Jizan, Saudi Arabia, in the Waking World
“Your insinuation offends, Kameyo-san,” Lady Hanako spat bitterly. Her snow-white gown was stained with the blood of slain warriors; Shiori had personally disposed of the warrior Katashi when Mika Coretti’s body first hit the sands. Hanako gripped a bloodied tachi, while Lady Kameyo viciously brandished her bladed fan. The two old women circled very slowly like tigers. Several bodies lay at their feet, while behind them, their clan members regrouped.
“Prune-skinned whore,” Kameyo snarled back at her. “You are as godless as any of the other heathen clan leaders.”
“We are Hanako,” she rasped venomously. “If there is any shred of decency amongst the clans it rests with us, you shriveled old bitch.”
“Hanako history is rife with the poisoning of its enemies!”
“As if your two-faced geisha and oiran ancestors were any different!” Hanako snorted. “And I marvel at your calling me a whore when there isn’t a man alive who hasn’t seen the opened legs of a Murasaki!”
Merely an hour earlier, these two women would’ve never spoken to each other in this manner. Though their mutual loathing had growing increasingly blatant over the years, they’d always managed to keep their language in check around each other. Tonight, however, gave them the excuse they’d spent decades longing for.
Kameyo swiftly brought up her fan for an overhead strike right when Noriko shouted for them to stop.
“Kameyo-sama, Hanako-sama – Raizo and Mika are still alive!”
“What?” Kameyo snapped over her shoulder, unwilling to take her eyes off her long-time rival.
“They’re not dead,” Noriko called to them. “Their hearts are beating normally. They just seem to be…asleep.”
Lady Hanako raised an eyebrow. “Asleep? Why poison a warrior if only to put them to sleep?”
She and Kameyo lowered their weapons and slowly backed away from each other.
“Leave the desert tonight,” Kameyo hissed dangerously. “Pack up your dead and go. Your champion has fallen. And unless you want the rest of the clans to think Katashi poisoned his opponent, you will keep this ‘unfortunate’ incident strictly between us.”
The Barged of the Damned, the Shadow Lands
“It’s amazing what being declared clan champion does for a man’s sex life,” Tsuyoshi snorted, going to stand by the boat’s edge. “You can imagine my surprise when men and women suddenly started pouring out of the woodwork, seemingly out of nowhere, each one eagerly promising to fuck me up one side and down the other…when merely one day earlier none of you assholes even bothered to learn my name.
“Now, I may not be the fearsome last-member-standing of the dreaded Clan of Black Sand,” he smiled wryly, “but I am a ninja, Raizo. I can smell a setup from miles away.”
“I don’t know what the hell you’re talking about,” Raizo replied immediately. He was still too confused to panic or feel creeped out, even though Tsuyoshi gave off an eerie vibe in a major way.
“Of course, you don’t,” Tsuyoshi snickered. “If Kameyo-sama had a back-up plan to ensure Murasaki victory – and you’d be naïve to think she didn’t – do you really think she’d share it with you? Have you been parted from the Ozunu for so long you’ve forgotten your rightful place as a pawn?”
Raizo was growing irritated. “Minutes ago I was in the desert. Now I’m on the sea – how? How is that possible?”
“You’ve been slaughtered like a pig and yet lived to tell the tale,” Tsuyoshi laughed. “You’ve disappeared into thin air – how are those things possible? Come on, Raizo…in ancient times, we were called demons for a reason.” He suddenly turned away from Raizo, looking across the black and endless sea. His voice dripped venom when he spoke next. “Have you ever met a real demon, Raizo?”
“What the fuck is going on?” Raizo demanded, finally impatient. He didn’t do well with long-winded and cryptic. He was a warrior, not a wise man. “I was in the desert, just moments ago. How am I here?”
“You’re still in the desert, dumb-ass,” Tsuyoshi rolled his eyes. “At least your body is. Funny thing about the human body, Raizo: it can survive without limbs, without several internal organs even. But the mind?” He tsked and shook his head. “Take away the mind and the body is royally fucked.”
Raizo blinked, trying to put the pieces together. “So…this is all in my mind?”
“No,” Tsuyoshi snorted. “You are your mind, just as I am mine. And this—” he gestured to the boat and sea, “—this is the Realm of the Shadow. It’s from here that all ninja derive our…abilities. Our ancestors learned to tap into its power centuries ago. But not until my clan came along was anyone smart enough to wonder, ‘Hey…what would happened it we actually entered the Realm itself?’”
“And so you brought me here to ‘kill’ my mind?” Raizo paused. “Kill me before our fight, using an ability no else knows about? How cowardly is that?”
“No, see cowardly would be to use pussy to neutralize the enemy, Raizo!” Tsuyoshi snapped. “Whatever tactic the Murasaki are using is low, not to mention really tacky. It’s beneath you. It’s beneath us both. But here, here we are our truest selves. Wars are not won with the sword, but the will, Raizo, and in the Shadow Lands, only those with the strongest will can survive.”
Behind where Raizo stood on the Barge was another doorway to another cabin. On the floor of that cabin, Mika was slowly coming to, her head pounding miserably. She wanted to shout through the door to tell Tsuyoshi to pipe down for a minute until her migraine passed, but she figured since neither man knew she was even there, it was probably best to keep silent.
She’d always wondered about the ninja ability to heal or to vanish from plain sight. She’d always wondered why the ancient writings called them all demons, supposedly “summoned from the depths of hell.”
Now she was here, amidst the dark and terrifying source of their power.
If Ryan Maslow were here, he’d tell her she’d truly and finally taken her research too far. And for the first time ever, she’d agree with him.
Her limbs were all in tact. She was still wearing the same muslin dress she’d worn back in the desert. Her hair was the same, as far as she could tell, as were her sandals. As her mind cleared, the pain subsided; after all, she shouldn’t be feeling any pain. She wasn’t really here…just her mind.
Mika rose to her feet, quietly creeping to the door to better listen to the conversation. She had to remain undetected at all costs.
“Do you remember your parents, Raizo?” Tsuyoshi asked suddenly, his words steeped in bitterness. “Do you recall what it was like to be abandoned by those who bore you?”
It was now Raizo’s turn to snicker. “Is this the part where you try to remind me of my loyalty to the Ozunu? You gonna try to guilt trip me into some shame-fest about how I’m a traitor and a coward and don’t deserve to live? Save it, kiddo,” he chuckled. “I don’t know how it is in your clan, but in mine, remorse was simply a waste of time.”
“Please,” Tsuyoshi rolled his eyes pretty eyes once more. “There isn’t a ninja alive who hasn’t dreamt of butchering their whole clan just for shits and giggles. Quite frankly, I’m surprised you didn’t snap back in the day when they executed Kiriko. But then again, you were Ozunu’s golden boy. You didn’t want to fuck with the destiny he promised you.” Tsuyoshi added with relish, “You saw his powers. You wanted them for yourself.”
“Every orphan wants power,” Raizo chortled. “My parents were were broke, illiterate farmers from South Korea. I was their ninth child, and their sixth one to survive past the age of three. We had nothing, owned nothing, sometimes went days eating nothing. I don’t remember their names or what they looked like, but that I hated them? You bet I remember that. When I was taken from them and given a new name, Lord Ozunu gave me the first real meal in ages. A hot bowl of noodles was all it took to make me forget my family.
“Now, I’m guessing,” Raizo smirked, “by your choice of a ship and sea to represent the Shadow Lands, your father was a fisherman.”
“Yeah,” Tsuyoshi nodded, looking out onto the endless depths. “That he was.”
“Some unresolved issues, I take it?” Raizo laughed emptily. “Something you can’t seem to get over, no matter how many people you ice?”
“You were taken from your parents,” Tsuyoshi said solemnly, before looking him in the eye and adding, “Izanagi bought me from mine.”
Raizo paused for a moment. He’d heard of such kids while growing up in the halls of Ozunu, the ones whose parents willingly sold them. Takeshi was such a child, and like Takeshi, they always grew up to be sociopaths.
“See, Raizo, you strike me as a person who’s not very loyal to a lot of people,” Tsuyoshi continued with scary calm. “In fact, I don’t think you even know what loyalty is. You just go with the flow. Your family doesn’t feed you? Fine, you’ll behave for Ozunu because he will. You liked your little childhood sweetheart and awful lot, but not enough to do something when a guy you hated cut out her heart. The Murasaki want you to fight? Sure, as long as you get to sleep in nice hotels, eat at the best restaurants, and fuck a really hot woman every night – why not? I mean, Ozunu never gave you any perks like that. His idea of a fringe benefit was a broken, tacky faux gold watch.” Tsuyoshi laughed. “Some of these clan leaders can be such misers, am I right?”
Raizo was now beyond annoyed. “Is there a point to this?”
“Yeah, bro,” Tsuyoshi grinned. “There’s a word for people like you: whore. You’ll unsheathe that big, dangerous sword of yours and wield it for anyone who’s willing to give you what you want. Like that Mika Coretti chick. Once you burned down the halls of Ozunu, did you ever tell her she was safe so long as she didn’t have your ass hanging around her, drawing unwanted attention? Did you tell her upfront why you weren’t disappearing back into the shadows where you belonged? Or did you lie to her, Raizo? Did you promise her a ‘normal’ life? A shido for two with a white picket fence high up in the snow-capped mountains? ‘Cause I get it, man – I’ve seen Mika. For a taste of that, I’d tell her anything she wanted to hear!”
“I love Mika,” Raizo hissed. “And I don’t expect a soulless fuck like you to know anything about what that means.”
“I know that when you love something, sometimes you have to let it go, for its own good,” Tsuyoshi smirked wryly. “I know that when a woman you love is in danger, you don’t go making all the big decisions with your dick, Raizo. I mean, seriously, bro…when you’re pounding away between those dark thighs, and sucking on those perfect tits, are you even thinking about what could happen to her tomorrow? About what’s going to happen to her when you don’t wake up tonight?”
“I don’t know what your plans are for the evening,” Raizo bit out, “but you best believe I’m not sticking around here forever.”
Tsuyoshi looked genuinely amused. “Yeah, you are,” he nodded slowly. “See, it is my will which brought us here. The only way out is through me and I’ve been sailin’ these here waters a lot longer than you. Here,” he sneered, “the strongest mind wins, and your mind is just too fickle, bro.”
Back in the Waking World
Shiori put down her pen flashlight and let Mika’s right eyelid close. “As far as I can tell,” she sighed, “they’re in some sort of state which mimics the REM stage of the sleep cycle. There’s a difference, but only a subtle one.”
Kameyo sniffed the wooden goblet from which Raizo and Mika drank. “I don’t smell anything, but that doesn’t mean something isn’t in here.”
“Whatever it was,” Noriko reasoned, pacing the tent, “it was powerful enough to knock them both out with a single sip.” She shrugged helplessly. “I’ve never heard of such a poison. Our poisons kill; they don’t put people in comatose states. I’ve never read of anything like this in our records, Mistress.”
“It seems,” the old woman sighed, “that Mika was right. The Izanagi have been holding out on us.”
“But to what end?” Shiori asked. “Does their clan want to a different champion to face Tsuyoshi? Did they think they had a better chance at success if Raizo was out of the running?”
“Preemptive strike,” Noriko murmured softly. “We had our Plan B, they had theirs.”
“And they tried to pin it on the Hanako,” Shiori nodded. “We’ve underestimated their cleverness.”
“No more,” Kameyo shook her head. “Put this incident in the records. And from hereon out, tell our all ninja to keep the Izanagi at arm’s length. Send new spies to Kyoto. And Noriko, get me Hotel Red Sand on the phone. I need Kimiyo to look through our herbal lexicons.”
While Noriko rose to do her mistress’s bidding, Shiori lingered by Mika’s side for a moment.
“I don’t know what new mess you and that worthless man of yours are in now,” she whispered, “but I will do what I can to bring you back.” She took one of the silver crossbow bolts she’d given Mika as a gift and placed it in her right hand. “Remember I am with you, Mika.”
She leaned to softly kiss Mika’s lips, sighing, “You still taste like pineapple.”
On the Barge of the Damned
Mika touched her lips, blinking in confusion at the feel of another’s when no one stood before her. She looked down at her right hand, where cold metal had suddenly appeared and blinked again.
She padded her robes quickly in the dark, and yes, sure enough, her trusty new crossbow was strapped to her side.
But who touched her lips? And how was it she’d gotten the bolt? Was it because someone placed it on her person? Is that how the Shadow Lands worked?
If it’s touching you…does that mean it ‘crosses over’?
Mika racked her brain, trying piece things together. When ninja vanished into the shadows, their clothing vanished with them. All ninja abilities were derived from the Shadow Lands.
She’d been carrying her crossbow with her when she collapsed back in the desert, but not the bolts. She had not wanted to waste pure silver bolts.
Shiori had given her those beautiful silver bolts. It was probably Shiori kissing her now, worrying for her safety. Mika’s heart suddenly warmed to the Murasaki spitfire, regretting every mean thought she’d ever had about her. Even now, after everything, Shiori still cared.
Mika picked up her crossbow, and slowly, carefully began to load it. Just one shot. Only one shot.
Best to take her time and make it count.
“Believe it or not, I respect you, Raizo,” Tsuyoshi mused. “Many of us respect you, and are grateful you rid us of your asshole mentor. But you also helped to shed unnecessary light on all the clans, which has not gone over too well.”
“Good,” Raizo spat. “You can all die, as far as I’m concerned.”
“See what I mean?” Tsuyoshi laughed. “First, you’re thinking about sticking with the Murasaki as their champion, wallowing neck deep in Kameyo’s favor. And now you don’t care if she and hers get killed off or imprisoned? How come you don’t wish the same for you, Raizo? What makes you think you’re better than us? What makes you exempt from punishment? Your angsty little crush on a long-dead ex? This fleeting, meaningless fuck-fest you have with Mika? What makes you think you’re more deserving of the Day World than we are?”
“Because I believe in choice,” Raizo rasped lowly. “I don’t know what you thought you’d accomplish by bringing me here, Tsuyoshi, but you’re not getting shit from me. You’re right about one thing, though…I am better. I don’t have to blackmail anyone or threaten their life just to make them stay with me. See, I never had to tell Mika she was in danger. She knew. She always knew. But she never balked because our being danger was never the main issue between us. I love her, she loves me, and as far as we’re concerned, nothing else us matters.
“You people, on the other hand, are like a desperate one-night stand who can’t take a fucking hint,” Raizo hissed poisonously. “Different clan names, different abilities, same shit-for-brains underneath. Get a clue, already: Mika and I don’t give a fuck about any of you. You really wanna know what we’re thinking about when we’re together? Here’s not hint: not you.”
Tsuyoshi opened his pretty mouth to fire something back, but behind Raizo, the cabin door suddenly flung wide, followed by a shrill, whizzing sound. Raizo turned to face the sound, saw Mika, and instinctively moved to place himself between her and Tsuyoshi. But when he turned, he met the glassy stare of his enemy. Protruding from the ninja’s skull was the silver end of a crossbow bolt, with brilliant red blood seeping down the front of his face. When his body hit the deck of the bridge, the black sea calmed, and the Shadow Lands filled with perfect silence.
Coming back from the Shadow Lands was like being resuscitated after almost drowning. Raizo and Mika woke in their tent, gasping for breath and clutching their chests in throbbing pain. One of the Murasaki assigned to watch them called for her mistress, who came rushing in followed by Shiori and Noriko.
Even though their experience was brief, it seemed to take forever to explain. With each new description, the horror on Kameyo’s face became even more pronounced.
“We must alert the other clans,” Noriko said finally. “The Izanagi have kept this secret long enough.”
“Everyone’s going to go frantically combing through their history now,” Shiori gasped, “looking for incidents of clan members who suddenly fell asleep, never to wake.”
“It will mean war for certain,” Kameyo murmured to no one in particular, looking even older all of a sudden. “There will be no way to stop it this time. None will listen to reason.” She suddenly looked at Raizo and Mika. “You are the only ones known to survive this. You have to help us.”
“No,” Raizo shook his head firmly. “Not again. I fought in your tournament. All seven Tigers are dead. I kept my part of the bargain, Kameyo, so the way I see it, Mika and I are free to go.”
Kameyo’s eyes narrowed dangerously. “I see differently.”
Raizo’s eyes narrowed just as tightly. “I don’t care.”
He deftly snatched up a nearby scimitar, while behind him, Mika wordlessly loaded her crossbow and aimed.
She didn’t know what was about to go down or how it was going to happen. All she knew is that never again would she watch Raizo fight like an gladiator while she was dressed like a living doll, constantly summon and scrutinized at someone else’s whim. Death was better than slavery.
Kameyo hissed over her shoulder to Noriko, “Well? What are you waiting for? Kill him!”
“You know,” Raizo sighed wearily, “after a while, that line gets really old. You clan leaders seriously need to get together and come up with a new one.”
Silence filled the tent as none of the Murasaki moved to obey their mistress. Kameyo turned scorching eyes onto her commander.
All heads suddenly turned to see the young commander stiffly shake her head. Her words came out brisk and frosty.
“No more, old woman,” she intoned dangerously. “This madness of yours is over. You brought a man into our clan and tainted the purity of our legacy. You turned our warriors into mere entertainment for an outsider, and even worse…you drink like a washed-up prostitute haunting the back alleys of Tokyo.” Noriko unsheathed her sword. “Raizo and Mika are free to go.
“But you, ‘Tortoise Woman’…you’ve outlived your wisdom. You are no longer necessary.”
A split second later, the old woman’s head rolled across the tent floor.
Epilogue: Hotel Red Sand
Two days later
“Are you sure you don’t want to take your things with you?” Shiori asked as she watched Mika pack the last of things in her old room. She picked up Mika’s golden headdress. “Somewhere, Kameyo is rolling in her grave bemoaning such expensive fashion going to waste.”
Mika laughed. “Put them in the clan vaults,” she said. “And write a good story about me in your diary to go with them.”
“At least take the crossbow and bolts,” Shiori insisted. “To keep you safe?”
“Let’s be real,” Mika sighed. “No one’s coming after me. The Izanagi have been lying to their fellow clans for over five hundred years. Ain’t no way Raizo and I are still a priority to anyone.” She yawned. “I bet you they’re so mad, they don’t even remember our names. It’s going to be awesome returning to anonymity.”
“Where will you go now?”
Mika raised an eyebrow. “Why do you ask? So you can drop in every now and again?”
Shiori shrugged. “I promise not to kill your husband when I do.”
“As if you could,” came Raizo’s iron voice from the doorway. He looked at Mika with a neutral gaze. “Are you ready to go?”
“Eager actually,” she told him, hoisting her duffle bag over her right shoulder. “Shiori, it’s been sweet, but you know it would never have worked out between us.” She gave the ninja a polite peck on the cheek before following Raizo out the door.
They met Lady Noriko on the way out of Hotel Red Sand; Mika almost didn’t recognize her with her fine scarlet kimono and her hair done up elaborately. She certainly didn’t look comfortable in her new threads, or her new role as leader of the Murasaki Clan. It suddenly occurred to Mika that all mistresses of the Murasaki probably started out this way, stiff and disdainful of their new finery. They probably loathed this aspect of their role until years of living in luxury finally corrupted them.
Maybe someday it will be Noriko’s head rolling across the floor, with her young commander declaring her unnecessary, Mika mused.
Noriko didn’t speak to them, nor they to her. There’s was nothing left to say.
And besides, the world of daylight was waiting.
~ fin ~