The three vipers ran through the long abandoned field a few steps aside from each other. They had been instructed not to run in a single file, because although that would have meant only cutting a single narrow path through the tall grass, that path would have been trampled three times and less blades of grass would have sprung back up after their passage. As it was, they would leave three sets of tracks too faint to follow rather than one clear one. They weren't being pursued anyway, but it didn't hurt to take extra precautions. They were quite oblivious to the fact that faint tracks can still be followed by decent trackers and that the chip they had stolen could be tracked precisely via satellite.
Clyde Dale, leftmost of the three cobra troopers, was grinning as he ran, confident nothing could mess them up now. They had the stolen computer chip and they were as good as in the clear now that they were so close to the agreed upon rendez vous point, and no one was chasing them, or at least no one close enough to matter. They had been promised a nice fat bonus if they delivered their bounty, and Dale could already smell the new car he was going to buy with the extra cash.
He was the first to reach the door to the abandoned farm house they were to wait in. He opened it and ran into the house, barely slowing down. His smile automatically vanished as his eyes registered the content of what had once been a living room.
Clyde prided himself in being a tough guy; he had seen plenty of death since becoming a viper, and more than a few before. Gore had long since stopped bothering him… if asked, he would have guessed he had been blasé to it at least since his teenage years, nearly a decade ago.
This, however, was just plain creepy. He was still staring, frozen in his steps, when the other two vipers came in, closing the door behind them. One of them - Clyde thought it was John White but his head refused to turn around to check – cursed loudly.
Clyde swallowed and snorted. "It's mostly just bones," he said in a would be casual voice, deliberately ignoring the rest of the décor, which consisted of mouldy furniture, peeling and discoloured wallpaper, a floor coated in grime and rat shit, a collection of objects that were all either rusted, rotten, moldy or a combination of the three, and three corpses on which the flesh wasn't quite done rotting away. All that was just ugly and gross - even the corpses - while the quantity of bones was… disquieting.
The third viper, a rookie named Sam who Clyde knew would spend his bonus on enough drugs to blow what passed for his brains, walked past him and kicked at the closest pile of bones. "Some sicko's collection," he said in a knowing tone. "I know a guy who's got even more than that. He paints them."
"There's a bunch of kids' ones," John said. He tried to sound cool and failed.
Clyde nodded. "Yeah. You know, I bet the Commander's been here and loved it. That's why he sent us here."
The three were silent for a few seconds. As the shock from the many remains wore off, the stench of the place was becoming more noticeable, much to their displeasure. Clyde expected Sam to talk again next, and intended to punch the junkie if he started babbling on about that supposed bone collector he knew. He was NOT in the mood to put up with the constant stream of imaginary slices of life that came out of his fellow viper's mouth.
The kids are the worse.
All three vipers startled badly and had their weapons out with the speed afforded by training and blind panic.
"Did… did you guys hear that?" Sam asked.
John nodded, eyes wide and darting all around the room.
"Because I'm not sure I did," Sam continued. "Sounds like a trip."
Clyde swallowed; he had never been stoned enough to hallucinate, but Sam's description still sounded about right. The voice hadn't really been a sound… it had felt like it had been talking straight to their brains; like telepathy or something. He wasn't about to admit to that impression, however, and settled for thinking of it as a non-voice. "Recording," he muttered, even though it sounded absolutely nothing like a recording. "Just a stupid recording."
We made it quick for them. We always make it quick. It's no good not to do it. They just starve.
The tree vipers froze for about one second before they all decided they had had enough of this place. They turned on their heels and rushed for the door.
Their bodies did not follow, instead falling limply to the floor; as promised, the farm house's other occupants had made it quick. Despite their newly achieved immaterial status, however, the three vipers were bounced backwards one step away from the door.
Clyde found himself right next to his own body. He stared at it for a few seconds, his brains refusing to accept the idea that it was looking at his own dead self.
Dude… this is totally a trip. I'm floating…
He jumped. That was Sam, he was certain of it, but Sam now sounded like the non-voices that had just spooked them. He turned towards it to see the junkie, now slightly transparent, staring at himself. Or rather, staring at his body. Just past him, John White was glaring at both of them and at his own corpse. His jaws – the immaterial ones – were working, as if he was trying to speak but couldn't. Clyde guessed that if shock hadn't rendered his team mate mute, he'd be cursing a blue streak.
The non-voice spoke again. You can't leave. None of us can ever leave. You were trapped the moment you stepped through the door. I'm sorry. We don't know how to warn people not to come in, so it keeps happening. I'm sorry.
That broke through their shock and suddenly, the vipers fully understood that they were dead and that the souls trapped here were telling them they would be haunting this place with them forever. They reacted much like nearly anyone else would in similar circumstances, and the house silently echoed with their non-screams for quite a while.
Flint looked at the decrepit farm house they could just make out about five minutes' walk away through the tall grass, then checked his tracker again.
"It's in there, all right," he concluded, talking out loud for the benefit of his team. He turned towards them and carefully schooled his face into a neutral expression.
Cobra had timed the theft of the chip with an attempt to break into Fort Knox, or more precisely, they had timed it for shortly after the start of that attempt. Just long enough after it, in fact, for the Joes that had been sent there to be too far away to be called back to deal with this more minor theft.
As a result, Flint had been left with little to choose from for his team. He didn't doubt the people he had would perform admirably – they were after all Joes – but he didn't know any of them well. He had studied their files, but he would have preferred not to have to rely on only the information they contained.
The only full Joe present, other than himself, was Storm Shadow; most of the time Flint spent in the ninja's company was related to assigning the ex Cobra punishment detail, so he was most familiar with the aspects of the ninja's personality that he had no use for during a mission. The other five members of his team were greenshirts he had never worked with before.
He knew they'd perform well. He just wished he knew which miracles he could depend on and which ones were not guaranteed.
The five greenshirts diligently took out their binoculars, crouched as low as they could in the grass and still see, and took a nice long look at the house. Storm Shadow spared it a glance.
"You… don't mean inside that farm house, do you sir?"
Flint turned towards the voice, scowling: no Joe should sound so scared at the idea of ambushing three measly vipers in an old building. His expression shifted slightly to exasperation when he saw that the greenshirt who had spoken – Hart, a sniper – was white as a sheet and looked literally sick with fear.
"I do," he said drily. "Is that a problem, private?"
The confirmation finished throwing the young man into a panic and he started actually shaking. "We… we can't go in there!" he stuttered.
Hart swallowed and frantically tried to come up with a reason his commanding officer would accept for not going into the farm. The real reason was the many ghosts he could see trying to get out through the broken windows, and the many more he could hear wailing. "It's a... it's a trap," he blurted out lamely.
Storm Shadow cocked his head; whatever the danger Hart was worried about, it had to be very significant, or at least seem very significant to him: the young man was actually close to a heart attack.
Flint was dragging his hand down his face. "You're afraid it's haunted, or something like that, aren't you?" he said in a sigh. He knew the greenshirt's taste for the supernatural - heck everyone knew about it since the werewolf incident - but he hadn't expected it to interfere with duty. "Look..."
"I don't mind haunted!" Hart protested. "Ghosts are hardly ever dangerous! But... it's..."
"Enough," Flint ordered. "We're going in."
Hart swallowed; he was not going in there. He didn't care if it meant the end of his military career, he wouldn't have cared if it meant his life. He didn't, however, want to live with the souls of everybody else on the small team on in his conscience. He had to keep trying to talk them out of going in there. Desperate, he settled for the truth.
He took a deep breath. "You can't," he said in what he thought was an amazingly calm tone. "You'll never get out; your spirit, I mean. Soul, whatever." He heard his pitch steadily getting higher, saw that Flint was merely glaring at him, but gamely went on. "I can see a bunch of them trying to get out and they can't, and I can hear even more complaining. The place is packed, because everyone who ever went in never came out. It traps spirits. Forever! Think about it! You go in alive, you either die of starvation or whatever else, and even then, you STILL. CAN'T. LEAVE. EVER! There are a handful of places like that in the World, but this one's going to be news to everyone, it's not documented any..."
"I SAID ENOUGH," Flint cut in. He'd been caught in the tall tale out of sheer curiosity, but they had wasted enough time on superstitious ramblings. "The only souls in there are those three vipers and we can handle them." He turned his back on Hart and gestured his group to follow. He'd deal with the greenshirt later.
"He's got a point about a trap, though," Storm Shadow said, his tone slightly bored.
Flint turned toward the ninja, blinking. "I know they're going to try to ambush us. What kind of idiot do you take me for? We're going to use the tall grass to take them by surprise... wasn't that obvious?" He looked at the other greenshirts, who nodded to confirm they hadn't needed the clarification.
"Tall grass won't hide our heat signature, or the noise you lot are going to make trampling along," Tommy said, shrugging. " Permission to go ahead so I can signal you if I realize they know you're on your way and are ready to shoot?"
Flint sighed. Irritating as it was to delay right after refusing to do so, there was no harm in letting Storm Shadow scout ahead and there was a very small possibility that the extra caution could prove useful. "Granted," he said. "Watch yourself."
The ninja gave him a mock salute and vanished. Flint gestured the others to follow and they slowly headed toward the farm, keeping an eye out for a signal from their scout. They got it two minutes later, about halfway to the farm house, in the form of Tommy signalling them to double back. Flint frowned, but he'd take falling for a bad joke from the ninja any day over needlessly risking his team, so he followed the signal turned back. Storm Shadow quickly caught back up with them.
"The place is filled with poison gas. Don't ask me why," he grunted, his nose wrinkled in disgust. "It's one I'm immune to, but it's concentrated enough that I still feel a bit off even though I didn't go in. I'm guessing the vipers didn't know about it because I can't hear anyone. Excuse me." He coughed in his elbow. "Bad after taste. We need masks to go in, definitely."
Flint scratched his head; they didn't have masks with them. "You say the vipers are dead. Are you sure?"
Flint turned to Turner, one of the greenshirts. "You brought the ROEDU?"
The greenshirt nodded. "Oh yeah, I always bring my buddy." He took the Remotely Operated Explosive Disarming Unit out of his backpack and set it down on the ground, then took the remote control/monitor screen out of a side pouch on the same pack. He made the dog-sized mess of wheels, tracks and arms roll around a little and wave its various arms.
"Perfect," Flint said with a smile. "He won't mind the gas. You're with me."
The team was back at the edge of the overgrown field. A few steps apart from the rest, Turner was guiding the little robot with the help of the monitor screen showing the view from said robot's camera and Flint was watching his progress. The rest of the team was basically waiting and keeping a casual look out.
Now that he wasn't going to be asked to go in the spirit trap, Hart was much more acutely aware that he was probably in big trouble. He was debating going to beg forgiveness from Flint when Storm Shadow materialized next to him.
"Would fire be enough to destroy the trap?" he whispered. "Free the prisoners?"
Hart's eyebrows shot up and he turned toward the ninja, staring at him, speechless. The idea of Storm Shadow being useful to him was mind numbing.
"I know better than to dismiss ghost stories," Storm Shadow breathed. "And if there's any chance you're right about this place, it seems like a better idea to free the poor buggers stuck there than to join them."
"There's no poisoned gas, is there?"
Storm Shadow softly snorted and buffed his nails. "I do like acting."
Hart bit his lips, trying to set aside his misgivings about the ninja and to think. "There's one in China that burned, once, and it didn't do anything," he finally said. "The trap stayed the same size, just without actual walls. But in France, they had an exorcist go at one. He did burn it, but he also did some purification rituals to cleanse the place of spirits and demons. That worked." He frowned. "I don't know the rituals, though, and it should be done at the same time. They tried the rituals in Russia, after the place burnt down, and it didn't work, because the fire's all about purifying too. You'd need both at once to overpower the trap."
Tommy raised an eyebrow. "There are Shinto rituals to purify places from spirits," he said. "Doesn't work on some ghosts, though," he added grimly.
Hart shrugged. "None of this stuff will work on a ghost that doesn't want to leave. But these guys do. Thing is, I don't know ANY shinto stuff. So unless you do... still nothing we can do."
"I know the right ritual."
Hart, who was already having a bit of a hard time processing the idea that the ninja believed in ghosts and had decided they were going to free the spirits trapped in the farm house, felt his jaw drop and found himself once again just staring at Storm Shadow in shock.
Tommy smirked. The Arashikage compound was much too big to hide entirely, so officially, it was a private Shinto temple with attached grounds. In order to keep the cover, a few members of the clan were always trained to do anything a Shinto priest would be able to do, including purifying rituals. Because of his flawless memory, Tommy had been a natural choice to undertake the training. He hadn't minded – it was rather interesting stuff and the robes had proven to be a girl magnet.
"Long story," he told Hart. "Basically, I'm trained to pass for a priest. I know the rituals we need."
Hart looked around nervously. Did the ninja actually mean to do this? There was no way Flint would approve, especially when he believed the place was filled with gas that was not only deadly, but potentially volatile.
"I'll take the fall," Storm Shadow said. "My idea, after all. Besides, as a ninja, I get to be mystical and spooky now and again."
He didn't wait for an answer and vanished in the grass, Hart presumed toward the farm house.
Flint gave Turner a solid pat on the back, grinning, when the ROEBU came out of the house with the chip. It had taken several minutes due to the chip being in the pocket of one of the vipers and that viper having fallen in such a way as to trap that pocket, and its content, under himself. Turner had had to roll the viper and open the pocket to finally secure the tiny computer chip.
The ROEBU was halfway back to their position when the farm house exploded. Flint instantly lost his grin and although they were a safe distance, threw himself on the greenshirt to shove him out of the way and simultaneously cover him, out of sheer reflex. He scrambled back up immediately and stared at the house.
His eyes narrowed when he spotted Storm Shadow, as close as one could safely get to the farm house. The ninja was moving his arms around, and although it was hard to be certain over the roar of the flames, Flint thought he could hear him saying something.
"Get the ROEBU and the chip back and stay with the others," he snarled.
"Yes, sir!" the greenshirt answered, focusing his attention back on his screen and remote control. Flint didn't really hear or notice, he was already running towards Tommy, cursing under his breath about insane ninjas.
He stopped right next to Storm Shadow, who was done whatever talking and waving he'd been doing and seemed to be enjoying the bonfire he'd created.
Flint took a deep breath, trying to stay calm, but decided at the last minute that he didn't feel at all like staying calm. "WHAT THE HELL ARE YOU DOING? YOU SAID YOURSELF THAT PLACE WAS FULL OF GAS! THIS IS NOT HOW YOU DEAL WITH THAT!"
Storm Shadow lowered his eyes, not looking so much sorry as determined to look like he was. "About that… I have a confession."
Flint's eyebrows shot up before coming back down in a frown. "There was no gas?"
"Not that I could detect. Truth is, I just felt Hart might be right."
Flint felt his jaw drop.
"You're not going to make fun of my spiritual beliefs, are you?" Storm Shadow asked, smirking. It was quite obvious no amount of insults would have bothered him.
Flint closed his eyes and felt his fists clench. He forced his hands to relax, took a deep breath, and decided he was not dealing with this. He was going to get the facts, report them to Hawk and forget it ever happened. With that resolution in mind, he managed to talk in a nearly normal tone. "You were waving your arms and saying something just now."
Storm Shadow nodded, still smiling. "Shinto purification rituals."
"You just happen to know them."
"Well, there is a good reason. You see…"
"I don't care. To sum up, you pretended the place was full of deadly gas to keep us from going in and force us to use the ROEBU instead, which we're lucky to have with us. You did this because, like private Hart, you believed that if we went in, we would be killed by some kind of supernatural forces…"
"Not some kind of forces: the spirits already in there. Either out of rage or mercy, I don't know. And the dying thing isn't really the biggest problem: we would have been stuck haunting the place forever, too."
Flint felt a vein popping in his forehead and told himself again that he was just getting the fact to report them to Hawk and letting the General deal with the matter of discipline vs respect of religious beliefs vs the-man-is-a-freaking-ninja-he-has-no-business-hav ing-religious-beliefs-and-much-less-acting-on-them . "All right, whatever. So, once we had the chip back, you blew up the farm and performed some purifying rituals. To destroy the trap, I assume?"
"That and free the spirits imprisoned within. Including the vipers, but I couldn't leave the others in there just for the sake of making a few cobras miserable for all eternity. Tempting as it was."
Flint sighed. "Right. And do you feel, right now, like you actually accomplished anything? Do you think…"
He stopped, suddenly overwhelmed by an unexplainable feeling of gratitude and exhilarated freedom. The feeling lasted for over a minute, at times weaker and at times stronger, before disappearing altogether.
"Yeah, I'd say so," Storm Shadow said when it had passed, smiling.
Flint shook his head in an attempt to clear it. "So letting Hawk sort this through…" he muttered, turning his back on the ninja to head back towards the rest of the group.