Enter: The Grim
“My lord, he has arrived.”
Shadows danced on the stone walls from many torches. A small door in a large, heavy gate was opened. The air was thick with moisture, a dense fog having rolled in. It’s pressure weighing down on the very lungs trying to breathe it. A guard stepped halfway through the entrance, gesturing to come in, showing the way with his light. An archer thumbed nervously on his bowstring as the hooded figure came closer. Even the fortress itself seemed to tremble as it encroached.
The atmosphere became heavier with each step. The guard stumbled back inside, this presence was foreboding. Fear swelled as the robed character began to float through the door. Even amidst the brightness of the lit courtyard, darkness cloaked him like a blanket. He hardly noticed that everyone was staring, and without even asking, merely continued walking. His footsteps made no sound, nor did his feet leave prints in the soft earth. The only indication that he was walking was a slight shuffle in his garb.
“Good, maybe now I can put an end to this ridiculous rebellion…”
Soldiers quickly opened the doors leading into the castle as he approached. Fog rolled in with him, swirling about as if magnetized to his aura. It was like the man already knew where to go, maneuvering through the maze of halls. No one dared speak to him, and certainly not walk in front to show the way. Each guard he passed held their breath until he was some ways down the corridor. It was not so much the feeling of death that had them so frightened, but the fear; it was as if a single touch could send a soul to hell.
“Go and make sure he finds his way with no problems, just make sure everyone keeps their distance, this one is not to be trifled with.”
One of the maids saw him as she turned the corner, the trey in her hands slipped. Every guard in the hallway cringed as the tea pot and dishes smashed on the ground, clattering in a most grating manner. The unholy man kept walking as if it hadn’t happened, and to the girl’s sigh of relief, he turned to go down another path. Despite many lamps along the way, no one was ever able to get a glimpse of his face; not that they wanted to of course. As he passed over the kennels some five floors below, the dogs went wild, barking, howling and whimpering.
“Very well, my lord, I will see to it.”
Lifting the door latch, the commander swung it inward. There he was, the robed man, standing right in front of him.
“You’re in my way…” The dark figure’s voice was a whisper, a whisper that could be heard as far away as any shout. Like a thousand tunnels going in every direction, it was obvious who was speaking, but the voice was not connected to him.
The commander was frozen, paralyzed. All he could do was watch as a gloved hand protruded from the folds of black cloth. It rested on his chest, then instantly a series of seals formed.
“I needed a meal…” He said. “Soul Stealing: Summons of Death.”
It had been almost a week since the attack on the farm, but Toshiro was determined to move as far away as possible. They were now entering into a small village in a distant land; certainly this would be safe for the time being. The older son of six years, Yama, held his father’s hand, while his tired brother, Yuji, rode on the man’s shoulders. It was about midafternoon, and all three were anxious for a break.
The journey so far had not been easy; taking the rest of the day to relax seemed almost too good to be true. Several villagers smiled and waved, greeting the trio. A group of playful kids rushed past, nearly running into them. Others were too busy to notice the strangers, and one particularly old man seemed indifferent about their presence, continuing to whittle away at a stick after briefly looking up.
A young lady of about seventeen, carrying a rather large basket on her shoulder, stumbled back into Yama as she was leaving a stand. She obviously hadn’t seen them, and the kid was small enough to trip her feet. Toshiro caught the girl with one hand and the basket with the other, halting the fall entirely.
“Oh, I’m sorry, forgive me, so clumsy!” She said.
The man put Yuji on the ground, then the basket on his head.
“No problem, where are you going.” He said with a smile. The weight was obviously what really caused her imbalance, coupled with the fact that she looked more than worn out from the day’s work.
“Really, I can manage…”
“Nonsense, besides, we need someone to show us a place to stay for the night.”
“Very well then, it’s just down here a ways.” She said, returning the smile, grateful for some help.
The girl stopped for a half-second, noticing the engraving on the hilt of the man’s katana, but chalked it up to coincidence. “No one nice could be one of them, and with children no less” she thought.
Yama held his younger brother’s hand, taking responsibility for him since he was a year and a half younger. What he didn’t expect was for the lady to take his hand as she led them; it was weird to him at first, but somehow comforting to the boy.
“You can just leave it here; grandma will be along shortly to see to it.” She said, gesturing to a chopping block with a dull axe leaning against it. “So you don’t have a place to stay?”
“That’s right, just passing through, and it would be nice to sleep in a bed finally.” The man took a moment to glance around at the poor conditions everything was in as he was setting the basket down.
“Well, we’re a small town, and no one’s managed the old inn since we hardly get travelers these days. It seems everyone’s afraid of the soldiers, anyone caught too far from a village is suspected of working with the rebels.” Again the young lady glanced at the emblem on his hilt.
“My sons and I have been traveling hard and fast for about a week, I’m afraid I’m not familiar with this land at all. We came from…from quite a ways off.” He didn’t want to let on that they were moving at an excessive rate of speed, most people can’t do that, especially not with kids tagging along.
“I see, seems like you three couldn’t have come too far…” She looked down as Yuji began tugging on her rather plain and worn dress.
“Yuji…” Toshiro said firmly.
“It’s quite alright.” She leaned down and smiled at him, “hungry, huh, let’s go inside and see if we can fix that.” Pinching his nose with her knuckles.
“No, you really don’t need to do that…”
“Like I’d turn away a child.” Taking the boy by the hand she gestured to Yama and his dad to follow. “Please come in, you’re strangers here in a place that can’t accommodate you, on behalf of the village at least have a meal.”
Toshiro hesitated, but had to follow when his older son pulled his hand. The interior was in just as bad a shape as the outside. The roof obviously leaked, buckets positioned around in various places gave that away immediately. One of the table legs was broken and held up on that corner with a log. In fact, everything in there seemed to be patched together in one way or another.
“Please, have a seat; I’ll have some soup ready in just moment.” She walked over to a pot hanging above a fire. “This is actually perfect timing, I’m making my family’s famous recipe; grandma taught me, she says I have to ‘carry on the tradition’.”
“Very kind of you miss...”
“Oh, where are my manners? I’m Mai.”
“Very kind of you, Mai.” He said. “My name is Toshiro, and these are my two boys, Yama and Yuji.”
“Nice to meet you.” She said smiling, kneeling down with a tray of soup bowls.
Both the children thanked her then quickly began devouring udon noodles with their chopsticks. The soup was incredible, no wonder her grandmother was insistent on teaching her.
“So is it just you and your grandma living here?” He asked, trying not to pry, though being curious.
“No, my brother is in the back. He’s very ill, been that way since he was little. It comes and goes, but for the most part it’s me and grandma taking care of everything.”
As all four ate their fill, a commotion started outside. The young lady stood up and rushed to the window; the man rose and asked what was the matter.
“Soldiers, they’re passing through town.” She said in a whisper.
“Is that a problem?” Toshiro asked.
“You really aren’t from around here, are you…”
She told them to wait inside, pulled the curtains closed and stepped out the door. The father, being wary, told his sons to go hide. Mai ran to defend her grandmother who was trying to get out of the way. It seemed one of the men wanted to rob her of anything she might have, but he became more interested in something else when her granddaughter stepped in between them.
“Look at this, boys, we might have some fun in this town after all.” He said, practically licking his lips.
Toshiro came bursting out of the house and walked at a brisk pace toward the gathering of soldiers. The one had grabbed Mai’s arm, preventing her from escaping, but he looked up to see who was coming out to challenge him.
“Oh, you better tell your dad to back off, girly, or he might get hurt.” He said, grinning at the approaching swordsman.
The girl blinked her eyes and was about to tell him to stay back, but didn’t have a chance to. By the time she opened her eyes, the so-called soldier wasn’t there anymore and the palm of Toshiro’s hand was where his head used to be. The other men caught their comrade, but they weren’t really sure what just happened. The man’s face felt like jelly, but was only conscious due to it not even being a tenth of the ex-shinobi’s full force.
“You got a lot of nerve, punk! Who do you think we are?!” He said, issuing a challenge. “After that I know what you are! You’re dead, fool!!”
“*coughing*, your father’s in trouble, he should never have gone out there.” A wheezing voice said from behind a curtain.
Yama pulled it back a little and found a fifteen year old boy lying in bed. This must have been Mai’s brother. He looked very sickly, but it was more than just the illness, it was something else too. His eyes were full of sadness.
“Don’t worry, our daddy’s strong! You should have seen how he fought off the ninja that attacked our house!” Yama said, beaming with pride.
“Ninja?” The teen said sarcastically, holding back a chuckle. “Listen, kid, if you wanna’ live, I suggest you start running out the back door. After all this, those men will take interest in whoever or whatever might be in here. *coughing*”
“You’ll see, he’s the strongest in the whole world!” Yuji said with a great big smile.
Outside, their father was moving to the center of the street; some thirty or more men gathered around ready to attack. Their armor was very basic, these were just foot soldiers, but the leader was easily recognizable. What caught Toshiro’s attention though was an insignia on his shoulder.
“You, why do you wear that?” He asked, pointing with a finger.
“If you don’t already know why then you don’t need to.” The officer said with a smirk. “You’re about to die anyway. Men, kill this fool.”
“You better draw your sword, stranger, at least die like a man.” Said the grunt who was still recovering from that hit.
“You mocking me?!”
The trooper raised his blade and swung at him, but Toshiro wasn’t there anymore. The soldier was confused when his sword hit nothing, then half a second later the bodies of his comrades were being thrown at him. The commanding officer stood in stunned silence as each of his men had their necks broken and were tossed on an ever growing pile of corpses. One moment the man was breaking limbs on one side, and in the blink of an eye he was on the other side of the circle cracking skulls with his knee as if they were eggs.
It took less than twenty seconds for him to dispatch a total of thirty-two troops. The only one left alive was the loud mouth at the bottom of the heap, and all you could here was a faint cry for help. Toshiro picked the officer off the ground by his collar and pulled him closer.
“Now, let’s answer that question if you don’t mind. Why are you wearing the symbol of my clan?!”