Ayame's Challenge

The mother and mentor of a young shinobi1 was slowly dying of a new poison that the enemy of the nearby ninja village was using. As she felt her last few breaths escaping her chest, she called her young kunoichi2 daughter by her side.

"Young one," she wheezed, feeling the congestion in her chest increasing by the second, "Train hard for yourself and your nindo3. Do not loose sight of what's important. Watch out for foxes, they shall bring you good fortune."

"Yes, Okáa-san4," Ayame said, bowing deeply as her mother took her last breath.

Ayame went to her mother's grave every afternoon after training, starting after the burial. There, she would tell her about the day's events and how she planned to get stronger, and how much she missed her.

Spring turned to summer and summer, in turn, fell into fall. As the first week of winter rolled around, Ayame's father remarried.

Her new stepmother had two children of her own, a daughter named Seiko and a son named Kimimaru. The two children found different ways to torment Ayame, and added to her sorrow. To make matters worse, her stepmother demanded that Ayame train the younger two; this took time away from her own training.

During this time her father went away for several weeks at a time, trying to find the assassin who killed his first wife. It was during these times that the stepmother was viciously cruel.

"You useless creature!" the stepmother would snap. "You failed to show up for training once again and the house is a mess. Clean it up."

Ayame had no choice but to obey her stepmother, for if she didn't she would be beaten and, when her father returned, was scorned and treated like she had dishonored the family.

This went on for almost a year before something changed. It was during the first night of the New Year, during the full moon, the people of the village were celebrating great news. The master shinobi known as Yōkai-sama5, the demon lord, announced that he was looking for a kunoichi to fight by his side. It was basically a strange way to announce that he was looking for a wife.

In response to this announcement, there was to be what seemed like a simple challenge: catch Yōkai-sama. When, and if, anyone could catch him, he was to give a shrill whistle, signifying the end of the challenge.

News traveled quickly and soon, it reached the ears of the stepmother. When she heard about this, the stepmother pushed her daughter to train harder than she had ever done before. She, like other mothers of the girls in the village, wanted her daughter to catch the young man.

"But mother," Seiko argued, "why should I work harder for something that we already know I can win? It's not like anyone else can best me."

"Hush, now," her mother snapped back. "You must train harder if we are certain to win. If you win, you shall bring great joy to your father and prove once and for all, that we are better than his first wife and child."

At the corner of the garden, Ayame heard all about the challenge and her stepmother's plan. She hoped that she could enter this challenge herself and earn her father's respect once again.

"Mother," Ayame bowed as the stepmother approached her, "please let me go and enter the challenge."

"I'll tell you what," the stepmother said, trying to hide the evil glint in her eyes, "if you can run to the river and back within two hours, you can go."

Ayame smiled cheerfully as she grabbed her sandals. "Okáa-san," she prayed to her mother's spirit, "please help me run faster."

Almost immediately she felt lighter and as she ran, she covered more ground than she had before. She sent a thanks to her mother and sped towards the river as fast as she could go. In almost an hour and a half, Ayame ran to the river, grabbing a cattail as proof, and ran back home.

Upon seeing the cattails and realizing how fast Ayame was moving, the stepmother grew angry. She didn't want Ayame to enter the challenge and beat her daughter. So she decided to set another challenge.

"Now go to the shrine," the stepmother instructed, "and bring me a talisman from your mother's grave. Then you may go."

"But, Mother…," Ayame began, shocked. She knew that doing something like that was very dishonorable to her mother's memory and spirit.

"No, if you do not complete this task, then you will never be able to train again and will shame your father. You have half an hour. Now go."

"H-Hai6, Mother," Ayame muttered sadly.

Once again, Ayame stood in front of her home and prayed. "Please, Mother, forgive me and watch over me."

As she ran, Ayame felt even lighter than before and seemed to fly like a bird when she ran. She ran to the shrine and, after praying for forgiveness once again, grabbed a talisman from the grave marker.

"How dare you do something so disrespectful?!" the stepmother yelled as Ayame entered the gate. Her father was standing next to the stepmother, with a look of sorrow and confusion on his face.

"I don't understand," her father said, shaking his head in disbelief. "You loved your mother more than life. Why would you do this? It just doesn't make any sense."

"But," Ayame mused, "but mother said that if I didn't than I would be shaming you. She said that I'd never be able to train again."

"What nonsense!" the stepmother scoffed. "How dare you say such a thing!? You are old enough, and skilled enough, to know no to lie."

"I cannot accept this," Father said, the disapproval in his eyes showing immensely. "You are not allowed to attend this challenge as punishment for desecrating your mother's memory. That is the end of it. Be grateful I am not choosing a worse punishment." With that, the parents turned away and left Ayame alone in the gate.

Ayame hung her head and silently wept. She knew that there was no way to argue with her father; he never believed her anyway. She left the gate and began to run back to the grave. No one could have stopped her, but no one even noticed her; no one ever did. Once she was along at the grave, she wept some more as she placed the talisman on the grave marker.

Some of her tears hit the paper talisman and it began to glow softly in the afternoon sun. In a matter of seconds, the paper transformed into a small furry creature.

"Do not cry," a small, high-pitched voice said from the ground.

"Who's there?" Ayame called, jumping to defense even though she was still crying.

"I am down here," the voice said. Ayame nearly felt her eyes fall out of her head as she looked at the creature. It was a small red kitsune7 and was standing on her mother's grave. "I am the spirit that's been watching you from your mother's grave."

Ayame stared at the small demon and had a hard time believing what was going one. "How do I know that I can trust you?" she asked slowly, still not comprehending the connection. She knew the tricks that kitsunes were known for, so skepticism was a belief.

"I am your mother's spirit disguised as a fox," the kitsune explained. "I have something for you." The fox pulled a pair of black running sandals out from her kimono sleeves and gave them to Ayame. Then she also produced a sleek, midnight black garment to help Ayame blend into the shadows.

"Put these on and you'll blend into the shadows and become them," the kitsune instructed. "But be warned, you have until the first star shines in the night sky before the spell is broken. Use these gifts to fly like a bird and blend into the night."

"Thank you very much, Kitsune-san8." Ayame bowed as deeply as she could.

"Remember," the kitsune said as it vanished into the same glow of light it appeared in, "trust in your mother and yourself. Fly as high as you can, but remain true to your beliefs. Night approaches so fly like a dragon, swift and fluidly."

Ayame declared her thanks again and quickly changed into the clothes right there. The black garment wrapped her from head to toe in a silky wave of fabric that hugged her body like a wave that brushed against the beach. The sandals felt like they were made of straw, but acted like the skin on her feet, moving gently with each twitch of the muscles. She couldn't belief how well they fit.

She looked into a puddle of rainwater, checking her reflection. Ayame was shocked by how different she looked. She though that she looked like a shadow with eyeballs. Giggling to herself, she jumped to a nearby tree branch and began to hop from branch to branch, trying to find her way to the challenge. With this disguise she wouldn't be recognized - at least, she hoped so anyway.

Five minutes later, at the village square, the challenge was about to begin. Kunoichi from the neighboring villages and Ayame's village gathered for a chance to beat the mighty shinobi at his own game.

Without too much delay, and after some brief rules, the challenge began. Yōkai-sama sprinted out of the center of the village quicker than the eye could follow when the bell rang. Even Ayame, who was skilled for her age, could barely follow his movements. There was no doubt in anyone's mind why he was called the demon lord.

"I will not be defeated!" she cheered herself mentally since no one, besides her dead mother, urged her forward.

Ayame trailed Yōkai-sama from a distance, hoping to catch him off guard. He never slowed down, but instead picked up speed as if he was trying to throw her off.

Time ticked away and Ayame didn't know how much longer she could keep it up. She was running out of stamina quickly and a quick glance ahead of her, Yōkai-sama was also beginning to tire and his speed haltered.

They weren't the only ones. All around them, other girls began to drop out of the challenge do to exhaustion. More and more girls dropped by the minute, each realizing that they didn't have a prayer of catching the speedy demon. Soon, all of the other girls were out of the challenge, leaving Ayame the only one left.

Realizing that one girl had a chance, the villagers began to cheer on the mystery girl. She became more confident as additional people began to cheer her on. At the same time, Ayame could feel her stamina run out and she knew that she only had one move left to make. She decided that she had no choice but to follow with her last resort. She knew that if she failed, she's at least have to glory for lasting this long.

Ayame cleared her head, shaking away all other thoughts, and caught sight of Yōkai-sama a few feet ahead of her. She threw the last bit of her strength into her feet, running as fast as a river dragon could swim, trying to make every movement count. Closing her eyes, at the last possible second, she pounced forward, throwing all of her speed, strength and weight into the throw. She collided with something and kept a firm grip on it as she tumbled fifteen feet to the ground below.

Ayame hit the ground on her side, feeling it bruise up, knock the wind out of her, and possibly break a rib or two. Taking in a pained breath, she peeked over at what she was clinging onto.

As an automatic response to most things, she quickly jumped to her feet and held the higher ground. Below her, Yōkai-sama took in a deep pained breath. At first, both were in shock; neither of them knowing what to do. It was several silent minutes before he gave a shrill whistle, signifying the end of the challenge.

Almost immediately, villagers followed the sound of the whistle, wanting to meet the girl who could catch a demon. When they came upon Yōkai-sama and the shadow girl, they were convinced that she was a demon as well. Soon, the villagers led Yōkai-sama and the mystery girl to the village square, where the celebration was to begin.

Ayame wanted to celebrate, but she was in pain from the landing and the sun had just set. The stars would be up soon and, remembering the kitsune's heed, she panicked and jumped into the shadows. This reaction alarmed the villagers. Before anything was said, Ayame ran off into the forest, trying to escape the night. Yōkai-sama was hot on her heels; he wasn't about to let the first woman to catch him get away.

As she ran, Ayame could sense that Yōkai-sama was close behind her. She could sense the irony in the air: first she caught him, now he was returning the favor. She forced herself to run faster, running as if her life depended on it. During a quick corner-slide, one of the sandals got stuck between tree roots and came off. Ayame didn't even notice that it had come off; her focus was on getting home before the spell wore off.

Seconds after Ayame left the area, Yōkai-sama reached the location where she lost the sandal. He looked around, hoping to catch Ayame, but instead, all he found was the sandal. Picking it up, he noticed that the sandal was bigger than most girls and yet it was smaller than most women's. Determined to find the mystery shadow-girl, Yōkai-sama began to visit every home in the village before going to the neighboring villages.

It took him two days before he came upon Ayame's house. Her stepmother, once again becoming cruel as soon as he husband left, quickly noticed Yōkai-sama approaching and prepared Seiko for the meeting. All the while, Ayame sat in the shadows, wearing a light blue kimono, tending to her bruises. Both her stepmother and Seiko ignored her and went to greet Yōkai-sama.

Within five minutes, the three of them went into the garden to greet the shinobi. Almost immediately, as a venomous remark, the stepmother said, "It is an honor for you to visit our home. Welcome."

Yōkai-sama looked at the stepmother and Seiko, eyeing the like he didn't want anything to do with them. It was almost like he could sense the dark energy that radiated from them. He said nothing in return and remained quiet for several seconds.

At the same time, Ayame was looking at Yōkai-sama, wondering if her could recognize her, but one sharp angry stare from her stepmother made her lower her eyes. She got the dark message that her stepmother was giving her: 'Mess this up for me and you are as good as dead,' it said.

Without any of them knowing, the man before them caught every movement. Still, he said nothing as he pulled the sandal from his bag. His plan was to watch them and see if his theory was right, and his intuition was never wrong.

Ayame tried to hide her reaction as he realized that he had her sandal. It wasn't until now that she noticed that it was missing. The stepmother had caught Ayame's reaction, as did Yōkai-sama, and demanded that Seiko try the sandal first.

Before either girl could object, the stepmother threw the sandal at Seiko. Seiko tried to put the shoe on, but it was too big for her foot. Eager to win the man over, her mother distracted Yōkai-sama while Seiko placed both feet in the shoe and hid the fact with her kimono.

Around the stepmother's shoulder, Yōkai-sama shook his head in disbelief. He couldn't believe what they were trying to pull off. He took the sandal back and announced that he wasn't so foolish to believe such a prank. Once again, he glanced over at Ayame; this time, he handed her the sandal.

"Try it," he instructed gently. "You never know what might work."

Ayame blushed lightly. She now had all the proof she needed. He knew that she was the one, and that little bit of encouragement confirmed it. Nodding lightly, she put the shoe on her foot, feeling it melt into her skin and muscles.

As the stepmother was about to object to this foolishness, Ayame produced the other sandal from a pocket in her kimono, proving that she was indeed, the owner of the sandal.

Yōkai-sama was thrilled to have a woman who not only met his expectations, but could hold her ground against him, and probably anything that was thrown her way. At the same time, Ayame was thrilled to meet a man who accepted her as she was and was glad to get out of the abusive household.

At their wedding, as a punishment, the stepmother, her children and her father were punished by having their eyes removed and filled with hot coals. All of the people who caused Ayame so much pain died the day of her wedding; but she didn't care. She was happy with her husband and planned on living a long and healthy life with him.

The end.

1 ninja

2 Female ninja

3 The path that a ninja chooses, like following their dream

4 The formal way to say 'mother'

5 'sama' is the title ending for a lord

6 yes

7 A fox demon, known for playing tricks on humans

8 A title for Mr. or Mrs.