Nineteen Assassins is a fan fiction written by KidVegeta. It tells the story of Tien, from his early days as a student of the Crane School and his adventures training there, to his later meeting with Goku.
The main theme for Nineteen Assassins is "Cola" by Lana Del Rey.
The secondary theme is "Send Them Off!" by Bastille.
Chapter 1: Zero-sumEdit
Four shadows snaked their way down through the mist and trees. Dodging branches and spider webs, their speed never wavered. Reaching the base of the mountain, they paused over a rice paddy field, the town of Khaffi sprawled out modestly in the distance. The morning’s sunlight reflected off the water’s surface, ripples forming beneath their hovering feet.
“Our target is just past those fields,” said their leader, who was a tall man with three eyes. “Let’s go. Jaoros, take the lead.”
“If you say so, Tien,” the younger man shrugged.
“Paik, you have our backs. If he tries to escape, end him with a Dodon Ray.”
“If you insist,” the pale-faced girl replied.
“Chiaotzu, stay close to me. Only attack if I miss him, got it?”
The youngest student of the Crane School, who powdered his face in a pasty white substance and looked more dead than alive because of it, trembled next to his companion. “Oh, Tien, I don’t know. This looks like it will be dangerous and scary! Maybe I can hide behind you the whole time.”
“Nonsense, Chiaotzu. You must not be afraid. Now let’s get on with it. We don’t have much time before the morning crowds arrive.”
Their target was a forty-four year old man by the name of Tuval. He operated the only train line that ran from Orange Star City to Khaffi. He was a gambler, too, and not a very good one. His bounty was a million zeni–nothing too extravagant, given the work that had to be done, but for a mere train operator living in an outskirts town with a population barely reaching two thousand, the intention behind the number was clear enough to the Cranes. Master Shen had sent them out as soon as he had seen the bounty posted.
This was Chiaotzu’s first bounty; it was not surprising that he was nervous. He could fly, so he was already ahead of most new students, but that was more due to his raw powers (the main reason the old man had accepted him in the first place) than his training over the last three weeks. He still hadn’t mastered the Dodon Ray, and he had not distinguished himself much in sparring with the others. That was not to say they had given up on him, but Tien was not going to take any chances today. He didn’t want the boy to freak out and cause a scene. He would not allow their target to get away.
The morning commute from Khaffi to Orange Star City, via the town’s only railway, was not much of a frenzy by city standards, but any eyes on them would be too many. Being seen was the last thing the Cranes could afford. Commuters would be few and far between until about five thirty in the morning. Then, numbers would swell respectably until about nine, when the station would invariably resume a state of desolate normalcy.
Their window was eleven minutes. Tien shuddered, feeling adrenaline warm his hands. This was the best part of the mission–better even than getting blood on his hands. It was the moment of anticipation, the moment where his mind swirled with endless possibilities and his hunger for the kill drove him into some primordial trance. That was not to say he was intoxicated; on the contrary, Tien was relaxed. The other boys were shivering, hiding their fear beneath the shield of the morning wind. Paik was calm as ever, though her cheeks had become flushed with color in the cold.
Their breaths frosted before their mouths; a dragonfly alighted from a lily pad, its wings glistening in the bitter sunlight peeking over the mountaintops behind. Tien leaned forward, and the others did the same. They were off, sending ripples into lily pads, and the croaking of the frogs resumed as they flung themselves from capsized islands.
Khaffi Station was without people, and the atmosphere thus created was alluring to him. In the light, its stone gates stood impressively next to the thatched and wooden huts spread out to the north, east, and west. The station was the town’s southernmost point, with all that was south of it being rice paddy fields and uninhabitable rocky terrain leading up to the mountains, where Suma and the Crane School lay hidden. They would be in and out. No one would see them. We might need to use the clouds to get back. Those rice farmers will definitely be out by then.
They spread into the station like locusts, looking for any sign of the indebted gambler. Jaoros flew to the station attendant’s booth, which appeared unattended from their position. Tien and Chiaotzu made their way to the central platform, while Paik covered the rear, making sure the man wasn’t hiding anywhere and attempting to sneak off while their backs were turned.
“Tien! Hey, you guys, get over here!”
Goosebumps spread down Tien’s shoulders to his back. The boy with the messy hair never shouted like that without just cause. The younger assassin gasped, looking up at Tien. Then they were flying. Jaoros pulled open the attendant’s door and jumped back, looking around and blinking rapidly.
“Chiaotzu, stay here. Don’t look inside,” Tien commanded him as they reached the booth. He doesn’t need to see. Not until he does it himself. Jaoros was grimacing, slacking his jaw. Gripping the edge of that grey metal door, the three-eyed man made sure the youngest member of his team could not see around it.
Inside, the operator had painted the desk and station controls and chair and walls and floor in his blood, and Tien had to take a deep breath to contain himself. Heat swelled in his neck and cheeks. The man’s body had been left strewn on the floor like some toy doll, and a sign had been left hanging around his neck with the word ‘Punter’ written on it in a hasty scrawl.
“They were quick to act,” Tien sighed, gritting his teeth. “They must have been waiting for the opportunity to strike.”
“It was the Tigers. Look, Tien.”
On the inside the door, over the streaks of blood, a simple message had been left in stark white paint: ‘白虎’–the symbols of the School of the White Tigers, a martial arts school that had been founded in Suma three years after the Crane School. Master Shen had sworn to Tien that Master Mashiro had only done it for the potential revenue source–tapping into a known and willing market.
All the White Tigers’ intrusion had done was show was how they paled in comparison to the world-class assassins of the Crane School. Their school had, after all, produced Tao, who was, of course, the world’s greatest assassin and Master Shen’s younger brother. Tien hoped to be like him one day. They had a fearsome reputation in Suma and beyond. This was about more than a simple bounty. He would become the world’s next greatest assassin in time, and it was in missions like this one where he was supposed to prove his worth.
Chiaotzu’s stomach growled loudly from behind the open door.
The eldest Crane folded his arms, exhaling as he thought over what to do. No doubt his master would be displeased by this turn of events. He will be furious. I don’t envy returning to him empty-handed. A million zeni was a million zeni, no matter what. If he was to become the world’s greatest assassin, such embarrassments could not continue. “Alright, if those bastards want to play like that, we will need to be faster next time. We need to be ready as soon as the next bounty is released.”
Footsteps echoed down the dusty platform. The air smelled of piss. Paik came running up to them with a grin. “So that’s it, huh?” Unphased by the man lying in a pool of his own blood on the floor, she spat. “I guess next time, we’re going to run into the Tigers, aren’t we? Aren’t we, Tien?”
“And what then? May we kill them, please? Do we have permission from Master Shen?”
The older boy scoffed. “Any who stand in our way are fair game, Paik. But there better not be any collateral damage. Only use the Dodon Ra–”
“I know, I know. I’m not stupid.”
He kicked the door shut, then told them to go, and like a flock of birds, they rose from the platform and soared off over the paddy fields. From a pond nearby, a plump black-and-brown feathered wren hopped haphazardly into the air in fright at their approach, and it didn’t fly for long towards the looming forest-covered mountain nor the beckoning sun before it was torn out of the sky by a diving falcon that had been prowling deep in the clouds overhead.
Tien watched as the bird was taken, as it squawked helplessly, as its feathers ruffled and spun gracelessly into the air, and soon all he could see was the tail of the falcon as it sprinted off, its prey clutched between its claws, a puff of brown feathers floating over the rice paddies, glistening in the sun, before being carried off by the wind.
It had started to rain by the time they returned home. Shopkeepers were throwing towels over their carts or packing up in haste to get out of the rain. Some were lighting lanterns, and those who owned restaurants or bars were coaxing anyone inside they could. They met their master at a crossroad, the air rife with mud and pine needles, sipping green tea, a robust emerald umbrella shielding him from the rain. A meek-looking girl with her hair pulled up in buns above her ears, one Tien had never seen before, held the umbrella for him.
“Ah, my students have returned,” the Crane Hermit mused. “I hope you’ve brought the bounty back with you too. What was it–a million zeni, eh? Good. That’ll buy me a new walkman, not to mention that pair of fur slippers I’ve always wanted!”
“We didn’t get there in time, Master,” Tien said in a deep tone. Rainwater streaked down his face, but he blinked it all away. “The White Tigers got to him first.”
Master Shen finished his tea, handing the glass to the girl with the dark green hair. Then he slapped Tien without warning. He flew for longer than he thought he would, the sting on his cheek growing with time. The young man hit a couple of empty baskets that had been left behind by some water-averse shopkeeper; wiping mud from his brow, he stood to face the next blow, little explosions of light massaging his eyes with unrelenting vigor. He dared not to block.
The old man battered him with more force than was necessary. Tien winced, falling to the ground again, this time remaining there. Perhaps that would make it go faster. Yet the old man walked over to him, his mustache dripping rainwater, his hands behind his back, a thin smile spread across his ancient face. Lightning flashed through the sky. Like a striking viper, he grabbed Tien around the neck, picking him up and bringing the young man to his knees.
“The Crane School does not tolerate failure. None of you will return to the dojo until you have that one million zeni.” He slammed the three-eyed assassin to the curb, leaving him there. “And, to make this a little more interesting for you all, I want to introduce you to Yurin,” he said, gesturing to the girl holding the umbrella. “She is the newest member of the Crane School. This will be her first mission. Teach her well.”
He tasted blood, lying there, feeling Chiaotzu’s eyes on him.
“We will not fail you again, Master,” Paik spoke up.
“Get out of here,” he snarled, snatching the umbrella from the girl. She squealed when the rain first touched her. The old man never looked back as he marched off down the mud-slicked street, and up the hill towards the Crane School. They couldn’t go there now. But they wouldn’t be denied forever. It was not like a Crane to give up.
Tien sat up. “Hi, I’m Yurin,” the girl said politely, bowing low to the ground.
Looking away, he said, “Let’s get out of the rain.”
It stung. He would not look at her. Why did the old man do that? To prove a point to the girl? Nevertheless, it was raining, so he led them to the nearest tea shop–Yoshitaro’s, named after its owner. It was a small shop, fit to hold no more than a dozen customers, and staffed by only two people: Yoshitaro, and his apprentice, whom Tien did not remember the name of. The shop had only been here for two years. But in that time, Tien, Chiaotzu, Paik, and Jaoros had come here often to discuss strategies for upcoming missions. The cozy little shack was quiet enough, with a smoky smell and minimal decorations, and the tea itself wasn’t half bad.
There was rarely anyone inside. Yoshitaro was a strict man with a military background. He carried a katana, sheathed at his waist even when serving customers. He was not well-liked, and his business was not booming, but he was getting along well-enough. Without the Crane School, though, Tien wondered if Yoshitaro’s shop would survive another winter.
He would not look at the girl.
They ordered tea and took the table nearest the window. Thankfully, there were no other customers inside. That fumbling apprentice boy wasn’t the fastest with orders, either. They sat, gazing out at the rain, the empty streets, the flickering lanterns creaking in the wind. It was a while before Tien Shinhan felt a creep of heat flame up his cheeks.
“Well, again, I’m Yurin.”
“We heard you the first time.”
“Aw, lighten up, Mr. Tien!”
“Enough, Chiaotzu. Out of anyone, you will not give me backtalk!”
The painted boy recoiled, and Tien felt something clogging his throat. He swallowed. He’s only been here three weeks. He’s going to have to learn his place, just like her.
The girl scrunched up her mouth. “So you’re Chiaotzu, huh? And you’re Tien? I think I got it…”
The scout nodded awkwardly, butting his way into the conversation. “And I’m Jaoros.”
“Paik,” said Paik, bowing slightly. “Sorry for Tien Shinhan. He’s mad the master put him in his place. It’s good to have a new member on the team. You’re going to have fun here!”
The tan-faced boy smirked; the powder-faced boy hummed to himself, oblivious to the conversation. Their tea arrived, and despite the server’s warning, Paik drank hers down immediately, not bothered by the heat. The others, being more sensible, blew away the steam rising from their cups with short breaths and waited some time.
“Hey Paik, you don’t have to be that hard on Tien Shinhan,” said Jaoros.
She folded her arms. “Why not? He’s our leader. He led us to folly. The old man had every right to do what he did to him.”
For Tien, knowing that he would have to train another student in the ways of the Crane School left him tired and less than nonplussed. He wished Tao would return to train them, to train him again… It had been years since he’d last been around. Living the life of the world’s greatest assassin would keep anyone busy, sure, but there had been no word of him for over three years. Tien was now the only remaining pupil at the Crane School who had been trained by the legendary Tao. He shuddered, taking a gulp of tea, letting all the others’ words run off him like rainwater. He wanted nothing more than to be Tao’s successor, but it would take a lot to live up to the reputation of the Crane Hermit’s younger brother.
“So how’d he test you?” Jaoros prodded. “Did he require you to duel him?”
“Oh, nothing like that. Just an obstacle course and a written exam. It wasn’t anything I couldn’t handle,” Yurin beamed.
“And what of your strength?” Silence befell Yoshitaro’s. Tien got to his feet, a leer upon his face. “Don’t you know what the Crane School is, girl?!”
She nodded in a deep bow. “I do, yes.”
“Then you must have trained in martial arts already to be granted a place at our dojo.”
“That is also correct, Mr. Tien Shinhan.”
The three-eyed man looked to his peers. “Where did you learn your skills from?”
“The School of the White Tigers, of course.”
Several teacups were grasped and steaming tea hastily swallowed.
“They’re bad! They’re nothing but cheap amateur assassins!” screamed Chiaotzu.
Paik grinned. “Master Mashiro’s a hack. I’m surprised the old man let you join. But well done, I guess. You’ll have to catch up quick. Do you know how to fly already?”
She was beaming again. “Nope!”
“Of course you don’t.” She flashed her filed, pointed teeth, a relic of her upbringing in the Basil Isles of the Southern Sea, where such a thing was common. “So you’ll have to learn quick, or you’ll be running quite a lot. Tien Shinhan can teach you the Dodon Ray.”
“I will not,” he muttered. “Not until we’ve paid back our debt.”
“That’s okay with me, Mr. Tien.”
“It’s Tien Shinhan.”
“Tien Shinhan, s-sorry,” the girl with the dark green hair repeated in a small voice. “Is that debt the one million zeni?”
“That’s no problem… I’ll be able to find us a bounty in no time!” the girl declared, pulling her phone out and scrolling through something on the bright blue screen. “There–G.P Milano. One million two hundred thousand zeni bounty. He’s wanted dead. He lives in Cardan, a rural town just south of Orange Star City. We can get him any time, Mr. Tien Shinhan.”
The man returned to his chair, sipping from his cup until the green tea was all gone. Closing his eyes, he savored the remnants of the flavor. Usucha-grade. Locally-grown. Not bad for four hundred fifty zeni. “Fine, Yurin. Show us what you can do against this target, and we may let you on our team.”
“Aww, look at you,” Jaoros chuckled. “I haven’t seen you this sentimental in ages, Tien!”
Like a knife through smoke, a new voice cut into their conversation: “Ah, that’s so cute. Well, well, well! If it isn’t the Crane School turkeys!” grinned a yellow-toothed boy of no more than fourteen or fifteen years old. Behind him were three companions. Tigers. That’s their captain–Zhajiang. Tien knew him to be a bastard, an assassin without honor. That he dared to compare himself to Tien made the man want to bloody his hand on that crude boy’s cheek. “Fancy seeing you here. It has been a while, hasn’t it, turkeys?”
They all got to their feet. Tien banged his wrist on the table, getting up, and that really stung too.
“Yurin?! Is that you?” a girl called out. That’s Shumi. She’s not even as strong as Paik. I remember these two.
“So what if it is?!” the girl retorted, her hands on her hips.
“What are you doing with those turkeys? They’re the scum of Suma.”
“I’ve decided to leave that stupid, rundown, old school and continue my training somewhere more professional!”
“Insolence,” Zhajiang said. “Once Master Mashiro knows… ohoho, I don’t need to tell you what’s coming next.”
Jaoros’ voice broke in incredulity. “A-are you threatening her?”
“That’s exactly what I’m doing, turkey.”
Paik jumped onto her chair, pointing down at the leader of their sorry troop. “If you come for her, we’ll kill every last one of you.”
The boy with the shaved head, taller than the rest, grunted, pointing back at Paik. Zadich, the slow one. Not worth listening to. “If I ever see you out on assignment, I’ll take ya, I will. I’ll do whatever I want to you, bitch. You won’t be able to stop me. I’ll have ya beggin’ for me to stop before I do, I swear on me mum’s grave, I do!”
“Paik, get down,” Tien growled. “You aren’t taking her,” he said to Zhajiang’s streak. “And if you so choose that you cannot live without her, I’ll help you along with your passing. It won’t take much effort.”
Chiaotzu giggled. The server eyed them suspiciously from across the store. The long-haired boy was gaunt, but muscular, and even so, he did not worry Tien. None of the White Tigers are stronger than me. Tao said so himself. I am stronger than Mashiro. How could he train these nitwits to become stronger than me? It’s impossible!
“Any day… any mission you go on… you better have extra eyes in the back of your head too, freak! ‘Cause we’ll be coming for you. We’re going to be the only martial arts school in Suma. This is our territory. It’s time you cranes fulfilled your destiny as fodder–as meat! Step aside and let the professionals run this business, boyos.”
“No fighting!” the old samurai yelled from over the counter. “I’ll ban every one of you! I don’t care how much tea you order!”
They waved the old man off with sweet words and feigned emotions.
“Any day, any time. Watch your shadows,” Zhajiang whispered. “We’ll be coming for you, turkeys.”
With that, the Tigers moved to the register on the far side of the shop, and Tien’s team was left alone. Still, he was not about to stay with a bunch of Tigers infesting the tea shop. They want to provoke us in order to provide evidence of our evil nature to the townspeople. They want to get us kicked out of Suma if they can’t kill us or run us out of business first. I won’t have it. If we bury them, no one will see it.
“Let’s go,” Tien ordered them. “We have business in Cardan.”
He made sure not to say that too loudly, lest the Tigers hear him. Regardless, they would not be embarrassed on a bounty run again. They would fly all the way there. Yurin, like every other Tiger, could not fly, for she was not yet a Crane. If she were to become one of them, she would have to learn that most basic and fundamental of techniques. They would have a good head start, with all the Tigers here ordering tea. There was no need to panic or flee in an exaggerated showing. They simply got up, left a few zeni on the table, and slid out, back into the rain.
It was cold upon Tien’s face. He flexed his hands, closing his eyes and clearing his mind. The Tigers’ jealousy would not poison his spirit. He had to remain focused, resolute. They are just burning incense trails in the wind. Inhaling the frigid air, he said, “Jaoros, take the lead. Chiaotzu, Yurin, with me. Paik, you’ve got the rear.”
“Aye!” they said, and soon, his feet had left the mud to hover over the rain puddles not more than a foot. He smirked, seeing the look of wonder spread across Yurin’s face.
“We weren’t lying, Yurin. Let’s go!”
Eagerly did Jaoros lead them off through the rain, into the darkness. Tired though they had been, the tea had been a much-welcomed boost, and again Tien was savoring the thought of blood on his hands, of a dead body at his feet. But not this time, he reminded himself. The girl will have to do it this time. Chiaotzu after. Then…
Then he would be happy. There was a chance the Tigers would be foolish enough to ambush them at some point in the near future. That was Tien’s preference. He wanted their blood. Waiting was painful, but it was his duty to have restraint, patience, the maturity to put aside his emotions and do what was best for the Crane School. If they were to give him what he wanted, however… well, Tien would not second-guess being given such succulent treats. The next time we meet, I’ll kill Zhajiang. I’ll kill all the Tigers. I’ll wipe them out, and then Suma will be at peace.
He closed his eyes as he flew, savoring the thought, not bothering to watch the girl run after them in the rain, for soon she was swallowed in the darkness, and still there was no time to lose.
“He said he’s willing to talk. That’s all I could get out of him over the phone. You’ll have to see for yourself, ma’am, if he’s credible or not.”
They reached the base of the hill leading up to the villa, and it was there that Violet decided they should stop. Raising a gloved hand, she compelled her eleven soldiers to halt in the road. It was a sunny day, and warm though it was, this was nothing compared to how it was in the Diablo Desert.
“I’ll meet with him alone.”
Her captain’s lip trembled. “Violet…”
“Cassian, stop. Stay here with the others. I’ll be back in a few minutes. Everything will be fine.”
“And if it’s not?”
“Samurai do not frighten me, sir.”
She glanced to her assassination squad. She had chosen to leave her army, the majority of it former bandits and Red Ribbon Army soldiers, in the desert. This crew would move faster, but more importantly undetected.They had a mission they would see through to the end, and they would not be found out before they had enacted their justice upon the yakuza.
The wind coursed through aged olive trees. Her boots were in the dirt, as she trekked up towards the informant’s lair. She quickly went over again in her head the positioning of all her weapons: her pistol, her knife, the blade she hid in her shoe. She had to remain calm. There was no reason to suspect the informant of anything naughty. He had nothing to gain by getting gunned down today.
The captain’s wild green eyes met hers. She had to break the gaze, lest her cheeks betray her. “He’s legit! Don’t get spooked, ma’am.”
Now he’s trying to cheer me up. Fantastic work, Captain. That’ll totally earn you a blowjob tonight, I’m sure. “I’m fine, Cassian.”
It was her, Cassian, Carmichael, and nine support individuals–drivers, chefs, bodyguards, and the like. They three would be the only ones with a shot at the yakuza boss Mazuchiru. Even his name made Violet want to dry heave. After the fall of the Red Ribbon Army, she and all the clever ones had escaped and reformed themselves into their own armies. In Violet’s case, that was the Children of Chaos. She had claimed the Diablo Desert, and Mazuchiru had had the audacity to try to take it from her.
The desert was the most convenient highway to use when trafficking heroin between South City, Orange Star City, Central City, and beyond. It was a vital commercial hub area; she was making a killing down there. But one man stood in her way. Mazuchiru had once crossed her at Bonetown, shooting the mayor of South City, her lover, over a petty squabble. In the ensuing firefight, Violet and her soldiers had taken out nearly every last one of the man’s bodyguards, soldiers, and yakuza in general. Only he and one other had escaped the desert.
It was clear where they had run to. Orange Star City was the city where Mazuchiru had always operated out of. It was where he had been born, where he had become a yakuza, where he had risen in the ranks of the Chàoxing Gon to eventually become its leader. That was not to say that his second home was not South City, but he spent the majority of his resources on and in Orange Star City. Indeed, if the reports were correct, he still commanded a gang of several hundred out here, despite a costly war with the samurai having left hundreds of yakuza dead only a few years back.
Violet was not a student of history; she cared little and less for such tedious recounts of events. But indeed, it had not escaped her attention that some two and a half years prior, a pair of rogue samurai lords known as Makare and Naigo had attacked Mazuchiru’s gang in downtown Orange Star City, massacring them. She hadn’t known why the samurai had attacked, nor what Mazuchiru’s relationship with them had been, but one thing was clear: the samurai hated the yakuza.
Makare and Naigo themselves had died two years ago in a petty samurai feud in this very town of Cardan, located on the outskirts of the city. Even so, some of their soldiers had survived. Some had fled, surely; some had died; some had no doubt been attacked, or recruited by the yakuza. The one she was coming to meet today said he knew where Mazuchiru was.
It had been two years since she’d last seen him, since she’d last shot him.
Three knocks was all it took. The ex-samurai Mushigi answered. His beard was scraggly, his hair hanging in unwashed strands around his face. “Colonel Violet?”
“Just Violet now,” she said with a smile, stepping inside. “Hello, Mr. Mushigi.”
The compound was sparsely-adorned. Several potted plants had been placed before the pink stone walls, but otherwise, it appeared to be a derelict abode on first glance.
He closed the large cherrywood door behind them. With his back turned to hers, he whispered, “Well then, shall we get on with it? I don’t have much time.”
He swung around violently, his eyes bulging from their sockets. His breath stank. “They’ll be coming for me once you do it. I gotta get out of here! Don’t you understand? I’ll die if I stay.”
“I see. We won’t be doing this until tomorrow night, so you don’t have to worry. You have plenty of time to…” she cleared her throat, “flee before everything goes down.”
“Let’s talk in the garden,” the man said, stiffening. Walking past her, he stopped in the doorframe leading onward. “Come, Violet. Do you want tea?”
“I’m fine, thanks.”
“Good. I didn’t want to have to make any,” the man rasped.
“I’m surprised you didn’t search me for weapons,” she said, following the man into the next room. “You know I could have killed you at any point in our meeting so far.”
“You need me more than I need you, lady.”
They came to a stop in a garden, overgrown with gnarled cherry trees, blossoming beneath the sun, for there was no ceiling in this room. There was a koi pond that started in the eastern corner and worked its way down towards the central part of the garden. Indeed, a small bridge was necessary to traverse over it to get to the other side of the room.
The slouching man clapped his hands together. “So…”
“Your garden is beautiful, Mushigi. I’m surprised a man like you could afford this place.”
“It’s not mine, truly,” he retorted, scratching his chin. “Masamune/Masamune owns the estate. I’m just their caretaker now. I’m in their, ahem, rehabilitation program.”
Her eyes were fixated upon the lush beauty stored away in this little room. “Oh, yeah? Which program is that?”
“They’re just helpin’ out former samurai find work’s all.”
“Well, in any case, we should get on with it.”
She folded her arms, staring him down suddenly. The man was gaunt, grey-eyed, and unwashed, but not hiding anything. “Where is Mazuchiru?”
The man leaned in with a grin; she looked away, unable to take it any longer. She felt sweat dripping down the back of her neck. It was hot enough without that. “He’s been layin’ low at the Goldfish Casino. Haven’t seen him, but there’s plenty of his Chàoxing Gon goons in there. Gotta be their base.”
She raised an eyebrow. “But you haven’t seen him yourself?”
“No one has, lady. He’s been keepin’ real quiet. I’ve seen his lieutenants in there and a bunch of soldiers too. I’m always at the Goldfish. I know what goes on there. They’re always there. If you don’t want to believe me, then I can’t help you, lady. But he’s there. I know he is. He’s hidin’ out in the basement. You’ll find him there.”
“Alright. And these lieutenants… that would Higataro, and…”
“Sugoro. Word has it that the two of them have become his bodyguards of sorts. He’s fearin’ assassinations. Likely comin’ from you, but I suppose other gangs could be pouncin’ on ‘em too, sensing weakness. Who knows?”
“So he has two assassins who are defending him at all times? Am I hearing you right, Mushigi?”
“Yeah, and you won’t see ‘em. You won’t know they’re there. They’re waiting for somethin’ like this to happen. That’s why it’s so dangerous. I can’t get you in there.”
“No matter. We have other ways of getting inside.”
The man turned from her, wrapping his finger in a cherry blossom. “Is that so? Don’t need my help?”
“Good luck then, lady.”
“You best be on your way as well, Mushigi. We’ll be doing this tomorrow night.”
“Why so late?”
She shot him a glance. “What’s it matter to you?”
He recoiled in surprise. “I thought you wanted me to leave as soon as possible. You’re leaving me quite the window, lady.”
“You’ll need to get far away. Don’t underestimate the reach of the Chàoxing Gon’s intelligence branch. They’ll track you down if you stay anywhere around here. I’d go to North City if I were you. Maybe even West City if you can find work there…”
“Yeah, and speakin’ of work, where’s my money?”
“That’s right,” she said smoothly, pulling the bills from her pocket. They had been taped down into small bricks–three in all. “Five million zeni. For your time, sir.”
He cackled and swiped the bricks from her hands. “Ooh, yes! That’s good! That’s really good! Alright, now we’re cookin’! Now we’re cookin’ real good!”
“Don’t go partying with hookers and cocaine tonight. Don’t draw attention to yourself. Remember, Mushigi, you will remain in danger until my team kills all the yakuza.”
“Yeah, yeah, whatever, Violet. Thanks for your time. You can leave now. I don’t have any other information for you.”
Laughing in spite of herself, the former Red Ribbon Army officer spun on her heels, admired the scenery for a moment, inhaling the fragrance of the cherry blossoms, then walked out, leaving the samurai behind. He can run, she thought to herself as she opened the great cherry wood door and exited, but he won’t get far. Whether it be the Chàoxing Gon or the Children of Chaos, it doesn’t matter. He’s a dead man either way. Snitches always get stitches, she thought as she slid her way back down the hill to her troop.
“How’d it go?” the captain asked, his voice rising in uncertainty.
“Mazuchiru’s been holed up in the Goldfish Casino in Orange Star City for months. That’s our target.
“Are we going with the big guns?” asked Carmichael, the tall and blue-eyed man with the dark skin. “Or do you want air support?”
“We’ll bomb the shit out of them,” Violet whispered. “Then pick off whoever tries to flee or emerges from the rubble. I don’t care. That fucking yakuza is dying one way or another! Tomorrow night, you guys. Be prepared. I want air support ready by nine o’clock sharp!”
Her team nodded and saluted, and all she could think of was the mayor of South City, her darling love, and the man who had taken him from her. “Hey, Captain,” she muttered.
Why did he have to leave me behind with this dolt? Why couldn’t Mazuchiru have shot Cassian instead? Knowing the answer to that stupid question already did not sooth her mind in the slightest. “Give me another bag of snow, would you kindly?”
Surprise flickered in his eyes before he handed her the baggie. Carmichael turned away, raising his hand to his mouth. She did the line off his arm, in front of them, in front of Mushigi if he had cared to stay and watch, and anyone else who happened to be spying on them or just passing by. She didn’t care who was watching. This would end tomorrow. Mazuchiru would never rule the snow trade so long as Violet lived. He would pay; she would kill him. It wasn’t going to be like last time. He would never get away from her again.
A thrill spread from her chest to her stomach. She wiped the sweat from her neck. Holding her breath, taking in the moment, feeling herself gaining towards the peak, Violet focused only upon Mazuchiru, bleeding and bullet-ridden, his cronies lying dead in piles around him, blood everywhere, on his knees, begging for her to spare him. Every time, she pulled the trigger.
Tomorrow night, it would be no different.
The master had been eating oranges again. The entire dojo reeked of them. What the old man found so irresistible in citrus, he would never know. Coming out into the courtyard, Zhajiang found Zadich and Huo-Guo sparring. Shumi was meditating in the sun, the white tile floor reflecting upon the sweat shimmering on her pale neck. Averting his eyes, the boy was just fast enough to see Huo-Guo spin-kick Zadich across the face, sending him to the ground, a trail of blood staining the stones, leaving a half-arc line between the opponents.
“Who’s next on our hit list, guys?” Zhajiang asked, stepping out into the courtyard. Zadich did not move from where he had fallen.
The girl, meanwhile, flipped back up to her feet, and wiped the blood from her fist on her blue and white robes. “You talking about a bounty, Zhajiang?”
The girl pulled out her phone, flicking her hair out of her eyes. “Well, I’m sure there’s some out there.”
“Find one, Huo-Guo.”
“I’d like to go on a mission, I would,” Zadich groaned from the floor.
“What are you looking for?” The girl’s voice rose in tone. “A high-priced target? A target who’s nearby? A notorious criminal?”
Zhajiang crouched, cracking his knuckles. We need money more than glory. “Who’s the highest-priced one?”
“Um…” she said, her voice trailing off as she waved her finger over the screen in long strokes. “Ah, there he is… the, uh, ‘Rebel King of Nowhere’, located on the island of Akki, deep in the southern ocean.”
Shumi got up with a yawn, stretching her neck. “That’s on the Red Sea, isn’t it? That’s even more south than South City! That’s super remote. His bounty better be pretty hefty if they want us to go all the way down there to claim it.”
Her mouth was spread in a wry smile. “Well, that’s the thing, Shumi… it’s Ƶ500,000,000.”
The fallen boy shot up like a dart. “Whoa, hold up! Ƶ500,000,000?!”
That’s not bad. That’ll help us build up the school. We desperately need repairs after the last monsoon… and we need more students here. With this money, the White Tigers will rise over the foolish and outdated Cranes! “That’ll do just nicely, Huo-Guo. Let’s go tomorrow then.” He stared up at the purpling sky. It was getting cold. “That’s perfect. By the way, have any of you ever heard of this ‘Rebel King of Nowhere’?”
“Doesn’t ring a bell.”
“There aren’t any results online either,” Huo-Guo sighed. “Seems to be a local from a remote town. I’m not surprised. Akki has only the one town–Pulang. Population’s one hundred eighty-four. Won’t take long to find this guy, whoever he is.”
The wood beams were decaying in certain spots. There were stains on the tiles. In the evening light, all the school’s wounds seemed to be glowing, out on full display. Zhajiang grit his teeth. I’m a Tiger. I fear no one. They had won, anyways. It had been a sweet victory, taking out that gambler in Khaffi before the Cranes could get to him. But a million zeni wasn’t nearly as much as five hundred million. That money could be used to repair and modernize the White Tigers’ school. It will.
“Get some rest, you guys. Don’t overwork yourselves tonight. Go to bed early tonight. It’ll be a long journey tomorrow. We’ll try to find a plane that’ll take us there. If not, we’ll have go by boat.”
Zadich was picking his ear. “Good thing we got that deadbeat gambler, eh?”
“Yeah, Zad, but that’s just the start. We need a lot more money if we’re going to become Suma’s number one martial arts school. Anyways, I’ll tell the master what’s going on. See ya guys.”
Swiftly did Zhajiang make his way to the old man’s room, which was situated on the western side of the dojo. Upon knocking, the man shouted from inside for him to come on inside, and so he did. Bowing, the boy glided in, shutting the door behind him.
It was a simple room, made of bamboo wood. Aside from a desk, a simple sleeping area, and an oakwood dresser, the room was sparsely-adorned.
“I am sorry for interrupting you, but I have good news, Master.”
“As do I, Zhajiang,” the old man said, swiveling on his chair, his glasses clutched in both hands as he cleaned the lenses with a blue cloth. His white beard had grown like a mane around his cheeks and neck, though he shaved his head fairly short otherwise. “I have just returned from the Crane School, and–”
“You were gone, Master?! And to the Crane School, no less?! Those turkeys are our bitter rivals, Master!”
“And that is precisely why I met with Master Shen to discuss if our two schools could have a preliminary tournament before the twenty-second World Martial Arts Tournament in sixth months or so.” It was like being punched in the face. For some time, Zhajiang was lost for words. “Let everyone know. Your practice match is in two days.”
He had to contain his gasp with a cough. “It’s not tomorrow?”
“No, you’ll have a day to prepare. Shen requested as much.”
Heat rose in his ears. This is good. We can still make it if we’re fast! “Very good, Master. I’ll let everyone know. Tomorrow, we’ll head out on a simple assassination mission–”
“No, Zhajiang. I forbid it. Any one of you could be wounded,” the man said, leaning back in his chair, adjusting his glasses and lighting his pipe. “I won’t have that. I gave the Crane School my word.”
Screw them. “But Master–”
“No ‘buts’. You will not take on any missions tomorrow.” The puff of white smoke billowed out of the man’s mouth and nostrils like an avalanche. “Zhajiang, listen to me!”
Averting his eyes, the acolyte whined, “I am, Master!”
“A Tiger knows his territory, boy. Keep that in mind. Do not let yourself and the others be anything less than at one hundred percent for our ‘Tournament of Suma’, as it were. I do not want you to embarrass me. Nor Zadich. He is especially likely to end up with a broken arm, or something like that. Don’t let such a thing happen, Zhajiang.”
The boy bowed. “I won’t, Master.”
“Good. You may leave, unless you have anything else to discuss.”
For a heartbeat, the boy was frozen. “No, Master.”
“Then goodnight, Zhajiang. Sleep well.”
“You too, Master.” The boy smiled, bowed again, and left him.
Outside, he found himself out of breath, though he had expended no energy. Fool. You almost cracked. You can’t do that! You have to be better! He grit his teeth, felt his nails digging into his palms. After a moment, the boy’s breathing slowed, and he walked off. He would not tell them. Not until they were on their way back from Akki.
Mashiro is a wise man, but he’s not beyond reproach. The assassination would be simple enough. Against four White Tigers, no man, be he a king or otherwise, would survive. Confident in their mission, which would secure enough money so as to make it impossible for the old man to get mad at them for their little vacation down to the southern islands, Zhajiang began focusing on the upcoming match. The World Martial Arts Tournament, eh? Master wasn’t interested in entering us in it last time, but that was three years ago. Maybe we weren’t ready then. This could be our next test. We won’t disappoint him. But those fights will take place in May. That’s nearly six months away. We don’t have to worry yet. This battle against the turkeys will be only a test.
And yet, Zhajiang, a humble boy though he was in station in manner, couldn’t help but feel a thrilling and devious drive deep inside compel him to do something foul, something absolutely abhorrent, to the Crane students during their showcase in two days. That three-eyed man–he’s been there the longest. He’s older than all the rest. He’s the strongest turkey. I bet he’ll enter in the tournament. Well, in that case… I’ll make sure, by the end of it, no matter what, he ends up so hurt he won’t be able to participate in that tournament at all. I’ll break his ribs. Maybe his collarbone, or neck, if he gives me the opening. That’s all I’ll use the showcase for. Screw them. I don’t care about them. I won’t train with them, but I will leave my mark. It’s my duty. Tigers kill Cranes. That will always be so.
Rain falls over the Red Sea. I will not be going out today. The lighthouse’s rays cut through the tumbling grey fog in valiant, but brittle strokes. I sit and watch for a while, eating a well-burnt quesadilla that I have cut in two. The left side reminds me of Bleda the Hun, and so naturally, the right must remind me of Attila. I eat them–Bleda first, to be sure–all the while wondering what could have been. Why did Bleda feel such a need to rule? Why couldn’t he have let Attila rule? I confess his ego troubles me, and in my quest to seek universal wisdom, to seek comfort from this life that is suffering, this life of samsara, I struggle to empathize with Bleda. As I dip him into garden salsa, I become more and more convinced that he would not have done so well against Constantinople as his brother had.
I perceive the reckless excess of his ego: a jealousy so pervasive it was willing to destroy itself, to destroy an empire, just to wear a crown, if even for only a day, and it tickles me good, and I want to call up Jared, but that would be obscene.
I meditate for some time. The sound of rainwater heaving against stone, stone so robust there is no fear, comforts me. I will not be going out today, for it is raining. Isolating my fear, I perceive that it, along with everything around me, even myself, my thoughts, my surroundings, is empty and without form. I want to dream of paradise, but I don’t think my imagination’s good enough sometimes.
A government lighthouse may erode with time–give it a few centuries. The coast might go before it does. The workmanship is impeccable and certainly yeoman’s work. And how derelict it is, that is the best, isn’t it? It is just me here. Just me. I man the lighthouse of Akki Island. Some days I call Jared, my one and only friend in the town, but some days I do not, and those are better days. I meditate, in my quest for Enlightenment, like any human should. This world is suffering and we must work to end it. Apart from these two goals, I am empty. I’ve been here for eighteen years. They can’t get rid of me. I’ve got a government pension waiting for me back home.
The island’s not too big, and there’s only the port city of Pulang on the northern tip, anyways. My lighthouse is the northernmost point of our quaint little establishment. This place had once been a government research facility. Not anymore. The town’s got one hundred eighty-four people–well, now the tally’s gone down to one hundred eighty-two. Two men have gone missing in the past sixth months, likely from a riptide or a shark. Who knows? Some days I wish it were more.
Still, not so bad, that. Every time our population goes down, I celebrate. It’s sad, but it’s true. I should not be sad; I should not suffer from this. I must overcome my worldly temptations. Suffering leaves this world with every rotting corpse, in small strokes. It’s better here when it’s less crowded. That’s not counting tourists, the vilest of all pondscum. Would be better at sixty-two, or maybe forty-one. Forty-one would be an excellent number–small, but functional, enough to make it pleasant to live here. I could still go to the store when I wanted to, or to a restaurant if I wanted to (I do not want to, never), or talk to Jared, for Jared would surely remain on the island as one of the noble forty-one.
At noon, I get the paper. Headline’s about how another man’s gone missing. Knew it, called it. Something fishy’s going on here, and I don’t think it’s accidental. People have been going missing for a long time in Pulang. We’re remote. Really far off the map. There aren’t many people who come down to visit. That’s okay with me. They shouldn’t come down here. There’s nothing to see in Pulang. We have a scenic, tropical beach, of course, but scant else. Why come all the way down here for that, when there are so many other wonderful and tourist-trodden tropical beaches located so much closer to civilization? Am I really the mad one? Absolute bollocks, that.
I am getting tired. I meditate for a bit, ruminating on Raskolnikov and Rodians and suffering, and wondering why that man had to die. He was dead, drowned and gone, or better yet murdered. Yeah, murdered. He was murdered alright. I know he was. Too coincidental, that. One every three months. Been happening for years now, although they take tourists when they can. Who they are, I do not know. I shiver. Demons, I think. Could be. Might as well be.
That could be nonsense–it is nonsense, isn’t it? I return to the beacon, scanning the grey-green waters. No ships, per usual. The Red Sea is a bleak wilderness. I am not affected. The sky, pale as rose, gives a little color to the desolation.
My fingers itch, and on the tele, a man in a shiny black suit is making a pretty speech. You know what Moses always said: “Lady, let them titties go!” That is a sign I need to meditate. My late teacher Preggnanandhaa once told me that all turmoil is resolved within the heart and not in some fiery explosion. A hernia killed him, though, so I’m not so sure he was a good man. Courage is the act of making progress, despite fear. Courageous people feel that fear just as much as everyone else, but they will act, where others will remain paralyzed. I wonder which I am.
It’s a good job, this. Easy job, no pressure. Real low-maintenance. I don’t need anyone else to help me do my job. The rain finally abates. I yawn, glancing to the books on my end table. I know I should be reading them. It is my duty. My teacher had commanded me to enrich my mind in the teachings of Lord Padmasambhava, the Lotus-Born, who was a really great guy, I think, or he may have been a baddie, I can’t remember.
“I’ll get to that,” I say defiantly. There is no one here, but sometimes I talk to myself. Just to take the edge off. It’s not weird; it’s the sign of a healthy, properly functioning mind that I can recognize that. “I’ll get to it tomorrow.”
What was today but yesterday’s tomorrow? And in three month’s time wouldn’t it all be the same again? I know, and yet I do nothing. Am I not bringing more suffering into the world by not voicing my suspicion? That may be so. But really, I’m just a simple lighthouse keeper. What more can you ask of me? I don’t want to be eaten by the demons.
I know the stories of skinchangers and shadow demons who haunt the untamed forests of southern Akki. Oh yes, I am quite aware of our native monsters. I’ve read some things. I’ve heard some things. Jared’s told me a wee bit. He’s let me in on some secrets. I know they’re watching me, watching me good, but I’ve been here for years. Every three months they take a tourist if they can. That’s class for you. That’s thought. That’s real vision. That’s how you know they’re watching out for you. Some might say I’m mad. I won’t voice it. I won’t say it. I won’t have them laugh at me. I know the skinchangers are in that forest. I know they get hungry like any self-respecting human being.
The wind whips across the tower. I sneeze. My room is nothing more than piles of books, unwashed dishes, dirty clothes, and my heap of a bed stuck in the corner–just a mattress on rock. It’s cozy, yeah. Nice and cozy and nice. Takes the edge off.
I glance at my phone. I better call Jared. I don’t want to. I don’t have to. He’ll be wondering. He’ll be proper wondering. I don’t want him worrying. Don’t want him suffering. I’m the good one. I’m trying to end suffering in the world. I will attain bodhicitta. Preggu taught me well. I won’t disappoint him, or maybe I will, but he’s dead, so who cares? I will get there before the demons get me. My loving-kindness towards all life, human, demon, or beast, is immeasurable, but still, some small part of me cannot take on the prospect of immeasurable equanimity. Such a belief is foul, rank, hideous–the philosophy of injustice and evil. But that is only a small part of me, and I am working, and will continue to work, to quell such lizard brain thoughts.
I know the demons are watching me. I flop onto the bed, close my eyes, clear my thoughts, and meditate, and the fear goes away, and I’m fine again. I will become enlightened. Only through due diligence can I succeed. I certainly am not going to end up eaten. I will not. I hope not. Kami, that would hurt.
Chapter 2: Suburban BodhicittaEdit
A half moon was enough to light the way. Cardan was shrouded in mist; all the trees stood like skeletons. This was vineyard country. The estates of a few elite, well-fed men and women lay on hills like scattered gems above their frozen lands. Tien’s breath frosted before his nostrils. The fields still smelled of rain and mud.
Withered vineyards were easy to navigate. They were easy to be spotted in, too. The Cranes moved deftly through seemingly endless rows of staked-up grapevines, not daring to fly over instead. Only Yurin’s faint huffing could be heard. Otherwise, the night was dead.
It was two in the morning. They would have plenty of time. Nobody would be out and about. Not in Cardan. No, they’ll be passed out in their cozy homes, drunk off their own stock, or off vacationing in South City if they have real money. Tien had nothing but contempt for worldly desires. His intentions were pure–he was not like other men. He wanted to become the world’s next greatest assassin. Of course he wasn’t.
“Yurin, keep up!” he whispered, stopping the team.
She had gotten herself tangled in some old vines and branches. Chiaotzu tried hard to swallow a giggle before waddling back to her. Blood glistened on her forearm from a light cut. Clumsy. Tigers never do seem to have the grace of Cranes. With a faint glow, the vines flew into the air in unnatural strokes, slipping out from her hair and shoes without resistance, only to fall lifelessly a couple of meters away.
Tien ordered them to form up. She had that glossy look in her eyes again, though she had not quite caught her breath yet. “The Milano estate… is just beyond the next field…”
“That one’s not it? I think that’s it.” Jaoros’ fingers were fidgeting. “That’s gotta be it.”
“Nuh uh. That’s Masamune/Masamune, Mr. Jaoros… Look at the crest on the gate… it’s a katana being forged.”
“She’s right,” Tien muttered. “Lead the way, Yurin. Take out the target however you want.”
Rubbing her eyes, she dipped under the last row of vines, looking weary enough to collapse. Not complaining. That’s better than Jaoros. “Follow me, everyone.”
It took them less than a minute to make their way through the Masamune/Masamune vineyards, extensive and lifeless as they were. Tien was glad there hadn’t been any guards out on patrol. They could have been more targets for us to practice on.
A light had been left on inside the Milano estate; a slender figure stood in the open doorway, the imprint of her shadow tattooing itself to the inside of his eyelids. Yurin raised a hand, then Tien did. They slid into cover behind a parked tractor at the bottom of the hill, hoping not to be seen. “Door’s open,” he told them. “Someone’s out here.”
The painted boy looked to him. Jaoros chanced a glance around the tractor, only to duck back around again right after. “I’ve seen her!”
Yurin peeked around the vehicle, then gave them a nod. “It’s definitely her.”
It was right after that (or something like that) when G.P. Milano spoke for herself, having already descended halfway down the hill: “Goddamn son of a bitch! It’s cold as shit out here! Knew he was a fuckhead. I fuckin’ knew it. Called that shit out weeks ago. I should have seen this coming.” Everyone was peering at her from under the tractor, jostling to get a good view. Their target was walking down a pathway leading up to one of the estate’s many back doors. She was not more than six meters away from them. Wearing a skimpy black lingerie dress with a pink g-string visible underneath, the woman clutched a bottle of gin, her platinum blonde hair ruffled, her make-up streaking. “Archibald Reginald Hertz-FitzPatrick III, you rat fuck, I’m freezing my tits off out here! What are you waiting for?!” she shrieked, her voice cutting through the night.
“C-comin’, comin’! Give me a sec, darlin’! Oh sweet Gillyflower! My sweet, sweet Gillyflower!”” a man with a dry, scratchy voice hollered out from the house. “Ah, hell!”
Jaoros had to stifle a laugh–well, Tien did it for him by sticking his face in the mud.
“Unbelievable. I’ll freeze to death before he gets down here. It’s always the same goddamn thing with Reginald. Fuck me.”
Tien felt someone poke him in the ribs. “What are they going to do, Mr. Tien Shinhan?”
“Quiet, Chiaotzu. Focus on the techniques being used. Don’t look away. I’ll know if you do.”
The boy did as he was told, Tien holding him by the back of the neck so he could not run off. He’ll watch this time. He’ll see what it means to be an assassin. For his worth, Chiaotzu wasn’t shaking. The girl was.
Perhaps it was only exhaustion. She sprung to her feet, slinking out around the side of the tractor with little confidence. Ms. Milano was waving her arms to the doorway, but as far as Tien could tell, there was no one standing in it. He felt a sharp, unpleasant feeling wash over his body. She had such a perfect opportunity and wasn’t taking it. It was torture to watch.
At first, the Tiger was careful with stalking her prey, using the olive trees as cover. She could be seen. Her style is inefficient. It is not the way of a true assassin. Moonlight in her hair, Gilly made an obscene gesture and threw the bottle up towards the house, but alas, she was not a remarkably strong individual, leading the bottle to land no more than a quarter of the way up the hill.
It was in that moment of wasted energy, where the prey was wholly concentrated on one thing–one thing going on in the opposite direction–that Yurin went for her. She has the instincts of a killer, at least. The same can’t be said about Chiaotzu… or even Jaoros, for that matter. The drunk lady did not see her coming. One kick to the back of the neck snapped her spine.
Paik and Jaoros scrambled out from under the tractor to get a good look at the body. Tien remained behind with Chiaotzu. “You did well.”
“Th-thanks, Mr. Tien Shinhan. W-w-will I have t-to do that n-n-next?”
“That’s right, Chiaotzu. If you are to become a great assassin of the Crane School, you must learn to control your emotions and perform your duty, no matter the target.”
“B-but what if they’re–”
“Oh, god! Fuck me! Fuck! Oh shit. Oh Kami! Gilly! Gillyflower Persephone Milano! Oh my sweet baby girl! They killed her, they did! Bastards! Oh fuck! My sweet little Milano buttercup snoogums!”
Her lover. Goosebumps spread across his arms and down his back. “Yurin, let’s go!”
She heard him. Nonetheless, even as her companions were returning to Tien, she perked up her back, looked back, then tore off at the portly man rushing down the path towards his dearly departed golddigger of a girlfriend. Stubborn and defiant. “Flying Sky Kick!” the girl screamed, leaping into the air, spinning, and coming down again on Archibald’s head with the back of her heel. Landing behind him, she folded her arms. The man staggered, groaned, his fat rolls jiggling, and collapsed. Fresh bubbling blood left him with a red smile, his final gaze resting eternally upon the dead woman.
Before he knew it, he had flown to her and slapped that smirk off her face. “I told you to return to me. We only go after our targets. No one else.”
“He saw me. He saw us.”
The girl’s lips narrowed to a slit. “So… now there aren’t any witnesses. Duh. Are you stupid?”
“Shut up. The old man will decide what to do with you.”
Tilting her head, the girl scoffed, “Whatever. My way’s better. I bet you Tao doesn’t leave any survivors.”
He went to speak, but found the words too unsavory to say. Paik looked away from him. She’s right. I’m being too harsh. He had to die. But she can’t defy me… He felt himself going red. Master won’t care. An assassin never cares about all the blood on his hands. He took a breath, closing his eyes. It was difficult to clear his thoughts, and in this foreign place, the bodies around, it wasn’t going to get any easier. I have to be a better leader. I can’t let my anger drive me. I am an assassin. I do not let emotions cloud my judgment.
“That tea’s worn off,” Jaoros complained. “C’mon guys, I want to go home.”
“Me too,” said Chiaotzu. “Can we, Mr. Tien Shinhan?”
Their sudden onset of weariness affected Tien more than he liked to admit. He felt it in his fingers, in his eyes. He was utterly exhausted, and he hadn’t done much of anything. Tao always said sleep was crucial. The sign of a poor assassin was one who sacrificed sleep for money.
“After we dispose of the bodies. We need the zeni before we can return.”
Paik flexed her jaw, but said nothing.
The hunt’s over; their enthusiasm vanished. He noted the irony, but it did not make him think poorly of his master. He was not a madman, or a warrior without honor. “Those bodies won’t carry themselves away. Chiaotzu, Yurin, you’re the newest members, so you’ll carry them.”
A barn owl took flight from a tree to the left, frightening the pale boy awfully bad. Soundlessly, its wings flapping across the cracked moon, the bird disappeared behind the Masamune/Masamune estate. He has the right idea, Tien thought sourly, looking around, as if the movement of his neck could suppress that yawn he felt clawing its way up to his jaws. The wind blew a piercing note through Cardan. It was getting colder and colder by the day. Soon there would be snow. Yurin would need to learn to fly before then. Cranes don’t leave footprints in the snow. This time, I won’t be teaching her. Maybe Chiaotzu can.
It was a funny thought, and not one he could so easily discard.
Nothing really matters. That’s what they all say to me. Me, I’m good meditating on eternal compassion in the sun, the calm seas swirling before me, comforting me with their restraint. It’s good weather, this. Not a cloud in the sky. Perfect meditation weather if you ask me. But I can’t get a good rhythm going. Jared keeps calling. Won’t let up.
I give in around noon, agreeing to meet him on his yacht, the Chum Dumpster. First, I’ll need to bring a present, a goodie, a real nice one. Going out is never nice. It’s dangerous out there. Don’t want to talk to strangers. Don’t like it. Makes my bones tingle. Makes it hard to carry on. Have to talk to the cashier, unfortunately.
“One bottle of vintage Massao Sugizaki 02. One pack of assorted saltwater taffy. Will that be all, sir?”
“That’ll be… three hundred thousand four hundred thirty-five zeni, sir.”
“Meh.” I avert my eyes, feeling my palms slick with sweat. “That bottle’s not cheap.”
“It’s not. That’s the vintage collection, sir, as I explained to you earlier. It’s the finest whiskey for sale on the whole island.”
“Yes, yes. I’ll take it.”
The cashier leans in with her magenta lipstick-brushed lips puckered out like some peacock on display. Clicking her tongue, she asks, “Hmmm? What was that, sir?”
I close my eyes, trying to meditate on all the suffering in the world, but I am filled with aversion. This lady is working me hard here. It’s been nearly four months since I’ve last been out, and I’ve not seen this one here before. She’s a proper div, but I mustn’t be thinking that way. It’s unseemly. I possess bodhicitta. In my quest for enlightenment, I cannot be bogged down by petty emotions. They are empty and without inherent form, as am I, as is everything, for we will not last forever. The enlightened mind does not dwell on primal urges.
“I’ll take it.”
Her face lit up like a Christmas tree on fire. “Oh goodie!”
I get the hell out of there and walk briskly to the beach. Don’t want to be late now. Jared doesn’t like that.
Now some might say three hundred thousand is a hefty price. Damn right it is. Jared’s no slouch. He’s closer to the government operatives than I am. That’s for damn sure. I never did get close to them, myself. I’ll never trust those pencil-neck fuckers. They give me the creeps. I’m just the lighthouse keeper. He works with them–the ones who own the island, I mean–the ones who came here almost a century ago, originally using Akki as a military training base, and then later as an outpost/vacation paradise for retired military men and their families. Yet, within the past quarter century it has become a functional town, open to the public, much less tourists (as is any tropical island, really). I’ve been here a good long while, but not so long as Jared. Not so long as the higher-ups.
I don’t share the taffy. I eat it all myself.
Jared’s boss is the boss of this whole damn operation–the one being waged against the demons. Skinchangers, some call them. The real powerful ones can change the way they look and walk amongst us, they say. That’s how they pick their targets. Lure them into a hotel on some quiet night, eat ‘em in there like civilized lads, leave the remains for the police, and get away without ever being seen again. It’s a good setup, that. Easy, clean, no consequences.
They can change who they look like, too. That’s what always gets me. Today they could be the cashier. Tomorrow, my deliveryman. Fuckin’ hell mate.
Jared’s waiting for me on the beach. Ship’s anchored just off the coast. He takes me out on a jet ski. A little wet, nothing too bad. The whiskey survives.
“Good to see you, Charles,” he says, patting me on the shoulder after helping me off the jet ski and onto the Chum Dumpster. “I’d grown to thinking you weren’t ever coming out of that lighthouse again.”
Seabirds are flying overhead expectantly. Their audacity annoys me. It is cooler out on the water than on the island. The winds here are fiercer, more prone to sudden shifts, and the sea is, as the Red Sea is, rather choppy.
“Yes, it’s splendid to be on the old Dumpster again, Jared. What news from up top? Have they sent you off on another hunt yet?”
The man’s chubby face ripples with glee. “Aye, a hunt. For the King of Nowhere. You ever heard of him, boyo?”
A man opens the cabin door, walking out. His fire-red hair blows about his face like a traumatized candle in the wind. “Inside, you lot. Come on, come on, don’t keep me waiting.”
I have never met this man before. I don’t know his name, and I don’t know his face. My palms moisten with sweat again. I hate that feeling. I had assumed, wrongly, that the Dumpster would be a safe place, a haven isolated away from all the strangers and nonces in the world. Every time Jared had brought me to his yacht to party and drink and talk, there had been no others. Still, I am more shocked to find not just the man, but a woman too inside. She is black-haired, sitting upright on a chair like a cat grooming its paws. She glances up once, her dark eyes surveying, scanning, penetrating me to the core, and then her head droops again as she continues to pick at her fingernails.
The orange-haired man takes the Sugizaki over to the counter and pours us drinks. I can feel the yacht’s slow swaying deep in my bones. I shiver. These are good nights, these parties with Jared. But the newcomers leave me slightly ruffled in the feathers, so to speak. I am not quite at ease, as I should like to be on my day off. But such is the life of a man trapped in the boundless cycles of samsara, of eternal suffering. Aren’t we all? I pity them. I pity us. My eternal loving-kindness for them extends ever and always. I feel nothing but pity and empathy for the sufferings of my fellow men, women, beasts and (of course) preta.
“That’s Silver, and that’s Glase,” Jared muttered, pointing to the woman. “She’s my partner.”
That’s a right proper development. “Alright, mate,” I grin, patting him on the back, “she’s pretty, that one. A fine catch.”
“No, no, no, Charles, it’s not like that.”
She sips her drink to hide her twitching lips. “Like what?”
“We’re partners on our mission. The mission to kill the King of Nowhere.”
“Is that right? And who’s this madman who calls himself king? I’ve heard of no such person.”
“That’s because you never come out of your lighthouse, old chap.”
The kind sir hands us our drinks. With the first sip, I already feel my urethra burning –an allergic reaction. I shiver again, and nearly vomit. Getting past that first gulp can oftentimes be the hardest. Not thinking about it helps. I can easily clear my mind. Master Preggu taught me well. The second gulp slides down my throat, and I feel it in my skin, in my fingertips, behind my eyes, a restlessness, a mild euphoria. This is good. I haven’t had any in a while. That makes it so much better when one does splurge a bit.
“I have spent much time in meditation, my friend. I have been reviewing the higher aspects of dream yoga in particular–”
“Blah, blah, blah.” His hands go up in dramatic fashion. “You lucid dream, and all you do with it is meditate with your made-up gods. It’s bollocks. It’s ridiculous. Where’s your imagination, man? Where’s your thirst for the unknown?”
“I seek enlightenment. I seek a way out of this endless cycle of rebirth and death that all of us are trapped in. I want an end to all pain.”
Silver drinks long from his cup before clearing his throat to interject. “You sound like one of those NUL-ites. Ever heard of NUL, old man?”
I get to my feet at once, feeling a prickling feeling go down the back of my scalp. “Old man?! Who are you calling old man, you shit?”
He blinks in astonishment, the idiot. “Excuse me… Uh, have you ever heard of NUL, my good sir?”
What a conceited little asshole. “No. What is it?”
“The Negative Utilitarianism League.” He slacks his jaw, taking a long sip from his cup and leaning back in a chair, throwing his head back obnoxiously. “A former coworker of mine told me about them. Her boyfriend worked with them. They’re all about minimizing as much pain in the world as they possibly can. In fact they’re so fanatical about it that they’re willing to kill everyone to do it. No people equals no pain. In some twisted, warped way, I can understand their logic. Doesn’t make them any less evil, though.”
“In a way, that’s what Buddhism wants, I guess,” I laugh, taking another drink. The feeling is both overwhelming and relaxing. “In terms of your… well, I can’t call it essence, since we’re all empty, but… well, your karmic trail, so to speak–the list of things you’ve done throughout all of your lives, both good and bad, when tallied against one another–results in one being placed into one of the six realms of existence.”
Glase’s head pops up for a second. “And which realm are we in right now?”
“Why… the human realm, naturally.”
“I assume the animal realm is a lower realm?”
“Oh yes, it’s worse, and the hell realms are far worse. It all depends on how your karma evens out when you die. Achieving enlightenment, as I am attempting to do with meditation and spreading of the words of the Buddha, will allow me to break free of samsara and cease to exist, in peace.”
“Who’s a bitch gotta kiss around here to a get a cream soda?”
“Oh, you bastard!” she whines, clutching the can daintily in one hand. “Now it’s going to spray all over me!”
Silver shrugs. “Not my problem.”
Jared leans in. I can tell he’s getting drunk. He’s not holding back. I thought he had a mission in the morning, but evidently, he is quite aware of this himself, or if not, he’ll be fired, and that’ll be a right proper shame. “This is that same samsara bullshit you told me about before, isn’t it, Charles?”
“I believe so, Jared. Enlighten us as to what I told you about it. I don’t exactly remember.”
He gets up to refill his cup, the wobbling of the yacht making his drunk staggering markedly more perilous. “About how if a baby dies just after being born, that’s a sign that, in a previous life, it had done great evil–great enough evil so as to be tempted by the human realm for an instant, only to have it be snatched away cruelly in the next. Inevitably, such a baby is then reborn in one of the hell realms. Isn’t that correct, Charles?”
“In some cases, yes.”
“Fuck you. That’s disgusting. That’s evil shit. If I hear another word of that garbage, I’ll throw you off the boat.”
He looks at me. I look at Silver, who’s looking at Glase’s breasts. I hiccup, and Jared laughs, guffawing for quite a long time, allowing me to finish my own cup, forcing me to get up and make the hard journey to the table on the other side of the room. “Now tell me this,” I ask, rising to my feet. “How’s a man named Silver have red hair like that? Are you a comedian, man?”
“Not quite. It’s just my last name. I was an officer in the Red Ribbon Army. Worked better there. Everyone was a color. Not so much anymore.”
My temples throb, and I take a few breaths, but my mind doesn’t clear. Sweat slicks over my palms. I need to sit. “Red… Red Ribbon Army, you said?”
“Yeah, that’s the one.”
“Wha… what happened to them?”
“Well, the whole army was destroyed by a… well, that doesn’t matter. Just a rival force. My father held enough political sway to get me out, and uh, here I am now, working with Alabastian and Glase–”
Jared bursts into a fit of laughter again, his stumpy legs swinging in the air like a toddler’s. “Oh that’s right, Charles, I forgot to tell you. We all have codenames. That’s mine.”
“So Silver’s not you’re real name either?”
“It is. I don’t need a codename. Fuck that. I’m Silver.”
My gaze returns to Jared, who in this time, has jumped up to pour himself a third cup. I have barely touched my second, and the room is already shaking like we’re caught in a hurricane. “Jared…”
“That’s a stupid name.”
“It is not.”
“It is so.”
“It’s the name of the man everyone’s going to hear killed the Rebel King of Nowhere! How do you like that, Charlie?”
Glase’s phone buzzes, and she exchanges a look with Silver. I see, and they see that I see, and they don’t care. “Eugen’s in place. He says she’s going through with it.”
I don’t stare. Jared’s overwhelming me right now with his own nonsense. “If she does, take her.”
“Oh, he knows.”
I am simply flabbergasted. After smacking my cheek, I wonder why I ever do that, for it smarts. “But… why…? Jared, why? It’s a horrible name. Really, it is.”
He returns to his chair, putting up the footrest and giving me a cheeky grin. “Alabama 3 are an alright band, aren’t they?”
“And Bastian Schweinsteiger’s not so bad at footie, yeah?”
“Suppose not, yeah…”
Burping, he sits up. How red his cheeks have become, I hadn’t noticed until now. It makes me laugh, in spite of myself. “Well, that’s it. Nothing fancy, or anything.”
“What about you?”
Again her head pops up in a black flash, her eyes piercing me. She bites her lip and swallows a snide chuckle. “Nnnnnno. I don’t think so.”
“Fair enough. Yeah, fair enough.”
“Anyways,” Jared giggles, pointing at me sheepishly. “You wanna stay and watch?”
“Stay and watch?”
“The assassination. Keep up, old chap. The three of us are supposed to do it. Silver’s father got the contract from King Furry himself. But we hired some help–some assassins from the mainland.”
“School of the White Tigers,” Silver said. “Not a cheap price, but it’s not a simple foe we’re dealing with.”
“Yeah, I’m not sure who this guy is. I’ve never heard of a king on Akki. Who the hell is he?”
Now it was Glase’s turn to speak up. “An alien.”
“An alien?” I am flabbergasted. “Are you mental?”
“A colony of them used to live across the islands in the Red Sea. That’s why the government facility on Akki was built in the first place. We were monitoring them… only they never did anything interesting or cause any concern. We kept them quarantined, and everything was good. We didn’t get too close–they’d kill us if we did–and we didn’t try to talk to them–they’d kill us if we did. We left them with their half of the island and stayed on our half. Only recently they’ve started taking victims.”
I jump up all giddy and such. “I told ya! I told ya on the bloody phone!”
“I know you did. It’s true. They’re takin’ ‘em. Eating ‘em, I think.”
Silver shakes his head. “Nah, gotta be blood sacrifices to their demon gods.”
“Anyways,” Jared continues, his third chin trembling the most. I giggle a little bit. I can’t help it. “We know they’re skinchangers. They can look like us if they want. They can look like anyone they want to. Told you about that, didn’t I, Charles?”
“Full transparency, boyo.”
“I don’t know who the Rebel King is, but sounding by his name, he’s pissed off his own people. It appears they want him dead just as much as we do. He’s waging a war against them, and in his wrath, he’s being personally lax with his species’ neutral stance towards us. He must go.”
I am speechless. I am not sure any of this is real. Sometimes when I look around, it doesn’t seem like it’s really me, but someone else watching from behind my eyes. “And you’re sure they’re aliens? Real aliens? Not demons? Couldn’t they be?”
“All our intel points to them being aliens. Used to be a whole lot more of them, too. But then they went off and had some wars with each other and some of the nearby island residents. That was more than a hundred years ago. Not many of them around anymore. This is the only tribe we know about. Akki’s used to be one of the smaller ones too. Not one that the spooks up top kept a close eye on.”
Silver pours himself another cup of whiskey. This is damn good whiskey. “The team of assassins we’ve hired will lure him out like bait and then we’ll take him out. So, old man, do you want to watch?”
“That’s right,” I smile. “I would. I do.”
I could argue with myself that I’m being practical, that ridding the world of one murderer would rid it of more suffering than not. But really, I’m just drunk. Jared’s rubbing his hands, all eager. The girl’s going at her fingernails like there’s no tomorrow. And I don’t give a fuck about anything. The Rebel King of Nowhere, whoever the hell that is, is going to die in a few hours, and I’ll get to watch. He’s an alien–a proper born-on-another-planet alien. Stunning. Outrageous. I shiver with anticipation, wiping my hands on my pants. A happy, rushing feeling courses through my veins, and the wait (two minutes ago utterly unknown) becomes all the more unbearable.
A plane had gotten them as far south as South City. From there, they had taken a fishing boat due south to the island of Akki. Pulang, being its only port, was their destination, although the bounty-givers had been reluctant to meet there, so they had taken the four assassins on the Red Sea three mile northwest of the island. Thereafter they had been taken to the uninhabited southern tip of the island, known as Demon Point, where their target lurked.
They had been dropped off by a woman named Glase on the beach. Getting out of the rowboat, Zhajiang distinctly remembered looking back at the black-haired woman. Huo-Guo remained afloat of all the Tigers. “And where exactly does this Rebel King of Nowhere live?”
“In the jungle beyond the beach,” the woman replied tersely.
“What does he look like?”
“I’ve heard his skin is crimson red, and his ears are pointed like daggers. He is a demon, after all.”
“A real demon?” Zadich asked.
“A real demon. It’ll take all of you to bring him down. My partner and I will provide you with cover fire. Should the battle turn against you, we will silence the beast with our rifles,” she smiled, holding up her own. Where’s her partner’s off hiding? Was he one of those men on the boat?
Shumi helped the younger girl off the boat, turning to the woman after to ask, “Will he skinchange into anyone we know?”
“I-I don’t think so. I don’t think he can read minds… but we’ve never done thorough experiments on that. It doesn’t matter. We’ve hired you lot for a job. You will complete it, or you will die–either by the demon’s hand, or by ours.”
The shore was surprisingly still. It was yet warm, though the sun was beginning to set on the watery horizon. We have to make this quick. Master is counting on me. I won’t let him down. We’ll get rich and humiliate the turkeys. These next two days will be glorious. The waves were foaming at their boots. He looked to his companions, and their calmness comforted him.
“Provide us with cover fire, but you better not hit us. We wouldn’t want to have to leave your corpses in demon territory.”
“You’re threatening me, boy?” the woman snorted. “Do you know who I am?”
“An assassin, just like me. Only, I don’t have to rely on metal instruments like you.”
That made her break. She laughed for quite a bit, her voice echoing over the languidly-flowing waves. “Not bad, boy. Now, go on. We have the same quarry tonight. He must die.”
“I’ve heard he’s planning on taking over the world. We can’t let that happen. King Furry’s orders.”
“King Furry knows we’re down here? Oh, this must really be serious!” The color had gone from Huo-Guo’s face. She’s frightened. Why is she afraid? We are Tigers. We fear no demons.
“Get on with it. We don’t have all night.”
“Neither do we. Form up.” Zhajiang commanded. “Zadich, take the lead.”
“Zha–” Shumi cut in.
“Quiet, Shumi,” he interrupted back. “He’s the most suited for the advanced position.”
“Do you really think it’s wise, Zha?”
He stared her down, swallowing his own fear in adrenaline, in large inhales and exhales that he felt warming his veins. This is the best part–right before the attack. She won’t take it from me, he thought, biting back a grin. “You’ll do what I tell you, Shumi, or you’ll stay here.”
She was sixteen; he was fifteen. There was some level of respect begrudged between the two; she still tried to exert her dominance here and there. He wasn’t about to allow that in front of a client. Yurin disgraced the honor of our school. With this legendary assassination of a demon king, I shall restore our honor in Suma and beyond.
She wilted like autumn grass touched by snow for the first time. Zadich led them. The forests beyond the beach barely cloaked the sprawl of a mountain range beyond. The northern part of Akki was flat, save for Windwater Point, and it was strange to see how foreign, how wild this portion of an island that had been occupied by humans for centuries remained. Its rugged beauty tore at his heart. He was ready to end things.
The sand eventually gave way to an overgrown jungle. The sounds of bugs and birds mixed in the air above the distant roar of the sea. A sweltering heat was festering in that jungle, especially where the sparse patches of light made their way through the thickets and wide-finned leaves growing in such excess, he felt like burning it all down himself.
Zadich came to a stop, raising his hand. “What is it?”
“Movement to the left. About ten meters away.”
“You can see that far through all this mess, Zad?”
“There’s something back there. Something big.” His tone was serious enough to stop Shumi’s pestering.
“A trap, maybe.”
“Maybe, but we have to find him one way or another. Go on. We have your back.”
The other boy sighed. “Alright, but you owe me ne–”
The explosion illuminated his face, before enwrapping him in burning light and fire. The boy fell screaming, and before Zhajiang could so much as give a command, another explosion went off in front of him, washing his leg in heat. He tasted dirt and smoke. Huo-Guo was wailing. His ears were ringing. It was impossible to hear what they were saying. His mind was warping in and out in slow pulses, and it was hard, clinging to reality. Somehow, he’d ended up on the ground. Zadich was sitting up, a gash in his ear painting his neck and undershirt with blood.
She was a middle-aged woman, for all that. Never seen her before in my life, he thought in a daze, sitting up. The girls were standing over their falling brethren, waiting to defend against the demon woman’s attack. She wore a simple blue and white dress with a bonnet, her skin not yet wrinkled with age, but not shining with the youth of Shumi or Huo-Guo. Thirty-five maybe? I wonder if she was one of his victims. The demon had come out of the underbrush to stand facing them, her arms folded.
“Welcome to my home, friends. What can I help you with? Are you lost?”
“Coward!” the little girl screamed. “A real demon would face us down in his true form.”
“Aha, so they sent you. I see now. I will be feasting again tonight,” she said, savoring that last word with a thin smile. “Thank you, humans.”
“You’re dead, monster!”
It was too late. Huo-Guo charged her opponent, and Shumi could do naught but watch as the girl was flung back with a single kick. The demon moves so fast… I can’t even see her movements. “Huo-Guo!” He struggled to rise; she did not. She landed a meter away, facedown, blood dribbling out from the corner of her mouth.
The eldest girl looked back to him, raw fear in her eyes. Tigers fear nothing. Not demons, not shapeshifters, no one. And yet, his wrists were trembling. He had enough strength left to fight. Huo-Guo and Zadich, on the other hand…
“We can take him together. I’ll use the Denkoken.”
“It takes too long to charge up, Zha…”
“You’ll have to distract him for a minute.”
There was distress again in her eyes. He bit his lip. “What choice do we have, Shumi?”
Her shoulders dropped. “I know.”
Taking a deep breath, Zhajiang began calling forth his full power, a faint white aura of pure energy forming around him. As the rush came, he shivered, taking on all the heat and the power of his reserves, like one downs the contents of a shot glass. It’s been a while since I’ve used the Denkoken. But it’s true Master taught me well. I have to make him proud–make all of them proud. Either that, or we’re all dead.
Flickers of electrical energy crawled up and down his elbow, that old familiar numbing feeling spreading across his forearm. Shumi, meanwhile, was dancing for the woman, and she was obliging her. At first, her punches were wild and undisciplined, easily blocked or dodged by a martial artist of Shumi’s calibre. Then, slowly, as the heat grew in his arm, he saw the demon’s form become more precise, her punches packing more force, and it was not long before Shumi was holding on by a shred.
That was when she looked back to him, her slumped posture, the blood leaking from her forehead, the sweat coating her pale throat. “Zhajiang, I-I can’t…! You have to…! Do it! Do it now!”
It was too early. He wasn’t ready. Panic set in, even as he began running towards her. Grunting at first, then yelling, he called forth his energy, or as much of it as he could. The throbbing in his hand was becoming unbearable. He had never held back the Denkoken for so long. He could smell his fingernails burning.
Ahead, Shumi took a punch to the cheek, spitting out a cloud of blood before falling back into the undergrowth. That was his moment. His heartbeat slowed. He jumped into the air and shouted, “Denkoken!”, and without warning, all that electrical energy manifested itself into a wind-churning, wine-colored ball of energy, hot enough to melt the jungle to the ground. He didn’t waste a moment. The demon had seen him. He threw it, guiding the blast with his hand until it made contact.
The explosion that followed was rather violent, sending dust and roots and wood and leaves into the air, and stripping those trees whose roots were deep of all their leaves. Yet, as the dust cleared, the middle-aged woman remained standing in place, unharmed, picking at one of her arm hairs.
“That’s it? That’s all you’ve got?”
Her laughter resonated through the smoking, splintered ruin of that part of the forest. Like bees, he heard the bullets go whizzing by–first one, then two, then ten, then twenty, then fifty. She batted them aside uselessly, like that was normal, like that was something people did. Impossible. This creature is more than a monster. It is an evil thing, with evil power.
He was breathing hard, having expended almost all of his energy in that last attack. He would be no match for the demon now. None of them would. “Zadich… grab Huo-Guo and get out of here. I’ll try to save Shumi and then…”
The boy was feeling his ear gingerly, wincing. “Zha…”
“Don’t question me! Go! We don’t have time!”
“Oh, don’t have any time?” the demon laughed. “Spare me a minute, humans, please. I beg you. Just one. That’s all it’ll take.”
Raising her hand, a red ball of energy materializing over it, she pointed her attack at Zadich. The threat was clear. Zhajiang grit his teeth. He knew this was the end. He would have to sacrifice himself to let the others escape. Tears came to his eyes. His eyesight went all watery, swaying before him. If this is to be my end, I’ll make Master proud. I won’t go out without a fight. I won’t go down without making that bastard bleed!
Disjointed memories came flashing before him: joining the School of the White Tigers and being lectured on that very first day by the old man on his etiquette; living on the streets after his father died and his uncle kicked him out– that one time he had to beg so hard for food after not eating for three days that it had almost felt like some sick joke in the end when that man had given him something; collecting bounties with Zadich and Huo-Guo and Shumi and even Yurin… Yurin, the traitor… even her, he still loved. He had to blink away the tears.
The demon’s arm dipped. Shumi rose from the shadows with fury, blood and ash staining her face, and punched the woman so hard in the gut that she dropped her energy ball right before her, blowing another crater into the ground and sending up so much dust and smoke that she again appeared to have disappeared.
“Go!” Shumi pleaded, coughing the smoke from her lungs. “You won’t have another opportunity!”
“No! We’re saving you! We’re not leaving you here!”
Her eyes were two dark pools of water. “We’re all dead if you stay. Zhajiang… please…”
Then the demon rose from the ash and dust, and Shumi turned from them, diving at it, pinning it to the dirt. Zadich grabbed him by the shoulder. Everything was moving too fast. He couldn’t think straight. This was all happening too fast. He couldn’t leave Shumi behind. She’d been there longer than any of them. He couldn’t go back without her.
“Come on, Zha!”
“N-no, let go of me!”
Zadich did, and as Zhajiang stood there, suppressing a cry, looking on at the fight–the demon had pushed the girl off her and pinned her, and was now beating her mercilessly–he took a breath, calling forth all of his energy again. Zadich mumbled something from behind, but there wasn’t time for that. He had to go save her. He had to protect his team. The streak never leaves a Tiger behind.
He never felt himself exhale, only saw the black.
He had been meditating all morning, and it had only been his growling stomach that had alerted to him as to how much time had passed. Dusty sunlight leaked through the corners of the drawn blinds. His room was simple, as were all of the students’. There was a bed, a desk, and an area for meditation. Of course, no other Crane meditated the way Tien did. Being a member of the Three-Eyed People, he was attuned to higher levels of thinking and higher levels of power. All of this he felt and saw through his third eye.
Descending to the ground, he wiped the sweat on his brow, and discarded the towel in impatience. He would have to train Yurin today. He would have to show her the ways of the Cranes. She must morph from a Tiger to a Crane. An impossible task. Even Tao himself would not be able to perform such a feat. She cannot even fly. He slipped on his shoes, refraining from putting on a shirt, because shirts were for losers, for fools, for the rabble, for all those unsavory types that tried to play at martial arts, and set off to the training grounds.
This was not a game for Tien Shinhan.
He was reminded of when Jaoros had joined, all those years ago. What’s it been? Eight… nine years? Tao had been their teacher then. The old man had always been the master of the Crane School, but in those days, it had been Tao who had trained them. Jaoros had been there a day or two when Tao had gone off on assignment, and he hadn’t been back since. There had been two others training at the school at the time. Both had amounted to little more than petty assassins–assassins who had not fared too well out in the real world. Tien had a sneaking suspicion that Tao had killed them himself so as to prevent the honor of the Crane school from being besmirched any more by their careless ways.
Now the number of students had risen to five. That is too many. There is no way the old man can attend to us all. He’ll make us train Yurin and Chiaotzu both. The fact that there were two new recruits joining only a few weeks apart made matters all the more tricky.
Tien thought back to how Tao had trained him as he walked the halls, his footsteps echoing off the old stone. “Don’t think about it. Don’t be slowed by your thoughts. You don’t have time to think. Your enemy’s coming right towards you! What are you doing?! Think! Your movements must be intuitive. You have to act. Thinking is for those locked-up by fear. Tell me, Cranes, are you like the common rabble?!” And Tien, along with his peers, had jeered at such a thought, bringing a smile to the man’s face. “There is no time during a battle to formulate a plan. The time for thinking is before the battle commences. Once they’re on you, or if you have an assassination go bad and they realize what’s going on… well, those are the times when real assassins distinguish themselves from pretenders. Being calm in the face of chaos, remembering your technical proficiency intuitively, knowing when to use which attack when… these are the hallmarks of a legendary assassin. Any one of you who wishes to be an assassin like me better learn that there is no greater enemy than fear. To become master over one’s opponents, one must become master over himself first.”
Equanimity, some called it. He had spent many hours in meditation, focusing his power, clearing his mind, conducting battle simulation with his imagination against various opponents–Tigers and shadow-victims alike. But it really was time to eat. Before going to see the others, the three-eyed man made his way to the kitchen, where he found scant (that didn’t require many minutes to cook) but fruit had been left out. He procured, in particular, a mango, the tastiest of treats for lunch, he thought, savoring it’s flavor as he tore into its flesh.
A civilized man would cut his mango to pieces, leaving the inedible flesh behind, he thought. But I am not like most men. There are no men like me–except for Tao.
Coming to the ancient, sandy training grounds, Tien found his fellow students sparring: Chiaotzu was facing off against Yurin, while Jaoros and Paik were testing each other’s reflexes in close quarters. Finishing his mango, he watched his team duel in the falling sunlight. Soon it will be night, and we’ll have a new bounty.
The older pair fought with valor, with tenacity, and with clever ideas. Yurin and Chiaotzu, on the other hand, were children in a sandbox, making a mess of things, playing at something they had seen on television, perhaps. Their forms were atrocious, and their attacks pathetic. If any of us three were to fight them, they would end up dead within fifteen seconds, and that’s being generous. Chiaotzu was a frightened boy, always running, parrying or dodging attacks, whimpering to himself as if that did him any good. Tien didn’t know whether to step in or to watch. Would his master yell at him if he let them pummel themselves to bloody pulps? Knowing the old man… probably not.
Paik flipped over Jaoros, her agility getting the better of him. With a simple drop to the floor, she took his legs out from under him, then pounced, trying to pin the boy. Grunting and squirming, Jaoros uncoiled himself from Paik like a man slipping out of a water coat. Back-slapping her brutally, he broke open her block, then proceeded to hit her deep in the gut before kicking her to the sand. As he went for his next strike, she darted up, grabbed his arm, twisted it around his back, spinning him around with such force that Tien had to grin, and pinned him to the ground–this time for real.
“I give up,” the boy said, out of breath.
She let him go.
“Not bad,” said Tien, discarding the skeletal remains of his mango. “For a moment, I thought Jaoros had it.”
“Not a chance,” the girl grunted. “I ain’t losin’ to him.”
“Maybe one of these days, you’ll let your guard down just enough…” the other boy said, wiping sweat from his eyes. “Paik pinned to the floor, screaming for mercy… That’d be something to see, dontcha think, Tien Shinhan?”
“Only if it’s a good fight.”
She raised her chin indignantly. “I never put on a poor show, even when I lose. Not like Jaoros.”
Jaoros jumped up to stretch his back. “Yeah, whatever. It’s just sparring.”
“Sparring prepares you for real fights. Your form should always be flawless. Especially with Chiaotzu and Yurin here watching you, looking up to you. I expected better from you, Jaoros. Go again.”
The boy rubbed his eyes vigorously before falling into defensive stance. Clicking her tongue, Paik circled him, putting herself between Tien and her target. A gust of wind chilled through the courtyard suddenly, reminding them of the impending night. We’ll be in bed by nine tonight, unless one of them finds a bounty worth going for before then. So far, there was nothing on that front. That is not to say there were not bounties available, only that there were no bounties worth their time.
Tao’s price is ten billion zeni. It would bring dishonor to his name if his fellow Cranes were petty bounty collectors. They only went for really juicy prospects, and usually only ones that were close to Suma. Yurin had been nagging them about some extravagant bounty for some mysterious hermit living on a barely-inhabited island south of South City, but that was simply a treasure too far away to tempt them.
Jaoros missed a right hook and took a knee to the ribs, falling over with a howl of pain. As Paik ran over to kick him while he was down, he flipped up off the ground and over her, all the while, his arm glowing yellow. The Dodon Ray. Bold move, Jaoros. Landing behind his opponent, he fired the energy beam, hitting her uncontested in the back, before she had time to so much as spin around.
When the dust cleared, the bruised and slightly-cooked Paik got to her feet again, clapping Jaoros on the back. “You’re quick. Nice technique. Now it’s my turn!”
She led with a flying kick that the boy had to frantically dodge. Satisfied, Tien found his way to Chiaotzu and Yurin’s location on the other side of the courtyard. They had paused their battle to watch the older Cranes. The girl’s eyes were shining wide, her lip quivering. “Wh-what was that attack…? He just hit her with a beam of light!”
“That’s the Dodon Ray,” Tien said, reaching them. “One of the Crane School’s signature moves. It is a powerful beam of concentrated energy, capable of vaporizing most foes. Paik is strong enough to take a few of those, especially from Jaoros.”
“Will you teach it to me, Mr. Tien Shinhan?”
Chiaotzu giggled to himself, covering his mouth like a good lad.
“There’s not enough time remaining in the day for that, unfortunately. It’ll take you years to master that one. It took Jaoros three years, and Paik about thirty months.”
“Whoa… but that’s so long! I don’t think I can wait that long…”
“It’s a complicated and dangerous technique, Yurin. You must learn the fundamentals before we get to teaching you advanced techniques.”
“And what about you, Mr. Tien Shinhan?” Chiaotzu interrupted.
“What about me?”
“How many years did it take you to learn the Dodon Ray?”
Tien’s eyes found the purpling sky. “That’s enough sightseeing, you two. Get back to sparring.”
The boy had a stupid look on his face, one that the man wasn’t quite sure was of determination or blissful obliviousness. “Um, r-right…!”
“You better be ready, Mr. Chiaotzu! I’m not holding back,” the girl warned him.
“Me either,” Chiaotzu said, sticking his tongue out at her.
Their forms were sloppy. He corrected them. Then, they raised their fists, circling around each other like wary dogs. He roared at them that indecisive warriors die the easiest, but that didn’t make either one any braver. The older Cranes had finished their fight by the time the two got around to it. And while they were messy, rarely blocking, their punches often struck true and hard, leaving sickening crunching sounds echoing through the courtyard. Yurin was stronger–that much was apparent immediately. She pushed Chiaotzu back with ease, despite their lack of form (she took more than one hard fist to the side of the head in her assault).
Battered and losing concentration, the young boy wobbled backwards, nearly losing his balance, and flung his arms out as if to steady his balance. That left him open for a sickening punch right to the nose. He let out a half-wheeze, half-cry that seemed to die in his throat like a pet hamster, and remained frozen in place, both arms thrown out.
“That hurt!” he whined.
“You’re really slow, Chiaotzu. I’m disappointed!”
“I was just lulling you into a false sense of security,” the pale little shit said, suddenly so eloquent that Tien had to pinch his nose and try to breathe through it so as to confirm he was not dreaming. “You’ve fallen right into my trap, dummy!”
The boy flashed her ten fingers, and the palms of a real fancy boy who had never done an honest day’s work in his life.
A purple sheen of light wrapped around Yurin, her face contorted in horror, her body pulled back in a half-thrown punch, no longer able to move. Telekinesis on a person. Audacious move, little guy. The girl groaned, trying to continue with her attack, but it was to no avail. Chiaotzu, his arms still out, flew up to her and spin-kicked Yurin to the ground. She did not get up.
Tien clapped. At first, the boy was shocked, then scared, then he saw it was Tien clapping, and he let go of his paralysis in happy relief. “Well done, Chiaotzu. That was a nice trick.”
“Thanks, Mr. Tien Shinhan!”
“Yurin,” he said in a lower voice, helping the girl up. A bruise was noticeably forming on her cheek where Chiaotzu’s wild shoe attack had got her good. “You fought well. You would have won had you kept your wits about you. Let that be a lesson to you.”
“But she didn’t! She didn’t!” Chiaotzu guffawed, wagging his tongue at her.
“Enough of that, Chiaotzu.”
The boy cowered, squeaking like a mouse, and that made Tien feel alright; the green-haired girl looked downcast.
“He’s weak, but he already knows how to fly, and can do… whatever the heck that was,” Yurin whispered, shaking her head. “I’m in way over my head, aren’t I?”
Tien shook his head. “Don’t beat yourself up about it. You’re new recruits. Neither one of you has the power to challenge me or the others. You will both need to grow tremendously to become deadly Crane assassins. I don’t want either one of you becoming complacent, and I don’t want you to give up. You have to put the work in if you want to become a true assassin. You will both have to be patient as you train here.”
The boy smiled up at him while the girl chewed on that thought. It was only in that break in the conversation that Tien noticed the old man had, surprisingly, come out of his room to check on his acolytes. He was talking with Paik and Jaoros, and as soon as their eyes met, he whistled the three-eyed man over.
“Work on your form,” he commanded the two, “and practice combo attacks. But no paralysis,” he said, eyeing Chiaotzu. “No tricks. Not this time.”
Now it was the boy’s turn to have a lip tremble. Tien left them, not bothering to watch. Their grunts and screams and the sounds of their movement told him enough. He felt his teeth grinding together as he made his approach. Tao was far more tolerable than the old man. As soon as I’m stronger than him… well, he won’t dare hit me again once I graduate.
“Ah, Tien, there you are,” Master Shen said with a rasp. “Why are you smiling like that?”
“Oh, um, sorry… my fault, Master.”
The old man was fanning himself with a emerald-and-gold hand fan. It’s freezing out here. What’s wrong with him? “Anyways, Tien, I was just telling the others that I have arranged for a little bit of fun tomorrow.”
He was utterly perplexed. Master never talks like this. What’s his angle? “What kind of fun?”
“A single-elimination tournament against the White Tigers to prepare you for the next World Martial Arts tournament.”
“The World Martial Arts tournament? Isn’t that in May?”
“Correct. Think of this as practice for that. It will orient you better for the real tournament. Assassination missions and sparring against friends are not quite the same as fighting a real enemy in the ring. And this will give Chiaotzu and Yurin good experience, I expect.”
Jaoros was scratching his hair. “But Master… I don’t understand why you’re bringing this up now? You didn’t want us to enter the World Martial Arts Tournament two years ago, and now we’re entering? I’m confused.”
“Because,” the old man spat, spinning on his heels and threatening to walk off, “my arch rival… the Turtle Hermit… his students performed exceptionally well in the Twenty-First World Martial Arts Tournament. They brought his school recognition and honor. We will not let them take glory away from us again. The Turtle School will never compare to the Crane School! The world must be shown.”
“I see,” Tien said. “This is for our school’s honor. Well, Master, I can promise you one thing: I won’t fail you. Not tomorrow, not in six months. I’ll win that tournament no matter what. I’ll do it for Tao!”
“Good. There will be only two spots for my students in the World Martial Arts Tournament, however. I do not want to make a mockery of the event by enrolling all of you, only to have many of you fight against each other in the knockout stages–that would just make people laugh at us. No, two is enough. You have four months until I make my decision.”
“I’ll get a spot,” Paik declared.
“Fat chance, Paik. I’m getting that spot. You can count on it. I’ll do anything to get it. Anything!”
They all looked at each other with side glances and suspicious expressions. I have to get a spot… I’m the strongest one here. But that’s not what matters. I need to prove myself. I’ve been a student for too long. I’m nineteen years old. It’s been far too long. It is time enough I win a major tournament and make a name for myself in this world. My competition is not here.
The old man tugged at his mustache, smirking ever so faintly. What’s he got to enjoy about this? I would assume, given past incidents, he’ll end up getting more and more anxious the closer we get to the tournament… not to mention what he’ll be like during my fights. Tien shivered. It was cold; he couldn’t fight it any longer. None of them could. With this news, they would not be going on a bounty hunting mission tonight. Doing so would be absolutely foolish. No, they would be going to bed early, if anything.
Proper sleep is more important than anything else. Sparring, proper diet, proper technique… it all comes back to being well-rested, aware, and intuitive. He had those qualities, of course, but the others… perhaps not.
“Get some rest for tomorrow, and remember not to embarrass me–especially you, Jaoros! Nighty-night now.” The sound of the old man’s sandals faded into the distance as he fanned himself into the dark.
Tien rubbed his hands together. He felt something coursing in his veins, but it wasn’t adrenaline. Not quite. The courtyard was now totally bathed in blackness. In the distance, an owl hooted. The young ones were approaching. They probably won’t do that well tomorrow. Oh well. I didn’t win my first fight either.
He thought back to those days–the rain and mud and pine needles, and Tao mercilessly battering him whenever his form slipped, his ponytail whipping back and forth. Tien’s eyes found the moon. It was a little fatter than the previous night’s. All the stars were shining, and he could see the milky way spilled out in its rich, colorful excess in a streak in the sky, and he wondered why Tao hadn’t returned yet. Maybe if I win the World Martial Arts Tournament, he’ll come back… and then he’ll see all the deadly Crane assassins I’ve raised in his fighting style.
That would be nice, but it was really just a child’s hope. He was a man now. If Tao never came back, he would have to continue on. One day, Tien would lead the Crane School, he suspected; he would never get to that place if he was ruled by fear or paranoia. He was a Crane, an assassin, a world-class warrior. He planned on showing that off tomorrow, to not just the Tigers, but to all of Suma.
The others were talking. He couldn’t pay attention. His heart was racing. His mind was a wind tunnel of debris and refuse. Suma knows Tao. They’ll soon know me too, he thought, following Paik back to the dorms. He would have to meditate for a good long while that night, he knew.
Chapter 3: Snow MonkeysEdit
A sheen of mist had washed over the city, reflecting moonlight and stop lights and car lights in one vibrating, cornea-burning vortex. Hovercars darted by, splattering puddles; the steady throngs of pedestrians had diminished since about nine, when the rain had come. Across the road, about five stories down, the Goldfish Casino stood, its neon sign flickering in the rain.
“Found this one out back taking a smoke break. He’s promised to sneak us inside.”
“And you believed him?”
Her captain lifted up the the bound man, grasping him around the throat from behind so as to make the yakuza stare Violet in the eyes. His nose was puffy, bent, with a dried trail of blood leaking down the left nostril, coloring half of his mouth and chin. “We have discussed everything fully.”
“He will lead us in, or he will die, and we’ll find someone else to do the job.” He kneed the man in the back. “Isn’t that right, Takebashi?”
The prisoner looked first to Carmichael, then to her, but her gaze was straying back to the traffic. His desperation could be an act. “P-please… I won’t say… I won’t… please, no more… no more…”
“The yakuza prize loyalty above their own lives, I’ve heard. Everyone has. Do you deny it?” His mouth agape, Mr. Takebashi shook his head rigorously. “And you are a member of the Chàoxing Gon, are you not?” He nodded. “So why shouldn’t I put a bullet through your skull this moment?”
Violet drew her pistol, placing its barrel against the man’s temple. Below, a particularly irate (and likely late) businessman honked nine or ten times at some poor lady who had only tried to make a right turn in front of him.
“Oh, please… lady…”
A pistol whip to the face was enough to quiet him. “I’ll do it myself. We can’t trust him.”
“They’ll be looking for him soon, Violet.”
“I know, bu–”
The bleeding man hacked spit onto the concrete, then raised his head sharply. Maybe I concussed him. One can hope. “There’s a secret entrance! I can take you there! I know where it is!”
“Sounds like a lie.”
“I thought it sounded like a trap. That’s the same seductive song he sang to me before.” They exchanged a look. He’s not sure if the yakuza’s lying, she realized. Well, this was always going to be a gamble.
“I swear, I swear I’m telling you the truth! Li-listen to me! The… the bosses… the boss has a secret tunnel to bring in his, um, ladies of the night, as it were. They’ve got a secret entrance in the back of the kitchens. It’s discrete, I swear. Only the busboys go back there, but the kitchens are closed now… hell, this is when his ladies usually come, anyways. I’ve seen them myself!”
“What are you talking about, exactly?” she asked. “Where do his whores go?”
“The boss… he put a locked door in the back for his own privacy. Takes his ladies right to him. It leads to the underground level, That’s where he’s holed-up at.”
“How do you know that?”
He looked away sheepishly. “Check my pocket.”
“If this is a trick–”
“No, I swear! Check my pocket!”
Carmichael rummaged the key out himself. Thank kami for gloves. “Let me guess… this will let us into his chambers.”
The yakuza shrugged. “I plucked that off of one of his regulars–right proper lass, her–not here, of course. Found her a few weeks back in the red-light district downtown.” The man suddenly beamed proudly. “She didn’t know I took from her, neither. No, no, I swear. It was a foursome. A bloody foursome. My first one ever.” Bloodlines had formed between his teeth. “I swear. She never even learned our names! How lucky was that?”
Her eyes met Carmichael’s. “And how many of his men are down there with him?”
“Thirty… thirty-five, maybe. But you won’t have to worry about them, trust me. The ladies’ entrance will take you all the way to the boss’s inner chambers. He’s only got one guard in there standing in the corner. And half the time, he throws that guy out too, to ‘get a little work done’.”
Her captain stiffened. He was a battle-hardened man, a former soldier of the Red Ribbon Army, and although his rank was the same as Cassian’s, Violet trusted him far more than his compatriot. “Could be a trap.”
“Could be. Or it could be our only chance. We don’t have much time, as you said, Captain.”
Cracking his knuckles, Carmichael turned to the prisoner. “Exactly where is Mazuchiru hiding?”
“Uh… going through the kitchens, you’ll find the ladies’ entrance in the first hallway down the left. Second door on the right.”
Her captain was stone-faced. “Let me go and see if he’s telling the truth, ma’am. If I do not return within fifteen minutes, execute the prisoner and burn that cesspit to the ground.”
“This ends one way or another tonight. But I cannot have so many civilians die in the crossfire. We will all go. This one too. Gag him first.”
A couple of drivers were raging at each other through their horns. The three of them met Cassian and her nine most trusted, most skilled soldiers in all of the Children of Chaos just outside the casino’s backdoor, where Carmichael had apprehended the yakuza originally. Crouching behind rusting dumpsters, they drew their pistols in the dark, observing two of Takebashi’s buddies smoking under a decaying milky-white lamppost–at least one of them was. His fellow was inhaling deeply from a bulky cobalt mod, and his puffs were decidedly more robust than the smoker’s, but in the end, the vapor and the smoke blew away in the wet city wind, and they went back inside.
“You dyed your hair,” Cassian noted. “You look… good in blonde, Violet.”
“Makes it harder for them to tell who I am. Anyways, we need to get in there before they realize we’re here. Carmichael, take the lead. Please… I’m trusting you. Feldman, keep the prisoner by my side. Murray, Cyril… you’ve got our backs. The rest of you stay with Cassian. Keep the helicopter warm for us. We may be coming out hot.”
She threw him the tiny capsule. Catching it in reflex, the young man’s mouth drew back, and he hesitated. “I-I’m not coming with you, ma’am?”
“I can’t risk both you and him, Cassian. Please, do as I ask. We must go.”
“As you command. Just seems a pity that we couldn’t bomb ‘em instead.”
He’ll get over it by tonight. He’s more use to me alive than dead, anyways. I don’t need all of my soldiers being heroes, or fools. I’ve had to deal with quite too many of those already. Cassian’s different. Carmichael made a hand motion, and they were off into the light of the open door, Cassian covering their backs.
The prisoner began grunting (quietly, but not so quietly); everyone came to a stop inside the very first room–a storage room at the back of the casino’s vast kitchens. Cut, uncooked meat lay in trays on the counters ahead; bags of potatoes and rice and dried noodles were strewn about by the dozens, lying up against the walls wherever they could; her nostrils filled with the smell of onions and teriyaki sauce; fresh vegetables and other perishable goods were being kept in refrigeration units to the right. But it was to the left that Takebashi, unable to speak though he was, was pointing vigorously with his forehead.
Carmichael took the hint, and they went left, through the door at the end of the room. Brightness greeted them, and her eyes ached. This hallway was lit ferociously. The white marble floors and walls didn’t help matters. She could see her reflection in the polish. Concealing their steps on stone of this quality was impossible to say the least (to any well-trained ear), so they went quickly as they could to the second door. Carmichael unlocked it in one fluid motion, and everyone ran inside before they could be seen. Takebashi’s not dead yet, but he’s getting close. If this is a trick… I’ll kill him myself.
For the yakuza’s worth, the room they had come into was indeed a tunnel, dim-lit and cramped enough so as to prevent even two men from walking abreast. Takebashi was directly in front of her. Narrow though the pathway was, it was not particularly long, as soon they came to a door. It was then that Violet shoved her pistol to the back of his neck again.
“If this is a setup, a trap, you’re gone, do you hear me? I blow your brains out here and now–that’s the end for you. All that loyalty bullshit will disappear with you. Are you willing to die for them? That’s what I want to know.”
“I don’t want to die… please…” he whimpered, holding up both hands, as if that were going to stop her. “I’ll do anything. I don’t want to die!”
“You will, if this is a trick.”
“It isn’t. You’ll see… please… but softly… he does have a personal attendant in there…”
Personal attendant. More like another one of his whores. That’s a habit Mazuchiru brought with him to South City. Disgusting. I will murder him tonight. She looked to Carmichael and gave him the command. He opened the door, and golden light spilled in.
A man grunted, and a body fell. “All clear, ma’am.”
They spilled out into the warm, cozy room only to find the décor altogether surprising. Mazuchiru’s guard lay sprawled on the magenta carpet, blood staining his dark suit from the slash that had opened up his neck from ear to ear. Her eyes mapped out the room, only glancing at the bed at first, its ugly bubblegum-colored walls, and she found herself looking at everything but him. This was an ugly little room that smelled of dust and sweat and over-sterilization. All that cleaning hadn’t hid the stench of him, though.
“Everyone return to the passage. Give me two minutes alone with him.”
“What of our prisoner?” Carmichael queried. “Shall I leave him here with his friends?”
“No,” she found herself saying before she even had time to think about it. “Take him with you. He may be some use to us in the future.” She found Takebashi cowering at her feet, crouching and shaking, head bowed, muttering too quietly and quickly to understand, his hands bound tightly behind his back. “I assume you knew about this, but didn’t tell me.”
“I-I heard rumors, but I never… saw… please, mercy!”
“Who leads the Chàoxing Gon?”
He swallowed. “Higataro and Sugoro are leading right now, but they don’t much like each other… gonna be a war between them, I think.”
“Is that so? Well, in any case, we’ll have to discuss this with him later, won’t we?”
“Aye, ma’am. Come on, out with you,” the old man growled at the yakuza.
They shut the door behind them, and she felt herself suddenly have to blink away water from her vision. Mazuchiru, lord of the most powerful yakuza gang she had ever heard of, lay before her. His cheeks were gaunt and colorless, his arms lying pale by his sides. IV tubes ran from his wrists to a beeping machine to the left of the bed. He looks half a ghost already. The eyepatch was a nice touch. He’s been in a coma ever since that firefight in Bonetown… ever since he shot Nathaniel…
The pistol was in her hand; her fingers twitched. This would be so easy. He was weak, pathetic, already dead. They kept him alive just to make us believe the Chàoxing Gon was continuing along like usual. They didn’t want anyone to find out the truth, and they couldn’t give him the mercy of a clean death, either. The childish nature of these yakuza almost made her laugh. Wiping her cheek dry, she holstered her pistol and approached the bed.
“You’re a weak man,” she cooed, running her hand through his unwashed spiky black hair. “Not the kind anyone would want to be.” Not that I’m one to talk. “You know, I still see it when I close my eyes some nights. Some nights I dream of it–relive that horrible nightmare. You shoot him–that’s how it always starts. You shoot him, and he falls, and there’s so much blood everywhere: on my hands, his face, his chest, the ground, the air. It was like the whole world was covered in it. He wasn’t ready. We light your toadies up again. No surprises there.
“I can still see it sometimes when I close my eyes: your bullet-riddled hovercar swerving and dipping across the desert in the most panicked sprint I’ve ever witnessed. I thought you would come for me soon after. I was ready. I wish you had. I wanted to test myself against you. I want to make you hurt for taking my lover from me. But I guess we can’t have everything, can we? You wanted to be so strong–thought you were, too. But you weren’t. Oh, no. Not quite. At least there’s that.”
Violet plunged the knife as deep as she could into the sleeping man’s heart.
Her hands were jerking beyond her control; she nearly dropped the baggie. Don’t let him. Don’t let him have that power over you. Wiping her knife off on his sheets, she did a line off the blade and returned to the whore’s secret exit, where Carmichael and the others were waiting for her. She kept waiting for the release, for the surge of dopamine to come, yet all she felt was agitation.
“It’s done. Message Cassian to prepare the helicopter.”
They were super sneaky on their return, dodging all the nonexistent guards and such through a single hallway and one of the back storage rooms of the kitchens. It was nice that they didn’t run into any guards. Would have been more than unlucky. Violet’s luck did seem to be on the uptick, though.
Cassian was beaming when they returned to the parking lot. “It’s done?” he asked, giddy as a schoolboy.
“It’s done,” she replied. “But someone will find him soon. Let’s get out of here.”
“I’m way ahead of you.” Her captain pulled out the capsule and held it up between two gloved fingers. “Whaddya say I fly us out of this miserable c–”
A bone-splitting bang echoed through the parking lot. The bullet had taken him in the back of the skull, coming out just below his cheek. How quickly Cassian’s eyes had glazed over, how quickly the life had left him… she had borne witness to it all. Goosebumps covered her arms, and she felt the heat behind her eyes coming again, the emotion welling up in her throat. Not again.
A dozen more bangs echoed through the parking lot, and her men began falling. Some took cover behind parked hovercars, quick to exchange fire. Carmichael dove at Violet, pinning her behind one such hovercar, tackling her out of the tsunami of bullets that had then rained down upon her previous position. Three men fell dead, including Feldman. Takebashi, crying out in pain, tripped over her soldier’s body and fell next to them, a bullet wound soaking the arm of his shirt crimson.
Her men fought bravely, and they died bravely. Carmichael popped out around the car to take shots, only to duck back around it every two or three trigger pulls. The snipers were relentless, whoever they were. “They’re in the buildings to the east. Err, wait. There’s some over there too. Hell, they’re all over the place. Stay put, ma’am. I’ll take ‘em out.”
“A dozen, maybe more.”
Takebashi was groaning at their feet. “Plah… plah… meh… mah plah…” he was gasping hoarsely to no one in particular. His own men shot at him. How’s that loyalty of his treating him?
One of her soldiers painted a windshield with his brain matter the next time he stood up to take a shot. There’s only five of us left. That’s not enough. It was getting difficult to breathe. She wanted to fight, but Carmichael wouldn’t let her. He’s right. If I die now, what was it all for? Finally, exasperated, she shouted, “Get the capsule, at least! Cassian had it! We have to get out of here!”
“We’re not flying away with all this gunfire raining down on us!”
“We don’t have time for this. That was an order, Captain!”
He drew himself up, chewing on the inside of his cheek as he reloaded his rifle. “I’ll get that capsule for you, ma’am. Give me some damn cover fire! Cover me!” he barked at the remaining soldiers before rolling out from behind the car and sprinting out to Cassian’s corpse.
Swallowing, she tried to slow her breathing. She didn’t watch him go. She didn’t want to see him die too. Instead, she watched a man provide him with cover fire and get shot in the collarbone for it. We’re going to die. We’re already dead. It’s over. Were they waiting for us? Did they want us to kill Mazuchiru? Was this the real trap?!
A second later, Carmichael came screaming around the corner, collapsing next to the whimpering Takebashi, breathing hard. “Here,” he said, handing her the capsule. “Not here.”
“Of course not. We’ll have to find somewhere…”
Violet noticed the blood on his glove tips and how it glinted in the moonlight. Carmichael’s hand clasped against his abdomen, and he couldn’t help but grimace. “It’s nothing, ma’am. Don’t worry about me.”
“Can you run?” He sat there breathing hard, clutching his wound, growing paler. “Come on, don’t leave me, Carmichael! You’re all I’ve got left. You have to live, damnit! You have to!”
He was hiding some moans of pain in his exhales. Still, the man managed to grin. “I’m not so easy to kill, Violet. Don’t worry about me. I will protect you with my life, no matter what. I’m still alive, aren’t I?”
Another wave of bullets battered the parking lot. Several more windows shattered. “They’re coming down!” one of her soldiers cried out.
“Kill the bastards!” Carmichael replied, grunting hard as he sat up, unshouldering his rifle and peering out around the car to take several shots. “Kill them all! Don’t let them get any closer!”
He jumped up for another shot, and was immediately hit in the shoulder. His rifle went flying, and Carmichael was thrown away from the hovercar, falling on his back, a dark stain forming over his black shoulder armor. Enraged, Violet stood up, using the car as cover, and returned fire, squeezing that trigger like it was Mazuchiru’s brain stem. She couldn’t see them, really. A few muzzle flashes illuminated the darkness beyond the parking lot, from rooftops and skyscraper windows alike. Then one took her in the leg, and she fell.
The pistol was loosening from her grip; her palms slicked over with sweat. Beside her, Takebashi was squirming and bleeding and moaning. This is it. This is the end. Her remaining soldiers held them back for a few more trigger pulls, but there were simply too many yakuza to account for. She watched both Murray and Cyril die. Neither was particularly lethal at their job, but they gave their lives for her anyways, so that made everything better, right?
A sudden calm befell the Goldfish Casino’s parking lot. She fingered the capsule, mixing blood and sweat between her fingertips, and soon all she could focus upon was her own shallow breathing. She had to get out of there, had to move now. But there was simply no strength in her legs remaining. Her kneecap had shattered, and she was losing blood. The woman felt more tired than she had ever felt before. Everytime she closed her eyes, she could see Cassian’s shocked look, the blood running down his cheek like a teardrop, the way he collapsed, having fully left this world. I’ll be with you soon, she thought, flinging herself forward in one last desperate attempt to crawl away. The stupid bound yakuza would not stop making noises. At least we gagged him, she thought bitterly.
She pulled with one hand, then the other, then the other, then the other, and all she wanted in that moment was a nice cold bottle of Russ’s Delight. Without warning, someone kicked her and pinned her to the ground.
“N-n-n-n-no… no, no, no… please… let me go…”
She heard footsteps as they closed in around her. Like a pack of wolves, and not half as smart. It was over; she had lost. Mazuchiru’s dead, at least. She felt nothing for him. A warm, wet flow of tears began streaming out, and her vision wavered.
“Well, well, well. If it isn’t Colonel Violet… in the flesh. Nice hairdo.” Cackling like hyenas, they turned her over so she could see. Almost two dozen yakuza, armed to the teeth, standing before her, wearing their tattoos and suits, cool as pickled pigs’ feet, just like that day in the desert. Chief amongst them was a man with a trunk for a neck, dark-skinned and sporting a light mustache. “And a rat, too, I see. Bring him over.”
Two of his men dropped the bound yakuza beside her. One removed his gag with a ruthless tug. Gasping, Takebashi fell onto his knees, his voice trembling, “Mr. Sugoro, please, I can explain…”
The yakuza boss had lit a cigarette in the time it had taken to bring Takebashi over. He puffed it once, then again, and focused upon the so-called rat with such intensity that Violet was surprised he didn’t kill him right then and there.
“You aided our enemy… you led them into one of our businesses, showed them where Mazuchiru was being kept…”
“They were going to kill me! Please have mercy.”
“You should have died, in that case,” the man said flatly, taking another puff. “Do you really think your individual life is worth more than the collective interests of the Chàoxing Gon?”
Violet snorted. One of the yakuza in Sugoro’s gang raised his rifle at her. “That’s enough out of you, bitch.”
“Then get on with it already,” she said, her voice trembling. “I don’t want to hear another word out of your motherfucking mouths. You’re scum, and every one of you should die just like your boss.”
Sugoro chortled. “I am the boss… well, Higataro and I work together now. Mazuchiru hasn’t run this gang for years,” he said, his lips splitting open into a yellow grin. “Not since you put him in that coma. I thank you for that, Colonel Violet. You have aided the Chàoxing Gon more than you could know.”
“What the hell are you talking about…?”
“Do you really think you would have gotten inside the Goldfish if we hadn’t wanted you to?” The man threw his cigarette aside, stamping out cold red ash into the asphalt with the metal toe of his military boot. Next, he drew a long silver-faced magnum and pointed it at Violet. “Oh, thank you, Violet. You don’t know the half of it. This has gone more smoothly than you could have imagined. The old fuck’s dead. It’s time for new blood. And, I’m afraid, that means getting rid of the Children of Chaos, too. I’m so sorry, Violet. The Diablo Desert needs us, now. Who else would be able to transport all that snow from here to South City?”
Laughing to himself, the man cocked the pistol and rested the end of its barrel against her forehead. Her leg was burning with pain. Black spots rippled through her vision. Once again she saw Nathaniel spinning on his heels, the fountain of blood spiraling into the cloudless air, that smirk that Mazuchiru had had upon his stupid face when it had all gone down, droplets splashing across his wispy beard.
Like a can of popcorn heating up, their ears exploded, sending out spires of blood, and, in near unison, the yakuza fell. Sugoro’s face had been caught in mid-laughter–he had died before he had quite realized it. Silence returned to the parking garage. She sat up, gasping, feeling the flow of warmth from her leg; her blood looked black as tar in the artificial city lights. None of their eyes were closed. She looked to the stars, catching her breath.
From behind the dumpster to her right, a man came walking briskly into view. Violet’s heart sank. Not another one… Frantically, she reached for Sugoro’s magnum. Yet, as the man came into view, she knew immediately that he was not one of their gang. No tattoos. No sunglasses. No hair.
“Colonel Violet, is it?” the man said, his voice near as high as a woman’s.
She wouldn’t answer him. She didn’t know who the hell he was. “I-I…”
He clearly saw the fear in her eyes. “You needn’t worry, Violet. My name’s Eugen. I killed Sugoro and his men. I am here to take you to my boss.”
Is this guy playing me? Does he really think I’m that dumb? “What the…? What…?!” She cocked her head, biting her lip to suppress the pain in her leg. “What are you talking about?”
“Oh, I’m afraid I haven’t made myself clear,” he said, smiling warmly and rubbing his hands together several times. “I am a member of the New Red Ribbon Army. My boss would like to have a word with you.”
The man’s lips were extremely thin, and the thinner they got, the pinker they got. “That’s right. You have a helicopter dynocap on you, don’t you?”
The pain made it easy to sneer. “How did you know that?!”
“The leader of the New Red Ribbon Army knows much about you already, Colonel Violet. Please, come with me, and I will take you to him. We’ll get that bullet-wound healed up for you nicely. How’s that sound?” He held out his hand.
Trying to rub the throbbing pain out of her thigh wasn’t working so well; all it did was make her more light-headed. “This could be a trap…”
The man’s hand returned to his side. Now he had a bit of an annoyed look on his face, and it wasn’t long before he had pulled out a handkerchief to wipe his trembling, sweating upper lip. Returning the handkerchief to his pocket, the man dug the toe of his boot into the pebble-strewn asphalt, looking down. In the next moment, he had drawn a pistol, pointed it at her, and glared at her down its sights.
“You will come with me to see him, Colonel Violet.”
“Fuck you,” she spat.
“I’m not going to kill you, but I will incapacitate you if you force me to. We are going to see him one way or another. It’s your choice, Colonel.”
For a while she looked to the sky. “I’m not a Colonel any longer.”
“You won’t be one in the new army,” he smiled with those fleshy lips of his again. “How does Commander sound?”
She closed her eyes, taking several deep breaths to remain conscious, her final exhale becoming a quiet huff of amusement that soon died in her throat. “Fine.”
That made Mr. Eugen very pleased. We’ll see what he’s up to. And if the time comes, I’ve still got the knife in my boot. The man approached her, as if to help her up, when, suddenly Takebashi let out a whimper. The assassin’s back became erect, he tilted his head slightly, then looked back to her. What do you want from me? As if to reply, he raised his eyebrows in a shrug, the city lights racing in his eyes.
At dawn, he had risen, having been unable to sleep. Meditating on the upcoming fights had helped somewhat, but Tien felt restless still. The tournament wouldn’t be starting until eight o’clock. He had an hour to kill. As quietly as he could manage, he crept out of the school’s dormitory wing, tiptoed across the cold grey tiles, dripping in mist, and made his way out under the gate, pausing to look up at the chipped, wind-worn crane statue adorning the tip of the torii.
A harsh calmness greeted Tien. He could hear the rushing water, and in the distance, a peregrine falcon was calling out, its cry like a rusty latch shaking in the wind. He could hear voices amongst the sparse birdsong, too–distant, but unmistakable. Suma was already waking, all those noble shopkeepers and breakfast-seeking villagers, and so he felt the pull of their kind even more.
In the end, he resolved to get some tea. Just to calm the nerves, he told himself. I won’t embarrass myself in front of the old man today.
Yoshitaro’s was surprisingly packed. Four patrons was more than Tien had seen in months. The elderly Kinshi couple were no surprise, for Tien had seen them here at this hour many times before, although their patronaging of late had become more infrequent. It was Paik, picking at a piping-hot bowl of ramen, and a bald man, sporting a black goatee and urban military garb with light armor, that gave him far more concern. He ordered a cup of green tea, regardless.
“Fancy seeing you here.”
He made sure to take the seat across from her, keeping his back to the window. “What are you doing up so early, Paik?”
Wiping her mouth and setting the tea cup down, the teenager whispered, “Same thing as you, Tien.”
Her eyes shifted to the table, and he noticed that his fingers were tapping the wooden table repeatedly. She exhaled a laugh and leaned back in her chair.
“What’s so funny?”
“What do you have to worry about, anyways? You’re stronger than any of them. You’ll win.”
“I have to.”
“So is the pressure getting to you?” she chided. “I never figured you as having a weak mind.”
He bristled at that, but the server had arrived with Tien’s tea, and the moment was lost. Red-cheeked and jittery, the black-haired boy thanked Tien for his patronage, handed him his cup, and ran off to service the bald man, who was, incidentally, in need of a refill. Is she trying to provoke me into making a mistake? Perhaps she’s eyeing my roster spot in the World Tournament.
They drank tea and talked for a while. The sun rose higher; the elder couple managed to conversate for fifteen minutes straight without pause. The military man drank a hell of a lot of tea and continued to take glances at Tien. He didn’t know whether to feel threatened or humiliated. He could have been sent here to kill us, or he could have just been staring because of my… He gulped down what felt like boiling hot tea, blinking the water from his eyes.
“And what’ll you do after?” Paik asked suddenly, leaning in. She was folding an origami crane out of one of the napkins.
“Prepare for the real one, of course.”
She rolled her eyes. “What about after that one, then?”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean…” she said slowly, placing the folded napkin back upon the table, spinning it about by its beak, “what’ll you do, after all that? You’re nineteen years old, Tien Shinhan. You’re all grown up now. Isn’t it time for you to, you know, spread your wings and fly?”
He didn’t know what to say. His memories gave him no comfort for this conversation, no inferences about what to say or do. “You’re one to talk. You’re sixteen.”
“I am. But, seriously…”
“I’ll become an assassin, like Tao before me. I’ll try to find him and join up with him and start the world’s best assassin agency for hire.”
“Yeah…” She drained her cup, her gaze drifting to the couple next to them. “Noisy old bags, aren’t they?”
From behind the counter, the noble samurai stood with his arms folded, his wrinkled face resting in a state of utter severity. The soldier had left, leaving the apprentice boy to scramble to clean off one of the shop’s precious tables before anyone else came in. Yoshitaro’s only had the four, after all.
“A calm mind is decisive. Don’t let distractions overpower you.”
“No, not going to happen.” She raked her teeth down the side of her lip a few times. “I want to hurt them. Don’t you?”
The old man had lit a cigarette. Already, the shop was filling with smoke. His eyes were watering again, and his throat itched. Yoshitaro, being addicted himself, never refused a customer the right to give themselves lung cancer. This was usually Tien’s sign to leave–the price he had to pay for fancying the least noisy of Suma’s tea shops.
“It’ll come to blows between our schools, eventually. And when it does, we’ll put down every last Tiger for good. I’ll tear down that school with my own bare hands if I have to.”
“Huh. Yeah… yeah. Well, if they’re stupid enough to attack us–” She laughed this off like it was some sort of game. Maybe it is, in a way. Still, he glared at her, as it was the most appropriate emotion he could muster on such short notice.
“I would not confuse stupidity with desperation. The Tigers are rife with the latter.”
Tien got up, tapping Paik on the shoulder. Rubbing his nose, he gave the smoker a look on the way out, but the old fellow, immersed in a rant about how he had once taken three economics classes in college, didn’t so much as feel the wind of their movements as they went by.
Most people are oblivious, sleepwalking through the majority of their lives. That’s usually what makes them easy targets in the end.
They had assembled, the four Tigers, on the western end. Master Shen had gathered the Cranes in a respectable fashion on the eastern end. The air had fragrance of cut grass and cotton candy to it; their fighting arena was no more than a simple dirt mound. A halfhearted crowd had gathered around them, mostly older men and children, peering in with eyes that flickered with that same passionately expectant look of the mob that Tien had grown to known in his years as an assassin’s apprentice. The Tigers had drawn themselves up on the far side, their heads bowed, sulking like dogs.
“Did you not have four students, Tiger Hermit?” the old man called out in a pestering tone, fingering his mustache. “I recall you having four students.”
The aged Tiger took some time to respond. They were all so solemn that it made Tien want to kill them right then and there and get it over with. “My apologies, Crane Hermit. My school will have only three students competing today.”
“And I have five. I’ll not have my–”
“We do not fear you,” boomed Master Mashiro. Audaciously, he strode into the makeshift stage, his arms folded, a look of fury upon his face. “My students will fight yours… and the traitor,” he said coldly.
“She does not belong to you.”
“No, of course not.” He faced her, and Tien felt goosebumps spread down his back. Bold move, old man. “Yurin–this is your last chance.”
They exchanged a look (probably wrought with pain and nostalgia, as all good long looks are, allegedly), and he returned to his students. Yurin’s ears had gone beet red; unabashedly breathing loudly, the girl raised her fists, ready to jump into the fray.
“Are you a Crane, or are you a Tiger?” the old man asked her. “Show me.”
She looked up at him, her naïveté laying bare her astonishment. Not bad. He’ll make the new recruits prove themselves first… Tien glanced at Chiaotzu. The boy was standing between him and Paik. They looked on somberly, but Chiaotzu especially had a look of sheer terror to him that almost made Tien want to slap him. Master would chastise me for being unseemly.
On the other side of the mound, Mashiro barked something to the tall boy with the buzzcut. His ear was bandaged, and he was pale, lacking in his usual vigor. Zadich. An easy opponent… but Yurin doesn’t really have any easy opponents. I expect all of her former friends are superior to her… they are a good deal older than her. Then again, Tien had been top of the class at the age of nine, while training under Tao. If she has any quality, she’ll show it here.
“They’re on edge,” Jaoros muttered. “What’s got them all rattled like that?”
He could feel Paik rolling her eyes, without even having to look, as she said, “The big guy’s wounded. They were involved in something bad. That’s probably why their other member’s gone.”
“Shumi,” Tien said. “She’d been there the longest out of all of them. She was sixteen years old, I think. Same age as you.”
“She could be off somewhere else, or wounded,” Jaoros offered.
“Or, she could be dead, and they’re looking to even the score here and now.”
“What do you mean?”
“Are you daft?”
“Jaoros…” she replied in a mocking tone.
“Enough, you two. Bicker any more, and I’ll send both of you back to the school, and I’ll have Tien clean up this rabble for you,” their master snapped, walking over to bang the two veteran students on the backs of their heads. “Pay attention!”
The boy groaned, and the girl bowed her head. Tien felt no sympathy for either of them. His gaze focused upon Zadich, the lumbering beast. If we fought, I would take him out in five punches–no more. He is so easily trapped. Yurin’s not fast enough to exploit his impatience, however. The girl was not even half her opponent’s height. He towered over her, cheeks flushed in the cold, massaging his knuckles.
Every minute, the crowd was growing, and growing restless at that. Mashiro stepped forward, shouting, “If you are knocked out of the ring, you lose; if you are knocked out, you lose; if you are pinned, you must beg for mercy before giving up. Do you understand, you two?”
The man’s face darted around like a hungry rat’s. Tien found it amusing how petty the geezer was. All these years spent on Earth, and he can’t even look at a little girl. What a pathetic excuse for a man. How could anyone follow someone so weak? Nevertheless, Zadich and Yurin shouted affirmatively, and the match was begun. The crowd let out a somber roar, though it sounded more like a groan of relief when Tien thought about it more.
Like a jackal, she skirted around him, dancing with her feet, her fists raised, feinting jabs as she cautiously closed in on him with painful indecisiveness. She’s vulnerable to a counterattack. She thinks she’s defending by being so offensive, but she won’t be prepared in time to block a counterpunch flying in.
“She’s a goner,” said Paik.
Jaoros clicked his tongue. “Have a little hope. Besides, why couldn’t she win?”
“Because she’s weaker and slower and smaller. Sometimes the odds are stacked against you too much, and there’s nothing you can do.”
The crowd jeered at them to get it on with; Chiaotzu was quivering next to Tien. “That’s enough, Chiaotzu,” he reprimanded the boy. “Do not embarrass the Crane School before the people of Suma; fight with courage and a calm mind, and you will be alright.”
“I u-understand, Mr. Tien Shinhan.”
A man in the crowd tore off his shirt in disgust, flinging it into the ring (briefly causing Master Mashiro to run onto the stage, blowing his officially certified UFSC referee whistle generously as he went). “Fight him, ya coward!”
“I wanna see some fists flyin’!”
“Go on, do him! Do him good!”
Yurin looked to the crowd. She bit her lip; her foot caught in the dirt, and she was no longer bouncing on her heels. First mistake. Never let the crowd dictate the flow of your attacks. Her fist pulled back, and before she could fling herself at Zadich, he casually jumped forward, kicked her legs out from under her, elbowed her back, causing her face to violently smack against the dirt, then kicked her over, her body flopping over, blood and dirt strewn on her face, before kicking her again.
Immediately clear was the fact that Yurin was unconscious. The way her arms flopped about and the way her head rolled from one side to the other–she was like a corpse. Mashiro blew the whistle; the crowd finally got a little life in them, cheering for the Tigers (that made Tien’s arm hairs bristle); Shen, muttering to himself, snapped his fingers at Chiaotzu. The boy with the painted face gulped, looked once to Tien, then scurried off towards the towering figure of Zadich.
“What a piece of crap,” Jaoros complained.
Two men threw Yurin on a stretcher and ran off with her down the road towards the Suma Hospital. It wasn’t the largest, cleanest, or most modern hospital in the world, but Tien suspected by midday, nearly all of the Cranes and Tigers would find themselves there. If they’re lucky. First they have to prove themselves against one of us, he thought, looking to Jaoros and Paik. The kids won’t stand a chance. This is really a three on three, and that’s how we’re treating it.
Paik at least had some hope. “Knock him out, Chiaotzu!”
“Heh, I think that task will fall to you,” the old man cackled to himself, stroking his mustache.
He’s not nervous… is he just being a showman for the people? Meanwhile, the more zealous members of the crowd (of which there were certainly no more than seven and no fewer than three) had begun chanting Zadich’s name. The tension was growing, and all the time, their eyes were trained on Chiaotzu.
The little boy seemed to have taken the burden of their gazes upon his shoulders, as if he were wearing weighted clothing. His posture was slumped over, and he was, in spite of himself, shaking–plain as day. Disgraceful. A few people were laughing at his cowardice, including Zadich. The older boy had folded his arms again, a big dumb smirk on his face. Were he not wearing that bandage, maybe he could sell it a little better. Either way, Paik’ll wipe that smirk off his face for sure.
The whistle blew, and round two began.
Like he was lathering up his hands with soap to wash them off, Chiaotzu slowly massaged his palms together, hunched over in a defeated posture. The older boy laughed and said something cheeky, no doubt, for the crowd gave some sarcastic jeers of their own to join him in chorus.
“They’re winning over the crowd,” he muttered to the others. “We need to put a stop to this.”
“Don’t toy with them,” the old man commanded. “You were taught to be efficient, so be efficient. And don’t use the Tri-Beam under any circumstances. None of these ones are worth it.”
“What?” He felt somewhat confused. Is he concerned, or isn’t he?! “Why would I need to use that?”
“You won’t. I expect you won’t even have to fight, Tien. Lucky position to be in, you know.”
With a mild squeak, Chiaotzu raised his arms, thrust his palms out, and tried to use his Telekinesis to paralyze Zadich. The older boy, caught in the unknown attack, was briefly locked in place. Agitation set in as he tried to burst free. Chiaotzu rushed forward, fist pulled back, and was greeted by Zadich’s boot.
Up Chiaotzu sailed, into the air where he rightfully belonged, landing (with the crowd’s encouragement) well beyond the stage’s boundaries. With this ring-out, Chiaotzu was the second Crane in a row to not so much as land a finger on a Tiger. They cheered again for him as Mashiro declared Zadich the winner of round two while prancing about, rattling off praise about his acolyte in the most sickening display of self-hype Tien had ever seen. This’ll go to seven rounds if it has to. It should only go to five, or six at most, though, if Paik and Jaoros do their jobs.
He had a faint hope, foolish as it might have been, that he would get to fight too.
“Show him what Cranes do to Tigers, Paik,” Shen said tersely, stroking his mustache.
“With all these people around watching, I’m not so sure it’s wise to use the Dodon Ray,”the girl warned.
“Do what must be done. If they have to…” the old man shrugged, waving his arms in the air like a rain dancer, “they’ll get out of the way. Trust me, Paik. Now off with you!”
Zadich was really getting into it now. On a two-win streak, he began strutting about the stage, encouraging the crowd to make more noise, to chant his name, to shower him with love. All that dopamine releasing must have felt awfully nice. Paik was nothing like her opponent, making their matchup far more interesting to Tien. Not only were they comparable in terms of skills and endurance, but their contrasting styles of attack made this duel a murky affair–at least that had been the case during Tien’s meditation simulations that morning.
He hadn’t accounted for that wound to the side of Zadich’s head. He’s weak. That’s the first spot I’d target if I were her. She moved with purpose; before Chiaotzu had even been rushed off on a stretcher, Mashiro was blowing his whistle again, his face darkening with color and glistening with sweat as if he were drunk.
“She’ll beat him,” Jaoros said confidently. “I don’t know why you had her go before me, Master… she’s stronger than me.”
“To teach those bastards a lesson,” the old man replied in a high, cold voice. “Paik will swiftly return Mashiro’s streak to their rightful place: below the Cranes, as bugs, vermin we don’t have to lift our boots for.”
Tien said, “From what he’s shown so far, Paik is far stronger than him. We shouldn’t worry.”
Zadich was already on the offensive. He aggressively approached Paik, forcing her to take several frantic steps away, dodging and blocking his elbows and jabs. She’s faster. He could almost see relief ripple through her form when she realized this for herself. At once, Paik caught the taller boy’s fist, twisted around him and landing a spinning axe kick on his back. Gasping, Zadich stumbled ahead, much to the shock of the crowd. Some turned their allegiances instantaneously, cheering for the girl. Others, particularly streak chasers, were quite displeased by this sudden turn of events, though for the most part they gasped instead of booed.
She rushed him with a flying jab, but he ducked under her, kicked her in the chest, rolled onto his heels and viciously sprung back at her, smiling deviously, leading with another elbow lunge. Paik, having taken three steps back, clutching at her ribs, grimaced, but suddenly sprung forward to meet Zadich in the air. Her flying kick met his elbow, shattering his forearm, her boot rising all the way to his chin. The crowd let out a thunderous roar. Zadich flew to the edge of the stage, landing in a pile of dirt, blood flowing profusely down his nose and mouth. She got a little greedy going for the style points, but it worked out. Shen looked mighty pleased standing next to them, for all that was worth.
“One… two… three… four…” Mashiro began counting out.
Spitting blood, Paik wiped her mouth and scowled, walking over to Zadich slightly hunched over. Before Mashiro got to seven, she had grabbed him by the ankle and flung him just outside the stage, much to the cheers and raucous jubilation of the mob that had already grown around their tournament stage. Tien noted that the crowds had thickened since Yurin had been out there. That would continue to be the case, no doubt, as word got out around Suma. It was not a large town by any stretch of the imagination, but its people knew how to gather into mobs.
The best act is still to come, he thought. Maybe I won’t even have to fight. His gaze shifted to the Tigers’ leader–Zhajiang, standing on the western side of the stage. Even now, his companion Huo-Guo was stretching out and preparing to enter the fight against the hunched-over Paik, but he didn’t care about her. Their leader is the only one who could possibly challenge me. Jaoros should be able to beat him, however. I won’t believe that he’s been able to get so strong learning under Mashiro. Tao told me such things were impossible. The boy’s head was yet drooping; he wasn’t even watching the fight. Strange. He could be scared, trying to hold himself together…
She too looked like she had seen the devil. What’s wrong with all of them? It most likely has something to do with that missing girl… Shumi. She’s not here. Maybe she’s dead. Huo-Guo gave a shout before running onto the stage. She looked like she wanted to kill Paik. For his part, Mashiro blew the whistle rather professionally. The crowd was getting more excited now.
“She’ll do fine against this one as well,” Jaoros stated. “Won’t she?”
Tien first made sure to see if his master had a comment to make. “Paik’s wounded from the last fight. That’s clear as day. She’s still stronger than that other girl… but her stamina is waning.”
“Tien’s right. Warm up, Jaoros.”
He was pacing now; it was getting serious. He’ll start ranting as soon as she goes out. And I’ll be the only one here to listen. This was becoming a sad state of affairs. Paik was not done yet, though. She was by far Huo-Guo’s superior in combat, as far as Tien knew (and though he thought he knew well, this was mostly just speculation). Jaoros’ fingers were shaking as he stretched out in front of them.
“Hey, calm down,” he told the wild-haired boy. “You’re going to be sloppy out there if you don’t have your wits about you. It’s going to hurt more if you don’t concentrate.”
Master Shen cleared his throat. “Don’t let me down, Jaoros. You better take her out, and the next one!”
Ahead, the girls were circling around one another, making speculative jabs or kicks here and there, but not really going at one another. With the Tiger’s passion at the start, Tien was surprised to see her cool so. She could have been provoking Paik to lunge in. She still is.
The Crane remained disciplined–better to not get close to a Tiger when she invites you in. One struck, the other parried, and so they went on, much to the disappointment of the crowd. Jeers and booing rose amongst the chorus and perhaps because of that, Huo-Guo’s eyes bulged out like a bug’s, she glanced back at Zhajiang, and then rushed the other girl. Backing up, Paik parried the first few punches, then slipped, falling on her back. In a flash, Huo-Guo pounced on her, pinning her.
In a matter of seconds, she had beaten Paik bloody. But the teenager was persistent. All it took was one punch in through her opponent’s flurry to break Huo-Guo’s nose. Then it was Paik who had Huo-Guo pinned, and indeed, it was the Tiger, not the Crane, who bled then, much to the crowd’s delight. She underestimated Paik’s stamina. Now she’s paying the price. It wasn’t more than ten seconds, however, before the Tiger had wriggled her way out from under Paik, kneed her in the stomach, and then jumped on her again.
“Come on, Paik! Come on, what are you doing?! Take her out!”
“Quiet, boy! Go, Paik! Destroy her!”
No words of encouragement could block all those punches. It’s almost impossible to put up any defense when one is pinned like that. Tien knew that; Jaoros knew it; Paik knew that; the crowd knew that too. They were getting especially excited now, chanting Huo-Guo’s name with every blood-spurting hammerfall of her fists. At last, Paik’s right hand rose, catching her opponent’s fist. For a second, the other girl looked confused, then punched Paik in the face again and again and again. The girl didn’t dare try to block that fist.
Jaoros was on his heels, pacing before them. “What’s going on?! Why isn’t she blocking?! Why isn’t she–”
The old man let out a hoot. A flash of yellow erupted on the stage; everyone raised their hands to cover their eyes. None of them saw what Tien saw. None of them saw Huo-Guo fly off of Paik, as if just violently hit by a hovercar, soaring up into the air, the golden glow of the Dodon Ray helping her along her way. Jaoros was beaming.
Paik struggled to her feet, wiping blood from her lips. A sickening thump sounded as her opponent hit the earth. Several people gasped. One woman cried out for some heathen deity to have mercy upon her soul. Master Shen was stroking his mustache hard. Referee Mashiro ran forward, not daring to step very far onto the stage (that’s a breach of protocol, after all), and said in a booming, hateful voice:
“What is this meaning of this?! I thought we had a deal! No death or maiming! You swore to me, Crane Hermit!”
“She’s not dead,” the old man replied coolly. All eyes now trained on him, he seemed to be even more impassive than before. “She has no wounds that will not heal… I think that–”
Paik grunted loudly, and a few of the same gaspers as before gasped again (real shocker right there). Tien felt a surge of warmth in his cheeks. Impossible. That’s not fair. Paik collapsed, Huo-Guo standing behind her, a bloody grin plastering her face.
“That’s not fair!” Jaoros shouted. “The referee was bitching! It was a timeout! She can’t attack like that! That’s dirty!”
Mashiro sneered at them, then turned away from the eastern side of the ring. “One… two… three…”
“He’s a cunt,” Jaoros whispered, looking at his master with distress. “They should have to forfeit the tournament right now! Make them forfeit! It’s outrageous! He was distracting her! That’s cheating!”
He was hissing out from between his teeth again. “M-master…” Tien said, politely interjecting. “We’ll never get justice against them here, in front of everyone… they just want to see the fights. Paik’s knocked out anyways. She can’t continue.”
“So make the other girl forfeit, and I’ll fight that Zhajiang guy.”
“There is no justice unless we make it, Jaoros. Wouldn’t you rather take her out with your own fists? She’s totally depleted… she just took a battering, not to mention a Dodon Ray point-blank. She won’t be able to put up a fight.”
The people were jeering again. Tien wondered why they had even bothered coming out. Why should we care about what these people think? They’re vengeful and stupid, without wit or appreciation for our skills, and we could kill every last one of them right now if we wanted to. They have no idea whom they’re booing. Their master was frowning, gnashing his teeth at several more frenzied members of the mob. Things were clearly about to blow up.
Then, Jaoros sighed, ran his hand through his hair and said, “Alright, fine. But you owe me, Tien Shinhan.”
He ran off to the stage, and with him, the crowd’s eyes left them, and their rebellious energy dissipated. The two stood against one another, each on a small mound of fresh dirt, the bloody girl and the nervous boy. Mashiro’s whistle blew, and the crowd answered.
I have to remain calm. Tao always said fighting was simple, so long as you have the instincts for it. Just strike true and hard and intuitively, and you will never lose. I am a warrior born and raised. It flows in my blood. I am Tao’s apprentice, and I won’t let him down against scum like this.
“Oh Sally dear, I know I’m partial to the Cranes, but I just cannot get over how tenacious these Tigers are, oh! Oh good heavens, they’ve won me over!”
“Get him! Do him good! Get him!”
“We all hate Leeds scum!”
“Oh, start the bloody fight already! I’m well knackered now!”
One of them gave him a worried look. Alone of the western end of the Suma Martial Arts Tournament, Zhajiang had no energy to deal with innocent bystanders. Master knows. The thought bounced around in his head like a desperate bug; he couldn’t shake it.
Swaying, clutching her shoulder, Huo-Guo faced off against that street urchin boy Jaoros. I’ll be facing him soon enough. In all the crowd, their eyes glistened with hunger, with a collective desire to see someone pummeled. We shouldn’t be here. We should be home, giving our respects to Shumi… It was all his fault. They were cheering and smalltalking, and not one of them knew. He couldn’t blame them, but it didn’t matter. We shouldn’t be here.
He felt sick to his stomach. Try though he might, he could not slow his heart rate down with simple breathing exercises, and that seemed only to make him more anxious. Some of the people nearest the southeastern corner broke out into riotous applause, while others gasped, drawing their hands to their faces to be polite (they were living in a society, after all).
Zhajiang had not come from much. He did not know that much, hadn’t experienced that much, hadn’t gained that many skills in his time alive so far. But he did know the sound of a body falling to the ground, even with the people of Suma being so rambunctious.
He wanted to think, in some sort of poetic, romantic reflection of himself, that he was numb to all the pain, to all the horror he had experienced the previous night. Master knows. He grimaced, closing his eyes, taking a deep breath and holding it. He was one against two. I’ve survived greater odds before.
The old man glanced at him before he stepped into the stage. They were all looking at him. This didn’t feel right. The other boy, his tan cheeks flushed, sized him up and down, and then dropped into an offensive stance. A cold wind blew along as the whistle sounded, and bitterly did its note seem to ring in his ear. Urgently did his energy come to him, for as he called all of it forth, his skin began to warm, and this chilly, dreary day’s power began to melt over him.
The turkey threw himself at him, and Zhajiang was so taken aback that he hadn’t had time to block. The punch took him in the chin, grazing his collarbone. The Tiger kicked him away, holding back to dodge Jaoros’ immediate counterattack. He’s brash. Too brash. He’s liable to panic. I just have to let him do all the work, and he’ll collapse in front of me. Sure enough, his opponent came charging back with both fists raised.
Zhajiang jumped into the air, soaring back down with a flying kick. Alright, so he wants to play? Huo-Guo is my friend. Zadich is my friend. Shumi is my friend. I’ll give everything I have for them… for our school! Jaoros, squinting up into the sunlight, backed up slightly, allowing for the perfectly-timed attack to hit him like a torpedo.
To the boy’s credit, he was able to raise both arms in a block before Zhajiang made impact. It didn’t make a bit of difference.
His left nostril leaking blood, the turkey staggered away from the assassin, who had landed on one knee. Without relenting, he threw himself at his opponent again, this time attempting to kick out his legs from under him. Jaoros was coy, however, and jumped over the attempt, back-heeling him away.
He was slow to get to his feet. Jaoros took the bait and rushed in. Catching his punch with one hand, Zhajiang stood firm, allowing himself to be hit (rather painfully it must be said) on the cheekbone once. He hardly felt the pain under the jolt of excitement he felt building up inside himself. Glittering with trite glee, the turkey’s eyes met his, dancing about in a mocking way.
“Denkoken,” Zhajiang said softly, slapping Jaoros upside the face.
Just before his hand touched his opponent’s face, electrical energy sprung up around it, ensaring it as if in a cast of pure electrical force. As soon as his hand had made contact with Jaoros’ flesh, the world exploded in a ball of fire, white-hot and so bright, he dared not to look.
Needless to say, the turkey went for a bit of an unexpected flight.
Before the dust had cleared, however, a bright golden light of energy shot out at him. The Dodon Ray. So he can control his ki like that other girl. No doubt that one can too, Zhajiang thought, taking a peek at Tien. But I can’t worry about him now! I have to stay focused on what’s happening right in front of me. I’ll be lucky to win this fight, let alone even get a shot to go against the three-eyed turkey. It was nothing to dodge Jaoros’ attack. Zhajiang had been trained by the noble Master Mashiro. He would not be so easily beaten.
It was perhaps an oddity that the crowd was now chanting both of their names, almost in unison, the syllables overlapping and slurring together. The smoke cleared, and Jaoros was already on his feet again, massaging his bruised cheek.
“Not bad,” the other boy said. “That almost hurt.”
“I thought Cranes are supposed to sing, not babble on. I’m sorry I don’t have a french fry for you today! Come back over here, though, and let me get that other cheek for you.”
“You’re a real asshole, you know that?”
“Hey, language!” Mashiro barked, blowing his whistle shrewdly.
Jaoros shrugged. “Whatever, man. You can’t tell me what to do. And you sure as hell aren’t beating me with your dirty, cheating tactics! Look at me, you asshole. You know what I think about you? Solar Flare!!”
It was as if a nuclear warhead had gone off on the stage, the light was so overwhelming. He had thought the Denkoken could produce a nice amount of light, but this… this was mental. He couldn’t see anything. “What the hell did you–”
Eyes burning, seeing blackness, Zhajiang reflexively dove to the ground. “You bastard! You’ve blinded me!”
“It’s only temporary,” Jaoros retorted sarcastically. “Dodon Ray!”
The little shit will pay for doing this to my eyes. Nobody touches me! He’s dead. His training had well-prepared him for maneuvers like this. Master Mashiro had liked to train them at night in the untamed, overgrown forest that stretched out beyond Suma. The cold, the predators, the isolation from society, from each other–that was where one experienced true fear. Not in the ring. Not unless one is a turkey. I am no turkey. Sense training was not uncommon for assassins, so he expected that Jaoros expected that he could handle a little temporary blindness. You are a weak and indecisive man. You will never become an assassin of my caliber.
Dodging aside, he flexed his muscles, choking back a grunt (it would have been real nice had he been able to grunt), and moved first to the left, then diagonally up into the air, front-flipping to stop his momentum, allowing him to fall to the ground and roll back to the left. All the while, the coward was yelling the name of his attack, and Zhajiang felt more serene than ever. He exhaled, feeling sharp and loose, dodging again into the air.
Slowly, along with the pain receding, his vision began to return to him. At first, everything was black, then a dark blur split its corners, letting in blinding white, and then he got used to that. Not a minute later, he was blinking the stage, his opponent, and the sea that was the mobs of people that surrounded them on the northern and southern sides back into focus. The Dodon Rays were also coming slower, he had noticed.
Tired already. We’re just getting started, noob.
The one with all that black stuff around his head had to be Jaoros. Long hair. That’s him. Though Zhajiang could not see well, he threw himself forward, spinning away from an errant Dodon Ray through the air, landing next to the blurry figure faced in black.
He punched, and the figure parried, and he punched, and the figure spun around, dodging, gaining space between them. He took a deep breath and stepped back. Jaoros led with a spinning kick on his afterimage. What an impatient fool. He won’t last ten days out there. Is this really what those turkeys claim to be a ‘Crane Assassin’? Ridiculous.
It took less than a second for him to run behind Jaoros. He noticed that the old man noticed, and that warmed his heart as he struck the boy in the back of the head with an electrical glove of ki. “Denkoken!”
The Crane Hermit was swearing loudly, but the crowd drowned out most of his nonsense. Zhajiang couldn’t help but smirk as the turkey fell first forward, then backwards, twisting around, a dazed look on his face. He’s done. The Tiger caught him in his hands. A trickle of blood was leaking out the side of his mouth from where he had bit his lip accidentally.
“Good fight, Jaoros. You weren’t exactly a turkey, maybe more of a pigeon–”
The Dodon Ray sliced into his side, just below the ribcage, exiting the other side in a burst of piss-yellow light. The crowd gasped. He coughed up blood onto Jaoros’ face, and the bastard even dared to smile. Without thinking, Zhajiang elbowed him in the nose and kicked him away. The teenager flew, a blood trail streaking from his face. The crowd parted in a panic, as those safe from Jaoros’ landing cheered on riotously regardless.
The wretched turkey landed unceremoniously on his face in the grass well beyond the stage’s boundaries. Two men carrying a stretcher were running to him when Zhajiang, clutching his wound, fell to his knees. Mashiro was boasting proudly into the mic as the crowd chanted his name. He looked around, breathing slowly, trying to hold on. So many faces passed through his vision that they all fused together into one hideous, fawning, useless fan. What do they know? What do they care?
He hurt. It hurt. Zhajiang was done. None of his streak was there to see, to cheer him on. Mashiro was playing the referee. He had to be impartial, after all. It was a cold and lonely feeling, the crowd at his back, the wind on his cheek, his wound bleeding warmth onto his fingers.
His final opponent stepped onto the stage. He wasn’t wearing a shirt for some reason. He doesn’t look too pleased to be here. “Tien Shinhan. Welcome. So nice of you to finally join us… My, my. You really are a weird-looking turkey, aren’t you? Suppose every rafter’s gotta have one. Did they catch you down at the nuclear power plant? Hah! I wonder what’ll happen if you need glasses. Good luck to the optometrist stuck with that unenviable task! And not to mention… you shave your hea–”
“Give up. You nearly took the full force of a Dodon Ray at point-blank range. That’s enough power to kill most people. You need medical attention. For your own safety, you need to–”
“I do not answer to you, turkey. Do not dare be so presumptuous! The White Tigers will be the champions of Suma! Shut your hole!”
Of course the crowd both found that funny and cathartic. Tien took a step towards him, and he took a half-step back, one hand still clutching his side. Not ideal. I’ll have one shot. That’ll have to be enough. “Why are you running?”
“Why aren’t you attacking?”
“Very well. I call this one the Machine Gun Punch.”
The Crane Hermit was strutting up and down the eastern end, making himself look like more of a damn fool than Zhajiang had thought was possible. Tien’s arms began spinning in cutting circles, like propellers, until they blurred into naught but motion and color. He stepped forward. Zhajiang slipped on the dirt, stumbling away from him, distress shuddering down his spine. How do I defend against an attack like that?! He looked to Mashiro–no solace there; he looked to the crowds–and, well, they were doing exactly what he had expected. Mouths agape like animals, arms waving madly in the air, they didn’t care who got beat, only that someone did.
I have to be strong for them… for Shumi! For Shumi! Gritting his teeth, the boy shouted and threw himself at the incoming Crane. Tien’s arms were going too fast for him to know where they were at any given moment. That’s why Zhajiang, in the end, went with the butterfly kick. Pain shot up and down his side as he twisted into the air, but this was his only shot–he had to put his all into this attack. His shout was now one equally of fighting spirit as it was of pain. And yet, as he soared, he heard not the crowd, thought not of Mashiro or his friends, but concentrated solely on making contact and then landing on his right foot so he would be able to instantly spring away without taking too much damage.
Relentlessly, his foe continued, unperturbed by Zhajiang’s attack. The boy thought he detected a slight grin on his foe’s face, even. Bastard. How could anyone like him? How could Suma like them? They’re awful people. He threw his right foot out, and Tien blocked; he threw his left foot out, and Tien blocked again, the force of their impact enough to send Zhajiang flying away.
Landing heavily, he let out an anguished cry. Damn him. His ankle was most likely broken. He had felt something snap when his left foot had connected with Tien. And yet, the throngs of onlookers were not cheering. He rolled over, finding Tien several feet away, having fallen to his knees, holding his wrist in his other hand, an anguished look on his face.
For a moment, he thought he had won.
Then, the three-eyed freak kicked him in the chest, kicked him again up into the air, kicking him away with his left foot, spinning and then slamming him again in the ribs with the back of his right heel. Zhajiang felt the blows compound upon themselves, yet he could hardly breathe as he sailed through the air, the grey skies, the dark pine trees above, the blur of faces on either side.
Crashing into the crowd, he heard the people roar mightily. Master was blowing his whistle. It was all over. I’ve failed. He was too weary and too pained to move–it certainly felt as if his ribs were cracked. Even if he had gotten Tien’s wrist, what did that matter? He’s not worth me. None of them are.
They were already approaching with a stretcher when Mashiro drew near. Chants of ‘Tien! Tien! Tien!’ were growing louder. The air stank of piss. Red-winged blackbirds had landed on the edge of the gathering to pick at fallen popcorn and cotton candy. The old man was running over to him.
“I’m… sorry…” he breathed weakly. “I’ve failed you… Master. Shumi…”
His face was stern; his mustache bristled. “Hush now, Zhajiang. You need to get medical treatment immediately. We’ll talk tomorrow.”
Disappointed in me. I knew it. “Master…”
The old man disappeared into the multitudes of people now crowding onto the stage. A pair of men grabbed him by the wrists and ankles and threw him unceremoniously onto a stretcher. Soon, they were running off with him. I could have won that. I could have done something different… some tactic I didn’t think of. He was vulnerable. I should have won. I could have. Those who looked to him had eyes brimming with pity and loathing.
Zhajiang had to look away, though he was too weak to cover his ears as they began chanting for the Crane School and for Tien.
Chapter 4: In The Violent BlueEdit
Not so many ships coming into harbor today. Two or three regulars and a new one on this morning. Went down to see her myself. Rare, that. Didn’t recognize the vessel–a midnight blue and black express cruiser, thirty-five feet long, or thereabouts. She’s the only passenger, allegedly. I find her waiting at the dock, hands on her hips, the breeze coursing through her silky blonde hair, chewing on the inside of her cheek.
“What is the meaning of this? Why am I being held here?”
“Yours is a foreign vessel, Miss, and I’m the inspector.”
“The boys on that tugboat already looked my boat over, sir. It’s clean. I don’t see what the problem is.”
“Mhm, mhm… we’ll see about that, Miss.” I walk around her, not daring to touch (don’t want another lawsuit on my hands). “What’s your name, and what are you doing here?”
“I’m Tights… Tights Brief. Pleasure to meet you,” she says, curtsying and shaking my hand. “I’m a, well, um, a writer. I’m here to interview the locals. I thought you knew…? I called the relay station yesterday to confirm, but nobody picked up.”
So that’s who that was. Bloody hell. Knew I should have picked that up. But I was meditating. Oh well, better to deal with her once than twice. I swallow hard. “Interview them about what?”
Smirking, she pulls out a black ballpoint pen and a notepad. “About their mass exodus from Akki.”
“Their… wait, what was that?” My mind’s going blank. I think of Jared and the King of Nowhere, but little comfort do they give me, let me tell you. Don’t know what she’s on about.
“Oh. Haven’t you heard? Aren’t you a government employee, Mr. Mauvin?”
“That’s right. I operate the lighthouse, and I’m damn good at my job! Oh, write that in your bloody notebook, why don’t you?” She raises her hand, the pen poised between her index and middle finger, and I have to struggle to maintain my composure. If this is real life, and not a fantasy, I can’t tell. It’s getting harder and harder to rise above emotion.
“If you insist.”
Snatching her pen and pocketing it, I scoff. “I wasn’t being serious. You need to show more decorum on Akki, Miss Brief.”
“Decorum?! Why you–”
Catching her punch, I stop her right there. She’s mild as fish and chips, blimey. Definitely not a demon. “You’re going to have to try harder than that if you want to knock me down. I may be older now, but I had a girl once… and I spent more time trying to tame her wild spirit than anything. You remind me of her–you’re of a similar age, if my vision isn’t deceiving me. Heh. Funny, that. Now, look. We can do this the easy way, or the hard way.”
She goes all limp-wrist on me like a trained dog. “So, am I free to go, or what?”
“Alright then,” she says, drawing away, sliding her hand from my grip. “Good day, Mr. Mauvin.”
I can’t help but think she’ll put that in whatever she’s writing, too, but just at that precise moment, my phone starts its daily buzzing again–and so early in the morning at that. Do people have no compassion, no empathy? “Hello, Jared. What’s going down, old chap?”
“Charles, listen to me. I need you to get over to the Dumpster right away.”
“Oh, this very moment?” I audibly groan, trying to dissuade him through the clever use of tonal inflections. “Jared, but it’s so early in the morning. Can’t it wait until after I’ve had a spot of tea and a bath?”
“You take baths, Charles?”
“I find them relaxing. Staring out at the Red Sea all day puts me in a sort of–well, I don’t want to say trance, but–some sort of semi-altered state. It’s mind-numbing, my work. I’m sure you understand, boyo. So yes, I enjoy sitting in a tepid pool of my own filth. It helps me unwind. Can’t do showers anymore. Not after eighteen years of this shit.”
“Regardless, I need you to meet me at once. It’s urgent, Charles.”
“Alright, I’ll just get dressed and have a spot of breakfast–”
“No time for that. Come down now.”
“As you wish, old chap.” I hang up.
I make sure to get some toffee on the way. No sharing. Not if he’s going to make me spend another unruly night with his unsavory team. Silver is the worst, certainly, but the woman is hardly any better at conversing. I don’t want to go. I used to love a jolly old evening on the Dumpster, but now all I feel is regret at the fact that I couldn’t come up with some excuse to stay home.
Nevertheless, I find myself on the beach, my toes feeling the lapping of the waves as I throw the capsule Jared had given me. A jet ski appears, and I’m off. Bloody hope they have whiskey. I don’t want to deal with these people sober. I close my eyes for a moment as I tear through the fog. Only five or six ships are out there today, including Miss Brief’s. There isn’t usually heavy traffic, so I often do this.
I meditate on my suffering as water sprays onto my face, the morning winds only forcing me to concentrate harder. My suffering is the suffering of change. I do not like new people. I want to sit and talk with Jared and not have all those other ones there ruining it. They put pressure on me, bring upon me anxiety, and it’s no fun. The parties are supposed to be fun. Pleasure is transient, however, just like everything else existing in the cycle of samsara. I am too old to fall prey to common delusions like hedonism. But a little partying here and there is nice. That’s more the Middle Way line of thinking, isn’t it? Got to be. Has to be. That’s basic shit.
Opening my eyes, I spot the Chum Dumpster lying at anchor not more than a few dozen meters away, barely visible through the scattered fog. There are yet gulls circling overhead, ever hopeful. I suppose I would feel sorry for them if they didn’t have this massive ocean brimming with billions of fish right in front of them. If they put a little effort in, maybe they wouldn’t be so miserable. As usual, Jared is waiting for me out on the deck.
“Well met, Jared! How are you on this fine grey day?” I call out, hopping off the jet ski and climbing up the ladder on the side of his yacht with the awkwardness of a baby penguin.
“Inside, Charles. We don’t have much time.”
“What is it? What’s going on? You were rather curt on the mobile.”
Inside, Silver is leaning back in his chair, a bluetooth device blinking in his ear, fumbling with a coin and a shot glass between his fingers. He does not so much as acknowledge me when we step inside. It’s warm and cozy in the cabin, with an earthy, piny smell percolating (someone must have thrown up since I’d left). I take my seat in one of the big leather chairs, eyeing the liquor cabinet, which is mysteriously locked. I don’t like that. Don’t like that at all. What kind of party doesn’t have whiskey? I can leave if I want to. I can damn well get up and sail off on my jet ski, and there isn’t a thing Jared or his lackey can do about it. I’m not someone to be taken advantage of.
“They’re dead,” Silver says flatly. “All of them.”
“On her way back. She’ll be here within the hour.”
“Very well,” Jared sighs, clicking his tongue. “We have no choice, then.”
“No choice? What are you talking about, mate?”
He paces around the room for a while, then, almost like a child, he whimpers to himself (I hear him, even though he probably thinks he was being too quiet for me), takes a key out of his pocket, and unlocks the liquor cabinet. Immediately, he pulls out a bottle of tequila and pours three shots into three red plastic cups.
“Now this is really what I call a party now!”
“Don’t get too excited,” Jared warns, handing me my cup. “We have to remain level-headed.”
I down it at once. I don’t care. Silver does the same. Jared, meanwhile, is being rather tedious with a lime juice addendum. Don’t like it. Where I’m from, a man takes his shot–doesn’t dress it up all neat and sweet. That’s nonsense. Just as I go to talk, however, Silver says:
“Fourteen of them, I think. All dead, except that first lot. They only lost the one.”
Finally finishing fixing up his tequila real good, Jared downs his shot and pours us seconds. “He’s insanely powerful. We can’t let him get to the mainland… the death toll will be off the charts.”
“I know. We have a plan for that,” Silver says, clearing his throat and glaring at me.
I don’t much fancy the ginger; his attempts to get at me fall on deaf ears, so to speak. “I know, but… did King Furry sanction it?”
Silver looks up at him before downing the contents of his cup again in one gulp. “My father’s in charge.”
A knock comes at the door. Jared and Silver exchange a look. I’m still not sure why I’m here. Bloody weird morning, this. Tequila’s not bad, though. They knock again, damn impatient wankers.
“Get the door, Alabastian,” Silver says through his teeth. He’s reaching for his gun, and I’m leaning back in my chair, wondering when the ginger’s going to leave. Glase being gone is fortuitous, but she’ll be back. They always come back.
The portly fellow looks none too pleased with being the sacrificial lamb so to speak, but I’m already more than buzzed, and it’s becoming harder and harder to care. I want to have eternal compassion for all beings, but it is so easy for these notions to slip away, or even to remain, but cast in a different light, leaving me indifferent to their emotional triggers. Jared inches up to the door, his pistol drawn behind his back.
“Who could even know we’re here?” Silver whispers.
“Couldn’t be any of the regulars–I know ‘em all too well. Not bloody likely one of them’s a traitor. Only one new boat in port, but she’s just a reporter, and that won’t–”
“Ah, shit.” Jared shifts uncomfortably, peering through the grimy window over top the door leading out to the starboard-side of the deck. “They’ve come.”
With a sigh of resignation, Silver gestures to the door, which Jared opens all clumsily, the div. He’s a right proper spaz when he’s flustered. Nearly always flustered, too. Dunno how he ended up with the slick government paycheck. Needless to say, I get up to pour myself another drink when, like a rude manbaby, Jared gloats in setting fear upon me like the hounds. He loves to do that, I swear. Gets a real kick out of it when he tickles me good. Well, I’m not bloody tickled right now.
Into the cabin strides, suddenly, not Glase, whom I had expected of course, being reasonable and even-tempered, but a beast in a periwinkle cloak, its hood drenched in rainwater, and pulled up over the fellow’s face, concealing everything about him, except for his burning golden eyes. He’s alone, at least. Thank kami this isn’t another party.
“M-my good sir… please, here, sit…” Jared stammers. “Would you, uh… I don’t know if you do that sort of thing, or anything, but would you like a drink?”
Caught between my own chair and the bar, I have no choice but to make the graceless walk there myself, every step focused-upon and calculated, sweat pouring down my back, keeping balance amongst the morning waves, amongst my morning drunkenness, and I have to slow my breathing, being unable to concentrate on anything else, and nearly slip.
“Easy there, lad.” Silver says with a look of superiority. “Don’t mind him–he works for me.”
One of their workers, am I now? I may be on the government payroll, same as them, but we’re in completely separate departments. It’s not like either of these sods could order me to do anything. I reach the bar, wiping my palms on my pants before feeling the relief of the cool tequila bottle in between them. The hooded man is standing just inside the door, head bowed, unmoving. Silver seems comfortable enough, but Jared isn’t, and that gets me worried.
“I will not stay for long. Do not trouble yourselves,” the man says at last.
Silver folds his arms, standing behind the couch opposite the door. “What do you want now?”
“Togarashi plans on leaving Akki in three days’ time. You must complete your operation by then. If not, we will be forced to reveal ourselves to the world and ask for its aid in this conflict. I fear many will die if it comes to that.”
Jared’s flustered again. “Wait… hold on. Slow down. What?!”
Silver is unmoved. “How do you know he plans on leaving the island in three days?”
“I need not remind you that Togarashi has waged war against not only your species, but his own as well. The war has been costly for us. The Dragons of the East and South are dead, and the Dragon of the West was mortally wounded two nights ago. I fear he may not live much longer.”
This tequila is damn good. I’m feeling alive and full of compassion. “Whoa, dragons?! Like, actual dragons? On Akki?” I can hardly contain the disbelief in my voice. “I think I would know if dragons were living here!”
Jared gives me a look. What can I say? I’m drunk. It’s high-time we got this party started. The guy–or demon, was it?–doesn’t seem to mind all that much, though.
“We are not dragons in the flesh, no. That is just the name of our order: the Dragons of the Dawn. I am the Dragon of the North.”
“Regardless,” the red-haired man says, cutting in, “we have a contingency plan in place. I will call my father. We’ll have a plane down here tomorrow. I do have to warn you again–the explosion will destroy much of the island. You and your people, however many of them remain, should relocate somewhere else.”
“Perhaps we will travel south.”
I have remained at the bar. That was the second revelation, and, to be honest, I wasn’t doing too well with the first. There was a demon, or an alien–a demon/alien guy who was at war with a rogue member of his own kind. Got that. Easy. Already knew it, to be fair.
But not that second part. No… that part makes my blood run cold. I take another shot to calm myself, but all it does is make my heart beat louder in my ears. They’re going to bomb Akki. They’re going to wipe out my home. I cannot stand for this. I don’t know what to do. I’m too drunk for this right now. It’s too early in the day.
“We will. If you do not succeed, the world will find out about us.”
The demon–the good demon–raised his hands over his head, and in a lightning crack of golden light, vanished into dust. I always knew they were real. Jared used to think I was crazy, used to call me a religious zealot. Well, look who’s laughing now, Jared.
“What the hell?!”
“Sorry about that, Charles… didn’t think he’d show up right then. They usually come at night. Look, we can explai–”
“You’re going to bomb Akki! You said so yourself. What the fuck, mate?”
Silver returns to the bar, pouring himself another shot and downing it immediately. “It’s the only way, old man. I’m sorry, but we have to do it. We’re saving the world. If that thing gets loose on the mainland, tens of thousands will die, if not more. We could be looking at our species’ extinction event. Can’t let that happen. King Furry put his faith in us to protect the world, and we’re going to do that if we can. The bomb is our last hope.”
“Look, we can find you work somewhere else… I’m sure Mr. Cardinal could even get you a spot on our team.”
There is such a thing as a greater good–one life for a million. Makes it easier when that life is evil to begin with, I suppose. “Well, we need to get back ashore then. Tell everyone what’s happening. They need to evacuate. When is the plane getting here tomorrow? How much time do we have?”
Jared approaches the bar, pouring himself another drink. “We’re not telling anyone, Charles.”
“Are you mental? Why not?”
“We don’t want Togarashi to find out what’s going on. If we tip him off with a mass evacuation of all the residents, he would flee before the bomb arrived.”
“Jared, you can’t do this. We have to tell them! One hundred eighty-four people live there!”
“Everyone who needs to be off the island before the bomb is dropped is already off the island. That includes you.”
The heat is rising in my cheeks. I’m sweating; I’m seeing things clearer. My lip is trembling, like it is falling asleep, but I have to press on. I cannot stand for this. I can’t. I won’t. “You can’t do this. You can’t! Let me go. I’ll tell them myself if I have to.”
“You’re not leaving,” says the ginger.
“What did you say?”
“The island isn’t safe anymore. You heard ol’ Northy. We’re leaving. If there are any personal items you need before we go, Glase can pick them up on her way back.”
I look from one man to the other, my vision slightly blurring. “You’re telling me I can’t leave?”
“Charles, come on…”
“You can’t do that. If I want to leave, I will.”
“Don’t make this–”
I throw the bottle at him. Shame it was a third full. Silver goes down with the shattering of glass. I lunge at Jared, who pushes me back, pinning me against the side of the bar. We huff, and we puff, spittle and sweat flying, our foreheads going real red, almost purple. Jared always does have that vein pop out above his left eye when he tries real hard to squeeze something.
“You can’t!” I shout.
“Charles, stop it! Enough!”
“You can’t do this! They have a right to–”
Grabbing ahold of my collar, Jared is able to get two good punches in, and I’ll admit he’s not half bad at swinging fists for a fat guy. Silver is moaning on the floor, pulling shards of glass from his cheeks. I take a step back, but Jared comes at me again. This time, I duck, but there’s no room to dodge inside this snug little yacht. The wall to my back, I throw out my arms to make him halt his approach.
“Please… don’t do this, Jared. You’re my friend! You’re better than this!”
“It’s the only way! If you don’t sit down and shut up, I’ll have to tie you up! We have orders, Charles! You are not going to mess with them!”
Fingers shaking, I rub my pants again to wipe the sweat away and feel the bump of something in my pocket. “Go ahead and try. I’m not your prisoner! You can’t force me to do anything!”
That is when he decides to run at me. I try to move off to the right, but his fist takes me in the shoulder all the same. Winded, I can’t muster the energy to hit him back, merely standing there wheezing and gasping for air as he punches me again, this time bringing me to my knees. One more punch knocks me almost over. I taste blood. Spittle runs from my lip. My focus goes out and come back in again. I focus my breathing, my vision riddled with popping stars of light, and stand again. He’s already pulling back for another swing when I stick the pen in his eye.
For a fraction of a second, he doesn’t so much as react, allowing me to drive it further into his skull. Blood splatters across my fingertips, staining my good brown sweater. He’s screaming now. Oh yes, he’s a right screamer, Jared. As he falls, I step over him, wiping my shaking fingers on his pants before pulling out his holstered pistol.
Silver already has his out. He fires first. I roll behind the side of the couch, not able to return fire. I’m not a soldier, not a fighter. I’ve never done this before. This is horrid work, hideous, violent nonsense that doesn’t behoove a man of my stature. Master Preggu would be so ashamed.
But I’m not dying today.
I pop up around the couch, scampering to the door as I squeeze the trigger several times. Glass shatters, and the ginger dives for the floor. Jared sits up, at first trying to pull the pen out of his face, then moaning horribly after one attempt, waving his hands about, and screaming again. Reaching the door, I fire off the last three bullets in the magazine while trying to wrenching it open without looking.
Alas, it takes a little longer than I had hoped to get the door open with one hand, while giving yourself covering fire with the other, and in that time, Silver is able to roll out from behind the bar, aim, and take me in the shoulder, just above my lung. I don’t cry, because I’m not a baby. It feels warm–not too bad, but warm, and maybe a little tingly. I stagger out of the cabin, seeing my jet ski bobbing innocently just off the starboard side.
Without hesitating, I cast the gun away and dive off the deck of the Chum Dumpster.
Zhajiang awoke to a sharp pain in his side. Staring up at the hospital’s dirty ceiling, he blinked rapidly, trying to remember his dream. Even now, he felt some lingering emotion, something that had been roused deep from within him, or perhaps a collection of all his emotions, and it was altogether unsettling to find he had forgotten why. Agitation remained in his fingertips. Emotion without context is almost like a virus, though Zha doubted that was why he felt like throwing up.
“Oy, you’re awake!” Zadich called out, springing up from his bed to come say hello. The boy was peppered in bandages across his arms, face, neck, and probably the rest of his body that was (thankfully) covered by a blue-and-white hospital gown. His left arm was in a cast. Zha’d seen the bone snap himself. I don’t have the energy for this right now. “How’re ya feelin’, buddy? Hurts, doesn’t it?”
Giggling, the brute lumbered over, plopping down on the edge of his bed with the force of an iceberg detaching itself from a big old glacier and sailing hundreds of feet down into the frigid ocean. Unluckily, his bed was no ocean, and its springs were old–rusted, even–so the force of the big guy sitting down alone nearly punched Zhajiang back into the dark.
He hadn’t bothered saying anything because it hurt merely to breathe. He could tell they had put him on some sort of painkiller, but it hadn’t done much. Typical, but it’s not like I don’t deserve it. It should have been me, not her. The ankle of his left leg was wrapped in a cast, as expected, and his torso was heavily bandaged. He could hardly move without something hurting, be it a joint, a bone, an appendage. On top of that, he had a headache. This week just couldn’t get any worse.
“Master’s gone,” Zadich said.
“Didn’t say. He left this morning on the sunrise. Shame you didn’t get to see him before he went, but it’s fine. He said he’d be back within a few days at most. Told us to heal up as fast as we can and then get back to our training.”
Sitting up, Zha received a glass of water from Zadich, taking it eagerly. “Weird. It’s not like the old man to leave without telling us where he’s going.”
“Do you think he’s back to working bounties?”
“Couldn’t be. He’s too old. Besides, why would he keep that a secret from us?”
A couple dressed up in suit and dress were berating a nurse, all of them walking by the room as if they were competing in the speedwalking nationals. “Maybe he’s sad that we’re all banged up and doesn’t want to rub it in?”
The Tiger scoffed. “Do you remember your training?”
“Fair point. But either way, we’ve got nothing to fear.”
“Nothing but the turkeys. We’ll deal with them after our bones are mended. No use trying now. Our side did end up the more wounded of the two after that stupid tourney.”
“The old man never should have entered us in that stupid thing. What a waste of time. If only we had been able to ambush them before…”
Zhajiang grit his teeth. We were close a few times, but they move too fast. I don’t know how they do it. “Either way, we should try to–”
“Ahem,” said a woman in a strong, throaty voice as she marched her presumptuous little ass into the hospital room, closing the door behind her. Wearing a tan business suit and a salmon tie, the woman’s deep green eyes scanned the room, first moving from Huo-Guo’s bed, to Zadich’s, then to Zhajiang’s, and there settling, with some marked relief. “Ah, there you are. You are the members of the School of the White Tigers, is that right?”
Smiling plastically, the woman walked up to them, holding out her hand. Zadich shook it first, but she dared not allow herself to be held back, and leaned over him after three pumps, and gave Zhajiang a good four hard jerks, enough to make his shoulder socket burn with eye-watering pain. “Hello. My name is Valentia Milano. I am here… honestly, because I saw that fight yesterday! You guys performed admirably, despite being two fighters down. You knocked out four of them, and they only knocked out three of you! That’s all I’m saying.
“Anyways, that’s not actually why I’m here. You see, it was not long ago–not even a month ago–that my sister Gertrude–kami, doesn’t she have a pretty name?!–and I came down from the city to stay at papa’s winery in Cardan for the winter. My sister was murdered there by the Cranes.”
“It was because someone placed a bounty on her, right?”
“Call it what you will. It’s still murder.”
“A bounty is different,” said Huo-Guo, rising from her bed to hobble over to the others. Her cheeks were purpled and puffy, and her lip was split, but she didn’t appear to have any broken bones like the other two. “We’re assassins, too. We can’t take up bounties against one another. It’s taboo.”
Zhajiang concurred, “No matter how much we hate them… if anyone were to find out that we had taken up a bounty against them… that would be the end of our school. Nobody would respect us. Hell, assassins from across the world would try to hunt us down. It’s not something that’s done.”
Her pout morphed into a sly look. Thinking she’s playing children. We’re not as stupid as you think, woman. “You do want them dead, though, don’t you? I can see it in your eyes. You would like nothing more than to see them rotting in the ground.”
“We’ll kill them if they provoke us. Not for money.”
“I understand.” She returned to the door, twisting around with one hand on the frame, looking back at them with her head tilted to the side. “You know… the Cranes and White Tigers have beaten each other senseless for all of Suma to see. I’ve heard reports, though I wasn’t there to see it myself, sadly. You really beat the hell out of each other. What’ll it take–six, maybe eight weeks to heal those bones? Same for them, right?”
“So, my father is the mayor of Orange Star City. I have a helicopter waiting outside. Come with me, and I’ll take you to the finest medical establishment this side of Central City. They’ll have you healed up in a week or two, tops. Guaranteed.”
“We don’t have the money to pay for that,” said Zadich.
She raised her hands, as if to absolve herself of the guilt. “It’s all taken care of. Do you want to come with? The chopper won’t remain here for much longer.”
They exchanged a look. He could hear Huo-Guo’s breathing. Ms. Milano was tapping her fingers on the doorframe. A sharp pain took him in the left side, and tensing up in reflex only served to make all his other broken ribs scream out in protest.
“Could be a setup,” Zhajiang offered, making sure to lower his voice so the woman couldn’t hear.
“Nah, Cranes are down the hall. Saw them there this morning. All five of them.”
“Someone else? Maybe a relative of one of the bounties we’ve done in this area has teamed up with her…”
“Zha, you really took a hard blow to the head, didn’t you?” the girl asked, her dark eyes bugging out.
“What do you mean?”
“You aren’t making any sense.”
“Well, what do you think we should do?”
“Stay here and wait for the old man to return.”
The taller boy grunted, then stood, and walked off to the door. “I don’t care. If she’s for real, I’ll do it,” Zadich said bluntly. “This doesn’t count as payment. It doesn’t.”
“Yes it does!” the girl whispered fiercely into Zhajiang’s ear, tugging on his arm, trying to pull him back. “Someone will find out… someone always does. They’ll ruin us, Zha. Don’t do this to Master. He spent decades building up our school from nothing!”
Another pain took him in the side, and the boy felt tired more than anything else. All this noise was too much. He was tired of pain, of talk, of losing. I don’t care how they die. They just need to die. She didn’t put a bounty out–nobody will know. Huo-Guo’s being paranoid for no reason. “Nobody will find out.”
He looked to the door and back to her swollen face. “Nobody will find out!”
“Don’t go, Zha. Please…”
He stood and walked to the door; looking back, the boy begged with his eyebrows (not the most manly of techniques, but it gets the job done more often than not). She wiped her bump of a nose, exhaled, her neck twitching her head to the side unnaturally, and rose to her feet. The sterile white room, not so well-kept, not so well-stocked, had a faint odor of bleach to it. And as she came to him, the Tiger felt himself almost welling up with tears, and he had to look away lest he let her see him so.
She had awoken in a cell no larger than a modest bathroom. Someone had cleaned and bandaged her wounds and left her a bowl of soup on the metal table. There was only the one light, outside of her cell in the middle of the room, dim enough to cast most of the place in shadow. Indeed, it was only after she stood up that Violet noticed the three other cells adorning the other corners of the room.
In the cell across from hers, Carmichael was lying on his bed. Tough son of a bitch. It had not been a sure thing, his survival. And yet, she could not help but wonder why he was alive–why she was–if they were just going to be placed in these cells to rot away. That Eugen guy said he wanted me to speak with his boss about something…
Takebashi was crouching behind his barred door, gnawing at an uneven fingernail. He didn’t so much as acknowledge that she was there. Neither did the man to her right, whose cell was closer to hers than those on the other side of the room. Though the lighting was poor, she could catch a glimpse of someone on the bed, swaying back and forth from darkness to semi-darkness, betraying little more than the disheveled appearance of a hobo’s shadow.
No visible cameras, but they’d be fools not to be watching us. Whoever had captured her would not be so careless as that. The soup was halfway decent. And, as she had suspected, the knife she had hidden in her boot was missing. Guess they did a cavity search too. Doubtless, they had left cameras to monitor the prisoners, though Violet could not spot the glint of any in the near darkness.
“Carmichael, you up?” she said loudly.
The one next to her stirred, but remained mute; Takebashi too, while curious enough to watch, said nothing.
“That you, Violet?” her captain growled hoarsely, sitting up after some time, and rubbing his eyes. “Damn, my muscles are sore. Were we sedated? Feels like it.”
“I don’t know. But it wouldn’t surprise me, given where we.”
“Good to see you’re still alive, ma’am. Didn’t think we had much of a chance after…”
Don’t say too much. They’re surely watching us. “That yakuza you found is here too… but we’re all that’s left. They got Cassian.”
“I know. I saw it happen.”
Her plastic spoon clattered around her plastic bowl as the woman sipped another morsel of hot and sour soup. “Have you ever heard of them? The ‘New Red Ribbon Army’, or something like that.”
“Hey! What about you, yakuza?”
“Nope, never heard of them neither…” The weasel pointed to the cell to Violet’s right. “But you’re not askin’ the important questions. Who’s this guy? I never saw his face before! I don’t know who the hell he could be. One of yours?”
“Hell if I know,” Violet said. “Hey, you! Who are you?” she said, banging the table with the end of her spoon. “You in there… yeah, you! Who are you?”
His dark eyes met hers, and there was something familiar about them that gave her an unsettling feeling. He slunk back into the darkness of the far corner of his cell, which once again enshrouded him in shadows.
“See?” she shot back at Takebashi. No use getting the yakuza all wound up. Who the hell was that? I’ve met them before… somewhere… “There’s no way you can tell who’s in there.”
“I saw him, I did! That ain’t a face I’ve seen before!”
She stood up, spoon in hand. “You know, you’re a swinish creti–”
Two black metal doors on the left side of the room swung open, and in walked a middle-aged man in a crisp black-and-white suit, his hair gelled back, though the sides were cut short. He was in his fifties or sixties, for his hair, originally red as flames, was now turning white in places, especially in his sideburns, which he kept cut short. Everything about the man was clean, efficient, no nonsense.
“Good morning,” the man said upon reaching the center of the room. Placing his arms out in a welcoming gesture, he slowly spun around to look at the three of them, curiously overlooking in the man in the shadows in the cell next to her. “You will be wondering why you are here, and where you are, specifically. Indeed, I do not doubt that you will have all manner of questions for me. But I am not here to answer your questions. I am here to offer you positions in the New Red Ribbon Army. Refuse and die. I am a busy man with a busy schedule. Let’s get to it now. What are your answers?”
“I am loyal to the Chàoxing Gon!” Takebashi yelled proudly, standing up and beating his chest, trying to look courageous, as if people were watching him on TV.
“The Chàoxing Gon are my partners. Mr. Takebashi, you are free to go.” He walked over to the yakuza’s cell and unlocked it. “Go on. You are free to go.”
The man stammered something back in response, as if he had no other options, but he was entirely unintelligible in his delivery.
“Stay, or leave. It’s your choice.”
Swiftly, the gentleman marched over to the unknown prisoner’s cell, unlocked it, and pulled the man residing within out. Moreover, he unholstered a silver magnum and pressed the end of its barrel roughly into the prisoner’s temple. Dragging the man to the center of the room, he faced Violet’s cell.
The yakuza’s door creaked open, and he scurried out like a mouse, not pausing to look back. Fool. He’s dead either way. There was no way they would let him walk. She wanted to throw her spoon at him. “Takebashi!” she called out, as the man reached the door.
He looked back once, then slipped through the metal doors like they were hanging plastic.
“I have entirely lost patience with you,” he said, nodding to Violet. “Now tell me, Colonel, do you recognize this man?” He pressed the tip of his magnum to the man’s head once more. The prisoner had no reaction, simply staring off limply into the darkness.
His beard was ragged, his eyes sunken, his hair unwashed and matted. He was breathing through his mouth; a clear trail of spittle was hanging from his lip. When he looked at her, he didn’t see her, didn’t see anything. Son of a bitch. “Mushigi…”
“I am not fond of business disputes,” said Cardinal. He shot Mushigi through the ear. Violet gasped. The body hit the ground with a dull thud. Cardinal plucked a handkerchief out from his breast pocket to wipe the blood off his knuckles. “I am a busy man, Violet. I know you’ll find it ludicrous to believe, but I am currently attempting to save the world from an imminent alien attack. I do not have time to deal with these petty squabbles. You have attacked one of my business partners–the Chàoxing Gon. That was reckless of you.”
Her hands wrapped around the cold metal bars as she faced him. “The Children of Chaos hold Diablo Desert. The yakuza tried to claim the desert for themselves, but they had no right. We killed most of them in that fight. I was able to shoot Mazuchiru several times before he escaped. But I suppose you already know about that, don’t you?”
The old man pondered. Does he think that makes him seem more believable? He’s psychotic. “The past is the past. But you assaulted the Goldfish Casino two days ago, killing several of the Chàoxing Gon, and taking one of their members hostage.”
She drew her chin up. There were many things she wanted to say, but she had to remain composed. This was not an ideal situation. This was not a normal man she was dealing with. “I needed to know he was dead. Besides, that bald fucker that works for you was the one who shot Sugoro and killed most of his men. We only came for Mazuchiru.”
“I see. Yes, Eugen is a splendid assassin. He did well to capture you both.”
“Not much capturing going on here,” grunted Carmichael from behind. “I don’t remember anything after getting shot in that parking lot until I woke up here.”
“Be that as it may, Eugen had a task to perform, and he did it.”
“What…?” Violet scoffed. “Killing Sugoro?”
“Precisely,” said Cardinal, a hint of a smile cutting through his sallow skin. Holstering his pistol, he approached her. “Higataro is easier to work with. And the only reason I told you that, Colonel, is because I want you to work for me as well.”
“Stop right there. Don’t talk to her like that!” Carmichael roared from behind, getting to his feet. Now he’s done it.
“Silence,” hissed Cardinal. “Another word out of you, and I’ll feed you to my shoal.”
He gnashed his teeth and folded his arms and struck up a cool pose and conjured up a furious frown and sat back down, and that was all well and good for him.
Violet wondered how to play this Cardinal. He was obviously acutely aware of what he was doing, but she was more interested in to what extent he perceived her own awareness of these things. If it was not much, she had some leeway, but if he was aware… well, that would be no good.
“Your guy… he called this the New Red Ribbon Army, I think?”
“Correct. Although, we have not officially revealed ourselves to world… for the most part. For now, my team is working under me at the SAATIP division in King Furry’s government. It would please me to have one of the few surviving members of Red Ribbon Army join us and help reforge the old empire anew!”
“Sorry,” she said with a sheepish look. “I was never that big on loyalty. The Red Ribbon Army was just another opportunity for me. Now they’re gone, and the Children of Chaos remain. I like it better that way.”
“Not all of your former colleges are dead,” Cardinal smiled. “Doctor Gero, for example, survived the destruction of your army’s headquarters. As did General Copper and much of his army–the only division of the Red Ribbon Army, it appears, to not have been fully wiped out in the collapse. Ironic, don’t you think?”
This guy thinks he’s good. That’s good for me. “Ironic?”
“You were a subordinate of Copper, were you not?”
She spat. “Of course I was. You already know that. Why bother asking?”
“My son was also a Colonel serving under Copper.”
“Wait… does that mean…?” Violet’s eyes grew large. “Commander Red said he had Silver executed…”
“Not quite. I confess I had to step in, in that instance,” replied Cardinal.
“Silver is alive. Once he returns from the Red Sea in the south, you will go with him to North City to entreat Doctor Gero. You will make him join us. He has gathered Generals Copper, Brown, Gold, and all of their armies in the great mountain range east of the city. You will go there, and you will convince Gero and the others to join us. Are you following me, Violet?”
She was aghast. What the hell is wrong with this guy? I’m not his envoy. I don’t care about him, about any of this. The Red Ribbon Army is dead. It should stay that way. “I will not do it.”
“I will not!” she said, her voice rising. “You cannot make me!”
He looked down as he walked across the face of her cell, and she thought he looked more tired than troubled. “Silver and the others are currently stationed at Akki–an island deep in the southern hemisphere of the world.” A flush of heat crept up her cheeks. Shit. Does he know…? “Very soon, he will be finished, and they will return with a passenger in tow.”
“Y-you… bastard…!” she shouted, throwing her spoon at him. “You’re a monster!”
“I’m getting things done. And rather efficiently, I must say. Regardless, you will perform this task for me, and once it is completed, I will promote you to the rank of commander in the New Red Ribbon Army. How does that sound? Good?” She bit her lip. Fucker. He’s got me. I have to kill him. He won’t get away with this. I’ll get him. “Or, you can pout and mope here, like a child. And if you do… I will present to you, in this very room, your own father, and do to him what I did to the snitch. It’s your choice.”
Without waiting for a reply, the man bent over, scooped up her spoon, pocketed it, and strode off after Takebashi through those cold metal doors.
There are two aspects of bodhicitta, the mind of awakening: inspiration to become enlightened for the sake of all beings; and the application of such, or simply just doing it. This is known as the Bodhisattva vow. I am running now. The jet ski has made it ashore. Silver lives; he will be coming for me; there is little time. The sand feels good between my toes. Water and blood fall from me like raindrops. I don’t want any trouble.
There is no one out and about. All quiet on my end. Strange, that. My shoulder is throbbing with pain, so I press on. I have to tell them. I have to save them all. The road leading into town is vacant–a few parked hovercars here and there, but elsewise little more than sand. It’s good meditation weather, this. I’d like some toffee too, but I’m not complaining.
I am out of breath by the time I reach second street, which branches off from the heart of Pulang into the suburbs of those who don’t get to live in fancy beach houses on the coast. Again, there is no one out and about. I find that odd. There are always tourists in Akki, even if only a few dozen. Indeed, I had brought in two cruise yachts today, each supposedly filled with twenty or more passengers.
I freeze, clutching my shoulder. Goosebumps perk up on my arms. I wonder if the demon has come. Is it already too late? Have I done this for nothing? I grunt, falling to my knees. I have compassion even for him. The pain is becoming unbearable. This cannot be. Pain and pleasure are two sides of the same coin: that of emptiness, of samsara, of ignorance. I seek enlightenment; I am not beholden to my sensations. Struggling to rise to my feet, I hear the jingling of a bell.
A blonde-haired woman steps out of a shop, clutching an ice cream cone. She is, of course, Tights Brief–that annoying girl from a few hours ago. She sees me, and I see her, and the greatest tragedy is that she lets the cone drop right out of her hand, splattering on the sidewalk. French Vanilla is a helluva flavor to let go to waste.
I get to my feet, taking a few steps towards her. “You have to tell everyone to leave! They’re going to bomb the island! King Furry ordered it himself! Tell them to go! Tell them…”
My vision unfocuses, and no matter how hard I blink, I cannot refocus. I feel weak, but feelings are meaningless. They are lesser pursuits. I must save the people and help them achieve enlightenment so we can all break free of samsara.
“Mr. Mauvin!” the woman yells, rushing over to me, but she doesn’t get here before I fall to my knees again.
Warm liquid flows over those fingers of mine pressed against my shoulder. I just can’t seem to catch my breath. The wind flutters through my hair, cooling my sweat. This is all happening too fast. I have to stay here. I am lucid. I am awake.
“We have to help them…!” I scream passionately.
“No,” another voice replies from behind, just above my left ear. I shiver. “You don’t get away so easily. I’m not allowed to kill you for murdering Alabastian, but don’t think I don’t want to. Lucky for you.” She shoves me down, raising the butt of her rifle over me. She’s kind of sexy in her dark army fatigues. Now that right there’s a right proper lass. She snuck up on me fair and square. Got me good. I close my eyes, Avalokiteśvara’s avatar fracturing and distorting itself in grotesque ways the moment Ms. Glase says, “Time to go see your daughter, Charles. Mr. Cardinal’s orders. You remember him… and you remember her… yeah? Yeah, you do. This is going to hurt.”
The pain overwhelms me, and I cannot so much as speak, much less form a thought. My eyes find Ms. Brief, but she is running back into the shop. I don’t blame her. Would have done the same in her position. The sound of bells is once again in my ears, and before long, nothing else remains.
When Paik and Jaoros had finally awoken, they had left the Suma Hospital together to get some fresh air. The White Tigers being just down the hall, Tien could not stand to remain there. The clean, over-sterilized smell of the hospital made him gag. It was a foggy day, but it didn’t look like rain. This was perfect stalking weather. Shame they couldn’t take advantage.
The novices had taken the least of it. That didn’t stop Chiaotzu from complaining. None of his bones were broken, Tien thought sourly, smacking the boy over the back of the head to shut him up. He yelped like a dog, but didn’t say another word for the rest of the walk. They went slowly, for Jaoros and Paik had both been beaten severely, and were rather sore. Tien massaged his forearm, the raw winter air in his nostrils countering the swelling heat in his broken wrist, and he felt anxious even with his feet moving.
It was not long before they found themselves on the edge of Suma, where the pine forest gave way to a dirt road leading down the mountain to Khaffi, the nearest town. But to the right, the road split off to a smoothed-out overlook where the ancient Ootaiji Temple stood proudly. The trees there were plum and cherry, rather than cypress and pine, and thus laid bare by the cold.
From the fog, he could barely see the tip of the vine-choked torii. There wouldn’t be anyone there today. In fact, there weren’t many visitors to the Ootaiji Temple on most days–not since the head priest had died some years back, resulting in a succession crisis that had left much of the temple in ruins, or burned, and altogether abandoned. Nowadays, as far as Tien could tell, there wasn’t much left of this place, aside from the entrance gate, the great butsuden, its rock garden, the plum garden with the little pond and teahouse, and the chipped stone statue of some politician from Orange Star City who had, several generations ago, financed the construction of the grand Ootaiji site.
The ruins were tranquil, rarely visited, and offered the Cranes a place to conduct their business in private. As small a town as Suma was, privacy there was a rare luxury. The fewer the people, the fewer the buildings, the fewer the places one can sneak off to and discuss business without prying eyes following behind.
Yurin was shivering. Master would have made her stand outside in the snow all night if he saw that. Wherever the old man had gone off to, he would have expected Tien to continue training the young ones. He couldn’t let his master down. Whistling, Tien stopped them, though Jaoros and Paik continued on past the gate. Chiaotzu gave him a cowardly look, but the pale-faced boy wasn’t shaking, at least. Yurin’s probably spent more time in Suma than he has, anyways. This is unacceptable.
“You two aren’t hurt that bad, are you?”
“Just a little bruised…”
“That’s nothing to whine over. Now, see that hill over there?” he said, pointing to the western grounds, where a hill rose overlooking the mountain’s edge, enshrouded by leafless trees. On it lay a pile of rubble and dead weeds - the last remains of Ootaiji’s shoro bell (the bell itself having been plundered many years ago). “Chiaotzu, teach Yurin how to fly. Go over there and do it now.”
“R-right now, Mr. Tien Shinhan?”
“But it’s so cold!”
“What did you say?! An assassin does not whine about such things!”
He yipped in fear as Tien raised a hand again, then grabbed Yurin by the shoulder and ran off towards the belltower. For a coward, he does like to talk back. He needs to learn discipline as I have. Both of them arrived too late to be taught by Tao, so I must teach them his style.
Like ghosts, they disappeared into the fog, only for Chiaotzu to soon re-emerge, hovering over the rubble, pointing down with a big stupid smile on his face at Yurin. The wind ran through the trees, and it did little to cool the simmering rage in his heart. Leaving them to their task, Tien returned to Paik, who was standing by the rock garden outside the old butsuden. Jaoros was nowhere to be seen, but that only meant he had probably wandered off to the pond.
“How are you feeling?” Tien asked awkwardly after some time.
She was clutching her sides as if she were cold, but he knew that was because of her bruised ribs. At least they aren’t broken. That would have put her out of commission for almost two months. Her broken nose being bandaged up meant that she had to breath out of her mouth like some mouth-breather, and her breath was frosting before her face in anemic puffs. “Alright, I guess. Could be better.”
“The doctors said you’ll be fine. Don’t worry. A-and you did well against that big guy… and, um, the girl…”
“Didn’t do as well there, no,” she chuckled, in spite of herself.
“Well… you made it easier for us to win…”
“Made the job easy for Jaoros. And he made the job easy for you.”
Tien didn’t know how to take that. What am I supposed to say? “We worked together to beat them. All five of us.”
“I know. I know! I don’t want to sound resentful. We’re strong, me and him, but we’re not on your level. There’s never been so talented a Crane since Tao himself. He would be proud of how strong you’ve already become.”
“He wouldn’t care if I weren’t bringing in any money with it.”
She laughed; Tien felt something racing in his fingertips, a fluttering feeling that made him happy. “You have a knack for this, Tien Shinhan.”
“I’ve told you, you can just call me Tien.”
“Yeah, yeah… old habits die hard. But really, you do. You’ll be fine. When that wrist heals up, you’ll punch your way into the World Martial Arts Tournament finals. I just know you will. You have nothing to fear.”
“And you don’t care if you don’t go? Maybe the old man will pick Jaoros instead.”
“I’m not much of a fighter, I’ve learned,” she said, her voice lowering, her eyes fixated upon the bulkiest of the uneven, sand-sunken rocks. “That’s the most important thing I’ve learned from training here.”
“What? Are you serious? What are you going to do afterwards?”
She shrugged, rubbing a bruise on her cheek. “Something else. I don’t want to be an assassin.”
The odd beating in his heart had not stopped, but only grown stronger. Tien pulled away. “Well, we can’t all be assassins, can we?”
“No, we can’t.”
Goosebumps were spreading on his arms. He didn’t want her to see. I’m not even cold. She would think I’m as weak as Chiaotzu. “I’m going to check on Jaoros. Watch them. Don’t let Yurin fly off the edge and impale herself on a tree.”
She got a kick out of that. And yet, as Tien entered the leafless garden with a pond shaped like the kanji 平, he couldn’t help but fixate upon what Paik had said. I’m not much of a fighter. She had thought up the idea in her mind, formed the syllables with her lips, exhaled the words from her throat, but it was Tien who had been most affected by them. That’s me. It was a revolting thought, one he buried immediately without entertaining the thought of mercy. I’m an assassin of the Crane School. It doesn’t matter what I feel. So what if I don’t want to do this? I will.
He came to a stop, noticing a light on inside the meager teahouse, which was situated past the first bridge over the frozen pond and tucked away between what appeared to be three plum trees (it’s always hard to tell in the winter). Indeed, there was smoke rising from the chimney. Damn it. I should be paying attention. Even here, I can’t get lost in my thoughts… that will make me open to an ambush. That was a rookie mistake.
Still, there was no sign of Jaoros. It could be him. Or it could be a trap. So, taking a deep breath, Tien ran to the teahouse and threw open its sliding paper door, his left hand pulling back in a fist. A bird took to flight nearby. Someone gasped. He was blinded by the line of candles, and for a moment, the three-eyed man faltered.
“Tien Shinhan! There you are! Come in, come in!” Jaoros said in a sing-song voice, jumping up from his seat cushion to usher the taller boy inside. “Hey, look who it is!”
He was yanked inside, the door being shut behind him hurriedly. A seat cushion was grabbed and thrown onto the floor, and Jaoros pushed him down onto it, handing him a worn brown teacup in the process. Everything happened so fast that it was only after he was sitting there blinking at the teacup in his hand that he noticed the other boy sitting across from them. Yoshitaro’s apprentice, he realized. What’s he doing here?
“Greetings, Tien Shinhan,” the boy said meekly, bowing so low that his forehead nearly touched the floor.
“Hello… um, um, I…”
Jaoros gave him a displeasing look. “Kyofune.”
“Kyofune, right. Sorry. I’m not that good with names.”
“Would you like some tea?” the boy asked.
“It’s Usucha-grade green tea. Made it myself… well, I stole a few supplies from the Masamune/Masamune estate down in Cardan… Have you ever heard of them?” the boy rambled on while pouring Tien’s cup.
“Yeah, I know the place.”
Jaoros butted in, spraying spit onto Tien’s arm as he said (too loudly), “I don’t get it, Kyo… you work with tea all day. Why spend your time off doing this crap out in the middle of nowhere?”
He politely took a sip before replying. “Mmm, well, you see… I’m actually trying to restore the Ootaiji Temple. I’ve cleaned up the remaining buildings as best as I could, but see, there’s no getting around needing a new belltower, or a kyozo tower… not to mention a new pagoda! I heard the old one burned down. What a shame. It used to be so beautiful here.”
Jaoros leaned back, making himself comfortable. Too comfortable. He should know better. Tien remained on guard by what Kyofune had said, his back remaining upright, his eyes remaining sharp. “How are you going to pay for all of that stuff, man? I mean, that’ll cost more than building a house from scratch!”
“I know. Hopefully I’ll be able to get an audience with the mayor of Orange Star City soon. Mr. Yoshitaro thinks it’s a good idea.”
“I didn’t take old Yoshitaro for the religious type.”
That almost made Kyofune spray tea out of his nose. “Oh, no! He’s a former samurai. He’s a good guy now, really. He’s even said he’ll help me. He’s going to donate one hundred thousand zeni that he’s saved up.”
“Who’s going to be the new head priest?”
“I am!” Kyofune declared proudly. His boyish naïveté broke in the next moment, cooling cynically. “Well, not yet… but soon! I was actually hoping to talk to you guys about something that has to happen before I can get started.”
“We’re not giving you a loan or anything,” Jaoros began.
“N-no, nothing like that. Actually, I just need to purchase your services.”
Tien’s back straightened even more. He set the teacup down. Now this could be interesting. Jaoros sat up too. “You know who we are, right? You better be able to pay. The Crane School isn’t cheap, Kyo. We don’t give out discounts to friends.”
“I have this. Here, look.” He reached behind him, pulling out a sheathed katana. Its sheath shone of silver and white with intricate, carved patterning; its hilt was black as onyx, its collar laced with gold. When Jaoros drew it, the blade seemed to glint with an ethereal luster. “Real tamahagane steel. Look. It’s a priceless treasure.”
Jaoros ran a finger up and down the blade, his mouth hanging slightly agape, and for the briefest of moments, Tien actually thought he had been taken by it. “What are we supposed to do with this? We’re assassins, not samurai.”
“Bring this to the Masamune/Masamune estate, and they’ll give you Ƶ10,000,000 for it.”
No way… could that sword really be worth that much? “Why didn’t you take it to them yourself?”
“Well, they know who I am. I’m, uh, kind of involved with all the samurai feuding. That’s also why I want your help.”
“You’re not making any sense. What are you talking about?”
“Yeah… I’m not following, Kyo.”
The apprentice took a deep breath, bowing his head. He poured himself another cup of tea and drank it in one gulp. “I want you to kill my father. His name is Hiramogi Higataro. He’s the leader of the Chàoxing Gon. They’re a gang of yakuza operating out of Orange Star City. Their base is the Goldfish Casino. Mr. Masamune knows all about them. He can tell you more than I can. So… will you do it?”
Tien and Jaoros exchanged a look. He felt this adrenaline rush just like the previous one, but it had diminished and felt somewhat alien now in comparison to before. I will become the world’s greatest assassin. Blood on my hands, screams reverberating in my ears… this is what I’ve spent my life trying to achieve. I won’t back down now.
Jaoros nodded once. He reached out and took hold of the katana. Kyofune’s face brightened. At first, a ripple of happiness spread through, but then Tien saw the shame, the remorse, the cutting sadness, and he reached for his teacup to finish it off before returning to Paik and the others.
For the better part of two days, the Crane Hermit had stalked the Tiger Hermit. That the old Tiger was consumed already by fury only made him more gleeful. This had been an effortless hunt with a distracted foe who was not only the gravest threat to his school in the region (notwithstanding the accursed Turtle School (although that had seemingly gone defunct in the past fifty years or so)), but a powerful warrior in his own right. He would not take the man lightly.
Following the events of the Suma Tournament, he knew, for better or worse, he would have to eliminate this threat before it grew into something that could truly challenge them. One of them broke Tien’s wrist. That is unacceptable! He is the strongest in the world, despite what Tao-Pai-Pai would believe, the old fool.
It would be dangerous to let the kittens mature into their paws.
Thus he had followed the Tiger Hermit to the southernmost place the Crane Hermit had ever flown to. It was hot here–hot and humid, the worst combination. He could do dry heat–the Diablo Desert was not so bad, save for its infestation of pitiful bandits–but not humidity with the heat. This weather did little for him. Even sitting in a tree, out of the sun’s piercing sight, helped little. This will be worth it soon enough. I’ll be leaving this old windbag here to rot in the undergrowth. Nobody will ever find him. Just as it was always meant to be.
They had come to the southern portion of the island, far away from the people of Pulang and into the rugged jungle of the untamed southern wilds. The dinosaurs here were no bigger than chickens, for the most part. That’s not why you’re here, he thought while tracking the man through the leaves, hopping from branch to branch soundless as a water skeeter.
The Tiger Hermit’s reasons for coming to Akki were clear as day. There had been four students enrolled in his school. Ever since I snatched Yurin away from him. Only three had shown up to the tournament. And most importantly, all four of them–the teacher and his students–had been unusually emotionally bereft that day. They came down here to collect a bounty, and one of them died. That must be it. Now he’s going to avenge his student. What a stupid, noble man.
The bounty had been for a mysterious ‘King of Nowhere’, a title the Crane Hermit had never heard of before. A Ƶ500,000,000 bounty. That’s a ton of cash. Any halfwit bounty hunter or assassin worth their salt would take up that offer in a heartbeat, even if it is in such a remote place. That bounty was up for weeks. I kept an eye on it, but we never seriously thought it would remain up long enough for us to make the trip down here. And yet it had. Whatever had killed the Tiger Hermit’s student was indeed a threat–a threat to Jaoros, to Paik, perhaps even a threat to Tien. No, impossible. Those other Tigers escaped from whoever this King of Nowhere is. No, Tien would never let fodder like that get away.
This was not his conflict, but he desperately wanted to watch.
Like a drunken sailor, the Tiger Hermit cut his way through the underbrush with a machete, all the while screaming curses at the King of Nowhere with an inflected, operatic voice. What an absolute hack. It went on like this for approximately an hour, give or take half a gallon of sweat. The Crane Hermit thought of himself as a patient man, as a man of intellect, foresight, discipline, cleverness, and humor. But he was being stretched thin. It only seemed to grow warmer as the day grew longer.
Yet, as the Tiger Hermit crept closer to the southernmost point of Akki, where mountains of ash met the sea, he was suddenly taken in the side by a flying kick. The Crane Hermit gulped. I didn’t see that. Lucky hit. Grunting, the man rose to his feet, throwing a punch at his foe, but she dodged to the left playfully. A woman? Then, he tried to take her legs out from under her with a hook kick; the woman jumped into the air, kneeing the Tiger Hermit in the chin. Ooh, that must really smart. What a shame for him.
Between quick breaths, the man yelled, jumped away, and threw himself back at his foe again, his spinning kick taking the woman by surprise, hitting her in the cheek and sending her flying into a tree. The sound of wood splitting sent a family of birds into the air from the branch to the Crane Hermit’s left, and so absorbed in the fight was he that this surprise rather surprised him. He caught the scream in his throat, thankfully, and the branch he was resting on only rustled a little bit in the end.
“Y-you… you’re the King?”
Smiling, she bowed with one hand behind her back. “Hello. Welcome to my humble abode, proud warrior. I thank you for your service.”
“You’ve come like all the rest. I confess, I like playing games with humans. You are so much weaker than us Makyans… you just seem to always break into tiny little bits.”
“You bastard! Do you think this is a game? I’m here to kill you! You murdered my student! Her name was Shumi, and I will avenge her.”
“Shumi… Shumi…” The woman tapped the side of her face. “No, that doesn’t sound familiar. But a student… that is more specific. There haven’t been many young humans coming to play. Let’s see… perhaps that group that got away? One of them did perish at my hands. Oh? Ah.”
Like a chameleon, she morphed before them into the shape of a different girl. This one was taller, a tad skinnier perhaps, but it was hard to tell with girls nowadays, with black hair instead of blonde. Evidently, this was that Shumi girl, for the way the Tiger Hermit reacted was not subtle. With another curse, he threw himself at the shapeshifter, only to be thrown into the air by an exploding crimson ball of ki.
“Oh my…” the Crane Hermit whispered, unable to contain himself. That’s quite a technique. I cannot underestimate this King of Nowhere.
Twisting her head to either side, the Shumi-look-alike admired the destruction she had wrought: a heaping crater, devoid of trees, shrubbery, and anything altogether alive. That attack was more powerful than the Dodon Ray. I must be careful. Surveying the scenery, the demon’s eyes swept the line of sight, never looking up into the branches until reaching the Crane Hermit’s tree. His blood ran cold; she smiled a toothy grin.
“Welcome!” the demon called out. “Join us.”
Before he could respond, something blue was hurled at him, and the tree exploded. Falling, he rolled to stabilize himself, then kicked off one of the falling, charred splinters to land with a little composure, a little grace. Got to play this cool.
“I’m sorry, it appears I’m running a little late. Forgive my rudeness,” he said, walking towards the demon with both arms behind his back.
The Tiger Hermit was struggling to rise from the bushes to the right. The Crane Hermit ignored him. He may yet be a kitten too.
“Humans are all alike: they never come at me one at a time. No, that would be asking too much. The idea of a fair fight is not something your species seems capable of comprehending.”
“There are many things we are ignorant of,” he said, approaching the girl. “I don’t think it would be a fair fight for many of us if we were to do it like you wanted us to.”
“Many? There is not a human alive who can stand against me.”
Drawing his fists, the Crane Hermit said, “Perhaps we are not the only ignorant species, eh?”
Enough boasting. He attacked first. The girl, being put on the defensive, blocked all of the Crane Hermit’s jabs, jumping aside or back from his swinging kicks as if she were toying with him. That only made the old man more agitated. He instantly doubled his speed. He pushed her back with his onslaught of attacks, showcasing the Crane Style’s graceful, but destructive capabilities as he put the demon on the defensive.
And then, mid-block, the demon’s form shifted in a radiance of light into that of Tao himself. For a fraction of a second, the Crane Hermit was taken aback, and that was all it took for the demon to catch his punch, duck under the next one and elbow him in the ribs. Before he could recover, the demon spin-kicked him in the side of the head, sending him flying into a tree.
“I see you’ve studied martial arts, old man. But you have no chance. Give up and accept your fate. You’re tired; this has gone on long enough. The longer this goes on, the more you will be humiliated.”
“I refuse.” The Crane Hermit stood, dusting himself off, then beckoned the demon to come at him again. I am not so easily beaten into submission. Arrogant bastard. He will learn what true power is!
The shapeshifter’s eyes had a reddish glow to them. “It’s time for you to die!”
As an aura of energy began forming around the demon’s false body, the Tiger Hermit came flying out of nowhere to kick him in the back of the neck, sending him face-first into the mud. Pulling splinters from his forearm, the man squinted with rage at the demon. Oh yes, he’s done it now. Kill the beast and leave us alone.
“It’s time for you to die, I think!”
He took the demon by the ankle and threw him away from the Crane Hermit. The king tumbled and rolled, eventually coming to a stop at the base of a fat-trunked tree. Then, the Tiger Hermit squatted down into a defensive position, moaning like a bitch in heat as he called for his energy into a white aura. Unseemly technique.
The wind blew in from the sea, cooling his sweat-clothed face. That elbow attack had dealt severe damage, though he cared not to admit it. This was a life-or-death situation now. He would have to deal with the Tiger Hermit later. First, they would have to get rid of this monster… whoever he was, wherever he came from, wherever he wanted to go–that stopped now. He would be a forgotten blemish in the footnotes of history. And by my hand, not the Tiger’s.
When the demon got to his feet after some panting and whining on the ground, the Tiger Hermit stood upright, bringing his palms together in a praying motion over his head and lowering them down to his navel, then peeling away his right palm before thrusting it out at his foe.
The demon was not prepared for the kiai, the shockwave once more lifting him into the air and throwing him back. At precisely that moment, the Tiger Hermit pulled down his left hand, swiping downwards to the right. Sure enough, an orange-white energy blast came soaring down in that same direction towards the demon, exploding against the upper part of his back and throwing him out of a cloud of smoke, straight into the old warrior’s tiger claw strike to the face.
Screaming in pain, the demon collapsed again. The Tiger Hermit’s shoulders relaxed, and in that fateful moment, the demon sprung forth with such force that even the Crane Hermit was surprised. A single punch to the gut was all it took to make him fall over, without a word.
Damn, knocked out. Guess it’s my turn.
He hopped up and ran at the false Tao. How dare he slander the Crane School. The demon will die begging for mercy.
“Insolent worms,” the king spat, wiping mud from his lip. “You’re the first to have pushed me this far, but I think playtime is over now.”
“Oh really? Let me end it for you.”
Again the shapeshifter darted back, dodging and blocking his attacks, only this time there malice in his eyes, aggression in his blocks, in his movements, and before the old man knew it, he was having to dodge counter-punches of his own.
The bastard’s speed was more than he could keep up with, but there was no time to do anything else but dodge and block to his best ability. Within seconds, however, he took a punch, then another, and his form began to waver. None of his were punches getting through, and what he was absorbing was intolerable to say the least. Another punch got him on the cheek, so he ducked to the left, feigning to kick, as would be normal in the Crane Style, but instead twisting around to the right again, feigning another roundhouse punch. The demon fell for both, buying him the crucial second of time he needed to charge up his attack.
“Y-you bastard…” the demon seethed in horror, feeling his split ear. Damn! I missed. Blood was running down his neck, and it disturbed the Crane Hermit to see Tao so. It’s a trick. I am too old to fall for such novice stuff. “Blood? For that, I’ll make you suffer.”
He yelled, and as his yell went on, it grew higher and more urgent, and louder, and only at the last moment did the Crane Hermit realize that what the demon was doing was not just theater, but a real attack. He tried to jump away, as far and as fast as he could, but he was not off the ground for more than a millisecond (and that’s being generous) when the whole forest blew up.
He felt himself tumbling through the air, the explosion singeing his mustache. Landing in the sand headfirst, the Crane Hermit gagged, spitting out as much of the wretched stuff as he could (though a few pesky particles got stuck between his teeth, like they always did, the buggers). The Tiger Hermit was lying dazed beside him, his face scorched. The man looked shell-shocked.
The sound of the waves was ringing in his ear, and above, two or three gulls had begun circling inquisitively.
“We have to kill him,” the other man said in a low voice. “He’ll kill us both if we don’t.”
Sitting up, he looked down on the man before saying, “I have a technique that could work. What about you?”
“Nothing much more powerful than what I did to him earlier.”
“What a shame for you, then. You’ll have to distract him for a minute or two.”
They got to their feet. The figure of Tao was approaching from the burning forest, arms outstretched. Let him absorb as many blows as he can. That’ll make my job easier. “If you don’t want to die, give me two minutes. Make sure you jump out of the way when I launch my Tri-Beam, though.”
“Alright, I will… but after thi–”
An explosion rocked the beach, and he nearly lost his balance. That was not good. A Crane should never lose their balance. Balance is the first thing I teach every student. The sizzling crater was no more than a meter away from the old buffoon. His face went pale–almost enough to match his hair–and he nodded, then charged the demon. The Crane Hermit would call him brave, but he truly despised the man, so that wasn’t going to happen. The king was readying another orange energy ball. What power. How can he conjure so many of these so quickly? And after all the damage he’s absorbed?
Falling into his form, the Crane Hermit began calling forth all of his energy. This was going to hurt both of them, and it was going to cost them both. It shouldn’t have come to this. What is this monster? I wonder if he’s a spawn of King Piccolo… At first, he didn’t watch, instead concentrating on bringing forth his full power. A white aura formed around his body, and he shuddered. It had been many years since anyone had pushed him this far.
When he finally did open his eyes, he beheld the Tiger Hermit getting the shit kicked out of him by the Crane Hermit’s own brother. That made it all the more difficult to charge up his attack. This demon isn’t so dumb. I cannot afford to miss. His voice rising in anguish, the Tiger Hermit jumped over a low kick and slapped the demon in the face with a Denkoken attack. The electrical attack zapped the shapeshifter good, but he immediately followed that up with a headbutt, and once again, the old Tiger was down.
His fingers were loosening. His heart was beating faster. Clenching his fists, he took a deep breath and closed his eyes again, hoping that the Tiger could hold the monster back for a few more seconds. The Crane Hermit was no doubt ready to fire his attack at this point, but it would do no good to leave the Tiger Hermit in such a healthy condition. His own attack would drain his stamina severely, after all, so he could not be too careful.
He opened his eyes only to see the Tiger Hermit throw himself aside. The demon in Tao’s body looked unnerved by what was approaching him. You are nothing compared to my brother. The explosion lit up the sky. And how the demon howled in pain, oh, it warmed his heart. The waves were lapping behind them pleasantly; the dust cleared with the next gust coming in from the Red Sea.
There stood the King of Nowhere, his arms raised before him in a blocking stance, his skin hanging in torn shreds from where the attack had hit him in the forearms. Blood poured out–purple, not red. At once, his body morphed to something different–something alien. He’s lost the ability to shapeshift. Damn. I thought that would kill him. He’s sturdier than he looks. The demon was blue-skinned, with pointed ears and spiky white hair. His face was oval-shaped, and his teeth sharp, and, to put it mildly, he looked utterly pissed off.
“Why… you…! I’ll rip your head off!”
A red ball of energy was forming around the demon’s claw as he jumped into the air and dashed at the Crane Hermit. Damn. I didn’t want to have to use two. Oh well. It’s over. “Tri-Beam hah!”
A gull called out ravenously. The waves went out and came in again. Seconds later, as if not realizing what happened, the demon’s headless body twisted and fell, crumpling on the ground like a discarded doll. I am still the number one martial artist in the world! He cackled then, catching his breath. He cackled good, and even got a belly laugh or two in as he wiped his brow and stretched his back.
The Tiger Hermit was unable to rise. Getting to his knees, the man beckoned for the Crane Hermit to come over, and happily did he oblige. This ends the war between our school. With you dead, your students will disband or try to avenge your honor. They will die trying, noble as they think themselves to be. Regardless, they will no longer be a threat to the Crane School. We don’t need competition. We are already the best.
“I’ve heard Pulang is one of the premiere attraction resorts in all the world. Although, frankly, I’m not sure that’s true. What I saw earlier left much to be desired. Don’t get me wrong, I like a quaint little town as much as any other aesthete. But the heat! I can’t tolerate that! Not at my age.”
“Come over here, yeah, yeah, over here… I need your help. He broke my leg… I can’t walk…”
“Of course, of course, Tiger Hermit. I am here to help. You did well helping me fight off that demon shapeshifter… or whatever he was…”
“It’s Tokuze… my name is Tokuze Mashiro. Call me Tokuze.”
“As you wish, Tokuze,” he said, reaching the man at last. Grasping him by the hand, he started to help him up, but the man was heavier than expected.
With a tired smile, Tokuze said, “Say… why were you following me anyways? I… I don’t know why… unless you were after the bounty…”
“You don’t know?” the Crane Hermit said, pretending to be surprised. “I thought you knew.”
“You’re a rat. You came from the sewers.”
One elbow to the solar plexus was all it took. Gasping in horror, the Tiger Hermit looked up at him. He couldn’t help but smile. His eyes glazed over, and he fell, and the waves went out again. The Crane Hermit cracked his neck. This has been quite the ordeal, he thought, admiring the beach. Maybe I will, in fact, take a vacation.
Chapter 5: Isle of the SkinchangersEdit
At long, long last, the city was in sight. Sprawled out past the dirt path, beyond where the jungle gave way to brick and stone, Pulang lay nestled amongst bleach-white sea-rocks just off the coast. Further off, a proud, windworn lighthouse rose above misshapen cliff, towering over the rest of the island. Tearing off a leaf from a nearby tree, the Crane Hermit wiped his face before setting foot on the paved road leading into town.
Soundlessly, a being materialized before him in a swirl of inky smoke. He appeared not unlike the shapeshifter demon, though he was clothed in sea blue robes with the hood pulled down. Although the demon’s eyes shone with an inhuman golden radiance, and his teeth were sharp, and his skin was as blue as a martian’s, and his spiky white hair had been pulled up in a mohawk, the Crane Hermit was not the least bit apprehensive. There was something different about this one.
“Crane Hermit–wait. Please, let me thank you for eliminating Togarashi. He brought untold suffering to my people, and, from what I have been told, your people as well.”
“Eh? You know my name?”
“We will never forget it.”
He scanned his surroundings once more for any additional demons (although he was already quite sure there were none). “Mhm, that’s great. Touching, even. But I’d rather hear about the reward you’re about to fork over, Big Blue.”
“Excuse me? My name is the Dragon of th–”
The beast seemed to have been somewhat unnerved by that. Chump. He folded his arms. “Humans are most curious animals. As a martial artist, you may be a model of excellence, but you are filled with greed and envy and a child’s immaturity. You do not understand what you have done by killing Togarashi.” He grunted and pulled up his hood over his face. “Unfortunately.”
The wind stirred, and with another smoky veil, the demon was gone. Just my luck. Who would have thought that demons don’t give out rewards? Was it something I said? He didn’t really care. That demon was gone, and he was standing on the precipice of a tropical vacation resort. I bet there will be tons of pichipichi girls there…
Judging from the size of it, roughly two hundred people should have lived here, but he found the streets barren, the very air still as death, and the shops closed and boarded up. Verily, he counted no less than six for-sale signs as he made his way deeper into town.
A red-tailed tropicbird with golden wings took to the air with unexpected urgency. His mind clear, the man decided to stop first for ice cream before heading to the post office. Naturally, the door to this establishment was boarded up too, but that didn’t stop the Crane Hermit. His hands behind his back, he kicked the wood in effortlessly, humming as he strolled inside.
The lights were off, so he turned them on. That made the lurkers more energetic. Didn’t like that light being shined on them. Aging though he was (he had only four to seven ear hairs at present, bless his diligence), the Crane Hermit was not one to be taken unaware in the dark by some witless wombat.
“Wha… what do you want?!” The man’s voice was shaking. Raising a shotgun, he peeked out from behind the counter. “I don’t have any money. Looters already took everything.”
“I can see that.” Blinking, he held up his hands, as if to surrender. An unshaven face popped up like a hungry meerkat, gave him a look-over with a furrowed brow, then stood, shotgun aimed directly at the poor old man’s heart. Just try it, big fellow. The parlor was, to put it crudely, ransacked to high-hell. That much was obvious. There were cracks and dents in the display cases, and the register had been torn off the counter and discarded in the corner, picked clean like some carcass. Nevertheless… “I would like a medium cup of vanilla bean. Please, I do have to get going soon, so don’t take too long.”
He took one step closer.
“We’re closed. Get the hell out of here before I shoot you for what you did to my door. You’re lucky I’m the merciful type, Mister.”
“Murdering me would be illegal,” he pointed out.
“It would be justice. And besides, who would tell? Haven’t you seen the place?”
“As a matter of fact, I have. I am sorry to say that it is not nearly the vibrantly inclusive and warm community I had been led to believe it was on the brochure…”
“You don’t know what’s going on?” he laughed in disbelief, lowering his cheek against the side of the gun to more carefully aim. The end of the barrel was shaking, but it remained honed on the old man without mercy. “That’s bullshit. I don’t believe you.”
“I am simply an old man on vacation who is craving some vanilla bean. Now, if you would be so kind as to serve me…”
He took one step closer to his sweet prize. An unnerved yell was followed by a bang. Bending down to grab his shoe, the Crane Hermit dodged the shot, the spray going over him and embedding in the wall behind the counter. Before the man could pump up another shell, a slipper hit him in the face, sending him tumbling back into a chair. His shotgun flew to the right.
The ice cream shop was engulfed in the golden radiance of his technique. Without breaking a sweat, the Crane Hermit hopped over to the cowering man, slipping his slipper back on without so much as touching the floor. The Dodon Ray should be enough to let him know whom he’s dealing with. Returning to the counter, he jumped over it with his hands behind his back (for he was classiest of martial arts masters) and stole himself one of their large cups.
“How long have you been out of service?”
He sat up, glowering, rubbing wood from his hair. “You aren’t going to kill me?”
“I want vanilla bean. You serve that flavor, correct?” The man nodded. “That is all I desire. Now answer my question.”
He glanced once at the pile of smoldering metal. “Th-there’s a rumor goin about… people’re sayin’ the demon’s coming for us today. Lot of people left already, whether they could sell their homes or not. Most of the town, I’d guess. Me, I can’t leave… this business’s all I got… I can’t!”
“Admirable, but foolish. Life should always comes before profit. These are your kids we’re talking about. You would let the demon eat them? I find that astonishing. You should never put your comfortable life above their safety.”
“I know, but–”
“But, lucky for you, the demon is not in fact coming to Pulang today. I killed him on the southern beach this afternoon. You’ll find his body there, if the sea hasn’t taken it already. Now, if you please, I would like to explore the rest of this vibrantly inclusive and warm place before my vacation ends. Good day,” he said, placing a twenty thousand zeni bill on the counter before swiping up three generous scoops of the famed vanilla bean. This is what vacations are all about, he thought, reaching his hand into the sprinkles jar.
It was not more than a second later that the good and well-satisfied Crane Hermit leaped once more over the counter, his large cup of vanilla bean and sprinkles held proudly in the air for all (that being the one) to see.
The man tried to get to his feet, but he was probably mildly concussed at best. “Wait… hold it right there… I don’t believe you! You say you killed the demon?! I think you’re lying! You’re just an old man.”
“He turned into my brother before challenging me. I could not let that stand. I’m sure you understand, Mr. Ice Cream Man.”
The bell jingled on the way out; a pleasant sea breeze greeted him in the derelict street, where naught but bikes and trash and solemnly-staring seabirds, perched on rooftops and in trees and on light posts, cleaned their feathers and clicked their beaks and adjusted their footing with half-hearted impatience. He could hear the waves crashing against volcanic rock.
He would not think of Tao, nor his students while he was on vacation. All that mattered to him was making the best of the relaxation he deserved. I’m an old man… if it wasn’t so hot here, maybe I’d stay a hundred years. The ice cream lasted him little more than a block and a half. There were gift shops and restaurants and homes, and not a single one appeared occupied. Some were boarded up, and truth be told, their situations were not unlikely to be altogether different than that of the man who ran the ice cream store, but the Crane Hermit was tired enough as it was, and the fewer people he came into contact with, the better.
On the main street, he found a little action. A group of five men and women, all in their late fifties to sixties, were huddled together next to a statue of King Furry, peering at a map. Talking in hushed murmurs, they didn’t notice him.
“Hello there! Would you fine people happen to know where the post office is?”
All together, they looked up, their faces reminding him of rice pudding. “Ack, ah! You must be a tourist too!” one of the men with a white mustache and fiery-red cheeks shouted in a sing-song voice. “Come, come! Here, we find it for you!”
Their accents were thick, their attire bright and more suited for the beach than in town. Indeed, the man who had ushered him over was not even wearing a shirt, his great hairy barrel of a chest sticking out for all the birds to see.
“Hi, welcome, hi!”
“Ya, hello. Welcome, welcome, ya.”
“Hello! Hello! Ya, hello.”
“Yes, I’m here,” the Crane Hermit replied, not at all matching their enthusiasm.
“Ah, watch it, easy there! Ah! Ah, ah, okay, okay! You see, you see, our friend is looking for the… how you say, Postal Office?”
“That would be the one.”
“Ah ya, ah ya,” said one of the women leaning over the map that another man had pulled open. “Just down the street. Two blocks and it’s on the end, ya!”
“Oh, oho! Very good! Gretchen is so… perceptive, ya?”
“Ya!” a red-cheeked woman concurred.
He bowed and was gone. Just being around them drained me of more energy than this damn heat. Down the road he trudged. It was only when he finally saw the post office in sight, coming up around the bend on the left side, that suddenly from behind, the bare-chested man came running into view. He was horribly out of breath. Pausing for a minute to bend over, hands on his knees, like he had just run a marathon, the man wiped his brow and held out his arm with a laugh.
“Come on, ya!”
“What are you talking about?”
“What? Of course you must arm wrestle me, ya. You look like a tough guy… mmm? Come on now, you can’t fool me!”
“I’m an old man.”
“So am I! What, are you scared? I’ll bet you a thousand zeni I win!”
What a strange man. He has no idea that I am the Crane Hermit. He was not one to turn down a fight, so ushering the porker over to a table outside a shop across from the post office, they began their bout. The man’s mustache bristled. The Crane Hermit sighed, feeling a warm, but much-needed surge of wind come down the road, cooling him just ever so slightly. At his age, the little things, such as these, were so much more meaningful than shows of pride and force against common backwater fools such as this one.
“Alright, let’s go! No funny business, ya?!” He gripped the man’s hand, placing his elbow against the table and leaning forward. “Ready?”
He had to suppress a yawn. “Go for it.”
“Three… two… one… ya, go!”
He had not even sucked in his next breath before his knuckles knocked against the wood.
Panting, bewilderment and and shattered pride coloring his face, the man stared at the Crane Hermit for a moment. Now comes the rage. He’ll want a rematch. They all do. Then, the tourist’s face bloomed into a grin. He slapped the table with a thousand zeni bill, stretching his shoulder as he stood.
“Hah, you’re really something! Well, have a nice day.”
And with that, the man was off, stretching his shoulder as he went, muttering and giggling to himself. In all the years I’ve lived I’ve never quite met someone like that before… such an odd fellow. Sitting at the table in the shade, the ocean breeze on his face, was almost enough to put him to sleep. That was when a bell jingled as a door opened, and he heard footsteps approaching.
At first, the Crane Hermit tried to pretend to be sleeping when she said, “Excuse me, sir… but do you live in Pulang?”
The way she leaned in, her breasts squeezed together, a notepad and pen in her hands… well, his body wouldn’t let him keep up the charade any longer. “I, I, I, um… hello there, sweetie!” he gasped, sitting up with a spasm of energy. “How are you doing on this fine afternoon, heheh?”
Playing it cool like always. I’m a sly dog. “Well, I’m fine. Thanks for asking. My name’s Tights. What’s yours?”
“They call me the Crane Hermit,” he said dryly, leaning in to kiss her hand. She blushed, and he nearly squealed like a pig. Oh boy. She really does like me. “And what’s a pretty girl like you doing all the way out here in the middle of nowhere?”
“Oh, I’m just doing some research for a story of mine. Would you like to give an interview?”
I don’t want to have to work that hard for it, sheesh. “What kind of interview?”
“Well, there’s been rumors going around the island of some kind of skinchanging demon eating people and taking over their bodies. Crazy, right? But, yeah, I was just wondering if you’ve heard anything about that, Mr. Crane Hermit?”
“Oh yes,” he said, standing so as to be all cool and such. “In fact, the demon turned into my very own brother before I blew his head off.”
Her eyes were bulging out of their sockets. “Bl-blew his head off…?”
“That’s right. I killed him. Don’t worry. You’re safe now, dear. That foul beast is dead. He can’t hurt you anymore!”
“You–wait, you killed him? Like for real? Are you sure?”
“Quite sure.” Now for the kicker. “And put this in your report too–the move I used to kill him: the Dodon Ray! It’s the signature move of the legendary Crane School.”
A sliver of golden-white light cut through the sky. She shrieked, but her voice was cut out near-instantaneously by the ringing of the belltower to their left. Five o’clock. Damn. He jumped into the street, running off to the building before it could close.
“Sorry,” he apologized, stopping to bow to the woman. “I must get a few letters off first… but afterwards, we can continue our interview in my hotel room!” he winked.
She looked revolted. “Oh, um…”
He was running off again before he could hear her answer. Girls these days are all the same… Concentrating, he sprinted down the street to the building, and before the bell rang for the fifth time, he was inside.
“Sir, we’re closed!” a woman said in exasperation from behind the counter.
“It’s five o’clock,” he said, striding up to the counter.
“Yes it is, sir. That is when the post office closes. Please, you must leave at once.”
“I need to send two letters to the mainland. It won’t take me long–”
Her forehead was dripping with sweat. “I can’t do that! It’s already past closing time! Sir, you’re just going to have to come back tomorrow.”
“Has the mail plane left yet?”
“Then there’s time.” He held up the thousand zeni bill. Not that you’re even worth this, given your customer support… “Go get me the supplies. The plane doesn’t leave until my letters are on board. Do you understand?” He rapped his knuckles on the counter.
“I…” She gulped and bowed her head, wiping her forehead. “Yes, sir… I’ll get you some paper and a p-pen…” she said feebly, standing up in a half-crouch.
Despite the woman’s best efforts, she was unable to take three steps before the stapler slid out from between her legs and clanked loudly on the stone floor.
The next morning, Tien and Paik set off for the Masamune/Masamune estate. There had been no word from the old man. In the mist of late November, the assassins reached the tall black gate. No one was attending it. Paik was focused on the gate’s crest, which was an elaborate gold and black representation of a katana being forged. More samurai, Tien thought. Just what I wanted.
The gate was unlocked, so they didn’t have to fly over. They walked up the hill to the impressively-sized mansion, not pausing to gawk at the antique beauty of it, of the monolithic meeting the natural. Cherry trees, long out of bloom, decorated the sides of the path leading to the door. There was a fresh, earthy smell in the air, calming his nerves. Paik knocked.
A disheveled-looking man, with his hair hanging in strands around his face, his beard growing untamed, answered. Wearing white robes lined with gold and carrying a katana by his side, this man was clearly a samurai. “Who’s there?” the man asked.
“Good morning, Mr. Masamune,” said Paik with a bow. “We have come here today because we are hunting Hiramogi Higataro’s bounty, and we’ve heard that you may be of some help in, well, tracking him down.”
The man glared at her, then at Tien. Never seen a three-eyed man before? “I don’t know wha–”
“I think you do.” The girl held up the sheathed katana that she had been hiding behind her back like an enticing dog treat. “Our source said you would pay us for this. Consider that our payment for the bounty.”
“Oh. I… come in, come in. Please wait here. I must go get Mr. Masamune,” he said, talking ever faster as he went on, ushering them inside to a bare holding room, with naught but a few paintings of koi and uncomfortable-looking chairs.
“Oh, you’re not Mr. Masamune? I’m sorr–” The next door inside shut harshly behind the samurai. “Huh. Weird man.”
“Did you see the way his eyes lit up when he saw the katana?”
“Yeah. He recognizes it… or just wants it really bad. We’re good.”
They had barely any time to admire the immortalized koi before the door once again opened. A balding man with dark eyes poked his head in like a toddler. “Good morning! Welcome, welcome! Come in.”
So they did. The next room housed an indoor pond and bamboo garden. There were a few koi in there, Tien granted them, but nothing like what was like in that picture. Why idealize overpopulation? The man was not great of stature (though of proportion, he was far more generously-allocated), and he sort of hopped when he walked, which amused Paik. They went through the next door, leading to a series of hallways in three directions. They took the left one, leading to a room on the right side, barely light inside, despite all the candles, where the samurai from before was already seated on a cushion, apparently waiting for them.
Pouring himself and the other man tea, and then grabbing two more cups, the older gentleman said, “Any tea for you?”
“Green, if you have it,” Paik said politely.
“Oh, I have it,” he laughed, pouring them their cups, and rushing over to give them to them. “My brother brews the best damn usucha-grade green tea in the whole region!”
“It’s true,” replied the samurai, receiving his cup and sipping it noisily. “Lord Jakuto’s talents at brewing tea rival Lord Tonji’s skills at brewing saké. Both are quite skilled… though your brother is better than you at swordsmithing.”
“Hah, I’ll give him that! Working the furnaces day and night will cook you up and break your back. I don’t know how he can stand it after all these years!”
“Lord Tonji?” asked Paik, a bit confused. “Tonji Masamune?”
“That’s the one!” he chortled, handing them their cushions. Everyone was seated. “So what is this about a bounty, eh? Who’s to say we put any bounty up on anybody? I never said I did! I’ll deny everything!”
“Someone else wants him dead, but as payment for the bounty, he gave us this katana,” Paik explained, bringing out the sheathed weapon once more. “He said you would pay us Ƶ10,000,000 for it.”
“Give it to me,” the samurai said coldly. She tossed it, and he caught it with one hand, his teacup not so much as spilling a drop. This guy is more powerful than he lets on.
Drawing the blade halfway, he ran a finger down its side, staring at the moon-silver steel in the low light. “Harotu,” he said in almost a whisper.
“Mmm,” Lord Tonji replied, sipping deep from his cup. What the hell’s a Harotu? I don’t get it.
The samurais sheathed the blade, placing it before him on a low-sitting table. “I will pay you that money,” he said. “But this money is not mine to give–for this blade is not mine yet. Until I see proof of Hiramogi’s death, you will not receive anything, and I will not take this blade from you.”
“Keep it. We will return for the money,” Tien said.
“Ah, so you do speak!” Tonji chuckled.
Obnoxious old man. “That’s true,” Paik concurred. “We’re assassins of the Crane School. We would never accept a bounty’s reward before the bounty has been completed. That’s taboo.”
“Really?” the samurai said, raising an eyebrow.
Enough of these wasted breaths. “Our contact informed us that you would know what the most efficient means of attack against Mr. Higataro is.”
“That’s true,” the samurai replied at once. “There was a war a few years ago. I don’t know if you’ve heard about it…”
“We live in Suma, Mr. uh…”
“Mr. Elijah… yeah. We’re just up the mountain. We know about the bad blood between the yakuza and the samurai.”
“I have been trying to save the samurai,” Elijah lamented, leaning over to the table to get Lord Tonji to pour him another glass. “But the yakuza have been hunting them down. I would like Orange Star City to be purged of their lot. Hiramogi’s death will at least throw them into chaos for the time being. Perhaps after all the infighting that follows, the new leaders won’t follow in his footsteps in that regard.”
“Or else we’ll have to put a bounty up!” Tonji said, laughing riotously to himself.
“These samurai came with Makare many years ago to destroy my school. They succeeded in doing so. This blade you found belonged to one of my students. Thank you for finding it. For years, I have scoured the countryside for it to no avail. Anyways… after the war, I tried to reform those samurai who had survived, to bring them back into the community. There were some successes, some failures… and then the yakuza stepped in. Only a few dozen remain. They were once my enemy. As members of a school of martial arts, surely you must appreciate the connection I still felt to them. We samurai are few. My students are gone, or dead. My school is a ruin. The war is over. And yet they will not stop killing.”
“So we’ll kill them,” Tien said.
The samurai almost cracked a smile. “Yes,” he said. “That is exactly what we’ll do. I don’t know who your contact is, but they certainly are correct: we do know how to get to Hiramogi. But it will not be easy, and you will not be able to get to him without killing many of his bodyguards. Are you up to that?”
“We are. And the other members of our group are, too. The yakuza won’t stand a chance against the full might of the Crane School,” Paik said.
“Good.” The samurai exchanged a look with Lord Tonji, who nodded vigorously for him to continue. “Two nights from now, the Chàoxing Gon will be expecting a shipment of Masamune’s finest Junmai Genshu. You will sneak aboard their shipping truck, which will then drive directly to Hiramogi’s hideout–not the Goldfish Casino, but his own place in the city. He will have guards there, but fewer than at the casino. And he won’t be expecting it. He has gone to great lengths to prevent others from learning about his whereabouts… but we do have insider info here.”
“Alright, we’ll do it,” said Paik. “What time?”
“Midnight. I’ll text you the address. Don’t be late. Don’t be conspicuous. It’s in the city, after all.”
“Kill Higataro and cleanse the city!” Lord Tonji said loudly, raising his teacup into the air. I wonder if he laced his with saké. I’m not feeling anything, myself. He could just be an eccentric old man.
“We will,” Paik promised. “Have the money ready.”
The samurai nodded, and Tien felt a rush of adrenaline. I’m not doing this because of the city… I’m doing this because it feels good. Because I can. Because I’m the best at this. Nevertheless, Elijah was studying him, and he couldn’t help but think that somehow the man knew in that instant how much glue was holding together all those growing fractures in his mind.
The avatar of Avalokiteśvara guides me. Before me are three lotus flowers. No, that’s not right. They’re three bodhisattvas. Motionless, they meditate in the shade of a great fig tree. Their retinues slowly materialize around them, like a picture coming into focus. Yet as they do, I cannot help but turn inward. It is me who is sitting before them, not them before me. I am not so bold, and not so unaware as to pretend I am fully conscious. But that is not to say I am not at peace, not lucid, not working towards a greater end.
A demon is hanging in the lower branches, tucked away behind the leaves, her shadows cleverly blending in with the foliage. I see her, and I mark her. I don’t want to go there. I don’t want her to be there. I try to banish her away, but that only seems to agitate her. She leans towards me, a big old smile spreading across her lips. She beckons me. I refuse; I am unmoved. The past is the past, and it does no good to the world to dwell on incurable emotional scars such as these.
“Come here,” she mouths.
“I will not,” he thought. “You aren’t real. You hold no power over me.”
She gives me that look–that same look of exasperation she had first made when she had been four years old.
“I can’t. I won’t go back there. It’s evil!”
The others have their gazes set upon me. Still as they are, I can’t help but feel there’s something wrong. Life is motion, and yet here they all are, in my dream-created nirvana, unmoving. Is this bliss, the ultimate state? Something is sour about this, logically inconsistent with reality. And at the point that ideology denies reality, its dogma can no longer be obeyed. I can see Master Preggu drinking his tea, his head tilted to one side, clicking his tongue. He would call me a child, a simple-minded and unenlightened mind.
I don’t doubt him, but it doesn’t really change anything.
“Come here,” she says softly, “I need you…”
“I was a poison,” I counter, holding steadfast. Her face is pale, growing so bright.
“I need you… need you… and when you go to North City…” With a jolt, all the light of the world comes rushing in, and I have to blink away the tears, not noticing until she speaks again that she’s not the same. Her voices instantly deepens to that of a man’s when she continues, “… we won’t offer them any terms of surrender, but if they join us–”
“Sir, he’s waking.” That’s a woman’s voice–a woman whom I know, but not the woman whom I saw.
“Ah,” sighed the grey-haired man, coming into view. He has yellow teeth and watery blue eyes, and in those eyes I see a man I have not seen in many years. My palms slick over with sweat. “So good of you to join us, old friend. I was just beginning to think you wouldn’t wake.”
“He’s not what he used to be,” Colonel Silver quips from the corner of the room. “The tranquilizer got him good.”
We are in a small room, a room of dark stone walls and little else. I begin to notice that I am bound to a chair, which itself is bolted down to the floor in the center of the room. There is one light swinging overhead, bright as hellfire, and I can feel its heat. There’s three of them in here with me, maybe four. Goosebumps spread across my arms.
“Please, Mr. Cardinal, let me kill him,” the bitch says, stepping into the light. “He murdered Alabastian. It’s only fair that he dies for his crimes.”
“It’s only fair that, considering I paid for all of this,” the older man interjects, “I get what I can out of our friend here, first. Afterwards, my son can choose what to do with him. If that means leaving him to you… well, that will be up to Silver to decide.”
She looks rather unhappy, but she’s not top dog. She steps back into the darkness, like she should, and I find myself growing dizzy with how much I’m nodding in agreement. “That’s right,” I find myself mumbling. I know I shouldn’t. I should have compassion for her, for all beings. It can be damn hard, sometimes. Not everyone deserves it. Master Preggu would say everyone does, regardless of their actions. That is an incredibly dogmatic thing to say.
I have long thought that one’s sense of justice is inherent, regardless of culture. Culture may skew one’s senses in different directions, but there are biological, human, social evolutionally-developed beliefs that have remained consistent over hundreds of thousands of years, regardless of culture, which all humans know to be right, and to be wrong. There is no good or evil, of course, only those actions which either promote or harm one’s own species. And, I cannot deny, in some small recess of my mind, I harbor the thought that eternal compassion is an intolerable, irredeemable belief, a belief disrespectful of those who actually deserve compassion, who deserve fighting for. Not all do, but all should. And I feel out of flux, these thoughts and emotions falling over me in uncontrollable waves. I cannot fight it. It must be the tranquilizer.
Cardinal, if that’s what he’s going by now, squats in front of my chair, as if bringing himself down to my level will make me empathize. “I don’t have all day, so let me make a few brief remarks. Firstly, though you would rather not see her again from what I’ve gathered, I do have your daughter in the other room. She’s being held in a cage. Does that make you angry? She will need to be on her best behavior to keep you alive. Next, I will need to conduct a test on your to determine if you have told the king, or any other government officials about me.”
“That’s what this is about? That’s all this is about?!”
“You lied about being a twenty-year veteran of the lighthouse, didn’t you, General Indigo?”
A prickly sensation stings my lips. “I-I… I’m not!”
“Don’t lie to me, Indigo. I know you’ve gone back to using your old name–Charles Mauvin–but that doesn’t change facts, does it? Do you want me to put a bullet through your daughter’s skull? She’s in the other room.” He unholsters a long silver magnum, twirling it about lazily. “We can always go down that road if you force us.”
“No!” I spit at him, shaking in my chair.
“Good.” He holsters the pistol again, relaxing his shoulders. “Now answer my question. Have you ever told anyon–”
“Never! I’ve been done with all that shit for years! I can’t believe you brought me all the way here for that! What the hell’s the matter with you?!”
Cardinal stands, looking around at his lackeys. “The Red Ribbon Army has fallen. A New Red Ribbon Army has risen in its place. We are gathering the remaining surviving officers to our cause.”
“Gatherin’ the Dragon Balls and takin’ over the world,” says Glase with arrogance enough to make me want to vomit.
“And so, as to prevent our identities from being revealed to… important persons in powerful places… we must exert caution here. We must find all the remaining officers and present them with a choice: join us, or die.”
“And will you ask of me that same question, Staff Officer Crimson?”
He runs his tongue along his yellow teeth, the animal, suppressing a smirk. “What say you, General?”
“You know I retired before things went down…”
“I am well aware, General.”
I glance around at the shadows. They are, every one of them, cowards for hiding from a chained man. “I refuse either offer.”
Crimson seems to find that funny. Whistling, he stands up, opens the door, and ushers Silver, Glase, and some bald guy I don’t know out of the room. Standing in the doorway, he looks back at me before clicking off the light. “Your daughter is almost as stubborn as you, old friend. Take some time to think it over.”
“Wait…! Before you go–tell me what happened to Akki. Tell me what you did to my home, you monster.”
He pauses in the doorway to run his fingers through his greying hair, savoring my last words like a good piece of bacon. “I am no monster. As a matter of fact, someone ended up killing that alien–”
“So it really was an alien?”
“Or demon… Whatever. You should be happy.”
“I can’t be. You wanted to bomb them. You’re still a monster.”
“Mmm. An interesting thought,” he says, one hand on the door. “I think you’re tired, General. Get some rest. Maybe in the morning, if your strength has returned, I can take you to see your daughter. She’s looking forward to seeing you,” he says with a grin before slamming the door shut.
“Bastard! You’re a disgrace!!” I yell.
Three seconds later, the lights go off. It’s pitch black. I tremble. What a horrible man. I would never do this to my worst enemy. I don’t even need to close my eyes. I can see all the avatars before me now. Crimson knows this. He’s torturing me on purpose.
My awareness is sublime. Those before me are not bodhisattvas, but demons all; and though she is chief amongst them, all those old memories now awakened dwarf either of us. I am not ready, but I cannot stop it.
Seventy stories up, the snowstorm didn’t look so bad. The wind had died down since the morning, but the snow was ever falling, blanking Orange Star City. Hobbling across the walkway built over the indoor pond, Zhajiang made his way to one of the benches deeper inside the garden. He appreciated this place. It was much more serene than the hospital beds. The Milanos had been kind to them, allowing them to stay in such a place. He had never experienced this much wealth before. He wasn’t likely to ever experience it again, either.
The sound of bubbling water was soon intermingled with footsteps. He opened his eyes, finding that he had dozed off for some period of time. Glancing to the window gave him the same frigid picture as before. Couldn’t have been for more than a few minutes. The man approaching him was not Zadich, but that was not atypical. This floor was for all of the Milanos’ patients, and suffice to say, Zhajiang had seen more than a few of them over the past week. He had never seen this man before, however.
Wearing a red flannel jacket and black jeans, he strutted up, a toothpick riding the gaps between his teeth. He only made eye contact when he reached the boy, throwing the toothpick aside as he sat down next to him. Instinctively, the boy inched away to the other side of the bench.
“Hey, look at you. You’re walking. Not bad, kid.”
“Ye-yeah… better than yesterday. Still pretty sore.”
Leaning over Zhajiang’s foot, he continued, “And what’s this here? Uh, there’s a small cast. And that? What’s that there? It looks like purple foamy stuff.”
“That’s what they’re using to heal our bones extra fast, or so they say… Look, there’s more here on my ribs…” he said, pulling up his shirt to show all the bandages. Curse you, Tien Shinhan, for doing this to me. I will have my revenge.
“Must’ve been one helluva fight.”
“Broke a few of his bones too.”
“What’d they call that stuff they put on you? The doctors, I mean.” Plucking another toothpick from his inside jacket pocket, the man got to his feet, looking off to the nearest snowy window.
He had to fake a laugh. “They said this goop came from some witch in the mountains… or something like that.”
“Didn’t believe them?”
“I mean maybe, but I thought it was just a joke, dude…”
“My sister may be crude, but she’s not funny. Never has been, never will be.”
“Wait, you’re Mr. Milano?”
“Oh, I’m sorry, I didn’t know.”
“Stop it, I don’t need all that drivel. Look, my sister may be desperate, but she’s not lying. If she says she’ll have you healed in two weeks, she will. Believe her.”
“What?! I never said anything about two weeks…”
He winked, walking off. “It’ll be fine, don’t worry. We have the best shit. Trust me.”
It still hurt like hell, and he was still mad as hell. He tried a few more times to stretch out his poor foot, but the pain hurt more now than it had at the hospital, and it was getting hard to breathe. He didn’t try too hard to over-exert himself. There was no point.
When it was getting close to dinner time, he tested his leg again, eyes on the far door that led to the elevator downstairs to their beds. At the door, however, were Huo-Guo and Zadich. The girl’s buggy eyes were puffy, and Zadich wouldn’t look at him. He met them by the far curve in the pond, pretending not to breathe too hard in front of them.
“Here,” the girl said weakly, handing him a letter. “I had all of our mail from the dojo re-routed here, and not much except junk mail has been showing up… until this… today.”
“What is it?”
“Read it,” the older boy said.
“Um, okay,” he said, taking the letter from her hands. She had been clutching it hard, enough to leave the imprints of her fingernails in the paper. “Greetings students of the School of White Tigers… It is with sincere delight that I write to you today in order to inform you that your Master, the Tiger Hermit, has perished at my hand. You will disband the school at once, and leave Suma. You have until December First. Warmest Regards, Your Secret Admirer.”
“Piece of shit,” Zadich growled.
“Do you think it could be true, Zha?”
It hit him slowly at first, and the more quickly, and he found it harder to breathe than when he tried to walk. His head was spinning; he didn’t know how to respond. “Maybe.”
“Could it have been a bounty who got the better of him?”
“No. They want us to leave Suma.” He crumpled up the paper, pocketing it. “It was the Cranes. You know what this means.”
“Aye,” said Zadich, massaging his knuckles.
Huo-Guo grew more distraught. “Zha, no, wait! We can’t! We’re not healed yet.”
“Neither are they.”
“You can barely walk. You’re the only one strong enough to take out the older ones, anyways. We need you.”
He faltered, looking to Zadich, then to the pond, then to the door, then to her. “We should go.”
“We should go,” he said, this time more firmly. “They killed him, the bastards…! They killed him!”
“And the three-eyed one’s hand will still be broken next week…”
“What’s to say this purple crap is even going to work? I don’t feel anything yet.”
“I do. I feel better already.”
“That’s because nothing of yours is broken, except your nose.”
She cocked her head, as if admitting defeat. “A week… just one more… please. Zha, please. We can go after that. They’ll pay. They will. I’ll kill them myself! You have my word.”
“Don’t forget about me,” Zadich scowled. “I’ll kill them too. Yurin’s mine. That damn traitor won’t survive this!”
Shumi would agree with her. She should be here, not me. The old man wouldn’t want us to be brash, either. He swallowed, closing his eyes, ignoring Zadich. “Fine. We’ll stay. Once those two weeks are up, however, I’m going. You can come with me then, or not. I don’t care either way.”
With that, the Tiger once more limped off, his stomach grumbling loudly. I will not think about it, he swore to himself, instead focusing on his breathing, which in and of itself, was proving to be a most difficult task.
They had one more day until the Higataro hit. With their master still absent, it fell to Tien to run the Crane School. I’m nineteen, he had told himself. I am an adult. I can do this. He had decided that if Chiaotzu and Yurin wanted to join them tomorrow night, they would need to prove themselves first. Paik and Jaoros remained behind, nursing their wounds with the master’s old herbal remedies. As they would be needed quite severely for the upcoming mission, Tien thought it best to let them rest for now.
They had sticky rice at a shop in town before setting out for Orange Star City. Taking the Khaffi train, they arrived before nightfall. Tien held them back after they got off on the downtown station platform, waiting for the other commuters to disperse. That didn’t take long; the hopeless throngs threw themselves into the train cars or speed-walked up escalators away, so anxious were they to get home before the sun set. Suffice to say, they had about twenty minutes of sunlight left. I want to get this over with before it gets dark.
“Haven’t you been wondering why we came here?” he asked them.
“No, not really.”
“Are we going to the kabuki theater, Mr. Tien? Are we? Oh, I hope we are! That’s just what I need right now.”
He shook his head. “Tonight, we will conduct some necessary training. Our targets are two men–the first is six foot three with long black hair tied in a pony-tail. He should be wearing a black shirt and jeans. The other is five foot eleven with blond hair and a goatee. He’s wearing a suit. They’re four blocks east, at some bar called ‘The Clean Machine’. Here, take this, Yurin.” He handed her Paik’s cell phone. “All the information’s on there.”
Chiaotzu’s head turned to the side. “Y-you’re not coming with us?”
“Prove to me you deserve to come along tomorrow night. You will each take out one.”
The phone screen illuminated her face on the dark station. “Like, tie ‘em up, or…?”
He shook his head. Suck it up, or leave. I’m not here to babysit. They exchanged a look; the girl pocketed the cell phone, taking a deep breath; Chiaotzu tried his best not to shake, but he was. It’s time for him in particular. He can already fly. I had already taken my first life before Tao taught me that technique. Before long, they vanished into the darkness, their footsteps loud in the un-populated station. This was serene. He could almost relax. Not with the Tigers still out there. But they won’t be coming for a while… not until their bones heal up.
He ran a finger over the cast around his wrist. This was not ideal, especially on his dominant hand, but Paik and Jaoros had taken far worse punishment than him. He wasn’t going to complain. We’ll perform the mission to perfection. And we might need these two to make it go smoothly. Not that I would ever tell them that. They’re better off oblivious. Turning his head to the sky, he waited another thirty seconds before following them.
The city was packed, even at night. Street vendors sold trinkets and alluring, steaming food, but he remained focused on the task at hand. There would be time for that later. He could not see them, but that was alright. He assumed Chiaotzu would take some time to work up the courage to kill his first man, so there was no need to rush.
A hobgoblin-looking man who appeared as if he urgently needed to defecate lurched after another man, spitting as he shouted, “And I tell ya what, and I tell ya what now! Listen to me–hey, hey! Listen.” He was breathing mighty hard as he tried to catch up to the other man, who was doing nothing at all but walking down the road, not so much as looking at his pursuer, not a care in the world. “I want you to tell your kids to stop fucking calling me names!” The other man took several strides, his face placid as an elephant penis in jelly, and then finally he broke down into a silent fit of laughter. This seemed only to enrage the beast further. “Hey–hey, I’m warning you! They better not fucking do that again! Make them stop! Now!”
“Sure thing, buddy.”
Tien bought himself a cup of cheap green tea. It was not very good, but it kept him awake. His wrist was burning again. He didn’t want to grimace in public, so sipping from a cup whenever he needed to took care of that issue. Or something like that.
The city reeked of piss and trash. Someone tried to hand him a flier of some sort, but he slapped their hand away, causing them to spill hundreds onto the sidewalk, several being carried off by the wind; from the shadows, pigeons remorselessly looked on. A woman screamed. Ahead, glass shattered, and people were running. He dropped his plastic cup in the nearest trash can and sped off.
The Clean Machine was a mess of a place, its bricks ancient and discolored, its glass yellowing, with black spots aplenty. The stuffy, carpeted walls and un-cushioned chairs inside could have been from half a century ago, and he would not have been surprised. Most of the bystanders had cleared, but there were still bystanders. This was not ideal. They would have to move swiftly if they wanted to get out of here cleanly.
Ponytail was lying on his stomach, not moving, halfway out the window. There was blood everywhere. Yurin was nowhere to be seen. Chiaotzu, he realized, racing inside. If he hasn’t killed his target yet…
The place was empty, save for Yurin and Chiaotzu and the other man. Chairs, tables, plates, glasses, and bottles had all been flung about as if a hurricane had swept through the bar. The painted boy realized Tien had arrived, and his back straightened, his arms already thrust out. The second target was hovering in front of him, unable to move. As soon as Chiaotzu realized he was under Tien’s watching eyes, he snapped the man’s neck psychically.
Trembling, the boy turned to face him, looking up at him like a dog that had just stolen its master’s luncheon feast. “I-I did it, Mr. Tien Shinhan!”
“Took ya long enough,” Yurin said with her hands on her hips.
Maybe they are better than I give them credit for.
“Alright,” the three-eyed man said, clapping each of them on the shoulder. “You both can come. Let’s go home. I think it’s time for an after-dinner snack. What do you say?”
“Ooh ooh!” the little boy shouted with glee, jumping up and down (one time landing on the dead man’s arm, no less). “Can we have tenshindon again? That’s my favorite!”
Of course it is. Chiaotzu was not foul in the slightest. He had conquered his fears, had killed a man for the first time. He was scared and did it anyways. That’s real courage. “Sure we can,” Tien said. “But we need to get out of here. Yurin, take the pictures, and let’s go. The police’ll be here any second.”
He could hear the sirens approaching. Already some of the vermin had begun looking in through the shattered window. Two or three of them were standing in the open door. Just try something, he thought. I would love that. But, as Yurin finished, pocketing her phone, they simply flew out of the window, and the onlookers backed off, no one saying so much as a word to the Cranes, and he cooled his temper. It’s always like that, he thought bitterly. People are such cowards. Just once I would like one of them to have a little courage. It would make things more interesting, at least.
“Sixteen guards plus three lieutenants. That’s twenty in all. Got it? Two of our guys are in there too. They’re wearing shirts just like me.” The truck driver tugged on his white button-down shirt. “Please don’t hurt them. The yaks are going to escort us in through the gate, and then a team of five of them will search the truck and unload the saké. It is at that point that you should make your move, I think. Try to watch the bottles, please. They’re expensive stock. The rest of his men are inside. One or two might be watching from the second story balcony. You’ll have to find them yourselves. Could be anywhere, although most of them are likely together, and probably pretty drunk already, heh. Might have a few whores with him, too. Spare ‘em if you can.”
Tien nodded curtly. We already have it planned out. In truth, they did not need to do it in this manner–this was just the most efficient way to kill Higataro without causing a city-wide yakuza uproar. Jaoros and Paik were positioned near the doors behind saké crates. The younger Cranes were hiding farther back. Tien remained up against the back wall, behind the final line of boxes.
The driver shut the back window, and a few moments later, the truck eased to a stop. Then, it pulled inside the gate, going over a bump, spun in a semi-circle, and then backed up with shrill beeping towards, presumably, Higataro’s garage. He took several deep breaths, clearing his mind. He felt agitated, but not unhappy. If this goes according to plan, all of them will be dead within three minutes.
The back door’s latch unhooked with a long metallic whine. He heard the soft movements of his team rearranging themselves, calming themselves, overcoming their nerves (one can hope) in the last few seconds they had before all hell broke loose. The door was ripped open, floodlights pouring in. They held in the dark.
“Got that new batch of Masamune Kouyou Junmai Daiginjo in the back. Heh, Lord Tonji hasn’t even released it to the public yet! You’re in for a treat, Mr. Kazakare.”
“I’ll be the judge of that.” Several men laughed. Tien counted his breaths. The end of the truck lurched as the yakuza jumped in. “They’re these ones here? The ones in the gold bottles?”
“Those are the ones, sir. If you would like, you could take a box for your crew. It’s on the house. Must be dull work out here, being on guard duty all night.”
“Now we’re talking!” another man said. Once more, the truck lurched. A second one entering the trap. This will be easier than I thought.
“Ah yeah! That’s what I’m talking about. Give our thanks to Lord Masamune.” Kazakare said.
Tien whistled, and the trap was sprung. True to their word, the Cranes did not touch the saké. Kazakare shot out of the back of truck courtesy of Paik’s flying kick. His broken neck twisted unnaturally as his spun through the air. Jaoros kicked the other man in the side of the head, elbowed him in the back of the head, and then palm-struck him in the chest. Coughing, the man too fell off the truck. By the time he had, however, every Crane had already flown out of the vehicle. The driver ran to the front of the truck to hide and cower like a respectable employee.
Outside, Yurin led with a Flying Sky Kick, sending one yakuza into the bushes. Paik had subdued another with a leg sweep, followed by an elbow to the throat. Jaoros ran down another man, as he fumbled for his pistol, tackling him and covering his mouth before he could cry out to his buddies inside. Tien silently fired a Dodon Ray at the yakuza on the balcony. Though he hadn’t even noticed them yet (being engrossed in some manga or another, leaning back on a chair up against the marble balustrade, all yakuza in this building would be killed tonight. There would be no escape, no mercy. That’s six.
Paik and Jaoros were flying into the garage, Yurin running after them. Tien jumped onto the balcony, motioning for Chiaotzu to join him. The boy stood seemingly petrified in the middle of the loading zone. Suddenly, another yakuza appeared from inside the open garage. He raised a pistol, shouting at the top of his lungs as he fired at Chiaotzu, squeezing that trigger like he needed an empty clip yesterday. The pale boy was not scared, however. Tien saw it in his form. In the moonlight, he raised his arms out, fists clenched, closing his eyes as he caught one bullet in midair with his psychic abilities. Dodging the rest by rolling to the right, he opened his eyes and opened his hands, and the bullet flew again, this time tearing a hole through a yakuza’s skull. Seven.
The wind in his ears, Tien flew up to the room that comic-book-reading yakuza had been guarding. Punching his way through the door, he startled two yakuza just down the hall to the left, who opened fire on the man. Flying high in the hallway, then low, spinning his body in a dizzying display, ever determined, the Crane was never hit. Showing them the grace of his school before killing them was more than they deserved. He left them in puddles of blood. Nine.
He reached the grand stairway, finding Paik and several bodies. “We’ve got six more!” she cried out.
“Fifteen, then,” he said. “Any sign of Higataro?”
She shook her head and darted off down another hallway on the first floor. Checking the other side of the upper floor, Tien found it altogether deserted. Coming into a bedroom that appeared no different (and no cleaner) than any other, he paused, listening. There’s someone up here. They’re running… and not fast enough to be Yurin. Exiting the room, he looked down the left side of the hallway, where he had heard the person running. Once again focusing on his sense of hearing, he only noticed at the very last moment that someone was sneaking up behind him. Startled, the man spun around, raising his right arm to block.
A sour-faced, long-nosed yakuza came huffing out of the darkness, swinging the butt of his pistol at Tien. When the cold metal made contact with his cast, he inhaled sharply, staggering back, the pain shooting so hard through his body that all the colors in the room seemed more vivid. Damn yakuza. I shouldn’t have been fooled so easily. That could get me killed against the Tigers.
There was no time to wallow in pain, for the man was already aiming his weapon at Tien. Instinctively, he grabbed the man’s wrist with his left hand, jerking it aside at the last second. The gun went off in the wall, and his ears were ringing. How dare you? Die.
With one jerk, he dislocated the man’s arm. The screaming yakuza fired another shot into the wall. There was little resistance when Tien used the man’s own hand and weapon to punch his own face. Three punches bloodied his mustache, four cracked his teeth, and five glossed-over his eyes. He dropped the man, noticing that Jaoros, Paik and Yurin had been watching him from behind.
“All clear. Nineteen… now twenty. But no sign of Higataro,” said Paik, pulling out the cell phone as she and the others walked over. “Hang on, wait! This guy is Higataro! Look!” She pointed to the bloodied, mangled face of the dead man, then to the picture on her phone.
Huh. That’s it? I guess these yakuza are more pathetic than they make themselves out to be. “It is,” Yurin agreed. “Alright, we did it! We did it! That wasn’t so hard!”
“Where’s Chiaotzu?” Jaoros asked, looking around. “Did they get him?”
“He’s still in the courtyard, making sure no one tries to escape that way. No one did, did they?”
“We found the two Masamune/Masamune employees. They’re okay. But the prostitutes got away.”
“That’s alright. They don’t matter.”
Paik snorted. “What if one of them is the real big bad yakuza boss? How could you know, Tien? We have to be thorough. I thought Tao taught you better than that.”
He shook his head, suppressing a smirk. “Enough of that. You’ve all done well tonight. The old man would be proud.”
“We’ll tell him about it when he gets back,” Jaoros said hopefully.
“That’s right,” Tien agreed. “But first, let’s get paid.”
They arrived back in Cardan at around two in the morning. The Cranes were exhausted, but it was more from their adrenaline expenditure than from the energy they had used up. At least there were no longer any bugs out and about now that it was so cold. Lord Tonji, leaning on a cane, and one of his employees, wearing a white shirt with a bag slung over one shoulder, were waiting for them at the moonlit gate. The air was very still, yet as they approached, Tien couldn’t help but feel like someone was watching him–and not the two men ahead. A lot of people live in Cardan. More than in Suma and Khaffi combined. And yet, the villas were sparsely-placed. The lights weren’t on inside any of the nearby ones, either. But someone could be watching from the darkness. Why would they turn the light on, anyways? That would just give them away.
“Thank you for your service,” the man said, opening the gate to greet them. “Here, here, we have your reward as promised.”
Paik caught the bag, unzipping it to make sure. “Where’s that samurai? Too shy to come out and see us off?”
“He sends his thanks as well, Cranes. But I’m afraid he couldn’t make it tonight. He decided to go into the city for some gambling.”
“Huh, I didn’t know samurai gambled,” Yurin said.
“It’s all there,” Paik confirmed.
Tien folded his arms, nodding to Mr. Masamune. “We appreciate your patronage. Good night.”
With that, he flew directly into the sky, the rest following him. It gave him pleasure, this flock of Cranes. They followed him as he reached the clouds and then re-oriented due east for Suma. I haven’t said anything to Yurin. She’s done well to master levitation so quickly. Perhaps Chiaotzu isn’t as useless as he appears.
They stopped at the Ootaiji Temple before heading home. The old man hadn’t returned yet, so it didn’t matter when they did. Frost lay over the ruins. The wind blew through the rocks as they came to a landing, leaving their footprints in the fresh-fallen snow. Paik and Yurin went off towards the butsuden. He could see the antsiness in how they moved. They’re still energized from the assassinations. I don’t blame them. I couldn’t sleep at a time like this, either.
“Mr. Tien Shinhan?” Chiaotzu asked, waddling over.
“What is it?”
The boy smiled up at him. “That was… that was kind of fun.”
“You are a capable warrior when you don’t allow your fears tp dominate you, Chiaotzu.”
His fat cheeks made his smiles always look so goofy, but Tien didn’t mind. The moon being the only light, all the ruins and trees seemed bundled up in shadows. It was remarkably quiet. Usually this place was bombarded by winds coming down from East City, but tonight, they seemed to be coming in infrequently at best. The temple compound’s tranquility remained unbroken.
Before long, Jaoros had returned with news. “Lights on inside the teahouse.”
“Kyofune?” Tien asked.
“Who else could it be? Come on. We have to tell him the news.”
“Let’s go!” said Yurin.
I wonder if the boy will happy to learn we succeeded. That man was still his father, regardless of all the evil he has done.
“I hope he has some water boiling…” Paik yawned.
Trudging over the snow in the garden, the Cranes crossed the bridge over the frozen lake before arriving at the humble teahouse. I wonder how that kid gets through his shifts if he’s up all night drinking tea out here in the middle of nowhere. When does he sleep? Jaoros stepped up, reaching for the sliding door.
“Hey, Kyofune! It’s us! We saw the light on and–”
A brilliant flash of blue ki tore through the paper wall from the inside and connected with Jaoros’ hand. Tien watched the bone snap. Moaning with pain, the boy fell back; before anyone could react, Zhajiang kicked his way out through the hole in the door and lunged again, this time at Paik. The girl dodged underneath his glove of electrical energy, shooting a Dodon Ray at him as she did. He jumped aside, kicking her in the face, the glow of energy around his fist fading.
In the next instant, the two remaining Tigers revealed themselves. From the corner of his eye, Tien noticed Zadich flying down at Yurin from behind, striking her hard in the back of the head with his foot and sending her sprawling into the snow. Tien spun around in time enough to catch Huo-Guo’s flying kick. He threw her hard to the turf. With purpose, she flipped up onto her feet and came running at him for a second time, shouting something indistinct, tears welling in her red eyes, and all Tien had to do was execute a reverse roundhouse kick to send her staggering into a plum tree.
Zadich stomped Jaoros as he lay in the snow until he stopped shouting, then took ahold of Yurin, drawing her up in front of him like a hostage. Chiaotzu was wailing. They’ll die for this. They’re absolute scum to attack us in this place. Paik threw a left hook at Zhajiang, who casually caught the attack in his palm and kneed the girl in the stomach.
Tightening her footwork, Paik threw out another left hook. This time, instead of taking the bait, the Tiger used an afterimage to dodge around her and take hold of her by the throat. Spinning around, he presented his meatshield to the remaining Cranes, fury coloring his face. If only we weren’t so weak from that tournament… it’s injustice. But we beat them up even worse. Why aren’t they limping around? I know I broke Zhajiang’s ankle!
“You killed him: Master Mashiro!!” the White Tiger cried. “And now you’ll pay, turkeys!”
“Let her go!” Tien roared, pointing a finger at Huo-Guo. Eyeing both captors, he stood firm. They do not frighten me. They know I’m stronger than them. “Let her go and walk away, Tiger.”
Yurin screamed, so Zadich gave her a swift elbow to the forehead, silencing the girl. The other Tiger shook his head slowly. “He saved me… from the slums of Orange Star City… he gave me a home when no one else would. “He’s always been a courageous, merciful man–a man of the highest honor. I will not let him die in vain.”
“If we could jus–”
“Tien!” Paik cried out, trying her best to break free.
It was no use. He snapped her neck, and it was done. Tien released the Dodon Ray, and it was done. Chiaotzu went howling past him, his entire body glowing with blue energy. The three-eyed man couldn’t blink back the tears as he stepped up to face the murderer.
Snow had begun to fall, albeit lightly. The White Tiger was no less distraught than him, his eyes trained only on the corpse of his companion, just as Tien’s were on his. Noting their parallel–the fact that they were, in some sense, so similar–did nothing to quench his grief.
An explosion was enough to shatter their focus. Snow sprayed into the air, steaming, and Zadich fell, the girl slipping from his grasp. Chiaotzu stood over top of him, his arms out, a snarl upon his boyish face. “Don’t you dare!”
Incredible. I didn’t realize Chiaotzu had so much power. I thought that Zadich is on Jaoros’ level!
Swearing, Zhajiang took several steps back, his eyes red and wet. “Why…? I don’t get it… You’re the bad guys! It’s so ridiculous! There’s no justice in the world! Not until your corpses lies at my feet!”
He jumped back, then up, and was gone.
Wanting nothing more than to feel that boy’s blood running down his hands, Tien took a step to pursue, but something in him made him stop. No. He’ll be back. I have to check on Paik. But Jaoros, stubborn as he was, his arm useless, his broken nose bleeding again, his posture slouched from extreme fatigue, leapt up and tried to run after the murderer.
“Jaoros, stop!” Tien called out.
Chiaotzu was sobbing over Yurin; the girl, bleeding from the forehead and mouth, was still breathing. She’s alive. What about Paik? He knew. He knew he knew, and it didn’t matter. He still had to know–to really know.
“He’s getting away!”
It felt like all the rigidity in his mental state had been blown away, leaving a useless, shattered husk. Blinking, he tried to focus and found he could not. All he felt was his beating heart, and a restlessness that he could not get rid of. “He’ll be back… we have to check Paik.”
“She’s gone. Fuck it!” the other boy roared, leaping into the air. “There’s no time!”
“He’ll kill you if you leave.”
The Crane came to a sharp halt in midair. Looking back, he could barely keep it together. “Tien…”
“You’re too weak. If you go now, he’ll kill you for sure. Look at you! You’re in no shape for a fight.”
Through clenched jaws, the other boy seethed, “He killed her. I can’t… I can’t…”
“Stop!” Tien’s voice rose commandingly. “I am in charge while the old man is away. You will not throw your life away–”
Jaoros gave him a look, scoffing, and descended to the snow, wiping melting snowflakes from his eyes. “I can’t believe you.”
He knelt down next to Paik, taking her pulse. What he had feared was indeed true, and it cut him deep. “Jaoros, you’re angry. You’re not thinking clearly right now.”
“My life is my own,” the other boy replied indignantly, thrusting his chin up. “You have no claim to it.”
With that, he turned and began walking off. “Where are you going?!” Tien shouted. “Don’t do it!”
“I’m not going after him,” the other boy called back, not turning around, but raising one hand as if to say goodbye. “I’m just… going. I realize I have no place here anymore.” He bowed his head momentarily to steady his emotions. “If you want to stop me, then kill me.” He spun around, throwing his arms out, goading the three-eyed man on. “Go on, do it! Do it, Tien! You’re in charge!”
There was silence, save for Chiaotzu’s crying. Jaoros exhaled forcefully, his breath frosting before his face. He turned once more and walked off into the darkness. Tien knew he should stop him, but he had no energy left.
This had all been his fault. The guilt came in waves–some more fearful, some more hateful than others–and despite his mental fortitude, despite his years of meditation training, Tien found himself being swallowed whole by this. The boy and the girl would live… But what else is there?
The hurt and the shame and the feelings of betrayal by Jaoros were nothing compared to the looming, ever-present threat of the old man’s return. When he gets back, he’ll blame me. And rightfully so, he thought, brushing fresh snow off of his third eye.
Even as the sky had begun to brighten since the dawn, Khaffi Station remained cloaked in the vestiges of night. Few of the town’s workers usually got up early enough to make the first train of the day. The station was undermanned. There were no working security cameras. A single attendant was all that stood between him and the turkey with the clipped wing, who was of a mind to board the train and disappear off into the night. Not before I get you.
Wincing, he pulled himself up over the bushes, over the railing, and onto the platform on the other side of the track. Adjusting his sunglasses (in truth, they were the old man’s), his breath forming little clouds before his mouth, he began calling forth all of his power–all that he had left. This was his fault. Huo-Guo and Zadich had trusted him, had followed him into danger. Just like with Shumi. I shouldn’t have let them die. I could have stopped it. They were dead, and he was alive, and that could not be changed. All that mattered now was getting his vengeance on the Cranes.
One or two earlybird commuters were sleepwalking their way onto the platform. The ground was still slick from nightfrost. That would be to his advantage.
“Leave.” The turkey was cradling his arm, his eyes burning like coals. “I’m warning you.”
It was all he could do to hold back the emotion. Shaking his head once, the White Tiger advanced. Electrical surges of energy flamed up and down his forearms, pooling in his palms. The sleepy commuters were so buried in their phones that they hadn’t noticed what was happening.
He shifted the weight of his upper body to the left. He felt its heat and nothing else as the beam soared by and exploded in the distance. That got the commuters’ attention. Panicked, flustered, they cursed and sputtered, one falling on his heels, before fleeing for their lives. Then they were two again. The turkey cringed and raised a finger again.
He would never get used to the smell of his fingernails burning. “Denkoken!”
The first pulse, blue as ice, brimming with electrical currents, fired at the turkey, and he could do little but jump into the air off to the side where the second beam of purifying light was already flying at him. So predictable. As the other boy contorted in midair, front-flipping over the attack, the Tiger pounced. He couldn’t fly like the Cranes, but why did that matter when his claws were so sharp?
Appearing behind the turkey in midair, he came down on the boy’s midsection with a flying flip kick, sending him back down to the platform where he crashed, cracking concrete and bones and leaking blood, but it wasn’t good enough yet. He hasn’t suffered enough.
Landing, Zhajiang threw himself at the turkey. His eyes were stinging and his fingers were trembling. The other boy tried to perform sweeping kicks with both legs, but the Tiger jumped over that, landing to the side and coming down on his foe’s head with an elbow. Spitting a cloud of blood, the turkey fell back, swinging a wild punch. Then, without missing a beat, as Zhajiang was lunging in for the kill, his prey decided to try a most dastardly trick.
He punched the bastard five times in the face before he managed to block. You fool. You think I haven’t learned from the tournament? “This is for my school,” he said finally, raising a hand, preparing to claw-strike his fallen foe, his fingertips glowing blue. “For everyone!”
He was obviously tired. He was obviously hurt. But so was Zhajiang. All things must come to an end. You weren’t good enough. “Wait, wait, wait! Hang on, hang on! Hold on! Wait! Please, wait, wait, please!” the boy begged and pleaded, trying to crawl away.
He struck at the boy’s throat. Where his fingers had touched the flesh, now luminous blue balls of light clung. His neck twitching, fear in his eyes, Jaoros looked up at Zhajiang, trying to choke out a word. His neck exploded, sending a spurt of blood raining down on the platform. The Tiger exhaled, feeling numb. He glanced down the track. In the distance, the light of the morning train could be seen–piercingly bright, getting ever closer in sight.
His belly rumbled. Pulling out his phone, he wiped his hands clean before turning it on. I’ll return to the city to get my partial reward before going back for the rest of them… but I don’t have any money right now and I’m starving. Maybe I should do a bounty or two before running back to the city. He glanced at the screen, scrolling through the available bounties in the area. Birdsong had returned to Khaffi, but its commuters had not. Zhajiang liked it better that way.
There weren’t many bounties listed outside of the city, but he did notice, and it was immediate, that those which had been put up for Cardan, Suma, Khaffi, and the surrounding countryside, were almost exclusively samurai. He stopped his scrolling on Yoshitaro. I know him, he thought. We used his tea shop quite a lot. But now Shumi, Huo-Guo, and Zadich were gone. And the old man too. It was a bitter truth to accept. Everything goes away in the end.
He pocketed the phone and ran off from the station, just before the train arrived. He felt uneasy as he ran back to Suma. This will be quick, he told himself. Won’t take more than twenty minutes. Then I’ll have enough money for breakfast. Still, even as he ran, Zhajiang couldn’t stop the feelings of agitation, of hopelessness, of depression from poisoning his body.
Killing that boy hadn’t made anything better. But it is a start.
Chapter 6: These Pretentious ThingsEdit
She had felt like shit ever since getting here. The washed-down concrete walls, the bare metal cages, spaced so far apart, the lack of any contact with the outside world… she could hardly stand it. There was nothing to do, nowhere to go, no way to stop the pain. Her muscles ached, a dull throbbing that was tirelessly whittling away at her patience. The bastard hadn’t so much as suggested giving her medication. She wasn’t about to complain.
Wiping sweat from her brow, Violet called out, “Hey, Carmy, got any snow on you?”
Seated at a modest oak table, the man met her gaze, chewing slowly. Shaking his head, he continued to chew. The prison had a natural reek to it not unlike roadkill–extra ripe, but subtler than one would expect. I’m losing my mind in here. I have to get out of here. It’s already winter. Snow’s begun to fall. I have to be there to see it.
He cleared his throat. Lost in thought, Violet plucked a nose hair or four. Chewing deliberately, Carmichael pushed another spoonful of oatmeal into his mouth without breaking his look.
She fixed herself, realization rushing pleasurably to her forehead. Near-invisible star-like explosions rippled through her vision. Oh.
“Heavy night last night?”
“Nothing too messy.”
He has it. It must have passed through him by now. Hah. What luck. They didn’t x-ray him. Lazy cunts. In spite of it all, a roar of anxiety echoed through her body. She couldn’t stand it. She had to get out of this fucking prison.
With more than a few metallic groans, the black doors swung open, and the light of the outside world, however artificial it may have been, spilled in. She grasped the bars, her pain dissolving out of focus. Six people entered the room, two of them bound by the wrists. She didn’t recognize the boy. Cardinal, she did. Silver, she did. Goosebumps spread down her spine and forearms. He’s alive. I can’t believe it. The old shit wasn’t lying. There was the bald man–Eugen, if she remembered correctly. There was also a woman with Cardinal’s gang whom she did not recognize.
That’s only five. Shutting her eyes like a petulant child, she banished the thought. She couldn’t help it. He was in the same room as her. It was too close. She felt sick. Her fingers were twitching. That was the withdrawal–nothing more.
Eugen and the woman escorted the child to one of the cells. Silver, of all men, pushed the other prisoner to the center of the room, just under the hanging light bulb. They faced her. The door slammed shut. The boy was quarantined. Who he was, Violet did not know. It didn’t seem to matter. The rest of Cardinal’s minions returned to his side within seconds.
I don’t get it. What does he think I’m keeping secret from him? She was at a loss for words. She could no more guess what Cardinal wanted than impregnate the enfeebled fucker. Unflinchingly, Carmichael chewed oatmeal. Hopeless a thought as it should have been, she felt freedom on the tip of her fingers. But he has to get it to me somehow… unless he wants to play the hero. She wouldn’t put it past him.
“Good morning, Colonel Violet. I am pleased to find you finally awake. We have much business to attend to.”
She stole two or three looks at the dead man, the man who should not have existed, the man whom she had thought–knew–was dead. “You can’t make me do shit.”
Sucking air, Cardinal raised an eyebrow. Silver punched the prisoner in the gut. She felt it, inhaling rapidly. Fuck. As much as Violet didn’t want to admit it, she cared. She couldn’t stand by and let them do that. “Stop it!” she cried. “Stop it right now!”
Her response came in reflex. “Never.”
Carelessly, Silver unholstered his pistol, catching it in midair, then slamming the butt against the prisoner’s cheek. She couldn’t watch. The man was gasping, moaning low like someone trying not to vomit. Sliding on his heels, the prisoner nearly face-planted before Silver caught him by the ear.
He broke the prisoner’s nose with a sickening crack. “I don’t want to do this…”
She didn’t let him see her shivering. “Hah! Like hell you don’t.”
That time, he sucker punched the poor fucker in the jaw. This was just some prisoner–just some man. She would not be moved by his plight. Silver grasped him by the scalp, punching him in the chest and following up with several gut punches. The man spat and wheezed, wheezing horribly. His blue eyes were watering; and yet he was looking to her, choking on pain. Damn you.
One more rib-cracking punch nearly broke her. “Alright. Stop. Stop it! I’ll go to North City.”
The old man was practically cumming in his pants. She hated him. She hated how brazenly cocky he was. Were this… prisoner not here before her, she would kill the old fucker, knowing full well that it would cost her her life. Now, the stakes were greater. She would not let this man suffer for her ego.
“You’re not going to North City anymore,” Cardinal said, clearing his throat. “Events have transpired since you’ve come here. Higataro is dead, and the Chàoxing Gon has been thrown into chaos. We need them, or a group like them; we need Diablo Desert.”
“Don’t play dumb, Violet. You know what I’m talking about. There is money to be made in bringing paying customers desirable items.”
“Illegal items,” she pointed out.
The old man shrugged, his hands animated, his eyes looking weary. “I never would have guessed that you would take the position of moral arbiter in this conversation. If I remember correctly, you stole a good portion of the Red Ribbon Army’s wealth before you defected. I will not, for one moment, tolerate being lectured by a petty thief.”
“The war was lost. Took what I could and got out. Only a dumbfuck would have stayed there to die. It was obvious what was going to happen to Red and his guards.”
“Obvious to Gero, and obvious to myself, but not to rest, sadly,” Cardinal said. “Either way, you are not going to North City. You are going to a small town south of West City called Seikishi City. It’s on the water–you’ll like it. There you will meet with the Morizakura-gumi. I believe they are in their seventh–or is it the eighth–iteration? Ah. Who cares? Doesn’t matter. Silver will do all the talking. You will accompany him, but you needn’t say anything at all, really.”
“If you behave, I will allow you to accompany him afterwards to North City. But first, you must atone for the mess you created.”
“He killed Sugoro,” Violet lashed out, pointing to Eugen. “I killed one man who was already half-dead anyways. They didn’t need him. We didn’t want to do anything else. It was blood for blood. He killed Nathaniel! Have you ever heard of him? He was the mayor of South City. Justice was served… barely. I’ll tell you what–Mazuchiru was lucky he was in a coma. The things I would have done to him if he had been awake…”
Licking his lips, as if not even paying attention to her, Cardinal stepped up to the prisoner, placing a hand on his shoulder. “Regardless, we cannot rely upon the Chàoxing Gon any longer. There are no organizations in Orange Star City large enough to handle the route through Diablo Desert. You know as well as anyone how vast that desert is. That is why you will go with Silver and Glase to Seikishi to entreat the Morizakura-gumi. It will be good for you, Violet. You need to atone.”
Fucker thinks I have sins to atone for? He should look in a mirror. I don’t have time for this bullshit. She wiped her nose, pretending not to care. The prisoner, barely remaining on his feet, his head bowed, moaned loudly; she scoffed, unable to stop herself. “Atone for what?”
“You’re a thief and a liar and a disloyal beast, and you need to atone before we take you in.”
Silver nodded and the woman with the long black hair unlocked her cage. Violet was not bound, but she lacked any sort of weapon. This was not ideal. They always collected the spoons with the bowls. Yesterday, she had tried to keep hers, and that had caused a right proper stink (eventually Eugen had wrestled the twisted piece of plastic from her grip, and everything had returned to normal). Eyeing her empty bowl of oatmeal, she thought, I could get the old man easily enough… and maybe Silver wouldn’t kill me. At least not at first. That would give me time. But the other two are a big problem. I have no way of dealing with them.
“Try something,” the woman breathed, taking Violet by the shoulders as she pulled her out of her cage. “I’d love that.”
If we were alone, you’d have no chance, bitch. Nevertheless, the woman relented, making no further comments. Stepping out of her cage should have felt like a significant moment, like her freedom had been restored, but her eyes were on their belts–their guns–and she couldn’t help but feel less safe than she had been behind those cold metal bars.
“And, Eugen, bring out her soldier as well. Let’s get that out of the way now.”
Like a dog, he obeyed. Carmichael didn’t say a word when the man shoved a pistol in his back and forced him out of the sanctity of his cage. If they think he’ll talk… he’s got nothing to reveal. They’re wasting their time. Soon there were three prisoners huddled in the center of the room, a guard behind each of them. Cardinal stood off to the side, his arms folded as he studied his prey.
She would not look at the beaten man. Silver was in the room; Glase was watching her intently. She wouldn’t break in front of them.
“You will go with my son to Seikishi, Violet?” Cardinal asked.
She took a deep breath, re-orienting herself. Wiping her nose, she replied, “Sure.”
“Good. Now, I will need you to make a decision for me.”
The woman began giggling low in the deep of her throat, making her sound like a hobgoblin of sorts. She felt a sinking feeling in her stomach. Of course. There’s always a cost. “What are you talking about?”
“I’m talking about my prisoners.” The man walked up to them, placing a hand on each of their shoulders. “I only have room for one of them. I’m sure, since you know both of these fine gentlemen so well, you will be the perfect counsel in this matter.”
He’s a motherfucker alright. I wish I could squeeze his eyes into jelly. She wanted nothing more than to bash his brains in. She couldn’t stand the vague look of glee that was seemingly etched into his wrinkles. He had to die, and she knew she needed patience, but it wasn’t enough. “Put them in the same cell. There. Problem solved.”
“Ah, but I fear that will increase the likelihood of their escape too greatly,” Cardinal replied. Carmichael fell against the other prisoner, but Eugen soon jerked him back into place. Violet hated seeing her captain treated like this. It was an injustice, and all of them would pay. “You must pick one for me. Please, Violet. I’m an old man. I’m tired of making all the decisions all the time. If you leave it up to me, well… I might just have to squeeze that trigger twice. Would you like that?”
He held up his magnum for all to admire. He went so far as to run a finger down its barrel, as if to tease them. Its length was unusually long, she supposed, but it was lacking in girth, and that was really an underrated factor that too many people, this senior citizen included, often overlooked.
She shivered again, the goosebumps peppering her skin like seagulls gnawing at her corpse. Once more, the woman let out a wildly unprofessional guffaw. I’ll be sure to put a bullet through her head as well. For all his worth, Silver remained defiant in stature, but sheepish of face, and if anything, he seemed more uncomfortable than anything about how things were transpiring.
“You see, that’s not an answer.” Cardinal turned around, aiming the magnum at the beaten prisoner. “You expect me to have more patience than I actually do, Violet, and that pains me. It really does, you know. It hurts me to see how slowly you are comprehending the state of things.”
“Oh? Is that a change of heart I hear in your voice?”
“No,” she replied. “Maybe you can get rid of one of your other prisoners. Free up some room and–”
“That won’t do. I need the rest. But these two–well, I’m not sure anyone needs them.”
She grit her teeth, swallowing the rage. “Fine.” She looked first to the beaten prisoner, giving him half a glance before turning back to Carmichael. They exchanged a long look. He doesn’t want to die. He’s afraid. He wants to live. I can’t blame him, but I can’t. I’m sorry. She nodded at her captain.
Some pained emotion began forming in the corners of his lips. He didn’t have time to take a breath before the gunshot sounded. Her ears rang; breathing fast, she blinked away the fuzziness. She had to stab herself hard in the palms with her fingernails to stop herself from breaking down in front of them. And that only made her feel more guilty than before. It was a dirty feeling, almost like she had betrayed him again. I’m sorry, Carmichael, but it’s the only way.
“Now, you will give Eugen the coordinates of the base of the Children of Chaos.”
“What?! Since when was that a part of the deal?”
Cardinal placed the end of the smoking barrel against the remaining prisoner’s chest. “Shall I continue, then?”
She tasted blood, seeing the world in a blur. “Fine,” she said weakly.
The woman was cackling like a witch. “V-violet…” the prisoner said in a haggard voice.
It would have been impossible to have been ready, even if they had given her a hundred years to prepare. She looked at him then–truly looked at him–and it cut her deep. Why did you have to leave? You were the one who made me join the Red Ribbon Army in the first place. You stuck me with them, forced me to become one of them, and now look what’s happened. “Father.”
“Go,” Cardinal said in a booming voice. “Every day without the Morizakura-gumi in our employ, we are losing tens of thousands of zeni. Off with you now,” he said, shooing them away with a hand. “You too, Silver. Go!”
The red-haired man rolled his eyes, but motioned for them to join him. When Violet didn’t, Glase, still snickering, pushed her towards the door. Her situation was becoming altogether intolerable. I will kill them, she swore to herself, taking a willing step towards Silver so as to not be pushed again. Silver and her both, but not before I save my father. Cardinal and his men are scum. They cannot be allowed to live. Enough is enough.
I’m an old man. I keep myself in good shape, eat right every now and then, exercise when I can, meditate when I can, yada yada yada. You know what I mean. But what Mr. Crimson has just put me through is something I cannot stand. He may have found religion. Calling himself ‘Cardinal’ may tickle his fancy, but he is no different than he was during his time serving under Commander Red. Some sweaty-faced guy takes me by the shoulder and pushes me into a cell, slamming the door behind him. I collapse on the bed, tasting blood, unable to move.
She is gone. I no longer care about this place.
“Did that hurt, General?” Crimson calls from the door.
“Not at all, old chap.”
“Should your daughter–”
“Violet won’t fail. She isn’t like your son.”
He clears his throat. Must be peeved off. Don’t care. I’m tired. Right tired of this shit. Ready to fall asleep. Gotta leave the demons behind my ears. I am trying even now. It won’t work. At least in my dreams, I have control. “Should your daughter fail, General, I will execute you myself.”
“Then you won’t know if I told King Furry.”
“I have already confirmed that you have not told him anything. Do you really think our talks were just to pass the time? I have been conducting tests on you since you arrived here.”
“I wasn’t hooked up to anything…”
He finds that amusing as hell. I don’t get it. “Now, I have only one use for you, my old friend. You better hope your little girl doesn’t screw things up. If she does, you wouldn’t get to reach your precious nirvana. That would be a damn shame. She’s a drug-addicted whore, but she is your daughter, so you must love her and trust her… isn’t that right, Indigo?”
He waits, as if expecting me to answer. I don’t. Don’t have anything to say to that fucker. Chuckling to himself, the man leaves. It is hard to have compassion for someone like him. He deserves, fundamentally, to die. That is immoral, Master Praggu would tell me, sipping his tea messily. But how can justice be immoral? That is not justice, the old man would say in his slow, quivering voice. But if it was not justice to kill Cardinal, what does it matter? I’ll throw justice aside. If that’s not what this is, then justice has no meaning, no practical use. He must die. I will kill him. He deserves it.
Is it not compassion to keep evil souls such as him in this realm, or a lower realm, to teach them a lesson? The bastard isn’t ready for nirvana; he must suffer in order to learn. I can almost feel Master Preggu squirming in torment in whatever realm he is in now. I know. I can’t help it, though. This is right. I can feel it in my veins, more true than intoxication.
The boy being held in the cell across from mine coughs. What did he do to get locked up in here? It’s awful. He’s just a kid–maybe fourteen or fifteen years old. Probably scared, confused, underfed. Welcome to the club. They’re probably going to execute him just like that other guy. I feel a sense of deep compassion in me welling up, almost overflowing. Then the pain comes, and I’m tired again.
I finger the capsule in my left hand, only looking down at it after I hear the doors open and close again. Sweaty McBaldie (Eugen is a hideous name, damn him) remains behind to clean up the mess made by his boss. Sucks for him. I feel some compassion for him, but not enough to help him leave this realm. Don’t know who Cardinal even killed, but he must have been someone Violet knew. She was devastated when he died. Closing my eyes I see the horror on her face again. When she had looked at me, there had been nothing but sour pity. Stubborn girl–she’s just like her mother.
Popping it open, I find one piece of unwrapped pink chewing gum. It doesn’t take me long to understand what’s going on here. I spent years in the Red Ribbon Army. Hell, I was the one who smuggled Violet her first box of this stuff nearly twelve years ago. I return the explosive back in the capsule and shut my eyes, thinking back to the man lurching against me, moving the sweat-coated capsule from one palm to another too fast for any of Crimson’s lackeys to notice. That had been pretty good. I laugh, stopping myself almost immediately. My ribs are too sore for this. My jaw is sore too. My nose burns. I need to get some rest before getting out of here. Smiling, I pocket the capsule and drift off.
It hadn’t been like I had expected, I admit. Seeing her again after all these years should have produced some great emotional reaction from the both of us. I confess, my own reaction had been rather meek, and she had hardly looked at me, herself. It’s a shame. A damn shame. I was teased. I wanted more. But you can’t always get what you want. I know that. I should know that.
I see her standing before me, a scowl upon her face, hands upon her hips, shaking her head, and I’m gone.
Someone–someone I want to choke very badly– is banging on my cell’s bars, bringing me distinctly back into the living world. Sitting up with a groan, my chest and face throbbing, I struggle to open my eyes. “H-how long was I…?”
“Lunch,” the bald man growls, sliding a tray of food under the bars and kicking it towards me. “Eat.”
I know I should have waited, but I can be an impatient man. I am not altogether hungry; I am not particularly tired anymore. I’m feeling anxious–too anxious. Don’t like being locked up in cages. Can’t stand it, really. I’m sore, but that will take days to go away. I don’t have that long. Can’t stay in a place like that for days. That would drive me right proper mad. Can’t let that happen.
Fumbling with his gloves, he doesn’t see me slip the gum into my mouth. If this is the same gum that Violet used back in the old days, I had about thirty seconds to work with. Either way, I’d err on the side of caution.
“Hey,” I whistle, blowing a bubble just as Eugen looks up. “Pretty sweet, huh?”
“Where did you get that? All outside substances are contraband. You know that!”
I shrug, faking a laugh. “What are you gonna do, take it from me?”
“Son of a bitch.” He reaches for his keys, drawing a pistol. Looking back to the door, the man grimaces, then unlocks my door. “Damn, I should have someone here with me… Look, old guy. Don’t try anything funny. I’ll shoot you. I’m allowed to.”
It’s now or never. I won’t pretend like I’m not nervous, but if he detects even a hint of what I’m up to, I’m cooked. “I’m proud of you. That’s a helluva privilege.”
“Don’t get smart with me, Mauvin. Now, get over here and hand over th–”
He holds out his palm, but instead, I spit it onto his sweaty, shining bald head. “Eugh! What is this?! Are you some kind of savage? I’ll break your nose for that!” the man screams out, recoiling, pulling a wet pink strand from his forehead.
“You should have shot me.”
He only realizes it at the last second. The gum explodes, and his whimpering goes away. He’ll need to spend some decades in the hell realms, in my estimation, but it is not precisely my call to make. I have no regrets. It’s over with. Simple as that. Easy. Messy–I’ll give you that. There’s blood and brains everywhere. I’m retching. I’m going to vomit. I don’t want to think about. I have to focus. I take his pistol, his keys, wiping my mouth. Don’t want to taste him. That was a foul man, a polluted man, and in my compassion, I have sent him through another series of trials. He is, quite simply, not ready to transcend this existence. The cycle of samsara will go on for him, until he learns, as it will for Cardinal, and his other immoral lapdogs.
I pause at the boy’s cell. He stares at me in fear. It’s all the blood. I’m not thinking straight. I’m shaking. I have to try about a dozen keys before I find the one that works. My internal clock is screaming at me. They’ll be here any second. We have to flee. I don’t even know where we are. But we have to get out. Hope it’s not South City. I don’t want to have to swim. Hate the ocean, personally.
“Hello,” I say, bowing hurriedly. “My name is Charles. At present, I am escaping. Would you like to join me? We don’t have much time.”
The boy cocks his head to the side in disbelief. He probably thinks this is a trick. Damn kid. I don’t have time for this. He’s too young to be so cynical. Sure enough, a moment later, he relents, an uncontainable smile spreading on his dirt-ridden face. “Yeah, okay! Let’s get out of here Thank you, Mr., uh…?”
“Mauvin. But just call me Charles.”
It is a simple thing to run to the door, and even simpler thing to run through it, and after the boy–not down the hall, which led deeper into this hellhole, towards Cardinal or the others, wherever they may be, but out a fire escape to the left. Sunlight, changing robustly from yellow to orange in the evening, seeps through, and when I see it, when I feel it, my hate and my thoughts of vengeance melt away, and I find that I’m running through the door, just like him, to my freedom.
A meager crowd of people stood and stared. Hands resting firmly on his belt, the town sheriff was like a gawking peacock. It was yet early. More people would be coming soon, however. Word spreads fast in a small town. Soon everyone would be awake.
Neither one of them had been able to sleep. They hadn’t felt much like talking about it, either. Maybe that’s for the best. Yurin was at the Suma Hospital at present; their funds, hoarded for weeks, had been exhausted paying for the girl’s treatment. They would need to rectify that before the old man returned. Tien had wanted tea before they set out on the most expensive bounty in the region.
Yoshitaro’s, in any case, was closed. Police tape ran from the door to the broken window. There weren’t any bodies visible, but what seemed like the entire Suma Police Force (all five of them) were standing outside the shop, preventing anyone from getting inside. Wonder who they were after.
“When did this happen?” Tien asked the sheriff, coming up on him hot, startling the poor porker badly.
“Half an hour ago, maybe. Hell, I can’t believe it. That guy was a…”
Tien didn’t bother to listen to the old hen cluck on. The Cranes stepped past the man too quick for him to notice, ducking under the police tape and slipping inside without disturbing a thing. Two of the shop’s tables were lying askew. One’s face was cracked. The chairs were lying all over the place, some splintered, some tangled together and knocked over. Broken glass and spilt tea glistened from the floor.
The samurai’s body was behind the counter. Whoever had done this hadn’t remained behind long enough to be spotted by anyone. Where’s the kid? He’s not in there, and not out here… He could have done it. Couldn’t he have? He thought that Kyofune wouldn’t be capable of such a thing, but he was not sure. Flying again, they took off for Orange Star City, setting the wind upon the poor townspeople below. They won’t know what hit them.
It was sad, he supposed, that the samurai was dead. The snowfall last night had been moderate, blanketing much of the terrain. Somehow, despite the beauty in all the whiteness, its oppressive force made him yearn all the more for spring. His wrist burned from the cold.
“Chiaotzu, check the phone for any bounties in the area.”
“Okay, Mr. Tien Shinhan!”
Allowing the painted boy to wield their phone was no small thing, but Tien had no use for trifling machinery like phones. If he was to become a powerful warrior, he could not let his mind be distracted by artificial things. The boy did not pursue the same higher levels of meditation as Tien, and thus he felt no guilt.
They flew over Khaffi’s snowy train tracks, adjusting their flight path to a more northwest orientation. “Well?” he asked at last, trying not to sound impatient. “Who will it be?”
“Oh, yeah, um, I found one, Mr. Tien Shinhan! Look, look!” The boy eagerly flew up beside him, holding up the phone. “They only listed it fifteen minutes ago! It’s marked as urgent. They need him dead as fast as possible. The bounty’s Ƶ100,000,000.”
“Let me see.”
Taking the phone, Tien took in the target’s information as thoroughly as he could. It had been a while since he had hunted someone, but that didn’t mean he would allow his form to become sloppy. This bounty was unusually terse, providing one (supposedly) recent photograph, a name–Charles Mauvin–and a short description reading: Subject is armed and dangerous. Has murdered before. He is loose in Orange Star City and may be attempting to leave. Don’t let him get away.
Tien felt a surge of adrenaline, and for a moment, he forgot the cold. This was almost too perfect, like kami–if he really existed–was smiling down upon them, trying to make up for all their bad luck recently with this one bounty. It doesn’t. “Alright, Chiaotzu. Let’s go as fast as we can. That White Tiger may be after us, or this bounty, not to mention other bounty hunters, once they see the price that’s being offered for this guy. We’ll have to move fast if we want to get to him first. He’s an old man. Doesn’t look like he’ll put up much of a fight. First one who gets to him is going to smoke him.”
“Yeah, yeah, yeah! That’ll be me!”
That’s the spirit. He didn’t slow down for the boy. There was a restlessness in his body that he couldn’t quite get rid of without blood on his hands. I’ll find him. I remember his face. He can’t hide forever. I’ll find him. Keenly aware of the threat of Zhajiang lurking about, he and Chiaotzu entered the city in a blaze of swirling wind, not caring if anyone saw them. Let him come for me. I’ll put him in the ground where he belongs if he’s foolish enough to try.
Chiaotzu went uptown; he took the downtown area. It was more packed, but he had more eyes for the job. Beneath him, the chaotic urban sea swayed this way and that, the sounds of hovercars and hoverbuses and people walking intermingling in one grey droning note. The sun reflected horribly off the skyscrapers, and he feared he would be half-blind before this was over.
I will not go back empty-handed. I can’t disappoint the old man anymore than I already have. Flying lower, he began attracting the attention of passersby, an unfortunate side effect of executing such a rare technique in front of so many people. There would not be much time before the crowd’s interest became overwhelming.
Going lower, he dodged hovercars (mostly driven by middle-aged housewives, bless their hearts) coming in both directions, making sure not to miss the face of a single person on either side of the street. Turning down an intersection, he continued his hunt at great pace. He had no clue where Chiaotzu was, and maybe that was for the best.
It hurt, knowing that Chiaotzu was the only one left. Yurin was in the hospital, but there was no guarantee that she would survive; indeed, Zhajiang could show up at any moment and end her life, and there was nothing they could do. The doctors hadn’t been sure on the extent of her injuries. If she pulled through, so be it, but he wasn’t holding out hope. Not since what happened with the others. He’d trained for years with them, and then in one uncontrollable instant, they were gone. He remained, but he didn’t want to. Chiaotzu was not them. Yurin was not them. In time, both fighters could likely surpass Jaoros and Paik, but they were different, nonetheless. This was not a simple reshaping of the mold.
Half-lost in thought, Tien spied a familiar face. Blinking, stopping, and looking back, he realized it had been Kyofune. And with him, holding a steaming bowl of ramen in one hand, and the boy’s arm in the other, was their target–Charles Mauvin. No way. Did he kill that samurai, then? This still did not make sense. Kyofune was leading the man down the road, and the man was barely keeping up.
Landing in front of them, Tien parted the sea of people. So astonished were many of them to see a flying man that they went running off with worried looks or shrieks (some never to be seen again, allegedly). The young tea server came to a halt, confusion morphing into relief upon his face.
“O-oh, it’s you… Tien…”
The man eyed him. Never seen a three-eyed man before? “You’re from the Crane School, eh?”
Tien nodded once, not betraying a hint of emotion.
“He’s an assassin!” someone yelled from the crowd of over-curious people that was forming some ways off from them.
Mr. Mauvin dropped his bowl, his face draining of color, and ran.
“Tien, no!” the boy shouted.
He slapped Kyofune aside into the crowd. I have a job to do. The Crane School’s honor is more important than our friendship, than myself, than anyone. He could never appear weak in front of these people. That would slander more than his own reputation. I’m wearing my school’s uniform. As long as I’m a Crane, I will act in accordance to the Master’s wishes. Raising a finger at the fleeing man, he called forth his energy, feeling a pulse of warm shoot up his chest, down his arm and pool at the tip of his finger. He cleared his thoughts and aimed.
The man came to a stop in mid-sprint, his arms and legs splayed out like he had just been punched down the street. Yet, he didn’t move. He can’t, Tien realized with a smirk. Not bad, Chiaotzu. “Dodon Ray!”
Mr. Mauvin managed to cry out, “Om mani padme hum!”
As soon as he finished his mantra, whatever it meant (Tien was not a particularly religious man), the Crane’s attack sliced through his neck and silenced him for good. A woman shrieked, took a breath, and shrieked again. Another joined her, and then everyone was running. On the far side of the street, just past the corpse, Chiaotzu descended from the sky, holding up a peace sign. Tien nodded to him approvingly.
From amongst the crowd, he found the passing pale face of Kyofune, his eyes red and wet, not looking to Tien, but to the dead man. He shivered and buried it away. His job was done. That was the only thing that mattered.
“Chiaotzu, don’t forget the picture.”
Feeling loose, the boy did a loop-de-loop in midair before doing as he had been commanded. Tien looked once more for Kyofune in the dispersing throngs, and found only the nameless, panicked looks of those trying to run by him. Harsh though this reality was, it had been the only way. He shivered again. Why is it so cold?
His return to Suma had been a success, but he felt nothing of it. After catching four or five hours of rest before taking the train to the city, Zhajiang made his way to the Milano Skyscraper, or whatever the hell it was actually called. Ms. Valentia had texted him back while he had been on the train, and was expecting him on the seventy-second floor (supposedly that whole floor was her ‘room’) no later than seven fifteen.
It was seven twenty-two. He took the private elevator up. He felt strange in this place. He’d never taken an elevator before, let alone a private one. It went up smoother and quicker than he had expected, and he wondered if this feeling was akin to flying. Before he was ready, the elevator door opened, and the big woman herself was waiting outside for him. That’s a bit creepy.
His throat was raw. Following her, he half wanted to turn around and leave, but he knew he had to do this. It’s taboo, he could hear Huo-Guo’s voice repeating over and over again in his head. She closed the elegant wooden doors behind them, ushering the boy into a cushy, comfy, but rather spacious living room.
“Would you like any tea?”
He tried not to stare at her tits. Easier said than done. “No thanks.”
She poured herself a cup, seating herself in a white leather reclining chair. He took the couch. It smelled strongly of some sweet spice that he didn’t recognize. It was all he could to prevent himself from sneezing.
“So, um… Zhajiang, right? Yeah, good. I received your texts, and I want to say that I’m perfectly fine with meeting you here tonight, but I am still not sure why you came here. You weren’t being very specific in your messages.”
“I couldn’t say anything that could implicate you. But anyways, I killed two of them, and I want Ƶ10,000,000 apiece for their heads.”
She hid a smirk behind a long sip of tea. “I thought that was–what was the word?–taboo for assassins like you.”
“I don’t care. I’m the only one left now, and I need that money.”
She raised her footrest. “And will you go after the remaining three Crane assassins by yourself?”
“Yes,” he said without hesitation.
“Two for two…” she mused, drinking her tea with disgusting laziness. He could hardly watch. “Why should I believe you can beat three of them by yourself?”
“The two I killed are older students–the stronger ones by far. Two that remain are new recruits, little more than children. Zadich nearly took one of them out. She’s not going to put up a struggle.”
“But?” the woman said shrewdly, her emerald eyes peeking over the rim of her cup, veiled by steam. “Who is the third one?”
“The three-eyed man. Tien Shinhan.”
“I know him. Yeah, three eyes. Rings a bell. I think I know him. He’s been there for years.”
“He’s the most powerful one. However, his wrist is still broken.”
She smiled. “And you’re feeling fine, aren’t you?”
“I feel alright,” he said, bowing his head. Still sore, but nothing like it used to be. “Wh-what was that purple foam stuff, anyways?”
“Shhh,” she replied, raising a finger to her lips. “I’ve already told you.”
“I know, but I thought that was a joke…”
The woman cackled; Zhajiang tried to smile weakly in an empathic gesture, but his attempt was not a great success. “Well, anyways…” She took another drink, draining her cup. Placing it on an end table, Ms. Milano cleared her throat and folded her arms. “We never agreed to monetary conditions. As your comrade indicated, taking any payment from my family would be taboo.”
“She doesn’t speak for the White Tigers. I do. I have killed two of them. I want payment for that. The Cranes murdered your sister together. We don’t know which one landed the final blow. Could have been any of them. I’ve given your sister some justice already. Two of them are dead by my hand. What do you have to say about that, Ms. Milano?”
“It’s a lot of money,” she replied tersely. “Don’t you think we should negotiate at least?”
“What do you offer?”
“A million zeni a head. Well, I’ll give you two million for the three-eyed one. He’s practically a master in his own right. How does that sound?”
“Five million apiece.”
The boy stood, his heartbeat throbbing in his ears. His mouth was dry. “You aren’t being fair. I’ve already gone down halfway–”
She snorted, waving a hand at him. She is trying to agitate me. Damn her. “Halfway between reason and insanity is no compromise. Two million apiece. Four for the three-eyed man.”
Now her smile turned poisonous. His heart began beating faster. He could barely stand it. He could hear the Master’s voice ever in his ear, keeping him in check. She is not worth it. “What does a young man like you need with so much money anyways?”
“I can’t tell you that.”
“Oh. Can’t tell me what you’re going to do with my own money? This deal is looking less and less favorable by the second. Why should I give you anything? You have already received expensive treatment. In my view, I’m only breaking even with your friends–they died and killed no one, costing me a fortune. Why should I give you anything more? Perhaps if you brought me one more head, I could give you something. But I fear I will never see you again.”
That’s right. We’re never seeing each other again after this. That’s the difference between you and me, though, bitch. There is no justice in the world. Not unless I make it. He walked over to her. The woman hardly looked up at him, hardly suspected a thing. His right hand went out in a claw strike, hitting her just above the temple. He felt her skull crack underneath the pressure of his fingertips. Her right eye burst out of its socket; she was barely able to gurgle a half-choked moan before she was gone.
This one hurt less than Yoshitaro. Just another hit. Still, even as he thought that, he couldn’t stop himself from picturing the image of her brother, a toothpick between his teeth, coming up to say hello to his sister and finding her in that chair like that… well, Zhajiang knew that kind of pain. Some people deserved it and some didn’t. The White Tiger didn’t have enough empathy in his body for all of them.
He rummaged through her entire floor, looking for money, for valuables, for anything he could sell for a profit. While there were fancy paintings and exquisite marble statues that indubitably would fetch ridiculous prices at some auction house, he couldn’t easily run off with a bunch of those. He took first Valentia’s jewelry–her gold earrings, her three diamond rings, and her white-gold bracelet. That was good. That would get him a ticket out of here. He could go all the way to South City with that, if he wanted. And then what? A feeling of dread spread in terror through his body. He blinked, tearing a dresser drawer off, and regained his composure.
Scouring her floor (and leaving much of it ransacked, bless Zhajiang’s street urchin heart) left no sign of money, nor any safe that could be hiding the zeni. The only strong box was the one he found inside her room. It was in a little painted box of a bird in a forest with a fingerprint lock on its face, but it didn’t seem to be holding any money.
He had been up there for maybe fifteen minutes already. People would be getting suspicious soon. He didn’t want to have to fight his way out. That could get really messy. Making an example of one insolent client was enough. Grabbing the box, the boy ran out, kicking his way through the wooden doors and taking the elevator back down. The ride down felt lighter, better, than the ride up had. The box wasn’t so heavy, but he could hear something rolling around inside it. Whatever it is, it must be valuable. Maybe it’s a diamond.
He would rest up, sharpen his skills on a few more bounties, and then make his move. I am coming for you, Tien Shinhan, he promised himself silently, stepping out of the elevator. The Milanos’ doorman smiled warmly, tipping his hat to the boy as he held the door open for him. If only you knew.
Stepping out onto the street, Zhajiang took a deep breath. The blasting of car horns, rising and falling conversations, and speeding hovercars reminded him of his childhood. That familiar smell of piss and garbage on the sidewalk overpowered everything. Funny how I’d gotten used to it back then. He had grown up on these streets. But now he was an assassin of the School of White Tigers. I am the last Tiger, but not forever. Once I’ve wiped out the rest of the turkeys, I will rebuild my school in Suma for generations to come.
Coming back to reality when some irate pedestrian shoved him in the back, the boy turned left and was soon swallowed in the ever-moving sea of people.
Returning home at around midday, Tien was surprised to find the old man waiting for them at the school’s torii. It had snowed some since morning, and it only seemed to be growing colder as the day went on. He felt some sort of cowardice holding him back, even as Chiaotzu kicked snow aside to run over to their master. He’s hardly known the Master for more than two months. His spirits aren’t broken yet.
He did not hug the boy back. “Where are the others?” he asked tersely.
“Yurin’s in the hospital,” Chiaotzu said, his voice lowering. “I think she’ll be alright. The doctors said she might just have a concussion, but they didn’t know for sure. They’re operating on her right now!”
He was giving them both long, sinister looks, studying them for any signs of impurity. “How did she end up there?”
Tien swallowed. He could go ballistic here. But I can’t keep this a secret from him. He deserves to know what happened. “The Tigers attacked us. We fought them off, killing Huo-Guo and Zadich… but their other member, Zhajiang, took out Paik first.”
The old man began stroking his mustache compulsively. “Mmm. And what of Jaoros?”
“Are you telling me you let him walk out on us?!”
Elderly though he was, the old man leapt with unbelievable speed to smack Tien to the ground. Chiaotzu looked on in a terrified daze. With a grunt, the three-eyed man got to his feet, his head bowed.
“I-I’m sorry, Master… I’ve failed you.”
“One of them got away, no? There were three of them remaining before I left.”
“Yes, that’s right. Zhajiang is still out there somewhere. He’s going to attack us whenever he can… especially now that he’s heard his master was killed. But, I swear, we had nothing to do with that.”
“I wouldn’t expect you did. Now, follow me, both of you.” They entered the school together. “Things have taken an unfortunate turn since I’ve been away. How’s your wrist, Tien?”
“Not healed yet.”
“And Chiaotzu, have you broken anything since I left?”
“Eh, that’s a start.”
That old familiar smell of pine wood and bamboo inside the compound always gave Tien a rush of nostalgic pleasure. The emotion was no duller now, though it had been tinged by the memories of his lost friends. Reaching the sparring room, the old man wrinkled his nose upon opening the door.
“Bah, has anyone cleaned this place since I left?”
“I, uh, well…”
“It was your chore, Chiaotzu,” Tien said. “He’s been gone for weeks. You don’t have an excuse.”
“We-well… we were really, really, really busy, I-I think!”
“That does not matter. You can clean this place later,” the old man said, kicking aside an old towel to step inside. They followed him in. “Now, with the World Martial Arts Tournament approaching, it is time for me to teach you one of the signature techniques of my school, Chiaotzu. You are, after all, my second-best pupil.”
The boy couldn’t help but blush. “Aw, thanks Master! But what will you be teaching me?”
He hasn’t taught him anything at all. He could fly when he got here. Jaoros, Paik, and I taught him how to stalk, how to kill, how to fight, how to become an assassin. Tien took a seat in the corner of the room, finding himself a semi-dirty seat cushion (flipping it over was enough in this case), and assumed a meditative pose. He had to calm himself, to rid himself of emotion so as to allow himself to think and act purely. No assassin of Tao’s caliber second-guesses himself, or lets himself be overcome by rage. I am merely angry at the Tiger, not Master.
Some part of him knew that the old man had done it, though.
He knew he should be able to see this clearly, for he was a member of the three-eyed people. He was different from most Earthlings. He was more powerful, sure, but his third eye wasn’t just there for looks. Through intense meditation, he had unlocked his people’s power of true sight, of being able to see through any illusion and perceive the truth of any matter, or person. Despite that, as of late, he hadn’t felt so confident in his accuracy in predicting such things. That feeling, that rush of surety, was something he hadn’t felt since coming here. Perhaps the old man had had some part in that. Maybe not deliberately, though.
“Now, do as I do!” the Master barked.
They grunted and swerved, and Tien found himself concentrating too much on the sounds of their movements. He had to clear his mind if he was going to meditate properly. He knew better than this. Why can’t I unfocus? Even the wind was distracting him.
“No, not like that. You must concentrate the force of your energy into a point at your fingertip… like this. Dodon Ray!”
A galing wind tore through the sky. The old man hasn’t lost it, at least.
“Dodon Ray!” Chiaotzu yelped.
Nothing. The wind blew above the open roof, but other than that, there was no sound of a second Dodon Ray soaring through the sky.
“You aren’t focusing on that point of energy, Chiaotzu. Focus! Here, let’s try something different, heheh.”
I know that laugh. The next sounds were those of the old man beating the poor, unsuspecting boy bloody. Surely, Chiaotzu had been caught off-guard. Tien wouldn’t open his eyes. He had to clear his mind, remove himself from passion and pain, and achieve inner balance by meditating on emptiness.
Chiaotzu cry shattered Tien’s concentration.
Cracking his knuckles, their master said, “Heh, there! Now, that must hurt a lot, right? You must be feeling desperate now. You know as well as I do that you can’t take another round of that type of punishment. You have to end it here and now! Go on! Imagine this is a real fight–you’re battling some powerful demon for your life. There’s no time to whine or daydream. You don’t have to overthink it. Pool your energy before your fingertip and fire. Don’t forget to aim. And if you don’t get it, I’ll make you even more desperate.”
Nothing, Tien thought. He heard a punch, a squeak of pain, and the boy taking several deep breaths.
Nothing, Tien thought. Again, the Master punched him, and Chiaotzu whined in pain, and caught his breath, and tried again.
He’s never going to get this. His eyes opened before he could stop them. Returning to the ground, he re-adjusted his eyes to the light of day before getting up and walking to the door. He was too restless to meditate right now. He needed to hone his skills. He needed a mission. Having someone else’s blood on his hands would clear his thoughts. It always did. Tao had been right about that.
A golden bullet of light exploded into the air, quenching itself harmlessly in a puffy white cloud high in the sky seconds later. Tien stopped, gripping the doorframe. His ears were ringing. Incredible. I don’t believe it. He actually did it.
“I did it, I did it!” Chiaotzu sang. “So, how was that, Master? Did I do good?”
Placing his hands behind his back, the old man smirked. “I’ve seen enough. Very well. You will be the second Crane School entrant in the next World Martial Arts Tournament, Chiaotzu.”
“Yay! Mr. Tien, Mr. Tien, I did it, I did it!”
He returned to the stage, rubbing his face. “Second entrant? Hang on, who’s the first?”
“Do you really need to ask me that?” the old man scoffed. “You’re a smart boy, Tien. Figure it out.”
He couldn’t hide his smile as he fell to one knee. “Thank you, Master! I promise I will win this tournament for the Crane School!”
“I have no doubt you will crush any opponent who dares to face you. And should you come across the loathsome rats from the Turtle School…”
“You taught me never to show mercy, Master. You have nothing to worry about.”
“Mmm. Now go, both of you, and pack your things. You’re leaving in the morning.”
“Leaving?” Chiaotzu was perplexed. “But you just got back, Master! You have to train us more before the tournament…”
“No, no, no,” their master said, waving his hands in the air like a proper thespian. “You two will travel the world until the tournament begins. You will continue making me money–don’t forget about that–but don’t overwork yourselves. I don’t want to find out about any more injuries like that,” he said, nodding to Tien’s hand. “That will be healed up by the tournament’s start, but you cannot afford to break any more of your bones in the meantime–either one of you, do you hear me? No assassinations. They are too risky. You may try one of our old tricks if you get desperate for ideas–you know the one, Tien.”
It’s more like a village-wide scam than a trick. “Yes, Master.”
“Good. Now once more, you two: don’t get injured and continue making me money. Do you understand?”
“Yes, Master,” they said in one voice. Greed will be the death of him.
“Very well, you may go now. I am tired from my trip, and would like to spend the rest of the evening in my chambers alone.”
“Yes, Master,” Tien said, bowing. All this obsequious nonsense made him want to throw up sometimes. “But what about the Tiger? He will come for us at some point, surely.”
“He will. There is nothing I can do about that. You will have to face him sometime before the tournament. Be prepared.”
“I will be,” Tien declared, raising a fist in the air.
“Me too!” Chiaotzu concurred.
With that, their master nodded goodnight to them before walking off, closing the door behind him. Tien didn’t know exactly what to feel about all of this. Everything was happening so fast, it felt like he could hardly keep up. On the one hand, he was elated, and on the other, he was anxious. Why won’t the Tiger show himself already? He can’t win. He knows that as much as I do. It’s time for him to die. Tien would be ready for him. Looking down at the gleeful boy next to him, he couldn’t help but share in Chiaotzu’s boyish hope for once.
He awoke with a start. Rubbing his eyes, the distorted form of that boy’s face returned to him, wailing in shock as Zhajiang had stood over the body of Yoshitaro. The bald man had paid him, then taken the boy, who hadn’t said anything, but had stared at the assassin with a look of cold ire, as if that would move him.
He yawned, checking his phone again. Bounty’s still up. Guess I should go for it. He looked over the price again to make sure it wasn’t a typo. Ƶ50,000,000. Definitely not a typo. I just don’t get why this samurai could be worth so much. Rubbing his hands together to warm himself up on this grueling winter evening, Zhajiang got up, looking about the rest of the empty train station. No one here. Good. The one working overhead light was blinking every now and then, causing his eyes to spasm. He would have to leave here soon.
Pulling out Ms. Milano’s box, he whispered, “Denkoken.”
With a sizzling crack, the wood split, and a spotless orange ball made of (what looked like) glass rolled out onto the station floor. Snatching it up, he noticed, aside from his reflection in its face, that the ball was flawless, save for six white stars arranged in a circle around a seventh. Seven stars? What does that mean? Are there six more of these? He had no clue what this thing was. It was cold to the touch, light, but did not feel at all likely to shatter should he drop it. He wasn’t going to drop it. Pocketing the ball, he stretched out his legs, yawning again. Maybe I can sell that at an antique shop or the like. Who knows? It could be worth a fortune.
He ran the rest of the way from Khaffi to Cardan. It wasn’t more than a few miles. The samurai wouldn’t know what hit him. Zhajiang was of one mind. He had to kill Tien and the others, but he could not pass up a Ƶ50,000,000 bounty. No true assassin could. If that made him crazy, he didn’t want to be sane.
These bounties on samurai had only begun popping up in recent days, but Zhajiang was not complaining. Whoever wants them dead is paying well. And if the ones I’ve killed so far are any measure to go by, these guys really don’t know how to fight. Maybe they’re getting too old for this.
As he reached the sleeping town, the moon hanging in the night’s sky like a torn fingernail, the Tiger was overcome with a desire to turn west towards Central City. There was a lot of a desert, and even more sand, between here and there, yet, he knew there was no way that could deter him. I could go, he thought. I could disappear. The police would never find me. They’ll look, but they won’t find me. I know how to be sneaky. I’ve got this. I can get away. I could disappear. He cracked his knuckles, slowing his breathing.
Passing the first villa, he accelerated. The ground was cold and hard. Fresh snow would be coming soon, perhaps within the hour. He didn’t have enough time to do this the way he wanted to. He knew what his target looked like, which estate the man was staying at (allegedly), but he didn’t know exactly where the man was. Passing hill-crowning mansion after mansion, Zhajiang came to a sudden stop, his heartbeat quickening instinctively.
The katana glinted in the cloud-specked moonlight. Looking up, the samurai noticed him. Zhajiang swore under his breath. What’s he doing out here? That man was his target. He’d recognize that face anywhere. And yet, the samurai was standing in the middle of the road, beyond the open gate of the Masamune/Masamune estate, a katana held in one hand, its sheath in the other, admiring the blade in the moonlight. It was a happy coincidence, but not one that the boy would let get away from him.
Only at the last moment did the samurai’s eyes move. He spun around the blue beam of energy, letting it exploding down the street. With a grimace, the man turned to him, throwing his katana’s sheath aside. “Are you the one who has been killing all of the samurai in this region?”
The Tiger couldn’t help but show off his teeth as he approached, raising his fists in front of his chest, but below his chin, in an aggressive stance. “You’re dead.”
“Who sent you? Was it the Chàoxing Gon?”
“Hmph, like I’d tell you!”
The man shook his head, raising the blade up to his nose and closing his eyes. “So be it.”
“Flying Sky Kick!” the boy shouted, taking to the air.
His opponent spun around him, slicing him deep through the back with the tip of his blade. Impossible. He didn’t even move. His entire body shuddered under the weight of all the pain that then exploded through his body. Crying out in anguish, he staggered away from the samurai, screaming, “Denkoken!”
This time, the man had to jump out of the way, and so he used his opportunity to roll closer to Zhajiang. He conjured up a Denkoken, the pain and fear intermingling in a rush of panic, adrenaline, and near-headache-inducing focus. This guy isn’t like the others. What the hell? I have to be careful. He raised his arm, the Denkoken coating it like an energy blade. Grinding his teeth, the boy met the samurai in the road, their blades clashing only once.
The wind swirled down the road, causing the hundreds of minuscule puddles in the tire-gouged mud to ripple in unison. He fell to his knees just after his severed arm hit the earth. He blinked, feeling nothing now–nothing at all!–where once his grip had been.There was no beauty in his blood painting the mud. This was sick. He couldn’t believe what was happening. This wasn’t fair. No! I have to get revenge on the Cranes… I can’t die here…
With all his remaining energy, he threw himself at the samurai, knocking him to the ground. His katana went tumbling aside. The Tiger struck, and though he had only one fist, he battered the samurai with all his fury. Pulling back his hand in a claw strike, he shouted:
The katana punctured him through the side, just below his ribs. The boy gasped, falling off the man, another wave of pain taking him to the brink of unconsciousness. Shuddering, the pain overwhelming him, he tried to crawl away. He tasted blood. He didn’t understand. He had to get out of there, had to stop the pain. Where did he get that second katana from? It didn’t make sense. It wasn’t fair. None of this was.
The samurai pinned him, rolling him over onto his back, pressing his blade against the boy’s chin. “You had no right.”
“You’re the bad guy!” the boy coughed. It was getting harder to breathe. He spat blood all over himself. “This isn’t fair…!”
Before the samurai could respond, the Tiger reached into his pocket, grabbed the glass ball, and swung it against the side of the samurai’s head. The man flinched and leered and, without mercy or second thought, sliced off the boy’s left arm.
Screaming, Zhajiang struggled to flee. No. This cannot be. He was losing too much blood. He was feeling faint. He could hardly see now, hardly think, hardly move. It felt like his body was shutting down. No! I can’t give up. As if in defiance, his chest began to spasm, though this only made him cry out more.
The man kept him pinned down with one sandal. “Who sent you?” he asked again.
It’s not fair. It’s not. He’s just a samurai. I trained at the School of White Tigers. I’m a martial artist… I’m a warrior… I’m an assassin… I’m… Zhajiang looked up at him, and he had never seen a more revolting person in his life. This man should be dog food at best. He didn’t even hate this man as much as Tien Shinhan, but this man was preventing him from getting to that three-eyed bastard. It’s not fair!
He spat blood onto the man’s face. “You’ll get what’s coming to you.”
“I guess you’re speaking from experience.”
His breath frosting before him, the samurai leaned in on his katana, and all the color in the world faded from his eyes, along with the pain and memory and guilt. Zhajiang’s chest jerked, and again, and then more urgently, and he found that, no matter how hard he tried, he could not catch his breath.
Chapter 7: You Don't Need ItEdit
The snow had mostly melted away by the time they reached the desert to the southwest of Central City. The Western Wastes, sometimes grey in places, sometimes riddled with puddles of water, were not as easily changed as the city. The bitch sipped her coffee from a lounge chair to her right, and Silver played on his phone, sitting across the table she was handcuffed to. The luxury room wasn’t bad. A little bumpy, but her chair was comfy enough. Taking the midnight train to Seikishi meant they would arrive by morning. She should be sleeping, but she couldn’t.
Her nose was running, and she was extremely restless, to the point of needing to stand. She couldn’t, with those two watching her. Why do I even need to come along? I swear, they’re only using me to make my father talk. Bastards. I’ll kill them all. “Hey, Silver. Come on, you gotta help me out,” she said at last with a whimper. “You were good for it back in the days… just a little.”
“Hmm?” His eyes darted up from the screen, not remotely phased. He doesn’t feel threatened around me. Doesn’t think I have it in me to take him out. “What do you want, Violet? Use your words.”
“We’re in the desert,” Glase said. “There isn’t any snow out here.”
“Some deserts get snow. The Diablo Desert, for one…”
A few lights, here and there, sprinkled the horizon, but it was mostly bleak–nothing but sand and frost and the bones of unfortunate animals. “Enough, you two.” Silver set down his phone, leaning back in his chair and folding his arms. “You know, every single one of them wants you dead: my father, Glase, Eugen. I’m the only one in your corner, Violet. You need to tread carefully. Be good on this little trip, and you’ll start working your way into their good graces. But if you keep being stubborn, you won’t get far.”
“I’m your prisoner! Haven’t you thought that maybe I don’t want to have anything to do with this?”
“You didn’t have to be in those cuffs. That was your choice. Father offered you a position and you refused. Now we have to do things the hard way. I didn’t want it to be like this. You don’t seem to understand the position you’re in. It’s a shame, Violet. It really is. You have no right to demand anything from us.”
“Is that man even really your father? Did he work for the Red Ribbon Army? I don’t remember any Staff Officer Crimson.”
The man’s eyes shifted, and for a time, she found herself watching him through his slightly hollow reflection in the window. That was better than closing her eyes and reliving the past hours again. “He worked mostly in Central City, acting as a spy in King Furry’s government for Commander Red. He’s the reason I’m alive. When Red wanted to execute me for losing that Dragon Ball to the kid with the tail…”
“Your father stepped in.”
“And resigned. We left after that. It was fucked. When everything came crashing down at the end, Commander Red’s most experienced counsel was no longer there by his side to help him in his time of need. Such is the price of disloyalty.”
“You think Red was really disloyal to you?” she scoffed, rolling her eyes.
“Shall I kill her for that, Supreme General?”
“No, don’t be silly. Now, Violet, listen. We have important business to attend to in the morning. You don’t need to say anything. Once we’ve wrapped things up with the Morizakura-gumi, I will need your help in North City. Gero has gone mad with power. He is creating androids that are ravaging the lands and pillaging cities as they please. Classified information, sure, but the bodies are piling up. Can’t keep this from the public much longer. Soon there will be conflict. It’s inevitable that he will lose.”
“Alright. So something has to be done. What did you have in mind?”
“We go in there, take out Gero, and get whoever the hell’s left out of there. Destroy whatever evidence he has of our involvement. I was thinking of using explosives for his lab. Can’t leave anything behind.”
“Copper’s with him, isn’t he?”
“As far as we know. He would be the most senior officer remaining were it not for my father. But Gero fancies himself a leader. He’s merely a doctor. We can’t have a scientist running our army. We need Copper back. As you know, he has the Dragon Radar. If we are ever to collect the Dragon Balls, as was the Red Ribbon Army’s original goal, we need that radar. You know better than anyone how easy that radar makes finding the balls. We’ll have all seven in no time once we have that radar. World domination will be ours.”
She didn’t much care for world domination herself, but so as to not ruin the mood, she nodded along, only partially paying attention to what Silver was yapping on about. My old boss, eh? He was always such a prude, whining about me being late. So what if I was a little late here and there? What luck. Now I can kill him myself… but Silver would never allow it. I’ll have to be sneaky.
The dunes went on and on. She couldn’t believe how much land was out there, yet everyone preferred to crowd together in cities. There was something off-putting about how so many people seemed to instinctively be driven together into the putrid-smelling, overcrowded concrete jungle. They were wrong, of course, and she was right. She would never be like them. The Diablo Desert had always held more appeal to her, and that was because of, not despite, how desolate it was. She liked the quiet, the beauty of the undisturbed desert, the lack of hovercars honking. It made for a more enjoyable day, in her opinion.
“If I help you, will you let my father go?”
“Yeah. I promise you, Violet. Help us, and we’ll help you. You want to make money, don’t you?”
The train jerked. “I’m not an idiot.”
“The operation we’re setting up is fifty times the size of your little game in Diablo Desert.”
“It would be wise to join us. I don’t get you. What’s holding you back? Either way, I can only protect you for so long. Soon, my father will grow impatient with your disobedience.”
As if that matters. He acts like his father rules the world. Fuck what he wants and fuck what he thinks. She slid back in her chair, blinking slowly, feigning a yawn, and settling into a comfortable position. “I already said I’d do it.”
That pleased him. Maybe there’s hope for him yet. When she looked to Glase, the woman, aside from cleaning her fingernails, was keeping a psychotic eye on Violet, and to say that comforted the woman as she drifted off into a bumpy sleep would be a disservice to the former Colonel’s sense of humor.
At a minimum, she needed to take out Glase and Eugen. That would make up for Carmichael, she supposed. The truth was, she still missed him a lot. It wasn’t going to be the same going forward. Cassian’s dead too. The Children of Chaos needs new leadership. She knew who she wanted for the job, but that was nothing more than a stupid girl’s hope. He’d never accept, she thought, looking at his face as she drifted off to sleep, the screen of his phone darkening and brightening, casting shadows upon the corners of his face sporadically as he watched some video that was making him smile.
Despite the aching in her forehead, she was able to drift off for a while. She was never quite all the way gone or there, with a word or phrase that Silver said to Glase (or vice versa) sometimes nearly bringing her back into consciousness for the briefest of moments, while other times her fantastical, heroic, quest-driven (and rather urgent, it must be said) dreams tugged her back into sleep. It seemed as if she were opening her eyes every fifteen minutes to see another blurred streetlight go by. The tracks weren’t so bumpy anymore, at least.
The next time she remembered anything, she was opening her eyes to the feeling of the train easing to a halt. Glase hadn’t moved; moreover, she looked on, her eyes red from tiredness, daring Violet to make a move. You first, cunt. If I were out of these chains, maybe we’d have a real fight. She didn’t much care for the woman’s casual arrogance. Something would have to be done about that.
Silver had fallen asleep, himself. She had to tap him on the shoulder. He’s a heavier sleeper than me. Huh. Who would have thought. Looking around like a guilty murderer just dying to tell someone his secret, he pocketed his phone and nodded for them to go.
They removed her leg chains, promising to shoot her if she ran. I didn’t get this far by being stupid. You don’t have to explain that to me. Outside, they took a hovertaxi from the Seapark Station in downtown Seikishi to the Morizakura-gumi’s meeting place, which was an abandoned warehouse, its stained and graffiti-ridden bricks falling out in places, overlooking the western ocean.
Silver didn’t give the taxi driver a tip. That was just like him. The man made a stink of it, so Glase showed him the heat she was packing, and he showed all of them, in turn, how fast he could actually drive away.
A pack of them were waiting outside the warehouse, dressed in black suits and sunglasses, stiff as mannequins. Every one of them stood motionless behind their leader, who delineated himself by removing his shirt, so to speak, as if mocking them with his abs alone. Nice try, but I’m cuffed.
Fearless as a lion, Silver walked up to the yakuza, not pausing to show he was unarmed (for he wasn’t). Glase wasn’t either. Some of the yakuza were holding pistols, but most were clutching cigarettes or lighters. There were twenty of them at least. Probably more inside. This is quite the group. Silver’s not good enough to shoot his way out of this lot, though.
“Hurry up! Pick up the pace,” Glase muttered in her ear. “Give me a reason to leave you here, Colonel. Please. I’m begging you.” Not waiting for a reply, she shoved Violet ahead.
Reaching the group, the distant sound of train horns echoing through the parking lot, Violet lined herself up behind Silver as best she could, for having a meatshield was always better than not having one. Not that it would matter in the end. I can’t run far in these cuffs. I need a gun. They would never give her one. Not now. Perhaps she could earn their trust somehow.
“Greetings, members of the Morizakura-gumi. Where is Mr. Eigan?”
“He isn’t here,” the shirtless man with the long face said. Standing in the center of the group of yakuza, he cracked his knuckles before continuing. “With his permission, I am filling in today.”
“And you are…?”
“I am Mokuzabe. You must be Silver.”
“Our bosses have already reached an agreement. We’re here to formally welcome you into this partnership with an all-you-can-eat Korean barbeque buffet and discuss some of the terms. How does that sound?”
Yeah, we’ll see. The poor ginger had to force a smile. “Thank you. You’re too kind, Mokuzabe. That would be lovely.”
“I won’t ask for your weapons, but should you or your women try anything… Hmph. Let me just say, if anything happens, it won’t end up well for you.”
The man’s eyes had for a moment lingered upon her, and she felt goosebumps biting into her flesh. When she closed her eyes, she saw Carmichael pleading again, and she couldn’t stand it–couldn’t stand this. I’d rather be dead than a prisoner. It took all of her willpower to not tackle Silver right then and there. Perhaps she could kill him before the yakuza gunned her down. It wouldn’t be pretty either way. But what would be the point?
“Please don’t mind them,” Silver said apologetically to the yakuza. “The girls are just along for the ride, so to speak.”
“Hey, you don’t need to rationalize it to me. Smart move. Gets tiring, all the traveling. And better two than one. Anyways, come inside. The food’s getting cold.”
Silver gave her a look. Oh, so I’m your girl now, am I? Well, fuck you too. She rolled her eyes at him, but didn’t dare openly disobey the man. She knew well enough that he was capable of killing her. She wasn’t so deluded by the fact that they had at one time both been Colonels serving under General Copper as to believe he thought of her as a goddess, as some peerless beauty he couldn’t find in a million cheap hotels. In truth, he’d never so much as looked at her chest in all their years together.
They went inside together, and what awaited them, somewhat to the woman’s surprise, was none other than a second-rate Korean barbeque buffet. Mokuzabe wasn’t lying. Her stomach rumbled and her mouth watered in spite of herself. The warehouse had been cleaned, with crimson carpet installed over the floor, and two dozen long cherrywood tables lined up next to one another. The food was all to the right, taking up much of the corner of the warehouse, but indeed, from what she could see from where she stood, there was a lot of it, and it smelled mighty fine. Compared to the prison food she’d been forcing down the past few days, this was like she were preparing to try, for the very first time, the most delectable and delicious food in the entire universe.
And suddenly, she couldn’t stand it. Impatiently, she desired to run to the buffet and engorge herself in front of them all. But that might get her shot, so she had to endure the pain. That food looks better than I expected. Everyone was relaxed, though they were armed, talking loudly in packs and groups interspersed throughout the room. The beat of the music (which was, expectantly, quite loud) was rattling the silverware.
Glase sat her down at a table, asking a random strongman to pick out whatever he wanted for Violet (before ordering a strict set of items for herself). That cunt is going to pay. Then, the two sat down. Being the only two seated (everyone else was eagerly loading up their plates or (so sadly) waiting in line to do so), there was an awkwardness that befell them, even amidst all the hustle and bustle of the yakuza and Silver trying to fill up their plates as quickly as possible. She focused on her breathing, making sure not to lose her cool. Not here. Not yet. This isn’t the place to do it.
She closed her eyes and saw the prisoners, their wet eyes, their pleading lips. She couldn’t stand it. If Cardinal had devised this series of events as some kind of psychological torture for her, then she could do nothing but give him credit. Still, she was impatient; still, she was waiting hopelessly for her plate. At least eating was an activity. She wouldn’t need to talk if she were eating. She wouldn’t need to think, either.
Their plates were brought to them by a pair of yakuza. She recognized the weasel-faced Takebashi instantly, shattering her out of her daydream. The men, for all their worth, deposited the plates of roasted pork, rice, and vegetables without saying a word, and Violet couldn’t complain about her portions. Takebashi also gave Glase a cup of red wine, which she began drinking before touching her food. That didn’t surprise Violet in the slightest. In fact, if anything, it made her feel a little better about herself. But the moment had been ruined by Takebashi, and all she could do was focus on him.
That bastard. I let him live, and he came all the way out here to join up with another gang that works with Cardinal? I bet he’s working for Cardinal personally. There’s no way he accidentally ended up here. It’s too coincidental.
“What’s the matter?” Glase asked, peering over the brim of her cup at her. “Don’t like it? Well too bad. Eat your food. All of it.”
“That man… He was Takebashi from the Chàoxing Gon. I took him hostage.”
“And now he’s a free man. He chose his fate, believe it or not. That was up to him, not you. What, does that offend you? Psh. He chose this place. He had ever right to.” She flashed Violet a hint of a smile, downing a large gulp of wine and relaxing into her chair, her joints popping audibly. “We made the appropriate accommodations for him. Don’t tell me you’re taking issue with that?”
The roasted pork wasn’t bad. Her water sucked. Why they didn’t trust her with wine was beyond her. Every ten or so minutes, another yakuza came by to fill up the bitch’s glass again. No matter how much water Violet drank, she couldn’t quench her thirst. And, judging from how much wine Glase was guzzling, the same appeared to be true for her.
The warehouse had become a great cacophony of noise; tirelessly, the energetic beat of the music continued on in the background, masking many of the conversations from other tables and further off, but when Violet looked, all she saw were yakuza engaged in conversation, laughing amongst themselves. Silver was seated on the elevated table at the northern point of the room (Violet and the bitch were seated at the third table from the top), talking with Mokuzabe and his lieutenants. The way he was so freely conversing with them, his hands all animated in the air, casually eating and drinking with them, alleviated some of her fears.
Still, she couldn’t help but feel untrusting of the yakuza. I should have put a bullet in his head when I had the chance. He was saved only because of my mercy, and what did he do with it? She knew he didn’t owe her any loyalty, but it still felt like a betrayal.
Glase was getting progressively drunker as time wore on. Between wine glasses, the only thing she did was text on her phone. She didn’t touch her food. An experienced alcoholic like Violet knew that spelled trouble. She didn’t eat much on the train, either. Fool. She’s getting far drunker than she realizes. She won’t be able to handle it. The longer it went on, the sloppier she got at protecting her privacy. Violet soon began catching glimpses of what was on the woman’s screen. All the ice cubes in her waters (which were being refilled at about a sixth of the rate as the bitch’s wine glass) were making her cold, and she couldn’t help but shiver, in spite of the atmosphere in that warehouse.
Giggling, the woman lurched to the left, then forward, nearly face-planting her food. The pale screen of her phone swung with her, and as she stopped her momentum, she held it fully visible for Violet to see, all the while murmuring, “Hah, got ‘em. Got ‘em good. Got the rat. Got ‘em good. Got the rat. Got ‘em good.”
On the screen, she could see clearly: ‘Indigo escaped. E’s down. Sent assassins after him. All good now. Keep me posted on your mission.’
It was hard to pretend in that instant. It was hard for her not to attack the bitch that very second, to strangle her with the cuffs. ‘All good now.’ Fuckers killed him. They promised! They told me they would keep him alive if I did what they said! She had to slow her breathing, although she was certain that her ears had turned red with rage. There could be no hiding it fully. There was nothing she could do about that. Setting her chopsticks down, she wiped her mouth, exhaling slowly, her hands shaking. She closed her eyes, seeing them again, and shivered out of that dream before it could take root.
Inhaling what was probably her fifteenth cup, Glase groaned, falling face-down on the table briefly, before a series of impassioned deep breaths brought her back to consciousness. Up ahead, Mokuzabe and Silver got up together to slip outside for smokes. This was a perfect chance. She’s going overboard. This may be a party, but she’s being far too reckless. Swallowing another mouthful of rice, Violet wiped her sweating palms on her pants. She liked how the rattling of her chains couldn’t be heard over all the voices and dubstep. That made it easy to pocket one of her chopsticks without anyone noticing.
She tapped Glase on the shoulder. “Yeah?” the woman asked, blinking slowly and not looking at her directly (if anything Glase was focused on something just past Violet’s ear). “Whaddya want now?”
“I need to use the restroom.”
Her face scrunched up in slow motion. “Aw, shit. Well, what do you want me to say? Hold it in.”
“You will if you know what’s good for you!”
“Do you want me to piss all over this bench? I don’t think the Morizakura-gumi would like that…”
“Ugh, fine. Just, gimme… gimme a second…”
Taking several more deep breaths, Glase downed the dregs of her glass and staggered to her feet, pulling Violet up with her in an awkward motion. “This way. Remember… noooooo sudden movements.”
She’s too drunk to be doing this right now. Cardinal would be pissed if he could see this. Sucks for him. He should have picked better agents. She had to bite the corner of her lip to restrain herself. One of the yakuza came with them, which was a shame. She hadn’t accounted for that. I can kill them both if I use the element of surprise. It’ll be risky, though. It was now or never. What purpose did she have of staying with them? They had killed her father. They would all die for that. They had betrayed her–not the other way around. They were scum, Glase chief amongst them. She would enjoy ending the bitch’s life.
No one else was in the bathroom. That wasn’t surprising. We’re the only two women here. The guard waited at the door on the inside, around a corner; in seeming euphoria, Glase slid her way to the sink, washing her face. Violet took the stall. She didn’t have to pee much, but she used what time she had to slide the chopstick out from the inside of her pants and silently split it in two, hiding each half under a palm. She’ll have no idea what’s coming.
Flushing and shutting the door behind her, Violet was surprised to find Glase waiting alertly for her just outside, her arms folded, her face appearing more lucid than before. The walls were rattling from some hysterical song they could only faintly hear from outside. Although her eyes were somewhat glassy, the woman was clearly aware.
“Wash up, and let’s go. I’m not done with my dinner.”
Violet passed her, keeping her hands at her sides. “No, I wouldn’t expect you were.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
She turned on the faucet, feeling the vibrating of the music in her fingertips. She’s dead. Silver’s dead. They’re all dead. I’ll kill them all. I’ve had enough of just trying to survive. These fuckers need to pay. Taking a deep breath, catching a look of herself in the mirror, she raised her hand, then spun around in a blur, both arms raised.
Glase wasn’t quite prepared for the first chopstick shard to go up her nose. She was already beginning to scream from how deep Violet had shoved it up there when the woman slammed her second shard into the bitch’s right ear, drawing more blood and a more terrible shriek, which Violet was already muffling with both arms as she jumped on the woman and took her to the floor, her chains rattling loudly.
Cracking sickeningly against the floor, Glase’s skull split open and leaked out a crimson tide of warm fluid onto the tiled floor. She heard his footsteps before he came around the corner, and already she was fumbling for the woman’s pistol when he reached her. Glase lay there spasming, spitting bubbling blood, which was leaking from multiple places across her head. She’s gone. Best to letter her suffer as much as possible, though, Violet thought, unholstering her pistol and aiming at the yakuza approaching her.
His pistol was already raised, however, and he got one shot off. It took her in the shoulder. Not so much as recoiling in pain, Violet grit her teeth and squeezed the trigger thrice. He fell without a word. Gasping in pain, she got to her feet and shot her chains off. Sliding Glase’s pistol down the back of her pants, she walked over to the dead yakuza, who had fallen back on his fat ass, painting the wall and ground in his blood. Her fingers felt warmth in her shoulder, but she kept moving. Wiping them, she took the man’s pistol, hid it in her pants as well, and returned to the sink.
For a moment, she stood there, bracing for the footsteps to approach. And when they didn’t, she realized no one had heard the gunfight under the music. Drunk yakuza fools. Damn. They’re making this too easy for me. Caught up in her thoughts, she realized that she was standing in front of the mirror again, her eyes lingering on it–on the blood that coated her face and shoulder. She was dying. She needed to get out of here. Her fingers were trembling. I can’t leave yet. Not before Silver dies. Cardinal would feel that pain, in case she didn’t get out of here. He would feel the pain he gave her–only worse. He’s an old man. He’ll never have another kid. I’ll destroy his legacy. Fuck all his power and money. What good will that do him in twenty years?
She cleaned up in the sink, tying off her wound with Glase’s scarf. It wouldn’t hold for long. If Silver was still smoking, she’d have a chance, but it was a small one.
At the door, she looked west, to the far doors leading out to the coastline, where Silver was, and then east, to the door leading out to town and to freedom. She so desperately wanted to turn to the left, but she couldn’t. They promised me. I did everything they asked, and they still killed him. She wouldn’t let that stand. Maybe she could escape via the ocean, but she wasn’t holding her breath.
Violet was entirely aware of the choice she was making when she took that first step to the right. She had maybe two minutes before everyone knew. They will suffer. Keeping her head bowed, the woman moved to the far side of the room as fast as she could, hugging the southern wall so as to not draw the suspicion of the yakuza. Some of them stared, anyways. They just wanted to see a nice pair of tits, most likely. She couldn’t let paranoia suffocate her now. She just hoped they couldn’t see her wound. The scarf didn’t match the rest of her outfit, and if any of them had been perceptive (luckily, none seemed to be), they would have noticed immediately that this was Glase’s scarf. Not to mention that I’m walking alone. They’re in party mode and drunk. I don’t blame them. They don’t care about me aside from my tits.
She ducked out of the door and out of the warehouse, spotting the men some ways down the gravel road, down to where the rocks rose against the shore in a curving half-moon shape. She could see their smoke plumes from where she stood, though they didn’t last long in the wind. They spotted her before she reached them, although she had already drawn a pistol, so they didn’t bother pulling theirs out. Dropping their cigarettes, the men, their hands raised, hopped off the rocks overlooking the ocean, and returned to the gravel road, approaching her slowly, somewhat in fear, somewhat in confusion.
“Violet, is that you? What are you doing?” Silver barked, moving much faster than the yakuza, who seemed to want nothing to do with this. “How did you get that gun?”
She tried her best to fight back the tears, but it was no use. “You killed him!” she cried. “I saw her phone! Don’t try to hide it!”
“Where’s Glase?” the man asked, his voice lowering in worry. Mokuzabe stopped behind him, keeping his hands raised, his face sallow, but if anything, bored.
“You’ll see her soon.”
“Violet, wait. You can’t–”
“We had a deal, Silver. We had a deal! And now he’s gone.”
The man’s neck was twitching. It was perspiring real bad. “He killed one of our men and broke out… Violet, please! There was nothing I could do. You have to believe me. Please, put down the gun.”
Nothing you could do. Where have I heard that before? “No,” she said, shaking her head, blinking back the tears. Enough of this. I never even liked him. “I’ve taken my lumps for too long.”
Without hesitation, she shot him. A seagull, screeching in fright, rose from the rocks into the air. The waves beat against the shore and she shot him again. His eyes going wide, staggering back, a hand out, Silver tried to cough out a word, but couldn’t. So she shot him again, and he finally fell. Stay down. That’s where you belong. From above, the gull cawed angrily. She set her sights on Mokuzabe, whose eyes had narrowed as he stared at her.
“You wouldn’t want to do that,” he said carelessly.
The shot echoed through road and down the shoreline. She took a breath and found she could not breath. She took another and tasted blood. No, this can’t be. In shock, she took several steps to the side, losing grip of the pistol, crumbling like stone onto the ground, twisting herself over. The lack of control she had over her legs, her arms, her lungs–it frightened her. Nothing had frightened her so much before. Not even a good dose of snow did her like this. She couldn’t so much as cry out, despite the paid radiating sharply out of her back and chest. It was becoming harder and harder to remain awake.
There came from behind, holding a pistol, Takebashi. Removing his sunglasses, the man squatted down next to Violet. She spat blood in his face, but he wiped it away calmly with the back of his sleeve. Cunt. I should’ve killed you. I could have. You were nothing to us. You still aren’t!
“I think this is the moment I should put a bullet through your skull, lady,” the man said, pressing the barrel of his gun against her forehead. “Feel free to beg.”
“Fuck you,” she spat up at him, using all of her remaining energy. It was getting cold. She could feel her lungs filling up with blood. It was over now. I’ll be seeing you soon, Daddy, she thought wildly as numbness spread over her body. I’m sorry it had to end like this… for both of us. The irony of the situation was not lost on her, despite all of her blood loss. He’s probably laughing at me from down in hell. Daddy thought I never loved him. Well look at me now.
“No,” Takebashi replied. “That’s what I’m going to be doing to you in about thirty seconds.”
Looking up, she saw the man and his smile plastered against the pale grey sky, and there was neither sound nor motion to accompany any of the pain.
He made love to his pipe all morning. He didn’t care if anyone saw him (bad boy that he was). His students had left early, without a word. He’d known they would be back, as they inevitably were three hours later, and with another student, as if that were some grand prize that he had been hoping for.
Bandages hugging her scalp, the girl bowed before her master outside the torii in the mist of the early morning, Tien and Chiaotzu standing awkwardly behind her. They were itching to leave already. The bamboo forest just outside their school was coated in a light layer of frost, standing resolute against the cold. My last students, he thought with relief. There will be no more. I cannot take it anymore. It has to end sometime. Why not now? I should have retired years ago. I need a break. Tao had it right in that regard.
“Master…” the girl began.
He was nibbling at scrambled eggs on toast for brunch, and he was not entirely averse to adding marmalade to give his meal some proper seasoning. “Rise. How is your head, Yurin?”
“I’m feeling better, Master. Doctor Hasegawa said I shouldn’t have to wear this bandage for much longer! I should be back to new in a few weeks time… so long as I take it easy for a while.”
The Crane Hermit chewed on the end of his pipe, puffing rings of smoke as he pondered. “You were lucky to have survived. You will have to stay with me, however. I need to train you further if you are to wear that uniform, and you can’t be trained for some time, it seems. Tien and Chiaotzu will begin their solitary training–although, they are together, but you know what I mean–in the wilderness west of here in preparation for the next World Martial Arts Tournament in May.”
“Let me go with them,” Yurin pleaded. “I should be okay by then. That’s like five months away, Master!”
“You’re in no condition right now. Even if you were, you are neither strong enough, nor technically skilled enough to represent my school on the world stage.”
“I said no! Damn kids these days? Don’t you know that no means no?! You will remain here, Yurin, or you will leave my school. I know it’s sad that your friends are going away, but they must begin their training for the tournament. My school is only entering two in next year’s competition.”
He slapped her good, and she didn’t say another word. She is a new recruit. I have to remember that. She has not been conditioned like the others. He glanced at Chiaotzu. Well, he’s been barely conditioned, himself. Hopefully Tien will continue the ancient and proud Crane tradition of severe discipline as he trains with the boy. Eh, I’ll believe it when I see it. As serious as he is, I still get the sense that he would go easy on the boy. He didn’t want anything to do with Chiaotzu.
“If you back-talk me again, I will make you stand outside this gate all night. I’m hearing there’s a storm coming in. That won’t be too pleasant, now will it?”
She barely tried to hide her displeasure. “Okay, I’ll stay.”
He hardly noticed her. She felt she mattered more than she did. She mattered very little to him, in truth, as he couldn’t train her or send her off. She was useless at present. The cold seemed to enwrap his body, choking the stamina out of him. He just wanted to go back inside and turn the heat up to 90. “Now, you two,” he said, waving his hand dismissively at Tien and Chiaotzu. “Your training should have begun yesterday. Get a move on it. Remember, don’t put yourselves in danger if you don’t need to. Don’t break anything that will not have healed by the start of the tournament. If either one of you shows up there with so much as a scratch, I’ll shoot a Dodon Ray through your skull. Understand me?”
“Eek!” the little one shouted, his voice almost befitting a woman. Sometimes the Crane Hermit wondered, but one must be so careful these days. “W-we won’t do anything bad, Master! Promise!”
“I will win the tournament,” Tien said vigorously, staring at him. I know you will. You’re stronger than either Tao or I was at your age. The Turtle School will have no chance against you.
“Go on, now.”
Hurry up, Tien. Why hasn’t he left already? Why does he have to be so slow? It’s time for my real vacation to start. While it is unfortunate that I still have this leftover Tiger to train, but she shouldn’t stay here long… and one student isn’t nearly the burden of five. I won’t have to work a third of the hours I did before, he thought happily.
They didn’t take much with them, for they had few possessions to begin with. Perhaps there was a bag tucked away under Chiaotzu’s uniform filled with unmentionables, but that was speculation, and speculation regarding Chiaotzu was something the Crane Hermit never sought to engage in. He’s a filthy and monstrous little beast. After patting the boy on the shoulder, Tien turned and walked off, Chiaotzu in tow, and the Crane Hermit had never seen a prettier sight. It was like a burden had been lifted off his shoulders. Seeing them go was one of the most pleasurable moments of his life.
Yurin’s mouth dropped open. Pitifully, she ran a few paces after them, shouting in one last gasp, “Hey, wait! Are you running away? Get back here and fight me, you three-eyed baldy! Hey! Don’t ignore me, coward! Stick around and fight!”
But they walked off into the mist, their shoulders thrown back, as resolute as he had ever seen them. Trying to insult their pride isn’t going to work. Foolish girl. She has much to learn about my school. Her words blew away with the wind, leaving no trace. “Come here, Yurin,” he said after the others had left.
Sulking, she turned to him, a feeble attempt to wipe away the tears betraying her naïveté. She’s a young girl, for kami’s sake. It’ll take years to get rid of her! “Master, I’m sorry for being overzealous.”
“Eh? How do you know a big word like that?”
“My previous master said it once,” she said, averting her eyes.
“Ah, I see. Well, here, words are meaningless. It is action I require from you.”
“I am yours to command, Master.”
He cleared his throat. “Now listen up, Yurin. I want you to do the following training routine every day: start off with a ten kilometer run, followed by one hundred push-ups, one hundred sit-ups, and one hundred squats.”
“Every single day?!” Her eyes were bulging out of their sockets.
“Do you want me to go bald, or something? Is that what happened to Mr. Tien?”
Shaking his hand, the man assured her, “No such thing will happen to you, Yurin. You can already fly, can’t you?”
“This regime won’t be too difficult for you. After a few days, your cardiovascular health will have built up sufficiently for you to begin the real training.”
But until then, I’m on vacation. I need this one to last a good long while.
“As soon as I heal up, I’ll do it!” she declared passionately.
He escorted her to the dorms, left her there, and then locked himself in his room. That had been enough of dealing with his students for the day. He could stand no more of it. Naturally, he had been very sad to see Tien and Chiaotzu go, but he was even more distraught by the fact that Yurin had survived. If I hadn’t accepted her, I could be retired right now.
Dreading the future, the Crane Hermit tried to distract himself by calling up several modern housewife-types: Alexandria, Nariah, and some Sharice van de Sanden look-alike. They were supposedly the best, classiest ladies in town (not that that was saying much). Pouring himself a shot of Massao Sugizaki whiskey, which he had brought back with him from the island, the old man attempted to calm his nerves. He was long overdue for a little nirvana of his own.
Whether the girl saw them was of no concern to the old man. He needn’t explain himself to her. If she doesn’t like it, she can leave.
He turned the heat up and and stripped off his clothes (for it had become so unbearably hot), readying himself on the bed with a fresh shot glass of whiskey in one hand, the bottle in the other. And when the girls knocked, quietly at first, and then more eagerly, their giggles wafting through under the door, he hastily poured himself another shot, wiping his mouth.
“Come in, come in.”
He had kept KBC News on in the background to calm his nerves, but when his three curvaceous call girls entered the room, he cursed himself silently for being such an ass. That’s something the Turtle Hermit would do, he lamented silently. He would not be like that shell-wearing buffoon. He had to be better, for the sake of his school’s reputation, if not his own.
Nariah came first, and that girl could move, first off. Wearing a sumptuously revealing purple bra-and-panty set, she had a body that didn’t lie. She could pull it off, and there was nothing he could do but admire it. Her fingernails were painted orange, however, and that displeased him. Next came the van de Sanden look-alike, and she had a mean look to her, despite her white-and-pink schoolgirl’s dress. She was probably a spitter. He could already feel her fingernails embedded in his flesh, and shuddering, wondered why women like her always had to do that. I mean, all she has to do is take her clothes off and I’m good. I’m a simple man. Just let me squeeze ‘em!
As if they were forgetting her (and horribly hurting her feelings), Alexandria came walking out before her cue. Feisty, eh. The Crane Hermit could tell Alexandria had some swagger, some great measure of arrogance that she had built up over the years and years (she looked to be about nineteen years old, give or take). Bearing a striking resemblance to an incensed praying mantis, the girl slipped through the door. She wore a business suit, revealing very little.
“Well, we’ve heard you’re the Crane Hermit,” Alexandria said, walking up to the bed, her girls at her back. “We’ve heard all the stories… oh yes, Crane Hermit… we’ve heard all about how you saved the world and beat all those evil monsters! Oh, it must have been terrible,” she said, reaching out her hand to touch his leg. He shivered. Something about her felt off, like she was an alien playing at being a human. “Oh, but don’t worry, Daddy! We’re here to comfort you.”
“Yeah, Daddy,” grunted Nariah, raising her chin and resting her hands on her hips. “Mhm, we’re gonna take care of you real good, Mr. Hermit.”
That almost took him completely out the mood. “Ahem, you will call me the Crane Hermit.”
He felt very little. Perhaps a weak attempt at blood flow. There was something there, but it wasn’t enough. Glancing to the television, he noticed they were running a news report on the World Martial Arts Tournament. There was a boy with messy black hair and a tail wearing an orange gi with the Turtle School’s insignia upon it fighting against a bald little boy wearing the same uniform. Though one of these kids had lost to some man named Jackie Chun (the Crane Hermit, sharp as he was, had no clue who that powerful old fellow was, and he found that rather odd, considering his own advanced age and interest in these tournaments) in the finals, the mere fact that two of the Turtle School’s students had reached the semi-finals had peeved him.
Feeling that anger rise now cooled his other passions. Gritting his teeth, the Crane Hermit took ahold of the remote and threw it at the wall. “Out!” he howled at the three bitch baby mamas. “Get out before I throw my slipper at you!”
Alexandria recoiled in an unnatural way, as if she were perceiving emotion for the first time. “You have to pay. Everyone has to pay. That’s how it always is. That’s how it’s supposed to be. That’s how it will be, Mr. Hermit. First off, I just want to say, like, we’re women–real, strong, independent women–and we don’t appreciate being talked down to in such a patriarchal, demeaning way. I don’t know if you realize that you, yourself, talking from that bed over there, are lying in a position of power, and I don’t like th–”
He threw a wad of hundreds at her. The woman’s buggy eyes lit up and they all ran off, jubilant to have picked him clean without so much as setting a toe in his bed. Taking his pillow, the Crane Hermit tore it in half, throwing one half at the television, which was still showing a recap of the previous tournament’s final battle. He couldn’t stand it. Tien will put an end to the debate, he thought, pouring himself another shot and taking it without hesitation or a chaser. The Turtle School has already come in second place. We will take first and show the world which is really the superior school.
So immensely pleased with himself, the Crane Hermit leaned back, clicking his tongue at the wreckage of his remote lying on the floor near the far wall, and poured himself another shot, taking it unblinkingly. I hope to see you there, old buddy, he thought, picturing the Turtle Hermit slouched over, picking at his beard, lusting stupidly with his mouth agape for all the women to see (he never was the sly one at taking a good peek). I can’t wait to see the look on your face when Tien and Chiaotzu beat your pathetic excuses for students down to the ground for all the world to see. They will show your students what true power is–what is truly capable of being achieved at an elite dojo like mine.
Savoring the thought, he took another shot and noticed his vision was blurring. Damn, he thought at the last second, and it’s only morning.
He had been at his desk, savoring an imported bottle of rum to go along with his game of online poker, when his cell phone had buzzed–not the one in his pocket, but the one in his desk drawer.
Call now, the text read. He knew who it was from. For a moment, he allowed himself to be overcome by worry, and then it was gone and buried again. He was a professional, and he would act like it.
The game would have to wait. Without waiting, he shoved his hand, forcing the rest of the online table to fold. That had been too easy. If only he played like that all the time. Closing his laptop, he went out onto the balcony, taking the burner phone with him. He was not one to become aroused with emotion, but in his experience, it was never a good sign when someone texted him a message of that sort.
Things had already gone to shit, so why not pile on a little more?
“What’s going on?”
Mokuzabe answered. Trying to replace your uncle so soon? He made a note of that. “It’s General Silver, sir… he’s been shot.”
“That’s ridiculous.” The alcohol had made him more aggressive, but he wasn’t going to push it. “Well, how is he?”
“He’ll be fine. He was wearing a vest. Only one round got him in the knee. He’ll need to stay here for a day or two, but after that, he’ll be good to go.”
“Who shot him?”
“Now see, that’s the thing, sir. It was one of the girls he brought with him.”
There was a pause, but not enough to cause concern. “That’s right, sir.”
“Very well. Tell me, where is she being held?”
“One of my men shot her, sir.”
Stubborn girl. We were working towards the same goal. You should have joined us. He took a long drink before responding. “So she’s being held in the hospital as well? Do you have an armed guard on her as we speak?”
“No, sir. She’s gone. I mean, forever. Sorry for not being clear.”
“And what of Glase?”
“Instruct my son to return to me as soon as he is able. He will no longer be going to North City.”
“One more thing, Mokuzabe… Any word of this gets out, and it’ll be your head, no matter which one of your toadies is the leaker. Keep them in line.”
“Yes, sir!” the man said in a bark befitting a dog. He half looked like one too.
His phone beeped four times in a row, indicating someone else was calling him. “Give your uncle my regards.”
Not waiting for a reply, Cardinal hung up on the yakuza, accepting the second caller without pause. He may be of use to me yet.
“Mr. Cardinal?! Are you there?!”
Returning to his desk, he deposited the half-empty bottle found himself straying once more to the balcony to watch the early morning commute through Central City on Highway 1. This infamous highway was nothing more than a congested fifty-mile-spanning strip of asphalt, the worst example of unnecessary traffic in the world. Without fail, the One became congested every single morning, like clockwork. He could admire that, if not the incessant honking. “What is it, Janice?”
“The daily briefing’s in fifteen minutes. Are you awake, Mr. Cardinal?”
He faked a yawn, which wasn’t so hard. “Just woke up.”
“Good! Do you want me to come up and make you breakfast today?”
“No, that would be quite alright… quite alright… I’ll be down there in a minute. Let me just finish getting dressed…”
“Oh, take your time, Mr. Cardinal!” the woman said too cheerfully and too loudly into his ear. He almost wanted to vomit. How do I end up with people like this?
He didn’t want to go to the meeting now. Violet was dead. His son was wounded. Glase and Eugen were gone, not to mention Alabastian. They were his entire active team. This latest turn of events had complicated matters significantly. With Silver taking a bullet to the knee, Cardinal knew he would need others to replace his fallen agents. The question was simply who. He had not been entirely prepared for this if he was being honest.
Pulling the ‘candidates’ folder out of the lowest desk drawer, the man rose to his feet, adjusted his collar and made as if to leave. He hadn’t taken a single step when he noticed the phone sitting on the edge of his desk. That wouldn’t do. I’ll dispose of it later, he thought, pocketing the device in his inside jacket pocket.
When he did so, as if this were some scripted game, which gave him a chill down his spine, another phone buzzed inside the desk. Opening the drawer housing his collection of seventeen burner phones (now sixteen), Cardinal plucked up the one that had made the noise. Using his fingerprint ID to unlock it, he expectantly clicked on his new messages only to find one simple three-word text from ‘M. Salad’: No, join us.
In reality, M. Salad was a man named General Copper, and boy did that really burn his ass. Taking that phone and pocketing it, Cardinal grabbed the candidates’ folder again, breathing harder, and walked out, adjusting his collar as he went. He’s made his choice, then. They all have.
It was sad. He didn’t want anymore cases like Violet’s. Nevertheless, it appeared that was just what was going to have to happen with Copper, Gold, Brown, Gero, and all their disloyal soldiers.
Reaching the ground floor, he cleared his mind of all thoughts about them. They were nothing. He was a wolf; they were merely sheep. They would soon get what was coming to them. He was about to go to work, after all, to be in the public sphere again, and as far as King Furry knew, there was no such thing as the New Red Ribbon Army. Cardinal preferred it that way. It would be so much messier if the old dog knew.
That afternoon, they took the road down through Cardan, heading south. A grey day gave way to a grey town, with grey-brown mud pock-mocked by grey-brown puddles, and he was happier to be with Chiaotzu than the old man. It was an ill omen that the memory of Kyofune in the street was returning to him frequently. Nothing he could do about it, though. Nearly every time he closed his eyes, he saw the image of the terrified, sobbing boy clutching the corpse of that man.
You caused that, something in him said. The revulsion he felt was enough to make him want to vomit. It wasn’t enough. It never seemed to be enough.
“Hey, Mr. Tien Shinhan, look!” the boy said, stopping just ahead, pointing to the gates of one of the dignified estates.
“You don’t have to call me that, Chiaotzu. Tien is fine.”
We are going to the World Martial Arts Tournament together. He hasn’t been here long, but he’s my only companion remaining. He survived the Tigers, and–
It was at that moment that he noticed the decapitated head of the boy, stuck on a stick just outside the gate to the Masamune/Masamune compound. They stopped and stared and shared goosebumps.
Tien was no fool, and (thanks to their phone) neither was Chiaotzu. They knew there was a bounty on the man named Elijah who lived here. The price on his head was exorbitantly high, to a level reeking of desperation, and as such, they were not even remotely interested in pursuing it. So that samurai is more than he lets on, after all. Still nothing for me to be worried about. As much as they were offering for his head, Tien and Chiaotzu couldn’t be bothered–not with his wrist broken and the boy so raw. Certainly, they would not try anything so dangerous this close to Suma.
At the southernmost-point of Cardan, they turned southwest, towards Diablo Desert. There were sure to be bandits there, if the legends held true, but not as many as there had been years ago. Reavers and thieves were exactly the type of people Tien wanted to kill. He felt that in his bones. His thoughts returned to Kyofune and the old Crane Hermit, and how Tao would have beat him for even entertaining such a thought of treason. I’m an assassin. I live for getting blood on my hands.
Chiaotzu had stopped by the side of the road to marvel at a chubby tomcat, orange of fur and eye, gnawing on a mouse’s head in the snow. He felt a fluttering in his chest, not unlike an anxious feeling, but it didn’t feel good at first. When it relented, however, he was overcome by a sense of calmness, feeling, if anything, unmoved and emotionally disconnected.
That was good. That was real good.
Chiaotzu began whistling, and he didn’t feel the need to make the boy stop. Crisp winter air in their lungs, the Cranes trudged on down the road for some time, perhaps even hours, before they met their first wanderer. Even taking the weather into account, that was still abnormal. The man was wearing an oversized purple shirt, running down the road (at the pace of a seventy-three year old obese woman), looking over his shoulder, scratching at his unkempt beard with idle determination.
In a jittery voice, the man, looking over his shoulder twice, said repeatedly: “初雪や水仙の葉の撓むまで！”
Tien pulled the boy aside so the man wouldn’t run into him, but that only caused the flustered guy to notice them. Squinting and scowling, he brandished a fist and hopped in place, like he had happy feet or something. Tien didn’t believe it. The boy looked up at him, wondering what to do.
“Hey, Mister, you need to calm down.”
“Three-eyed devil! Ah, hell! We don’t need your kind ‘round these parts! Get! Go on, get! Ah, it’s a three-eyed devil! Get, you hellspawn! Go on, get! Get!”
He shook his fist once more before running off. Tien could see the genuine fear in his eyes. What’s wrong with him? Why does he think I’m the devil? I should have killed him for that.
Several miles down the road, they came upon a tiny tea shop offering its humble services to weary travelers along the road. As the hills and trees had mostly given way by this point and the desert was looming upon them in the distance, it was refreshing to find such a place at the end of the world, so to speak. On a telephone pole just before the building, they noticed a wanted poster for the man who had been running from them earlier. Bet there’s a bounty out on him. Without so much as having to ask Chiaotzu, the boy popped out their phone and checked.
“Do you want to go back?”
“Aw, Mr. Tien, do we have to?”
Relief flooded his veins, and the Crane was surprised, more than anything, but the extent of his emotion. He looked to the grey skies. Snow would be coming soon, but not for the desert. Those clouds were far off and moving in the wrong direction anyhow. “No. Let’s get some tea.”
It was called ‘Shin Norigoya’, and, to no one’s surprise, it was empty, aside from the aging, bearded owner picking his ear and a brown-haired teenage waitress. The man was cleaning the counter and watching television, while the woman (who could either have been his daughter or his girlfriend, you can never tell anymore) was going at her phone like a crazed meth addict.
“Excuse me,” Chiaotzu said.
The young woman looked up, doing a semi-professional job of hiding her shock at someone daring to rouse her from her most urgent of business. “Um, can I, like, help you, or something?”
“Can we get a table?” Tien asked.
She exhaled through her nose dramatically, shifting her weight to one hip and inspecting her painted red nails. “Yeah, I guess.”
“Hang on Shelby-Pennilyn–hold up. Aha. Thought so! Look at ‘em. Look at those rat fucks. Ain’t no way I’m lettin’ them in this fine establishment,” the man growled from behind the counter, slinging a dirty rag over his shoulder. His face had turned the color of a cherry. “Look at ‘em. SP, look. Mhm, you see it. Right on their uniforms! They’re no good, them.”
“Alright, Mr. Todibo.” She lowered her voice, raising a hand to shield her lips from the man’s eyes. “You two gotta get out of here right now. He’s freaking out. Like, he’s never been this bad before.”
“But why?” asked Chiaotzu.
“Your kind aren’t welcome ‘round these parts,” the man said gruffly, pointing to the door with a quivering finger. “Get out!”
So he doesn’t like three-eyed people, eh? I should bury him here. “What’s the meaning of this?” Tien stepped forth. He was not afraid of this man whatsoever. “What did we do wrong?”
“Please!” The waitress had pocketed her phone, so this was getting serious as hell. “He doesn’t, ahem, like your… school. I mean, like, you’re from the Crane School, aren’t you?”
Dumbfounded, Tien glanced down at his robes, the kanji for crane plastered noticeably on his chest. Who could ever hate the Crane School? We are the greatest martial artists in the world… and the greatest assassins. Who could hate greatness?
As if reading his mind, the man bellowed, “No assassins in my shop! I said get out! Damn you, I mean it!”
The girl looked to him with fake pleading eyes. She was as plastic as they came. He only wished he could throw her in the ocean. The man’s face had gone purple with rage. He didn’t know what to say. This was escalating at a rate that was so far beyond what he and Chiaotzu cared for. It would be so easy to end him, to quench his delusions. And yet, something in Tien held him back. He didn’t want to. He didn’t need to. This wasn’t a mission. Money wasn’t involved. He didn’t care. He didn’t need to kill this man.
“Come on, Chiaotzu,” he said, facing the door. “Let’s go.”
“B-but, I want some tea…” the boy whined. “I’m so thirsty!”
“We’ll find some somewhere else,” he said, looking over his shoulder at the boy with the painted face, and then making eye-contact with the man. This place smelled of tea, of old wood and sand. I’m giving you the gift of mercy today, Mr. Todibo. You don’t deserve it, but for the sake of my school’s reputation, I’ll let you live.
It was a quaint justification, but not one he could forsake, lest he be thrown into utter existential crisis. Without issue, the Cranes exited Shin Norigoya’s and set back out on the road, the smell of fresh sand in their nostrils, and the promise of a tournament–a tournament he would win, no matter what–on their minds. The boy was still pouting. He would get over it soon enough. Hopefully there’s another shop before we get to the desert…
They had five months. That will be plenty of time to heal up, he thought, glancing down at his wrist, but thinking only of his third eye, of how his sight had diminished since coming here, and how he still felt restless. If I win the tournament, I will have found my purpose. I can’t look back now.
The sky was grey, and the lands laid in front of them were barren and harsh. Rubbing his cast, Tien bid Chiaotzu join him, and happily did the boy do so. He did not truly know if Chiaotzu enjoyed this line of work; instinctively, he didn’t believe so, but he couldn’t be certain. They went on, no matter what. They would not be stopped. The boy was happy enough to be his friend, and maybe that was all there was to it.
For all the cracks forming in his mind, Tien remained resolute.
- ↑ 白虎 (Byakko) is the symbol of the School of the White Tigers.
- ↑ 真っ青杉崎 (Massao Sugizaki) is an expensive whiskey produced by Higataro, a yakuza captain in the Chàoxing Gon.
- ↑ The 電虎拳 (Denkoken), meaning 'Electric Tiger Fist', is the signature technique of the School of the White Tigers.
- ↑ This refers to a traditional Japanese-style gate.
- ↑ This refers to the Ultimate Fighting Super Championship, a scam fighting organization that was broken up by King Furry in Age 750.
- ↑ A rafter refers to a group of turkeys.
- ↑ The SAATIP (Super Advanced Aerospace Threat Identification Program) Division is the name of the alien-hunting branch of King Furry's government headed by Cardinal.
- ↑ Avalokiteśvara is a bodhisattva of compassion in Tibetan Buddhism.
- ↑ Om mani padme hum is a Buddhist mantra associated with Avalokiteśvara, the bodhisattva of compassion.
- ↑ The Ootaiji Temple (大泰寺) is a Zen Buddhist temple that was originally constructed in Age 451.
- ↑ This refers to the main hall of the temple compound.
- ↑ This refers to a specific Buddhist style belltower.
- ↑ 平 (pronounced hei) is a kanji that means peace.
- ↑ This refers to a specific type of green tea.
- ↑ This refers to a specific type of building commonly found in Zen Buddhist temples.
- ↑ This refers to a specific type of building commonly found in Zen Buddhist temples.
- ↑ This refers to a specific type of steel used in katana-forging.
- ↑ Pichipichi refers to a specific type of young woman that the Crane (and Turtle) Hermit is rather fond of.
- ↑ Junmai Genshu is a type of expensive saké in which there has been no secondary water added to temper the alcohol percentage.
- ↑ Junmai Daiginjo is a type of expensive saké that is made up of water, koji mold, yeast and rice milled 50% with 50% of each grain of rice remaining. This specific brand is the Masamune-distilled type. Kouyou refers to the kanji for 'autumn colors': 紅葉.
- ↑ The 義炸噛 (Gisakkou), meaning 'Exploding Bite of Justice', is Zhajiang's most powerful attack.
- ↑ This haiku was written by Matsuo Bashō sometime between 1684-1688 A.D. In romaji, it reads: "Hatsuyuki ya/suisen no ha no/tawamu made". In English, this means: "the first snow/just enough to bend/the daffodil leaves".
- ↑ The kanji being referred to here is 鶴 (pronounced "tsuru").
- This story is a continuation, in some sense, of the plots of Spindlerun: The Tale of Yajirobe and Chasing Oblivion.
- An epilogue (of sorts) to this story was posted in my 2020 one-shot collection, I Wouldn't Want to Be a Fish Right Now. It features Hasky being sent by Cardinal to track down General Copper and Doctor Gero.
- Chiaotzu is just awful.
- The vast majority of this story takes place during November of Age 752, which is roughly six months prior to the 22nd World Martial Arts Tournament.
- The variant of Buddhism that is practiced in this story is specifically Tibetan Buddhism.
- Regarding the so-called "nineteen assassins" in this story, only five of them survive.