Shadows loomed about the chamber. Alive. Watching. They reached the tallest heights of the ceiling and shrouded the corners of the walls, masking its true, massive scope. The young woman sitting in the center of the floor sighed in the darkness with calm, deliberate breaths. She peacefully shut her eyes. Her palms rested on her knees. While her slender body exuded a restful, aura, another figure on the opposite end of the chamber radiated with confident, raw strength. His rigid back leaned against the wall. With his hands, he smoothed over his hair: a full pompadour, glistening with adhesive gel that permitted it to bulge over his eyes like a visor. Both figures wore identical garb: long-sleeve lapels of a denim-like quality with baggy trousers, held together by a series of white cloth belts and straps. Long, white scarves sat over their noses and mouths and trailed behind their backs.
Approaching, sulking footsteps thumped softly against the metal floor. A slumped-over figure entered the chamber, joining the kneeling woman and the leaning man. His hands were hidden within the pockets of his leather trench coat. His chin aimed toward his chest, his single eye fixed on the ground.
“Takeshi.” A male voice uttered. Its smooth, saccharine tone rang harshly and unpleasantly within the young shinobi’s ears. He peered up at the man sporting the pompadour, who leaned against the wall facing him. “You’re early for a change though I’d hardly call that a good thing. Let me guess: the girl escaped.”
Takeshi scowled, removing his hands from the pockets of his coat. “She had help.” He muttered, a growl looming toward the back of his voice.
“You were always the weakest among us.” The girl kneeling in the center of the circular chamber said. Frosty breaths of air continued to flow through her. “I’m not even sure why you were tasked with such a thing when I already serve a purpose leagues more important. I’m closer to the Iga than you could ever dream of.” As her bitter words polluted the air, Takeshi’s ears burned hotter. “Face it, Takeshi. You’re useless in every meaning of the word.”
“Oh yeah?” He barked, his fists closing. “If I’m so useless, then explain how I got the crystal? Explain why I’m the one who’s always picked to go on missions while all you two do is sit on the ground or fix your stupid hair?”
Without warning, the tall shinobi rose from the wall. His hands lowered from his slick do. As he watched him approach him with long, swift strides, Takeshi found himself steadily shrinking away. Finally, the tall, muscular figure halted a mere three feet in front of him.
“Because we’re simply too important for menial things such as that. Any one of us could easily have taken that gem. Any one of us could easily dispose of that girl. I hate to speak on the sensei’s behalf, but I do believe he pities you, and that’s why he burdens you with these pointless errands. Errands you still manage to fail at. So perhaps it isn’t your fault that you’re so useless. But then again, what other reason would he have to pity you?”
Takeshi’s apprehension evaporated, clearing the way for red-hot anger to flare up within him. He darted forward, closing the space between him and the tall, jeering man. As he reached him, Takeshi swung his fist at his lofty head, but the man simply dipped out of the way. His arms folded meticulously over his chest, evoking further rage from Takeshi. He launched his fists over and over, but his head rolled beyond the range of each missed swing without any visible effort.
After one thrown punch, Takeshi’s bottom knuckle scraped the surface of the shinobi’s pompadour. His golden locks wiggled. Immediately, a blazing inferno entered his eye. He dropped his arms away from his chest and shot his hand forward, catching Takeshi’s entire face within his palm. With his fingers tightening around his skull, he lifted Takeshi into the air. His legs swung beneath him, failing to meet the ground. He rained his fists against the man’s treetrunk arms to no avail. Pain washed over him. The longer he was trapped, the further his consciousness slid into panic.
Finally, a deep, guttural, commanding voice penetrated the air. “That’s enough, Gento.”
Immediately, the man released his hold on Takeshi’s face. As soon as his body collapsed on the floor, he wriggled about, moaning in pain while clutching his sore, beet-red face.
A series of booming footsteps echoed off the tall ceiling and rumbled the steel ground toward Takeshi. His eye peeled back, glazed-over and fearful. The darkness gathered in the corners of the room seem even more sinister. Pulling his hands away from his face, he saw a pair of wide, tall legs occupying the space before him as a gargantuan figure loomed overhead.
“Sensei…” Takeshi heard the girl kneeling on the floor whisper. She opened her eyes and rose gradually to her feet.
“We all share the same allegiance. We all share the same goals.” Continued the voice. “You three are my most elite students. What example are you setting for the others by this pointless bickering. Gento, Eri, scram.”
Takeshi peered around the pair of legs before him, watching the tall man and the slender woman approach the exit. As Gento reached the door, he shot a disapproving glower over his shoulders. His hands ran across his pompadour one final time before departing.
Takeshi placed his palms against the cold floor and began to rise to his feet. However, one of the legs shot out, administering a swift kick against his stomach. His limbs crumbled, spilling him across the ground once again. Every breath of air fled Takeshi’s lungs in a harsh, silent cough. He clutched his stomach, wincing on the floor as waves of agony crashed against him.
“I… don’t understand…” He wheezed, tears leaking from the corner of his eye. “If I got the gem, why are you punishing me?”
“Because the crystal you obtained is of no importance. It is nothing but a mere ruby. And in any case, what matters is what the gem is attached to. Not to mention you failed to kill the girl.” The voice snarled. “Your job, the only job you should be concerned with at this point, is halting the Iga in their tracks at every conceivable turn. They’ve had their eyes on that girl for too long. It’s likely to assume she’s an important asset of theirs.”
“But she’s weak. Untrained.” Takeshi groaned. “I don’t understand why Iga would want her or why you’re making me pursue her unless you really do pity me, sensei…”
“Complete your task next time and then you may have the luxury of disagreeing with me.” Slowly, Takeshi watched a mammoth, callused hand descend from the darkness looming overhead. He winced again. However, the hand’s hairy knuckles brushed softly and soothingly against Takeshi’s trembling cheek. “You have one more chance to make up for your shortcomings. For your sake, I suggest not squandering it.”
Ren’s eyelids flickered open as they adjusted to the morning glare. She found herself that morning on a mattress surrounded by walls, each hosting dozens of old and unique clocks. From the looks of it, she was in one of June’s storage rooms. Specifically, the one she’d set up for her to sleep.
Ren sat up and rubbed her scalp in confusion. A gentle breeze blew the drapes through the ajar bedroom window, raising goosebumps across the back of her neck.
“What happened last night? Was that all real? I gotta find out.” Ren stared at the arm she remembered breaking and jabbed at it a few times with her finger. “No pain…” Her head collapsed onto her pillow as she let out a large lungful of relief. “I knew it. It was just a dream. Diego’s not some kind of shinobi mercenary, he’s just a nice boy from school. And Akane must be the subconscious representation of everything I loathe in this world. So that’s it, huh. What a relief.”
Before she felt too relieved, however, her gaze fell upon the bedstand beside her. Sitting folded on top was a small, plain sheet of paper, folded twice in half. Ren knit her brow in suspicion. She took the paper off the desk and unfurled it in front of her.
“Keep the needle embedded in your shoulder for twenty-four hours to ensure full healing and numbing effects.” Read the message written in red ink on the unfolded paper.
“Needle?” She slowly turned over her shoulder to peer behind her. “What…?”
That’s when she found it: a long acupuncture needle protruding from the top of her shoulder. Ren’s pupils shrank in astonishment.
“What on earth? How’d that get there? I didn’t even feel it!”
Ren gazed at the note again. There was more. “If you change your mind, you may find us at 1 Kashiwabara Pl.”
At that very moment, there were two knocks on the door. Weakly, Ren got up to answer, note still in hand.
“Yeah?” Ren asked after twisting the brass knob and pulling it back.
“Oh,” June said. “Good morning… I wasn’t expecting you back so early.”
“Huh?” She blinked her eyes.
“It’s just the weekend and such. I thought you’d be asleep.” June batted her eyes, almost as though she was feigning innocence. “What is that in your hand?” She quickly pointed out.
Ren stared down at the note which she had forgotten was still in her palm. Her blood turned cold.
“Uhm… Flashcards.” She stammered, combing her mind for an excuse. “For studying.”
“Studying for what? There’s only one card.”
Ren’s heart pounded. “It’s a really easy class.”
“Ah, I see.” June pursed her lips. “Anyway, breakfast is cooking downstairs. How do you like your eggs?”
“Sunny-side up.” Ren said, looking off to the side.
Slowly, Juniper shut the exit behind her. Ren walked over to her bag and opened the front pocket. After shooting one last look at the note, she creased it in half and stuffed it inside. Ren then ventured down the stairs to the sound of sizzling and clanging silverware.
“Should be ready in just a moment.” June called from the kitchen. “In the meantime, do you mind taking out the trash? The cans are out front.”
“As long as I’m still on payroll.”
Grabbing the bags at the foot of the stairs and with two fingers plugging her nostrils, Ren carried the sacks to the front door. But as she pushed against it to leave, there was some slight resistance from the other side. Ren pressed harder and finally, the door gave way. She squeezed out of the slight opening and looked down. There, a pile of envelopes sat on the front porch so dense, the letters on the welcome mat weren’t even legible. Each bore red headings. “Final notice” she saw one read. “Past due” warned another.
After stuffing the bags into tin cans, Ren reentered the shop to an unusual series of noises.
Sniff… dink… sizzle…
Sniff… dink… sizzle…
Confused, Ren came into the kitchen, the source of the off-putting noises, where she found June standing before the stove. Her hands propped herself up as her head dangled above the frying pan. The eggs were black and shriveled. Hardly sunny-side up. When Ren studied her face, she immediately realized why. June’s crinkled cheeks flashed red, visibly holding back her sobs. One by one, tears fell from her eye, landed into the frying pan with a soft dink, and sizzled on contact. Ren’s gaze softened.
“That bad, huh?” She whispered. “And I don’t mean the eggs. I saw the mail. Is everything ok?”
June’s face relaxed and she wiped her nose with the back of her sleeve. “Fine,” She said, dabbing her eyes with her cooking apron. “Just fine. Maybe some money troubles here and there but I’m only behind on a few credit card payments.” June sighed, her sadness still lingering. “It’s just that the store had its grand opening and God knows I can’t go back to living with my parents. Just a little stressed out, I guess. I just wanna know if I’m doing all this right.”
A breath of silence passed between them. Ren shifted her weight from foot to foot anxiously.
“I wanna tell her. How I really feel.” She thought. “I wanna tell her how brave she is. How she can stand against all odds and open an antique furniture shop in the middle of South Atlantic Boulevard and just be ‘a little stressed.’”
“But for real, I think the eggs did turn out bad.” Ren uttered. “How about I run down the street and get some bagels?”
June looked at her with a weary smile. “That sounds alright. Don’t go too far. I need you for inventory.”
She watched the water wash over her head and into the drain below. Her body remembered the pain of the dodgeballs crashing against her. Her mind, however, lingered on the incident of Friday night. Images of the shinobi donning the black trench coat flashed across her vision. She absently squeezed her arm, hearing again the loud snap it produced across the pavement.
Ren turned around, tilted her head back to face the showerhead, and shut her eyes. Steamy water washed across her indifferent expression.
“Maybe some money troubles here and there...” June’s tear-streaked face sprung into Ren’s vision. “Just a little stressed out, I guess…”
Her eyes crawled open as the gears inside her mind began to churn. “If she’s having issues with money, maybe I could…” Her hand raised to pensively pinch her chin, but she instead reached for the handle and shut off the water. With the same swift brevity, she snatched the towel hanging off the rack next to her.
“Nope. I’d have to be crazy to even think about their offer.”
Ren exited the shower with one towel wrapped around her middle and another atop her wet head of black hair. She reached into her brown duffle bag for her clothes. But as she flipped it open, she spotted the familiar paper note. Her brows puckered. Ren took the slip and opened it once again.
“If you change your mind, you may find us at 1 Kashiwabara Pl.”
“One Kashiwabara Place.” Croaked the man in the driver’s seat.
Through her window, Ren peered about at where the taxi had slowed to a stop along the side of the road. Every inch of the curving route basked in the shadows of countless trees. Their trunks and canopies prevented her from seeing anywhere beyond the street, ending up ahead at a hard right turn. However, as she turned her head to her left, where the border of trees were absent and where midafternoon sunlight came blazing through, the sight before her shimmered off the reflection of her glimmering, widening eyes.
Beneath her, far in the distance yet close enough to see in discernable detail, spread the sprawling metropolis: Los Angeles. It appeared as miniatures from where she sat, within a car parked on a road that clung to the rising slopes. Vast grids held together rising structures, growing taller and more distinct on the horizon the farther she channeled her gaze.
“Who knew this city was so… massive!” Her mind chattered. “And who knew a view like this even existed?”
“This is your stop, isn’t it?” The voice from the front seat grumbled, swiftly cutting off Ren’s wondering.
“Right.” She mumbled. “Sorry.” She dug her hand into the front pocket of her hoodie to retrieve the fare. “I shouldn’t rip this guy off. A cabbie’s wage is theft enough.”
When she took the bills out of her pocket, however, the man raised his hand in a dismissive gesture. “Not needed.”
“But I-” Ren prepared to protest until spying his low, dark eyes glaring back at her within the cab’s inside mirror. A dangerous glint swam within their deep pigment.
“No need.” He repeated. “They’re expecting you inside, Kurogane Ren.”
Glued to her seat in stunned silence, Ren blinked her eyes. “He knows my name? But I just got in the first cab I could find! So they set up this ride from the start? How’d they even know where I was, or if I was even coming back, or-”
The gleam in the driver’s eye sharpened. Ren could picture it effortlessly cutting through stone. With that, her mind echoed no longer as she shakily pushed open the door and slid onto the asphalt road. It wasn’t a split second longer after she closed it behind her when the cab peeled away, fast enough to evoke a shriek from the tires and leave a trail of dust in its wake.
Once the roar of the engine exited Ren’s earshot, a calm ambience swam up to take its place. The breeze played upon the canopy of leaves overhead, producing a weightless rustle. The wine of cicadas and the chirping of birds reached Ren’s ears from every direction.
“It’s hard to imagine anyone living somewhere this remote.” Ren whispered to herself. Her eyes began to scroll across her new setting. “Speaking of, just where is this place? They only gave me an address but I don’t even see the-”
Her thoughts trailed off when she turned around and her sight caught on what lay directly behind her. Opposite from the window of trees that granted the view of the city skyline rose an impressive wall. The ten-foot-tall barrier consisted of stacked, ebony stone at its base, smooth, varnished granite above, and was capped off by lacquered, cherry-red shingles that rose at a shallow angle. Behind the wall, towering above the height of the trees and the crest of the shallow hill to cast its lofty silhouette against the sky, stood a structure. Its architecture was identical to the wall yet utterly unique from anything Ren had ever seen. Its sleek black hue seemed to repel even the sun’s reflection from its tinted windows while eaves of a similar scarlet shade to those adorning the surrounding wall extended wide past the top of the structure in distinct layers. Only after passing her gaze across the mansion a second time was Ren able to distinguish it, like it was hidden by some illusion. The hill ascending behind it, the foliage clinging to its slant, and the estate’s dim hue itself all helped to shield it from view.
It only took one look for Ren to shake her head. “This must be some sort of joke.” She muttered to herself. “I should’ve known.” She sunk her gaze, half frustrated, half ashamed, and turned around to leave. But that was when she spotted a pair of crimson, high-top boots in front of her. As her eyes slowly ascended, she saw a pair of thin, muscular legs, wrapped in black lace stockings, a plain, crimson dress, and finally, the pale, incredulous face peering down at her.
“What part of this seems like a joke to you, Ren-san?” Uttered Akane in her typical scathing tone.
“Just wasn’t what I was expecting.” Ren scowled. She turned to view the walled complex behind her again, flaunting its two-color pallet and eastern architecture.
“And what, may I ask, were you expecting? An office building? Or perhaps something more quaint?”
“Let’s go with option two.” Ren’s reply received a scoff from Akane.
“It is not as though Iga is suffering financially.”
“Yeah, speaking of, just answer me this:” Ren’s tone changed from combative to one that could almost be reserved for bargaining. “The Iga’s a group of mercenaries, sounds like.”
“That was not a question.”
“My question is if I do this job for you, will I get paid?” Ren’s mind flashed with the images of June’s immense pile of red-headed letters. Her sobs echoed through her ears.
“Of course you would ask that.” Akane shook her head disapprovingly. “I can assure you, if petty cash is what you desire, we will compensate.”
“In that case, then just this one job, alright? After that, I don’t want to see your speckled mug anywhere near me and my business ever again. Is that clear?”
Another haughty, scoffing breath puffed from Akane’s thin, snake-like nostrils. Ren’s fists clenched.
“Worry not, Ren-san. Once you have completed this small task for us, we will have little use for you and your… business.”
“Fantástico.” Ren muttered, releasing her fist. “You told me to come here in case I changed my mind? Well, I’m here. And I’ve changed my mind.”
“Words cannot put how pleased I am to hear that.” Akane said in a voice that sounded anything but. “However, I am not the one you need to inform. That would be Kenji-san.”
“And you can’t find him and tell him yourself because…?” She paused to cup her ear for a reply.
“Because I am not your personal messenger, Ren-san.”
Before Ren’s anger could resume, a pair of hands clapped down on her shoulders from behind. For a moment, she felt like she was about to leap free from her skin in pure terror before a boisterous, friendly tone said,
“Ren! Good to see you changed your mind!”
As she spun around and spied Diego’s beaming face, both her anger and surprise fled her in an instant. “Sure did. I just gotta let that Kenji guy know. But Acne over here can’t be bothered to relay the message.”
“I do not have acne, they are freckles.” Akane hissed, fists clenched at her sides.
“Yeah, Acne, whatever you say.”
“Don’t worry about it.” Diego cut in, easing some of the tension between them. “I’ll show you where Kenji’s at. I’ve been thinking about giving you the grand tour of this place anyway.”
At that, Ren’s expression began to brighten. “Sure, lead the way.”
Diego turned and proceeded toward the complex. Ren trailed close behind, hoping to shake off Akane’s icy glare.
“I don’t wanna keep Kenji waiting too long so I’ll give you the truncated version of the tour.” Diego said as they approached.
“Sounds good.” Ren replied, remembering Kenji’s chiseled, convex features and sharp eyes, inviting a chilling sensation to sweep across her. “I don’t wanna keep him waiting either…”
“First things first, as you might’ve guessed, this place is called Kashiwabara: headquarters of the Iga-ryū.” As they reached the opposite side of the street, a tall, crimson archway came into view. It stood before a set of tall twin doors that led through the wall.
“And what prevents non-Iga from getting in?” Ren asked.
“Oh, a few things. Firstly, this entire street doesn’t appear on any map.”
“Then how’d the taxi driver find it?” Ren thought about asking before remembering what he cryptically told her once they arrived. “Of course. Never mind.”
“Secondly, if someone comes here who’s not from Iga, the doors don’t open.”
“So if you hadn’t found me and if Acne didn’t escort me, I’d be outta luck trying to come in?” Ren’s tone dropped to an aggressive murmur.
“Yeah, pretty much.”
They reached the tall torii arch and passed underneath. Ahead, the doors swung open to reveal what lay beyond the walls. Ren entered after Diego, ignoring the doors rolling shut behind her as she stared ahead with bulging, glassy eyes and a slack jaw.
What resembled the avenue of an ancient Japanese village square reached out before her. Squat, wooden buildings crowded close together, forging a narrow path ahead. Their eaves reached somewhat over the stone-paved path to give off the feeling of a tight corridor between them. Strings either bearing accordion-folded paper bulbs or drying clothes, flapping like kites in the breeze, reached from rooftop to rooftop.
Filling the space, permeating the scene with activity and the noise with air crowded a sparse population donning traditional, flowing garb. Silk kimono dresses and cotton yukata robes hung off the bodies that lingered together in quietly-conversing groups and strolled in and out of the curtains marking the entrance of the shops lining the aisle.
Cocking her head to see what lay beyond the village square, Ren spied a thick veil of trees acting as another buffer around the village. Their tall, leafy branches only allowed for small glimpses at the neighboring structure she’d spied earlier. Its stature and hue loomed large and ominously in the distance, as if serving her a reminder of just where she was.
Ren could only stand in pure dumbfounded stillness for a few moments before Diego began to make his way down the stone-lain pathway. Still experiencing waves of astonishment racing over her, she felt no choice but to follow.
“So here we have the main village strip, or what we like to call, Iseji.” Announced Diego, giving off an air of familiarity with each stride he took. Opposite to the cautious shuffle at which Ren proceeded behind him.
“This is amazing…” Ren whispered, casting her astonished gaze about at every small detail she passed: the narrow channels of water running parallel between the buildings and the avenue, the wavy clay tiles crowning each building’s roof, and the bustle through the absent, street-facing walls of the venues. “It’s like you crammed a whole village into this estate!”
“More like we crammed a whole village into this estate’s front yard.” Diego winked over his shoulder at Ren. “We still got a ways to go. But here you’ll find pretty much everything a village needs. Including:” He proceeded to point his finger at each shop along the plaza they passed while reciting their name. “Tapiru’s cafe and bakery, Tenya’s produce, Itadaki’s ramen, Kanpai’s Izakaya, Banashi’s books and stationary shop, Yuo’s bathhouse, and…” Diego’s speech fell away as he slowed to a halt beside one boarded-up storefront. Ren peered around his body to gather a full view of it.
Unlike the humble, homely stands and storefronts they passed by earlier, the one before them was even humbler and homelier. The building was two stories, the first consisting only of a single room. Its front-facing wall was absent, granting them a view inside. The shelves lining the shallow walls were stocked only by cobwebs, and not even those occupied the utterly deserted counter. Despite the open wall, not an inch of sunlight made its way into the shop, as if a veil of darkness hung over it, preventing any from beaming inside. And with not a single light on, that meant the inside basked in a tangible murk. As for the outside, its wooden walls had lost its paint and varnish. Instead, its true brown color shone through the worn, splintered surface, succumbing to mold and decay. The clay shingles comprising of the roof were wrought with cracks, albeit the ones that remained at all. Lastly, above the entrance, held precariously in place by a single rusted nail, hung a wooden sign carved with the letters “タムロ”. All in all, it was a pitiable sight. One that caused Ren’s chest to sink.
“I don’t understand. Normally, a place like that would give me the creeps.” Ren’s lip trembled. “But instead when I look at it, all I feel is… sad.”
“Which one’s this?” She whispered.
Diego gave a forlorn sigh before answering. “This used to be the dagashi-ya. A candy shop where the village’s kids could play and hang out, until the owner Mr. Tamuro died and his children didn’t feel like taking up the family business. Since then, the place has been abandoned. I’ll admit, I do miss it. As a squirt, I’d spend all my time there. Not to mention pennies.” He turned toward Ren and widened his mouth into his signature encouraging smile. His tone shifted back to its original pep. “Anyway, that’s pretty much it for here. Like I said, we have a long way to go.”
They resumed walking. Only after a bit further did the buildings end and the avenue funnel onto a wooden footbridge. Its red, lacquered make was just like the torii they passed under before entering. Ren’s footsteps produced wooden creaks while Diego tread without a sound. Underneath, however, the shallow, glistening stream babbled softly. Along its shores sprouted tall reeds and lily pads blooming scarlet blossoms. Against its weak flow swam every color of koi. The water was so clear, Ren could see the smooth stones comprising of the bottom of the pool as well as her own fascinated expression in its reflection.
The bridge ended just where the base of a staircase began, one that led to an elevated veranda that wrapped around the perimeter of the structure just ahead. Ren sized up their destination with large, appraising eyes. The tallest, furthest most structure appeared to stand even loftier. From either side like a pair of wings extended forward two more shallow halls, giving the structure the shape of a U. A wall identical to the one found wrapping around Kashiwabara proper connected the twin halls, completing what seemed from Ren’s limited view to be a hollow square just before the building: a cloister.
“Well, we’re almost here.” Diego informed, sitting down on the bottom step to reach his shoes, untying them with no sense of urgency about him.
“Is that where we’re meeting him?” Ren asked, flicking her eyes in the direction of the mammoth structure, whose wide eaves cast dim shade over where Ren and Diego lingered.
“That? Nah, that’s just the dojo. Where shinobi are trained in combat, espionage, also in math, science, and language. I don’t wanna keep Kenji waiting, like I said, so you’ll just have to see it when you start training.”
“I only agreed to this one job.” Ren folded her arms crossly. “Not training.”
Diego sniped Ren’s haughty tone out of thin air with a snicker. “I know.”
“So if they teach all that here, then I’m guessing you aren’t really in high school, aren’t you?”
Diego shook his head. “Nope. Just ‘transferred’ a few weeks ago because rumor has it, there’s suspicious activity there. So watch it.”
“So does that mean you Iga guys are uneducated?” Ren asked further.
“Far from it. We’re taught right here. You’d be surprised at how good it is, too. Even dumbasses like me are geniuses when compared to normal folk.”
Once both shoes lay beside the bottommost step, Diego stood, faced the entrance ahead, and began his ascent. Ren lifted one foot slowly off the ground to embark up the stairs after him. But before it could land, she felt a force collide with her back shin, throwing her off-balance and onto her stomach. Ren listened to the thump her body made when it landed echo through the once-tranquil atmosphere.
“No shoes.” Akane hissed, standing behind where Ren lay. One by one, she grabbed the soles of her Chuck Taylors before yanking them off her feet.
“So you couldn’t be bothered to come up here and tell Kenji but you could just to trip me?” Snarled Ren, shooting her enraged glare at the guilty Akane.
“No, it just crossed my mind later that you would forget such a thing.”
“There was an easier way to let me know, by the way.” Grumbled Ren, standing up and snatching her shoes out of Akane’s thin, pale hands. She stormed up the stairs, reaching Diego within the elevated veranda at the set of twin sliding doors leading through the wall.
“This is where you were woken up: the garden cloister.” Diego explained. His volume sunk to a low hush, as if not wanting to disturb what lay outside the doors. “Here’s where you’ll find the healing wing, home to important documents, and most importantly of all, the quarters of the jōnin leaders.”
He slid the door open into a hallway. As they entered, Ren saw the walls to one side were the same black, solid oak while beside her, cedar wood frames housed semi-translucent sheets of scarlet paper. Through the shoji panels, pale sunlight beamed through, colored by the hue of the panes. No lights other than those were present; the paper lanterns hanging from the ceiling were unlit to give the air a still, peaceful quality. Soaking in its quietness and impermanence, Ren began to understand the voice Diego used earlier.
Diego took five steps, crossing the distance from the first shoji through which they entered to the opposite set of doors. The panel gave a soft, wooden whisper as Diego slid it open, revealing a stunning courtyard. Patches of grass and moss mixed with fine, white gravel, combed into flowing, wave-like patterns. From the green sprouted dense huddles of trees that cast a deep layer of shade over the garden. In the vast distance, Ren watched as shoji panels continued to wrap around the garden beneath the overhangs of Kashiwabara’s familiar red roofs. Above, she saw the bright blue sky.
“A garden this huge? All within this property? This place is something else…” Ren shook her head in sheer disbelief.
Ren’s gaze halted at the heart of the setting. A dense knot of roots protruded from the ground, rising into a wide, twisting trunk that resembled a company of snakes all coiled around each other. Lastly, at the ends of the curling branches, vines bearing crimson petals draped low over the garden like waterfalls of blood. Crowning the scarlet wisteria tree were leaves of green. And as the sun beamed through the wall of flowering vines, their tone painted the grass a shade of red that Ren was all too familiar with at that point. Flat, smooth stones led the way from the elevated walkway upon which Diego and Ren stood toward another raised platform positioned just beneath the wisteria. And upon that platform, meeting their gaze, stood Kenji.
They descended into the courtyard from the veranda and proceeded toward where Kenji stood, one stone at a time. Ren felt dampness form across the back of her neck.
“I’m not sure if I’m humid or if I’m just feeling Kenji’s glare…” She thought, timidly peering back into his thin, unblinking eyes. “I can’t sense any malice from him, but I don’t see any friendliness either…”
“So.” Kenji’s deep pitch ironed out Ren’s posture, snapping it straighter and more rigid than a construction I-beam. “You’ve changed your mind.”
“Sure has! Tell him, Ren.” Diego encouraged behind her. All Ren did was nod her head vigorously, like she was trying to throw it free from her shoulders. Her lips remained cemented shut the entire time.
“I’m pleased to see that.” Kenji closed his eyes and nodded once in reply. “There’s much to discuss about the task you’ve agreed to embark upon, but I’ll explain it to you tomorrow night. Before the mission.”
At that, a terrified shutter shot down Ren’s spine. “Wait, tomorrow? The mission’s tomorrow?” She blurted.
“Tomorrow night, to be precise. I, as well as Diego and Akane, will come to your place of residence and escort you to the site. There, I shall give a full debriefing so we’re all on the same page.”
“Then why don’t you get Acne here and tell us now! Waiting ‘till tomorrow’s cutting it a little close, dontcha think?” Ren said, the urgency in her voice rising.
“There’s too much that can change between now and then to give a definitive debriefing at this time.” His eyes narrowed further. The coarse finality echoing through his voice squashed Ren’s spirits like a weight, sending it plunging down the cavernous pitch of his timbre. “Tomorrow night, Ren. Don’t forget.”
With wide brush strokes, June applied the paint to the mural beside her door. Dozens of daisies decorated the wooden face of the shop. Ren admired the artwork as she ambled down the sidewalk, approaching the entrance. Her mind, however, was lost amidst its own worried clamor.
“Oh, man. Just talking about the mission tomorrow night is enough to make me feel winded. Not only that, but I know precisely nothing about it. If I’m this tired now, I just can’t wait to find out how tired I’ll be after…”
“Late again. That’s two for two.” June sighed, interrupting Ren’s internal discourse. She wiped the sweat from her brow, simultaneously smearing a streak of paint across the entire width of her forehead.
“I had to meet someone.” Ren replied, slinging her duffle bag over her shoulder. “Anyway, this probably isn’t the best time to ask, but I’m gonna need to take the day after tomorrow off. I have some stuff planned that I need to take care of.” June glared at her suspiciously. Ren heaved. “It’s exercise, ok? I’m joining my friend’s karate club.”
“But actually, it’s just so I can rest after this mission…”
With a look of marginal relief, June returned her focus to her artwork. “Well, if you plan on it being regular, I can make your hours a bit more flexible. Whenever you show up, just clock in and work until the eight-hour cap. How does that sound?”
“You’d do that?” Ren asked, a smile forming on her lips.
“Sure. Us working class women have to look out for each other, right?” June winked.
“Yeah, speaking of which…” Ren cleared her throat and motioned toward her own forehead. A look of confusion crossed June’s face. “Forget it.”
“Hey, mate.” PJ mumbled, approaching Ren at her locker. As she looked at him, she watched his head hang low, his dreadlocks swaying like vines of a weeping willow tree.
“Hey, what’s the matter?”
“My great-grammy’s coming over and my mum’s forcing me to fork over my room to her. And since I hate sleeping in the cellar, do you think it’s alright if I crash at your place tonight?”
The crude accommodations of June’s shop blinked through Ren’s head. “I don’t know, we’ve never hung out before and now we’re sleeping over?” She held her chin pensively.
“Please? Only until she can leave for her stupid weight loss cruise tomorrow morning, so it’ll only be a night tops.”
“Alright, fine. I’m gonna have to run it by my aunt first.”
“Brilliant!” PJ said, perking up instantly. “You still have Angelo’s phone, right? I’ll text you.”
Ren recalled how Akane crunched it in her grasp. “Yeah, not happening. Swing by my work after my shift. It’s also where I live, conveniently. It’s June’s Antique something-something emporium or whatever.”
“Right on! See you on the other side.” PJ bumped his chest with his closed fist twice and then flashed the peace sign.
“What was that?” Ren asked.
“That?” He did the gesture again: two bumps and the deuces. “It’s just a thing. Like a secret handshake. I do it with my friends all the time.”
“But you don’t have any friends.”
“What makes you say that?” Offense rang in his tone.
“If you did, then why’re you asking the person you just met a couple days ago for a place to crash?”
PJ’s expression fell. “That’s not funny.”
“I agree. It’s sad.”
PJ pretended to scratch his nose. Underneath his hand, Ren saw a bashful frown tug on the corners of his mouth. “I’ll see you later.” He mumbled, trudging off.
“After you count the money in the register, you can clock out for today.” June said as she walked past Ren toward the storefront entrance. “I’ll start on dinner once I’m done sweeping the front.”
“How do you know I won’t pocket the cash?” Ren called after her.
She stopped just short of the glass door. “You’re right. You sweep the stairs. I’ll count the cash.” June hurried over to the register near where Ren stood. She rolled her eyes and exited the shop, ringing the brass bell overhead.
As Ren lifted the welcome mat and smacked it with the head of her broom, shaking loose a cloud of brown dust, she spotted a figure round the corner and approach the storefront. Ren leaned on her broom and watched PJ approach her, visibly struggling under the weight of his backpack.
“One hell of a walk getting here.” PJ muttered, gritting his teeth.
“Well, stop complaining and set your bag down inside.” Ren said, holding open the door for him to enter.
“Sorry, kid, we’re closed for today. You can check the website if you need something desperately.” Said June, not looking up from the register. “Which reminds me, Ren, make sure you double check the addresses on those online shipments.”
“This isn’t a customer, June, this is PJ. The friend I was telling you about.”
“Nice to meet you, Ms. McCoy.” PJ set his bag down next to the stairs and put on a personable grin. June glanced up from the register, studying him for a moment.
“Hm. You certainly don’t look like the captain of the girls’ varsity soccer team that Ren said you were…” June glared at her, PJ later joining in.
“Hey, I had to say something to convince her.” Ren tugged at her collar.
“Well, since you’re here, make yourself at home.” June sighed, returning to her work.
“I can help if you want.” PJ said. “Surely, there’s something I can do.”
“You’re very kind, PJ, but we’re ok.” June smiled.
“Yeah, we got this!” Ren took her broom again.
“But if you want to help, then grab three blocks of ramen from the pantry. Choose any flavor you want.”
“Except the cheese flavored. I called dibs on that.” Ren called.
Once again, both PJ and June glared at her.
“Don’t worry.” PJ uttered, his lip curling in disgust. “You can keep that.”
She lay restless in her bed. PJ’s snores reached her ears through the walls of the neighboring bedroom. Her busy mind lingered on what Akane had told her the previous day.
“Tomorrow, Ren…” Her judgmental, green stare flashed through her mind. She rubbed her eyes to squeeze out that image before rolling onto her side, hoping that position would aid her in drifting off.
However, her thoughts were interrupted by a light tapping noise on the windowpane. After Ren chose to ignore it, it occurred again. She groaned.
“Probably one of June’s many, many trees growing outside.”
While Ren approached the window, she grabbed a pair of cutters to shear off the stray limb. But when she opened the window, she spotted Diego, Kenji, and Akane gathered outside in their full, black shinobi garb.
“Already?” Ren yawned. “I thought I’d at least get to sleep a little before the job.”
“Better that you didn’t.” Kenji said. “That way, you won’t be groggy.”
Ren frowned. “Yeah, the only problem is-” Her stomach cut her off by rumbling loudly. She blushed. “That.”
“Then grab something light and we’ll meet you outside.” Said Diego, flashing a grin. “And don’t look so bummed about it. This is gonna be fun!”
She almost caught herself believing him until she spotted Akane rolling her eyes behind him. Instantly, Ren’s attitude soured to match hers.
Suddenly, she heard a loud yawn behind her. Every inch of her flesh sprouted goosebumps. She spun around to see who was there and through the ajar door, Ren spied PJ. He stood in the open doorway, swaying lethargically on his feet.
“Ren, who’re you talking to?” He yawned again. “I could barely hear myself dream over your chatter.”
Ren looked behind her out the window, but the shinobi trio were nowhere to be seen. Feeling half-relieved that she wouldn’t have to explain the situation to him, Ren looked back at PJ.
“No one. I just talk in my sleep.”
“Oh. Well, if that’s all then I’ll-” His words trailed off. Ren was silent, allowing him to finish his thoughts, but nothing came. Instead, his body began to slowly tip forward, opening the door further. Before she knew it, he was falling forward face-first.
Surprised lightning ran through Ren’s body. She winced, bracing for the loud sound of PJ hitting the wooden floor. But before any such noise occurred, a paper-white hand jumped out and grabbed the collar of his shirt. His snoring face hovered inches from the ground, held up by the hand’s owner. Little by little, more detail of just who that was came to Ren.
The girl wore a black, sleeveless jumpsuit, much like the kind Diego, Kenji, and Akane wore, except a red miniskirt hugged her waist with black and red striped stockings underneath. Fingerless gloves hosting identical stripes reached her elbows. Two matching, red bows gathered her hair into bushy twintails. They sprouted from either side of her head, resembling a pair of white pom-poms that continued to grow past her waist. Both her hair and skin were a spectral, unnatural tone of white. Her round, violet eyes spotted Ren, whose mouth hung open, full of questions.
“Yuki…” Kenji’s voice growled as he reappeared in the window. “What are you doing here?”
“Hi, Kenji! Hi, Diego! Hi, Akane!” She squeaked in a soft, absent, as if she were caught in a dreaming.
“You still didn’t answer my question.” Kenji pinched his brow. “What’s the meaning of this?”
“I sensed I’d need to swing by here and pick someone up. And lookie here! I got ‘em!” She hoisted PJ’s unconscious body into the air with ease, despite her tiny frame. “Anywho, what’re you doing here?”
“Official business from my father.” Akane answered.
“Wait a minute, you all know her?” Ren asked, pointing at the girl named Yuki.
“Of course. She’s another Iga like us. Moreover, she’s the fortuneteller.” Said Diego. “If you want, Yuki, you could come along with us. We’re on a mission and we could use the extra help.”
Yuki shrugged her small, white shoulders. “Don’t suppose why not.”
With that, she approached the bed and the open window. Ren peered at her with a mix of curiosity and fear as she reached her. She handed PJ’s body, limp like a gym bag full of bricks, out the window and into the arms of Kenji before climbing out onto the tree herself.
“This seems like a mistake.” Kenji grunted, stringing PJ’s awkward body across his back. Meanwhile, Diego turned around to offer Ren safe passage on his back, which she was relieved to take.
“How come?” Yuki asked.
“I cannot imagine why you would need an outsider such as him.” Kenji continued to gripe.
“So were we, Ken, but beggars can’t be choosers!”
After that, the group was off. Ren riding on Diego’s back and PJ on Kenji’s, the shinobi team leapt from rooftop to rooftop at dizzying speeds. Ren’s eyelids and lips peeled back, catching the wind whickering by her like sails. Colors blended together as they darted through the night air. Ren wasn’t sure where exactly they were or where they were going, but one thing she knew was that they were reaching their destination at ludicrous speeds.
In little time flat, the group stopped on top of a roof.
“We’ll wait here for now.” Kenji said. “We have to conserve our energy.”
As Ren dismounted Diego’s back, her senses were thrown into a daze. It took a few moments before her eyesight returned to functioning levels and she could distinguish just where she was. Looking around, she found Kenji, Diego, Yuki, Akane, and an unconscious PJ atop the flat roof surrounded by other flat rooves of Hollywood villas. Directly ahead of them stood a steep knoll where Ren spotted the hints of a large, white structure hidden behind its lofty crest.
“Where are we?”
“Brentwood Heights.” Diego replied. “Not to be confused with Brentwood.”
“The hell? How’d we get here so fast? This is like, an hour away from East LA by car!”
“It’s because there’s no traffic when we’re running on top of rooves!” Exclaimed a voice next to Ren. When she turned to see who had piped up, Yuki’s white grin and violet eyes greeted her harshly. “You must be the rookie they got for the big job! Nice to meet ya! My name’s Yuki! I’m Iga’s fortuneteller, I’m fifteen, my favorite color is yellow, and my favorite ice cream flavor is blue moon sherbet!”
“I’m Ren.” Said Ren.
“There will be time for introductions later.” Kenji said. “We’re a bit short on time so I’d like to get everyone up to speed as quickly as possible. Gather around.”
Akane joined Ren and Yuki while Diego dragged PJ’s body closer. They watched as Kenji pointed behind him at a distant hill where the roof of a structure peaked over it.
“Do you see that building?” Kenji began. “That’s the Getty Center. One of the most esteemed art museums in Los Angeles. That is it was, until the building was purchased and converted into a purely research institute.”
“Who on earth had the funds to pull that off?” Diego mused aloud.
“That’s none of our concern. What we’re interested in is what may be kept there:” He reached into his suit, removed a sheet of lined notebook paper, and handed it to Ren. “This is the artifact. Or at least a depiction of it.” She glanced down at the crude drawing scribbled across the paper with marker and crayon. The sketch illustrated a red gemstone with rough edges. In the corner, Yuki’s name was signed.
“Can I ask why we’re after it?” Ren inquired, returning the drawing to Kenji.
“The gem’s purpose is for my father to know and for us not to question.” Akane folded her arms and aimed her nose in the air.
“It’s because I predicted it was important!” Yuki enthusiastically answered, drawing out an even more irked expression from Akane.
“So basically if the fortuneteller says you gotta do something…” Ren began to ask.
“We obey.” Answered Kenji. “Yuki has an impeccable track record. Her fortunes are never wrong. Whether the gem is valuable in price or it holds some other significance, it is our duty to retrieve it.”
“Or maybe she just wants something shiny…” Ren pondered. Her low gaze drifted toward Yuki, slowly twirling around in circles while humming a quiet tune to herself.
Diego peered over Kenji’s shoulder at the drawing, rubbing his chin. “Say, I’ve heard recently that a gem that looked sort of like this was the only thing stolen in a big jewel heist on Sunset Boulevard. The culprit remains at large and unknown.”
Ren felt a shiver race down her spine. Inexplicably, her mind was drawn toward the boy in the eyepatch and trench coat that had pursued her and Diego. “Do you think they’ll be showing up here too…?” Ren asked, swallowing.
“Not if we get in and out as quickly as possible after they close.” Kenji uttered decisively.
“But they didn’t wait for that jeweler’s shop to close, did they?” Diego murmured.
“Then I’m gonna need a weapon.” Ren aimed her desperate gaze at Kenji “What if I need to defend myself?”
“No need.” Akane answered instead. “If you truly are all my father has built you up to be, then being without a weapon should be the least of your concerns.” Her tone dripped with sarcasm.
“Agreed.” Kenji nodded. “No weapons.”
“But we can give you a shozoku! I think I got my spare one in here somewhere.” Said Yuki, taking off her pink Hello Kitty backpack and dropping it on the ground in front of her. She got on her knees and began to rummage through it.
“What’s a shozoku?” Ren asked Diego.
“It’s what our suits are called.” He answered, tugging on his black garb.
“Here we go!” Yuki said, pulling out a crumpled-up shinobi suit. She lowered the outfit into Ren’s awaiting hands and patted it twice. “Sorry about not washing it before giving it to you.” She whispered in her ear. Ren shivered again.
“Now then, schematics we’ve obtained from their network shows that the geology research department is located in the west pavilion. Since all operations cease at midnight, in ten minutes, that’s when we move on the center. Until then, prepare any way you see fit.”
The crowd dispersed, each member moving in their own separate directions. However, as Akane moseyed off, Ren followed her.
“Way to be a pal, Acne.” She hissed. “Thanks to you, I can’t even defend myself.”
“I am not your ‘pal.’”
“I was being sarcastic.”
“My apologies, but I do not do sarcasm.”
“Fine. How about this: I don’t like you very much.”
Akane halted in her tracks. She directed her fiery gaze over her shoulder at Ren. “The feeling is mutual.”