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Victory and Defeat! Spoils of War On a Fateful Day of Battle.

Five years later. Kongou looks out at the lake.

He smiles as a familiar figure approaches him. Yamato.

"Is Hariel still wed?" asks Kongou.

"For the time being," Yamato laughs. The priest relates a ribald tale involving Hariel, his wife Yuri, the assassin Taro, and Atsuo.

"What manner of lustful indulgence is this?" smiles Kongou, wanting more details.

"From what I could gather, Yuri was bathing. Taro surprised her and seduced her. Atsuo was watching her bathe—as he always likes to watch young women bathe—and was roused by her copulation. He joined in.

"Hariel planned to sneak up on her himself, and was unhappy that his two comrades beat him to it."

Kongou merely laughs with Yamato; they knew Hariel all too well.

"Why would Taro commit such mockery towards Lord Hariel? Atsuo is one of impulse, I know; yet Taro measures every moment."

"Hariel slept with Taro's wife a week before—this was Taro and Yuri's vengeance. But Atsuo unwittingly avenged himself also."


"Hariel was with Atsuo's wife a year ago. About a month before her wedding to Atsuo."

Kongou chuckles. "The old man—I know. I know he had some stricture for them."

"Yes. He ranted about their immoral doings, but put the blame on Hariel. Hariel's actions came back to haunt him. Needless to say, Hariel stormed out of the tavern, mad as hell."

"Or finally humbled. Did the old one not laugh?"

"Laugh? Ha! The Ancient didn't even bother to wait until Hariel was out of earshot. Until that day, I wasn't aware he could laugh." At this, Yamato laughs.

And Kongou laughs. The two samurai are lost in a fit of laughter.

They calm down after a moment.

"And how have you been, mighty Kusanagi?" asks Yamato.

"Not well," sighs Kongou. His smile fades.

"What's the matter?"

"I have lost her, Yamato."

"Eh? mean your Kushinada Hime."

"Yes. She is wed to another, brother slew brother, and my gentle Mamoru is gone. And...I have lost her. Lost my own soul." Kongou shuts his eyes, suppressing tears.

Yamato, sad for his comrade-in-arms, starts to speak.

Kongou raises a hand. "Nay, beloved. Fear not for me. 'Tis damnable, this, yet it shall last for but a moment. The lord Susano-oh decreed the Sword of Blood and Time to split the Kushinada; when its work has done, my lady will return to me— free." He stretches, prepared to take a nap.

"You would sleep in moments like this," says Yamato wryly.

"Yea; for I dream," yawns Kongou. "I dream of ways to rescue and free Lord Rajura.

Fifteen minutes pass. Yamato tires of watching Kongou snore, and he begins to drift into sleep himself...

...except Kongou jerks awake, as though he were bitten.

His eyes sparkle, lucid with excitement.

"What's the matter, Kongou?" Yamato asks.

"Hsst!" Kongou silences Yamato. "Mark the air closely now. See you not the banners waving?"

Yamato gazes at the valley below for a moment. "I see no banners...but I do see--*"

"Good. Now come," Kongou whispers, unable to contain his excitement. "We've no time to waste."

"But what's going on—wait!" Yamato has to chase after Kongou to find out; both sprint toward Sawaguchi's Tavern.

= # =

Few customers are at Sawaguchi's this evening. A boy, who looks familiar to the tavern keeper, gazes out of a window. An old peasant sleeps in a corner, behind a table with four bored samurai. These youths have yet to order even sake.

Three other samurai, regular nuisances to the tavern, sit at a table surrounded by maidens. One samurai, Hariel, drunkenly stands on Kome's newly-cleaned counter—again.

"Off with you, damnit!" She yanks Hariel down.

"What manner of waitress are you?" scowls Hariel.

"The one that owns the tavern, you baka. Atsuo!" Kome orders. "Play samurai on your own time. See what those men want. Curse the lot, they've sat in that place for an hour."

"Right." Atsuo obeys, eager to keep his job. He heads toward the table.

- - - -

"It's unusual that our master has not sent us on a mission," Kail notes gloomily.

"Aye, in over six months," grunts Shutendouji. "If I don't kill someone soon, I'll scream in madness."

"What of the old wretch in the corner?" Naaza points out the snoring peasant, who grunts slightly.

"What? I'll not waste my blade on a mere peasant."

"Beggars cannot afford discernment."

"Lo, Shuten—a youthful fool to slay," jests Rajura. He indicates Atsuo, who grins stupidly.

"You annoy me," scowls the redhead. "I seek a real battle."

"He does appear familiar," says Naaza, eyeing the waiter closely.

"A real fight? Don't we all want one?" sighs Kail. His ennui is shared by all.

Kongou and Yamato enter the tavern, Kongou's deep blue eyes agleam with joy.

"Eh, what this? What's going on, Kusanagi?" says Taro suspiciously.

"Chase these away from us," says Kongou, shooing the maidens away, "that I may tell you openly."

The maidens, feeling insulted, storm out of the tavern.

"Why'd you run off my lovelies, Kongou?" moans Hariel.

"Had to be done, my lord. We have a great work ahead of us, thus we mustn't allow distractions." Kongou smiles, pausing for dramatic effect.

Which Yamato ruins. "The Devil's Hand," he states. "We saw their forces encamped in a valley outside Edo Village."

"You have no instinct of time or drama in your soul, do you, Yamato?" Kongou observes.

"No, I don't," responds Yamato dryly. "Besides, you said yourself that we had to make haste."

"The Hand?" Atsuo gasps. "Why are they outside Edo?"

"I want to know too," adds Kome. "I have family there."

"Who knows what Saotome's purpose could be?" says Yamato. "It must be important though, if Lord Shimamura leads the advance guard," he adds with scorn.

"Karu Shimamura?" Despite his drunkenness, Hariel becomes sober at the thought of the Hand. "He's one of Saotome's worthless dogs."

"Sadly, he's more than just that. He's the dark seed of the Kusimikado School. He betrayed us to serve the Hand."

"And aside from this," Kongou smiles, "Karu is a dangerous man. One of Lord Saotome's mightiest. Saotome would not send such a one as he on a fool's errand.

"No, Edo is of strategic import."

"Then what do we do? Shouldn't we find out what Edo's significance is before we risk our necks?" scowls Taro. "Think, Kusanagi: the five of us against the most ruthless, sadistic army of terrorists on the earth, and all to save a pathetic collective of peasants."

"We must. The fate of Japan—and perhaps the earth—may be at stake.

"Hear me. They plan to attack at sundown. As the holy sun sets on Edo, the Hand will rise to strike it down with fire and blade, moving as a wave of blood. They of Edo cannot defend against such an evil. Something must be done, lest Saotome be able to consume the innocent.

"Ah...yet I say that their blood shall flow this day. Not Edo's." A soft, cruel smile curls Kongou's lips.

"Wait," says Atsuo, skeptical of Kongou's news. "The Hand always wears red. Always. Won't the people of Edo notice them?"

"No; the Hand's not marching until sundown," Yamato answers. "Their war garments are chameleon-like, blending in with their surroundings. I didn't see them myself until Kongou pointed it out."

"The heavens are with us, my beloved," smiles Kongou. "A breeze aided my eyes."

"But if you were to see the horizon in the valley, from Edo's perspective," Yamato continues, "you wouldn't notice the advancing army moving toward the village—until it's too late."

"Well...." Then Atsuo smiles hopefully. "The five of us united could stand a chance of holding the Hand off until the Imperial Army arrives to see the melee."

"Now that's the proper spirit," says Kongou.

"That number should be six," says Kumi, shedding her disguise. "For I refuse to be left out."

"No, Kumi." Kongou raises a hand to prevent Yamato's protests.


"This is the Hand that we contend with, Lady Kusimikado. We do not toy with the Hand.

"Yea, I know you number among the most powerful healers of Japan, and that you've yet to lose. But Shimamura leads this band, and he possesses equal skill and has the advantage of experience. We cannot risk a loss at this."

"You took this stricture from my brother, eh?" pouts Kumi.

"Nay, beloved," Kongou smiles, touching her chin. "We have cares now. I have my work of salvation to complete. You have your family to watch over and nurture."

+ I still think of you, my angel, + Kumi smiles sadly.

Kongou sighs. + Yea, Kumi; we each were fool children then. Yet I'm sure our Lord Rajura still dreams of that day. +

# # #

Rajura eyes the conversing pair. One looks like a beauty he had witnessed in what seemed another lifetime to him. The samurai she speaks with appeared to be his hated enemy, Kongou Kusanagi.

Shutendouji talks with the peasant, whom he had roused from sleep.

"You cry, peasant," he mocks, albeit in genuine curiosity. "What are your tears for?"

"For loss, child," the peasant sighs. "For all that I have lost."

"Such a poor creature. How may I help you in your time of suffering?" Shutendouji smiles softly.

"Only what you will to do, my lord."

"Good. For I have no will to carry you out of your sorry plight."

"As I expected, my lord. Yet you're the one in a miserable state."


"Aren't you? You have all that you desire, more than you ever dreamed. And yet, for all that, you are empty."

"What...?" gasps the redhead, eyeing the peasant narrowly. ** What manner of peasant is he, * he wonders, ** that he may cut to my heart so closely? *

But Shutendouji laughs aloud. "Perhaps this emptiness I feel," he smiles, "persists because I hunger."

The peasant smiles at this jest.

"Wench!" Shutendouji bellows, provoking an irate Kome. "Bring us your finest meal."

Kome turns her head sharply at his raucous shout. "You! It's about time you fools ordered," she snaps.

"Make haste, woman—if you value your life."

"You don't scare me, you lout!" With that, Kome storms into the kitchen, muttering curses about idiot samurai.

Kongou gasps in delight. "We know that voice, don't we, men?"

"All too well," sighs Hariel bemusedly. "It's our self-proclaimed Lord of Cruelty, Anubis."

"How natural. Evil's afoot, and the Dynasty lurks nearby," Yamato notes dryly.

"Oh! Kumi, we spoke of Rajura," Kongou smiles, "and the very man is even now in our midst."

"No. No, Kongou. You can't be serious. I see that look in your eye," protests Yamato.

"The face of Kongou Kusanagi with yet another mad plan," adds Hariel.

"Indeed," continues Taro. "Fool, they're our enemies."

"Yea, I know, Torushima-kun. I'd trust these with my life," says Kongou.

"And lose it far quicker than you trusted it," quips Atsuo.

"No...can you not see the heavens' plan? We need them. With their power and ours, the Hand would be laid to rest."

"But this is madness, Kongou," says Yamato.

"I will give ear to no more of your protests." Kongou walks toward the dining Warlords.

"Besides," smiles Kongou slyly to his comrades, "our enemy is mad as well. Let madness fight madness, I say."

# # #

"Does this baka disturb you?" grins Sekhmet.

"We are happy to rid you of him," adds Kail in jest.

"Do not," smiles the peasant. "I enjoy the company.

"You all are wicked young rogues, but I have dealt with worse."

Grumbling, Kome brings the food to the hungry Warlords, who are set to dine.

But another samurai unsheathes his broadsword and cuts the table asunder.

"What in the hell!" snarl three of the Warlords.

"Lord Rajura, my sweet," smiles the vandal—Kongou—gently. "Where have you been?"

"Miserable...pathetic...yaro," Dais glares, ready to kill Kongou for this latest insult.

All four Warlords start to draw their weapons.

"No, my lords, stand down," Kongou says softly, regal as ever. "You hunger not for food, nor do you seek my bit of blood.

"Nay, you are warriors; you seek wars to fight in. I've come to bring one to you."

"Yes," seethes Naaza, "we see that you're ready to die. And we have killed for less."

"I'm all too happy to oblige, Hardrock," adds Rajura scathingly.

"I came here--not to kill you, my loves—but to grant you the opportunity to strike down the Devil's Hand, earning your place as true men of war." Pausing to let his words sink in, Kongou smiles with an unbridled mixture of eagerness and viciousness.

Anubis stops the others. "What do you speak, ronin dog? It had better be worth our meal."

"Of course, else I'd not waste your time or mine. I'd be eating now. No, beloved; even as we speak, the Hand rallies all of their forces. Saotome's whole army amasses outside Edo, poised to kill.

"Yet if we nine enter their camp, we attack without warning and consume them long before they consume Edo Village.

Shutendouji considers Kongou's strange proposition. "The ronin speaks well, gentlemen."

"Of what?" snarls Rajura, uncharacteristically enraged. "The wretch speaks madness, Anubis. We cannot trust him!"

"Silence." Anubis turns to Kongou. "Leave us, ronin. We must decide for ourselves if this is a proper course to take, and bring this matter before Master Talpa."

"What? You speak as a child, my lord. We will wait not on counsel from your master; we haven't the time. And besides, one should disturb no emperor with every petty offense. Though I understand," Kongou adds dubiously, "if you feel unable to contend in this matter without him."

"A moment to confer, if you will," scowls Anubis, his pride wounded.

"Very well; as you wish." Kongou leaves them.

"This is a rare opportunity," Naaza notes, "and I'd hate to see it wasted by those ronin fools."

"Master Talpa would surely be pleased that we rid the Dynasty of such a powerful rival," adds Kail.

"And it would be a glorious battle," Anubis sighs dreamily. "What do you think, Dais?"

The one-eyed Warlord's expression is inscrutable, and he is silent a moment.

"Dais, answer us," says Sekhmet.

"I have no desire," begins Rajura slowly, "to be indebted to that malicious child of shiseiji and demons."

"True, but we can kill them afterwards," shrugs Anubis.

"I'm not done. I do have a private vendetta with the Hand."

For a moment, Rajura is silent.

"If Kusanagi speaks the truth," he concludes, "then I shall permit the lout to live for the present."

Kongou returns. "My lords, sunset is in six hours. With or without you," he adds, "we go to crush the Hand."

"Yes," Rajura sneers, "five worthless ronin will miraculously rout an army of warriors, all trained in mystical arts as well as combat.

"How do you hope to accomplish this feat? What is your plan to ensure victory? After all, I cannot hope that they will slay you fast enough."

"Slay me?" Kongou balks at this. "You speak nonsense, Rajura, my love. Shimamura will expect no attack—not from within. Other than us, no one—not even the School of the Angel Cat—knows of the Hand's plan.

"The key, my lords, is to maintain that element of surprise, that we can strike as lightning. If you have any suggestions to add, feel free to join our conference." Kongou goes back to his comrades.

Within thirty minutes, Sawaguchi's Tavern has become a war room. The boy slipped out of the tavern without paying, while the peasant falls back asleep.

Kumi and Kome are the only people left in the tavern. Aside from the nine samurai, of course.

"Yea, I glory in this: that the School of the Angel Cat shall not claim this endeavor," smiles Kongou. "No, this victory will be ours alone, and it will be sweet. Won't it, my red one?"

"Yes, I must admit, the prospect grows more intriguing," Shutendouji muses, sharpening his kusari.

Yamato is ever the realist. "We've found a way to infiltrate their forces," he says. "However, we have no way of halting their plans against Edo, even with our combined power. They have numbers on their side, and the Hand would soon overwhelm us."

"Aye, Yamazaki's right," concurs Taro. "Our chances of surviving this fool's game are slim; our odds of success, almost none."

"Ah, but those are my favored odds," grins Kongou.

"Strata cannot be frightened," smirks Anubis.

"We're exercising caution, idiots." Yamato laughs. "Some of us wish to outlive this madness."

"If there were only a way..." Kail muses, " delay the sunset."

"We thought of a sun's eclipse," says Kumi. "However, with the energy needed to pull that off, Shimamura would be wary."

"Cannot have that," adds Kongou.

Rajura is lost in thought a moment.

His single eye snaps open. "Kail, you brilliant fool!" he smiles broadly. "I could kiss you."

"Do it and die," says Kail half-jokingly.

"Calm down. Perhaps the way to defeat our enemy is to use their own tricks against them."

"I understand. We'd need a large cloth, like a net, that can bend the sun's light. With that," Yamato continues, "my sister and I could focus our power to fool the Hand. It would buy us time until after sunset, and it would be too late for the Hand to finish their plan."

"Then we strike them down," says Kongou.

"Impressive, Lord Rajura," smiles Kumi. "Your plan takes little energy."

"And I can create the cloth you need," says Dais.

& = &

Two hours pass. Yamato, Kumi, and Dais have cast the "sun web"—as Dais dubbed it—and the two samurai remain with the web to keep it stable until nightfall. Atsuo and Naaza train. Kome rides to Toyama to warn the Imperial Guard, racing on her fastest horse.

Kongou and Kumi argue.

"I thought that this matter was settled and made clear. We soldiers will contend with the Hand, whilst you remain behind." Kongou folds his arms, breathing in vexation.

Kumi caresses his cheek. "Think, baka," she smiles gently. "I won't stand out of the fight; I won't be denied the fun. And besides, someone must protect the old one."

She indicates the waking peasant, actually the ronins' mentor and mage in disguise.

The Ancient wakes, and he thinks a dead man has risen.

Until the ghost speaks. It is only Shutendouji, disguised as a peasant.

"Do you approve?" he grins.

"You wear rags, my lord; nevertheless they befit you. In fact," muses the Ancient, eyeing Shutendouji with a trace of longing, "you remind me of my young brother." ** My Yunnin, as a matter of fact. His hair, the shape of his clear, far-seeing eyes; even that smile, Shutendouji, you gained from him.

** Even in your fallen state, Kaojin's glory and strength continues to shine in you. *

"You know, old man...." Anubis breaks the Ancient's line of thought. "I have no quarrel with peasants, to speak truthfully."

The youth smiles. "In fact, one of my toughest foes was a peasant woman, and she defeated me."

** And rightfully so, for she taught you all that you know of combat. * "What became of this remarkable woman?" asks the Ancient, knowing Calla's sad fate.

"I don't know. After a second match, in which Hariel interfered, I lost consciousness. When I awoke, she was gone. To this day I have not seen her again." Anubis sighs. "She reminded me of someone I knew and loved...long ago."

** Not that long ago, red angel, * the Ancient sighs. ** You have forgotten yourself. *

"I suspect that the dog Saotome killed her, for he was at the battle as well. I wish to know the truth from him. And if he did indeed kill this honorable woman, I will avenge her death."

"And in so doing, avenge the deaths of thousands. You will unintentionally become a hero to the nation—if you succeed."

"You're odd...." Anubis eyes this peasant yet again. "Why do you doubt our power? Honestly, some of you presume that we could lose."

"And you believe that you nine, scarcely more than boys, can defeat an entire army.

"But your belief doesn't surprise me," smiles the peasant. "Children tend to have an idiot's sense of confidence."

"What? I don't understand you, old man."

Kongou kicks the Ancient in the side. "Beat him! This withered fool is of no consequence."

"If this is the case," smiles a surprised Anubis, "then we should let him be. Besides, we must train for the coming battle.

"Which we shall win." The redhead smiles at the grimacing Ancient, then walks away with Kongou.

* # *

To most of Japan, only an hour remains until sunset.

But for Karu Shimamura and the School of the Devil's Hand, the afternoon drags slowly forward.

** New faces in the troop, with a group of captive peasant slaves. * Karu eyes the youth with the scar on his eye. ** Those eyes...the softness of his voice, his even—it couldn't be. Could she have borne a son? *

The peasant slaves move through the troops, bringing them water and provisions. One peasant, a red-haired youth, glares at a Hand soldier. He seems unaccustomed to their harsh treatment.

** I'll have to mark that one, * notes Karu. ** He has the bearing of a warrior. *

"Curse this sun," grunts a Hand warrior. "Why won't it set?"

"Aye; it's as though heaven itself wants our plan revealed," agrees another soldier.

"You speak fables and nonsense as old women," scoffs Karu, belying his own worry. The sun did seem strangely oppressive today. ** I know not of the heavens, * he says privately, ** but I do sense a great power working against us. *

% % %

A young Imperial soldier trains with a kendo stick. Kome runs to this youth and hugs him.

"Gohan!" She laughs. "I see the Imperials are making a man out of you."

"I guess you're right, aneue," grins Gohan, Kome's twin brother. She was born first. "What brings you here?"

"I just have an urgent message to bring to Kunikida-sama."

"What is it?"

"If you want to find out, just follow Agent Sawaguchi." Kome salutes and leaves for Kunikida's tent.

Inside, shogun Tetsuo Kunikida studies a few maps. He looks up to see Kome and Gohan, and stares blankly at them.

"Agent Sawaguchi? Why aren't you at your post outside Edo?"

"Edo is what I came to report about, Kunikida-sama," she bows.

"Go on."

"Saotome and his renegade band are going to besiege the village. Shimamura leads the first wave."

"I see," glares Tetsuo.

"What?" gasps Gohan. "Kome, that's our home!"

"Hai, otoutosan; I know. We do have a slight advantage. Some samurai found out about Saotome's plan. They're just some half- drunk ronin, but I think they can hold the Hand off.

"Saotome's forces will be pinned until nightfall, and by then we should have the needed forces to subdue them." Kome laughs.

"What's so funny, Kome?" asks Gohan.

"Nothing," grins a soldier, coming seemingly out of nowhere. "Sawaguchi-san knows that there may be little left for either of us to subdue."

"What! Nagane Kusanagi, how the hell did you sneak in here?"

"I had been with Kunikida-sama for three hours, awaiting confirmation of this action. Now I know which of ours shall strike Saotome, thus I'll take my leave." And Nagane disappears before Tetsuo can probe him with questions.

"Lord Kunikida, with all due honor, we can't let these ronin and the Cat steal this victory from the Empire," says Gohan.

"Aye," adds Kome. "We all have matters against the Hand."

"Agreed. Don't worry; we'll get our fair share of battle, and Saotome will see justice. Assemble the troops, Agent Sawaguchi."

"Hai!" Kome salutes and leaves.

6 9 6

The evening colors seem to appear in the sky, at long last.

"Youth." A Hand soldier nudges Kail. "How many have you known?"

"Eh? I don't understand you," Kail says.

"Maidens, boy. Have you known any?"

"Of course not, baka," Karu grins knowingly. "The youth has yet to experience such delights."

"Ah." The soldier nods his head. "Then you shall learn the joys of lust tonight, when we conquer the maidens of Edo."

"Aye," snickers another soldier. "Yet none will ever be as sweet as the wench I had once."

"Not that tale again," groans the first soldier.

"How can you remember such a fleeting moment? It happened years ago!" snarls Karu, equally irritated.

"My lord, I cannot forget. The harlot tried to burn me alive in my home. It burned to the ground, and the proof of it is this scar on my arm—from hot embers."

"So," mocks a nearby regiment, "you tasted the fire starter as well."

"Yes; of my many conquests, she was my best."

"Aye, now I remember!" the first soldier grins. "That one you had to hold down to make her earn her keep. She was pretty. I did enjoy forcing her."

"Deadly as poison, she was. But this should be a lesson, boy," says the second soldier to Kail. "You have to take risks in this life."

** Worthless dogs; my sword of darkness thirsts for your blood. * "What was the wench's name, then?" Kail smiles aloud. "She sounds like she's worth the trouble you endured."

"Yaooni, boy!" howl several soldiers. "Yaooni!"

** No! Not her...I expected this from my elder daughter—curse that wretch—but not cannot be. She left me centuries ago, and rightly so. And that boy...that boy is her son. * Karu stares at Kail wildly.

"That's rather odd." Kail laughs nervously, struggling to control his rage. "My mother happens to...share the same name."

The soldiers laugh boisterously at this.

"No, lad! We couldn't have slept with your mother!" shouts one soldier.

"Aye; if that's the case, any one of us could have sired you!" gasps another, out of breath from laughing.

Kail is silent, openly showing his disgust with the Hand's obscene laughter.

+ Now you know why these disgust heaven, + seethes Kongou. + Will you let the dogs imply that they defiled your mother? +

Kail, still silent, calmly takes his no-datchi out of its scabbard. Murder glimmers in his eyes.

"Patience, boy," smiles Karu, unaware of Kail's intent. "We merely await...."

The Hand general then notes a welcome sign. "Sunset," he announces grandly as the sun sets on the horizon.

"No." Kail releases his black energy. "Darkness."

Absolute darkness surrounds the Hand, and in their confusion, Kail draws first blood.

The sky returns to normal, a starry night sky. Several Hand soldiers lie dead. Shimamura sees the truth a moment too late. Sunset came and went three hours ago.

"Shimamura-sama," cries a soldier frantically, "we must send for- -*!" The soldier's words and life are cut off by...

** ...him. I thought so. The red youth is a samurai, and he excels in the arts of death. And apparently so is this one! * Karu narrowly blocks an attack from Kail.

"You still live," Kail smiles. "I must begrudge you a compliment for your skill."

"Such ploys are no novelty for me, boy," growls Karu. "Tell me, are there others like yourself."

"I am confident that you will die before you find out."

In another part of the battlefield, Yamato and Dais polish off their victims.

"How pathetic," Dais notes in disgust. "I expected more from the Hand."

"Yes, I know," agrees Anubis, who lops off an enemy's head with his kusari. "This is far too easy. Kusanagi, where is the great battle you promised?"

"You ask this of me?" Kongou impales another Hand soldier with his naginata, out of frustration. "I don't know; I expected greater numbers than this."

"We have yet to break a sweat with these dogs; at this rate, we won't even need the armor." Taro kicks one soldier and slits another attacker's throat with his knife.

"You all want this to be a greater task?" asks Yamato. "Then don't worry. These are just foot soldiers, the least of Saotome's army. We haven't seen his real warriors yet." Yamato disembowels another Hand soldier with his no-datchi.

"Don't lose heart now," smiles Hariel as he slashes open two soldiers. "At the core, Saotome is a coward. He'll abandon this undertaking."

~ ~ ~

** How odd. Normally, with such warriors confounding my pupils, I would retreat immediately and leave these fools to pay the price for their incompetence. *

Arago scowls, however, when he watches Karu's fight. One of his mightiest generals basically runs for his life...from Arago's own armor.

He then chuckles. ** One of my servants tries to kill another servant. Would be quite enlightening—if I had ordered it.

** At the present moment, though, I am in no mood for enlightenment. None must learn the true power that my fools possess. *


** The fighting style of that one-eyed samurai seems familiar to does his face, * notes Reijin Diaz.

The samurai in question, Rajura, divides his time between slaughtering Hand soldiers and bickering with a ronin cohort.

Reijin challenges Rajura directly. "You stupid fool." Reijin backhands Rajura.

Dais smiles; a small trickle of blood rolls from his lips.

"Answer me, otoutosan." Reijin trembles with rage. "Why are you here?"

"I came to kill you, niisan." Rajura attacks; his nunchakus clash with Reijin's serrated twin datchis.

On another part of the battlefield, Kail and Karu continue to trade blows; the younger warrior refuses to let up.

"Instead of fighting this losing battle," smiles Karu, "you should join us."

"I'm already serving my master," Kail snarls.

"Oh. In that case, you serve in ignorance. You don't know my master's true power."

"Perhaps I know that he has no power. Your worthless dog of a master is a weak and piteous coward."

** Foolish youth. He knows not of whom he speaks. Lord Saotome is near...but his power. It's marshalled by these youths that keep slaughtering my men. If it is my master's power, why is it directed against us? *

Meanwhile, more Hand soldiers die at Kongou's hands. ** What lack of battle. * Kongou strikes down another Hand soldier with his broadsword. ** The Hand's forces dwindle when they should increase, our attack upon them notwithstanding. I cannot pretend that we shall be victorious with our power alone; it's almost as if...someone hinders the Hand's reinforcements *

# # #

The someone—or some ones, rather—is the School of the Angel Cat.

"Nagane-sama," smiles a Cat, "Kongou's displeasure in you will be great if we take this battle from him."

"But he is never pleased with me, not my sweet little cousin." Nagane beheads one soldier and blasts another in the face with a bolt of energy. "We shall have to allow a few of them to live."

"What! Father," pouts Jiroku as he kills another Hand warrior. "I'm surprised at you. We cannot suffer Kongou to partake of all this joy."

"Did I say they would go alone?" smiles Nagane, pursuing a fleeing Hand soldier. "Begin the hunt!"

- - -

"You cannot win, foolish youth," taunts a ninja.

"You are blind to the truth, disreputable wretch," retorts Rajura. "One of the Hand's greatest soldiers has already fallen at my hand." He points to the subdued Reijin, who moans slightly. "Others will fall just as quickly."

"That is only due to this: that your master and his are one and the same."

"What do you mean?"

"Your life belongs to Saotome, just as much as his. Even more, since you bear his mystic armor.

** I see that my armor looks similar to Reijin's mantis armor, * Dais notes, ** but that's of no importance. *

"You lie. Saotome is not my master," says Dais aloud as he attacks the ninja.

"Fool. Saotome rules over all, even the emperor Talpa and his Dynasty."

"No. Saotome is the dog that destroyed my house. He turned my brother against his own family. And for that," concludes Rajura, striking the ninja with his nunchakus, "your master Saotome must die."

Other Hand soldiers descend before Rajura can determine how the ninja vanished.

& & &

The Devil's Hand reinforcements finally reach the battlefield.

"Curse your incompetence!" snarls Karu, able to break away from Kail at last. "What took you so damned long?"

"Forgive me, Shimamura-sama," breathes the lieutenant. "We had no chance to reach you beforehand—the--*!" The lieutenant dies before he can finish his excuse.

"Meow." The lieutenant's killer gives Karu a predatory smile before attacking.

"The Cat, my lord!" screams a soldier, needlessly.

"Yes, Shimamura-sama," smiles another soldier, who strikes down the first soldier. "We shall bathe in Saotome's blood."

** No! The Cat is within us! * Some of the Hand soldiers turn on the others.

"My lord," cries one Hand warrior, "they strike without warning!"

Karu kills one Angel Cat, and three more descend in the fallen one's place.

"Stand ready, warriors! The sons of Noriyuki are upon us!" roars Karu. He blocks the trio's attacks, but more of the Cat appear before him.

"Curse the Cat," Karu wails, "they are everywhere!"

"No...." murmurs Kongou in rage. He hears that familiar cry of despair from his enemy. "!" Kongou strikes the nearest warrior with his nunchakus.

And then smiles curtly, glad that he hurt Nagane.

"Now, cousin," smiles Nagane, "you do realize that we're on the same side?"

Kongou's smile fades. "Damnation take you."

"Come now," grins Jiroku. "You shouldn't have kept this to yourself. Did you really think you could leave us out of a battle such as this? You know us better, so get over it."

"It was impossible that you should know. How did you--*?"

Kongou sees the answer. With the Ancient—still disguised as an observing peasant—is a child. Jiroku's eight-year old son Mamoru cheers them on.

"Have you forgotten, beloved? 'Presence of the cat'." Nagane smiles meekly.

** That brat was in the tavern, yet I bothered not to stop him. Baka! I'm such an idiot. *

# - #

Mamoru's joy is mine, but I must remain silent.

All nine of the young louts fight well, even Hariel. The Devil's Hand forces have fallen because of his blade and my friend White Blaze.

You must have seen this, Yunnin. If not, you would love this. The armors are being purified as the nine warriors align themselves with the armors' true natures. Now, if Saotome's evil ends here, Talpa will not only lose hate and despair, but his Warlords as well. I can feel his hold on their spirits weakening with every strike they make.

- * -

Useless Talpa.

I can't use that power to stop this; he's banished for the next one thousand years. I need the Warlords to represent the Dynasty now. But at the moment, they and I work at cross purposes. And the fools think they're doing me a great service.

Talpa should have remained a corporeal presence; then I could control the Warlords and their power. But that wretched monk. He defeated and exiled my oni, and I must take on this matter myself.

Yet when he purged the armor, he only gave me greater power. My armor fights beautifully...I need only to touch it to obtain a taste of my power.

Then they shall know the futility of warring against me.


Return to TTTV, for now.

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