"Life does not consist mainly of facts and happenings; it consists of the storm of thought that is forever flowing through one's head."


Chapter 7: The Storm

When Hiroshi leaves, the sound of the slamming door echos through a hollow place in Leo's chest. The warmth is gone and he is numb to everything. Only cold remains; silence and the bitter wind that fills it. His eyes are unfocused, staring at the empty door, and he knows that things are changing.

Frost clings to the walls, hangs crystal in the air, and his once burning hatred turns to icewater in his veins. When he breathes, it comes in a fog, and he knows another dream has taken him. But this time it's different. There's nothing to distract him—no laughter, no sunrise, no questions answered with more questions. The city sounds are quiet, and all his memories lay beneath the freshly fallen snow.

The clock on the nightstand ticks, and it anchors him to consciousness with something fragile as a kite string. Time passes, halting and unsteady. The cold seeps in from the cracks where he is broken and fills the gouges in his memory, washing darkness over the lighter places.

The light is too confusing, like memories of traffic. It blurs around him in a whirlwind of color, noise, and faces he never knew, places he's never been. Worries, hopes, and fears that have no root, no meaning. The lies lay like brickwork in unending maze-like caverns that yawn and stretch for miles into the dark. Familiar. They drip with light and motion, clockwork whirring in the walls. Laughter chases down the tunnels from the smiling mouths of youth.

Shadows of memories, drawn to the light like the night bugs' paper wings. But he knows the dangers. He will not get burned.

Darkness is a constant. It clots and deepens as he approaches, and threatens to engulf him. The light dulls. The laughter quiets. He doesn't remember his childhood, but knows it's trapped somewhere behind the walls, built only to distract him.

Only the dark will set him free. He must believe it with every inch of his being and let the whirlwind freeze, his blood run cold.

Flatline silence. Pull the plug.

The dark crawls along the spiderweb cracks until seconds stretch on for days. Time slows with his heartbeat, and Leo realizes this isn't just a dream. He's wrestled the haze into a form of meditation and lets it settle in his bones.

In his dreams, he's helpless, but meditation he can control.

A frigid wind blows. Numbness fills the voids. The cracks are frozen solid, and the hollowness is gone. For the first time, Leo breathes and it is satisfying. The cold settles the whirring in his mind. The gears grind together, shudder to a halt as frost's sharp fingers creep across their surface like a spreading disease. Darkness swallows the light and the dream-things fade into oblivion.

Time beats along unchecked. And still, it means nothing.

His instinct fears the cold, but Leo knows better than to sleep. Instead, he will embrace it, sits frozen in the darkness with his swords lain across his lap, cold from the metal seeping into his thighs. He knows that if he shows his weakness, he could die buried like forgotten dreams. Instead, he will become it.

He is the blade. He is the lethal cold. He is solid, and he will prevail.

So he's detached himself from everything. In the mind of his mind, he's standing in an open field beneath a cloudless sky. Blue, and distantly familiar. The cold fog stirs at his feet, wraps its gnarled hands around his ankles, and tries to pull him under the snow. But Leo knows what he must do.

Ice erases all the fog, and his mind is snapped clean as a white December morning. The hands are gone. Only emptiness remains.

The awareness is so clear it's terrifying. His eyes open wide and he gulps more frigid air, senses sharp as razorblades. New katana. Snow. He stares at his reflection. His eyes are bright and fierce. A smile creeps over his lips like frost across a pane of glass, and his heart beats a vicious rhythm in his chest. Clarity. Adrenaline. His body hums with predatory eagerness, a hunger so intense he's sure he'll never sleep again.

The time for dreaming is over. Reality has won.

Without a pause, he stands, sheathes his swords, and readies himself for practice.

The dojo is quiet in the afternoons when practice is voluntary and morning sessions have sapped most ninja of their energy. But today, Leonardo has something to prove. The silence rings inside him. The sharpness of his mind will be his most deadly weapon. Those who doubt him will fall to the lethal cold.

They won't be expecting it, and the thought of shocked expressions makes him crack another frigid smile.

He walks through the threshold with laughter bubbling in his throat. It's a wicked amusement coiled with his hate, murderous as a raven's gaze. The scent of death is hanging in the air.

He is the reaper. That is what he's come to prove.

The faces turn with fire in their stares. Slader, all hunger and wolf-like prowess, catches his eyes across the room. And Leo glares him a steady challenge, the smile falling off his face. Slader snorts arrogantly when they disconnect, but his shoulders stiffen, fingers twitching into fists.

Outside Leo's face is solemn, but inside, he is laughing.


They say nothing, and he slips behind a small group of men, leaning against the padded wall as they run through stretches and their katas. He's readied himself alone in his room for this purpose only—this session will be sparring, and Leo needs time to calculate their demise.

Each one is a capable opponent, but he studies Slader most intensely. In the end, he'll be the one that matters. This time, he will not fail.

Slader's grace is impressive for his size, but he leads with his shoulders, and moves as if top-heavy. Leo's seen the coiled dragon inked into his chest, and he knows in his marrow that it means he can't be trusted. Purple Dragons, street thugs, fight dirty and honorless when given the chance. Attack him low, Leo thinks. Give him no opportunity, and the fight will be quick. Shiryou-Sensei will be happy. The Master will be pleased.

Minutes pass and Slader finishes his kata. His back is turned, but there's tension in his shoulders. Leo's heart pounds for a moment of wire-strung silence. The man is watching him from the corner of his eye. Again, Leo doesn't look away. Slader stiffens, then turns to face him, tight-lipped and furious.

They stand pouring silent loathing into each others eyes. Slader's, hot and boiling, Leo's, cold as a January night. Slader's mouth twitches, and Leo half-expects him to speak. But in an instant, a wicked grin is plastered on his face and he's laughing thick, hardy rolls of laughter like thunder scorning a rain-slicked sky.

The others stop their warm-ups and stare, confused. From the corner of the room, somebody mumbles, "What the hell is going on?"

But Leo knows. Slader thinks he's already won.

He doesn't move an inch. Suddenly, the room is freezing.

"Silence! Practice has begun. Get in your formations."

Shiryou-Sensei enters and Slader's laughter is killed like a car engine. Still, it echos off the walls even in the silence. As the dojo assembles into rows, it's still rattling in Leo's head.

Shiryou mounts the platform at the front of the room and eyes his kneeling pupils. Leo feels his gaze pierce him for a moment longer than the others. Silence collects like falling snow, and Leo lifts his head to meet the man's cold stare.

Shiryou breaks the gaze with a look of disgust.

"This session will be weapons sparring. It was announced as voluntary to weed out the underachievers." He pauses for a breath and his eyes flick back to Leonardo's. "Last night our Clan lost an active squadron during an important mission. One member was beaten to the point of unconsciousness, and the others abandoned their orders to go back for the wounded. Despite their selfishness masked as heroism, their comrade died in the infirmary this morning, then were ordered to commit seppuku for their failure. Now they must be replaced. If you believe yourself worthy, prove yourselves to me. If you are a coward, leave with your tail between your legs like the insolent dogs that you are!"

His passion had captured the attention of the room. There was a pause, broken by uneasy mumbling amongst the kneeling ninja.

"I am required to give you a choice. Those who remain will spar one to prove their value. It will be full-contact with your weapon of choice. Belt rank does not matter, and every match will be finished with a defeat. Those still standing after three victories will be sent on a mission for the Master, and he who prevails will have the honor of becoming squadron leader." He pauses, his eyes flashing, hawk-like. "So speak! Vow your allegiance to the Clan!"

"I will." An icy wind stirs beneath his words as he steps forward and bows deeply. A sudden chill settle over the room, blinking eyes, shifting heartbeats. The disbelief, scorning, confusion seeping in from all corners does nothing but brighten the hollow ringing in his ears.

And the fear. He can taste it lingering in the air like the morning's shadow.

Shiryou-Sensei blinks with an expression of pure surprise. He stalks to the edge of the platform, leaning down with squinted, sulfuric eyes. "You? After all the shame your kind have brought upon this Clan, it is a wonder you have not been chained and prodded like the beasts you are."

Leonardo does not falter. He only lifts his bow and meets his eyes, frozen fields of gold. And still, his own are colder. "I've disowned my kind," he says darkly, "I've come to prove myself to the Master. I will give my life to the Clan, if that's what it takes."

Indignation swells across Shiryou's wrinkled face, and he opens his mouth, jaw quivering with rage.

"Shiryou-Sensei!" A rough, young voice splits the tension, and Slader steps up next to Leonardo, his skin warm as it purposely brushes Leo's arm. He clenches his jaw and pulls away as he continues. "I'll show this animal his place."

"Ah, Slader-san." Shiryou expression twists with a wicked pleasure, and he steeples his fingers. "You protect our Clan's honor."

There was never a question as to whom he favored among his pupils, but every time he showed it, it seemed to inflate Slader's ego bigger. Beside him, the man's fierce arrogance fills the room. He bows to his Sensei in gratitude, suddenly ten stories tall.

Leonardo can sense the others straining for a reaction, but it doesn't come. Instead he bows once more, stepping aside as Shiryou bombards the rest of the room with Foot Clan propaganda, trying his best to appear unfazed.

One by one the room volunteers until nearly all the young ninja have sworn their lives away. As they gather along the walls to clear a sparring ring, Leonardo lets himself fall back behind the others. He'll need more time to prepare himself.

"Separate into three groups," Shiryou orders from the center of the circle. "In the beginning, one volunteer will take the center. One by one you will attack him until he is defeated. Once the center ninja is defeated, the victor will take his place at center. If you are defeated before three victories, you may leave my dojo to dwell upon your failure. If you succeed three times before you are defeated, you will remain for your next orders. Do you understand?"

The room breaks into a chorus of "Hai!" before shuffling into three equal groups like a well-oiled machine.

Leonardo positions himself in a far corner of the room and watches with a growing hunger. The others, his prey, gather around like collecting dust and stand in a loose circle, shifting their weight. They're watching him. Some stare on with expressions of unmasked terror, others with a silent, soul-deep loathing. They wait for him to make his move. But Leo hovers in the shadow, expression frozen, silent and unmoving.

That is until a second shadow casts over him, and a calloused hand closes over his arm, pushing him forward roughly. Immediately he breaks the hold and turns to glare venom into his assailant's eyes. He's rewarded with Slader's bold, toothy grin.

"Don't be nervous, freak. You think you got something to prove? Then do it!"

Leo's mouth is pressed into a hard line. His fingers ache for the hilts of his katana. But they'll wait. They'll wait.

"What'er you waiting for?" The man sneers, shoving him again. "Go! Lower belts first."

Then he's shoved into the circle, heart thrumming madly in his brain. But he won't indulge them, won't react. Now, it's time to fight.

"This'll be good," snorts a dark, willowy man shouldering beside Slader. It's no surprise the others have taken his side.

He waits, expressionless, for his opponent.

Someone is pushed into the clearing, and Leo takes a moment to study him. This man is nervous, raw terror ablaze in his eyes. He already fears him deeply and that will only work to his advantage. They bow.

In a breath, Leo buries his finger into the man's larynx. He exhales with a croak, and is splayed on the ground with a roundhouse kick to the head.

"Y-yield!" He coughs, writhing on the floor with his hands grappling miserably at his throat. Whispers erupt from the edges of the circle. Bodies shift. Slader frowns, and Leo bows stiffly as his victim is dragged away.

Another opponent steps into the circle, this time on his own accord. He's young, bold, and well-muscled compared to the first. But most importantly, he has fire burning in his eyes.

Leo smirks, then bows. This could be a challenge.

Immediately, his opponent grabs for his weapon—jutte—and hones in for a right temple strike. Leo slides into a back stance and an outward-block, wincing as the blow connects with his forearm. But the cold numbs the pain. His opponent parries backward, drawing back for a bone-crushing blow to the skull. Leo watches the weapon, his hand, his stance, and ducks into a side-kick before it connects. The weapon slams into his carapace with a blow that jars his skeleton, but the kick connects with the man's side, throwing him off balance.

Leo recovers, moves into a guard and waits for the next attack.

The ninja stands with weapon ready, pain written on his face. Leo watches him steadily and the man holds his gaze. Then, he attacks again.

This time, a feign that starts high as a shoulder strike, turning directions in half-blink meant to crush his knee. But Leo sees it, stepping in to block the assailing arm. In a heartbeat the arm is grabbed and his attacker is slammed bodily onto the mat, gasping for air. His jutte rolls aimlessly across the floor, and he blinks. Leo hovers murderously overhead with a cold, violent expression.

Something heavy sinks among the crowd. A gasp. They know what's coming next.

Leo raises his foot and slams his full weight down on the man's propped knee. A nauseating crack. The man screams, and Leo bows. When he straightens, his victim is gone, and his eyes flick over to Slader's. He only smirks, uttering a challenge. "That's two."

Slader's expression darkens like a coming storm, and there's wildfire in his eyes. Leo feels it—rage, bubbling like laughter in his stomach. He smiles, the fire burns, and Slader's hands wind tightly into fists. Silence hangs over the room as he moves forward, faceless ninja peeling away like a river splitting around a boulder. Even Shiryou, with his hawk-eyes frozen over, only watches in indignant rage as his prized pupil stalks into the clearing.

"Cute tricks," Slader hisses slowly, stopping, and drawing himself to full height.

Intimidation tactics, but Leo won't be fooled. He has the cold on his side.

"But playtime's over, freak," he rumbles, cracking his knuckles. "There's one thing separating the men from the boys here. One thing: I ain't afraid of you."

"I'm not a boy," Leo breathes, gales of winter sweeping across his words. "Or a man."

Slader snorts. "No shit."

Dishonorable, Leo thinks. The dojo is no place for a street fighter, no place for a brute that lacks even a shred of discipline. But honor and respect in that form are only distant things muted in the ice-fields of his memory. Here, respect is only necessary toward superiors, and cruelty is practiced like religion. Slader has no reason to treat him better than a dog. But Leo vows to prove him wrong, regain his honor, and earn the respect he craves.

He studies Slader's hard expression, a wall of frustrated energy. Uncontrollable, a raging fire. "You don't think I know what you are? You don't think I know why you're here?!" He bellows. Seconds pass, filled with only panting. Then, he grins in spite of himself. "You don't even know what that gong is for, do you?"

"Enough talking!" Shiryou roars, raw anger in his voice. "Shut up and finish him."

The room shifts again, and they bow, but there's no honor to it. Vicious gazes never disconnect, and he can hear his opponent murmur in his ear, "if you don't remember, I'll just have to remind you."

"Don't waste your breath." Leo seethes into his eyes. "I already know I'm better than you."

The words hold a distant meaning and it's wrong, laced with anger and the smell of rain. But "Fight," the darkness whispers. "Fight."

All he feels is cold.

He straightens just in time to see a chainlock whipping toward his face. He drops down, feeling the air crack murderously above him. A growl rumbles in his chest, realizing the severity of his situation; despite his cockiness and dishonor, there's no doubting Slader is a skilled opponent. The crude manriki leaves him with few options, so he's forced into the defense.

"You don't know?" He rumbles like an avalanche, the chain striking the mats where Leo once had been. "You don't know it's just a lie?"

He hears nothing as he dodges, thinks of only getting in close, breaking the cycle. No swords. He won't need them if he can get in past the arc of the chain. They rattle against his shell as he stays on the move, heartbeat screaming for his opponent's blood.

"Just think—why would the Master want you? You're a reject," Slader sneers. "Even your own kind can't stand you!"

Slader's leg flies at him in a kick, barreling toward him in his peripheral vision. Like brittle ice shattering over a lake, the clarity rushes back. Weakness. He moves into a block and Slader's wide-arced strike is broken, stumbling on the recovery.

It takes exactly one-point-three seconds for the rest of Slader to catch up with his own momentum, but it's enough. Leonardo dives for the ground, flips his weight over his arms, and slams a powerful kick into Slader's jaw. He feels the crunch of teeth under the impact. Slader drops the chainlock and clutches at his face, blinking away his shock.

Two seconds for recovery, if Slader is anywhere near as good as everyone believes. He's a brawler, with enough mass to make up for his slight lack of speed; Leo knows better than to spend any more time in close combat than he needs to, and to strike only when he's stunned. Instinct, ringing wind in his blood, already forces his body into a twist for a roundhouse kick.

Adrenaline surges white across his vision as Slader's arm comes up in a block. Estimation off by point-seven seconds. A powerful crunch around his ankle, but he refuses to cry out.

A sudden, unwelcome pressure pounds into his head as Slader hauls him upward, dangling him upside-down. Rage boils beneath his eyes like pools of molten rock. "You little shit," he hisses through a bloody mouth. "You think playing the Master's little pet protects you? I could kill you right now, and nobody would care."

Three distorted faces ripple across the ice, then drown in the howling wind. Slader's right about one thing.


The emptiness reaches into his voice; maybe it always has been.

It doesn't matter. Slader roars, and there's nothing he can do—the action is too sudden, too quick to draw his swords. Impact. His mind jars into two shuddering worlds.

Slader's too heavy to knock his legs from under him, too strong to twist out of the hold—can't—

Everything stumbles to a halt as Slader releases his ankle, the quiet thump of flesh against tatami. The heat of overwhelming rage, humiliation as he tries to recover, but his arms tremble and his ribs have erupted into a maddening fire. Too soon.

Leo collapses, face-down. He grits his teeth with his forehead pressed against the mat, trying to control his breathing that rakes his throat in furious huffs.

He can feel Slader grinning from beneath his eyelids, footsteps working a circle around his helpless prey. He fights for breath, swallows back the shadows lingering at his mind's horizon; he will not be consumed. Slader is nothing. He will work through the pain.

Sensation returns to him in a rush, an avalanche crushing a green valley beneath its rolling waves of snow. Reluctant cheering seeps in from the dark corners, Slader's drunken victory rolling off of his shoulders like water.

Disgust sits sour in his stomach. They are all the same—all dishonorable pigs.

Footfalls pound closer, and the dark behind his eyes grows darker. The air shifts above him, and Slader's breath rolls across his cheek like a forest fire. "And then," he whispers, "there were three."

In the shadow of the hungry flames, Leonardo sees his death.

There is a moment where he's outside his body, so full of loathing it forces him out of consciousness. He's on his feet with jaw wired and teeth ground to sandpaper. Heat and blistering cold. Pain... work through the pain.

Slader stumbles backwards with wide eyes. It's the look Leo had been waiting for; blind him with the lethal cold.

He is a machine—precision of a knife edge, deadly calculation. He ducks in quickly before Slader's swing connects. His block is too late, and Leonardo delivers the killing blow.

A jab to the trachea leaves him breathless. The strike moves to an elbow in the chest, a single, fluid motion finished with a backhand punch to the face. It knocks the man backwards before his legs are swept from underneath him.

Slader's face pales as he topples like a ten story building.

He lays on his back, staring dazed up at the ceiling until the face of the enemy towers over his view. There's a metallic sound, smooth and polished spotless, catching the dull light. Something cold bites dangerously close to his jugular vein.

Above him, Leonardo is smiling.

"You were wrong," he mutters, "there was always one."

In the end, four survived the trials. In the end, four stand outside the Master's elaborately carved twin lacquer doors. Above looms the over-sized insignia of the Clan. The Foot. His home and purpose. Four. The idea leaves a bitter taste in his mouth.

At their head, Shiryou-Sensei bows to the guards who eye the group sharply from under their wide straw hats.

"Candidates for squadron 239-B to see the Master," he says swiftly, straightening himself.

Simultaneously, the guards nod and swing open the heavy doors. As Shiryou steps forward into the dark expanse of the room, he turns back and orders harshly, "Wait here until you're summoned." Then the doors close behind him, swallowing the guards as well.

There's an uneasy silence, all unspoken words and stiff bodies. Rigormortis. Slader leans against the wall with his arms folded, the tightness in his face betraying his satisfied expression. Leo busies himself with watching the torchlight play with the shadows on the floor. But he feels the burn of injustice. Slader shouldn't be here. He was defeated fair and square.

Then, Leo nearly laughs to himself. It's yet another thing Slader had wrong. Around here, playing someone's pet does have its advantages. He should know that better than anyone.


He's suddenly drawn out of his brooding by the young voice to his left. A lanky boy with dark skin and fear written in his eyes is standing anxiously beside him with his mouth hanging open. He looks torn between raw fear and awe.

"I know you," he speaks again in a thick Brooklyn accent. "Remember me?"

Leo watches him in the torchlight, studies the wideness of his eyes, the whites. But this boy is brave, and a lethal enough ninja to make it this far. It's impressive, to say the least. He couldn't be older than seventeen, but has a kusari gama and an assortment of shuriken looped in the belt around his waist.

In the end, age doesn't matter here. Even species doesn't matter. Friendship and family don't matter. The only important thing is how fast and well you kill.

"You're the boy from the cafeteria. You delivered a message from the Master to me a few weeks ago."

He nods furiously, thumbs hooked in his belt loop in an obvious attempt to seem sure of himself. "Yeah. I'm Nick."

And even in the cold, Leo likes this boy, if only for the distraction he presents. So he smiles, just a twitch, and shakes his trembling hand. "You must be quite a ninja to make it this far."

"That's right," he says again, smiling a bit cheekily before tightening his face into an overtly hard expression. "I been on the streets since I was a baby. When my daddy died, I joined up n' learn to be ass-kickin', just like him."

"Your father was in the Foot?"

"Purple Dragons," he corrects, "but the Foot's better, so I joined up."

"Why is the Foot better?" Leo asks.

The boy's wide eyes flick across the hall towards Slader. He's still leaning, glowering at them openly. "Slader'll tell ya."

Slader straightens, still maintaining his scowl. "You shouldn't be talkin' to that thing, Nicky."

"Why not?" The boy challenges. "I didn't mean nothin' by it. I'm just bored! We've been waitin' out here forever."

"He's right, Nick," says a weathered voice from the shadows. Leo squints to see his face, but the figure never moves. "It is only trouble. He is... not one of us."

The kid folds his arms and rolls his eyes, turning back to Leo. "I heard the stories. Everybody has. They talk about you."

Leo quarks a brow. "Who does?"

"The senseis," he murmurs. "Everyone. They tell stories about you fighting the Master... say that you're dangerous and we shouldn't talk to you. They tell us about the gong an' how to get around it."

Leo moves to ask more before Slader interrupts, looming from the shadows behind the kid, and promptly smacking him upside the head. "Shut up about that," he growls. "You're gonna get yourself killed."

"Aw, damn!" He groans, hand moving up to the sore spot. "You were talkin' smack all over the dojo just a second ago. What's your deal?!"

"That's different," Slader spits. "I don't go 'round sayin' shit like that."

"You said the exact same thing. I heard you!"

The sound of flesh meeting flesh echoes through the hall. Nick recoils, but doesn't fall as the punch connects.

"Remember who I am, punk! You remember who got you here! You remember who keeps that mother of yours safe."

The kid stand with his back turned to Leo, facing Slader, wringing his hands despite that sure expression. The man's face twists into a furious scowl, his resolve shattered, pulling back for a second punch. But this one doesn't connect. Instead it winds up twisted awkwardly in the boys hand, and the mountain of a man is brought down to one knee, wincing as his bones are torqued.

"How 'bout you remember me?" He spits, voice suddenly deeper, more menacing. "Remember I'm ass-kickin' now. I ain't the kid you scraped off the streets." The kid lets go and Slader scowls poisonously down at him as he stands, but his hands remain limp, never moving for another blow. "I'll say what I want," he adds, the words twisted in his mouth with both accent and attitude.

When he turns back to Leo, he's bursting with self-admiration. He moves to lean back against the wall next to Leo as the guy with the old voice in the corner starts chuckling.

"What's so damn funny, Jiro?" Slader spits indignantly. But the shadow only waves him off patronizingly.

And then it's quiet again, save for the crackle of torches, and the man, Jiro, humming quietly to himself under his breath.

But the cold of Leo's cleared mind threatens a storm, and he finds himself less and less at ease with the silence. He watches the boy beside him, busy chewing at his fingernails, and the questions come flooding back again. He bites his lip, tries to force away it away, but in the end, the silence rings too long, untold stories begging just to fill it.

"You mentioned a gong," Leo asks quickly, his eyes turned away. "And I feel... it's important for me to know."

Tension, wound like a wire chord. Again, he meets the wideness of the boy's eyes, the insecurity and false-innocence he has yet to learn to mask. His mouth twitches for a moment, then his eyes drop to the floor.

Slader starts impatiently cracking his knuckles. "Well, boy?" He drawls. "You're such tough shit now, why don't you tell him?"

Nick shoots him a glare and takes it as a challenge. "Yeah. Okay, I will."

Then he turns back to Leo again, and his mouth falls open--the same fear-stricken messenger boy that stood at his table three weeks ago. Leo gazes at him expectantly, a tightness in his chest because he knows. He knows that this is where the dream-things go. Even in the stark-white silence of the cold, he feels he needs to know.

He needs to know because he needs to accept it. He needs to realize where all his memories have gone.

Maybe he can find a way to shed the last of them. Maybe he can find a way to make this victory permanent.

Beside him, the boy makes an unsure noise and stares down at the floor, back to him again, takes a breath that moves out with his shoulders, then begins.

"They ring the gong to control you. It wipes your mind blank so all you think or do... everything you know about is just serving the Master. And they don't use it on just you guys. They threaten us too. But it's different with you." Nick squints in the dim light as if studying him intensely. "At least I think so, anyways."

"It is because you are not one of us," Jiro adds sagely from his darkened corner and Slader throws him a grunt of disapproval. "Not only are you not human, you are not one of us. One of the Clan."

The man's words cut through him like a knife, and Leo feels his insides swelling with indignant rage. Insult. It had to be an insult. His hands wind into fists with his pounding heart, clenched jaw. He opens his mouth to hiss his anger, his disbelief at this bastard's gall.

Not one of the Clan? Heresy!

But in an instant, the moment was killed with the opening of the lacquer doors. Leo flinches and his vision clears again.

Cleansing breath. December morning.

And Shiryou beckons them inside.

It's a familiar situation. All too familiar. Leo kneels, one among the four at the Master's feet, his fingernails digging into his thighs. But he bows his head and keeps his eyes downcast. He will not challenge the Shredder this time. Never again.

The curtains flutter softly before being swept aside, the Master gliding over the the platform, hands folded neatly behind him with a hard scowl on his face. His eyes do not linger on any one ninja. They wait for their orders for what feels like centuries.

Leo's heart is still pounding in his chest, even as he struggles to quiet it, a mad throbbing in his temples. But he's been on these missions. He knows that tonight, he will be facing his death for a second time.

But despite the fear, he accepts it. In his mind, he has nothing left to lose.

"Tonight you will be retrieving an artifact from the storage facilities beneath the Museum of Natural Science," the Master begins. "It is an ancient sword that holds great value to me. The ninja who places it before my feet by sunrise will be named squadron leader. Do you understand your mission?"

A chorus of "Hai."

"But," he continues sharply, "there is one important factor. Under no circumstances is anyone to touch it. Do not remove it from its case. Failure to obey will result in a fate most severe. No exceptions."


The Master's eyes turn to the gong, and Leonardo feels the air around him thicken as he steps down from the platform. He feels Nick shifting somewhere to the left, and Slader's eager anxiety flows from his breathing. Jiro is silent and unmoving.

The Master pauses at the gong, staring up its length. Then he turns.

"And remember, my ninja. There are fates far worse than death."

The gong shudders as it is stricken. First, Leonardo can see the waves of sound barreling towards him like an avalanche. When it hits he feels himself pulled into the icy folds, crushed beneath its power, swept along its raging path like a rag doll. He fights for the surface with a frozen body. Realization has flickered warmth into his mind.

He sees a burning cityscape through a paper-thin layer of snow. And then, like a candle wrenched into the storm, the flame is torn from him. The city sleeps, and he is dragged under.

A/N: (Willowfly) So we're FINALLY back again for the time being. Though it certainly took us long enough. Seems like our two week hiatus turned into a couple months O.O;

For the record... I blame Angel. It's all her fault for not taking me to Hawaii with her.

Anyways, hope you guys have a happy holidays. Also, I wanted to put it out there that the TMNT Fanfiction Competition will be starting up January 1st on Stealthy Stories and a few other sites. And this year I'm host! So keep a lookout for upcoming news and I hope you'll all participate!

Much Love,


(Angelfeatherwriter) Shut up, Ash.

(Willowfly) *finger*

(Angelfeatherwriter) :P