1: The Difference Between Revenge and a Rescue Operation is Paper Thin
By the time they were safe once more, the sun had fully set.
Night had fallen.
They were inside a short-term apartment in New Sapporo Domain. It was one of the hideouts prepared by Sugiyado’s four students: Ouka, Bara, Hoozuki, and Asagao.
A banner saying “Congrats on Getting Your Job Back!” was hanging unnaturally in the room.
Opening the refrigerator revealed a homemade-looking cake with plastic wrap over it.
Ouka must have prepared all of it.
The only thing missing was Ouka herself.
Asagao softly called out to him while he sat there staring at the cake. As expected, she had not fallen into enemy hands and had merely been jammed.
His students had been calling their work here a secret date, but no longer.
(I can’t let it get to me right now.)
He had dragged the girls into his business and made a poor command decision. He really should have been committing seppuku, but that would not bring Ouka back.
So he would use his life in a different way.
He was willing to use up his life if it would save his student.
“Hoozuki. Tell me what happened.”
The silver-haired ponytail girl’s shoulders jumped.
Like he was digging into an open wound.
He wanted to punch himself in the face, but he had to ask this right now.
“What did you and Ouka see in that lab protected by such thick armor? What does Princess Karin hope will be her new energy source? And tell me about Amamo too. Tell me everything you know.”
“It was thermoelectric generation.” She spoke slowly, like she was fighting something within herself to get the words out. “They aren’t using large nuclear reactors or turbines. They’re using the electricity created in semiconductors. In a closed circuit created by pressing two different kinds of metal together, the heat difference creates electricity. In this northern land, that temperature is easy to come by when using the outside and inside air temperatures or room temperatures.”
Asagao, their gadget expert, frowned.
“But wait. By thermoelectric generation, you mean using the Seebeck effect, right? No one has ever created a macro-level generator for that. It’s true it doesn’t need gasoline or natural gas, but I thought it only produced small amounts of electricity. I mean, it can only create electricity on the circuit board.”
“Which means they only have to increase the scale.” Hoozuki hung her head. “And if they use something that already exists, they can skip the major construction fees that would rouse suspicions.”
Asagao was still not convinced.
“What are you-?”
Just as the youngest kunoichi was going to ask more, she came to a stop. She may have thought of something.
“The abandoned underground linear motor train network,” said Sugiyado with a grim look. “They were lying when they said they had filled it in with concrete.”
Linear motor trains used massive amounts of electricity, but the rails themselves were exceedingly long electric circuits lined with electromagnets. Only slight modifications would be needed to reuse them as the closed circuit for thermoelectric generation. The temperature difference would not be hard to set up if they used the difference between the closed tunnel and the outside air.
A motor and a generator were two sides of the same coin.
Even an elementary schooler would understand that after seeing a cheap light that connected to their bike’s front wheel, but running across the idea again here showed the possibility had completely slipped their minds.
Hoozuki nodded like a scolded child.
“That massive rail system connects all six of the Hokkaido Area’s domains. It covers more than 3600km…no, twice that with the up and down tracks. And the linear network hadn’t been privatized like the general railways have, so Princess Karin would have had no trouble requisitioning it with her temporary Domain Lord powers. Each individual unit is small, but when the entire system is used as a closed circuit generator, its output should easily surpass 10 nuclear reactors.”
Electric eels could produce enough electricity to kill a human in the water, but each of their individual generator organs did not produce that much. They gained that great output by connecting so many of them together in series.
One of the ninjas here could be particular about electricity and power sources since she used coilguns.
Bara lifted her large chest with her crossed arms and leaned back against the wall.
“That explains why they only needed that one lab made of snow in the middle of the workshop district. The individual units must be even simpler than a cheap calculator powered by a solar panel. New Sapporo Domain and the other northern domains must have hoped to overcome their lack of resources like this. They never would have been in this situation if they could have pumped tons of materials into building up a massive facility from scratch. They ended up modifying something they already had to make up for that.”
They doubted there were any problems with the new power system using the underground linear motor train network. They had to assume that Princess Karin had already restored her defense system that included everything from early-warning radars across the entire Hokkaido Area to strategic anti-air laser beam cannons and 900mm railguns. She had only been working so hard to hide it because she did not want anyone to know she had breathed life back into them.
“That means she isn’t just holding them in reserve.”
“If she could take the initiative without actually using them, she would probably show them off. You know, to say ‘don’t mess with me cause I’ve got these cool new weapons’.”
He agreed with Asagao.
“Whatever she is actually planning,” said Bara. “If we assume she was hiding this information as they approached readiness, we have to assume the generation facility using the underground linear motor train network is just about complete. And if she does have her defense system back up, what is she trying to accomplish by hiding that fact? Hoozuki?”
The silver-haired ponytail girl weakly shook her head at that one. She had only seen the technology at the lab. There must not have been any documents explaining how or why it would be used.
With her arms still crossed and her back still against the wall, Bara used her chin to gesture over toward the bathroom door.
“How about we get this out of Taganuma Yukizasa and Horisato Oume, Sensei? By any means necessary.”
“Stop. I’m not leaving them in your care if you’re going to be emotional about it, Bara.”
Sugiyado made his point very clearly. They of course could not let the hostages know about that, but those two were crucial bargaining chips if they were to rescue Ouka. Carelessly harming those two and “using them up” would be the height of folly.
(I was hoping this conversation would give me some other bargaining chip to work with, but no such luck. Those generator units cover 3600km in both directions, so destroying them all is unrealistic. And I still can’t get a good grip on the conspiracy behind it all.)
He also had to make a decision about the hostage exchange to retrieve Ouka. The more time he gave Princess Karin, the more she would recover from her shock and the longer young Ouka would remain in enemy hands.
Humans did not always act in their own best interests.
Even if someone believed they were acting logically, their emotions could take control at any moment.
Taking a hostage was much easier said than done.
It affected the hostage and the hostage taker both.
After all, you had to invite an enemy into your territory, even if they were being threatened with a weapon and bound with rope or chains. Think of it like trying to get a good night’s sleep with a serial arsonist or serial killer tied up on the floor of your room. Even if your rational side could calculate out that they could not escape, could your emotional side really rest easy? The stress would be constantly building. And when you had the upper hand, it could be hard to even notice it.
With that in mind, Sugiyado made a decision. He still wanted some other bargaining chip. If Princess Karin was formulating her plans while entirely focused on Yukizasa and Oume, he could rattle her all the easier if he attacked from a different angle.
“Time to contact the Empire.”
“Running to your Cyrillic mistress again?” grumbled Asagao, so he patted her small head.
“I’m not interested in Ekaterina here. I want to contact Murakami Michihiko who we left in her care.”
“That’s right, Hoozuki. Princess Karin tried to directly cajole and persuade him in the castle, so he must be important to her – maybe for a rational reason and maybe for an emotional one. That means he’ll be even more useful than Yukizasa or Oume.”
The disconcerting straining noise sounded just like a large bundle of hair being twisted and pulled taut.
It came from synthetic construction rope colored yellow and black.
“Kh,” groaned Kuhou Ouka, the girl with her long chestnut hair in twintails, as she awoke.
The solid thunk behind her came from the collapse of the tripod that had been supporting her hips from behind. Her arms were pulled over her head, her wrists were tied together, and they were dangling from the ceiling. If she was being suspended off the floor, her wrists would have been congested too badly to move or her shoulders would have dislocated, but she was kept just low enough that she could rest on her toes if she stretched down. Keeping her in that in between state was meant to slowly wear down all her body’s muscles over the course of hours.
(Can I slip the rope? No.)
There were a few stage magic tricks to that end, but they generally required some setup before being tied up. She was helpless since she had been bound by an expert while she was unconscious.
Also, a shiver ran down her skinny back.
She did not have any sort of equipment. Her stacked-barrel hunting gun called Midnight Tempest and the rest of her ninja tools had been confiscated, but she also felt no response from the strength boost her ninja outfit was supposed to provide using its electric potential elasticity and high-polymer water-absorbing gel. That was equipped with several batteries smaller than a stick of gum, but they must have all been removed.
She had not been stripped bare while unconscious, but not as a kindness to her.
That was a defensive measure to prevent the Stonewalls from feeling unnecessary guilt while she was imprisoned here.
When one side had an advantage over the other, the psychological effects were not a one-way deal. Sometimes, the imprisoners would be influenced by a pressure of their own creation. Ouka had her direct strength, but kunoichis were also taught to make a weapon of their weaknesses like that. Of course the enemy was being cautious.
She could not escape right away, so she had to alter her focus.
Unable to protect herself, she observed her surroundings while standing on her toes.
(Where am I? The enemy base? If I can find any intel I can get back to Sensei and the others, then my capture won’t be entirely meaningless.)
She was in a small square room measuring 10m on each side. The walls, floor, and ceiling were made of thick steel and, when she twisted her hips to look behind her, she saw a large door of the same material. Ducts and pipes ran along the ceiling. She was dangling down from one of those pipes and she could sense a faint vibration through the rope when she focused her senses.
(Is it a steampipe?)
The room had no windows and the fluorescent lights on the ceiling had been removed. The only light came from the large lamp in one corner. Instead of a desk lamp, this was a floor lamp standing taller than she was. Ones like that would normally be used in studios and nighttime construction sites.
(This reminds me of a current or former construction site.)
She could only guess without seeing things outside. It was even possible this was a photography studio in a skyscraper decorated to look like a construction site.
That said, it was unusual to hear absolutely nothing through the walls when she remained entirely silent. Absolute soundproofing was hard to set up and not many people could do it. That had to be a clue to where this was.
Just then, the metal door behind her opened without so much as a knock.
“Hello, miss. How are you feeling?”
She twisted around to look back at the door and focused on the view through the door before on the person who had stepped in.
“There’s another door behind this one. We’re not letting you see outside this room.”
The woman of around 20 who circled in front of Ouka had long black hair swaying at her sides and dragged a gorgeous junihitoe behind her.
She was Princess Karin.
Her skin was flushed a faint pink and her black hair was glossy and shiny even while dry. A faint herbal aroma hung over her.
(Was she bathing or receiving beauty care? I guess it isn’t unusual these days to use the heat of a garbage incinerator for a spa.)
She made some guesses, but she had no way of getting any of this to Sugiyado and the others. It was frustrating.
Meanwhile, the situation was underway.
Princess Karin leaned in close to peer into the eyes of the kunoichi standing on her toes with her bound hands dangling from a rope. She was looking up from right in front of Ouka’s growing chest. That was intentional. She was trying apply pressure through the violation of personal space, just like how oppressive it felt on a packed train.
“We checked over your equipment.”
“Oh? Way to ruin the wonderful hospitality you were offering me here.”
“Act tough if you like, but we checked over all of it. Including in here.”
Princess Karin’s slender finger ran down Ouka from her flat chest and past her navel, rubbing her skin through the ninja outfit that no longer functioned but still gave off sex appeal.
“You must be a real worrier to install seven batteries in this thing.”
“You hid them well, so it took a lot of ‘feeling around’ to find them all.”
That was how it must have happened.
Ouka had known that, but trained as she was, it still took a lot of effort for her to keep her teenage side from showing through.
“Now, was that search done by a woman, or by a man? Who do you think I gave the order to?”
Ouka’s expression remained unchanged.
A raging storm of embarrassed heat roiled in the core of her body, but letting that show would only invite more attacks in the same vein. The standard anti-torture strategy began with feigning indifference no matter what they did.
Princess Karin was trained in the Stonewall ninja school, so she would be familiar with the womanly techniques. She made a purr in her throat, covered her mouth with her large sleeve, and laughed in an overly elegant fashion.
“Do not worry. There are vanishingly few men who are worth inviting into a group of kunoichis who hone their sex appeal as a weapon. Most men are no more than imbeciles who end up forgetting their mission and running wild while inventing some strange story about it being ‘elopement’ or ‘challenging the world for their love’. I was so close to finally securing a useful one back at the castle when you had to intervene. The scan for hidden weapons, transmitters, and suicide pills was done by Amamo.”
It was said even the lawless pirates had avoided putting a mixed-gender crew on a single ship when possible. When working with multiple ships, they would always divide their personnel along gender lines. Needless to say, that was to avoid having the entire crew break apart from unnecessary trouble. Ouka’s group had been blessed with an extreme exception in Sugiyado Souha, but the young man named Murakami Michihiko may have been that for Princess Karin and the Stonewalls.
“But anyway.” Princess Karin looked up at the suspended girl and breathed an exasperated sigh. She was close enough for the air pressure to tickle Ouka’s flat chest. “I did not expect your tools and outfit to be so official. What are Elite Ninjas from the Shogunate doing this far north?”
“I think you know exactly why, Princess Karin.”
“Well, you can’t kill yourself like this. Despite what fiction would have you believe, humans do not die just from biting their own tongue. Are you trying to anger me into carelessly killing you?”
Princess Karin knew how the game was played. She reached into her junihitoe’s sleeve and pulled out a hairspray-sized can. Then she attached a clear plastic cup to it.
“What are you having me inhale?”
“You should really ask me to let you inhale it. While saying please, of course.”
It could simply be a gas, but it could also be bacteria or mold spores. Ouka tried to feign calm, but her eyes still wavered.
Princess Karin looked amused as she shook the metal can equipped with inhaler cup and she lightly slapped it against Ouka’s soft cheek.
“Don’t worry. It’s only oxygen. And the idea isn’t to have you inhale so much you hyperventilate.”
“Then what are you doing?”
“If I’m going to negotiate with a guy who can bring multiple Shogunate Elite Ninjas together, I need some tricks up my sleeve. I want to get Oume and Yukizasa back, but that will be no easy task. I just know he’s working up some kind of plan, so I want to lay a trap of my own. …A trap using your body and mind.” That demon in female form smiled like this was none of her concern. “Simply put, I will remake you into a puppet who can never say no. I’m sure you have done your research into New Sapporo Domain and the Stonewalls, so you might even know our identities and abilities. I doubt we could win back Yukizasa and Oume entirely unharmed now that they have been captured, but what if I had a new fighter they knew nothing about? That is exactly what I will have once you betray your companions. Those Shogunate ninjas will be satisfied once they get all of Yukizasa and Oume’s insider information, but this will catch them off guard.”
That was a horrifying thought.
She was being asked to personally kill her beloved teacher. Her body and mind would be remade until that was a real possibility. As if unseen components of her being would be removed one by one and replaced with something else entirely. She would prefer to be tortured to death in the cruelest way imaginable.
This demon understood that, but she said all this anyway.
She stood a step removed from standard morals and etiquette. She knew this was a line that must not be crossed even by a kunoichi who actively made use of taboos, but she whispered sweetly all the same.
“Yes, I can pretend to lose the negotiation and send you to him. Then, when you strike, I can use the resulting chaos to take back my companions. Now, I’ve revealed my plan to you, but you have no way of letting him know. It’s killing you inside, isn’t it!? Anyway, I would appreciate your cooperation in this. When I am done remaking you, I hope you will kill as many of your companions as possible.”
“I’ll never do that!!”
“Yes, you will. Your own intentions are irrelevant here. After all…”
Princess Karin stretched up and touched the steampipe Ouka was suspended from. Specifically, she grabbed the emergency release valve. With a loud “pshhhh!!”, something formless erupted out. It did not directly hit Ouka, but it instantly filled the sealed room. The stench of rotten eggs reached Ouka’s nose, reminding her of a hot spring.
“Maybe it is and maybe that distinctive smell is being used to hide something else. Use all of your knowledge to fuel your paranoia. Now, miss, if you would like this oxygen tank, you need only ask. If you’re lucky, it won’t be too late by the time the mask is in place, but I would recommend making up your mind sooner rather than later.”
Princess Karin grinned and placed the clear cup over her own mouth and nose.
“I will be back to ask again in half an hour. I’m not interested in sitting around testing your patience.”
“And this will continue for hours if need be. Or days. It is all up to you, so this could be the first of many half hours to come. Personally, I think I will go enjoy the rest of my massage in a room with an air purifier. Listen, I will only ask you once each visit. Enjoy feeling the toxins entering your bloodstream through your lungs.”
The first half hour was a battle with her own struggling.
She held her breath and strained her bound hands, but nothing she did improved her situation. Not breathing had never been an option. With no power left, her ninja outfit would not protect her. She felt like the unseen source of the stench was entering her through her nose, her hair, her skin, and even within her underwear.
Was this really the sulfuric chemical found at hot springs?
Could it also contain an even more brutal delirium gas or knockout gas?
Once her body could no longer resist, her mind raced and gathered up every bit of knowledge she had. It was like having her life flash before her eyes. This was her instincts trying to find any clue to breaking free of this, but her ninja training had left her with an extensive knowledge of toxins and drugs, which only made this worse. She could not have feared the possibility of certain gases and bacteria if she did not know they existed.
“How are you doing? Changed your mind yet?”
After precisely half an hour, Princess Karin reentered the room with a transparent cup over her nose and mouth.
She must have been worried that the smell would get on her junihitoe or her hair because she grimaced and closed the steampipe’s valve even though she could not have actually smelled it.
“You are a sight to behold, let me tell you. Is all that sweat just from tension? I’m sure that flesh-colored skintight suit would have maintained an interior environment between it and your skin if it still had its batteries, but you look like you just ran a marathon. Sweat is seeping from the cracks in the suit and…I kindly left your underwear intact, but it might as well not be there anymore.”
She took a deep and performative breath of fresh oxygen and the sound of gas leaving the metal cannister wore on Ouka’s nerves.
“Just say the word and you will be immediately freed from this physical exhaustion and mental fear.”
“I will never do that.”
“Another half hour it is.”
The next half hour was a battle with flashbacks.
As all the “what ifs”, maybes, and hypotheticals swirled through her mind over and over, her knowledge ended up running in an unusual direction. It may have been similar to getting lost reading manga or a magazine found while rearranging your room. Or maybe her instincts concluded there was no point in continuing the vain search through the direct genres of toxins and drugs, so they ended up reaching for a different genre of technique and memories.
Her senses dulled.
Was that because her mind was focused inwards, or simply because of the colorless gas(?) causing the stench?
She heard a whispering deep in her ears.
It was not coming from outside.
She could not pin it down to any specific direction.
The more she focused, the less she could make it out, but it refused to leave no matter how much she tried to make it go away. The indistinct voice was a lot like a mosquito buzzing around near your ear on a sweltering summer night.
She had been looking at this wrong from the beginning.
Her resistance was fairly irrelevant. Princess Karin had not set a time limit; she had simply said it would continue until Ouka broke and became her puppet. If she could not escape on her own, then she only had two options.
The options were not obey or disobey.
They were to be successfully remade or broken beyond repair.
This may have been similar to a surgical procedure.
“How are you doing?”
After a while, Princess Karin returned.
Ouka could no longer tell if it really was half an hour later or if hours and hours had passed.
“Still supporting yourself on your toes? A normal person’s legs or back would have cramped up by now, so well done there.”
“Acting tough is pointless when I can see how swollen your eyelids are. Your body is reaching its limit. That just leaves your mind. Which way are the scales tipping? Will it be next time? Or maybe the time after that? Not that this will end even if it’s the time after the time after the time after the time after that. Whenever it happens, I look forward to hearing you say the word.”
“Death is the end of all possibilities. No matter how far you fall, you still have a chance of being reunited with those familiar faces as long as you remain alive. That is the logical thinking befitting a kunoichi. Okay, see you again in half an hour.”
During the next half hour, her life ceased flashing before her eyes.
Her breaths caught.
Something was wrong with her throat, so she was wheezing. Princess Karin mad mentioned her eyelids swelling, so maybe her throat was too. Her trachea could be swelling closed. She could no longer support herself on her toes, so a lot more force was placed on her wrists. If that continued long enough, her hands could be permanently damaged, but she doubted she could bring strength back to her legs as they weakly convulsed below her.
The voice was back.
The directionless voice continued to whisper to her like a bug buzzing around by her ear.
(If necrosis sets in…)
This was the only thought on her mind as she trembled with her tongue hanging limply from between her lips.
This was likely the last coherent thought remaining inside her.
(I could…die here.)
“You’re persistent, I’ll give you that.” Princess Karin returned and briefly shut off the valve. “But you should have started to notice it by now. To be honest, the gas doesn’t really matter. It’s the steampipe. The faint vibrations pass through the rope and rattle all the bones in your body. Have you been hearing a voice? Did you think you were hallucinating? The necessary instructions have already been inserted into your mind. How long until they take effect differs from person to person, but all that remains is to wait until then.”
Was this a variation of the technique named Out of the Blue?
A kunoichi made a weapon out of her own feminine beauty and allure, so she could not rely only on pure muscular strength to defeat her enemies. A kunoichi was meant to have a slim and delicate body that made an enemy careless, so they were often forced to fight at a disadvantage. They had done considerable research into how to cause the maximum amount of pain with the minimum amount of force.
When an enemy was prepared for the blow, they could grit their teeth and charge onward even as their skin and flesh were torn by a blade, but if the attack came from an unexpected direction with unexpected timing, then even the prick of a single needle could cause a large man to jump and lose consciousness.
Think of it like a test of courage where someone shoved konjac in your face on the end of a fishing rod. You would only laugh if that happened right in front of you in broad daylight, but your heart would leap out of your mouth if it caught you by surprise in the dark.
“I will remind you that when this ends is up to you. This would already be over if you would pass out and raise the white flag, but your stubbornly strong mind is only making you suffer longer. But I will wait. Wait until the light fades from your eyes.”
She could resist.
Or she could not.
…The result would be the same.
Ouka felt a miniscule but unmistakable crack form in the center of her heart.
Why was she forcing herself to continue suffering suspended from that pipe? What was the point of this? If she could prevent even one tiny part of Princess Karin’s plan, there would be a reason to let years be taken off her life here. But this was wasted effort. Nothing would come of it. The longer she resisted, the closer she would come to being the mindless puppet Princess Karin wanted.
It hit her.
What did it matter if she said the word?
What would her struggles accomplish?
“You set up your shield in the wrong direction. If you had focused on the vocal data reaching you from the steampipe via bone conduction, it never would have set in so easily.”
Oh, no, thought Ouka.
Yet she could not rid herself of the doubt that continued to grow within her. In fact, the doubt began to weigh heavy on her soul.
If her struggles were meaningless, why not just give in? She could leave the rest in Sugiyado Souha’s hands and let him save her.
She knew that was only wishful thinking. If they failed to notice she had been remade, then she might attack and kill her teacher in his sleep.
But what other choice did she have? A pounding headache grew while all of her thoughts, ideas, and inspiration focused in on that one point.
(Bad idea…planted in my head.)
Her mind grew hazy.
She could no longer make sense of the words there.
Darkness closed in on her vision and her ears heard only Princess Karin’s sweet whispers.
“The choice is yours: will you resist and suffer, or will you give up and be freed from it all. The voice finished its job during the first hour and it is too late to struggle after reaching a lethal dose.”
Another half hour passed.
Another half hour passed.
Another half hour passed.
There was no half hour after that.
3: The Nymph and the Ninja
“Oh? You look much more determined now, Comrade Souha. Welcome back to the battlefield.”
The Neva River Nymphs were a spy agency for the Cyrillic Empire.
Ekaterina had invited Sugiyado to a parking garage just like so many others in New Sapporo Domain. However, every last vehicle on the third floor were being used by the Empire under false names and they had troops at every exit to ensure their safety.
But the Nymphs were frogmen, so all of their exists were aquatic in nature, like a manhole or a water storage tank.
Sugiyado did not do things their way, but the parking garage still allowed escape in any direction, making it the perfect “hidden village” for those who lived in the darkness. Needless to say, it was not a permanent hideout. The temporary village had been created by gathering mobile homes in the half hour or so since he had contacted them.
The Nymphs’ home ground was always under the water.
“Ugh, they speak an entirely different language here. Everything’s covered in Cyrillic.”
“Asagao,” he chided.
Bara and Hoozuki were not here. They were keeping an eye on Yukizasa and Oume back in the short-term apartment. Splitting up their forces had been necessary, but it still wore on his nerves so soon after Ouka was taken. He knew he was being overprotective, but he still hated being unable to stick together.
“You need our help, do you?” Ekaterina was leaning against the side of a large truck container. “I can mobilize the sub we have out at sea if necessary.”
“I have some good news for you. Both of the strategic anti-air laser beam cannons on the outskirts of the city are back up and running. Some rusty ballistic missiles aren’t going to cut it. Nor would an orbital bombing system that circles the planet waiting for the command to strike, or the latest ballistic systems that break away at ultra-high altitude to attack their target at Mach 5 or greater.”
Ekaterina choked in shock, but he did not care about that right now.
“How is Murakami Michihiko doing?”
“Cough, ugh…h-he is in here.”
She circled behind the container she had been leaning against. She unlocked and opened the double doors to reveal a living space more comfortable than a studio apartment. If you ignored the lack of an internet connection and the fact that the doors could not be opened from within.
What made for a comfortable shut-in life when chosen for yourself turned into hellish solitary confinement when forced upon you. The difference between happiness and unhappiness was often paper thin like that.
A young man sat on the sofa inside wearing the same things he had when they handed him over. He glared at Sugiyado and clearly wanted to give him a piece of his mind, but Sugiyado did not have the time or patience to deal with the young man’s grudge right now. He got straight to the point to hold the initiative.
“Your lifeline was the thermoelectric generation using a giant closed circuit made from the underground linear motor train network.”
Michihiko’s shoulders jumped.
Whether he agreed with Princess Karin’s plan or not, that was not what he had wanted to hear while in the Cyrillic Empire’s territory. But Sugiyado did not care.
He climbed into the container.
“Help us stop Princess Karin.”
“That is an urgent matter.” The young man weakly shook his head. Horizontally. “But I’m not getting the Empire’s help. That would be like blowing up a dam to put out a fire.”
“Then you can wait here until it’s all over. Just sit here in your air conditioned room on your comfy couch and wait for the result to be read off to you in the flat voice of a news anchor. It won’t be long before you learn after the fact what happened to New Sapporo Domain and the people who murdered your grandfather while he worried for you.”
“Don’t forget: my debt is to him, not you. Your personal connection with Princess Karin doesn’t really matter. To me, you’re no more than a single component. If that component isn’t working, I can look elsewhere. So quit whining and give me an answer. Will you or will you not help us stop Princess Karin and the Stonewalls?”
First, there was a tongue click.
The young man knew he had no real choice here, which may have shown he still had his pride as a ninja. Even though flopping down in the sofa and going to sleep would have given him a safe route out of here.
From here on, he would be seen as a ninja. Sugiyado Souha had to update his opinion of the young man.
“So what’s the plan?” asked Murakami Michihiko.
“We’ve captured two of the Stonewalls’ core members and have them in our room: Taganuma Yukizasa and Horisato Oume.”
That was enough for Michihiko to freeze. He must have trusted in their skill even as their enemy.
“But I can’t say it was easy. One of ours, Ouka, was taken. We’ve arranged a hostage exchange. We will face Princess Karin directly while you lie in wait and attack from the side. That will be most effective strike.”
“Whether she lives or dies is up to the strength of that strike. I have no reason to hold back. In fact, I’d prefer to kill her a hundred times over or more since she captured Ouka. 'Which is why I’m leaving the finishing blow to you. You decide how hard you need to hit her.”
Murakami Michihiko had come here as an inspector from Edo, but Sugiyado could guess he had a closer relationship with Princess Karin. When carrying out such a largescale plan, she had attempted to bring him onto her side instead of silencing him. That suggested they had something of an alliance.
Now they would use that against her.
Even if she had killed his grandfather, this was like rubbing salt in the wound according to ordinary bushido. But ninjas lived in a different world from the samurai. Sugiyado was afraid he might carelessly shred her to pieces, so he was giving the young man a chance to show more restraint than that.
And Michihiko was not dumb enough to overlook what this meant.
He had already rejected learning what happened after the fact on TV. He had wanted to play a role in how it ended, so now he lowered his head.
“You have my thanks.”
“Let’s get down to the specifics. Asagao, the map.”
“Here you go.”
Asagao pulled out her phone and an accessory instead of a paper map. A satellite map was displayed on the wall by a simple projector that used a special wavelength of light that showed up even with the lights on.
Sugiyado pointed his chin toward the map on the wall.
“New Sapporo Domain as a whole is Princess Karin’s backyard. I doubt even Ekaterina’s intel collected from the water could fill that gap. So I want your help since you protected the city using the same system she uses. …What are the best locations in the city for holding negotiations? Where should we start to get ahead of Princess Karin here?”
4: The Negotiations Begin
Finally, Sugiyado left the mobile home and Asagao followed after him with her cheeks puffed out and her baggy sleeves behind her head.
“Are you sure about this? I doubt he would fully turn on us, but they know each other. He might stop the attack at the last second after seeing Princess Karin in person. Ouka’s life is on the line here, so I don’t like including an uncertain factor like him. Wouldn’t it be better to have you stab her through the heart?”
“Going with the obvious choice won’t work here, Asagao. Princess Karin has the home-field advantage. We can’t escape the city’s ruler if do everything by the book, so we need to introduce a wild card to the mix. We can no longer enjoy this as an away game. We have to throw out the rulebook.”
“Also, Princess Karin isn’t our objective here. Taking back Ouka is our top priority, so let’s focus on that while we let him handle the opening act.”
That was when he heard some static in his ear.
He reached a hand to his ear and Asagao began monitoring it with her phone.
“Hello, insolent fool. I wish to discuss this proposed hostage exchange.”
“The gas turbine power plant on the east side.”
“Then I will decide on the time. Tonight at 7. If you do not show then, negotiations are off. Choose your actions carefully if you wish to see Kuhou Ouka again.”
Princess Karin had learned her name. He doubted Ouka would have voluntarily given that, so something was happening over there. And with that in mind, he spoke with a voice colder than ice.
“Fine by me, but would you really throw out your only card for a simple penalty like that? Need I remind you I have more than one hostage? That gives me more than one chance, unlike you.”
“Oh, don’t worry about that. I have something much crueler prepared.”
“Do you? I look forward to finding out what. One wrong move and I will kill Yukizasa and Oume with methods you’ve never even imagined. I will use every skill I’ve built up over my career as a professional ninja to invent a method that will be spoken of for a century to come.”
“That should be fun. But with both of us hoping to reclaim someone we care for, I doubt this will play out as a straight exchange. I look forward to seeing how much of a fight you criminals put up.”
The transmission ended.
Asagao shook her head.
But not to say she had failed to trace the signal.
“It came straight from New Sapporo Castle’s classified server. I can’t tell you if she’s in the castle or relaying the signal through there, though.”
They could not easily attack the castle even if they did know she was there. Princess Karin was the ruler of the entire domain, so she could use the city’s systems to their fullest.
Sugiyado clicked his tongue.
“I’m seriously starting to think we might have to kill her.”
5: Yukizasa and Oume
They had agreed on 7 PM, but this was not the same as meeting your friends in front of the train station. Arriving right on time was like asking to be killed. The trick to winning and surviving was visiting the surrounding area and setting everything up before 7 PM.
Sugiyado Souha entered their makeshift jail cell with Murakami Michihiko.
“Yukizasa, Oume. We need to talk.”
The short-term apartment’s prefab bathroom was the exact opposite of a tourist destination’s hot spring. The cramped space was surrounded by artificial walls and had no windows, making it feel like a cell. Yukizasa was handcuffed to the bath’s accessibility railing and Oume to the toilet’s pipes, putting them too far apart to reach each other.
Their reactions were very different when he opened the door. Small Yukizasa showed him the raw hostility of a wild beast and sexy Oume cowered down in apparent fear.
“That’s some real basic emotional manipulation.” Murakami sounded exasperated. “Both sadism and a protective desire are based on reliance and possessiveness. If one of them isn’t to your liking, is the other one supposed to draw you in?”
An appraising silence followed.
But they had to already know that Murakami Michihiko was one of the questioners. That meant he was not on Princess Karin’s side and would not cover for those two.
(Then again, I wouldn’t put it past a ninja to pretend to cooperate with me to help the kunoichis escape.)
Those two were both pros.
No amount of soothing or coaxing from Sugiyado was going to shake them. The most effective move was not violence or kind words. The thick shield held out in front of them would not break. If you wanted them to speak, it was best to confuse them about who was on whose side, leaving them uncertain which way to hold their shield.
“We know everything,” said Sugiyado as if continuing for the young man. “Do you have a secondary and tertiary trap on top of the emotional manipulation? If not, you’ve failed. Give up now.”
That earned him a blatant tongue click.
But not from rough Yukizasa. This came from Oume who expertly used her sweet sex appeal.
She knew her techniques would not work on an instructor of kunoichis. She had probably only hoped her poor attempt would make him feel sorry for her.
Yukizasa and Oume’s top priority would be to determine what Murakami Michiko’s angle was.
But once they moved their shields in that direction, Sugiyado would stab for their exposed sides.
“What do you want?” asked Yukizasa while seated in the bathtub and not even looking his way. She had to know several ways to drag information out of trained ninjas using just the running water in here. And without leaving a single mark on their skin.
But Sugiyado only sighed.
He did not even step inside the bathroom, like he was respecting it as their territory.
Glancing over at Murakami Michihiko before talking would rattle and disconcert those kunoichis far more than any violence or threats.
Michihiko himself did not know how to respond and caused an unnatural silence, but it was still enough to affect Yukizasa and Oume since they were willing to read several layers too much into anything after being imprisoned like this.
After warming them up like that, Sugiyado got down to business.
Now that they were sufficiently rattled, he got right to the point.
“To be blunt, I don’t see much use in the two of you. We could see pretty much your entire hand from the moment we figured out your trick was using thermoelectric generation with the underground linear motor train network.”
This was working.
Sexy Oume glared over at small Yukizasa, telling her to mask her reactions better.
“That just leaves what exactly you plan to do with it, but we can figure that out by cornering Princess Karin and getting her to talk. Besides, she might not have even given you two the real reason. Better to get it from a trustworthy source than leave open the possibility of misinformation.”
Oume smiled in a self-deprecating way while bound to the toilet.
She may have decided to speak before Yukizasa could say too much.
“Then why are you even meeting with us? Hoping to distract yourself from your companion’s capture?”
“If it would get her back, I would dismember you in that tub and stuff you in bags. Should I send the bags to New Sapporo Castle? Is Princess Karin emotional enough to cover her face while watching the carnage on a monitor? I kind of doubt it.”
It all came so smoothly.
He was not trying to convince them of anything and he was not displaying any obvious anger or killer intent. He sounded so relaxed it might have passed in one ear and out the other if they were not paying attention. But that was what made it so bone-chilling.
He would do it if necessary.
As easily as he might chop a radish in two on the cutting board.
If he did not radiate that energy and make them hyperventilate, then this was entirely meaningless.
Someone’s life was riding on this.
Kuhou Ouka was a student left in his care. She had gone along with this plan even though she had nothing to gain from it. She was not here, but each of his words and each second that passed could influence whether she lived or died.
“Again, I don’t need anything from you. If I can return you, that’s one less thing I have to worry about.”
His tone remained unchanged.
Even a police officer aiming a gun at a criminal would have shown more emotion while explaining their right to remain silent.
“If I asked you to do something, you wouldn’t do it for me, would you? But keep that within reason, if you don’t mind.”
“Listen, if I can’t use you for anything, then I won’t. I have no reason to go out of my way to kill you, but I also have no reason to insist on your survival. If things go wrong at the exchange, I will kill you on the spot. The rails have been laid out, so now you either follow them or you intentionally derail. The choice is yours.”
What happened next would be the same either way. Whether they would obey or not, they would still want to know how things were supposed to go down.
“Creating the illusion of choice while guiding us toward the card you want?” Oume kept her voice low while handcuffed to the toilet pipes. “Is this supposed to be a form of mind control?”
“Interpret it however you like, but I’m not lying. You can choose to do what I say or not and that will determine what happens to you.”
Oume looked over at Murakami Michihiko with the look of a chained-up puppy, but he only sighed.
Sugiyado and Michihiko had not planned any of this out in advance, but that was why a single adlibbed comment could cause such a disturbance.
“I was tricked by the Stonewalls once already, so isn’t it a bit selfish to expect me to be honest with you now?”
“I should have ignored the princess and killed you sooner. An inspector who isn’t in our pocket only brings trouble.”
The traveling shrine maiden talked tough, but a real ninja did not make a show of their killer intent. If you were planning to kill, it was best to look like you would never hurt a fly.
The kunoichis had no ground to stand on here, so they may have hoped to draw out their own hostility this way.
To intentionally disillusion themselves.
To help give up on someone they had thought was on their side.
(How na?ve. I won’t say it’s wrong to feel that way, but the more you care about something, the more carefully you have to protect it to avoid being hurt.)
“Now, then.” Sugiyado paused for a beat. “Those are some strong words, but which is it? Yes, or no. This isn’t a choice you can put off. I just hope you choose the card I think you will.”
With that said, he pulled out two stick-shaped digital voice recorders and threw them within arms’ reach of the two girls.
“Everything you need to know is on those. You can replay it as many times as you like. Whatever your intentions, you’re starved for information, right? I left out any maps or photos that require a visual, so do your best to memorize it all from the audio alone.”
6: Official Trap Preparations
“Deliveries 2 and 3 are complete. The next one will be the last.”
Princess Karin nodded calmly at her subordinate’s report while walking through the facility with the hem of her junihitoe dragging behind her. With Taganuma Yukizasa and Horisato Oume captured, half her central team was missing and she had to visit this mass of steel and concrete herself for a direct report.
(To think an organization could be too big.)
But that did not mean she was willing to throw all that away and attempt it with a minimal number of elites.
A metallic thud sounded.
An armored truck’s electronically-controlled suspension had easily lowered a Swift Foot Type-2 Mount. Just a few years ago, the category of 2-wheel armored vehicles had not even existed, but these were essentially a dual-wheeled unit that an armored samurai replaced their lower body with.
They had of course had their origins in large motorcycles, but given their size and weight, they were more like a slimmed-down steamroller.
They were armed with a projectile weapon that resembled a Western bow-and-arrow after combining a rapid-vibration spear with an ultra-flexible bow made from the same special stainless steel used in the springs for skyscraper earthquake countermeasures. Those high-mobility anti-composite-armor weapons had been developed to open a hole in the tanks and 6-legged mobile fortresses that made up the Cyrillic Empire’s primary fighting force. Not only did they function as a weapon at close and long range, but most people would not even want to imagine what became of someone if they were run over by a “slimmed-down steamroller”.
No matter where the enemy was hiding in the gas turbine power plant, these could break right through the wall to reach them. There were plenty of sensors capable of detecting a target right through thick obstacles, such as terahertz waves and magnetic resonance.
She had just one concern.
(The power plant is crucial to the city’s infrastructure. We need to calculate out the acceptable amount of damage and share a map of what areas can be destroyed. If this comes down to a game of deception, we might not have a datalink up at all times.)
They could always reroute all the power from the underground linear motor train network to the city, but that would mean more or less be going public with their secret power source. She wanted to avoid anything so conspicuous.
“The final transport unit is here. Delivery 4 has arrived.”
They were not up against paper targets here.
She had this much at her disposal, but the Shogunate ninja would be working to outwit her in order to survive…and to save the hostage. But what might look like a clever choice could also be narrowing your options through unnecessary assumptions. It was just like a game of shogi. She had her standard heavy firepower, but she also had the secret arts of the ninja. While her opponent was hiding from the obvious threat of the rook or bishop, she would attack with the trickier knight or lance. In other words, she just had to hunt them down with her ninjas.
That meant Princess Karin herself and Amamo.
Then the junihitoe princess opened the trailer of the armored truck that had just arrived and viewed the weapon that had been hardest to procure.
She gave a command to her ultimate weapon that gave off a faint floral scent.
“How are you feeling, my cute kunoichi?”
7: To Battle
The gas turbine power plant was located on the east side of the city.
New Sapporo Domain was landlocked and thus could not acquire large quantities of coolant water from the ocean, so thermal power generation was a crucial part of its infrastructure. That said, the old-fashioned coal method pumped out toxic smoke, which was incompatible with preserving a livable environment in the big city. That naturally limited them to using the same city gas as ordinary homes.
That may have been enough to support the people’s lives, but it was insufficient to power the many defense weapons deployed to every corner of the vast northern land. In fact, they could not have the power generation facility openly visible by satellite. If the Cyrillic Empire launched a missile strike on or sabotaged it, all the military systems would go down.
The dull gray building stood out from the surrounding city even with a thin layer of artificial snow.
“It’s generally exactly as Murakami said.”
The sun was setting.
Asagao was using a tablet to view the footage sent by an aerial drone resembling a giant top supported by coaxial rotors.
“The many pipes even cover up the roads running through there. That probably helps prevent satellites from seeing the steam from the pressure release valves and the smoke from the smokestacks, but I can’t get the drone any closer due to all the EM scattered by the turbines. The control interference would be too great if I had it descend any more and who knows when communications will be lost too.”
“Oh? So they don’t stop the power plant even during emergencies?”
“C’mon, Bara. Don’t you know it takes days to inspect and restart the turbines once they stop? Besides, Princess Karin is trying to protect the people. Even if her methods are a little insane.”
Asagao was right. The large reactors found in power plants and ironworks were more efficient when kept running at all times instead of switching them on and off for every little thing.
Princess Karin controlled the local government, so she had use of the official surveillance network, from the security cameras to the satellites, and she could even send in a large military force. Sugiyado’s team was fighting an away game, so they needed a reliable withdrawal point more than a giant weapon. In that sense, the gas turbine power plant was like a jungle of steel and concrete. They could use their ninja techniques to their hearts’ content there.
Hoozuki checked the same screen.
“But, Sensei, she’ll know how to use the place like that too, won’t she? We should assume the security is a lot stricter from normal. They’ll have filled in all the holes and used every advantage it gives them.”
“I know that.”
He had designated the location and Princess Karin had designated the time. She would have chosen a time that gave her enough time to make the preparations she needed. No one would insist on a condition that hurt their position.
And with that in mind…
(That honestly doesn’t matter.)
Sugiyado Souha did not lament his disadvantages.
If you could not ally yourself with your disadvantages, you could never overturn the board from behind the scenes.
(Ninjas are meant to perform the sabotage that a largescale army can’t do. Being at a disadvantage makes it easier to follow our training. Princess Karin, the more you fortify your position with military might, the more thick fat you surround yourself with and the harder you will find it to move.)
When an enemy had 100 large weapons, the more flammable objects you had to trigger explosions with and the more chances to trick the enemy into hitting each other.
When an enemy had 1000 guards, the more opportunities you had to defeat one, steal their uniform, and sneak in and the easier it was to pick up on dissatisfaction within the ranks to start some infighting or find an information leak.
These would be Princess Karin’s chosen troops, but she would not have gathered them all personally. Receiving the same training and education did not mean they all shared the same values and sense of the threat. Gather enough people and holes and misunderstandings were unavoidable. Not even the production lines for cutting-edge weapons had entirely perfected the advance detection of faulty parts.
A ninja knew how to view things in that light. They were like a contrarian that could back up their arguments with real action.
“We don’t actually know where Amamo or Princess Karin are, though. Or Ouka for that matter.”
They had an hour until the promised time of 7.
“It’s time.” Sugiyado teased the scarf over his mouth. “Asagao, switch the drone to programmed flight. We need to leave.”
“Hey, Sensei. I know arriving early to lie in wait is the standard play, but we know the Stonewalls will be there before us. If we arrive too soon, won’t it lead to a skirmish before the hostage exchange?”
Hoozuki was being more timid than usual, but that may have been due to losing Ouka before her eyes. Even Sugiyado had a hard time caring for his wounded heart and fully conquering the fear in such a short time.
And his answer was simple.
“7 was the given time, but we don’t actually have to wait until then. They’ll see it the same way, so I bet this will begin sooner.”
Sugiyado had three cards in his deck: Yukizasa, Oume, and – as a dark horse – Murakami Michihiko. As fighters, he had Bara and Hoozuki. Asagao was his information support. He did not count Ekaterina or the others from the Cyrillic Empire.
Once they had everything they needed, they took different trucks to reach the gas turbine power plant from three different directions.
Hoozuki took Yukizasa.
Bara took Ouma.
And Sugiyado Souha took Murakami Michihiko.
The young man spoke with a bitter look on his face.
He mostly seemed to be speaking to himself.
“The princess must be putting the happiness of New Sapporo Domain and the entire Hokkaido Area first and foremost. I’m certain of it. It’s just that she chose too extreme a method.”
His loyalty was impressive after having his grandfather killed and being framed for the crime.
Not to mention that he was not a part of the Stonewalls themselves.
“But you can still fight back without hesitation?”
“I am a ninja. I was trained to do so and I trained all my men to do so.”
He must have been taught how to suppress his emotions so he could control himself and survive even when under too much confusion to properly process what was happening. But that was no guarantee the process was working perfectly.
Sugiyado did not teach that method.
He taught his students how to use their emotions to fuel their progress, but he would not teach them how to stifle what they felt. That would be antithetical to teaching them how to live their lives.
“What happened between you and the old man?”
“Nothing,” spat out Michihiko while looking aside. He apparently felt some guilt. “A family member turned out to be a criminal. Enough of one to be sent to max-security Abashiri. Is it that odd that we became estranged after that? And remember that I’m a Shogunate ninja. I can never be open about it, but I am a civil servant.”
“Are you sure that’s all?”
If so, why had he been unable to throw out the ninja tool the old man made?
Sugiyado hid that question in his tone.
“He took the blame for a government official’s crime to protect the Shogunate. No matter how much I wanted to tell the truth, I would only have been ensuring he did it all for nothing. How am I supposed to stay in touch with someone during all that? I couldn’t manage it. My personal sense of justice was shaken by it.”
That did sound like that old man.
Sugiyado thought on it while holding the steering wheel. That explained why the old man had felt so different from the other prisoners. He had gotten by so easily within the complex power balance of the special prison, so it had seemed unlikely he would have been unable to avoid trouble in the outside world and committed a crime without covering his tracks properly.
“I’m not even going to try to change how you feel about Princess Karin.”
“I said I’m not even going to try, so I don’t need any arguments from you. I have no guarantee I could do anything about it on such short notice even if I wanted to.” Sugiyado sounded exasperated. “But you were so intent on stopping her plan that you turned a blade on her in the castle. She isn’t someone we can outdo while negotiating through the proper channels. Ouka is a complete stranger to you, but you will never have a better shot at defeating Princess Karin and the Stonewalls. Screw this up and there is no stopping New Sapporo Domain and the Hokkaido Area. Keep that in mind.”
For Murakami Michihiko, he was avenging his grandfather’s death.
He would be aware of that and also aware the he still could not bring himself to abandon Princess Karin.
He was in a bind, but the clock was still ticking.
“If this fails, this will no longer be a job for ninjas. The Shogunate might send in an army. Or the Empire might. Princess Karin would be shot to death beyond your reach or she would kill herself inside her blazing castle. If you want to avoid that, then do what you deem best now.”
They did not even consider entering through the main gate.
Sugiyado parked in an empty lot a short distance away.
“Follow the plan.”
“You too. You’re hiding something, aren’t you?”
“Ninjas always have their secrets.”
“So I will tell you what I can assure you is true: I respect your grandfather and I will do whatever it takes to rescue Ouka. We’re on equal footing here. You use me toward your ends and I’ll do the same with you. Now, let’s go.”
Alone, Sugiyado hopped atop the wall surrounding the empty lot dusted with artificial snow and then jumped to the roof of a nearby building. He noted a quiet beeping and held a hand to his ear while continuing his three-dimensional movement.
“I have a reading from the sensor. Murakami Michihiko has begun to move. Let him move freely from now on.”
“Got it, Sensei. We have Yukizasa and Oume on standby.”
“Murakami was present when you interrogated those two, so keep in mind that his name will spread quickly, Sensei.”
Hoozuki was right. But Murakami Michihiko was not meant as an unseen assassin. Hints of his presence were meant to rattle Princess Karin, so perfectly hiding him would be counterproductive.
People had a tendency to see ghosts in the dark because they feared incomplete information more than anything. That was when their imagination kicked in.
The other side would have everything set up for the confrontation here, but what would they least expect when hoping to retrieve hostages?
To find one of the supposed hostages wandering around before the negotiations began. That alone could would fill them with tension and cause their preparations to crumble.
They could no longer just ready their shields and tense their bodies. Accepting in their ally would require opening a gap in their shields.
(If we’re lucky, Oume will mention Murakami Michihiko. Just as the Stonewalls think they can escape the tension by focusing on Oume, the ground will open up below their feet. Just like someone who makes one final burst of speed to finish a marathon, only to learn they’re at the halfway point.)
“Hold onto Yukizasa,” he said while jumping from rooftop to rooftop.
“Hey, Sensei. Shouldn’t we have waited until we had confirmed Ouka’s presence here? If they don’t respond, we’ll have wasted one of our cards.”
“I know you’re worried, Hoozuki, but stay focused. It would take us all night to track down where in that labyrinthine power plant Ouka and Princess Karin are. Remember that we still have Yukizasa if this doesn’t work out.”
Needless to say, Princess Karin’s side had to be much more careful since they only had Ouka. If things did not go according to plan, they would either fortify their defenses or withdraw. Either option would stand out. Sugiyado’s side still had to be on the lookout for a bluff, but if they had a way to pinpoint locate Ouka or Princess Karin, it was worth using.
“Transmissions intercepted,” reported Asagao. “It’ll take me a while longer to break the encryption, but I can see where the most traffic is. There is a lot going from Area D2 to E5. That’s where Oume is wandering around blindfolded and handcuffed.”
“So they’re freaking out.”
The other side had to be simulating a number of scenarios. If they went to save her, would they get sniped? If they focused their forces there, would they be leaving another area too thinly guarded? What they did know was that Sugiyado’s side was not going to negotiate in the normal way and that they could not carelessly execute Ouka in retaliation since he still had Yukizasa. He had sent Oume back alive to spread hope through the other side. By not sending back a corpse, he proved that that they could get their people back alive if they played their cards right. That would make them want Yukizasa back as well. They could no longer dryly tell themselves those two were a lost cause.
As a result, they would want to keep Ouka alive no matter what.
“The Stonewalls have contacted and collected Oume. What now?”
“Leave them be. Don’t snipe anyone who approaches. They’ll panic even more because they won’t know if this was done as a sign of good will or as part of a dangerous scheme. The danger here isn’t whether or not their guess is right. If they can find an explanation they accept, they can recover from their confusion.”
“Sensei, vehicles are gathering in A2, diagonally across the grounds from E5,” reported Asagao. “That’s near the rear entrance. Now that they have Oume, their formation is collapsing. They probably want to retrieve Ouka before they take any major damage and then try this all again. They hope repeating the process will get them Yukizasa back as well.”
They were quick to react.
At this rate, they would be gone before Oume could say Murakami Michihiko was their enemy.
Now was the time to act.
This was just like the theater of a scam artist.
To keep the negotiations running smoothly, he could not let the Stonewalls regain their cool.
“Understood, Asagao. I’ll deal with it.”
“Princess Karin isn’t the only one there. Just like we have Murakami as a trump card, they have the still-unseen Amamo. Not to mention all their ordinary forces. Be careful, Sensei!”
“Didn’t I teach you times like this are the best opportunities, Asagao?”
He jumped between rooftops and ran down a catwalk-like pathway suspended in the air. He made sure to avoid casting a shadow on the ground below to avoid the troops patrolling there.
Another figure jumped over him on the next level up.
(Is that Murakami Michihiko?)
Sugiyado thought about the young man while their shadows intersected. Murakami was cooperating because he had his own plans, but they had yet to see what those plans were. Why was he still willing to support Princess Karin after she killed his blood relative? There was a missing piece to this puzzle.
(I hope that doesn’t come back to bite us, but I need to focus on Ouka right now.)
He wanted to ignite the city gas and blow every one of them to smithereens for capturing his adorable student, but that was not the ninja way. Combat and killing should be avoided when at all possible.
He traveled along various pipes and pathways to reach the area he wanted.
Area A2 was the safe exit the other side had created.
(This is my chance.)
The enemy had a large force, so if they wanted to leave while protecting their precious hostage, they would have to use several heavy bulletproof cars. And to leave the grounds, they would have to pass through a gate that acted as a bottleneck.
At present, they had 5 bulletproof cars lined up one behind the other with a two-wheeled Swift Foot at the very front and back. Even a tank or attack helicopter would get its ass kicked in a head-on shootout.
But that did not matter here.
Sugiyado silently pulled a Fierce Fang from the back of his short-sleeved dress shirt.
A moment later, he launched it down like a bolt of lightning at the two-wheeled armored vehicle in the lead as it passed through the gate. The mass of composite armor was a cross between giant armor and a large motorcycle – creating something like a slimmed-down steamroller – but it was no more than scrap metal when enough nitrogen gas to pry open a crushed car door stripped the processing unit from its back.
The defeat came so suddenly that the vehicles behind it crashed into it and each other from behind. The gate kept them from driving around, so shifting to reverse was their only option. However…
The mount in the rear was aiming its enormous castle-busting bow around and scanning for the enemy, but it too ceased moving after a dull rumble of destruction.
Now the armored vehicles were blocked in the front and back.
Sugiyado Souha pulled out another air pressure kunai, jumped down from a height of about three stories, and made a swift attack.
He flipped down toward the vehicles.
He felt light as a feather for the few seconds before landing and he used that time to throw several air pressure kunais toward the trapped bulletproof cars.
It was like piercing a piece of cloth with a sewing machine’s needle.
The blades stabbed into the thick hoods and the power of the nitrogen gas forced those wounds wider, sending sinister sparks flying from the engine compartments. However, the engines were not his aim – he was trying to cut the power cables from the batteries. The doors and windows were thick and bulletproof, so motors were used to help with their great weight when opening or closing them. He did not even need to defeat the lower-ranked ninjas. By cutting the power, he could trap them inside those bug cages.
After lightly landing in the snow, Hoozuki and Bara’s voices finally reached him.
“Sensei, we can’t provide covering fire if you do that!!”
“You’re being too reckless. I get wanting to rescue Ouka as soon as possible, but still.”
“What are you talking about?” he replied.
The ninja did not bat an eye after destroying seven 2-wheel armored vehicles and bulletproof cars in quick succession. He seemed to be saying he would take out twice that many if need be.
He turned back the way he had come and peeked in the windows of the vehicles as he passed by. The passengers belatedly aimed their blades and guns his way, but they could not attack him through the thick bulletproof glass even from the inside. He calmly walked by those people who could only sit idly by and watch and he found what he wanted in the third from the front.
The twintails girl sat in the back seat in between two people dressed all in black. Her head was drooping weakly and her eyes seemed to radiate exhaustion, but she had no obvious exterior injuries.
Their side had just the one hostage.
Without a spare, they could not afford to let her die. Even Princess Karin must have felt a need to treat her with care.
But what did that matter?
Sugiyado had to consciously regulate his breathing to suppress the anger flaring up within him.
The Stonewall troops seated on the other side of the thick bulletproof glass looked tense but also somewhat relaxed. The bulletproof door could not be opened from either side, so if they waited around, the heavy firepower of the samurai mounts or a kunoichi like Amamo or Princess Karin would arrive. Their boss could not abandon them when they were looking after the precious hostage. Sugiyado gave them an exasperated look as he pulled a hair spray can and a lighter from his pocket.
He ignited the spray for a simple flamethrower that he first used to roast the glass from the outside. Then he opened a hole in the bottom of the can with the tip of a kunai, releasing the gas that had been stored inside as a compressed liquid at less than -30 degrees. That produced a disconcerting cracking sound.
Bulletproof glass was made to stop a bullet, but it was still glass. It could not survive rapid temperature changes. Even the clear film between the layers had been melted by the heat.
A 10cm diameter hole was enough.
The Stonewall on the right was too shocked to move and the one on the left could not decide whether to aim their gun at Sugiyado or Ouka. Both were soon knocked out by the air pressure kunai that flew in from outside to hit them on the head or chest.
The nitrogen gas was not needed here.
Although he would have “pried open” their flesh and blood had they actually aimed a gun at Ouka.
He called into the car while sticking his hand in through the broken glass to unlock the door. He could not open the heavy door with his arm strength alone, so he stuck an air pressure kunai in the crack and forced it open.
“Well done enduring long enough to give us this chance, Ouka. It’ll all be okay now.”
She did not respond.
When he saw how she only sluggishly turned her head, he wrapped his arms around her. They must have done something to her while she was captured. Sealing off her emotions and locking down her mind may have been the only way to protect her psyche when she had no way to escape.
He had taught her how to do that.
The only other solution was suicide. He wanted to praise her for not going with that option.
“Let’s get out of here.” He held her head to his chest. “We’ll get you somewhere safe. We can think about crushing the Stonewalls after that.”
Sensing a stirring in the driver’s seat, he threw a kunai without even thinking. He did not even look in that direction.
He thought through his options while collecting the kunais lying within the car.
The troops trapped inside their own bulletproof cars could not move, but they would be communicating via radio. Reinforcements would be arriving soon. The 2-wheeled samurai mounts, the ordinary infantry, Amamo, and Princess Karin were all present at the gas turbine power plant, so he could not just hang around forever.
At 5kg, his back felt funny. At 10kg, it exploded with pain.
He cursed himself for being too useless to even carry his own student to safety and he spoke into the mic hidden within his scarf.
“I’ve retrieved Ouka. Hoozuki, you help me carry her out of here. Bara, you look out for enemies and provide covering fire from a distance. I repeat, I have retrieved her. You can reduce Yukizasa’s priority level. Leave her in the vehicle tied up and gagged. Just silence anyone who gets in the way of Hoozuki and Ouka’s escape. But don’t pursue them too far. Only hold them back while keeping yourself safe. I don’t want them taking another hostage.”
“Got it, Sensei.”
“Someone is already headed your way! There are too many flammable objects to get a clear line of fire!!”
He heard a loud metallic clang from overhead. Ninjas usually moved silently, so this was an intentional declaration of war.
Ouka could walk on her own with some guidance, so he wrapped an arm around her and left the bulletproof car. Propping her up was light enough. He was not actually carrying her, so his spine’s restrictions did not matter.
The noise had come from around two stories up, atop the complex arrangement of pipes.
The bright colors of a heavy junihitoe danced in the buffeting wind atop a horizontal steel cylinder thicker than a child was tall.
“You’re a surprisingly earnest person. But you were a little early, insolent fool.”
He detected a sweet aroma through his scarf.
Kunoichis often used poisons and using your nose was not always safe, but he saw through it right away. This was not a poison. It was the oil used in beauty care.
Silently, he let his anger build in his brow.
Princess Karin held a one-handed hammer made entirely out of metal. The blunt weapon allowed even a slender woman to smash through a helmet or bulletproof jacket, so it was more convenient even than a more threatening-looking blade. Plus, this was a ninja weapon with a hollow grip that could be used as a gun.
(Where’s Murakami Michihiko?)
The boy was not foolish enough to look around for him. The young man would likely rattle Princess Karin more than anything, but there was no sign of him rushing out right away.
Princess Karin spun the sinister and heavy ninja weapon like a baton.
“Now, how to interpret this situation? We have already retrieved Oume. I thought for sure she would be wrapped in bombs or something, but no.”
“I’m not going to say I’m done with you. I will crush you – thoroughly – even if you are doing all this for a good cause. I’m through fighting to repay a debt of gratitude. Do not underestimate the power of vengeance, little girl.”
“Oh, how scary.” She hid her mouth behind her sleeve and laughed in a way as elegant as it was sinister. “But we need Yukizasa back too, so I must insist that the negotiations continue.”
“Ouka was your only card. What else can you offer?”
“I have not miscounted. I just need her to work a little longer for me. Do it, Ouka.”
She gave an arrogant command.
The twintails girl was closer to him than anyone as he held his arm around her slender waist.
And a moment later, a dull thud rang out as the Fierce Fang in Sugiyado Souha’s hand slammed mercilessly into the center of his student’s chest.
The trap had failed.
He had defused it in an instant.
Even Princess Karin was taken aback by the speed with which he acted. Not the physical speed, the speed of his decision.
“Oh? That seemed to catch you by surprise, yet you still made up your mind so quickly?”
All emotion had vanished from the instructor’s face.
He would act when it was necessary.
Even if that meant attacking one of his precious students.
Because he knew holding back would only put both their lives at greater risk.
He had attacked over the skintight, bulletproof, and blade-resistant ninja outfit. That had stopped the tip of the blade, but the impact had still reached her, instantly knocking her unconscious. He could not support her limp weight, so he let go of her hips and let her collapse to the thin layer of artificial snow.
A surprise attack.
His guard was too strict for that to work. He had taken the optimal action like a machine.
“Now you’ve done it.”
Yet he shed tears of blood.
Literally. Keeping the emotion from his face worked his facial muscles so hard that the corners of his eyes tore, sending red drops down his cheeks.
The ordinary ninja rules had collapsed.
He did not reject the emotions themselves.
Killer intent erupted from his entire body like a great invisible mass.
“You made me turn a blade on one of my students again, little girl.”
No longer would he limit himself to the optimal level of violence.
Or maybe he never had.
The silver ponytail girl slid up on Countless Calamities, a motorcycle kept silent by the overuse of soundproofing materials.
He did not even look her way.
“Take care of Ouka. Check her inside and out for transmitters and bugs, tie her up and gag her, and then carry her back to Asagao. …Asagao, you heard that, right? Sleep deprivation and exhaustion wouldn’t work in such a short time. Stimulation of light or sound must have been used to rapidly wear her down and steal away her free will. Prepare to break the hypnotism, restore her nutrient levels, and recover her autonomic nerves. Break all of her bonds.”
“What about you, Sensei?” asked his silver-haired student while gently lifting up Ouka.
He had let his emotions show, which was not at all like a ninja or an instructor.
He had pulled a Fierce Fang from his shirt while he glared up at Princess Karin.
“I will destroy everything she’s built up: her castle, her fortune, her dream – everything.”
He had allowed all of this to happen, so he had to end it himself.
8: A Dogfight Sans Aircraft
Sugiyado Souha had taught those four girls everything there was to know about being a ninja.
But he had never neglected their emotions in the process. He had not taught them to throw out those feelings. He had not let them become unfeeling murder machines.
The boy who valued emotions to that extent would of course feel something here.
“Oh, how fun.”
He jumped from the bulletproof car he had destroyed to reach the top of a 2-wheeled samurai mount, and jumped from there to the second-story pipes where Princess Karin waited. He was not supported by the high-polymer water-absorbing gel chemical winches or electric potential elastic belt cylinders found in Bara or Hoozuki’s ninja outfits. He pulled it off with pure martial arts taken to their extreme.
Princess Karin took a step back on a thick pipe running parallel to his and swung her hammer with a side throwing motion.
The tungsten steel nail hidden in the grip burst from within.
The hammer’s weight and centrifugal force flung it with more power than a simple swing of her arm could have managed.
And she had aimed for the moment he landed, making it impossible to dodge.
The ninja boy swung his air pressure kunai to deflect the projectile, but she chose that moment to rush in. All ten of her fingers raced along the hammer’s grip. The movement was as subtle as a stage magician’s trick, but Sugiyado did not overlook it. She had loaded the hollow grip with a powder wrapped in thin paper.
(A blinding powder made from dried jellyfish tentacle!?)
Stingers like that did not fully lose their toxicity when dehydrated, so this was one possible use for them. If she swung her hammer from a few meters away, creating a cloud of toxic stingers too small to see, he would have no way to dodge or defend against it. A powdered attack was not something he could bring down with a swing of a kunai and losing his sight even for a second would mean death at the moment.
He had only one way of preventing her move.
(Make my own move!!)
He stepped forward to reach her before she could swing her arm. She made a last-minute alteration to her hammer’s path to block the kunai aimed for the side of her head.
The two metal weapons crashed together.
The kunai and hammer pushed against each other while they glared at each other from point black range.
A samurai would use a single sword for attack and defense, but ninjas were different. Locking weapons was not enough to stop the flow of time.
Princess Karin’s foot aimed for Sugiyado’s shin, so he pulled that leg back out of the way, releasing their locked weapons. The hammer finally swung enough to scatter the dried jellyfish stingers contained in its hollow grip
But Sugiyado was not about to sit around waiting for that.
He ruptured the thumb-sized pack of nitrogen rapid-foaming agent used by the air pressure kunai to disturb the air in front of him. The dried stingers were no threat if they could not harm the mucous membranes of his eyes, nose, and mouth.
In fact, Princess Karin now had to do something about the stingers being pushed back her way. One always had to pay careful attention to the wind direction when using a toxic cloud.
With a wave of her heavy junihitoe’s large sleeve, she whipped up enough wind to protect her face. It was well done given how little time she had to react, but she had still given Sugiyado more time to move. Instead of forcing himself to run through the toxic cloud of jellyfish stingers, he threw a Fierce Fang toward her center line from a few meters away. He pictured it like jabbing her with a spear.
She had knocked the kunai from the air with her hammer and took a few steps back to put distance between them while she swung her blunt weapon like a baton.
“Hm, not bad. I had assumed you were no more than a pimp who ordered his favorite kittens around, but it seems you can do some things yourself.”
He did not dignify that with a response.
He wasn’t interested in listening to her until he had knocked out those pretty front teeth of hers and her bloody mouth was begging for her life, so he wordlessly readied a Fierce Fang in his right hand.
Nothing signaled the battle resuming.
Without hesitation, they both jumped sideways from the parallel pipes. In other words, into the air. They jumped from foothold to foothold – sometimes to a narrow elevated pathway much like a catwalk, sometimes a concrete roof, and sometimes a bit sticking out from the side of a vertical smokestack. They remained parallel to each other, judging the best timing to target each other.
Sugiyado Souha used his air pressure kunai.
Princess Karin used her hammer equipped with a gun barrel.
Both ninja weapons could be used at close and long range. A moment’s inattention would mean a hit to their vitals, but focusing entirely on that would mean missing their next footing and falling from a great height. It was like a dogfight with death. Their midair interplay of offense and defense was pulled off so smoothly it actually felt odd they had no wings.
And Princess Karin was not Sugiyado’s only enemy.
Her lips produced a bewitching whisper as she spun her hammer like a baton, waiting for the right moment to fire.
“Swift Foot, shoot down the intruder.”
A fearsome attack was launched up from a 2-wheel armored vehicle that looked like a cross between a slimmed-down steamroller and an armored warrior. The weapon resembled a modern bow, but it was actually a cross between a rapid-vibration spear with an ultra-flexible bow made from the same special stainless steel used in the springs for skyscraper earthquake countermeasures. The heavy weapon was capable of tearing through a tank or a 6-legged mobile fortress. Sugiyado performed a flip at the last second and saw the thick crane he had been using for footing partially torn away.
The destructive power rivaled a ship-mounted railgun.
Buffeted by the resultant winds, he veered away from his intended landing point, so Princess Karin directed the sinister hollow grip of her hammer his way from her own footing.
When had she even reloaded it?
The lit fuse gave off a pale orange light reminiscent of a lit cigarette. There was no trigger, so she only had to shove it into the hole on the side of the grip to light the gunpowder within.
(Here it comes!!)
He had no bulletproof equipment, so a direct hit from a ship’s artillery or an ordinary bullet would leave him just as dead. Still spinning through the air, he spread his legs to shift his center of gravity and take more unpredictable evasive action.
“Swift Foot, fire a second round.”
More firepower was launched from the snowy ground, but not to destroy Sugiyado or his next footing.
(The air. Will that change the bullet’s path!?)
The light gunshot was nearly drowned out by the larger blast from the ground. The metal grip had been hollowed out to act as a matchlock gun barrel. The bullet was tiny, but that allowed the wind to more easily alter its path and it pursued Sugiyado with a serpentine movement. Mechanical rifling would have given it too stable a trajectory. This trick could not be replicated with a cutting-edge assault rifle or anti-materiel rifle.
Still hanging in the air, the ninja swung his kunai.
He just barely managed to deflect the deadly bullet, but he was the one to frown when he landed on some metal reinforced by the pieces surrounding it like a jungle gym. This was exactly what Princess Karin had wanted. He had let her speed influence him. Even though he knew he could not keep up with cutting-edge equipment once he got used to the old-fashioned matchlock.
She said something while jumping to her next footing. Based on the movement of her lips, she said, “That’s one.”
At this rate, she would gradually throw off his senses until she could finally bring him down.
He needed to eliminate the teamwork between ground and air.
As he jumped around to rise from the third story to the fourth story, he subtly altered what kind of footing he chose. This gas turbine power plant was very obviously an away game flooded with enemies for him, but they could not afford to destroy a piece of their home infrastructure. He used the spacious power plant’s most dangerous flammable objects as a shield.
(I can choose areas where the path of the pipes would guide the secondary explosions toward her. She’s their temporary master and only princess. That should weigh heavier on the scales than just the facility.)
“Swift Foot, fire a third round.”
“What, you think I would fear for my own life after setting foot on the battlefield? Frankly, I am offended you thought me a mere observer here to enjoy the show. Fire.”
He did not even have time to respond to her.
Cylindrical containers larger than school classrooms were lined up in a row. Those suction vessels took in air and mixed that with the city gas pumped in through pipes in order to produce the optimal flammability for use in industrial power generation. If they ruptured, they would spew toxic gas and a single spark of static would cause an immediate-
Sugiyado had leaped into the air just beforehand, so the blast slammed into him and unnaturally extended his jump. The incredible heat prickled at his skin like needles and the noise left his ears numb.
At a fourth story height, he tucked his arms in and extended his legs to spin like a figure skater. He used the spin to stabilize his balance like a gyroscope.
“You should take this as a compliment, insolent fool.”
Meanwhile, Princess Karin remained on the same footing and spun her metal hammer like a baton. She did not try to pursue him. Was she going to throw the tungsten steel? Whatever she had planned, she was sticking to long-range attacks to cooperate with the gunner on the ground to hit him with the crossfire.
In other words…
“Because I have deemed the damage to this critical infrastructure a price worth paying for your defeat.”
She was not going to let this continue.
Now that she had guided him where she wanted, she would finish him off. The execution phase had begun.
But Sugiyado had never planned to let this last all that long either.
This was an away game for him.
He rapidly spun himself to secure the centrifugal force to throw a kunai like the hammer throw. Instead of aiming for Princess Karin at the same height as him, he targeted the deadly 2-wheeled Swift Foot mount on the ground. The kunai hit the armored arm at the shoulder joint.
It stabbed in.
The blade was forced open by the nitrogen, tearing the arm apart from within using 15 tons of force.
The weapon still had its bow at the ready, so what happened if its aim was thrown off and its finger slipped from the bowstring?
“Ha ha!! Won’t be taken out so easily, will you!?”
The weapon’s shifted aim moved toward Princess Karin. Her junihitoe fluttered around as she swung her hammer to the side and moved to a different piece of footing. She demonstrated the impressive skill needed to dodge the all-destroying ultra-heavy metal arrow while also accurately sending out a tungsten steel nail, but Sugiyado had altered his spin when he reached out his arm to throw the kunai. The thick nail shot right past his face and then his sense of speed returned to normal.
Princess Karin was about four stories up after landing on the metal latticework resembling a jungle gym that surrounded and reinforced a round smokestack.
Sugiyado landed one step down on the end of a steel beam twisted by the Swift Foot’s attack.
They had both made irregular landings, so they were off balance. There would be no better chance to end this.
They were past trading words.
No more tricks either.
Sugiyado Souha’s Fierce Fang left his hand at about the time the flintlock bullet was fired from Princess Karin’s hammer.
The two intersected along the straight line path between the two of them.
Scorching pain filled Sugiyado’s right shoulder and he nearly fell from his temporary footing.
Princess Karin grinned.
Still smiling, she wobbled to the side from the hit to the center of her chest.
She had subtly shifted her position at the last second. He had aimed for her solar plexus to knock her unconscious, yet she had taken it to her chest, which was even more risky. Had she wanted to take the blow where she had the greatest bulletproofing?
The jungle gym of a reinforcing lattice proved to be a poor choice. She was unable to recover her balance and fell limply out into empty air.
Sugiyado thought for just a moment and then threw another kunai. This time, he targeted the excess fabric of her heavy junihitoe. The blade pierced through and stabbed into the metal wall to pin her in the air, averting the plummet to her death.
“This is over.”
He had been hit in the right shoulder, but the bullet had only grazed the surface. The bone and nerves were undamaged, so he could still fight.
“Now, it’s time to beg for your life. Take too long and your own precious clothing will strangle you. Struggle too much and you’ll dislodge the kunai and fall.”
But he did not actually have a good reason to care so much about defeating her. His promise with the old man had been about Murakami Michihiko who was alive and he had retrieved Ouka.
Why was he doing this?
Because if he kept the rest of the enemies focused on her, Ouka and the others could escape safely.
The soldiers and 2-wheeled mounts on the ground were locked onto him but could not fire. She had ordered her people to fire with no regard for what would happen to the gas turbine power plant, but they could not actually fire on their own master without direct instructions from her. She was a princess and that status meant something. Killing her could get their entire family slaughtered as punishment.
She was plotting something in this northern land, but he did not need to know the details. He had revealed the secret of the new power source using the underground linear motor train network. He could wait for Ouka to recover and then destroy their Achilles heel. They already knew how to defeat Yukizasa, Oume, and Princess Karin. They had the advantage.
Or so he thought.
(Where’s Murakami Michihiko?)
This looked like illogical revenge.
He could not blame anyone for seeing it that way. And there had to be some kind of deep bond between Murakami Michihiko and Princess Karin. Enough to overcome their differences in ninja school and in position – one an inspector from Edo and the other leader of the Stonewalls. Sugiyado had never expected the young man to follow his instructions. Or more accurately, to only follow his instructions. No matter what he said, he would have second thoughts once he saw Princess Karin’s stronghold about to fall. He might not outright betray Sugiyado, but he would make some irregular action that trip Sugiyado up. And Sugiyado had expected that display of humanity would distract and rattle Princess Karin by stirring up some feelings inside her.
But after all this, nothing had happened.
Why wasn’t Murakami Michihiko panicking?
He should have been ready to protect her with his own life at this point.
He had defeated and restrained their boss, so why wasn’t Amamo doing anything? That kunoichi was powerful enough to defeat Ouka, but she had yet to make an appearance. Holding something in reserve should have been meaningless when their big boss was about to be defeated. If it was true Princess Karin had poisoned her father to steal his authority as domain lord, then the collapse of her plan would get them all judged as traitors even if they surrendered. That would mean death for their entire family. He doubted Amamo would sit idly by and let that happen.
What could this mean?
“It can’t be…”
Just then, something slammed hard into his back.
A bullet had been fired into the very center of his back by a matchlock weapon with its power intentionally kept low. But this shot had not come from the surface. It had clearly arrived horizontally from the same height.
He could not breathe.
His spine was damaged enough already and it cried in protest over something other than the weight limit.
(Fired from a hammer just like Princess Karin’s!?)
This had caught him completely by surprise.
He had failed to respond in time.
His survival was nothing he had done intentionally; it was pure coincidence. The kunais hidden in the back of his short-sleeved dress shirt had just so happened to function as metal armor.
He was knocked off balance, but before his feet fully slipped from under him, he kicked off the bent and twisted steel beam to jump.
He heard the metallic clang of a strike from the hammer itself. His assailant had pounded hard on the footing he had just vacated. Had he been a moment slower, the assassin’s meteoric leap would have split his head open.
He brought his feet together to land atop a lightning rod and easily turned around.
That hammer was the same ninja weapon used by Princess Karin.
And the final kunoichi had never made an appearance before this.
There was only one conclusion.
There was another.
He saw a kunoichi in a junihitoe who looked identical to Princess Karin!
He did not know how deep the masquerade went. It could have been special makeup, or it could have been plastic surgery. Either way, the photo found on New Sapporo Castle’s classified server must have been replaced with someone else’s for security purposes.
At any rate, he made a split-second decision.
He adjusted his grip on his kunai.
“Was that a body double and you’re the real Princess Karin!?”
“Does it really matter?”
She twirled the hammer like a baton. Every little mannerism was the same, making it all very confusing.
“I have mastered Amamo’s techniques and Amamo has learned how to rule in my place, so either one of us can achieve the same results. Which one of us is Princess Karin and which one is Amamo is a mere triviality to us.”
That was when Sugiyado threw his air pressure kunai.
The 20-year-old in a junihitoe prepared to knock it from the air with her hammer, but then something unexpected happened.
Sparks flew further out in front of her.
A young man had moved between them in midair and knocked the kunai down with a long, silver-shining wind instrument.
This may have been the first time Sugiyado saw true surprise on the junihitoe woman’s face.
“Murakami, you dumbass!”
“What’s this, Princess Karin? I thought you always spoke like a proper lady in front of him.”
Sugiyado smiled a little. His attack had been blocked, but things were working out in his favor. The unverified information from Oume must have reached her, but actually seeing the young man was much more of a shock.
And in contrast…
The young man had a bitter look on his face.
He squeezed the words out toward Sugiyado like he was squeezing out his own blood.
However Sugiyado felt on the inside, his strategy required him to sneer at the young man here.
“How sweet. With bonds like that, I’m certain this is the real Princess Karin.”
Murakami Michihiko was not fully taking her side. He had saved her without thinking when he saw a blade headed her way, but he also knew what she had done.
(We each had a trick up our sleeve, but Murakami and Amamo canceled each other out.)
He could have ended up in a situation where he did not know which was the real one. Or they could have worked together like identical twins. They would have had several troublesome options available, so he was glad he had avoided them.
Who was an enemy and who was an ally?
The direction blades were pointed on the surface was a trivial matter in the ninja world. Sugiyado Souha had some feelings he kept on the inside here.
(This worked out well for me. You did a good job, Michihiko. I can see why that old man cared so much for you.)
A hesitant blade was a weak blade.
There had always been a chance that metal flute would be aimed at Sugiyado by the time this was over, but he had nothing to fear if he knew it was possible. He could give up on that young man’s help as long as he kept in mind the risk of an attack from an unexpected angle. Sugiyado already expected nothing from him while Princess Karin held onto some hope there, so they viewed the board and the pieces differently. She would never reach victory if she continued to fear a nonexistent ghost piece.
In other words…
(This is my chance!!)
Sugiyado had worked through a lot in his head, but very little actual time had passed.
He was only resting his feet atop a lightning rod, so he could not stay for long.
He aimed for the slight opening created in Princess Karin by the surprise appearance of Murakami Michihiko. He pictured it like hitting the baseball between two defensive players. Either one could catch it by reaching out their hand, but it passed through a psychological midpoint where they were both unsure if they should go for it or let the other go for it, ultimately just watching it fly by.
Also, Murakami Michihiko was in midair without any footing. He could not stay there for long and blocking that heavy attack had knocked him off balance.
“Ohhh!!” roared Sugiyado.
“Move, Murakami!!” shouted Princess Karin.
The boy spread his arms like wings with a kunai in each hand, but instead of throwing them, he made a powerful leap. He aimed for Murakami Michihiko who had his hands full with the one attack. He was imbalanced in midair and Sugiyado Souha mercilessly placed his foot on his gut.
It was temporary.
It would not last.
But he was close enough to attack Princess Karin and with no one to get in the way this time. He would defeat her and end this conflict in New Sapporo Domain!!
However, Princess Karin had to be equally aware how crucial this moment was. It did not matter if they were the home team or away team or if they were a group or an individual. At this moment, only their skill as ninjas would determine their fate and it would all fall apart if Princess Karin fell. Amamo had already been defeated, so that body double could not rule in her place afterwards.
Which meant she would use everything she had available to her.
She held the hammer up to her mouth like a microphone and used the muzzle to vibrate her own voice at a set frequency.
More than an explosive boom, the air screamed with a shockwave. Then the entire world was twisted around. No, the entire gas turbine power plant was struck from below and all the structures within – the smokestacks, the turbine building, etc. – began to collapse one after another.
The earth swelled up like it was a living creature.
Was this the “terrain effect” that Amamo specialized in and Princess Karin had learned from her?
(This isn’t just an artificial earthquake caused by stressing the crust with explosives.)
This was their secret technique which had been described as a dragon hidden in the earth. This was the ninja technique that had defeated Elite Ninjas Ouka and Hoozuki.
He heard a voice.
It belonged to Murakami Michihiko who had said he was going to defeat Princess Karin, ended up protecting her at the last second, and then became a path for his ally to step on in order to cut her down.
None of that meant he was without courage.
Someone without that would never hesitate and struggle like he had.
“The visible single-molecule magnets are only the ignition! They’re actually used to move enough of the bedrock to compress the underground water!!”
He had worried, hesitated, agonized, and struggled, but he had finally gotten the words out.
He might as well have been telling Sugiyado to survive and stop the princess.
Sugiyado would have to take on that task. The consistency of the samurai spirit was found nowhere in the ninja world. Sugiyado Souha was familiar with a much messier form of sincerity, but that messiness was what made it so genuine.
(I see. So it’s the same as a diesel engine. The immense pressure on the underground water causes it to rapidly heat and the steam pushes up at the ground!!)
Dirt swelled up from the ground like a tower or great serpent more than 10m tall, but the very tip had latched onto one of the 2-wheeled mounts.
The rapid-vibration spear attached to the great bow was brought to the same height as Sugiyado.
He was stepping on Murakami Michihiko in midair to bring himself in striking range of Princess Karin. Jumping back after all that would be the height of folly. For one thing, the mount’s weapon was a projectile, so more distance would mean nothing in midair with no cover to hide behind.
“Go!! Stop the princess!!”
He took another step.
He kicked off of Murakami Michihiko’s stomach to leap toward Princess Karin who was also in midair. He pictured it like slamming his shoulder at the lower stomach to lift her up. He was already too close even for a kunai.
But at this point, he doubted he could stop the Swift Foot from attacking even if he used Princess Karin as a shield.
He had just one aim.
His shoulder hit.
He slammed into the arms she had crossed to protect her internal organs.
Even she groaned from that and they were both flung out into the air. The momentum of his tackle caused him to spin vertically, altering the vector of his curving path.
Then the mass of tungsten steel was launched from the special stainless steel ultra-flexible bow. A direct hit from that could pierce the armor of the Empire’s six-legged mobile fortresses, but was nothing to fear if the targeting could not keep up. And bows all shared a certain trait: once they were used, it took some time to ready the next shot. They could not pull off machinegun-style rapid fire.
The shockwave pushed tumbling Sugiyado and Princess Karin’s paths apart.
But for ninjas who used projectiles, being too close meant greater risk. The great tension of a Western duel ruled the area.
“This isn’t over!!”
Princess Karin had been thrown out into the air at three or four stories up, but she had not lost the will to fight. Her junihitoe flew as she used the muzzle of her hammer like a microphone to convert her voice into ultrasonic waves.
That action gave a special command.
“Lock onto the designated target and attack, Tsuchigumo!!”
But they were up in the air.
Even if she could control the earth like a living creature, there would be a time lag before it reached them here.
That gave him time.
“New Sapporo Domain Substitute Lord Princess Karin.”
Sugiyado Souha had been oriented upside down, but he lightly stepped on some footing.
He used the side of a tall smokestack that had been collapsed when the ground swelled up.
He gathered strength in his knees using the springs that took the place of his ligaments and he readied a Fierce Fang once more.
And he spoke.
He launched himself like an artillery shell and crashed into Princess Karin for a midair tackle.
While striking her with the bottom of his kunai’s grip.
Princess Karin had been fully equipped as a kunoichi. And even if she was on the front line, she was still the domain’s princess. Below the thick junihitoe, she had to be wearing carbon nanotube bulletproof tights just in case. But the impact still reached her even if she did not bleed.
Amamo truly had learned the exact same techniques as Princess Karin to act as her body double.
At the last moment, Amamo had moved to protect her stomach.
The same happened here.
Princess Karin had moved to protect her internal organs, so Sugiyado had instead aimed for the side of her neck. Because even with full-body bulletproof tights, the neck was still hard to defend.
As well-trained as she was, she had preserved the slenderness of a sheltered young maiden so she could wield martial arts and sex appeal simultaneously. The muscles in her neck were not enough to fully brace against the impact.
Then they fell.
The two of them crashed into a few pipes along the way, but they finally hit the thin layer of artificial snow covering the surface.
The impact knocked Sugiyado’s breath from his lungs.
The gas turbine power plant appeared to reach its limit at the same time. The broken pipes and turbine building exploded one after another and the entire place was soon wrapped in smoke and flame. He was not immediately shredded by the Swift Foots scanning the area because those obstacles obstructed their cameras and sensors. The heat and metal powder would be damaging the permeation sensors as well.
His spine protested.
He tried to get up, but his body refused to move, like a gear was jammed.
(I may have pushed myself too hard.)
He had known this was how the ninja world worked, but he had done it anyway the instant he saw what had happened to Ouka. He still could not get used to seeing his allies hurt. He could no longer get after those four for what they did last time. He was starting to think his own powerful emotions had infected them without him noticing.
He heard some weak laughter from nearby.
Princess Karin had been caught on a waterproof sheet where she swayed in midair, but the impact still would have been considerable. She lacked his spine handicap, but it would still be a bit before she could get up.
“Is that all you’ve got? Well, it was decently entertaining at least, insolent fool.”
“Glad to hear it.”
“But you misread the big picture. We win this one.”
“What were you even trying to do in this northern land? You secured largescale power generation with the underground linear motor train network and you used that to bring the Hokkaido Area’s defense system back online…but that’s a means, not an end.”
She did not answer him.
She knew her death was close and she knew she had no future, but she still kept her secrets. She had not only learned just enough to fill the role. She was a true ninja leader of the Stonewalls.
Just like former Hidden One Sugiyado Souha who led his four students.
(Is it finally over?)
Sugiyado sighed while collapsed on the power plant’s snowy road.
Even with the many explosions erupting from the gas turbine power plant itself, he would be found by the troops or Swift Foots if he stayed here. And even if they left him there, the flames and smoke would reach him. At this point, there no miracle that would allow him to escape unscathed.
He was glad they were safe. That much he was proud of. His own life had hit a dead end, but he had left his mark on the world. He could let his students handle the rest.
Hearing someone stepping on the shallow snow, he looked over from the ground.
He did not interpret this as help having arrived.
“If you want Princess Karin, then take her with you. That’s what you came here to do, isn’t it?”
“Are you sure?”
“I had two objectives: repay that old man and rescue Ouka. Whatever Princess Karin’s plan was, I ended it here. If you two disappear now, it should make some waves inside the castle, but it won’t bring any more chaos to New Sapporo Domain and the Hokkaido Area.”
That man’s priorities never changed, but he could not help but hesitate. Sugiyado had to smile. That was dangerous thing for a ninja, but it made him a good person. It reminded him of the old man who had looked after him in the special prison despite having no logical reason to do so.
Murakami Michihiko gently picked up the junihitoe princess while she swayed in the waterproof sheet like a hammock and then he bowed.
Without a sound, the ninja turned away from Sugiyado and vanished.
Before long, Sugiyado heard a heavy mechanical clanking through the smoke. A Swift Foot’s cameras or sensors must have detected him. There was nothing at all he could do.
(Did that repay you in some small way, old man?)
He started to shut his eyes on the snowy ground.
But he stopped when he heard a piercing roar of destruction. He knew that was the result of the giant Swift Foot’s composite armor being sliced through and its slimmed-down steamroller body being chopped apart, but he still nearly lost himself in the beauty of the music it created.
Someone had dropped from above and sliced vertically through the machine.
The two halves of the silhouette shifted out of place before fully collapsing.
(That was a military sword that uses an arc discharge to pierce composite armor.)
That was an unusual weapon for a ninja.
It was not even Shogunate technology. It had been given a Japanese design to match the kunoichi outfit – or maybe it had the kind of “Western” design that only existed in this country, like a visual version of wasei-eigo – but that “move in close and hit them with a powerful heat source” style of military technology was the specialty of the Kingdom.
“Oh? Giving up already, instructor? Yet you insist on saving others and keeping them in this world whether they like it or not.”
He recognized the voice.
It did not belong to Ouka, Bara, Hoozuki, or Asagao.
This was another kunoichi who had possessed extraordinary power.
Her ninja outfit resembled a sleeveless kimono, but the sides were left wide open, making it look something like a surgical gown. Her long black hair had two distinctive bits tied to on either side of her head. She had a body as curvy as Bara’s, but her sex appeal was so decadent it seemed to be rotting.
In other words…
If you want to read more chapters, please visit AllNovelBook.com to experience faster update speed. You can also log in to your account there.