A Honed Ki

Written by by Wizeguy

E-Mail: Wyzeguy79@hotmail.com
Universe: Tenchu (prior to 2)
Summary: Rikimaru must learn to control his ki in order to become an effective ninja.
Rating: R
Feedback: It’s the only payment I get for writing fanfic. Let me know how I’m doing.
Archive: The Tenchu Checkpoint (http://www.tenchu.de) has automatic archive rights. If anyone else wants to archive this fic, email me and ask.
Disclaimer: Activision and other video game companies are responsible for these characters and the kickass game. I only created a few peripheral characters, but most of them don’t live long, anyway. Please don’t sue.
Warnings: This here’s a pretty violent fic, people, with lots of killing, bloodletting, etc. Even some adult situations and such. The Tenchu games are pretty violent themselves, so this fic is in keeping with that spirit.
Notes: I’m a complete novice to the Tenchu games, having only played Tenchu 2 and beaten it once. Even so, the game’s storyline and characters are incredibly fascinating to a ninja fan like myself, so I hope to do this fanfic justice.
The events in this story take place maybe a month or so before Tenchu 2’s story begins, so Rikimaru and Ayame are still in training, and have yet to pass their final tests to become full Azuma ninja. I’ve decided to focus on that training, and explore life at the Azuma village, a thriving ninja community. However, as you’ll see, I intentionally fudged on a few parts of that training, since the game had Rikimaru and Ayame kill a few ninja flunkies during training, when from all appearances, the ninja were part of the Azuma village. Hopefully my version of the training is a bit more plausible than the game’s.

Control the breathing. In…out.

Feel the ki around you. Two opponents up ahead.

Move with the elements. Approach your adversaries with stealth; dispatch them quickly.

Here goes nothing.

Rikimaru recited all this in his head, his thoughts sounding like an odd combination of his own voice and his master Shiunsai’s. He peered through the mass of bamboo shoots that littered the forest, and eyed two black-clad figures.

Ninja, like him.

His grip tightened on his ninja-to, and he crept from his hiding place, crouching low. He approached the nearest ninja, and realized he was holding his breath. He slowly let it out, and–

“I see you,”

the ninja hissed, turning to face Rikimaru, his own sword at the ready.

“How…?”

the white-haired young man asked, then brought up his blade to block his opponent’s downward slice. The clang of metal rang loudly, especially to Rikimaru. To him, it sounded like a death knell, since the second ninja opponent had no doubt heard it. Stupid….

Rikimaru gathered his strength and pushed the ninja back, following up with an upward horizontal slice at the unbalanced opponent. The slice scored the ninja’s shoulder, causing him to fall backward, but not before the ninja thrust his sword at Rikimaru’s gut on his way down. Rikimaru backed up just in time to keep from being skewered.

The ninja rolled backward into a crouching position, then dashed at Rikimaru, who sidestepped the charge. Their swords clashed once again in the process. Rikimaru slashed twice at the ninja’s unprotected back, and was rewarded with two successes. He glanced behind him just in time to see and duck a horizontal slice from the second ninja opponent. Again, he inwardly cursed his stupidity for being too wrapped up in his fight with the first ninja to feel the second’s approaching ki.

He reversed his grip on his ninja-to, and thrust the sword backward, hoping to impale the ninja behind him. His blade only met air, as the ninja dashed around to Rikimaru’s side, delivering a downward slice to Rikimaru’s head. Rikimaru quickly ducked and rolled forward clear of the slash, then gained his footing and renewed his attack on the first ninja.

His opponent proved to be elusive, and before he knew it, the ninja was behind him, slashing at his back before Rikimaru could turn around. In desperation, Rikimaru whipped around and sent a roundhouse kick at his attacker, hooking the sword from the ninja’s hand. Now facing the ninja, he grabbed the ninja’s head and thrust his sword into the ninja’s gut. He dropped the body to the ground, and prepared to finish off his last opponent.

Needless to say, he was surprised to see that opponent already down, and his friend Ayame standing over the body.

“Flunked stealth again, ne?”

she asked sweetly, sheathing her twin kodachi and running a finger through her brown bangs.

Rikimaru thought of Ayame as a little sister…an annoying little sister whose sarcasm he could do without. Both orphans, they grew up together as Azuma ninja in their small village with Tatsumaru, whom they considered their older brother. Rikimaru glared at Ayame in disgust.

“Ayame! I’m in a training test, here! How am I supposed to accomplish this with you interfering?”

Ayame smirked and looked down at Rikimaru’s black-clad opponents, who got up and took off their masks. They were also members of the Azuma village, and served as Master Shiunsai’s assistant instructors.

“It didn’t look like you were doing a very good job, Riki-chan,”

she remarked,

“so I decided to bail you out. What’s the harm in that?”

“He is right, Ayame,”

one of the instructors, Shinsho, informed her.

“This exercise was for Rikimaru’s training. When the time is right, you will undergo the same test, and you will do it alone.”

“Gomen nasai,”

Ayame apologized reluctantly, her eyes downcast.

Kenichi, the other instructor, observed,

“However, Ayame is correct, Rikimaru. The object of the exercise was stealth, and I noticed your approach. Do not forget that we too can sense the ki of others. Your ki generated enough nervous chatter to attract my attention. You must calm yourself and live in the moment.”

Rikimaru took the reprimand with his usual dislike, while pulling the black scarf down to his neck, exposing the lower half of his face.

“Yes, sensei.”

“Your swordsmanchip also needs work. You must defend your flank better, or risk being carved up like a fish.”

“Yes, sensei.”

Kenichi smiled.

“On the other hand, I find no fault with your killing attacks. Had this not been a training exercise with dull blades, I would surely have perished.”

Rikimaru relaxed a bit, relieved he wasn’t a total failure. Only eighty percent.

“Yes, sensei.”

“We will do this again tomorrow, Rikimaru,”

Shinsho ordered.

“For now, head to the target area and practice your shuriken throws.”

“Yes, sensei.”

“And Ayame…”

The sixteen-year-old girl looked sheepish.

“I know, I know…report to Master Shiunsai…”

She turned to the high fence to make her exit, and found Shiunsai standing there, an unhappy look on his face. Ayame let out a startled yelp, and bowed quickly, apologizing profusely.

“Your English lessons started ten minutes ago, Ayame,

” Shiunsai informed her.

“I see you find your peers’ enlightenment to be more entertaining than your own. A ninja is nothing without a honed mind.”

He then dismissed Ayame and the others. Ayame made haste to the dojo to begin her English studies, while Rikimaru and his instructors ventured to the target area.

A ninja is nothing without a honed ki, Rikimaru thought. Guess I’ll have to work on that, or Ayame will never let me live it down.

***

That night, the dojo existed in a state of absolute silence. Even the background chatter of insects and animals was seemingly drowned out.

Rikimaru sat at the center of the dojo, meditating. He almost seemed to be watching a dramatic Kabuki play behind his eyelids. Clearing his mind of extraneous thought was not one of his strong points.

“What do you want?”

he asked Tatsumaru, who entered the dojo.

Momentarily taken aback by the curt greeting, Tatsumaru recovered quickly.

“I wanted to see if you really can cause the dojo to spontaneously ignite from your meditation.”

Rikimaru opened his eyes and shot his friend an unkind glare.

“Very funny. You know I hate to be interrupted. Ayame is lucky she’s still alive after intruding on my weapons training earlier.”

Tatsumaru shook his head.

“That’s my point. You’re too intense. You have to be the most tightly-wound ninja I’ve ever met.”

“Is there anything wrong with taking my training seriously?”

“Actually, I find it hard to think of anything you don’t take seriously. Being focused is one thing. It’s admirable. It’s what makes a good ninja. But you also have to relax a bit, and go with the flow.”

“Yes, I got the lecture from the master.”

“I’m not lecturing, I’m…okay, I’m lecturing. Gomen ne.”

“Everybody’s lecturing me these days. Even Ayame. I’m getting a bit tired of it.”

“As I said, you need to relax. If things are getting too intense, step back from them, then come back with a fresh perspective.”

Rikimaru exhaled sharply through his nose, as he usually did when he felt someone was overstepping his bounds.

“I can handle my problems, thanks.”

Tatsumaru crossed his arms and shook his head.

“See, that’s the thing: you think you can handle everything, Riki, but you can’t.”

“But you can?”

“I didn’t say that.”

“No, but you’re certainly the last one to talk! You’re one of the most reckless people I’ve ever met!”

Their exchange steadily rose the room temperature.

“Not reckless, Rikimaru. Determined.”

“So what’s wrong with my determination?”

By this time, the two ninja were almost nose-to-nose. They stared at each other silently.

“Actually, you’re right, Tatsumaru,”

Rikimaru said at last.

“I do need to get away from this. Konbanwa.”

He turned abruptly, without even a courtesy bow, and stormed out of the dojo, heading down the hill toward the bamboo forest.

Tatsumaru stared after his surrogate brother, then released his breath. He turned away from the exit to the outside, and found himself face-to-face with a straw punching target. He sent a right hook through it, and headed out of the training area as small pieces of wood clattered on the dojo floor.

***

The bamboo forest stretched for acres outside the Azuma village, finally stopping at the edge of a large hill by a creek. Rikimaru sat atop the hill, once again lost in thought. This time, however, he wasn’t meditating.

A sharp bark caused him to look up from his reverie, into the panting muzzle of a large brown husky.

“Semimaru,”

Riki whispered, petting his dog.

“Have you come to scold me as well?”

He couldn’t help but grin as he said this, and chuckled as Semimaru licked his face. The canine always succeeded in cheering him up even at his worst. Rikimaru tightened the purple scarf around his pet’s neck, to which he’d always jokingly referred as Semimaru’s “ninja scarf”.

“No…you’ve just come to cheer me up. You are far too skilled at that, ne?”

Semimaru suddenly turned sharply and looked off to the left past the creek, ears perked. Rikimaru followed suit, having heard the faint sound as well, even above the insects. He slowly rose to a crouch, holding Semimaru in place. The dog dutifully froze in place, ready to investigate once his master gave the okay.

Rikimaru strained his ears to listen for the sound, and heard it a second time. Louder. It sounded as if someone were being struck. Applying gentle pressure to his pet’s shoulder and neck, he instructed Semimaru to move in slowly and silenty. Dogs were prone to chase down their prey, but Rikimaru had taught the husky how to sneak like a cat. The two crept toward a cluster of bushes an eighth-mile down the creek from from the hill, and saw two figures engaging in hand-to-hand combat.

One, whose attire and build suggested a bandit, pummeled the other, weaker-looking old man, who could only raise his arms in a pathetic attempt to shield himself from the abuse.

“I can keep this up, old man,”

the bandit threatened between punches.

“You’re in my territory, so you have to pay the toll!”

Rikimaru released his dog, who barreled at the bandit at full speed, barking and lunging at the legs. The ninja then drew his sword and performed a massive leap over the bush, rolling his body into a moonsault that carried him over the creek. He landed in front of the preoccupied bandit, standing between the thug and the old man, sword at the ready.

“No, you are in Azuma territory, coward, and it is you who will pay for setting foot here!”

The bandit kicked Semimaru aside, then replied,

“Nice speech. Do you really think it scares me? Or him?”

Rikimaru felt a momentary surge of violent ki behind him, and turned in time to deflect a powerful jab aimed at his ribs by an attacker behind him.

An attacker, as it turned out, who happened to be the old man.

Savage moonlight glinted in the old man’s eyes as he sent another punch toward Rikimaru’s face, but the silver-haired ninja blocked it with the dull edge of his ninja-to. He could have used the cutting edge, but he had decided to keep the old man alive long to get the bottom of what was going on. He send a hard forward heel stamp to the old man’s chest, sending his opponent backward into the creek water.

Behind him, he could hear Semimaru viciously attacking the bandit, no doubt clamping his jaws on the nearest available appendage. He quickly turned around to face the bandit, but felt something sharp strike his right shoulder. This caused him to lower his right arm, which held the sword.

He decided not to worry about what had hit him for now, but a glance at the bandit had make it clear: moonlight glinted off a shuriken in the bandit’s hand, and Semimaru was unfortunately unable to keep the bandit from throwing the star-shaped blade.

Rikimaru quickly raised his sword to deflect the second shuriken, but his wounded shoulder compromised his accuracy and made holding the ninja-to difficult. He transfered the sword to his left hand, but that gave the bandit time to rush in and grab Rikimaru’s left arm.

The bandit tried to wrestle the ninja-to from Rikimaru’s grip, and the ninja sent a forward kick at the bandit to shrug him off. He was vaguely aware of the old man getting back to his feet and joining the fray.

However, he didn’t anticipate the old man punching his shoulder wound. The sudden wave of pain caused Rikimaru to let go of his sword, and the bandit quickly claimed it for his own. He stepped back, gripping the handle tightly, and thrust the blade toward Rikimaru’s chest. Rikimaru sidestepped the blade, and grabbed the old man by his kimono, pulling him into the path of the thrust. The old man was run through, and Rikimaru used this as a distraction to deliver a hard punch to the bandit’s jaw. The bandit was sent to the ground, the sword sliding out of his dying victim in the process.

Semimaru leapt at the bandit, trying to bite at the man’s neck, but the bandit again shrugged him off, and this time made a half-hearted slash at the dog with the sword, slicing it across the ribs. Semimaru fell to the ground with a yelp and rolled, trying to protect his wound.

“Semimaru!”

Rikimaru reacted with rage and tossed his the old man to the side, then ran to his pet’s side as the bandit took off over another nearby hill, ninja-to in hand.

He looked up as two familiar figures, Tatsumaru and Ayame, rushed to his side.

“What happened?”

Ayame asked.

Rikimaru gritted his teeth.

“I was set up,”

he replied simply.

The dying old man cackled for a few moments, then coughed up blood. He thought the whole thing was hilarious until the end.


“Based on your descriptions of the two men who attacked you, Rikimaru,”

Master Shiunsai announced in a calm voice to his pupils,

“it would seem they are not a bandit and beggar, respectively. Rather, they are ninja like yourselves, practicing the art of sichiho-de.”

Rikimaru, Ayame, and Tatsumaru nodded. Sichiho-de, or ‘seven disguises’, referred to the art of deception though concealment of identity. The ninja tradionally used a variety of possible disguises, far more than the most common seven from which the practice derived its name.

“That would explain why the two were so adept at fighting,”

Rikimaru observed.

“But why would they go through all that trouble in order to steal my ninja-to?”

And wound my dog? he thought ruefully.

Shiunsai pondered that for a moment.

“Any number of reasons are equally likely,”

he replied at last.

“Perhaps the man stole the sword as a last-ditch attempt to gain victory over you. Perhaps he and his accomplice wished to test their skills. Or,”

and he paused for effect, gaze locked on his students,

“they wanted to get our attention, and inform us of their presence. The attack could very well have been a challenge from one ninja ryu to another.”

His students digested this information.

“Does it really matter why they did it?”

Ayame asked in her usual eager-for-action manner.

“They stole from us, so we gotta get the sword back, an’ teach ’em a lesson!”

“The reason matters, young Ayame,”

the master reminded her.

“Motivation drives all actions, no matter how small. Determining the reason for one’s action allows us to predict that person’s future actions. And the people in question, after all, are ninja themselves. If any reason at all exists behind the theft of Rikimaru’s weapon, it is not one we should take lightly.”

“Yes, Sensei,”

Ayame conceded, her eyes downcast.

Tatsumaru was still curious.

“So…what is our course of action, Master?”

“Ayame is correct that the theft shall not go unanswered. Azuma village is merely a community of farmers and craftsmen as far as most outsiders know. Only Lord Gohda and some of his trusted subordinates know that we are a community of ninja. This knowledge is very deadly in the hands of enemies. We must ensure that this development does not become our undoing.

“Tatsumaru,”

he told the eldest disciple,

“you must seek out the enemy ninja’s encampment, and return to us with information on their location, number, and structure. Do not engage them in combat unless you are forced.”

Tatsumaru stood up and bowed, accepting his orders.

“I will carry out my mission, Sensei.”

As Tatsumaru walked toward the weapons room, Shiunsai turned to Rikimaru and Ayame.

“You two have not completed your training as full Azuma ninja, so it would be dangerous to send you on this mission.”

The two trainees looked disappointed, especially Ayame.

“Then what CAN we do, Master?”

she asked. You said ‘we’ had to deal with this problem. I assumed you didn’t just mean Tatsumaru!”

Shiunsai patiently waited for her to finish her objection. Ayame’s irreverence was always her shortcoming in some respects, but it also allowed her to speak her mind. Silencing her would only waste her considerable energy.

“The two of you will be held in reserve until Tatsumaru’s return. Depending on what he has to report, you may be needed. So your oders for now, are to wait.”

***

So Rikimaru and Ayame waited for their brother’s return. And waited. And waited. By midnight of the following evening, they were tired of waiting.

They gathered in the weapons room of the dojo, in full uniform as they had planned. What they were about to attempt would be difficult to say the least: sneak out of a ninja village in the dead of night. But their brother might be in trouble, so they gathered their weapons.

Rikimaru selected another ninja-to from the collection of swords on the wall. It wasn’t his favorite, which was stolen, but it would have to do. It was basically the same weapon as the one which was missing. However, to Rikimaru, it wasn’t as “broken in”. It felt unfamiliar. This only reinforced his desire to face the ninja who had stolen his weapon.

Ayame slipped both kodachi into their saya with savage glee. She had boh of her favorite weapons with her, and she was going to enjoy using them. So what if she had never used them outside of weapons training exercises? How could a real life-or-death situation be much different?

The two students also chose copious handfuls of shuriken, blowgun darts, and tetsubishi. They concealed the weaponry in their outfits, pulled their masks over their faces, and nodded to each other, ready to go.

Once they left the dojo, a they put their stealth training to use getting past the other cabins and across the wooden bridge to the bamboo forest. Their efforts went off without a hitch, even though they were unaware that they weren’t fooling anyone.

Shiunsai watched their departure from the dojo. He wished them luck in finding Tatsumaru.

***

“Are you sure he went this way?”

Ayame asked for the umpeenth time as they made their way across the stream and over the hill.

“Yes, I’m positive,”

hissed Rikimaru through his teeth. He’d lost his patience the second time his companion asked him that.

“But you don’t really know where it is they went, just the general direction. Reeeal brilliant.”

“Well, you asked if the bandit-ninja went this way, and my answer was ‘yes.’ Now kindly stay silent for two minutes so I can think!”

“You’re going to track them…how? I noticed you left Semimaru behind.”

“He’s injured, in case you forgot. I’m going to locate them by finding their ki.”

Rikimaru waited a few moments with a murderous glare for Ayame to stop laughing.

“Quiet!”

Ayame wiped her eyes and snorted. “

You? You can’t even control your own ki; how do you expect to track a bunch of ninja?”

“If you have any better ideas, I’m listening.”

“You always tell me to shut up.”

“Because you always talk, with nothing worthwhile to say.”

“At least I’ve mastered stealth. You couldn’t sneak up on a rock without it sounding an alarm for everyone to hear.”

“I fail to understand how someone can master stealth without mastering the art of keeping her opinions to herself!”

“Because I’m just that good, loser.”

“Ayame, we cannot afford to bicker amongst ourselves. Once we find our enemies, and return Tatsumaru and the sword safely to our village, we can insult each other as much as we want. Not before. Our mission takes priority.”

“Whatever.”

Rikimaru suddenly jerked his hand up to rivet Ayame’s attention, and he looked over his left shoulder.

“I feel something,”

he hissed, gradually lowering his position until he was crouched behind a cluster of bushes.

“You sure it’s not your tummy growling?”

Ayame whispered back, but she also slunk into the underbrush.

“Do you feel it too?”

Riki asked her, his voice even quieter.

Ayame nodded, and slowly unsheathed her kodachi.

Rikimaru reached into his dogi and drew his bamboo blowgun and a poison dart. He closed his eyes, mentally blotting out the background forest chatter. He tried to focus on the extraneous ki he felt, and any sounds that would give away the intruder’s presence.

He realized he was holding his breath again, and let it out quietly. Holding his breath was a bad habit he’d been trying to break himself of for years.

However, historically, things had a habit of going wrong whenever he let out his breath, so he raised the end of his blowgun to his coth-covered mouth, and prepared to fire it at where he guessed the stranger was.

He glanced over to Ayame and found that she was gone.

“Kiai!”

she shouted behind him, and Rikimaru quickly rose and found her attacking the newcomer, throwing him to the ground and pressing her blades to his neck.

“Please! Let me go!”

the man pleaded, and Riki tried to get a closer look at him. The man appeared to be a peasant from a nearby village, but given his experience last night, he wasn’t going to take anything at face-value.

“Identify yourself,”

Riki ordered.

“I…I am Watanabe Taro. I live in the village j-just beyond the hill! I have a wife and child! I–”

“Can I kill this guy?”

Ayame asked Riki.

“He’s getting on my nerves.”

“You can if he turns out to be a ninja,”

Rikimaru replied.

“Let him up.”

The man was forced to his feet, so the two ninja can get a better look at him in the moonlight.

“N-ninja?”

he stuttered.

“I swear I’m not one of them! I can prove it!”

Rikimaru looked him over.

“All right, I’m listening.”

Taro took a breath.

“Th-thank you, sir. As I said, I–“

A whistle of air and a loud thunk cut of his words, and Taro fell to his knees.

Riki and Ayame stepped back immediately. They saw an arrow buried in Taro’s back.

“That can’t be good,”

Ayame commented.

Rikimaru drew his ninja-to. The two Azuma ninja looked around warily. “Show yourselves,” Rikimaru ordered.

Another arrow answered him, burying itself in the tree trunk right next to Rikimaru’s head. Its angle revealed that it was shot from the branches above them.

Four figures emerged from the shadowy underbrush, dressed in camoflaged dogi that rendered them almost invisible against their surroundings. Without a word they converged on the two young ninja, weilding swords while their brethren in the trees loaded arrows into bows.

The Azuma ninja rolled away from their attackers into the forest where they would have more cover. The enemy ninja quickly separated the two, putting the Azuma very much on the defensive.

Rikimaru clashed swords with two of his camoflaged opponents, who guarded a little too well for his tastes. They matched him for swordsmanship, but luckily they were unable to get past Rikimaru’s own guard.

Ayame, meanwhile, had better luck driving her two enemies back, since her erratic slices were much harder to anticipate and block. She scored several slashes on them, getting past their guard. She ran to a tree, leaping to the trunk and backflipping off of it into her opponents’ midst. A downward slash, sent one to the ground, which left one.

Rikimaru rolled backward to give himself more room, all the while drawing a handful of tetsubishi and tossing them to the grass at his enemies’ feet. The ninja failed to notice the caltrops until they stepped on them and injured their feet on the spikes. The young Azuma ninja took advantage of the preoccupied attackers and dashed back toward his foes, slashing at them with his sword and taking care not to step on the caltrops himself.

Ayame yelped as her opponent sliced across her arm, drawing blood. The camoflaged ninja chuckled at her injury, and moved in for the kill. Ayame looked up at the trees for a moment, then quickly sidestepped her attacker’s charge. She buried one of her kodachi in his back, then used him as a human shield against the arrows raining from the trees.

Having also noticed the archers’ resumed barrage, Rikimaru climbed a tree and perched between several branches. Once again drawing his blowgun, he loaded a dart and took aim. He brew out his breath sharply and shot the dart at one of the archers, scoring a direct hit in the shoulder. The archer dropped the bow and held his wound as the poison invaded his system. He fell out of the tree and landed rather badly on the ground, breaking his leg.

Meanwhile, Ayame busied herself searching her human shield for any useful items. Aside from a shuriken, he didn’t have anything worthwhile to share, so she dropped his arrow-ridden corpse and rolled behind a tree for cover.

“These idiots ambush us, then don’t even have the decency to carry any grenades we can use? That stinks!”

She flung the shuriken at one of the archers, missing him but breaking his bowstring. It kept him from firing any more arrows.

Rikimaru wished his perch in the tree provided more cover from arrows. He quickly climbed further up the tree, arrows missing him by scant inches, and found a secure perch on a particularly strong branch. He judged the distance between his present location and that of the closest sniper, and moonsaulted off his branch. He landed on the same branch as the archer, and was pleased to find that their combined weight was too much for the limb, which cracked loudly under the pressure.

The branch gave way, sending the two falling toward the ground. They both landed perfectly, but Rikimaru was the faster to recover. He brought the blade of his ninja-to downward upon the archer’s neck before the latter could load another arrow into the bow.

The other archer, who decided his usefulness as a sniper had ended now that he had a broken bowstring, dropped out of his tree to contront the Azuma upstarts. He ran toward Rikimaru, but only got halfway there before a kaginawa wrapped around his legs. Ayame yanked on the grappling rope and sent the ninja falling on his face. She crossed the distance between them, bundling her rope back up before finishing off the ninja with her kodachi.

“Is that all of them?”

Rikimaru asked, walking to Ayame.

“I hope so. C’mon, we’ve wasted enough time.”

Ayame turned to leave, then saw Rikimaru looking around alertly, frozen in place.

“What are you doing? What’s goin’ on?”

She then noticed the fog that had begun to shroud the forest.

Rikimaru studied the mist quizzically.

“I–I don’t know…but keep your guard up.”

The fog thickened until it surrounded them like a smokescreen. That seemed to be a good description, in fact, as the two Azuma ninja began to feel drowzy. It was a cloud of sleeping gas. They staggered backward weakly, then fell to the ground, losing unconscious.

A shadowy figure emerged from the center of the fog, rather pleased with his handiwork.

***

Master Shiunsai felt a presence of a different kind in his home at the dojo. He opened his eyes and stood up, grabbing his walking stick and unsheathing its hidden blade. He turned around and faced the intruder who had entered.

“It’s me,”

Tatsumaru assured his master, stepping into the light. He looked injured, as if he’d taken on an entire army and won through sheer accident.

“I’ve just returned from my mission. I found where they were hiding, but they found me, so I had to grab the sword and fight my way out.”

He held up Rikimaru’s ninja-to, and gratefully handed it to his sensei. The blade’s tip was covered in blood.

“I confronted their master, a man named Abano, and killed him in mortal combat. I was injured, however, and it’s taken me a full day and night to return.”

Shiunsai nodded at this information.

“How many were there in the clan?”

“Roughly twenty. A few survived, but they escaped into the hills. Without organization, they probably won’t be a threat, but they could still endanger the nearby villages.”

“I see…and did this clan have a name?”

“Abano said they were called ‘The Mist’.” Tatsumaru studied his master’s face. “Master…you seem troubled.”

Shiunsai let out a breath.

“Rikimaru and Ayame went looking for you at midnight. There is no telling what they may have found.”

To be continued…