JAPAN, APRIL 1604

Ariyo watched her as she traversed the back streets of Yedo. She danced in staccato like a puppet on strings.

A passing group of Samurai laughed and pointed at Kiku as she passed, her long silk dress and sleeves covering most of her extremities. She wobbled and bobbed as she scurried past them, smiling and bowing her head.

When Ariyo had first met Kiku, it had been under very different circumstances. She had been lying naked in a large heap of human feces that was destined for the rice fields near Osaka. Had she not wriggled and coughed, he would have missed her entirely.

It was a sight he would never forget.

Her legs had been cut off below her knees, her arms below the elbows. She was defenseless, writhing in pain, a broken doll left to die in a pile of stinking shit.

Ariyo was getting old, his days as a sword master and spy drawing to a close. His eyesight had weakened, and the strength of his youth was leaving him. Still, he was compelled to help her as best he could.

He pulled Kiku free of the mess and wrapped her in a blanket from his back roll.

It was nearly dark as he carried her towards his small home, retching and vomiting every few steps from the stink.

He had thought she would die, but for someone who had endured so much pain, she had an extraordinary will to live.

He bathed her, fed her soup, cleaned her wounds with maggots, and gave her some potent herbs to aid her rest.

On the second day, she was awake and babbling incoherently, making him laugh with her nonsensical outbursts. At night she was worse, screaming in her sleep.

On the third day, she spoke.

“The Shadow Wraiths will come for me and kill us both. You must take me away, or kill me now.”

Ariyo had heard of the Shadow Wraiths of which she spoke, but unlike most, he had also seen them. Before his late Daimyo’s downfall at the hands of the Shogun Tokagawa, Ariyo had made fine swords, some of the best in the Japans. While taking them to Osaka Castle, he had seen things in the night that he should not have seen.

Ariyo was the son of a defamed Samurai lord. He had been trained to make swords in the mountains by a great master, a man unafraid to arm both Ronin bandits and the elusive Ninja. Over the long years of his apprenticeship, Ariyo had learned many secrets.

It was to these mountains where he had brought Kiku, where she grew strong again and learned to become a far greater weapon than she’d ever been before the Shadow Wraiths had dismembered her. Over the months and years, the unlikely pair formed a precious bond that few were lucky enough to experience in a lifetime.

Kiku had first learned to walk on stilts, secured with a carved wood fitting. Her forearms had been extended in the same manner, with small chopsticks attached at the ends so she could feed herself.

Before long, she could run, and eventually even climb, astonishing Ariyo with each passing month. Though she was a girl of barely fifteen, her abilities long surpassed that of the most skillful Ninja.

He had heard of her kind before in stories passed on by the Ninja. It was legend that Kiku’s kind had fought the Shadow Wraiths for over a hundred years.

Kiku was the last of her breed, the last great enemy to the Shadow Wraiths. When she was captured, they had taken great pleasure in cutting off her limbs, feasting on them as they forced her to watch.

He had crafted her legs first. Long, thin blades ran from wooden braces, down to hinged spikes, a lethal length of sharpened steel.

Then he had made the blades for her arms. They were Ariyo’s masterpiece, the best blades he had ever made, finer than any Samurai sword wielded in over three hundred years. A masterpiece. She could skin a rabbit in the blink of an eye, flipping and slicing, while talking and giggling.

Kiku had endured an unprecedented hell at the hand of the Shadow Wraiths, but in spite of their cruelty, her spirit had never been broken. She had not allowed them to get the better of her. She laughed through the day, and kept her screams for the night.

She had shared Ariyo’s life and his bed for over three years now. His time with Kiku had been the happiest of his life, spent hunting, training, and loving. But Ariyo had always known that his strange young friend had unfinished business with the Shadow Wraiths.

Revenge would be hers to take.

*

For Ariyo, the day for revenge arrived too soon.

Kiku tapped on the door of an inn. A burly man opened the door. She whipped her arm upward, slicing his neck from his left collarbone to his right ear in a movement so quick that the man’s tongue was still wagging with speech as he fell.

Kiku tottered inside and Ariyo followed her, closing and securing the door behind them.

He stood in the Tavern in Yedo looking at his young love, a twinge of sadness in his heart. He helped her remove her silk Kimono. She was naked apart from a few wraps of white silk, her blades shining in the flickering light of lanterns. Blood had splashed across her face, and Ariyo wiped it from her mouth with a silk cloth.

He held her close for the last time, careful not to impale himself on her blades. She had tears in her eyes, but wore no regret on her face. Kiku was a warrior.

Ariyo wiped her eyes, then lightly dabbed his own.

They bowed to each other formally, and then moved through the empty tavern. In the room farthest back from the street, there was an entrance to an underground world.

As they reached the door, Ariyo slid open its screen.

The Samurai inside wore the colors of Tokugawa, but Ariyo doubted if the Shogun were aware of these men, or the secret they guarded. As they entered, the men instantly took to their feet, hands on swords, staring wide-eyed at the apparition of death that faced them.

Kiku tore through them like a typhoon. In one swift lunge, she decapitated the first two Samurai with her razor legs; the second two heads fell as she sliced through them with her arms before landing gracefully before the remaining men. The body count was four before they could even draw their swords.

Ariyo watched her as she parried blows, hacking and slicing in a hideous symphony of splattering arterial blood and battle cries. As the bodies fell, limbless and lifeless, he crept forward, stepping over the dead, carrying his own precious cargo as gently as he would a newborn child.

When Ariyo and Kiku were the only ones left breathing, he opened the final door for her, and they entered the large back chamber.

The floor was earth and stone. In the center was a hole, some sort of well, covered in iron lattice and secured with locks from the inside.

There were cries coming from below, the shadow Wraiths having sensed that Kiku was closing in, but they were helplessly unprepared, having taken their safety for granted for far too long. Their Samurai guards would have been fives times more numerous, had they suspected what was coming.

Ariyo placed a stone jar onto the center of the lattice and removed the flints he’d tucked in his sleeve. As he struck the flints together, a spark ignited in a glowing white flame, sizzling as it burned.

Kiku crept like an insect back to the room where they’d left the slaughtered Samurai. Ariyo followed as fast as he could. They cowered together, huddling close for protection. Ariyo covered their heads as best he could as the contents of the stone jar ignited.

He had learned much from the Ninja.

The blast shook the building, but the structure held. Falling dust covered them as they crouched. They were momentarily deafened by the explosion, but alive and unhurt.

Kiku rushed back to the now unobstructed passageway that would lead them into the depths of her enemy’s lair. Ariyo followed her, securing a long rope to a support beam. He dropped the rope over the mouth of the well; the stone ladders that had once been there were now reduced to a useless pile of splinters.

Kiku wrapped herself around him, careful not to touch him with her blades, and he lowered them down in tandem, into the dust-filled hole.

At the bottom, he removed several objects from his carrying roll: a torch, another stone jar, and a larger antique vessel from ancient China, sealed with wax.

In the darkness, he struck the flints and the torch came to life with a burst. They could see several divergent passages and dead bodies everywhere. Most of the dead were Samurai or Ronin, but he could see the twisted corpse of a single Shadow Wraith among them.

Kiku approached her dead foe and thrust an arm down, the blade piercing the already lifeless skull with a crack.

She muttered some curses as she removed the blade.

Kiku stood still as Ariyo attached the stone jar to her back and lit the fuse. It sparkled with a hot white light.

She bowed quickly and disappeared down the tunnel.

Ariyo had no regrets.

He cracked open the wax-sealed vessel and waited.

The vapor that poured out was invisible, but he knew he had only seconds to live. Kiku would position herself in front of the final door that guarded the Shadow Wraiths. She would sacrifice her life to blow it open. The underground fire would then suck the terrible poisons right into the heart of their nest. A sake cup alone of this poison could kill a room full of grown men instantly, as it mixed with the air.

Ariyo had released enough to kill thousands.

He felt his chest tighten and tasted something sweet in his throat.

He felt the explosion resonate throughout the tunnel as he drifted away, satisfied.

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