◈ In the Shadows
The leader of the ninja clan was a feared warrior. Although he was young, stories of his exploits during the war were spread by his allies, and told as tales of horror by his enemies. Being heavily outnumbered meant nothing to him. He would cut down his enemies in droves, and those that made it out alive would never dare to stand against him again. His youth caused many opponents to underestimate him in the beginning, and towards the end of the war he cemented his reputation.
Although his memories of that time were a blur, he remembered tasting defeat. He remembered retreating to the forest, but he could not remember how this happened. He never lost a fight, that much he remembered, but as he sat by the campfire and stared into the flames, he thought back to how he got here.
The work was purely intelligence gathering at the beginning. They were of course a fledgling ninja clan, yet the Narusawa clan was on hard times. Their fall from power would serve as a case study in the history books on how a house could fall from the most powerful of the clans to the brink of extinction.
The war had taken a huge toll on the Narusawa clan. They suffered many casualties and certain decisions caused them to lose face with many of the other clans. With their influence and power diminished, the house itself felt that the victors of the war would come after them, and an example would be made.
“Find out about their plans for the Narusawa clan.”
The plan was simple: sneak into the halls of the clans, pilfer some documents and report back. Yet this was not easy for them. Each member of the clan had been a fighter in the war. The battlefield was easy to navigate, even easier to understand the objective. Go here, kill this, come back. But espionage? That was a whole new world for them to learn.
Each ninja took a different clan to infiltrate. The leader decided to take the house with the most to gain at the fall of the Narusawa clan. This house had risen through the ranks through misinformation, and he thought it would be the most likely candidate for anything foul.
Breaking in was easy. He ran up the wall, along the top and leaped to a roof that was nearby. Silently he leaped from roof to roof, completely avoiding any of the guard patrolling underneath. Before long he made his way to the main building. As he sat on the roof surveying guard movements, he realized that there wasn’t just one clan's guards. 4 of the 5 most powerful clans were represented, with only the Narusawa clan missing. This increase of guards would be problematic. He could no longer sneak through the window, which was his first instinct, and instead looked for some kind of skylight or hole in the roof. He searched but found nothing.
The only option was to create a way through. He peeled back some of the tiles, carefully laid the tiles down, and slipped into the crack. He was now in the rafters of the kitchens, and slowly but surely made his way into the main hall. The shadows flickered and danced across the walls from the torchlight, yet the people sat still. The ninja lay flat on the rafters, slowing his breathing down to hear their discussions.
“Why not just destroy the Narusawa clan like the other lesser clans?”
“If we do that there is the chance of a revolt. We need something that will villainise them. Us backstabbing an ally so brazenly would surely bring all eyes on us.” said a man, no older than 30, who headed the table. “We need something more…” he paused for a second, “more treasonous.”
There was a mutter of agreement as the shadows danced like demons on the wall. Suddenly the shadows stopped, and seemingly looked right at him. He remained motionless, yet the hairs on the back of his neck stood upright. The cold grip of fear had seemingly encompassed him, as the shadows still remained motionless despite the flickering of the flames. He had heard all he needed to, and needed to get out of there. He carefully stood, and once again crawled through the opening. As he went to make his way out of the complex, a tile slipped from beneath his feet and smashed on the floor below.
He started to dart across the rough, no longer stealthily but driven by a will to survive. One arrow whizzed past, then another and another. Each of the arrows getting closer to hitting. His lack of experience in extraction was showing, as instead of erratic movements to make it harder for the archers to hit him, he bolted in a straight line. Yet he could see the wall just in front of him. He leapt through the air just as an arrow struck him from behind. He felt a sharp, searing pain all the way through his body as his leap thrust him over the wall. As he landed all grace had escaped him and his body smacked against the floor. The agony of the arrow embedded into his back pinned him down. He couldn’t move but he needed to get out. He felt his eyes begin to close.
Through the silence he heard the creak of the gates and the barking of dogs. He forced himself to his feet. The pain that was so vivid just a minute ago seemingly slipped away as he ran into the forest. He had no time to dwell on the absence of pain as he continued to run, his light footfalls barely cracking sticks beneath his feet.
He chalked his escape down to his resilience and youthful vigor, but no matter how far he got away from the complex, he could not shake the feeling that he was being followed from the shadows.
There once was a poor boy who lived in the forest of a small fiefdom in a far eastern kingdom. He lived alone, surviving on whatever he could forage from the forests. His days would have been nothing but a struggle to survive, if it wasn’t for a young girl, dressed in beautiful silks, coming out into the forest and playing together with him. The innocence of the girl saw past the filthy and poor exterior of the boy, as she saw nothing but a friend to climb trees with.
As time went on, the boy and the girl continued to be close. As they continued to get older, they developed feelings for each other. But such a romance would never come to pass. The boy was nothing more than a peasant, and the girl was the eldest daughter of the Narusawa clan who ruled the region. She was betrothed to a man from another clan to further strengthen their rule of the lands.
But the boy did not care, and swore an oath to protect the girl with his own life. To do this, he left the forest and embarked on a journey. At some point, he met an old retired general, and trained under him. Each day the old man would train the boy in the martial arts. Through their conversations, the boy discovered that he was a famous general known for his exceptional swordsmanship. He would wield 6 katanas as easily as most men handle their training swords. His allies revered him, and his enemies called him ‘Sura’, named after the perpetual warriors of their culture.
The boy showed an incredible natural affinity with martial arts, and his almost innate talent grew exponentially under his master. The great Sura training an apprentice drew many eyes from around the kingdom, and before Sura’s passing, many considered the apprentice boy to have far surpassed the skills of his teacher. Yet the boy remained humble, and till the last day of Sura’s life, continued to absorb as many of the skills as he could.
Shortly after the girl took charge of the Narusawa clan, civil war broke out in the kingdom. Several of the clans’ chiefs were infuriated by the perceived oppression and exploitation at the hands of the central government. The girl became a target during the civil war, and the boy defended her time after time. With his six katanas dripping in the blood of those foolish enough to stand against him, the enemy proclaimed that ‘Sura’ had returned to the battlefield.
After years of bloodshed, peace finally came back to the region. The sacrifices of those who laid down their lives in the bloodshed were remembered, but for the girl and her closest friend, the wars had only just begun.
The victorious lords each claimed rights to the kingdom, and their incessant bickering continued for a long time. Those who had fought against the tyranny of the central government, themselves became the tyrants.
The girl, who was now a woman in her own right, drew the attention of the ambitious. The Narusawa house was weakened, and after using their wealth to survive through the civil war, had started to become a target. The once powerful house of the kingdom had become a trophy for the tyrants.
Through his contacts, the boy who was now a grown man himself, came to learn of a plot to bring down the Narusawa clan completely. The young girl was to be framed for treason, bringing great dishonor onto the house and eliminating it completely from the history books. The man felt charged with protecting the remnants of the Narusawa clan, but what good could a wandering swordsman and a small group of followers do? They had few resources left, and the man’s first priority was to forge out a living for his clan.
The young man eventually persuaded the girl to retreat back to his childhood home deep in the forest. They would need to leave everything about their old lives behind them, including the name of the clan that was tied so closely to the nation.
For the man, it meant sacrificing his reputation. He laid down the swords that had served him so well during the civil war. Each sword had a story to tell, each one spoke to his prowess as a swordsman. Yet these long blades would be impractical for the path ahead. He picked up the shortest of the swords, and turned to leave. He knew that one day he would have to pick up the mantle of Sura again.
He and his men started to work on intelligence gathering, silently finding their ways into positions where they could spy on others. The young woman took charge of classifying the information and finding ways to sell it to keep the now small group alive. Those who were pushed out of their original lives due to power struggles, were now making their livelihood from playing everyone else in the power struggles.
The group was not instantly successful, and there were many errors made along the way. The intelligence game was completely different to the battlefield. They adapted their movements to be more stealthy, they learned how to infiltrate and assassinate targets without the brutish force they deployed on the battlefield. Yet most of all, they learned how to survive.
Through all their perseverance, they survived and thrived. They put the Narusawa name to rest, and started to call themselves “Ninjas”.
The clan was once again stable, and although the new line of work wasn’t the most legitimate work, they were being paid well for it. Their reputation landed them lucrative contracts, including work overseas in the west where they would need to gather intelligence on the regional powerhouses of Calpheon, Valencia and Mediah.
The members would come and go as they needed to. One day, one of the ninjas returned home from the west with what seemed to be a minor cold. The clan took care of him, gave him bed rest and tended to his ailment with medicines procured within the kingdom. His eyes eventually turned a vile shade of red, and he lost his grasp on reality. He thrashed out at everyone within the clan, injuring just a few before his life was taken at the hands of the leader.
The infection of the clan was just beginning. More and more of them started to fall to this mysterious disease they called the ‘red curse’. Some blamed their line of work, others thought they were cursed by some unknown witch. What was evident was that the disease did not care about the young, the old or the powerful. It brought everyone to their knees. The leader put anyone affected to the sword without hesitation, until his childhood friend came down with the illness.
He could not put her to the sword, and instead searched desperately for someone who could cure her. When the doctors arrived, the only thing they could do was put her into a coma to delay the change as much as possible. For the first time in what felt like an eternity, she was peaceful and the leader could steal some time alone with her. She was unresponsive, but he still felt her presence as he made his vows.
“I will scour every inch of this world, every corner of even the most vile cities to bring you back. I will take as long as needed to finish this mission for you, but please, hold on until I return. The shadows will no longer belong to me, and I vow on the swords of Sura I will return with a cure.”
With that, he left the room and returned to the armory where he laid to rest the Sura spirit. He was nothing but a shadow, but Sura’s reputation was legendary. If the people of the west were ever going to help his plight, he would need to once again become the legendary war machine, Sura.