A/N: My first ever fic posted on this site, The Rat, the Bracelet and the Blade, was my favorite up to date. Since then, however, I've evolved much as a writer and a person. In honor of my second year anniversary on this site and my upcoming 18th birthday, I've decided to write a revised version of the story. This will feature longer chapters, more detail and new events. Please help me celebrate by reviewing and telling me what you think.
Disclaimer: We all know I don't own Magic: the Gathering or any associated characters, this pertains to every chapter hereafter as well.
PROLOGUE - Heart of a Thief, Shadow of a Doubt
The silence of Eiganjo Castle's palace halls was only broken by the soft sound of footsteps. Lit by lines of wall-mounted torches, the halls were filled with shadows that seemed to swallow the dim light whole. A single figure scuttled from shadow to shadow, hiding in the darkness they provided. Peeking around a sharp corner, the figure's face was lit by the light of the hallway. Quick-Claw's head was covered in mottled gray and black hairs, evidence of his nezumi heritage. His features were sharp, the brim of his nose long and pointed. His eyes were a neon lime green, his teeth cracked and alcohol stained. Dressed in dark black robes, the nezumi seemed to meld with the shadows themselves.
Scurrying around the corner and into the hallway, his sensitive ears picked up the sound of hard leather against the marble floor. The rat man slid into the shadows, awaiting the source of the sound. From around a slight bend, a faint source of light made its way up the hall. Quick-Claw watched and listened intently as a warrior carrying a torch came around the bend. Dressed down in leather armor stained light brown and carrying a two handed no-dachi, the warrior had all the makings of an imperial retainer. From what the nezumi could tell, the samurai guard was young, and with youth came inexperience.
Still, a trained samurai was more then a match for a lowly thief such as he, it was better to try and slip past the guard. Reaching to his hip and feeling for the hilt of his weapon, the nezumi began chanting in the ancient tongue of his people. Wrapping his insidious claws around the dagger's handle, the nezumi drew his weapon as silently as he could. With a blade curved like that of a snake's slithering form, the dagger was a mediocre one at best. Rusted with age and misuse, the dagger was all but useless, especially against the armor of a retainer. Instead, the nezumi used the blade to pull up the sleeve of his robe and brushed it against his disease ridden hair.
Taking a deep breath, the thief began cutting into his own flesh. Still chanting and praying as he mutilated himself, the nezumi slowly cut a kanji symbol on the top of his forearm. Hurriedly putting the dagger back in his sheath, the next move was to place the hand of his undamaged arm over the top of the symbol. Mana met blood as Quick-Claw finished the ritual and his wound began glowing bright red. Just as the light from the retainer's torch was about to give him away, the spell took effect.
The nezumi's entire body vanished from sight, as if he had never been there. The thief watched as the samurai guard stopped directly next to him, his heartbeat doubling in fear of being caught. The retainer bent down and set his torch to the side, his glance fully fixed on a dirt footprint on the ground. Quick-Claw cursed his bad luck as the retainer drew his no-dachi, the blade's hiss lingering in the air threateningly. The nezumi bent down and brushed off his feet feverishly, knowing it was only a matter of time before either his spell wore off or the retainer found him.
The samurai guard cast a glance in either direction, spinning around with his sword in a defensive pose. The massive, two-handed weapon looked like it could easily crush the nezumi under its weight alone. Sniffing the air, the retainer caught a hint of what smelled like dead fish and wet dog. The scent of a nezumi. By the time the guard had discovered his location, however, Quick-Claw was running down the halls, his kanji spell slowly fading, with patches of his form, such as an arm and a leg, being revealed. The thief listened as the retainer yelled for back up, but he was far too close now to turn back and retreat. Not only that, but to return to Takenuma without that which Boss Henzo sought meant a punishment far beyond anything Konda's personal guards could come up with.
Quick-Claw looked himself up and down only to see that his invisibility spell had now fully worn off. Up ahead, he heard the sound of two guards yelling as they made their way toward his position. He had only two choices, stay and fight, or run and lose ground. He decided that he would have to fight either way and that it would only force him to plot a new route through Eiganjo Castle if he turned back. Drawing his dagger again, the nezumi prepared to face his fate.
Coming around the final bend before a long hallway that would lead to the base of his destination, Eiganjo Tower, Quick-Claw came face to face with the retainers whom he had heard just moments ago. These samurai were far more imposing then the others the thief had seen. Standing a good foot above the rat man, the retainers wore imperial iron armor, laden with gold along the edges. Their kabuto's had ghoulish masks that covered their faces, making them look more like oni then the honorable warriors they were. The samurai carried long katanas with matching wakizashi, the weapons combining to form the traditional daisho combination. The longer katana was used for attack while the wakizashi parried and blocked blows from an opponent, attack and defense fused together.
"By imperial decree, I hereby charge you with trespassing on the property of the daimyo!" one of the retainers yelled, his voice righteous and confident. "The punishment for resistance is death."
"I'm sorry," the nezumi said, gazing around nonchalantly, "I must've taken a wrong exit somewhere."
"Don't get smart with us, filthy mongrel, surrender your weapon or I kill you where you stand!" the other retainer choked out, his voice echoing inside of his own mask and helmet.
Both retainers took a step forward. The nezumi sniveled and backed away in fear, his earlier cockiness now clouded by the fear of losing his head. Holding out his dagger, its blade shaking in his grasp. The retainers quickly looked at each other and nodded, bringing the blades of their katanas up above their heads and threatening to bring them down. Sensing the danger, Quick-Claw rolled between them just as both men slashed right where he had once stood.
Hesitating only long enough for the samurai to turn around, Quick-Claw thrust at the closest one weakly. His dagger bounced off the retainer's armor like it was nothing. The retainer angrily slashed at the rat man's head, but the thief clumsily ducked and sprang forward. The force of the rat's tackle knocked the samurai over just as his partner sprang into action. The other retainer grabbed Quick-Claw's collar and easily picked up the scraggy nezumi with one arm.
Just as the guard was about to plunge the blade of his wakizashi down the thief's throat, Quick-Claw cut the collar of his robe, falling to the ground in a heap. Both retainers were now on their feet, holding their daisho at the nezumi.
"I've had enough of you!" one shouted.
"Time to die!" the other sneered.
The first samurai thrust his katana downward, only to find resistance in the form of the nezumi's dagger. Pushing one warrior's attack into the other's, the thief effectively neutralized both. Scrambling to his feet and cutting between his opponents, Quick-Claw began a hasty retreat toward the entrance to Eiganjo Tower. He could hear the metallic clanging of the guards' armor as they pursued him, but he was confident their protection slowed them down enough for him to escape.
Bursting through a wooden door, the thief looked in either direction. Two separate paths lay before him, but panic forced him to chose immediately. Shooting down the left hallway, the nezumi looked back in time to see his pursuers enter the same door and continue chasing him. Fleeing up a flight of stairs several yards ahead, the thief navigated the Tower on instinct alone. Halfway up the stairs, he noticed a small door and charged through it.
Finding an empty room with nothing but a single bookshelf and a ramshackle wooden table, the nezumi ducked inside. He slid under the table and hid, trying to hear past the sound of his racing heart. The guards made quite a clatter coming up the stairs, coming closer and closer with every second. But had they seen him enter the room? If so, how would they kill him? Was all this worth the reward at the end?
All this trouble for just a stupid bracelet, the thief thought to himself. That was it, the bracelet! He could've sworn he had seen something shiny on the table when he entered, but in his manic state, the thief hadn't thought twice about it.
Reaching up with his claws and feeling around, Quick-Claw greedily felt the shape of a piece of jewelry and seized it. Bringing it down to his face, he stared wide eyed at the small bracelet. Decorated in fine diamonds and jewels, the band seemed to be worth more than everything the thief had ever coveted. A precious find indeed. Grabbing the grain sack he had brought with him out of his pocket, the nezumi dropped the item in its new home.
Just outside the door, the nezumi listened as the retainers stampeded past the room and continued onward. Quick-Claw breathed a sigh of relief and came from under the table. Tying the grain sack to his belt, the nezumi opened the door and peered in either direction. Sure that the guards were gone, the thief slipped back into the darkness.
Captain Ichi was a well respected military man, serving his fifth year as overseer to the daimyo's honor guard. That is of course why it came as no surprise that Konda himself had demanded an audience with him. The captain's long black hair flowed down either side of his face, finally unburdened by the cage of his kabuto. His eyes were light brown and had a powerful sense of wisdom about them. His cheeks were sunken in from days of fasting, his arm and leg muscles well defined underneath their armor prisons. The captain carried himself with a well deserved sense of self importance as he made his way into Konda's throne room.
Saluting a pair of guards at the door, he watched as they exited and closed it behind them. Ichi looked ahead at the aged emperor before him. Konda was surprisingly youthful looking in his old age, with only a few wrinkles and vibrant white hair. His mustache and beard were both long, flowing down to his chest and resting there comfortably.
"Do you know why I asked you here on this lovely day captain?" the daimyo's voice was soft, but booming.
"No, my daimyo, I do not" Ichi answered, kneeling down on one knee before his lord.
"An item of certain significance to me was stolen last night" the Lord of Eiganjo said.
"By who, my lord?" the captain asked.
"The retainers reported seeing a nezumi sneaking around," Konda began. "Upon attempting to arrest him, the rat man managed to escape. Can you explain this?"
"He must be one cunning nezumi to outwit my men . . ." Ichi started, but was cut off.
"The thief escaped because you failed to protect my people and I adequately captain" the daimyo spat. "What if it had been an assassin coming to kill me or my daughter, what then?"
"My lord, I can assure you, a disgrace like this will not happen again, you have my personal guarantee" Ichi said.
"I'm sorry, captain, but your guarantee isn't enough" Konda said.
"What must I do?" the captain asked.
"Retrieve what was stolen, take as many men as you need," the daimyo said. "Ride to Takenuma, only there will you be able to restore your honor. Ichi, I want the head of whoever did this on my desk. Do you understand?"
"Yes, my lord" the captain answered. "I will not rest until I have brought the nezumi to justice."
With that, Konda waved him away and Ichi rose to his feet, sliding his kabuto onto his head and covering his face as best he could as he left. The daimyo had made it clear that if the captain wanted to continue to honor his family and live a healthy life, the nezumi called Quick-Claw would have to die. No matter the cost.
A/N: How do you like the added prologue? Tell me in a review.