The Dark Winter

by A.M. Broadous

January 2021

April 8, 1413

 

1

           

“That’s it, Yuki,” Master Inoue said, watching the raindrops stack on the tips of his apprentice’s fingers through the eye slit of his shinobi mask. “Remember all that you’ve learned. Keep your hands steady. Do not move them until I say so.”

 

Yuki had long black hair that fell like drapes down the sides of her pale skin and over her black kunoichi garb. Her eyes were a bright blue, a hue uncommon to Hokkaido villagers and to her fellow clansmen. Though she was a skilled ninja, she felt her delicate wrists quiver as she balanced one vertical raindrop on each of her fingers. She winced like the trial was a painful one.

 

Zanza Shichigoro watched from his place on a stump in the sparse thatch of apple trees, as did the other ninja. They formed a small ring around Yuki and Master Inoue.

 

“Focus,” Inoue commanded.

 

As the rain fell, Yuki’s hair stuck to her cheeks like wet grass. And yet, she didn’t let it deter her from her objective: using Ninpo, ninja magic, to control water. With a nod from her master, she’d freeze the drops and hurl them into the trunk of each apple tree, the fruits of which hung low under the weight of soggy branches.

 

“Almost,” said Inoue.

 

Yuki gritted her teeth and concentrated on nothing but her fingertips. Nothing else existed in her line of sight. Almost there, she thought.

 

Shichigoro studied his fellow clansman’s raw power. To him, the slender woman had the appearance of a maiden but the fortitude of a tigress. At his age, he knew many things for certain, and one of the most poignant was the fact that this kunoichi was indeed a true master in the making.

 

“Now!” Inoue barked.

 

In an instant as sharp as a tantō blade, Yuki solidified the droplets into long throwing needles and let them fly. Each projectile shot through the aged trunks and out the other sides. If the trees had been adversaries of the Yoru Clan, they would have had time for one last gasp before falling onto the wet soil.

 

But it didn’t end there.

 

Yuki put her hands together, and, slowly, her thin form began to assume another form among the raindrops. Every part of her from her hair down to her jika-tabi boots faded to a white mist that shrouded the apple trees. Like a violent wind joining a hurricane, Yuki rushed between the branches and through each apple, slicing them into perfect wedges and freezing them solid at the same instant. When each fruit fell to the ground, the kunoichi let the wind carry her over the grove and just above the ground. She hovered a moment before the mist drew her human shape, leaving her with wet hair that she neatly wrapped into a bun.

 

Inoue grunted his approval, followed by the applause of the circle.

 

“Incredible, Yuki,” said Shichigoro.

 

Yuki smiled out of the corner of her mouth, bowed to her master, and joined the group.

 

The rain persisted, prompting some Yoru Clansmen to use Ninpo to create small wind bubbles to keep themselves dry.

 

Shichigoro, with his umbrella-like sandogasa, merely sat on the stump with his hands in his sleeves, the rest of his shinobi uniform barely dampened by the evening showers.

 

“Yuki will lead the rest of you on your next mission,” Inoue said with a nod to the woman. “She has earned that right. Before she became a ninja of the Yoru Clan, as some of you may not know, she was an Amejin, master of water. I believe her prior expertise will aid you all on this particular assignment.” He added, “Keep this up, Yuki, and I promise you will be a ninja master too.”

 

The kunoichi mirrored the nod. “Thank you, master.” Her voice was low and airy as if she had recently sung an opera and returned to the clan for training.

 

“But be warned,” Inoue continued. “Yuki, if you have too much anger or pain within you, your abilities will be unpredictable. You may even find it difficult to return to your human form. A ninja does not let emotion consume her under any circumstances.”

 

“Understood,” Yuki said with another nod.

 

A male clansmen, dressed in all black like Master Inoue, inquired about their objective.

 

“A Kaijin, master of fire, has been committing arson in nearby villages,” Inoue explained. “He is no longer a man. He is a Dark Master. We must eradicate him before his flames spread.”

 

Shichigoro and Yuki sat upright. They were all too familiar with the race of Dark Masters even if they hadn’t yet fought one. They knew the beings possessed Greater Ki in their souls, which gave them otherworldly abilities much like the ninja of the Yoru Clan, but they also possessed an affinity for evil and heartlessness. During many of their missions, Shichigoro and Yuki encountered a number of men and women who fit that description.

 

Yuki posed a question to her master: “What distinguishes a Dark Master from another malcontent?” She paused. “I suppose some even consider you a Dark Master. Possibly even me one day. As ninja, it seems we are all masters of the darkness.”

 

“Not I,” Inoue said. “Not you. Not any member of this clan. Aside from their inner turmoil, thirst for innocent bloodshed, and raw emotion, a Dark Master must make an oath.”

 

“Of what kind?” Shichigoro pressed.

 

Inoue clasped his hands behind his back and stood in the center of the circle. “Sure of their path, Dark Masters must utter these words: ‘I renounce the light and shall never return.’ They must then draw their own blood, coat both hands, and put them together as if in prayer.”

 

“Then what happens?” another ninja asked.

 

“Their dark fates are sealed,” Inoue answered coldly. “From that moment forward, they are Dark Masters.” The ninja master held up a single gloved finger. “Only one Dark Master can exist at a time, and the one who currently roams through this Hokkaido countryside smoldering homes and stables is known as Rōjinbi.”

 

“Rōjinbi,” the ninja all whispered.

 

“Is it possible for a Dark Master to renounce his ways?” Shichigoro asked.

 

“If Rōjinbi were to walk away from his path,” Inoue clarified, “it would mean immediate death. An oath is an oath. Simply put, if he cannot fulfill it, he’ll pay with his life.”

 

Yuki scoffed. “I have a feeling he won’t turn away.”

 

Inoue looked up at the crying sky. “You may be correct. Rōjinbi’s fireballs follow him like a dog. I have heard that his conflagration endures even in the plummeting rain. He has burned all manner of horses, men and women, and even small children. This cannot continue. He must atone for these atrocities with his life. If not by his own hand, then by ours.”

 

Yuki balled her fists and suddenly looked as menacing as a dragon. Her blue eyes were like ice.

 

Shichigoro noticed his companion’s indignation but made no comment.

 

“Where is this Dark Master at present?” asked another kunoichi in the group. Her black mask covered most of her head, save for the dark brown ponytail that swooped down her back.

 

Inoue grinned behind his mask. “I believe that is up to Yuki to determine.”

 

Yuki stood to her feet. “You will all follow my lead. Rōjinbi’s essence lingers, so we can track him down.”

 

“Remember that Rōjinbi is elusive,” Inoue cautioned. “While his essence remains, it is as obscure as burning embers in the wind.”

 

Yuki gritted her teeth. “I will not rest until I put out his flames out for good.”

 

Inoue merely nodded. “As I said, do not lose yourself in the process.”

 

Yuki motioned for everyone in the Yoru Clan, except Master Inoue, to stand and move out of the area. They did so just as the grey clouds above darkened and continued to weep. They seemed to weep, in Yuki’s mind, for many a charred corpse left in Rōjinbi’s wake.

 

For many a child’s corpse.

 

The ninja traversed stealthily and speedily through the black night, unseen by any wandering samurai or villager returning to his cottage after a day of fishing for crab.

 

Shichigoro kept one arm in front of him and one hand on the ninjatō at his waist as he ran with his clansmen. He was confident Yuki would lead them to the blazing perpetrator, but it didn’t take a ninja to detect the column of smoke rising through the misty rain on the other side of the apple tree-dotted hill.

 

Yuki breathed sharply through her nose. She stopped abruptly when she and her clansmen reached the bottom of the slope. The smell of roasted oak and hay filled her nostrils, and she knew it was someone’s cottage. She gestured for everyone to move in quickly but silently, a skill the Yoru Clan had acquired during their tenure as assassins for the good of Japan.

 

No screams rose above the flames, and Yuki detected no movement from the inside of the cottage. The only thing left to do was stop the fires before they scorched the grassland and spread outward. As her master said, Rōjinbi’s ignitions persisted even in the rain, which had begun to fall without pause. The kunoichi closed her eyes and put her gauntlet-clad hands together. Like before, the black of her ninja uniform diminished to a hazy fog. She glided above the cottage and began to send a flurry over the flames. Heavy white sheets of snow built up along the crackling roof, and ice encased support beams, window frames, and the doorway. The last ember was smothered out by her final falling snowflake.

 

The rest of the Yoru Clan simply watched their fellow clansmen at work and awaited her transformation, which, the second time, came as only a slightly lesser surprise before their eyes.

 

Shichigoro looked out over the countryside and caught the wisps of five more smoke trails in the sky. He turned to Yuki, who was wiping the dust of snow off her shoulders and entering the torn shōji of the frozen hut. “There are more cottages alight, Yuki. I can see them. This is not over.”

 

Yuki nodded. “Lead our clan to the remaining homes, Zanza. You know what to do. I’ve seen you all conjure equally impressive Ninpo ice spells. It’s the only way to douse these wretched flames.”

 

Shichigoro was about to disappear in Kumo, a cloud of white smoke and a ninja’s preferred method of transportation, but Yuki stopped him for a moment.

 

“If you find Rōjinbi,” the kunoichi said, “leave him to me.”

 

“His antics do not sit well with you,” Shichigoro said.

 

Yuki looked at him straight in the eyes. “No, they do not.”

 

“Very well,” said Shichigoro. He put his hands together and vanished. The rest of the clan followed suit.

 

Yuki proceeded through the frozen structure. She found nothing but ash, piles of snow, disheveled futons, and a sewn children’s toy in the shape of a rabbit. When she turned it over in her hands, she felt that it was filled with sand and missing one of its button eyes. She stared at it for a long while and whispered, “Where is your little owner?” Her mouth quivered slightly, and she tightened her grip. Suddenly, the toy ripped open, spilling sand all over the floor. “You are dust, Rōjinbi,” she said in a louder voice. “I will kill you.”

 

The rain didn’t give the night any kind of repose. It brought a chill inside the snowy cottage, so Yuki made her exit. Back in the deluge, she was shortly greeted by Shichigoro, who carried a body concealed under a black sheet. The rest of the Yoru Clan walked alongside him and had their hands full of items the villagers left behind: mainly family heirlooms like bells, small statues, and scrolls untouched by fire. In the distance, not a single plume of smoke drifted into the sky.

 

“What happened?” Yuki demanded.

 

“We were not swift enough to save her,” Shichigoro said softly. He tenderly laid the body in the grass while the other clansmen moved in closer. They gathered around to gaze upon the soaked sheet that gave way to the small contour of a child.

 

“She’s unrecognizable now,” a ninja said, closing his eyes and shaking his head. “Burned black as night. Her parents were the bed of ash surrounding her.”

 

“No,” said Yuki. She shut her eyes.

 

Shichigoro sighed. “Rōjinbi’s essence is cinders, so it is indeed quite difficult to detect him. Master Inoue warned us of this. We must regroup tomorrow and determine the next course of action.” He paused. “What do you say, Yuki?”

 

For a moment, Yuki was lost at the sight of the covered corpse pelted with rain. “Tomorrow, yes. Thank you for your help, Zanza and the rest of you. There’s nothing more to do tonight except bury this girl. I’ll see to it that she finds a good resting place.”

 

Shichigoro nodded. “And we’ll bury these tokens to honor the dead.” With the other Yoru Clansmen, he disappeared in a blast of white smoke, leaving Yuki alone to use Ninpo to uncover a plot of soaked earth and lay the body within.

 

Just as quickly as she’d dug the hole, she capped it with soil and grass. She stood lingering in the rain for 20 minutes. Finally, she glanced at the cottage, which was now beginning to thaw. The kunoichi walked back inside to gather the ripped toy and a handful of sand. Returning to the grave of the unknown child, she laid the rabbit’s head on the grass and whispered, “If you were one of mine, I’d—" she forced herself to look away. With a deep breath, she set her eyes on the rabbit once more and sprinkled the sand over the girl’s burial place like ashes.

 

The wet wind called her back to the grove of apple trees. Her clansmen and master had departed the small encampment, so she was, once again, all alone. The solitude suited her well, for she’d left her leisure kimono, sandals, and umbrella in a wooden crate and needed a private space to change. Quickly, she undressed and slipped on the dry white robe and sash. She placed her ninjatō in the crate and traded it for a flowery canopy above her head. At her own pace, she made her way down several muddy roads to a quaint cottage no more than 100 paces from a village center.

 

Two young twin girls in sleeping kimonos latched to either side of Yuki the moment she slid the shōji open and removed her sandals. She laughed and set her umbrella aside to hug each of her daughters.

 

“Kaya,” she cooed. “Kira. I’ve only been gone for a few hours.”

 

“Doesn’t matter how long,” said the beaming man kneeling at a small dining table. What remained of his black hair clutched onto his crown for dear life. When he set his tea cup down and rose to his full height, he was only a few centimeters taller than Yuki. As he walked over to greet his wife, his muscular frame tugged at his kimono, a result of his days and occasional nights hauling rice barrels across the countryside. “Your children would miss you if you were three seconds away.”

 

“It’s like clockwork, Daru,” Yuki said, embracing her husband. The girls still clung to her kimono.

 

The man smiled. “I know. It’s the same story. Mother returns from her evening strolls to find her daughters waiting patiently. And believe me: They’re always patient. They sit at the shōji like Akita pups. It may just be the sweetest thing I’ve ever seen.”

 

Yuki smiled with her white teeth and her blue eyes. She reached for her husband’s face and touched his cheek with her fingertips.

 

Daru withdrew slightly. “You’re cold.” He put her hands in his to warm them.

 

“Sometimes February rain falls in April,” said Yuki.

 

Her husband smiled an even wider smile. “It seems we need a little more July in our lives.” He motioned to the futon in an adjoining room and kissed Yuki on the neck.

 

“Have they eaten?” Yuki asked.

 

“They have,” said Daru, now softly biting his wife’s ear lobes. “And they’re getting tired.”

 

“Girls,” said Yuki. “Get in your beds, please. I’ll be in to say goodnight soon.”

 

Kaya and Kira, both in pigtails, released their tiny grip on Yuki’s kimono and made their way into another room. They dropped to their beds obediently.

 

Daru led his wife into their room and slid the shōji shut. After about 20 minutes passed, Yuki emerged, wrapped loosely in a blanket, and checked on her two daughters. Both were sprawled on their futons. Their dark hair, much like their mother’s, was tossed about them as they snoozed on their backs. Yuki stooped low to cover them with their blankets. She then doused a lantern’s fire in the corner of the room and slid their doors slightly ajar. A sliver of light from the dining room lantern trailed into Kira and Kaya’s room and brightened a part of their faces.

 

Yuki smiled and blew them a kiss before putting out the remaining lights in the cottage and retiring to bed herself. She listened to raindrops tapping the thatched roof and thought of her family and of the warmth that bound them together. Then she drifted.

 

2

 

The next moment Yuki opened her eyes, it was morning, and Daru was already out working somewhere in the countryside, which the rain still showered. It hadn’t let up for more than five minutes during the night. Yuki got herself ready and spent most of the day teaching Kira and Kaya, both three years old, how to read, write, and safely carve wooden figurines.

 

Kaya proudly held up her oaken block. “Mommy,” she said.

 

“Is that me?” Yuki asked. She took the lopsided wooden sculpture in her hands. “You did such a good job, Kaya. I’m so proud.”

 

“My turn,” said Kira, waving her finished piece in her mother’s face.

 

Yuki handed Kaya her creation and picked up Kira’s. She noted the mostly round head and big arms. “It’s daddy, isn’t it? So beautiful, Kira.”

 

Kira nodded, beaming. She reached for Kaya’s figurine and placed them together. “You and daddy together.”

 

Yuki looked at the two wooden idols with her glistening blue eyes tinged with red. She hardly noticed when Daru came through the shōji, hugged his daughters, and proceeded to pick them up and spin them around.

 

At the risk of becoming too dizzy, Daru set them down. “What do we have here?”

 

Yuki smiled and pointed to the figures. “That’s you, and that’s me.”

 

“Artists in the making,” Daru said, grinning. “Hear that, girls? We have two little artists in this house.”

 

Kaya and Kira giggled and hugged their father once more.

 

Yuki grabbed her umbrella.

 

“Be careful out there,” Daru said.

 

Yuki nodded and brought the canopy above her. She opened the shōji.

 

Daru lit a small fire in the pit. “Don’t catch a cold out there.”

 

The woman started to close the shoji but stopped and turned to her husband. “Daru, promise me you’ll watch over our children. I heard that a man is burning cottages in villages not far from here.”

 

The man dropped his smile. “I’ve heard. We passed by the remains of several homes today.” He looked over at Kaya and Kira, who were playing house with their sculptures. “I won’t let anything happen to them.”

 

“Please promise me,” Yuki urged.

 

Daru nodded. “I promise.”

 

“Thank you.”

 

Daru went into the next room to change out of his work kimono and into something that wouldn’t mind a few stains from fish sauce and soy.

 

When she was far enough down the road, Yuki vanished in white smoke and reappeared in the apple tree grove. Her comrades hadn’t yet arrived, so she had ample time to don her shinobi garb, tie her hair, and fasten her ninjatō to her waist. She waited on a stump, and, slowly, the Yoru Clansmen began to trickle in one by one just as black curtains fell over the last grey light of evening.

 

Brown-bearded Shichigoro, always wearing his trademark sandogasa, sat near Yuki.

 

Master Inoue was the last to appear. When he saw that everyone was accounted for, he nodded. “Yoru Clansmen, I understand Rōjinbi is still at large.”

 

“Not for long,” Yuki said sharply.

 

The other ninja echoed her sentiment.

 

“Before we get too hasty,” Inoue said, “let’s keep in mind that Rōjinbi will not be so easily vanquished. As I’m certain you discovered yesterday, it is no simple task to extinguish his many fires.”

 

“Thanks to Yuki, we managed to do just that,” said Shichigoro.

 

The Yoru Clansmen around the circle nodded.

 

Inoue eyed Yuki closely. “Then you’ll all have no trouble doing it again. Are you up to the challenge, Yuki?”

 

“I am,” the woman said with a tight jaw.

 

“Very well then. My promise to you still stands: You will be a ninja master one day as long as you keep a level head, heart, and soul. Follow the smell of burning oak. Sniff out this Dark Master before he wreaks further havoc on our people. Like us, this man waits for the cover of darkness.”

 

Shichigoro fingered the hilt of his ninjatō. “How do we isolate him when his essence is fire and ash?”

 

Inoue grunted. “You are ninja, are you not? The key is not to isolate him but isolate yourselves, your senses. Find the strongest scent of firewood and move in that direction. Do not fail in this endeavor. One wrong whiff will send Rōjinbi back to the shadows where he watches in amusement.”

 

Yuki stood up abruptly and bowed to Master Inoue.

 

Shichigoro did the same, followed by the remaining Yoru Clansmen.

 

“I’ve caught something on the wind,” Yuki said, her head tilted, the rain washing over her fair skin and dark hair. “Five hundred kilometers due west.”

 

“There’s another scent,” said a male ninja of the clan. “Nine hundred kilometers south.”

 

A female ninja chimed in, “Seven hundred kilometers east.”

 

“He is everywhere,” Shichigoro said. “Mine is six hundred fifty-two kilometers west.”

 

“Which is the strongest?” Yuki asked.

 

“Mine hurts my nostrils,” said a shinobi. “It’s two hundred kilometers east.”

 

The clan visualized the location and directed their olfactory senses as strongly as they could. After taking a deep breath, everyone quickly exhaled and rubbed their noses. They agreed, unanimously, that this was indeed the most prominent wildfire conjured by Rōjinbi.

 

As acting leader, Yuki ordered her clansmen to move out toward the flames, and they all vanished. In her cloud, halfway to the supposed whereabouts of the shameless Dark Master, Yuki caught another scent on the wind. She reappeared on a small hill so she could focus in. When she sniffed, she found that it wasn’t nearly as strong as the one she was positioned to. It was the size of a candle, then small twigs. Then it was a roaring tea kettle lifted by strong arms.

 

Daru, Yuki thought.

 

The flames suddenly began to take another shape: a twisted hand creeping from the pit and knocking the tea kettle from Daru’s fingers. It slapped him across the face in a violent, scorching gust of wind. He fell to the floor.

 

Yuki fled from the hot aroma that produced the dreadful image. She disappeared in Kumo and reappeared just outside her cottage, which rumbled with red fire. She couldn’t contain her heartbeat and nearly succumbed to the smoke. Dropping to her knees, she muttered, “No, no, no.” She felt herself drifting from the ground on which she knelt. It was the cold mist that seemed to conjure itself. Yuki tried to control herself as the Ninpo power overcame her hands and feet, but her emotional toil became a cyclone within her, and she could only circle the house as it charred. In a last-second siege of the cottage, Yuki blew herself all over in an arctic storm, instantly drowning the flames and everything else within a five-kilometer radius in thick ice.

 

She fell out of her spell and tumbled to the ground. Weak and shaking, she used her sheathed ninjatō as a crutch to climb to her knees. Her ninja uniform was torn and frayed, and her hair was a black tangle. She breathed hard. “No,” she whispered. She managed to focus her ninja sight on the frozen house slammed with the interminable rainfall. Into the cottage, she could see only one body stirring in the snow. One body was still alive, a strong one. “Daru.”

 

“You killed my fire,” came an unsteady voice behind Yuki.

 

The ninja pivoted on her knee and faced the frail old man before her.

 

The man had more wrinkles than a 100-year old plum, and several fragments of white hair fell over his face and around his head like a wilted crown. The loose-fitting flag of a dark brown kimono blew on his beanpole frame. “You killed my fire,” he stammered. “You killed Rōjinbi.”

 

Yuki was seething. “So you’re he. You’re Rōjinbi.”

 

“No,” the man said. “My fires were Rōjinbi. You killed him.”

 

Shaking with ire, Yuki made it to her feet. She dropped her ninjatō and approached the man who claimed not to be Rōjinbi, the man who claimed not to have reduced her two young daughters to a bed of grey ash that now covered her husband’s kimono.

 

“I only followed Rōjinbi’s orders,” said the quivering man.

 

Yuki kept walking toward him.

 

“He told me they all deserved to burn. Every last man. Every last child.”

 

“Your delusions won’t save you, wretch,” Yuki said. Once again, she became the mist in the rain. She became the frosty air around the old man, the air that made his last breath go white, and he became thousands of shards of frozen flesh and bone that fell to the boots of Yuki as she stumbled to her human form.

 

It was finally over. The last dishonorable flame was doused forever.

 

Clouds of white smoke burst onto the scene. From each one, a Yoru Clansmen emerged.

 

“Yuki!” Shichigoro said, running over to his clansman as her legs gave out. She fell into his gentle but firm grasp.

 

The other clansmen looked at the kilometers of frozen wasteland left in Yuki’s wake and the remains of the slain scourge of the countryside.

 

“The fires have halted,” Shichigoro said. “Rōjinbi—"

 

“He’s dead,” Yuki whispered. “Zanza, in the cottage ... my husband. Please save him.” Yuki gave the request before losing consciousness and going limp completely in Shichigoro’s arms.

 

Shichigoro motioned for two ninja to retrieve Daru from the hut and take him to a new home, one that was several hundred kilometers away and near a maple tree forest. They’d have to use Ninpo to make necessary repairs. He also ordered several more clansmen to scour Yuki’s former house to gather valuables and mementos.

 

The ninja all nodded and dashed into the cottage. They picked up Daru from the snow, slung his arms over their shoulders, and disappeared in Kumo. The remaining Yoru Clansmen collected tea cups, sacks of money, calligraphy paintings, and two carved wooden figures of a man and woman. When they emerged, they, too, vanished in smoke, heading to the direction of Daru’s new cottage.

 

Everyone else followed Shichigoro as he transported Yuki to the apple tree grove.

 

Inoue was sitting by a fire. The area was surrounded by a Ninpo wind bubble. When he saw Yuki unconscious in Shichigoro’s arms, he sprang to his feet. “What happened?”

 

“Yuki defeated Rōjinbi,” Shichigoro answered. “Her Ninpo abilities cost her a good deal of strength, but she will be all right.”

 

Inoue grabbed a futon that was rolled up and leaning on a tree. He unraveled it near the fire and gestured for Shichigoro to lay Yuki down tenderly. The master looked at his acolyte’s wan face. “So she succeeded.”

 

Shichigoro nodded. “It was all her. The scents we migrated to were false. Yuki must have sensed the true path on the way and rerouted her course. She had to act quickly, so that is why she did not inform us.”

 

Inoue eyed the campfire. “Rōjinbi’s flames have died forever. Good.”

 

“It cost Yuki her two daughters,” Shichigoro said with a sigh. “Her husband lives. Ikichi and Touro have led him to safety.”

 

Inoue grunted. “Celibacy is the only path of a ninja. Remember this, Zanza.”

 

“Remember? I never have forgotten.”

 

Black mask-clad ninja Ikichi and Touro arrived, white smoke flooding from where they stood. “He is safe,” they said in unison. Like the other members of the clan, they sat on stumps and stared at Yuki lying flat on her back.

 

Inoue turned his gaze upon the woman as well. “Take her to the cottage, Zanza. From this point forward, she is no longer a Yoru Clansman.”

 

Shichigoro’s eyes widened. “Master?”

 

“My word is final.”

 

Ikichi, Touro, and the other ninja merely gawked at Inoue.

 

Shichigoro rose to his feet. “Master, Yuki just saved Hokkaido. Without her, we—"

 

“Would be better off,” Inoue finished. His lifeless black eyes scanned the woman for a moment then returned to the small embers floating to the top of the wind bubble. As a master ninja, Inoue could easily focus on a number of tasks without losing a modicum of concentration.

 

“I am over five times her age,” said Shichigoro indignantly. “I have known her since she was a young girl playing in the rain. You cannot take this life away from her, not after what she has done for this clan.”

 

Inoue stood to face the bearded shinobi. “She has too much emotion. The Yoru Clan has no place for a kunoichi who cannot control herself.”

 

“We can use her emotion for good.”

 

Inoue shook his head. “As I said, Zanza, my word is final. There will be no further discussion.”

 

Shichigoro wanted to speak the rest of his mind but held his tongue. He picked up Yuki as gingerly as he could in spite of his anger and vanished from the scene. He reappeared in the cottage, which was refurbished and contained all Yuki and Daru’s possessions that were still intact.

 

Daru was asleep on a new futon and in a clean kimono.

 

Shichigoro quickly disappeared and reappeared carrying Yuki’s wooden crate containing her white kimono, sandals, and umbrella. With modest eyes and hands, the shinobi removed the woman’s torn kunoichi uniform and dressed her in the kimono. He then set her on a futon beside her husband and pulled the blanket over her. The ninja stared at Yuki’s uniform and ninjatō in his hands for several minutes and then glanced at the two carved sculptures on a shelf. He moved closer and eyed the statue in the shape of a woman. With a sigh, he vanished for a final time.

 

As the white smoke cleared from her room, Yuki turned on her side and wept silently.

 

3

 

One month later, when May showed its tulips and apples across the countryside, the rain hadn’t let up outside the cottage or inside it. It were as if Yuki, unknowingly, had brought upon Hokkaido a kind of omen that wouldn’t allow a beam of sunlight to penetrate the earth or herself.

 

But it was all in her head. Yuki could only sit at the dining room table, her hair unkempt, while her husband slid the front shōji shut each day and kept rice in their barrels. Nothing remained of the old cottage she and Daru used to know, not even two small kimonos Yuki could cradle at night. From the ashes, there now sprang new life: anthills she’d never inspect with a curious smile and flowers she’d never again pick with her daughters.

 

With no umbrella in hand, Yuki walked a long way just to glance at the shambles of her former home. Though spring had warmed the heavy rain, each drop fell like snowflakes on her neck as she made the trek back.

 

Daru was making tea when she came through the sliding doors and removed her sandals. He said nothing.

 

Her hair still sopping wet, Yuki sat at the dining table.

 

Daru placed a tea cup in front of his wife and sat uncomfortably across from her. Several minutes passed, and he finished his cup. “Need a warm up?” he finally said, tea kettle in hand.

 

Yuki merely blinked in response.

 

Daru reached for Yuki’s cup and found that its contents were frozen solid. He turned it upside down in amazement, shook it, and set it back down. He feigned a smile. “May’s a little colder this year, isn’t it?”

 

Not a word left Yuki’s lips, which were now chapped. Her hair was also lightly streaked with frost.

 

“What happened to you?” Daru said in almost a whisper. “You’ve been like this for a month straight.”

 

Yuki kept her mouth closed. Her skin paled in the light of the dining room lanterns.

 

Daru shook his head. “Whenever I reach for you at night, you recoil.”

 

Yuki lifted her head, which had begun to droop. “You promised to keep them safe,” she said softly.

 

“What?”

 

“On the night I left for my walk, I asked you, and you promised.”

 

Daru pursed his lips and sat upright at the table. “You can’t possibly blame me for what happened.”

 

“You promised.”

 

“Where were you?” Daru shouted. “Nowhere!” He quickly realized he’d become angrier than he wanted to be, so he poured more tea and sipped his cup to settle himself down again. After a silence so profound he could nearly hear each individual raindrop as it hit the ground outside, he sighed heavily. His absent gaze turned to the two carved wooden figures on the shelf. “What have we become?”

 

Yuki also stared at the sculptures.

 

“You’re cold,” Daru said, getting from his knees to his feet. “And I’m tired.” He went to one of the shelves on a far wall and collected a sack of money. He dug into the bag for a handful of coins and set them on the table. “It’s enough to tide you over until winter.” Daru gathered the rest of his belongings, created a traveler’s pack, and donned a straw kasa to shield himself from the downpour.

 

All the while, Yuki didn’t so much as raise her eyebrows, which were now also dusted lightly with frost.

 

Daru eyed the two sculptures again and considered taking one of them. Instead, he adjusted the straps on his pack and proceeded out the front shōji. “Goodbye, Yuki,” he said. Before he left her for good, he stopped. Without turning, he added, “I hope you find the light in your life again one day.” Then he shut himself from his wife and joined the spring showers.

 

Yuki couldn’t bring herself to cry, but she did bring herself to her feet. “The light,” she whispered, grabbing a small knife from the table and walking to the shōji. She stood there for a long while before sliding the doors open enough to view her former husband: a receding dark speck down the long road. When he was out of her sight completely, Yuki pulled the doors open, letting the wet night wash over her. “The light,” she repeated. To the touch, the downpour was like a bath of ice water. She closed her eyes and stepped out onto the muddy terrain without sandals. The pallid woman walked a short distance from the cottage before dropping to her knees, covering part of her white kimono in a splatter of brown. “I renounce the light and shall never return,” she said, still in no more than a whisper. Then came a deep slice of the knife, a prayer of darkness, and a cold smile upon her lips as she pulled herself away from the rain in a freezing wind.

 

The only remnant of Yuki was a pair of muddy red handprints on the road.

 

4

 

January 12, 1463

 

The letters from a lone villager are what led Shichigoro back to Hokkaido, letters that told of children who needed help if they were to survive past the winter.

 

The ninja had aged another 50 years, but the only indicator was a few strands of greying hair in his beard and several chips in his sandogasa from fights long since passed. As he trudged through the snow, he adjusted his winter garb. Fallen by some hunter’s arrow, a black bear in an apple tree grove had given Shichigoro a jacket, and the shinobi topped the ensemble with armor comprised of woven reeds. He abandoned his ninjatō, arsenal of kunai, and bow and arrows in favor of the flying squirrel tucked warmly in his new attire.

 

From time to time, Homura would pop his head out just to see where they were going. His big black eyes were fixed on the cottage several hundred meters ahead, and when Shichigoro arrived, he announced himself at the shōji.

 

A middle-aged woman wrapped tightly in dark blue quilts and wolf hides let him in. She looked like an Inuit in that only a circle of her face could be seen. She gestured for Shichigoro to join her at the fire pit in the middle of the room. “Thank you for writing back to me,” she said. “I was hoping at least one person would respond.”

 

Shichigoro nodded. “I’m just relieved your carrier pigeon made it through the blizzard, Sayama. That was no easy feat.”

 

The woman offered her guest a cup of tea, and he accepted. “It’s getting worse each day, Shichigoro-san. The winds are colder. The ice is sharper. Even still, by March it will all be melted.”

 

“Seasons change,” said Shichigoro after taking a sip from his cup.

 

Sayama nodded. “Yes. But when the cold stops, the Kowara children’s fever will resume. They may not be able to make it through another warm season, seeing as how they narrowly escaped death at the end of last summer. Luckily, we had a cold rain come through most of autumn, but I fear their luck has finally run its course.”

 

Shichigoro put down his cup. “What is this fever?”

 

“Not much is known other than it is lifelong and doesn’t spread easily. Constant exposure is necessary for infection as far as we can tell. It killed off every mother and father in the Kowara Village, and now other villagers have taken it upon themselves to look after the children from a safe distance. We’ve found that colder environments ward off the disease entirely. At this time, the children are the healthiest I’ve ever seen them.”

 

“You visit them often?” Shichigoro inquired.

 

Sayama finished her cup before answering. “As often as this weather will permit.” She laughed. “They may be fine in the cold, but I, unfortunately, am not.”

 

“What these children need is good medicine,” said Shichigoro. “I can procure whatever’s necessary.”

 

“That won’t do,” Sayama said, shaking her head. “The only medicine they require is that of an endless winter. Can you procure that?”

 

Shichigoro ran his fingers through his beard in thought.

 

Sayama reached for the tea kettle to pour Shichigoro another cup, but when she lifted it, she wasn’t prepared for the extra weight. She put a hand to the clay body and found that it was icy to the touch. Gently, she moved it aside on the table. “Tea’s gone cold.”

 

“I suppose this winter is as harsh as you said,” Shichigoro mused.

 

Sayama’s face lost all traces of a warm smile. “There’s something else I wanted to tell you, Shichigoro-san. Something I didn’t include in the letter.”

 

“Of course.”

 

“Villagers in the area are being attacked.”

 

“By whom?”

 

“Not a living person, I fear,” Sayama said gravely. “By something. A violent gale or worse. It blows like wind but is shaped like a woman. This has gone on for nearly 50 years. At first, I dismissed it as a ghost story like the ones the Kowara children tell. That was until I saw her myself two nights ago.”

 

“What did she look like?”

 

“A woman dressed as white as snow with long dark hair.”

 

“What color were her eyes?” Shichigoro asked.

 

“They were a blue like I’ve never seen before. No one around here has eyes like that.”

 

At the woman’s words, Shichigoro nodded slowly. It’s her, he thought. He should’ve traveled to Hokkaido and dealt with her a long time ago. There’s no telling how many villagers she’s assaulted out of bitterness and contempt in 50 years.

 

Sayama stood up to mimic the attacker’s movements. “It started as a wintry draft that crept through the shōji, and then the doors flew open. She stood right there in the doorway. Her fingers were icicles as sharp as daggers. I thought she was going to kill me.”

 

Shichigoro put his hands in the sleeves of his jacket. “Why did she not?”

 

“I don’t know,” Sayama said. “Her fingers were pointed right at my throat, but she stopped herself. Then she told me not to speak of that night to anyone. I promised. She turned into that icy wind again and vanished.”

 

Shichigoro exhaled and furrowed his brows.

 

“It seems I broke that promise talking to you now,” Sayama said. “But—” the woman’s words were cut short by an icicle that shot through the shōji like a kunai knife.

 

With keen shinobi reflexes, Shichigoro caught the sharp projectile with his thumb and index finger. If he’d been a millisecond too late, the woman would be gargling blood.

 

“She’s here!” Sayama cried.

 

The air inside Sayama’s hut quickly grew colder, even colder than the frigid January atmosphere outside her doors.

 

Shichigoro used a Ninpo spell to enliven the perishing embers in the pit, and the fire burned red once again, cutting through the cold momentarily.

 

A mere moment later, the frosty air surged around Shichigoro and Sayama and, like a large, invisible boot, stamped out the flames in one stomp.

 

Though Shichigoro tried to conjure another Ninpo fire, the area was frozen solid. He reached for the woman’s hand to disappear in Kumo just when the entire cottage exploded in a snowy blast. It sent Shichigoro sliding several meters in the snow. Swiftly, he dashed toward the remains of Sayama’s home and dug through the rubble. He found the woman’s body no longer wrapped in quilts but clothed in a thin green robe and pierced with multiple fragments of bamboo and wood.

 

“Shichigoro-san,” she said faintly. “Don’t let Yuki-Onna get you.”

 

The ninja held the woman’s head up as she spoke.

 

“Please ... please save the children.” Sayama’s words came to a halt, and she lay in Shichigoro’s arms like a dead foal.

 

Homura emerged from Shichigoro’s clothing and sat on the man’s shoulder. The sandogasa acted as an umbrella for the flying squirrel, and he watched as the shinobi made a grave for Sayama in the snow and topped it with a mound of stones.

 

“Be at peace, Sayama,” Shichigoro said softly. The snowflakes fell all around him. He looked up to the sky and whispered, “Yuki.”

 

5

 

What remained of the cottage was still standing.

 

Shichigoro didn’t need to slide the shōji open to enter. He just stepped through the tattered paper doors. Above him, snow fell through holes in the thatched roof, and crows abandoned their perch when Shichigoro pulled one of the two wooden figurines off a top shelf. He wiped the ice crystals away with a sleeve and examined the piece more closely. Though crafted by the tiny hands of a child, the statue had the vague likeness of the ninja he knew long ago. Shichigoro held it in his hand and quickly tucked it into his clothing when he heard a male scream ring through the winter storm. He ran through the doors and out into blizzard.

 

Then came another scream upon the wind.

 

And another.

 

The winter afternoon was filled with the shouts of villagers near and far. When he took in the sounds all at once, Shichigoro felt a clutter of feelings. Through his heightened hearing, his sensations painted a montage of white rushing winds that tore into the villagers and left nothing but their skeletons.

 

“No,” Shichigoro lamented. The shinobi tuned out of the series of groans and focused on the most poignant and distressing voice. He closed his eyes and felt the noise clawing at his eardrums. Then a vision flashed before him: the image of an old bald man pleading for his life on the tatami mats of his lodge. His muscular physique belied his age, yet he was powerless against the intruder who blew unabashedly into his home.

 

“You are Yuki-Onna, the lady of the snow,” the man said, shivering. “Please don’t take me. I’ll give you anything.”

 

“You gave me your word,” whispered a pale woman standing over the man. Her black hair blew around her, as did her snow-white kimono. “And it was worth nothing.” She drew in a deep breath.

 

Shichigoro cut the vision short. He transported himself to the scene and emerged from his cloud. Just before Yuki’s ice-cold breath blasted the man to bones, the ninja seized him and brought him out into the snow. The white haze whirled around them both and reconstructed itself as the woman once more.

 

Her black hair and sapphire-blue eyes a stark contrast to the bright flurry around her, the Dark Master floated and touched her bare feet to the snow. “Leave the old man to me. He tried to escape me once before, and he won’t do it again.” No longer the low, airy voice she used to have, Yuki’s vocal chords now sent an ethereal tone all through the air. She had become the spirit of winter itself, biting and unforgiving.

 

“End this now,” Shichigoro demanded. “You’ve murdered enough villagers for one lifetime, Yuki. Or shall I call you Yuki-Onna?”

 

Lost in her own icy haze, Yuki couldn’t recognize the bearded ninja before her. She stepped forward. “Silence, wretch, or you’ll die too.”

 

The old man clinging to Shichigoro shook violently. “What do you want?”

 

“I once wanted your promise fulfilled,” Yuki said. Then her black lips stretched into an unnerving smile. “Now I want your carcass picked apart by my snowstorm, Daru.”

 

Daru shuddered.

 

Shichigoro stepped in front of the man. “If you remember him, then you’ll surely remember me.”

 

“Do not waste any more of my time,” Yuki snapped. Her fingers became long icicles. She stood several meters from Shichigoro in a standoff within the whiteout.

 

From his uniform, Shichigoro pulled out a long-lost artifact of Yuki’s past, something she treasured years before adopting the moniker of Dark Master. He held up the wooden figurine. “Perhaps this will remind you of who you once were.”

 

Almost immediately, Yuki’s white face softened like a fresh mound of fallen snow. Her fingers returned to normal, and her dark hair fell to her shoulders.

 

Shichigoro gestured for Daru to return to his cottage, and he did so with a quick step.

 

“You remember me now, don’t you?”

 

Yuki shed a tear, and it froze halfway down her cheek. “Zanza?”

 

Shichigoro nodded.

 

“I can’t believe it’s you.”

 

“I could say the same,” Shichigoro said flatly.

 

The woman looked at her hands. “What have I become? If my daughters saw me now—”

 

“No one has to see you like this anymore,” Shichigoro interjected. “Turn away from this life, Yuki.”

 

Yuki shook her head and shed several more tears that stuck to her face. “I’m a Dark Master, Zanza. My fate is sealed.”

 

Shichigoro stepped closer to his longtime comrade. “Break the seal.”

 

“That would kill me,” Yuki explained. “I’d be giving my last breath on this earth.”

 

Homura stirred in Shichigoro’s uniform but didn’t reveal himself. The ninja shifted his bear-hide jacket so his furry companion could breathe.

 

Clear streaks now painted Yuki’s ghostlike face. “I made a blood oath, a promise. It seems I’m the only one who can keep one in this world.”

 

“What about me?” Shichigoro said. “Have I not been loyal to you?”

 

Yuki closed her eyes. “Are you still a member of the Yoru Clan?”

 

Shichigoro shook his head. “I abandoned the clan and am now a wanderer.”

 

“Why?” Yuki asked softly.

 

“Because it is simply the path I wish to take.” Shichigoro paused as an idea fluttered to him like the ceaseless snowflakes. “I can promise you that your last breath will not be in vain.”

 

“How can you promise me such a thing?” She, too, began to move in closer to her friend.

 

Shichigoro explained to Yuki what Sayama had explained to him. He told of the Kowara children’s mysterious fever and of their need of frozen medicine only winter can give.

 

“Can you take me to them?” Yuki asked, transforming herself into a wind once more so as not to startle the villagers.

 

The shinobi nodded and led the way to the Kowara Village. It was a short walk, and when they arrived, Shichigoro was greeted from afar by children wearing summer clothes and throwing snowballs. Their skin was only a few shades darker than Yuki’s.

 

“The happiness you are seeing now will not last past winter,” Shichigoro said. “Unless we do what is necessary.”

 

From her misty shape, Yuki eyed two young girls who appeared to be sisters. In that moment, she couldn’t help but be whisked back 50 years to pigtails and smiles awaiting her return home. “Just tell me when,” she said.

 

Shichigoro announced to the children and to their guardians peering from windows what new world awaited them. The children had looks of wonder, but the adults derided the ninja and branded him a deluded fool.

 

With a concentration of Ninpo, Shichigoro put all those doubts to rest. He moved his hands and feet in a kind of ninjutsu form. A black orb of energy pulsated in front of him and gave way to a bright green flash. In its place stood a large red torii gate through which an entire cluster of villages could be seen. A wooden sign at the entrance of the gate read Snow Prefecture.

 

The adults came out of their homes to witness the ninja magic more closely while the children gaped and pointed their small fingers. In the midst of their splendor, several young boys began fits of coughing.

 

Shichigoro nodded toward his formless friend.

 

Yuki floated toward the torii’s entrance. She hesitated.

 

“What you are doing will save these children’s lives forever, Yuki,” Shichigoro reminded her.

 

The former Yoru Clansmen and mother of two took in her final breath and slowly let it out through the gate. The entire prefecture began to see its first and forever dose of snow blanketing cottages, hills, and groves of apple trees. Snowflakes fell from the sky indefinitely.

 

Shichigoro stepped aside and ushered in the Kowara children, who, he was sure, were aching to make snow angels and construct snowmen and bunkers.

 

The children’s guardians trailed behind them cautiously. Some disbanded to gather their belongings and tip their kasa to the man in the sandogasa, who, they realized, wasn’t out of his mind. They called him a savior of their people, one who deserved to be enshrined as a god. Others dropped to the snow to bow to him before entering the gate.

 

Shichigoro merely smiled and nodded to each one as they passed through to the other side. He looked into the torii and saw a set of invisible footprints marching forward. Just before they ended in their tracks, a soft voice in the winter wind whispered, “Thank you, Zanza.”

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