Slaughter in Sato Village
(An exclusive first-look excerpt from Nick Thaler's novel Fox and the Peach published by Madness Books in early October 2011)
To the casual eye they would have been invisible, three figures slipping through the brush and trees without so much as a rustle. With the grace of herons, they ghosted down the slope toward the tiny camp and paused at a ledge overlooking a sheer white cliff. A stream trickled through the valley below, where little mud huts lay peacefully along its banks in neat rows. The moon was full, brightly illuminating the still night, but it did not matter to the three figures standing together in their black masks and padded clothes - they were shinobi, and they had come to this village
One of them flashed a hand signal to the others: "Filthy animals," it said. Though his face was hidden beneath his hood, the other two could read his contempt. The Yan Tribe was the only ninja clan that developed its own hand code for silent conversation. "We should have done this long ago." His name was Kawaru, the youngest of the group. This was his third mission, but he had first tasted blood years ago and had found it much to his liking.
The other two glanced at each other. Only the young upstart's prodigious abilities stayed Rinji's hand at that moment. The older shinobi quickly banished his anger and raised two fingers. Tsukimi, the woman of the group, gave a brief nod as her body shimmered and faded away. The others heard her soft tabi boots pad to the east. Rinji gestured to Kawaru and pointed to the river. "Strike from there," he signaled.
Kawaru grinned wide beneath his thin cloth mask. He closed his eyes and summoned the chi needed to form his invisibility shield. As always, there was a brief tingling on his skin, as if he were stepping into drizzle, and then the slightly unsettling sensation of floating. Once he was unseen, he impulsively signaled to Rinji, "Of course, My Lord." If Rinji had seen that sign, he might have struck down Kawaru immediately - the idea of master and vassal among the Yan was a filthy notion that only lesser humans possessed. To the Yan, all within the tribe were equal except for the Dai-Yan, their Shadow Lord.
Rinji didn't see what Kawaru had signaled, but his heightened senses picked up the rustle of the younger ninja's fingers. As he switched his own invisibility on and dashed down the sheer ledge, he briefly reflected on Buddha's lesson on patience. Kawarus time would come.
A small brown rabbit hesitated as it reached the edge of the rice paddy, its nose twitching urgently in the cool air. The night was still and the sky was clear of predators, but something seemed amiss. The creature barely had time for a muffled squeak before a boot darted out of the rows of rice stalks and slammed down hard onto its head. Kawaru laughed silently as his heel crunched and pressed down harder. A warm wetness seeped up his cotton leggings and sent a chill down his spine. He flicked the remains into the bush, uncaring that villagers might smell the blood with their own heightened senses. The residents here may have appeared fearsome to some, but to Kawaru they were as insignificant as that rabbit, small lives that were his for the taking. He slipped into the rice paddies banking off the river and passed through them without letting a single stalk sway. Crouching in the shallow paddy water, Kawaru unsheathed his kodachi and waited. Two minutes passed before he heard the trill of a great egret. The signal. He rose and gracefully flowed into the village.
Inside the first hut was a lone old man, likely a hermit, resting comfortably in a hammock with a pipe slowly smoking by his side. A brief jab to the throat finished him instantly. Kawaru flicked the blood off and observed the corpse - it remained still. Ah, a real human then, hiding out among these tanuki. Kawaru had heard that some eccentrics actually liked living among the othermen, but he was nonetheless disappointed; he had hoped to witness a transformation right away. Still, there were so many yet to kill.
The second hut proved to be far more interesting. A young couple - perhaps the farmers of that rice paddy - slumbered, blissfully unaware. Both died soundlessly. Kawaru watched the bloodied corpses sag and sink like wet cotton dolls, compressing upon themselves to revert back to their natural animal form. The dead tanuki was bestial in its natural form, a hybrid of dog and raccoon. Their pointy teeth were bared in silent snarls as they met death, and their brown fur was blackened by blood. Kawaru gleefully laughed out loud - this was far more entertaining than killing mere humans.
Suddenly a cry went up and the camp came alive. Kawaru cursed under his breath and wondered which of his companions had been careless. It did not matter, the tanuki would all die tonight. The ninja closed his eyes as his practiced hands flew into motion. He summoned a body double that split from his body and immediately dove out of the hut and into the battle. Through his double's eyes, he saw tanuki, in various states of transformation, running around in panic and disarray. He couldn't see the other ninja. Kawaru quickly restored his invisibility and followed his double outside, lurking carefully behind its shadow.
A large bearlike tanuki reared up and struck at the double with a mighty blade that jutted directly from its shoulder blade, as if it were an actual arm. The double dissolved into a black fog and then Kawaru was upon the creature, stabbing deftly upwards underneath its chin. The sword bit through flesh and the creature let out a roar before abruptly slumping over, still standing in front of Kawaru. Its blade-arm faded into a small claw and the body shrank to its normal proportions as the tanuki died.
Kawaru heard a faint wail and rolled under the incoming throwing knife. It sizzled past his ear and buried itself in his enemy's corpse, still dangling from his sword. Kawaru turned and studied the little child before him. This tanuki had turned herself into a beautiful girl, nine or so, perhaps trying to instill sympathy in the attackers. Kawaru only laughed and plucked out the knife with his free hand, casually flinging it back at the thrower even before she could ready a second one. The girl caught it in the eye and her head flopped back. The shinobi didn't bother to watch the transformation this time - it had suddenly become a boring affair.
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