The Gozoku
Chapter Twenty-Six: Vengeance

"Death is not eternal. Nor is life."


A single slash of the katana would not shatter the whirling defense that the ninja had crafted, but they were not ready for the force of a Matsu charge. Swinging her sword in a great, sweeping motion Mochiko lunged at her enemies, screaming like a demon as she scattered them to the corners of the room. Two of the men stumbled backwards rather gracelessly, toppling the shoji and spilling the combat out into the larger room beyond.

Taking one last look at Kakita Chikuma the assassin strode out into the second room, glancing over her attackers one by one. The ninja were cautious, and only one of them had been scratched by her strikes; Mochiko smiled venomously at that one as he raised his kodachi…

"You are the next one to die."

Springing forward, the Matsu again took control of the combat, keeping her enemies off-balance with a mixture of polished kenjutsu and pure rage. Slashing at their swords the assassin crafted a discernable pattern of feints and parries, waiting for the moment when one of the ninja took the bait.

She did not have to wait long.

Lunging from her right side one of the men slashed at her stomach, but Mochiko pivoted backwards on her right foot and brought her katana crashing down on the man's extended hand. The sound of the severed appendage striking the ground was drowned out by footsteps as another attacker struck at her defenses, but even while outnumbered the former Matsu was too fast.

Another body hit the ground amidst bloody splatter, crashing through the broken shoji and back into the smaller room.

In a flurry of motion the last two attacked Mochiko, their weapons moving with a desperate, focused speed. The assassin was forced to parry, and then lunged, only to have one man slip past her guard. Continuing forward, Mochiko concentrated on the man in front of her, hewing at his defense roughly, trusting her momentum to keep her ahead of the second ninja's blade.

It was a dangerous gamble to make.

Burying her sword in the chest of the third man Mochiko twisted in anticipation, moving her body a half-second too slow to dodge the falling cut. Her movement saved her life, but the ninja's dagger slashed one hard stroke across her back. As pain rushed through her like tendrils the ronin spun with the attack, leaving her katana buried and seizing hold of the last man's extended arm.

Drawing her wakizashi, Mochiko slashed the ninja twice in rapid succession, her own force amplified by channeling the growing sensation of pain. After another moment, she let the dead man crash to the ground as she slumped and reached back to touch her injury.

"Poison," she cursed as she pulled up one of the weapons, seeing a lingering, half-dried mark.

In the lower level the sound of movement and commands was suddenly discernable; Mochiko let her wakizashi clatter to the ground and retrieved her katana, wondering how much time she had. Behind the assassin, the lone candle lay toppled from its place, its flames starting to lick at the wood in the dry summer air.

Ignoring the growing fire, the assassin strode deeper into hell.

* * *

They were standing in the front room when she reached them, arrayed in a half-circle and armed with swords and spears. Twenty of them, by the assassin's estimate, and from the gleam of their weapons they were skilled warriors chosen specifically for this duel. Each one looked up at the assassin warily, obviously gauging how much strength remained behind her stumbling gait.

One man stood closer than the others, his eyes amused though his face seemed hard. Whirling a strange three-pronged spear, the man planted its edge into the tatami smoothly, releasing his weapon to offer Mochiko a slight bow.

"I have been waiting a long time for this, assassin. Surrender, or die."

Mochiko glanced up from beneath her red hair, ignoring the pain as she smirked mockingly at the man. She could not see him clearly now, with all of the shadows dancing from the approaching flames.

She did not need to. The image would be enough.

"Retreat!" the man ordered the moment that the assassin lunged at him, obviously not wanting a melee in the middle of a growing blaze. Mochiko smiled, but her expression was cut short as the samurai seized hold of his yari and jerked it forward smoothly, tearing up several heavy tatami in the process, hurling them toward her in a scattered wave.

The impact caught the woman off guard; it staggered her, but did no real harm. Cursing, Mochiko looked up, expecting to see her enemies gone. Instead, she was met with the spear warrior's cold gaze. In the light, his face was cold and fearsome, covered in a short, rough beard. He smiled at her, as he lowered his weapon into a battle stance.

"We have not been introduced, assassin. I am Shiba Honkai, hatamoto to Shiba Gaijushiko."

"Mochiko," she replied painfully, sheathing her katana and lowering her arm for the draw. There was something powerful in the terrible calm that Honkai possessed, and in that gaze the assassin saw power, and a fury that rivaled her own…

* * *

"What are you doing?" Bayushi Atsuki asked quietly of the soldiers, his keen eyes noticing immediately that not one of them sported a wound. "Where is your commander?"

"Shiba Honkai gave the order to withdraw, Atsuki-sama," one of the men explained as the rest looked at the flames crackling over the building. "He engages the assassin even now."

Listening carefully the Scorpion caught the sounds of sword and yari, so different from the roaring of the flames. "Honkai is a fool to do this," he snapped in annoyance, then turned to one of his own servants with a sneer. "This is no time to fight a duel."

"Set fire to the outer sections as well. Make certain not to damage the nearby structures…"

One of the Phoenix magistrates balked at the man's words. "Atsuki-sama!"

"Have I said something dishonorable, Shiba? Or do you place the life of your companion above our need to see the assassin dead?" Atsuki's voice left no question as to the sneer behind his black mask, and those few who could see it shied away from the ire in his eyes. "If Shiba Honkai wishes to fight with this assassin then let him."

"This is not a time for idle formalities. Efficiency is the Scorpion's way."

* * *

The first few attacks were feints and parries, designed as tests and glancing blows. The assassin slashed and thrust at her enemy, Mochiko fighting her hardest against her wound's throbbing pain. At every turn the Shiba interposed his staff in hard, sweeping motions, his pivots and dodges easily keeping the samurai-ko's blade at bay.

"You have skill with that sword," Honkai said as the two warriors separated, his face barely winded from the flurry of blows. "I understand now why you have been so difficult to apprehend."

Saving her strength, Mochiko returned her sword to its saya, making certain to avoid the swaying line of beads. The assassin again lowered her body into an almost crouching position, extending her tawny body towards the Shiba as Honkai calmly held his spear.

"Battojutsu," he observed calmly, his voice the kind of calmness that grated upon stone. "A wise choice, given the nature of my weapon…but do not deceive yourself into thinking that it will save you. Your murders end here."

"Shut up and fight," was her snarled reply.

He was calm as the sky after a storm. "As you wish."

Gritting her teeth the assassin charged him, pivoting and drawing as she moved. As the blade was unsheathed there was a flare of light and fire, cutting the air between the two combatants, tearing through the emptiness to slash Honkai's waiting form. The Shiba did not dodge or twist from her attacker, but place his hands firmly upon either side of his weapon, holding it definitely just before the coming strike.

What happened then was the shocking sound of wood halting metal, and Mochiko stared in silence as the sword was frozen in mid blow.

She applied more force, but the spear did not so much as stagger.

Shiba Honkai's face was filled with concentration, and he still held his yari perpendicular to the floor in both hands. The samurai's feet were solid and evenly grounded, but even so it seemed impossible that the smaller man had so easily parried the immense force of a charging iaijutsu strike.

He looked up at her from across their locked weapons, a small smile crossing his face. "Honkai Style Ladder Parry."

With one easy shove the Phoenix separated his opponent from him, his force sliding Mochiko across the floor several feet as she stared amazed at the small scratch she had left on her opponent's spear. "That is not possible…" she spat angrily, for the first time since her time in the Imperial Court feeling a tingle of fear. "That attack could have cut through bone."

"Not against me." Honkai said seriously, lowering his yari to point its center blade at the assassin. "The Ladder Parry distributes force perfectly between my body; it requires the focusing of my arms, shoulders and legs. The ground absorbed your power, Mochiko," he said, glancing down at the cracked mat where he had been standing.

"Your attacks mean nothing against me. Surrender now."

A bead of sweat crossed Mochiko's face as she stepped backwards, though she told herself it was from the heat of the flames. Glancing back to the fire she closed her eyes angrily, thinking hard as she looked at the master of the spear. The assassin removed her sheath from her obi, silently, slowly returning her sword to its place.

"To Jigoku with you," Mochiko swore as she stared out through eyes red from poison and flame. Then, in a flash, the samurai-ko made her decision, springing back up the stairs to the second level and back into the flames…

* * *

"No!" Honkai shouted as he watched Mochiko dash upward. "This time you will not escape!"

Rushing after her, the Phoenix covered the large room in a matter of seconds, his legs galvanizing as he moved closer to the fire, the heat and the light dazzling his eyes. As Honkai reached the base of the stairs he heard a sound that drew his attention…

Pair of feet slammed hard into the upper railing, pushing off hard enough to cause the wood to keen like a ship's mast amidst a summer storm.

From the top of the stairs came the falling form of the black-clad assassin, her scream overcoming the fire as she fell upon him with ready blade. Honkai's mind raced as he realized what had happened, how Mochiko had forced herself off the upper level to build up momentum, twisting with her sheathed sword in a motion much more powerful than before.

His eyes flying open with speed and focus, the Shiba met her soaring charge…

The Battle Continues…