by Mark Patraw
Homepage: Mark's Art Page
Galford squinted his eyes and scanned the forest. Where the hell was he? The sun filtered thinly through the thick canopy above, sending phantom beams of yellow sunlight to the earth below. It all looked the same to him, a tangled expanse of green that had no end. Nakoruru and Rimururu knew every tree, but if he got lost out here, he'd probably never be seen again. Just like the old man they were looking for…
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"Geez! It's a good thing you know the way, Poppy. Otherwise I'd never be able to find Nakoruru's house."
Poppy woofed an excited reply and rushed further ahead. She vanished into the thick brush in a blur of black and white fur. Galford's lips curled in amusement at Poppy's endless supply of enthusiasm as he absently brushed an annoying fly away from his face.
Ruoh, his temporary traveling companion, chuckled at his puzzlement about their whereabouts.
"How is it that you're so comfortable navigating the sea, Galford-san, when you get lost so easily on land?"
Ruoh was one of Hanzo's ninja. Ashufu, an elderly man from the small town near the foothills of the Iga's secluded fortress, had mysteriously disappeared into the forest the other night. The old man's wife had made a great fuss, so Hanzo had ordered Ruoh to look for him. Ruoh was about Galford's age, with sharp features and jet-black hair tied into a long ponytail running down his back. As they were going in much the same direction, Galford had agreed to Hanzo's request for him to aid with the initial search for a bit before seeking out Nakoruru. Ruoh was an okay guy, but sometimes Galford felt like he looked down on him because he wasn't Japanese.
"The sea is a lot different than the forest, Ruoh. But, it's no less difficult to navigate."
"Be that as it may, brother, there are tricks you can learn to help you find your way in unfamiliar territory. And I'm not talking about those contraptions you use on your ship. If you wish, I will teach them to you when next you visit the Iga."
"Thanks, I think I'll take you up on that."
They continued the search in silence for a time, enjoying the sights, smells and sounds of the wild as they went. Occasionally they would find some evidence of merit. Previously, somebody had passed the path they now walked, for there were broken blades of grass and snapped tree branches, but it could easily have been an animal and not the old man.
Poppy periodically returned from her scouting adventures, tongue hanging lazily out of her mouth, and would cock her head at them and bark. As if to say, "You're still way back here? Hurry up!"
"This Nakoruru of yours, is she pretty, Galford-san?" Ruoh finally broke the silence.
"Um, yes. Beautiful, actually." He stammered, suddenly finding something fascinating on his boots to study.
"Does she love you?"
Poppy's wild barking up ahead saved Galford from what he was sure would have become a merciless teasing or an embarrassing lesson on love from Ruoh. Both ninja quickly broke into a run towards Poppy's voice.
They burst threw into a sunlit clearing and stopped dead in their tracks.
"By the spirits! What is that?" Ruoh frowned as he covered his mouth with one hand.
In the center of the open area, there was a great, black hole in the ground. Next to it was a horrible, twisted thing that had once been a man. It sat on its knees looking up to the heavens, a scream permanently pulled taunt on its face. The smell coming from the charred corpse was most unpleasant.
Poppy ran back and forth, her tail down, whining. She stopped, urinated, and then resumed her pacing on the perimeter of the clearing. She gave Galford furtive, uneasy looks and whimpered louder.
"I think we found Ashufu. God help him." Galford whispered. He drew closer and examined the obscenity from a safe distance. The man's skin had taken on a shiny, purple/black hue and his clothing had somehow melted into the skin. Strangely, no insects had dared to touch it. Usually a dead body would be swarming with vermin by now.
Ruoh crouched down near the yawning gap in the ground and examined it carefully.
"Look, Galford! The sides are smooth, like glass. Do you think fire did this?"
Galford shook his head as he carefully touched the corpse. A bit of black came away on his fingers, which he rubbed between them thoughtfully. It was greasy.
"I don't think so. Look around; nothing else is even scorched. No fire I've ever seen burns like this. At least no natural fire."
He gladly turned his back on the grisly remains of Ashufu and crouched down at the hole's edge with Ruoh. The gap in the ground stunk too, but at least it was a clean burning stench, unlike that of the body behind him. Galford ran his hand along the shiny walls of the depression in wonder. It was very strange indeed.
"Magic, perhaps?" Ruoh ventured.
"I hope not. It's black magic if it is." Galford replied.
"Why would someone or something want to roast an old man like that?"
"I don't know, Ruoh. I think we'd better head back and let Hanzo know about this though. He'll want to see it for himself." Galford sighed. I guess Nakoruru will have to wait, he told himself, but this is more important.
"Aye, that's a good idea. Maybe Hanzo will know…GALFORD!!! Behind you!"
Responses burned into his mind and body so often that they had become involuntary reflexes immediately sent him into action. Galford instinctively whirled and rolled to his right. Something whistled by his head and hit the ground with a hollow thud.
It was an icicle, and a sharp one too. It lay a few feet away, buried halfway into the earth. The sun glinted savagely off of its shining sides. There was only one place that such a thing could have come from on a hot, summer day…
"If that was supposed to be a joke, I'm not laughing, Rimururu." He turned to face her, and saw that it was no prank. In fact, she had her arm cocked back to throw another frozen dagger, which she did. This he dodged easily. Konril, her ice spirit, whirled and glittered madly in mid-air at her side.
"What the hell are you doing? Have you gone crazy, girl?"
"You're going to pay for what you did to Nakoruru, you scumbag!" she screamed, bunching her tiny fists into tight balls. Galford took a step back in disbelief. He had never seen Rimururu angry in all the time he had known her.
"Friend of yours?" Ruoh growled; his three-pronged sai daggers in his hands, ready for business. Galford motioned Ruoh not to attack with a gesture.
"What are you talking about, Rimururu?! I haven't seen Nakoruru for two weeks at least. What's going on!?"
"LIAR!!!" She screamed, as she began to summon another icy attack.
Ruoh rushed her. Galford tried to stop the headstrong Iga, but it was too late. Rimururu flung a frozen crystal at the grassy ground in front of the ninja, which instantly became a sheet of ice. Ruoh hit the glistening patch with his bare feet.
"Yaaaaaaaaah!" Ruoh did an involuntary somersault and landed flat on his back, hard. Before his stunned brain could register it, Rimururu had created more icicles and pinned him to the ground with them. Ruoh strained against them with all his might, but couldn't budge. He'd have to wait till they had melted somewhat, but by then it would be too late.
"Let me go, you cold witch!" He bellowed, teeth bared. At any other time, Galford would have found it quite funny to see a ninja of Ruoh's skill dispatched so easily, but now was not that time.
"Your little henchman won't protect you, Galford. You're finished!" Rimururu began to circle him, gesturing with her hands. Between her fingers, Galford could see the ice forming and melting simultaneously with a whitish/blue light. Konril trailed silently behind, snowflakes falling in the spirit's wake.
Galford had seen enough. He didn't know what was going on, but whatever it was, Rimururu meant business. Deadly business, she was going to kill him, or at least try if he didn't do something to stop her.
Poppy was slowly shadowing Rimururu behind the trees, unseen. Galford knew the dog didn't want to hurt Rimururu, but if it came to a choice between harming her or protecting Galford, he knew what Poppy's choice would be.
"I don't know what's going on Rimururu, but whatever it is you think I did, I didn't do it! And I'm not going to fight you."
"Shut up. You're nothing but lies, Galford. Lies all along, just so you could get close to Nakoruru. And then when you had her complete trust, you showed the real you." She hissed with such venom that he winced at it, "Grandfather was right; you and your kind are nothing but evil!"
Tears began to fall from her eyes, which froze on her soft cheeks before they touched the ground.
"I thought you were a good man, Galford. But your soul is blacker than Amakusa's."
"I didn't do it, Rimururu. Whatever it was that happened, I wasn't there. I've never lied to you or Nakoruru, and I'm not lying now. I'd kill myself before I so much as harmed a hair on your sister's head, and you know it."
"It's true, girl! He didn't leave our Iga fortress once while he was with us! I swear upon my life!" Ruoh spat desperately.
Rimururu wasn't listening. Her face bunched up with contorted emotion and she lunged at Galford with murder in her eyes.