Chapter Nine

They sat in the lotus position, back to back, regulating their breathing. In the night, every sound seemed magnified, every tiny movement of the universe’s living beings echoed off the surroundings and returned to their heightened awareness with something akin to a wave. It seemed peaceful. Beside their meditation spot, the stream gurgled happily. In the dark, the wind picked up, rustling the fallen leaves of brown and red and gold, whipping them up into a painful maelstrom that clawed at their closed eyes and their skin.

Suddenly, it stopped.

They’re here.

And as though they had heard their thoughts, they appeared, on the very edge of the far end of the clearing, slightly above them on the hill, looking down. Watching them. There were two shadows there, one long and its aura blending with the darkness, and one short and flickering into the blackness. But before Kogure could assess any further, the attack began, and he could dwell no more on his thoughts.

A mental burst, shaped like a flaming spear, slammed into his trained defenses and he bit his lip hard and fought it. The rhythm at which it pounded relentlessly into his mind was beginning to wear down his will, as dizziness pulsed into him like a wave of nausea. Dimly, he was aware that the enemy was no longer on the hill, but had disappeared into the shadows of the trees, approaching them, coming closer, closer…

A sudden weight onto his back made him spin, as the world dipped and twisted. Sendoh was being attacked.

This being was like no other he had ever seen. Slim, of medium height, was a beast that looked like a man, covered with a shimmering blue light that transcended the scales on his hands and bare feet. Canines that gleamed almost luminescent in the darkness were dripping with dark liquid as the creature lunged forward again. Sendoh twisted, and the teeth sank into his shoulder. As the taller man turned, Kogure caught the expression in his eyes. There was stubborn determination there, even as the loss of blood and the pain clouded the blue irises.


That one single word was uttered with gritted finality. Kogure’s eyes hardened. "No. We are partners. I’ve never left you to die, and I won’t now." His voice cracked slightly. He was losing the mental fight with the other being who still stood hidden in the dappling silhouettes. There was a crushing pressure now, forcing his resistance back, slowly but surely, pushing his mind over the boundaries of sanity… In the recesses of his mind, at the corner of his vision, he saw a long claw, thrust into the moonlight, watched as it sliced downwards, deep into the gut of the other assassin. Yet there was no sound. They were too well trained for that. He stumbled forward and dropped to his knees, raising his eyes with effort as the pain tore his awareness apart. And then he saw, bloodshot eyes, staring at him, obstinate even in impending death.

"Go." Sendoh hissed. Bubbles of blood broke on his lips and cascaded down his chin in gruesome rivulets as the creature ravaged his body with snarls of bloodlust.

You told me once, a long time ago, when we first became partners, when you first started training me. You said death was never a choice. I can’t agree with that, Kogure. Given the chance…I’d choose to live. You still have that chance…