Disclaimer: I don't own them, but I do like to torture them in my mind.


Word on the street was that they were looking for anyone with martial arts talent. Naturally, having been raised by an uncle who owned a small town dojo back home, I was adequately qualified. And curious. Everything seemed a little too hush-hush, a little too…organized to be a common street gang recruit. Being a black-belt's nephew does wonders for the ego; I trained every day, I was in excellent shape for a nineteen year old, and I had never faced an opponent that I couldn't take down. That is, until I met her. That's when I fell in love…

I had passed the preliminaries with ease, my expression never wavering from detached apathy. Those around me winced as their comrades were thrown to the mat. Rookies. The clan called themselves 'The Foot', and they only accepted individuals with promising ninjitsu skills. I could hardly believe it- a real clan with real ninjas! I had always dreamed of something like this. Those applying didn't seem to realize the gravity of what being a ninja entailed, but I shrugged it off as poor competition. I doubt any of them had won the countless challenges and competitions that I had so often emerged victorious from.

Then she came out. Asian in decent with straight black hair falling to her shoulders and the most captivating green eyes I had ever seen. Unusual for that orientation- and utterly breathtaking. She seemed almost bored to be there, as if there were so many more important things that she could be doing with her time. The body language of those with sonority suggested that she was a top dog. Of course, it's kind of hard to miss the message when everyone dropped to one knee to kneel before her. A bow is respectful, but this was near-worship. Us newbies quickly followed suit.

Her name was Karai. Mistress Karai. And she was there to hand-select any promising new talent for advancement in ranks. Word was, she rarely found anyone worthy of her approval and when she did, it was the highest honor a new recruit could hope to receive. I was determined to win her approval.

One opponent after another found themselves face-first on the dojo floor. My attacks were vicious and concise; I was sure not to break the bones of my fellow clan members, but the flow of my body and the discipline of my demeanor let everyone know that I could. The fellow recruits would yell out approval and encouragement, but my efforts were for a single audience, and it took every fiber of my will not to steal glances at the young woman.

I was feeling pretty good about myself until, while performing a roundhouse kick to a particularly slow teenager, my eyes swept past her and her entourage of bodyguards. She wasn't even watching the spar! Here I was, busting my ass –and more importantly, everyone else's –and she didn't even have the decency to take notice! Who did she think she was, to dismiss me like that? The kid I was fighting was on the ground cradling an injury and he was waved as being out. I felt the next person come up behind me so that we could bow and begin again. My blood was boiling with indignation and without thinking, I whipped around and caught his nose with the heel of my foot, knocking him down and out. A low blow, but I was pissed.

That's when things got out of control. Apparently they don't take well to people who fail to observe procedure, and in seconds there were three overseers on me. Hell, if I was going to be cut just like that, I may as well give them some bruises to remember me by.

A twenty-something year old guy was coming at me from the front, a man in his early thirties from behind, and a young woman stood off to the side, no doubt certain that the first two wouldn't need back up. She was wrong. I quickly judged the older to be the more seasoned martial artist and decided it best to take him down first. I feigned an attack to the guy in front of me, only to flip backwards and land on the other guy's chest, snapping bones as I did so. Another low blow, but I never claimed to be the cleanest fighter. So maybe I didn't always use my talents for the most honorable purposes…

The first kid still had his arms up to block the attack that never came. Just as he realized this, my leg swept his own out from under him and without a break in the motion, the same led rounded upward to strike down on his head before it even hit the mat. He'd have a mild concussion if he were lucky.

The woman had managed about three steps toward me, a katana drawn. My position and lack of a blade put me at an obvious disadvantage, so I grabbed my fallen opponent's bokken from his belt, gave a quick spin on my haunches, and released it in her direction. The weapon caught her in the side of the head and she fell to the ground with a clatter of her sword.

It felt as if a wrecking ball hit me in the back as I was thrown forward, the air knocked from my body. Mistress Karai stood waiting patiently for me to attack. I guess I had finally gotten her attention –it was going to be a shame to force such a beautiful face into the concrete.

I came at her with a kick and she grabbed my ankle with lightning speed, bringing up her own leg to knock me back down. Not bothering to catch my breath this time, I faked a sidekick, counting on her to block. She did, and I grabbed her arm, planning to throw her over my shoulder. She saw it coming, however, and used her right leg to sweep under mine and utilized my own grip on her to fling me into the wall like it was nothing. Before I could even think about getting back up, there was the prick of a blade at the back of my neck as she stood over me.

I couldn't believe it. My uncle, a black belt, hadn't been able to best me since I was seventeen. Yet this woman had beaten me in three moves –one if you count the first two as the warnings that they were –and it seemed to have taken no effort at all. In my moment of admiration, I realized that I had just blown my chances of being a part of this clan. I failed to observe the procedures of a common spar, then I downed three superiors. As if that wasn't bad enough, I finished it off by attacking the most respected person in the room. I did the only thing that was left for me to do: I lowered my head to the floor in as much of a full-body bow that my position would allow. The pressure of the blade never eased and I heard her voice for the first time.

"You broke tradition to defeat an opponent. You fought with more concern over your own victory than the observation of proper protocol. You dared to have the audacity to test yourself against me. The punishment for such is a severe beating."

Her voice was strong and confident, as if all who knew her bowed to her power. It promised that every word she spoke was law, and I had no doubt that I would receive that beating before being dumped into a back alley somewhere.

"Swear your life and your service to me, and you shall have a place among the fourth ranks."

I wasn't getting booted, I was getting promoted! I fought not to smile, for I would surely be punished for that as well. Keeping my eyes to the floor, I replied, "I swear to you my life and my service, Mistress Karai."

The beating she had promised was indeed brutal, marring my tan complexion with bruises and lacerations. The only thing that made it tolerable was the reward waiting afterward.

It would have been even more tolerable if the mistress had done the punishing herself.

I stared into the mirror, dressed from foot to neck in a black doji. With mask in hand, I realized that the woman I had sworn my life to would not see my face; but at least her last memory of it would be clear of injury. Maybe, just maybe, she would think of me as the strapping young man with chiseled features, dark brown hair, and startling blue eyes. Women would often swoon at my looks, but I simply brushed them aside -their own average appearance not worthy of my attention. But Karai...finally, a woman to whom I could give all that I had to offer, without shortchanging myself.

Donning the headgear, I reported for my third day of duty. I had been educated in the ranks and where I apparently fell: the first were four individuals referred to as 'Elite Ninja.' The second rank was comprised by the two funny-looking men always by her side. The third consisted of a secretive handful called the 'Foot Tech.' The fourth, where I fit in, were the top class of the traditional doji-wearing ninja. We were the first of the 'normal' ranks to be called in to protect our Mistress. Bodyguards of sort, and damn if I didn't enjoy guarding that body. I swore to her my loyalty, and I swore to myself that I would win her attentions with discipline and skill.

In five month's time, I had established myself as the most diligent, most disciplined, and most devoted ninja of any fourth-rank dayshift. It was no surprise when I was promoted again, to night shift. That's when the real action took place.

Needless to say, I loved my job. Mistress Karai was never big on praise, but such pretentious boosting was for those without confidence and therefore had no right to the position. I knew of my indispensable worth, and I knew that she did as well. That was the beauty of our relationship: she counted on me and I never failed her. No words were needed.

There was always excitement, I'll give it that much. When she left the tower to...pay visits, we weren't far away. If there was a challenge, we were the first to engage on her behalf; such trivial activities rarely warranted the efforts of our Mistress. Being in a clan was much like working in a large company: the higher your rank, the less you actually did. It was unorthodox for the CEO to get their hands dirty if someone beneath them could do it. And trust me, I don't mind getting dirty.

Another four months went by and I memorized her every sign, every tell. She liked it vicious but quick -when I attacked an enemy on her behalf, she would have the smallest sadistic smile. God, how I loved that smile and the knowledge that I had contributed to it. Rumor had it, I was being considered for rank leader. I knew that my efforts would be noticed; she no doubt wanted me closer to herself and I was more than willing to oblige.

The perfect opportunity came while we were out on rounds. She never divulged us as to the details of her activities or motives, only what was expected of us. Then again, that's all we needed to know. That night, there were no Elite to be seen vanishing and appearing rooftop to rooftop, and she had left the two bodyguards back home. Our Mistress was accompanied only by a handful of fourth-ranks, myself included. Once we reached the docks, we were given explicit orders to stay put and stay hidden as she continued out of sight. Alone.

What was the point of being sworn to protect a person that you cannot even see? Why would she bother to bring us few, just to leave us behind to gaze uselessly at the river? That's when it clicked: this was it! This was my test. She wanted to see the extent of my devotion, the stretch of my loyalty. No other ninja would dare disobey a direct order, so would I be brave enough to do so to ensure her safety?

Damn straight.

I signaled for the others to stay put as I followed in my mistress's footsteps. I noticed the others look at one another, and though they wore masks, I knew that they had expressions of disbelief. I didn't care; soon I would be their rank-leader, and that much closer to Mistress Karai.

I crept soundlessly through a broken window of an abandoned warehouse and my blood ran cold at the sight I found.

One of the turtle creatures -our most hated enemies -had my Mistress pinned to the wall. Its blue bandana blocked my view of her expression, but she hadn't cried out. She was taking it like a warrior; that's why I loved her. Their weapons lay abandoned on the floor. They must have disarmed one another, and he used his sheer body mass to trap her. His body was pressed against hers, and he had somehow managed to disrobe her of her armor. His mouth was on her neck, and I'd be damned if I let that...thing draw the blood of my Mistress.

I attacked in fury, leaping mid-air toward the creature, my butterfly sword drawn for a downward strike. Mistress Karai looked up and I eagerly welcomed her expression of relief. Instead, what I saw was a flash of steel from her belt. Before I knew what was happening, I found myself on the ground in agony, a dagger embedded in my chest. A male voice sounded from so very far away.

"And I suppose you're going to report him dying by my hand."

I opened my mouth for air, but none came.

"Did you not tell your brother that I had ambushed you, when he last dropped in on us?"

A pool of blood gathered around me, and I could feel my body warmth seep away with it. My vision was blurred by the time my Mistress had made her way over to me, and I couldn't make out her expression. It had to have been an accident -a terrible accident. Was she struck in horror? Grief? I used my last bit of breath to force out the words that death gave me the freedom to say. "I love you."

Her voice was the last thing to fill my senses as I slipped into oblivion.