Fan Fiction http://samuraispirits.net
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"What are we going to do? What are we going to do?" Hazuki cried. She was devastated, they all were - everyone except Sogetsu that was, nothing seemed to move his cold heart anymore. How could this have happened? So many dead, in so little time… Only four of the original party of eighteen had made it back to the pre-assigned meeting spot in the forest clearing. Everyone else was presumed dead, dying, or captured…including Kazuki. They stood, the survivors, in a loose circle facing one another, bathed in moonlight and shadows from the trees.
"How many dead?" Tanaka demanded.
"Seven of ours, fourteen of them, Commander Tanaka!" The soldier quickly recited, "And five of ours wounded, one critically. We lost quite a few horses as well."
"Not bad, eh Jubei?" Tanaka beamed, "Of course, I'd prefer less deaths on our side, but body counts usually run high when facing ninja directly."
Jubei snorted, "Save your praise; we didn't get any of them, Tanaka…especially the one that brings rotting death with but a touch of her hand."
"Eh?" The commander raised his eyebrows in disbelief at Jubei, "What the hell are you talking about, Yaggyu? Can't you see the bodies strewn before you? Or has your one remaining eye failed you at last?"
"Oh, there's plenty of dead ninja, Tanaka, but only one of the bodies belongs to the kidnappers, and your men didn't kill him." Jubei continued, dismounting his horse to inspect the body lying near the water's edge more closely. He turned the corpse over to show Tanaka the jagged gash that ran through his chest, and the lazy loll of the body's head was indicative of its snapped neck. "He was dead before the fighting began. My guess is that this one…" Jubei indicated the arrow-filled body of the other man that had been lying on top of him, "…killed him shortly before your soldiers used him for target practice."
"So they aren't all wearing black and blue pajamas, who cares? They're all ninja, and they're all dead, and that's what I'm going to put in my report! I'm not concerned with the latest shinobi fashions, Jubei!" Tanaka growled.
"The colors and uniform of a ninja clan are more than a fashion statement, Tanaka, as you know well. The ninja your men butchered belonged to the Kazama clan, not the clan the kidnappers hail from, and I'm sure the Kazama weren't here by accident either."
"A ninja blood-feud!" The soldier who had reported the death count to Tanaka suddenly exclaimed passionately.
Tanaka scowled at him, "Who the hell asked you? Get back out there and make sure you didn't miss any bodies, you lazy lout!"
"Yes, Commander Tanaka! A thousand apologies!" The young man cried as he hastily returned to his duties as Tanaka swung a badly aimed kick after him.
"He's almost certainly right, Tanaka. The Kazama were here to do the same thing we came here for. Unfortunately for them, they got caught in the middle of our attack and paid for it…dearly."
"Bah! The less ninja there are in the world, the better I say. Better to live and die like a man rather than skulk about in the shadows all your life!"
Jubei let the body fall again.
"Every man lives with shadows in his heart, Tanaka."
The two men suddenly found their discussion interrupted; they both turned to see who was bellowing their names.
"Agh! It's that damned, Yoshio and his fool friend, Bado!" Tanaka scowled, "What the hell do they want now?"
The two men, both astride one horse, came galloping up, and both hastily dismounted. Yoshio immediately began to accost Jubei, much to Tanaka's amusement.
"Yaggyu-san! What is the meaning of this? We are supposed to be on a mission to save my mother, not to see how many ninja heads Tanaka's samurai can collect! Please excuse me if I misunderstood, but I believe that was our intent, yes? What happened to paying the ransom?"
Jubei scowled at Yoshio, and Tanaka stifled a laugh.
"I said we'd get your mother back and I meant it. It's not your place to question my actions, Yoshio." The old, one-eyed samurai barked, "And now that I think of it, I'm sure Tanaka can loan you a samurai or two as escorts back to the city proper, we have no more need of you here."
Yoshio was going to say more, but Bado, with some difficulty, wisely silenced him before the young man's rash mouth could get him into trouble. After a short, heated argument, Bado convinced his friend to take Jubei's advice, and they both mounted the horse again.
"You'd better return with my mother, alive, or you'll be very, very sorry!" Yoshio called back over his shoulder as the horse trotted away.
"Oi, that one is becoming quite a bother, isn't he?" Tanaka grinned, "Eh, Jubei-san?"
"Hai, but I did promise him we'd find and return his mother safely, and I intend to keep my promise, Tanaka."
Tanaka chuckled, "Ha! And how are we going to do that when we haven't the slightest idea of where to find her? Tell me that, Yaggyu! These dead ninja certainly aren't going to rise from the dead and lead us to their hidey-hole, now are they?"
"No, but this one here…" Jubei indicated the man with the broken neck again, "…is going to show us where she is."
Intrigued, Tanaka, raised an eyebrow, "All right, Yaggyu, now I truly am curious, explain to me how that's going to work, this I must see."
The man whose name Jubei had just called came running.
"Bring me, Ryooshi."
The man soon returned with a large, bamboo cage. Jubei opened it and out tumbled a black and white bundle of fur that immediately began to race about and bark madly.
Tanaka spit in disgust, "Oh no, Jubei! That's not that filthy animal you got from that gai-jin with the piss-yellow hair, is it? Get it away from me, it's scaring the horse it's so ugly!"
Jubei just laughed, ignoring Tanaka's insults.
"Hai, Ryooshi! Come here! That's a good dog!" The animal obeyed its master; coming to rest at Jubei's feet, its tail wagging madly and its tongue hanging lazily out of its mouth as it took in everything and anything with its bright, black, inquisitive eyes. Jubei stooped down and ripped a fragment of the dead ninja's black and blue uniform away from the body and offered it to the young dog. "Hai, Ryooshi, smell that? Take a good whiff of it, eh? Where'd that come from now? Show, Jubei, Ryooshi! Show me where it came from!"
The animal barked loudly, stopped to bury its snout in the grass and clover, and then took off like a shot, back towards the crossroads. Jubei quickly mounted his white horse and gave chase.
Tanaka spit again, "That one-eyed bugger is really off his rocker this time! Gah! The things I have to put up with!" Tanaka signaled his men with a wave of his arm, "C'mon, you fools! Follow Yaggyu-san and that noisy abomination he dares to call a pet!"
"Hey…I need to stop...gotta clean this wound out before it goes bad."
Kusaru bristled, scowling at the man who clung to her for support. Any mention of rotting always roused her anger.
"There's no water here; we can't clean it." She retorted.
"I don't need water. That's my brother's thing, not mine."
"What are you babbling about?"
"Just stop, ok?"
Sighing, Kusaru complied, lowering the Kazama onto a rotting log. She was glad to do so; he wasn't light. They had left the River Bani far enough behind them that she was fairly certain they were relatively safe, at least for now. They'd have to go into hiding soon anyway, daylight wasn't far away.
"Well, whatever you're going to do, be quick about it. The more distance we put between Tokugawa's samurai and your brethren, the better."
The man said nothing. He ripped his crimson pants apart, revealing the puncture wound in his well-muscled thigh that still oozed blood. He reached above his head and snapped off a branch that hung low and ripped all the leaves and twigs from it.
Intrigued, Kusaru watched.
The Kazama ran his hands over the branch, straightening it, and then, his fists clenched, and the wood burst into flames.
Alarmed, Kusaru backed wearily away.
"What are you doing, Kazama? I warn you…"
Again, the young man said nothing, that is, until he buried the flaming stick inside his wound - then he had quite a bit to say, most of it quite colorful cursing. Kusaru's lips curled into a smile, her ears had never had the pleasure of hearing some of the obscenities he was spitting forth. Slowly and quite painfully, the Kazama pulled the smoking stick through his leg and out the other side.
Kusaru nodded her approval; the flames had cleansed the wound well. No infection would be able to take hold, and any that had started were now incinerated. A bit extreme perhaps, but she would have done the same in his place.
"That's a nice bit of ninja magic there, Kazama, how do you do it?"
"I'll tell you, Lin Kuei, if you tell me how to rot things with my fingertips."
She snarled and slammed him savagely up against the trunk of the tree he had ripped the branch from, so hard that his teeth chattered.
"Don't you ever say that again! Ever! Do you hear me, Kazama?"
"Y…yeah…yeah…I hear you!" He choked.
She dropped him, and he sunk heavily on his bad leg.
"I…I'm sorry, I didn't mean anything by it…" He gasped.
"There is no magic involved in what I do, Kazama." She whispered, absolutely furious, "It's a curse, a black curse, and I wouldn't wish it upon my worst enemy. You have no idea, none whatsoever, of what it means to be me."
"Like I said…sorry, really."
"Give me your hand." She ordered, still angry. He did so, and she hauled him roughly to his feet again. They continued to push through the forest without speaking for a while, mosquitoes buzzing around their ears and twigs snapping underfoot.
"What's your name? I'm tired of calling you Kazama." She said at last, interrupting the near silence.
"Kazuki. What's yours?" He answered.
"My real name isn't for you, or anyone else, to know, but my given Lin Kuei name is Kusaru."
"Named you after what you do, huh?"
"Yes...yes, they did. That's usually how it works…at least for those born "gifted" amongst us anyway. That is, if you can laughingly call my talent a gift."
"You don't like that name, do you?"
"What I like or don't like is irrelevant, you take the name you are given without question, and Kusaru is what I am called."
"But you don't like it."
"No…I don't like it...I hate it."
"Then, what's your real name?"
"Hana. My real name is Hana. Now shut up…Kazuki."