Three days in the Land of Iron and Katsu had still hardly said a word to his sister outside their short briefing sessions at the end of each day. Shizuka wondered if he was still upset that the mission turned out to be nothing more than information gathering. Maybe he was mad at her for letting him go on a wild goose chase for the Hokage. Maybe he just got a glimpse of that scar, the one just under his collarbone that she had given him, every time he got up to shower in the morning. Regardless of the reason, Katsu seemed to do his best to avoid Shizuka. She couldn't help but worry about her younger brother when he was out of sight, capable shinobi as he may be. They were doing delicate work and delicate was never a word Katsu had been fond of. Every time one of the revolutionaries pasted Katsu's gaze Shizuka saw her brother's eyes scanning them up and down, trying to gauge their strength.
"You fancy that there kitchen knife?" A pot bellied man asked Shizuka.
"It's quite nice," Shizuka replied with a smile. "Much nicer than the one I have at home. A little pricey though."
"Can't help that," the man said. The man leaned back in his chair and crossed his feet up onto the wooden desk he sat behind. "Been selling cutlery in here for about a decade now. This revolution got the prices on good steel at an all time high. Mining villages like this are gonna become boom towns once this is all over."
"I'll bet. Maybe I'll move her permanently after all the fighting is over." Shizuka put the kitchen knife back in its place among a variety of blades.
"Where you from girly?" The man put his feet back down and leaned forward.
"Chichibu village. You probably haven't heard of it. Pretty small place." Shizuka told the lied just like she had been doing for the past three days. Chichibu was indeed a real place, though Shizuka had never been there herself.
"Actually, I have a brother currently living in Chichibu."
"Is that so?" Shizuka began repeatedly curing in her mind.
"I actually plan to visit him soon. He usually invites me up to take part in that little festival they have at the beginning of next month." The man's words seemed void of compassion and Shizuka immediately began feeling uncomfortable, though she did not show it. The intent had been to probe the store owner for information on the revolution. Now the best course of action seemed to be to exit the store as quickly as possible without drawing any extra attention.
"The end of the month? I think you're mistaking sir. The Cherry Blossom Festival is at the end of next month."
The man eyed Shizuka for a moment before smiling. "Well, guess you saved me from heading out a little early. I'll have to give my brother a call, tell him a pretty young thing stopped me from making a huge blunder."
"Just glad I could help. Take care now."
Shizuka made her way around the tables of cutlery and passed the man behind the desk. Out of the corner of her eye Shizuka spotted a strange piece of wood poking just over the other side of the counter. It was within arms reach of the man and Shizuka could have sworn his hand inched towards the weapon when he mentioned his brother in Chichibu village. As she exited the store, Shizuka determined that the piece of would could be nothing but the stock of a Gelel Gun.
Signs of Smoke
“Utte!” All along the firing line, a hundred artillerymen echoed the command of the forward observer by pulling the trigger. A cacophony of metal clacking against metal followed, then the valley was once again subsumed in tranquil silence.
“Again!” The officer shouted, and the motley regiment of villager-turned-soldiers quickly lowered their weapons as they repeated the rote movements of reloading, despite the fact that they had no ammunition. Ken watched them from a distance, arms crossed over his chest as he sat on top of a rock that jutted out from the side of the hill. His position afforded him a full view of the valley with its narrow river that snaked down from the black peaks to the north, and in the distance he could see thin tendrils of smoke rising from the nearby mining village, hidden in the folds of the mountains. For a moment, he closed his eyes and allowed the ever-present wind to reveal what could not be seen. It sang as it rushed across the ragged crags, carrying with it the shrill cry of a hawk that circled somewhere far overhead, and even the ringing of a hammer striking against a forge. Then, beginning in the pit of his abdomen and spreading to the balls of his feet, Ken felt-out the rhythm of the surrounding world: the weight of the practicing soldiers on the plain, the reverberation of a waterfall crashing over its rim, and the sudden intrusion of a human presence approaching behind him.
“What do you think Takimoto-dono?” Ken asked his right-hand man without opening his eyes. The warrior paused, surveyed the same scene that Ken had been observing, and shrugged.
“They’re doing better than what could be expected, I suppose,” he hazarded, scratching the beard on his chin. “Er, what’s your thought?”
“These drills won’t service much in terms of actual combat,” Ken explained, “But at the least it accustoms them to following orders... and to handling the guns,” he stood, slipped the tachi that had been resting across his lap into his obi, and brushed the dust from his hakama. “At any rate, the familiarity will help to ease their anxiety when it comes to practicing with live ammunition.”
“Er, to be honest sir, do you really think that’s gonna be a good idea? It’s not like our Gelel supply is unlimited.”
“Better to waste six rounds in practice than six lives on the battlefield.” Ken stated tersely. Yet he frowned as his hand traced the tsuba of his sword. In reality, Ken would have preferred to avoid using the guns entirely. He envisioned the regiment in the valley below him practicing kenjutsu instead of marksmanship, and imagined the sound of steel clashing against steel, the smell of honest sweat beneath armor, and the glint of reflected sun blurring his sight. But the rules of combat had changed drastically in the last four hundred years, and the revolutionaries had to take advantage of every opportunity afforded to them. If that opportunity came in the form of a fearsome machine that could cut through a man’s heart with the skill of a child... then so be it.
“Let’s go.” Ken said as he turned away from the training grounds without further comment.
Takimoto fell in step beside him as they made their way back to the village, quickly filling him in on the status reports that had filtered in since morning. Apparently a force from the Itagaki clan had moved further along one of the revolution’s supply routes during the night, and communication had been cut off with a sleeper unit in Itagaki territory. While troubling, there had been no sign of open conflict, and the only thing they could do was wait until word could be sent from the other side. But Ken’s stomach twisted. Maori was currently on the western front. She might be there.
When the two samurai reached the heart of the village, Takimoto suggested they stop to eat something. Ken had little appetite, but he agreed since did not want to voice his personal concerns about Miori to his lieutenant. They turned aside at a mountain soba restaurant, but before entering Ken suddenly became aware of a hostile sense of wariness that pressed like a subtle blade into the back of his neck. He turned, but seeing nothing out of the unusual, took his seat at a table under the eaves across from Takimoto. Ken placed a coin on the table.
“Tea, if it isn’t too much trouble,” he ordered. He assumed a casual posture, but kept one eye on the street, trying to pin down the source of his unease.
Trouble in the Town
Shizuka entered the restaurant and quickly began scanning for her brother. He spotted the familiar main of silver hair in the far corner, facing away from her. Shizuka smiled and started towards her brother, slowing when she noticed the swords propped up against some of the chairs. Were they samurai? This village was under control of the revolutionaries. Shizuka quietly moved into the seat across from Katsu. Her brother's eyes were looking to the side, towards the two men armed with swords.
"What's up bro?" Shizuka said, trying to sound as casual as she could. Katsu didn't reply. "What'd you do today?"
"Not much," Katsu replied. His casual tone didn't match his eyes. "Checked out the mine, not sure it's for me though."
"No? What didn't you like about it?"
However, while the two shinobi had taken notice of the samurai, the two samurai had taken notice of the shinobi.
Keeping his back to the silver-haired youths, Ken masked his awareness of the outsiders. They were obviously siblings, but it would be impossible to tell where they came from without closer investigation. Were they spies? Messengers from the Gelel supplier group? Recruits? Too boring. Ken nearly chortled to himself. Obviously the boy had no concept of the diligence and grit that mining involved—nor the danger of the occupation.
While Ken’s posture did not change, when the girl with a serving tray brought them the tea, he raised an eyebrow in the direction of the two strangers in the corner. The waitress’s eyes darted quickly and nervously to the side. She did not know who they were.
Ken had two courses of action available to him. He could approach the strangers directly and make the fact that they had been identified explicit: namely by offering to buy them a drink. If he started a conversation, there was a chance he could subtly question them to discover their true intentions in coming to the village. Or he could use a show of force, perhaps by splitting a plate in two with his kodachi in order to make an intimidating point. But neither option seemed appropriate to the context.
“Where’s Gatsu?” Ken scowled. He was referring to the lookout for that area, who should have sent an alert that a potential threat was present up the chain of command. Then again, since Ken had heard nothing, perhaps it meant that the strangers had been determined as legitimate. Still, there was still the barely perceptible pressure at the back of his neck. The young man who was watching him closely seemed bored and restless, and Ken could feel a tension permeating the air between them. The outsider was wary, which suggested that he had something to be wary of.
At last Ken settled on a decision. He finished his tea, stood quickly from the table, and with a commanding air took his swords in hand.
“Where are you going?” Takimoto asked, his surprise genuine. “We just sat down.”
“I recalled something I failed to do earlier,” Ken said, “And besides that I’m not hungry.”
“Er, do you need me to contact Gatsu for you?”
“That won’t be necessary. I’ll see you at headquarters.”
“Whatever you say, sir.”
Ken strode out into the street, but everything about the interaction would have suggested to the strangers watching him that he was a significant figure, and one who would be worth following. They had not seemed haggard or crazed enough to be recruits to the revolution, and Ken was almost certain that his intuition that they were spies was correct. And if the newcomers were spies they would likely shadow him. At least, that was Ken’s intention. If not, then Takimoto could handle them easily enough.
He kept a normal pace as he headed towards the outskirts of the village. Since the mining town had been built on a mountainside, nearly all the streets were sloped, and Ken had been careful to choose the higher ground. He kept his tachi loose in its saya, but was not overly concerned about the distance between him and his perceived adversary. There was no rushing fate. Either hostility would emerge, or it would not. Instead, Ken cleared his mind and began to think of other things, entering a near-meditative state despite the countless battle strategies related to managing a full-scale war effort that poured through his brain. He hummed under his breath, one of the lullabies from his homeland from long ago, but his senses remained sharp, keen to the world around him despite being disconnected from it. It would be difficult, if not impossible, to catch him off-guard.
Shizuka watched the samurai as he casually exited the restaurant and left his ally alone. An uneasy feeling began forming deep in the pit of her stomach. Something was off. Katsu simply maintained his awkward side stare as if he could turn his eyes back in his head to view the door from which the samurai had exited. The look in his brother's eyes was all too familiar; Katsu was looking to start trouble.
"You really need to chill," Shizuka said in a quiet but stern voice. "If you start causing trouble here you're putting a lot more than yourself as risk."
Katsu's eyes shifted to meet his sister's. "Samurai bastards walking in here like they own the place." Katsu spoke louder than Shizuka. His words were loud enough to catch the attention of someone sitting two seats away.
Shizuka could see the older man's eyes momentarily settle on Katsu before turning back to his meal. Shizuka's heart beat began to rise. What was Katsu doing? If he spoke any louder the other samurai would surely hear him if he hadn't already. Shizuka could do nothing but mouth the words "what are you doing" to her sibling as he rose from his seat.
"You hear me idiot?" Katsu spoke directly to the samurai sitting down. "Who do you think you are, carrying that rusty razor around like that? You don't own this town." Katsu didn't even give Takimoto time to reply before rushing towards the door. "I'm gonna find that other jackass too."
"Stop!" Shizuka shouted. Before she knew what she was doing, Shizuka was up and after her brother. She knew it had been a mistake to bring Katsu on this mission. She had hoped that it would be an opportunity for them, to help mend their damaged relationship. What a fool she had been.
Katsu zig-zagged through the populated street, stepping on several feet and nearly knocking over a blind man as he went. After at least a dozen threats and curses directed at him, the samurai Katsu had been pursuing was finally in view. Sweeping his arm down to the ground as he moved, Katsu picked up a small rock off the road and threw it directly at the back of the samurai's head with moderate force. But without breaking his pace, and with an imperceptible shift to one side, the rock sailed harmlessly past his head.
Katsu hadn't expected the rock to make contact with the samurai, but he was still impressed by the grace and awareness the man had just presented. This guy was someone special, of that Katsu was almost certain. He had felt a heaviness in the air the moment the man had walked into the restaurant. It was a gamble exposing himself like this, but Katsu had deemed the risk worth it.
"You coward," Katsu shouted at the man. "Turn around and face me."
The samurai did indeed pause, although he did not turn around. But the surrounding villagers halted all activity as they stared, stone-faced, at the stranger. His threat had not fallen on deaf ears, but instead of provoking his adversary, it had driven the villagers into a closed, hostile state. The silence was impenetrable, and made it clear to Katsu that he was not welcome there.
But then, the dual-wielding swordsman he had challenged broke the tense atmosphere by turning his head to one side, and he was grinning slightly.
"You call me a coward, and yet you throw stones at a man behind his back," he shuffled his feet: one backwards and one forwards, and sank into a coiled, natural posture. "Hypocrisy is a pitiful flaw for any samurai... unless you're carrying that sword for show?" he asked wryly.
Katsu ran his hand along the handle of his sword. Shizuka had begged him not to bring it, to leave it at home. She claimed carrying a weapon would do nothing but draw unwanted attention, but he had not left home once without his sword since he had gotten it. In the end Katsu refused to budge on the matter and left for the Land of Iron with his trusty black blade strapped to his lower back. The sword had attracted plenty of curious looks but up to this point no one had mentioned it.
Shizuka stood among a gathering crowd of onlookers, nervously biting her nails. Surely Katsu isn't serious considering this, she thought to herself, but deep down she knew her brother wanted nothing more than to draw his sword and clash with the man before him. The orders given by the Hokage specifically stated that they were to only engage in combat if it was unavoidable. No matter how she twisted the events in her head, she couldn't find a single way to realistically argue that this encounter was "unavoidable."
"Huh, you're the only pitiful thing I see around here." With one smooth motion, Katsu drew his sword and spun the black blade around once in his hand before pointing the tanto tip directly at the man. "My kokutō is a million times cooler than that piece of cheap steal you carry around, samurai."
But the samurai's face remained a mask, betraying no hint of emotion.
"Then prove it," he challenged.
Having been perplexed by Ken's sudden departure, and even more suspicious when he had seen the two outsiders chase after his leader, Takimoto had followed the young woman from some distance. Now, he approached her as she observed the fight forming in the street. For a moment Takimoto wondered what it was Ken had up his sleeve, but assumed he was setting up the unnamed swordsman for one of two reasons: either to test him in order to determine if he was a spy, or to gauge his strength as a recruit.
Takimoto shook his head to himself, wondering why Ken couldn't have chosen a subtler method. At least he's got some space. Hopefully the damage won't be too bad this time around. He thought as he looked around at the surrounding buildings. Then, he tapped the girl on the shoulder.
"Er, I would suggest standing back there miss, I would hate for a stranger to get caught in the collateral." But there was certain steel to the tone of his voice that made the suggestion more of a command: Takimoto shared Ken's opinion that the two outsiders were enemies, at least, until it could be proven otherwise. The girl seemed innocent enough, and her concern for her associate—brother?—was genuine, and Takimoto hoped their suspicions were incorrect.
Shizuka ignored the man at first, but a second tap on her shoulder confirmed that the man didn't intend to take "no" for an answer. As much as she wanted to remain close to the action, Shizuka made the hard choice and backed away with the man. Katsu had already made them stand out, there was no need for her to make matters even worse.
"You'll regret ever crossing me." Katsu taunted as he slid his sword out of its sheath.
The black blade hardly reflected any sunlight, giving the impression the steel was little more than a shadowy silhouette. With his free hand, Katsu gripped his scabbard and pulled that free as well, wielding it like a second blade. Katsu gave no warning as he charged forward and swung hard with his sword.
Ken’s eyes narrowed as he gauged the incoming attack, noting as his opponent opted to keep the saya in one hand as a dummy sword. Considering the number of Samurai he had encountered in the past, it was likely that he had encountered such a style before, even though he could not recall a specific incident. However, what was more important at that moment was the incoming attack.
As he was already in a mid-level posture known as the Iron Gate Stance, Ken did not have to readjust his position. Instead, he waited patiently as the black-colored blade blurred in a lateral strike towards his abdomen. Then, at the last instant, his own tachi became suddenly visible as he pulled it from the scabbard to vertically shield his body, although he did not completely unsheathe it. The two blades clashed, and while Ken did not move to make a counterattack, he expelled a sudden blade of chakra from the sword, which sent a shockwave of concentrated, blunt force straight towards his attacker. While he had dulled the fatal cutting power of the technique, its kinetic strength was still powerful enough to stir up a veil of dust in a straight line behind Katsu and push him back. Once they had disengaged, Ken quickly re-sheathed his tachi, snapping the tsuba against the koiguchi as he again waited for his adversary to attack.
Not detoured by his opponent's effortless counter, Katsu dug in his heels as he was pushed back and lunged a second time. For this attack, Katsu planned to strike at the samurai's head with the blade of his kokutō. This initial attack would be easy to block, but when Katsu followed it up with a heavy strike with the saya to the knee opposite his sword hand. Surely coming in from extreme opposite angles would throw the samurai off.
And indeed, had he been any other adversary, the samurai would have likely been unable to counter the unorthodox attack. However, as a specialist in a dual-bladed style, Ken possessed a certain advantage in the ability to counter from two directions at once with minimal effort. As the kokutō bore down on his neck, Ken drew his shorter sword—the kodachi—and allowed the two blades to meet full force. At the same time, he simply repositioned his own saya so that it blocked the incoming strike to his right knee.
There was a brief lull in the fight as the momentum of the two opponents stalled against each other. Then, still keeping the blade of the kodachi pressed against that of his opponent’s, Ken loosened the tachi by pushing against the tsuba with his thumb, preparing to unleash the blade in Iaidou. But then, the instant before he drew, Ken hesitated. Using such a technique at short-range would likely result in instant bifurcation, and while his instincts were telling him to use one maneuver, he knew that he would only be hurting himself from a strategic standpoint if he used fatal force against the potential spy. And, in the same moment, Ken caught sight of the girl who had accompanied the young man some distance down the street.
For the second time that day, he was reminded of Maori.
A second after their blades had locked, Ken switched his grip to the hilt of his tachi and drove the pommel straight towards his attacker’s abdomen. Again, he did not pull the blade completely from its saya, but instead expelled a concentrated column of force that would, if allowed to hit unhindered, slam into the center of the stranger’s chest with enough impact to send him flying down the street... and possibly crush a rib or two. Still, as the technique, despite its simplicity, could shatter through stone walls under normal conditions, Ken was demonstrating considerable restraint in that he had not intended to rupture his adversary's heart. Hopefully the young man would appreciate the thought.
Katsu felt the air in his lungs instantly rush out as the sword pommel slammed into him. The impact caused the young man to leave his feel and fly back several yards into a nearby food cart. The vendor narrowly avoided being crushed under Katsu's body, but his cart and the pile of ripe melons and kyoho grapes sitting on to were smashed. Several members of the crowd gasped as the young man disappeared in an explosion of cheap lumber and produce.
"Katsu!" Shizuka yelled, running towards the cart. Her brother was just beginning to stir as she knelt down beside him. "Are you alright?"
"Fine," Katsu replied, though the strain in his voice suggested otherwise. "I'm fine."
It seemed the storm had yet to pass, however, as once the dust began to clear, they could see the samurai beginning to approach them. There was a glint of steel as he re-sheathed the kodachi, and he made his way down the street with a slow, even pace. His demeanor, however, was anything but casual when he stopped several paces from where the other swordsman lay.
"I have several questions for you, stranger. And unless you find pain enjoyable, it would be better if you answered them now." His tone was cold, yet somehow he did not seem to be mocking Katsu. The samurai's gaze shifted to Shizuka for the first time, and he nodded respectfully. "Your companion could answer for you, if you are still suffering from a lack of air."
"No," Katsu growled. Somehow Katsu had managed to hold onto both his sword and scabbard and he now used both to help push himself to his feet. "Screw you, I'm not gonna lose that easily."
"Let it go!" Shizuka pleaded. "You're hurt. Don't try it again. This is nuts!"
Katsu finally made it back to his feet and assume a fighting stance once again. Despite his injuries, he appeared steady and focused. Before giving Ken an opportunity to respond, Katsu kicked his lead foot up, knocking a full melon toward Ken's head. Following up the underhanded tactic, Katsu stepped forward and stabbed with his kokutō, keeping the saya back for a follow-up slash.
Ken had been expecting some form of reaction, as he had sensed the young man's determination earlier and knew he would not be one who would submit without a fight. Nonetheless, the melon surprised him. The projectile hurtled towards his head, but Ken was more concerned about the way his adversary followed it. Moving quickly, Ken drew his tachi and raised it above his head in a high stance known as Falcon's Beak. He only held the position for a brief moment, however, as in the next he brought the sword down and slid forward on his left foot. His intent was two-fold. First, as the blade sliced downwards, it split the melon in half, continuing on its trajectory to land on the spine of his adversary's own sword. Secondly, the quick step forward allowed him to twist subtly to the left, thereby evading the lunge. When he stopped moving, he was behind the young man and thus out of range of his saya. Ken glanced over his shoulder, and raised one of his eyebrows. He heard Takimoto, who was within earshot, guffaw.
"Fruit style!" the man exclaimed. Ken sighed, then he turned to face Katsu. This time he kept his blade drawn, holding out his hand so the sword was perpendicular to his chest, with the cutting edge pointed towards Katsu. It began to reverberate slightly as he pulled chakra into the steel. Once again, his face was devoid of any expression, with no sign of the surprise he may have felt at the earlier attack. While he was taking his time, he had yet to enjoy himself, and was hoping that baring the tachi would send the message that he was serious in his intent to harm. If the message was received as intended, the young man would respond in kind.
Katsu grit his teeth, unwilling to admit his defeat but unable to make a move without risking contact with the samurai's blade. The rapid movements the young man's eyes betrayed his frantic thoughts. A counter strike wasn't possible; the samurai would run him through well before he could complete an attack. Evasion didn't seem like a viable option either, as the samurai was every but as fast as Katsu. The undercover shinobi tried to think of how he could distract his opponent, but those steely brown eyes showed no hint of moving away.
Katsu's ideas grew more and more drastic. He was just about to setting on one of his outrageous ideas when Shizuka stepped in front of him. She placed her hand on the dull side of Ken's sword and pushed the blade away from her brother. Shizuka filled Ken's gaze and met his steely gaze with one of her own. The young woman said nothing, but the beads of cold sweat forming on her forehead showed how nervous she truly was.
Ken's sword vanished as he flicked the tip to one side and re-sheathed it faster than the eye could see. He held the young woman's gaze steadily, but he was watching the young man as well. Takimoto came up beside him, but Ken put out his hand to hold him back.
"Very well," he began. "First of all, where are you from. Chichibu village? I'm surprised you aren't there for Saisho no Kaitō," he was referring to the spring festival of first-thaw, as he had heard rumors of the strangers' alibis, courtesy of the vendors along the street, and was hoping to probe at it to discover its holes.
"W-What?" Shizuka was taken by surprise. How did this man already know their cover story? She had believed that the two of them had so far remained under the radar, but now she wasn't so sure. "Um, yes but, um. How do you know that?"
"Bastard," Katsu spat. "Have you been spying on us or something? I told you this place was no good Shizuka."
Ken crossed his arms over his chest, but he did not seem perturbed by their questions. "This place will give you much more than you bargained for, I assure you that. Especially if you have something to hide," he gave Katsu a pointed look as he continued. "So, what brought you two here?" he tapped the fingers of his puppet hand on his forearm. "Surely it wasn't for the climate."
"That none of your business, samurai!" Katsu shouted. "We should be able to go anywhere we damn please without having to worry about scum like you spying on us. I thought the whole point of this revolution was so we didn't have to be bossed around my sword wielding thugs like you."
"Please, calm down," Shizuka pleaded, to no avail.
"I bet you think you're pretty tough, carrying around those blood stained swords of yours. But guess what, when I'm done with you, your blood is gonna-"
Katsu had begun to move forward, raising his weapons once again, but Shizuka quickly turned towards him and grabbed the wrist of his sword wielding hand.
"That's enough," she said with more resolve than she had before.
Katsu pulled his hand away. "Out of my way. I'm not done with this guy."
Katsu began to move around Shizuka, but the kunoichi's hand shot out and grabbed Katsu's shoulder, right over his scar. The two siblings locked eyes and froze in an apparent stalemate. Shizuka still wasn't sure what her brother was thinking. His stunt had put the mission at risk, put himself at risk. The samurai was clearly the superior swordsmen, which was saying something. Even worse, Shizuka had seen something eerily familiar when she looked into his eyes. Without the use of ninjutsu, Katsu stood little chance. At least he hadn't been foolish enough to do that. If he had, there would be no doubt in anyone's mind that he was a shinobi. For now Shizuka saw no other option than to play along. At least then something might be salvaged from the disastrous situation.
"Don't be a fool brother. You're outmatched. I don't want to see you hurt like last time." There was a quick flash of rage in Katsu's eyes, but his body remained ridged.
"Er, there's no reason for anyone to get hurt here," Takimoto spoke up, trying to bring order to the situation, but he was ignored. "Look, we just want to know where you two kids are from..."
But Ken was not through testing the other swordsman. Despite the charged emotions running through the air, his analytical gaze shifted from Shizuka to Katsu, and there was a dangerous light in his eyes. He had gauged Katsu's technique in combat and had sensed that he had been holding back. There was something more here than what met the eye.
Without warning Ken disappeared. Taking one step, he sprang forwards—not towards Katsu—but towards Shizuka. Ken was never willing to attack a woman, and indeed he did not intend to carry through fully with his strike. But as his hand moved towards her neck, cutting between the two siblings, he aimed to spur Katsu into action and to draw out whatever true intentions he was masking. If Katsu truly cared about his companion, then he had no choice but to react.
Katsu instinctively readied his sword, planning to block the samurai's attack, but once he saw where the attack was going his body froze, allowing the attack to continue uninterrupted. Shizuka hardly had time to wrap her head around the fact that the blade was coming directly at her.
And, perhaps as Katsu had predicted, Ken's tachi froze, the steel a few hairs breadth away from Shizuka's skin. The dust settled, carried away by the breeze, and then there was complete stillness. Ken frowned deeply, but he did not look at Katsu.
"So, this is the proof of your mettle," he began. He indicated to Shizuka to move to one side, directing her with the sword's tip, and placed himself between her and Katsu. "I admit that I had expected better from you. Normally, spies sent into the heart of enemy territory aren't so trusting of their opponents' intentions." He paused, and signaled for Takimoto to take Shizuka. Then he faced Katsu, and turned the sword so that the blade faced up, bringing the hilt close to his face as he widened his stance. His intentions were clear: he meant business. "I've seen enough. If you have something to say, this is your only chance. Otherwise prepare yourself like a man."
Katsu and Ken simply stared at one another. Shizuka stood at their side, her heart still racing from the near fatal encounter with Ken's blade. It was rare for her to be caught off guard like that, but her focus had been on her brother rather than the samurai.
"You think I'm a spy?" Katsu finally asked, breaking the silence. "That's the dumbest thing I've ever heard. If all I was supposed to do was sit around this dump and report back to some dumbass handler somewhere, why would I have called you out? Do I look that stupid?"
"K-Katsu," Shizuka stammered. She obviously had something on her mind, but didn't seem willing to interrupt the two young swordsmen.
"Perhaps." The corner of Ken's mouth curled up slightly in a sardonic grin. "Shall we find out?" he asked, responding to Katsu's last question. Placing his left hand on the flat of the blade, he straightened his fingers in a subtle, elemental release seal. Thick streams of water began to curl around the tachi's bared blade, emanating from the hilt. Then, without warning, a torrent of spiraling water was unleashed. Wound tightly about itself and twice the height of a man, the attack shot towards Katsu with enough force to crush through bone and steel. But the most dangerous part of Ken's offensive was not the ninjutsu, but the kenjutsu technique that followed behind it. Moving at nearly the same rate as the water, Ken's blade mirrored the torrent as it stabbed towards Katsu's heart, hidden by the equally destructive but less discriminate Water Release jutsu that served to mask the attack.
Neither Katsu or Shizuka had been prepared for the samurai to unleash a ninjutsu based attack. They both had heard of samurai channeling chakra into their swords to augment thier blades, but certainly never of a samurai making use of elemental ninjutsu. Katsu quickly moved to his side, bypassing the water and allowing it to smash into the small building behind him; a fireworks supplier if Katsu had read the sign right. Shizuka had nearly been an unintentional victim of the attack, backing out of the way and bumping into Takimoto. The spectators that had gathered to watch the fight stood there in amazement at what they were seeing, like admiring a fine work of art.
Just as the water passed Katsu, the young man found himself being charged by the point of the samurai's katana. Even worse, dodging the water had placed him at a perpendicular angle to his attacker, a less than ideal angle to defend himself. Making use of the scabbard in his left hand, Katsu flicked his wrist and knocked the tip of Ken's sword slightly off target. The blade passed so close to Katsu that he made eye contact with his reflection in the folded steel. Katsu stepped and spun away from Ken, swinging both his sword and saya down towards the back of Ken's neck at a slight angle.
The samurai sensed Katsu moving behind him as he evaded his strike, but Ken did not stop his forward drive. Reaching his left hand across the front of his body, he drew his kodachi and swung the short sword around behind him. At the last instant before contact, the blade met Katsu's sword and saya like a hammer slamming downwards, as Ken had expertly twisted his wrist to deliver a powerful counter. Ken moved fluidly as he easily transitioned from a state of defense to a state of attack. Continuing the rotation of his shoulders, he followed with another strike, this time swinging his tachi around in a wide, diagonal arc. Using the momentum of the spin to add speed to his movements, the blade cut down towards the left side of Katsu's neck, threatening to bite deeply into his clavicle. To make matters worse, there was a high-pitched hum as vibrating energy flashed from the tachi, and a razor of projected energy was sent ahead of the physical blade in a thin, blue, barely-perceptible line.
Katsu instinctively jumped back, attempting to escape the masterful counterattack that Ken had employed. At first it appeared that Katsu managed to escape Ken's attack, but as the end of the smaurai's short sword passed in front of Katsu's shoulder, the young shinobi felt the familiar sting of sliced flesh and a spray of blood shot from the front of his shoulder. Somehow he had missed the technique that extended the rang of his opponent's strike. There was no denying that the samurai was skilled, even more so than Katsu had initially anticipated. Katsu was sure that if the samurai had truly wanted to kill him, he wouldn't have escaped with only a shallow wound. Luckily, Katsu's calculation seemed to have panned out. He was of more use to the samurai alive.
"Katsu!" Shizuka shouted, seeing drops of her brother's blood fly onto the dirt. When she stepped forward she felt a hand grasp her shoulder, firm, but gentle. She turned to see the other samurai looking at her with a stoic expression.
"You're probably going to get hurt if you try to step between them again." Takimoto said, hoping his words weren't falling on deaf ears.
Shizuka desperately wanted to assist her brother. Perhaps a two on one attack would allow them to disable the samurai and escape. Of course this would mean blowing their cover, assuming Katsu hadn't already accomplished that task. Shizuka tightened her fists and clenched her teeth, but remained stationary. Takimoto removed his hand and turned his attention back to the battle.
Katsu had leaped back, putting space between him and his opponent to avoid a potential followup attack. The blood was hardly noticeable as it seeped into the crimson fabric of his jacket. Though the wound hurt every time Ken moved his left arm, Katsu ignored the pain and once again took a fighting stance. He wasn't going to let such a minor injury be the end of the battle. He was enjoying himself way too much.
Katsu rushed forward once more, tossing the saya and sword back and forth between his hands several times before letting them settle in the opposite hands they started in. With his weapons now switched, Katsu swung his scabbard at and upward angle, hoping to catch Ken between the ribs. His new sword hand stayed back, ready to block Ken's next attack the moment it happened.
But then, the unexpected occurred. As the saya swung upwards, Ken moved up as well, leaping as though mimicking the direction of Katsu's attack. He had not considered the saya and sword as being separate from each other: if Katsu was utilizing them both in conjunction, then Ken would react to both as equally dangerous. Yet Ken himself had sheathed his kodachi in midair. With one foot raised and the other springing off of Katsu's saya, Ken took his tachi in both hands and lifted it above his head. The stance was distinctive for those aware of the Matsumune clan's style from centuries ago: Takahashi no kamae, the Falcon's Beak.
With unstoppable force, Ken brought the blade down, apparently aiming to split Katsu in half from the skull down. The instant the attack fell, he blurred out of sight itself before he carried through the strike and landed on the earth. The hardened dirt of the road sunk into a sudden crater, and a wall of dust and rock was thrown up around where Ken and Katsu stood, masking them from their onlooker's sight.
"No!" Shizuka shouted, fearing the worst. Takimoto grabbed her by the shoulder again, but this time she shrugged his hand away and approached the dust cloud that had been kicked up by Ken's ferocious attack. She stopped as the sound of clashing swords filled the air and Katsu jumped back, out of the dispersing dust.
The attack had surprised Katsu, both because of its unorthodox nature and incredible destructive power. In his panic he had made use of the Unmei Clan's secret technique, Hikarichūdan, to aid in his evasion. The slight alteration of the light surrounding Katsu had thrown off Ken's attack was just enough to save Katsu from another wound, one much more serious (though probably non-fatal) than the previous one. It had been obvious to Katsu from the start that in terms of pure swordsmanship, his opponent was superior. The samurai's use of ninjutsu had been an unexpected surprise and Katsu desperately wished he could use his own ninjutsu to even the odds. Unfortunately he was dedicated to his "just a punk kid with a sword" routine.
Just at the dust settled, Katsu spun his sword around in his hand, turning he blade downward. He rush forward once again, thrusting the point of his saya towards the samurai's sternum. Once this initial attack was blocked, Katsu planned to spin away, turning his back to his opponent and stabbing behind him with his kokutō. Once this attack was evaded, Katsu would be in the perfect position to spin around again and slash at the samurai with his scabbard before jumping back and regrouping. The three pronged attack played out perfectly in his head and he fully intended to execute it.
Ken responded by quickly blocking the saya with his tachi, using a circular motion that brought the blade around his body in an arc in order to halt the second attack with minimal effort. Steel rang against steel and sparks flashed for an instant before Katsu turned, making an effort to attack. The blades slid free of each other, and Ken allowed his sword to continue its apparently wild path, but it vanished suddenly as he re-sheathed it and took a step back, as though he had foreseen the strike to come. As the saya brushed dangerously close to his abdomen, Ken reacted by stepping to the side, drawing Katsu within close range.
In the next instant, Ken had shifted his weight as he took a step forward. His entire body blurred with the motion of the attack as he partially drew his tachi in Iaidō, the infamous samurai technique. However, he did not aim to cut, but instead released a concentrated point of pressure from the kashira. A blast of energy, condensed by the shape of the sword's pommel, shrieked through the air: straight towards the center of Katsu's abdomen.
Katsu had been prepared for Ken's flawless counter of his attacks, his opponent had showed enough skill that Katsu didn't expect him to be taken down by such trivial attack. The blast of chakra however, was another unpleasant surprise. The blast hit its mark, but Katsu willed himself to remain upright. The blast pushed Katsu back, his feet scraping along the ground, and straight through the front door of a small barbecue restaurant. There was a loud crash from inside the building, followed by several panicked patrons quickly exiting through the empty door frame and dispersing into the growing crowd of onlookers. Shizuka bit down on her thumb to prevent herself from yelling out again. Things were becoming hard to watch for her.
After a few moments, Katsu emerged from the restaurant, spinning a red hot grate from one of the restaurant's grills around the end of his kokutō. With a mighty swing, Katsu launched the grate like a large, clumsy shuriken at Ken. Katsu followed close behind the projectile, reading to swing his weapons simultaneously in a scissoring motion.
The samurai observed the spinning projectile calmly, as though time were moving at a slower rate for him. Yet he stepped forward to meet the challenge, drawing both blades and crossing them across his chest. The X formed by the swords caught the grate, and while its weight was evident from the pitch of the clanging metal, Ken did not slide backwards. Before gravity took hold of the projectile, he uncrossed his tachi and kodachi, and two diagonal white lines appeared on the surface of the metal before it split into four pieces, allowing him a clear view of his oncoming attacker.
He sized up Katsu's speed and direction, and quickly moved to counter the scissoring motion of the strike by keeping his blades parallel, away from his body. The weapons all clashed together with tremendous force. Katsu's attack appeared to result in a stalemate. The young shinobi pushed against Ken with all his might, only managing to push the tangle of steel slightly closer to the samurai's face. That was all Katsu needed. It had been difficult not to swallow the blood that shot up his throat when Ken struck him, but it had payed off. Katsu spat the blood in his mouth between Ken's swords, directly into his face. Taking advantage of his underhanded trick, Katsu pushed the clashed weapons up over his head and snapped his head forward, slamming his forehead against Ken's nose.
Ken reeled back, blinded by the blood in his eyes and stunned by the impact of Katsu's skull. Realizing that his opponent could exploit his momentary blindness should he afford an opening, Ken leaped back, placing distance between himself and Katsu.
"Ken-sama!" he heard Takimoto yell, alarmed. It was not often that an opponent could land a hit against him in kenjutsu, at least not in the modern era, and Ken was nearly as surprised as Takimoto. Granted, considering Katsu's earlier use of makeshift melon projectile, he should have expected the unusual attack. Still, it was somewhat difficult to navigate the bladework when holding back. For a moment Ken considered how useful the swordsman would be to them alive, as the young woman, Shizuka, could be interrogated in place of Katsu. But the thought of using fatal force against his foe sickened him, as he had been unable to confirm beyond doubt that Katsu was a spy.
Despite the blows they had traded in battle, Ken had been making subtle adjustments in order to ensure his opponent would only be wounded if hit. During the Falcon's Beak, for instance, he had blunted the edge of his blade in order to avoid cutting Katsu through. His goal remained the same as before: he only wanted to pressure Katsu into responding, not kill him.
The blade that kills is the blade that gives life. The phrase came unbidden into his mind. With marked tranquility, his demeanor still emotionless, Ken flicked the dust and flecks of blood from his swords before replacing them in their respective saya.
Ken paused as he rubbed the blood from his eyes, and he dragged his sleeve across his nose to clear his own blood. When he leveled his stare at Katsu, something had changed. The light of set resolve was still there, but now it was clouded with something darker: creeping, bloodless, murderous intent. Ken became utterly still as he weighed his options, and it was clear that he was contemplating putting a swift end to the fight.
Katsu smirked back at Ken, his teeth still pink from the blood he had store in his mouth. His stance seemed wobbly and his base unstable, indicating that his wounds were beginning to take their toll on his body. "You got a little something on your face." Katsu said. The young man chuckle before couching up more blood onto the dirt. Shizuka felt tears welling up behind her eyes. It had been a long time since she had seen Katsu like this. It was hard enough seeing her brother hurt in battle. It was even worse seeing him enjoy every agonizing second of it.
Katsu moved forward with his weapons at the ready, slower than he had before. His movements no longer had the swiftness and finesse that the had previously. The young shinobi had taken two significant impacts to his abdomen, which one could easily infer had greatly hindered his breathing. The fact that he was still losing blood from the wound on his shoulder added to the complications he was facing. Still, Katsu charged forward with a smile of masochistic glee on his face. Katsu swung his saya down towards Ken's clavicle with unimpressive force, leaving his kokutō reared back to follow up with a stabbing attack.
In response, Ken waited until the last second before stepping to the side and bringing his tachi up out of the saya. The edge of the blade hummed with concentrated energy: the same power that allowed him to split boulders in two while training. A wooden scabbard was, in comparison, little match for the deceptive precision of the technique, and Ken split through the saya as if cutting through an eggshell. As Katsu executed the secondary thrust, the samurai brought the sword back down. The tachi clashed into the kokutō's mune, and he kept pressure down on the spine to hinder Katsu from using the sword to strike again. Then, using his free hand, Ken drew his kodachi and in one fluid motion cut across Katsu's throat.
Only he held back at the last instant, stopping the kodachi just short of a fatal blow. A small line of red appeared where the blade pressed against Katsu's skin, but it had gone no further.
"Your skill in kenjutsu is admirable," he began after a long lapse of silence, "But I suggest you surrender."
Katsu fell backwards after Ken's attack, releasing the stub of his saya and clasping his throat with his freed hand. After apparently confirming that his jugular hadn't been torn open, Katsu looked to the two separate pieces of his saya, then back to Ken. The young man's eyes stared up with a burning anger, as if just by staring hard enough he would be able to incinerate Ken. Katsu began rising to his feet, nearly falling back again as he did.
"Ha, surrender?" Katsu said as he placed both hands on his kokutō and took a more traditional fighting stance. "You're crazy if you think I'm going to give up just because-"
"Enough!" Shizuka shouted, grabbing Katsu's wrist. Katsu's eyes shifted to Shizuka's. The two siblings engaged in another staring contest before Shizuka spoke again. "This is crazy. You don't have anything to prove Katsu."
"Would you butt out already?" Katsu pulled his hands away, but Shizuka held her grip. "I didn't ask you to get involved."
"I'm not letting this senseless violence go on Katsu. I don't care why your being reckless, we didn't come here to fight."
"Then what did you come here for?" Ken asked, and this time his tone seemed sharp. Normally a patient individual, Ken had begun to grow restless when he realized the damage the fight had caused to surrounding storefronts, namely the fruit stand, fireworks display, and barbecue establishment, which he would no doubt be required to provide some form of compensation for. And, despite all his efforts, he had still been unable to gather any information from the outsider beyond a basic understanding of his fighting style.
Leveling his blade in Katsu's direction, Ken continued. "I've already asked you once, so it would be best for you to give me a straight answer. What is your purpose here?" As Ken spoke, Takimoto had stepped behind Shizuka, apparently reading his intentions. Once the onlookers, who had kept their distance, realized the fight was over they also began to circle closer. Several burly men within the crowd hedged Katsu where he stood, with a darkening patch of his own blood on his shoulder.
Ken's gaze flickered between Takimoto and the men behind Katsu before, without warning, he crossed the distance between him and Katsu to deliver a quick, painful elbow strike to Katsu's injured shoulder. Ken's own tachi had once again disappeared, and he used his free hand to catch Katsu by the wrist as the latter stumbled back: straight into the arms of the waiting villagers. The men, who happened to be members of the revolution themselves, secured Katsu's arms as Takimoto did the same to Shizuka. The entire arrest had occurred within the expanse a few seconds, attesting to the guerrilla soldiers’ ability to work as a group even under short notice, a result of their training.
"Now we can move on to business," Ken stated, breaking the charged silence, "But first someone will need to tend to those wounds," he said, referring to Katsu. He motioned to the men who held the young swordsman, and they began to drag the captive away.
"Er, terribly sorry about this," Takimoto mumbled to Shizuka, "Nothing is going to happen to you or your partner, we're just going to patch him up and ask a few questions. Nothing personal," he said as soothingly as possible.
Ken, in the meantime, carefully examined Katsu’s sword, noting the craftsmanship of the tsuka and its black blade. He frowned deeply, but kept whatever conclusions he reached about the weapon to himself as he handed the sword back to Takimoto.
“Keep an eye on them,” he said in a surreptitious tone, “And make sure they’re looked-after. It’s possible they acted under compulsion.” Takimoto nodded as he followed the command of his superior, leading Shizuka to wherever the captives were being taken.
Katsu surprisingly mounted moderate resistance despite his injuries, kicking, pulling and cursing as he was dragged away. He even spat in Ken's direction, the mix of blood and saliva falling short of its target. Shizuka pulled against Takimoto as he restrained her arms, but quickly ceased this defiance. Petty struggling would do little but waste energy.
"You bastards, I'll kick all your asses! Pretty confident after you samurai pal did the dirty work. I'll take you all one, I don't care how beat up I am. I'll show all of you what a real warrior looks like."
"Would you shut up?" one of the men struggling to restrain Katsu shouted. "We're trying to be reasonable about this. We just as easily could have stomped you into the dirt and dragged you to a cell by your hair."
"Sorry about him." Shizuka said.
"Don't apologize to them!" Katsu shouted at his sister. "These wannabes are gonna get what they deserve when I get out of here, you'll see. Just when you least expect it, I'm gonna beat you all so bad you'll be telling the story to your grand kids!"
"Give it a rest Katsu."
"Why should it?"
"If you're going to insist on being a moron at least save your energy for later."
Katsu grit his teeth but didn't say anything more.
It wasn't long before Shizuka could see where the men intended to her and Katsu. A mine shaft, but unlike the others Shizuka has seen, this one had no works or equipment present. An abandon tunnel most likely. A perfect natural prison nestled inside the mountain. Shizuka made up her mind there and then that she had to escape with Katsu before they reached the mouth of the dark cave.
"A mine shaft?" Katsu said as they approached. "You got to be kidding me? You guys don't even have a decent prison around here?" One of the men leading Katsu let out a sigh. "I'm not staying in a damn cave. Take me to a real prison."
"Are you joking?" one of the men asked. "You're in no position to demand anything."
Katsu began struggling again, but not with the same vigor as he had before. As Shizuka began calculating the best possible method of escaping their captures, something about Katsu's movements caught her eye. Katsu was repeatedly opening and closing his right fist, a familiar signal. Shizuka began scanning the sky but couldn't see anything at first. Then, passing just over her head, Shizuka spotted a low flying owl. Mere moments later Shizuka found herself consumed by a cloud of white smoke. The smoke seemed much more potent that normal, stinging her eyes intensely and causing her to choke. Takimoto released his grip on her arms and grabbed at his own throat, apparently unable to breathe. Taking advantage of the opportunity, Shizuka drove her foot, slamming her heel into Takimoto's groin. By the time Takimoto hit the ground, Katsu had already taken out the men that had been holding him. Garbing his sister by the wrist with one hand and his sword with the other, Katsu began moving outside the cloud as it dissipated.
"Yeah." Katsu said, cutting his sister off. "I summoned an owl before going into the town. He's been waiting for my signal to drop those gas bombs most the afternoon."
"Not bad bro."
"Save it." Katsu snapped. "You didn't think I had a plan for one second did you?"
"Katsu, you didn't-"
"Just shut it."
Katsu released Shizuka's wrist and began running vertically up the cliff near the mine shaft.