Hida Takahito was served by the Takahito Elite Four (a title they had given themselves), who along with his strategist Head, originated from the Maniwa Ninja Corps, a ninja group specializing in assassination. During the Sengoku Era, the Maniwa Ninja Corps had performed and demonstrated such amazing feats despite being ninja their name was known to all; after Shogun Yanari seized power and brought peace to the country, while they had quietly concealed themselves as if returning their original nature, greatly diminished in scale since their height, their unusual ninja skills and techniques had still not been completely lost. That the extraordinary schemer boasting of the greatest intelligence in the world, Takahito, surrounded himself nearly exclusively with former members of the Maniwa Ninja Corps, bore ample evidence for this fact.
The former Maniwa Dokutsuru, Right Arm. The former Maniwa Dokuari, Left Arm. The former Maniwa Dokufugu, Right Leg. The former Maniwa Dokugumo, Left Leg. Together with the former Maniwa Dokuhebi, Head, any of these five were more than capable of serving as a head of the corps. They had been drawn from the preexisting Maniwa Beast Squad, Maniwa Bird Squad, Maniwa Fish Squad, and Maniwa Insect Squad and together formed the Maniwa Poison Squad. Even among such a ninja group specializing in assassination, they were an incredibly deadly squad, each member with their own unique talents.
On the other hand, the fact that Hida Takahito had recruited all five of them provided an example of his unfathomable capabilities. And on yet another hand, the reason why the Maniwa Ninja Corps had nearly no involvement in the sole rebellion under the Owari shogunate ruled by the Yanari family was partially because the village was in the process of restructuring after having been deprived of those five vital members. If Takahito had aimed for this result when headhunting them, it would have been quite shrewd of him. Regardless, it would be impossible to deny that the Maniwa Ninja Corps had diminished even further as a result. Following the rebellion, they would decline yet further, but that is a story for another time.
The former Maniwa Poison Squad: Head, Right Arm, Left Arm, Right Leg, Left Leg. Currently, Head was accompanying Hida Takahito as he returned to Oushuu from Kyuushuu. Right Arm was in the process of kidnapping Migiri, the daughter of Tetsubi, which was one of the six lords serving the Yanari shogun family. As for the remaining three: Left Arm, Right Leg, and Left Leg…
They were stalling Yasuri Migiri’s husband and Hida Takahito’s old friend, the sixth head of Kyotouryuu, Yasuri Mutsue. No, those venomous three had no word so soft as stalling in their dictionaries, and came with the full intention of ending his life.
“Whew, that was tough.”
At present, those three had been cut down by Mutsue and were lying on the ground. They lay in what was the only desert of the era, Inaba Desert. Left Arm had been beheaded, Left Leg had been impaled, and Right Leg had been dismembered. They had each suffered fatal wounds, and moved not an inch.
“Hida Takahito’s Takahito Elite Four, was it? I couldn’t have let my guard down. I almost died in that fight. Really though, each of those three had such fearsome ninja techniques.”
Although he was a child, he had an aged air to him. The millenarian boy threw a meaningful gaze at the three corpses.
“And three on one is fighting dirty. Takahito really has no mercy. He really abandoned it. There’s no single person in the world could fight three Maniwa ninja on that level and win. Maybe Nanami would stand a chance, but that’s it.”
“Ain’t that right,” said Yasuri Mutsue as he stepped out from behind Yasuri Mutsue. He was a skinny, spindly man.
“I thought I was gonna be a goner. I thought I’d kick the bucket and get snuffed out. Scary stuff. Three enemies I can’t even beat one-on-one, all at once. Gimme a break.”
Yet another Yasuri Mutsue agreed. It was not a person, but a spotted dog who had spoke.
“Good thing it was six on three.”
“Yeah, good thing it was six on three.”
“Yeah, good thing it was six on three.”
“Yeah, good thing it was six on three.”
Three Yasuri Mutsue: a pale woman, a rotund man, and a muscled man, concurred alike. In the history of the swordless sword school of Kyotouryuu, the sixth head of Kyotouryuu, Yasuri Mutsue, was the only swordsman to wield six swords. The men, the woman, the child, and the beast had combined their strengths and used their swordless sword skills to defeat three members of the former Maniwa Ninja Corps’ Poison Squad and the present Takahito Elite Four.
“It really helps that our enemy doesn’t know about our six-sword style. Good to know that even a military genius can’t plan for what he doesn’t know.”
“Three to go! Takahito, Right Arm, and Head. Sure that was a tough fight, but things are lookin’ up now. We put a real damper on his plans.”
“Hmph, I wonder about that.”
The muscled man shook his head in reaction to the spindly man’s levity.
“We may have hindered the enemy significantly, but he treats his subordinate’s lives the same as his own—he only thinks of them as pawns. We should assume that the deaths of those three was a part of his plan.”
“Huh? Ya sayin’ Takahito already knows we use six swords?”
“No, I don’t believe so. But he knows we have something up our sleeves. I can’t help but suspect that he never expected those three to win against us.”
“I dunno about that. Takahito might be able to see all of the possibilities, but he can’t control everything. If he could, he wouldn’t hafta go outta his way to start up a rebellion or revolt. Sure he’s got somethin’ up his sleeve, and he knows the risk of havin’ his assassins wiped out. But a total war’s a total war. We might even wipe him out. There’s no way he’d be happy about that.”
“Of course,” agreed the pale woman. “Accumulating advantages like this is the only strategy that works against a genius commander. Wait, strategy’s his specialty, so let’s call it a plan instead.”
“That’s quite right. But the issue is…” said the spotted dog, frowning. He looked over the three corpses lying on the ground, those of Left Arm, Right Leg, and Right Arm. His expression had no trace of grief or compassion towards the dead, but was only as cold as a sword.
“The issue is, what were these three sacrificed for?”
Neither the spindly man, muscled man, nor the pale woman had an answer. It was a question that all six had considered, yet could not bear to think about: What could Hida Takahito have plotted that he would sacrifice three of his closest retainers for?
“It’d be somethin’ else if we were right in the middle of Oushuu, but we’re in Inaba, all the way out in the Chuukoku region. Even for a total war, it’s too early. If he thought ’bout the chance we’d run, it’d just end with him showin’ his hand.”
“True. They fought desperately, with all the strength of Maniwa ninja, but still their mission was only to stall us, so we can conclude that his objective was to pin us in Inaba Desert. “
“So we need to ask, why Inaba Desert? Or maybe there isn’t anything special about Inaba Desert. “
“But it might be that he didn’t want his path back to Oushuu blocked.”
“So he stalled us as part of a diversion for some other plan.”
As the six Yasuri Mutsue tried to guess at Takahito’s impenetrable plans, and voiced their suspicions, suddenly and without warning…
“If you’ve got time to ramble on about that, then you’d better hurry up and do something,” a young voice confidently interrupted their conversation.
“By now, Takahito’s kidnapped your precious master and wielder, Yasuri Migiri.”
There stood an extremely denying young girl.
Her appearance was quite unconventional. Possibly due to the sweltering desert heat, the girl only wore hakama pants and stood on the sand bare-chested and with bare feet, looking rather feral. Her striking blonde hair was pulled back in a ponytail, and the fierce gaze of her blue eyes further heightened her unbridled wildness. But regardless of how stifling hot the Inaba Desert was, or rather, for that precise reason, exposing so much skin to the intense sun was, bluntly speaking, nothing but suicidal.
Sensing that, Mutsue said, “Ya can’t be doin’ that. If ya wear that flirty getup out in the sun, maybe ya’d just get locked up in Edo, but here ya gonna scorch up. Your skin’s so pale ya’d burn up straight away.”
Despite saying this, he of course aware that that was beyond the point. They were in the the center of the Inaba Desert. The dead center. It would take several days of travel through the desert to reach this point. That her skin remained pale was an abnormality that deserved serious consideration. It could not have been that until that moment she had been appropriately dressed, but upon seeing an opportunity to speak to Mutsue, she then undressed herself and removed her sandals.
Indeed, there was nowhere to hide from sight, and no sign of discarded clothes. The girl’s footprints, which stretched into the distance, had not been made by neither sandals nor clogs, but by bare feet with each toe clearly imprinted—they were footprints in the literal sense. This would be something impossible for Mutsue. It was impossible for all but ninja. And with the corpses of Left Arm, Right Leg, Left Leg bearing on his mind…
“What’s goin’ on here?” he said to the girl. His mind was already a drawn blade. “What’re ya, a ninja?”
“Huh? A ninja? Who, me? Me of all people?” The girl soundly mocked him. “You’re funny, but dumb. Is that some principle of Kyotouryuu? Just how do I look like a ninja? You think I’m in the Maniwa Ninja Corps? Or maybe that Aioi Ninja Corps that they say got wiped out way back? Hahaha! No way’s there’d be such a cute and sexy assassin out there, just think about it!”
“True,” said Mutsue, and slowly nodded. He was the spindly man.
The other five blades had already vanished into hiding. No, they were not hiding. As previously stated, there was nowhere to hide in the Inaba Desert. In truth, the remaining five had hidden in Mutsue’s shadow. It followed that the girl should have only seen him as a single person. As the same single-bladed and swordless swordsman that Takahito, Head, Left Arm, Right Leg, and Left Leg saw him as. But was that really so? Why then was her gaze so penetrating? She seemed to see right through him and into his soul. Her eyes were such a vivid blue.
“Who’re you, then?”
“Right now, it basically doesn’t matter who I am. There isn’t much that I can do at this point in time. Whatever you call me, I won’t bother denying it.”
Mutsue sensed something hidden within in the girl and wavered. Even now, as she boldly stated that despite her denying nature she would not bother denying anything, he wavered between cutting her down immediately and continuing their conversation. No, that was not it, that was not where he wavered. In all honesty, without any pretense, he was torn between whether or not to flee from the bare-footed, half-naked girl only wearing pants who was standing before him. He had not yielded an inch to the former Maniwa Poison Squad’s three-fronted assault, but he was now on the verge of fleeing, of all things.
Once he wavered before an unknown enemy, his sharpness as a sword had more than halved. It followed that fleeing was unmistakably the correct option, but even so, should the head of Kyotouryuu really flee from a girl who was nearly the same age as his own daughter?
“Hey, are you even listening? Ya-su-ri Mu-tsu-e? Here I am telling you these future developments out of the goodness of my heart, so what are you gawking at my body for? This isn’t the time to worry about my sunburns. I’m telling you that right at this moment, your wife is getting kidnapped.”
“I don’t believe you. Sorry to say, but my master ain’t gonna get kidnapped so easily.”
The only possible way it could happen was with her cooperation, and that possibility was rather likely, but Mutsue would not risk betraying that fact. His instincts as a sword shouted out that he absolutely must not expose any weakness before this denying girl.
“You don’t have to believe me if you don’t want to. Either way, you’ll have to return to Owari, right? You can just check that nobody’s at home. Except…”
Boom. At that moment, Yasuri Mutsue’s right arm flew off. It exploded into blood, flesh, and bone.
“I’m quite denying on the subject of whether or not you can survive me and that swordmaster’s strikes. “
“Like I thought, at this range stabbing is much harder than slashing, meow. I was aiming for his head, but I got his shoulder instead, meow. And if my sniping isn’t precise enough, I’ll hit that denying girl too, meow. Alright, three more tries and I’ll get my aim down, meow!”
There stood Sabi Kokken in the outer Inaba Desert, holding only a stick.
Dokutsuru– poison crane
Dokuari– poison ant
Dokufugu– poison pufferfish
Dokugumo– poison spider
Dokuhebi– poison snake