Chapter 11:

Chapter 11: Zen - Part 1

Ninjutsu Saga


Sunlight gleamed through the open window. Beyond the pane of glass, birds tweeted softly. Inside, she lay face-down on her bed. Her messy, tangled hair covered one full half of its surface area.

“Dear, come downstairs, you have a guest!” She heard an elderly voice reach her ears through the doorway at the opposite end of the room. The woman’s groggy head lifted off the pillow.

“Didn’t my stumbling in at three AM clue you in that I’m completely wasted? Leave me alone!” She shouted back.

“Juniper, it’s a man. And he looks serious.” The same old voice retorted.

Releasing a long, tired groan, June rolled out of bed and straight onto the ground below. Still groggy, she reached up onto her nightstand and fished around for her glasses. When June found them, she stood up, cracked out her back, and yawned silently.

“Alright, tell him to wait until I’ve had coffee.” Said June, marching tiredly out her bedroom door.

Coffee cup in hand, June slinked to the entrance where her wrinkled mother stood waiting for her. Her guest awaited her on the porch, partially obscured by the closed screen door. June raised her mug to her lips and took a swig of her steamy beverage. However, as she spotted the man waiting for her, every ounce shot out her nose, splashing her back in the face. June coughed into her sleeve, still reeling from the initial shock.

“Are you ok, dear?” June’s mother asked.

“Fine, mother, just…” June studied the man on their porch again. His short, grey hair, needle-thin eyes, and body that nearly occupied the entire width of the doorway all matched the silhouette in her memory. “I just wasn’t expecting him.”

June’s mother gave an absent smile. “So you know each other?”

“Yes, this is, uh… that’s…”

“I’m Professor Tanba.” Said Momochi. “I teach Ms. McCoy’s statistics class. I was here to discuss an upcoming assignment she has due.”

Juniper and Momochi peered at each other through the screen separating them.

“Oh, of course. Well, I’ll leave you two to discuss.”

As her mother went back into the house, June exited to join Momochi on the front porch. The screen door snapped behind them. Their stares lingered on one another.

“Tanba-sensei,” June said, her head sinking low in a bow. Momochi casually returned the gesture. “Did you… hear me screaming from upstairs?”

“You’re asking me, a shinobi jōnin, if I was able to hear you?”

June winced with embarrassment. “I should’ve known.”

The two sat down on the swinging bench neighboring the screen door. Neither said a word for a moment. The birds’ continued singing eased the silent, wrought atmosphere.

“How have you been doing?” Momochi finally asked. “Ever since you left Iga?”

“It’s been going ok.” June answered, nodding slowly. “Figured if I was to become a regular member of society, I’d enroll in business school. Just… taking a little longer than I was anticipating.”

“I see.”

“I miss it sometimes.” June said. Momochi peered at her as she fixed her gaze ahead. “I miss the freedom. Not having any responsibility. It was fun. But I knew it couldn’t last. So,” June faced him with an air of suspicion. “If you’re here to offer me one last ride, one final mission, I’m sorry but you can count me out.”

“Aren’t you at all interested in hearing what the job is first before shooting down the offer?” Momochi asked.

June shook her head. “Because if you did tell me, then I know there’d be no way I could refuse. Thank you for the offer though, Tanba-sensei. And thank you for the fond memories. But I’m done being a shinobi.” She spoke with utter resolve.

Momochi, after a few more moments, stood up. “I understand. Enjoy the rest of your morning.”

He approached the steps leading down the porch and began to descend. June, meanwhile, went to her door to reenter her home.

She was in the process of opening it when Momochi called behind him, “Sasuke lived.”

June turned around, holding open the entrance. Momochi faced her as well. “He lived. And he has a daughter who needs our help. Among any genin that served alongside him, you were the one he confided in the most. I figured it would be common courtesy to let you know. And to give you this one, final mission.”

June lingered. A million thoughts ran through her mind, too jumbled to form a coherent through line. Ever so slowly, she faced the door to her mother’s house and silently pushed it shut.

~~~

No birds sang in the sky that day. Only the soft murmur of crickets chirping and leaves rustling. The light beaming from the thin crescent moon and the fireflies dancing throughout the near-empty courtyard shined through the petals of the scarlet wisteria, giving the atmosphere a dim red tint. Takeshi stood, back propped against the tree, staring at the dagger-shape moon through his single uncovered eye. In return, it captured him within its pale, blue light. He gave a tired sigh, casually hiding his hands within his coat’s pockets.

His view of the clear, night sky above was interrupted when a dark streak dashed across his field of vision. His eye widened, lowering from the moon to scan about his surroundings. All he found was the same cloister hallway and crisp flora.

Another dark streak passed behind him. In its wake, Takeshi heard a faint whicker of wind. When he spun around and darted his gaze toward the direction of the sound, he watched as the bushes rustled behind him. As Takeshi fixed his eyes on the shrub, two more breezy echoes sounded off over each of his respective shoulders before ending abruptly. The color drained from his face. Slowly, he faced forward again, spying the source of the noise within the moon’s revealing spotlight.

“Kenji?”

He gripped the ends to two chains in each of his hands. The shackles from Kenji’s grip led below him. Takeshi’s eyes followed their length where he quickly distinguished a large, star-shaped pattern drawn across the ground, himself standing at its center. When Kenji drew both his arms back, the star pattern pulled taut and coiled around Takeshi. Their iron links dug into him like violent fists. His surprised breath escaped his lungs when the chains constricted, trapping his arms to his sides. Thrown off-balance, he flopped onto the ground. His washed look of terror deepened. Takeshi peered up, watching as Kenji began to drag him off through the dirt.

“Kenji, what the hell?” Takeshi cried. “Kenji, what’re you-?”

“Putting you back where you belong.” He replied sternly, not bothering to peer back at him over his shoulder.

Takeshi wriggled onto his back and peered in the direction Kenji was taking him. Once he did, his breath froze.

“No…” His voice quaked. “Kenji, please don’t do this! I thought I was doing good! What makes you think I’d betray you?”

“Juniper McCoy, Ren’s assigned guardian, is dead. I know you had a hand in it. I just hope you’re proud of your work.” Kenji grunted. Takeshi’s breath caught in his throat, too astonished to utter back.

When they arrived at last, across the length of the gravel courtyard, Kenji raised his hand. Takeshi’s coiled body rose with it. There, he found his dangling head hovering at eye-level to Kenji’s, whose expression brimmed with fury.

“While we show her our support tomorrow, like I’ve been told real allies do, I sincerely hope that you enjoy your stay.” He hissed. And with that, Kenji launched Takeshi’s body in through the door of the cell in front of him. Once he slammed against the iron bars, Kenji swung the door closed behind him.

Lying slumped on the ground, Takeshi’s eyes filled with panic, watching Kenji turn away and approach Kashiwabara again. His racing, panicked breaths resumed.

“Kenji, please, I didn’t have anything to do with it! I didn’t even know what happened!” He cried. As if he couldn’t hear Takeshi’s pleas, Kenji reached the door, drew it open, and ventured one foot through. “I’m innocent! Please, just don’t leave me here! Please!”

When the door softly snapped closed behind Kenji’s back, the hum of cicadas resumed. The blue moonlight vanished beneath an encroaching sheet of clouds.

~~~

Only two presences surrounded the square plot of brown, parched earth. Ren’s body slightly shivered from the cold, morning air washing over her. Although she continued to don her red dress, her makeup streaked down her cheeks, marking the path of her tears. The edges of her sclera shimmered a deep pink. Red bloodshot veins spread across the rest of their surface. Slow, shaky breaths, infused with her shivering voice, flowed in and out through her gritted teeth.

Once the rectangular scoop in the earth was filled with untilled, flaky soil, Ren watched the rusty spade of a shovel pat it flat. She peered over at the man wielding the shovel, the only one besides her to attend the burial. His plain, blue uniform consisting of denim-like fabric fit him loosely. He lifted his cap off his head to wipe away the sweat clinging to his wrinkled brow.

“Family?” The man asked. Ren crawled her gaze upward to meet his old, tired eyes. She said nothing. “I know it won’t help much, but you shouldn’t take the blame on yourself. At least she died knowing you loved her.”

“That’s the thing.” Ren sniveled. “She didn’t.”

“Oh,” Murmured the man. He awkwardly returned his gaze toward the grave. Its tombstone bared the words, “Juniper McCoy.” “Do you want to say a few words? For her sake?”

All Ren did was continue to stand, filling her lungs with cold, sleepy morning air. Without a thought entering her mind, as if guided by her instincts, she turned away and wandered off.

Ren trudged along the gravel path, destination unclear. Rows of shallow graves lined her way, appearing as grey smudges in her peripheral vision. As she passed by one towering, leafless oak, Ren halted. She wasn’t surprised when she turned to see Kenji, Yuki, Akane, Momochi, Hanzo, and Nagato all donning black funeral garb, partially hidden beneath its gnarled branches. Yuki’s eyes shimmered with sincere sadness for once. Akane’s usual sneer was absent. Ren met their pitiful gaze. For a long moment, silence endured between them. That was when every inch of her form started to tremble.

“I’m…” Ren’s voice shuddered. She swallowed to clear her throat, strength returning to her tone. “I’m done. I was a fool to believe that joining Iga would bring some order to my life. But no, I was wrong. I was scum before, I was scum then, and I’m scum now. I let Shinsatsu get into the hands of the Kōga, I lied and stole from my best friend, and I’m the only reason why the only person who ever gave a damn about me is dead.” A single tear fell from her eye. It departed from her chin and sunk into the parched soil beneath her.

Kenji took an advancing step. His voice rang with urgency. “Ren, I know you must be upset, but you have to understand that-”

Nagato placed a hand on Kenji’s shoulder, causing his words to trail off. “Grief’s journey has yet to reach its end.” His focus shifted to Ren. “You cannot protect all that you hold dear. You realize this as well as I do. But in the end, the choice of what you do with your sadness is yours alone. All I can say is that I’m sorry.” With that, Nagato turned off. Taking slow, sulking footsteps, he approached the white veils of fog looming in the distance. One at a time, the rest of the group followed. Ren watched each of them turn away to depart until she was left peering back at just one more.

His trimmed mustache sat above his shallow, puckered frown. His cheerful eyes had lost their luster. Instead, as Ren peered back at Hattori Hanzo, an inexplicable feeling washed over her.

In that moment, as he viewed her with a look of understanding radiant in his gaze, Hanzo said only one thing:

“You’ve gotten strong, Ren.”

Before she could say anything in return, Hanzo faced the same direction as the rest of the shinobi. With his hands tucked behind his back, he followed them without another word.

“But we’ll be doomed! It said so in Ren’s fortune.” She heard Kenji utter to Nagato in the distance. “Either she remains part of Iga, or-”

“Or we’ll face destruction?” Momochi stated, plain as fact. “Then that is a fate we must accept.”

As each of their figures disappeared into the opaque, gathering haze, Ren faced once again down the gravel path and continued her walk.

Her bare feet slapped against the concrete once she exited the cemetery, though the cold weight in her chest still remained. Eyes fixed beneath her, she followed the way at a plodding stumble, no direction in mind, no inner consciousness to speak of. Chills spread across her skin, refreshing after each second to continue causing her to shiver. Her stomach grumbled.

“Everything’s starting to remind me of the time before…” She thought. “Before Iga. Before June…”

Her mind paused as within the corners of her vision, still fixed at the ground, she spied a familiar set of tall, tree trunk legs. They stood facing her, as though awaiting her arrival. Traversing her gaze up the height of the legs, garbed in grey sweatpants, Ren eventually peered into the lofty face of Missy Martinez.

“Hey, Chiquita.” Missy mumbled. Her words lacked their usual flare. They resembled her expression: quiet and somber. “Word traveled pretty fast about your aunt. Just wanted you to know, I get it. My dad bit it when I was five. Leukemia. My mom’s never around the house. All that’s left really is my older sister and her kids. Life can be hell sometimes. I get it.”

Ren collapsed to her knees without warning. As if something within her snapped, bitter tears cascaded down her cheeks. Quiet sobs burst free from her lungs. Cautiously, Missy patted Ren’s hair.

“Look, I know you’re homeless and all, so if you wanna crash at my place, my sister can make you some room. Whatever you need to help you get through this.”

Ren clenched her teeth, forcefully casting a hush over her sobs. Though her breath continued to audibly tremble, she managed to give a shallow nod. After Missy guided Ren to her feet with both hands around her shoulders, they continued down the sidewalk.

~~~

He gathered the still, silent eyes of the dozens of Kōga surrounding him. The matte, grey atmosphere matched the metal hue of the airplane parts drawing a tight border around the clearing. As Izumo faced the crescent-shaped gathering of Kōga, Diego and Erika stood just a meter in front of him. His proud gaze passed between them. Through his forest of a beard, they watched him smile.

“Do any of you know the difference between us and the Iga-ryū?” Izumo asked, his eyes crawling across the crowd. “The Iga sheepishly bend to fate’s will, whereas now, fate answers to us.” He threw Ren’s brown messenger bag on the ground in front of him, kicking up a cloud of sand. As the dust cleared, everyone gazed upon the bag, where Shinsatsu’s long, steel handle protruded from the opening. “Now the time has come. To forge our own future.”

With shallow breath, Diego leaned forward. He approached his hand toward the bag containing Shinsatsu. With trembling fingers, he drew open the zipper to reveal the scythe’s massive blade hidden within. The gem’s scarlet ore began to glare like a beacon. Izumo’s vile grin reflected off its shimmering surface. Each soldier surrounding them widened their eyes.

“Take it.” Izumo stated. “You are ready.”

Diego continued to examine the long, metal haft of Shinsatsu. Izumo and Erika backed away to join the wall of surrounding Kōga. Meanwhile, Diego’s mouth practically watered.

“Everything I’ve worked for, toiled for, trained for, hurt for, bled for, it’s all about to pay off in a single moment.” He shut his eyes. A small smile tugged at his face. “Now will you watch me, Nagato?”

Without a second thought, Diego reached out and coiled his fingers around the handle of the scythe. With one hand, he hoisted Shinsatsu out of the bag and above his head for every eager-eyed Kōga to bear witness. His stance exuded power. The malicious grin across his face continued to widen.

“The Kōga reigns supreme at last.” Izumo whispered. “Now, there is only one thing left to do…”

~~~

Kenji surveyed the road closely. Cicadas chirped and behind Kashiwabara’s walls over his shoulder, he could hear the regular bustle of the village. But besides that, the air swam with a calm stillness, unmatched by his puckered forehead vein, creased brow, and folded arms.

Occasionally, from the corner of his eye, he spied Akane, perched next to him atop the opposite end of the torii entrance. Her fists opened and closed repeatedly at her sides; her anxious tell. Her red brows knit low over her chartreuse eyes, brimming with focus.

“Now that Shinsatsu belongs in the hands of the Kōga-ryū, and if Yuki’s fortune is anything to go off, they’ll use it against us at any moment. With that said, just where on earth are they?”

“It troubles me as well.” Akane uttered. “With Shinsatsu in their possession, what is it that would prevent the Kōga-ryū from striking us? Unless…” Her voice sunk to a low whisper, her eyes filling with realization. “They do not come with the intention of attacking.”

Kenji stuck his perplexed gaze on her. “But that’s impossible. I can’t name a single group more impatient than Kōga. Why would they hesitate to strike us at our most vulnerable?”

“I agree, which is why there must be one more thing they need in order to achieve their goal.”

Kenji’s thoughtful eyes drifted away. The air went silent again for a few seconds before suddenly, both their stares snapped toward each other and they both exclaimed,

“Yuki.”

Depth came to Akane’s hollow gaze in the form of a worried glimmer. “If Izumo-san forces her to write a fortune naming him the rightful leader of both Iga and Kōga, then none of us can refute it, can we? Not even my father.”

“Nonsense.” Kenji balled his fists, “Are they truly that mad? What makes them think they can just barge in and demand that of her?”

“But you said it yourself, Kenji-san.” Akane whispered. “They are in possession of Shinsatsu. And if it can really command fate, then she is in no position to bargain.”

The fire in Kenji’s eyes faded as he finally matched the horror in Akane’s expression. “Then we haven’t a moment to lose. We have to stop the Kōga before they get to Yuki.”

As Kenji bent his legs, however, ready to spring forward, he paused when he saw Akane, peering off to the side and cautiously biting her lip. “I apologize, Kenji-san…” She whispered. “But you must venture there alone.”

“But why?”

“Worry not, for I shall soon join you.” Her lips curled tighter at the edges. “There are just more things I must attend to first.”

Before he could argue with her, Akane twirled around and soared toward Kashiwabara’s courtyard with a single, weightless lunge. Kenji watched her figure disappear into the brush of trees, brow creasing in suspicion, before closing his eyes and turning away.

~~~

The wooden brush quickly whipped the powder into the bubbling water until the green mixture turned frothy. As Yuki rattled the bamboo whisk over the teacup to shake off any lose droplets, slow, heavy footsteps approached her from behind. Appearing to not notice them, she took the pair of teacups and approached the table in the center of her room. Her violet eyes passed over the hulking figure standing in her doorway without acknowledging it.

“Hey, Izumo! I knew you’d come. That’s why I set up a tea party!” As she knelt at the table and set one cup down in front of her, she slid the other across the surface toward her Kōga guest. “Have a seat!”

Izumo sneered, more irately than angrily for a change. “You know what I’m here for-”

“I said have a seat.” Yuki’s gaze thinned on Izumo. Her tone developed harsh thorns.

Swallowing, Izumo abided, joining Yuki at the knee-high table. The wooden floorboards creaked beneath him as he sunk to a kneel. At his reduced stature, he continued to tower over her, spying Yuki as she casually sipped her beverage.

“You know you aren’t in any position to make demands.” He murmured.

“Neither are you, but here you are.”

The two fell silent again. Izumo’s focus gathered exclusively on Yuki while she studied the contents of her cup. Her deep, purple gaze seemed to pick up every bubble that formed across the surface of her cup with the same intensity and focus as if she were reading a book.

“Perhaps this girl’s childishness is a mere facade.” Izumo thought. “Perhaps she knows more than she’s letting on…”

“You’ve seen it, haven’t you?” Izumo whispered softly. “The end?”

Yuki’s spirits visibly sunk. “I have.”

“Then you must understand why I’m doing this. The only reason why.” Izumo picked up his tea at last. “Only I know what’s coming and how to prevent it. Does Nagato?”

“Of course he knows.” Yuki stated, her enthusiasm nowhere to be found in her voice.

“But is he brave enough to do what it takes?”

“Brave is one thing, but what you’re doing is stupid. Thinking you can meddle with the universe’s plan for us.”

“Of course.” Izumo slurped down his drink. “That’s why you’re here. You transcribe fate. And now, you shall change it for us. Outside, I have my entire forces surrounding this hovel of yours, and among them is my pupil wielding the conjurer of fate, Shinsatsu. That is what I mean when I say you’re in no position to make demands.” Yuki met Izumo’s gaze with tangible incredulity. “First, I want you to appoint me as the leader of the Iga and Kōga. Then, you shall erase any doubt that Diego is the true Shinsatsujin. Those are my two orders, and I have fulfilled every requirement to make them.”

“Hmm. Maybe I was wrong calling you stupid.” Yuki tapped her finger to her thumb and looked above her, like the answer was floating somewhere in the air. “How ‘bout crazy?”

“Bold observation there, but I beg to disagree.” Izumo scowled. “What’s crazy is witnessing leadership so weak and brittle, we’re forced to flee our own home. What’s crazy is working so hard to accomplish something just to see it all crumble. What’s crazy is only what you’ve allowed to transpire. What I aim to do is return sanity to this insane world.” Izumo picked up his cup, tilted his head back, and consumed his entire beverage in one gulp.

“And if you think I make all that stuff happen, then you’re crazy and stupid!” Yuki giggled. She stood up, picked up her cup of tea, and reached across the table to take Izumo’s. “I’ll top you off.”

Before she could reach his cup, however, he slammed his hand down, trapping her arm underneath his massive palm. “You’re stalling…” He muttered.

In the blink of an eye, Yuki closed her fist around her ceramic cup, crunching it into a handful of shards. She then whipped the broken pieces into Izumo’s face. As each knife-like sliver sunk into his skin, he tumbled backward, unleashing Yuki’s other hand, howling in agony.

As he plucked each shard from his skin, Izumo’s gaze finally fell upon Yuki again. In her hands, she clutched the brim of a wide, iron cauldron.

“Vermin! Do you realize what you’ve just done?” He snarled.

“Made me break one of my own teacups?!” Yuki barked, pushing out her bottom lip.

“You’ve just sealed your own fate…”

Izumo charged at Yuki, still holding her pot. Seconds before he could grab her, she vaulted into the air over his head and dropped the cauldron on top of him. When she landed behind him, she retrieved her pair of nunchaku and unleashed a string of blows against them, producing a concussive chorus of deep, booming gongs. Within the coffin of reverberating noise, Izumo sunk to his knees.

Blood rising to a rolling boil, he tore the cauldron over his head in half as though consisting of paper. Izumo jumped to his feet again. He yanked his sword from his scabbard and aimed its edge at Yuki’s throat. Their sharp focus gouged one another across the length of the chamber.

“Tell me, fortuneteller.” Izumo scowled, raising his blade. “Do you see a future in which you win this fight?”

~~~

Takeshi’s chin rested on top of his knees which he hugged close to his chest. Every inch of his body shivered, brutally fighting off the chilling breeze. The evening stars hid beneath the overcast clouds. Fallen leaves from surrounding trees danced across the gravel courtyard. Many slipped between the bars of Takeshi’s tight cell and landed across his body. With each leaf that landed, his lonely, dejected expression barely changed.

He squinted when a sudden onslaught of light poured through one of Kashiwabara’s sliding doors. Blinking, he tried distinguishing the figure in the entryway.

“I thought that by now you would be used to the mountain weather.” Akane murmured, descending the steps into the garden. The open door behind her basked the area in light. Takeshi didn’t say a word, nor did the frown pulling at his face disappear. “We have not been kind to you.” She sighed. “No one has. I can clearly see that your life has been wrought with struggle. For that, I sincerely apologize. Each of our paths are paved with a unique kind of hardship, but I realize that does not excuse how we have treated you. Thus, forgive me for being selfish as I ask one last time for your help.”

A long, cold breath of silence passed between them. Not even the wind pushing the fallen leaves dared to break it.

“Selfish…?” Takeshi whispered. Akane watched him slowly rise to his feet. His spiny bangs fell over his face, shrouding his expression in deep, natural darkness. “Damn right, it’s selfish. You want a soldier. Izumo wanted a soldier, and that’s just what he got.” His shoulders began to tremble, though not from the cold. “I’m still not sure which is worse. The pain of learning how to channel ki into my right eye, the pain of building the strength to store it there, the pain I feel when I unleash it, or the pain I feel every moment trying not to.” He whispered in a voice infused with that same shiver. When Takeshi raised his face to peer into Akane, however, what she found was a wide eager grin. “But guess what? I’m pretty selfish too. I won’t fight for Izumo or you, but if our goals just so happen to line up, then to hell with it.”

Akane matched the eagerness blazing in Takeshi’s eye. “That was precisely the kind of answer I was hoping for.”

~~~

As Kenji emerged from the alleyway onto Venice Beach’s walkway, he froze, eyes widening on the scene laid out ahead of them.

Orange caution tape sectioned off a massive plot of the beach. Behind it, Kōga warriors with weapons strapped to their shozoku strolled about the premises. Unsuspecting neon-orange construction vests lazily concealed their garb. Forklifts and cranes rolled across the concrete, back and forth across from Yuki’s shop in the far distance, stranded within the sea of enemies.

“No…” Kenji’s thoughts hissed. “I’m too late! If there is any way of reaching Yuki now, it would mean creating a diversion great enough to distract all those soldiers. But what on earth could possibly-”

As if cued, countless deafening blasts rocked the earth. Forklifts went up in towering flames and everything from trashcans to streetlamps to manholes erupted like small volcanos. Kōga soldiers, caught in the unfortunate crosshairs of the explosions, sailed across the air back and forth. After the initial blasts settled in, more and more detonations quaked the ground, popping off indiscriminately every other moment.

“What the…?” Kenji’s wide, glossy eyes reflected the erupting hellfire in the distance. “Who caused all of…” His words trailed off as he slowly turned around, his sight falling upon the one undoubtedly responsible.

“Surprised to see me?” Takeshi coolly leaned against the wall behind Kenji. A grin squeezed the corners of his eyes closed.

Kenji’s hand shot out and wrung Takeshi by the collar of his leather trench coat. “You…” He snarled. “How did you escape?”

“That would be my doing.”

All heads turned in the direction of the new voice as she emerged from the shadows: Akane.

“How could you trust him after what he did to betray Ren?” Kenji murmured, his hold on Takeshi barely slackening.

“Takeshi-san here had no hand in the death of Juniper McCoy-san.” Said Akane. “His alibi is sound. You have just chosen not to trust his word at face value. And it would not be the first incidence.”

“And why should I trust you?” Kenji refocused his eyes on Takeshi.

“You really think I’m with Kōga if I’m blowing them to smithereens as we speak?” Takeshi protested.

“Kenji-san.” Akane cut in once again. “You must open yourself to new possibilities. Neither setting bombs nor welcoming a previous enemy into our ranks is something you would likely do on any sort of basis, but they are both things that will bring us one step closer to victory.”

Finally, Kenji’s fingers unwound around the leather collar of Takeshi’s coat.

“So we’re square?” Takeshi asked. Kenji nodded silently, gazing at his feet. “Then take it away, boss.”

“How about you lead the charge.” Kenji raised his eyes, glimmering with determination. “This was your plan, after all. Best you follow through with it.”

Takeshi’s grin returned. “With pleasure…”

~~~

“And this,” Missy said, pushing open the door. “Is my room. Luckily, I just cleaned up. You can take the bed if you want.”

Ren looked at the piles of laundry towering high atop each chair. “I’d rather not.” She frowned. “There’s a slice of pizza on the pillow.”

“Ever heard of breakfast in bed?” Missy feigned a chuckle. “The dog’ll get it anyway. Watch TV if you want. I gotta change Enrique’s diapers.” She walked out the door, leaving Ren surrounded by her humble accommodations. Awkwardly, she sat next to the half-eaten pizza slice and reached for the TV remote.

“Breaking news at nine.” The news channel read right as the screen flashed on. Before Ren could change the program, an image appeared onscreen that shocked her to her very core.

“Chaos has erupted across Venice Beach as non-stop explosions rock the earth.” The anchors read over surveillance footage of countless towering explosions. Their blasts sent clouds of smoke invading the atmosphere, but amidst the haze, Ren spied a familiar, wooden structure.

“Yuki’s shop!”

“Luckily, the area was cleared of all civilians ahead of time and police have issued a warning to all residents of the area, but that hasn’t stopped the countless casualties suffered by maintenance workers in the area. Experts believe that the explosions are due to a gas leak in the pipe systems that the workers are trying to fix. Others claim it is an act of domestic terrorism. More information is soon to come from the LAPD commissioner’s office soon.”

Despite what they said, Ren knew what was really happening. “What I don’t know is if I want to believe it myself. Or what I’m even thinking of doing right now…”

“Got drinks if you want.” Missy said from the open doorway, holding two bubbly pops.

“Missy.” Ren stood up, gaze fixed on her TV. “I need you to help me steal one last thing…”

“Uh, alright, just what were you thinking?”

“What kind of car does your sister drive?”

“Toyota Corolla. Why?”

“Can you drive?”

Missy scoffed. “Can I drive?”

~~~

“Get your ass out of my face!” Missy cried, struggling to hold the steering wheel steady.

“Not my fault your face is so close to it!” Ren shouted back, pulling up the trousers of her shozoku before falling back into her seat. She secured her outfit by tying her belt constrictingly tight across her middle. Through the window, lights, sounds, and colors all smeared past them as Missy zipped down every boulevard at blinding speeds, weaving in and out through traffic.

“Why you gotta change right next to me?” She griped, still nervously beaming her gaze through the windshield.

“What did you want me to do? Change in the trunk?”

“Now that you mention it, it sounds like a great idea!”

“Too late now.” Ren drew up her hood and faced Missy. “How do I look?”

“Like one of those Asian cartoon characters my looser nephew watches. No offense.” Martinez suddenly pulled a hard right.

“I thought you knew how to drive this thing!” Ren sunk her fingers into the fabric seat beneath her.

“I meant I knew how to activate the blinkers, see?” Missy pushed the lever adjacent to the steering wheel, causing wiper fluid to spray the glass windshield. “You know what, never mind. I don’t know how to drive.”

As they swerved around the corner, a low, rumbling noise distantly reached their ears. Above, they listened to the sharp chopping of blades slicing through the night sky. Ren peered through the sunroof to find three helicopters flying in tight formation in their same direction. Ren squinted to spot the Kōga’s crescent moon emblem crudely painted across their tail booms.

“Let me out here.” Ren uttered, knitting her brow.

Missy slammed her foot on the brakes. The tires beneath them screamed to a halt. Before the car stopped fully, Ren opened the doors and lunged outside. Blocks away, she listened to the continued quaking of explosions. She peered down the darkened, quiet streets and paused.

“Hey Missy,” Whispered Ren. She turned around briefly, opened the glovebox to the car, and tossed a roll of bills inside. Missy watched with a stunned look. “Spend it well.” Swiftly, Ren took off, her figure becoming lost in the surrounding darkness. Missy smiled.

“You go, Chiquita.”

As Ren sprinted toward the noise and flickering radiance in the distance, the quaking underneath her feet and the ringing of explosions in her ears spiked with intensity. Finally, when she rounded the last corner to face down Venice Beach, what Ren found was chaos and violence like she’d never seen before. Explosions peppered the ground, sending Kōga bodies careening back and forth. As she peered closer, Ren soon realized that the explosions weren’t the only reason for the mayhem. Black streaks sped across her line of sight. As they zoomed through the field of blasts, Kōga warriors fell left and right.

After ducking underneath the construction tape, marking her entrance into the battleground, Ren slipped past every Kōga in her path without as much as grazing them. She jumped past explosions, leaving scoops behind in the concrete walkway, as she approached a tall, brick wall sanctioning off the beach from the avenue. Ren finally vaulted her body over the concrete divider and knelt down, back pressed against its surface. There, she found herself face to face with a host of familiar faces, crouching low as well.

“I figured I’d find you all here.” Said Ren.

“Just in time too.” Takeshi added.

She peered away from Kenji and Takeshi to glance around the corner. Helicopters swooped down to pick up as many Kōga as they could from the massacre. She also watched one final piece of significance: a lone shinobi standing along the coastline behind them. Every explosion around him hardly seemed to catch his interest as he stared out over the endless ocean, completely still. Ren recognized his traditional shozoku, the white linen cloth wound around his face, his stern posture, and his powerful, venomous aura.

“That’s the green-eyed bastard who attacked me at the pier!” Ren’s ears burned hot as she saw within his hand, he clutched Shinsatsu. “And that’s my weapon!”

“What’re we waiting for?” She grunted, pulling up her scarf. “Give us the plan, Kenji.” She waited, continuing to peer forward. She heard nothing. Slowly, Ren turned to gaze over her shoulder at the shinobi behind her. They matched her eyes with flat, expressionless miens. Her brow hiked in confusion. “Uh, Kenji? The plan?”

“Do you think that’s wise?” Kenji spoke to her as if she were a stranger. “Disclosing vital information to an outsider?”

“Look, I know I might’ve said some stuff back there, but I was upset. I’m really down for stopping the Kōga now so just… lemme help out here!” As the urgency in her tone grew, Kenji, continued to view her skeptically.

“Today you might be. But is there a guarantee that tomorrow you’ll feel the same way?” He sternly crossed his arms. “It is time to make your decision. Only one path leads toward your future. We can’t decide that path for you, but you can.”

“But I-” She began to protest, but when she attempted to speak more, the words hung in the back of her throat.

“We’ll let you think on it.” Kenji faced the other shinobi. “Takeshi, don’t let those helicopters get away. I’ll find Yuki.”

“Actually, boss,” Takeshi argued, laying a hand on his shoulder and flashing him a smile. “I’d like to do the honors. I have one last score to settle with Smokey Bastard.”

Without a word of protest, Kenji nodded his head and the two of them began to move.

“Wait!” Ren cried. They paused to view her again. “What about me?”

“What about you?” Kenji repeated. “Think.”

As the two darted off, Ren’s mind began to swim. “What do I do? The road forks here but both paths look just as bad. On one hand, countless hours spent with the Oni Sentai, training with Hanzo, all gone in an instant. On the other, my only chance to lead a normal life. The life of a normal citizen. A life I could’ve shared with June…” In that moment, she felt the weight of her cellphone in her pocket. She remembered the number the detectives gave her, still lingering in its system.

Before she could deliberate any longer, however, she listened to a voice slice through the tension hanging over her. It instead sent waves of terror racing up and down her spine.

“And how are you this evening, baby?” A voice smothered in a mix of nauseating pomp and scummy, feigned coolness entered the air.

Ren’s pupils shrunk. A bead of sweat slithered down the small of her back. “Oh no… Oh, please no…” She turned reluctantly toward the source of the tone. Garbed head-to-toe in a blue Kōga shozoku with his barrel chest puffed out and his chin held high, there stood Gento a dozen meters away.

His hood hung behind him to display his locks. His pompadour appeared less refined, evident in his expression where Ren could see traces of Angelo seep through. His otherwise symmetrical grin twitched at its corners. Madness flared up within his soft gaze.

“You walked out on our date. How rude. At least give me that goodnight kiss you promised, baby.” His tone fluctuated also between smooth baritone and a raspy grumble.

Ren slowly turned to face him. Her fists quaked with equal parts anger and fear. Crimson began to paint across her eyes the further she entered her zen. But before she could douse her vision fully, a hand gently descended upon her shoulder. Warmth from the palm spread throughout her, casting a calm over her senses.

“Stand back, mate. This wanker’s mine.” Uttered a stern voice behind her.

“Well, I’ll be…” Gento chuckled. “Fancy seeing you here, old chap.”

Ren peered back, discovering PJ staring bravely ahead. “PJ, you…” She stammered. “You came.”

“Don’t think you’re off scot-free yet.” He muttered, shooting a split-second glimpse down at her before returning his harsh gaze toward Gento. “This is just me getting even. Now get out of here. Haven’t you got enough you need to take care of?”

Despite PJ’s snappy protest, Ren couldn’t stop a smile from breaking across her face, continuing to soak in his presence. Eventually, though, she made a break toward the green-eyed Kōga wielding Shinsatsu, leaving PJ and Gento alone.

“How heroic.” Gento sneered. “The trusty companion stepping in to save the day.” In the blink of an eye, he darted up to PJ and plowed his elbow into his stomach. PJ’s eyes bulged an inch out of their sockets and his jaw fell open. “If you were any smarter, you'd see Ren for who she is.” He continued in an intimate whisper inches from PJ’s ear. “A liar. A thief. Gum on the bottom of our shoes. She doesn’t even know proper table manners. Once you realize that, you might even have some sympathy for me.”

Right at that moment, however, Gento felt a meteoric collision arrive to the center of his diaphragm. Spittle flew from the corner of his lips as PJ dug his fist deep into his gut.

“Maybe.” PJ whispered in return. A snicker pervaded his low, strained tone. “Maybe Ren’s personality won me over. Maybe I'm too forgiving toward people who try to correct their path. But if there's one thing I'm not forgiving toward, it's those who hurt my friends.”

With that, PJ extended his arm upward, launching Gento sky-high. Watching him ascend, PJ crouched low and sprung into the air after him. Once he reached an altitude slightly above Gento, PJ unsheathed a pair of three-pronged sai blades and plunged them into his opponent’s back. The pair plummeted back toward earth. Upon landing, Gento’s body absorbed the full impact. PJ gracefully sprung away, touching down upon his two feet. He watched over his fallen adversary’s still body. Calmness settled over the battleground before he twirled his blades between his fingers and stuffed them into their sheaths.

“That’s for ruining my date, asshole.”

Right at that moment, though, PJ shot his gaze over his shoulder. Five meters away, Akane stood, facing him with a flat expression. PJ’s spirits sunk.

“You didn’t hear that.” He uttered.

“Heard what?” Akane turned her head away and pompously aimed her nose aloft. “I did not hear anything.”

A beat of silence passed. “That’s what I thought...”

~~~

Yuki lunged at Izumo, her nunchaku twirling like boat propellors. As she arrived in front of him, her weapons thrashed at him at dizzying speed, yet every thud seemed to land against his sword, angled defensively in front of him. Despite red ki energy surging through her body and illuminating the borders of her glistening, violet gaze, Yuki watched with a growing expression of dread and frustration as each of her attacks failed to reach her foe.

“I should have realized.” Izumo muttered with what sounded to be a note of disappointment. “A life devoted to divination, cooped up in here, of course your combat prowess would be pathetic.”

Yuki’s eyes flickered a brighter shade of violet as her expression was wiped clean. As if compelled by something else, she leapt backward away from Izumo. But before she could make it far, his knee sprang up and landed against her chest, sending her sailing the rest of the way back.

Yuki’s limbs trailed behind her speeding body like a ragdoll’s before that same glow entered her eyes. Her form regained its rigidity the moment it landed against the wall, and instead of merely crashing into it, her feet daintily felt its surface. The energy of her arrival she channeled into her crouching legs. And with matching velocity, she sprung off the wall, straight toward Izumo with her weapons twirling like deadly twin turbines again.

Gaze locked on Yuki’s incoming areal assault, Izumo raised his sword at an outward horizontal angle and began to turn his body, aiming to chop her in midair. But as she entered the range of his blade, her body turned, missing it at a hair’s length. She instead sped straight over his shoulder, ricocheted against the wall behind his back, and careened toward him again.

As she closed in on Izumo’s back, nunchaku primed to bash in his head, the Kōga completed his rotation, swinging his sword into Yuki.

Her body skated across the floor, painting a long, deep crimson path beneath her, ending at her stomach. Laying face-down, the depth vanished from her eyes and her teeth chattered.

“He’s… too much!” Yuki thought, hearing Izumo’s booming footsteps echo in her ears. “His range, his speed, his power… Even if I predict what he’s going to do, there’s no way for me to beat him!”

“Fate has betrayed you. The future belongs to me.” A hoarse, bouldery tone rumbled Yuki’s eardrums. Her teeth clenched as if bracing for something the split second before Izumo’s colossal foot landed against her spine. Yuki’s lungs emitted an agonized moan. The puddle of crimson forming beneath her stomach grew. “So answer me: did you see a future in which you won this fight?”

Yuki cast a hush over her groans long enough to utter a faint, raspy “No…”

“Then why waste your meager life trying to fight the inevitable…?” Izumo’s heel pressed further into Yuki’s back. She felt her skeleton creek and her windpipe shut. She squeezed her eyelids closed, pushing free a single tear.

Right at that moment, a punch flew out of nowhere and clocked Izumo square in the jaw. He staggered away from the mild impact, freeing Yuki from under his foot. As he did, he glared in the direction of the blow.

Facing Izumo, Takeshi’s brow sunk over his visible eye. The veins running across his trembling fists puckered. His pulse sent waves of hot, zen-infused blood washing over him. Underneath his crimson Iga scarf, however, he grinned.

“Just…” Yuki whispered using the last traces of air left in the back of her throat. Her eyes continued to close while her lips curled at the edges to flaunt a small smirk. “To distract you…”

“Brat…” Izumo snarled, a mix of blood, tar, and saliva dripping from the corners of his mouth. “You were always my least favorite student. Training you was the worst mistake of my life!”

Takeshi shrugged his shoulders. “That’s fine.” He uttered brusquely. “In fact, the more you think that, the better it’s gonna feel when I kick your ass.” Izumo watched as Takeshi reached up with his hand, grabbed his eyepatch, and ripped it off his face.

Immediately, a blinding, red glare washed over the room. The countless artifacts hanging from the walls and littering the floor of the shop trembled. A cacophony of metal clanging and clattering filled the air while a low, inaudible hum pierced Izumo’s ear. The floor itself trembled beneath the weight of Takeshi’s unleashed energy. Izumo had to raise his forearm to shield himself from the infernal light spilling from both of Takeshi’s eyes. The whole time, he listened to his mad cackles.

“This hellish power you locked inside of me is just what I’m gonna drag you through, sensei.” Takeshi howled in a demonic, doubled-over voice. “I’ve never agreed with you more! Training me was the biggest mistake of your life!”

Without warning, Izumo sprung upon Takeshi, who quickly drew a shotgun from the depths of his trench coat. However, before he even had a moment to fire, Izumo’s arm leapt out and his hand caught the barrel of the gun. The metal bent under the weight of his grip like foil.

After ripping the weapon out of Takeshi’s hand, Izumo landed a meteoric hook across his face. The crimson glow bathing the room dimmed as he squinted slightly. The punch carried him across the length of the chamber where he landed against the wall.

Takeshi peered ahead, watching Izumo lumber toward him. He noticed a reflective gleam from within the Kōga’s cape. Before he could react, a massive blade sprung forth, impaling Takeshi straight through the stomach. He bared his teeth to prevent a scream of agony from fleeing his lungs.

Izumo continued to push forward, gritting his yellow teeth, until Takeshi felt the hot pain of the blade emerging from behind his back. A mouthful of blood spilled down his chin, accompanied by a wet, weak cough. The scarlet glow grew weaker with each passing second. With Izumo’s blade lodged through his trunk, all he could do was continue to stand upright. Finally, a scream burst free when Izumo tauntingly twisted the handles of his sword, stirring Takeshi’s entrails.

When the light shining from Takeshi’s eyes retreated to a bearable hue, Izumo bowed forward. Frozen in terror, he watched the Kōga inch his noxious maw closer to his ear. “Impressive light show, brat, but your little power up, just like everything else about you, is useless. Weak.

A kunai fell from Takeshi’s sleeve and into his open palm. He smiled out of the corner of his mouth.

“Gotcha.”

In an instant, the crimson glow in his eyes soared, brighter and whiter than the sun. As Izumo flinched away from the glare, Takeshi lunged on the opportunity, taking his blade and plunging it straight into Izumo’s exposed throat. The Kōga’s eyes bulged inches out of their sockets. Blood began to bubble up within his throat.

When Takeshi plucked the blade free at last, Izumo collapsed to the floor, leaving the sword still lodged through his torso. The glow conclusively vanished from Takeshi’s eyes. Darkness enveloped the room again. Peering down at Izumo’s still corpse, Takeshi scoffed. His body began to tip over.

“How selfish of me…”