Author's Notes

This is basically an insert to Arashikage, it would have taken place right at the beginning of Storm Shadow's service to Cobra… most likely less than a month after he made the deal with the Commander.

This is kind of angsty, just a friendly warning. I'm told it's not as bad as I thought, though. And, well, it's pretty much a given that something like that happened whether I write it or not, and I felt like writing it out – I think I've made it clear that Storm Shadow was extremely set on avenging the Hard Master, saw it as absolutely necessary to do so. This snippet follows.

Since it's an insert and because it's an introspective piece anyway, it's in Storm Shadow's point of view.

The Fearless Master is the name I decided on for Tommy's father. He's mentioned in The Greenshirts and the Werewolf, and in a couple of stories on that... other… site.

Most people assume that ninjas believe in nothing; I can't speak for any other clan, but it's certainly not the way I was raised. I was raised Shinto, and although I don't actually believe demons ever roamed the land, or that Vega and Altair are really stellar lovers, nobody can tell me that humans are nothing but a collection of cells sending electric signals to each other, and that nothing remains once the body is gone. I've seen mind win over matter too often to believe that mind IS matter; I've felt my mother's presence when praying to her altar; and when my father died hundreds of miles away from me, I knew it because I kept feeling his presence, as though he was checking on me.

Not that I would ever admit to it, I know the kind of looks I'd get. Just the same, I know that our spirits continue on after our bodies die. Exactly what that entails is a mystery to me as much as to anyone else, but that doesn't mean I don't know anything at all.

For instance, I know that some spirits don't rest in peace. There ARE unfortunate souls who don't shed their suffering along with their lives, and who can't quite leave the plane of the living. I suspect nobody around me right now shares that belief, which strikes me as a bit ironic considering the situation.

It's the first time since we've made our deal in his limousine that the Cobra Commander actually needs me. Our temporary base – a disaffected warehouse in Detroit –was broken into by Homeland Security a few minutes ago, and although I've managed to get the Commander out of there through one of the hidden tunnels, we've just run into a pair of soldiers guarding our exit. Obviously, the tunnels were not quite as secret as the Commander believed. I had of course heard two people there well before we saw them, but we couldn't very well turn around, and I had been reduced to hoping whoever was there would have no business with us. It was a foolish hope, and I can't even pretend to be disappointed it wasn't realized – that would imply a certain level of surprise over the fact.

I clench my jaw: I don't want to fight soldiers, but the Hard Master was murdered and if I don't avenge him, nobody will. I'm the only live member of the clan who knows the murderer was not me, I'm the only one who can set his mind at peace. Nearly half the ghost stories I've ever heard start with an un-avenged murder; nearly half of the unfortunate spirits that can never find peace are a result of justice not being done. I can't allow the Hard Master to remain one of them and so, I must fulfill my obligations to the Commander.

I throw a couple of daggers at the soldiers' hands, and they drop their weapons with twin yelps of pain.

"Run," I advise. Even to me, it sounds more like a plea than a threat. I can't let them stop us, the Commander has to escape, but we're still in the tunnel and they are blocking the only exit: either they leave or we go through them.

The Commander snorts from behind me, too low for the soldiers to hear. They hear him perfectly well when he speaks, however.

"Storm Shadow, they are professional soldiers," he says, giving his voice a completely fake fearful tone. "They won't run from a guy in white pyjamas just because of a lucky throw. We're going to have to surrender."

The soldiers buy it and take out another gun each with their uninjured hands. "Excellent idea," one of them says. "Hands up where we can see them, both of you!"

Their grip is clumsy, making it obvious they are not ambidextrous and that they would almost certainly miss if they shot us, whether we bothered to dodge or not.

I don't want to do this, but I will not let the murderer who framed me get away; my uncle WILL be avenged and at peace. I knew what I was getting into when I agreed to serve the Commander, and I have no more choice about it now than I did then. I settle for giving the soldiers one last chance.

"That wasn't luck!" I snarl. I throw a pair of throwing spikes right through their hands this time, hoping a more serious injury will finally scare them away. They scream, but instead of finally getting the hint and leaving, they dive for their first weapons, grabbing them with their comparatively less injured hands.

The Commander cackles behind me, but the soldiers don't notice. Their hearts are racing, they're pumped full of adrenalin, and obviously, they don't consider letting us through to be an option.

They're American soldiers; even though we've never met before, they're my brothers in arms and the man behind me is as close to evil incarnate as people get. The soldiers' hands close on their guns at almost the same time. I suddenly imagine them tumbling in the grass in the exact same manner to catch a ball thrown by their young children and clench my jaw a bit tighter still.

I can't fail. I can't falter. Nothing says they even HAVE children. I will my eyes away from their ring fingers because I don't want to know whether they're married, and rush them, taking out my swords as I go. Behind me, the Commander's cackle turns into a yell of triumph.

The sound of my own heart drowns everything else as I reach the soldier's position and sweep my blades in two wide arcs, aiming for a sure and instant kill. I feel the resistance when I hit their necks but I have more than enough momentum and my swords barely slow down as they cut right through the skin, muscles, arteries and spines.

The soldiers were still low to the ground from diving for their guns, and the heads don't fall far. Just the same, the dull thuds quiet down the sound of my own pulse back to normal volume, just in time for me to hear that the soldiers' hearts have already stopped.

I start sheathing my swords, falling back on automatic movements because I'm very keen on not thinking right now, but something metallic clanging on the left blade attracts my attention. I look before I think and swallow painfully: the sword somehow managed to catch one of the soldier's dog tags chain. I mean to shake it off, but my brains betray me and make my arm tilt the sword up instead, making the tag slide down towards my hand, allowing me to read the name on it. I thus find out that one of the two men I've just killed in the service of a monster I hate with every fibre of my being is called Martin Smith.

One of the soldiers with whom I did basic training was a Smith as well; it's not him, the first name is different and they sounded nothing alike, but the name still reminds me of training with soldiers just like those two, of being one of them. My arm twitches and I almost throw the sword and the tags away from myself.

Instead, I grab the tags and kneel to deposit them on Martin Smith's chest. I want to say I'm sorry, but I can't. My contract with the Commander calls for my loyalty, I cannot show sorrow over killing an enemy.

"You fought with honour," I say to the corpse instead. I hear the Commander hiss in anger and I scramble for something else to say that will sound less admiring of our foes. "But you should have known better than to fight me or Cobra," I finally add.

I get back up and sheath my swords. We resume running and manage to evade the rest of the soldiers guarding the area, making it back to the fallback base – an abandoned mini-mall - without further issues.

I excuse myself at the first opportunity and find my way to the roof. I sit in the lotus position, take off my quiver and open the hidden bottom compartment, extracting an old piece of paper. I unfold it to reveal a 3 year old family picture: my father mailed it to me while I was at war, and it never made it out of my wallet. Other than the weapons I brought with me on my last wage earning mission, it's the only memento I have of any of my family.

My father is smiling on the picture, something of a terrifying sight thanks to his many self-inflicted scars. The Soft Master is smiling as well, looking completely content and at peace. The Hard Master is barely scowling at all, which I've always assumed meant he was in a fairly good mood that day, and his wife is looking impatient to be done with this foolishness so that she can get back to work.

I deposit the picture in front of me, securing it to the ground by laying my quiver partly on it. I then close my eyes and clap my hands twice, leaving them joined after the second clap. It takes me a while to say anything; even though it's been almost an hour by now, I can still hear the two heads I've cut falling to the floor, I can still see and hear the soldiers just before I killed them and what's worse, after I did.

I want to explain to my uncle's spirit that I hate killing fellow soldiers; I want to defend myself by uselessly reminding my father and his brother that we haven't done a hit contract in generations, that the Arashikage are not trained dogs killing for their prize. I want to say that I can't do this, I want to give up and say I'm sorry, and to believe that the Hard Master will forgive me. I want to conveniently forget that forgiving me will not give him justice or peace.

Thankfully, I'm not quite weak enough to do any of that. It's bad enough I failed to stop the arrow that killed the Hard Master, even though it went almost right by me; I won't fail him now. I will avenge him, I will free him from his mortal bounds.

When I finally speak, I address my father instead. He was famous for his stubbornness, and an iron will is precisely what I need right now. "Fearless Master," I whisper, "help my mind stay strong."

I picture him rolling his eyes at the request before remarking I'm just as bull-headed as he is and demanding I stop looking for help when I don't need it. I know the expression and the exact words are the fruits of my imagination, but it doesn't matter: it still feels like a weight has lifted from me.

I can do this.

There may be nothing left of my soul by the time I'm done, but I won't fail my uncle. The Hard Master, and by extension myself and the rest of the Arashikage, will have justice.