparts, following the towers stairs back down toward the main gate. The guards and servants paid them little mind and only one stood to confront them, but Ran cut him down with little more effort than a blink.
They dashed through the main gate and did not stop until they reached the edge of the forest. Turning, they saw the castle shudder and then tumble in upon itself, its lofty towers plunging toward the ground, until only a massive pile of boulders stood in its wake. A cloud of dust rose over the entire scene and then settled back onto the huge pile of rubble.
“I have never seen such magic,” said Cassandra quietly.
She looked at Ran then and kissed him quietly on his lips. “Where will you go now?”
Ran looked north. “Back to my clan. I will tell them what happened here tonight. Seiryu’s evil is no more. He is dead.”
Cassandra eyed him. “And what then, shadow warrior?”
Ran smiled. “I don’t know…yet.”
“Stay with me, then. Journey to the west with me. Let me show you my kingdom and the beauty it encompasses.”
Her eyes twinkled under the starlight and Ran felt his heart thunder for a different reason. She pressed close to him and he felt her warmth.
But then he stepped back. “I have an obligation to fulfill first.”
Cassandra nodded. “The rumors about your kind are not true.”
“What do you mean?”
“There are those who claim that your kind are without honor; that you are not true warriors.”
Ran grinned. “There are those who say that. Yes.”
“But they don’t know you the way I do.”
Ran chuckled. “Do you know me, Princess Cassandra?”
“Perhaps not as well as I would like. But I think seeing any man risk his life to thwart evil gives one a certain insight.”
Ran touched her cheek. “What insight?”
“Your ways are different, but no less honorable.” She smiled. “My offer still stands. If you find yourself in my lands, come visit me. I will see that the long trip is worth your time.”
“It would be my pleasure,” said Ran with a bow.
“It would be, indeed.” Cassandra kissed him once more and then turned.
This time, it was the princess who vanished into the night.
“His sorcery is finished.”
Tozawa regarded him, but Ran could discern little from the expression on his face. After several moments, the clan elder cleared his throat. “You very nearly compromised the entirety of this clan and all it has worked so hard to achieve.”
“And yet, Seiryu knew plenty about us before my arrival.” Ran shook his head. “Perhaps our secrets are not as secure as we would like to imagine them.”
Tozawa sipped his tea and then placed the cup back down. “There are those within the Nine Daggers who would have your name stricken from our scrolls. They would have your head for the insolence you showed by pursuing a personal vendetta against Seiryu. Such things go against the very nature of what we do.”
“There was no vendetta,” said Ran. “Seiryu’s very existence was a threat to us. He should have been killed long ago.”
“As I told you, that was not a matter for you to decide. Such things are only for the elders of our clan to ponder.”
Ran held his tongue and waited for Tozawa to continue. “You showed a lack of foresight by returning. He might well have sprung a trap for you. Seiryu’s reputation for intellect and deception were reportedly second to none.”
Ran kept his eyes fixed on Tozawa. There seemed little point in relaying how Seiryu had indeed trapped him and how Ran had come so very close to death. Such revelations would only serve to undermine his accomplishments.
Tozawa sighed. “The point is that you disregarded the clan’s best interests in favor of your own. You put a personal matter ahead of the Shinobujin.”
Ran took a sip of his tea and let the bitter green taste settle in his mouth before answering. “You once told me that the point of all of this training was for us to reach a point where we trusted our own instincts—where we saw with our own eyes instead of relying on the word of others.”
“I did say that,” said Tozawa.
“And that is precisely what I did,” said Ran. “I was the one who had firsthand knowledge of what Seiryu was doing—the evil he was inflicting, the people he was terrorizing. And I used my knowledge to form what I believed to be the best course of action. Precisely as I’d been taught.”
Tozawa said nothing for a moment but then allowed a brief smile to split his lips. “You are young, Ran. And you believe that you know what is best. Very possibly, in some limited situations, you do. But there are things that you do not yet know. And there are things that truly are best left to an objective opinion, rather than a subjective one. Ego is a tool that we teach you to use; but it is also the one true curse of man. The line separating asset from liability is a very thin one, indeed.”
Ran bowed his head. “There is great wisdom in that.”
Tozawa nodded. “You are one of the finest pupils to ever graduate from this school. But you are inexperienced and rash. Such things can only be cured by time.”
Ran took another sip of the tea. “And what would you—and the others—have me to do to make up for this perceived affront to the clan?” asked Ran.
Tozawa chuckled. “Fear not, Ran. No one is going to kill you. As rash and hotheaded as you are, you are nevertheless far too valuable to us to permit such drastic measures.” His eyes narrowed. “However, something will have to be done. Punishment must be handed down.”
Ran waited, willing himself to accept his fate with steadfast resolve.
The word spilled from Tozawa’s mouth and Ran nearly broke into a huge smile.
Tozawa pretended to look away, all too aware that Ran’s struggle to contain his glee was failing miserably. “Yes, I think that is the best thing for you.”
It was far more than Ran dared hope for. A wandering quest—the chance to go off and explore the world. He took a deep breath and willed himself to calm down.
“Don’t be so overjoyed, Ran. You will be without a home,” said Tozawa quietly. “Nor will we claim you as one of ours as long as your quest lasts. You will be without any protection from us and you will not be permitted to utilize any of our assets. You will be alone. More alone than you have ever been in your life so far.”
Tozawa raised an eyebrow. “Do you truly, Ran? Do not treat this so lightly. While I know you envision a glorious time of adventure, know also that a wandering quest is also a time of severe trial and hardship. Many who go off on such ventures never live long enough to return.”
Ran nodded. “I will endeavor to learn as much as I may from this judgment.”
“See that you do,” said Tozawa. “And make sure you don’t come back here for a while. It will take some time for those who are clamoring for punishment to forget what you have done.”
“How long should I stay away?”
Tozawa shrugged. “You will know when it is time to return; nature is the one true protector and she will let you know. As you said, you apparently have an easy time listening to your instincts.” He winked at Ran. “I just hope you find that to be true once you are alone.”
“I hope so, too,” said Ran.
“You leave tomorrow at dawn. Take the night to pack your things, bearing in mind that you must adopt the manner of an ordinary person, even though you are anything but.”
Tozawa finished his tea and looked at Ran. As he did, a smile broke out along the elder master’s face. “And where will you go first, Ran? Where will your quest take you first?”
Ran found himself wondering if Tozawa himself had once gone on a wandering quest. Had he seen things Ran could not even imagine? Had he tasted glory in faraway places and battled horrible foes? The young shinobujin hesitated only a moment, bowed to his teacher and then smiled.
“I shall journey west.”
Copyright © 2013 by Jon F. Merz
Jon F. Merz is the author of The Undead Hordes of Kan-gul, Book 1 in the Shadow Warrior series.