As soon as Kiyashi stepped through the doorway, she was greeted by a shout from behind the bar counter.
That phrase made Kiyashi’s heart swell with a warm sensation and she felt a smile form on her lips. It was a phrase that she had not heard in a long time.
The interior of the tavern had a high ceiling, with wooden beams running across, between the support pillars that held up the structure as a whole. The several long tables on the floor had either round stools or benches lining them. No one was seated at the tables and the metal frame lanterns hanging from the ceiling cast warm orange shadows on the wood.
On the wall to the right of the entrance, there was a crackling fireplace, the popping of the wood and the soft scent of smoke filled the space, climbing to the ceiling as well.
Between the counter and the far wall, there were stairs that led up to a second level, which took up only half the area of the first floor. It had a banister running along its edge, making it look more like a landing than an extra floor.
Sendo closed the door behind them and noticed Kiyashi’s expression and smiled as well. Then he strode towards the counter, waving in return.
“Yamato, I’m back.”
“And found a friend, I see.”
Yamato was a mustached man with long hair tied back in a low ponytail. Throwing a towel over his shoulder, he grabbed two mugs and poured something hot into them. Steam curled upwards from them, creating intricate designs in the air.
Following Sendo, Kiyashi walked up to the counter and sat on one of the tall bar stools. Although she and Sendo were the only two people in the tavern besides the barkeep, she did not feel like it was quiet and lonely. Perhaps it was the barkeep’s big smile and welcoming demeanor; the interior of the tavern seemed cheerful and comfortable, like being home.
The feeling of “being home” was the last thing that Kiyashi expected to feel after being tossed into an unknown world with the sole purpose of killing or being killed.
Her thoughts were interrupted by a soft knock on wood. Kiyashi turned her gaze back to the countertop where she was sitting and saw that the barkeep had set one of the mugs down in front of her. She looked to him and then to Sendo, who nodded. Gripping the mug with both her hands, she raised it to her lips and took a sip.
It was as if she had taken a sip of electricity. The flavours of it danced around in her mouth and zapped her body full of warmth that the cold of the outside was a long-forgotten memory. And it was delicious.
“What is this?,” Kiyashi asked. Her face must have had the most awestruck expression because the barkeep burst into loud belly laughs.
“Young lady, it’s just vegetable stew.”
“Really? It’s so delicious!” Kiyashi practically shouted.
The barkeep chuckled. “I’m glad you like it. This one over here,” he continued, gesturing at Sendo, “He didn’t like it at first. And look at him now.”
Putting down his mug, Sendo glared at the barkeep in half-jest. “Yamato, it wasn’t an issue of my palate. It was an issue with your cooking.”
Chuckling again, the barkeep turned back to Kiyashi. “Allow me to introduce myself, or has Sendo done so already, I can’t tell. The name’s Yamato and I’m the master of The Hand.”
“It’s a pleasure to meet you and your cooking. My name is Kiyashi.”
After Kiyashi and Sendo finished the stew, Yamato gathered their mugs and washed them in the sink. As he wiped the dishes, Yamato spoke to Kiyashi over his shoulder.
“So, I see you’re a new face around here. Did you just fall in?”
“Fall in? Yes… yes, I just got here.”
“Well, then welcome to the Hollow. Did Sendo tell you about the system here?”
“The system?” Kiyashi turned to look at Sendo.
“Yamato, we barely escaped an outlaw. We made it just in time to the light border.”
“Looks like someone wasn’t paying attention to the time, as usual.”
Sendo hung his head in his hand. “You, do have a point there.”
Putting away the now dry dishes, Yamato turned to the two of them and leaned on the counter. The warm smile had faded and a serious expression had formed on the barkeep’s face.
“Here in the Hollow, the only way to survive your day to day is by completing your daily norma. Your norma comes to you in the form of a list that appears to you every day.”
“Here’s mine for today,” said Sendo, reaching into his satchel and pulling out the slightly crumpled small piece of parchment paper.
Kiyashi accepted the piece of parchment and looked at it. It had Sendo’s name and the word “Day” with the three digit number of 267, in a type reminiscent of typewriter font. And below that, there was a numbered list ending in the number 3. Each line had a line through it, with the letters that were crossed out barely visible on the page.
Yamato continued. “Every time you clear your norma, the name gets crossed off and the ink fades.”
“And that ink is, in turn, imprinted on your skin,” Sendo finished.
“Imprinted on your skin?” Kiyashi was almost lost for words and could barely get the question out. She looked straight at Sendo and he simply nodded and then pulled up one of his sleeves.
Starting from his wrist to his elbow, dark strings of letters encircled his arm, rings of ink.
Kiyashi realised that she had seen those dark rings on Sendo’s wrist when she had grasped his hand earlier, as he pulled her into the tavern’s light barrier. Her eyes darted from the paper in her hand, with the three lines crossed out, with the faded letters, to Sendo’s arm, inky letters looping up around his entire forearm. She felt the once delicious stew aftertaste sour on her tongue and she held a hand up to her mouth. Her other hand balled up into a fist. Kiyashi felt a cold rush and her body shivered once.
“How could… Why… Why is this…” Words tumbled from her mouth, phrases not completely forming.
Was this the game that the voice had mentioned? How was this a game? This was just a death match, a “survival of the fittest” situation. This was inhumane. Anyone with a shred of humanity in them would not do this… That voice, that hooded figure… It was a monster. It was something that had no empathy for other living things. It just wanted to watch them kill and be killed… It just wanted to watch them die. And call it entertainment… a “game.”
Lost in her thoughts, Kiyashi felt a touch on her shoulder and looked up to see that Yamato had reached out and was gently patting her on the back.
“It’s simply the rules of this world,” Yamato said. “We must kill and be inked with the names of those whose lives we ended. And the only salvation that we have is the possibility of escaping this hell by completely covering our entire body with that dastardly ink. That is the ticket to freedom.”
“I thought that was just a rumour.” Sendo had rolled down his sleeve, put away his daily list, and had set his bow and arrows on the counter with a rustle.
“Hey, a rumour is better than nothing,” countered Yamato.
Kiyashi breathed in and out, to the rhythm of Yamato’s pats and opened her eyes. Her head felt a bit clearer. The mention of possible salvation had perhaps cleared the fog of doubt and fear that had descended on her mind. She reached up and touched the barkeep’s hand with a murmured thank you.
Seeing that she was better, Yamato smiled again and patted the countertop.
“So, weapon inspection time it is!”
Confused at the barkeep’s words, Kiyashi looked towards Sendo.
“Yamato is also a weaponsmith,” said Sendo, “so I guess you can say that the tavern is also something of a smithy.”
“That’s right,” Yamato responded, donning some strange looking goggles and lighting a countertop lantern that shone very brightly. “I can take a look at your weapons if you like.”
Kiyashi blinked then remembered her katana that hung from her belt. Untying it, she gingerly lifted it and laid it atop the counter. The dark lacquer-like surface glowed in the light.
When Yamato turned his attention to Kiyashi’s katana, his smile froze on his lips and his jaw dropped.
“What’s up, Yamato?” Sendo questioned, a mixed expression of concern and curiosity forming on his face. Kiyashi sat, puzzled as well, at the barkeep’s reaction.
A moment of silence passed with the barkeep frozen like he had turned to stone. Then his face twitched and his expression fell back into place. And he opened his mouth.
“This is the first time, to my knowledge, that someone has appeared with a katana.”