The stoic Japanese man bowed slightly to Paul Hauptmann. He wore his hair long, tied off his forehead by a strip of red cloth, and a mask covered the lower half of his face. He called himself Akai Kage—literally, "red shadow"—and claimed to be an adept of the Red Moon ryu or school of ninjitsu.

"As you say," he replied, and retreated into the forest. Hauptmann waited for a couple of long moments after Kage was gone and let out a shudder, shaking his head.

"Damn it," he said aloud. "That guy gives me the willies. I mean, some of the guys we've worked with in the past have been some real freaks and weirdos, but he's the worst of the bunch. I don't mind saying, Duke, that he scares the hell outta me."

Duke—so given the nickname because his less-than-imaginative parents had actually christened him John Wayne—chuckled softly. He was a big man, tall and broad-shouldered, and even at forty-five his body was as much a chiseled block of marble as it had been fifteen years ago when the United States Marine Corps had decided they could do without his services. They hadn't found out until three years later that he'd intentionally arranged for them to reach that conclusion so as to disguise the fact that he'd helped himself to two hundred thousand dollars of operational funds. By that time Duke had vanished into the shadows of the mercenary underworld and a new, much more lucrative life than selling his considerable skills for patriotism could have brought him.

Paul Hauptmann had been his chief lieutenant for nearly six years now. A lean, whiplike German with a nervy, rabbit-like manner, he was nonetheless the coldest sniper Duke knew, capable of blowing apart an infant's skull while it nursed at its mother's breast without scratching the woman—a job carried out on behalf of a rogue spook in the German intelligence apparatus that had left Hauptmann on the run from a government too shocked to admit it needed men capable of such brutality.

"Paul, Paul, take it easy. You're getting all worked up over nothing."

"Nothing? Duke, the guy's an effing ninja."

The ex-Marine chuckled again.

"And what are we?"

"Eh?"

~X X X~

Colin Barstow inhaled the tobacco smoke, letting the sweet cloud fill his lungs. There would be hell to pay if Duke caught him smoking while on guard duty, of course, but Barstow had never been a big respecter of discipline. The Englishman's father, a puffed-up old relic of a colonel, had found that out after Barstow had been sent down from his third military academy. The old man's "stern hand" hadn't kept the teenager from helping himself to the colonel's latest whore—third wife? Fourth? He forgot, now.—before his tied father's eyes. He still wasn't sure if he'd enjoyed the woman's screams or the colonel's raging, then pleading bellows more.

He probably should have killed them both, but frankly, he enjoyed their humiliation and debasement much more than he would their deaths. It had made England too hot to hold him, though, his pleasures costing him in the long run.

Still, he'd made a name for himself in Hong Kong, Singapore, Bangkok, and Macau. Barstow was an artist, called on when a client didn't just want to deliver death, but death with a message. Only on his last job he'd gotten exotic, taken down the wrong person, and had found himself in a forest somewhere in the ass end of Japan with a boss who prided himself on military discipline just to get out of Saigon before his client had burned him.

His cigarette had gone out while he was hanging out feeling sorry for himself, so he took another and snapped his Zippo open. The momentary flash blinded him for an instant, the scrape of flint on steel swallowed the whisper of blades being drawn, and the scent of tobacco speaking to his addiction drowned out his instincts of danger. When the three kunai buried themselves in his chest, Barstow didn't even realize that yet again his inability to resist temptation had led him astray, and for the last time.

~X X X~

"Seriously, Paul. In what way are we not ninja?"

"Duke, um, we've only got two more days until we do the job and get out of this country. You aren't going to start wearing black pajamas, are you?"

Duke chuckled.

"You watch too many movies, Paul. What you need is a history lesson." He leaned back against a tree trunk. "See, 'ninja' doesn't mean what you think it does. There's nothing supernatural about it. Every culture in the world has 'em, they just dress 'em up different."

"I don't get it."

"Listen and learn, then. See, it starts out in medieval Japan. Now, the samurai, they were really big on that honor, chivalry, bushido stuff—the military code of conduct that keeps a society running smoothly when it's operated by trained killers carrying four-foot razor blades. You've gotta have that or else you get anarchy, which is good for our business but not so much for the shogun. Get it?"

Hauptmann nodded.

"Yeah, I see, but—"

"Well, the problem is, like Sherman said, war is hell, and as you know politics is even worse. Buit when you've got an army and a government made up of people drinking in honor and duty with their mother's milk, it's hard to just say, hey, go and sneak around, gather intelligence, spread false information, seduce somebody, plant evidence on 'em, or just snuff the bastard in the night."

The Berliner considered that for a bit.

"So, you're saying..."

Duke nodded at him.

"That's right. Sure, people being people, the shogun and daimyo and whatnot probably had their own spymasters and stuff, but there also sprang up a group of professionals. Experts trained not in man-to-man killing, but in the dark side of war. Stealth. Assassination. Infiltration. Sabotage. You name it, they did it—the dirty work that let the powers that be keep their dainty hands clean. Starting to sound familiar?"

"You mean...?"

"Yep. Basically, Paul, the ninja did exactly what mercenaries like you and me do today."

~X X X~

Jarod LeBlanc hated Japan. Oh, it wasn't the weather, or the countryside. In his career as a mercenary he'd been in far worse places than standing guard outside a forest camp. And he didn't have any particular issue with Asians, unlike a fair number of the folks he'd worked with over the years.

No, the problem was, the country was just to damn civilized. Orderly. Proper. If a man wanted to indulge his tastes—the tastes that had led him to desert first the French army commandos, then the Foreign Legion just before his comrades had made him desert life in their disgust.

Duke didn't give a damn about a man's private vices, no matter what they were. You couldn't get choosy in this game. But he did care about the unit, and any man caught bringing heat down on the team would be as dead for practical reasons as a moral man would have made LeBlanc from revulsion. The plain fact was, like all civilized countries, no matter how much people yapped about lolicon or whatever they called it, he needed contacts, connections to actually indulge. Not like in some hellhole where decency and order had broken down and survival—by any means—was all that mattered.

He could remember once in Afghanistan, not long after the previous regime had been scattered, a slender reed of a girl with eyes as old as sin who'd wound a fantastically patterned silk scarf around his throat and squeezed, tighter and tighter as she...

LeBlanc was lost in his imaginings, not realizing what had brought them on, until the strangling wire from the tree above bit through flesh and laid his throat open to the bone.

~X X X~

"Back then, though, it wasn't so much of a job as it was a calling. See, instead of individuals or organizations, the trade was set up along clan lines—basically, entire villages would go into the business. There would be field operatives, teachers, company managers, support and logistics staff—basically, a ninja village operated as an entire, miniature covert ops division."

"A ninja village? C'mon, boss, that's like a fairy tale." It wasn't Hauptmann who spoke but the unit's lone female member, a woman they just called Snake after the green and crimson tattoos that writhed across her coffee-colored skin. She'd made her bones in the "ethnic cleansings" in West Africa, where murder, rape, and torture weren't just man's work.

"Not if you look at it right. See, it's not just that being a ninja was illegal, it was also offensive. The same people who hired them at night would piously execute them by day if it was ever found out. There was no way to hide a large group within a settlement, so they became the settlement. Anyone who wanted to leave that way of life, well..." He dragged a thumb across his throat. "They were a threat, you see. All for one and one for all. Just like us, there's only two things that matter: you're loyal to your paycheck and you don't do dirt to the rest of the unit. Anything else goes, 'cause we're the untouchables anyway, outcasts from society's law and standards by the very nature of what we do."

~X X X~

Vincent Aguillo snapped to attention at the rustling sound. The Colombian, once a sicario on the streets of Medellin, then the leader of a cartel head's private paramilitary strike force, had ears like a cat, and the instincts of one as well. Those instincts had saved his life several times, once when the police had raided their hideout and once when one of his former employer's rivals had caught him with his most prized mistress. Aguillo had gotten out that time, though the fallout had touched off a war between cartels and made Aguilla persona extremely non grata in much of the Americas.

Now those instincts were speaking to him again.

He swept up the barrel of his submachine gun. Was it an animal there? A person? He wished he could spray the brush, but gunfire was a last resort, to be used only when necessary, for fear it would draw attention and cause the mission to fail. He advanced slowly, carefully, alert for every any living presence.

In the dark, the shin-height tripwire was invisible, particularly as Aguillo's eyes were up, following the rustling sound to seek its source. The pressure was faint, but as soon as he felt it his bowels clenched in terror and he tried to throw himself aside, but the springy tree limb whipped around like the Reaper's scythe, hammering the cluster of sharpened stakes through Aguillo's body.

Ahead of him, the twist of leafy branches knotted together and dangling from a tree limb so they would catch the wind and make noise, rustled on.

~X X X~

"The thing you've got to do is get that mystical, ancient-tradition nonsense out of your mind. The stuff you see in the movies, sure, ninja did use them—back a couple of hundred years ago."

"Come on, Duke. You're saying that ninja didn't use swords and throwing stars and eggshell grenades and climbing claws and those human kite things and—"

Duke wanted to laugh. He really did.

"Think about what you're saying, Paul. There's a reason why they used that stuff back then. For pre-industrial Japan, that was bleeding-edge technology! They were like James Bond, with Q Division cranking out the latest tricks and gadgets to give them an edge on their enemy. That's not the attitude of rigid thinkers who do stuff the exact same way for centuries on end. Remember, it's the samurai who had the rigid code of honor, who kept out foreign technology and trade for years because they feared the political fallout and cultural corruption."

He shook his head.

"No, your modern-day ninja isn't hopping around in the outfit of a Kabuki stagehand, using ancient techniques kept pure for centuries in the fastness of mountain villages. They'd use the most advance tricks and tech they could get their hands on—if it suits their mission. Which means that he won't use a homemade black-powder bomb to blow a door, not if he has C4 or Semtex instead. On the other hand, as for swords..." He drew his combat knife out of its sheath. "Seems to me that in hand-to-hand range, a blade is still pretty damn useful, don't'cha think?"

~X X X~

Junichi Mishima had known what he'd wanted to be ever since the age of nine: a ninja assassin. Silent, deadly, feared, a superhuman predator mastering ancient, even supernatural arts of killing. He wasn't sure, then, whether he'd start with his whore of a mother, his drunkard of a father, the classmates who belittled him, or the teachers who mocked his progress.

He learned to fight in the dojos. On the streets he learned to make his hatred into a weapon, becoming known to the local gangs.

Junichi Mishima died the day of his parents' murder. Unlike them, though, the death was in name only. At eighteen, he became Red Shadow, the killer for hire. And if his swordsmanship was from an easily identifiable, common style instead of a secret school, well, it still killed people just as dead. If his poisons were concocted from drugs and readily identifiable in autopsies, rather than being untraceable distillations of herbs gathered under the full moon, that didn't bring any comfort to his victims, did it?

And when his body was slashed open by a sword swung by a wielder he'd never heard approach, the man who'd claimed the title of ninja for himself was not comforted that his killer was legitimately entitled to the name.

~X X X~

"Of course, you don't really care about bamboo staffs with hidden blades and ropes of human hair, do you?" Duke asked. "No, you want to know about the magic, don't you?"

Paul Hauptmann flinched. Snake cackled.

"Turning invisible. Walking on water. Walking through walls. Vanishing in an instant to reappear somewhere else. Taking control of a person's mind. Enhancing the power of weapon strikes to slice right through solid rock or metal. Even summoning energy directly in blasts of pure power," Duke recited the litany, then broke into a broad smile. "C'mon, Paul! You're not serious, right?"

"With all we've heard—"

"Hell, buddy, you don't really believe that the ninja were taught secret magical arts by those crow-demon-monster...whaddya call 'em? Tengu, that's it, up in the mountains of Nara?"

"Okay, no, but—"

"Hey, you know, in this business, P.R. is God. We're talking about people selling a commodity, right? They're going to take every damn opportunity they can to make sure that everybody knows how badass they can be, so it builds up business. They probably started most of the stories themselves."

"P.R.," Hauptmann grumbled.

"Yeah, that. Plus, there's also the fact that if your target is scared until they're wetting their pants, they're going to make mistakes. They're going to be stupid, reacting instead of acting."

"That's true," the sniper agreed with a nod. "We've all seen that."

"Of course, then there's my favorite. The stories of the ninja which get spread by the victims." He chuckled. "You're a bodyguard who just lost his charge? Hell, it must have been supernatural, right? You didn't slip up on securing the room. The ninja just walked through the wall! Your guard wasn't too dazzled by a pretty face to check the geisha for weapons, she used hypnosis to cloud his mind!"

Snake laughed.

"I know that kind of mind control," she said, "thought it tends to work a little lower down, if you get me."

"Almost fell for it myself once in Beirut," Duke agreed. "But that's my point here, Paul. The ninja weren't superhuman monsters who used sacred paranormal techniques; that was all blowing smoke for guys like you and me: trained mercenary experts in dealing death."

"Truth be told, though, I've seen some strange shit since I joined up with Clover," Snake said.

"Maybe so, but what I'm saying is, if our buddy A.K. really is a ninja, he doesn't dress like that as part of his oath to his secret clan of assassins, he does it to screw with the minds of people like you, Paul, who've heard the stories but not the history."

The change from causal conversation to battle-readiness was instantaneous. People like Duke, Hauptmann, and Snake never really left the combative mindset even while talking, drinking, even sex. The steps were quiet but not silent, and they all heard the weight of a foot coming down on dirt and leaves, the brush of undergrowth being pushed aside for a passing leg, and most importantly all those sounds without the voice of one of the other group members. They turned as one, hands reflexively snatching up guns. Duke got just a glimpse of a shadow, a deeper patch of black against the treeline, and of eyes that blazed red with their own light.

He squeezed the trigger, then, spraying a burst from his SMG towards the shadow, but it wasn't there by that time, moving faster than his eyes could easily adjust, zigging out at an angle, then zagging back to the group. For an instant it paused and Duke could make out a definite human shape, but its arm—her arm—was already in lethal motion and Snake's throat erupted with blood. Paul got a shot off with his M1911A1, but the attacker had ducked away from his aiming point and was already in motion. Her foot caught Duke in the hip, the kick landing clumsily but with such force, ridiculous force, that it launched him off the ground and sent him sprawling six feet away. He didn't see her fist snap out, striking Hauptmann between the eyes with the force of a sledgehammer blow, caving in his skull and killing him almost instantly.

Duke had managed to keep his grip on his SMG and snapped the selector over to full auto as he rolled onto his back. Seeing the unknown woman, he squeezed the trigger, but she was in motion already, moving in an arc faster than he could swing the gun around after her. Impossible! he thought, even as the magazine exhausted itself. He reached for his knife as she hurled herself at him, but she caught his wrist in an iron grip, broke his arm as easily as he'd snap a pretzel rod, then reached out and broke his neck with the same casual ease.

As she let the corpse drop, the figure of a young man emerged from the woods. Despite his dark slacks, turtleneck, soft-soled shoes, and face paint, her enhanced night-sight identified him at once.

"Did you take care of all the pickets, darling?" Shinobu Takamachi (nee Tsukimura) asked.

"Uh-huh. One at every cardinal point, which plus these three makes seven in all, the entire group."

He took a cell phone from his pocket and dialed; the call was answered on the first ring.

"Aunt Misato? We're done here," Kyouya Takamachi let an edge come into his voice. "And would you mind if Shinobu and I got back to our honeymoon? We didn't really appreciate being interrupted in the onsen just because the Intelligence Defense Squad didn't have a team in-country. Yes, yes, I know, representatives from four countries, political fallout if anyone ever learned these trade talks were happening, I know. It's just annoying!" He listened a bit longer, sighed, and hung up, slipping the phone back into his pocket. "I can't win," he groaned aloud.

The vampire walked over to him and slipped an arm around the ninja's waist so she could press up against him. Fighting, killing, despite what she was these weren't her natural element, but she'd promised to share Kyouya's life with him and that meant sharing this kind of burden, too. She knew that it was a burden for him, too, despite his stoic exterior, and despite how necessary this was or how much the evil men had deserved it.

So she deliberately kept it light, for her own sake as well as his.

"He was right, though."

"He?"

"That one guy, the leader? He was talking to the others about how all that supernatural ninja power stuff is all for the movies and videogames."

"You don't say."

"Sure!" Shinobu smiled up at her husband. "Just look at you. You're only supernatural by marriage!"