Her boots lifted into the side of the wall, crumbling the rotting wood, and exploded out the other end in a cloud of feathers and straw. Her left arm hammered an opening between the crowd, allowing her to stride into an open length of street.
The bastard was still too far out of reach.
Rika Nanaya's fingers lodged into her mouth and a shrill whistle filled the streets. A figure appeared at the edge of a roof, cloaked as she was in drab tan. The figure leapt, wolfshead knife in hand, aiming to pin down the retreating figure.
The target juked to the left, diving into an alley. The attacking hunter dropped onto the ground with a loud thud, rolling out of the impact but losing momentum, coming to a halt in the midst of his dry dust cloud. Rika spat a swore and turned sharp into the alley.
She was running out of hunters.
The target skid to a halt at the end of the alley, looking right, then left, then bolted to the right. Rika's hand caught the edge of the wall and pulled her around the turn. Another tan cloaked figure burst out of the crowd, sidling up to Rika's left flank.
"Damnit he's slippery!"
"Where could he be headed?"
"I'm not sure - the train station is the only thing useful in that direction."
Rika dug in, taking in as much air as she could with each breath, willing her body to be perfect.
Two men carrying a slaughtered goat hanging from a pole stepped into the street just as the target passed by. They bumbled and laughed loudly and carried on as if they were retelling the greatest story ever told.
To the untrained eye the next moment was utter chaos, but Rika knew every detail. She, like hunter Toshi on her left, knew that the two goat-bearers were agents for the target and weere there to stop his pursuers. Both drew wolfshead knives jsut as the men drew their own blades, dropping the goat. Before the carcass hit the street, Rika ducked beneath encroaching arms and slid her knife between the man's ribs, puncturing his heart. She was around him before he knew he was dead.
Toshi won his skirmish, but too slowly. It took him three strikes to accomplish what she had done in one and was now a dozens steps behind her.
In a hunt, every second counted.
The street swelled upward onto a footbridge on the right while the train station settled on the left, beneath it. She watched the target push his way through the crowds, wave a handful of paper into the conductor's face, and slip aboard.
The train whistled. Steam huffed from the train's iron gills.
It galloped forward.
Rika slid her away onto the rail of the footbridge and vaulted over the side, landing hard on the train's roof. Her left hand closed around a bar on the roof. She craned her head over her shoulder, watching as the footbridge shrunk. The train was accelerating much faster than she had thought possible.
Toshi stood on the bridge, helpless as the train sped out of range.
Seven Nanaya hunters at her disposal in this city, and they had all been outflanked, leaving her alone on the train with the target.
She got to her feet and started across the cars, walking low as the wind battered against her cloaks. The soot from the smoke tasted bitter mixed with her sweat.
If the scenario were one against one, Rika would not be so worried. A trian meant the terrain was quite limited to a single line. Her element of surprise was more or less removed; there was no guarantee that she got onto the train, but the target would assume that if not she, someone was aboard. The only question weighing in his mind would be whether Rika would simply watch him and reccoordinate later, or make her move immediately.
How he prepared for his decision depended on how many of his own men were aboard.
She had to move now. She had no idea where this train was heading, but if he got the slip on her again then it would be another four or five months before they found him. The whole reason she had come to this crackled corner of the desert was to make sure the job got done correctly.
And so she would.
A hand burst over the edge of the next car. Rika bent into a combat stance, watching as finely dressed man got this feet. He reached into his coat and withdrew a knife, motioning Rika to him. This was not the target, but judging from his stature and the make of his knife, Rika knew he was not going to be an easy takedown.
She ran and leapt. The finely dressed man lunged forward, arm poised to drive his blade into her when she landed. Fortunately, Rika had shorted the jump on purpose, sliding between the cars rather than landing on the othe side. Her left hand clamped down on the top rung of the access ladder and her body swung like a pendulum beneath it. When curled back to the top of the roof, she flung herself over, swiping with her blade at the memory of the finely dressed man's last position.
Had he been where he was, there would be a gash opened from his neck to his sternum. Sadly, he was not.
A battle between hunters was determined by the inaction as much as it was the action. The two stood just out of striking range of each other, both watching the shift of their weight and the intent of their muscles. When he looked about ready to strike, Rika leaned forward, forcing him to hesitate. When she was nearly ready to make her move, he would inch back, ruining her distancing.
Both struck simultaneously. Rika had to raise her left arm to catch the incoming knife strike, letting the blade sink into the forearm. Rika's strike bit into the man's left hip: a poor target, but better than nothing. Both slid away from each other, out of range again.
His blood was already drying on her blade.
"Are we going to stand out here all day and dance like this? Come now, Clan Leader, make your move! Earn your position!"
"If you insist."
Rika took a step backward and dropped between the cars again.
The finely dressed man didn't realize there was a tunnel until he was already smeared against it.
The dark air was thick and oppressive. Rika slid her knife into place and slid open the door for the car ahead of her. Surrounded by darkness and the crammed luggage of the witless passengers.
The target had a ticket, which meant he would be in the public cars. No doubt to try and hide.
There was no advantage in trying to sneak up on him. He already knew their cover disguise, and if there were others on board like the finely dressed man then she'd be walking into an ambush.
She pulled out her bloody knife and held it in front of her, like it were a lantern, and stepped into the next car.
The scream from the first woman was as expected as the rush of passengers from the car. Men shoved women, women trampled children, all trying to get away.
"Well, well. Looks like my lucky day."
There was only one man still in the car. A man who was not phased at the sight of her bloodied knife and in some ways probably expected it. He sipped at his tea, as if she were not there, and let out a small cough.
"I admit, Clan Leader, I did not think you would be so tenacious or resourceful. But, then I suppose if I had a high estimation of you in the first place, we wouldn't be here would we?"
"We've cofirmed what you did. The Culling of Kasai, the summary capture, torture, experimentation and eventual execution of Sanada clansmen. And don't try to plead that you didn't get the Cease and Desist order."
"I'm above pleading ignorance, Clan Leader. I know what you asked, and I did the exact opposite of it quite intentionally because you are wrong and naive."
"Then you know what I have to do."
"Yes. Betrayal must be punished with death. So kill me."
This got Gensari Nanaya's attention. He set his tea down and stood, straightening his clothes and wiping the residual sweat from his bow. His eyes were cold and snake like - like so many other Nanaya. He was young for his rank and influence, and power still dwelled in his body.
"You are to come with me and stand trial for your crimes. You will be made an example of what happens to those who defy the new order."
Gensari laughed, boldly and bitterly. "Example. Example! You wish to set an example. And you will, Clan Leader, you will. An example that you are weak and that those with enough will can overthrow you quickly and entirely. Without the will to execute traitors, you will be seen for what you are. A sentimental child. So please, take me in. Someday, one of us will overthrow you. And there are so, so, very many of us, Rika-chan. More than you'll ever find."
Gensari was atop her. She braced and raised her hands, her left hand catching his right while his left hand caught hers. She was quick enough, but not strong enough, and she found herself at the mercy of the larger man, pressing her back against a dinner table. Fork prongs stabbed her.
"Then again if I kill you now it will fall upon me to lead this clan!"
He squeezed and pressed and his eyes lit up with desperate hunger.
Rika's left arm juked and snapped awkwardly. Gensari's weight unsettled as he pressed into the arm, driving it to the table, hoping to tear it clean off.
But Rika's arm had not broken.
Her cloaks burst apart and her left arm, her true left arm, shot out like a viper. Gensari looked at the false arm in his hand, grunting as the retractable blade snapped from her wrist and pierced his neck.
He watched as the contraption hung powerlessly in his hand while the paralyzing poison in her blade poured into him.
She thought she saw a little smirk on his mouth. She also thought he tried to speak, but the poison was already taking effect.
It only took a few drops to put a grown man to sleep. She had injected everything she had. After a moment, Rika pushed Gensari and he fell to the train floor.
Eventually his heart forgot to pump.
Rika withdrew her blade and brushed off the cloak around her. She bent down and picked up the artificial arm that had been hanging from her shoulder, examining it. Some damage from the finely dressed man's attack and a few of the internal components were broken from Gensari's great strength.
She'd have to take a long look at it before she used it again.
With a sigh, she gathered up the arm and tied it into a bundle with her cloak, then tied that to her back. She rubbed off the fuuinjutsu marks on her shoulder then took a look out the window.
Nothing but sand for miles.
It wouldn't be long before whatever security was aboard would make their way back to her. She'd have to get off or let herself get captured. Getting off meant braving the desert, underequipped. Getting captured might mean a stint in prison before her people could get her out, losing precious political time to get the Gensari issue settled.
If only there were a third option.