POWER OF THE NINJA: FIRE
Akira and I recoiled, pressing our backs against the wall. Fear gripped our hearts; we tried our best to keep our breath under control. The troll sniffed the air and lowered his head. A massive hand swiped at the darkness as it tried to find the strange odor that annoyed it so much. Finally, unable to take the frustration, the troll released a mighty roar, raised a spiked club high above his head and brought it down where we were hiding.
We sprang into action; unfortunately we went in opposite directions. The cuff chain pulled taut, jerked us to a halt and our feet flew out from under us. We landed on our backs and rolled to our sides. Akira and I were lucky the spiked club landed just in front of us. The troll must’ve seen our movement as we scrambled to our feet and backed up. It swiped a hand through the air again and grabbed the chain that connected us. He roared as he lifted us above his head and with all his might he threw us back to the floor. I landed on my side and felt a sharp pain in my ribs. Akira did a face plant on the floorboards, but quickly got up and looked at me. He had a bloody nose.
The troll bellowed again and reached for us. Answering bellows echoed along the walls as other trolls joined the hunt.
“We need to move as one,” I shouted over the noise. “This way!”
With my weapon I slashed at the creature’s lower leg and it rose up in pain. The other two trolls lumbered closer to see what the matter was and noticed our movements. They also became agitated and drew their clubs over their heads.
Akira and I stayed low to the ground. As our training took over, we moved together, avoiding the clubs that simultaneously smashed to the floor. We ran around the steps, weaving in and out of the troll’s legs, and summarized that the troll’s eyesight was bad, but their sense of smell was excellent. The creatures would pin-point us soon if we didn’t do something.
We approached one of the subordinate trolls. Akira crouched low, on the balls of his feet, and gathered Ki to his legs. As soon as the creature turned to face him, Akira sprang up, slashed first at the creature’s side, and then close to where the kidneys would be on the back. The troll shrieked as she slashed at him with long, dirty claws yet my movements on the ground distracted the creature enough for Akira to latch onto her long hair and swing to the ground.
The leader turned swiftly, swinging his club with so much force he took out the entire stair. Splintered wood flew in every direction and the troll roared in anger that he had missed us. Now on the ground, Akira tucked his kama into his sash, grabbed onto the cuff on his wrist and started to spin in a circle. I ran around him, faster and faster we went until I was airborne. My feet hit one section of the wall and I ran with my sword at the ready. I slashed at the leader five times before I flipped to land on the floor. The troll let out a blood-curdling howl.
The third troll decided to come to the rescue, but Akira had other ideas. He pulled out a few throwing stars and whipped them at the troll’s lower legs. The creature screamed as they struck, one, two, three, up the side of his leg. Akira sprang into a dive roll and I moved with him. Side-by-side and completely in sync, we zigzagged back and forth until we were directly below the troll. I landed on one knee, the other positioned like a step, as Akira vaulted off my leg and slashed the troll across his neck with his kama.
Terrified of the tiny, horrible, biting things that hurt them, the trolls roared and turned to run. They slammed into the side of the building, smashed down a portion of the wall, and fell over each other. In their haste, they slipped on the wet rocks near the falls and fell in.
Akira and I stepped out into the fresh morning air and watched them.
I favored my side and watched the creatures thrash in the churning water. “I didn’t think trolls liked the water.”
“They don’t,” Akira said stifling a chuckle and wiped his bloody nose on his arm.
The nocturnal sounds of the forest filled the air as my team and I silently slipped through the brush. Our footsteps made no sound as we melted into the night, blending with the dark environment. Crouched low, our bodies tight, we moved as a unit, keeping an equal distance apart yet staying within sight of each other. Masakazu carried our weapon of choice, a bomb; our objective was to deliver it to our destination and blow up the building.
“You’re doing well,” Master Jun said in our headsets. “Remember your formation. Spread out now, but move as one once you get there.”
“Got it,” Shinji said.
“I’m all over it,” Masa said.
I didn’t respond. I was worried that Masa and Shinji would mess up the plan like they’ve done in the past. Not only that, I was more worried that if the strategy didn’t go as planned I would lose my temper and seriously hurt someone again. Losing my temper was something I couldn’t allow to happen; my career or life could actually depend on my restraint.
I had a history of temper tantrums - not the kind little kids have. Mine were violent; the kind that landed fellow Shinobi busted up, bloody and with broken bones in the hospital. All of my instructors, even Captain Yoshida, head of the Black Dragon Squad, had issued the warning to my uncle and made it quite clear that any more violent acts on my part would be dealt with in a most severe fashion. They never said what that meant, but I knew deep inside that it couldn’t be good.
The stress of what was at stake played heavily on my mind and I took so many precautions that I wasn’t focusing on the mission. I had lost my connection with the elements, distanced myself from the environment and didn’t realize how disconnected I’d become until a twig snapped under my foot.
My team froze and crouched to the ground. Tension was heavy in the air. All eyes were on me.
“Duncan,” Shinji whispered into our headsets.
“Duncan!” Master Jun growled in a low, commanding tone, “Concentrate!”
Shinji and Masa peered at me through the trees and brush. Though they were dressed in traditional black ninja garb and masks, concealed perfectly against the night and blending with the forest shadows, my trained eyes could still make them out. More importantly, I felt their presence. The worried looks in their eyes could not be mistaken from a fellow Shinobi and I immediately felt concern wash over me from both sides.
“Duncan, you okay?” Masa whispered.
It was a valid question. The guys knew I would normally never make such a stupid mistake. I released a deep breath and nodded, “I’m fine. We’re almost there. Let’s get this done.”
Stealthy teamwork was only the beginning of a mission. The timing and response was essential. One slip up and a team member could get seriously hurt, or die. As team leader I couldn’t let my personal issues compromise the mission.
We approached the outer wall. Guards were positioned all around the building.
“Shinji, Masa, go check the front and back entrances,” I said. “Do not engage the enemy.”
Without a word they disappeared into the night. Moments later their voices came over my headset.
“Four guards at the front,” Shinji said.
“Two at the back,” Masa said. “But only one on the roof.”
Now that I knew the guards’ positions we could move forward with our plan. “Regroup,” I said.
Within moments we were at the southern wall, which was surrounded by forest. Gathering Ki in my legs I easily leaped into a very tall tree, caught the lowest branch and pulled myself up to the highest point. My target was the guard on the roof. He would spot us as soon as we approached the building. I had to take him out.
I removed a carved black bow from my back, laced it with an arrow and lined up. The bowstring strained against my grip until I let it fly. Though I could kill the man, that wasn’t my objective. Ninja believed in preserving life above all else, rather than hastening the inevitable. Only when necessary did we kill. Keeping this in mind I made sure I had prepared my arrow accordingly. The tip had been dipped in a powerful and fast-acting sleep agent hours ago. The poison only needed to graze my target and he would go down, which was exactly what happened as the arrow nicked his lower leg just above his tabi boot.
“Area clear,” Shinji reported after a brief moment of watching the roof. We wanted to make sure no one noticed the guard fall. “Looks like he was the only one up there.”
“Seems a bit odd, don’t you think?” Masa muttered.
I paused, raised an eyebrow and thought about his comment.
“He’s got a point,” Shinji said to me, nodding agreement.
It could be a trap, but time was running out. I could move forward and take a chance on being captured, or hesitate and not complete the mission. Either way – I failed.
“Well, Duncan?” Shinji prompted, “You’re team leader on this mission. What do you want to do?”
I squinted my eyes in the dark, scanned the area, and watched the guards at the front of the building pace back and forth unaware of our presence. Yes, it could be a trap, and it was a risk, but all missions held an element of risk. It was all part of the thrill of special missions, night ops and training to become a Black Dragon.
“We go,” I commanded quietly.
Without another word we laced our bows with arrows, secured with ropes and aimed them across the wide expanse of grass between the trees and the roof. The arrows lodged in the tarred roof with expert precision. We tied the other ends to the tree to create a single bridge and maneuvered to the roof using only our ankles and hands.
Our objective was simple: enter the building at the furthest point away from our goal, penetrate down to the bottom floor and plant the bomb in the center of the building. This building just happened to be the office of the Government Official, played by Akira, my long time rival. It seemed a bit ridiculous to enter the building so far away from our goal; however Master Jun wanted us to know what it would be like to do the mission when the situation wasn’t ideal.
Shinji and Masa squatted down and crept to the side of the roof to watch the guards below, while I went to work removing the screws of an air vent. Once the vent opened, I dropped down to the floor below and gave a soft owl hoot to let my team know it was clear to follow.
The upper floor was pitch black.
“Night vision,” I whispered to my team.
Our infrared goggles came in handy when it was too dark to see your hand in front of your face. The night vision lit up the hallway, turning everything red to our eyes, and made it easy to walk down a long staircase. Half way down we were interrupted.
“That’s - far - enough!” came a loud commanding voice from the bottom of the stairs.
The lights came on and we quickly removed our goggles. There were guards behind us at the top of the stairs and guards at the bottom. Accompanying them was the leader, Akira. At the moment it seemed we were trapped, but for a ninja the possibilities were endless.
“I know one of you has it,” Akira said. “Hand it over.”
Shinji looked at me and shrugged, Masa picked his teeth as if he didn’t hear the question, and a slight smile passed over my lips as I stared intently at Akira. In a blur of motion I threw a smoke pellet in front of us. The explosion released a thick cloud that allowed the three of us to split up. Masa jumped the banister, and Shinji hid behind me, mirroring my body shape to make it look like he had disappeared.
“Don’t let them get away!” Akira shouted. “Where’s the third one? Go find him!”
The guards charged. Several of them jumped the banister and ran through the building in search of Masa. Shinji and I each grabbed a guard approaching from behind and threw them down the stairs into the oncoming group. They tumbled to the bottom steps in a heap, taking Akira with them.
“Damn it!” Akira shouted, getting up and pulling out his kama. “Give me that bomb!”
Shinji and I turned and ran up the steps; I went to the right, he went to the left. There weren’t many places to hide, but that wasn’t the idea. As soon as the guards hit the top landing we were on them. In a blur of fists and motion, Shinji and I sprang out of the dark and landed punches and back fist strikes until the guards were knocked back down the steps. Akira dodged their falling bodies and ran forward, kama drawn and ready to engage me. I drew my sword as I ran down the steps and met him head on. Sparks ignited as our blades clashed and we held each other’s hard gaze, neither giving in yet straining against the other’s strength.
“You lose, Duncan,” Akira taunted, leaning in close to my face, “You and your loser team.”
I felt anger well up inside me and a puff of air whipped my hair up off my shoulders. A knot of inner panic rolled in my stomach. I couldn’t let the anger take over, not now, not like this. With my hatred of Akira I knew I would kill him if I didn’t suppress it. Whatever this was, it had a mind of its own and if I allowed it the anger would take control of me. I would black out while my body reacted on its own. I wasn’t going to allow that to happen again.
Just then Shinji slid past us down the banister, hit the floor running and headed toward our goal. It was the perfect distraction and even helped me reach a small element of calm.
“Stop him!” Akira shouted.
I used that opportunity to kick Akira in the chest, forcing him to stumble backwards, and then allowed myself to be captured by a group of guards that bumbled down the steps. It was a small price to pay for the good of the mission. The other guards ran off in the direction Masa and Shinji took.
“You still lose,” Akira said, getting in my face and poking me in the chest with his finger.
“No, he doesn’t!” came the commanding voice of Master Jun. Small yet powerfully built for a well seasoned retired ninja, Master Jun appeared out of the darkness and approached the bottom of the steps. He stood with his hands clasped behind his back and stared at us like a wolf sizing up prey.
“But sensei…” Akira started, and was silenced as soon as Master Jun put up his hand. Over the past few months Akira had learned the hard way not to argue with the Ops Training Sensei.
“Duncan and his team faced a difficult goal. To reach that goal he was willing to be captured so one of his team could plant the bomb and set it off. Masa accomplished this task. Your men were too late to stop him. Time was running out and Duncan had to make a crucial decision. Everyone in this building, including Duncan and his team, would’ve died once the bomb went off. Allowing himself to be captured was for the good of the mission.”
“You mean…” Akira was slightly startled, looking from Master Jun to me.
“That’s right,” I shrugged off his guards, sheathed my sword and straightened my gi, “It was a suicide mission. That’s what I chose. I took a gamble that we would come out alive, or at least one of us would, but was willing to make the ultimate sacrifice.”
“That’s stupid. Why would you do that?” Akira sneered.
“Because I wanted to know what kind of choices I would be willing to make in such a case. I wanted to know how far we would go when death was the most likely result.”
I held Akira’s glare, and then turned and walked down the stairs and into the night air.
Uncle told me once that being a member of the Black Dragon Squad meant you had to come to terms with death. Every mission held an element of danger and the possibility of the ultimate sacrifice – by yourself or a fellow Shinobi. If captured you might even be tortured before you die, all while knowing no one was coming to save you. And I had sworn to him that when my time came I would face my choice without fear.
With the training exercise over I could relax. I had completed my mission, would be evaluated for my choices and would receive a critique of my performance. All of us had to go through this exercise as a team leader. Even though I hadn’t seen him I knew Captain Yoshida had been watching, formulating in his mind who he would choose for the newest members of the Black Dragon Squad. If three retired from the squad, three were chosen – always a twelve-man squad, though no one understood why.
I sat on the front porch of the training building while students rushed around resetting the stage for the next test. Outside I sought solitude and enjoyed the sounds of the night, while I gathered my control. Unfortunately, loud verbal badgering rang out from Kenji, Makoto and Kikaku, as they rounded the building and spied me sitting alone. The distraction suddenly squashed my private time. These three were a group of older teens chosen for the pre-Black Dragon preliminaries. They’d already been through the training I’m going through now and for some weird reason I was the candidate they liked to pick on.
“What’s the matter?” Kenji taunted, while the other two stood by his side and giggled quietly. “Akira too much for ya?”
I sat with feet shoulder width apart, forearms resting on my knees and looked at the ground. Though he was bigger and thicker than me, I could’ve easily sprung to my feet and beat the tar out of Kenji, but I didn’t want to give him the satisfaction. Plus my girlfriend’s best friend, Lilly would have a fit if I messed up his face. Besides, these three were also assistant instructors, I was to show respect to them. At the moment, they didn’t shine like leaders in the least.
“Nawww, I think the mission was too much for him,” Kikaku said in a mocking tone. “Mayumi wouldn’t want to be with a wimp.”
The remark made my blood boil and I quickly turned my head and glared at him.
“Oooooo,” they chorused.
“Better watch it. He just might kick your ass,” Makoto said to Kikaku.
They laughed and walked away. My hard gaze followed their retreating forms.
Kenji and Makoto I could deal with, but Kikaku was a problem. He had the air of someone always up to something, sneaking around, plotting and planning some devious scheme. Exactly what that was, and more importantly, if he really was planning something, I couldn’t be sure. At the moment all I knew was that he had eyes for my girlfriend, Mayumi. He was rude and in my face about it, not caring if I saw his approaches. And the more I thought about it the more I became convinced that his actions didn’t make sense. Especially after I witnessed Kikaku having a private moment with a crazy kunoichi from the rival Shimoshuki Clan village.
Shi’tori had been her name, and several weeks ago she had made me her target. She wanted to know what it was my village kept secret and hidden – and she wanted my abilities. Neither of which I could give her. It was lucky, however, that she didn’t know I had been given a Dragon Stone by a tengu. She probably would’ve wanted that, too. In a final desperate attempt at triumph she kidnapped Mayumi, led me on a dangerous motorcycle chase through on-coming traffic and hid in the forest high above the ocean cliffs. She was a deadly opponent, using tiny needles, darts and poisons. Unfortunately for her, my anger surfaced and took over, transforming me into…well…I wasn’t sure, but she met her end in that forest. The reality of how I killed her still lingered in my mind, and the vision of her dead form ate at my conscience, but I got away with it and felt little remorse. It was survival, either she or me, and surviving is what I’d been trained to do. Dealing with her blood on my hands was hard to accept and I was still coping. I wonder how Kikaku would feel if he knew her body lay hidden and buried?
I recalled the moment when I stumbled upon Kikaku and Shi’tori’s hiding spot behind the dojo, smooching and pawing all over each other. They acted as if they’d known each other for a very long time and had an established relationship. And I wondered how that could be when Shi’tori had only been in our village for two days. With Kikaku a pre-Black Dragon, he and the other guys were kept confined. That was Captain Yoshida’s method, though no one understood it. So how was it Shi’tori and Kikaku knew each other so well? It was an answer I was determined to discover.
I recently had heard gossip from the other teens in class that Kikaku had started to disappear for hours at a time late at night. He took off alone and so far no one had been able to track him. If the Dragons knew I’m sure they’d drill him for answers. However, he wasn’t officially a Dragon yet, so they probably weren’t aware of the situation.
I was suspicious. If Kikaku had known Shi’tori, and she was from the Shimoshuki Clan, then perhaps that was the connection?
My thoughts were interrupted by the sharp tone of Master Jun. “I need you to play a guard this time.”
I rose and followed him. Playing detective would have to wait, but when I found out the truth, what new choices would I have to face?
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