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The Dark Winter

by A.M. Broadous
January 2021 (Published by Dragon Soul Press, May 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.

 

For the rest of "The Dark Winter," purchase your copy of Valiance: A Dragon Soul Press Anthology, Edited by J.E. Feldman.

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