The night was still, nothing stirred, aside from the occasional breeze. No light spilled from the village huts and no soul could be seen outside. It was perfect.
The figure straightened from its crouch atop the cliff in one fluid move and vanished into the thick forest surrounding. His feet glided along the leaf-covered ground, never stopping long enough to touch. He flitted between trees and over branches, eyes never ceasing its constant evaluation of his surroundings. A slight disturbance to his right had him throwing himself to the left, senbons clutched in both hands, ready to throw at the supposed hostile even before his mind registered the moves.
“Good to see your reflexes have yet to dull,” a soft chuckle emerged from the shadows.
He kept silent, inching noiselessly towards the voice, his dark blue cloak and grey attire allowing him to fade amongst the darkness of the dense vegetation. Even without the aid of the silvery moonlight, his keen eyes picked out the glint of snow-white hair. In a flash, he had the deadly point of the senbons at the exposed throat of the mysterious person.
His victim did not flinch or stiffen. Instead, a finger merely reached up to brush white hair away from his eyes. “You really don’t remember me, Second Division captain Kaito Souji?”
The assassin paused, then slowly lowered his weapons, “Hijikata Shin, former Tenth Division captain.”
Shin gave his former fellow captain a small smile, one that Souji merely raised an eyebrow at as he hid the senbons in his cloak.
“How is my squad holding up?”
Souji pulled the cowl of his cloak over his dark hair and scowled, “Now is not the time Shin, and this is hardly the place to fill you in.”
“I just want to know what happened during the short time I wasn’t around,” the other sighed.
“A short time? You call eight years a short time? Do you have any idea – ” the Second Division captain took a deep breath and glanced around. “We’ll continue this conversation back at the base.”
Just as they were about to return, Souji’s head abruptly snapped upwards and his companion stiffened. The two exchanged a brief glance before sprinting full pelt towards the centre of the immense forest. Shin’s sharp intake of breath did not go unnoticed, causing the Second Division’s captain to curse colourfully. A pillar of black smoke, neatly blending in with the pitch-black night, rose from a clearing in the forest. In the small charred area, patches of grass continued to burn, the houses reduced to rubble and bodies of men, women and children lay strewn around, multiple wounds adorning each corpse.
The captain and former captain carefully made their way around the annihilated side base, taking in the occasional fallen shinobi and the bodies of their enemies. Captain Kaito veered to the left, drawn towards a white fabric laying half buried amongst the burnt wood. He lifted it out, revealing a rectangular, blood-splattered flag. On it was a single black diamond, a red cross and two horizontal lines in the middle indicating the Twelfth Shinobi Division. Rage shimmered through him as the flag disappeared into his cloak, his fists unconsciously began to clench, however, he forced the emotion back. Rashness was not the answer right now.
“What happened?” the white haired man gasped at the carnage in front of his eyes. “How - ”
Souji rounded on him, face grim and interrupted his thoughts with a harsh tone, “The Shogun happened. Come, we have little time to plan, the main base could be hit at any moment.”
Without a backward glance, the captain left, his companion still gazing at the destroyed base. A hard trek through the night and a good portion of the day had the two men coming to a halt at the edge of the seemingly unending forest. Solid granite walls extended as far as their vision could go. No sound emerged from within the walls although it was well into the afternoon.
No doubt the destruction of the side base has reached the commander, Souji mused. The squads are prepared for an attack. Good to know they are keeping it together.
He made to move, however, a dozen shurikens and senbons whizzed towards them. Battle-hardened instincts forced him into a dive to the left, flipping to his feet the instant he hit the ground and discarding his cloak in the next heartbeat. White haori fluttered in the silent breeze, the black diamond and red symbol for the Second Division contrasting sharply with the pure background. A red sash around the middle kept the sheathed wakizashi strapped to his side.
Walking forward to pluck a shuriken from a nearby trunk, Shin tilted his head to the side and called, “Stealth force, I would advise against another volley of projectiles. You don’t want to kill your captain now, do you?”
Immediately, men and women in black masks surrounded the two, clad in fitting black shinobi outfits. With the arrivals in their midst, the stealth force members wordlessly turned and scaled the walls. The first thing Captain Kaito registered was the lack of civilians. All around, the thirteen squads moved in small groups, the symbols on their backs the only identifying mark. Ignoring the crowd, he silently dismissed the members of his division and jerked his chin towards the First Division’s tent. The white-haired man followed along, taking in the Divisions and weapons each fingered nervously.
The guards at the entrance tensed when they approached, but snapped into a salute at the sight of Souji’s captain haori. “Captain Kaito, sir! The other captains and the commander are present and awaiting your arrival…” one guard trailed off as he looked at the former captain. “Unfortunately, your guest would have to wait outside.”
The captain cut his hand across the air, abruptly halting further words, “He comes with me.”
That said, the two swept past the protesting guard and entered the tent. He was greeted by the sight of his fellow captains and commander, all of whom were bent over a large map spread across a table-top, but straightened upon his entry. Smiles were sent his way, and several gasps could be heard when their eyes landed on Shin.
“Captain Hijikata…” the current Tenth Division captain breathed.
Shin blinked, then smiled, “Ah, Lieutenant Koga, or should I say Captain now?”
Before the others could fire off another question or, in some cases, accusation, the commander stepped forth. “Captain Kaito, report.”
“Sir, the Tsuki village has been abandoned for a while now, and no troops have yet to occupy the land. I have set traps around the perimeter that would reduce the Shogun’s scouts by more than half if he marches an army through, which he more than likely will. His troops were camped about 200 yards past Hanabi Hill,” here he frowned. “The Shogun has close to sixty thousand men, twenty thousand which are cavalry. Given the advantage of the forest, I would say that only infantry would be sent first until they can navigate through the fortress provided to us by nature.”
Commander Makoto stroked his beard thoughtfully, “So that would be forty thousand armoured samurais against ten thousand shinobi.”
A ripple of unease went through the gathered captains. They were outnumbered four to one, which was not much of a disadvantage for the shinobi if they were to go on the defensive, however, fighting against armoured men set the odds against them.
At this point, the former captain spoke up, his face serious, “Hold it, why are you at war with the Shogun?”
Captain Kaito sighed, “Right, I forgot you disappeared before all this happened. The old Shogun was killed in his sleep and another took his place. The new Shogun is a warmonger. He conscripted able men and set forth to conquer smaller neighbouring kingdoms. None were successful in opposing him. But while he conquered, his kingdom suffered the consequence of his actions. Former Commander Fujiwaka defied his orders during the fifth year of his regime and was executed on the spot, as well as anyone who spoke out. The Shinobi squads broke all ties to the Shogun and his kingdom immediately after the execution and have been planning a revolution. Neither side have been able to critically wound the other. Our advantage is our secret headquarters and the Stealth force, while his is the fact that no one other than his most trusted advisors have seen his face. So in short, assassination plans are out of the question.”
There was a brief silence as the former captain absorbed the information, and when he finally spoke, he picked his words carefully, “This…new Shogun, he don’t happen to be always surrounded by seven samurais decked in gold and red armour atop pure white horses, does he? And he don’t happen to be the only one with horns adorning his helmet? If so, then I may be able to assist in that regard.”
“You’ve seen him.” It wasn’t a question, it was a statement, uttered in a tone that showed Shima Kenji knew what Shin said was a fact. The Twelfth Division captain rounded on the commander, “With all due respect sir, we have no idea where former Captain Hijikata was for the past eight years. For all we know, he could be a spy sent by the Shogun himself! We cannot risk placing our trust, and ultimately, the lives of our men, in the hands of someone who is practically an outsider!”
“Captain Shima, Shin may have became an outsider for the past eight years, but I have known him for a lifetime. If there is proof that he is a spy, than I will bare the consequence,” Souji snapped at his fellow captain, irritated.
The argument was broken up when Commander Makoto cleared his throat, “I have came to a decision. Former Captain Hijikata, I cannot force you to take part in this revolution, so I would like to hear your decision. Will you lend us your knowledge?”
Hijikata Shin inclined his head at the commander, “As a friend of Captain Kaito, I will assist in this revolution. My knowledge is at your disposal.”
“Then here are your orders. Squads three to six, have your men prepared as backup, messengers and healers. Squads seven to thirteen, form up and spread out so the Shogun’s camps will be surrounded and wait for a signal from Captain Kaito. He and Hijikata Shin will lead an assassination team and target the Shogun himself and his seven bodyguards. The rest of the Stealth force will split up and hit weak spots in the camp. Any questions?”
Captain Shima stepped forward, “Permission to go with Captain Kaito, sir.”
“Denied. You may want revenge for what happened to your men, Captain, but there is more at stake than vengeance. Captain Kaito is the best at stealth and assassination. I will not allow you to join them in this mission where remaining unseen is crucial. Our victory depends on his success. Your Division needs its captain. My decision is final,” Commander Makoto gazed around the room. “We are going on the offensive and are only getting one shot at this. Kami be with us all.”
As one, the assembled captains bowed to their commander and readied themselves for their tasks ahead.
The sun slowly vanished behind the mountains and a team of eight men moved out, sticking to the shadows provided by the sea of trees. Out at the front of the group, the two old friends stalked through the vegetation, moving in sync, indicating a silent communication one can only achieve through multiple battles together. Behind them, the six stealth force members were spaced at an equal distance apart, ghosting amid the dark. A good hour later, Souji signalled the others and they moved out, scouting the camp. He glanced back at Shin and raised an eyebrow. His companion returned the gesture with a curt nod, signalling that the squads were in place and awaiting further instructions.
Straightening from his crouch, the captain took a deep breath and armed himself with his senbons. He pulled the image of the Shogun towards the front of his mind and set off, aware of his friend's presence behind him. The camp itself was vast, tents and bonfire littered the area, casting patches of shadow, which the two gladly used as cover as they seek the leader of their enemy. It was frighteningly easy to infiltrate the camp. The sentries were only keeping half an eye out for any possible hostiles and the remaining soldiers were simply lazing around. Captain Kaito frowned. His senses were tingling, muscles overly tensed. He mentally offered a prayer to Kami, hoping that his instincts were wrong, that something bad was not going to occur. The Shinobi needed every advantage they could get, and now was not the time for fate to turn against them.
Unfortunately, it seemed that fate did not pity them, for moments later, a startled shout rang out from his immediate left and Souji knew that one of his men was discovered. But he had no time to dwell on the thought as the sudden sound startled Shin, resulting in him involuntarily knocking a crate over.
Souji only had time to send out a distress signal before the enemy was upon them. Captain Kaito flicked his wrists and six samurais fell, senbons sticking through their foreheads. He subconsciously noted that he was forced back to back with his old friend and silently gave thanks that this was the case. There was no one else he trusted more than Hijikata Shin by his side in a situation like this.
The enemies were edging closer, forcing him to tuck the senbons away and draw his wakizashi. A small, much welcomed pause following his action allowed him to ready himself once more. With a short, sharp cry, he engaged the opponents.
Swing. Thrust. Sidestep. Slash. Dodge. Parry.
A presence to his side made him turn and thrust out with his blade, only to snap his wrist to the side to avoid running the towering Twelfth Division captain through the stomach. The two exchanged a quick nod before throwing themselves into the fray once again. Souji allowed the flow of swordplay to wash over him, his limbs moving solely based on instinct, the memory of thousands of sparring and battles controlling their steps. His eyes focused on identifying friend from foe even as his body fought on.
The Second Division captain lost himself in the battle, the battleground an endless blur of black and white, green and red. It had been a long time ago when the Shinobi squads answered the call, a long time ago when he had lost count of how many he had slain. The number had ceased to matter, it was crucial that he didn’t stop. He couldn’t stop. Not even to glance around in search of his friend, if only to know that Shin was still standing.
Somehow, the two captains managed not to get separated, and so there they were, hacking and slashing away at faceless oppositions in a landscape that was quickly becoming equally faceless. The ground was riddled with broken weapons and bodies, but neither cared. Next to him, Kenji got a lucky shot in and two were decimated on the spot, three more taking their place. Souji wasn’t as lucky, catching a sword strike on his left arm that sent him riling backwards, blood running down his already stained haori. He cursed hoarsely but Kenji did not turn, too engrossed in his own battle. Captain Kaito re-entered the fray with a cry, downing two of his foes and ending a third who was about to land a sneak attack on his fellow captain. The save was barely acknowledged, but then when one has saved the life of the other countless times, and said other returned it equally, there wasn’t any point left to thank each other.
The sky hung above them like a blanket, heavy, yet far enough away to be uncared for. The moon provided them with light, staining the few untouched patches of grassland a much vibrant shade of green. Blood splashed across it, ruining its colour but it went unnoticed as they clashed. The foes were thinning out and soon almost stopped entirely and the two pushed them back as far as they could before retreating a little themselves. They stood, leaning against each other, catching their breaths and cursing their burning lungs and aching muscles. Around them, the sound of battle continued to rage, but neither could care less. Souji desperately wished to help his comrades, but for the life of him, his limbs remained numb by his sides, his wakizashi daggled loosely from his fingers.
"There are too many." The taller said, leaning heavily on his blade.
His companion merely panted in response as he tended to a wound on his side. He hissed when he wrapped the makeshift bandage around it and tied it tightly.
"You alright?" Kenji asked in concern.
A dirty look was shot his way and if he had had the energy, he would have chuckled.
"Of course I'm not," Souji snapped. "What about you?"
Captain Shima shifted and winced. "Not great, I can't feel my left arm."
Souji spared a look at his taller companion and noted the tattered, gore soaked captain haori that should have been white, the brown hair, still standing up as wild as ever against all the odds and the haggard face that was splattered with blood. He sported a vicious cut across one eye that had rivers of red running down his jaw. The eye the cut was over was barely open, bright green peeking out from behind red inked lashes. He saw the object of his scrutiny give him a once over and knew he must have been looking at the large gash on his shoulder, the limpness of his left arm as the wound on his torso steadily dripped blood into the grass. He was beaten black and blue and he could feel the ache in his entire body.
“You don’t look too good either,” Kenji teased weakly.
“Who’s left?” Souji asked gruffly, his body lacking the strength to survey the battlefield himself. He heard a cry from far away, then the sharp intake of breath from his fellow captain and immediately, dread pooled in the pit of his stomach.
“Blade at the ready, Captain Kaito, we’re the only ones left.”
“So we are the last,” the shorter captain painfully wrapped his numb fingers around the hilt of his sword. “For what it’s worth, Captain Shima Kenji, it has been an honor.”
“Likewise, Captain Kaito Souji.”
Souji brought his blade up, eyes dull and devoid of any emotions. The battle successfully stripped it away, he could not even conjure a single teardrop at the thought of his dead friend.
That’s alright, Shin, I will be joining you soon.
The enemy stopped in a tight circle around the last two captains.
“Who wants to be the first?” Captain Kaito whispered.
“I believe I would,” an armored figure called from the back, and the circle of samurais parted before him.
“Shogun. Very well, at least I know that my death would not be a pointless sacrifice,” he shifted into a defensive stance. “Come, oh fearless leader.”
The Shogun merely laughed, hands reaching up to remove his horned helmet, revealing a shock of snow-white hair.
“No,” Kaito Souji gasped, eyes widening in disbelief.
“Yes,” came the reply from the white-haired man.
And the blade came swinging down.