A/N: My entry for the HGSS contest, third-place winner. ^_^ Thanks to the oh mighty judges and congrats to Chozo and Ysavvryl!
PG-13 for non-explicit nudity and some violence.
Chōji Town—Mahogany Town
Kunai—a simple thrusting weapon with an elongated arrow-head-shaped blade, a long gripped-handle, and a loop at the end.
Tantō—Japanese short sword
Yukata—a piece of clothing similar in cut to a kimono, but simpler and duller in colour, and intended for use as sleepwear or after bathing.
1. The comparative study of a development based on its history.
2. Change occurring over time.
‘Mahogany Town: Welcome to the home of the ninja!’
—Mahogany Town signpost, Pokémon Crystal
‘This [underground base] was once a ninja hideout.’
—Scientist Jed, Team Rockets’ Mahogany Town headquarters, Pokémon Crystal
Night crossed the mountains, deepening the shadows of the city and the stronghold at its height. All was still, save the gust of wind, and the flow of water, and the infrequent flicker of candlelight. A shadow scaled the face of the keep’s stone walls, grey and shifting and hidden far too deeply in gloom to be noticed by any eye but one that watched for it.
It reached a ledge ere long and climbed the rim, but was neither shadow nor demon: a woman, rather, slight of face and build. Light was above her, and empty darkness below; she feared neither.
With her was a demon, a spider of monstrous size and long, thin legs, threading glistening silk to the cliff to speed her path. Silently she scaled the height, and silently she reached for the windowsill, its stone made coarse in the light from the window beyond. Cautiously she looked in, face near-hidden and eyes made large by the surrounding dark. The room was empty.
It was not her goal; a dressing-room, only, laden with furnishings warm and garments rich—far too rich, for her like. She slipped in, she and the bat-demon clinging to her back a black spot against the room’s character. She took little notice.
Sound could be heard from within the next room: the splash of water, a low-voiced hum—interrupted by a pair of voices—and soft footsteps. Her target, no doubt: one of the dragon tamers, those fiends who sold their souls to the dragons for strength and raped the land around them once they had it. Her own home was threatened by them; unless their power was checked the ancient and sacred foundations of her brethren’s compound would be overturned beneath the careless and savage till of the tamers’ hands. They were without honour; they would not hesitate to rob her of everything she had, she knew.
She exhaled. She was ready; the time was nearly right. The voice belonging to the footsteps would leave shortly, and then she could strike.
She gave no heed to her escape. She had seen this war through many years, seen her comrades fall around her, and not always by their enemy’s blade. If there was an end to be had this night, she would not shun it.
A door rattled. She waited while footsteps faded out of hearing.
The screen quietly slid open an inch. Though the lap of water against stone edges met her ears, she could hear her target not at all. She saw in her looking-glass the room was near-empty, but fogged with steam. That was well; it would hide her, and muffle her sound.
She slid forward. The grey in her clothes faded her with the mist, and she became but a shadow. Two steps, silent on sandalled feet, and she could see her target reclining in the water of the bath, dark hair loose and drifting. A kunai appeared in her hand. She took a final step.
The bath exploded with motion and she threw herself aside, her kunai thrown instinctively and uselessly into the curtain of water. She rolled and came to her feet, her heart racing and with a tantō already drawn, but her hand very nearly went slack when she saw what she faced: a dragon: a long, serpentine dragon, its scales sleek with water, hanging coiled in the air; a dragon, here, where her target should have been most vulnerable.
Part of her felt she should not have been surprised, for who else but the soulless fiends of the Dragon Clan would take such demons even to their bath?
And yet she had faced said demons before. She knew their strength in battle.
Desperately she pulled her own demon from her back, heaving it at her foe, and the walls reverberated and steam rippled with the bat’s painful battle cry. It did not affect her, too long had she trained with it; forward she dove, seeking entry past the dragon as it recoiled with a shriek. She slid beneath it across the slick stone floor, her eyes finding the shape of her target through the steam, and with a cast of her hand a quartet of whirling shuriken cut the air.
Steel flashed and fog billowed, and metal glanced off stone. Already she was darting onward, her tantō slicing toward the form before her. A blade appeared through the vapour to intercept hers and shockwaves sped up her arm; she pushed off it, spinning away on her heel and into a foot which came up to strike her in the side. It knocked her off balance, her spare hand whipping out with more shuriken, and her back met the marble floor. Pain lashed down her limbs, but she rolled and came up, panting, with time enough to see the shuriken glance off her target’s spinning blade.
For the first time, and for but an instant, she beheld her target fully: a woman, taller than she and fine of feature. Her nude form was shapely and lithe, toned and hard of muscle, her olive skin still glistening with drops of water. Her hair was dark and damp, curling around a face high-cheeked and noble, and her sharp eyes flashed rage.
She was a warrior—the warlord’s daughter.
She seethed. They dared—! They dared to invade the Clan’s stronghold. They dared to bring their darkness and dishonour into her home, into her bath—those shades of people, the ninja.
Long and long had the Clan reigned in their mountain city, and less long had it been since the ninja had laid their lair so near the borders of the Clan’s domain—but long enough. What else must have been in their heads, but to threaten the Clan’s sovereignty? For no other reason would they have—could they have—to build their home so near.
They were people of shadow, slaying from darkness and with dishonour, so their victims saw naught of them. They were creatures of fear; such was their power. But the Clan would not fear ones with such black hearts and could not abide their threat so near to the West, and the ninja could bear none with the courage to stand proud in that which they called their darkness.
And so they fought, samurai against shinobi, until even their daughters were given a blade at the cradle and both their brethren lay slaughtered in their own rooms or executed within stone walls.
She would not allow such to be her fate.
She lunged at the same time that her dragon’s pearled tail lashed out of the steam, but a dark figure shot at her after it and she was forced instead to parry the bat-demon’s claws, throwing it off into the thinning vapour. The wall and floor shuddered beneath the force of her dragon’s blow, but the whistle of shuriken was what caught her ears. She parried the spinning blades and then a strike from the ninja’s tantō in turn, each with a clang of steel.
She sprang forth, her sword whirling, and the intruder was forced back, hardly able to mount a defence against her flurry of strokes. There was a dark flash of movement above, but the dragon’s coils enfolded them through the steam; the bat-demon’s plunge turned aside lest it broke itself upon blue scales, and with a brush of vapour the dragon followed.
The ninja’s defence shattered beneath her attack and she thrust triumphantly forward with her sword. Nearly too late she saw the gleam of steel in her opponent’s other hand: a kunai: an arrow-shaped blade stabbing beneath her guard. She threw herself aside, diverting her lunge to parry the kunai by the hilt of her sword, and its tip barely passed her ribs. The tantō came down; her steel came up; they clashed and for a heartbeat there was an impasse in which the snarl and screech of their demons warring was the only sound to be heard.
Abruptly the ninja pushed away from her, and even as she rushed forward she perceived that the air between them seemed to glisten. Something scoured her arms and skin, and she recoiled in the moment that the intruder threw down a smoke bomb. The haze struck her like a wall, thick and harsh on her throat, but bared to her eyes the silken threads of a glimmering spider’s web.
Urgently she hacked the web with her blade. There was a burst of flame and mist billowed around her, the silk charred to ash and set adrift on her dragon’s draft. The haze dispersed before her, and her eyes caught the intruder at the abruptly open window, black against mere darkness. The bat-demon was dropping from the air to cling to the ninja’s arm and a spider-demon was vanishing into the night through the casement, and she rushed forth lest the interloper do the same.
From behind her there came a resonant cry, and she was abruptly swept from her feet by her dragon’s serpentine tail. An angry rebuke was on her lips, held short when she saw the glitter of steel upon the floor—caltrops.
Her eyes rose to meet those of the ninja, and she was struck by them: neither hard nor blank, nor determined, or humiliated, or hateful—but with something undetermined.
The would-be assassin launched herself from the windowsill.
On a surge of coils the dragon and its mistress soared near enough for her to lean out over the height, but she saw naught but darkness and the shadow of shaped stone beneath her—nor was she so foolish as to seek out a ninja in the night, not even on her own people’s lands. The intruder would escape this eve, she felt certain, to strike again should the opportunity arise.
It would not. On the morrow, she and hers would go to end this unrelenting war of theirs, and lay open the foundations of the shinobi homestead to light.
For a heartbeat she wondered if the ninja woman knew the danger that threatened it, then discarded the thought: if the ninja knew her Clan had discovered their compound, their target would have been another, and not her.
Sound came from the corridor; she awoke fully to her surroundings. Her heartbeat slowed, and her bare skin rose in goosebumps against the breeze from the open window. She indicated to her dragon to set her down, and once standing took up her yukata to clothe herself ere the castle guards burst in.
She glanced toward the window, and pondered once more the look she had beheld in the ninja’s eyes.
* * *
‘I did not see her again: the ninja woman. Though her missive had come to her home ere we captured it, she had not; nor did I see her amidst those we took prisoner as we drove them from our lands, of which there were few. Much may be said of ninja, but they have pride enough to slay themselves upon our swords ere dishonour comes by execution.
I am sure I would have recognised her by her eyes, if she had been among them. My only guess is that she fled East across the mountains with what remained of her kin.
I have kept her account. I do not know why. If one’s eyes are the window to one’s soul, then I could not see the blackness of a ninja’s heart in hers. Perhaps it is because I am tired of battle. Perhaps I am merely foolish. But now our lands are safe, and I may find rest in peace.
Mayhap so will she.
This is the private journal of Lady Ryuuko Himura
Firstborn of Lord Aki Himura, Dragon Master of the Clan of Dragon Tamers
Thoughtfully the old man closed the small, leather-bound book, resting his hand on the cover for a moment. His eyes lingered on the tiny logbook beside it that had belonged to the nameless ninja woman. It had to have been a long time since anyone bothered to read Lady Ryuuko’s words directly, instead of in the transcripts; otherwise the mission book would have been discovered and returned to the ninja a long time ago.
He thought of the intense rivalry that had existed between the clans even in his childhood, and shook his head ruefully: Maybe not. The open channels of communication between them were relatively recent, in the historical context of things.
The original texts were so old by now that hardly anyone dared to even touch them, but even though he’d never discovered a fondness for looking through the Clan’s history until late in life, he found he enjoyed reading the originals more, as if they would help him gain a better grasp of the people that had written them than looking at impersonal typed or digitised copies.
Not that it was difficult to get a grasp of Lady Ryuuko’s character; she was one of the most regular and detailed journal writers in the Clan’s history, not only of her personal thoughts but with her mission reports as well. What’s more, she’d lived at the end of the conflict between the ninja and dragon clans, one of the more significant times in the history of Johto. Her writings were everywhere, even outside of the clans’ archives.
This nameless ninja, on the other hand …
The mission book was something of an anomaly. Most of the ninja clan’s texts from that point in history or earlier had been destroyed when their compound in the burgeoning town of Chōji—and the town proper—had been razed by the dragon tamers. The mission to assassinate Ryuuko was only the last one reported in it; the rest of the pages were filled with neat, tiny writing on similar missions and observations made of others, and a few written conversations between the ninja to whom it belonged and her handler. They were the most interesting part of all, as they revealed a little of the personality the writer suppressed in her reports. The ninja would be very grateful to have such a resource returned—he made a mental note to tell the archivist to make it so.
He measured them with his hands—their size, their texture, the brittleness of their paper—marvelling at how similar the women had been in the end, even while being mortal enemies. He had to wonder if Ryuuko was right and the ninja woman had survived to pass over the mountains, or if she had died an ignoble death on the end of a dragon tamer’s sword. The thought was somewhat disturbing.
Something rustled behind him and his mouth drew up at the side. ‘Shouldn’t you be in bed?’ he asked without turning around.
A huff, and light footsteps padded across the stone floor towards him. ‘How did you know?’
‘Because I know everything.’ He looked to the side and gave a tiny grin at the wrinkle of the nine-year-old girl’s nose as she appeared at his arm.
‘Whatever you say, Grandfather.’ She sounded longsuffering but didn’t seem inclined to press the issue, instead peering curiously over his arm at the small books. ‘Is that one of Lady Ryuuko’s journals?’
There was a spark of interest in her voice, though for the most part her tone strove at cool detachment, and his lips quirked again. She acted somewhat like he imagined Ryuuko to have been like as a child, actually—proud and stubborn—though that may have been deliberate; Lady Ryuuko was one of her heroes, after all.
‘Yes, this is one of Ryuuko’s journals.’
She hesitated a moment, as if afraid to touch it (understandable: she would never have been so near to an original text before), but then stretched out a small hand to gently and reverently finger a tattered leather corner.
‘What about that one?’ She nodded at the lady-ninja’s little book, and he covered her small hand with his larger, callused one.
‘That,’ he said, ‘is a ninja mission logbook.’
She blinked and then frowned. ‘Why do you need one of those, Grandfather?’
‘I didn’t borrow it, if that’s what you’re wondering. It was hidden inside Ryuuko’s journal.’
Her mouth formed an ‘O’ of understanding and surprise. ‘What was it doing there?’
‘Lady Ryuuko found it when they attacked Chōji and decided to keep it.’
He tweaked her dark hair, his lips curled tolerantly. ‘Just because she wanted to, I suppose.’
She put her hands on her hips and raised an eyebrow in an impressive facsimile of her grandmother, and he had to stifle a laugh. ‘You suppose? I thought you knew everything, Grandfather.’
‘Almost everything?’ He raised his eyebrows innocently.
She thought on that for a moment before nodding. ‘Okay, I’ll believe that.’ She stroked the faded leather of Ryuuko’s book wistfully, oblivious to his watchful and thoughtful eyes.
‘Do you want to hear about Lady Ryuuko and the ninja?’ he asked finally, and sweetening the deal by adding, ‘Your cousin won’t have heard it.’
The younger boy visited often despite the fact that he and his parents didn’t live on Clan grounds, and greatly enjoyed being told stories, but for some typical child’s reason the girl found him insufferable. The idea that she’d have a story up on him was sure to appeal.
Her face lit up for a moment before she re-formed it into something more aloof and dignified. ‘May I, Grandfather?’
He raised an eyebrow and imitated her tone. ‘Of course,’ he said, slightly mockingly. ‘Once you’re tucked into your nice, warm bed in your nice, warm room.’
She looked positively scandalised. ‘You’re sending me to bed?’
‘I caught you,’ he reminded her, tapping her cheek.
She wrinkled her nose discontentedly, pulling away and looking at him with both suspicion and dismay. ‘That doesn’t count. You know almost everything. How can I spy on someone who knows almost everything?’
He laughed out loud at that. How indeed?
‘Can we go down to the kitchen for a hot chocolate instead? Please?’ She looked at him beseechingly, for a moment throwing away her dignity—it was only in the way when she wanted to monopolise on her youth, after all.
He considered it; it really was late and she was supposed to be in bed, but he did love the company of his grandchildren. ‘Only if you promise to protect me from your parents and grandmother should they find out.’
She snorted. ‘You don’t need anyone’s protection, Grandfather.’
Well, that was true. He chuckled. ‘Alright then.’
Her face contorted, crossed between wanting to beam with joy (and satisfaction) and looking collected. She settled for hugging him fleetingly. ‘Thank you Grandpa!’
For a moment and with a tiny smile he watched her walk to the library exit with her head held high and a slight, restrained skip in her step. Then he rose himself, and winced as his bad leg twinged, ruefully reflecting that he’d obviously been sitting there too long. Ironic, really; when he was younger he never would have imagined that a pair of old books could capture his attention so completely.
Leaning on his cane, he moved along the bookcases and slid the two books side-by-side into the shelf, tracing his finger along the spines and wondering what these two women would have thought had they known their clans would become close allies (if not without some element of rivalry). Would they have been pleased, that such war as they had lived would never come again? Would they have believed it was even possible? Or would they have clung instead to what they’d been taught all their lives—that the other was the scum of the world?
‘Coming.’ Affectionately he patted the books one last time before turning to see the girl bouncing impatiently on her toes.
What would they have thought of her, I wonder? Of all the people for his cousin’s daughter to marry, it had to be Kyou’s grandson.
The old ninja had been intensely amused.
He came level with her at last, grinning as he let her grab his hand and tug him impatiently out of the library. She had been playing ninja by sneaking up on him, but for now, and for the remainder of the night, she was of the Clan.
It was only fair, after all.