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"This…wasn't…part…of…the…plan!" Kazuki gasped, rolling to the right, barely avoiding being trampled under the hooves of a samurai's horse. His lower left leg, which had been pierced through by a samurai's arrow earlier, protested loudly and painfully to him as he did so. Ignoring the throbbing ache as best as he could, Kazuki spun and came to his feet, and then channeling his anger, let loose a great wave of flame with a knifelike slash of his arm. The samurai's horse, frightened and singed by the fire, reared up, screaming, and threw its rider from the saddle. But Kazuki did not even have time to laugh as the samurai landed unceremoniously in the rough arms of a tree, for three more of the man's comrades were already galloping towards him, swift death flying from their drawn bows.
Zhishu laughed and cried at the same time. Somehow, she had managed to make it to the safety of the dark forest on the other side of the river in one piece. Daring to take a short rest, she leaned against a tree, the sharp pine needles stabbing her skin as she took in great, ragged gulps of air.
"I told you, Kusaru…I told you…" She gasped, pulling off her black hood and blue facemask so that the cold night air could waft away the sweat that coursed down her face in streams, "Why, why didn't you listen?"
Fresh tears began to fall as she thought of poor Zhang. She didn't know if her beloved twin brother was dead or not, but she suspected he was. The colorful fire that had lit up the night sky had come directly from where he had been sitting, waiting for the raft by the riverbank, and she very much doubted he could have survived the first rush by the samurai. If Zhang was dead, she hoped Kusaru was too…because if she wasn't, she would kill Kusaru herself, with her bare hands if necessary.
But, she didn't have time for revenge now. Resolving to put those thoughts behind her till another time, Zhishu turned to push onward and froze - a man stood in her way, sword drawn.
A Kazama ninja.
"Where do you think you're going, Lin Kuei?" He smiled, his face was buried in shadows, but she could tell it was a handsome one. "Thought you were safe, didn't you? There is no safety for your kind here."
Zhishu had recognized other Kazama ninja as she fled by their clothing, but hadn't thought much of it, as she was more concerned with escaping with her own life. The Lin Kuei Masters had warned them about the Kazama, one of the Kuei's many enemies, before they had departed from their sanctuary in China, but up until now, she had thought the Kazama clan had been unaware of their presence on Japanese soil.
"I don't want to fight you, Kazama." She breathed, warily circling him, hand on the hilt of her short sword, "I think it's in both of our best interests to get the hell out of here; if you didn't notice, Tokugawa's samurai aren't very fond of your family either."
The man appeared to consider this, his long, blue hair wafting about his face as he rubbed his chin silently.
"I know there's bad blood between our forefathers, Kazama, but I think both of us have lost family here tonight to Tokugawa's dogs, and considering the circumstances, I think a temporary truce is in order." She offered, a tentative smile on her lips. Not only did she not want to fight this man, she couldn't. Zhishu's body was running on little more than will power now, and the Kazama ninja didn't look tired in the least; she instinctively knew she'd lose.
"All right." The man said at last, extending his hand in friendship as he lowered his blade, "Allies for now. Our hatred for each other ceases tonight in the face of a common enemy."
Zhishu took his hand, "Aye, allies."
Before she could blink, the man had twisted her arm, spun his sword aright again, and buried it to the hilt in her abdomen. She gasped and shuddered, unbelieving, her own blade, undrawn, falling from her fingers. He smiled, twisting his sword in a circle, its sharp edges ripping her insides apart like the teeth of an animal.
His face drew close to hers, his hot breath caressing her lips; it smelled like the ocean, clean and salty. "When you get to Hell, Lin Kuei bitch, tell your friends Kazama Sogetsu sent you!"
Sogetsu ripped his sword free again, wiping her blood off his blade with Zhishu's clothing as she slipped to the ground, lifeless.
Kusaru uttered a war cry as she ripped her hands across the face of the attacking samurai who had dared to confront her on foot. The young man screamed, his skin blackening and falling away in flakes almost instantly from her touch. It was a horrible sight, but one Kusaru had seen many times. In seconds he was dead, his decomposing corpse smiling up at the night sky through wet, empty eye sockets.
His companions, so eager to kill Kusaru moments ago, backed their horses away in stark terror, taking flight like the cowards they were as they cried "Demoness!" and "Rotting death!".
She smiled in satisfaction as she stared after them; it did her heart good to see brave men reduced to scared little boys, but her smile vanished when she looked down again at the grisly corpse of the young man she had just murdered. It seemed to speak to her though its rotten, brown teeth: See what you can do Kusaru? Isn't it wonderful what your loving touch can bring? But who touches you, Kusaru? Who dares to touch you, rotting flower?
She staggered away, sick to her stomach.
"No more. No more." She gasped, her heart beating too fast, making her dizzy.
She looked around, and while she could hear voices shouting here and there, she could no longer see anyone but the bodies of the dead scattered about the field - some samurai, but mostly the other ninja who had been skulking about, doubtlessly with murder in their hearts, the Kazama. She didn't see Zhishu or Zhang's bodies, which gave her some hope. The glow of the flares and fireworks was waning too; soon the blackness of night would swallow everything again.
Cautiously, she began to circle towards the haven of the forest that lay behind her. Once she made it there, she knew she would be almost impossible to find again. But what then, Kusaru, she asked herself, what then?
She turned, hands ready to snake out and strike. It appeared one of the bodies was not dead after all. It was a young man, one of the Kazama, his tired eyes looking up at her warily from underneath his wild, red hair.
"Howzabout…dragging me into the woods before…the samurai come back and…decide to make a trophy out of my head?"
"Do you know who I am, stranger?"
"That's right." Kusaru entertained the idea of reaching out and caressing his cheek and ending his life, but decided against it, she'd dealt out and seen enough killing tonight to last her for quite some time.
"So, I suppose you're not going to help me then?" The young man breathed, shakily trying to crawl to his feet and failing, "Can't say I blame you, blood feud and all…"
She turned her head, the voices and shouting were growing louder again; the samurai would be returning shortly. She should leave him…he was Kazama, and she was Lin Kuei after all; but for some reason, she couldn't bring herself to do so.
"Wait a moment." Kusaru answered, extracting her gloves from a pouch on her belt. Donning them once again, she helped the young man to his feet.
"Now listen to me, and listen well. I will help you to reach the safety of the forest and escape death, but remember this, if your bare skin should touch mine, no matter how briefly, you will die, and die horribly, understand?"
"Yeah, I gotcha, no grabbing your ass or anything like that. But seriously, I saw what you did to that guy's horse earlier; I'll be careful."
Kusaru's eyes narrowed. Did you now?
"Good; then you know what will happen to you, Kazama, if you betray my mercy with treachery…"
"Yoshio! Yoshio! Dammit, where the hell are you, Nozomi?" Bado bellowed at the top of his lungs, scanning the riverbank and surrounding area for any sign of his friend. In the pit of his stomach he was sure that Jubei was wrong and something terrible had happened to Yoshio.
"Dirty ninjas probably gutted you and hung your corpse up in a tree for the ravens to pick at…" Bado whispered darkly, "I knew I should have come with you!"
"Bado-san!" An unseen voice hissed, "Over here!"
"Yoshio!" Bado exclaimed, spying his friend cowering in a ditch some distance away, "What are you doing in there?"
"The light show scared my horse, and it ran off with the cart, so I thought it best to hide. What the devil is going on, Bado?" Yoshio answered, rising from his hiding place, "Are you alone? Where's that one-eyed bugger, Jubei, and that crazy Tanaka? And the rest of the samurai platoon?"
Bado hugged his friend roughly, overjoyed to see him alive and in one piece.
"Jubei and Tanaka are up on yonder hill, overseeing the battle, Yoshio! Damn, I'm happy you're all right!"
"Battle? So they found the ninja, eh? Good. I hope they rip the whole lot to shreds! But where'd all the fireworks come from, Bado?"
"The box that had the ransom money, Yoshio!" Bado grinned, "It was a trap; Jubei had it loaded with fireworks and such instead of money! Those damn ninjas had no where to hide in that glare, once the greedy bastards opened the box and set them off!"
Yoshio's face suddenly became ashen, and he clutched Bado roughly.
"But…but…what about my mother, Bado? If the ninja don't get their money…what's to stop them from murdering her? Oh no! What has Jubei done?"
"They can't harm her if they're all dead, Yoshio." Bado offered, trying to calm Yoshio.
"But if they're all dead, how will we find her, Bado? They could have her hidden anywhere, anywhere at all! In a cave, a hole in the ground, who knows? By the time those incompetent samurai find her, my mother will be nothing but dust and bones!" Yoshio was crestfallen, all but in tears, "Oh, Bado! We shouldn't have gone to the authorities at all! We should have just delivered the money ourselves, in secret!"
"Take heart, Yoshio! It isn't over yet; I'm sure Jubei will find some clue as to the whereabouts of your mother. And besides, those ninja would never tell us where your mother was hidden anyway, even if we captured one of them alive. A ninja would rather slit their own throat with their fingernails than tell you what time of day it is; you know that as well as I!"
But Yoshio would hear none of it; he paced back and forth rapidly, ripping at his thinning hair.
"If anything happens to my mother because of their ineptitude, you can be sure both Tanaka and Yaggyu's heads will roll for it!" Yoshio vowed darkly, "Their orders were to ensure my mother's safe return, not seal her doom! I don't care if I have to take my case before Tokugawa himself, if my mother suffers because of their actions, they will both pay, and pay dearly!"
"Calm yourself, Yoshio-san!" Bado ordered, taking Yoshio by the arms firmly, "Yaggyu and Tanaka would never do anything to deliberately cause your mother to come to harm! But at the same time, they can't let the ninja escape unpunished, they have to set an example, Yoshio. And at any rate, you know the Shogun would take their side in any dispute. Just relax, Yoshio-san, these are trying times for you, I know, but everything will turn out for the best; I'm sure of it."
"I hope so, Bado-san…" Yoshio whispered, casting his eyes downstream, where the clamor of men yelling could still be heard, "For my mother's sake, I hope so…"