A Howl in the Distance

by A.M. Broadous

November 2020

June 13, 1461

 

1

           

At sundown, the baying started.

           

Shichigoro crept around the forest to get a better view of the scene. He stepped through a patch of hydrangeas, dozens of periwinkle bonnets dotted with summer rain. A thick line of oaks separated him from two large wooden crates and spiraling mounds of steel chains encrusted with dried blood.

           

The flying squirrel on Shichigoro’s shoulder sneezed and gibbered.

           

“It will be all right, Homura,” Shichigoro assured. He patted his companion’s furry head and looked into the creature’s eyes like big black buttons. A light drizzle began to descend upon the man’s sandogasa, and he pressed forward through the brush.

           

Two hulking, horned Oni demons emerged from the trees, yanking several wolves by their metal leashes. The wild creatures bellowed and scrambled to free themselves, which only made the pair of monsters angrier. The dark blue-skinned demon bared its claw-like teeth at the canines while the red-skinned one unlocked the crates, hurled the wolves inside, and locked the wide bamboo-barred doors. Trampling over each other and sneering with a mad fury, the wolves latched their massive jaws onto the bamboo and began chewing away as if they were stripping the flesh from a bone. The red-skinned Oni rattled the doors and grunted. The wolves released their hold reluctantly and hunkered down, pressing their noses to the wood floor.

           

The blue-skinned Oni stood at one of the doors. “Must be hungry. You’ll eat very, very soon.” He grinned. “Big meal coming for you.”

           

Shichigoro shook his head. He’d heard all about the Shuten-Doji, the ruthless Oni brothers roaming the woods of Japan in secret. To a ninja, nothing remained a secret. The brown-bearded shinobi had heard stories about monsters several meters tall with the thick hide of an elephant and horns that could rival the animal’s ivory tusks. He knew of the studded kanabō: clubs of oak used to buckle other oaks and bamboo groves with one swing. The demons would sling the weapons over their shoulders like oversized swords and construct two shipping crates, gather feral creatures at night, and make a meal of unsuspecting villagers when first light shot its pale beams through the treetops. All for sport. All for dreaded laughter.

           

“Not this time,” Shichigoro whispered.

           

The Oni, with great bulging muscles, fastened chains to the crates and began to drag them forward like an ominous caravan in the night.

           

Shichigoro dashed up a tall oak while Homura clung to the collar of the ninja’s kimono. The rain fell harder, but Shichigoro moved fast enough to dodge the drops. He stood atop a large branch and peered down at the beasts, who stopped just long enough to stretch their massive limbs and adjust their loincloths. The blue-skinned Oni lifted his head to the sky and let the rain wash over his face for several minutes.

           

“No time to waste,” his brother urged.

           

The blue-skinned Oni grumbled and hoisted the chains over his shoulder. He towed the crate over the sea of purple flowers. “Hydrangeas everywhere.”

           

“All look the same to me,” said the red-skinned Oni.

           

Even through the plummeting rain, Shichigoro’s keen ninja hearing wouldn’t let one of the Oni’s words escape his ears. He examined the bright forest floor and whispered, “Hydrangeas.”

 

2

 

50 Years Earlier

           

“They’ve grown strong, haven’t they?” said Master Inoue. The only thing not shrouded in black was the eye slit of the man’s ninja mask. “I believe they’re ready for you now.”

           

Meters from where Zanza Shichigoro stood were four Akita clad in plates of armor and wielding ninjatō in their mouths. They sat like inari statues found at the entrance to a sacred temple.

           

Inoue rose from his perch on a log near a small campfire that crackled, leaned, and stretched with the night breeze. He approached Shichigoro, whose eyes were fixed on the resolute hounds, and said, “They know the ways of stealth, how to disappear and reappear, and they can easily attack and defend.” His deep, stony voice held no tone of warmth. “They are perhaps nature’s perfect ninja.”

           

“They were bred for killing?” Shichigoro said. His beard only came to a few centimeters off his face. He, too, was dressed in all black, and he donned a slightly chipped sandogasa.

           

Inoue folded his arms. “Much like you, Zanza.”

           

Shichigoro unsheathed the ninjatō fastened to his waist. In spite of the ritual of chiburi, which allowed him to flick the blade clean of an enemy’s blood, the man could still remember every life he’d taken. No amount of blade cleansing could flick away the dozens upon dozens of last words and final laments from feudal lords and their faithful samurai. The ninja looked at his reflection in the cold steel: the image of an assassin. “A ninja finds peace only in completing his missions,” he said finally.

           

Inoue nodded. “Good. I would hate to think your grandmaster weakened your spirit with his gentle sensibilities. As you know, he is notorious for such ideologies.”

           

“They are what caused me to leave his side,” Shichigoro said.

           

The master gave a slight smile under his mask. “Soft notions of peace do not suit you?”

           

“I desire a different kind of peace.”

           

“That you do, and it’s time you proved it.” Master Inoue gestured toward the dogs, still waiting dutifully. If not for their armor and swords, they had all appearances of sweet-tempered companions.

           

“I must spar with them?”

           

“Kill them,” Inoue said sharply. “They’ve trained beside you for 12 years. You, on the other hand, have trained for the past 200. This should be a simple challenge for a master shinobi like you.”

           

“They are merely dogs, master,” Shichigoro said.

           

The man smiled again. “You’ll come to find that even the most delicate creatures can become the most lethal warriors.”

           

Shichigoro gripped his ninjatō firmly. “Very well.” He dug the heels of his jika-tabi into the grass.

           

“Come!” Master Inoue called.

           

Like arrows, the four canines sprung forward with a newfound ferocity that only true ninja could’ve disguised and unveiled at will.

           

Shichigoro was ready.

           

The Akita kicked up the heads of light blue and lavender hydrangeas into the air as they charged.

 

3

Now

           

“Must rise, Jiro,” the red-skinned Oni said, elbowing his brother in the temple. “Night fades. Dawn approaches.”

           

“I know, Issey. Your snores kept me awake all time.”

           

The one called Issey stood to his bare feet and wrapped the chains around both arms. Jiro followed his lead. They proceeded to pull the crates to their destination.

           

In the oaks above the Oni, Shichigoro snapped fully awake. He looked to the gaps between treetops and saw the dark grey sky beginning to soften, but the rain still fell. He continued to leap from trunk to trunk right over the Oni’s horned heads while Homura hung onto the shinobi with all his strength. Shichigoro then spiraled through the air and enveloped himself into a white cloud. He disappeared from sight entirely, a technique known to skilled ninja as Kumo. As long as he stayed focused on the task at hand, he’d be invisible indefinitely.

           

The wolves were quiet apart from the occasional yelp when the crates slammed into a tree root on the ground. They stayed subdued until the two Oni brought them to an encampment midway atop Mt. Fuji. Small houses sprinkled the slope and led to the main cottage in the village: a dilapidated wooden structure with a thatched roof of hay.

           

Unseen in his mist, Shichigoro trailed behind them.

           

Overhead, the clouds roiled and blackened. The light rain swiftly turned into a downpour. Thunder drove the canines into a howling frenzy.

           

“Silence!” Issey shouted. He kicked at the crates.

           

Shichigoro looked all around him. No villagers were out. With the sudden torrent that muddied the sloping grounds, he didn’t blame the residents for seeking shelter. He was relieved they weren’t milling about the village like lambs ready to be slaughtered by the pack of wolves, who had, at present, conceded to the demons’ threats and sat quietly in their crates. Still, Shichigoro wouldn’t let his guard down. He stopped abruptly when the Oni called out a single name: Tsuchigumo.

           

Issey and Jiro loosened the chains on their arms and dropped the clanking metal to the wet earth. They then bowed to a small male figure emerging from the cottage: a boy dressed in a brown-and-grey-speckled kimono. Against the backdrop of the mud-spattered mountain, the boy was nearly perfectly disguised. He looked no more than 13 years old. The rain brought his dark brown hair from a paint brush to a short, wet mop that half-covered his eyes. He flipped his hair and stared at the Oni brothers with a vacant expression.

           

“We have the wolves you requested, Tsuchigumo,” said Issey.

           

“They’re hungry,” Jiro added. “Where are the villagers?”

           

“You were followed,” said Tsuchigumo, sniffing the air. His voice was surprisingly mature, a baritone of someone seven years his senior.

           

Shichigoro kept still in his cloud, and big-eyed Homura did likewise on the man’s shoulder.

           

The two behemoths looked around and cracked their necks. “No one else here,” they said in unison.

           

Tsuchigumo shook his head. “I sense him. He is an assassin.”

           

Jiro tilted his head and saw a golden eagle circling the sky. It used the stormy wind to glide ever higher. The Oni pointed above.

           

“Not him,” said Tsuchigumo “He is elsewhere, and I know it. One wolf can smell another.”

           

The Oni brothers looked at one another, confused.

           

The boy approached Jiro and Issey. “Someone knows we’re here. You failed to keep this endeavor a secret.”

           

Issey huffed. “Who cares? No villagers here to see. Why no villagers? You told us nothing. Why are we here in first place?”

           

“Do you recall what happened the last time you sent wolves to a village?” Tsuchigumo folded his arms and glared coldly at the Oni.

           

Shichigoro could see something glistening in the boy’s sleeves, something recently sharpened with a whetstone.

           

“Villagers died,” Jiro said. “We laughed. We always laugh.”

           

“You do seem to find it amusing, don’t you?” said Tsuchigumo. “I, on the other hand, do not find that story amusing because you left out a key part.”

           

Once again, the Oni brothers assumed dumbfounded looks.

           

Tsuchigumo raised his voice ever so slightly. “Some villagers fought back and killed a large number of those wolves.”

           

Issey chuckled. “And yet, we still laugh, don’t we, my broth—"

           

A kunai knife struck the Oni between the eyes before he could finish. He staggered a moment, blinked away drops of blood, and fell to the earth with a resounding crash. Slowly, Issey’s corpse began to slide down the mountainside.

           

“Issey!” Jiro cried. He ran down the slope, trying desperately to catch up with his dead brother’s body, which had crushed a small house and lay covered with debris. Jiro uncovered the wreckage and stared into Issey’s face. He removed the kunai knife from his brother’s forehead and flung it down the hill. The Oni’s tears were mingled with the heavy rain that refused to cease.

           

Shichigoro watched Jiro take his kanabō into a double-fisted grip and ascend the mountain to where Tsuchigumo stood. The boy hadn’t moved a centimeter.

           

“You,” Jiro said, pointing his club. “You murdered my only family.”

           

“I merely put the rabid animal down.”

           

Jiro wailed and swung his giant weapon at the boy.

           

Tsuchigumo vanished in Kumo, white smoke dancing in front of his attacker. He then reappeared behind the Oni with a ninjatō in hand. Faster than the blue-skinned demon could pivot in the mud, Tsuchigumo leapt into the air and stuck the silver steel through Jiro’s midriff.

           

The Oni screamed. He dropped his kanabō and flailed his giant arms at the young ninja until he tired himself and dropped to his knees, the blade still piercing his chest.

           

To prevent Jiro from sliding as Issey had, Tsuchigumo kicked the Oni onto the ground, took hold of the ninjatō’s tsuka, and drove it deeply into the earth.

           

Jiro, now pinned to the muddy landscape, gasped and groaned.

           

Tsuchigumo stepped over him and approached the two crates. Not bothering to face the Oni, the boy said, “You were correct about one thing, Jiro.”

           

The monster writhed on the ground. “Please.”

           

“They are indeed hungry.” With a quick chop of his wrists through the air, a technique called Shadow-Combat, Tsuchigumo buckled the bamboo doors and stepped aside as the wolves bolted from their confinement.

           

Their meal had finally come.

 

4

Then

           

Blood dripped off the tip of Shichigoro’s ninjatō.

           

Master Inoue stepped through the patch of hydrangeas and stood beside his apprentice. The moonlight fell eerily over him and the rest of the field like a white curtain. “I’ve never seen anyone so swift with a blade. Not even your grandmaster.”

           

Shichigoro didn’t want to see the four Akita lying still among the blossoms, but he couldn’t bring himself to look away either. His hands trembled slightly.

           

“Do I detect frailty within your soul, Zanza?” Inoue said.

           

The master ninja didn’t reply.

           

Inoue huffed. “You said it yourself, did you not? A ninja finds peace only in completing his missions.”

           

“Why did you name them?” Shichigoro said finally.

           

“What?”

           

“Hoshi. Oki. Kaneko. Hiroto.”

           

Inoue folded his arms. “Do not tell me you grew fond of them.”

           

Shichigoro performed chiburi and sheathed his ninjatō. He then walked to the four dogs and stooped low to pick up four hydrangeas. On each of the hounds’ armored corpses, now stained crimson, he gingerly placed the bright flowers.

           

“You’ve ended the lives of countless samurai,” Inoue began, “and yet, you mourn the lives of mongrels. I cannot help but wonder where your priorities lie, Zanza.”

           

“I did not know the samurai whom I killed,” Shichigoro said flatly. He rose to look at his master in the eyes. “I found a small measure of peace in that detachment. However, these animals were my friends. Very rarely is a ninja afforded a friend.”

           

Inoue scoffed. “You’re beginning to sound like your grandmaster.”

           

“Perhaps he was right all along. Perhaps ninja were meant to save, not slaughter the beings of this earth like dogs.” Shichigoro’s eyes narrowed. “And you shouldn’t have named them.”

           

Inoue’s mouth twisted under his mask. “Do not tarnish an otherwise proud moment, Zanza. You were most efficient in executing these creatures.”

           

Shichigoro paused. “What is the meaning of their deaths, master?”

           

Inoue raised his hand, motioning for Shichigoro to join him at the fire, and his acolyte obliged. Inoue snapped several twigs and tossed them into the flames. He sighed. “This was training for what is to come. Given your blatant reluctance, I’m not certain if you have the stomach for it now. Your grandmaster never did.”

           

Shichigoro sat still on the log, hands clasped in his jacket sleeves. “I am not my grandmaster,” he said calmly. “Elucidate.”

           

“We are not the only ninja clan,” Inoue said. “This, I’m sure, you well know.”

           

Shichigoro nodded.

           

Inoue eyed the dead dogs in the distance. “Another grandmaster has formed his clan, the Ōkami Clan. It is comprised of some men, mostly wolves. Hundreds of them.”

           

“Wolves,” Shichigoro echoed.

           

“That’s right. These wolves have decimated at least twenty other ninja clans. Their Chunin, Myȏnin, Zetsunin, masters, and grandmasters are all dead. Soon, these wolves will come for our clan. The slightest hesitation on your part will kill us all. I tested you with the dogs. Though you ultimately succeeded, you felt remorse. A ninja cannot feel remorse, Zanza.”

           

Shichigoro considered his master’s cold words and steadied his gaze on the fire.

           

Inoue continued, “A ninja feels nothing but the blade he drives through a man’s flesh. I spent our early training days teaching you this only to have it subverted by my longtime teacher, your feeble grandmaster.”

           

“As I said, he is no longer a part of my life,” Shichigoro remarked. “Why is this clan attacking others?”

           

Inoue paused before answering. “I assume you’re familiar with Ikiryōjin, are you not?”

           

“I’ve heard only tales. They are quite powerful. They have the power to control another person’s soul but are beginning to lose control of their own.”

           

“Only a select few have lost control,” Inoue corrected. “They are the ones who must be stopped.”

           

“Where does the Ōkami Clan come into play?”

           

Inoue held up a hand in a gesture that told Shichigoro not to get ahead of himself. “The Ōkami Clan wants to prove that they are the strongest clan and are worthy to be feared by the Ikiryōjin. They do not discriminate. Every clan and even innocent villagers have become targets. They are all to be mercilessly destroyed by Ōkami Clansmen and their relentless wolves. The clan is hoping this will send the right message to the rogue Ikiryōjin.”

           

“Are you afraid, master?” Shichigoro asked.

           

Inoue smiled. “As I told you, Zanza, a ninja feels nothing but the blade he drives through a man’s flesh. Soon, I will feel my ninjatō deep into the fallen body of the Ōkami Clan’s grandmaster.”

           

The sandogasa-clad shinobi merely nodded. “What do you know of him?”

           

“I have heard that clansmen and villagers see his eight eyes blinking in the dark of night moments before the wolves descend upon them. His true form is that of a massive wolf spider.”

           

“True form?”

           

“He is an Obake,” Inoue explained. “He is able to shapeshift at will.”

           

“What is his alternate form?”

           

Inoue sighed. “That remains unclear. It could be anything from a middle-aged fisherman to a widow in the twilight of her years. Even a young boy.”

           

“And his name?” Shichigoro asked, turning his head to survey the lifeless dogs in the distance. Though part of him tried to hear them, the howls would never come again.

           

Inoue’s gruff voice hit each syllable like rocks down a jagged mountain: “Tsuchigumo.”

 

5

Now

           

When the wolves finished eating, the corpse that lay before them was a barely discernible mass of ribs, carpals, femurs, and one horned skull held loosely together by meager strands of red tissue.

           

Shichigoro had studied the young boy the entire time: his unflinching face during the 37 wolves’ feasting hour. The ninja master witnessed no inkling that Tsuchigumo was a human capable of emotion. The sight of the mangled Oni, it seemed, were no more troublesome to the boy than a dead badger on the mountainside. Tsuchigumo simply dropped his hands to his sides and watched Jiro lose himself over and over again.

           

And those black eyes.

           

They were the same eyes Shichigoro had known all too well. Cold eyes he had long since abandoned and exchanged for kinder ones, for warmth. For a chance to finally feel.

           

A ninja feels nothing but the blade he drives through a man’s flesh.

           

Tsuchigumo removed his ninjatō from Jiro’s ribcage and performed chiburi. Sheathing his sword on his back, he called for the wild canines’ attention. Each one turned to him and sat upright at once as if in response to an alpha. Their yellow eyes followed the young boy’s movements as he clapped his hands twice and ordered them to form one line. At the head, Tsuchigumo led them the rest of the way atop Mt. Fuji.

           

At the very back of the line, Shichigoro steadied his invisible cloud and trailed stealthily behind the future Ōkami Clansmen and their callous leader. Once in a while, the wolves would bob their heads out of line to sniff the thinning air. Tsuchigumo would do the same.

           

At Mt. Fuji’s peak, the caldera was capped by thick, silvery gossamer with a small hole that served as an entrance. The material grew denser the farther they went and formed a declining tunnel of concentric patterns.

           

Shichigoro realized it was a web funnel. He and Homura reached the bottom, which was nearly completely dry and packed with a number of Ōkami Clansmen, human and wolf alike.

           

“New recruits,” the boy said, ushering in the long line of wolves. “Thirty-seven of them eager to be armed to the teeth.”

           

The human clansmen held all manner of ninjatō, katana, and kusarigama and were dressed like Tsuchigumo, except they concealed their faces behind brown-and-grey masks. The boy, evidently, was proud to display his expressionless features out in the open.

           

Shichigoro sat on a dirt mound near the walls of the caldera. He untied a sack at his waist and retrieved four rice balls: two for him and two for Homura. They both nibbled on them while listening in carefully to the clan’s plans for future conquests.

           

Tsuchigumo, sitting cross-legged on the floor of the bowl-like fortress, addressed the group. “In approximately one week,” he said, “these wolves will be fully trained and will accompany us on our next mission. The Ono Village is waiting to be cut open. Let us make a proper example of them like we’ve done many times before. The rogue Ikiryōjin will know our work.” The boy motioned to a large number of sashimono banners propped against the walls of the caldera. Each had the insignia of the Ōkami Clan: a painted wolf face with a kunai knife in its mouth.

           

Shichigoro had seen too many of these banners looming over desecrated rice fields, swamps, and woodlands all strewn with heads and torsos pecked to the cartilage by crows. He wouldn’t see another one go up if he could help it.

           

The clansmen ate their dinner near a small fire and retired as night fell. When they slipped away into slumber, Shichigoro jumped onto a thick web strand high above and used it like a hammock. It would be difficult to maintain Kumo during sleep, but, with his years of training, the ninja master was confident he could maintain focus even in the dreamworld.

           

Lightning flashed in the sky, occasionally illuminating the countless webs overhead.

           

Tsuchigumo lay on a straw mat, his youthful face pointed toward the white bursts and simmering thunder. He was wide awake observing the silken strands and sniffing the air. All through the night, he watched, waited patiently like a spider.

 

6

Then

           

“Now you know his name,” Master Inoue said. “That’s one step closer.”

           

“How long has this grandmaster trained in the ninja arts?” Shichigoro asked.

           

“Longer than you have,” Inoue said bluntly. “Much longer.”

           

“You don’t believe I can defeat him.”

           

“Not as you are currently. Your skills are sharp, but your spirit has dulled.”

           

“And my grandmaster is to blame, I presume?” Shichigoro said while watching the campfire in the field die to blackened logs and ash.

           

Inoue’s eyes narrowed in reply.

           

Shichigoro snapped his finger, and the small flames erupted on the logs once again. After a moment of contemplation, he said, “We’re fortunate to have gained so much from ninja magic, from Ninpo. That is one thing my grandmaster, your teacher, once taught me well.”

           

Inoue folded his arms and sat rigidly on his log.

           

“During a flood,” Shichigoro continued, “he used Ninpo to construct a safe haven within the space of a fist.” The shinobi held up his balled hand for emphasis. “In this space was an entire prefecture. Grassy hills. Cottages. Everyone was sheltered. That was his idea of using his hand for more than unsheathing a sword.”

           

“I’ve heard the story,” Inoue barked. He looked to the horizon, which was beginning to shed its dark blue in favor of mauve. “Morning will shortly be upon us, Zanza. Douse the fire and meet me in the field for sparring in five minutes.”

           

Shichigoro did as requested. He filled his minutes by listening to a few birds warbling near him and by snacking on several rice balls to give him the strength he needed. He then glanced in the direction of the dead Akita and walked over to them. Crouching to pet each one and tucking the hydrangeas into their armor, he whispered, “Why did he name you?”

           

“Zanza, it is time,” Inoue called.

           

Shichigoro joined his master in the middle of the hydrangea field.

           

Inoue stood three meters from his student. He unsheathed a ninjatō from his backstrap and held it in front of him. Shichigoro did the same. The flowers bobbed with the warm wind, and the horizon finally broke free and goldened an outer patch of mopheads.

           

At that bright moment, the two ninja dashed forward and clashed their blades. Any onlooker would’ve been transfixed by the field and assumed a whirlwind of sorts had picked up in the very center. When it stopped, he’d see a pair of shinobi, their swords poised as an X above the flowers and not a trickle of sweat on the men’s faces.

           

“This is the spirit I’ve been waiting to see, Zanza,” Inoue said, grinning behind his mask. “This is how you use your hand: to stop my blade from slicing through your skull.”

           

Shichigoro held his ground in the face of his skilled master. “It would appear so,” he said calmly.

           

Inoue tightened his grip. “Do not let your grandmaster tell you anything different.” At once, he and Shichigoro brought their blades down to their sides and sheathed them shortly thereafter.

           

Shichigoro gave a deep bow, and Inoue nodded.

 

7

Now

           

The wolves’ training was complete, and Shichigoro, in spite of a minor lapse in concentration when Homura ran up and down his arm, remained invisible for an entire week. In his state of Kumo, he learned how Tsuchigumo exercised his control over the hounds. The boy even had them spar with human clansmen. Most were defeated and almost lost their lives in the process, nearly dispatched by feral creatures tamed only by the art of the ninja.

           

Tsuchigumo assembled the wolves’ armor: a series of tight-fitting karuta on the canines’ limbs, chest, back, and neck. He then ordered them to sit submissively before him in a row while he placed unsheathed ninjatō in front of them like fresh bones. With two claps of the boy’s hands, the wolves took hold of the weapons in their mouths, which were still stained red from the wild boar Tsuchigumo fed them hours earlier.

           

Shichigoro sensed the time had come.

           

“We walk,” Tsuchigumo said to his clansmen. “No teleporting with Kumo. Let the world around us know of our presence, however hushed that presence may be.”

           

One master took hold of a sashimono banner and held it in front of him as the clan formed a snaking line, a small-scale army within the mouth of Mt. Fuji.

           

Shichigoro stood upright on his perch in the webs while the Ōkami Clan moved in single file up the funneled strands. With shadowless footsteps in the air, he performed a series of flips through the rifts between thick fibers and silently made his way to the back of the line as the clan emerged from the caldera. Homura managed to latch on. The flying squirrel was becoming accustomed to the sudden yet calculated movements of a ninja master.

           

The warmth that hung in the late-afternoon air came from a day full of sunshine. A deep orange now painted the sky and slowly darkened with each step the clan took down Mt. Fuji.

           

Homura sneezed as they approached the entrance of the woodland, but the sound was an inaudible squeak drowned by the evening cicadas.

           

Still, Tsuchigumo spun around and commanded the wolves to halt. He waited, his body still and his ears tuned to the sound of individual tymbals tugged by muscles on the cicadas’ bodies. He listened to tree hollows siphoning the lukewarm wind and the sound of caterpillars crawling on the underside of oak leaves that winced and floated through the woods. When there was no additional sign of movement, the boy ordered the wolves to continue their course behind him.

           

Shichigoro patted Homura on the head. His companion, he’d come to learn, was allergic to certain flowers: tulips, chrysanthemums, sunflowers on occasion, and hydrangeas.

           

The purple flowers were abundant but died down the farther they ventured from the oaks and cedars. When the clansmen approached the end of the trees, they saw an encampment near a lake. Two dozen or so villagers huddled around three small fires.

           

“There they are,” Tsuchigumo said.

           

The clan unsheathed their ninjatō.

           

No one was alerted of their presence. In the distance, the fire still burned. Above, the sky was a deep crimson, a prelude to the encroaching night of bloodshed.

           

“One,” the boy said softly.

           

The wolves growled.

           

“Two.”

           

The bobbing flowers at their feet seemed to stall.

           

“Three!”

           

Shichigoro teleported with Kumo faster than the clansmen could dash forward. He finally allowed himself to release the pressure around him: the unwavering, concentrated Ninpo power. At last, he revealed himself to both the Ono Villagers and the pack of wolves appearing just after him. He stood with no ninjatō, kunai knife, or any other assassin’s weapon at his side. Just faithful Homura, who sat upright on the man’s shoulders at the sight of the wolves.

           

Tsuchigumo ordered his subordinates to cease. His hoarse, boyish shout came at a fraction of a second before Shichigoro and the villagers fell to a thousand pieces. He held his ninjatō at his side and eyed the ninja with the sandogasa. “You’re the one,” he said, sniffing. “The one I’ve been smelling all this time.”

           

Wolves all around were snarling and shaking with a desperate hunger. The light of the fire reflected in their eyes and off the shining blades in their mouths. Their human comrades had their weapons pointed toward the villagers, who shuddered and took hold of their young children. Some dropped to the ground and begged for their lives.

           

“Spare this child,” one of the women cried, cradling her infant son in a bundle of cloth.

           

“Your scent is thick, shinobi,” Tsuchigumo continued, ignoring the pleas of the vulnerable. “But I can’t place your clan.”

           

“I no longer have a clan,” Shichigoro said.

           

The boy’s impassive face was a work of Ninpo itself, a defense. “Ah, a lone wolf.” He turned to his canine and human warriors. “We have a lone wolf on our hands.”

           

“You have no blade,” said one of the masters. “You won’t survive.”

           

“I will,” Shichigoro commanded. “And so will this village.”

           

“An assassin turned savior,” said Tsuchigumo. “I’ve seen everything now.”

           

Shichigoro shook his head. “Simply a wanderer with a purpose.”

           

The sobbing villagers divided their attention between the weaponless ninja and the Ōkami Clan. Among them were seven Akita now standing at attention. They boldly approached the wolves with menacing sneers.

           

The boy ordered his canines not to strike.

           

“Why not reveal yourself as I have?” Shichigoro asked casually.

           

Tsuchigumo turned the blade at his side slightly. “We can’t make things too easy, can we?”

           

Shichigoro merely nodded.

           

“Now I must ask: Why do you have no weapon? You know that you can’t fend us all off with just your empty hands.”

           

“Ah,” Shichigoro said with a single nod. “That is where you and I differ.” The ninja master raised his right hand into the air. “This can do much more than unsheathe a blade.” He balled his fingers into a fist and sent a shockwave through the air that startled the Akita.

           

Three of the dogs bolted forward and lashed out at the wolves, who rapidly cut them down. The remaining Akita backed up toward the villagers, away from the small black orb swirling above the bearded ninja’s hand.

           

“Enough of this!” Tsuchigumo barked. “Ōkami Clan, destroy everyone! Then pierce a sashimono banner through this man’s severed head!”

           

The clansmen leapt forward, swords and kunai raised and pointed for the kill.

           

The orb screeched and flashed a green light like an aurora borealis.

           

Shichigoro smiled. “Farewell.”

 

8

           

The summer sun prevailed over the land, and Tsuchigumo and his wolves were nowhere seen in the light of day. Hydrangeas populated every pocket of grass Shichigoro trod. When he rolled his shoulders, wooden planks sprang from tree roots underground and assembled themselves into cottages and water wheels. A flourish of the master ninja’s kimono sent quiet streams down hills and over granite and limestone. Shichigoro winked, and butterflies drifted from flower to flower, fish darted in the water, and deer pranced in the distance.

           

Mothers, fathers, and children of the Ono Village were nestled in the lush meadow in a deep sleep. When they woke up, they squinted at the warm light flooding over them. Immediately, they scrambled to pick up their loved ones and hoisted them to their feet. They looked all around in confusion and disbelief.

           

“Where are we?” asked a young father of two young girls, who were imitating the monarchs floating nearby.

           

Shichigoro made a raising motion with his hands, and two wood planks formed a sign in the shape of a T. The carved words read Hydrangea Prefecture. “Someplace safe,” he said.

           

“Did you take us here?” the man’s wife asked. Her dark hair was slightly disheveled from lying on her side in the flowers.

           

Shichigoro nodded.

           

An elderly couple reunited and embraced one another. Two brothers and their sister ruffled each other’s hair. All around, people were realizing that they didn’t become raw meat dangling from some wolf’s mouth or decapitated heads skewered by ninjatō. They were breathing and not for a final time.

           

“How can we thank you?” said the pleading woman from before. Her baby rested soundly in her arms.

           

“Simply take care of yourselves,” said Shichigoro, addressing the whole of the group. “This is your home now. No harm shall come to you or the ones you carry.” The master ninja nodded toward a pregnant mother. Her husband put a hand on her shoulder.

           

The villagers bowed, and Shichigoro returned the gesture.

           

Homura sneezed atop Shichigoro’s sandogasa.

           

“Sorry, friend,” the man said, scooping up the furry creature and letting him crawl up his sleeve. “We’ll be leaving quite soon.”

           

“What will you do now?” the woman asked. The infant she cradled slowly began to wake and take in the bright sights around him.

           

Leisurely, the four Akita came through the meadow and prodded Shichigoro with their wet noses.

           

Shichigoro squatted to pet each of them. “What do you call them?”

           

“Nothing yet,” the woman said gently. “They wandered into our village a few hours before you did. I only wish all seven of them had made it.” She paused. “Maybe you could name them. They seem to like you.”

           

“Perhaps I could.”

           

“Anything come to mind?”

           

Shichigoro patted the dogs’ heads and smiled. “I have an idea.”

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