When The Cute Kunoichis Spied on Their Teacher's Secret -
Volume 2, Chapter 2
Volume 2, Chapter 2
1: The Stonewall Girls
It was already dusk.
However, the quiet of the late hour was obliterated by deafening sirens and the tremor of army boots marching in perfect unison.
The commotion had spread beyond just the castle. Trucks and large transport helicopters loaded with fully-equipped armored samurai had been deployed to set up two or even three layers of blockades.
The moat was always lit up once the sun set and the tourists outside of that aimed their phone cameras toward the vehicles and samurai, but they all tilted their heads once they did. Their screens were covered by secret preservation AR, special markers that said “Recording Not Allowed”. Mobile devices these days did not even come with a paper user’s manual, so most of them probably had no idea their phones did that.
“So you only managed to drag some filthy guy out of there? Really? That was honestly all you managed to accomplish???”
Hanasawa Bara spoke in a disinterested way from the driver’s seat of a food truck designed to cook crepes, just like you could find at any tourist destination in any part of the world. Needless to say, that was the mobile base she was using to pick up Sugiyado Souha and the others after they left the castle.
She had changed into her casual clothing to blend into her surrounding, but with her, that still meant a fancy red dress. She almost looked like a princess, but that worked well when combined with the mistaken assumption that she was a tourist destination vendor. In fact, with her sexy body and red ringlet curls, she would have looked more conspicuous in a plain track suit or jumpsuit.
She even shared that benefit with Shizukuma Asagao who wore her baggy-sleeved and short-skirt white military uniform in the passenger seat. When the two of them sat side by side, their clothing seemed to match.
The black bob cut girl let out an exasperated sigh.
“Stop lashing out because we all got to enjoy a secret date while you were stuck back at the base. That was an important job.”
When the younger girl in the passenger seat out-argued her, Bara could only puff her cheeks out like a child.
However, they remained within the blockade.
They were only just outside the illuminated moat, leaving them in the tourist area that was like a walking path and viewing platform in one. Lines of New Sapporo Domain armored trucks were roughly driving past just a few meters away even now. The castle’s soldiers and bodyguards were shouting angrily at the people that photography was banned. The enemy never expected their quarry to be right under their nose, but certain preparations were still needed when making a surprise attack like this.
When blessed with the opportunity to work in a group, you always needed to keep one of your people “outside” if at all possible.
Sugiyado Souha had driven that rule into their heads because he wanted to raise them into ninjas who could return from missions alive, not just act as artillery shells that only made one-way trips. But being stuck with that job was never fun. Just when you thought you could go on a mission with your beloved teacher and enjoy a secret date that would end the instant you were found, you had to stay behind. Having to wait all on your own until sunset felt like having part of your one and only adolescence sold off against your will. Bara really wanted to curse her own rock-paper-scissors luck.
“Anyway, drive slow and safe.”
“I know that.”
Speeding out of there would give them away immediately. Bara even kept the headlights on the gentle low beams for the benefit of the oncoming traffic. She drove the crepe food truck calmly and slowly away from the park in front of the moat.
“You got that data out from the depths of New Sapporo Castle, didn’t you? Did you get any details on those Stonewalls?”
Bara had performed her own interrogation while they were gone, but she had not found anything more than the group’s name.
“I was planning to reveal this once Sensei rejoined us, but whatever.”
Asagao attached her phone (which she had so thoroughly modified on the inside that it was close to being a cyber war weapon) to the food truck’s navigation system.
“The Stonewalls have around 300 combat members, but these are the main four. And Princess Karin is of course at the very top.”
Age: 16. Female.
An expert at terrain-effect attacks made using pure excavation techniques. Brings confusion to the entire battlefield with almost any type of terrain changes, including quicksand, marshes, pitfalls, falling rocks, landslides, and even volcanic activity and water vapor explosions. One of the few survivors of her attacks said “a dragon is hidden in the earth”.
Age: 13. Female.
An expert at combat in enclosed and dark places. Shows the true value of her short height and limbs while fighting in complex indoor environments filled with countless obstacles. The way she persistently sticks with her target has earned her the nickname of Enemy Stalker.
Age: 18. Female.
An expert at chemical reactions, including explosions. That includes the obvious like guns and explosives, but also includes the use of incomplete combustion to create smokescreens or poison gas. Her skills also give her a specialty in medicines and treating wounds.
Age: 20. Female.
The princess of a domain who chose to master the “etiquette” of a ninja in order to survive in the Machiavellian world of politics. Has mastered every technique of the Stonewall school, but also possesses the strategic mindset needed to view the big picture of the outside world. A next-generation leader who can freely use the light and dark – the clean and the unclean.
(Not that we can trust the ages and photos given here.)
As an expert in disguises and flirtation, Hanasawa Bara told herself to not accept this data at face value.
Were all the others girls because that was more comfortable for Princess Karin at the top? No, she had apparently convinced that young Murakami man to join her forces, so maybe it was her subordinates who had decided to surround her with girls.
Bara was normally one of the ninjas who worked to preserve the public order, so she knew what conditions would be used to choose checkpoint locations at times like this. She accurately drove the crepe food truck around while making an exasperated comment.
“Quite the distinguished group.”
“I can’t believe that’s what you spent your secret date on. Sensei has to learn not to talk about other girls all the time.”
“Right!? Ouka is sulking pretty hard, so be on your guard around her.”
With the talk of terrain and explosives, that group sounded even more flashy than Bara’s group. This northern land was one of the few places in the country that was flat all the way to the horizon. Those skills were likely what they had honed to push back any large armies the Cyrillic Empire sent in. And in addition to the largescale attacks and high firepower, they had the assassin types who could use the confusion to pinpoint strike the enemy commander or armory. The knights would be preparing to tear into the enemy formation while the rooks and bishops were making a mess of the board, so you could not let your guard down.
Asagao gave a fearless smile in her white military uniform.
“The documents call them High Ninjas, but it’s possible they intentionally held back during their advancement exams so they wouldn’t stand out.”
“They seem to fight under completely different rules and on a completely different scale from us.”
“That just means we can’t let our guard down no matter what.”
As we change focuses, the vehicle shook slightly.
There was no way to tell the time of day in the enclosed back of the truck. Sugiyado Souha and the Murakami youth were confronting each other in there. However, the young man had his iron flute and other weapons taken from him and he was tied to a chair.
Sugiyado’s eyes fell on a different weapon than the main iron flute.
It was a cross shuriken given a sharkskin surface.
But letting his feelings show would accomplish nothing as a ninja. He hardened his heart so he could get down to business before the young man noticed.
Just to be safe, he had Ouka and Hoozuki with him here.
“(Boo. Why’d he have to invite another guy onto our secret date?)”
“(Don’t complain, Ouka. If you refuse to wait, you’ll never get your reward.)”
At 5kg, his back felt funny. At 10kg, it exploded with pain.
No matter how much of an advantage he seemed to have, he could not forget that. In shogi terms, Sugiyado Souha was like the lance. He might seem specialized for this field, but that illusion vanished as soon as his weakness was discovered. And he had no way of fighting back even if he noticed it had been discovered.
So if he had help, it was safest to accept it.
“If there’s something you want to talk about, then go ahead and talk.”
Sugiyado pulled a chair across from the young man and sat in it. Ouka and Hoozuki changed positions to lean on the back of that chair.
“But we have nothing we really want to talk about. To be honest, I’m not interested in some large conspiracy. I achieve my goal as long as you’re removed from all that danger. The simplest solution there would be to knock you out with an anesthetic and then dump you in some remote village no one’s ever heard of. If you don’t do anything, that’s what will happen. Are you sure that’s what you want?”
“Who are you? And those two aren’t your average girls.”
Ouka looked miffed the young man had singled out her and Hoozuki. It was true they were Elite Ninjas, but she must have felt like Sugiyado deserved that sort of praise too.
At any rate, the young man’s confusion was understandable. Everyone knew a captured ninja was not going to have a good time, so he must not have expected them to have a little chat like this.
The scarf boy relaxed his shoulders and spoke a certain name.
But not the young man’s.
“Do you see how I got involved in this now? Princess Karin wasn’t bluffing. She really did do it.”
For a while, the young man said nothing.
Sugiyado simply waited.
He could have told the young man that a professional ninja needed to suppress his emotions and remain coldly logical to survive, but he chose not to.
“I see.” The young man who had inherited the Murakami name eventually got some words out. “I see.”
“Let’s set aside our positions as professionals for a moment.” Sugiyado started again with his voice low. “I’m not working myself to the bone for the state or the Shogunate here. I’m a prisoner from Abashiri, just like that blunt but caring old man, so don’t think I’m some stickler for the rules. Let’s keep this short. If you waste my time, I’ll go with the ‘anesthetize you and dump you on the side of the road’ option.”
“Ouka, prepare the halothane tank and calculate out the right amount for a standard body weight of 68kg. And really, if we’re going to recommend retiring from this dangerous line of work and living a leisurely second life, we should probably gift him with some mild lasting effects.”
“Understood, Sensei. I’ll add 10 to the normal number. That should give him some chronic tingling in the limbs.”
The young man must have thought there was nothing he could do while bound to the chair. And with enough of a lasting effect to take him out of the fight, he would forever lose his chance to rush in and solve the problem here in New Sapporo Domain. Or the problem related to his grandfather’s death. But his pride still had him sounding reluctant as he opened his mouth.
“I am Murakami Michihiko. I was sent from Edo as an external observer for the entire Hokkaido Area!”
“Hokkaido isn’t the only place with one. Ever since the Doshusei Reform split the archipelago into 8 Areas, observers are occasionally sent in from the central government to keep an eye on things. The idea is to make sure none of the regional governments try to rebel using the very autonomy granted them by the Shogun.”
Hoozuki waved something in her hand. It looked like a silver flute, but it was actually the ninja weapon that young man trusted with his life.
That old man had said he created ninja weapons for his grandson and they were from the Song school, so that iron flute may have contained something of the old man in its design.
Sugiyado Souha made sure not to let his emotions show on his face as he spoke.
“So you are a step removed from the Stonewall hole-digging experts with deep roots in the Hokkaido Area.”
“You’d be wrong there,” said Murakami Michihiko with self-deprecation in his voice. “The Stonewalls were the contact point for my observer duties in the Hokkaido Area. They acted as an intermediary, so we did interact.”
His job was to arrive from outside and determine any deficiencies in the local system. That meant detecting this oddity in New Sapporo Domain was a major success for him, but the conversation in the castle’s server room suggested they had not been enemies to begin with.
He had likely planned to use Princess Karin’s support as a foothold while he began to investigate the rest of the Hokkaido Area. He never would have imagined that the safe zone he had discovered was in fact rotten to the core.
Maybe it was more like he had stumbled across a truth he would have much rather remained ignorant of.
“It’s all about sharing,” said Michihiko while still bound to the chair. “All sorts of technology were introduced to fight back against the Cyrillic Empire, including the slow-melting artificial snow, the two strategic anti-air laser beam cannons, and the four large-caliber railguns at the princess’s New Sapporo Castle, but this land is simply too vast. That method of protecting the island costs too much. The Empire doesn’t even have to cross the ocean now. They can just sit back and wait for New Sapporo Domain to economically collapse and for the rest of the Hokkaido Area’s domains to follow suit.”
The truck must have made a turn at an intersection because they felt a powerful force from the right.
They were using this food truck because New Sapporo Domain and the rest of the Hokkaido Area were now “car cities”. Why was that? Because the underground linear motor train meant to connect the six domains had been shut down for defense reasons.
Or so it was said, but was that really true? Linear motor trains used electromagnets to move at speeds greater than 500km/h, so they of course required a massive amount of power. That lower-priority guzzler of power had been eliminated in a way that would not concern the people too much.
“Everything requires power, but there is only so much they can produce themselves and Honshu still refuses to allow the installation of an undersea power cable. Maybe they don’t want even more of the country’s nuclear power to be focused on Tsugaru Domain, but the prevailing rumor within the castle is that Honshu fears giving the north enough power to isolate themselves.”
So had opinions differed on how to secure the power they needed?
“That left only one option. Or so Domain Lord Hatsunaga believed,” said Michihiko. “The importation of core infrastructure. It isn’t that uncommon on the continent. It’s the same as having a neighboring country dispose of your trash or having two countries share water and sewer services when a major river runs through them both.”
“Are you suggesting what I think you are?”
“Yes.” Michihiko’s ropes strained. “The Karafuto Route. You heard talk about the northern Wakkanai Domain expanding into a Dejima, right? The idea was to lay out an undersea power cable from there to gain the needed power.”
Instead of Sugiyado, it was twintailed Ouka who was leaning on the boy’s chair from behind who frowned at that. But Sugiyado was the one in charge of this interrogation, so she seemed reluctant to interrupt.
The young man let out a self-deprecating sigh.
“Yeah, it’s completely backwards, isn’t it? They would be relying on the Empire to power the equipment they need to protect themselves from the Empire. They would be helpless as soon as the Empire shut off the power, so they would essentially be presenting their Achilles’ heel to the enemy.”
Sugiyado thought for a bit.
This was all about deciding who to sell themselves off to: the Shogunate, the Cyrillic Empire, a corporation such as a power company, or an academic institution like a university. Whoever they asked to supply the power they needed would then hold the lifeline to the entire Hokkaido Area. That was a big enough deal to bring down the balance between the Four Occupations.
The Shogunate had refused, so who was their next best bet?
Had they arrived at that choice through the process of elimination, or had they intentionally steered toward the Shogunate’s enemy out of simple spite.
“But you said that was the Domain Lord’s idea, right? Do you mean the Princess ruling in his place sees things differently?”
“I imagine she poisoned him. I just hope she still has enough of a heart left that it was something nonfatal.”
Poisoning your own father even nonfatally did not sound like the act of someone “with a heart”.
They had not seen inside New Sapporo Castle’s tower, but had people’s sensibilities really grown so warped in there?
Murakami Michihiko continued with a bitter look on his face.
“I don’t know where she intends to get it, but Princess Karin apparently plans to acquire a massive amount of power from a different route. But energy is energy – it can be used for good or evil. We’re talking about a power source large enough to run the defense system covering the entire Hokkaido Area, so is there any way it can’t be used for the wrong things? As seen with nuclear power, energy can as easily bring peace as it can bring destruction.”
Ouka and Hoozuki’s eyes wandered a bit at the mention of nuclear power.
The incident they had once caused had begun with the theft of an ultra-small modular nuclear reactor being carried by a freight train.
But Sugiyado did not touch on their past wounds.
“That isn’t the crux of the issue, is it?”
“No. There is a hurdle beyond how the power is used. Even if this power source is perfectly safe and peaceful, they still have to prove that somehow. What if people mistakenly believe it could explode when used incorrectly? If people start to think they’re hiding a massive bomb, it could lead to war between the Hokkaido Area and the Empire, or even a civil war between the Hokkaido Area and Honshu.”
“I see,” said Sugiyado.
Princess Karin, leader of the Stonewalls, was also a risk here.
People were never free of their own minds.
The greatest risk of a revolution or uprising was when the thread of tension went slack. As soon as they were freed from having to figure out some way to fix their power problem, she might just reach for a fearsome switch.
She might not just use that power for defense.
What if she decided they could win if they went on the offensive and launched a needless attack on the Cyrillic Empire? Once the Empire had a justification for retaliation, they would be more than happy to attack. That could lead to a long, drawn-out war fought with overwhelming numbers.
“Okay, I can see the flaw in the Lord and the Princess’s plans, but how were you planning to safely escape this situation?”
“I think the supposed threat of the Empire is overblown. Whenever he ran into trouble with the ordinary finances, Domain Lord Hatsunaga would work up some extra funding in the name of military expansion. He started talking up the threat of the Empire as no more than a way to get the funding he needed, but that eventually grew into an actual concrete fear that is now draining money from the entire Hokkaido Area.”
“I have no intention of supporting the Empire or taking them lightly. I am a Shogunate ninja tasked with protecting this nation, after all. But if we can accurately assess the threat, we should be able to better defend ourselves with less waste.”
Sugiyado doubted the young man was lying.
At the very least, the ninja named Murakami Michihiko believed that to be true and was willing to bet his life on it.
The young man said more while Sugiyado pondered the matter.
“I must stop Princess Karin’s project no matter what. I am willing to offer up my own life to do so! I won’t ask you to help me, but at least drop me off somewhere in New Sapporo Domain. I won’t cause you any trouble, so let me clean up this problem!!”
“Is that so?” said Sugiyado.
Silence fell for a while.
But the former Hidden One appeared to have already made up his mind.
The crepe food truck’s brakes squealed as it came to a stop. They must have been at some sort of destination.
Sugiyado rapped on the thin metal door and called outside.
“You heard him, Ekaterina. The rest is in your Imperial hands.”
Michihiko stared blankly at the boy.
He probably honestly had no idea what those words meant. But this was all very real. The metal door was roughly thrown open from the outside and fully-equipped soldiers with identities hidden by masks, helmets, and goggles stormed onto the truck.
The words they exchanged were not even in Japanese.
This entire place had suddenly started to feel awfully Cyrillic.
“What? Eh!? What’s going on here!?”
Sugiyado waved a hand dismissively and said one thing more.
“You can take him away if you want, but leave the chair and rope.”
Murakami Michihiko’s mouth was covered now and he was helplessly carried outside.
To reiterate, Sugiyado Souha’s objective was to fulfill his promise with that dead old man: take care of that kid. So why would he ever give “that kid” any freedom to act if he was only going to recklessly run into danger?
He would not let the young man die.
Even if the young man resented him for it.
The crepe food truck was empty now, but it creaked as someone new stepped inside.
She wore an imbalanced outfit of a thick coat worn over a sheer camisole. Her skin was far too white to be Asian and her ankle-length hair was a very light platinum blonde. She had a slim outline all the way to the tips of her fingers and toes, so she would have fit right in as a ballerina or figure skater. She seemed something like a rose scattering excessive sex appeal through the simple act of walking, but she was more mechanical and precise than that.
“(I can’t believe this is happening on our date.)”
“(Hold your tongue, Ouka. You’ll lose points.)”
Ouka and Hoozuki looked somewhat exasperated.
Simply walking around looking like that was a big deal given the archipelago’s current isolationist policies.
The blonde beauty giggled in a bewitching way.
“It has been too long, Comrade Souha.”
“I am aware that not even the Empire addresses people that way anymore, you know? Where did you swim in from this time? Through a snowmelt pipe? You don’t smell like a sewer, at least.”
“That intel is the Neva River Nymphs’ lifeline, so it is of course a secret. …Until you take a liking to the title of comrade, anyway.”
Simply put, Ekaterina’s Neva River Nymphs were a group of frogmen. Their actions in New Sapporo Domain went undetected because they wore highly-insulated suits and used caustic soda breath purification devices that would function for a maximum of 48 hours straight. That allowed them to move freely around large cities by hiding below the surface of a river or another body of water, including water pipes, sewers, snowmelt pipes, agricultural and industrial waterways, hot spring pipes, and more. They even claimed they could relax more in a rooftop water tank than in a café heated by a fireplace.
“We haven’t spoken directly since the sunken submarine incident, have we? I am glad we can finally repay you for what you did back then, comrade.”
“You didn’t owe me anything. International law says you should work to assist a sunken or beached ship even if it belongs to another country or group.”
“Everyone might know they should do that, but you were the only person the world who did do it.”
The lady had the sweet atmosphere of the female proprietor of a secret salon, but she did not carelessly invade the boy’s personal space. She was like a bouquet of flowers meant to match one’s outfit. She was intentionally dimming her light to avoid clashing with the sex appeal of the less mature kunoichis behind the boy.
Then again, she was also showing off how much she was holding back.
“That was a delicate region of ocean. Our HQ could not let it get out that we were transporting a treaty-violating weapon through that region, so they pretended not to pick up on our SOS and even jammed our signal while disguising it as interference from thunderclouds. If you hadn’t shown up, 103 Neva members would have perished in that chilly, cramped space. Including me, of course.”
Sugiyado softly sighed.
Murakami Michihiko had said New Sapporo Domain was suffering from the tensions they themselves had created out of fear brought on by the country’s isolationist policies. And to rid themselves of that unease, they were growing into “external threat junkies” who endlessly expanded their military. Sugiyado was pretty sure that was accurate.
At the same time, it was looking like the outside world was full of even more conspiracies and misdeeds than the people in the archipelago imagined.
But for now…
“Babysit him for us.”
“Understood. I won’t even ask what this about.”
“And if you can, I would like to learn what the Empire is doing right now. How pressing do they see the situation with Japan?”
“Why even ask me when you know any answer I give will be designed to benefit the Empire? Just so you know, I am a descendant of the maids who served the very nobles who feared for the country’s future and chose to serve Rasputin cakes laced with cyanide.” She sounded exasperated and shrugged. “There is nothing I can tell you, so you can make your own guesses based on the circumstantial evidence.”
(Well, if they really were preparing for a war on the level of lava bursting up from the earth, Ekaterina’s team wouldn’t still be here in New Sapporo Domain.)
He had guessed that much from the moment she responded to his message.
That meant the question at hand was what to do about Princess Karin, New Sapporo Domain, and the Stonewalls who were getting worked up over nothing.
“What are your immediate plans, Comrade Souha?” Ekaterina giggled in a way that slightly strengthened her sweet aura. “I take it things in the castle are not going well. But the Shogunate as a whole does not appear to be making a move to crush them, so do you maybe need someone to work behind the scenes here?”
“Ekaterina, I will decide what needs to be done here.”
“And I am offering you materiel or personnel if you need them. The Stonewalls have deep roots in New Sapporo Castle, which makes them problem, does it not? If you know what needs doing, then why not go ahead and do it?”
She had just said she would not ask what this was about, and now this.
Never underestimate the intelligence-gathering ability of spies who could hide in any body of water.
“I am not working for the Empire’s benefit here. And another thing, Ekaterina. When trying to get closer to someone, it’s best to let yourself appear more vulnerable.”
“Oh? So you aren’t the type to drown in motherly displays of acceptance?”
Whatever form it took, New Sapporo Domain had indeed managed to maintain a dangerous balance for this long. And just like every other country and group out there, the Cyrillic Empire was not the big bad wolf from a children’s book, but they were also not selfless saints. They would snatch up every opportunity that came along. Even if they did not use their trump card right away, you had to assume it was still there in their deck.
A severe power shortage could cause a blackout in the entire defense system.
If that led to revolution or uprising, another country could possibly use the chaos to attack, but that was an amateurish idea. The Empire was more likely to play the role of cooperative ally from beginning to end and then ask for something equivalent in exchange after the fact. And with a friendly smile on their face all the while.
In her combination of a thick coat and a form-fitting camisole, Ekaterina did not push the issue any further. That lady was an experienced negotiator, so she chose to take a step back here.
“When you have decided what to do, make sure to call the Neva River Nymphs. Whisper the magic word and we will surface from any body of water.”
“I might not be doing anything. Murakami Michihiko is safe now, so I might just decide to leave.”
“No, you will choose to act once you learn what is happening here. This is no different from that submarine. You are not one to weigh the pros and cons before acting, Comrade Souha. That selfless spirit of service is a lovely thing. You would fit in very well with us.”
“Also.” Just before leaving the crepe food truck, the bewitching woman spoke as if to a child left behind at an amusement park. “I really do want to repay you for your help. As does everyone up on the surface who heard our SOS signal from the submarine but were only allowed to bite their lips and jam it. I won’t deny we have our own plans at play here, but do not forget how I feel.”
That was all.
Once Ekaterina was gone, Sugiyado sighed.
He knew there would be no sign of those river nymphs no matter where you looked on the surface. They had dived underwater.
(Didn’t take her long to incorporate my advice about vulnerability. She always has been quick to follow people’s advice. Although that cute side of her is probably another act meant to draw people in.)
That encounter seemed to have lowered the temperature within the food truck.
Specifically for Ouka and Hoozuki.
“First the Kingdom’s queen and now the Empire’s river nymph? You don’t have mistresses in every country around the world, do you?”
They could not hide their exasperation. It was often said you needed to watch out for jealousy and envy when kunoichis gathered, but since ninjas were supposed to use Machiavellianism as a weapon, they really needed to stop letting their own suspicions get the better of them.
The best medicine here would be to firmly deny it.
He had to put them at ease by showing he was confident in his denial. It was a basic but crucial tactic.
“Don’t be dumb, you two. I don’t have a single person you could call a mistress.”
“So you’re saying you do have women all around the world; it’s just that you keep them just distant enough that you can’t call them mistresses?”
“Sensei, there’s such a thing as being too passionate about your work.”
Evidently, he had phrased his denial poorly.
Even on a pirate ship full of outlaws, it was supposedly best to avoid a mixed-gender crew if you wanted to avoid unnecessary trouble.
2: Kunoichi Nest
“Heh heh. I knew you would go with mine, Sensei. Welcome to Hanasawa Bara’s love nest!!”
The crepe food truck finally arrived at a proper residence. Sapporo was set up like a go board and Bara had secured a location in the especially messy-looking shopping district of Susukino. That had always been the Hokkaido Area’s leading location for bars and the sex industry, but it had become even more nightless after a major IR move – specifically, establishing a connection with a publicly-run casino. But that was hardly surprising when it was essentially receiving the domain’s seal of approval.
“Eh heh heh, heh heh heh heh heh heh. I missed out on the secret date, but I’m the one who gets to take him home and share his bed!!”
The place had a living room, a VR-equipped home theater system, a simple training room, two indoor baths, and an open-air bath on the balcony that drew water in from a natural hot spring. It also had three bedrooms, a kitchen, and a bar counter.
Ouka awkwardly looked around a room large enough to play tennis in.
“What is this place? A hotel? A luxury apartment???”
“It’s an extended stay residential hotel. Maybe those differences are too much for the commonfolk to understand. Just think of it as a villa with a rental contract.”
It was best not to ask how exactly she had managed to get a room like this while keeping her identity secret. Sugiyado only hoped it was something as simple as solving a problem (of her creation) to earn the gratitude of the place’s manager.
Silver ponytail Hoozuki put a hand on her hip and breathed a gentle sigh.
“I guess we can give Bara the bed tonight since we did have her stay behind during our secret date.”
“Sensei, how about a bath? You aren’t in prison anymore, so you can stretch your legs and relax. It isn’t often you can enjoy a natural hot spring as nice as this in a big city.”
He looked over to confirm there were actually two dressing rooms – one for the men’s bath and one for the women’s bath.
“I’ll take you up on that offer.” He sighed. “We can discuss our next move after that.”
“Got it, Sensei.”
A change of clothes was already waiting for him in the dressing room. A full set of his usual clothes plus a bathrobe were neatly folded.
He stripped off his clothes, grabbed a towel, and opened the door to the bath. He found himself on the balcony, so this was apparently an open-air bath. There was not much of a view since it was surrounded by a fence made from bamboo tied together with rope, but it still felt weird to hear the hustle and bustle of the shopping district down below.
He heard some noise from beyond the partition dividing the men’s and women’s baths.
Hoozuki’s voice called over to him.
“I have to know, Sensei. What are you going to do now?”
He washed his sweat away before soaking up to the shoulders in the somewhat whitish bathwater.
He doubted this would do anything for the bolts in his spine or the springs replacing the ligaments in his legs, but he could still feel his body relaxing.
Then he answered Hoozuki’s question.
“To put it simply, I’m going to fulfill my promise to that old man.”
Take care of that kid.
That was all he had promised to Murakami Shouzou, the old man who had saved his life. Michihiko, the man’s grandson, might not want this, but there would be no threat to his life as long as he was in the care of Ekaterina and the others from the Empire. The young man would be free to choose a new life somewhere on Honshu after being given a falsified identity or to leave the country entirely and make a name for himself on the continent.
In that sense, Sugiyado could consider his objective complete at this point.
“Ouka, can you tell me how the Shogunate as a whole will respond to this incident in New Sapporo Domain?”
Ouka’s voice sounded very well-mannered even through the bamboo partition, so she clearly still saw herself as his student.
She also sounded somewhat excited.
“They will probably choose to wait and see how this plays out. It would be concerning if Domain Lord Hatsunaga really has been poisoned by his daughter Princess Karin so she can take his authority for herself, but there is no hard evidence of that at this point. It also is not clear what exactly Princess Karin has done to solve the Hokkaido Area’s power woes. Edo probably considers it too soon to send in a special inspector and freeze New Sapporo Domain’s authority.”
“And I must remind you that once a ninja, always a ninja. Even if Murakami Michihiko can be perfectly hidden with a new identity created by the Empire, I expect he will be back in New Sapporo Domain sooner or later if the problem here is not resolved. I do not know what connection you have with the Empire, but are they really prepared to continue protecting him indefinitely? Looking after someone long-term costs far more than just saving them the one time.”
A sigh could be heard in the steamy air.
But not from Ouka. It came from Sugiyado as he listened to her.
“Which means I can’t just leave. Not until it wouldn’t leave a bad taste in my mouth.”
That opinion had already been lurking in a corner of his mind.
The Shogunate did not seem aware how serious this was, but Princess Karin now had authority over New Sapporo Domain and might have solved the energy problem, strengthening their previously unstable defensive line. What if the tension about her position went slack? Whether it led her to burn out or act rashly, it would still shake her. What if she got it in her head that she could attack and win instead of just defending? The coming conflict might not remain in the north. There was a chance this could lead to the Cyrillic Empire pushing in toward the entire archipelago. Of course, it could also lead to the Shogunate needlessly invading Karafuto or Vladivostok after the blood rushed to their head.
More than any of that.
Even without Murakami Michihiko’s involvement, if Sugiyado were to back out now, the ones ordered to investigate and resolve the problems in New Sapporo Domain would be Ouka, Bara, Hoozuki, and Asagao. If he called it quits and that led to his students losing their lives, the regret and self-loathing would probably lead him to commit seppuku.
He could not back down now.
He had to prepare himself to deal with this.
“Fine. I guess I’ll see this through to the end.”
“Heh heh heh.”
That ticklish laughter seemed to come from Asagao.
“I knew you would say that, Sensei. Wah ha ha ha ha ha!!”
Things were taking a disconcerting turn.
Most notably, something suddenly parted down the middle like the curtains over a window or the doors to a giant airport storehouse.
What else but the bamboo partition separating the men’s and women’s baths?
(Are you kidding me!?)
“What are you doing!?”
He immediately backed away in the whitish water, but there was nothing he could do at this point.
“My, my,” said Bara who had set up this stage herself. “This is a ninja hideout, Sensei. And what kind of ninja mansion doesn’t have trap doors and secret contraptions?”
(Stop trying to pass this off as normal!)
However, a true ninja would not lose his cool at a time like this.
The time had come for Sugiyado Souha to maintain a blank expression no matter what.
“You were the one that taught us that a ninja should throw out all assumptions while in enemy territory, so why would you assume that curtains saying ‘men’s bath’ and ‘women’s bath’ meant the actual bath was divided in two?”
Ouka sounded like she was bragging, but she was also ducking down so far into the bath that it covered not just her shoulders but her chin as well. The red of her nose suggested this had turned out to be a lot more embarrassing than in her imagination.
Simply put, this had originally been just the one bath, but they had forcibly split it in two to catch him off guard. All so they could wait until he had moved far enough into the bath for them to surround him.
Four girls in only towels splashed toward him. They were not even wearing the flesh-colored skintight suits of their ninja outfits.
Asagao happily got to the point at hand.
“All we did was confirm that you never do change, Sensei. Heh heh heh. Yes, I knew you would never abandon the people here. And now it’s time to reward you for that!!”
He was only more confused now, but the other girls seemed to understand. Ouka and Bara refused to look him in the eye, but in a bashful way.
At any rate.
If they were going to do this, they could not hold back. They were a former Hidden One and four Elite Ninja kunoichis, but the Stonewalls led by Princess Karin had at least taken control of this entire domain. They could mobilize an army to eliminate just five people, so they could not let their guard down.
They had no time to spare.
A former Hidden One would not be flustered just from his students surrounding him in nothing but towels. He asked a question while keeping as cool an expression as possible.
“Asagao, I want your opinion since you’re the expert.”
“Why aren’t you blushing!? L-look, I just removed my towel below the water. There’s nothing covering me up anymore!!”
“What is the power situation in New Sapporo Domain…no, across the entire Hokkaido Area?”
“Do I need to dive underwater?”
Asagao was soaking up to her shoulders and she made a fearsome threat to the area between his legs before finally giving in and answering him.
“Boo. Looking back at the records for the past 5 years, they’ve had a lot of spontaneous power outages. They all have reasonable explanations like an accident at a transformer substation, a lightning strike, or whatever, but I think there’s a different reason. Especially since the outages are especially frequent during midsummer and midwinter. Based on the number of ordinary households with air conditioning, they seem to be short around 7 million kilowatts.”
Her mental estimation made sexy Bara frown and cross her arms. Some of the whitish water gathered in the cleavage of her large chest.
“That number doesn’t mean much to me.”
“They’re short about what three pressurized water reactor power plants would provide. To be clear, that’s the number of power plants, not the number of reactors.”
The words rattled off by the youngest girl caused Ouka, who was well on her way to mastering the ninja art of water escape, exchanged a look with Cool Beauty Hoozuki.
That meant more than 10 nuclear reactors.
If Princess Karin had appropriated all of that power for herself, what in the world was she using it for? And since handling that much power incorrectly could lead to a major explosion, couldn’t it be weaponized?
That was a level of “debt” that could not be made up just by covering a large field with solar panels or windmills.
“Commercial nuclear reactors require large quantities of coolant water at all times,” continued Asagao, “Assuming they aren’t being used in outer space, the normal method is to desalinate seawater and use that, so nuclear power plants aren’t well suited for large spaces of land like the Hokkaido Area. And sure enough, the area uses a lot of less-efficient thermal power generation. They’re trying to improve that with MHD generators, but it isn’t anywhere near enough. I can see why they’re short on power.”
Whatever the case, they would figure it out in due time.
While soaking in the whitish water, Sugiyado Souha decided they had to start by investigating how Princess Karin was making up for the insufficient power and what danger that method posed. After all, this was the equivalent of three nuclear power plants all at once. It was best not to speculate, but even if whatever-it-was had been built for peaceful purposes, he was pretty sure someone would be able to abuse it.
He would figure this out.
Before Princess Karin relaxed and carelessly made a devastating choice.
The following morning arrived.
You might think of ninjas as working in the shadows of the night, but they would operate in the light of day as well. They would act whenever necessary, they would get enough rest to ensure their top performance, and they would always make sure to remain inconspicuous.
“What the hell? Who is this?”
Sugiyado lightly slapped his hand at something soft near his face.
“Ahn, that’s my butt, Sensei.”
“By the way, if you turn the other way, you’ll be burying your face in Hoozuki’s chest. Who, I might add, is currently borrowing one of your shirts.”
“Bara? And Hoozuki too?”
“There’s no real time limit for dealing with that old man’s case, is there? So why not take a bit of a detour for some pink and milky-white fun with us?”
“I trusted you to not be like this, but maybe I should rethink relying on you here.”
Four figures scrambled from his bed as quickly as they could manage. They all sat down in a row on the wooden flooring. Those students knew how to tell when Sugiyado Souha was willing to put up with some joking and when he was not.
Bara wore a negligee, Ouka wore pastel pajamas, and they all gave each other cautious looks.
“You disgusted him with the horribly cliché choice to use your chest.” (Bara)
“Using your butt seems worse to me. I mean, that’s your lower body.” (Hoozuki)
“The worst one was Ouka. She climbed headfirst under the covers and fell asleep with her face between his legs. And that was very much intentional on her part.” (Asagao)
“Hey, don’t act all pure yourself, Asagao. We all know why you’re wearing those over-the-top panda costume PJs.” (Ouka)
Nothing he said seemed to get through to them.
Technically speaking, they were his former students and were now independent Elite Ninjas. Responding to this oddity in New Sapporo Domain was the expected response for spies who served the Shogunate, so there was no real reason for them to do so under his command. In fact, they could earn a lot of points if they bound him and threw him back into Abashiri’s special prison (even if they were the ones who had broken him out in the first place).
He could not forget that this was not the expected situation. It only worked thanks to so much kindness on their part.
Letting that show would only make the kunoichis more self-conscious, so he casually kept it hidden while he too left the bed. He wanted to check on something before he took a shower.
A Fount of Knowledge, a complex device hooked up to various communication devices, sat on the living room’s glass table.
“Let’s see how much this has gathered.”
“Wait, Sensei! Let me use the Fount!”
Asagao hopped to her feet and followed after him. That seemed to restore the flow of time for the other girls because they began to move as well.
Staying focused at all times during an important mission would only lead to burnout. They needed to get a set amount of rest at set times, but anyone who had been up all night worrying about something would know that was much easier said than done. People tended to fall out of their usual rhythm and routine on important days or when not allowed a single mistake. And the effect was greatest when their own life or someone close to them’s life was on the line.
But it was also true that shutting your eyes and falling asleep would cause time to pass.
It was a waste to not use that time to accomplish something.
That was why Sugiyado had altered his phone’s settings to have the device automatically gather information while he was resting. It did not take all that much intelligence to use a crawler to gather data like you were pulling a drain plug in the vast ocean of the internet.
Extremely small Asagao licked her lips as she checked on the device.
“Mechanical data harvesting is fairly indiscriminate, so you end up with a lot. There’s a bit of a trick to filtering the results, so just leave that to me.”
“You make it sound complicated, but isn’t it similar to knowing the best search terms to narrow down the results on a search engine?” asked an exasperated Ouka, but Asagao did not seem remotely bothered.
They were most interested in the core of Princess Karin’s electrical infrastructure, but they were not going to find a specifications document just sitting out there on the open internet.
Still, there were other hints to be found.
The central members of Amamo, Yukizasa, and Oume.
New Sapporo Domain’s classified server had been tampered with to hide those terms, so they held great meaning.
“Here we go.” Asagao seemed to be enjoying herself. “They’re doing a lot to hide their names, but they’ve transported a few cargo containers to different locations. This says they contain…electronic garbage like computers and phones.”
“So pure gold in another form?”
“If you know a little ‘alchemy’, you can get a fair bit from the circuit boards and semiconductors. Since they aren’t crossing the ocean, there’s no need to make payments over fiberoptic where the deal might be discovered.”
“Where are they sending the gold bars in trash form?”
Sugiyado reached over to touch the screen. Asagao twisted her body to complain, but he ignored that.
“The Teine Workshop District in New Sapporo Domain.”
“None of this is concrete.”
Bara was right.
And you could not take their skill in this field lightly. Places like this contained technology even more advanced than global corporations. Modern ninjas like them were pros at preventing the theft of technology by foreign states. They could not exactly do their job without knowing where that technology was found.
In fact, their ninja noses were telling them something here.
Had this been intentionally organized as a collection of small workshops instead of a single major corporation or laboratory so it would not stand out in the paperwork?
It would not be unusual for each individual workshop to be smaller than a convenience store or gas station, but they would cover a 5km square of land when all brought together. If they were all working together as a single large entity instead of competing for survival, then that would be a productive facility with incredible power.
“Is it like taking a skyscraper, cutting apart each division, and spreading those out along the ground, Sensei?”
They used slow-melting artificial snow as an environmental defense policy, two strategic antiaircraft lasers towered up on the outskirts, four 900mm rapid-fire railguns and a moat full of electrolyte liquid sensors protected the castle, and a since-abandoned linear motor train network could be found underground.
This frigid land had large areas of empty space, so the Shogunate’s usual defensive theories did not apply. But who had done R&D on all the equipment used to defend this northern land?
In the modern age, civilian satellite services could be used to search through even the most remote areas of the world, so building a secret base deep in the mountains was meaningless.
“It’s all white, Sensei.”
As Ouka leaned up against him to peer at (Asagao’s) phone, he viewed the satellite and analyzed what he saw.
“That’s probably the artificial snow, but there sure is a lot of it even for the area around New Sapporo Domain. That much seems like it would be a strain on the building rooftops.”
The slow-melting artificial snow was used as an environmental defense.
The idea was for it to slow the advance of an Imperial army arriving from overseas, but that was all hypothetical. Hindering the people’s lives for that would entirely defeat the purpose. And yet there it all was. The thick layer of snow did more than color the image white. It also appeared to obstruct measurements made with infrared and microwave.
Sugiyado chose his words with careful attention to where he was steering the conversation.
“If they’re deploying so much of that ‘defense’, is that some kind of crucial location?”
It only looked like a working class area of plain workshops, but it was actually the same as a company town that controlled the finances of an entire giant automobile factory or semiconductor manufacturer.
“Whether she goes to the Shogunate, the Empire, a company, or a university, Princess Karin thinks relying on someone else for her power means handing them her Achilles heel. That means she will have her own technology division to keep that Achilles heel in her grasp.”
“Is that what this is?” asked Bara.
“It might not look it, but I bet that place has the strictest security. Probably about as difficult as sneaking into an international corporations’ HQ.”
A new electrical system was being set up to recover their defensive infrastructure.
It had to be the equivalent of more than 10 nuclear reactors.
The system used might or might not be dangerous, but Princess Karin and the Stonewalls had at the very least killed one person at Abashiri’s special prison, poisoned the domain lord, and stolen New Sapporo Domain’s authority. Things would not have progressed this far if their reasons were something anyone would accept if they simply explained them.
It would be well worth investigating this (giant strategic military research institute disguised as a) workshop district. Whatever Princess Karin was ultimately thinking, nipping this new electrical system in the bud would mean grasping the Achilles heel of the Stonewalls who had taken over New Sapporo Domain and held great influence over the entire Hokkaido Area.
“Let’s work out a concrete plan,” said Sugiyado. “We don’t have much time.”
“Checking back in time, there are a few facial recognition readings.” Asagao snatched back her phone. “The Stonewalls are hiding their faces to an extent, but they aren’t perfect. Now, I think they’re skilled enough to do a better job, but they get lazy because they know Princess Karin can cover for them.”
“Does that mean one of the other three are defending the shopping district?”
“They appear to be working on a rotation, Sensei. I can’t tell if there’s a schedule or if it’s randomized, but using the most straightforward pattern, I know who will probably be next.”
Perhaps because Asagao herself used her youth as a weapon, she did not hold back the cruel smile as she revealed this information.
“Taganuma Yukizasa. As the youngest, she uses her light weight and short limbs to specialize in combat in closed and dark spaces.”
4: Strategic Military Research Institute
The ground and roofs were covered by more than meter of white snow.
This was supposedly out-of-season artificial snow, but the artificial had taken over the natural environment here. It must have had an effect similar to a mist shower because the area felt as cold as the inside of a giant refrigerated warehouse.
This was the Teine Workshop District of northern New Sapporo Domain.
Everything in the city of Sapporo was arranged like a go board, but this one area felt a lot more cluttered and complex. The inconvenience for transportation meant most ordinary traffic avoided the area, so the layout was in fact an intentional way of creating a deserted atmosphere. The place looked like a collection of mid and small-sized city workshops left behind by the times. Without any obvious landmarks like the clock tower, TV station, and New Sapporo Castle, few tourists ever visited. It felt like a place with a closed cycle of locals and only locals.
But all of that was camouflage.
This area buried in white snow had in fact been chosen by Princess Karin as a cutting-edge strategic military research institute that influenced the entire Hokkaido Area’s defensive plans.
Setting up obvious anti-personnel and anti-tank mines or coils of barbed wire would only rouse suspicions, but there were still a variety of traps in evidence. Broken bottles could be seen on the snow as makeshift caltrops, a peek into the back alleys showed kerosene tanks and propane tanks hooked up to wires and switches, and sheets covered in a thick layer of snow would send you tumbling to the ground if you took even a light step onto the rooftops.
It was all very effective without seeming conspicuous if an ordinary person happened to get injured by one.
By using everyday items, the presence of ninjas would not come to light even if the traps were discovered.
It was all very carefully set up that way, showing this was professional work.
That white land was currently being defending by…
At 12, she was the youngest of the four kunoichis at the center of the Stonewalls. She was supposedly an expert at combat in cramped or dark areas thanks to her short height and short limbs.
Her ninja outfit was composed of full-body carbon nanotube chainmail with one piece of cloth around her chest and another around her hips.
The girl with semi-long hair used a combination of logical combat and techniques that used her undeveloped body to create an opening.
Her ninja weapon was known as a Beak.
Synthetic rope was wrapped around the butt end of a mountain climbing ice axe to create something similar to a kusarigama. She could move in close and swing it down at her enemy or she could use the rope to swing the weapon around in an irregular fashion, catching at a target’s clothing and keeping them from escaping.
(And she could have it poisoned.)
Altering the type and concentration of poison, she could cause paralysis, pain, delirium, fainting, and even death. It was an exceedingly dangerous weapon that could strike like a scorpion or a spider.
If Yukizasa was a kunoichi hidden in the shadows of history, how did Sugiyado know exactly what she looked like? They might have gotten a photo of her face from New Sapporo Castle’s server room, but that would not have told him that the young ninja with semi-long hair used a Beak or wore a chainmail ninja outfit.
The answer was simple.
“There, that’s a good girl. Just go limp and let the darkness take you.”
He snuck up on her from behind.
Sugiyado Souha placed the back of his elbow around the young girl’s slender neck and dragged her into a back alley before using his legs to restrain her torso and arms like a stag beetle’s mandibles.
His down jacket made a sound from the movement.
The girl’s butt had already fallen onto the unmelting snow and she was not recovering anytime soon. She might as well have fallen backwards while carrying a backpack heavier than she was.
He had used a stranglehold that applied pressure to her carotid artery rather than her windpipe.
That would knock someone out in a dozen seconds or so no matter how much they trained or what their lung capacity was.
There was no scream.
She could not escape the pressure, like she was being strangled by the shoulder strap of her own backpack.
She tried to reach a small hand toward a tripwire nearby – perhaps hoping the blast-resistance of her ninja outfit would save her – but she could not attempt a recovery with the explosive trap because his legs were pinning her arms in place.
She clenched her teeth in a desperate attempt to avoid foaming at the mouth and she finally went limp once her adorable eyes rolled back in her head. There was no dignity there. The irregular twitching of the 12-year-old’s young body was no more than convulsions, not conscious actions.
Silver ponytail Hoozuki approached with feet crunching through the white snow and she put an exasperated hand on her hip.
“Sensei, you’re a little too good at this. You’re looking an awful lot like a teacher who loves using corporal punishment.”
“Victory is a physical phenomenon, so don’t let your emotions influence it, Hoozuki. Besides, I would have been in trouble if I tried to attack her head on. I have to throw my air pressure kunais, so we fight best at completely different ranges.”
“Please don’t ruin our secret date by lecturing me.”
He removed his arm and legs from Yukizasa’s neck and torso and let her small body fall unceremoniously to the snow. After running his hands across the minimal curves of her body to check for her possessions, he pulled an ID card, communicator, and other usable items from her pocket and tossed them to Ouka.
Then he lined up her Stonewall ninja tools on the snow: a collapsible shovel, a powerful light used to dazzle an enemy’s eyes instead of as a light source, and the Beak made from an ice axe.
Ouka tilted her head in her ninja outfit while showing no concern for the tripwire nearby.
“There’s more,” he said with a sigh.
He was not done yet. The ninja instructor looked down at his defeated foe and stuck his index finger into her mouth while she lay limp but trembling on the snow.
He ran his finger along the inside of her cheeks, scratched at her back teeth with his nail, and finally tore away and pulled out a filling.
He smiled a little.
It was the look of a soldier after successfully defusing a mine.
“That’s what’s in chili peppers, so it’s a fairly moral choice as far as ninja drugs go.”
Bara was keeping an eye on their surroundings with her projectiles at the ready and she was familiar with poisons because she would apply various chemicals to the needles of hardened candy she fired from her coilguns.
“It’s usually used to blind an opponent, but it can also be used to help rouse you. If you want to see if it’s taken effect, you can open one of her eyelids and shine a light in her eye.”
“Heh heh hehhh. You can always count on me to spice up a secret date☆ All that’s missing now is a romantic aphrodisiac.”
Simply put, the capsaicin filling was a means of forcibly rousing the girl after half a minute or so even if she was caught by surprise and knocked unconscious.
Once her opponent relaxed, assuming she had been neutralized, she could stab them in the back before the giddiness of victory had even worn off. Ninjas did not aim for an undefeated record. They would turn themselves into zombies if it would give them the win in the end.
“Neat, so is it like the Cicada Spray?” said theory-loving Asagao. “I’d heard other schools have something similar.”
“Huh? Cicada?” asked practical Hoozuki who could bring down an armored truck or attack helicopter using her Countless Calamities off-road motorcycle that she could transform into a shuriken launcher or wield as a giant axe similar to a circular saw.
The difference in knowledge there may have come from their difference in individual combat skill. In other words, Asagao was always searching for information because she lacked confidence.
In that case, Hoozuki was the one in trouble. A ninja obviously needed to know their enemy’s weaknesses, but they also needed to know their enemy’s strengths so they could use those to create an opening. Feeling doubt to the point of paranoia was a problem, but the opposite end of the spectrum was arrogance. They needed to strike a balance. Sugiyado made a mental note to give them a refresher on that topic once he had a chance.
Assuming you were, and would always be, the strongest was toxic.
Sugiyado himself had broken his legs and back and been forced to retire after repeatedly pushing himself more and more because he thought he could go “just a little further”.
At any rate, Asagao let out some visible breaths as she laughed in a way too wicked for someone of her age.
“At least it’s only similar. With the real one, if you have a few seconds before passing out, you relax all of your muscles to let everything out. Ammonia is an ingredient in smelling salts, you see.”
That explained the Cicada Spray name.
“I notice you didn’t specify what you’re letting out of where.” Sugiyado sounded impressed. “You’ve matured since I last saw you, Lady Asagao.”
“Sensei, teasing me by drawing attention to it doesn’t seem very nice.”
That was because she had gotten sidetracked on that bizarre topic for no good reason. Bara knew a lot about chemicals and she had only placed a hand on her cheek and sighed. A true lady would know the answer but refrain from giving it. Asagao tearfully scowled at him, so she needed to study up on etiquette a bit more.
Restraining the unconscious kunoichi was simple enough.
Most kunoichis wore ninja outfits made from thin but sturdy materials to help them against bigger or more numerous opponents, so no special ropes or handcuffs were necessary. Pinching the cloth together and tying it like that would “connect” their limbs, torso, and other movable parts, transforming their outfits into inescapable straightjackets.
“I have a question for you four. Is Yukizasa the seduction type?”
“Sensei, don’t you think her body needs to develop a lot more before she can do that?”
Bara crossed her arms to intentionally lift up her large chest inside her oiran-style ninja outfit. That provoked a reaction out of baggy-sleeved Asagao.
“I can charm you just as well as Bara, Sensei! Boobs aren’t anything. Mh, you don’t believe me, do you? I’ll be visiting you tonight, so I hope you’re ready!!”
“What do you think, Sensei?” asked Ouka.
“Probably not,” he replied.
He had only asked them to help him work through his unorganized thoughts.
He continued while making sure to avoid stepping on a handmade bear trap made by breaking apart a commercial lawnmower to expose the thick blades and then burying it in the artificial snow.
“She probably does use her exposed figure to distract her opponent’s thoughts in combat, but no more than that. A ninja who uses full-on seduction would change her tune once she was at a disadvantage, but she showed no sign of that even as she passed out.”
A ninja outfit designed for sex appeal would sometimes be given an intentional weakness to heat or a specific chemical so it could provide defense but also break away on command, but Yukizasa’s was made of purely defensive chainmail. That was probably meant to make up for her small size as the youngest of her group, but she could not escape it once it was used to bind her. And Sugiyado was not against using the methods available to him.
He had knocked her out in an alley entrance, but he chose an even more private location for the rest.
But thanks to his damaged spine, he could not drag even a small 12-year-old around. He got Bara and Hoozuki’s help to hide the small body behind a wooden box in the narrow alley and then placed a blue tarp over her. While making sure to avoid the tripwire connected to a kerosene tank, of course.
The snow was artificial, but the unconscious girl could still freeze to death left lying in it. And waking up would not help her there since she was bound with her own ninja outfit. But her ninja outfit was designed for use in this frigid northern land. As thin as it was, it would still have an insulated design that reflected IR back at herself to preserve her body heat. She would probably be fine left here. Twintails Ouka tilted her head.
“Huh? Shouldn’t you hide her better than that?”
“She wasn’t some guard on the outskirts – she was the center of their security system. Once she stops reporting in, their alert level will go up no matter what we do, so they’ll start a search of the entire area. North New Sapporo Domain’s Teine Workshop District is their backyard, so they’ll find her no matter where we hide her, unless we chop up her corpse and bury the pieces.”
Ouka gave him an extremely harsh look that said “there are four of us and we could have that done in no time if you gave the order”, but her instructor had something else to say.
“Our presence here will be noticed no matter what, so the question is what we do then. We have everything we need: her ID card, communicator, and a set of Stonewall ninja tools. So let’s get going, Ouka. The rest of you too.”
5: Stroll Through the Weapons Plant
The center of New Sapporo Domain was methodically laid out like a shogi board, but this workshop area was an intricate arrangement of narrow roads with lots of one-way and no-entry signs. Not to mention the snow. Not only did it cause visitors to get lost, but certain locations could be cut off from their surroundings by several lesser-used roads.
At first glance, it was not obvious what route to take. Without the use of a satellite service, they would have stood out from their surroundings.
“Continue as planned,” whispered Sugiyado.
In their ninja outfits that perfected a combination of sex appeal and practicality, Ouka, Bara, and Hoozuki vanished upwards in the blink of an eye. They had jumped up to the single-story rooftops with some help from the layer of snow thicker than a meter below their feet. With their physical abilities boosted by the special flexible material of their ninja outfits, a jump like that was nothing. And they were not dumb enough to step on a rooftop trap and tumble back down to the ground along with a thick layer of snow.
Black-haired and white-uniformed Asagao remained on the ground, but…
“W-wait, Sensei, what am I supposed to do? I can’t fight or jump up onto the roofs even with the same equipment as them.”
“That kind look! I’m the one left behind while the rest enjoy a secret date today, aren’t I!?”
He ignored her protests. When fortunate enough to be working in a group, it was best to leave one person behind so they could respond in case of emergency.
From here on, moving swiftly was more important than blending into the crowd, so he removed his down jacket and tossed it over Asagao’s head while she puffed out her cheeks.
“You wait here. And hold onto that for me.”
“Pwah. I’m not a kitten you can leave at the pet hotel while on vacation! You can’t…you can’t placate me with…ahh, I can feel your warmth. No, I won’t let this work!”
Bara’s manic voice reached them over the radio.
“Oh ho ho! I’m going to be extra demanding today after being left out yesterday, Sensei!!”
He could have called Ekaterina or Murakami Michihiko in for support, but he did not know either of them well enough. He wanted someone he knew would be able to respond immediately.
So he trudged off through the snow on his own.
The entire area was a 5km square, but each individual workshop was smaller than a convenience store. They were all packed in tight, so there was simply not enough time to sneak into each of them to check them out. He wanted to pinpoint target the right one, but they did not know which one was the center.
“Asagao, how’s the data look?”
“Why am I stuck with a no-touching-allowed long-distance internet relationship? Boo. …Anyway, this is tricky. Data security here might be even stricter than at New Sapporo Castle.”
“Because unlike the castle, there’s no defined honmaru or server room.”
It was best to use the process of elimination at times like this.
The warehouse district had no obvious symbols of authority. There was no tenshukaku, president’s office, or other seat of power, but there was also no supercomputer, server room, or centralized manufacturing equipment. All of that had been made as parallel and distributed as possible to avoid having an obvious “giant core”.
What had to be kept all in one place no matter how much they tried to distribute everything?
This northern land’s defense system had been expanded to the point that it required as much power as 10 nuclear reactors to run. No matter what system they used, that would make for one hell of a toy.
Sugiyado sensed a stir up ahead.
The roads here were narrow and labyrinthine, but he still hid himself in an alley off to the side. An old wooden board with several long nails sticking out of it was left on the ground nearby, presumably to act like a beartrap.
The combined electricity/gas/water meter on the wall nearby was displaying a warning color on its small LCD screen.
Something was wrong.
But this was not just an electrical or gas leak.
There were no sirens sounding, but that may have been borrowing the logic of submarines. Everyone in the area had been swiftly and silently notified to not give away their presence. Most likely, every worker and guard in the 5km area had received an emergency email on their mobile devices.
A few roars of engines he guessed belonged to snowmobiles passed by on the road he had just vacated. They had the light but violent roar of a chainsaw.
(That’s fine. I figured we would be detected eventually.)
This was effectively a defense weapon development base maintained by the Stonewalls, so they would have a failsafe in place. If an enemy attack was detected, they would have to go through a few steps.
1. Lock down all the major entrances and exits so no one else could get in or not.
2. Use overwhelming numbers to search out and restrain the intruders.
3. Report any human or material damage or theft and run a search for any bombs or traps that might have been set up.
And they were using as much energy as 10 nuclear reactors, so…
4. Temporarily shut down any dangerous experiments underway behind the thick walls.
No one would want to be killed by their own invention blowing up.
People’s actions were a reflection of their heart.
Blindly making waves would never end well, but if you put together a careful plan, knew where to look, and made careful observations, you could learn something from it.
That said, ninja strategies lacked a decisive blow. Ninjas sought two kinds of power: the power to put together a detailed plan and the power to adlib their way through problems.
So they generally played things by ear.
He chose to follow this route to the center since their presence had been noticed, but if their opponent had behaved differently, he would have taken a different route to his goal.
Once he heard some dogs released nearby, he climbed onto a nearby rooftop and abandoned the surface route.
Nowhere here was safe.
It never was in enemy territory.
The rooftops were also covered in a thick layer of snow. Step in the wrong spot and you would fall to the ground along with a slipping sheet and the snow on top of it. In some areas, the snow melt cables had been intentionally shorted to leave a high-voltage current for someone to unwittingly stumble across. He had to assume the traps were more dangerous in the places ordinary people would never tread.
When he took a careful look from above, he saw some guards equipped with cross-country skis that could be folded up and stored in the shin of their boots. They gave some instructions to a large dog and then moved elsewhere. They were also equipped with submachineguns that had a grip and a ski pole built in, so they were presumably meant to be fired from the hip while aiming with a laser pointer. All this equipment confirmed his suspicions that these were Stonewall ninjas.
(They may have sealed the place off, but it’s a big area. Some footprints in the snow isn’t enough to put them on alert.)
Then there was the dog. His back felt funny at 5kg and it exploded with pain at 10kg, so he would be trapped if he was pinned by a dog of that size. He needed to be careful.
They photographed his footprints.
If he wanted to avoid being caught that way, he needed to change the soles of his shoes. Plus, how he carried his weight could be used to identify him. His own legs felt weird with every step he took thanks to the extra sole and insole he was using.
That was a pain, but he looked way from his feet.
There were a surprising number of people around. Some of those were of course pursuing the intruder that had entered the strategic military research institute known as the Teine Workshop District and that had taken out On-Site Commander Taganuma Yukizasa, but there was something else going on as well.
It felt like he was seeing a scattered minority trying to escape while the majority were on the attack.
For example, he saw a teenage girl who did not look like the fighting type and he saw an old lady wearing a workshop jumpsuit. The trick to being a courier was not to be strong and tough. It was to be nondescript enough to never stand out in a crowd. In that sense, they were perfect.
Because they were not acting.
No one acted more naturally than an actual amateur. That was why careless travelers might end up with a strange plastic bag shoved in their travel bag at the airport while they were not paying attention. In the same way, these people may not have been told what it was they were carrying.
He found that much more interesting, so he spoke into the small mic hidden below his scarf.
“Ouka, Bara. I’ve marked some runners who look like amateurs to me. Cut off their escape and restrict their available routes. Hoozuki, you provide backup.”
“Will do, Sensei.”
Ouka sounded excited.
He had only climbed onto the roof to prevent the dog from following his scent and there was no completely safe place here, so he hopped down from the roof at a convenient place and then moved below the eaves. He made sure not to step on any of the makeshift caltrops made with broken bottles while he waited for a surveillance drone to pass by overhead.
“Coordinate DD32. Using ID card in 3, 2, 1…”
As Ouka made her countdown, the drone unnaturally turned back the way it had come. Just as he heard the quiet roar of a snowmobile engine on another street, several bullet-shaped objects flew from one roof to another.
Word of Yukizasa’s defeat would have reached them by now, so what would happen when Ouka used the stolen ID card? But that could be extremely useful when you wanted to put the hornet’s nest in a frenzy.
While security was focused in that direction, Sugiyado stealthily pursued the amateur girl and old woman.
The more intense the defense team, the more the escape team stood out by moving in the opposite direction.
They might as well have been dunked in glow-in-the-dark paint.
They also cautiously (or fearfully) avoided the area where Ouka had used the ID card knowing it would be detected. As amateurs, they were not going to take the long way to check for anyone tailing them and they did not know how to use diversions or distractions.
But even though he could defeat amateurs like this with ease, Sugiyado did not immediately go in for the attack. He observed them from a reasonable distance to figure out where they were headed.
The answer surprised him.
“Asagao, I’d like some analysis. What is this?”
“So you can’t forget how sweet my presence is even when we’re apart? Grin, grin. Anyway, that’s officially designated as a park, but it’s effectively an empty lot since they removed all the playground equipment and banned playing there with a ball or whatever because it’s too dangerous.”
“So it’s really nothing? Not what I expected.”
The rectangular space was about half the size of a soccer field and covered in more than a meter of white snow.
The escape team had gotten here ahead of him, so where had they gone?
He had retired from active duty, but he still had the skills he had built up.
He was not about to lose sight of an amateur.
The footprints in the snow just stopped all of a sudden and there was no sign of a car or snowmobile having driven through.
They could not have been picked up by helicopter either. He would not have overlooked a hot-air balloon, flying car, or any other vehicle flying through the wide-open sky.
They must have used some other method.
This area had none of the traps made with everyday items…but that did not mean it was unimportant. They might have chosen not to lay any traps here because a normal person stepping on one could end up drawing attention to the place.
He looked down at where the footprints completely vanished.
“Wait, could it be?”
He put off answering Ouka’s question over the radio.
“Asagao, you must have already checked on the map. I want to know how deep the snow is here.”
“Since it’s artificial, you can’t use the weather maps for that. But if we can trust the laser measurement data, it’s 103cm in that area.”
“Is it really?” He had no proof of this, so he naturally grew more cautious in his wording. “Laser measurements are taken by sending IR down from a satellite, measuring the reflection, and comparing the result to the actual terrain. But that tells you more than just the altitude. You can combine the results to give yourself an accurate 3D diagram, similar to lining up gourd slices.”
“What’s your point, Sensei?” asked Asagao.
“But that only works when no one messes with the process. If someone sets up shiny mirrors or black carbon pigments that absorb any wavelength, the results will come back wrong. Then what about this place? The entire place is covered with unnatural artificial snow.”
“The Stonewalls have been raising the land little by little while changing the reflectivity of the artificial snow so the satellite’s laser measurements won’t notice. The environmental defense policy lets them keep this snow out here year round, so no one would even notice if the ground below the hardened snow had been lifted, even by more than a meter. Or if the space below had been dug out to create a giant igloo or cave.”
“So is that park itself a giant lab?” gasped Bara over the radio.
“B-but wait a second, Sensei,” cut in Ouka. “We don’t know the scope of their experiment, but aren’t they ultimately trying to build a medium that can produce more energy than 10 nuclear reactors? You’re only talking about snow and ice. I doubt that could physically shield against an emergency!”
She had a point.
Or she would have if this snow had fallen from the sky and the ice had frozen on a lake.
“They used a special plastic,” he bluntly stated. “Something like polystyrene. It’s harder than metal and extremely light, so I bet they hid it below the snow.”
“You’re kidding, right? We’re talking about a lab that manages more energy than 10 nuclear reactors. I don’t know how much they built up the area using the snow, but you would need dozens of meters of that special plastic to create a physical barrier capable of preventing disaster!”
“What if it could change shape to redirect impacts, just like your ninja outfits do?”
That idea overturned the idea of heavy armor or a solid fortress.
But it was not a crazy idea.
They could do it here.
“They use an emulsion. Water and oil tend not to mix, but with a surfactant, they will appear to behave like a single mixed liquid. That was used to create the polystyrene plastics.”
“But doesn’t that end once it hardens?” asked Bara. “I doubt that would provide the muscle-like flexibility you’re talking about.”
“It hasn’t hardened.”
“Then how is it any different from a gooey adhesive?” asked Asagao.
He smiled a little at that.
Preconceptions were hard to shake.
“With an emulsion, Particle A and Particle B might appear to mix together, but they never actually combine and become a different substance. It’s more like B slips into the gaps between A. But if you mess with the water molecules filling that space, A and B will behave very differently. Did you forget, Bara? And Asagao too? New Sapporo Domain has the perfect toy for this.”
“Oh,” he heard Asagao say over the radio.
“The slow-melting artificial snow, which you can see all around you. That snow has clearly been altered in some way since it doesn’t melt at ordinary temperatures. If they combined that with the high-polymer water-absorbing gel used in your ninja outfits, then it’s doable. By controlling the water molecules that act as the solidifying core, they can create a new plastic that freely switches between rigid and flexible.”
The usual assumptions of construction did not apply here.
What should harden, did not. And what had supposedly hardened would ignore the usual rules by growing soft once more.
Ninja outfits were so thin they had more or less become a part of the wearer’s skin, yet they could hold back the force of a bullet. In the same way, a decently thick layer of this plastic could be placed over the lab to eliminate the risks presented by an accident.
A heavy rumbling reached him.
He slowly turned around to see a gray giant had partially crushed the roof of a small workshop across the road.
They already had it working at a military level.
This cutting-edge fighter was made by strengthening a slender girl’s body, with a focus on the arms and legs, and simply giving her thicker armor. A smooth mass of fine-tuned plastic stood over three meters tall.
It produced a sound like a pressure cooker or locomotive, so it may have used steam power.
Destroying the building’s roof seemed to have set off a few traps using tripwires or electrodes. Explosions and sparks from high-voltage lines scattered around, but the giant did not seem to care. Nor had she taken any noticeable damage.
The smooth surface gave off an unnatural rainbow light similar to a soap bubble or the surface of a movie disk. The unique structure was probably refracting the light. From the look of that, simple explosions would be useless and even a warship’s laser beam would only melt the surface a little while most of its power was deflected away.
This next-gen powered suit determined the behavior of an emulsion by messing with the core of water molecules that decided how hard the special plastic would be. Part of that likely used the same high-polymer water-absorbing gel found in the kunoichis’ ninja outfits.
If so, it could do more than just protect against bullets and explosions in combat. By adjusting its flexibility on command, it could also boost the wearer’s physical abilities.
Something was staring at Sugiyado from the center of the gray.
It was Taganuma Yukizasa.
That youngest of the Stonewall elites used the humiliation burning inside her to get her murderous internal combustion engine running.
He had saved her life.
He had let her live when he could have killed her.
But she apparently had too much pride to view it that way.
Instead, his failure to finish her off only inspired more anger and humiliation over her defeat. The young kunoichi bit her lip and then gave a roar as if releasing all of the emotions built up inside her.
“I’ve found the intruder!!”
6: The Stonewalls in their Element
Now that their eyes had met, there was no peaceful route out of this. Mutual understanding was generally presented as a beautiful thing, but not so in the ninja world. Understanding was meant to be a one-way thing. You never sat at the same table and any location containing two ninjas of different affiliations was known as a battlefield.
But before they got started, Sugiyado made sure to say one thing using the small mic on the inside of his scarf. While making sure the scarf would keep her from reading his lips.
“Change of plans. Ouka, you infiltrate the depths of the park. You can find the entrance and do that, can’t you? Hoozuki, you support her. I’ve already been spotted by Yukizasa, so I’ll draw her away along with as many other enemy troops as I can. That should give you more room to work, but make sure you don’t get caught while I draw them away.”
“Sensei, what should I do?” asked Bara.
“I hate to ask this, but could you support me? But you haven’t been spotted yet, so use your hair coilguns. Load your heavy Tatami Needles and focus on sniping from a safe distance while staying on the move. You’re the best one for that job.”
“Yes! A personal request for a one-on-one secret date!! Joint work with Sensei☆”
“Tch. That sounds way more fun,” complained Ouka.
He heard the heavy sound of someone jumping. Heavily-equipped Yukizasa had jumped toward him, crushing a small workshop’s roof in the process. She was not just landing near him. She intended to crush him with her weight. If that was a mass of pure plastic, it would weigh 500kg, making it about the same as a light car. And if it was also bulletproof and blast-resistant, then it would probably weigh even more.
He reflexively drew two air-pressure kunais from the bottom of his short-sleeve dress shirt, but that was not going to accomplish much. Even if he killed Yukizasa at the core, the plastic armor would still crush him. The moment she landed was his biggest opportunity, but he could only use that to roll out of the way. After that, he left the park and ran into the labyrinthine streets.
She did not seem bothered by this.
She must not have expected to actually kill him with the first move. She showed no real surprise and pursued him like nothing had changed. She approached with the intensity of construction machinery. She tripped more and more of their own wires and IR beams, stepped on lawnmower beartraps and glass shard caltrops, and triggered all sorts of explosions.
If she caught up to him, he was done for. He could not escape a rush from those massive fists.
Taganuma Yukizasa was an expert at fighting in closed and dark places.
That stance remained unchanged. If he was not confident in his ability to emerge victorious after grappling with those wrecking ball arms, he had to avoid engaging her in high-speed infighting.
Besides, defeating her was not his goal.
His goal was to investigate what was hidden in the Teine Workshop District and destroy it if necessary.
This battle was unnecessary and he would gain nothing by insisting on victory at the cost of his own life.
“But she isn’t going to let me go either.”
“Why the hell would I? I don’t know who you are, but you’re telling me everything. While I smash your body beyond recognition, one piece at a time!!”
Her killer intent hit him like a physical blow.
Blatant threats had a way of making people flinch, but that did not work against trained ninjas.
Her giant gray powered suit was made from a miraculous plastic created by messing with water molecules. It had an average range of between two and three meters. Sugiyado had to continually fall back to stay out of that range, but no matter how persistently she moved that giant body toward him, she could not reach him. Given the size of the suit, she should have been able to just reach out and grab him at this range.
He threw a Fierce Fang air pressure kunai from close enough range that it was more like stabbing with a spear than launching a projectile. The instant nitrogen foam contained in the grip converted it into a tool that harnessed a maximum of 15 tons of force to pry open even a tank’s hatch if the tip was stabbed into the crack. However…
“That ain’t gonna work!” she roared.
Her powerful arm flew through the air and caught a nearby wall along the way. The storm of rubble altered the air pressure kunai’s path.
Just then, he heard a dull thud and the 3m giant tilted to the side. It was a lot like a bat had been swung into the side of her head, but yet again…
“Wow, that thing’s solid!!”
(Not even Bara’s Tatami Needle can get through? But that’s a depleted uranium alloy!!)
A second and third shot hit Yukizasa, but they were equally ineffective.
The impacts themselves were reaching the girl.
But that suit was made from a special transformable plastic, so she may have prepared bags of resupply pellets and hidden them in the snow around here. It was no problem for her if the suit took damage.
Retrieving every trace of his projectiles would have to come later. He memorized the amount and location and then fell back. His goal was to draw the enemy away and create an opening for Ouka or Hoozuki to safely and successfully sneak into the secret base, but that would all fall apart if he was taken out here. He had ordered them to infiltrate that place, so he had to assist in their escape as well.
“What the hell!? What school are you from? Tell me, cause this isn’t making any damn sense. I’m getting answers here even if I have to crush your bones and squash your flesh until you’re nothing but goop inside!!”
Yukizasa shouted angrily and violently swung her artificially long arms. That kind of yelling was not very ninja-like, but it may have been an intentional switch she threw. Anger kept people from thinking logically, but that made their actions harder to predict.
Close-quarters combat required reading your opponent with lighting speed. If you wanted to be aware of the danger you faced while also spicing things up a bit, powerful emotions could do the trick. Of course, that was a high-risk, high-return doubled-edged sword. It relied on offense being the greatest defense. The idea was to take some hits in order to defeat your opponent before they could defeat you.
“Not bad for someone so tiny.”
“Shut the hell up!”
Just as her anger burned even hotter, he heard the chainsaw-like rumbling of a light engine. It was leaving the large park(?) and returning to the labyrinthine workshop district, but it came from overhead.
It was a snowmobile.
Several of the vehicle were leaping from one snow-covered rooftop to another and they were unsurprisingly driven by the Stonewalls who protected this disguised strategic military research institute (and who Princess Karin had turned into her own private force).
“This is our backyard.”
The snowmobiles generally carried two.
One was driving and the other was wielding a firearm.
“Don’t assume you can escape after messing with us. Time is on our side. We just have to call in more and more reinforcements to cut off every avenue of escape. Just like tearing off a bugs legs one by one!!”
The snowmobiles crisscrossed overhead like they were knitting wool, but after instantly noting their equipment and locations, Sugiyado grinned boldly.
“Bara, load a Tatami Needle and attack the snowmobile carrying an anti-tank rocket.”
With a thud, one of the land vehicles rotated unnaturally as it soared through the air between rooftops. The gunner in the rear seat had been trying to fire an explosive on fleeing Sugiyado to damage him even if the shot was not perfect, but the extra rotation caused their aim to veer way off.
“Yes, Sensei,” said Bara’s cheerful voice in his earpiece. “You really know how to ask a girl for a favor☆”
The anti-tank rocket’s aim shifted from Sugiyado Souha to Taganuma Yukizasa as she pursued him.
The small kunoichi’s protest was cut off by the rocket hitting and detonating.
Rockets were general-use weapons, but they had originally been designed to break through a tank’s armor. Not even that gray powered suit would escape this unscathed.
Sugiyado was close enough to be blown backwards by the blast, but Yukizasa had taken the brunt of it.
This was an away game for him, but that was not reason to be shy. He had to think of it as a chance to fight in a way he could not on his home field.
If he was short on firepower, he only had to borrow some from his opponent. Ninjas usually traveled light and tended not to have much firepower, so using the confusion of the battlefield to cause friendly fire among the enemy was a standard method.
The gray powered suit fell onto its back while armor shards scattered everywhere.
It triggered a few of their own traps as it fell, so some smaller explosions followed.
It ended about how Sugiyado had expected it to.
The breaking of the armor must have kept the destructive force from reaching the human body within because the young kunoichi got up from the snow while still wielding that giant body even as it fell apart.
This was not over.
She could still move.
“Go to hell, you intruderrrrrrs!!”
She really did seem to have supply materials hidden in the snow because the holes in the thick gray armor were filled back in as if the nearby snow and ice itself were being absorbed.
Sugiyado stayed calm and swung his right hand.
He threw a Fierce Fang, lodging the weapon inside the special plastic as it repaired itself.
It landed in the very center of her flat chest.
“Be warned: that isn’t a normal kunai.”
He would have a hard time retrieving that projectile once it was absorbed within that strange plastic device, but the air pressure kunai was a ninja tool he had developed on his own after retiring and he had never registered it with the Shogunate. Unlike active duty ninjas like Ouka or Bara, they could not reveal his identity by searching the weapon in a database. He had managed to keep that tool hidden during his unofficial trial after the previous incident.
“I’m sure your ninja outfit inside that thing is bulletproof and blast-resistant, but can it rival a tank’s armor? If not, I would recommend not testing it. Once it bursts, your broken ribs will shred your lungs.”
He heard the sounds of several people kicking off the snow.
He was now surrounded by ski troops and snowmobiles on the rooftops. The gunners in the back seats were aiming submachineguns or semi-auto sniper rifles his way, but he did not seem to mind.
“I don’t care either way.”
He twirled another Fierce Fang in his hand.
It looked like he was holding a serious negotiation, but that was an illusion. He was buying time. So he wanted to force as humiliating a choice as possible onto the kunoichi and while she was in front of so many of her subordinates. That way he could keep her from making the choice right away.
“Will you give up and let me through, or will you recklessly challenge me and lose your life? I will be walking through here either way. The question is how alive you will be when I do so. The choice is yours.”
“Sensei, I’m in.”
Ouka’s voice reached him over his earpiece, so he made an estimate of how much more time he would have to buy. She was inside, so that just left searching the interior of the facility and then escaping. Just like in a video game, these things were most difficult the first time through. Everything went much faster during a replay when you already knew where to go.
Yukizasa bit her lip in front of him.
But she was unable to repair her gray armor any further.
She glanced up at her subordinates on the roofs.
She shut her eyes, sighed, and finally made up her mind. Would she live or die? There was only one possible choice.
“You will do nothing of the sort. No Stonewall would make that choice.”
A carefree voice cut her off from overhead.
It came from even higher up than the ski troops and snowmobiles on the trap-covered rooftops.
Sugiyado Souha shouted a warning, but the girl herself was only staring up in puzzlement.
Then, with a blast of explosives, a hail of metal skewers rained down from directly above. The projectiles were so numerous they covered an entire area like a falling spiked ceiling, leaving the target nowhere to run.
There was no scream.
Only the high-pitched shattering of the thick plastic armor.
The young ninja lay collapsed on the white snow.
That had come from a large axe made from bundles of small wires. The blade was covered with tightly-packed bundles of metal like a toothbrush, so when they were detonated from within, they would transform into countless sharp projectiles.
This was one of the Stonewall elites.
Which of those kunoichis had specialized in the use of explosives from a medicinal and chemical perspective, with a specialty in mine blasting?
(But our intel said they guarded Teine one at a time on a rotation!?)
Sugiyado analyzed the situation as calmly as he could manage while Oume easily landed on the snowy road.
Did they randomize even their security system itself?
That sounded simple enough, but thoughtlessly attempting that would only create confusion among their ranks from communication failures and the like. In the worst case, the unnecessary hierarchy of information would breed distrust among their own people. If they were doing that, they must have solid enough control over their communications to eliminate those risks. That would take considerable skill.
Oume’s long black hair was tied at the end and a sweet scent came from skin so white it seemed to be born of this snowy land.
The boy narrowed his eyes a little.
She was an explosives and blasting specialist. He could not keep the same distance he had from Yukizasa who specialized in extreme close range. Her fighting style would be entirely different.
She gave off a definite sex appeal even through her loose-fitting shrine maiden outfit. The way it was close to slipping off of her altogether suggested she was a travelling shrine maiden who journeyed across the land – as opposed to one who served a particular shrine – and who had lost her faith and ended up making a living through sex work. Of course, that was all camouflage meant to hide her identity as a kunoichi. Also, those corrupted shrine maidens had not worked in the well-maintained red light districts and brothels of the big cities. They had worked in the rural areas without such facilities – such as at a mine where many brawny men labored.
She must have had belts wrapped around her body because, when she held her own body tight, glass cylinders emerged from the slits all over her shrine maiden outfit. How large an explosion could she cause with one of those containers no larger than a relay baton?
“We are all here for the hunt. I do wish Princess Karin would wait further inside where she is better protected, but that is a lost cause since you could say she was born for the battlefield.”
It would be wrong to blame Ouka or Asagao for the faulty intel. Information warfare was standard for ninjas. When everyone was working to deceive and infiltrate each other in lieu of trading physical blows, you were never going to escape entirely unscathed.
Perhaps Sugiyado should have realized the truth himself when he saw the heavy firepower the snowmobilers and skiers were using. People who worked in the mountains did need to know how to fire a gun to protect themselves from wild animals. They had to know how to shoot and how to avoid mistaking a person for an animal. These were the faithful subordinates trained by Oume, the explosives specialist, not of Yukizasa who specialized in closed and dark spaces.
“I found it. I actually found it,” said Ouka. “I’ve arrived in the lab that hides their new power source deep underground, but is this…is this really what we were pursuing here?”
“We can talk later, Ouka!” said Hoozuki. “They’re coming! Is that Amamo who specializes in terrain effects!? Dammit, it really is like seeing a dragon hidden in the earth!!”
An unnatural tremor shook the ground below his feet and the snow fell from the rooftops.
It sounded like he was no the only one who had run into unexpected trouble.
“Asagao, this hasn’t gone as planned. I can handle myself, so you support those two’s escape.”
“Her too!? Goddammit!”
He could not tell if Asagao was being jammed or if she had been physically attacked, but something was happening to her when she was supposedly outside the battlefield. Princess Karin’s Stonewalls had a longer reach than he had expected. His group had thought they were sneaking in relatively undetected, but the tables had been turned in no time. He could not let this continue. If he just let time pass, he would only be allowing true tragedy to strike.
“What do we do, Sensei!?”
(So Bara’s fine.)
She could directly fight using her Serpent Monster hair coilguns or she could ensnare people with her sex appeal and disguises. Having her meant a lot.
There was no such thing as safety or a sure thing on a ninja battlefield. Every step of the way, you had to tap the stone bridge ahead of you to see if it remained solid. So when things did not go according to plan, you had to use your best guesses based on experience. He had to work out where the greatest risk lay and who he could save to set off a chain reaction that would ultimately get them back on their feet.
He could only make one move.
Everyone’s future would be determined by where he chose to move Bara who would be a rook or bishop in shogi terms. If he chose poorly, he could have his piece taken, leading to their utter defeat.
He had to choose now.
And Sugiyado Souha gave a clear order in front of the enemy.
“Bara, go into hiding. Don’t touch anyone.”
The silent head tilt came from sexy Oume with her shrine maiden outfit nearly falling off of her.
“My, my, my.”
She had thoroughly trained herself to speak in a way that intentionally got under the skin of anyone listening, making them lose their cool. Wielding a blade was not the only way to fight. Even the way she swayed her body like she was waiting for a customer on the side of the snowy road was a part of her “attack”.
That was enough to tell him she was a master of direct combat and sex appeal. She was similar to Bara in that way, but still different. While Bara took control with the sweet candy, Oume took control with the lash of the whip.
“Holding someone back now? True, thoughtlessly placing a hidden piece on the board only to have it immediately taken would be the height of folly, but are you really in any position to hold back? We already have you all in checkmate. You do understand that, don’t you? I refuse to believe you don’t.”
He was surrounded by ominous metallic sounds. The guards (who were actually ninja subordinates well-trained by Oume) had stepped down from their snowmobiles and aimed their assault rifles, submachineguns, semi-auto sniper rifles, and even shoulder-fired rocket launchers. Guns were equally deadly no matter how much or little ninja training given to the person pulling the trigger.
“What option do you have but to place your sacrificial pawn on the board and make a run for it?” Oume smiled seductively. “It is either that or be turned to Swiss cheese.”
“That’s what you want me to do.” Sugiyado did not hide his vicious smile. “You detected our actions and moved in ahead of us. I’m not ashamed of falling for a trap if it took all of the Stonewall elites, including Princess Karin herself. …But even after all that, you missed one. You needed to get rid of us all, but you failed. So you’re trying really hard to make up for that, but it won’t change a thing. Our shark has dived below the waves. And you can’t rest easy as long as even one of us is still free.”
Don’t let her rattle you.
Ouka and Hoozuki had only encountered a powerful foe. The battle was not over yet. Amamo’s skill was an unknown, but it was two-against-one.
He had lost contact with Asagao, but that did not mean she had been physically eliminated. It would be easy to set this up by jamming all of the radio frequencies they were using.
And Bara remained entirely outside the Stonewalls’ field of view.
This attack had left a major impact, but that was no reason to act rashly. He could not let Oume lead him astray when they were not losing yet.
The ones actually sweating bullets here were the Stonewalls after their attack with all four of them had failed to achieve the desired results.
“And you can’t shut down the entire fishing grounds, so you’re stuck. You were trying to rattle us with lies, but maybe you should have waited a while longer before purging Yukizasa.”
“My people will use their bullets to shred your body starting from the hands and feet and working inwards. Then it won’t be long before your companion disobeys your orders and comes running. Once we have drawn out your last hidden fighter, our checkmate will be complete.”
“I’d rather you didn’t do that.” Sugiyado slowly spun the air pressure kunai in his hand. “And what makes you think my plan was to run away?”
He threw something down at his feet and white powder spread out across the entire area.
Oume’s eyes widened, but it was already too late.
Snow covered everything here and that Fierce Fang was a special ninja tool that could create 15 tons of force using an instant nitrogen foam more powerful than an airbag. By removing the foam cartridge and throwing it against the ground, he could block their view with snow.
All it did was blind them.
It was an alternate form of the dramatic smokescreen.
(If they can’t see, they can’t fire their guns no matter how much I’m surrounded. Those subordinates will be too afraid of accidentally hitting their commander to do anything.)
Even the classics had their uses.
Sometimes a threat not found in the good, old days became an oddly perfect match. This workshop district was covered in countless traps made with everyday items, but he had discovered that there were almost none on the main roads. Otherwise the ordinary people passing through would get hit.
And Sugiyado Souha had hinted to Oume that he did not plan to run away.
He took off running.
This was the exact opposite of when he was fighting Taganuma Yukizasa earlier. The safest place in this case was right up in front of the sexy traveling shrine maiden. That would prevent the guards from firing on him for fear of hitting their commander and it would prevent Oume from using her own explosives and blasting. No one would want to be blown away by their own bomb.
He also could not hope for any support from the long-distance coilguns.
This was entirely reliant on his own skill now.
It was one-on-one.
He tore through the thick curtain of pure white to approach Horisato Oume. He of course held an air pressure kunai in each hand.
Oume jumped back a few steps and swung a few glass cylinders the size of relay batons. But not to ignite them.
Explosives were a type of chemical.
By mixing several of them together in the right quantities, they could become a chemical with an entirely different effect.
For example, a poison gas that had already begun destroying the red blood cells flowing through your blood vessels by the time you sensed its sweet scent.
Instead of using another air pressure kunai, he swung around his long scarf. The clothing swelled out with air and captured the floating white snow.
The snowflakes mixed with the air caught the makeshift poison gas and dropped it to the ground.
Sexy Oume’s eyes widened.
“Was that a variation on the Rain Puddle!?”
“A poison spray made from toxic plants or jellyfish tentacles won’t work on a rainy or humid day.”
Once he had neutralized her thick poison gas barrier, the rest was easy. He detonated another instant nitrogen foam cartridge at his feet, slid badly-injured Yukizasa to the right side of the road, and continued toward his real enemy. He arrived dangerously close for someone who specialized in explosives and firearms.
He held an air pressure kunai in each hand and their tips rushed in toward Horisato Oume of the Stonewalls!!
Oume must not have had any other choice at this point. she beat at the air with her baggy sleeves to spread them out and twirled her entire body around.
The movement was as beautiful and light as a dance dedicated to a god.
The air pressure kunais’ tips were pushed back with a sound much too violent and distorted for such a dance. Her circular motion carried the weight and edge of a guillotine. From his perspective, her shrine maiden sleeve had hardened as it grew gray and petrified. It transformed into a dull blade much like a rusty axe blade.
That was originally a fire extinguishing powder sprinkled around in a mine to stop a dust explosion chain reaction. Oume readily used explosives in closed spaces and indoors, so it made sense for her to carry some around for protection. And Sugiyado had heard it could harden and lose all effectiveness if it absorbed the moisture from the air.
This was not its intended use.
She had been caught in a bind when his snow smokescreen kept her subordinates from using their guns and then neutralized her poison gas with his Rain Puddle ninja technique. But she had instantly turned the tables on him with this new idea. She had the flexible thoughts and the powerful drive to take advantage of any accidents and of her enemy’s attacks. That girl in a shrine maiden outfit really was skilled.
It was now Sugiyado’s turn to move himself out of the way.
Her large sleeves spun around with a circular motion based on the movement of her arms and torso. He responded like he was being attacked by metal balls attached to short chains. A single hit here would easily shatter human bone.
(That isn’t her only weapon. Just like a bayonet, the point is to hold back any enemies that get too close. If I keep my distance, she’ll start using the artillery and explosives she specializes in!!)
If he could stab in just the tip of his Fierce Fang, the door-opening power would force the crack open. Its 15 tons of force was enough to pry open a tank’s hatch.
But he could not use that force without first stabbing the weapon into the target.
(In that case.)
He struck with his right kunai.
He doubted his first strike would kill. He expected her petrified sleeve to deflect it, so he used that momentum to twirl around. He built up speed as if for a roundhouse kick and made a horizontal strike with his left kunai.
“It’s no use!!”
She was using an improvised weapon and she seemed to be only barely holding him back, but he was not trying to increase the kunai’s piercing power.
He struck at the air.
Several snowflakes reached the left kunai’s surface and the frictional heat melted them.
He made sure they were refreezing when he clashed with Oume.
What would happen then?
He did not need to stab the Fierce Fang into her.
Not if he used the ice like glue to attach the kunai to hit.
“Ah!?” she groaned.
His air pressure kunai sprang open and shattered Oume’s petrified sleeve from within. He did not give her time to create an additional blade. She was leaning back with her large chest jiggling, so before she could straighten back up and recover, he flipped his right kunai around and slammed the butt of the grip against her temple.
There was no obvious scream.
The traveling shrine maiden collapsed to the snow with her limbs irregular convulsing. She did not appear conscious, but it would be best to tie her up.
That was Yukizasa and Oume.
Two of the central Stonewalls had been taken out, but this was not over yet.
The snow smokescreen was a temporary thing. The armed Stonewall subordinates were still surrounding him on cross-country skis and snowmobiles.
He had to take his next action before that white cover vanished.
“Ouka, Hoozuki. I’ve cleaned things up here. Two defeated, no damage. If you’ve found anything, take it back with you. I’ll keep the guards as busy as I can to create more of an opening, so as long as you’re careful which direction you escape in-”
“I’m sorry, Sensei.”
“I need an actual report, Hoozuki. What happened!?”
He had to consciously suppress the unease rapidly filling him.
“Oh? You should really be praising her for getting away at all, insolent fool.”
That was not Hoozuki’s voice.
And it came on a different channel. The transmission was not from her radio.
This was from the small radio Ouka had been using.
(Is there anything I can do right now!?)
This turn for the worse meant he could not allow things to get even worse or to fall any further behind. At 5kg, his back felt funny. At 10kg, it exploded with pain. He could not even drag Yukizasa or Oume into an alley. He instead dumped snow over them to hide them from view and then hid himself in the trap-filled alley. That was easier said than done since it required slipping past the 20-30 people surrounding him. If they noticed anything off at all, they would immediately fire on him, but his heartrate remained calm.
“Is that Princess Karin?”
The wind blew through.
The white snow was swept from the air, bringing danger back to the road.
Sugiyado observed things from the back alley while listening to the villain over the radio.
“It was Amamo who took her out, but I am willing to accept the honor myself as the Stonewall leader.”
One of his beloved students had fallen into enemy hands.
He could not change what had already happened, but he checked over what options he had available to him and considered how to best use those options. He had no time. Burning anger welled up from the pit of his stomach, but his thoughts also raced with tremendous speed.
“I have Yukizasa and Oume.”
“You have two replaceable pawns.”
“Yeah, I’d say the same thing in your position. You could comb this area and never find your precious companions. They’ve been taken from you, so you have no choice but to change your focus and say that. If you admit how much those captured girls mean to you, who knows what kind of brutal torture you’d find in the video footage sent to you. So you can never reveal how you really feel. Especially when it comes to hostages.”
“Only a special few can be trusted to truly watch your back, right? I understand that all too well. We’re in the same situation here, but the numbers are different. I have two. I can play the ‘kill one’ card and still have one left over, so torture and execution are both on the table for me.”
He could not physically reach her, but he still had to take the initiative.
He would use threats, persuasion, conflict, compromise, confusion, sudden outbursts, and anything else that might help. He would use every lie and truth he could to bind Princess Karin who was out of his reach. Because allowing her to move a single fingertip just one millimeter would permanently scar Ouka.
They could call him a demon if they liked.
The time had come to let his soul burn.
His surroundings were growing noisy.
Snow ninjas on skis and snowmobiles were rushing around.
From their perspective, Sugiyado, Oume, and Yukizasa had entirely disappeared from their encirclement, so of course they were as frenzied as a hornet’s nest.
But this created an opportunity for the boy who had buried the two kunoichis in the snow on the street. He would wait where he was until he had a chance to dig them up. Ideally, he would get that done before they released the dogs.
He whispered into his radio without revealing any of that.
“Let’s hold a hostage exchange.”
“Why would I want to do that? I need to know who you people are, so my first job is to squeeze as much information out of this kunoichi as I can get.”
“If you aren’t going to take this seriously, then I will play my most effective card right away. Let’s see if you change your tune after you find one of these girls dead on the side of the road. Would you prefer it be Yukizasa or Oume?”
“Do not forget that this girl is still effective as a hostage even if I cannot kill her. She might be a kunoichi, but she has her limits. I have been trained as a Stonewall, so I am aware what line I must cross to have her beg for death instead.”
Sugiyado clenched his teeth hard enough to make a noise, but he knew he could not let her know.
“Don’t destroy that radio,” he said. “I’ll contact you with further instructions later.”
“And you treat your two guests with care. Those cards you hold are quite literally your last hope.”
She ended the transmission first.
It was a small thing, but he clicked his tongue while hiding in the alley. He had successfully restricted her actions, but she had left the greater impression in the very end. The way she talked hinted at the merciless violence that women could exact on each other. He wondered if he should have similarly hinted at some of the scummy things that men could do to women.
At any rate…
“Bara, come to me. I hate leaving the heavy lifting to you, but I need you to dig up the two hostages and carry them. There are no soldiers around anymore, but get it done before their dogs can sniff us out. I’ll take the lead and clear the way.”
“Hoozuki, you support her once you catch up. Don’t bother attacking. Collect my dropped kunais and Bara’s Tatami Needles at the locations we provide you.”
“Sensei, I’m sorry. This is all my fault.”
She had no reason to apologize like this.
She and Ouka were both Elite Ninjas of the Shogunate, so if they had worked together and still been defeated, it was not because they had done anything wrong. And unlike Bara, who used her coilguns to give her a way to fight outside of disguises and chemicals, Ouka specialized in direct combat. Amamo the terrain effect specialist was just absurdly powerful. As the commander of this mission, Sugiyado could only conclude he had erred in their distribution of forces.
This was his responsibility, so he would make it right.
(I just have to deal with one thing at a time.)
Step one was leaving the Teine Workshop District now that they were done here.
Based on what Princess Karin had said, only Ouka had fallen into her hands, but he still wanted to regroup with Asagao and confirm she was all right.
Then he could have Hoozuki share whatever she had discovered about the new energy source in the lab.
(I need to influence Princess Karin using Yukizasa and Oume so I can get Ouka back unharmed.)
He could guess that Princess Karin was thinking the exact same thing. They essentially had a blade pressed against each other’s throat. In a way, they would understand each other even better than some friends.
He covered his mouth with his scarf and silently gathered his resolve.
(I will get her back unharmed. No matter what it takes.)
Eventually, a single ski soldier returned after searching the surrounding area and peered into the gap between the two buildings.
But he did not notice anything amiss.
Because there were no longer any footprints remaining.
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