“So,” PJ said, standing at the usual spot at the deserted south exit that Friday. “I was thinking ‘bout our team name, the Oni-wuh-ban.”
“It’s Oniwaban.” Ren corrected. “What about it?”
“Just that it’s damn-near impossible to pronounce. Haven’t you ever noticed that all the best teams have a catchy name? Think about it. The Z-Fighters, Teen Titans, the, uh,”
“Stardust Crusaders! Thank you.”
“So what were you thinking?”
“Something short and catchy. Something that rolls off the tongue but still looks good on a tee-shirt. Maybe condensing it down, like the ‘Oni.’” He snapped his fingers. “How about the Oni Squad? No, Oni Sentai! Brilliant! Now all we need is a name for where we all hang out…”
“Well first let’s see what Acne and Kenji think about it.” Ren said, pointing down the street where the shinobi approached them wearing inconspicuous day clothes. “And also Takeshi, and Yuki… huh, wonder why they’re here too.”
“Maybe they all wanted to come to Kashiwabara together?” PJ shrugged.
“Not quite.” Kenji said as he reached them. “Today holds something different.”
“Yeah, because usually you’re all waiting for us at the fort.” PJ said, glancing at Takeshi and Yuki.
“Yeah, and uh,” Ren scratched the back of her neck. “I was waiting to tell you this until you could too, but I haven’t been hitching rides with Acne anymore. I can reach Kashiwabara on my own now.”
“Bloody what?” PJ cried, wringing his dreadlocks. “Well that’s just great. Now I gotta train even harder to catch up with you!”
“Yeah, what’ve you been doing to get to Kashiwabara?” Takeshi asked with an air of smugness. “Riding on Kenji’s back?”
“No,” PJ retorted. His eyes studied the ground bashfully. “Sometimes on Yuki’s too…”
“So anyway, what about today’s different?” Asked Ren.
“Not here.” Kenji eyed the empty streets suspiciously. “You said you can keep up, Ren? Then keep up.”
Kenji, Akane, Yuki, and Takeshi all leapt into the air onto the roof of the school. Ren and PJ watched as they took off running.
“That’s just brilliant.” PJ crossed his arms. “Now how am I supposed to catch up with them?” Slowly, the two turned to glance at each other. Neither spoke a word. An expectant look lingered on PJ’s face. Eventually, Ren released a long, irritated sigh.
“So what’s the scoop?” Ren asked, running alongside the Oniwaban across the rooftops with PJ holding onto her back for dear life.
“We received a package addressed to us at Yuki’s shop at Venice Beach.” Kenji uttered over the quiet gusts of wind blowing past them. “We’re on our way there to retrieve it.”
“Isn’t that a little suspicious?” Remarked PJ. “I mean, how would someone know who the Iga is well enough to deliver a message?”
“Not that unusual, truthfully.” Said Akane, peering across at them. “You may forget that the Iga-ryū are a band of mercenaries first, meaning there must be some method in place to receive bounties.”
“And the fortuneteller’s hut is the place to do that?”
Kenji nodded. “We have several proxies throughout Los Angeles that outline missions and negotiate compensation with our clients, one being our Venice Beach location.”
“So you think we have a job coming in?” PJ asked.
“If I were to guess.” Kenji nodded again.
PJ looked down at Ren. “That sounds a little exciting, doesn’t it, mate?”
“Sure is! Wonder what it could be?”
“Typical jobs include espionage, bodyguarding, and spying. I would guess it’s more of the same.” Suggested Kenji.
Yuki, however, viewed the ground beneath her sprinting feet with a puckered brow. “Could be something else, though. I dunno…”
The six arrived in the same dim backstreet just adjacent to Venice Beach. Monochrome brick walled them from all sides. Telephone wires crisscrossed overhead like a net. Ren bowed forward to let PJ off her back, who was careful not to step in the pools of murky water filling the surrounding potholes.
“This seems familiar.” Ren remarked.
“Not to me.” Said PJ.
“Me neither.” Takeshi shook his head.
Ren snickered. “Wonder why…”
After emerging from the alley and traversing the light foot traffic along the wide, beachside walk, they reached the squat two-story structure. Dark, splintery wood and hard right angles consisted of its architecture, giving an antiquated, spectral look. One by one, the Sentai entered through the beaded doorway into the shop. After entering lastly, PJ’s face obtained a cringe as the smells swept over him.
“It’s like my nan’s bathroom in here…”
From behind the counter, Ren spied the clerk once again. That time, his long, jet-black hair gathered into a topknot standing tall above his head. He bowed toward the group as they approached him.
“Welcome, everyone.” He said warmly.
“Ren, I believe I neglected to give you a proper introduction.” Kenji glanced over at her. “This is Lee, my former apprentice. He serves a handful of functional roles throughout Iga, including here at the fortuneteller’s shop.”
“Nice to meet you.” Ren approached Lee and extended her hand for him to shake.
He bowed silently, completely jilting her greeting. “I have the package addressed to you, senpai.” Lee said, rising from his bow, facing Kenji, and reaching under the counter. He fetched an object wrapped in brown paper, the same size and dimensions as a book.
“Yoink!” Yuki snatched the object, pranced to the center of the room, and sat down. Like a vulture picking the meat from a corpse, she began tearing away at the wrapping. Tiny pieces of it fluttered around her like confetti.
“Uh…” PJ mumbled, stumbling a cautious step back. “Couldn’t there be a bomb in there?”
“Well,” Takeshi said, matter-of-factly. “As the resident bomb expert here… I dunno.”
“Hey! Check out what this is! Come lookie!” Yuki cried, waving the group forward. At a careful tiptoe, they approached, peering over Yuki’s shallow head at the object sitting in her palms. Ren knitted her brow in curiosity.
“A VHS tape?”
“You know what that is?” Asked Takeshi, glancing over at her.
“Sure do. I work at a vintage store, after all.”
“Lee,” Kenji peered behind him at the counter. “Is there anything here that can play this tape?”
“It’s in the back. I’ll bring it out here.” Lee answered before facing the doorway leading into the depths of the shop and walking off, disappearing behind a noren curtain.
“While we wait, now’s as good a time as any.” Kenji said. Ren watched him remove a medium-sized bamboo box from behind him before offering it to her with both hands. “We’ve finished crafting you your own personalized shozoku.”
“Brilliant!” PJ cried. “Now, where’s mine?”
“Yuki’s still working on sewing yours.” Kenji muttered, glancing off to the side coyly.
“I ran outta materials since you’re so tall.” Said Yuki. “But don’t worry! You can still use a spare one of mine!”
“Blimey…” PJ huffed, crossing his arms.
Once Ren accepted the box from Kenji, she deliberately slid open the top panel. As her sparkling eyes glazed its contents, an uncontrollable smile burst across her face.
“Where’s the changing room, Yuki?”
“Through where Lee went, first door on the right.”
Ren nodded. She slid the lid shut, tucked it beneath her arm, and zipped toward the back of the shop. As she reached the counter, she vaulted over it, not losing a single ounce of her excited speed. Akane’s skeptical gaze followed her. Her head shook slightly in disapproval.
“So boss,” PJ said, facing Kenji. “I have some news to share too. About our group name.”
“The Oniwaban.” Kenji confirmed.
“Yeah, see, I was wondering if we could change it to something with a little more ring to it. We were thinking about Oni Sentai?”
“Oh, I like it!” Yuki exclaimed. “It rolls off the tongue but still looks good on a tee-shirt!”
“I know, right?”
“To give PJ-san the benefit of the doubt, although the kanji does not match, the word “Oni” does refer to the mythical creature, well known for its danger and supernatural prowess.” Akane explained from afar.
“I’m not arguing.” Takeshi said. “I for one can’t say Oniwaban three times fast.” To test his theory, he cleared his throat. “Oniwaban Oniwaban Oniwaban… Actually, that wasn’t very hard. Pretty easy, in fact. Whatever.”
“Call it what you will.” Kenji sneered. “I am not one to deface the grand house of Hattori, especially not by using slang to suffice for the name of one of the greatest band of shinobi to serve.”
PJ paused. “So is that a yes on the name?”
At that moment, the noren at the far end of the shop pushed open as Ren, donning her full head-to-toe attire, returned. The eyes of the Oniwaban found her again. Yuki gasped. The incredulity in Akane’s expression eased off. PJ cracked a wide, enthusiastic grin.
“Wow, looking good, mate!”
The shozoku’s long hood covered her entire head. The loose trousers gave way for full range of motion. A chainmail shirt hugged her chest underneath her black, sleeveless lapel. Her footwear consisted of a long, two-toed legging that reached her knee. The inside was soft and reinforced, but the outside felt like pure steel to the touch, all without weighing a thing. A pair of straw sandals cushioned her steps. A crimson belt wrapped around her waist held her top closed, its insides lined with shuriken, daggers, needles, knives, kunai, spikes, caltrops, and tiny smoke pellets. Hand wraps matching the color of her belt and hems reached around her forearms and looped between her fingers. Finally, a long, scarlet scarf sat over her nose and mouth to further mask her identity.
Ren approached the center of the room with a slow, confident sway to her steps. She continued to examine every inch of her outfit as she reached the group.
“How does it fit?” Asked PJ.
“Lighter than air.” She replied, pulling the scarf down from over her mouth to reveal her excited grin. “Even lighter than those training gi.”
“That’s exciting! When do you think mine will come?”
“Hm…” Yuki pinched her chin. Her violet lips puckered off to the side. “I’d say give it two to three more business days.”
“So by Monday at the earliest?” PJ asked.
“Who said anything about Monday? A business day’s when I feel like doing business.”
“Sorry about the wait.” Lee said, appearing in the doorway again. In front of him, he pushed a cart hosting a large, square television above a black box lined with blinking red buttons. A tangled knot of wires trail behind the cart as it approached where the Oniwaban stood. They gathered around the TV, facing its beveled, black screen.
As Yuki slid the VHS into the box’s matching, rectangular slot, white fuzz began to churn vividly across the picture. A sharp humming spread throughout the air, growing quieter as little by little, a dim image came into focus.
The first thing they identified against the plain, dark background was a wide shape taking the form of a human, though its head seemed to blend in with its neck and it lacked a set of legs. Seeing the silhouette, a drop of icy sweat crawled down the small of Ren’s back.
As the picture grew sharper, however, and obtained more color, Ren finally spied the figure for what it truly was: a lofty, burly man wearing a flowing, tattered robe. Its many layers of azure cloth hosted tears in the shapes of wide cuts. Scars of similar depth reached across the skin of his face, the same color and consistency of deep rust. The mountains of untrimmed, unwashed black hair, like seagull feathers doused in crude, was responsible for hiding the silhouette of his neck as it spilled behind him like a hood. His bearded mug flaunted a look that made Ren’s ears grow hot: one of untamed fury and raw determination.
“Greetings.” He uttered. The deepness in his tone surpassed Kenji’s. Its menace raised the hairs across the back of Ren’s neck. “I suppose I should start with who I am. My name is Izumo. Heir of the Kōga house of Mochizuki.”
A dizzying blend of anticipation and fear poured through Ren. “At last,” She thought. “The Kōga who I’ve heard so much about. Whose name alone scared even Acne.” Her nervous thoughts equaled the looks of her surrounding teammates’ faces, peering at the screen in surprise.
“Recently, I’ve been made aware that one of your shinobi has come across the weapon known as Shinsatsu. And now that this shinobi has obtained it and wielded it, you’ve foolishly been going on calling her Shinsatsujin, no clue as to what ramifications that holds.” With every word Izumo spoke, the spite grew in his voice. His scowl, accordingly, reached wider. “I won’t stand for this foolery any longer. The true Shinsatsujin serves the Koga-ryū. It belongs with us. That’s why if you wish to see your friend again, alive for that matter, you shall return to us this weapon. In exchange, you’ll have your friend’s life.”
“Friend?” Ren raised a questioning brow. “What-”
Before her curiosity could linger any longer, Izumo stepped aside, revealing what lay behind him toward the back of the plain, dark chamber. Bound to the chair with countless, iron chains, a blindfold wrapped around his eyes and a gag sitting between his rows of teeth, there sat Diego. The video’s audio picked up his muffled cries for help, transmitting them as soft, buzzing static. A bolt of lightning seemed to crack through the air as the room uttered a unified, sharp gasp of terror.
Izumo reentered the frame, flashing the camera his low, fiery gaze. “At ten o’clock this evening, at Santa Monica Pier, you shall bring me Shinsatsu as well as the one you call Shinsatsujin. I shall be alone with the hostage along with one of my elite guards. There, we shall make the exchange: Shinsatsu for your friend’s petty life. And please be aware that if my end of the deal isn’t satisfied, I will not hesitate to execute him as well as every last one of you. I thank you for your cooperation. I look forward to meeting all of you.”
A deafening sizzle of static resumed. The screen once again flickered black and white. Dread hung in the air; a low, humid storm cloud. Ren’s fists quaked at her sides, her gaze fixed at the ground. PJ’s glossy eyes reflected the flashing image onscreen. Kenji crossed his arms. An angry sneer pulled on his frown. Yuki’s lips quivered as her nervous voice sat toward the back of her throat. Akane continued to hold her pale, thin hand over her mouth in wide terror. Takeshi, hosting a shallow, blank expression, deliberately peered into the corner of the room.
Kenji’s arms lowered finally as he pressed his thumb into the TV’s off button. With an unceremonious hush cast over the room, the crowd listened to a sighing breath pass through his nostrils.
“Santa Monica Pier isn’t far from here.” He murmured, not an ounce of anger present in his tone. “We shall depart from here to meet Izumo.”
“Kenji-san, are you seriously considering going through with this transaction?” Akane cried, spinning to face him. “Handing over the sacred heirloom of the Iga-ryū would be costly on an untold measure!”
“But that’s all it is: an heirloom. Shinsatsu can always be stolen back.” Kenji shut his eyes concedingly. “But if Diego dies, he dies. I won’t let a fellow shinobi die on my watch. Not one I served with.”
Ren’s gaze sunk to peer forlornly over her scythe. “But we will get Shinsatsu back, right?”
“Once Diego’s back with us, yes. The future of Iga still depends on you wielding it.”
“In that case,” Her grip squeezed determinedly around its metal haft. “You can count me in.”
A shaky breath blew from PJ’s pursed lips. “Great. My first mission and Iga already hangs in the balance. Why couldn’t it have been another day of making mochi?”
“I agree.” Said Takeshi, attempting to inject a note of humor into his timid voice. “That’s always hilarious to see…”
The clap of thunder trembled Ren’s heart within her tight chest. A front of haze had quickly rolled over the hot, humid day. Black clouds pulled across the night sky. Although rain had yet to fall, its scent hung in the atmosphere, swimming in her nostrils.
Ren, PJ, Akane, Kenji, Yuki, and Takeshi marched forward. Each step they placed matched the rhythm of one another’s. Their gazes collected ahead, spying the end of the boardwalk where a bench stood facing the water.
The waves’ churning surface caught the rainbow of colors of the amusement park behind it, glowing starkly against the inky night. Upon the bench’s wooden surface sat a trio of figures. Izumo sat on one end, surrounded by the loose fabric of his flowing garb. Another figure joined him on the opposite side: a tall, lean man wearing plain blue jeans, a pullover hoodie, and white cloth wound around his face like a mummy, leaving gaps only for his emerald eyes. Between the two of them sat a disheveled figure. Smudges of dirt clung to his plain, tattered outfit. A plastic ziptie gathered his hands behind his back. A long, burlap sack sat over his head.
As they came within five meters of the bench, they stopped when Izumo’s lofty, molting scalp raised higher. He stood up alongside the green-eyed man and together, they forcefully dragged the captive to his feet as well.
“Diego!” Cried Ren. She began to lunge forward but Kenji calmly held his arm out in front of her, halting her before she could break from formation.
“I see you greatly value the life of your friend here.” The smugness present in Izumo’s voice jabbed at their ears. He passed his spiteful eyes up and down the row of Iga as if selecting chops of meat. They met his scrutinous gaze with a look of collective fury. “I’ve heard so much about each of you. Kenji, the definition of Iga valor. A prime example of strength and dignity, exploited to no end.” Beneath Kenji’s frown, his teeth ground together. “Yuki, apprentice of the fortuneteller. Clairvoyant, yet the furthest thing from a sage.”
Yuki rose to her tiptoes and leaned toward Kenji. “What’s a sage?” She whispered out of the corner of her mouth.
“Fujibayashi Akane, the Iga princess. Heir of my enemy. I’ll be sure you share the same painful fate as him in due time.” Izumo paused his gaze when it reached PJ. “You… I’ll be honest with you, I have no idea who you are.”
“The name’s PJ.” He muttered back firmly.
“I don’t remember asking.” Anger flared up in Izumo’s tone.
“Cool, sorry, thanks…” PJ flinched.
Izumo spied Takeshi next. His voice sank to a venomous whisper. “Takeshi. You already know what you are. I need not remind you.” The quiet, shallow look of Takeshi’s returned as he again peeled his gaze away.
Izumo lastly set his sight on Ren. She peered back at him, her face a revolving door of anger, bravery, and terror.
“And you.” She heard him mutter. “Heir of Kurogane Sasuke. The Incognito Bandito. Shinsatsujin.” Izumo spat on the floor as if the last words to exit his mouth tasted sour. “You were born of nothing, you are nothing, and you will die of nothing. All who claim otherwise are purely delusional. To think that a mere homeless girl could possess the power to pilot fate. You’ll doom us all.”
“Then hurry the hell up and take it.” Ren uttered. She took her duffle bag where Tsu’s handle protruded from its zipper and tossed it on the ground between them. Its weight thumped against the wooden planks of the pier. Her face finally settled on a look: determination. “If it’s between this thing and my friend, I’ll gladly be rid of it.”
“A superb choice.”
Izumo and the green-eyed Kōga strode forward. Diego shuffled between them until they reached the bag on the ground, halving their distance. Holding her breath, feeling her heart’s weight press down on her stomach, Ren watched the Kōga draw open her bag, one zipper notch at a time. With every inch it opened, the ruby light radiating across his face grew brighter. Eventually, he drew the zipper closed, killing the light. He lifted it, lay its strap over his shoulder, and nodded silently toward Izumo.
“There. We’ve held up our end of the deal. Now you do your part and let Diego go.” Ren hissed.
“Of course, of course…” Nodded Izumo. “… but there’s one little part of our deal that I forgot to mention: I just want one more thing from you all.”
The green-eyed Kōga drew a silver bane from behind his back, a long curve running through it from its tip to the bottom of its woven handle. Without warning, he thrust his jintachi sword forward, impaling Diego. The blade emerged from the center of his chest, doused in a deep scarlet. Ren listened to a sharp breath emerge from underneath the bottom of his hood. Her blood turned to ice in her veins.
Each of the Oniwaban’s eyes expanded to the size of baseballs. Their pupils smalled. As if a large faucet had switched on, needles of rain began to pour from the sky, absolutely drenching the earth. The drops added to the chills Ren felt spreading through her body, wrapping her in a cocoon of coldness. In the distance, the screams of terrified civilians and gunshots peppering the air echoed through her brain.
With a blood-curdling squelch, the Kōga removed his blade from Diego’s chest. As if the strings holding his body aloft snapped, he toppled over, landing right in front of Ren. The pool of blood spreading across the ground beneath his corpse reached her feet. Her fiery gaze lifted from the body toward Izumo ahead. Beneath his forest of tangled facial hair, his lips pursed into a flat line, as if thoroughly unimpressed with the situation. The terror filling her snapped, leaving the way for hot, molten rage to pour over her instead.
“Why you…” She grunted. She attempted to lunge forth again, but Kenji once more held out his arm in front of her. Ren’s rain-drenched fists trembled at her sides. “Why’d you have to kill Diego? Why!? We had a deal!”
“Ren, relax.” Kenji uttered. “That isn’t Diego.” His voice froze the anger churning within her. Ren peered up into his face, stunned. “The person they just handed over was an imposter. Just with his same height, weight, skin tone, and figure as Diego. Other than that, his breathing pattern and bone structure is completely different. Still, that’s an innocent civilian they killed. Where’s the real Diego?” He blared, facing Izumo again. The Kōga’s massive shoulders shuddered as his laughter poisoned the air.
“That’s none of your concern, seeing as though you’ll all be too dead to care soon…”
“You bastard!” Takeshi cried before launching at Izumo. His eyes jumped toward Takeshi, whose face twisted into a scowling, open-mouthed howl. “I’ll make you pay for this!”
Izumo’s arm sprung out, plowing his fist into Takeshi’s gut. His enraged howls ceased in an instant. Before his body sailed away, Izumo narrowed his eyes on him.
As Takeshi’s body shot backward, limbs flailing, he was swiftly caught by Akane behind him. She lay his limp, unconscious form like a towel over her shoulder with his head hanging behind her back.
From the corner of her eye, Ren began to notice a throng of approaching figures, each donning pale blue shozoku with white hems and countless sheaths lining their strapping forms. Within each, there comfortably sat a barrage of mismatched, massive weapons. The swarm of armed Kōga spread across the width of the boardwalk, approaching the Oni Sentai at a slow march. They seemed to not notice the terrified beachgoers racing past them toward the exit as they advanced.
“Kōga troops. That must be where the gunshots came from.” Ren’s fists clenched beside her as she remembered Takeshi’s previously blue and white shozoku. “I figured they’d show up but not like this! I guess subtlety must be lost on them.”
“Like I said, our deal isn’t quite satisfied.” Izumo muttered, facing Ren again. He raised his finger, the diameter of a shotgun barrel, and aimed it at her brow. “Not until your Shinsatsujin is dead.”
The swarm of Kōga troops finished their approach, surrounding the Oni Sentai in a tight ring. At the head of the circle, Ren watched the green-eyed shinobi shimmy out of his civilian clothing to reveal his shozoku underneath. Unlike the surrounding Kōga whose munitions protruded from every opening across their ensembles, a much more plain, traditional garb fit his lean, strapping physique. His gaze exclusively spied Ren back. His hands hung open at his sides, opposite the wild glimmer present in his gaze.
“This guy, he’s not here to play nice. Or play at all for that matter.”
“Boss, what do we do?” PJ leaned toward Kenji, whispering.
“You and Akane shall take Takeshi and chart a path of escape for us.” He grunted in return. “Yuki shall deal with the crowds. I’ll take care of Izumo. And Ren,”
“You got it, boss.” She sneered. “Since they’re not handing over Diego, I need to get Tsu back.”
At once, each of the Oniwaban threw a small, pebble-sized orb at the floor. Clouds of thick fog erupted from the pellets at their feet, engulfing the space in an opaque haze.
Amidst the confused howls of Kōga shinobi that followed, the Oniwaban dove in all separate directions, each abandoning their disguises to don their full shozoku.
Ren peered through the dissipating haze. She spied Akane, carrying Takeshi, lead PJ away through an open gap in the crowds to race for the exit. As some Koga chased after them, Yuki sprung upon them, immediately starting her onslaught.
Pained howls, fleshy tearing, and the sharp ring of clanging metal permeated the air. She bulldozed through the Kōga hoard producing loud, wooden smacks every other second with her nunchaku. Each enemy gracelessly fell over in her wake, leaving behind a distinct, open path behind her.
“Yuki’s not too bad. Definitely more skilled than her personality would have you think, but then again,” Ren paused to watch Yuki’s merciless onslaught continue. Her strikes carried enough power to launch some foes straight over the edge of the pier. “She always did seem a bit dangerous.”
Kenji armed himself with a lengthy, curved sword and bounded toward Izumo. Ren watched his katana land against the Kōga’s, producing a sharp, metal ring. After retreating his blade, Kenji unleashed a rapid flurry of slices so fast, her eyes could barely keep track of them. Izumo defended himself at the same blinding speed.
“What impeccable style.” Ren bit her bottom lip. “No wonder Kenji’s the Oni Sentai’s leader…”
After guarding against a falling slice aimed at his face, Izumo peered at Kenji from underneath his sword. The two’s eyes narrowed on one another.
“You weren’t true to your word. No wonder you weren’t chosen to lead the united shinobi.” Kenji snarled.
Izumo leaned forward, effortlessly pushing Kenji off his blade and sending him staggering backward. “That’s little compared to what the Iga’s done to betray me. Think of this as tipping the scales to balance.” That time, it was Izumo’s turn to dart forward. Kenji raised his sword defensively. But as Izumo reached him, he feigned to the side and swung at Kenji’s blind spot. He defended by holding his sword at a vertical angle behind his head, parallel to his spine. “You have the privilege of fate on your side. To keep up, we need these underhanded means to fall back on! For instance,”
Kenji spied movement from his peripheral vision; a figure rapidly closing in. He sprung off the ground and performed a high backflip, right as another sword passed through the space he once occupied. Upon landing, he spied another shinobi, sporting a blue Kōga shozoku and a shimmering, golden pompadour. Its tall shape held, despite the gallons of rain.
As Kenji faced both Izumo and Gento, he removed one hand from the handle of his sword. With it, he reached into another scabbard lining his back and slowly drew a second. His knuckles flashed white around the hilts of both his katana. As his foes lunged for opposite sides of him, he widened his stance in readiness. Their clashing weapons sounded off every second like machinegun fire.
At the same time, Ren watched the Kōga guard maintain his upright, still posture. His incredulous green eyes gutted her.
Swiftly, Ren slipped her hand into her shozoku, just above her belt. But as soon as it exited, carrying three shuriken, the Kōga appeared directly in front of her. His fingers entered the hollows within the center of the stars and jammed against her trunk, trapping them in place.
“His speed, I haven’t seen anything like this!” Ren awed.
Before she could make her next move, she felt a hand land painfully against her back before the man’s knee struck her chest. She sailed off her feet, backward onto the pirate ship ride behind them.
Ren watched her opponent approach her at a breakout sprint, clutching his jintachi. Thunder and lightning raged behind his head. Although Ren felt her muscles coil tight around her bones, producing deep, full-body aches, she pushed herself to her feet. As he leapt onto the ride after her and jabbed at her head, Ren sprung to her feet and swerved out of the way. Unfortunately, he reared around and smacked Ren against her brow with the sword’s blunt pommel.
Although stars danced across her vision and the swaying of the ride didn’t help, Ren managed to spot the attack aimed at her legs. She hopped in the air to evade, landing on the roof of one of the Ferris wheel’s cars. After her opponent gave chase and swung at her left side, Ren ducked underneath and slashed upward with a short dagger. Her blade left a gash across his chest deep enough to mar his outfit, but not so deep as to draw blood. Ren spied the Kōga’s eyes again, watching the fury visibly flare up within them.
A mighty backhand landed across Ren’s face, sending her falling off the Ferris wheel and into the car of the roller coaster, whizzing through the air at dizzying speeds. Ren stood up quickly and faced her opponent, having just landed in the rear seats facing opposite her. At speeds so fast she could hardly track, the Kōga closed in again.
“Where did this guy come from? He’s stronger than anything the likes of Momochi or even Hanzo have shown me so far. Thank goodness for the zen, otherwise I’d be in real trouble.” Ren thought, avoiding each of the Kōga’s attacks. Each drop of rain splashed around them like blood spilling from the sky, echoing inside of her mind. Her zen guided her hand to raise her dagger and block a wide slash aimed at her face. His jintachi collided with her blade. A cloud of orange sparks lifted into the air, illuminating the surrounding drops of rain. “Still…” Ren fell to one knee for support, but the Kōga’s strength simply persisted. She peered desperately up into his face, seeing his emerald gaze burn with visible hatred. “Even I’m hardly a match for him…”
The strength in the Kōga’s arm suddenly waned. Ren felt the pressure behind his sword retreat slightly as he appeared to scan Ren closer.
“What’s he doing?” Ren thought, curiosity entering her consciousness as well. “It’s like he’s pausing to recognize me or something.” Her brow furrowed suddenly. “Whatever he’s doing though, I won’t let a chance like this slip away!”
She swung her leg forward and delivered a kick to her enemy’s kneecaps. She listened to them crack beneath her foot. With a shout, the Kōga collapsed from the pain as she scrambled away. When they both rose to their feet, Ren and her foe glared at one another.
At the same time, they bolted for each other. When Ren was just a foot away, her feet departed from the ground to tackle him over, but her enemy spun around and kicked her in the chest, sending her careening off the coaster and back onto the wooden pier. Ren quickly bounded to her feet, expecting the fight to continue. What she wasn’t expecting was a massive, metal arm from the spinning seat ride in front of her to shoot her backward with enough force to break through the metal guard railings. With Ren’s zen pumping full-throttle, her hand leapt out and grabbed hold of the pier’s ledge moments before she could fall into the ocean below. She hung on, gritting her teeth, feeling her fingers burn with effort. At the same time, an unbearable combination of pain and numbness swelled throughout every inch of her body.
“D-damn it…” Her thoughts read over the sound of her drumming pulse. “I’ve only got enough energy to keep me hanging on, but not enough to hoist my body up…”
Pain suddenly exploded through her fingers. Ren bit down on the inside of her cheek to prevent herself from screaming. Above her, the Kōga menace cast his deep shadow over her as his foot dug into her knuckles. With her grip pinned there, Ren watched lightning flash across the heavens once more, detailing the outline of a sharp metal blade hoisted high above his head.
The back of Ren’s eyes burned with fear. Sweat formed across her brow, only to be washed away seconds later by bitter raindrops. A panicked breath hung in her throat.
“No use…” Ren thought. “Tsu can’t save me now, and even if it could, my body’s broken, my senses are numb, even my thinking is starting to get clouded.”
A crimson disk arched through the air, landing against the Kōga’s raised hand and launching the sword from his grasp. Both he and Ren peered at the ground where his weapon landed, sliding across the rain-slicked wooden pier. That’s when they spied the weapon lodged within the ground. The one responsible for knocking his sword away.
“A fan?” Ren thought, observing its varnished, iron surface and deep, scarlet hue. She followed the angle of the projectile’s path. Her eyes lifted, spying Akane standing atop the drop tower above them. In one hand, she clutched a matching tessen. She thinned her gaze on the Kōga. “Acne? She came back for me?”
Ren returned her gaze to the enemy shinobi, whose green eyes focused instead on Akane. With his attention pulled away in that moment, Ren threw her leg over the edge of the pier and rolled on top for safety.
On her stomach, Ren watched Akane leap off the tower, descending its full height. Springing off her landing foot, she zipped straight toward the soldier, dove into his blind spot, and launched her leg toward his back.
“She’s fast!” Thought Ren. “Could she stand a chance against this guy?”
The Kōga pushed out his forearm, parrying the kick before it could reach him. His irises developed a vivid, red tint.
“He finally entered his zen! Be careful, Acne!”
Akane hastily retreated her foot. Continuing to face his back, she drew a length of ebony thread, pulled it over the Kōga’s head, and squeezed it down on his neck to strangle him. Before he could obtain a pained expression, however, he simply drew another jintachi and sliced through the rope. With his other arm, he elbowed Akane in the gut with enough power to send her staggering back. Before she could stumble beyond his range, however, the Kōga twisted around, bringing his knee into Akane’s chin. Her head cracked back like a whip. Her body tumbled across the ground, void of consciousness.
“I knew it…” Ren balled her fists on the wooden pier. Sweat raced down her face as she watched the Kōga march toward Akane’s flattened body. “Even a seasoned Iga’s no match for this guy! Just what on earth can beat him?” With his height casting a deep shade over Akane, the enemy raised his weapon, aiming its blade for the sky.
The sword descended. Ren’s pulse froze. She watched it slice through every falling drop of rain as it approached Akane on the ground.
Right as the tip reached her, however, a cloud of crimson smoke swept across them, engulfing both their bodies. Ren blinked her eyes in surprise.
“What happened? It’s like Acne’s body was a balloon of fog that just popped!” She wondered.
Within the fog, the Kōga peered at the ground where the tip of his blade entered the wooden pier. Akane’s, however, had vanished. That was when he watched a narrow, paper-white hand coil around his wrist. A pressure landed against the length of his neck and his ankle. Behind her enemy’s back, Akane plunged her center of gravity and swung her leg forward to sweep out his stance from under him. At the same time, she drew his body down with one hand squeezing his wrist and the other pressing against his jaw. With enough force to send cracks spreading three full meters across the wooden pier, Akane planted the Kōga into the ground. The impact sent the bloody smoke lifting high into the air like a revealing curtain.
“No way…” Ren’s fists opened. Her eyelids fell half over her eyes, watching as Akane took the duffle bag off her grounded opponent’s shoulder and draped it over hers. “She did it…”
“Ren-san, are you hurt?” Akane’s voice rang unsympathetically in her ears as she approached. She scooped Ren off the ground and lay her over her shoulder opposite to the bag containing Shinsatsu. Ren gave a pained chuckle. Her throat burned as she did so.
“Nah, just my pride. I can’t believe after all this time you still gotta carry me…”
Ren watched the ground beneath them grow distant as Akane sprung into the sky. Behind her, she saw Kenji and Yuki bound into the air after them to split the scene. As Ren’s eyes fluttered shut and her consciousness drifted away, it landed on one last thing before vanishing completely.
Her head bobbed loosely back and forth.
“Ren?” PJ cried, shaking her shoulders. “Ren! Speak to me, mate, speak to me!” He watched her eyes crack open, still matte and unfocused. “Oh, thank heavens. You ok there? Can you see me? Can you breathe?”
“No…” Ren wheezed.
“Oh no! How come?”
“You’re kneeling on my chest…”
“Oops. My bad.” PJ scooted back, allowing Ren room to move freely.
Her eyes shot open suddenly. Her pupils shrank to the diameter of pinheads. “Diego…” She gasped. “I gotta-” She attempted to rise off the ground, but an intense surge of pain spread through her body, dragging her to the floor again. Her face cringed in pain.
“Shh…” Yuki said, appearing in Ren’s peripheral vision. She took a moment to look around. In addition to Yuki and PJ, she spied Akane and Takeshi, kneeling on the floor, surrounding her mattress. Each of their eyes glimmered with a shared look of worry.
Ren saw that her futon bed sat in the center of a room consisting of light, polished wood, quartered off by paper walls with bamboo frames. Despite sunlight pouring in through the open window and birds chirping peacefully outside, anxiety gnawed at her senses.
“What happened?” She whispered, careful as to not rouse any more pain with her voice.
“The shinobi you encountered was far out of your league. I was forced to intervene.” Akane answered, the usual smugness invading her tone.
Ren clenched her jaw. “Anyone besides Acne wanna answer?”
“We’re back in Kashiwabara. In the healing wing.” PJ uttered. “Been about ten hours since you nodded off but don’t worry. I told June you were at my place sleeping over. She says she’ll count it as PTO.”
“More importantly, Shinsatsu is secured.” Akane nodded behind her toward Ren’s duffle bag, sitting in the corner of the room. Its long, iron shaft protruded from its zipper. “You should be on your feet soon after a little more healing. I shall look after you until then.”
Ren groaned. She pressed the back of her skull against her pillow as though trying to bury her head beneath the ground. “Just cut to the chase and put me out of my misery, why dontcha?”
“Gladly.” Akane reached into her shozoku and drew a glimmering kunai. PJ, however, leapt in front of her and waved his arms out to either side of him desperately.
“Woah, woah! Not literally!”
The shoji door opposite Ren’s bed flew open, its frame rattling. The room’s eyes collected on the entrance where Kenji marched inside. His rock-sized fists trembled at his sides. His dark brows knit above his eyes, focused exclusively on Takeshi. He matched his stern, fiery look with a bewildered, innocent half-smile.
Without warning, Kenji’s fist shot out and struck Takeshi square in the face. The room watched on in surprise as Takeshi fell backward, his beet-red face filled with pain, his back landing against the wall beside them.
“Kenji-san, control yourself!” Cried Akane, throwing herself between the two.
“Step aside, Fujibayashi.” Kenji bumped Akane away with his shoulder as he marched toward Takeshi. He grabbed him by the collar of his coat and raised his body to eye-level, dragging his back along the wall of the room. Takeshi continued to squeeze his eyes shut, coughing pitifully. “You roach…”
“Wh-what?” Takeshi stammered at half his volume. Blood visibly doused his teeth, clenched together in pain.
“You expect a shinobi like Diego to just allow himself to be captured by the Kōga? Try explaining that to Fujibayashi-sensei just now. No. Clearly they had help from inside.”
“The hell are you saying, boss?” PJ asked, rising nervously to his feet.
“Kenji-san,” Akane murmured, puckering her brow. “Are you levying accusations that somehow, Takeshi-san informed the Kōga of how to kidnap Diego-san?”
“Yes, Akane, that’s exactly what I’m levying.” The wall behind them made a wooden moan as he pressed Takeshi further against its surface. “This rat’s been trouble ever since he stepped foot in Kashiwabara. It’s time I put him out of his misery.” Kenji pushed his forearm into Takeshi’s throat before allowing one hand off his collar. His eye squeezed shut again. With his free hand, Kenji reached for his sword sheathed behind his back. Ren felt panic flood up within her.
“But boss, wait a minute!” Yuki cried. “You said they killed a fake Diego. What if it was a fake Diego in the video too and they were bluffing?”
“Impossible. Although the person they executed in front of us wasn’t him, there’s no doubt Diego was in the video they sent us.” Kenji growled, drawing the sword with a slow, grating noise. Takeshi’s hands weakly raised to form a shield.
“Kenji, wait!” Ren’s voice boomed. Her volume froze Kenji’s hand as his sword remained only halfway drawn. “To be honest, I’ve been suspicious of Takeshi too. That’s why every day, I’ve been sure to catalogue his movements. Whenever I come to Kashiwabara to train, I make sure to find him first and check to see whether he’s left the area. And during school, Akane checks his whereabouts here. Ain’t that right, Acne?” She flashed Akane a look, resounding with feigned confidence. She peered back into her lying, desperate face. Ren clenched her teeth.
“C’mon, idiot, just roll with it…”
After a moment, Akane’s head sunk agreeingly. “What she says is true.”
“You see?” Ren faced Kenji again. Relief pervaded her voice. “There’s no way Takeshi could’ve tipped the Kōga off if there’s no way he was in contact with them.”
Kenji’s eyes softened. Takeshi peered into his face, blood gushing from his nostrils.
At last, his hand lowered, returning the sword fully to its scabbard. He removed his forearm from Takeshi’s throat, allowing him to fall back onto the ground. Sitting against the wall, he reclaimed his breaths with loud, rattling gasps of air.
“If I suspect one more thing from you, that cage will feel like heaven once you learn the alternative.” Kenji grunted, plodding toward the same door through which he entered. “Yuki, help him to his feet.”
Yuki slinked over to where Takeshi lay, half in a ball on the ground. When Ren examined his expression that time, she noticed that his eye had a dead, matte texture and that his lips were puckered in a flat line.
“I’m fine.” He muttered, standing up quickly as Yuki tried to help him up. Too quickly, in fact, for he slumped against the wall again soon after he rose. Nonetheless, Takeshi began to limp away. Beside the doorway, Kenji’s eyes glazed Takeshi as he stumbled into the hallway and walked off. Kenji soon departed from the room as well and proceeded down the hall in the opposite direction. Once their footsteps grew distant in their ears, the remaining four within the room released a simultaneous, relieved breath.
“Well, I think that’s enough intensity for the rest of my life.” PJ stuffed his hands into his pockets and faced Ren with a halfhearted smile. “Nice work not letting the Kōga get their hands on Shinsatsu. I’m guessing I’ll see you again at school sometime soon?”
“You betcha.” A smile painfully reappeared on Ren’s face.
As PJ approached the exit, Yuki faced Ren and Akane and waved.
“Seeya, you two! I gotta make some remembrance brew! Have fun!”
Once Yuki departed through the doorway and shut the exit behind her, a renewed hush fell over the air. Though the hum of cicadas spread throughout the heavy, humid atmosphere, Ren and Akane’s lips pursed shut. For what felt like a lifetime, neither spoke a word.
“You defended him again.” Akane said absently.
Ren faced her, watching as she studied the tatami beneath her feet. “So did you. So did all of us. But why? To be honest, I don’t think he’s cleared of all guilt. He’s still a Kōga isn’t he?”
Akane shook her head. “No. He is not. He is Iga. Because he chose Iga. He never had the choice to join Kōga.”
Ren shrugged. “Do children have a choice of who their parents are?”
Akane’s eyes shut. Her lips curled upward in a narrow sneer. When she opened them, her gaze was pointed straight at Ren. “One day, you shall realize the truth. Until that day, I pity you.”
Ren snorted. “Whatever.”
Heat rippled visibly across the endless dunes. Mercilessly, the red, climbing sun cooked the sandy earth. Deep footprints followed in his wake as he marched across the desert toward the dark cluster of airplane shells, small on the horizon. The shinobi’s thin, green eyes shone in the light of the morning sun. His clenched fists swung with each long stride. In one, Diego clutched the long, white ribbon of cloth that wound around his face to conceal his identity.
As he approached the Kōga complex, Diego marched past a figure on his right. His green eyes remained fixed ahead, refusing to acknowledge her. Erika, mouth pouting, brow nestled low over her glaring eyes, stomped ahead to catch up with Diego.
“Why.” She muttered.
“Why what?” Diego replied with a sneer.
“Why didn’t you finish her off when you had the chance?” Erika clenched her fists. “Ren was down, easy prey. But you let her live. What was it? Mercy? Fear? You need to step up. Rise to your responsibilities and become the Shinsatsujin that you’re supposed to be for us.”
Diego froze. His final footstep landed with a deafening thud in the sand, raising a cloud of orange dust. Erika paused as well, her eyes shrinking suspiciously. As the sand hung in the air, Diego gradually turned to peer at Erika over his shoulder.
“Let me ask you something:” He whispered. “The real reason we fell in love… was it because I’m Shinsatsujin?”
Silence, much like the cloud of dust surrounding them, polluted the air between them. As the sand settled, so too did the silence as Erika began to laugh. Her hair rippled in the wind behind her. Her mouth unhinged. The volume of her cackling howls soared. Her eyelids peeled back, revealing her bloodshot, hollow gaze.
“You fool…” She crowed. “Of course it is! I was born of Kōga and sent to Iga to infiltrate your ranks. And later, when you were rumored to be Shinsatsujin, I was given a new objective. And that’s all it is. The objective. And don’t act like I’m at fault. You knew all along. It’s the reason you joined Kōga, remember?”
As Erika raised her hand to her mouth, quieting her mad howls of laughter, Diego let loose a small, ironic scoff. “I do remember. In fact, that might be all the better for me.” He turned around to face Erika, his eyes shimmering with resolve, and marched toward her. Her pupils narrowed the closer he drew. Her wide, ghastly smile persisted. “It guarantees as long as I’m the Shinsatsujin, as long as I belong to Kōga, you’re mine.”
When at last Diego stood with just a hair’s width between them, Erika collapsed into his arms.