Chapter 3:

Chapter 3: Iga

Ninjutsu Saga


“What would you like engraved in it, sir?” The clerk behind the glass counter asked, hosting a wide array of twinkling artifacts. In her palm, she held a golden locket.

“To my one and only.” The customer said decisively. “So if we split up, I can give it to the next person!”

Suddenly, a thunderous noise ripped through the air. Every patron in the jewelry store spun toward the front doors, where the two guards posted outside collapsed. After that, a slim, short figure strolled inside. He donned blue and white pieces of traditional Japanese garb beneath a flowing, black trench coat. A blue scarf concealed his nose and mouth while a black eyepatch sat over his right eye. Despite his deliberate strut toward the center of the shop, his body seethed an aggressive, young enthusiasm.

“Everyone, on the ground!” The young man declared, drawing a submachine gun from the depths of his coat and firing off warning shots into the air. The bullets dotted the ceiling and loudly shattered a chandelier hanging overhead. Immediately, everyone within the shop fell to their stomachs, trembling nervously. “Now someone tell me where the safe is!” He barked, sweeping his one eye over the shop.

“It’s over there!” Cried one of the employees, aiming his trembling finger at the far wall where a large canvass hung. “Behind that painting!”

The cloaked intruder lowered the barrel of his gun toward the artwork. Mercilessly, he unloaded his magazine at the painting, tearing its fabric canvas and wooden frame to shreds. The patrons cried out in terror over the deafening shots. The stream of bullets arrived at a halt. Silence once again befell the room. The cloaked boy lowered the smoking barrel of his weapon, his eye scoping out the unharmed, round hatch door underneath the bullet hole-ridden painting.

“Bullet proof. Just as I thought.” He muttered, though a slimy grin lifted the corners of his cheeks underneath his scarf. “Oh well. Let’s see if it’s RPG-proof…”

He slowly drew open his coat, stowed the SMG away into one of the many pockets lining its interior, before digging his hand inside further. At last, he drew a gargantuan metal chute from his jacket. After resting the rocket launcher over his shoulder, aiming his good eye down the sight, and squeezing the trigger, a cone-shaped missile soared across the length of the room, landing against the metal safe. The shell exploded on impact, enveloping the air in black smoke and red hellfire. A shockwave rolled over the hostages on the floor, letting out startled, terrified screams.

As soon as the last echoes of the blast faded from the air, the boy in the coat entered the cloud of smoke billowing in one half of the store. He stomped over the remains and rummaged through the rubble.

“There it is…” He hissed with satisfaction. From the shattered remains of the safe, he plucked a roughly cut, crimson gemstone, pinched between his index and thumb.

With the gem in one hand and the other resting the rocket launcher over his shoulder, the boy strolled away toward the doors through which he entered. The crowd’s nervous eyes followed him as he made his casual exit.

~~~

One hand carried her brown duffle. The other toted an overflowing paper shopping bag. Lugging both things, Ren approached June’s shop the next day after school. As she entered, June spied her from behind the counter, immediately gaining an irked expression.

“Where were you? You were supposed to be here two hours ago.” She barked.

Ren shrugged. “Had to pick up some things.” She retrieved a pair of high-heels and some earrings from her bag and set them down on an adjacent coffee table. “I was actually wanting to ask you if I could work a double shift tomorrow, Saturday instead. I have something I have to do tonight.”

“Where did you say you got those?” June asked, ignoring Ren’s request and eyeing the pearl earrings.

“Not important.” She set her bag on the floor and opened it. “Now, I know I have a dress in here somewhere,” Ren said, bending over and rummaging through it.

When Ren looked back up at the coffee table, she found both her shoes and jewelry were gone. She shot her gaze at June, who held the hot contraband in her hands.

“Hey, those are mine!”

“Oh, I seriously doubt that.” June said crossly. “I don’t see a receipt so tell me, did you obtain these through legal means or not?”

“And what if I didn’t? What does that matter to you?”

“I’ll tell you exactly why: because the more you steal, the higher risk you run of getting caught. I don’t want any of this Incognito Bandito business going on while you’re under my roof, because I’m not bailing you out more than once. That would be a loss on both our ends. Capiche?”

“Fine!” Ren threw her arms in the air. “Here, have this dress while you’re at it. It makes me look like a stuffed sausage.” She tossed the sparkly, sequined dress at June and stormed out of the shop.

~~~

Bass loud enough to scramble her insides reached her ears through the oak doors in front of her. After following Diego’s directions, she faced the entrance to a clay house numbered “647 Oak Park Avenue”. The only spot along the sleepy road alive, it seemed, as she watched dancing silhouettes illuminated by colorful lights flash and thrash to the beat of the pulsing music.

“This is it.” Ren thought, cracking a half-smile. “A chance to really sink my teeth into this con by mingling with the students. Forget low-profile. I make it big-time.” Her smirk suddenly fell, however, as a look of guilt flashed across her face. “No. That can’t be the only reason I’m doing this. Not everything I do isn’t a deception, is it?” A fluttering sigh exited her lips and she shut her eyes. Her arm tiredly lifted to grasp the handle of the door. “Guess there’s only one way to find out…”

The precise second Ren turned the knob and drew open the entrance, a fist sprung out like a jack-in-the-box and clocked her square in the forehead, sending her sailing back almost a full yard. After she landed on the ground, before the pain of the strike had time to settle, Ren watched a gorilla-sized hand reach down. It grabbed her by her hoodie’s collar and dragged her up to where she faced a pair of wild, bloodshot eyes.

“Hola, Ren.” Missy Martinez whispered through gritted teeth. “Time’s up, Chiquita. You owe me my money and your knight in shining off-brand Nike’s ain’t here to save you this time.”

With a mighty shove, Ren teetered backward, fumbling to regain her footing. It wouldn’t last, though, for immediately after, she was thrust even harder from behind. Ren spun around to see a tall thug that had shunted her. Pain erupted once again against Ren’s right shoulder. Another punch from another one of Missy’s cronies sent Ren flying in the opposite direction. There, she was grabbed by the shoulders, and lastly, head-butted to the ground by Missy herself.

Ren’s vision grew fuzzy as she lay there, cheek plastered against the cold, concrete driveway. She felt her keenness begin to fade as her eyelids grew heavier and heavier. The biting agony spreading across every inch of her body and the tired clouds swirling through her brain told Ren that she would pass out at any second.

However, after Ren closed her eyes expecting to doze off, they shot open. Without warning, Ren felt each chain of inhibition in her mind break as something rose from her slumber to seize her mind: rage. Her fists quivered, her eyes watered, her face turned hotter than an oven. Glaring up only to find Missy’s dumb mug, twisted in confusion, only fed her anger. Straining to contain it, Ren listened to her heartbeat in her ears. Her veins bulged from her skin. Her pulse accelerated.

She squeezed her eyes shut, just as she felt the surging energy reach its climax. Her entire form quaked. “I’ve never felt a rush like this before. It’s like… I’m about to explode…”

But just like that, every fiber of tension slipped away. The strength still pounding through her with each slow heartbeat, flowed at an even rate as if her learning how to channel the rush of power. Ren’s eyes crept open, revealing that her irises had developed a deep, scarlet tint. Every inch of her vision shimmered an identical color as she watched Missy and her thugs running toward her. However, through the keen, crimson filter of her gaze, their speed was halved.

“It’s like they’re running through red Jell-O.” Ren observed. Her fists closed firmly beneath her waist. “That’s not even the strangest thing, though. What on earth is this feeling? Usually when I’m faced with a situation like this, I turn and book it. But why not now? Why do I now want to pound them into a meaty paste?” A thin ribbon of breath traveled through Ren’s pursed lips. Her thoughts fell quiet as her instincts took over. At blinding speeds, she bounded toward the approaching goons.

The first one Ren approached threw a slow-motion punch toward her face. Her hand leapt up and caught it mid-swing. Using his arm, she flipped him upside down with a simple twist of her wrist. Catching his airborne foot, Ren spun him around and tossed him into the second thug. They both collapsed beneath the weight of her throw, crumpling to the ground as she once had. Ren had hardly stopped to consider where her sudden gust of strength came from, for she still had one more enemy to face.

Ren slowly approached the third and final boy. He peered into her hot, crimson gaze, terror visibly wide across his face. Despite his vivid horror, his fists quivered at his sides.

When he swung at Ren’s brow, she easily snatched his wrist. When he launched a punch with his other arm, Ren caught it as well. With both his arms trapped, Ren hopped into the air, faced the soles of her shoes toward his chest, and extended her legs. With both feet together, she kicked the boy’s trunk, shooting him backward through the air until he collided with the wall of the house.

At last, Ren faced Missy, whose eyes widened to the size of basketballs and whose feet sat glued to the earth. Missy watched her cross the distance between them in under a second. Immediately, Ren’s fist popped out and plowed into her gut. Missy doubled over from the blow, bringing her face close to Ren’s. She reached out, took Missy by the collar as she once had, cocked her head back, and smashed her forehead against hers. Every ounce of rigidity evaporated from Missy’s joints, causing her to crumple to the ground right as Ren released her collar.

Ren’s strength finally started to wane, normalcy washing back over her. She squinted her eyes shut and winced at the sensation. When they opened, her autonomous thought had returned. The crimson light bathing her eyes had vanished as well, returning them to their normal, dark hue. She paused to sweep her eyes over the battlefield, littered with the bodies of her groaning victims. The longer Ren gazed, the higher her nausea rose within her.

The front door flew open as confused partygoers poured onto the lawn outside to see what had caused the commotion. What they saw were the remains of a war zone. Every mouth hung open. Their gaze lifted from the fallen up to the lone victor, standing triumphant over the defeated bodies: Ren. She however, felt anything except victorious.

She reciprocated the crowd’s terrified stares. Among the heads, she spied classmates from gym, students she recognized in the hallway, Angelo’s shaggy golden bangs, and finally, Diego, appearing the most stunned out of all of them.

Slowly, Ren staggered away from the crowd. Their intense, silent eyes refused to let up. Finally, she turned away from the scene and sprinted off, struggling to quell off the tears rising in her eyes.

“Is this what I get for thinking I could abandon the bandito act and just be a kid for once?” Ren’s thoughts blared as she bolted down the sidewalk. She counted the distance from the house behind her by the round patches of light emanating from the streetlamps overhead. Each one she passed beneath cast their revealing yellow glares over her one by one. With each, she imagined another set of terrified eyes gouging into her. The guilt wringing her stomach steadily mounted. “I don’t know if this is karma or what, but how come when I don’t try looking for trouble, it ends up finding me instead?”

Then, as if to prove her point, Ren heard a noise. She froze in her tracks and whirred around to see what had caused the sound behind her, but she found nothing except empty sidewalk. Cautiously, she faced forward to resume, though that time at a gradual, suspicious wander. Right as she did, however, there was another. Her blood turned to ice.

“What the- is something following me?” She thought, eyes darting back and forth. “Is it Missy wanting revenge? Or is this something else…” Terrified at the possibility, Ren sprinted away again. “I’m not sure whether those sounds are real or just in my head, but I’d rather be safe than sorry.”

Her feet slapped against the concrete. Her panting breath permeated the air. Her legs started to run faster than the rest of her body, suddenly causing them to fly out from under her.

“Crap!”

She landed upon her right arm. A crisp, nauseating snap folded through the atmosphere. Hot agony washed over her like lava. She curled her toes. Her jaw clenched shut and a pained groan emerged from the back of her throat.

Ren didn’t linger on the pain, though, for the sounds grew louder in her ears. At that volume, she could finally distinguish them. From their weight and rhythm, they were footsteps. She peeled her face off the sidewalk and immediately spied a narrow alleyway to her right. Its vague depths called to her beckoningly.

“It sure ain’t the way to the antique shop, but I’m running out of time and options!” In addition to the shuffling footsteps, Ren also listened to sharp metallic clicks and deep breathing.

After hoisting up her body, she sprinted down the dark passage. The streetlamps behind her grew dim the further she ventured into the black depths. Through the murky, midnight air, she saw the alleyway end ahead at a sharp left turn. But when Ren swung left to follow the path further, her feet skidded to a halt. Her eyes developed a glazed-over, horrified gleam.

Mere meters in front of her, a brick wall reached across the width of the backstreet, completely severing her path. A blend of fear and tiredness pounded through her body with every heartbeat.

“I’m trapped! What am I gonna do now?”

Thud.

Ren heard another noise. That time, it landed louder, more distinctly against her ears, and it emanated from right behind her back. An amorphous shape fell from the roof of the surrounding building and landed just a few meters behind her, producing no sound other than what Ren heard.

When she worked up the strength to turn around, a colorless, concentrated void began to take on the vague shape of a human. It approached her, growing larger in her field of vision. Ren’s shallow breath fell silent, hanging in the back of her throat.

As the phantom steadily drew closer, entering the cool, blue moonlight, Ren deciphered more of its details. Although the figure towered over her, his height was average. His build was slender and compact, wrapped in various shades of blue and white cloth robes. They fit him closely underneath an open, flowing black trench coat that reached the ground behind him. His arsenal, consisting of firearms of every caliber and blades of every conceivable make, spilled from the pockets lining the inside of his coat. His hands, wound in white strips of cloth, hovered at his sides. Although a long, blue hood hung over his head and a scarf wrapped around his mouth to hide his expression, Ren could feel the malice swim about him.

The boy closed his fists. Ren’s skin crawled. The nearer he came, the further away she shrunk, eventually pressing her back flat against the brick wall.

“Is this it…?” Ren thought. The backs of her eyeballs burned. Her chest ached with each sputtering heartbeat. “Is this the end?”

A grey cloud of smoke engulfed the entire alley. Ren buried her face into her forearm to shield herself from the eye-stinging gas. Meanwhile, the boy in the coat staggered a surprised step back.

“Smoke?” Ren squinted. “What the hell is happening?”

After a few seconds, when the smell of sulfur dispersed, Ren cracked open one eye. As soon as she did, she made the discovery that she and the enemy were no longer alone. In between them, there stood another figure, back facing Ren, arms folded across his chest. His baggy pants and sleeveless top matched the color of the midnight sky. Red bands of cloth coiled around his forearms and looped between each of his fingers. Ren glanced at the crimson belt hanging around his waist. There she discovered the handle of a blade, drawn into a slight curve, protruding from a red, lacquered scabbard. Ren attempted to scope out his face, but similarly to the warrior donning blue, a hood hung over his head.

Ren watched the boy in the coat fish out a carbine, aim its long, glistening barrel at the man standing before her, and loop his finger through the trigger guard to fire. She pressed herself flatter against the wall in desperation. However, the second he pulled the trigger, the man in black leapt into the air and performed a grand backflip over the gunner. High above the ground, he opened his arms like wide wings. A net woven with tight, iron threads emerged from his airborne figure. Its surface landed on top of the gunner, flooring him immediately. The round, metal weights tethered to each corner of the square net cracked the concrete beneath them upon their descent.

The black warrior’s feet silently reunited with the earth. Much less gracefully, the gun-wielding enemy writhed on the ground under the net’s weight, like a worm plucked from its earthy domain. His entire artillery spilled across the concrete. He emitted small, struggled grunts as he attempted to free himself, only becoming more tangled in the process.

Ren blinked her eyes in disbelief. “What the hell just happened? Normally, if I have a dream as crazy as this, I would’ve woken up by now. So why… why haven’t I yet?” She shut her eyes, feeling a chill whip through her as the grave realization settled in. “No. I already know the answer. I truly was in danger. I truly did witness all of that. What I should be asking is how I haven’t fainted yet.”

The black warrior turned around to face Ren. He began to approach, his piercing, focus gaze becoming more visible the closer he came. The hair across the back of her neck stood on-end.

“Stay back!” She cried. “If I managed to beat up Missy, I could drop you too, so watch it!” Despite her boisterous claims, she couldn’t help from shivering.

Surprisingly, the figure paused. For a while, he was still. Then, deliberately, he reached up to his black hood and grabbed it with both hands. When he drew down his cowl, Ren’s eyes swelled. Disbelief shot through her.

“Diego?”

“Evening, Ren.” Diego smiled. He proudly flaunted his tangled, dark curls, emerald stare, and thin facial scar.

“What’s going on?” Ren asked, voice noticeably cracking. “That guy… who…?”

A metallic, grinding sound entered the air. Diego’s head twisted in the direction of the noise, his eyes narrowing. There, he spied the enemy trapped in the net. With a long, curved blade, he sawed at the metal threads binding his body. The silver edge caught the moonlight, shooting its glare right into Ren’s eyes. She swallowed again in fear.

Diego shook his head. “I have no idea, but whoever he is, he’s bad news. Stay close, I’ll get you outta here.” He whispered, pulling a rope from the depths of his top and slinging it around a nearby building’s fire escape ladder. After pulling it down, he drew up his hood, and grabbed Ren’s jacket by the sleeve.

Diego and Ren scaled the fire escape that led up the side of the tall apartment complex. Ren could hear the similar and terrifying sounds of the enemy beneath them. By the time she reached the uppermost platform, Diego already stood waiting for her.

“Gotta be quicker than that.” He said jovially. Ren would’ve answered if she wasn’t bent over, catching her breath.

“Normally, I would’ve had no trouble catching up with you,” Ren wanted to answer. “But after the fight outside the party, combined with the near-death experience with that guy in the coat, and you showing up, don’t expect too much.”

Diego turned to the iron door leading into the building and stuck the needle into the keyhole. As he wriggled it around a bit, Ren started to stand up slowly. Just as she did, a metal star whizzed past her head and lodged itself into the brick wall mere inches from her nose. Diego gave it a worried glance.

“Inside!” He ordered. Throwing open the door and seizing Ren’s arm, he thrust her inside just as more metal stars pierced the wall where her head once occupied. Diego swiftly shut the fire escape entrance behind them. Right above his head, a bullet soared through the small window, shattering it and showering their heads with tiny glass fragments.

“This way.” He pulled Ren back onto her feet and through another door, that one leading into a long, tiled corridor. A dim, pale yellow light hung in the center of the hall, lined with wooden apartment doors. Just ahead, they spied a half-opened window leading outside. They started toward it down the hallway at a dash.

Halfway down the corridor, however, Ren once again paused to rest her hands on her knees. As Diego sped ahead, Ren doubled over, refilling her lungs with slow drags of oxygen.

The door to her right crashed open into a shower of wooden splinters. The enemy in the coat burst through as he lunged at Ren, still helplessly winded. Diego spun around to watch as he tackled her to the opposite wall, nudging his elbow beneath her jaw. With his other arm, he jammed the barrel of a silver revolver against Ren’s ear. She felt the gun’s heat waft from its shimmering steel.

Before the terror of her situation even had time to set in, a mighty kick sent the enemy corkscrewing away. His airborne body burst through the door on the opposite side of the hallway. Ren stumbled forward out of his grasp and reared back around to find Diego standing behind her.

“How did you do that?” Ren asked, surprised more with his heroic save than the near life-ending ambush. “How did you appear behind me so quickly?”

“Let’s save all questions for when we find Kenji.”

Unsurprisingly, before Ren had time to ask what on earth he meant, Diego took her by the hood, swiftly carried her to the window, and tossed her outside. She was airborne for approximately half a second before she landed against the slanted, tiled rooftop of a neighboring structure. Diego landed atop his two feet beside her, juxtaposing Ren’s clumsy bellyflop.

“We’re almost there. Don’t worry.”

“Does that mean I can sit down and get some rest soon?”

Diego crawled to the other side of the roof and slid down the gutter pipe to the ground. Ren rolled her eyes at his lack of an answer. She peered over the edge herself to find a large trampoline waiting below. She let out a sigh of relief and jumped off the roof to land on the springy surface. Unfortunately, Ren sprang up so high that she soared straight over the boundary net and began her plummet toward the concrete sidewalk. But before she landed, she was caught by Diego in a bridal position.

“Thanks.” Ren muttered as Diego lowered her to her feet.

“No need. It’s my sworn obligation tonight to protect you.” He sunk his head slightly in what only could be a subtle bow.

“Amazing. Everything that comes out of his mouth confuses me even more.”

They followed the sidewalk into an alleyway surrounded by two tall buildings. “Wait here.” Diego ordered, eyes aimed at the rooftops. He crouched low and leapt onto the side of one of the houses. Feet pressed against the wall, he sprung across the alley to the next structure. Diego continued to zigzag over the alleyway from wall to wall, approaching the roof.

“Amazing. He isn’t catching onto the walls at all. Rather it’s the force of his jumps that’s keeping him from falling. And here I was thinking I was the king of parkour…”

Atop the roof, Diego lowered a rope down to Ren. She grabbed on with the hand of her non-broken arm. With a single, swift pull, she rocketed up the full height of the building. She then landed with a thump onto the rooftop by Diego. The bones in her bottom immediately started to sear.

“See that building?” Diego asked, pacing toward the edge of the roof and aiming his finger at a nearby structure. “That’s where we’ll wait to meet Kenji. We’ll be safe there. I promise.”

When Ren glanced in his direction, she almost suffocated on her own terrified gasp. The gap separating them was the size of an entire absent building. And when she peered down at what lay beneath, it was no wonder. The concrete street was torn open from construction to reveal sharp pipes protruding toward the sky like fangs. The mere sight itself made Ren woozy.

“Fantástico… Just how does Diego plan to get across this?”

He placed one foot onto the ledge of the building. In his arms, he gathered the length of rope he used to pull Ren up. Hanging from its end, she saw a small, metal spike. A hole near the bottom of the spike allowed the rope to be fed through and tied off; a kunai.

“Just what is this guy…?”

Diego lassoed the rope in a wide circle, adding momentum to the spinning, iron spike. Finally, he released the kunai, launching it across the gap. Ren’s eyes tracked the rope as it arched through the air, watching it land against the brick wall with the force of a bullet, entering its surface. She followed the lead back to where she stood, seeing Diego tie it to a satellite dish protruding from the ground behind them. After finishing the knot and tugging on the rope a few times to test its tautness, he stood up.

“All set.” Diego dusted off his hands. “Let’s go.”

Ren’s heart thumped feverishly as Diego jumped onto the ledge and began striding across the tightrope. Without a visible ounce of effort, Diego traversed the gap as easily as running across the ground.

“I should’ve known Diego would take the most hazardous path possible…”

Before Ren realized it, Diego departed from the rope to land on the safehouse’s roof. He turned around to face her and waved Ren forward. Mimicking the way he said nothing, she shook her head. Diego made a praying motion with his hands, mouthing the word “Please.” Ren shut her eyes and bit her bottom lip.

“I know I’m not safe either way, but at least one path leads to Diego. And if I can reach him, there may be a chance I live after all.” She took a deep breath, opened her eyes, and stepped onto the ledge to prepare her perilous trek across the rope.

Cheeks filled with air and with every nerve in her body firing off each second, Ren placed one foot onto the wire. She carefully imparted her weight onto that foot before placing the other ahead of it. One by one, with stiff, rigid movements, she placed one step before the other, gradually making progress across the rope.

Just then, a gentle breeze blew through. Ren’s whole body tensed. Any tighter and her body would have imploded. Her balance slipped. Her arms wobbled frantically like flapping wings in a last bid to keep her balance. But it was no use. Gravity pulled on her waist, dragging her toward the abyss below. Fear entered her mind like a blade.

Right before she could utter her final prayers, Ren’s hand shot out and grasped the wire. She gazed up at her closed fist, more astonished than thankful. “What? How? I didn’t even know I had the strength to support myself like this, let alone react that quickly! It was like my arm gained a mind of its own just now!”

“Ren!” Diego whispered, loud enough for her to hear. “Whatever you do, do not look down!”

“Oh, no…” The corners of Ren’s frown quivered. “He said it. Those words. As soon as someone says, ‘don’t look down’, what else can you do but…?”

Going against all her inhibitions, Ren’s eyes dropped all the way to the black, amorphous depths. Soon after, her stomach took the plunge as well. Dizzy swirls appeared in her eyes.

“Listen to me, Ren. I’m coming over. You just hang in there, alright?”

An abrupt, earth-splitting boom rang throughout the air. A silver bullet narrowly whizzed ahead of Ren’s eyes. The air rippling in the bullet’s wake caused her bangs to blow back behind her stunned gaze. Her spine tingled. Every ounce of worry at what lay beneath her evaporated, replaced with a vivid, screaming horror.

Ren twisted her head to the right, facing the direction of the deadly bullet. To her surprise, the shooter wasn’t too hard to find. His black outline starkly blotted out the full moon’s luminescence. Upon the rooftop across the wide boulevard, the enemy lowered his sniper rifle to load again. Peering closer, Ren discovered his same flowing trench coat, billowing in the breeze behind him like a cape. That time, however, she could also spy his face underneath his drawn-back hood. One of his low eyes aimed down the scope of his rifle while the other sat hidden behind a black, familiar eye patch.

“Change of plans,” Diego said. “Hold on tight.”

Ren looked up at him, where he raised a star-shaped blade in the air. His eyes fixed on the rope behind her.

“I know where he’s going with this plan…” A second blade of fear cut into her. “More importantly, I know where I’m going with this plan…”

Ren’s gaze darted between Diego, raising his shuriken, and the sniper, taking aim with his rifle. Her eyes squeezed shut as she awaited imminent death in whatever form it took.

At the exact same time, the two projectiles flew. The enemy’s bullet zipped toward Ren’s head while the throwing star sped straight at the clothesline behind her. Diego held his breath, watching the two competing projectiles closing in on their respective marks.

The first to land was the star. It sliced through the rope, bisecting the taut wire. Gravity seized hold of Ren again, pulling her toward the awaiting, hungry pit. Ren’s knuckles flashed pale around the rope. But instead of entering the void, she swung on the rope like a jungle vine. A pang of relief almost washed over her. Her altered course, however, launched her straight toward the building’s window. And when she noticed this, her blood froze again.

A deafening crash spread throughout the air. As soon as Ren sailed through the window, her fingers released the rope. Instead of pain she felt, a heavy drowsiness wrapped around her. Her senses diminished. All her eyes could distinguish was black emptiness and sharp blades of glass orbiting her weightless body. All her ears could detect was the echoes of the breaking window and the faintly ringing shards, like windchimes. But not before long, even those senses slipped away also.

~~~

Her restful expression tightened. The corners of her lips twisted to form an uncomfortable frown. Her brows furrowed and the bridge of her nose crinkled. As a puff of breath exited her nostrils, a low, guttural groan rumbled her throat.

“Hey everyone, good news. She’s making faces.”

Ren’s eyes fluttered open to a scene of near pitch black. All that her tired eyesight could distinguish was Diego’s scruffy face hovering over her, hosting a look of cautious optimism, made visible by an implacable, stark-red light. His green eyes reflected that aggressive hue as they studied her.

“Rise and shine.” He said, offering her a weary grin. “How do you feel? That was one hell of a fall.”

“Nonsense.” A second voice, octaves deeper than Diego’s, reached her ears. Ren’s head fell to the side against the soft surface upon which it lay to find a silhouette. It stood just beyond the reach of the scarlet light, revealing only its imposing outline. “It’s the lightest concussion I have ever seen.” The panic caused by the gruff baritone, its swift delivery, and the speaker’s apparent dimensions added to the unease of the light. The more dread filled her, the further her eyes opened as energy began to pool through her again.

“Who- who are you?” Ren’s voice shivered. She scooted backward while simultaneously sitting up; a feeble retreat from Diego’s looming head, the distant figure, and that infernal red glow. “Diego, who is he? What’s going on?”

“Don’t overexert yourself.” The tone rumbled again as the figure ventured a step closer. That single approach revealed more of his guise. A black outfit accented with red hems similar to Diego’s hugged his muscular form. His wide arms sat crossed over his square chest. The hood that hung over the young man’s head cast a deep shadow over the convex angles of his face. Through the blackness screening his expression, Ren could also detect a pair of glinting pupils aimed straight at her.

“Try not to frighten her, Kenji-san.” Ren watched as another figure, fully-visible, inserted herself between the lofty, imposing character and the bed where she lay shivering. Straight hair that seemed to match the glow’s color reached the crests of her shoulders. Most sat up in a tight bun, held by a pair of lacquered sticks. Her crimson bangs narrowly encroached over her thin brows. Her skin had a pale, pinkish tint to it, and was dotted with countless tiny freckles across every visible square inch.

“Kenji. She just called him Kenji.” Ren thought. “Where have I heard that name before?”

“Maybe I did rough her up more than I thought.” Diego stood up and pursed his lips. “Sorry, Ren.”

That was when it dawned on her. “Diego. He mentioned meeting with this Kenji guy. But that doesn’t erase my confusion at all…”

“What’s going on?” At last she uttered. The emerald eyes of both the freckled girl and the sharp pupils of the shadowy Kenji fixed on her. “Why are you all dressed like that? Why is everyone spying on me?” The more questions that spilled from her loose lips, the dizzier she felt from all the ones continuing to stir through her mind. “How do you know my name? Why am I here? What do you want from me!?”

“Ren.” A new voice spread through the air, sounding as though it emerged from every direction at once. “I am humbled to be meeting you for the first time.”

“Sensei!” The tall figure blurted, spinning around to face Ren with his back. He, Diego, and the red-haired girl all sunk their brows low to the floor.

Ren rose to her wobbly feet. Intrepidly, she stumbled forward. Her shoulders brushed against Diego and Kenji; the doors standing between her and the man they faced.

“We have watched over you for some time now.” A humanoid shape slowly materialized from the darkness hanging in the room’s corners. Ren studied his appearance carefully. White eyebrows rested confidently over his piercing, emerald eyes. Flowing, silver hair reached past his shoulders to end near his mid-back. His long mustache sat suspended above his flat mouth. The room’s strange shadows accentuated the shallow wrinkles and deep scars of his face. A white robe, held together by a black, fabric sash belt, sat loose over his physique. His chest was high and his posture, straight and influential. Despite his apparent age, he seethed an aura of authority and power from the moment he became visible. For some reason, Ren felt her panic slip away the longer she viewed him. “I realize things may not make sense right now, but I assure you, everything will be brought to light in due time.” His smooth, calming voice matched the sturdiness in his posture and the wisdom in his twinkling gaze.

“Finally, someone knows what they’re talking abo…” Ren’s words trailed off. Her bottom eyelid twitched. “Watching over me…?”

“We hesitated to ensure that you were securely out of harm’s way before our introduction. After all, if we are to ask you for your assistance, we must ensure you feel welcome.”

“Me? Assistance?” Ren shook her head in disbelief. “Look, I have no idea what reality you guys are living in, but it’s not the one I’m familiar with.”

“I assure you, Ren, we are quite real. Although in this day and age, some may have you think that we are not.”

“I’ve just about had it with these riddles…” An impatient edge entered Ren’s voice as her jaw clenched together. “I need some answers and I need them soon. Who are you?!” Her voice flew to a shout. Kenji beside her stirred but the scarlet-haired girl held up her index, signaling him to wait.

A smile formed under the man’s mustache. Steadily, he bowed forward while extending a hand toward the ground in front of him. It was then that Ren noticed the source of the room’s ruby light: a lantern, consisting of red paper held within a square wooden frame. As he took the lantern by the handle and raised it aloft, its radiance seemed to spread. Ren swept her gaze across her newly-lit surroundings and saw that the room’s dimensions were much closer than she predicted, especially the shallow ceiling hovering just inches above Kenji. Thin sheets of paper held within rectangular, wooden frames lined the walls of the square chamber. Some panels sat open, giving way to tangible darkness outside. Apart from the mattress Ren once occupied and a few square cushions across the tatami mat floors, the space was hollow.

When Ren peered back toward the old man, however, surprise washed over her at the sprawling portrait spanning the entire lacquered wall behind him. The print depicted men donning sets of armor and wide-brimmed helms toting swords, spears, and guns through a forest set ablaze. Twisted looks of fear struck each of the warrior’s faces. And at the center of the blood-soaked scene, igniting the fires of battle, were men garbed in black jumpsuits and low hoods. Identical to those worn by Diego and Kenji.

“We are only human beings. Members of a band indigenous to a land known as Iga. You may know it nowadays as part of Japan, but in my youth, the country was split by waters and armies. Much has changed since then with time rendering us a mere memory; a fantasy from a more dangerous age. But together, our band carries on the tradition of our homeland:” Ren gazed once again at the black-clad men at the heart of the mural. “The tradition of Ninjutsu.”

“You’re-” Ren’s stutter returned to the point she couldn’t pronounce a single word. “You’re Nin… Ninj…”

“We are called many things: spies, arsonists, warriors, even assassins, just to name a few. But the truth is, we are simply associates of the Iga-ryū clan. And I am Fujibayashi Nagato, the Dai-Jōnin leader of the Iga-ryū.”

A bout of silence ensued that seemed to last an eternity. While Ren’s lips quivered and she continued to gaze absently at the panel behind Nagato, her thoughts whickered, picking apart his every word like starving vultures. “I still have so many questions. There’s still so much that needs to be explained.” But when she opened her mouth to respond, all Ren could manage to utter was a short, quiet “Oh…”

“There is much to discuss.” Nagato bowed forward to place the lantern back on the floor, returning the room to the same amount of dim luminance as when Ren awoke. “But first, I believe more introductions are in order. Kenji? Daughter?”

As he slowly strolled off, entering the darkness looming toward the background, Ren turned to peer over her shoulder. She raised one single brow toward the freckled, red-haired girl behind her.

“You?” Ren murmured. “Daughter?”

“Do you take issue with that?” She hissed, crossing her arms over her chest. The danger in her yellow-green eyes sharpened. Ren’s expression soured to match hers.

“No. Not unless you don’t tell me what else I’m supposed to call you.”

At that, the girl performed an exaggerated roll of her eyes. “Then you may refer to me by Fujibayashi Akane-san. Does that placate you?”

“As you may know, my name is Kenji.” He said before Akane could speak another patronizing word. Ren’s focus shifted to him as he drew down his hood to reveal a chiseled face. His straight, jet-black hair was cropped short in an undercut style. His focused eyes bore a stern, yet reassured expression. His posture gave off an air of leadership, as much if not more than Nagato’s himself. “Shinobi rank blood moon, genin class.”

“Kenji, I don’t think she knows what any of that means yet.” Diego muttered. He glanced at Ren again. “And you already know who I am.” He gave her a small wave. Allowing a smile to come to her expression, she waved back.

“These three are among the most prestigious in all of Iga. Hence why I trusted them to guard after your wellbeing during this time.” Nagato said as he reentered the patch of scarlet light. In both hands, he carried a lacquered wooden tray, balanced atop which stood a pair of earthen cups. The room’s collective eyes snapped toward him, proceeding to hang off his every subtle movement. “I am glad they have been able to bring you here safely. But for now, you three, I must ask that you excuse yourselves. For as I said, there is much to discuss with Ren here.”

Without a beat of reluctance, Kenji folded forward in a steep bow. “Absolutely.”

After Akane and Diego performed a quick bow, they caught up with Kenji as he strode off toward some unknown exit of the room. For when he and Akane ducked into the wall of darkness surrounding the patch of crimson light, their presences utterly vanished. Diego flashed Ren one last knowing, encouraging look before joining them. Alone with Nagato, she turned slowly to face him. There she found him kneeling upon one of the square cushions, tray placed in front of him.

“May I offer you some refreshments?” He motioned before him. “At this age, unfortunately, most of what I can afford to consume now is only herbal tea. Nevertheless, you must be parched.”

“You bet I am…” Ren whispered under her breath, swiftly approaching the seat across the varnished platter from Nagato. When she sat, Nagato handed her a cup with both hands and raised his own. At the same time, they placed the brim of their cups to their lips and started to slurp down their drinks at equal volume.

A balloon of silence, filled only by their slow sipping, began to awkwardly inflate between them. As Nagato closed his eyes and tranquilly enjoyed his, Ren peered at him uneasily over the brim of her cup, becoming increasingly difficult the further her head tilted back.

Finally, Ren set down her tea, leaned forward, and said at a close, personal volume, “so why am I here exactly?”

“First, I was hoping that you would explain your name to me.” Nagato sighed, setting down his tea, eyes still closed.

“My name? I mean, not much to say.” She shrugged. “‘Ren’ was one of the first things I remembered, so I figured it was my-”

“I mean the one given to you by your talents.” Nagato interrupted. “The one infamous across the city of Los Angeles, synonymous with underhandedness and cunning.”

“Well…” Ren tugged on her collar and added an air of smugness to her voice. “Not to brag or anything, but I do have a talent for ripping people off. Thanks for noticing.”

Nagato finally opened his eyes, bright, green, and full. “That is precisely why. For you see, we have been gauging your talents from afar. And judging from your performance, we come forth to you with an enticing proposition.” Ren said nothing as she stewed on the idea, queueing Nagato to continue. “There is one job. One where your skills would be much needed.”

He was swiftly cut short by Ren placing her cup back on the tray with a loud, decisive click. “Enticing, sure. But I don’t think we’re on the same wavelengths here. See, I don’t work well with others. That’s why I avoid Skid Row. To put things bluntly, and please don’t take this the wrong way, I want nothing to do with you guys. I was, for a lack of a better word, dragged here against my will. I’m sorry, dai-sensei-whatever the hell they call you, but I just want to be left alone.”

Nagato released an incredulous sigh. “I understand this may be much to take in right now and if you are reluctant to aid us. But I have confidence that eventually, you will find us again and accept this challenge.”

“Right…” Ren nodded slowly, pretending to agree. “Yeah, well, I’ll see you never. Thanks for the tea.” She stood up to leave, not after downing her whole beverage in one gulp and clicking it down again.

But before Ren could place a step in front of her to storm off, Nagato’s voice paused her again. “What if I told you your talents are hereditary?”

Ren peered at the man on the ground. Blankness fell over her expression. “Then you’d be lying.” She muttered.

“Every flower has its roots, Ren.”

“Yeah, but you’re looking over one important detail: I’m no flower. Now adios.”

She began to march in the same direction she saw Diego, Kenji, and Akane exit. Her arms swung angrily at her sides as her mind fired off.

“Now where is that exit? Can’t see anything in this-”

A cloud of dense, mustard-colored haze swam up before her vision. Ren gained a shocked expression only for a moment before her eyelashes fluttered, her gaze developed an absent, glossy sheen, and her limbs melted like butter beneath her.

Still kneeling within the room, Nagato raised the cup to his lips and drank again. He watched from the corner of his eye, Ren collapse backward into the waiting arms of Akane. She then pulled her snoring body off, dragging her heels across the floor behind her.

“I’m still unclear as to why you’ve reached out to this one child in particular for this one particular job.” A low, stubborn voice uttered, emerging from the shadows to the left of Nagato’s head.

“Only for the reasons I have already stated.” Nagato replied to the voice calmly, as if it had been there the whole time. “We need her help in obtaining the artifact, and no one is more gifted in thievery than Ren.”

“No one except our own shinobi.” The bouldery, raspy timbre persisted. “Why not have them do the job? Clearly, there’s something about her that you’re not telling us, Fujibayashi.”

“I think it makes sense.” Said another voice to the opposite side of Nagato, coming from the same wall of darkness. “She’s much like her father, but,” His words trailed off, ringing with contemplation. “So different too.”

“That can either be very fortunate, or very grave. It all depends.”

“On what?”

Gazing at the empty bottom of his ceramic cup, a frown reached wider across Nagato’s face. “On what side of him she’s more like…”

swagmc
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