“There will be a spectacular show at this inn tonight,” the waitress with the dark, ornamented hair said, as she served Zed the White Cliff Inn’s famous pork broth. She placed the complimentary bowl of steaming rice beside it and offered him a warm smile. “A troupe of travelling performers passed by not too long ago. They agreed to perform for the town in exchange for food and board.”
Zed, disguised as a merchant once again, picked up the wooden spoon, hardly paying attention to her words. He smelt the odd five-flavoured broth, his expression softening when he recognised the familiar scent of miso, spring onion and ginger. Pieces of pork bone, radish and herbs swirled in a variety of colours as he stirred, releasing a pleasant aroma.
“Patience, young master,” the smiling waitress urged gently, before Zed could taste it. “The broth tastes best when the pork fat has melted.”
With an annoyed sigh, the young ninja placed the spoon back into the broth and leaned back. His hands pressed against the thick mat on the floor, as he gazed at the inn staff and their customers who had come from all walks of life. Without warning, Zed realised that he was searching for a particular face – the face of a former ally he had met in this very same inn the day before.
Shen wasn’t there.
Zed ran a hand through his hair, its colour now a papery white, instead of its natural dark pigment. The four-year-long mission in pursuit of the Golden Demon with Shen and his clan master had taken its toll. It had stolen Shen and Zed’s innocence, but had enlightened them in very different ways. Shen had become a hardened enforcer of equilibrium, while Zed realised that balance was a fool’s master and found truth in the shadows.
The ninja sighed again and glanced at his broth. He stabbed at the pork impatiently. Then, ignoring what the waitress had said, he began devouring it with the peppered rice. Since he wasn’t sure what to expect of his meal, he wasn’t disappointed, but it didn’t seem as exquisite as the inn had advertised it to be.
“Thank you, young master,” the waitress said, after Zed paid for the meal. She adjusted the sleeves of her kimono and bowed. “Please remember that the travelling performers will be having a show here tonight.”
This time, Zed was listening. “A show?” he asked, alarm striking his nerves. Unwelcome images of a flamboyant masked man in an eel-skin bodysuit flashed in his mind. All of a sudden, Zed was in the Ionian province of Zhyun, standing in a street of mangled corpses as the town mourned, uncomprehending the meaning of their deaths. He was reminded of the Golden Demon, Khada Jhin, a monster dedicated to creating his so-called artistic masterpieces with carnage and gore.
After his brief incarceration, the Golden Demon had escaped. Master Kusho had been a fool to grant mercy to such a monster. Zed now made it his mission to correct his former master’s mistake at any cost.
The young ninja clenched his fists. “Tell me about the show,” he demanded. It might not be a solid lead, but with both Zed and Shen in the same town, there was a possibility that Jhin would come to bring chaos.
The waitress handed him a flyer with information about the performers. “The show starts tonight at six,” she said. She bowed again. “We hope to see you soon.”
Word of the travelling troupe’s show spread across the town quickly, enough to gather a substantial crowd of curious townspeople at the inn before it started. By six in the evening, the sky was an array of blue, green and orange hues, and flocks of birds flew into the distance. To others, it would have been a stunning view of natural beauty, but Zed longed for the night to arrive. He found comfort in darkness, where he and his shadows could operate with ease.
Once again, the young ninja caught himself surveying his surroundings in search of his former ally. This time however, he spotted the dark haired ninja kneeling on a mat in the corner of the room. Knowing that Shen wouldn’t risk the safety of ordinary townspeople by attacking him in a densely populated room, Zed strode over.
As expected, Shen was able to sense him instantly. His former ally tensed, his hands reaching under his cloak for his blades. Then, realising he couldn’t fight Zed inside the inn, he settled for a livid glare.
“You came.” Zed’s voice and expression were devoid of any emotion as he gazed at the familiar face. He knelt beside Shen on the mat, stretching his neck to peer at the troupe of performers. It looked like tonight’s show was going to be a play, and from the distinct styles of the costume armours, it was likely to feature the Demacians and Noxians.
Shen crossed him arms, visibly unhappy with Zed’s presence. “I heard there was a show tonight. I had to make sure the members of the troupe were real performers.”
“I have also considered the possibility that Jhin might appear,” Zed replied.
The other ninja’s jaw clenched at the mention of their mutual enemy. “I will hunt him down,” he said coldly.
“And then make the same mistake your father did?” Zed sneered.
Hatred flashed in Shen’s eyes. In one deft movement, the black haired ninja gripped the front of Zed’s shirt and pulled him close, snarling at his face. His Ionian steel sabre was partly drawn, but Zed knew that the sheer amount of townspeople surrounding them prevented him from trying to slit his throat.
“Still trying to avenge your father?” Zed taunted with a smirk. He gripped Shen’s wrist and twisted himself free. In that moment, he wished for nothing other than to draw his own shadow blades and shurikens – he wanted to defeat Shen for the second time, to prove once again that he had made the right decision in abandoning Master Kusho’s ways.
_No technique is forbidden. Secrets kept are weapons wasted_, he thought with grim satisfaction.
Shen growled in response. He shot up, harshly drawing his sabre from its scabbard. Zed glanced at the glinting steel and contemplated on unleashing his shadow blades. Perhaps he should have stayed outside of his former ally’s range, like he had the day before…
“Insolent peasants!” a woman from the crowd snapped at them. A foreigner, judging by her accent, possibly from as far away as Demacia. “The show is about to start!”
Flushing with embarrassment at being reprimanded by a beautiful lady, Shen sheathed his blade and knelt back down. He shuffled as far away from Zed as he could, and kept a firm hand on the hilt of his weapon.
Despite the tense atmosphere, they fell silent and watched one of the older actors give an opening introduction of the play. Over the next ten minutes, Zed and Shen exchanged distrustful glances, but neither of them moved.
They watched the actors attempt to slash at each other with their tinfoil swords, becoming less impressed by the second. From the eyes of the experts, their moves were too rehearsed, stiff and inefficient; their execution also lacked sharpness and precision.
“That is not how one should hold a blade,” Shen said with a frown. “Their stances are also unbalanced.”
“And there are too many openings,” Zed muttered. He observed the actor playing the role of the Demacian hero spin awkwardly and almost trip over a fallen foe’s sword.
The woman who had broken up their fight seemed to agree. Her accented voice stood out amongst the excited cheers of the crowd. “Strike quickly!” she commanded, “Strike deftly! Such unrefined style!”
Once the hero had miraculously slain all of his opponents with zero demonstration of skill and technique, another male actor wearing a long crimson wig appeared – the Noxian love-interest, apparently. “I love you as much as I love Demacia!” the hero crooned, kissing the red haired man’s hand.
Zed and Shen shuddered. Shaking his head with disappointment, the black haired ninja silently stood up and slipped out of the inn. Sighing, Zed rose to follow him outside into the chilly, darkening night.
“Jhin didn’t make an appearance,” Shen commented, kicking a pebble across the gravel as Zed joined him near the fountain. “Tonight was a waste of time.”
“Indeed.” Zed’s lips curved into a wicked grin. Then, with a flick of his wrists, he unleashed his blades, the moonlight dancing across the steel and casting shadows onto the ground. Realising his intention, Shen drew his sabre and spirit blade from his back, bloodlust and determination glinting in his eyes.
_Just like the old times_, Zed mused.
“Just like the old times,” Shen said, shifting into an offensive stance.
The young ninja spun one of his shurikens and let out a light laugh. “Well, brother, shall we show the townspeople what a real fight looks like?”
Word count: 1498