Ren heard shuffling behind her. Peering over, she watched PJ stretch out his limbs, unhinge his jaw, and let loose a loud yawn.
“Rise and shine.” Said Diego, mid-stretch.
PJ stared blankly at the rooftop he was sitting on, then at Ren. “Did I forget to take my pills again?”
“So, he’s awake.” Kenji uttered, standing up and marching toward PJ. His eyes, glazed over with fear, watched the muscle-bound shinobi lower himself to his knees across from PJ. “Listen to what I am about to say and listen closely. What I am about to say may change the course of your life.”
“So, PJ,” Kenji said, after elaborately laying down the plan, as well as a brief history of Iga. “Does this all make sense to you?”
“Mate,” PJ said. “I stopped listening after you said, ‘listen to what I am about to say and listen closely.’”
Kenji pursed his lips. “Yuki, I’ve found a new purpose for your new recruit.”
Kenji looked back at PJ and threw a cloud of black powder in his face. With a thud, his head fell against the floor again. His loud snores resumed.
“He can watch this spot while we’re gone.” Kenji said, dusting off his palms.
“How can he do that while he’s asleep!” Yuki wined.
“If he was the one you were tasked with bringing, then he should be capable of something as simple as that.”
“Yeah, Yuki, are you sure this was the person you were supposed to grab?” Diego scratched his head.
“Uh-huh!” Yuki affirmed. “I sensed that I’d need to swing by some kinda antique shop thingy, grab a kid about my age, and-” She stopped, her mouth hanging open mid-word. “Oh…” Yuki mumbled. “I just realized that I was probably supposed to get you instead, Ren. My bad.”
“Does that mean you just kidnapped my classmate for no reason at all?” Ren blinked her eyes.
Yuki pursed her lips and nodded. “Oh well. Too late to do anything about it now except kill him.”
Ren’s eyes flew open. She gathered her breath to protest, but Yuki suddenly burst into a fit of laughter.
“I’m just kidding…” She said amidst her wild cackles.
Ren peered at Diego and mouthed to him, “Is she?” In response, he simply shrugged his shoulders.
“Only question now is why would a psychic need to come after me if all they need me for is one job?” Ren sunk her pondering gaze. “Unless, of course, it isn’t only one job.”
The rope hugged Ren’s middle so tightly she had trouble breathing. Instead, she held her oxygen in her inflated cheeks as Kenji lowered her through the cracked-open skylight and into the unlit chamber.
When Ren’s feet touched the ground, she scrambled to unfasten the rope and yanked it twice. Akane, Yuki, Diego, and Kenji all fell through the same window, landing noiselessly within the room.
One word came to mind for describing the exhibit hall: gloomy. The shut-off lights cloaked the room in tangible darkness. Ren could hardly see past her own nose. But when she strained her vision, she could just make out dozens of wooden crates stacked precariously on top of each other. The rows of boxes stretched down the vast corridor as far as the eye could see.
Kenji faced the three of them. He pointed to Yuki and then to the right. Next, he jutted his finger at Akane and Diego before aiming it toward the path straight ahead. Finally, Kenji pointed at Ren and to the corridor of boxes on the left. She inhaled, preparing to beg for them not to leave her alone, but before she could, the rest of the shinobi took off in their respective directions. Ren felt her chest sink.
“I guess I’m on my own now…”
Softly, she tiptoed past the towers of crates, trying to keep a low center of gravity. While her footsteps were silent enough, Ren’s heart was a totally different story.
“If I’m caught, there’s no June to bail me out. And that’s even if I’m lucky and there aren’t any robbers to kill me first. So why do I feel so… alive?”
Adrenaline pumped through her veins. Ren remembered that feeling outside the party, where she had no idea what was happening, but every second of it felt so thrilling.
Her thoughts were interrupted when a tiny gleam caught the corner of her eye. She looked in that direction and found a box, its lid cracked slightly ajar. The light peeping through was a warm shade of red; the same color Ren saw during the fight outside the party. The same color that once radiated from her irises as she awakened that hidden strength. Like a moth being lured to a lantern, unable to put a rein on her curiosity, Ren approached the lofty, rectangular crate. Carefully, she wrapped her fingers around the open lid and lifted it away. As her sight passed over its contents, Ren gasped.
Reaching nearly six feet tall, blacker than the night sky and sharper than a crescent moon, Ren gazed upon the enormous, lethal scythe. The metal was a dark, cloudy grey. Dirt and rust clung to its lengthy haft, wrapped crudely in red cloth. Under normal circumstances, Ren knew she would’ve turned and bolted at the sight of such a behemoth of a murder machine, but something drew her in closer.
“Maybe it’s that glowing, fractured, fist-sized gem in the weapon’s heel.” Ren thought, soaking in its crimson light. “Or maybe something inside me truly has changed.”
Ren reached her hand for it slowly. The need to hold it, to strike something down with it, itched in the back of her mind. Her breath flowed sluggishly. Her hands trembled as her fingers hovered around its handle.
“Shinsatsu.” A voice spoke behind her. Ren nearly screamed out of pure shock. As she spun around though, she hunkered over and exhaled in pure relief to find Fujibayashi Nagato’s gentle expression. His aura surrounded her comfortably.
“What’re you doing here?” Ren whispered.
“Also, what did you say?”
“Forged in the fires of an erupting Mount Fuji, cooled in the blood of one thousand warriors, it is a treasured possession of the Iga-ryū. But it has been lost for centuries. It is said to contain the essence of countless men within the walls of its steel bane. Their memories, their love, and their hate is drawn upon, adding to this weapon’s strength.” Ren faced Shinsatsu, looking more tempting by the second. “But be wary, for if the wielder is not worthy, then not only will the weapon feel unbalanced and immensely heavy, but the unworthy vessel may bear witness to ghastly hallucinations of unspeakable terrors as it slowly poisons their very essence. It is a fate that the ones who salvaged this weapon to bring here must have suffered gravely.”
Ren peered at the ground for a moment. “I hear what you’re saying. If I’m not worthy, taking that weapon is bad news. But somehow, I feel like I’m right for it. I swear, I can hear its voice calling for me.”
Her fingertips lightly brushed against the blade’s hilt, and quicker than lightning, memories exploded in her brain. Memories of people she didn’t even know. She watched in a single instant, gallons of blood being spilled across the ground and heinous cries as lives were ended by the blade’s knife-edge. Ren quickly retreated her finger. It seemed like eons had flown by when in reality, only a moment had passed.
Ren breathed, attempting to comprehend the imagery she had just witnessed. “Those visions… they weren’t all just terrors. It was history. And at the same time, I felt my psyche being searched. It’s not a nightmare I was experiencing at all. It’s a bonding.”
As the pulsating, red glow faded, so did the spirits’ echoing whispers. Without thinking, Ren grasped the handle once more. No visions stained her sight that time. She lifted the scythe out of its box, feeling its weight in both her hands, testing its balance. She gazed down at the reflection of herself in the red gem, seeing her own excited leer.
“Shinsatsu…” Her eyes glistened. “Boy, this is something else. At least I have a weapon to defend myself now! Suck it, Acne!”
She rested the weapon’s long, iron haft against her shoulder. Its gargantuan hook hung behind her.
“Hey Nagato, think it’s alright if I hold onto this baby? Finders keepers, right?” Asked Ren, turning around to face where the old man stood. Instead of finding him, however, she stared at nothing but hollow air and the towering walls of crates ahead of her. She puckered her brow in confusion. “Hey, Nagato?” She passed her gaze up and down the dark passage, scanning for the old shinobi. “Nagato?”
As Ren turned right, facing the direction in which she came, she noticed a vast, tempting shadow painted across the floor ahead of her. Her brow sunk further over her gaze, rising slowly toward the source of the shade. Occupying the width of the hall, facing her fully, stood a young man. Over his blue shozoku, his black trench coat flowed behind him. Strapped to his face was a familiar eyepatch.
“No…” Ren remembered the deafening sniper bullet and the shinobi’s stark image against the moon. “Not him again!”
It wasn’t long before Takeshi, the shinobi, acted. He stuffed his hand into his pocket and retrieved a long, double-barrel shotgun. The darkness looming within each barrel matched Ren’s eyes.
“Please, just let this be another dream!” She pleaded, squinting. “Or another figment of my imagination caused by this scythe…”
Takeshi’s fingers squeezed the trigger until there rang a decisive click, almost sounding louder than the blast that ensued. Ren’s eyelids squeezed so tight over her vision, stars leapt across her sight.
A sharp, steel ring echoed through the air. Ren felt a strong vibration run up her arm, reaching her core and jolting her stomach.
A long pause endured. Apart from the lingering tremors continuing to wobble her limbs Ren felt nothing that resembled pain.
“Huh? I’m not dead?”
She cracked open one cautious eye. In her peripheral vision, she spied several bullet holes in the surface of the wooden crates right beside her. But ahead, she watched as Shinsatsu’s wide, crescent bane hovered in front of her face, acting as a shield against the cloud of shots.
“I- I don’t believe this…” Ren thought, seeing her own two hands hold the weapon out in front of her. “Did I seriously just swat those bullets out of my way with nothing but this scythe? Is that even possible?”
Before she could contemplate the miraculous occurrence a second longer, Takeshi’s visible eye thinned. He fired once again. And with that, Ren felt a cog inside her mind click into place.
Time slowed as she saw each bullet ripple through the air toward her. Not only that, but she distinguished the path in which to swing her scythe to smack away every single one.
“I doubted my abilities at first, but I think I’ll trust my instincts now. I mean, what other choice do I have? It’s too late to run away at this point.”
Additionally, when Ren focused her gaze on Takeshi, she noticed something else strange: he no longer wore blue. That was because every surface her gaze met bled a radiant shade of red.
“I know what’s happening:” Ren’s brow furrowed over her eyes, containing a matching crimson color. “This is that power I felt when fighting Missy. That upsurge of strength!”
After Ren swung Shinsatsu in a wide circle, blocking each of Takeshi’s shots, his brow creased even lower. He quickly pocketed his firearm and traded it for one with a long, skinny barrel and a wide drum-mag.
“Is that a tommy gun? No way am I parrying a shot from that!” Ren’s thoughts screamed. But before her panic could overtake her, an idea sprung into her mind. As if guided by a string, her gaze shifted toward the bottom of a stack of crates beside her.
The second before Takeshi could take aim, Ren’s blade dug into the wall of crates between them. A deep, wooden crack spread through the air, followed by a rumbling cacophony as the boxes avalanched between them, severing their view of one another.
Immediately once Takeshi vanished behind the pile of collapsed boxes, Ren spun away. Splintered wood crunching beneath her feet as she zipped off. Her hurried breath rang in her ears as she followed the labyrinth of crates down every corner and through every stretch in hopes of shaking off her pursuer. Over that noise, her keen senses continued to pick up his distant footsteps.
“Damn it! The longer I seem to run, the closer they seem to get! If only I can reach Diego and the others…”
Ren hung a left around one junction when her heart skipped a beat. Before her, she watched the young shinobi march across her path. His visible eye glinted with murderous intent. Underneath his scarf, Ren could tell a smile was spreading across his face. She watched as he slowly raised his weapon and centered his aim. A nervous ringing formed in her ears. The fingers throttling Shinsatsu’s woven handle turned to ice. Her terrified focus lingered only on the rising barrel of his firearm.
Just then, however, all her worried ticks slowly started to fade away. Her vision regained its sharpness. Her mind refocused.
“There it is again. That calmness. That change.”
Ren’s shoulders rolled back, raising her head in the process. All her tangible fear seemed to vanish as a new, enhanced air of confidence overcame her. She glanced down at her hands, holding Shinsatsu’s woven grip firmly, but not strangling it like before. Without another thought entering her mind, she bounded forward and raised her scythe.
Takeshi froze, too startled by his opponent’s sudden approach. Reaching him, Ren swung down. The hooked bane of her scythe didn’t so much as cut, but smashed through the tommy gun like it had been replaced with glass. The momentum of her falling slice yanked Ren off balance, drawing her brow into Takeshi’s
After a loud thunk, both combatants backed away from each other, massaging their throbbing foreheads. Frustration pervaded the boy’s pained snarl as he armed himself with a wide, curved cutlass and marched forward again. When Ren spotted him, raising his weapon as he approached, her pain obediently sunk away to clear the way for her acute senses.
In rapid succession, Takeshi began his onslaught of jabs. Ren’s arms once again seemed to act independently, raising Shinsatsu to guard against every slice he dished out.
“If I’m able to keep up with him, it must be because his mobility’s limited. I’m guessing it’s due to that coat of his.” Ren observed as her scarlet-lit eyes tracked each one of his wide, labored swings. “Either I can escape him or try to win by outmaneuvering him, but that’s a little difficult when I got a heavy scythe of my own.”
For no particular reason, a mild ache returned to her forehead. She remembered the involuntary headbutt she landed when Shinsatsu’s weight drew her forward. Ren’s eyes narrowed. Her thoughts began to swim.
After parrying one of Takeshi’s slices aimed at her head, Ren pushed her scythe forward to send him staggering away. With distance stacked between them, she held her scythe out at a horizontal angle and began to spin. Sharply, the weapon’s weight added to the speed of her rotation. It wasn’t long before Ren’s surroundings all incomprehensibly smeared together. Meanwhile, Takeshi watched her twister of steel zip closer. Beneath his scarf, his teeth chattered. The knuckles throttling the handle of his sword flashed a ghostly white.
“She’s coming in too hot! I can’t escape it! All I can do is block!” He deduced, wrapping his second hand around his blade’s haft and holding it out between him and the impending cyclone of steel.
When their weapons met, instead of freezing the scythe in place as he hoped his sword would, Takeshi’s blade came clean off when Shinsatsu tore through it. His single eye watched it shoot backward like a shrapnel shard and lodge itself into a wooden crate behind him. Meanwhile, the speed of Ren’s spin hadn’t fallen a pinch as she continued to zero in.
“What the- it cleaved right through it!” He gawked, hastily pulling another weapon from his coat: a knight’s claymore.
But when he held it forward, Shinsatsu’s hook mercilessly sliced through it, prompting the shinobi to grab another. And after that was cut down, another. One after another, each blade he drew in rapid succession to defend himself would fly off its handle with a sharp, iron ring when Ren’s scythe encountered it.
Takeshi’s hand dove into the pocket of his trench coat for another mid-sized melee weapon. What his fist squeezed around instead was empty air. His single unhidden eye widened in panic.
“What? Outta weapons already?” Beneath his scarf, the muscles in his face constricted to form a wide grin. “But wait a minute, that means I can do this!”
As if not weighing an ounce, Takeshi lifted off the ground. He soared a full twelve feet into the air before daintily landing atop the lofty wall of boxes behind him, far beyond the range of Ren’s hazardous spinning.
“Yep, losing about half my arsenal was all part of the plan…” He heard his voice try to convince himself. He scratched the back of his neck awkwardly before pausing, lowering his hand to slip it beneath the collar of his coat, and pulling from it his sniper rifle. “Because now, with more distance between us, I can finally finish you off…”
He pulled on the bolt handle, producing a clack that he felt run through its wide, polymer stock. But when he placed it to his shoulder and cast his gaze down the scope, he watched as Ren’s scythe, airborne, hurdled toward him like a spinning boomerang down his crosshairs.
Shinsatsu’s blunt haft collided against the full width of Takeshi’s face. Its impact sent a deep, cavernous boom rattling the tops of surrounding crates. The rifle launched from his hands. At the speed of a cannonball, his body flung backward, over several rows of boxes before Ren heard him land with a hard thump an audible distance away.
Ren lifted her hand above her head and opened her palm. As if returning to its rightful place, the pole of her scythe landed within it. Once she lowered her arm, resting the cool, iron haft perpendicularly against her shoulder, Ren approached where she heard her foe land at a slow, methodical plod. When she arrived next to him, she watched him lay in an unconscious heap on the floor. His flowing coat draped over him like a blanket while drool pooled on the ground beneath his hanging-open maw. Seeing him soundly asleep, Ren allowed her energy to sink to their default levels. Her arms accordingly lowered, letting Shinsatsu’s blade rest against the ground next to her feet. Beneath her scarf, a look of pure amazement spread across her face.
“That’s a shinobi…” Her astonished thoughts read. “I just defeated a trained shinobi…”
Before she could dwell on her achievement any longer, that same energy reached over her again, washing over her like an aggressive tide. “Four presences.” She observed. Her head spun quickly to face the vicinity of the new auras, making their gradual approach. She assumed another clumsy fighting stance. Her scythe lifted off the ground.
But instead of enemies, Kenji, Akane, Diego, and Yuki all appeared as they zipped around the corner.
“Thank goodness…” Ren sighed, relieved. She lowered her weapon before quickly hiding it behind her back.
Kenji shot Ren an alarmed glare. “What happened here? I sensed a great disturbance.”
“You might want to see this…” Ren said, stepping off to the side to reveal the unconscious shinobi behind her. Yuki gasped.
“Hey, isn’t that the guy who chased you and me through town?” Diego bellowed, pointing an accusing finger at the body beneath her.
“Sure is.” Ren nodded. “He ambushed me and I, well, I took care of it.”
Akane’s silent, astonished gaze darted between the sleeping enemy shinobi and Ren, who couldn’t help but smile under her red scarf.
“We’ll discuss this later. For now, we have to dispose of him and find a safe exit.” Kenji set his low glare on the unconscious enemy. Starting toward Ren, he drew a long, gleaming katana out from behind his back.
“Kenji, wait!” Ren cried, jumping back in front of the wounded shinobi and holding up her arms. “Do we really have to kill him?”
“Yeah, wait a minute.” Diego muttered, striding over to them. “We have no idea who this guy is, what he knows, or where he came from. Something might be going on, and if we wanna get to the bottom of it, we might be able to get something out of him.”
“It isn’t like he’s going anywhere…” Yuki remarked.
“It is unlike Iga to take prisoners,” Kenji argued, though his blade’s altitude began to lower.
“An abnormal reaction to an abnormal circumstance is justified.” Akane proclaimed. The group’s focus shifted to her as she strolled toward them. When they parted to let her through, she took the laying shinobi by one foot. As easily as lifting an empty plastic bag, she hoisted him off the ground and strung him over her shoulder. “I concur that if there are more threats such as him out there, it would be wise to probe him for knowledge. My father’s best guards shall watch over the detainee at all times.”
At that, Ren saw the aggressive tone exit Kenji’s glare. “Just know that what we’re doing sickens me.” He grumbled, sheathing his weapon at last.
“It’s called being merciful. It’s fun, you should try it.” Diego jeered.
As he made inaudible mutterings under his breath, Kenji turned around and stomped off, leaving Yuki, Akane, Ren, and Diego lingering behind him. Ren passed her gaze slowly across the surrounding Iga, growing a confused look.
“Hey, where’s the gem?” She asked.
“Not here.” Replied Kenji at a distance.
“Yeah, guess the information we got was wrong.” Diego sighed.
“But that can’t be!” Cried Yuki. She balled her fists, stamped her foot into the ground, and pouted her bottom lip like a toddler on the brink of a meltdown. “We fortunetellers can’t give wrong information! It’s just sometimes, the truth looks different! Like, uh,” Her head snapped inexplicably toward Ren, who shrunk away from Yuki’s piercing, violet gaze. “Like Ren’s weapon here! Doesn’t the gem in its heel kinda look like the one we were sent to get?”
Akane suddenly dumped the sleeping Shinobi onto Yuki beside her. Her hands then seized Ren by her shoulders and spun her around, revealing the weapon she’d been trying her best up until that point to conceal behind her back.
“Ren-san, is… is this…” Her astonished voice fluttered. “Shinsatsu?”
“What?!” Kenji barked, freezing in his tracks. Like Akane, he raced toward Ren and didn’t stop until he stood less than a foot away from her and the metal scythe.
“Oh, this?” Ren turned around and held the weapon out in front of her. Akane, Yuki, and Kenji’s eyes all sparkled with interest. “Yep. Shinsatsu, right? I just found it.”
“I don’t believe you.” Akane shook her head. “No amateur can handle a weapon of such legendary properties. It must be a fabricated reproduction.”
“Believe it, sister. Just ask your dad. He told me the whole story. Mount Fuji and all.”
“Dad?” Akane’s defiant air broke when she raised a confused brow. “My father made no mention of coming here…”
“Really because…” Ren’s words trailed off when she remembered Nagato’s inexplicable disappearance. A chill spread through her. “Never mind.”
From the corner of her eye, Ren then caught sight of Diego, the only one who hadn’t charged down the steps to catch a view of Shinsatsu. Instead, he stared down at the four of them from the crest of the stairs. He drew his mouth in a straight, pursed line, saying nothing. His brows hung low over his eyes, fixed straight on the weapon.
“If what Ren truly holds is the Shinsatsu, then this changes things.” Kenji said. “We’ll be taking a slight detour.”
“To where, exactly…?” Ren muttered, clutching her weapon tighter.
“You’ll see.” He said, turning away with Akane and Yuki following him. As they proceeded down the corridor of boxes, Ren once again saw Diego. He spied her back, his face exuding the same, deadpanned stillness. Unease entered her consciousness.
“Are we there yet?”
“Are we there yet?”
“Are we there yet?”
“Oh come on!” She cried. “On TV whenever someone asks ‘are we there yet’, on the third time, they’re usually there! Are we there yet?”
Kenji growled hostilely.
As the group bounced from building to building, Ren riding on Diego’s back, PJ on Kenji’s, and the snoozing Takeshi on Yuki’s, the sun had peaked above the horizon. Ren made sure to hold on tightly to her weapon while also not looking into Diego’s eyes. Despite her best efforts, though, she couldn’t help but feel his gaze digging into her from underneath.
“Ever since I found this weapon, Diego hasn’t been acting like his cheery self. Is there something going on between him and this thing? Does he hate it? Then why would he also be looking at me strangely? All I did was find it.”
“Are we there yet?” Ren heard Yuki wine.
Kenji gave a defeated sigh. “Yes…”
As they landed on the ground and stopped, Ren dismounted Diego’s back and looked around at her surroundings. Between the two metal dumpsters lining the stone wall, Kenji lay PJ down gently. Yuki flopped the unconscious captive down not as gently.
“Diego, watch over PJ and our guest. Akane, Yuki, and Ren, follow me, and make sure to bring Shinsatsu with you.” Kenji commanded, rising to his feet.
Akane suddenly pulled a sweater over Ren’s head like a burlap sack, cutting off her vision. She fumbled with the sweater, grunting in frustration, until her head escaped through the turtleneck collar. She glared at Akane, snarling. Like Kenji and Yuki, her shinobi garb was invisible underneath her plain civilian clothing. Akane’s crimson long-sleeve dress left no aspect of her shozoku visible.
“We are in public now.” Akane decreed, dropping a pair of blue jeans over Ren’s shoulder, glaring at her. “It is best you stay subtle.”
“Right…” Ren mumbled, pulling down the pair of pants. She paused to peer around the corner of the alleyway at their destination in the distance. “Because if there’s one word to sum of Venice Beach, it’s subtle…”
Once Ren zipped up her jeans, she followed the trio out of the alleyway and onto the beachfront walk. Her curious gaze cautiously swept over her surroundings; the tourists and residents sharing the walkway at a brisk pace and countless boutiques and vendors lining their path. No two people or stores were alike.
“I’ve heard stories about this place.” Ren pondered, pensively chewing the inside of her cheek. “Even though I’ve never stepped foot within a five-mile radius of Venice, it’s hard not to hear about it. The reason I haven’t been here is the same reason why I avoid any other high-end neighborhood: too many tourists and too great a law presence.”
“Here we are! Home sweet home!” Yuki announced as they stopped in front of a storefront. The surrounding air carried a pungent scent of both incense and cannabis. In the window, Ren saw countless articles of glassware, ceramic vases, and shamanistic paraphernalia of all sorts across all faiths around the world.
“What is this place?” Ren murmured.
“My shop!” Yuki preened, strolling forward in through the doors of the building.
“This is the fortuneteller’s shop.” Kenji explained. “It is where Yuki is equipped to transcribe one’s fate. Rest assured, by the end of your encounter with her, many things will be brought to light.” He pushed apart the beaded ropes dangling in front of the entrance acting as the door. Ren and the others followed Kenji through.
As they entered, Ren found exactly what she expected to find at a shop with that smell. Barrels woven with strong cedar of every conceivable size and shape were stacked on shelves as tall as the ceiling. Curiously, along another wall, there stood glass cubbies with metal shelves holding typical orange pill bottles. In addition, beads, wall scrolls, and charms hung from every square inch of the ceiling. A musty, sweet odor hung in the air.
“I feel like I’ll get intoxicated just by hearing what this stuff is named.” Ren thought. She blinked her eyes, brimming with a stinging, chemical sensation.
She watched her escorts approach the counter, manned by a boy looking no older than herself. The red beanie cap pulled over his head only hid a small percentage of his straight, shoulder-length black hair. A white crew neck tee fit his tall, narrow build loosely. Thick, long lashes like dark wings surrounded his slender, coal-colored eyes. He bowed politely to Kenji as he reached the counter. Ren jogged up to join them.
“Kenji-senpai, it’s good to see you again.” He said in a warm voice. When his head lifted, he removed his hat and brushed his thick mane back behind his head. “How can I assist you today? We have a special on all ginger products.”
“Oh, tell me more!” Yuki cried, slamming her hands on the counter.
“Another time. Today is strictly business. And besides, you can obtain all this for free.” Kenji told her. He faced the clerk and bowed. “It’s good to see you again too, Lee.” As he leaned in close, he whispered something Ren could only faintly pick up. “We request the upstairs…”
The expression on Lee’s face darkened. He peered around Kenji’s broad shoulders and straight at Ren. His sharp, studying gaze gutted her. An inexplicable sensation swam up within her as she gulped nervously.
“Very well.” He said, reaching his hand underneath the counter. Right after he did, a panel in the ceiling slid open, revealing a gap which led to the second story.
“Many thanks.” Kenji said, pointing his eyes upward. After he leapt effortlessly through the hole and into the second story, everyone else followed.
Before Ren joined them all through the hole, she stole one last brisk look at Lee. As she did, she discovered that his inky black eyes were pointed in her direction as well. But as soon as he noticed that Ren was staring back, he quickly shot his gaze at the ground to his left. Lee shyly drummed his fingers against the countertop like he was waiting for Ren to disappear through the hole. She frowned, feeling a pang of disappointment.
At last, she hopped up and grabbed onto the edge of the opening. There she hung for a while, unable to hoist herself up. Eventually, she swung her feet over and rolled onto her back, feeling just the slightest bit winded. The hatch snapped shut behind her, startling Ren to her feet.
There, she watched three shinobi gaze into the nearly pitch-black attic. Through the darkness, Ren could faintly make out more scrolls and beads hanging from the ceiling, along with many other indistinguishable objects littering the ground. In her peripheral vision, she spotted the faintest hints of movement. Chills washed over her.
Yuki, meanwhile, pirouetted inside, giggling as if the room’s eerie aura recoiled off her. “Ah, so nice to be back! It feels like just yesterday I was here…”
“That was yesterday.” Kenji muttered. “Anyway, you have a job to do.” He motioned toward Ren, still huddling near the corner of the room continuing to dart her eyes nervously while strangling the handle of her scythe.
“Maybe in a bit! I think I’ve almost got it…” Said Yuki with a struggled grunt as she dug her hand deep within a pile of inconspicuous junk, piled high to the ceiling. “Yes! My lucky coin!” She cried, plucking her arm free and hoisting a flat, disk-shaped object to the light. Ren squinted her eyes to distinguish it: a purple, plastic coin inscribed with a Mew. “This is so exciting! C’mon, newbie, siddown!” Yuki practically pounced on Ren, grabbing her shoulders and guiding her forcefully to the floor. Yuki plopped down in front of her and slapped a sheet of paper between them. Splattered across its surface read unfamiliar symbols, crudely arranged in a row, and a red torii gate inscribed at the top.
“What’s this? Almost looks like a Ouija board.” Ren thought, remembering the game section of Juniper’s shop.
“That’s ‘cuz it kind of is.” Answered Yuki, placing the Pokémon coin atop the red torii. “We both put our fingers on my lucky coin and Kokkuri-san will move it on her own!”
Ren briefly scanned the room, finding no one else besides Kenji, Akane, and Yuki in front of her. “And just who is this Kokkuri-san?”
“She was the Iga-ryū’s first fortuneteller, dating back to when the clan was formed.” Kenji answered. “However, she’s been gone for many centuries.”
Yuki cackled, sending surprised chills racing down Ren’s back. “Oh, silly Kenji! Kokkuri isn’t gone! If she is, then how could we be playing with her?”
Ren helplessly gazed at the shinobi company behind her again. Kenji gave a single encouraging nod. Akane folded her arm as if saying no to her begging gaze.
“Oh well…” Ren’s thoughts sighed. Her trembling, reluctant finger reached toward the Mew coin, where Yuki’s pale index already rested. When it landed, the coin suddenly darted across the paper, pulling Ren’s finger along at blistering speed. The sound of the coin scraping across the paper’s surface produced a noisy buzz. Back and forth, all across the sheet the coin jumped. Ren steadily recoiled away until just as suddenly, after only a few seconds, the coin abruptly stopped at the same torii gate illustration as where it started.
Yuki clapped her hands together and bounced up and down on her knees. “Wasn’t that fun!” She asked Ren, collapsed backward on the ground.
“This is crazy! I can’t believe how fast my finger was moving!” Ren thought, silently gazing up at her finger. “And the craziest part is, it didn’t feel like Yuki was moving it at all…”
“Akane, did you get that down?” Kenji muttered over to her. Akane tucked her wooden paintbrush back into the dish of ink resting on the table next to her. She then handed Kenji the sheet of paper, who held it out toward Yuki. “Here, Yuki, this is Ren’s for… I mean, what Kokkuri-san said.”
“And Acne was able to write all that down so quickly!?” Ren watched in disbelief as Yuki snatched the paper from Kenji’s hand. “Just who are these people?”
After making a show of clearing her throat into her closed fist and loudly smacking together her lips, Yuki held the paper to the room’s dim lighting and started to read in a cryptic voice.
“The coming struggle
shall be ended
“The stones that lay
The path to strength
Cry out in despair
“In order to
Quell the chaos,
The host must decide:
To the methods
Of the Iga-ryū,
“Or to remain
A mere product
Of the modern age.
“In doing so
Shall usher forth
The Iga-ryū’s demise
“Traverse the stones
That line the way
Toward the final choice…
“Yeah, and then it just ends. I think Kokkuri-san had to leave early.” Her purple eyes drifted mysteriously toward a small crack in the nearby window. “Oh well, I’ll ask her later.”
“Thank you, Yuki-san.” Akane bowed. “Now that we have Ren-san’s fortune transcribed, we shall return her to Kashiwabara, where my father will decipher the precise meaning of this text.”
“So you just found it, picked it up, and now they say you’re some sort of Shinsatsujin?” PJ mumbled, voice still groggy from having just been woken up.
Water gushed beneath them across the shallow rocks as both he and Ren stood atop the wooden footbridge arched over the narrow stream. As Ren leaned against the railing facing PJ, he looked out at the scene wrapped around them while rubbing the sleep from his eyes. The crowded oaks acted as a wall around them, stunting their view. All Ren could distinguish from the corner of her eye was the crest of the dojo’s lofty tiled rooftops, looming over them as though it were eavesdropping.
“Pretty much, yeah.” Ren said as she continued to run her fingers up and down Shinsatsu’s haft. Its cloudy steel felt cool to the touch. Her fingers faltered before venturing too close to the ruby adorning its heel. Her cautious eyes reflected their gentle rays.
A breath of air blew from PJ’s nose. “Man, I can pretty much confirm that by far, this is the most bonkers sleepover I’ve ever had.”
“You said it.” Ren sighed, reclining slightly.
Her ears perked at the sound of footsteps behind her. Turning around, she found Akane and Yuki descending the stone-lain steps leading out of Kashiwabara toward them. Both had changed out of their shozoku to don silk kimonos, Akane in respective red and Yuki in respective white.
“Morning.” Ren yawned.
“Hi!” Yuki waved.
“PJ-san, you are to follow Yuki-san.” Stated Akane, drawing PJ’s tired, curious gaze.
“Ok, why’s that?”
“Since she was the one to mistakenly retrieve you, she will be the one to rectify her actions by erasing your memory of the previous night’s events.” At that, the drowsiness vanished from PJ’s aura, replaced with icy terror. “No need to be afraid, for the technique she will use is quite painless. You will simply awaken in the comfort of your own bed with no recollection of us.”
“Yep, just be sure to keep your eyes open or else jin won’t work!” Yuki explained, slowly reaching toward PJ with her pale hands. Her eyes shimmered with a faint, sky-colored hue.
“Nuh-uh! No way!” PJ cried, spinning around and hiding his eyes beneath his hands. “Last night was one of the most fun nights of my life! It was just like the shows I see on the tele and I don’t wanna forget it!” Dramatically, he fell to his knees and groveled at Yuki’s feet. “Please, I’ll do anything! I’ll become a… whatever you guys are, and I’ll keep my yap shut about it! I swear!”
“If you swear, then perhaps I will consult with my father over this matter.” Akane held her chin.
“But know if you go blabbing on about this to anyone,” Yuki said, holding her finger an inch above PJ’s clammy brow. “We will know, and I will erase your memory for it. Or kill you. Whatever’s easier.”
PJ mimicked zipping his mouth shut, pulling off the zipper, and tossing it over his shoulder.
“As for you, Ren-san,” Akane articulated her name with utter antipathy. “My father wishes to have a private audience with you.”
“Finally.” She rose twice as quickly as PJ had. “Someone who can explain to me what the hell’s been going on.” She breezed past Akane and Yuki as though they were a pair of bar doors and marched up the stairs.
“I never told you where he wished to see you.” Akane’s frigid voice locked Ren’s feet in place. Once she scaled the steps and it was her turn to brush rudely past Ren, though, her feet regained her autonomy and her expression soured again. “Just follow me.”
“Right.” Ren asserted, stomping after her. “I knew that.”
Akane escorted her into the cloister, down a path that wound through the garden’s oaks. To her left, she spotted a rattan fence, walling off another section of the garden through the wall of trees. To her right, she could faintly make out the sight of green, vertical rods shooting up from the ground to reach some untold, invisible height above. All she could see when she peered overhead, however, were the canopy of branches and leaves. Only threads of sunlight reached the ground through the leafy barrier and the overcast clouds beginning to pull across the air. The damp scent of impending rain swam through Ren’s lungs.
Absorbed by the sights of the forest and the sounds of the cicadas’ incessant calls, Ren didn’t know how long it was until they reached the set of steps leading to the elevated veranda, marking the garden’s end. After following Akane up the steps, through the open wall panel, and down the sun-lit corridor just a bit further, they paused before a plain, cedar door, indistinguishable from the rest that lined their path.
“Behind here is my father’s quarters.” Said Akane, not bothering to turn around and face Ren as she spoke. “Before you enter, allow me to advise you to not make a fool out of yourself.”
“What gave you the impression I’d do that?” Ren crossed her arms.
“I know a rhetorical question when I hear one.” Without another word, she placed her palm against the door and slid it open. Ren took two cautious steps forward until she stood within the dim chamber. When Ren turned back around to catch one last glimpse at her, Akane rudely snapped the door shut in front of her.
A warm glow spread through the room’s air behind her. Ren craned her neck to investigate, finding a cozy space. The floors, walls, and furniture were identical to those Ren remembered from the room where she woke up. The only difference was a hollow, square opening in the tatami over which a bronze kettle hung from the ceiling. One seat was empty and within the other sat Nagato, holding a lit match.
“You called?” Asked Ren.
Nagato raised his eyes to peer at her. Instantly, his calming aura washed over her, relieving some of her lingering tension.
“Indeed. There is much to discuss.”
Ren joined him, reaching into the folds of Yuki’s borrowed shozoku to retrieve the rolled-up scroll containing her fortune. After she handed it to Nagato, his eyes swept the paper briefly.
“What can you tell me ‘bout this?” Ren asked, tapping her finger against the thin sheet of paper.
Nagato closed his eyes as he coiled the paper again. “Time, as we commonly know it- past, present, and future- is an illusion. One our minds perceive linearly. But there are those who can glimpse beyond the limits of our perception to see temporality for what it truly is: fortunetellers. And what I believe Yuki has deciphered is that the vessel of Shinsatsu is you. Its divine powers flow through your veins, Ren. You are the Shinsatsujin.”
“Right…” Ren nodded slowly. “As cool as that sounds, I’m not sure what any of that means or what makes you so sure I am after just one job.”
“The choice is not mine. Or anyone’s for that matter. Some could say the choice was yours. Others may say it was planned since the dawn of time. No matter the case, whoever holds Shinsatsu is Shinsatsujin.” Nagato said. “Not to say that I didn’t have suspicions. In fact, they began twenty-one years ago when the precursor to Yuki predicted that one of our warriors by the name of Kurogane Sasuke would one day bear a child that would achieve great things. However, before such a child was conceived, Sasuke disappeared. During his two-decade absence, rumors reached Iga that Sasuke had borne a child, and when we discovered you, the other jōnin and I decided to welcome the last Kurogane back to Iga. Little did I know, however, that you would also be Shinsatsujin.”
Ren shook her head. “I already told you,” She began to say before trailing off. For suddenly, an image flashed before her mind. A tall, dark body stood before her. Its height and width eclipsed nearly the full scope of her vision. Slowly, the figure turned around and walked away, leaving Ren with a heavy pit in her chest, as though her heart had been swapped with a ball of iron. When the vision ended, Ren couldn’t decide whether what she saw was a distant memory or simply her imagination, but nevertheless she swallowed the sensation down and continued. “I don’t have parents.”
“It is curious why you think such a thing.” Nagato remarked.
“If I do have a father…” Her next words formed a lump in her throat. She had to squint and turn her head away just to utter them. “Why hasn’t he come back for me?”
“In any case, heir of Kurogane or not, being the wielder of Shinsatsu is no small feat.” Ren opened her eyes to find that Nagato was staring at the scythe in her lap.
“Yeah, you still haven’t gotten to how any of that works.”
“That was all explained in your fortune.” Nagato answered. “Shinsatsu, carried only by its chosen wielder, lies at the heart of Iga. The fate of our clan is tied to the prowess of that weapon. It is destined that the one who wields the blade shall bring an end to any conflict thrust upon Iga. For better or worse.” Ren’s gaze drifted to the side. “I can sense you are pensive. What does your mind dwell on now?”
“Tell me more about the conflict.” Ren murmured. “Does Iga have enemies or something?”
Nagato shook his head at first. However, he later shut his eyes and began to speak in a subdued, neutral voice. “In Japan, when the country was in pieces and I was in my youth, I led the people of both the Iga province as well as the neighboring families of Kōga. The partnership between the clans was kept sacred with a solemn vow from an ancient fortuneteller: one nation, one band. It meant that as long as our villages existed, the Iga and Kōga would be at peace. Times were prosperous.” His voice began to ring with the slightest pinch of nostalgia. “During my childhood, I encountered a boy about my age named Mochizuki Izumo. We became the best of friends and the closest of allies on our path to becoming shinobi.” Nagato’s eyes opened. Regret swam visibly in his dark pupils. The green luster in his eyes were unnaturally matte. “But then one day, the pact was broken. Our tribes were swept into a vast war spanning the entire archipelago. It stole from us our villages and our masters. Without leaders to guide our people, we consulted the fortuneteller to decipher the outcome of our clans. It was told that only three shinobi of three respected shinobi families could take over as the jōnin leaders of the Iga-ryū and Kōga-ryū. Tanba Momochi, Hattori Hanzo, and I were selected. Although Izumo of the Kōga’s esteemed Mochizuki lineage was a strong contender, the fortuneteller sensed a malice within him. In the end, the choice split apart our alliance, as well as our friendship. The Kōga-ryū believed that it was an outrage to have three families of Iga determine their path. And since the village was no more, the territories had no reason to be allied. Citing that ideal, Izumo led the Kōga against me, but when our homeland was finally obliterated in the wake of war, only Iga stood. Izumo and the Kōga were banished to live in the ruins of the Shiga Prefecture by the fortuneteller. Meanwhile, the last survivors of Iga safely constructed a vessel, The Yamato, and set sail for a new homeland. From there, we could rebuild our shinobi forces and continue to thrive.”
“What about Izumo? Is he still alive?”
“Although he managed to sneak aboard The Yamato to make one final attempt on my life, he was soundly defeated. We drugged him with sleeping poison until we arrived here. However, upon our arrival, The Yamato capsized and Izumo’s body was lost. It was the same shipwreck that caused Shinsatsu to fall out of our possession. I am unsure whether or not Izumo was able to awaken in time to save himself. As far as I know, he may have spent his final hours peacefully unaware of his demise. Or, the more likely alternative, he reached shore as we did and continued to live to this very day. He could have made it mere seconds or centuries. That is the only enemy I can imagine as of right now. Although countless shinobi forces exist in America, a fragile web of alliances keep them at bay. Tenuous peace has reigned for some time now.” Nagato shifted in his seat. “I can tell that is not the only thing troubling you, Ren. There is more.”
She exhaled. “I really can’t hide anything from you, can I? It’s just… that part about the stones that lay the path to power crying out. What does that mean?”
“I am afraid it is exactly how it sounds. It means in due time, someone near to you will face hardships as you ascend to new strengths. Then, you will be faced with a choice: to save our clan or leave it in ruins.”
“Ruins?” Ren echoed, panic rising in her voice. “Why would I want to leave you in ruins? Of course I want to help you guys out! I haven’t thanked you enough for saving my life. And also…” Her tone dropped off as she once again looked at her shimmering reflection in Shinsatsu’s face. Its allure was irresistible. The feeling while holding it, intoxicating. Before she could lose herself in the weapon’s red gem any longer, Ren shifted her gaze back to Nagato.
Contrary to the look of appreciation Ren was expecting from him, she was instead met with an even graver expression. “I just want you to be certain about your decision.” Nagato slowly faced her. “It means embracing a new level of responsibility, commitment, and most importantly of all, danger.”
“I just wanna know what I can do. To help.”
“If you are seriously considering becoming a part of the Iga-ryū, then you are already partway there.”
A strange, hopeful sensation rose within Ren’s chest. She cast her proud gaze over the weapon in her lap. But when she did, the image of Diego’s face flashed through her vision. His vacant smile, creased brows, and drilling gaze filled her with unease.
“Actually, I have another question.” Ren said at a half-whisper. Nagato’s head tilted curiously to one side. “Ever since I found Shinsatsu, I’ve been getting strange looks from Diego. Do you know what’s up with that?”
Ren watched a layer of dread reach across Nagato’s face; the corners of his mouth sinking and the center of his brows knitting together. But before he could deliver an answer, a quiet woosh reached Ren’s ears from behind her. She turned around in her seat to spy the door, open, with Akane and Diego within its hollow frame.
“Daughter, Diego, what is it?” Asked Nagato.
“Diego-san here wishes to see you.”