Written by Pirate Burn !K!
Pain. There never seemed, in his entire life at the moment, anything else but pure pain. Wincing, the young ninja tried to get up on his feet… and failed. He managed to collapse in an upright position, however. The world was red as blood from the cut on his forehead flowed into his eyes. But the only thought that raced through his war-weary mind was survival, was if he had done his mission alright. Alarmed by the thought that his adversary might be still alive, he forced himself up, leaning heavily against his blood-soaked sword. Although the land insisted on revolving around his bleary senses, he assumed his fighting stance, fighting the wearniness that threatened to overcome him.
/If I did not do it right, the entire island will be in peril./
He looked wildly around him, and was relieved to find the sprawled body of his foe a couple of feet away from him. Fresh blood like wine spilled over the jagged rocks.
/I did it./
His alert senses picked up footfalls to his right, and he oh-so-painfully turned in that direction, blade at the ready, although he wondered if he could survive another battle.
/My caltrops all used up, no shurikens, and empty heal-bottles./
Nevertheless, the warrior’s instinct in him prevailed, and he readied himself for a battle. The hand that held the bloody hilt was shaking, and he was just about to pounce when the shadows came nearer when —
The voice that cried out his name made him want to break down in relief, but he held himself. Looking up, two blurry red silhouettes made their way through the rocky ground and the bodies strewn about. The taller of the two red-tinted figures rushed up beside him and supported him, giving him the strength he needed to literally stand up. From his blurred vision, he could make out two almond-shaped eyes creased in worry. His partner made it out alive, after all.
“Kiku is alright. We had a fix up earlier in the Tunnel of Reifu, but they’re off now.”
Her worried voice as she led him against a wall of rock.
“Are YOU okay?”
/I had meant to ask if YOU were okay, Ayame. I know wherever the princess is, she will be fine./
He took a long gulp from the healing-bottle, relished how it cooled the fever that raged within him.
“I have… defeated… Mei-Oh.”
He gestured toward the intert body that lay crumpled a few feet away from where he once collapsed himself.
“Although I don’t know how I survived–“
“Reserve your strength,”
his partner ordered sternly, wiping with her own bandana the blood that blurred his vision.
“And rest awhile. You… you have been through… a lot.”
The relief in her voice almost made her falter. He knew that they couldn’t dally inside the cave forever… this was enemy territory, and to rest in the adversary’s soil would be dangerous.
“We need to get out of here. This is a demon’s cavern, and we don’t know what other curses and traps he has put up here.”
He lent his weight on Ayame, who supported best she could, before he could take back some of his own. Standing alone was an obstacle. Ayame knew her partner too well to question his decision.
She pointed towards a jutting outcropping of rock that served to partially hide a narrow opening in the cave wall.
“Kiku and I discovered that there was a spring that cut through the path in that tunnel. It could lead outside. We were just about to crawl there when I sensed you.”
If they could sense their enemies, Azuma ninja could sense each others’ thoughts as well. For some reason, her explanation reminded him of a childish game they used to play as kids in the Ninja village, called Seek the Shadow. It was a lot like a ninja version of hide and seek.
“You… you gave up escape to find me.”
It was the only thing that he could think of to say as he concentrated in putting one foot in front of the other. Ayame frowned.
“Oh quit being so self-sacrificing! And let’s get out of here. This cave gives me the creeps.”
To her surprise, Rikimaru threw his head back and laughed. It was the first funny thing he had ever heard of that hectic day.
And as the duo made their way unsteadily to the elevated tunnel, the princess, who was waiting inside, waved them over.
“No such nonsense.”
Ayame shifted her weight so she could better support him.
“In your condition, you couldn’t lead a brigand of Azuma-gumi on the best day.”
A tinge of humor touched her tones. Rikimaru remembered how they used to call themselves the Azuma gumi, Tatsumaru, himself, Ayame and another kid named Takeshi. When the elder and more experienced Tatsumaru would feel generous, he would allow the platinum-haired Rikimaru to take leadership.
“I’ll lead, and you follow. Kiku can stay between us. In case there is any activity in the other end, I’ll handle it for now.”
They made their way through the rocks and the strewn bodies. Rikimaru heard the voice in his head before it echoed in a sonorous baritone across the cavern, making debris and chips of rock fall off the ceiling.
Ayame, her senses in full alert, looked around wildly for the source of the eerie, unintelligible chanting. Their eyes both fell on the body of Mei-Oh the ‘slayed’ demon, whites of the eyes shining a light that started to grow as the bloody, cracked lips moved to a song that neither ninja could comprehend.
Long ago, as children, they had been told tales by the old wives about how demons liked to curse their enemies and captors just before dying a violent death. The only way for it to be stopped, they said, was for the demon to be speared through the heart just before the curse ended. Of course the person who usually did that never survived, or barely lived at all, lucky enough to come out of it intact and whole. Mei-Oh looked like he didn’t want the curse to end just yet, and looked as if he was slowly building it up in momentum, like a snowball down a white mountain. Thoughts raced across Rikimaru’s head as swiftly and as randomly as lightning.
/Mei-Oh was supposed to be dead. Damn./
/Five years of bad luck…/
/The princess and Ayame./
/To be a ninja is to serve… even if it means your life./
He knew what to do, and with the thought came renewed strength that he withdrew from the hidden reserves in his body. With a cry, he heaved Ayame up the tunnel so violently that she nearly bruised her shoulder against the rocks. Unsheathing his blade, he jumped down, and started to hobble up to where Mei-Oh sat, chanting. The light was getting brighter, and soon, a shrill whistling tone accompanied the eerie chanting. Ayame knew what her friend was up to. She turned.
“Rikimaru!! What in the name of the gods–“
He turned then, and the look in his eyes almost made her falter. It was as if he told his entire life’s story with his eyes, as if finally the ice that held the emotions in check finally broke down.
“Take care of Kiku and our Lord, Ayame. Truly, you’re the only one who can lead the Azuma-gumi now.”
He took a few painful steps forward, fighting himself and clutching his sword tightly.
Tears of frustration and fear streamed down her cheeks as she started to make her way down the tunnel when a voice from the far end of the tunnel called her back.
“Kiku needs you, Ayame. You know what the old wives used to say. I’m the only one who can stop Mei-Oh. To be a ninja is to serve… even if it means your life.”
He shook her empty healing-bottle.
“I needed this.”
The light was getting brighter.
/Why is it that I have to lose every single person that I have ever held dear…!?!/
The cavern was alight with a grotesque brightness, defining Rikimaru’s pitiful shape struggling to reach the chanting demon-body.
/The Master… and Tatsumaru… the village… now the only person I have ever trusted with my life…/
And the light and the screaming overwhelmed her senses, so that she had to cover her eyes and shield herself, and she knew no more.
/Will you be there when I open my eyes…?/
But the last thing she remembered was Rikimaru ramming into the demon with his sword, his lips turning up to what looked like the first smile he had ever worn.
The little girl did not look up even as the black-haired proprietress asked for her name. Even as her adoptive “aunt” chided her for an answer, she kept her eyes downcast.
“There is a perpetual sadness in this little girl,”
explained the aunt to the proprietress in a hushed voice, looking worriedly at the little girl whose limp grip she held in her own.
“She is not stupid, as you may think. She just… does not talk much.”
The proprietess smiled.
“I understand. She looks intellegent, you know. Maybe it was something that happened in her past?”
said the aunt, shaking her head.
“In fact I found her only three years ago in a basket by the side of the river under the Mitsubishi bridge. My husband and I raised her up to now, because we just cannot feed another mouth. It’s not that we do not like her…”
repeated the proprietress, gently smiling.
“There are many children in this orphanage who are much like her. I think she will be happier here,”
she added, a knowing and intriguing smile on her face. Bending down, she addressed the littl girl, whose sad gray eyes reluctantly left the floor.
“My name is Older Sister Meiyo. What is your name again, little one?”
For the first time ever, a tiny spark of hope shone in her eyes.
“Older Sister… Meiyo… My name is… is… Aya.”
“Little Aya. She will want to play with other children, will she not? Well then. I bet you will be bored just watching your aunt and myself exchanging the necessary forms. Why don’t you follow these pink arrows on the wall? They will lead you to a room where you can play and be happy!”
She gestured to the pink arrow-shaped stickers that lined the corridor walls, mainly intended to direct lost and wandering young new wards back to the place they were supposed to be staying.
Little Aya nodded, and looked up at her “aunt”, smiling her sad smile.
she muttered, and walked, head still downcast, down the corridor. She did not understand why she was always like this, even. She knew that she should be happy in a playground of kids her age, but there was an gaping emptiness inside her she knew she could not fill if she did not search for it. As she rounded the corner, echoes of tiny shouts and children’s voices from the play room caught her attention. She stopped, and stood at attention, cocking her head this way in curiousity.
“These will be the children you will be playing with, Aya-chan,”
said the proprietress gently, for the elder woman had reappeared behind the young girl, and opened the door… A middle-aged man sitting on a low table with a story book on his lap looked up when she entered. About Five children, all about her age stopped in their childish debate and turned to her. Instantly, she knew part of her had been filled. The faces seemed oddly familiar… she knew she should smile and curtsey or bow and introduce herself, but somehow she knew that it was not necessary. Aya stood there, gaping.
“Let me introduce you,”
said Meiyo, leading a bewildered Aya with the hand.
“This little girl here is Kagamiya-chan, and she’s about your age. Kagamiya?”
The said little girl, her black hair tied back in a high ponytail, nodded in her direction, a knowing, but warm smile in her lips.
“These three here,”
she gestured to three funny-looking littl boys, who stopped in their mock-battle to stare at her,
“are Byakkono, Suzatsuke and Gezubo.”
The first two only smiled her way politely, but the fat Gezubo broke out in a huge smile and nearly bellowed in his childish voice,
“Nice lady Aya!”
the proprietress’ smile widened secretively, as she gestured to the sitting man and one of the children,
“This is Older Brother Shiunsai. This little boy here is Tatsu. Say hello, Tatsu.”
Aya only stared. She knew them, somehow… Tatsu grinned, exposing chips in his teeth.
He grasped her hand warmly in his.
“It’s been a long time, you know.” “I… I… Tatsu…”
She could not explain the excited maelstrom building up inside of her at this new introduction.
“There seems to be someone missing,”
“Oh yes, the little dragon. He’s gone to get a drink of water, I suppose,”
commented Shiunsai, his eyes twinkling. At that moment the door behind them swung open violently.
“I brought you guys waterrrrr!!!”
Aya whirled around to face the door, where a sturdy little boy with platinum-blonde hair stood, waving a black Coleman in the air triumphantly. A slight scar ran through his forehead and through his left eye. When he saw Aya, he stopped and stared too.
/Will you be there when I open my eyes?/
The little boy looked at her, confused.
“Of course, silly. We’ve been waiting for you, you know.”
And then she broke out into the first joyful smile in her life. Something that was so strong that it transcended through time burst inside her and she ran across the room and threw herself, crying and laughing at the same time, at the platinum-haired little boy.
The little boy dropped the Coleman and hugged her back.
“You’ve been the leader for just too long now.”
Shiunsai was the one now grinning,
“This is Rikki. He just came in last month, like you. He’s our little dragon.”
Aya didn’t need to know what that meant.