Yoshiki looked down at his pocket watch. Two more minutes. Most of Sirrah, some forty men and fifteen women, waited silently in the trees beside the ruined road to Mika’en. He’d sent Renta ahead on foot with a few of his most trusted “soldiers” to take out the guards who watched over the Ghost Clan’s headquarters. Yoshiki had misgivings about sending his best friend on such a risky mission, but Renta was by far their most skilled sniper. That skill would be needed. The rest remained behind for an hour and a half, watching carefully for the flare that would signal that Renta’s group had been spotted. Should that flare have been seen lighting up the sky, Sirrah would’ve moved back east- abandoning the mission and Renta’s party with it.

     Yoshiki allowed himself a brief glance at Yume, pale in the darkness, straining to see the sky through the trees. Her eyes hadn’t left the stars on the small bit of visible horizon since Renta had kissed her tenderly before turning to leave. For a moment, Yoshiki deeply regretted that his last words to her had been in anger. None of us may make it through this, and the last thing I said to her was something I shouldn’t have said in the first place. He repressed a sigh, worrying that someone might hear it in the silence and misinterpret it for impatience or fear. There was nothing he could do about Yume now. He sent up an unspoken prayer that she’d be safe, and that whatever happened she would know that he cherished her more than anything, even life itself.

     Time to go.

     He signaled to the rest and said,

     “Time.”

     Hopping on his motorcycle, Yoshiki led the charge into the grounds of the Ghost Clan’s base. Any worries he had were drowned in focus as Sirrah tore over the cracked pavement toward their goal. It was to be a swift strike- they would divide, storming the building where right now a few of the top members of the Ghost Clan slept along with the one housing their guards. They planned to raze the two buildings with black-market explosives.

     Yoshiki had been careful to assign his family to the main building, not to the guardhouse or either of the “bomb squads”. He’d tried to plan the squads logically, but found he didn’t have the heart. He’d have preferred to divide them, sending Kaiya and Quen with one of the bomb squads, and Hironah to the barracks with Uneme and Seiken. Logic dictated that this was the best way to divide their power, but Yoshiki had balked at his own coldness. In the end, he decided to send them all together. Besides, he justified, both Hironah and Kaiya knew all the calls. They’d hear from the coded shouts if they were needed elsewhere.

     Yume felt the wind whip at her as Hironah’s bike bounced rapidly over the broken asphalt. She felt fear rise within like bile, sour and painful. Seeking some anchor, some way to save herself from drifting lost in terror, she cast about. Her eyes fell on Kaiya, riding beside them. His eyes were focused straight ahead, his expression one of ageless serenity. He was not afraid, she knew. It was not because he believed they’d all return triumphant, nor was it due to some excess of reckless bravery. He was unafraid because he’d already accepted this course of action and its myriad of possible outcomes. “Anxiety is a waste of energy,” she whispered the words that he’d said to her once, years ago. “It is no more than a fear of something that not only has not happened, but may never come to pass.” Yume promised herself that she would try now to follow Kaiya’s example… yet as she watched him in the night, she couldn’t help but wonder- if all he said was true, what was it that bothered him so in the moments he thought he was alone? Not even Hironah seemed to know the reason for his melancholy, and now Yume wondered if any of them ever would, or if Kaiya would die with that secret buried in his heart. Shaking her head, she tried to banish her dark thoughts, focusing instead on his strength and his example. And he believed in her. That much she knew.

    

     Hironah and Uneme, with a brief glance at one another and a nod, kicked open the door. They swiftly ducked back as shots were fired from within the room. The bullets sailed by harmlessly, the gunmen being inexperienced. Screaming their blood-chilling Angemal battle cries, Uneme and Hironah burst into the room, firing on two of the five men within. They fell to the floor, dead. Quen rushed in, taking aim on one of the men who’d drawn on Uneme and was about to fire. The bullet from Quen’s gun burrowed through the man’s head, leaving no more than a small mark between his eyes. The walls were spattered in red.

     As Kaiya used his stocky form to block the door, shielding Yume and Seiken, Uneme and Hironah fired on the last of the men in the room. As Hironah went to peer out the window, she ordered Quen and Uneme to search the bodies for ID. Turning to Kaiya, Yume and Seiken, she said,

     “You guys search the bureaus and stuff.”

     Getting the IDs was important. Knowing who the men were would give Sirrah valuable information as to their associates, potentially also members of the Ghost Clan. It was the duty of Hironah and her companions to be sure they acquired the identities of the men, who were leaders within the organization. After a few moments, Hironah said softly,

     “There’s the signal. The explosives are in place. We have to get out. Did you find the IDs?”

     “Got ‘em,” Kaiya replied.

     “Great, we won’t have to take photos. Let’s go. Quen, you go first, then Kaiya with Yume and Seiken. Uneme and I will cover you.”

     As they turned to leave, the room exploded with noise, shouts and gunshots.

     “Shit!” Hironah swore loudly. “Guards!” She was clutching her shoulder, arm still raised and gun firing, though she felt her fingers growing numb.

     Kaiya threw himself over Yume as a shield, knocking them both to the floor. Yume felt a hot, wet splatter on her hand but forced herself to ignore it. Uneme fired wildly, but with deadly precision, taking out two of the oncoming guards. Quen cried out as a bullet tore the skin on his leg. Regarding the man who shot him with a coldness void of emotion, he fired into the guard’s chest. Seiken, numb with terror, felt the gun in his hand tremble as he shot repeatedly, attempting to hit someone.

     The Elite Guard of the Ghost Clan was composed of nothing but Angemal. In keeping with the Old Laws, not even the most skilled of the gang leaders could attain a position in the Guard unless they were of that Clan. The rigidity and discipline of the Guard was reminiscent of the yesteryear values of Clan Angemal, when it waged great wars in the Otherlands, and its passion recalled the halcyon days of the Clan’s glory so many centuries ago. These were not a handful of thugs Hironah and the others faced. They were skilled, brave men, fighting in the name of their Clan’s bloody restoration.

     Quen was moving through the fight coolly, calmly choosing his targets and firing upon them. He gave an impression of boredom, as though this destruction was merely some other task he must complete, no different from washing the dishes or taking out the trash. Hironah, despite the haze of pain and wrathful focus with which she fought, took notice of his behavior. Silently shuffling this information into the back of her mind, she battled on. The gun in her hand began to feel heavy, unwieldy. Her aim was off. Giving it up as a loss, she dropped the weapon, releasing her bleeding shoulder and drawing Dusk, the left-hand blade favored by Keyu all those years ago. It was no easy feat to fight firearms with steel, but gripping the hilt of the sword her father had once so cherished gave Hironah a feeling of invincibility. With a furious oath, she leapt at one of the guards, prepared to skewer him on her blade. Too late she realized that he’d already taken aim on her. In one drawn breath he would fire, ending her life.

     Kaiya sprang up quickly, and with a swift look at Yume turned back to the fight. Yume stood up after him, clutching her gun and casting about for a likely target. Everyone was moving too fast… she couldn’t hold herself steady long enough to hit any of her targets. Kaiya remained very near to her, calmly taking his shots and dodging those he saw trained on him. After a few seconds of watching the Night’s Herald, Yume decided to focus solely on covering him, her eyes moving rapidly, searching for the lone attacker he didn’t notice.

     Uneme, lost in the passion of battle, had no other thought but to kill. He fired on the enemy in fury, seeing each only as a momentary statue, frozen in position as he shot them down. His yellow eyes darted around. He was as reliant on his peripheral vision as the frontal. He moved in a way an outside observer might’ve thought choreographed. Bullets that whizzed by, impossibly close, did no damage. It looked as though he wasn’t even there. Those felled by his shots would’ve argued- he was there, and he fought like a creature torn from Pandemonium itself.

     Quen fought on, his mind echoing only the reality. He was fighting, therefore he must kill. It was highly important that he wasn’t wounded seriously, therefore he must take great care not to be fired upon again. Hironah, Kaiya, Uneme, Seiken and Yume were not the enemy, therefore he must be sure they were not caught in crossfire, nor should he fire upon them. None of them knew what he, what his mother along with him, had at stake, and therefore he must be sure their ignorance was prolonged. All of his goals were being achieved until he felt the hot barrel of a freshly-fired gun against his head.

     In the last moment of thought available to her, Hironah forced herself to look on death. She would not close her eyes. She watched, waiting for the man to fire the shot that would fell her. It did not come. Instead, he staggered, his uniform darkening in a place just above his heart. The thrust she’d intended for his chest went instead into his forehead, jarring her as the steel crunched through his skull. Recovering, she slid her blade from the guard’s head and swiftly looked around. Her eyes fell on Seiken, clasping a smoking gun and shaking.

     “Cheers,” she called, and went on with her charge.

     No, Yume thought frantically. No, no, no, no, no. She’d found one. Desperately she prayed for Kaiya to realize, to see the man who had by now drawn on him. He had the skill to take down the Angemal and his gun… but did she? In only one second, one tiny fraction of time, he would fire. Banishing thought and emotion, Yume pulled the trigger and watched as the man folded. She’d shot him in the abdomen, felling but not killing him. At least she’d kept Kaiya safe for now.

     Quen did not flinch as blood, hot and wet, splattered all over his face. He felt the pressure of the gun slip away, sliding past his ear and down his cheek. The guard had died with a look of shock frozen on his face. He’d been so focused on Quen that he hadn’t noticed Uneme behind him.

     “Heh,” Uneme laughed coldly, raising his eyebrows at Quen.

    The last of the guards had fallen.

     “We’ve gotta get out. Now,” Hironah said firmly. “Just run. Go.”

     They fled through the building, doing all they could not to stumble in the darkness. Seiken supported Quen, who was limping, and Kaiya gripped Yume’s hand, lending her speed. They burst from the door, sprinting away from the building. Uneme felt the heat on his back as the bombs detonated. They were showered with debris.

     Yume let loose a small whoop of joy when she spotted Yoshiki overseeing Sirrah as they fell back. The mission had been a success.

     It was then that they heard it- motorcycles, not Sirrah’s, coming out of the east. Not only a few, but many sped toward them through the night. Yoshiki hurried off, weaving his way through his ranks, yelling instructions accompanied by coded hand-signals.

     “Scatter! Force them to divide. Take them on in small groups.”

     He whirled around, meeting Kaiya and his lot where they were mounting their bikes.

     “We’re heading west,” Yoshiki instructed.

     “What about Sirrah?” Kaiya asked evenly.

     “We’ve got to scatter. Everyone will head back to base. We’ll go back at dawn. It’s not a bad move for me to stay with you guys… a lot of those thugs will be looking for me anyway. They’ll get distracted that I’m not to be found.” Yoshiki grinned. “Easy targets.”

     “But Seiken-”

     “We made it this far without a Decameron on hand, and it turned out alright. West we go.”

     Kaiya shrugged and mounted his motorcycle. Yume got on behind him. It was then that she noticed the gash on the stubble-sided part of his head.

     “Are you okay?” She asked tentatively. “Your head’s bleeding.”

     “I’m fine,” he answered, turning back to smile at her. “You doing okay?”

     “Yup.”

     “We’re good then.” He started up the engine and followed Yoshiki.

     Uneme gripped Hironah’s good arm.

     “We’re going into the Dead City?” he asked.

     “I guess.”

     “Nobody goes in there.”

     “So it’s a perfect place to hide out.”

     “Maybe nobody goes there for a reason.” Uneme’s voice was dark.

     Hironah regarded Uneme in the dim light. He looked genuinely disturbed by their course of action.

     “It’s just a ruin, Uneme,” she said. “We’ll only be there for a little while.”

     Uneme nodded and followed behind her, mounting his bike, bought new with his own money now that the Musubiki was no longer providing for him. Together, the eight rode off into the ruin together, navigating with care the cracked and broken streets.

 

    “Just a few more minutes,” Seiken assured Hironah. “I’ve got something that’ll prevent infection that I want to put on here.”

     “Okay,” Hironah replied through gritted teeth.

     “It’ll ease the pain as well.”

     “Thanks.”

     “Well, it’s not all that different, is it?” Kaiya asked with a laugh.

     “It’s still different,” Hironah answered harshly. “Nobody thinks I’m gonna die.”

     “Whatever you say.” Kaiya was still smiling. “It’s not like anyone worries about you or anything.”

     “Shut up, Kaiya. It’s not like I could’ve helped it.”

     “You never accept that defense from me.”

     “I said shut up. Why don’t you ever listen to me?”

     “Fine. I’ll shut up.” He swiftly kissed her cheek. “Get better soon.” His smile broadened. “That was some fun, huh?”

     His enthusiasm made Hironah shudder.

     “A barrel of monkeys.”

     “C’mon, Hironah, you can’t say you didn’t enjoy at least some part of it.”

     “I’d have enjoyed it more knowing you guys were safe at home.”

     Kaiya shook his head.

     “You know we’ve got your back.”

     Hironah couldn’t help but smile back at him, his grin was so infectious.

     “Yeah, we’ve all got each other’s, huh?”

     “We do.”

    Seiken finished bandaging Hironah’s shoulder and announced,

     “That’ll do it. Be careful not to overtax this arm. I know your right hand is stronger, but be careful of using it for a while.”

     “Will do.”

     Uneme emerged from the cover of darkness.

     “Are you okay, Hironah?”

     “Yeah, I’ll be fine.”

     “I can’t believe how well you fought, wounded like that.”

     Hironah blushed.

     “You’d have done the same. I saw you tonight. You were amazing.”

     Kaiya eyed the pair silently, irritated. How come he’s ‘amazing’ and I’m ‘an idiot’?

     “I told Yoshiki I’d fight for him like I fight for an employer. It’s really nothing other than what I should’ve done.”

     “Well, it was great.”

     “I’m going to check on Yume,” Kaiya cut in abruptly. Softening his words, he looked at Hironah and added, “I’ll be around to help you out if you need anything. Take it easy, Hironah.” He smiled gently at her before turning away.

     Seiken was busy cleaning his tools. Hironah, feeling an inexplicable comfort in being alone with Uneme, launched into a detailed re-cap of the night’s events. By then, Kaiya had gone far enough down the block that their laughter didn’t fall upon his ears.        

 

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