I looked around wildly, casting my gaze about in a vain attempt to find a way out. I found none. The flames crept nearer, eating up more of the wooden parquet with every passing second. Smoke filled the building, and anguished cries for help resonated from the next room. Peering through the doorway, I could vaguely make out two figures huddled in a corner, surrounded by a ring of hungry flames.
As the flames drew nearer, their cries became more terrified, more desperate. I could only watch helplessly as the conflagration consumed them, the roar of burning debris drowning out their panicked voices. Then, the flames reached me, too, and the world dissolved in a whirlwind of ash and flame.
I awoke to find myself curled into a fetal position, my entire body drenched in cold sweat. My jaws hurt from being clenched tightly throughout the nightmare, and my head was throbbing painfully. It felt as though a miniature hammer were pounding out a staccato on my skull.
Peering about through narrowed eyes, I realized that I was in a hospital. The ambulance must have carted me off while I was unconscious, I thought. Sitting up, I winced as my headache tripled in intensity.
“Ah, you’re awake,” said a female voice to my right.
I watched as a petite-looking brunette in scrubs sauntered over from the adjacent bed and checked my heart rate and temperature. My brain dully registered that her name tag read “Pamela: Senior Nurse”.
“Don’t worry, Mr. Davidson,” assured Pamela, smiling. “The doctor said that you passed out from minor smoke inhalation and exhaustion, but it’s nothing serious. You should be discharged within the day.”
Being stuck in a hospital was the least of my worries, I thought, rather glumly. Just then, a man in police uniform stepped through the ward doors and strode up to me.
“Mr. Davidson. I’m sorry for your loss,” he began, in a tone that clearly said he wasn’t. “I’m Detective Harris, and I’m investigating the incident involving your parents. The police suspect that foul play may have been involved. Do you mind if I ask you a few questions?
At that moment, I would have liked nothing more than to be left alone, but he looked and sounded as though he wouldn’t take no for an answer. I shook my head dully. Detective Harris went through a generic list of questions, which I answered in monosyllables. After about ten minutes of incessant prodding, he seemed to give up trying to fish for an informative description of what I’d witnessed the day before.
“All right, Mr. Davidson. I understand how you must be feeling right now,” said Harris. Again, I honestly doubted that he did.
“If you happen to recall anything else that might help with the investigation, give me a call,” he drawled, passing me his business card.
I watched with utter disinterest as he left the room.
Several hours later, I collected my meager belongings and left the hospital. As I walked out into the afternoon sun, I looked down at the sword in its battered scabbard. This was the only item that had been spared from the blaze which had consumed my home and family.
It was hard to believe that barely a day ago, everything had been normal. Now, I was homeless and orphaned. It didn’t help matters that we had never managed to pay off the mortgage on the house, so the bank had simply taken the insurance money. Apart from a small stash of money that I’d accumulated over the years, I now had nothing to my name.
As I was pondering my available options, I felt a familiar prickling feeling creep up my spine. I turned around to see the same dark-clothed figure I’d spotted at the house disappear around the corner.
It abruptly occurred to me that this suspicious character might have had something to do with the fire. It probably was no coincidence that he had been loitering about the house just the day before. Besides, hadn’t Detective Harris mentioned something about the police suspecting foul play?
Suddenly, I wasn’t feeling sorry for myself anymore. Instead, I felt resentment and anger rising up from within me, a powerful hatred for whoever had murdered my parents and rendered me homeless. Putting on a sudden burst of speed, I sprinted after the black-clothed figure, determined to exact vengeance on whoever was responsible for that heinous crime.
The figure in black was fast, but I was more than capable of matching his speed. After tracking him for a few blocks, he turned a corner and vanished. I followed suit, hot on his heels. Moments later, I wheeled into a deserted alley, only to find that he had disappeared without a trace.
I ground my teeth in frustration, and was about to go back the way I came, when I heard a raspy voice from above.
“Looking for me, boy?”
I glanced up in time to see my quarry leap down from the fire escape and land lightly in front of me, blocking my path. Though he wore a hood that obscured his features, I could see that it was clearly a man that stood before me. He wore a form-fitting, black jumpsuit with matching combat boots, and a long Japanese katana gleamed in his right hand.
“The Lord of Darkness has ordered your capture, boy,” hissed Black Hood, again in that odd, raspy voice. “Come quietly, or be taken! I warn you, the Lord does not need your body whole!” he proclaimed menacingly.
I stared at him for a moment – and then burst out laughing. I couldn’t help myself; he looked and sounded like a clumsy imitation of some cheesy villain from Mortal Kombat.
“What the hell, man,” I gasped in between peals of laughter, “are you on drugs or something?”
My laughter died abruptly when he raised his blade and leveled it at me. I realized that he meant business.
“You choose to be taken by force, then. Most unfortunate,” he intoned, stepping forward and bringing his sword down and across.
I stumbled backwards, narrowly evading the blow. Had I reacted just a split second later, he would have taken my arm off at the shoulder. He followed up with a horizontal slash that would have severed my leg, had I not blocked the blow with my sword’s scabbard.
“You crazy freak! What the hell do you want with me!?” I yelled, narrowly evading yet another brutal attack.
“Ah, so you do not yet know the true value of that which you hold,” hissed Black Hood, and from his voice I got the impression that he was smiling maliciously under that hood.
“But all will be made clear in time, as the Lord wills it. Right after I make you suffer as your pathetic kin did!”
At this flippant mention of my parents, I flushed with rage. Just then, my shoulders hit the alley wall behind me, and I realized that I had run out of space to retreat to. But it didn’t matter; I had had enough of running.
“You sick bastard! I’m going to make you pay,” I roared, fury suffusing my words. I drew the gladius free of its sheath with a rasp of steel and lunged forward to meet his challenge.
Now, I might not seem like someone who would know how to wield a blade, but I had taken a basic course in chanbara during my freshman year in college, and I’d had some practice with the Japanese kodachi. Plus, anger has a tendency to make you do all sorts of crazy things that you wouldn’t normally consider – such as going toe to toe with a katana-wielding ninja – and I had plenty of rage in me at the moment.
Our blades met in a shower of sparks, and I shoved Black Hood back. I parried the next two blows he aimed at my legs, and nearly decapitated him with a counter-stroke of my own. What I lacked in finesse, I made up for in raw strength and sheer determination, and I rapidly drove him back towards the middle of the alley.
In the end, though, it wasn’t quite enough. I gave as good as I got for a while, but I soon felt the fatigue setting in, slowing my reflexes and sapping my blows of strength. By contrast, my opponent seemed to be enjoying himself, and he cackled in glee as he effortlessly turned aside one blow after another.
Finally, he slapped my blade aside, and with a contemptuous flick of his sword, sent it tumbling from my grasp. He backed me up against the wall, blade outstretched and centered on my chest.
“Now we have you,” hissed Black Hood venomously.
“Feebleness does seem to run in the family, doesn’t it, boy?” He gloated, clearly relishing the moment.
“You forgot one thing,” I informed him seriously.
“And just what might that be?” the man asked, in a mocking tone.
“This,” I replied, jabbing him hard in the crotch with my scabbard.
Black Hood instantly doubled over in pain, his free hand clutching his groin, desperately struggling to breathe. Seizing the moment, I scooted over to my blade and retrieved it. By the time I turned to face him, though, he had already recovered.
“A little spunk left, I see,” spat Black Hood. “I’ll see to it that you suffer a fate worse than your parents did, boy. They died like rats, whimpering in a corner while the flames roasted their –”
I didn’t let him finish his sentence. Mindless with rage, I rushed him, blade whistling through the air in a deadly arc. In that instant, I noted, absently, that the gladius had turned red-hot, scorching the palm of my hand. Black Hood raised his katana in a high guard, snorting in derision at my seemingly clumsy effort.
It didn’t matter. The blade sliced through the man’s katana like a hot knife through butter, before taking his head off with a hiss of cauterized flesh.
Black Hood’s head, hood still wrapped about it, bounced off the alley wall and rolled to a halt at my feet. Then, body and head alike exploded in a cloud of ash.
I never saw his face.