Wrath of the Shadow

Discussion in 'THREAD ARCHIVES' started by Volatile, Jan 13, 2010.

  1. Another warm Miami night and the clubs were packed. Eastern Fire was one of the hottest clubs on that strip and tonight was no different. Its crowds were large and its music was banging. This four story building housed the largest gathering of Chinese Americans in Miami every Friday and Saturday. The other clubs were just as "Race Specific" as Eastern Fire, catering mostly to whoever owned and ran the club. For E.F it was the Chinese. The rumors were that the Triads actually ran it as a front for illegal trafficking of prostitutes smuggled in from China and Thailand. The fourth floor was where the Triads were normally seen headed to. The first two floors of the club sported three dance floors, four bars, and thirteen different VIP rooms.

    Up on the fourth floor a couple of stocky Chinese guards in suits paced the hallways. The Monitoring Room at the western end held eight different monitors checking on every hallway of that floor and the guard watching them was on his last dose of caffeine. As his eyes slowly fell shut, the camera overlooking the 1st eastern hallway almost on cue with the guard passing out, lost signal and was showing "No Video" on the screen. <?xml:namespace prefix = o ns = "urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:office" /><o:p></o:p>

    <o:p></o:p>
    The lights in the hallway itself had also just gone out and the guard passing buy quickly became alert, reaching his chubby fingers around his .45 and reluctantly stepping into the pitch black hallway. A few steps in and the guard quickly turned back around and began walking towards the main hallway. The second his foot stepped out of the shadow, a long black blade silently hovered across his neck. In the next instant, the blade disappeared; slicing into the guard’s esophagus and a hand quickly reached out and covered his mouth, pulling him into the shadows as if he were swallowed whole. Seconds later the two cameras overlooking the main hallway suddenly went out and the lights shortly following. Two other guards at the end of the main hallway who were standing in front of two large wooden doors glanced at each other, shrugged, then the moment they turned back to face the hallway they were cut down in two masterful sword strokes. <o:p></o:p>
    <o:p></o:p>
    Voices from inside the two large wooden doors frantically yelling at each other trying to figure out what was going on outside. The left door swung open hard and a man stood in the door way, pistol outstretched and primed to fire. He looked left, then right, and then stepped further out into the main hallway. Then after swift and subtle slicing sound, the man's head slid off his shoulders as if it were never attached in the first place. A barrage of gunfire ripped through the doorway out towards the hall and then a sudden hush of silence as all the men inside stopped firing in order to hear if they had hit their attacker. Suddenly three shurikens came flying into the room, piercing the forehead of one, the throat of another and the eye of the third closest man in the door. Another flew in and hit the main light above the long conference table, dimming the light in the room.<o:p></o:p>
    <o:p></o:p>
    Three other men stood backed against the far wall in what was left of the light in the room. The men on the flanks of the middle man cocked their MP5's before both barrels of the semi-auto rifles fell off, with no sound of ever being cut. Then the horrifying sound of a chain whirling around in the dark filled all three men with terror. The man on the left tried running for the door but was stopped dead in his tracks, literally. His body fell over lopsided as his left leg practically popped right off from the thigh down and his head soon followed before the rest of his body even hit the ground. The second man just fell to his knees mumbling a prayer to himself before finding the chain being flung around his neck, then him being yanked into the darkness. The sound of his neck breaking was all that was heard afterwards. <o:p></o:p>
    <o:p></o:p>
    The final man, shaking in his cheap Armani knock off suit, nearly was crying as much as he was sweating. <o:p></o:p>
    <o:p></o:p>
    "S-s-s-so it is y-you...The Triads know y-y-y-your after them. You're no hero you know that? All the families; Yakuza and the Italians included a-a-are all out for you. You c-c-can't win this!" his stuttered. Seconds later a hand shot out of the dark and in three swift motions, the assassin attacked three different pressure points. The man started to convulse before blood started seeping out of his nose, ears, and eyes...then fell to the limp to the ground. There was a moment of silence before a cold and steady voice broke through the darkness.<o:p></o:p>
    <o:p></o:p>
    "There is no hero. There is no 'winning'. There is only...death"<o:p></o:p>
     
  2. (Musical Ambience: http://www.newgrounds.com/audio/listen/296389 )

    "What the fuck happened last night? Will someone at least tell me that?" Agent Macintyre snarled at his fellow FBI agents as they walked into the boardroom of the FBI branch office. "I've got a whole mess of Triad dead, including Tier One personalities, and our informant who I promised a new life in Montana to."

    "We're trying to find out exactly what is happening. Whoever has been doing these hits has been cleaner than any professionals we know of." Agent Northrup replied, chewing on a toothpick. "This guy is cleaner than any of the hitmen on our most wanted list. Not even 'La Fantasma' is this clean and he was trained by KGB back in the eighties." Nick and the other agents took their seats, paperwork handed out and pens clicking.

    "I'm going to guess that the MO is the same here. Bladed implements, slit throats, power outages..." Nick started, another agent starting a projector. It showed the carnage that used to be Eastern Fire's administrative offices. Bodies were still being found by Miami Dade county Sherrif's department personnel.

    "I checked with our Tac Team leader. Rockhound has never seen anything like it. Spetsnaz is supposed to be notorious with knives but this here is like nothing he's seen before." Agent Brown stated. Rockhound, like Nick, was ex-Rangers. He was older, having seen action in Grenada, Panama, and Iraq before retiring in '92.

    "MS-13* isn't this precise and they use machetes. Deckert?" Another agent stood up.

    "The ME confirmed that the blade used here is not a machete." Agent Deckert took the projector's remote and clicked it, a pair of images popping up. Both showed severed limbs. "The image on the left came from an MS-13 related slaughter two years ago. The machetes used were found a mile away in a burned out warehouse and matched to the crime. The image on the right is from a slaughter at an Atlantic City casino owned by the Gambino family. These cuts were very clean, very precise, almost like they were done with a laser."

    "The Army's METHEL** uses a vehicle the size of a Bradley IFV and has to be supported by two Five Tons and three Humm Vees. Unless maybe we're dealing with, I don't know, a Terminator." Nick countered. "I need a concrete theory."

    "There are two weapons I know of that are capable of making clean cuts like this." Agent Knowles, the eldest of the agents in the room. He stood up, clearing his throat. "The Gladius Espaniolenses is one such weapon, the favored tool of the Roman Legionnare. It could hack a limb clean off or partialy decapitate a man. Hence why it was considered the top sword of the era."

    "And the other weapon?"

    "The Katana, although I'd surmise perhaps a wakezashi would be most likely considering the need for stealth." Nick blinked a few times then dumped his coffee out into a potted plant.

    "I doubt the higherups in Washington want me to tell them that we're dealing with a whackjob that thinks he's a legionnare." Nick finally said. "Now tell me why a ninja would be the more likely of the two." Knowles took the remote from Deckert and clicked through images from the crime scene. The image Knowles settled on showed a man who had bled out of his nose, ears, and eyes.

    "The ME found bruising at three pressure points. Now I've gone through quite a lot in my life and I can say for sure that the only person capable of killing a man through pressure points alone would have to be a ninja."

    "You've seen one up close?"

    "I can't say for certain, but I could swear the grounds keeper at Okinawa when I was stationed there back in 'sixty one may have been one." A few agents started laughing. Nick called them to silence.

    "Knowles, are there victims with similar bruise patterns from the other crime scenes like last nights?" he asked. Knowles nodded.

    "Mafia bosses had similar bruise patterns at other crime scenes. Same MO on all the underlings too. This is perhaps the first subordinate we've found to have this bruise pattern." Nick got up and looked at the pictures on the projector screen.

    "An assassin with no known affiliations targetting Yakuza, Triad, and Mafia alike, clean cuts, bizarre pressure point executions... Knowles, we're going with your theory."

    "Nick, there has to be another theory." Deckert started.

    "This one has weight behind it. Now I want a warning sent out to all our informants, not just here in Miami-Dade. Everywhere. Tell Rockhound he's to have Team 1 and Team 2 on Ready Alert at all times. I want County to have their own teams ready to roll too. I don't care how we do it, I want this guy IN OUR CUSTODY." This is my case and he is not going to fuck it up. Nick didn't add. The agents agreed with him then went back to analyzing the data acquired from the previous night's scene.



    *MS-13: Mara Salvatruchas. South American based gang prominent in the United States.
    *METHEL: Mobile High Intensity Laser. While the system works it costs upwards of US$30,000 to fire a single shot.
     
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mso-padding-alt:0in 5.4pt 0in 5.4pt; mso-para-margin-top:0in; mso-para-margin-right:0in; mso-para-margin-bottom:10.0pt; mso-para-margin-left:0in; line-height:115%; mso-pagination:widow-orphan; font-size:11.0pt; font-family:"Calibri","sans-serif"; mso-ascii-font-family:Calibri; mso-ascii-theme-font:minor-latin; mso-fareast-font-family:"Times New Roman"; mso-fareast-theme-font:minor-fareast; mso-hansi-font-family:Calibri; mso-hansi-theme-font:minor-latin;} </style> <![endif]--> Gabriel’s eyes rolled in their sockets as the white waves of smoke wafted in front of his face. He waved a hand in front of his face and expelled the remaining smoke into the face of Arnnie baltang.<o:p></o:p>

    Arnold was a young Irish boy from a rundown family in middle Miami. He was solider that Gabriel kept on a short leash, treated him more like a lapdog to be precise. Arnnie shifted awkwardly and brushed the hair out his eyes. “And now the sheriffs running all over the place with his head cut off looking for whoever could have done this. I think that means that you’re off the hook though, they know that this isn’t your style G.G.” Arnnie ran a finger underneath his nose, sniffing with an unnerving satisfaction. “still…that doesn’t stop every tan and yellow motha-fuck under the Miami sun from fingering you like the first freshman girl at a rush party. The Triads are out for blood and their just mad enough to take it from the first bastard that gets in their way. Speaking of, you have that meeting with Mr. Zhou to discuss the girls. Turns out they were on the boat that was late out of Dalian.”<o:p></o:p></pre>
    <o:p> </o:p></pre>
    Gabriel took another long drag and let the smoke billow out into the open air, hand rolled cigars really were one of the finest gifts life had to offer. He once again hastily waved away the milky cloud and addressed Arnnie for the first time all morning. “Arnold are you implying that I should worry?” Gabriel’s eyes rolled over Arnnie gleaming with sheer neutrality.<o:p></o:p></pre>
    <o:p> </o:p></pre>
    Arnnie shook his suit. “N..nn. No, Mr. Gallo.”<o:p></o:p></pre>
    <o:p> </o:p></pre>
    “And why the fuck not Arnnie? I need a man on my side whose going to be out for my best interests, don’t I? Of course I should be worried, these Chinese are fuckin nuts! I’m going to need at least another man and we’re both going to have to go with heat up to our teeth for this meeting.” Gabreil’s tone was harsh and demeaning. “Go see Ando and get the car ready for us.” Gabreil slapped Arnnie once on the cheek, the way an older relative does, just once, and unnecessarily hard. <o:p></o:p></pre>
    <o:p> </o:p></pre>
    Gabreil got up from his wicker chair and stretched his long arms into the summer sky. He snuffed out his cigar and laid it gentley inside the glass ash tray on the patio table. Gabriel yawned as he pulled out his cell phone and dialed 4 on his speed dial. He wedged the phone between his face and his shoulder and wait for the pick up.<o:p></o:p></pre>
    <o:p> </o:p></pre>
    “Mr. Gallo, how are we doing this evening?” The voice was cold and coy, almost unfamiliar every time.<o:p></o:p></pre>
    “I’m fine mr. Mash, just fine. I’m going to stop by later today, I’m intending to remove some of our frozen friends. I need to make sure they work before I sell the Indonesian anything and I can’t personally insure. How does that sound?” Gabreil said, letting the words fall out of his mouth like a practiced speech.<o:p></o:p></pre>
    <o:p> </o:p></pre>
    “Fine, just fine Mr. Gallo. I look forward to seeing you.” The voice reported, with all of its ghostly charm.<o:p></o:p></pre>
    *click*<o:p></o:p></pre>
    <o:p></o:p></pre>
    Gabriel took little notice of the fact that he was alone, not even Mary Ellen was at the compound today, literally not a soul was to be found. He took no time for leisure and headed immediately to his closet. In a matter of minutes he’d changed, a black blazer and white collar was all any man needed to look like heaven sent as far as Gabriel was concerned. Two shoulder holsters, three hidden pockets, one taser supplied by your truly, and a boot knife carefully tucked into his dress socks. He craked his neck a few times in the mirror and practiced his stare down, reminiscing of his ruggedly handsome days on the streets of Miami. Lately it seemed as though all of the pleasurable company in Miami couldn’t give him his old eyes back, or the sheen and style of his hair when he was twenty. <o:p></o:p></pre>
    <o:p> </o:p></pre>
    These thoughts crept into Gabriel’s brain only for an instant, for it wasn’t long after changing that Gabriel nestled into the driver seat of his Ford Mustang and made his way across town to a small unmarked warehouse. The grass outside was gree, the sky above was blue. The birds were softly calling to one another from tree to tree. It was a perfect day to pick up guns.<o:p></o:p></pre>
    <o:p> </o:p></pre>
    Gabriel pushed his way through the two steel doors and into the cold storage facility. Crates littered the entire floor of the building. Some cages and freezers dotted the second and third levels. “Mr. Marsh I’ve arrived for my shopping spree.” Gabriel shouted, the harsh words bouncing off the walls like a super ball down a flight of stairs.<o:p></o:p></pre>
    <o:p> </o:p></pre>
    “of course Mr. Gallo” The cold voice said, it’s only echo from the wall in front of Gabriel. “I believe what you are looking for is up here.”<o:p></o:p></pre>
    <o:p> </o:p></pre>
    Mr. Mash was gabriel’s safety net. So far as Gabe could tell he had no life save watching after shipments that needed to be stalled for a month or two. Gabriel paid him lavishly for his time and yet the man seemed to take no interest in it. Gabriel was sure the money went somewhere, but he had no idea where Gabriel even lived, and he liked it that way. There is security in anonymity after all. <o:p></o:p></pre>
    <o:p> </o:p></pre>
    The tall lean man waved to Gabriel from the stairwell at the back of the labyrinth of crates. A blood stained white long sleeve shirt and khaki pants draped from his figure. His dark eyes were masked with a purple tinted prescription pair of bifocals and his hair was nowhere to be seen. His nose was sharp and narrow and his smile was lithe and mischievous. He showed Gabriel to a freezer parked in the middle of the second floor. Mr. Mash carefully slid the key into the lock and gave the door a good yank. There in all there magnificent glory were the firearms that Sontoso, the Indonesian had ordered.Gabriel smiled as his outstretched hand wrapped around the stock of Benelli M4 tactical shot gun. It wasn’t long before Gabriel had taken his fill and dished out a small fortune to Mr. Mash, and with that he was on his way, back to the compound…to meet up with Arnnie and Ando.<o:p></o:p></pre>
     
  4. The knife dragged across the table, cutting a shallow grain in the wood, glinting in the Miama sunlight, before touching against the outstretched finger. Taichi looked up and a dry whimper escaped his lungs. His eyes spoke where his voice could not, asking only one question: did this really had to be?

    "DO IT!" The one-eyed face of Raiko Hakashi loomed over him and screamed. Taichi's head lowered again, his own sweat mingling with the phlegm of the Yakuza boss. The knife trembled. Taicho held it in his right hand, his wrist crossed over the left hand, which rested on the table with the little finger outstretched. The knife was touching the knuckle joint.

    Cigarette smoke washed around the table as Raiko took another drag. The boss was standing over Taichi, his single eye never breaking contact. He was dressed in sleek black, long sleeves and high collar to hide his Yakuza tattoos. It made him contrast violently with the white sakura blossom of the orchard they were in.

    Silver split the smoke and Taichi whimpered again as the Colt Delta came against his head. The boss's pistol was heavy and polished, daubed with the etching of black dragons. As the safety clicked off a rush of pure terror entered the young gangster and he pulled the knife, cutting across the grain of the table and screaming as the blade severed flesh and bone. He toppled from the chair and clutched his mutilated hand.

    The scream duplicated as Raiko joined in, tipping his head back to emulate his henchman. Then he laughed and fixed the boy again, suddenly serious again. "Another."

    Taichi focussed past the bleeding stump of his finger, staring in horror at his boss. "Wh...?"

    Raiko didn't repeat himself. Spitting out his cigarette, he placed his pistol on the table and moved in, drawing piteous wails from his henchman. He sat behind him, against the collapsed deckchair, and one arm slid across his chest to grip his bleeding hand. The other hand took up the knife. Taichi struggled, then convulsed as Raiko cut through the tip of his ring-finger.

    It was an abomination... an affront to the Yakuza rituals. No one ever took more than a single fingertip at a time... for an offence like this.

    Taichi's screams echoed around the orchard and were blocked by the sheer wall of the Hakashi Mansion. His second fingertip fell away and Raiko pushed his henchmen forward, driving the hand into the cup of Saki that remained on the table. Stinging agony pulled Taichi's face wide, the mouth locked open in a guttural wail. Raiko picked up the cup and sloshed the remaining alcohol in the man's eyes and throat.

    "Raiko-Sama."

    The psychotic haze was broken and as Taichi slumped back against him, Raiko looked over the henchmen's shoulder at the group of Yakuza who had appeared by the orchard entrance. It was a couple of the mansion guards along with Yori, his fuku-homboko, his second-in-command.

    "Raiko-Sama," Yori repeated, "The ninja has struck again. A Triad club - many dead."

    Raiko laughed a little. Yori was an old and well-groomed gentlemen who had served Raiko's father, and he was one of the few who had resworn allegiance during the coup. It was perhaps of little surprise - they were both Burakumin, descendents of the outcast tribes of feudal Japan.

    Yori could be trusted... not like the ill-disciplined henchmen of Taichi's like, whose roving eye had looked more than once at Raiko's woman.

    Still holding the half-conscious Taichi against him, the Yakuza boss answered with a delicious smile. "How many dead."

    Yori had come closer, his hands outstretched as he tried to spare young Taichi from further torment. The largest part of Yori's job these days was keeping the gang-members safe from Raiko's fickle wrath. "Many, Raiko-Sama. Many."

    Raiko laughed again, almost choking on the humour of it. He pulled Taichi's head towards him and ran his tongue up his cheek, licking up the sweat. "My favourite number..."

    He let the henchman slump aside and got to his feet, flinging away the knife and re-holstering his pistol. The other two gangsters moved to help Taichi, while Raiko followed his lieutenant back into the mansion.
     
  5. “. . . What authorities are calling a bloodbath in a one of Miami’s most-

    The female voice coming from the laptop was drowned out momentarily by the sound of something heavy thumping against a windowpane. Setsuko lay sprawled haphazardly on her futon, her laptop and a half-full glass of orange juice place next to her feet on the floor. She kept her eyes tightly shut, and tried to concentrate on anything but the sweltering heat in her apartment.
    Myoooow,” a chubby, bobtailed cat pawed at the window a few times, before opting to slam his weight against the glass. Not wanting to lose her window, Setsuko finally reached over and slid the window open wide, to let the cat, and maybe a cool breeze inside. If she was lucky.

    “-The FBI has been called in to investigate the slaughter, but so far, they have released no details about the victims, or potential suspects-”
    The laptop was suddenly silent. Setsuko removed her toe from the mute button on her laptop and stood. Track shorts and a tank top were not enough to cool her off. Something else was needed.

    Though her apartment was, for the most part, clean, Setsuko found herself stepping over various books, instruments and weapons lying on the floor on her way to the kitchen. Evidence of her earlier attempts at distracting herself from the heat. Her tessen and suntetsu rested innocently next to her keys and purse.

    As she stepped over a bokken, Setsuko remembered the police officer who came into the dojo the other day. He looked generally disturbed, and would only speak to her uncle, which suited her fine, since she had a class to teach. After speaking with him for half an hour, he left, looking no less distraught. They did not see the policeman again, probably because the case had been turned over to the FBI, if her guess was right.
    What her uncle had told her about the pictures the officer had showed him worried her. She did not know what her uncle had told the policeman, but it was obvious to her what had happened to those men. Her clan had very little to do with their kind, and had not since the 1800s. She hoped it would stay that way.

    “No need to worry,” she muttered to herself as she opened her freezer, and began to dig for something. “It’s nothing to do with us,” she withdrew a frozen washcloth; the grinning face of Bart Simpson on its surface reassured her to “don’t have a cow, man”. Setsuko pressed it against her face with a wet ‘splat’.

    She didn't have the time to worry about such things. She had a show tonight.
     
  6. Daytime in downtown Miami was almost as bustling as it was during the night. Car horns honked, and people were all over the sidewalks and streets. The heat was tolerable and the sky was clear. A breeze blew by, causing Takeo to brush his hair out of his face. He moved through the crowd with gracefull ease, confident yet subtle. He took a turn down an alley and went through the first door on the left. A little bell over the door rang from the movement. The air inside was a bit musky, and smelled slightly of wood and oil. The shelves were full of old antiques, dusty and a but run down. Behind the counter was a man of short stature and red hair. An Irish imigrant who went by O'Hallen. He owned and ran this antique's shop but he made his real money being more or less involved in the selling of "specialty items", some of which were illegal. These ranged from exotic materials to guns and even explosives.

    "Ah Mr. Mysterious. Welcome back to me humble establishment." O'Hallen smiled and bowed with his arm outstretched to the side.

    "Can I interest you in a rather rare German clock? Or perhaps the new light fixture I have hangin' about o'er there?" he pointed to the rusted and poor excuse of a chandelier. Takeo just stood, staring through his sunglasses.

    "Well...right ya' are then, here you go. Yer usual package: Six plates o' iron, and a brand new wet stone fer ya" the customer placed the money on the counter then turned to leave.

    ~~~~~~~~~~
    The doors to an old apartment building opened up and Takeo made his way up to the third floor with his package, then entered his room. It was a large studio apartment which was ideal for his "hobbies". In the back corner by the windows was a large kiln fireplace with an anvil not too far from it and various forging tools hanging on the wall next to the kiln.

    He placed the package down, opened it up and brought the iron plates over to the kiln then looked at the clock on his wall. It was only 1:10 in the afternoon and he had roughly seven hours before he had to go to work, which was only going to the Judo/Jujutsu dojo after all the classes let out and help clean the floors. He had to make money somehow, this was America after all. With this time frame Takeo got to work right away by firing up the kiln and began working on the iron plates. After three hours went by he had a new full set of 6 shuriken. All that was left was to sharpen them with the new wetstone, a process that would nearly take up all his time before going to the dojo.

    Eventually finished, Takeo took down a large Japanese painting of a warrior, and turned it around, revealing small pegs in the back that held his Ninjato. After everything was in it's place, Takeo made his way to the dojo.

    Eight o'clock and the sun was down. Takeo arrived to the dojo right on time and went to the back door and used his key. Although it was a dojo of a different art, it brought back fond memories of his time in his clans' dojo as well as his time spent with Hirotoro. After a brief moment of remeniscing with himself, Takeo filled a bucket with water and let it sit while he began moving the equipment around so he could clean everything fully.

    Three hours later Takeo placed the last of the training equipment back in it's place. The dojo was spotless. A remnent of how his clans' dojo used to look before the fires and explosions destroyed it. The memories caused Takeo to clench his fist until it was shaking. It was time to go home and get ready for his "real job".
     
  7. (Musical Ambience:)

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    Agent Macintyre sat at his desk, shuffling through the reports from the massacre at the Eastern Flame club. It seemed more paperwork was coming in than he could finish. He set his pen aside and leaned back in his seat, letting out a long sigh. He looked at the pictures on his desk. Most were from his time in Rangers, the majority of which were taken in Somalia. He picked up one with him and Dominick Pilla. The battalion funny guy always managed to get people to laugh, even if they were the brunt of his jokes.

    Captain Steele was the exception to the rule. Everyone was hit hard when Struecker called out that Pilla was killed.

    "Sir, we've got a possible lead." Agent White said, knocking on the door and bringing Nick out of his trip down memory lane. He set the picture back on the desk and swiveled in his chair.

    "Talk to me..."

    "Miami Dade sent a sherrif to speak to a dojo master earlier in the day. He didn't get a whole lot out of the sensei but he thinks we might be luckier." White replied. Nick got up, opening a desk drawer and pulling his duty pistol and badge out. His personal carry weapon, a Springfield Armory XD .45, was holstered in the small of his back. The Bureau issue Sig P-226 would go in a shoulder rig.

    "Bring the pictures of that pressure point death. Maybe we can get some insight into it." Nick added, holstering his duty pistol and pocketing his badge. He adjusted his suit jacket, turning the desk lamp off on the way out.

    "What's the place called?" he asked of White.

    "I... don't remember... I have it programmed into the GPS." Nick shook his head.

    "Those things are going to be the decline of people's sense of direction. That and I hate the voices of those fuckers." he commented as they took the stairs down to the garage. There was the usual fleet of black SUVs and sedans as well as two armored vans for the tactical team. If worse came to worse they'd requisition an armored fighting vehicle from the Army National Guard. They'd most likely get an old M-113 or a Stryker. White opened the door of a sedan, Nick getting into the passenger side.

    "You talked to Rockhound?" White inquired.

    "He's got them twelve hours on, twelve hours off." Nick replied. Such a watch schedule can negatively impact the warfighting readiness of a unit over an extended period of time however until they could get a break in the case or they got an additional team from HRT* then they were going to keep that watch rotation.

    "Isn't that a hard rotation?"

    "It is, but it has to be done." White pulled out of the parking space and drove out of the garage, passing a guard post manned by two members of the tactical team. They looked like any other civilian security guard save for the MP-5A5 submachine guns they had hanging from chest rigs. Nic sunk into the seat, thinking about the case. His train of thought jumped from the pressure point death to professional wrestling, Japanese sumos, and John Tuturro's ass in Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen.

    Of all the things one cannot unsee John Tuturro's ass is trumped by Danny Devito's bare ass in Big Fish.

    The horror... The absolute horror... Nick thought while shuddering. He was going to have nightmares again.
     
  8. "The world is a machine."

    Raiko picked up another bottle, his single eye watching the light catch on the cloudy glass. Then he tossed it into the middle of the dojo floor, causing it to shatter.

    "Everything needs to be in the right place."

    He picked up the next bottle, using it to check his reflection, brushing back a swathe of his raven hair. Then he threw it likewise, adding further fragments to the mess.

    "Every gear and axle and piston."

    He picked up two bottles, spinning them like revolvers and blowing on the neck of each. Then he flung them over his shoulders.

    "And everyone is happy, because everything works the way it is supposed to."

    The bottles were laid out on the counter and had been collected by his goons. Some of them still had the dregs of alcohol they had once carried, and one in particular was full of used needles. He threw this one next as he continued his speech.

    CRASH!

    "But when a cog break down and starts to trying to go its own way. That's when things..."

    CRASH!

    "...start..."

    CRASH!

    "... BREAKING!"

    The shout brought a chorus of whimpers from his prisoners. On the other side of the dojo, just beyond the carpet of broken glass, the occupants of the dojo were being held by Raiko's henchmen. There were seven of them in all, an intermediate class that had been unfortunate enough to be practicing here when the Yakuza turned up. The sensei himself was lying on the ground between them, clutching his broken ribs.

    Sure, these were good fighters. But Raiko's men had guns, and that was the way of the world these days.

    Some of his men were sniggering along as Raiko spoke, twisting the arms and hair of the dojo fighters with the same derranged glee that their master embodied.

    "So why not tell me who this Ninja is," Raiko said as he selected another bottle, "And then we can all go back to the old ways of working."

    He flung the bottle. CRASH!

    "Everyone in their place."

    He flung another bottle. CRASH!

    Besides the whimpers, none of the fighters spoke. The sensei was the last one who had tried to explain their ignorance, and he had received a three-man beating for his troubles. The prisoners already had their share of black-eyes and pistol-whipped limbs, and were now too terrified to invite any more attention.

    "Did he train with you?" Raiko asked, as if offering the answer like a lifeline, "A former sensei perhaps?" He threw another bottle. "Maybe he has a dojo of his own?"

    The training floor was now covered in shattered glass, three dozen or so bottles broken to form a mutilating carpet. The Yakuza boss paced the other side of it, his single eye drinking in the terror of the dojo fighters.

    "This man unsettles us all, and no one is safe while he continues. You must understand this?"

    The words poured from him, doleful and lunatic, as sweet as any apologist for the devil. On the floor, the old sensei sobbed quietly as his breath wheezed. He was bleeding internally and would not last the night at this rate. His pain and the fear of his fighters mounted as the silence lingered, and then a fresh chorus of cries sounded as Raiko spoke again.

    "I don't think they know anything, boys."

    The hyena-like henchmen chuckled and twisted the arms of the fighters, bringing them to their knees. Each of the henchmen was young and impulsive, like Raiko had been in his glory days. But unlike Raiko, these kids were being given free reign to their violent impulses.

    "Well... you'll let me know, won't you... if you find out anything?"

    With that, the henchmen lunged, shoving the fighters onto the floor of broken glass. Screams echoed around the dojo, followed by the sounds of crunching glass and painful howls. Some of the fighters were thrown face-down, while others were made to stumble across the savage field.

    Raiko picked up his gun and howled like a dog. His henchmen returned the call and together the Yakuza gang swept out of the dojo, leaving the fighters stranded amidst the glass shrapnel, bleeding and begging for rescue.
     
  9. The green hatchback took a sudden turn down a narrow, pedestrian-ridden street, eliciting a series of yells and curses from several people. This did not seem to bother Setsuko in the least, her eyes remained sharp and focused on what was ahead of her. After news of recent attacks in the Japanese dojos in the area, Setsuko quickly cancelled all classes until further notice, and forbade anyone below black belt level from even entering the dojo. The senior students were charged with guarding the dojo in shifts; since she knew it was only a matter of time before these men came to them. It was obvious this had to do with the shinobi attacks on local crime lords, and Setsuko wanted to be ready for anything that might happen. She would be staying in the dojo until she received further orders from her family.

    The smell of salty air blended with the scent of green tea when Setsuko opened one of the sliding doors overlooking the sea.

    “Uncle, I do not question your judgement, but this troubles me,” Setsuko returned to her place in across from the slight old man, “what am I to do if I encounter this rogue?” Her uncle said nothing for a long time, only looked out to the peaceful blue sea. He was very small and frail, as if the slightest touch would make his bones crumble.

    He was the finest martial artist Setsuko had ever seen, and she loved and feared him.

    “Your grandfather’s persimmon will have fruit, I will bring you some on my return,” Setsuko could only wait patiently for his reply to her statement, if he chose to acknowledge it at all. Naota Date reached for his cup of tea and regarded the leaves at the bottom before continuing.

    “You need to be more patient Setsuko, it is too soon to be troubled,” he paused to take a long sip. “I will return to Kobe to meet with our clan, and members of the Tokyo Police. We will deliberate over our next course of action.” He placed his cup down, and Setsuko noticed it was empty. Quickly, gracefully, Setsuko refilled it.

    “Your place is to defend the dojo, and not engage this rogue, yet, unless it is in defense. When the time comes, I will give you further orders.”

    “Yes, uncle.”


    What bothered Setsuko about this situation was the description of the men looking for the rogue. It sounded like they were yakuza, but what bothered her about it was that this was not how the yakuza usually behaved. Some of the old clans, and government offices, had strong connections in the yakuza, there were rules that were usually followed.

    If these men were really yakuza, how would their actions effect those ties? Was there going to be a clan war? What side was her family going to be on?

    The hatchback parked in an empty space in front of a small, unassuming building on the avenue. At first glance, it could easily be one of the many shops that lined the busy street; however, the sign ‘Date Judo and Jujitsu,’ declared the contrary. Setsuko could already see some of the black belts moving about inside: securing old weapons, blocking windows and other exits (there were secret passages within that only a few students knew about).

    Taking her bag from the passenger seat, which contained a change of clothes and her personal weapons, Setsuko headed inside-past the signs that read CLOSED and PLEASE REMOVE SHOES AT THE DOOR.

    The dojo was small, housing only the training tatami (which took up the most space), her uncle’s office, and a small dressing room in the back. Weapons and scrolls lined some of the walls. The kamiza* rested at the front of the training area, though the pictures and precious relics had been removed and hidden.

    “Date-sensei,” one of the senior students approached her, the two exchanged quick bows, “we have almost finished with everything. Would you like to see?”

    Setsuko nodded and set about helping her students secure their dojo.

    *Kamiza: literally meaning "kami shelf", is a type of miniature shrine placed or hung high on a wall in traditional Japanese dojos. The kamidana contains a wide variety of items related to Shinto-style ceremonies.
     
  10. Nick picked up his phone as it rang, Metallica's 'Fight Fire with Fire' blaring from the slider phone.

    "Agent Macintyre... Alright, send Townes and Deckert to investigate. I'm following a lead right now. Yeah, keep me posted." Nick said, sliding the phone closed and pocketing it. "A dojo was hit. Witnesses say Yakuza. It might be a retribution hit."

    "They think the guy's associated with the dojos?" White asked, turning onto a side street.

    "It's possible." The agents drove on for a while longer before pulling out in front of Date Judo and Jujitsu. The two agents checked their sidearms before exiting the car.

    "'Please remove shoes at the door.'" White read. He looked to Nick who was already taking his shoes off.

    "Federal agent or not, we still have to show courtesy." he replied, setting his shoes next to an already long row. The two agents entered. Nick held his badge up.

    "FBI, Special Agent Nicholas Macintyre. I'd like to speak to whoever's in charge..."
     
  11. When the door opened, all activity stopped suddenly, and the agents were met with wide-eyed, ready stares from the five men currently in the dojo. Once it was obvious that these men weren't here to fight, they returned to their duties of boarding windows, placing banker's boxes of what was probably valuable items in a loose ceiling beam, etc.

    Except one, the oldest, who nodded to the men, "One moment, I'll go get her," and quickly disappeared into what looked like a small office. He moved very gracefully for someone of his large build.

    Setsuko was busy looking through some old manuscripts of her uncle's, and putting the final touches on her black eggs (she had already given the others their own to use) when the rokudan* entered the office.

    "Who is it at the door? We cannot have any guests," she spoke absently, not really breaking her concentration from her current task.

    "Date-sensei," the older man, probably in his forties, replied with some trepidation, "it's two men from the FBI, they want to speak with someone in charge."

    Setsuko held in a sigh.

    Of all the times for the police to show up . . .


    "I'll take care of it, thankyou," Setsuko stood, put away the manuscripts and placed her black eggs inside a hidden pocket in her dark blue hoodie.

    Outside, the students continued to prepare for what appeared to be a hurricane. A young woman shyly slipped past all of them and approached the two men, a small, bashful smile on her face.

    "Hello officers," she stopped a few feet in front of them, "I am Date Setsuko, my uncle left me to look after things while he's visiting my grandmother in Kobe." She was small, no more than five feet and a few inches, and had a slight frame. She wore a pair of baggy jeans, a blue zip front hoodie, and a red t-shirt with some sort of cute cartoon character on the front. Her glasses kept slipping down the bridge of her nose.

    She looked more like a college student doing her laundry, than a Jujitsu-ka's niece.

    "Sorry about all the mess, I can't offer you a cup of tea," she gestured to the men behind her. "We are trying to get the dojo all locked up, I'm pretty sure you already know why," she looked as if she was going to keep chatting on, before she laughed and knocked herself gently on the temple.

    "So sorry, I keep going on. What can we help you with?"



    *Sixth degree blackbelt
     
  12. Nick took out his PDA and opened the folder with the bruise pattern pictures. He showed it to Setsuko.

    "Right now our only lead to who's been hitting businesses with ties to criminal organizations is this bruise pattern." he explained. A black bar had been placed over the man's eyes in order to conceal his identity. "Our senior agent believes this to be the work of a ninja and quite frankly I can't see any evidence that says otherwise."
     
  13. Setsuko's smile grew, though it was obvious she was fighting very hard to fight it. Her shoulders began to tremble, and she had to place one hand over her mouth to stifle the giggles. "I'm so sorry officer," she managed through a few more repressed giggles. "I don't mean to make light of the situation, but a ninja?" She arched an eyebrow as she regarded the two men. "It seems that since cheesy Japanese movies became popular here, everyone seems to think that all crime in Japan is Yakuza, ninja or school girls with katana," she tucked a stray strand of hair behind her ear and looked at the PDA for a few moments.

    Finally, at length, she said, "office-agent Macintyre, I don't know anything about ninja or assassins, but I can tell you about these bruises," Setsuko traced a pattern over the bruises with her finger, showing the order in which they were most likely made. "This is actually a very simple pressure point technique, in Japanese it would be called a Kyusho waza." Setsuko straightened and looked the two men over.

    "This particular point would attack the liver, obviously, since the points are right over it. It is very painful but should not be lethal, unless this man had some sort of liver problems from drinking, or something like that." It wasn't a total lie, the point would not be fatal unless someone did have a liver problem- or whoever applied it had a certain degree of mastery in such techniques.

    "I think your killer was lucky to kill this man with these points. Or he knew that his target's liver would rupture very easily."
     
  14. Nick licked his teeth as this girl debunked his and Knowles' theories. He leaned toward White.

    "Show her the rest..." he muttered. White took out his own PDA and opened up the rest of the photos from what used to be Eastern Fire.

    "That one picture of those pressure points wasn't all our mark did." Nick started. "He hacked his way through men carrying automatic weapons. None of them got a single shot off." Nick paused for a second to let it sink in. Before she could say anything he started up again.

    "What's more is I know you're hiding something. I've been at this job for years. Your body language is telling me even more than what you just did."

    "So go ahead, give me a half assed rebuttal." the agent challenged. "I'd also like to inform you that a dojo was hit as we pulled up. Think about that."
     
  15. Jade folded her arms at Sam's claim. "Hushcobb's best? Why can't Specter handle this? We wouldn't even be in Boston right now if it weren't for my resources."

    Sam rubbed his eyes, turning to Crossfire. "Is this little feud still going on?"

    Crossfire nodded. "Afraid so." He turned to Jade. "It's best in this instance, Jade. Specter will just try to weaponized them."

    "And what'll you do? Lock them in Inversion?!" she snapped back.

    "Fight! Fight! Fight!" Erika excitedly chanted. The pair looked at her and then stepped back from one another. Jade sighed, rubbing her temples with one hand. All this madness was starting to build up a headache in her. It was like her world was turning to static, just a bunch of rumbling and grating noises.

    Wait. That wasn't her head. That was the cars.

    Three different SUVs and one armored trunk with a bank logo on the side pulled up outside the decimated building. Four people came out of each car, each packing handguns. From the armored truck came two strange gun turrets. They were unlike any weapons most of them had seen, as they were lined with a thin film of gold and had giant crystals in place of barrels, but Raven recognized alchemical symbols etched into the outside of the weapons.

    "What are those?" she asked nervously.

    "Empiric Guns," Crossfire replied. At Sam's glare he clarified, "They're new. A shot causes ambient mana to dispel itself away from the target."

    "In other words, it neutralizes mages and mana-touched," Sam concluded.

    Cross nodded. "Temporarily."

    "Sam! Of all the - I should've expected it was you!" A woman stormed up to them. She had brown hair, a tone build, but her years were starting to catch up to her, as she was in her late forties. She glared at the shorter Asian, before turning to the marksman. "And you, Cross! I expected you to bring him in when I heard you beat me to him. Instead, you two tear up a dock and abscond without a single sit-rep. Do you know I've been following you two since Thailand?!"

    Sam and Crossfire exchanged a glance and both gave a small smile. Sam chuckled. "It's good to see you too, 'mom'."

    "Sorry for not checking in, Karin," Crossfire added.

    Karin swore under her breath and pulled both of them into a bear hug. When they broke apart, she felt a tap on her shoulder.

    "Excuse me? Do you know what happened to my Aunt Cherie? Last time I saw her our house fell on us."

    "Wha - ?" Karin turned to talk to the speaker, but as soon as she saw Natalia her jaw practically hit the floor. She even reeled back and rubbed her eyes.

    "Karin?"

    "What the fuck?" the woman asked herself. Still staring at the girl, she took out her cell phone, dialed a number, and put it to her ear. "Matthew? It's Karin. You need to come to Hushcobb. Now. Yeah, I think pretty serious. Okay. Bye."

    She hung up and went to gently touch Natalia's shoulder, but Natalia frowned and the hand never made contact, instead staying help in place just above it. "Not without my aunt."

    To her right, the diminutive little imp that had followed her around at the institution appeared beside her, laying down and leaning against nothing. No one else acknowledged him. "Away, away, on the winds of change! Carried mana across the range! Such dabbling into powers forgotten you do, my lovely Alice drifting into her Wonderland, too. Run from your destiny, a reprieve you find...but fate will conspire yet with your future intertwine."

    She scowled at delusion. She wished she could unfurl her power upon him, too. But with him being imaginary, it wouldn't get her anywhere.

    "Natalia, please calm down..." Raven said soothingly. She stepped forward to try and calm her, but suddenly herself, Karin, and everyone within twenty feet of the distressed blonde skidded a foot back away from her.

    "I am still trying to process all this," she shuddered. "I just need my aunt. Where is..." She stopped and blinked. She turned her head first left, then right. Once she stopped moving she seemed to brighten, though her face was still fairly neutral. She started blinking back tears and smiled. "Aunt Cherie!"

    She took a step forward and...disappeared. One second she was there, the next she was gone. No sound, no flash of light, no wiff of ozone. Raven was stunned.

    "A perfect spatial displacement," she said in awe. "Flawless teleportation! On her first attempt?!"

    "Better than Philadelphia tech," Jade nodded in agreement. "But where'd she go?"

    The marksman looked down at the spot she'd disappeared from. Not a single mark she was ever there. "She went to her aunt."

    FEBRUARY 9, 2017
    BOSTON MEDICAL CENTER
    BOSTON, MA

    Natalia appeared in the hospital mid-stride to find herself in a corridor. She hugged herself as she looked around for Cherie. She didn't like this place. The hospital reminded her of the institution, all clean and white, walls constricting, closing in on her...She took a deep breath and shook herself, returning to her interest in finding Cherie. The Puck appeared beside her again, this time walking the halls with her.

    "Cherish your Cherie, young one. For upon godhood reached, emotions will be done. Beyond good and evil you will be, as well as love of hearth and family. A sorry day for yours alone, for you will not recall what it is to be forlorn. Power comes always with its price. Yet pay it you must, lest the world fall to vice."

    "I'll never lose my love for my aunt," she retorted down at the boyish pixie. "And I don't want godhood. I just want my life back."

    "Godhood is your life. All your dreams, screams, anger and strife; all of it so you may Ascend on high. You may want to fight it, stay human - I know you will try. But you cannot migrate away from your fate."

    "Go away." She waved her hand through his face and he vanished like smoke. "I don't need an imaginary friend anymore."

    She followed the instinct that drew her to this place to begin with, walking down the hallway until she heard crying. Crying she recognized. She went in and what she saw broke her heart. Her Aunt Cherie was in a hospital bed with bandages over several parts of her arms and legs. She wasn't sure how she knew, but she was positive there were stitches underneath. She also had a bad bruise on the back of her neck. And she was crying.

    "Aunt Cherie!" the girl called in relief and ran up to her. She slowed enough to bend down and gently hug her soft caregiver.

    "Natalia? You're alive!" Cherie kissed the top of the girl's head and hugged her as best she could. "How did you escape? How did you get here?"

    "I teleported, Aunt Cherie," she said proudly, both their eyes welling up with tears. "It's not a dream. I know it's not a dream now. I feel...I feel like I'm waking up from a long nightmare..."
     
  16. A flip of a switch and the lights in the dull studio apartment flickered on after a few moments. Takeo made his way over to his bed, reached under and pulled out a large rectangular object wrapped in a dark blue cloth. After setting it on the table, he removed the large cloth and revealed it was a bulletin board with many pictures and articles about the many Yakuza, Triad, and even some Mafia members in the area. Takeo ripped off a picture of the Triad subordinate he assassinated at the Eastern Fire Club, dropped it in the trash and set it on fire. As he went to crack open his window, Takeo glanced down the street and could see vehicles parked right outside the dojo. These weren’t customer vehicles, Takeo knew that much. Could be Yakuza, but more likely the FBI. And if the FBI was getting remotely close to his trail he would have to tread carefully. Takeo quickly grabbed his leather bike jacket and keys to the dojo and was almost out the door before he stopped and thought for a second. He then made his way back over to a cabinet by his sink and opened it. A few seconds later he pulled out six small round pouches, no bigger than a quarter, and put three in each jacket pocket, just in case...

    A few minutes later Takeo was crossing the street towards the dojo and slipped into the alleyway that led to the back door. Quietly he opened it up and opened up his janitor’s closet then shut the door just loud enough for anyone close to him to hear. One of the students who was still moving things around peered around the corner and approached Takeo rather aggressively.

    “Who the hell are you?!” the student demanded. He was ready for a confrontation as would be expected due to the current events lately. Takeo slowly raised his right hand dangling his apartment key from it.

    “I just clean here after closing. I cleaned earlier but I left my house key here. Just came back to grab it, that’s all” The student eased up a little but was still very alert and ready for anything. He wasn’t all that convinced with Takeo’s story and Takeo could see it in his posture.

    “Well I’m not all too sure about that, why don’t you just come with me…” He motioned for Takeo to walk in front of him. Takeo obliged after slipping his shoes off. The student then escorted him to Setsuko.

    “Date-sensei the student began, then bowed. “This man claims he is the cleaner at night. Says he cleaned earlier and accidently left his house key here. Do you know him?”

    Takeo bowed when she turned around. Then he changed his glance over to the agents, first at White, then at Macintyre. Macintyre’s demeanor reeked of persistence and authority and Takeo could tell right away that if any authority figure was going to come anywhere near catching him, it was going to be him. Without changing his expression, Takeo bowed to the agents as well.

    They’ll possibly get in my way, but they’re no major threat. Still…they aren’t to be underestimated Takeo thought to himself.
     
  17. Setsuko wanted to roll her eyes, but held herself in check. The woman turned her attention from the agents for a moment to look the newcomer over. At first, she didn't recognize him, but she did remember her uncle saying something about a young man from Japan needing some extra money. Setsuko didn't like the idea of outsiders having access to the dojo, especially since she made sure the other students cleaned, but she would not question her uncle.

    "You and I are going to have a talk later, but for now, please try to pretend your English isn't too good," Setsuko addressed him in a more rural Japanese dialect, so the two agents would have trouble understanding. She nodded to the other student.

    "Thank you, but he is who he claims. My uncle hired him to clean after hours." The student bowed his head slightly and went back to his work, not really caring what Takeo did, now that he knew his sensei was all right with him being there.
     
  18. It didn't take long -- or any mana, for that matter -- for Raven to work her own kind of magic on the two men. By the time she was done flashing a coy smile and batting her eyes, both Sam and Crossfire were lugging around the girls' acquisitions. Raven had correctly guessed that the men had arrived in town with their own vehicle, a rather spacious Denali. Crossfire was already in shotgun with Erika and Natalia comfortably situated in the backseat. Meanwhile, Sam was helping Raven store the last bags of purchases into the trunk.

    "The world's most powerful spellcaster -- who can teleport -- and you'd rather drive," Sam pointed out to the younger woman.

    "Well, it is less conspicuous." Raven then quipped, "Plus, I happen to like cars."

    "Yes, the Lamborghini," Sam recalled. He led her to the door and opened it for her.

    "So gentlemanly," she said, sliding into the backseat next to Natalia as Sam jumped into the driver's seat.

    "Sam's actually a hell of a mechanic," Crossfire supplied. "Give him duct tape, bubblegum, and a wrench, and he can fix anything. He's like a shorter MacGyver."

    Erika winked salaciously. "Guess you're good with your hands."

    "Huh?" Natalia wondered aloud, looking rather confused. "What does that have to do with anything?"

    "I'll tell you when you're older, cutie," the psychic promised.

    Raven glanced at Sam's hands on the steering wheel. Upon closer inspection, she could see the darkening under his fingernails where oil and grime had set in, as well as the rough calluses from working with his hands on engines, tools, and who knew what else. She also noted, rather grimly, the various scars across his knuckles from fistfights. There were even several large ones on the backs of his hands where he seemingly blocked blades or took cuts.

    She wondered if those scars were elsewhere on his body.

    To bring herself to a lighter train of thought, she asked, "So...I actually have a problem with the heater in my dorm at the Ivory Tower. Think you can fix it?"

    Sam nodded.

    ---

    MARCH 2, 2017
    THE IVORY TOWER
    LONDON, ENGLAND

    "This...this is the Ivory Tower?" Natalia gaped in awe.

    "Whoa -- you know what, Raven? This is pretty cool," Erika agreed.

    The brunette beamed, a hand on her hip. "Yeah. Its pretty neat to live here."

    They stood at the gates leading to the world's center of magical learning. Ostensibly, its a prestigious English university catering to very old aristocratic families. In truth, those families were all mage clans of varying specialties. If Hushcobb was the enforcer of magical secrecy, then the Ivory Tower was its source.

    The walls of the Tower seemed to be of regular mortar and brick, but to the magically trained, they gleamed with powerful wards that kept out all but those invited. Within the walls were courtyards and support facilities. While all the facilities were modernized, their exteriors kept to the ancient architecture of a castle. Dominating the center of the campus was the Tower itself, which was a bit of a misnomer. Rather than a true tower, it was a four-story castle.

    "You've been here before, right, Sam?" Raven asked in a leading tone. He was their chaperone yet again, helping Natalia move in. Erika was also helping out and fully intended to throw Natalia a housewarming party.

    The former Hushcobb agent gave her a look. "You already know I pulled some strings to get Natalia matriculated, as well as assign her as your roommate."

    "Just wanted you to admit it," the brunette said. "By the way, how did you do that, anyway? You're not a mage. And I know you mentioned knowing my grandfather...."

    Sam sighed. In the last few days, he'd learned that Raven Tallwood was as clever as any Aegil when it came to magic, could play boys and young men like a fiddle, and had a stubborn streak the length of the English Channel. If she wanted something, she was going to get it. The shopping trip a few days ago was proof of that.

    Sam followed the girls as Raven led them to her dorm, pushing a large wheeled moving bin containing Natalia's few belongings. He began, "Your grandfather needed Hushcobb to take down a renegade mage a few years ago. I got the assignment."

    "What happened to the renegade?"

    "...I killed him."

    Raven stopped in her tracks. "Oh," she managed. He admitted to the deed in such a matter of fact tone. It was a sudden reminder that Sam Ebayan wasn't just a very dashing gentleman, but a hardened killer and veteran of many battles, like all the other Hushcobb agents. It was a little disconcerting, trying to reconcile the image of a deadly agent with a man carrying around all their purchases on a shopping spree, or going out of his way to help a mentally-distressed teenager.

    "Your grandfather was impressed enough with my abilities that he asked for my help on other...assignments," Sam continued. "It was off and on over the years, including when I was out of Hushcobb hunting Lorentz. He respects my skills enough to seriously consider letting Natalia into the student body when I asked him."

    "He must respect you a lot," Raven murmured.

    "Hey, Sammy!" Erika chirped, interrupting them. She pointed to the other mages and students giving their group a wide berth. "What's up with the cold shoulders?"

    Natalia became flustered. "Oh no, they hate me, don't they? This was a bad idea...." Raven immediately went to console the girl before she became to emotionally charged.

    It was Sam who got there first, laying a gentle hand on her head and ruffling her blonde hair. He serenely said, "Its not you, kiddo. Its me. They're afraid of me."

    Raven quirked an eyebrow. "Why you?"

    "Because of what I can do. Or rather, what I keep them from doing."

    The brunette's eyes lit up in understanding. "Your power. Your Empiric Field. It cancels magic temporarily."

    He nodded. "The Tower's wards can't stop me. Most of these people know that Hushcobb enforces the secrecy of the supernatural. They also know that Hushcobb hunts down renegades and threats to that secrecy. A few of them, mostly teachers and higher-ranking mages, know that the Skullman was once one of Hushcobb's best...and magic can't touch him. Makes them uncomfortable being around me."

    Raven sidled up next to him. She said in a slightly sultry tone, "I'm not uncomfortable around you. In fact, since we're friends, I'm hoping you'll get real comfortable with me."

    She was treated to the first chuckle she ever heard from him. It made him look several years younger, happier. It was a good look for him. He said, "You just don't give up, do you, Raven?"

    "Its a family trait," she quipped.

    ---

    MARCH 5, 2017
    THE IVORY TOWER
    LONDON, ENGLAND

    "Lookin' for the blonde or the brunette?" Erika Hennessey inquired without preamble. The capricious psychic was lounging on a the edge of a fountain in the Ivory Tower's courtyard as Sam approached. "By the way, do you ever change that coat?"

    He shrugged inside his olive-colored travel jacket. "Its useful. Lots of pockets."

    "Its fugly is what it is." Erika hopped off the fountain and sauntered over to him, propped her chin in a hand, and gave him a once-over. "Y'know, face like that, build like that, I can see why Raven's got her panties wet for you. But you need a woman's touch with your fashion sense."

    Sam tried very hard not to palm his face. Did this girl have no filter?

    "It occurs to me, Erika," he began patiently, "that you and Natalia are very similar. Young women with psychiatric challenges that possess incredible abilities."

    "Your point?" she asked impatiently.

    "Her demeanor makes her seem like a lost puppy. You, on the other hand, are just a brat."

    "Oh ho! Got some bite behind all that bark, do you, Sammy?" Erika's eyes gleamed with a feral light. She raised a hand. "Wanna teach this brat some discipline?"

    "Not with you, Renegade," he said sternly. "I'm here to talk to Erika. Not the rest of the Greek chorus."

    "And what do you want with me?" she asked, her tone less abrasive than before.

    "To let you know that Natalia isn't the only one under my charge," he said with sincerity, "And that while Karin has me playing babysitter to both of you, I do not take that responsibility lightly."

    The psychic actually paused. Sam wondered if her personalities were holding a committee about his comment.

    Finally Erika, murmured, "Uh, well, thanks...Sam."

    ---

    MARCH 8, 2017
    THE IVORY TOWER
    LONDON, ENGLAND

    "Expelliarmus!"

    Erika was cackling like a hyena. "Oh, that's rich. You can do better than that, right, Natalia?"

    "I think so. I mean, back at Hushcobb, I was able to lift an entire fleet of cars...."

    "Guys, its just a movie. No need to rip it apart over every little aspect of magic they go over," Raven cut in, a little put out that Erika was making fun of her favorite movie series.

    Erika tut-tutted. "Don't get your knickers in a wad. I'm just playin'. Speaking of playin', how goes the front on Mr. Short, Dark, and Handsome?"

    Raven pulled her knees to her chest from where she sat on the floor of her dorm between her friends. Movie night was just another excuse for the three of them to hang out. Given how abnormal the circumstances were for their initial introductions, a night in front of a TV seemed uncharacteristically normal, all things considered.

    "Got to admit, he's a tough one to crack," Raven said. "Its pretty obvious that Sam's got a lot of baggage. Doesn't want to connect to anyone too closely."

    "Him and Borwell seem pretty tight," Erika pointed out.

    Raven shook her head. "No, the vibe between them doesn't feel right. I believe Ruth when she said they were just good friends now."

    "Friends with benefits," the psychic pressed.

    "Pretty sure a guy like Sam doesn't do friends with benefits. He seems too...old fashioned." Raven smirked. "Its kind of cute, actually."

    Erika splayed herself onto the floor, tucking her hands behind her head. "I still say you should just jump his bones and fuck his brains out. Guy is either too dense or too polite to not pick up on all the hints you're dropping his way. If you bone him, no way he won't get the message."

    Natalia, at this point, blushed to the roots of her hair. Raven sighed. "Erika, you know that kind of things gets Natalia riled up."

    "I'm not...riled up," the blonde argued quietly.

    "Uh huh. And you're suddenly so interested in our conversation because....?"

    "Eep!"

    Erika cackled and tackle-hugged Natalia. "Oh my God, you're just too damn cute! Hey, Raven, I know I was gunning for a three-way love triangle with you, me, and Sam. Think we can add Natalia for a love-square? If you want, we can try to rope Ruth for a love-pentagon!"

    Raven sighed again and palmed her face, the movie long forgotten. "How the hell did I end up the sane one in the Three Stooges?"

    ---

    MARCH 10, 2017
    THE IVORY TOWER
    LONDON, ENGLAND

    "Where's Erika and Natalia?" Sam asked from where he was prying apart Raven's heater in her dorm. The damn thing broke down again, despite him tinkering around with it several days ago.

    "Erika's with Dr. Landel for another psych eval. Natalia's in class." The brunette was lounging on the couch with her long, smooth, bare legs dangling tantalizingly over the armrest. She languidly lay across the cushions, wearing a hoodie and short shorts. To her chagrin, Sam was far too focused on the task at hand to notice the silky legs on display. Raven had long since determined he was going to a tough one to snag. "Thanks for coming by to fix the heater again."

    "Its a good excuse to get away from Hushcobb for a few hours," he said. He hummed to himself and then grabbed his backpack. It was a battered old thing, made of trail-worn canvas that had seen better days and many years on the road. Raven noticed that Sam carried relatively little. In fact, everything he owned seemed to fit into that one backpack and he kept the contents meticulously organized to optimize storage space.

    He instantly retrieved some duct tape and a charcoal pencil from a pocket of the backpack and scoured a short line of black onto the tape. He took two short wires and taped them together such that they rested against the black line. Then he removed a resistor from within the heater and replaced it with the tape-connected wires. He turned the heater on, which hummed back to life.

    Raven sat up, impressed. "What'd you do?"

    "Resistor burned out," he said. "I made a new one. The graphite is a good resistor. Current goes between the two wires, but you can change the resistance by making them closer or farther together along the graphite line."

    "Huh. You're pretty smart, Sam," Raven said. "Crossfire was right. You're pretty handy to have around."

    ---

    MARCH 12, 2017
    HUSHCOBB, KA

    Hushcobb's facilities were quite comprehensive, including a full gym. It helped Raven pass the time while accompanying Erika and Natalia for their visits and training sessions with the organization. Though in the latter's case, it wasn't so much 'training' as it was a way to gauge just what Natalia could accomplish.

    Raven let out a series of breaths as she pushed through another set on the weight machine. Sweat glistened on her forehead and stained the armpits of her sleeveless athletic shirt. The sounds of grunting and the occasional cry of pain caught her attention. She got up and went to the mat room at the other end of the gym.

    Karin Krauser, clad in a martial arts gi, watched as Hushcobb agents in combat fatigues faced off against Sam Ebayan, also clad in a gi. His was battered, worn, with many wrinkles and threadbare hems. The sleeves had been torn completely off at some point, leaving ragged edges. His belt, once solid black, was faded with several points of white showing through. His hands were sheathed in old, well-worn leather fighting gloves.

    Raven watched, mesmerized, as Sam flowed through the other agents like a river. Wherever he passed, he left pain in his wake. One agent punched him across the jaw, but Sam yielded to the blow, spun, and countered with a devastating elbow to the temple and followed up by controlling the agent's head and driving him to the mat. Sam rolled across his back and came up in a jump spinning sidekick that preemptively stopped a second agent from closing in by slamming into his gut. Sam landed lightly on his feet and deflected a third agent's front kick with a low block that turned into a grab. He dropped the agent to the mat by kicking his posting leg out from under him. A fourth and fifth agent tried to flank him, but Sam weaved around their punches and eventually slipped under one agent's arm and grabbed his leading leg, forcing the agent to slide into a painful split on the mat. Sam kneed him in the face and finished off the last agent with an aggressive overhand hook-uppercut-cross combination.

    He had such control, such confidence despite wading into five-to-one odds. Raven drank in that dominating combat presence and the definition of his arms in that sleeveless gi. Certain parts of her started to get a little warm.

    "Good job, Sam," Karin said, her voice breaking the spell over Raven. "I see you haven't been slacking in the last seven years."

    "Would you care for a round, Karin?" Sam inquired of his onetime mentor.

    "Maybe later." Karin then turned to Raven. "It seems you have a guest."

    Raven blushed to the roots of her hair at having been caught peeping. "Er, sorry." She suddenly felt uncharacteristically self-conscious. For one, she was caught ogling -- she was usually the one being ogled, and she was usually intentionally doing something to elicit the ogles! -- and for another, she was fresh out of a workout and probably looked and smelled like a locker room. Hardly the sensual image she wished to present.

    "Would you like training lessons as well, Ms. Tallwood?" Karin asked. "Sam is actually a very good partner to work with. I know it looks like he'll just beat the tar out of you, but he's quite proficient in working with people and not just working on them."

    "I think I'll pass," the brunette said, regaining some of her composure. "I mean, I'm a mage. I'm good as far as self-defense is concerned."

    Karin laughed. She looked at Sam, who silently padded over to Raven and simply laid a hand on her shoulder. The brunette instantly felt mana cut off from her.

    "Still good?" he asked simply.

    Raven frowned at him. "Dick move. But point taken." He removed his hand and, a few seconds later, she felt the mana return to her. She followed him onto the mat.

    ---

    MARCH 15, 2017
    THE IVORY TOWER
    LONDON, ENGLAND

    "Hi, Sam," Natalia greeted as the former agent joined her under a tree in the Ivory Tower's courtyard. A number of other students were enjoying the sunshine. Most were studying. Some were playing a riveting and spontaneous game of football, kicking around the black-and-white sphere between them.

    The former agent glanced down at the books stacked next to her and the one in her lap. "Hello, kiddo. Studying hard, I see."

    "Its...strange. These spellbooks seem, um, almost primitive? I swear, I think I've seen these concepts before, but only much more advanced. With a deeper understanding." She shook her head. "I'm sorry, I'm rambling again. Are you here to check up on me for Hushcobb?"

    He sat down on the grass next to her. "Partially. I'm also here to make sure you're doing all right as a friend."

    "Erika and Raven are always checking up on me, too."

    "Is living with Raven going well?"

    Natalia nodded with an earnest smile. It was a good look for her. She almost seemed like a normal teenager with that honest grin. "Oh, yes. She's been so helpful and supportive. She's a great roommate. She invites me to hang out with her friends, even though I'm...." She faltered. "...not normal. I know I make the other mages nervous. I can...hear their thoughts...sometimes. I know they think I'm weird. Broken. Maybe I am. Sometimes, I still can't believe this is all real. That I'm out of the hospital. That I'm here...."

    "I know the feeling," Sam murmured somberly. "Both being broken and making other people nervous."

    She regarded him with searching blue eyes. "You do, don't you? Your son? I see images, sometimes. When I look at you, the image is fuzzy -- probably because of your Empiric Field -- but I still see them. Ruth and you and Gray. You were happy then."

    "Your magic works on me?" Sam said with astonishment.

    "I think so. Its hard to see you, sometimes. Like I said, it gets fuzzy."

    Sam couldn't help but wonder just how strong she could become if she could even remotely overpower his Empiric Field.

    His expression must have upset her, because she immediately began to apologize. "Oh! I didn't mean to pry. I'm sorry, Sam!"

    He calmed her down with a hand over hers. "I'm not upset. If you saw my son, then you know I speak the truth when I said I know what you're going through. After...." He choked and pressed on, "...after he died, all I could think about was killing Lorentz. It wouldn't bring Gray back, but I thought it would at least be justice. Somewhere along the line, justice became revenge and I lost my way. I joined Hushcobb to save people. Not for revenge. Helping you reminds me why I joined in the first place."

    "Is that why you check up on me?"

    "Its why I'm your friend."
     
  19. Setsuko arched a brow as she took the business card and watched the two men leave.

    'Wrong foot' being the understatement of the year. . . Especially since he just finished telling whomever it was on the phone that if they were KGB, they could do whatever they wanted to her and her students.

    God bless America, indeed.

    The women absently slipped the card into her back pocket, before turning to Takeo.

    "I think we should have a chat," she wanted to know more about this man she had never seen, especially since her uncle saw it fit to give him a key to the back door. That was simply not something her uncle did not do; something was up.

    "Just to get to know each other a little better," she added with a small smile.
     
  20. Takeo stood silently as Setsuko briefly greeted him. It mattered not to him anyways, he was paying more attention to this Agent Macintyre as he posed just as big a threat as the crime syndicates Takeo was after, except Macintyre would be more likely to let Takeo live, under the supposed laws this Agent is sworn to uphold. Macintyre’s phone quickly interrupted the group and he began taking the call while heading towards the door. The only thing Takeo could get from the Agent’s muttering lips and the soft words under his breath was a name, a name that was definitely on Takeo’s list of Yakuza to kill. Raiko Hakashi has always been known as a sadistic man, so much so that “man” was a bit of an overstatement to describe him. He was an animal, barely tamable in the confines of his own mind, let alone anyone involved with him. The mere mention of that name nearly made Takeo’s blood boil, but given his present circumstance, he didn’t have the luxury of letting his emotions send him on a mission he didn’t plan well enough for yet. He kept his reserve, knowing that Raiko’s time will come when Takeo could plan it out. For now, the more local and immediate threats of these syndicates had to be eradicated before he could go after another “big fish”.

    Takeo’s thoughts were interrupted as Setsuko beckoned him to follow her back towards her office. Being that the two have never met, Takeo figured this would not be an all too friendly conversation on her part. But being a relative of the headmaster of this dojo she definitely was not someone to underestimate or take lightly. She was a martial artist, and a good one. Her overall demeanor portrayed it all too well, whether she was aware of it or not. This meant Takeo had to be extra careful in the way he carried himself in front of her, because he knew she had the martial skills to mentally scan him and find the same thing in him as he sees in her. So he smiled politely and spoke in the best tone he could that hid his coldness.

    “What is it that you would like to know, Date-Sensei?”