It never occurred to any of them, not in their wildest dreams, that they would ever see the Warlords again.
It had been a few years and the Ronins had decided that it would be in their best interest to cohabitate with each other until they were sure all of the shit they'd been dealing with for the past four years had truly blown over. But living with each other wasn't that easy. Kento was a terrible housekeeper and he cluttered the living room with his workout equipment (but at least he was a good cook); Ryo had a 700-pound Siberian tiger sharing a bed with him and giant-cat hair was in everybody's laundry and all over the furniture; Cye . . . was okay; Sage's virtue of courtesy (and daily meditation) was the only thing that kept him from going batshit insane in a house with no family hierarchy whatsoever; and Rowen ate all the food, had the sleeping habits of a narcoleptic, and had all sorts of revolting laundry habits. It was unbearable but they managed. They always got through somehow. They were Ronin Warriors.
Their house on Shinota Drive was kind of a dump with no real lawn or anything, but it was comfy and somewhat dilapidated enough to feel like home.
But this story isn't about the Ronins — it's about what moved in next door to the Ronins one Wednesday afternoon.
Ryo was the first to see the moving truck out the living room window and stepped outside to see what was up. He watched a few odd pieces of very antique-looking furniture get carried in, along with some sword racks and very large, heavy wooden crates that had bloody-murder-red ink warnings stamped all over them.
Ryo thought, Wow. These new neighbors must be a real interesting family.
Then he saw a guy with long white hair, an eye patch, wearing a leather jacket, looking like goddamn Kurt Russell in Escape from L.A., step out from around the side of the moving van, and Ryo very nearly shit. The sight was just that bowel-moving.
"Oh my gosh," he uttered, staring.
Kurt looked up at him, stared a few moments, then lowered his head, sighed heavily, put his hands in his pockets, and walked over to the Ronins' yard with a world-weary saunter.
"Hi, Wildfire," he said, raising his head.
"Oh my gosh," Ryo repeated. "Dais? Y-you're. What, what are you . . . doing? Here. In town, I mean?"
The ex-Warlord of Illusions gave a fleeting shrug and looked askance. "You know how it is."
Ryo stared. "No I don't." Pause. "Please inlight me."
"Unlighten me please."
Dais sighed again. "Look. I don't know about you, but spending the rest of eternity in the Nether Realm guarding the gates to the Mortal World doesn't exactly come with a pension plan."
Ryo's blank look assured Dais that nothing had gotten through.
"We bailed out."
"Me and the gang."
"You're in a gang?"
Dais massaged the bridge of his nose. "Is Strata home? I might have better luck speaking with him."
Just then there came the unmistakable rapid-fire belching roar of a Harley approaching from down the street, and Ryo's hair stood on end when he saw what had arrived on it.
Cale, dressed completely in black and looking like a mutated cross between Johnny Cash and The Fonz, cut the engine and put the kickstand down by the curb in front of the Ronin house. He didn't take off his sunglasses. It wasn't even sunny.
"Hi, Sanada," he said to Ryo, grinning sharply. "I guess we're neighbors."
As Sanada was thinking of something to say in reply, there came a voice from the doorway behind him: "Ryo, what's going on out there?"
Ryo fixed his eyes on Cale, who was still grinning sharply and looking more and more like Jaws.
"Nothing!" Ryo called.
The door was opening. "I thought I heard a motorcy—"
Ryo threw himself on the door and there was a bark of pain.
"RYO, WHAT THE HELL-!"
"Sage, get back in the house."
"Get back in the house."
"GET BACK IN THE DARN HOUSE!"
The door smashed open and Ryo went flying down. Sage stepped out onto the porch, nostrils flared and kanji glowing like all the neon in Vegas. "You," he fumed, "could at least have the simple courtesy to tell me what's—"
His sentence stopped when he laid eyes on Dais, who took his hand out of his pocket to wave. "Hi."
Movement out of the corner of Sage's eye caught his attention, and he turned to see Cale dismount his shiny black Fat Boy, removing his sunglasses to expose the cross-shaped scar on his left eye. The blond's jaw went slack, and Cale smiled at him. Not sharply.
"Nice to see you haven't changed, Halo."
All the fight went out of Sage like a deflated balloon. "Cale," he said, and that was all he said.
Ryo had crawled to his knees just in time to get knocked in the head by the door as it was opened by someone new.
Cye, shirtless and unshaven, barefoot and brushing his teeth, stepped out onto the porch. "Huh mafes, wuff goin' on wiff all—" Then he saw. "—BFLUFFY HEFF!"
Toothpaste foam exploded everywhere. Like someone had put a bottle of Mr Bubble in an open blender. Cye stood on the porch looking utterly scandalized.
Dais walked over to help poor Ryo to his feet again.
"Thanks," Ryo grunted.
"Listen, Wildfire . . ."
"Listen, Ryo . . ."
"Maybe it would be better if we just got everybody together and let the shock sink in nice and sl—"
There came a tremendous bang from the formerly-empty house next door, and who should come crashing out the door (literally—crashing and bouncing off the frame) but Sekhmet, predictably dressed in torn black jeans and a sweaty wife beater. He charged onto the front lawn and started break dancing all over the place, only it looked like he was having a seizure and doing the Mexican Hat Dance while asking the gods for rain. He was waving his arms wildly, clawing at his monster-green hair, and frantically patting himself down like he was on fire. Then he finally threw himself into the dirt and began writhing like a snake on a hot skillet.
Everyone on the Ronins' side just stared until the show was over.
Sekhmet picked himself up out of the dust cloud, noticed he had an audience, facepalmed, and then walked over to join them. "I apologize for that appalling display of lunacy," he muttered throatily.
"No biggie," said Ryo with a biggie fake smile.
"What was wrong?" Sage asked, eyes still wide with shock.
"Bees," said Sekhmet, as casually as if he were reading a grocery list.
"Bees," Sage repeated, lowering his head so he could gaze at the ex-Warlord of Venom below the fuzzy blond haze of his eyebrows.
Sekhmet nodded soberly.
"Which reminds me," Dais interrupted, "we need to explain a few things to you all."
"I'd flippin' say you better had," Cye agreed, holding his toothbrush in his fist like the Olympic Torch.
Deep breath. "Alright, here's how it is. In the Nether Realm, there is absolutely nothing to do."
"Nothing at all," Cale echoed, striding over to stand beside a very anxious-looking Sage.
"No wildlife, no scenery, no towns, no civilizations, no people—"
"No sex," murmured Cale, staring at Sage, who stared back.
"—no entertainment, no alcohol, nothing. Just bare land, a few temples, and the gate. And that's it. We're about to go insane."
"I don't blame you," Cye said, and resumed brushing his teeth as he listened.
"I don't jest," Dais muttered seriously, and jerked a thumb toward his snakey campadre. "Sekhmet here started hallucinating three days into it and hasn't stopped, and now he thinks he's being stalked by swarms of killer bees."
"I don't think, I know," Sekhmet amended sourly.
Dais pointed to the man in black who was leering at Sage. "Cale used to keep himself locked away in the pitch darkness until he was fucking catatonic—"
The Ronins reeled at the F-bomb spoken from the lips of one who still used words like "hearken" and "verily".
"—and we go in there after we haven't seen him for a few days and find him passed out, stark naked and twitching like he's going through rigor-mortis. It's madness over there! An asylum! I wouldn't banish Talpa to that place!" Dais was clearly strung out and needed a cigarette. "You don't expect us to spend the rest of eternity in that hellhole in the sky, do you?"
Ryo, Sage and Cye all shook their heads.
Dais nodded and pulled himself together again. "For the sake of our sanity, we abandoned our stations. The Nether World isn't going anywhere. If danger arises we have our armors. We'll be ready."
"I'm ready right now," Cale uttered, gazing into Sage's lavender-blue eyes. Everyone else was apparently ignoring the ex-Warlord's blatant attempt to telepathically fuck the Ronin of Light to death.
"We had to get away," Sekhmet said. "From the bees."
"From the boredom," Dais reiterated. "So we came here."
"And moved next door to us," said Ryo.
"That was entirely coincidence."
"Seriously. This was the cheapest place within fifty miles."
"Well, congratulations and welcome to Earth. I'm sure you'll fit in just fine."
At that moment Kento shouldered his way through the door and was right in the middle of asking Ryo if he'd seen his 20-pound dumbbells anywhere when he saw what the other Ronins had seen. Only his reaction was totally different.
"DAIS! Aw man, long time no SEE! What'cha been up to? Hey Cale, how's it goin'?"
"Sweet. Sekhmet! Stop hiding behind Dais and get over here! Aw, this is great! We're all back together again!" He slung one arm around Dais and one around Sekhmet. "You guys moving in? Awesome! We should have a barbecue or something tonight, it'll be like a family reunion!"
"Heaven help us," Sage uttered, leaning backwards to discreetly get away from Cale without being rude about it.
Right then Rowen slipped through the door, assessed the situation and knew exactly what was going on, what had transpired there, and exactly how it would fare for them all. He could do that. He was smart.
Rowen said, in his unintelligible Canadian-Mafia-whoknows accent, calm as a clam, "You guys'a in fer a maj'a culture shock."
"I doubt it not," said Dais.
Cye picked up the garden hose and proceeded to rinse the toothpaste out of his mouth. Even Cale stared.