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Subject: "Warrior Dawn: THE CONTRACT"     Previous Topic | Next Topic
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Dec-20-10, 03:47 PM (EDT)
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"Warrior Dawn: THE CONTRACT"
 
   Hey, gang. BATTLE 06: INDEPENDENCE is almost ready to go, but it's hit a small delay on account of I need a signoff from a Suspect who has, we think, been eaten by an update to a massively multiplayer online game.

While we wait, I was thinking of posting a third 06 teaser, a bit in which Gryphon briefly describes an incident from his formative years in order to cast some light on something that's happening in the story's "present day"... and then I decided to flesh it out into a full-on prequel/mini/extra type of thing instead, and here it is. Hopefully it'll tide you over while we wait for word from Azeroth on whether 06 passes muster (fingers crossed!).

Mahalo,
--G.


NOTE: Most of the dialogue in this story is translated from the Japanese.

Eyrie Productions, Unlimited
presents

Street Fighter: Warrior Dawn
The Contract

Benjamin D. Hutchins

© 2010 Eyrie Productions, Unlimited


Gryphon's personal journal
Sunday, June 22, 19XX
KAGOSHIMA, Japan

Well, I seem to have been played for a sucker. And by my own Valdritkar, to boot. I thought it was a little weird when Rose insisted that we fly into Kagoshima instead of someplace a bit more obvious, like Tokyo, for our grand tour of Japan. I was expecting something strange to happen, but I figured it would be something like an introduction to some ancient master or a trip to a forbidden shrine.

What I was not expecting was for her to disappear somewhere between Customs and baggage claim, leaving me to stand next to my suitcase wondering what was going on until a man dressed as an airport janitor suddenly came up to me and handed me an envelope.

"What's this?" I asked, but he had already disappeared. I looked around, startled, but there was no sign of him anywhere. If not for the envelope I still held, I would have considered the possibility that I'd imagined him. Still puzzled, I opened the envelope and took out a note, which read:

Benjamin -

Here is where your summer's training begins. You now have 60 days to make your way to the history museum at Abashiri in Hokkaido, on the Sea of Okhotsk. What route you choose and how you traverse it are your own business, but I would encourage you to pace yourself so that you can see and experience as much of this great country as you can along the way.

Your wit and skill should be sufficient to overcome any challenge you encounter on your journey, so to make things more interesting, I have arranged for a few surprises for you. You will not see me often, but I will be watching.

ROSE

The first thing I did, instinctively, was look at my watch and note the time. When Rose says I have a particular deadline to meet, she means it exactly, so when she said 60 days in this note, I knew she meant precisely one thousand, four hundred and forty hours. In this case that meant I had to be at that particular spot in Abashiri (and hopefully there's only one history museum in town) no later than 9:32 AM JST on Wednesday, August 21. If I showed up at mission elapsed time 1440:00:01, I might well have to walk home.

I read the note over a couple of times and put it in the top pocket of my jacket, then shrugged and reported to the currency exchange. Now I knew why she had instructed me to pack light, though I could have wished she'd at least hinted more strongly that I ought to bring a backpack or something instead of an old Samsonite suitcase that didn't even have wheels.

I felt little more than a strange sense of calm as I made my way through the airport and out onto the street. I had suspected Rose of being up to something, and now I knew what it was; the suspense was over. The more I considered Rose's scheme, the more I realized how elegant it was. I didn't have enough money to just buy a plane ticket to Hokkaido, probably not enough to get all the way there on trains, either. I was going to have to hoof it a good bit of the way, or get creative, or both.

I wasn't really sure how far it was from Kagoshima to Abashiri, but since the one was at the far southwestern end of the Home Islands and the other at the far northeast corner, I expected it was pretty far. Probably not too far to walk in the time allotted, but far enough that I didn't care to try.

What she was doing here, I realized as I walked into the city from the airport, was at least a threefold training exercise. One, I would have to work to get where I needed to be in time; two, I would have to meet people, make contacts, and speak the language to get it done; and three, I'd see the country from one end to the other, at ground level. The only restriction I had, apart from my limited resources, was the deadline.

I didn't make it very far today, but that's OK. A journey of a thousand miles, and all that. [Ed. note I now know it's actually about 1600 miles - more like 1900 by the route I ended up taking. --G. 3/3/20XX] When the time came to think about stopping for the night, I was in a lightly built-up area on the outskirts of the city. I briefly considered staying at a place that looked eerily like a Motel 6 (Moteru Roku?), but decided copping out on the first night and staying in a Western-style motel wouldn't really be in the spirit of the challenge, so I'm at a sort of guest house - not quite a ryokan, though I hope to find those later on, but somewhere in between that and a Western B&B. Regardless, I think I'm the first gaijin they've had here in a while. They don't quite know what to make of the fact that I already knew I should take off my shoes.

I've decided that thinking about where I'm supposed to be at the end of this trip would just be too disheartening at this stage, so I'm going to set myself one destination at a time. The first one is the Atomic Bomb Museum in Nagasaki. And speaking of people's reactions to gaijin, I wonder how awkward that will be? But I can't be at large in this part of the world and not pay my respects.

Two days after my 13th birthday, I'm at large in a strange country with an imperfect command of the language and customs, a little pocket money, and a deadline.

My mother would have a seizure if she knew.

And so to bed - or, well, floor.

[...]

Saturday, June 28
FUKUOKA, Japan

Fukuoka is a very fine city. It's pretty and green, and everyone's friendly. Not that I've run into anybody who wasn't, so far on this trip - except the ninja, and even they're very polite.

Oh yes, the ninja. They come out of nowhere every now and again, as ninja do, and make my day more complicated. I thought at first that I had inadvertently violated some local custom or managed to offend some powerful person, but this morning in the train station, one of them very formally handed me a piece of paper before trying to kick me in the head. Later, back at my room in the ryokan (I finally found one!), while I was icing my hand, I finally had a chance to read it.

It basically says the ninja I'm seeing are members of the Ibuki-ryû Kagetô Yûgen Gaisha (which I think translates to "Ibuki School Shadow Sword Co., Ltd."), and they've been hired to give me a hassle this summer. "By this method you will be kept forward on your feet," it says, which I think is supposed to mean "on my toes". It also notes that they're under contract not to kill me, which is nice, and that they'll be charged a fine by the employer (Rose, I assume) for any blood injury.

They're also nice enough not to interrupt me when it would be disrespectful, as the other day while I was at the ground zero monument in Nagasaki Peace Park.

As an aside, I just love the name of their company. And that ninja clans are corporations in the first place. Rose was right. This is a great country.

[...]

Friday, July 19
OSAKA, Japan

Busy day today. I've been looking forward to Osaka since I realized what I was going to have to do this summer. The old saying is that you can eat 'til you drop in Osaka, and well, I'm down with that. I can even sort of afford it, thanks to a little job I did the other day in Okayama. It's not that hard to find small under-the-table jobs around here if you can convince people you're serious about the work, and thanks to my training with Rose, I can unload a truckload of canned goods with the best of them.

I was in a noodle shop in one of the less touristy districts, determined to have the Authentic Experience, when the ninja appeared, dressed in black instead of the usual grey I'd come to expect. I was more annoyed than anything else, until I noticed how many of them there were. The first group that caught my eye was just three or four, but they kept coming in and coming in until the place was almost so full of ninja there wasn't room for diners. Everybody seemed to realize something big was up at that point and took off - other patrons, waiters, everybody, except one guy way back in the corner who was too engrossed in his octopus balls to notice.

"Oh, come on, guys," I said, standing up. "In the middle of lunch? Really? That's not very considerate."

In response, the one who seemed to be their leader threw a kunai at my face. I jerked out of the way, but it nicked my ear on its way to sticking in one of the wooden-beam columns holding the roof up.

"Ow! Dammit, what!" I said - not my most brilliant bit of repartee, but I was startled. Then they all leaped at me, and I was even more startled, because most of them had sharp, pointy things and were very convincingly trying to stick me with them.

I defended myself distractedly at first - my ear was smarting, and I wasn't quite sure this was really happening. Had the guys gone nuts? If they weren't genuinely trying to kill me this time, they sure could have fooled me.

"Hey! Come on!" I said, ducking out of the way of a sword blow that buried the blade two inches into one of the columns. That guy had earned his punch in the face, which bought me enough time to turn to the others as they closed in and protest, "Have you guys lost your minds? It says right in your contract, no swords!"

That seemed to confuse them for a moment; they drew back slightly and conferred among themselves. Then one - smaller and slighter of build than the others, but the apparent leader and the one who had thrown the kunai at me - stepped forward and, with a very formal bow, presented me with another elaborately calligraphed slip of paper.

It was an copy of an invoice issued by Shiranui Jûkôgyô Shinobi Kabushiki Gaisha ("Shiranui Heavy Industries and Ninja Corporation, Ltd.", I think) to an unspecified customer, and, to my distinct surprise, it specified that I was to be killed to death.

I finished reading it, skimmed it a second time, then looked up and said, "... Seriously?"

And they came at me again.

"Oh, this is just not fair," I muttered, looking for an exit. I would pick the only noodle shop in this district without paper walls. I could run through a paper wall, but cinder blocks, not so much. I grabbed the nearest ninja, relieving him of one of his sai in the process, and tossed him at the others. The rest sent a small storm of throwing stars and kunai my way. I ran for the kitchen area, figuring there'd be something large and metal back there, but the way they were closing in, I doubted I was going to make it. One of them sprang into my way, brandishing a set of those strap-on wrist claw things, and I barely avoided being gaffed on those as I shoulder-blocked him and flung him off to one side. He crashed through the only occupied table left in the joint, sending tea gear and octopus balls flying, and a moment later I fetched up next to the lone remaining customer by the wall, stunned by a kick to the head from one of his colleagues.

The customer, I realized, was a Westerner, a brawny-looking guy in a T-shirt, jeans and battered motorcycle jacket, with thick black hair that looked like it had been styled by a bullet train's slipstream and a few days' worth of beard. He looked at the ruins of his lunch with bemusement, then up at the oncoming ninja, then at me, his eyes narrowing.

"Sorry," I said reflexively.

"It ain't your fault, kid," he said, getting slowly to his feet, and I realized that - although he wasn't tall - this guy was either a serious badass or a hell of an actor. He stood there for a few seconds staring them all down, his fists slowly closing, big bony knuckles making faint crackling sounds. I took the opportunity to get to my feet.

Then, with a yell like some kind of angry animal, he leaped over his upset table and started kicking some serious ninja ass.

I didn't get to see most of it, unfortunately, because the lead ninja evaded his charge and came after me, leaving the others to deal with Angry Biker Guy. The only bright spot there was that this particular ninja had a couple of knives rather than a sword, so he didn't have a huge reach advantage on me. In fact, he was about my size, though more lightly built, and that surprised me a little. I know the Japanese are not a spectacularly tall people, but I'm short for my age - last time I was at a doctor's office I only came up to about 4'10".

Anyway, Ninja Leader was faster than me, which was a problem with those knives in play. I got out of the way of his first attempt, barely avoided a second, and then found myself floundering backward into the kitchen. I grabbed the nearest implement that came to hand and desperately blocked a third slashing attack; the ninja's right-hand knife stuck into the top of the cutting board and came out of his hand. Undaunted, he kicked the board out of mine, rather artfully swapped his remaining knife to his right hand, and came at me again.

I hit the counter and rolled to the right, barely avoiding a downward strike that would have hurt quite a lot. This stunt nearly rolled me onto the grill, which would have hurt even more, but I realized where I was headed at the last moment and went forward instead, sliding under Lead Ninja's arm and plowing into the middle of his body with my shoulder. There wasn't really room back here for subtlety, even if I were naturally inclined toward it. My charge carried us both back against a set of shelves against the back wall, crumpling the light metal against the ninja's back, sending tins of whatnot (and the ninja's other knife) bouncing around the floor, and drawing the first sound the ninja had made in my presence, a muffled sort of grunt.

The pitch of that sound, and certain (rather slight, and yet rather nice) irregularities about the shape inside the black ninja PJs I was now rammed up against, made me suddenly realize something with a shock like a glass of cold water in the face. It made me feel inexplicably indignant, as if I'd been lied to about something important. That made no sense, but it's how I felt.

"Hey!" I said accusingly. "You're a girl ninja."

Her eyes, the only part of her visible through the slot in her ninja mask, scowled at me, and she shoved me away, then came at me, springing away from the wall and producing a fistful of kunai from somewhere in her baggy uniform. From just this far away, I'd never have known there was a girl in there.

I flipped over the counter to get some room, the spread of throwing irons flicking over my head as I went. She took one fluid step over the counter and launched herself at me in a jumping kick before I could finish turning to face her again. I hunched and tensed my shoulders and back, turning the blow aside on my upper left arm. She landed past me, whirled and tried to punch me with another kunai sticking out between her fingers; I managed to slip the blow, trapped her arm between my elbow and side, and for a moment we were face-to-face, or, well, face-to-mask.

"Why are you trying to kill me?!" I demanded. By way of reply, she headbutted me in the middle of my face. That hurt; more than that, it made me angry. Without really thinking about it, I hauled off and headbutted her back.

I guess my head was harder than hers, because she ended up flat on the floor, out like a light. I stood over her for a moment, breathing hard, and then realized that the room behind me had gone quiet. Turning, I saw that the restaurant was littered with broken tableware, abandoned ninja weapons, and moaning, semiconscious ninja. The biker-looking guy stood in the middle of the room, looking around, and seeing no one else who cared to challenge him, he unclenched his fists, straightened his jacket, went over to drop some money on the remains of his table, and then crossed to me.

"You OK, kid?" he asked.

I nodded, still catching my breath.

"Yeah," I said, "I think so."

"Any idea why those guys were after you?"

"They're not all guys," I said ruefully, turning to gesture to the girl I'd just knocked out - to find myself not entirely surprised to see that she'd disappeared.

The stranger nodded, seeing my dismay. "Ninja," he said nonchalantly, striking a match with his thumbnail and lighting a thin Clint Eastwood-style cigar. "They'll do that if you ain't careful."

"Their leader gave me this," I said, handing him the invoice.

"Hmm. Standard assassination contract. Shiranui doesn't usually do straight-up wetwork these days. They must figure you're worth making an exception for." He arched one bushy eyebrow and puffed his cigar. "Who'd you kill?"

"Nobody!" I said. "I've never even been to Japan before. I thought they were just here to irritate me, but they're the wrong clan." I shook my head. "This is nuts."

"The wrong - you got another ninja clan that's just tasked with buggin' you?"

I nodded. "It's a long story."

He considered that, then shrugged. "Fair enough. Let's go get some takoyaki and you can tell me about it." When I gave him a puzzled look, he cracked a wry little smile and said, "If you got the Shiranui after your blood, you're gonna need some help." He put out his hand. "Name's Logan."


We were on our third pan of squid balls (which I found I liked better than the usual octopus ones) at a much less trashed place a few blocks over when Rose suddenly arrived at our corner booth, looking annoyed.

"Well, lookee here," said Logan dryly. "I should'a known you'd be involved. I take it you're the kid's teacher."

"Logan. What are you doing here?" Rose demanded.

He inclined his head toward me. "Your boy's in a heap o' trouble," he said. "Somebody hired the Shiranui to ace him."

"What?" she said, so I explained about the incident at the noodle shop. When I was finished, I passed her the invoice; she read it, then handed it back. "This must be some kind of mistake. The Shiranui have no reason to accept such a contract... unless they've begun taking orders from Shadolu."

Logan snorted. "Doesn't seem too likely."

Rose sighed. "If only you hadn't let their leader get away."

"It wasn't exactly my plan," I grumbled.

"This is serious," Rose said, her tone sharp. "If this situation goes on, it could precipitate a war beween the Shiranui and the Ibuki."

"A ninja war? Over me?" I considered that. "Sounds kind of cool, actually," I admitted.

"The Ibuki are a much smaller, less powerful clan," she told me. "They would be massacred - but their contract is sacred to them. They would fight to the last, even though they've long been allies of the Shiranui. They will already be deeply embarrassed that this first incident happened under their noses."

"Wait, you mean you didn't just hire them to harass me?"

"No, of course not. They're also supposed to guard you - but subtly. Possibly this morning's battle was just too sudden for them to get into position." Rose looked as if what she had to say next came with difficulty; she hesitated, then said, "It's a good thing you were there, Logan. Thank you."

Logan shrugged. "Just doin' what I do," he said.

"We have to put a stop to this before the matter gets out of control," Rose went on. Turning to me, she said, "The girl you fought. You'll have to make contact with her again."

I gave her a look. "Well, that'll be easy," I said sarcastically. "I'll just go wander around the streets until she tries to kill me again."

Logan smiled. "Good idea."


Evening in Osaka, and I was on my own again. Except I wasn't, really, because now I couldn't quite put out of my mind the idea that I was being constantly watched by Rose, Logan, and who knew how many members of the Ibuki ninja clan. That, and the fact that I expected the other ninja to jump out at me at any time, kept me from entirely enjoying the nightlife.

Still, even with that thought tutting away at the back of my head, I did enjoy my evening abroad in what has to be one of Japan's most happening cities. Osaka by night is... well, it's like Osaka by day, really, except with more neon, but somehow it seems like everything's turned up to 11. The food smells seem stronger, the noises louder. Everything's amped. Or maybe that was just because I spent the entire time in a constant fight-or-flight polling loop.

I walked aimlessly around the shopping districts, looking at stuff through brightly lit windows that I could imagine having no actual use for, practicing my crowd shoaling technique, on the lookout. Eventually I found myself outside a doorway that was pouring out the universally recognizable sound of a video arcade. I looked in out of mild curiosity, not really intending to go in, and spotted a Bionic Commando machine in the corner. Well, actually, the title graphics on the cabinet said Top Secret, but I know Bionic Commando when I see it, and since I can't pass such a machine without having a go, I went in, bought some tokens, and started playing.

I'd lost track of time by the time I noticed that someone was watching me play. It was a girl, about my own age, stylishly dressed in similar fashion to a lot of the girls I had noticed in my wanderings around Osaka - denim miniskirt, ankle boots, and (in her case) a tight-fitting Day-Glo pink T-shirt that inexplicably said GREAT WHITE HUNTER in a sort of Schlitzian font. She was very petite and fine-boned, just on the right side of scrawny, and had long straight hair whose color I couldn't tell under the garish lights of the arcade. When she noticed that I'd noticed her, she smiled.

"Hi," she said.

"Uh, hi," I replied distractedly. I'd reached a tricky bit and needed to concentrate if I was going to get to the top of the tower alive.

"Don't mind me," she said cheerfully, so I didn't; in fact, I paid her no mind at all until GAME OVER. When I finished entering my initials, she was still there, regarding me with a look that I had a hard time interpreting. Mischievous? Speculative? I'm not very good at reading the female face. All I could really say for certain about hers was that it was cute.

"You're good," she said.

"Lots of practice," I said, thinking of all the tokens I'd pumped through the Bionic Commando machine in the Bangor Mall Space Port.

"I'm Mai," she said.

"My name's Ben," I told her.

She squinted at the nametag on my jacket. "Caa-to-wu-lai-to," she attempted, but I shook my head, smiling.

"Cartwright," I said. "Doesn't really matter, though, it's not my name." At her puzzled look I explained, "It's an Army-surplus jacket. That's the name of whoever it was originally issued to."

She laughed. "You're wearing a jacket with someone else's name on it?"

I shrugged. "It's not that weird," I said. I decided not to remark on her own shirt and said instead, "The other day I saw a guy with a T-shirt that said LET'S BE HAPPY SPIVS." I could tell she didn't get why I thought that was funny, but she laughed again anyway - just my delivery, I guess - and then asked,

"Have you been in Japan long?"

I moved out of the way so someone else could play the game, mumbling an apology for standing in the aisle, and Mai followed me out onto the sidewalk as I replied,

"A few weeks. I'm spending the summer seeing the country." Under the plainer street lighting I saw that she had auburn hair, which is rare in Japan, and I wondered if that meant she had a bit of foreigner in her family tree someplace, or just good taste in Clairol.

"What do you think of my country so far?" she asked.

"I love it," I said, and I meant it. "Particularly the ninjas."

"Ninja," she said.

"Pardon?"

"The plural of 'ninja' is 'ninja'."

"Oh." I eyed her. "How do you know that?"

"I must have read it somewhere," she said vaguely. "Hey, do you like squid balls?"


Without really meaning to, I ended up spending the entire evening with Mai, doing much the same sort of thing I'd been doing before I met her, only with company. I tried subtly to get rid of her a few times, worrying that she might get caught in the crossfire if what I was trying to make happen actually came to pass at some point, but she was having none of it, and I have to admit I didn't try too hard after the first or second failed attempt. She was good company - funny, energetic, and a very competent guide to the city. She knew all the best spots for street food and an arcade that had a Karate Champ machine, which, to my chagrin, she was better at than me.

At some point, having found it by means I can't remember exactly, we found ourselves in one of those shops that sold T-shirts with bizarre Engrish slogans on them. We couldn't find a LET'S BE HAPPY SPIVS shirt, so I ended up with an OD green one that said LOVE RHINO! in black, in a sort of military stencil font that more or less matched the nametag on my jacket. I wondered idly whether it was a status declaration or an imperative suggestion.

From there we wound up at a sort of underage nightclub arrangement - no alcohol, but lots of loud music. The place was packed with high-school-age kids and a scattering of younger ones like us, all getting down under the watchful eyes of grim-looking, burly men in suits. ("It's a yakuza place," Mai explained. "Their own kids come here so they'll be safe from the riffraff.") I protested that I wasn't much of a dancer, but once again Mai was having none of it and all but dragged me onto the floor, just as a song was starting up that, with mild surprise, I recognized as "Relax" by Frankie Goes to Hollywood.

Somewhat belatedly, it started to dawn on me that I might have been picked up by this girl. Was that even possible? Did that sort of thing happen? She looked even younger than me. Then again, I knew some girls back home her age who were going steady - with bolder guys than me, to be sure, but it happened. And anyway, I was supposed to be a on a journey of self-discovery, wasn't I?

I tried to remind myself that I had work to do tonight, but it didn't really register. I'm only human, I'm 13, and she was really, really cute.

We ended up dancing until nearly midnight; when we finally emerged onto the sidewalk again, the street pace had slowed down a little, but not much. Mai was flushed and bright-eyed, as I'm sure I was too, and she hummed the melody line from the last track that had played as we walked down the street.

"This has been really fun," she said. "I'm glad I met you."

"Yeah," I agreed, mildly surprised. "I'm, uh, I'm glad I met you too."

"Listen, um... " She hesitated, looking faintly guilty about something. "You're going to think this is awfully forward of me, but would you like to come back to my apartment? Maybe watch some TV or something? My parents are out of town this weekend... "

I blinked. On the face of it, it was a very attractive offer - but something about it seemed... odd. Odd beyond the this-happens-to-guys-other-than-me margin, I mean. For one thing, it was kind of sudden, even if we had spent the whole evening having what was, in hindsight, a pretty good first date. For another, there was something funny about the way she said it. Like it was calculated. Scripted.

I started, a bit belatedly, to wonder whether she might be the bait in some kind of weird trap. I'd heard about things like that - girls who get foreign tourists to come back to their rooms, where their brothers or boyfriends or, let's be honest, pimps are waiting with heavy objects and empty wallets. I didn't need that hassle on top of everything else.

"Uhh... " I said, to buy a little time to consider.

Mai sensed my reluctance and tugged playfully at my hand. "Come onnnn," she wheedled. "Or I know another dance club we could hit. I don't want to call it a night yet."

I tried to glance around without being too obvious about it and noticed that we'd moved beyond the most crowded area, into a district of shops that were mostly shut for the night. My instincts were telling me to get out, and though I didn't understand why, I gave them the benefit of the doubt.

"Look, Mai, I'd love to, really," I said. "I've had a really good time. But it's getting really late, and I have to move on in the morning. I've got a long way to go on this trip and I'm already a little behind schedule... "

I could have sworn a look of desperation crossed her pretty face for a second; then she stepped right up to me, pressing herself against me, and said in what was probably supposed to be a seductive murmur, "Come on, be a gentleman. Don't make a girl beg... "

With a sudden shock I realized that I'd felt the modest but pleasant contours of that body against mine before. Precisely once before. In the kitchen of that noodle shop this morning.

Then something cold and sharp touched the back of my neck and everything went black.

I am such an idiot.


I was faintly surprised to wake up, and less faintly to find myself lying on a comfy bed and not, say, stuffed into a dumpster. Consciousness returned very suddenly, with a rush, very different from waking up after being knocked out in training. I looked up to see Mai withdrawing a hypodermic needle from my arm. I looked around; I was in a bedroom that looked like someone lived in it, not a hotel room. There were posters on the wall advertising rock bands, some of which I'd heard of, some not. (The one called "Loudness" looked promising.)

"That should do it," she said, almost as if to herself. "I might need you fit to fight."

I blinked. "I thought you were going to kill me," I said.

"I was," she told me. She capped the needle and tossed the syringe into a trash can in the corner. Then she returned to sit on the edge of the bed and look down at me with an inscrutably sad expression, then added as if ashamed of herself, "But I couldn't."

"Well... I'm just as happy about that, honestly." I rubbed gingerly at the back of my neck. It was sore, and my arm moved only reluctantly. The rest of me didn't feel up to doing much of anything, certainly not fighting. Under the circumstances, it struck me as odd that I wasn't handcuffed to the headboard or something.

"It means we both have a problem, though," Mai said.

"Oh?"

"Because I have to kill you. It's my duty. My family holds a contract on your life, and I was tasked with ending it by my grandfather himself, the grandmaster of the clan."

I blinked. "Your name is Mai Shiranui?"

She gave me a look. "Did you think the Shiranui clan would have any twelve-year-old girl ninja who weren't members of the family line?"

I shrugged as best I could. "I didn't even know there were girl ninja. That's kind of cool."

She smiled and gave a wan little laugh. "Thanks. Even if I am no good at the deadly seductive arts."

"Well, give it time, I mean, you're what, 12?"

"When she was my age, my mother had already killed her first grown man."

"In your position, I think I'd take that as a win for my side."

She gave me a hard look. "You don't understand what it's like being the heir to Japan's most powerful ninja clan."

"You've got me there." I looked around the room again, then added wryly, "In fact, you've got me, period."

She stifled another laugh, shaking her head. "Don't make jokes. This is serious. If I don't kill you my own life is forfeit. That's the law."

"Then - and please don't take this to mean I'm advocating this course of action - why don't you?"

Mai pondered that for a few seconds. "I don't really know," she finally admitted. "I saw this morning how powerful you are, as powerful and as dangerous as they said you were. But I also saw how you let me live when you had me down, even though you knew I was a threat. And I saw that the Wolverine thought you were worth protecting. So I was confused. I decided to track you down on my own tonight and try to get a better sense of you.

"And you were... nice. And funny and sweet, and not as bad a dancer as you think you are. And I can't reconcile that with the monster you're supposed to be. So even after I managed to get the upper hand... I couldn't finish it. I failed." She shook her head sadly. "Father's right, I'm too sentimental to be a real ninja."

I blinked. "Who said I'm a monster?"

"I've seen your fighting style for myself," Mai said, which didn't really strike me as an answer. "There's only one place in the world where you could have learned it." A tear trickled down one of her cheeks. "How could a guy like you be his student?"

I was hugely confused for a moment, until it dawned on me what she meant.

"Someone told you I'm M. Bison's student," I said.

"How else could you have learned to fight like him?"

I sat up, which caused her to draw back in surprise - I don't think she expected me to be able to move so soon. To be fair, that made two of us, but what she had just said touched a nerve so deep I found myself confronting her without thinking about how leaden my body felt.

"Now you listen to me, miss ninja," I said. "I am nothing like Bison. You hear me? Nothing! I've never even met the man, which you can tell because both of us are still alive."

"Then where - "

"Did it ever occur to you, or your grandfather, or your mysterious client, that Bison had to learn what he knows from someone too? My master is the one who taught him, and he betrayed her and perverted her teachings. I'm not his heir," I said, disgusted by the suggestion. "I'm hers. I'm... " I groped for the right words. "He was a mistake and I'm the correction. Or I will be. Someday. If I live that long," I added wryly. I couldn't stay mad at her. She was too obviously shocked. And too cute. And it wasn't her fault.

"Can you prove this?" Mai asked.

"Damn right I can prove it. Rose is here, in Osaka. She and Logan are probably tearing the district apart right now trying to figure out where you've taken me." I grabbed her hand and looked her in the eye. "I would never serve Bison or Shadolu," I told her, then startled myself as much as her by hearing myself add, "I'd die first."

"Then we've been lied to by our client," Mai said. "And that means the contract on your life is void... and you're not a monster after all." She suddenly lunged across the bed, grabbed me up in a huge hug, and kissed me soundly. Now, to be fair, I'm not a great judge of female kissing ability, but I have to say that from my perspective right then, I didn't see where she was deficient in the seductive arts, even if she was 12 and a little bit scrawny.

It was, naturally, at that point that Logan kicked the door down and barged on in, with Rose right behind him.

"It's not what you think," Mai told them, swinging around into a defensive crouch on the bed in front of me, and I thought with irrelevant disappointment, It's not?

"... Obviously," Logan replied, scratching his head. "Since I thought you were gonna be killin' him. You OK, kid?"

"Fine, peachy," I replied, amazed my voice didn't crack. Rose just gave me an arched eyebrow and said nothing.

The windows off to the side and behind the bed opened and the grey-clad figures of my usual ninja suspects appeared, their weapons at the ready but not drawn. The black-hooded one I had always taken for the leader of my particular squad of Ibuki ninja blinked at the sight of the girl crouching half in my lap.

"Mai Shiranui?!" he blurted, then pulled down his mask and took back his hood to reveal the thin face of a man in early middle age, his black hair just beginning to go grey at the temples.

"Hanzo Ibuki!" Mai replied, just as startled to see him.

"What are you doing here, Mai?" Hanzo asked. "This man is under our protection."

"There's no time, Uncle Hanzo," Mai said. Seizing the nearer of my hands, she went on, "He's under mine too - but we have to get to my grandfather before he calls out the entire clan to kill both of us."

Hanzo replaced his mask and hood. "Then we'll get you there," he said. "Are you in, Wolverine?"

"Sure as hell am," he said. "Can you walk, kid?"


I sure as hell could, with that much on the line. I took a couple of experimental laps around the room while Mai changed back into her uniform in the adjoining bathroom, and by the time we were all ready to leave I felt pretty much like my old self again. The half-dozen Ibuki ninja formed a defensive cordon around the rest of us, like the Secret Service getting the President to Air Force One, as we descended a back staircase into some kind of underground tunnel system.

"Air raid tunnels," Mai explained quietly. "From the War. The Army used them to move ammunition and supplies around the city. They were removed from the official record just before the surrender. You can find similar things in most of Japan's major cities, if you know where to look. My clan and the Ibuki use them to move around in secret."

"Mm." It was interesting, but I was too preoccupied to really take it in. "Do you think your grandfather will believe us?" I wondered.

"I hope so. If he doesn't, we're all probably going to die tonight." She eyed the back of Logan's head, up where he had point. "All but one of us, anyway."

"Great. Makes me wish I'd had more squid balls when I had the chance."

"If we survive, you can have as many squid balls as you like."

"Why do you and Hanzo call Logan 'Wolverine'?" I wondered.

"All Japan's fighters know the legend of the Wolverine," she said. "The lone, indomitable warrior with a temper like dynamite, but a heart of pure gold. The gaijin who's the last survivor of a once-great samurai family... "

"The guy who can hear you," Logan growled, and she went silent.

It took us about half an hour to reach the place Mai said was just below her grandfather's base of operations in Osaka, an office building in the heart of downtown. From here we'd have to infiltrate the modern equivalent of a ninja castle, a citadel secured and staffed by some of the finest shadow warriors in Japan - her own people, no less - in hopes of reaching her grandfather's office alive.

"Why can't you just phone him?" I grumbled, only half-joking.

"He would assume you'd either captured or turned me," she said. "And he'd be kind of right," she added with what I thought, only being able to see her eyes, was a faint smile.

The Ibuki disappeared when we reached the basement proper, fanning out to scout ahead, secure potential escape routes, and give our main group the best chance of getting to its destination intact. We climbed emergency stairs, evaded cameras, dodged patrols, ventured into suspended ceilings, and shimmied up water pipes in service crawlways, and somehow reached the top floor without being discovered. I glanced at the luminous dial of my watch. It was almost 2 AM, and we were in a duct above what looked like a boardroom, peering down through a big ventilator grating at the end.

"My grandfather's office is through those double doors at the end," Mai whispered. "This is as far as we can get up here - he designed it so that an infiltrator would have to come through the conference room first. It's a bottleneck. A killing zone."

"Terrific. Well, if it's the only way in, it's the only way in." I looked at the screws holding up the grating, then shifted my position, trying to get a hand into my pocket, but the space was too confined. "I can't reach my Swiss Army knife. Mai, do you think you could... " I stopped myself, face burning, as I realized I'd just been about to ask her to reach into my pants pocket.

"What?" Mai asked innocently.

Logan made a noise that might have been, but only deniably, a chuckle and said, "Don't worry about it, kid, I got this." Then, with a noise like a knife on a whetstone, a blade almost as long as his forearm popped out of the back of his hand, and while I was still goggling at that, he used it to slice a jagged hole in the grating. "Everybody out!"

The four of us emerged from the duct into the darkened boardroom. Logan sniffed the air thoughtfully; then there was that noise again and five more blades emerged, two flanking the one he'd already deployed and a matching trio on the other hand.

Rose found a light switch, flipped it, and revealed that we were absolutely surrounded by ninja.

"Crap," I said.

"You guys go explain it to the old man," Logan said. "Rose and I will handle these."

I blinked at Rose; she glanced at Logan with just the faintest hint of reluctance, then nodded firmly. "Go."

"OK," I said, and we were off.

The boardroom was about 50 feet long, and dominated by a long, narrow central table flanked with rows of expensive swivel chairs. Mai sprang lithely onto the table itself, kunai sprouting between the fingers of both fists like stubbier version of Logan's claws. The nearest ninja drew back in surprise as they recognized her; then they realized she was covering me and regrouped, drawing swords 'n sai 'n other implements of destruction.

I backfisted the nearest one over the mini-bar, gauging the distances. Thirty or so feet from Mai's position to the double doors leading to her grandfather's sanctum. Ten or 12 between me and her. The only things in the way were the chair at the head of the table and one of those spider speakerphone things in the center.

Doable.

I took three running steps, using an energized fist to punch down the one ninja who tried to intercept me, and jumped up onto the table. Shuriken and kunai filled the air behind me. Two more strides and I was up to full speed, and then I played my joker, gathering my Ler - the essence within me - and pushing it into my feet. It made an almost frictionless cushion between the soles of my sneakers and the polished teak of the conference table, enabling me to slide at much greater speed than I could have run. I looped out an arm and caught Mai around her slim waist, bringing her along for the ride; the speakerphone smashed and clattered out of our way. We hurtled off the end of the table, knocked over the chair at its head, and I tucked so that my shoulder, not my head or Mai's, would hit the junction between the double doors with the full power of my Ler charge behind it.

The doors burst open like a cannon shot and we tumbled into the room, Mai rather more gracefully than me. I came to my feet quickly enough, though, and found myself confronting a large, simply built oak desk sitting in front of a panoramic window showing a spectacular view of the city. At that desk was a slim, elderly, white-haired gentleman in an immaculately creased dark suit.

He didn't seem surprised by our explosive entrance; rather, he regarded us with a mildly curious expression, then got slowly to his feet.

"So," he said. "You've turned my granddaughter, and now you've decided to come and destroy me before my clan can finish you." He smiled slightly. "Well played, my young friend." Then, with the same slow deliberation, he picked up a ninja sword from his desk and drew it out of its scabbard. "You will find, however, that killing Kojiro Shiranui isn't as easy as you might have hoped... " He eyed my T-shirt and added dryly, "... 'Love Rhino'." With that he began walking calmly around his desk, whirling the sword with his wrist in a leisurely sort of way.

"Grandfather - " Mai began, peeling back her hood, but before she could go on or he could say anything else, I'd had enough.

"OK, hold it, hold it!" I yelled. "Mr. Shiranui, I didn't come here to kill anyone."

Shiranui regarded me thoughtfully. "Then you've come here to die," he said. "My family holds a contract on your life. One we are sworn to carry out."

"Grandfather, he's not what we were told he is," Mai protested. "The contract can't be valid."

Shiranui's brow furrowed. "Explain," he said. Mai did. The old man frowned, deeply and more deeply, as she gave him a slightly abridged account of her own conclusions regarding my character and how they had been arrived at, then told him how I had come by my Ler Drit training if not at the hands of M. Bison.

"I'll need proof of this," Shiranui said - and just then Rose strode past me, not a hair or a fold of her yellow silk scarf out of place. Walking right up to Shiranui without regard to the sword in his hand, she produced a card like a conjuror's trick and handed it to him.

"There is your proof," she said. "As the last master of Ryo Zan Paku I claim this young man as my apprentice. He is untouched by the stain of Bison's perversion... " She fixed him with her dark eyes and went on coldly, "... and contract or not, you shall not have him."

Ryo Zan what? I wondered. Rose had never mentioned being the master of anything, apart from the mastery implied in her Ler Drit rank of Valdritkar.

Shiranui looked from Rose to Mai to me to Logan, who had just entered the room and taken up a position alongside me; he regarded the card Rose had handed him for a moment; then he looked up, met her eyes again, and opened his hand. The card seemed to evaporate, unraveling into mist and dissipating into nothing.

"I accept your claim," he said. "We have been deceived as to the nature of our target. The contract on his life is dissolved." He turned his head slightly, looked past Rose, and smiled at Mai. "Well spotted, Granddaughter."

Mai blinked in surprise, then bowed her head. "Th-thank you, Grandfather."

"I guess that just leaves us with one problem," Logan observed. We all glanced questioningly at him. "Who hired you?"

"That is a matter we will deal with," Shiranui replied. "A matter I will deal with," he added with faint, deadly emphasis. "Retaining the Shiranui clan to commit unwarranted murder is unacceptable. I will make this... clear to our erstwhile clients." A very faint smile touched the old man's lips, and I was profoundly glad I hadn't had to fight him as he added in a pleasant voice, "Personally."

"Well... " Logan considered. He and Rose made eye contact; Rose nodded faintly. "I guess that's fair enough," he conceded.

"So we don't have to go to war, then?" said Hanzo Ibuki from the open side window.

"No, Hanzo," said Shiranui a touch indulgently. "We do not."

"Good." He tugged down his mask and gave me a smile. "On behalf of my two-year-old daughter, thanks for keeping her from becoming an orphan tonight."

"Er... you're welcome," I said. He tossed me a jaunty salute and then disappeared from the window.

"Well, whaddya know," said Logan. "Happy endings all around this time. I need to have more days like this." Turning to Shiranui, he added, "Oh - you'll be glad to know your guys should be OK in a day or two. I went easy on them. They're gonna need new equipment, though."

Shiranui's smile was a touch wry as he inclined his head exactly eight degrees and said, "You are most considerate, Wolverine."


Mai and I sat at the edge of the roof, watching the city finally wind down as 3 AM approached.

"Do you have to leave?" she asked.

"I'm behind schedule," I told her. "I'm supposed to be in the far end of Hokkaido in just a little more than a month, and if my calculations are right I'm not even a third of the way there yet. Got to keep moving."

She looked a little dejected. "And I was just getting to know you."

"Well, it's not like you'll never hear from me again," I said. "We do have telephones in the 20th century."

She giggled. "True. Sometimes I get so caught up in the traditions of my family that I forget what century it is." Then she sighed. "Sometimes I wonder if I'm really cut out to be a kunoichi. I mean... I'm good at fighting, but there's so much more to it. Politics bore me, poison's disgusting, and you saw for yourself that I can't seduce my way out of a paper bag."

"Well... " I almost said something about my opinion of her kissing skills, but somehow managed not to do so out loud. Instead I said, "One gaijin's opinion and a subway token will get you across town, but if you want to know what I think, you're taking this stuff too seriously. Trying too hard. Just... let it flow." I smiled. "Relax. Don't do it. When you wanna go to it."

"I don't think that's really what that song is about," she said; then she smiled and added, "But I see your point." She leaned her head against my shoulder, putting an arm around my waist. "I'm glad I met you."

"Yeah... I'm glad I met you too."


Saturday, July 20
OSAKA, Japan

Because I was running behind, and because some unknown person had slipped a bunch of money into my suitcase when they retrieved it from the bus station locker where I'd stashed it when I got to town, I decided to treat myself to a train ride as far as Tokyo. When I got to the station, I was surprised to find Logan waiting on the platform for the same train.

"Figured you might want a little company for a while," he said. "Gets lonesome on the road by yourself."

"Rose probably won't like that," I told him. "I'm supposed to be doing this myself."

"You are doin' it yourself," Logan replied. "I just happen to be doin' it too."

I laughed. "OK, sure. Why not."

"Sorry to be leavin' Osaka?"

"A little," I admitted. "Good food, friendly people... "

He chuckled. "Yeah. Oh, which reminds me. A little ninja gave me this to give to you, if I happened to see you again." He handed me an envelope.

I opened it to find a thin cord, several inches long - suitable for converting into a bracelet, I supposed - made from braided auburn hair, and a note.

Dear Caatoraito,

(Did I get that right this time?)

Here is a little something to remember me by. I wanted to come along with Uncle Hanzo and his team to watch over you on your journey, but Grandfather says I have to go to Nagano for I don't even know what. Something about training with the new boy who's come to study under Father. Another gaijin, apparently. That might be interesting, but I'd rather be out on the road with you.

Enjoy the rest of your time in Japan. Maybe I'll get to see you again before you leave. If not, I'll find you one day. In the meantime, you'll always be my LOVE RHINO.

XO,
Your Great White Hunter,
MAI

I smiled, tucked the note away, and fiddled the cord into a loop around my right wrist, a task I finished just as our train arrived. As it pulled in, I caught a glimpse of a grey-clad figure clinging to the roof; he gave me a jaunty little wave before ducking down out of sight of the civilians on the platform. Logan spotted him too, and he had a little smile on his face as he caught my eye and led the way onto the train.

"This is a great country," I said.

"It sure is," Logan agreed.

THE CONTRACT: The End


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