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"Hanzo, Galford is gone! So is Poppy."
Sweat ran down Ruoh's neck, it was cold and it felt like ice on his bare skin, which reminded him of his earlier unpleasant encounter with that little Ainu girl, Rimururu. Even the air was frigid; it hurt to swallow. Water dripped and plopped unseen.
Damn you, Hanzo! I don't know how you talked me into this… I'll be much surprised if this buffoonery doesn't end with me dead. And if it does, my ghost will give you no peace, I swear it!
Ruoh couldn't see anything as they pushed forward, except for those two flickering lights, floating in the gloom. Galford's eyes. They were most unnatural, he shivered.
"So, these caverns lead up inside the mountain's bowels and directly into Fortress Iga, right?" Galford's voice echoed menacingly amongst the invisible walls.
"Shh! Yes! But whisper!. This passage won't be a secret long if you don't keep your voice down, Galford-san!" Ruoh hissed.
The twin, flashing orbs vanished and reappeared as Galford blinked.
"Oops! Sorry, Ruoh. I forgot…again."
Galford chuckled and the light from his eyes disappeared again. When they re-materialized, they were only an arm's length away from Ruoh's face. He could see the barest of details as the pale, blue sparks washed over Galford's sharp features.
"By the way, Ruoh, I don't think I need to remind you of what happens to people who double cross me, do I?"
But Ruoh was doing just that, setting the demon up. It was all part of Hanzo's master strategy. The bait had been set, and evil Galford was walking into a carefully laid trap, a snare designed to capture the fiend alive…if it worked. If it didn't, there was going to be an awful lot of crispy ninjas to clean up tomorrow, Ruoh included.
He wore the nasty smelling suit Hanzo had given him under his black, ninja garb, but he had no real faith in it. He had seen what this Galford could do. And even if it did protect against his unnatural powers, it wouldn't shield him from the razor edge of the evil one's blade…
Poppy whined, and with good reason.
Galford covered his mouth and nose to block the stench, but it didn't do him any good. The sick/sweet smell of slaughter and fresh blood worked its way between his fingers and up through his nostrils and down his throat again where he gagged on it.
Both he and Poppy jumped at the sound of his voice. It was too quiet. The only noise was the buzzing of the flies that had stumbled upon this gigantic feast.
Blood and severed limbs were strewn everywhere haphazardly throughout the entire building. He had already undertaken a quick search of all the rooms, looking for survivors, but it was the same in every chamber. The cracked, gray walls were stained pink with gore. It was hard to get a clear count on just how many people had been hacked to pieces, but it was a lot - two dozen at least, men and women both. There had been one hell of a wild party at the House of Nine Spirals last night…
Stranger still, the village proper was deserted. He had checked every house, every muddy shack, but Galford couldn't find a living soul. Stoves had been left untended, meals uneaten. Whatever, or whoever had done this had scared everyone far, far away in a great hurry.
It hadn't been Him. This much Galford knew. It wasn't his style. There was no fire of any kind, no charred and blackened corpses, just mindless slaughter. Then who?
Zankuro? This was the kind of stuff The Destroyer had been famous for… No. He was dead and gone. And even if it had been Zankuro, he would have done a much more thorough job than this, the body count and destruction would have been on a much grander scale.
Galford frowned. He had come to this town, Maaketto, following a rumor of a strange couple. This pair, a man and a woman, both dressed in black cloaks, had been involved with some suspicious occurrences as of late, several of these had involved fights that had ended badly for whomever dared to do battle with the mysterious man. There was no doubt in Galford's mind as to the identity of the male, but who was the female? He had hoped to find answers here, but had uncovered this butchery job instead…
"My mother always said that everything would come to me if I only had the patience to wait."
Poppy whirled, snarling, and began to growl. Galford slowly turned around to face the source of the deep, gravely voice. What he saw was even less appealing than the carnage all around him.
"She was a stupid whore, but sometimes even she possessed some wisdom." The bloody thing that stood in the doorway murmured. He was barely recognizable, but Galford saw that it was Kibagami Genjuro.
He was absolutely ghastly. Genjuro was drenched in human blood as though he had bathed in it. His long, titian hair was thick with black, congealed globs of the stuff and it stuck to the sides of his face and neck like it had been glued there. The whites of his eyes and his gleaming teeth were the only things that weren't stained crimson.
And then Galford saw his hands, or more accurately, what used to be his hands. They were amorphous, pink and black blobs of infected tissue, clear, yellow fluid dripped from them. But his right hand was the worst; Genjuro had driven the hilt of his blade into the flesh of his forearm all the way up to the elbow, and the twisted stitchery of a madman kept it in place. Galford could see the shape of the sword's handle bulging underneath his bloody skin and muscle. Genjuro's arm and his deadly katana had become one…
"By all that's holy, what happened to you and what has transpired here?" Galford demanded at last, trying not to let the horror show on his face.
Genjuro grinned back at Galford, leering like a rusty skull. "Oh, this?" He gestured with the obscenity that had become his right appendage, "Just a little improvement. Do you like it?"
"No, I do not."
"Me neither. But, you didn't leave me much to work with."
"I think I know the person who maimed you, but it wasn't me, Genjuro."
"Heh, whatever you say, whatever you say, boy. It doesn't matter. I see you've got your mutt with you this time. Where'd that little, sweet thing go?"
"What sweet thing? It's just me and Poppy, Genjuro."
"Did you kill these people, Genjuro?"
"Because I could."
"Their souls cry out for justice, Genjuro. If you do not yield, I will give it to them."
Genjuro's smile broadened, and he readied his right arm/weapon.
"I thought you'd never ask…"
Rimururu carefully ascended the rickety, old ladder that led to the roof of the little house Hanzo had given her, Nakoruru and Grandmother to stay in. Dust and straw clung to her face and she barely stifled a sneeze.
Grandmother was downstairs, nestled in soft furs, snoring loudly. Rimururu had to bite down on her lower lip to stop the giggles from bubbling up and waking the beloved old woman as she carefully crept by her scant moments ago.
Konril floated an arm's length away from her head, encouraging her as she neared the apex. She finally reached the final wooden beam, and pulled herself up, grunting, spying what she was looking for, her sister, Nakoruru.
She hadn't heard Rimururu, or if she did, she showed no sign of it. She sat serenely, cross-legged, staring out over the rooftops, gently stroking Mamahaha's head.
Something was wrong with Nakoruru, she was too quiet these days, and she kept whatever it was that troubled her soul to herself. Rimururu was going to find out what this thing was; the suspense was killing her.
Rimururu gingerly stepped across the wooden slats that protected the house from the elements. The roof wasn't steep, but a careless placing of the feet could still prove disastrous. The wind was also gentle, Konril bobbed merrily in its wake.
When she was close enough to reach out and touch her sister, Nakoruru finally noticed Rimururu's approach.
"Oh, Rimu! What are you doing up here? You scared me."
"I came to talk to you, what's bothering you?"
Nakoruru looked quickly away, ignoring Rimururu.
"Don't give me that. I can see it all over your face. You shouldn't keep secrets from me, or Grandmother…we're family."
Nakoruru sighed, but didn't turn her head.
"C'mon, Nak. You're my sister; you can trust me. Whatever it is, I'll understand…"
"I don't…don't think so, Rimururu…It's private."
"Please, Rimu, not now…I want to be alone."
Anger and frustration boiled in Rimururu's mind for a moment, but she silenced the emotions. If Nak didn't want to talk, she wouldn't…and she had to accept that.
"Alright, Nak…but if you need us, you know Grandmother and I are here for you…"
At last, Nakoruru turned her head, black hair falling like a wave across her tiny shoulders, to look at her sister. There were tears in her eyes.
"Yes, I know that. And I thank you for it, sister, but you cannot help me."
Rimururu opened her mouth to say something, but closed it again. Nakoruru returned to gazing over the silent village, and she slunk back the way she came.
What could be so terrible that Nakoruru couldn't tell her?
It hurt that her sister couldn't, or wouldn't share this secret with her…
Nakoruru listened until she knew Rimururu was gone, and then she began to weep again.
Oh, Rimururu! I want to let you help me, but I can't. You can't know about my secret shame, no one can…
Spirits! Great mother, why have you let this befall me? I have always served you well, have I not?
But the spirits she beseeched did not answer.
Nakoruru fingered the soft feathers of Mamahaha's belly. The eagle was finally responding to her healing arts, which was a great comfort to her, although it did not assuage the terror that filled her completely.
She placed a hand on her stomach, trying to feel the new life she knew was growing there. She had not been sure at first, but now there was no doubt, she was with child. The child of a demon…
The gaping black maw stood defiantly, waiting for some meal that would never come, and Hanzo peered unsuccessfully into its depths. The secret entrance/exit to Fortress Iga…
Where are you Ruoh? Any time now…
He looked up. Asano and Maki were set in place, high up on the damp, rock wall, the net ready. It was woven of the magic tree sap, and Hanzo could only hope that it would be able to withstand the escape attempts of Galford's other once he became ensnared in it. If he became ensnared in it…he was a clever and cagey foe, the Iga Lord would not underestimate him like others had.
He nodded to the two female ninja above him, and they gestured back that everything was ready.
He whirled, his scarlet scarf fluttering behind his back. The six other Iga, Hanzo's best, followed and concealed themselves in a loose circle around him in the abundant shadows of the pale, colorless cavern.
Their dark eyes glittered, awaiting the sign they expected.
He gave it to them.
Silently, they all removed a small, wooden case. Inside each were poison shuriken, throwing daggers. The venom was a special Iga blend; the secret recipe had been handed down for decades - a single scratch would bring swift death. Hanzo hoped they wouldn't be needed, but if the net did not hold, Galford's evil shade would die. He would not waste his precious Iga warriors in a battle against unnatural powers that they couldn't hope to triumph over.
They all crouched there in silence for a long time, no one speaking a word; the only perceivable sound was the occasional animal scuttling in the darkness.
And then, distantly, they heard the soft echo of footsteps approaching from within the cave.
Hanzo gingerly fingered one of the poison blades in his left hand.
Soon…very soon…it would all be over…for better or worse…
Forgive me, if this does not go well, Galford. I will try not to kill him, but if I must, I will. And in doing so, I slay you as well…