“I don’t care if you’re taller, more muscular, and have probably been training longer than I’ve been stealing, I’m confident that I’m gonna drop your ass.” Ren sneered.
“Come at me and we shall see.” Akane narrowed her gaze.
“No way. You come at me.” Ren said, bullets of sweat starting to form on her brow.
After that, the two were silent. Neither moved an inch out of place.
After possibly a full minute of no one budging, Ren’s dry eyes started to water. “Crap. What if I have to blink? Would she attack me? She said I should be the one to come at her and then was quiet after I insisted she approached. Does that mean she’ll come for me when I let my guard down or does she still want me to come and she’s waiting? Even so, is she the kind of person that would attack an enemy at a disadvantage?” Ren clenched her jaw. “What am I even worried about? Acne is a pushover. There’s no doubt I could take her.” But as she thought that, Ren once again examined Akane’s lean, muscular figure, impeccable stance, razor-sharp fans, and eyes, gleaming with harmful intent. “Who am I kidding? I’m in way over my head this time. Maybe even more with Hanzo or Tanba because this time, we hate each other’s guts.”
Ren’s fingers danced nervously across Tsu’s metal haft as she toiled to keep her eyes open.
“Damn it. I have to blink and see what happens…” At last, Ren’s eyelids descended. As they flew back open, Akane stood in the same position across from her as before. Ren breathed a sigh of relief.
Suddenly, Akane reached down, grabbed a red, silk ribbon on the ground in front of her, and drew back. Ren’s gaze followed the lead from Akane’s hand down to her feet. There, she found her ankle snagged in the line of cloth.
“Instead of attacking me outright, Acne set a trap for me as I blinked! That bitch!”
“Perhaps I’ve forgotten how effective Akane is in combat.” Momochi pondered aloud, holding his chin. “Are we sure she isn’t a better fit to lead the Oniwaban?”
Ren plummeted to the floor, dragged down by the crimson leash around her foot. Once she landed, Akane sprinted for her at full speed. Mere meters away, Akane leapt into the air. She retracted her tessen into thin knives to skewer Ren on the ground.
Ren sliced the snare around her leg and rolled out of the way, watching Akane impale the tatami mat where her head once lay. Akane quickly fanned out her tessen and twirled with her blades held outward like a red tornado to catch Ren trying to escape. Ren speedily blocked each slice with Tsu’s shaft. The metal edges of her tessen ignited sparks off Tsu’s body with each parried strike.
As soon as Akane stopped spinning, Ren leapt forward and extended her foot to kick her face. Akane opened her tessen in front of her, blocking Ren’s ambush against its red surface.
Akane pulled a kunai blade tied to another red strand of ribbon. She threw the blade and jerked her arm, coiling Ren’s throat in the crimson length of cloth. She then yanked forward, dragging Ren’s head down into the floor. With Tsu yet again, Ren severed the ribbon and stood up.
She swung her scythe at Akane’s head, but she ducked underneath the horizontal swipe. Ren grinned, anticipating Akane’s movement. She reared around and swept out her enemy’s feet from underneath her. As Akane fell onto her back, she rolled away and shot back up, center of gravity low, staring dead ahead.
“It looks like Ren might stand a chance after all.” Momochi uttered. “Her combat skill is further along than I anticipated.” He once again shot an eye full of suspicion at Hanzo beside him. He again intentionally aimed his gaze away, whistling quietly.
Akane lunged at Ren, tessen out to chop her down. She managed to catch her and aim her forward momentum upward, sending Akane into the air. Ren leapt after her, Tsu held behind her back. While in the air, Akane lobbed down two kunai spikes. Ren twisted in the air to dodge the blades. When she was near enough to Akane, Ren entered the zen and smashed into her with the blunt edge of Tsu, spiking her back down.
Akane landed on the ground, arms and legs outstretched. From up in the air, she looked like a big target. Readying her hands and aiming Tsu’s blade at her back, Ren fell after her, ready to pierce the girl where she lay.
Right before she made contact, Akane swiftly slipped out of the way, stood on her hands, and stomped onto Ren’s spine. Ren soared across the dojo and landed against the wall. There she lay afterward, flat against the floor, groaning in pain.
“It’s over.” Momochi grunted, crossing his arms.
Hanzo sighed. “It sure is…”
“I did my best not to mutilate you too much.” Akane said, standing up and stowing her fans away. “This fight has been interesting, but you must have realized that your defeat was inevitable.” She strode off, leaving Ren in a crumpled mess on the floor.
“So that’s it, huh?” Ren shouted after her in a fiery voice. Akane paused in the entryway, back still facing her. “Not gonna mock me or nothing? Not gonna call me trash for losing to you? Not gonna spit on me, kick me while I’m down? I’d almost prefer you do that than leave me hanging like this!”
“Why would I do that?” Akane turned around to peer back at her. In her flat expression, Ren could see trace amounts of genuine confusion.
“Because you hate me.” Ren growled. “Because you can’t stand me…”
“I may find your attitude and work ethic abhorrent, but you are not my enemy. Thus, I do not hate you. In fact, there are very few things that I hate. Things that I would not hesitate to dismantle in the most painful, spiteful way I can imagine.”
Fear swept over her. “If what Acne feels for me isn’t her hate, then what is it? What does her hatred actually look like?” Ren pondered Akane’s rage for a moment. To see her composure fall into deranged anger. To see her full fury unleashed. Even more fear washed over her as her shadow on the ground seemed to darken.
“Then why did you fight me?” Ren asked, her voice cracking slightly.
Akane’s confusion visibly grew. “Because I was asked to.”
Her response rendered Ren silent. When Akane finally did leave, she didn’t stand up quite yet. She was too hung up on what Akane had told her just before leaving to even blink.
Ren felt Hanzo lay his hand on her shoulder. She shut her eyes and released a defeated sigh.
“Ren…” He murmured. “Congratulations.” She peered up at him, stunned, watching as a wide smile broke across his face. “Welcome to blood moon!”
Failing to match his optimism, Ren released another dejected breath of air. She shook her head and sat on the ground, back hunched forward. “I don’t understand. I shouldn’t be a blood moon. I lost against Akane. I failed...”
“But Ren, you didn’t fail anything.” Hanzo said matter-of-factly. “Today was actually another lesson and you passed.”
“Yeah, and what lesson was that?” The misery in her voice deepened. “That I’m no good? That I’m weak?”
To her utter shock, Hanzo nodded his head. “Exactly.”
“Today is to teach you that even if you are the best, even if you are a master, there will always be someone out there stronger than you in the world. That is the final lesson before becoming blood moon. And it sounds like you’ve learned that. So congratulations.”
Ren studied the floor for a moment before rising to her feet. She unclenched her fists at her sides, allowing warmth to wash through her. “I really did succeed. I really am a blood moon now.” She wondered. “It’s starting to feel less and less like I lost that fight with Acne. Maybe it’s because in some sense I didn’t…”
“Now there is just one more thing to set your blood moon status in stone.” Momochi uttered across the distance of the dojo. Simultaneously, he, Ren, and Hanzo peered in the direction of a presence approaching the dojo. They watched as Fujibayashi Nagato strolled inside, arms tucked behind him, his white robes and silver locks rippling behind him.
“Upon ascending to the rank of blood moon, it is customary to learn where you have been in order to better realize the path that lies ahead.” Nagato uttered. “Ren, join me please. Hattori-sensei, Tanba-sensei, thank you for all your help today.”
The two jōnin bowed toward Nagato briskly before they marched away out the wide exit. Meanwhile, Ren approached Nagato. He lowered himself to the ground and sat on top of his knees. From the folds of his robe, he retrieved a pair of shallow, varnished dishes and a tall, wooden thermos which he set down on the tatami before him.
“Firstly, I want to commend you for how far you have come.” Nagato beamed as Ren sat before him. “When we discovered you, all of life’s odds were stacked against your favor, even though we recognized the greatness of your father. Now consider for a moment what role you occupy today. You have fully devoted yourself to training. Even in your moments not dedicated to shinobi activity, you have followed the path laid before you by the code of Ninjutsu. All of us agree that your progress has been most impressive.”
Despite his encouraging words, Ren found herself hung on just one. “My father…” She thought. Again, inexplicably, she saw the dark figure turning around and walking away. She invisibly clenched her jaw.
She was snapped out of her mild trance when she saw Nagato open the lid to the tall, wooden vessel and pour its contents into each of the dishes. It was a violet fluid of a soupy consistency. Visible lines of steam wafted from the beverage.
“This is called remembrance brew.” Nagato explained. “It is a special blend of tea that allows us to take a glance backward in time at our lives and accomplishments. Repeat after me.” She watched as he demonstrated by lifting the dish to his lips and drinking. Nagato then set his dish down, straightened out his back, shut his eyes, and was still.
“Sensei?” Ren asked. “Fujibayashi-sensei? Hello?”
“He’s asleep. Not meditating either. He’s completely out cold.” Ren watched his eyelids twitching. His nostrils drew in sharp, constrained breaths. “But something isn’t right…” She peered down at Nagato’s unfinished tea, then at the full cup he poured for her. Reluctantly, Ren seized the cup that Nagato drank from and quickly downed its remnants. As the liquid seeped toward her stomach, Ren’s vision grew spotty and distorted. Her brain felt full of helium.
She shut her eyes. When she opened them, she found herself within a room in the same Japanese style of Kashiwabara’s or the tower’s.
“This vision is from a long time ago. I can tell from its aura.” Ren thought, breathing in the air. “I can also tell this is a happy memory. But that happiness won’t last long…”
Ren peered out the translucent shoji door to find a blizzard swirling outside. Inside, however, the room was warm and cozy. The plush tatami cushioned her feet. Ren soon realized she wasn’t alone in the vision. In the center of the room sat a family. A mother, father, and little girl laughed and smile amongst themselves.
The father caught Ren’s attention. His black hair flowed down to the middle of his back. A full beard surrounded his brimming smile. His eyes were uplifting yet tragically familiar. Next, Ren saw the mother. She was familiar in a different way. Her hair was black like her husbands, but the candlelight gave it the illusion of shining a warm red. The little girl’s hair had the same illusion as her mother’s. The skin across her nose and cheeks were dotted with small, dark freckles.
“That girl… she almost looks like…”
A cold rush of wind blew through the house. Even though she didn’t feel the chilly blast, Ren shivered on instinct. Through the crack in the door, she could hear a horse’s whinny in the far-off distance.
The father’s eyes snapped toward the ajar shoji. His laughs became but mere echoes as his smile fell.
Ren watched her surroundings start to melt away like hot, runny candle wax. From the wet, dripping colors left behind, a new image was painted in Ren’s mind.
That time, she discovered herself outside the cozy cottage, watching it being consumed by flames. The sight made Ren’s heart feel like it was being put through a juicer.
Her gaze shifted across the tundra over to where the father stood, hunched over, sucking in frosty breaths of air. His charred robes clung to his scratched and bruised body. He clutched a single sword in his bloody hands.
Ren looked in the direction that his furious eyes were pointed. Standing opposite him was a hoard of heavily-clad, mask-bearing figures. Some carried spears, reaching high into the air, trailed by long, flowing banners. Dark shadows concealed the flag’s crests and muted its colors.
Several meters ahead of the small army stood an imposing character carrying a lengthy spear. A shining, extravagant suit of armor hung from his powerful physique. The man wasn’t large or muscular per se, but something about his aura made it clear that he was indeed a force to be reckoned with. The two men gazed at each other exclusively. The wind carried heavy snowfall all around them. Their wrath was just as tangible as the gale.
Just then, the little girl rushed past Ren toward the two men. Over her head, she carried an angled stick. As she charged, she emitted a small, angry cry. Ren wanted to jump out and stop her, but just like in a dream, her body didn’t feel like hers. She was trapped and all she could do was watch on.
Both the little girl’s father and the spear-wielding warrior watched as she darted right up to the leader of the armored horde. Desperation swimming in his eyes, the father started to limp forward. He put his hand out to stop the menacing man in the glistening, lacquer-scaled body armor.
Without any hesitation whatsoever, the man raised his spear and thrust downward. The blade impaled the snow directly behind the girl’s back. Her stick fell to the ground. Her cries fell silent. Red drops began to appear across the layer of white.
That image faded as well. Behind the melting picture, however, Ren only found darkness. Within her mind, she listened to a wild, enraged howl and a deep, poisonous voice.
“You have brought this upon yourself, Nagato.”
Nagato and Ren both toppled over simultaneously, panting heavily. Ren looked around, forgetting where they were before the vision.
“How…” He uttered, being the first to speak. “How much of that did you see?”
“Everything.” Ren gulped.
“My apologies.” He said, beginning to sit up. “You weren’t supposed to drink from the same cup as mine. Forgive me for not being clear enough.”
“Who was that?” Ren leaned forward. “Was that Izumo?”
“Even worse, if you can believe that. I do not wish to discuss them.” He sighed again. “Although they are defeated, they have continued to haunt me every night for centuries…”
She climbed over the back fence of the property that evening. There, Ren found June on her porch, tending to a small sum of potted plants.
“I didn’t know you had a green thumb.” Ren said, approaching the steps leading to the shop. “What’re you growing there?”
“That’s classified.” June said with a half-smile.
“Ok.” Ren clutched her side in mild hurt. “Well, I’m starved.”
“You know what, so am I. I was about to throw dinner on. You can clock in after we eat.”
Ren nodded, entering the shop. But before she could head upstairs to her room, there was a knock on the door.
“Can you get that, Ren?” June shouted from outside. “Tell whoever’s there that I’m at the dry cleaners.”
Ren opened the door, ringing the bell, where she found two men in matching black suits, dark sunglasses, and long neckties standing outside. The one on the left was average height with neck-length black hair and a thin goatee. The other was frighteningly tall and took up more than two times the door’s width.
“Are you Ms. Ren?” Asked the man on the left.
“It’s Ms. McCoy.” She corrected. “Usually it’s the surname that comes after the prefix.”
“Very well, Ms. McCoy. My name is Mr. Y. Detective Y.” He put his hand on the lofty shoulder of the other man. “This is my associate, Detective G.”
“Yeah...” Said G.
“We’re from the LAPD,” Y continued. “On an ongoing investigation surrounding two major crimes taking place in the LA County area, both happening to occur within the same one-week timeframe. Now, we’ve heard rumors that these assailants have been spotted within the vicinity of this store.”
“And I, a fourteen-year-old high school student with a part-time job, am a suspect?” Ren said, incredulity ringing throughout her tone.
“Only if you have seen anything. We are not here to point fingers.”
“Then if I were you, I’d ask the guys over at the McBurger’s because I haven’t.”
“Rest assured, Ms. McCoy, we already have. We leave no stone unturned.”
“Yeah.” Detective G chimed in again.
“Hold the phone, does this guy say anything besides ‘yeah?’”
G pulled off his glasses to reveal his beady, somewhat crossed eyes. “Yeah!”
He paused. Very slowly he slid his shades back up his nose. “Yeah…”
“How does stir fry sound?” June asked from the invisible depths of the shop.
“Great.” Ren replied over her shoulder. “My favorite.”
“Look, Ren, I’m gonna let you in on a little secret.” Detective Y whispered narrowly. She spun back around to face him. “Between the three of us, we know that your Bandito escapades aren’t truly over. We also know that you have indeed seen something. How do we know that? Well, that’s another secret. But, if you can comply with our requests, your little errands can remain that way: a secret just between the three of us.”
“Yeah.” Added Detective G.
“Make no mistake, Ms. McCoy, we are very powerful men. From the way I see it, you have two options: You can remain an employee of this fine establishment with the McCoy name sitting comfortably next to yours within public records, living as a productive member of society, not having to worry about monetary troubles again, or there’s the less preferable option. The option where you don’t give us the answers we need and you eventually find yourself back on the streets, or more likely, rotting from inside a cell block. So now that you know the stakes of our ultimatum, allow me to present to you the choice. If you have any information useful to our case, anything at all, don’t hesitate to call this number.” Detective Y handed Ren a slip of paper and turned away with Detective G. On the way out, G gave Ren the I’ve got my eye on you gesture.
For a while as Ren stood in the doorframe, her absent gaze focused on the dark streets ahead. Between her fingers, she continued to pinch the slip handed to her with increasing strength. “Here I am, the opportunity of a lifetime and a hotline number in my hand.” She bit her lip. “But on the other hand, there’s Ninjutsu, and my martial arts training, and inner peace, and great friends. But that training comes with a responsibility…”
Ren slammed the door shut and darted upstairs into her room, where she flopped headfirst onto her bed. As she lay restless, she contemplated her past life as the Incognito Bandito. “Those sleepless nights under railroad bridges, the days I spent wandering the streets, cold and hungry. But then there was the excitement. The wind through my hair as I ran from the cops, the freedom of having no one to answer to. No responsibilities, but no future…” Ren opened her fist to reveal the paper. “What happens when I call this number, I wonder? Living a debt-free life with June? Maybe in some place overlooking the ocean? Even ditching this crummy shop that smells like yesterday’s laundry? But then again, what would happen to Iga? Would I ever feel that rush of excitement again?”
She furled and unfurled that piece of paper in her hands over and over. Every possible outcome of every possible choice ran through her head. Reluctantly, Ren picked up her phone, unfolded the paper one last time, and punched the digits into the keypad. Ren’s fingers trembled as she did with every beep sounding like a slow, painful heartbeat.
Finally, the full number read back to her across the top of the phone. Her finger hovered over the call button. “I know what to do. I know what to say. Then why can’t I?” Slowly, her finger lowered. The call button was only a hair’s width away. “All my training with Hanzo and Momochi, all about to end with the push of a button…”
A sudden, red glimmer caught the corner of her eye. Her gaze shifted from the phone to Tsu, leaning against the door of her open closet. Its stone gave a soft, dim glow. Ren stared at the gem, then back at her phone. At long last, her finger landed against the screen.
“Added to contacts.” It read. Ren let out a sigh of relief and lay her phone face-down on the bed next to her.
“Dinner’s on! Come and get it!” June shouted from downstairs.
“I’ll be right there!”
Diego hunched over his lap as he sat within the booth. He interlocked his fists upon the table. His foot bounced rapidly against the ground. He unbuttoned the top of his shirt and tugged at his collar, allowing air to reach his chest.
Throughout the restaurant, he watched wait staff in black aprons carrying dishes and champagne glasses to every table. The light ambiance of conversation filled the dim, cozy air. However, the plush aura present throughout the establishment failed to reach him. Dark rings surrounded Diego’s eyes. His careless stubble had amounted into a full, scraggly beard. His trembling pupils remained the size of shriveled peas. From the corner of his eye, he watched the glass entrance slide open. Turning to face the door, Diego’s pupils dilated. An ounce of lightness returned to his dark, disheveled aura.
In the entrance stood Erika, her blue dress reaching her high-heels. Her gold hoop earrings and studded necklace sparkled in the light of the foyer’s chandelier. Her brown hair curled over her smooth shoulders and her skin glistened.
“Sweetie! Hi!” Erika grinned. Her footsteps clicked rapidly against the floor as she approached him through the restaurant as fast as she could in her heels. Diego ascended from his seat. His arms opened to embrace her. A smile battled its way onto his face.
“What if she only loved me… because of what she thinks I am.” He listened to his own words echo through his mind. Diego’s pupils shrunk once again. As Erika’s arms wrapped around him and she pressed her head against his chest, Diego’s skin crawled. His teeth chattered.
“I was worried I was going to be overdressed, but it looks like you found a fancy place after all!” Erika beamed. She released her hug and slid into the booth seat opposite Diego’s.
“Yeah, it’s Italian so I figured we’d both get what we want.” Diego entered his seat as well. His hands quickly found their way into his pockets. His head sagged low, fixing his gaze on his lap. “You wanted something upscale and I wanted, you know, pizza…”
“Are you alright?” Erika’s brow crinkled slightly.
Diego raised his head, showing her his wobbly, forced smile. “I’m fine. Why do you ask?”
Erika’s eyes thinned further. Her low, suspicious gaze peered at the glass sitting next to him. “Because you haven’t touched your Bepis at all. Normally you can’t keep your hands off the stuff. You know, sometimes I think you forget that I’m a blood moon just like you. You can’t hide your feelings from me that easily, babe. So what’s going on, huh?”
The muscles forcing Diego’s cheerful expression relaxed, leaving behind a face brimming with pure dread. “We need to talk…”
“About what?” Erika whispered.
“Us.” Diego clenched his jaw and sighed. “I really didn’t want to do this on the day of our anniversary, but it couldn’t wait, I’m afraid…”
“Sweetie, you’re scaring me.” Her soft voice quivered.
“I don’t think we should see each other anymore.” His voice poured out without a second thought.
Erika interlocked her fingers across the surface of the table. The pure tragedy in her face hid behind a puckered frown out of the corner of her mouth and her pair of low-set, calculating eyes. “Ok…” She replied in a slow, reasoning voice. “Can you at least spare the decency to tell me why?”
Diego pursed his lips and placed both his palms flat on the table just an inch away from Erika’s painted nails. “You know how I’ve always believed I was destined to hold Shinsatsu. It was the whole reason why you were assigned to protect me, remember? It was the whole reason why we met and got into a relationship.” He waited for a response.
“Go on…” Erika said, her tone obtaining a hard edge.
Diego shook his head. “I’m not Shinsatsujin, Erika. I’m sorry. You’ve been lied to since before we even met. Our whole relationship is built on a lie. And now that you know, you’ll resent me for it. That’s why I can’t see you anymore. I’m sorry.”
“Are you kidding me?” Erika’s lips peeled back, flaunting her grinding teeth. “You’re kidding me. My God, Diego. I can’t believe it. The nerve of some people. Just when you think you know someone, they have to go and do something like that!” Her voice had raised to a near shout. Her once soft and airy tone was almost unrecognizable.
“I knew this would be your reaction…” Diego whispered.
“Obviously!” She roared. “Who wouldn’t be furious with Nagato?”
“You heard me. You can’t honestly think this is your fault, right?” Erika laughed. “I mean, how were you supposed to know? You didn’t assign me to protect you. If anyone here’s the victim, it’s you, not me!” She grabbed his glass of soda and downed some of it before picking up her purse and fanning herself with it.
“You’re… not mad?”
“Of course I’m mad! I’m furious! I’m mad because you deserve better. You deserve the world. What you don’t deserve is Nagato telling you otherwise.”
Immediately, Diego harkened back to the questions he asked Takeshi, the Kōga prisoner.
“Who am I supposed to trust, then?” Diego murmured. “If Iga believes I’m not Shinsatsujin, who am I to argue?”
“Well let’s see,” She looked at the ceiling. “You believe, I believe. There are others who believe…” Erika suddenly shot to her feet. “Let’s go, babe. We’re leaving. I have a gift to show you.”
“What about dinner?” Diego asked, peering up at her.
“That too.” Erika spun away and swaggered off toward the restaurant’s exit. “All you can eat.”
Diego pulled up the collar of his shirt to mask his mouth from the small gusts of wind, kicking up coarse, orange sand around his feet.
Peaking on the horizon in the distance lay dozens upon dozens of wrecked airplanes. Their collapsed bodies lay alongside stacks of rusted engines, turbines, and wings. What set the complex apart from just any ordinary dump, however, were the erect structures standing stark against the cloudless sky, fashioned from the hollowed-out fossils of the jets.
Diego’s view shifted from the landscape ahead to the darkening skies above them. A hot shade of red bled into the blue atmosphere as the sun’s hot rays collided with the cool, inevitable night.
Behind his back, Diego listened to the car door slap shut. Erika approached him, already standing facing the huddle of structures.
“So your gift is hidden here?” Diego asked, his voice ringing with equal parts concern and curiosity. “In the middle of the Mojave Desert?”
“I didn’t want you to find it prematurely.”
They began taking long strides toward the center of the boneyard. Large grains of orange sand crunched and popped like firecrackers beneath their feet. The scenic route they took led them past walls constructed out of rusted tail wings and roofs consisting of nothing but tattered, caramel-colored tarps. Their rough fabric rippled noisily in the desert breeze.
They weren’t alone as they made their way through the complex. Men donning blue shozoku and white hems with ammo strapped across their shoulders and firearms stuffed in their holsters were abundantly present. Some gathered in circles, chatting amongst each other. Others reclined against the rusty walls, sharpening their swords or polishing their firearms.
“Erika, who are these people?” Diego whispered, passing his nervous gaze over the surrounding men. “It looks like they’re wearing shozoku, like Iga’s. But the color’s wrong. And Iga never carry modern artillery. It almost looks like…” His memory found the image of Takeshi. He remembered the blue and white hue of his shozoku and the conventional weaponry protruding from his trench coat. Steadily, his eyes opened wider. “Are these… K-”
Diego’s thoughts fell silent when Erika in front of him turned around and kissed him full on the lips. His eyes continued to widen in surprise, albeit different surprise.
“You’re thinking too loud.” She said, playfully holding her index finger over Diego’s lips. “Just let things… happen.” He gave a slow, agreeing nod.
All of a sudden, the sounds of excited hollering began to permeate the air. Diego’s gaze darted about, watching the surrounding shinobi pump their closed fists in the air as they aimed their gaze toward the sky. The ones who had been polishing their weapons paused to raise them triumphantly overhead. Diego tracked the crowd’s collective eyesight, gathered on one spot in particular: the nose of a plane protruding perpendicular to the earth like a skyscraper. Atop the vertical jet stood a figure, surrounded in the cool, dim blue of the night sky. A navy kimono hosting wave-shaped white patterns spilled down his boulder-sized form. His matted, tangled black hair reached the center of his back. His bushy brows lingered low over his eyes, burning with hateful passion.
“Kōga,” Mochizuki Izumo belted, spit flying from the bottom of his scowling lip. “Banzai!”
“Kōga, Banzai!” The crowd hollered back, matching his roaring pitch. Diego’s fists knotted at his sides.
“Kōga. I knew it…” He spied Izumo hovering over the crowds again. His low, fiery gaze passed over the audience. In a deep, swampy voice, he continued.
“My friends, for countless decades, our hopes have been crushed under the selfish boot of Iga’s ways. For these years in the new world particularly, our clan has struggled against the ungrateful universe. I am afraid that we’ve all have had something taken from us. I, for instance, was supposed to lead the united clans toward a better tomorrow, but now look where I am. However, I am pleased to say that our time is now!” He was met with more resounding cheers. “Our target is Shinsatsu: a weapon capable of altering the course of fate. Although it lies in enemy hands now, once its power is united with us, we shall storm Kashiwabara, kill the fortuneteller, kill Fujibayashi Nagato, and kill their false Shinsatsujin as well!” The applause reached deafening heights. Diego’s gaze focused exclusively on Izumo, unable to ignore his blinding charisma. “With them out of the way, we shall write a new fortune where we live as gods upon the heavens! And those who have wronged us shall grovel at our feet.” He set his gaze in Diego’s vicinity. “Tonight, one of my most trusted pupils, Eri, has succeeded in bringing forth the true Shinsatsujin. Behold!”
The crowd’s focus shifted from Izumo above toward Diego among them. Their roaring cheers revved up again. The rush of energy nearly swept him off his feet.
“No…” Diego thought, unconsciously staggering backward as he shrunk away from the surrounding, whickering crowds. “This is wrong. All wrong. The Kōga are monsters. Nagato told me about what Mochizuki Izumo led them to do. How they terrorized his people, nearly wiping both of them out in the process.” He paused his judgement while peering out over the crowds, seeing their eyes sparkle with excitement. Beyond that, hope. “Then again, I’ve never been revered so much for my accomplishments. More than Iga, that’s for sure. All my training, everything I’ve worked to achieve. And here are the Kōga, cheering me on.” He listened to his excited heart thump in his ears, swimming with uncertainty.
That’s when suddenly, the cries were drowned out by the silence of his own thoughts. Though the Kōga still clapped their hands, shot their fists in the air, and unleashed howls of praise, Diego listened only to Takeshi’s words echoing through his mind.
“I’m not the only one watching you. Just ask the others… if you can find ‘em.”
Diego glanced at Erika beside him, beamed innocently his way. Ever so slowly, the corners of Diego’s mouth lifted to form a matching smile.
“Kōga…” Takeshi’s words echoed in his mind. “It’s like a race to the top. Every day, they get stronger. Soon, nothing will rival them.”
He strolled inside the room. Its walls and ceiling comprised of solid, matte concrete. Varnished pillars of wood seemed misplaced against the stone rooftop they supported. Heavy shadows gathered in the corners of the room like a nest. Mochizuki Izumo, puffing on an intricate, glass hookah, sat at the chamber’s heart. As opposed to the boisterous, larger-than-life attitude on display mere moments ago, Diego watched a much more subdued man awaiting his arrival.
“Jōnin Izumo,” Erika bowed as she entered the chamber beside him. “This is Diego Garcia. Our Shinsatsujin.”
Izumo drew in a deep breath, exhaling a large cloud of black smoke. “What are you just standing here for? Come closer.” Hesitantly, Diego inched toward the grizzly-looking man. “Have a seat. There’s plenty of room, as you can see.” As Diego reached him at last and sat, Izumo peered thoughtfully into his eyes. “So, what do you think? Better already, hm?”
“I’m not entirely convinced.” Diego frowned.
Izumo drew in again. Grey smoke seeped out of his wide nostrils. “I know that this place and these people aren’t the easiest on the eyes. But can you really blame us?” He set down the translucent hose of his hookah and leaned forward. “With Iga meeting us at every turn, we have been forced into hiding time and time again. My people have suffered. Those men you saw looking up to you, cheering for you, you are their ancestor’s final hopes of achieving the kind of life they could have had, only had I been selected to lead the peoples of Iga and Kōga.” Izumo shut his eyes. Diego finally noticed how the man’s wrinkles contorted in the shape of his frowning, dejected face. “If you were in our position, you would understand.” Izumo’s eyes opened, aimed once again at Diego. His gaze was so focused it almost appeared as if Izumo were trying to see straight through him. “But then again, I believe you know that feeling too well. Perhaps you understand already.”
“Maybe I do.” Diego uttered, his voice growing a thorny, unsympathetic edge. “Or maybe you don’t. Unless you truly want a place to belong in this world where your efforts are respected and your title is honored, then maybe you know half of what I truly want. I know that you’ve been watching me. That you’ve been waiting for the opportunity to bring me here and welcome me into your ranks and personally, I think that’s fine. As long as you have something that’s truly worth my attention.”
Diego watched as Izumo’s shoulders began to quake. The man peeled back his lips to reveal his yellow, tar-stained grimace. Between the cracks in his grin, he began to snicker. Although quiet, his chuckles seemed to quake the concrete structure to its very foundation.
“What a sublime answer!” Izumo muttered. He picked up the hose of his hookah once again. “Yes, I believe we will work quite well together, Diego Garcia.”
“Slow down, there.” Diego said, cracking a half-smile. “I haven’t said I’ve accepted your offer. Yet.”
“Of course.” Izumo bit down on the mouthpiece. “Eri, leave us. And Gento, step forward.”
Diego watched over Izumo’s shoulder as a Kōga shinobi garbed head to toe in a professional, blue shozoku emerged from the darkness looming behind him. His posture was straight, his build tall and broad. Upon his head like a hat, his golden pompadour caught the sparse light of the room. Gento’s wide arms folded tightly across his chest.
“Gento, you have a new assignment.” Izumo peeled back his lips in another wide grimace, not quite a smile. Smoke slowly leaked between the cracks in his wide, square teeth. “Pick up where Takeshi left off and eliminate Ren.”
“Understood.” The barrel-chested shinobi nodded.
“And in the meantime, Diego, worry not.” Izumo murmured. “I have just the plan to have Shinsatsu fall right into our laps…”