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By : Jesse Perry

The maple leaves floated to the ground with greater frequency every day as winter approached.

Matsunoshin Gohda sat on a bench looking up at the trees although he was deep in thought. Lord Gohda knew that these were troubling times. There were scores of thugs and criminals who would do anything to increase their wealth. Many of the same territorial lords (of whom Lord Gohda barely considered himself) were evil men. They were only interested in acquiring more land and power, all the while disregarding the livelihood of the people who lived on that same land. Troubling times indeed, but at least he had surrounded himself with noble people, from his advisors to his daughterís teachers, Lord Gohda trusted those who comprised his inner circle.
"Lord Gohda?" an aged voice asked from the left. " have startled me. Iím afraid I didnít even hear you approach." Matsunoshin said, pulling himself from his thoughts.

Naotada Sekiya, an older man dressed in a plain kimono, bowed. He was Lord Gohdaís most trusted advisor.
"A thousand apologies my Lord, I assure you...." "Harm was neither intended or caused Sekiya, do not concern yourself with it." Gohda said and patted the older man on the shoulder. The man was like a father to Gohda, and he had been his teacher. "What have you come to tell me my old friend?" "Shinaka is here to see you my Lord." Sekiya said in a hushed, grave voice.

Gohdaís posture changed and his face tensed. If the captain of the guard was here, then dire news indeed would be brought with him.

"Lead the way Sekiya, we have no time to waste." Lord Gohda said, hoping against hope that the worst had not occurred, no matter what the situation.

* * *

"Lord Gohda, it is an honor to have an audience with you." Shinaka said. The samurai was dressed in armor which looked as though it had served itís purpose well.

"You may dispense with the formalities trusted one. What brings you?" "Hai. Sir, the village of Nokoto has been overrun by a pack of bandits. They are mere thugs, but they are led by Hirosha Tong." "Tong....Iíve heard that name." "He is a merciless killer. He was an assassin until he double crossed his master because the person he had been sent to kill paid more. Since he became ronin, he has murdered, thieved, and extorted his way into the position of this gangís leader. We could crush his forces and free the town, if only he did not lead them.

Lord Gohda stood and scanned the almost lightless room. A single lantern cast shadows, but it was losing itís battle it waged against the gloom.

"Have your men ready themselves for battle Shinaka. Tong will be dealt with." "As you wish my Lord." Shinaka said and bowed. "You are free to go."

Shinaka left the room, thinking that Lord Gohda was alone. "How much did you hear?" Lord Gohda asked the room.

One of the shadows breathed for the first time since silently entering the room. The voice that answered Lord Gohda was harsh sounding, but full of respect for his master. "Everything. When did you notice me?" "I didnít....I assumed Sekiya would send for you. This is a very important mission Rikimaru. Failure is not an option. My people are suffering." "I will do what must be done my Master." Rikimaru said, still hiding himself totally in the shadows. "I know that you will. You are my most trusted ninja." "Thank you my Lord." Rikimaru said and bowed. His face, covered by his grey mask appeared out of the darkness, then disappeared again as he stood.
"You are free to begin any time you choose." Lord Gohda said, but only the wind answered him. Rikimaru was already gone.

* * *

"So thatís his hut eh?" one of Lord Gohdaís guards asked his partner as they stared at the light flickering inside the place Rikimaru considered his home. "Yes. I suppose one of the edicts of the Azuma Clan is living in squalor. He could live in the palace if he chose, but he prefers that small hut on the grounds." "Well, itís not like he needs much shelter. Iíve heard he doesnít sleep, and only eats so his stomach doesnít grumble while he approaches a victim from behind." "Iíve heard he was possessed by a demon, and his real name is Akuma." "Iíve heard...." "Iíve heard packs of wild boars quieter than either of you." a mocking voice said from directly behind the two guards. "What?!" they said in unison and spun to see a small woman with spiky hair and two tantos sheathed on her hips.

" scared the life out of us." "As well I are both guards, arenít you? Why arenít you guarding?" "Well, there was a light inside Rikimaruís hut, which could only mean he is about to begin a mission." Ayame tapped her foot on the ground, "Just tell me when you get to the part where you donít have to do your job." The other guard frowned, "Iíll not be talked to in that manner by a mere girl." Ayame smiled and opened her stance a bit, "Well.....donít you think you had better teach me some manners?" The first guard grabbed his partner and said, "You fool!! Sheís goading you into an attack. Donít you know who Ayame is?" "A smart mouthed girl." the guard said. "Maybe so, but she is also Lord Gohdaís most bloodthirsty ninja. If you attack her, she will kill us both, and I am not ready to die tonight." "Sheís a ninja?" "Iím the best." Ayame said simply. "Perhaps I was wrong before." the guard said. "Perhaps?" Ayame questioned. "Iím sorry." the guard stated. "Thatís better, now run along boys, and try to be a bit more perceptive. You two were easier to sneak up on than a corpse." "Yes mame." they said and walked away.

Ayame approached Rikimaruís hut and knocked on the door. "You may enter." he said as she stepped inside.

The smell of incense greeted her as she saw Rikimaru sitting in a medative posture in the middle of the room. He had no doubt been cleansing himself of everything, so that he could become a true vessel to carry out his mission. Ayame found all those superstitious rituals very boring.

"Well, well, if it isnít the old "Wheel of Strength" himself. Do you ever take that mask of Riki?" "Some of us wear masks on the inside." he said as he laid out the tools of his trade. He selected a couple of smoke bombs, a handful of caltrops, several shruiken, and a large hunk of rice. "Afraid you might need a snack?" Ayame joked, even though she knew the rice was poisoned. Rikimaru didnít even bother to answer. He simply unsheathed his sword and inspected itís razor edge. "The Izayoi Blade....quite an honor for your Master Shinusai to give it to you." Rikimaru shot Ayame a glance as he sheathed the blade on his back.

"Címon Riki....if you bend my ear anymore, then my mask wonít fit." "Ayame, there are many people in this palace. Why is it you choose the one person who doesnít care to speak to ramble on to?" "Well, maybe itís because having a conversation with you is a challenge. I like to constantly challenge myself." "I donít think so." Rikimaru said, placing the map of the Nokoto village inside his grey vest. "Maybe itís because Iíve never felt the need to kill you, like I do with most men I encounter." "The truth is getting closer." Rikimaru stated unflinchingly. "Perhaps itís because I know you respect my abilities, if not my personality. Which is much more than I get from everyone except Lord Gohda." she said, turning her back to him in a sign of trust. Rikimaru stood motionless. He looked at Ayame for some time before saying, "Sekiya likes your spirit as well." Ayame actually smiled and chuckled softly, "Yes, you are right. Success on your mission Rikimaru." she said and turned back, but Rikimaru was gone, and the only sound that remained was the flapping of the blind over the window.

* * *

The rain that fell on the just and unjust of the Nakoto village was cold, but that was fine with Rikimaru. The cold rain and stiff breeze kept him awake and alert, and it provided a good cover for stealth. The guards would be alert and awake as well though, so he would have to be careful. Rikimaru shot his grappling hook onto the rooftop and yanked himself to the top level. He dashed across to the edge of the rood and looked down. Just as he had suspected. Two guards and an attack dog. The thugs each had a katana, and they were close to the roof awning. Trying to stay out of the rain. The dog walked aimlessly, there wasnít much for it to find interesting. "Three against one are not the odds I was looking for." Rikimaru thought silently to himself and reached into his vest.

He pulled out the hunk of poisoned rice and broke off a small portion of it. The poison was so potent that not much was needed.

He stood directly over the two guards and scanned the alleyway adjacent to them. It was totally dark in there. It was perfect. Now all he had to do was wait. The guards both looked around, not expecting much trouble. Everyone knew Tongís reputation, and they vainly believed no one would stand up to him. "Nice night, eh?" one of them said to the other. "Yes, itís easy keeping these villagers in line. Master Tong is a genius." "Yeah, and they are a lot easier to fight and kill than samurai too!" Both thugs chuckled darkly, unaware of how close to death their words were bringing them.

Rikimaru was totally focused on their field of vision. They both had to be looking away in order for his plan to work. Suddenly, he saw his chance. Both guards looked away and he took it. He threw the hunk of rice deep into the alleyway. Neither guard saw it happen, but the dog could smell the rice. Fortunately, the poison was odorless. The dog ran into the alleyway. "Huh? The dog must have found something. Go check it out." one of the guards said. "Fine, but itís probably just another mouse." the other stated, walking into the alley. Rikimaruís leg muscles tensed and he reached into his vest once more. His window of opportunity would be small.

As the thug disappeared into the alley, Rikimaru leapt down behind the guard and pulled out a small bag of powder. He grabbed the guard by the neck, squeezing his shout out of his throat and slamming the bag into his face. The sleeping powder worked instantly, and the guard fell unconscious to the street. After breaking the sleeping guards neck, he quickly sprinted over to the mouth of the alleyway, drawing his sword and plastering himself to the wall in one deft movement. He listened into the alley and what he heard satisfied him. A dog whimpering, and the thug saying, "Hey, whatís wrong?" He heard footsteps approaching, so he tensed and readied himself. As soon as he saw the shirt of the thug, he spun him around and slit his throat with his sword. The thug, blood filling his windpipe, was unable to scream as he fell to the ground.

Rikimaru was already on the rooftop running in the other direction before the thug was dead. "Hirosha Tong......your blood will stain my blade tonight." he thought to himself as he neared Tongís personal quarters.

* * *

The girl lay broken and bleeding on the soft sheets of Hirosha Tongís bed. She was not dead, and physically, had suffered no life threatening injuries. One thing was certain however. She would never be able to get a full nightís sleep for the rest of her life.

Tong stood by the bedside, putting his armor back on. He wore a smug look of satisfaction as he grasped the young girlís chin and tilted her face towards him. Tears stood in her eyes, but she refused to let them fall. She knew it would mean her entire families lives if she allowed herself to cry before Tong left the room. "It will be all right little one. You shall grow accustomed to a manís harsh touch, and all to soon you will feel no pain." Tong said with a grin full of malicious intent. The girl spoke not a word. She only lay there with her arms crossed to cover her nakedness. Although the bed was soaked with sweat, she shivered uncontrollably. As Tong exited the room, he turned to his guard and said, "You may take your turn now. Then prepare her for the slave traders." "Yes sir." the guard said, an evil grin on his face. The door was slammed shut and as the lock turned, the girl jumped as if she had been violently kicked. "Please....please no...." she whimpered. "Just shut up. This wonít take more than an hour or so." the guard said with a laugh as he set his staff beside an open window. He pulled the blind down and turned around. A ninja, dressed entirely in grey stood between him and the girl. His blade was ready.

The guard attempted to say something, but the ninja was too fast. Before he could utter a syllable, the ninja thrust his blade deep into his heart, then he spun in a complete circle, withdrawing his blade, and taking the guards head off with one swipe. The body thumped to the ground.

The girl was frozen in fear as the ninja turned to her. "Do not be afraid." he stated. "Are you here to save my family?" she asked. He handed her a dagger and nodded. He left it up to her weather or not she should use the dagger on the guards outside or on herself.

"Tong will pay dearly." Rikimaru stated as he slipped out the window and into the darkness.

* * *

"And so, if our demands are not met, you will all pay dearly." Tong said as he stood before the village elders. Two guards stood on either side of him. "But Tong......we are not a rich village. We can not give you the tribute you demand. And I still havenít seen my daughter." "Minister Mitsuni.....shut up. Youíre negative talk has already cost you and your people. If you continue to defy me and my men, then the retribution for your actions will be swift and harsh." "This must stop!" Mitsuni said and pulled a dagger from his kimono. He rushed towards Tong. The two guards stepped in between Mitsuni and Tong. They grabbed the older man and disarmed him. They forced him to bow before Tong. "You fool. Did you really think you could kill me?" Tong asked as he drew his sword and raised it above his head. Mitsuni looked into Tongís eyes and said, "I died trying to free my people." "You died like a hero.....stupidly and before your time." Tong said and brought his sword down with all his might.

The blow was blocked by one of the guards.

"What?!" Tong yelled as he guard threw the armored warlord backwards. Smoke billowed around the guard as his mystical disguise faded and left Rikimaru, eyes blazing with rage, staring at Tong. "This is not the place I would have chosen to execute you monster, but no more innocent blood will be spilt tonight." "You!!" the other guard said, completely shocked. "Me." Rikimaru agreed and swiped the guards head off. "This shall be over quickly." Tong said as the village elders hurried out into the night. "I couldnít agree more." Rikimaru stated and rushed at Tong. A shruiken sliced into Rikimaruís shoulder and sent him spinning to the ground. He looked up, clutching the wound on his arm and saw a figure standing in the shadows to the left of Tong. "I told you this would be over soon." Tong stated and motioned for the shadowy figure to come out. A ninja dressed entirely in black stepped out of the gloom. Rikimaru recognized him even before he removed his mask, revealing a middle aged face full of vigor and experience. Rikimaru knew him as soon as he saw his fluid movement and fighting stance. Rikimaru had been trying to perfect that style for years.

"Master Shiunsai......why are you here?" he asked his teacher, mentor, and trainer. "Donít be a fool Rikimaru. You were one of my best pupils, but I could never beat the honor out of you, no matter how hard I tried. You are looking at me with your heart at what I was. Look at me with your eyes and see what I am." "Someone had to train my men. They were street thugs unlike me. Shiunsai was the perfect choice." Tong said. "But know what this man has done." Drawing his sword, Shiunsai regarded his former student and stated, "There is no such thing as an honorable ninja Rikimaru. That is a fantasy that Gohda has woven into your mind." Rikimaru pulled himself up and tightened his grip on his sword. The Izayoi Blade that had been given to him by Shiunsai for bravery and detication. "I can not fight you." he stated simply. "Then you shall die."

Rikimaru lowered his blade and closed his eyes.

He heard a rushing noise and the distinct sound of someone landing from a leap. When he opened his eyes someone else he recognized stood between him and Shiunsai. "Ayame? What are you doing here?" She stood with her twin blades crossed in a blocking stance, her eyes darting between Tong and Shiunsai.

"Evening the odds. I was sent to dispatch this traitor before he was able to distract you from your mission. I have failed, but that doesnít mean we both should. Why were you about to die?" "I can not attack my master." A grin spread on Ayameís face as she stated, "Heís not my master."

Tong ran out into the rainy night. "Do what you must Ayame, but donít let him suffer." Rikimaru said as he dashed outside.

Shiunsai had put his mask back on. He and Ayame circled each other like predatory animals, searching for weaknesses. "Alone at last, eh?" Ayame asked, amusing herself. "Youíre going to die little girl." Shiunsai stated. "Same speech, different face. Theyíve all been buried so far." Ayame stated calmly as she prepared to strike.

* * *

Tong rushed through the back alleys of Nokoto in a panic. Things had turned sour quickly. They had had the village in the palm of their hand. Just about to crush the assassin sent to kill him, which would have given him the intimidation power he needed to further his plans. But things had taken a turn for the worse. He would have to regroup and return. When he did, he wouldnít put a stranglehold on Nokoto, he would burn it to the ground. He made a turn and saw that he was in a dead end alley.

"NO!!" he yelled and turned to back track. Croutched at the mouth of the alley was Rikimaru. He was drenched in rain, but the fire in his eyes was almost enough to make steam rise from his body. His breaths came in even, deep inhalations. He wasnít even winded from catching up to Tong. He waited for Tong to make the first move.

"Anytime you are ready to begin." he told the warlord simply.

* * *

A foot slammed into Ayameís chin and she was sent sprawling across the room. She tasted the blood running from her delicate nose and savored itís coppery flavor.

Shiunsai was much faster than she has expected him to be.

She lundged at the ninja. He sidestepped easily and slammed his elbow into her stomach. As she doubled over, Shiunsai brought his knee up and into her chin. Ayame fell flat on her back and was quickly fading into unconsciousness. "Donít fall asleep yet my pet. I want you to see the death blow first hand." Shiunsai stated and kicked her in the side. Pain racked Ayameís body, but she was actually becoming more focused the greater she was hurt. She was drawing the Grand Master closer. Lulling him. "I donít know why Iím fighting you. Rikimaru was my true target. He is next though."

Ayameís eyes popped open and a frown formed on her lips. She threw one of her swords and it plunged into Shiunsaiís shoulder. Blood spurted from the wound and he staggered back. Ayame flipped up from her back to a standing position and slashed at Shiunsaiís thighs as she withdrew her tanto, turning it as she pulled it out. Blood now flowed from all three wounds, but the ninja was not done yet. "Iíll kill you...." he said, trying to stay on his feet. Ayame reached into the pack on her back which held her sheaths. She pulled out a brown ball with red lettering on it. She lit the grenadeís fuse and tossed it towards Shiunsai. "Iím the main event you has-been. Now die." The grenade exploded, and it took the Grand Masterís life with it as it exploded into a thousand pieces.

Ayame wiped blood from her upper lip and rushed out the door to aid Rikimaru.

* * *

Rikimaru kicked away the warlords sword and pinned his throat with his heel. He positioned his blade for a heart thrust. "Any last words?" Rikimaru asked. "Yes....I...." Tong began, but the thrust came and his last words were cut short. "I donít care to hear them." "Rikimaru, are you all right?" Ayame asked, rushing to his side. "Yes. Shiunsai?" Ayame wiped away some more blood from her nose, "Need you ask?" "Not when he was fighting" "Letís go home Riki........Shinaka and his men can finish this." "Yes. Lord Gohda will be expecting us."

* * *

" both have done a great service to my people." Lord Gohda said. He stood in the room with the two ninjaís alone. "Rikimaru, you single handedly crushed the bandit gang and rescued the village. You have my honor and respect." "Thank you Master, you have mine as well." Lord Gohda nodded in appreciation and turned to Ayame. "And you Ayame, you discovered Shiunsaiís trechery and executed him. I am indebted to you as well." Rikimaruís eyes widened, but he didnít say a word as Ayame winked at him and smirked. "You may both leave."

As the two exited the room, Rikimaru stated, "You said Lord Gohda knew....." "I had to get your mind out of that funk, or we both might have been killed." "But why were you following me?" "I like you Riki.....but you arenít a god. It was a dangerous mission, and I know how you like to work alone. Someone had to watch your back." she said and gave him a nudge. Rikimaru didnít say anything for a long time, then he stated, "Thank you." "Youíre welcome. Anytime. How about you show me that purification ritual you were doing earlier?" "Are you serious?" "Not really, but Iíll give anything a shot once." Ayame stated.

They headed for Rikimaruís hut together.....survivors.