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Join Moonshadow and Snowhawk in this thrilling sequel to Rise of the Ninja!
In this second outing, Moonshadow's world is still threatened by war.
The Fuma clan is ramping up attacks against members of the Grey Light Order, while Silver Wolf is building up his armies and agitating against the current shogun. When Moonshadow and Snowhawk receive a summons from the White Nun, they quickly head out to the mountain to protect their helpful psychic, but soon they realize the mission is a Fuma trap. As they face down hardened gangster Jiro, freelancer Kagero and dreamweaver Chikuma, Moonshadow finds he must also watch out for Snowhawk, who is struggling to control both her anger and her death blows. Will Moonshadow's skill be able to prevent a Twilight War between ninja clans? While Higgins keeps the swords slashing and the action rolling, things bog down a bit when the focus falls too heavily on Moonshadow's mystic ability to connect with and control animals. Though the villains are treacherous and possess powerful talents, the two teen ninjas are able to defeat them too easily, slightly reducing the narrative tension. The author considerately blends definitions for many Japanese words into the main text and includes a helpful glossary.
Though inevitably fighting middle-novel syndrome, Higgins effectively uses this work to set the stage for a compelling third installment.(Adventure. 10-14)
The midnight temple bell gave a final hum, masking the sound of Moonshadow’s landing. Its voice declared the halfway mark of the Hour of the Rat.
He crouched low on the roof, scanned the moonlit horizon ahead, and listened. Before the echo of the bell died away, the tiles behind him creaked.
Moonshadow turned without a sound to the ninja who had landed behind him. His tightly bound night cowl showed only his eyes, but he offered her a smile anyway. The willowy silhouette of Snowhawk, his trusted friend and mission partner, promptly returned a nod. She adjusted the sword on her back and then stretched out to press an ear to the cold, curved tiles.
Snowhawk bobbed up, drawing an iron right angle and a small crowbar from her backpack. While she silently worked the first large tile loose, Moonshadow rotated slowly on the spot, checking their surroundings for any hint of movement.
His sharp eyes probed the darkness, ears strained to pick up any hint of trouble. Moonshadow felt his mouth turn dry. It wasn’t due to anything he saw or heard. He always grew tense just around this point in a mission. The cloth covering his nose and mouth trapped a taut sigh. Tension and fear, though never pleasant, were actually friends. They kept a spy sharp, cautious, attentive to detail, improving the chances of surviving a mission.
He knew that, as usual, his status as a secret defender of the Shogun would offer no protection. If he and Snowhawk were caught spying on a lord like this, that nobleman’s sentries and bodyguards would instantly unleash a hail of arrows or sword cuts upon them, no questions asked. Moonshadow finished his sweep of their dark, undulating surrounds. There was no hint of movement, but any surrounding rooftop could still be hiding loyal, watchful guards, themselves scanning every nearby shadow. One hasty, eye-catching move or careless sharp sound and the mission would be ruined. Worse still, the hunters would suddenly become the prey.
Slowly Moonshadow began a second circle. Such caution was essential! He and Snowhawk might not be that far from home, but if they were detected, ambush and death could swoop as quickly here as in any far-off valley or castle. There was only one place in all the world where he could relax: the walled monastery of the Grey Light Order.
But that lay on the opposite side of this massive, fast-growing city.
He studied the jagged Edo skyline as he turned. So many new, unfamiliar buildings and, thanks to the rising foreign influence, even a few with flat roofs.
A minor lord, Akechi, owned the mansion they were breaking into tonight. It stood in the center of the aristocratic quarter of Tsukiji. It was a whole new district, perched on reclaimed land that had once been the lowland marshes of the Sumida River delta. To the northwest lay mighty Edo Castle, the Shogun’s home, stark in the moonlight, its tower’s whitewashed walls shining.
What a twist! By draining the marshes, the Shogun himself had created Tsukiji and now here, beneath Moonshadow’s very feet—if their intelligence was right—a nobleman was plotting treason against their ruler.
Moonshadow braced himself. They must stop him.
On the horizon, black mountains carved the wide sky, and the distant snowy cap of Mount Fuji glowed like an upturned white bowl, faint in the moonlight.
He stared southeast to Edo Bay. Tiny lights bobbed in the harbor where samurai guarded their lords’ coastal ships.
At first, Moonshadow heard no sounds but the usual: cats fighting here and there; far off, the short-lived barking of a startled dog, quickly followed by its owner’s rebuke; a shrill seabird, calling its mate to the northern fork of the bay. Then noises from the mansion below made him hold his breath and listen hard. Footsteps, muffled voices. Did they belong to Akechi’s guards? What if one of them had shinobi training and, therefore, animal-sharp ears?
A gentle breeze swept the roof. Moonshadow pulled down the edge of his cowl’s face-bindings, cooling the sweat on his upper lip as he drew in the soft wind’s salty tang.
A tap on his shoulder made him turn. Snowhawk had finished lifting tiles and it was time to descend. They had recited the furube sutra together just before this mission, but its mind-clearing effect, at least for Moonshadow, was proving short-lived. The shrugging-off sutra was uttered each dawn and sunset and prior to going into action. It was supposed to help a spy remain calm and able to concentrate, but now he felt tension rising, knotting his stomach. His thoughts were speeding up too.
Once inside the attic, they would be especially vulnerable to ambush. A spy’s worst nightmare was being cornered in a small space. There, swords were nearly useless and most tricks and illusions wouldn’t work. Shuriken, the star-shaped iron throwing knives that shinobi used with deadly effect, were badly hampered by roofing beams. Any light at all, and eye-tricking night suits lost their power.
Growing up, Moonshadow had heard many awful stories from his trainers about agents who were detected and then trapped in cellars, drains, or attics. Attics just like this one.
The nastiest tales all involved an enemy retaliating with fire. Moonshadow pictured the face of an agent who had once visited the Grey Light Order monastery, a man with only one eye and a horribly scarred face. That spy, Brother Eagle had later told him, had been cornered in a stable by a line of guards, doused with oil, then set alight even as he fought wildly to escape….
Moonshadow glanced down at their square black entry point and tried not to picture flames roaring below. He had just fought off the image when a muffled sound made him shudder. His eyes darted to the left.
What was that? Movement across tiles. Very faint, but close. Up on the next roof? Whoever it was had an incredibly light step. That meant a high level of stealth training.
His hand glided to the grip of his back-mounted sword.
Snowhawk saw the motion and instantly slid backward into a band of shadow, her long fingers creeping between the lapels of her jacket, probing for a shuriken.
Moonshadow pointed up at the next roof’s visible face, its gentle slope looming over them. The roof capped a mansion one story higher than the one they were entering. The pale wall under its dark tiles was bland and, luckily, windowless.
He listened intently. More sounds. Someone was definitely moving up the roof’s opposite slope, heading for that nobbled ridge-cap at the apex. The erratic footfall grew a little louder. Snowhawk drew a shuriken from a concealed pouch in her jacket, gripping the black iron throwing knife carefully so its star points wouldn’t cut her hand. Moonshadow knew that, like him and unlike normal folk, she too could hear the sounds—but only now that they’d intensified.
Snowhawk’s hearing was sharper than Moonshadow’s, developed from a lifelong special shinobi diet, sensory focus training, and years of listening for the swish of a weapon that might slay her.
She and Moonshadow had both been orphans, raised by rival spy houses, so they shared that kind of training. But at times his hearing was also unnaturally enhanced. It came and went, a heightening that his brother agent Groundspider called “residue.” Which it was. Snowhawk, who had recently joined the Grey Light Order, envied Moonshadow’s residual hearing, because its source was a rare shinobi skill that she did not possess.
Moonshadow had been trained in the Old Country science called the Eye of the Beast. It enabled him to mentally join with a nearby animal, seeing through its eyes or even taking control of it. An animal-quality sense such as hearing or smell would often linger in Moonshadow after he had joined his mind with that of a bird or beast. It could fade and then return unpredictably. Sometimes these random heightenings were so intense they became overwhelming, even making him feel sick. But not tonight. For now, a manageable audio residue, sharp but not too strong, was serving him well.
Moonshadow inclined his head, opening his mouth to help stretch that enhanced hearing even further. They needed more information, and fast! Whoever approached was high on the roof’s hidden face now, about to peep—or plunge—over that bumpy apex. Moonshadow and Snowhawk would be seen at once, then attacked, shuriken flying at them or, worse still, the lurking shinobi might leap straight onto their roof, sword flashing, the commotion blowing their cover!
With stomach muscles tightening, Moonshadow gripped his back-mounted sword.
“Get ready to throw,” he whispered to Snowhawk.
With a short, crisp nod, she brought her right hand up, in line with one high cheekbone. The curved blades of a Clan Fuma shuriken peeped between her fingers. Moonshadow frowned at it and then looked back up to the next roof’s apex.
How strange. Despite being given a pouch of Grey Light Order throwing stars with the classic straight-bladed Iga-Koga design, she was still using her old supply.
Why use a style favored by the very clan she had fled? Was it just familiarity?
They both recoiled as movement broke the next roof’s skyline. A head appeared.
Snowhawk’s hand dropped. She and Moonshadow sighed heavily, their shoulders relaxing. Above them bobbed a tiny head with pointy ears.
A cat. Though not just any passing cat. The temple cat that lived with them.
“What are you doing here?” Moonshadow whispered to it. “Have you tailed us all night?”
The temple cat strolled up and down the high roofline, flicking its tail but not making a sound. Moonshadow never ceased to marvel at the animal’s oddity. Like any other temple or “kimono” cat, it had been born with rare markings that were considered sacred. They resembled an image of a woman in a kimono, and by tradition, such cats lived on the grounds of temples or shrines. But regular temple cats had stumpy, triangular tails. This one’s tail was long, thick, and expressive.
Smiling with relief, Moonshadow looked up at the eccentric creature that had adopted him two months earlier. It had been during the first real mission of his life, when he had also met Snowhawk. The fearless, skillful Snowhawk.
Moonshadow glanced at her with furtive admiration. He still wasn’t sure if he’d rescued her, she him, or they each other. Whatever the case, it had been one crazy, dangerous mission. He’d been wounded and made himself a powerful enemy, the rebel warlord Silver Wolf, whose henchman had almost destroyed them both. Narrowly, somehow, it had all ended in success.
Above, the cat turned suddenly on the apex, drawing his eye.
Snowhawk moved noiselessly to his side. “This is getting ridiculous,” she whispered. “It’s sweet the way she’s so crazy about you, but she’s going to get us caught.”
He nodded, squinting up at the animal. What was the cat’s game? Now she was leaning sharply toward Edo Castle, tail swishing around fast. She turned and glared down at Moonshadow, then resumed the same antics. Thankfully, without a single meow.
“Wait,” he muttered. “She’s signaling something.” But what? A warning?
Great timing! Both he and Snowhawk needed to enter this attic, and now. But perhaps there was good cause to have somebody keep watch. Moonshadow scratched his cheek, reasoning it through. He could do both at once: sight join with the cat and head into the attic at the same time, but it would cost him precious life force, ki energy, temporarily draining his strength. That always increased the risk factor during a mission. If he failed to rest properly afterward, or sight joined again too quickly, total exhaustion—and disaster—would follow.
Yet what choice did he have? If this was a warning and he simply ignored it…
He glanced to one side. Snowhawk was staring at him. She leaned in close. Her large eyes flicked briefly to the cat, then she raised an eyebrow at Moonshadow. Her thoughts were easy to discern: she knew he intended to link with the cat, but wasn’t sure it was a good idea.
He gestured down at the square opening she had created in the tiles. “We must get into place now,” he whispered. “If our information’s right, their meeting starts any moment, if it hasn’t already.”
She nodded reluctantly, then deftly made a series of three signs with her hand in Grey Light Order code. The signals told Moonshadow her plan: while he sight joined with the temple cat, she would sweep the attic for chime traps. He showed his acceptance with a sharp nod and, a moment later, watched Snowhawk carefully enter the attic, sliding in headfirst. As her feet disappeared, he turned away to stare up at the temple cat. Moonshadow concentrated on the animal, and for a few seconds his hands trembled. The cat looked down at him and, as their gazes met, a subtle green hue sheened its eyes. Moonshadow knew the same unnatural color was sparkling around his pupils too. His nostrils flared and twitched as he began to share the cat’s powerful sense of smell.
The barrage of new odors threatened to overwhelm him. The smell of old incense from a house below. Freshly caught fish and pork roasting somewhere in the distance. A sandalwood scent from the damp laundry drying on a pole nearby. And another aroma, sweet, almost sickly, coming from so far off he couldn’t identify it.
Focusing his will, Moonshadow accessed the second level of the Eye of the Beast craft. Abruptly he saw through both the cat’s eyes and his own.
With his human vision, he saw the temple cat standing motionless, leaning once more from the higher roof’s peak, a dark Edo skyline behind it.
Superimposed over that sight, he saw what the cat saw: the opposite skyline, with Edo Castle at its center. The animal vision rippled through what looked like a thin layer of water, a side effect he was used to. Distant movement in the vista caught his attention. A tiny figure, hard for even the cat’s eyes to make out, was cautiously hopping roofs, bobbing as if searching, gradually approaching from the direction of the Shogun’s castle.
That explained the sweet, near-sickly odor. The cat smelled man sweat from far away.
Moonshadow cursed. It was hard to see the flitting figure at all, let alone make out any features, such as his weaponry. The intruder was most likely wearing a night suit similar to the kind he and Snowhawk wore. Its bluish purple color was harder to distinguish in half-light or shadow than plain black.
Only shinobi had such equipment, and this man certainly moved like one. Moonshadow shook his head. An agent then, for sure. A shudder went through him. Akechi wasn’t guarding his secret meeting with samurai! It was far worse than that: he’d hired an assassin to watch his back! Or maybe several!
Moonshadow cast quick glances in all directions. Were more enemy ninja closing in, unheard, unseen?
Moonshadow’s eyes darted back to the hole in the roof. Snowhawk should have reappeared by now to signal the all clear. What was happening in there? He swallowed.
Was this so-called meeting actually a trap?
Moonshadow concentrated hard, taking complete control of the cat. Up on the higher rooftop’s summit, it stiffened slightly.
As he settled into the third and highest level of the Eye of the Beast, Moonshadow felt a tug in the pit of his stomach. His ki was already draining fast!
Stay where you are, he ordered the cat. Watch that man.
Moving slowly, with the cat’s watery vision dancing over the top of his own, Moonshadow dangled his head through the opening Snowhawk had made. His eyes quickly found her, her body facedown and motionless, a few paces to the left. His heart skipped a beat. Was she all right? Then he saw the pile of materials on the attic floor behind her. He exhaled slowly with relief. A tangle of cut, knotted ropes, several small iron eye-hooks, and three large cylinders of bamboo with carved wooden clappers on cords, all of them now severed. He grinned. The attic had been armed with chime traps, but their darkened, hidden ropes were no match for a professional like Snowhawk.
Moonshadow crept to her side and she pointed with a special tool, indicating where she had already bored a line of small listening or watching holes in the attic’s floorboards. He nodded and carefully stretched out next to her. Moonshadow held his breath, brushing aside the one tiny pile of sawdust Snowhawk’s drilling had left, in case a flake or two fell through the holes and gave them away. He turned his head to lower one ear over a hole.
Immediately he heard breathing and smelled men and liquor in the room below. Angling his head, Moonshadow lined up one eye with the peephole, a move made harder by the constant, wobbling view of the Edo skyline he was seeing through the cat.
Through the beast’s vision, Moonshadow saw that the man outside was steadily approaching, though his advance had slowed. Now he seemed to be inspecting certain roofs with meticulous care. Why? Was he uncertain of where he was? Was he hunting for them, or did he have some different objective here in Tsukiji? Surely he was a rooftop guard for the conspirators’ meeting, arriving a little late after being delayed somehow?
Moonshadow raised one hand, ready to tap Snowhawk’s shoulder and warn her about the oncoming ninja. He hesitated. Using hand signals in this near-darkness could lead to confusion! Why were those men in the room below so quiet? Perhaps they were still settling in, but until they grew talkative or noisy, he and Snowhawk had no muffling cloak of sound behind which to whisper safely and so communicate in detail.
Moonshadow blinked at the hole. Talk down there, will you?
Beneath his stealth suit, beads of sweat ran down his spine. It was humid, unusually tight in here! And with that intruder approaching, though the man still paused to search roofs here and there, their available time was dwindling fast. If a hostile shinobi trapped them in this attic…
A terrible image of licking tongues of fire rushed into his mind. He forced it out again.
The first hint of a headache pulsed in Moonshadow’s temples. Would somebody down there please get on with conspiring already? He clenched one fist.
Enough, he had to regain his calm! He tried hard to concentrate on the mission itself.
Moonshadow studied the men below, clustered so tightly around a low eating table that, thanks to the room’s high ceiling, he could see all three of them at once. If they, however, looked up, the same ceiling’s high band of shadow would hide the spy holes drilled in its thin wooden plates.
The conspirators knelt on the tatami floor, feet folded under them. On the table lay sake cups, chopsticks, small empty rice bowls, and a tall clay beaker. It looked as if they had already shared a snack and then started midnight drinks at the outset of their meeting. Perhaps why they had been quiet so far! That was good in a way: their little feast had probably bought him and Snowhawk some time to get into place. And at least they wouldn’t stay quiet much longer: sake generally loosened men’s tongues. He peered through a different spy hole and found their weapons. A sword sitting in an elegant rack and, on the reed matting beside it, laid in neat lines, two tanto-style daggers. One of them was highly ornate, the kind rich traders wore.
One man covered his mouth and forced a series of coughs as if something tickled in his throat. Snowhawk quickly slid closer. “I sense shinobi energy,” she whispered. “It’s distant, but getting stronger.”
He tapped her arm once in acknowledgment. This was one of her strengths that he couldn’t match, the ability to feel the presence of another spy. She was very good at it, he quite inconsistent. At least tonight he could rely on her prowess with that skill, should any other uninvited guests turn up.
Below, the man who had been coughing gave a final loud splutter, and his companions started teasing him noisily, joking that he might not live long enough to see their plans fulfilled.
Good, they were getting raucous now! Moonshadow seized the opportunity. “I can see him. One man, very agile,” he murmured softly. “Looks big. Bigger than Groundspider. Coming this way, searching roofs hard. We’re running out of time.”
She nodded back sharply, tension narrowing her big eyes.
As they returned their attention to the conspirators, one cleared his throat imperiously. The others fell silent at once.
With a commanding manner, golden leaf-patterned robes, and a nobleman’s hair queue, the man had to be Lord Akechi. He sipped a cup of sake between his sentences. The two facing him—one man was bearded, and the other, clean-shaven and bald—nodded keenly as he talked.
The bearded one wore the thin green indoor kimono of a houseguest, while the bald man had donned the bland grey street robes common to merchants. A silver prosperity charm from the shrine of the money god was stitched to one dark lapel.
“Something big is in the wind,” Akechi said confidently. “It grows clearer by the day that not every noble wants this new peace to last. They know that war means opportunities. The chance for those denied power to seize it.”
The bearded man in the guest robe raised his cup and spoke in a soft Kyoto accent. “And for those of us consorting with barbarian traders, a chance to make instant fortunes through importing their most wanted commodity… the latest firearms.”
Moonshadow grimaced. Within sight of the Shogun’s very home, two different worlds now schemed revolt together. The nobles, the old wealth with lands, titles, and mastery over the warrior class. And the merchants, the new rich, a rising caste of moneymen who sought illegal foreign allies. No wonder eavesdropping missions were now so common. Something big was in the wind.
Akechi’s bald guest folded his arms. He spoke fast and firmly, in the manner of many Edo residents. “My lord, a hundred pardons, but I have been wondering how our investment proceeds. Would it be rude for me to humbly ask for an update at this time?”
The bearded one nodded eagerly, as if he’d wanted to raise the same thing.
“Not rude at all.” Akechi smiled. “As long as details are fittingly avoided. We must remain… cautious.”
The bald one gestured. “But our determined friend to the west is still keen to right the great wrong?” Akechi smiled and nodded quickly. The three laughed together.
Snowhawk nudged Moonshadow. “Somebody wants to reverse the outcome of the Battle of Sekigahara that ended the last civil war, crush old enemies, make himself Shogun.” Though she had only whispered, he’d felt the outrage in her words. Moonshadow scowled. Akechi would know many nobles who lived to the west of Edo, but he knew of only one with such lofty ambitions: his mortal enemy, the ruthless Silver Wolf, lord of Fushimi.
He grimly refocused on the figure the cat was watching. Much closer now, the man appeared to be checking every rooftop in this part of Tsukiji. Heat flushed through Moonshadow’s body and he felt his heart rate speed up. Panic tried to snatch at him, but he shoved it away. Below, one of the conspirators, talking affably, refilled his friends’ sake cups.
“He’s really close.” Moonshadow breathed quickly. Snowhawk’s eyes widened at the stress in his face and she gave a fast nod.
“Our friend,” Akechi said below, “is currently organizing specialists to help in our cause. Once they have struck a certain blow, we should reconvene. And then I will ask you to invest even more.”
The two merchants grunted supportively. The bearded one half-bowed.
Moonshadow scowled. These three men each owned so much, but because of their greed and opportunism, and the ambition of their “friend to the west,” a new civil war might break out within the year, in which tens of thousands could die. As Brother Badger had always said, a little bitterly, the world’s history was a centipede of gluttony wars. Moonshadow clenched his teeth. Not this time; he, Snowhawk, and all the Grey Light Order, the Shogun’s eyes and ears, would stop them. He stilled himself, etching their words into his mind so he could later recall them verbatim. As trained, he and Snowhawk would each write a version of what they had heard, then the two accounts would be used to check each other’s accuracy.
Suddenly Moonshadow’s beast sight moved, and his heart began pounding wildly. The agent outside was just five roofs away. Snowhawk slid back from the holes she had made in the attic floor.
Below, with sake cups raised, the conspirators launched into a series of toasts to their unnamed friend, to their plan, to its success and victory.
“I know,” Snowhawk whispered. “Time to go. I can feel him. He’s almost on us, right?”
Moonshadow nodded and quickly but silently followed her back out onto the roof. He kept watch through the cat as Snowhawk carefully replaced the tiles. The moment the last one had muttered softly back into place, he gave the cat a final command.
Go home, now. Moonshadow broke the beast link, and he and Snowhawk turned to run.
Side by side they scuttled low across Lord Akechi’s roof and then jumped to the next frozen tsunami of tiles that arched in the moonlight. Snowhawk glanced over her shoulder. She clicked her tongue.
Moonshadow stopped and hung his head knowingly. “The cat’s following us, isn’t it?”
She nodded with a sigh.
“Then let’s outrun them both,” he mumbled with irritation.
They tore off, springing up and down over a long series of identical rooftops that formed a dappled, rolling road in the moonlight. As they ran and jumped, quickly choosing sound landing spots and handholds in advance, Moonshadow smelled his own streaming sweat as well as their pursuer’s scent.
After traveling the distance a bow shot could cover, they paused on the roof of a temple and looked back. The cat had dropped out of the race, but the unknown spy was still coming, closely following their path. Now there was no doubt. He was after them, and his orders were easy to guess.
Kill the Grey Light Order spies before they could report what they’d heard!
Over there!” Snowhawk pointed at a line of homes. Moonshadow looked. Two among them appeared brand-new. Perhaps they had replaced buildings that had recently burnt down. They were new and different. “See the two flat roofs, one close, one far?” She patted her pack. “They look ideal for traps.”
“Let’s do it!” he hissed. They began house hopping toward the first roof.
On arrival Moonshadow looked down at it, his eyebrows knitting. So these fashionable new flat roofs weren’t truly flat; their angle was just very subtle compared to the steep, sweeping curves of traditional Japanese roofing. He glanced about. Clothes-drying poles. A wooden ladder fixed to the outside of the building. Moonshadow padded across the tiles to take up a sentry point in the darkest corner.
He watched the skyline behind Snowhawk as she quickly pulled two blackened trip wires from her pack. She worked fast, using the bamboo drying poles at each end of the roof, and tied one wire at throat height in a long shadow, the next at ankle height in another dark patch two strides from the edge. Moonshadow nodded approvingly at her cunning; if their pursuer sensed and ducked the first wire, he just might relax enough to trip over the second and plunge from the roof. It was no certainty, but worth a try for sure.
Moonshadow’s gaze probed the night. Where was the enemy now?
Suddenly he made out a large silhouette, flitting nimbly between rooftop shadows. Moonshadow flinched. The ninja was moving faster now, really gaining on them, so close that Moonshadow could even see the outline of the man’s back-mounted sword. The stranger’s scent grew stronger in Moonshadow’s nostrils, making them flare. His heart pounded against his ribs as he met Snowhawk’s eyes. “Go, go, quick,” he whispered.
They resumed roof hopping, both panting hard now but increasing their speed until they vaulted, side by side, onto the second flat roof. Moonshadow rubbed his burning thighs as he looked around.
This roof’s entire surface was bathed in the shadow of the mansion next door.
The higher rooftop was undergoing alteration. A thick cedar beam, drilled clean through with large holes at regular intervals, was roped along its apex.
His eyes locked on the beam. It was high enough to offer a hiding place from which they could observe both roofs. The big holes made it a ready duck blind.
Snowhawk saw the same potential. “I say we get behind that”—she gestured up at the beam—“wait, then ambush him.”
Moonshadow nodded agreement, and as he jumped for the next roof, she half turned and scooped something from her pack. Before following Moonshadow, Snowhawk turned back, carefully giving the roof a single, wide wave.
Low skittering sounds told Moonshadow that she had strewn tetsubishi across the rooftop. A wise move. Tetsubishi were tiny caltrops designed to pierce the sandals—and feet—of anyone following in a shinobi’s wake. Some agents used cast metal or twisted-wire tetsubishi, but Snowhawk preferred the natural kind: the spiky dried seedpods of a certain water plant. Unlike their man-made relatives, they often broke when stepped on, which actually made them even more effective. Usually at least one of their four rather nasty curved prongs wound up lodged deep beneath a howling victim’s skin.
“Where is he?” Moonshadow peered warily through a hole in the beam. “There! He keeps stopping. Must be having trouble tracking us. Hope he doesn’t notice your—”
Snowhawk cut him off. “Say he does. Say he dodges all my traps. Do we try to take him alive?” She gripped the sword strapped beside her backpack. “You’re the senior on this mission. The decision is yours.” She slowly unsheathed her blade, keeping it low, out of the moonlight. “I’m happy to go either way… unless he’s a Fuma agent.”
Moonshadow frowned. “You mean because they raised you, if he’s of Clan Fuma you’re reluctant to kill him?”
“No,” she said lightly, “the opposite. If he’s Fuma…” She gestured, making a cut with her weapon.
He stared at her, his concealed mouth open in surprise. Snowhawk leaned close. Even in the moonlight, he could see that deep anger filled her lovely eyes.
“Raised me?” She gave a low hiss. “They trained me well, but as for how they raised me…” She found another hole and checked on their pursuer before going on. “My mentors were beyond harsh. I saw friends our age put to death or abandoned to the enemy for failing one mission. It’s why I defected; why I’d never go back.”
“Good. You suit the Grey Light Order,” he said quickly.
“I know,” she said with a nod. “Look, I told you before: both Fuma and your order train suitable orphans, but the Grey Light treats theirs like human beings.” She shrugged. “So don’t worry about this guy. Leave him to me. He comes, I’ll happily take care of it.”
While Moonshadow watched the unknown agent approach the first flat roof, he started weighing his decision at feverish speed. His it was! Young or not, he was the senior agent tonight.
Which meant he had to make that hardest choice of all: to kill or not to kill.
What to do? The dignified Heron would suggest caution. Many times while teaching him naginata fighting, disguises, and potions, she had warned him not to be impulsive.
Perhaps, since he was now thinking this through, she had succeeded in training him to be cautious. But what if sparing the stranger was overcautious?
“He’s poised before the first roof now, looking it over,” Snowhawk said quickly, “about to jump for the side where my throat wire is. Don’t like how long he’s taking.”
Moonshadow nodded absently. If those trip wires worked, he might escape this decision. Badger, the Order’s irritable archivist, would simply snap, “Review the mission rules!”
So he did. No special limits on the use of force had been mentioned. He could therefore slay a skilled pursuer and be neither dishonorable nor disobedient. He could, but should he?
“Curse it!” Snowhawk clenched a fist. “He just dodged both trip wires. He’s on the move again.” She shrugged. “Oh, well. Might not do as well against my tetsubishi.”
Groundspider, Moonshadow decided, would advocate cutting down the pursuer without hesitation. Moonshadow’s sparring partner and trainer in throwing knives and smoke bombs had a dark, ferocious side. A true follower of Lord Hachiman, the god of war, Groundspider was the “if in doubt, kill it anyway” type. Moonshadow sighed. He knew he wasn’t.
“Look,” Snowhawk whispered, elbowing him gently. “He’s almost here—see, far edge of the second flat roof. Darn it! He’s looking around. I think he saw the tetsubishi.”
Moonshadow’s stomach churned and he felt his mouth turn dry. Any moment, he’d have to make this decision. His mind raced. Brother Mantis would take the opposite line to Groundspider. Once a famous duelist, Mantis now stood for mercy and compassion and would say just don’t kill, unless you have no choice. As a strategist, he’d also advise gaining a prisoner—and potentially all he knows—rather than simply notching up a kill.
Moonshadow shook his head. Which voice should he listen to? Was this leadership? It was confusing!
Even trying to imitate Brother Eagle, the head of their order, wouldn’t help right now. Eagle, born and raised samurai but trained in Iga ninjutsu and the Eye of the Beast, had lived in two different worlds and thought flexibly: Eagle’s counsel to Moonshadow was always to trust his own instincts.
He grumbled a curse. What were his instincts saying? He wasn’t sure!
Snowhawk gave a soft gasp. “He’s balancing on the edge, sneaking around the tetsubishi. This guy is sharp.” She patted Moonshadow’s arm and raised her sword. “Better not take any chances. I’ll just slay him then, huh?”
Moonshadow swallowed hard. Where was the instant wisdom he needed? Then he thought of one of Mantis’s obsessions: the real meaning of part of their furube sutra, the shrugging-off rite intoned each dawn, each sunset, and before every mission.
Scatter not one grain of life. Since it was the sutra of spies and assassins, it meant, surely, one unnecessary grain. At least his instincts about that message were clear. It was, in itself, a code to follow whenever in doubt. A reminder too: where possible, walk the highest path, always winning yet doing no needless harm.
“He’s heading for this roof.” Snowhawk started to rise.
“Alive,” Moonshadow whispered quickly. “That’s my decision. We take him al—”
He heard a minute grunt of disappointment from Snowhawk, but there was no time for debate. With a soft whump the pursuer landed on their roof and began hurrying up its slope for the apex and the cedar beam. Snowhawk sheathed her sword, irritation in her eyes. Moonshadow turned from her and squinted through one of the beam’s holes.
The man was bigger than Groundspider and easily as agile. They were in for a tough, ugly fight. What if it spun out of control? It might be him doing the slaying.
The stranger reached the beam and one of his large hands slid across the top of it, fingers probing for a sound grip. Snowhawk launched up, grabbed his wrist, and twisted it quickly into a nerve-stretching lock. From beside her Moonshadow vaulted over the beam, clamping a headlock on their pursuer. The man gave a snarl and then pushed off hard with his feet, somersaulting over the beam, dragging his attackers with him until all three of them were upside down. The bold maneuver broke their grips, and with a muffled clatter the trio tumbled apart down the sloping roof behind the cedar beam. One of the ninja’s flailing feet caught Moonshadow in the head, stunning him. Limp and disoriented, he slid quickly for the edge.
As his head cleared, Moonshadow felt the outermost tiles scrape along his ribs. Then his stomach pitched wildly. He scrambled with his feet. There was nothing under them!
Realizing where he was, he clawed desperately for handholds. His fingers ripped through patches of moss between the tiles, tearing the damp clods apart but failing to stop his slide. Moonshadow ground his teeth together, snatching vainly for anything he could hang on to.
It was no good. He was dangling over the edge, and any moment he’d plunge!
A hand seized Moonshadow’s wrist. Snowhawk hovered over him. With a determined grunt, she hauled him back up onto the roof then spun away quickly to take on their recovering foe.
As Moonshadow stood up, the stranger gained his feet with equal speed and rounded on Snowhawk, hastily grunting something. But before he could complete even a phrase, Moonshadow darted in to swing a hard back-fist strike into his jaw. The man’s head shuddered, but he recovered fast, hurling Moonshadow away with a flashing side kick. Impulsively, Snowhawk reached for her sword. Seeing that, the big man aimed a powerful front kick at her, forcing her to abandon the draw. Snowhawk sidestepped his blurring foot, then snapped a firm hold on his ankle with both hands. The stranger tried to speak once more, but his jaw appeared numbed by Moonshadow’s blow, and he succeeded only in stuttering.
Who cares? Moonshadow scowled. Who wants to hear his threats? He closed with the man again, clawing for the ninja’s back-mounted straight sword, but the large spy volleyed himself into a powerful, one-legged backflip. The sheer force of his fast, high turn propelled Moonshadow clear. The stranger’s free foot rose and whipped Snowhawk in the head. She reeled backward and teetered on the roof’s edge, arms wide and circling, trying to regain her balance. Moonshadow gasped.
If she dropped, her great agility and many climbing tricks might enable her to cut short the fall, but how would he capture this powerful spy on his own? With a determined forward sway, Snowhawk reclaimed her balance and thrust away from the edge.
Bounding up from the crouch he had landed in, the stranger stood tall, working his jaw painfully at desperate speed but still unable to speak.
Thinking fast, Moonshadow advanced on the man. Time for a calculated risk!
He and Snowhawk couldn’t afford to breach the no overt combat rule and start a full-scale swordfight on a randomly chosen rooftop. Very bad idea! The noise might attract aggressive samurai who could easily decide to cut first, ask questions later. Knowing that, their pursuer should hesitate before drawing his blade… hesitate just long enough…
Closing with his opponent, Moonshadow smoothly drew his own sword behind his back. In a flash he shoulder-rolled to the man’s feet, then rose to one knee and swung his blade on a horizontal plane, the tip swishing straight at his enemy’s thigh. The ninja darted to one side, evading the cut. Then, to Moonshadow’s horror, he drew his own sword and assumed a warlike dueling stance. Either he didn’t care about shinobi field rules, or he’d just totally lost his temper!
“No,” Snowhawk called in a whisper behind them, “no loud noise, don’t break cover—”
Too late! One glance at the man’s stance told Moonshadow that both he and the ninja were full of battle rage and tension now. Each was committed to try and cut the other! Yet despite that, neither of them dared to block. Echoing rings of steel on steel would bring chaos and death to encircle them all. They would have to trade cuts that neither of them dared intercept with their sword.
This duel was going to be duck, weave, cut, and hope for the best!
Moonshadow clenched his teeth. He met his opponent’s eyes. What if this guy was faster? The man looked furious, determined, but something else flickered in that stare: was it fear, hatred, or confusion? It looked like the last; but what could he be confused about?
The ninja darted forward with surprising speed for such a large man. He dropped easily to one knee and then hacked low, left to right, angling for Moonshadow’s kneecap.
Moonshadow saw it coming and leapt over the streaking blade, landing well inside the man’s guard. Turning his sword quickly in his hands, he jabbed the ninja hard in the center of his forehead with the sword’s pommel. There was a nasty crunch as the man’s head snapped back. Stunned, he dropped his sword, and with a muffled clunk it stuck upright in a moss patch sprouting between two tiles.
Recovering yet again with alarming speed, the ninja lunged and seized Moonshadow’s wrists. His tight, controlling grip trapped Moonshadow’s flailing sword, rendering it useless.
Snowhawk attacked the shinobi from one side with a rising crescent kick, but sensing her, the man stepped clear. He then swung Moonshadow off his feet, into the air, turning him into a human club. Moonshadow’s trailing legs whipped Snowhawk’s shoulders, and with a deep whump she was flung to the edge of the roof.
Struggling hard to break free, Moonshadow lost sight of her, and his skin instantly prickled with worry. Had she hurtled right over the edge or managed to snatch a grip in time? He dared not take his eyes from his opponent to find out!
Moonshadow paddled with his feet until he felt them touch the tiles. Then, instead of resisting the ninja’s powerful grip, he forced himself forward, even deeper inside the man’s guard, until he managed to plant one foot on his enemy’s stomach. Before the ninja could guess his intentions, Moonshadow curled his spine and ran up the man’s stomach and chest.
Driving the attacker’s elbows apart, he turned his last step into a strong stamping kick to the ninja’s face. There was a sickening crunch.
Forced to release his iron grip, the big pursuer staggered backward, both hands flying to his nose.
Free at last, Moonshadow fell to the roof, landing on his shoulders, but he quickly back-rolled out of harm’s way and rose to his feet. He glanced around and saw Snowhawk, her face creased with effort, struggling back up onto the roof from the edge. His gaze snapped back to his foe. The man was already rushing him! Moonshadow cursed. This guy recovered way too fast!
As he plowed into Moonshadow, the big shinobi snatched a hold on the grip of Moonshadow’s sword. Driving his opponent backward, he broke Moonshadow’s balance, forcing him to stumble. With blurring speed, the ninja brought one elbow up in a half circle to strike at Moonshadow’s forearm. The glancing blow was incredibly strong and forced Moonshadow to drop his sword. It fell to the tiles with a low clank.
The instant Moonshadow was disarmed, the big ninja stopped shoving and began pulling at him instead, spoiling any chance he had to regain his balance. The shinobi glanced over his shoulder and then dropped smoothly onto his back, one foot rising, as he dragged Moonshadow down on top of him.
Moonshadow grimaced as his enemy’s foot burrowed into his stomach muscles. Then the man straightened his leg, flinging Moonshadow up, over, and behind him with a powerful one-legged stomach throw.
As he crashed to the tiles, landing on his back, Moonshadow caught a gleam in the corner of his vision. He turned his head quickly, and his eyes went wide.
He’d just missed the ninja’s sword, sticking upright from the roof!
Moonshadow began to rise, but the attacker was on him in an instant, firing kicks at his head, maneuvering cleverly, trying to drive him back and into the sharp edge of the sword. Suddenly the big shinobi shuddered and let out a wheeze. Moonshadow looked past him. Snowhawk had just hit the guy from behind with one of her strong flying side kicks!
Spinning around, the shinobi struck back at her, counterpunching with blinding speed, but Snowhawk ducked under his flurry of punches and scrambled out of range.
Coiling his body tightly, Moonshadow rolled clear of the sword, then tumbled again, wheeling higher up the slanting roof to seize the little battlefield’s high ground. He stopped and turned, staying low, glaring down angrily at their pursuer. The man was distracted now, his eyes firmly locked on Snowhawk, who circled him like a hungry wolf. It was time to end this!
Moonshadow noted the position of the fallen swords, then slid on his side, his body flowing with the angle of the tiles, right down to the man’s feet. He quickly swung a leg to each side of the spy’s ankles, trapping both legs. Moonshadow closed his legs tightly, like scissors, then twisted his hips with force. The agent pitched forward, snatching wildly for Moonshadow. He missed and fell. Snowhawk rocketed onto the man from behind, wrenching on a forearm choke. Arching his spine, the agent threw his head back and headbutted her in the face, the force of the blow breaking her hold. He rolled down the roof, flicking Snowhawk from his back, and dragged Moonshadow right to the edge.
Moonshadow and the stranger disentangled speedily as they ran out of roof.
Each slid over the edge but this time managed to claw a good grip. They dangled less than a man’s length apart, scrambling to haul themselves up. Snowhawk, shaking her head as if stunned, launched across the tiles and stamped on one of the big agent’s hands. He let out a muffled groan. Grinding his teeth, Moonshadow pulled himself up and stood on the roof.
Snowhawk’s hand flashed into her jacket. Moonshadow frowned curiously.
She dropped to one knee, her opposite foot still pinning the man’s hand as she held a Fuma shuriken against the side of his neck. A curved black blade point poked the skin above his vital neck artery.
“Here’s poetic justice! A fitting way for one of you to die!” Snowhawk growled. “By a shuriken of your design, in the hand of one you mistreated!”
Moonshadow gaped in startled horror. Her voice was weirdly deep, thick with rage, her shuriken pressing into the helpless man’s neck now, starting to break his skin.
Terror streaked through Moonshadow. Would she kill this guy before his very eyes?
“Stop!” he gasped, his chest heaving. “This is vengeance! This is wrong!”
“Hah!” Snowhawk snapped at him. “I need a better reason than that to stop!”
Confused thoughts hit Moonshadow at the speed of flashing arrows. He was the mission leader; he couldn’t allow this! The harsh rules on dealing with any mutiny in the field were clear. They called for immediate, lethal action, but… this was Snowhawk!
He floundered for a moment, then took a deep breath, turned, and snatched up his sword from the tiles. Bounding back to the roof’s edge, Moonshadow swung its tip straight to Snowhawk’s throat. At once a cannonball’s weight clunked in his stomach, and his extended hand began shaking.
“I want him alive!” he snarled, trying to sound strong and commanding. Within, his thoughts pleaded, Please, please, don’t make me do this!
Snowhawk didn’t even flinch. She kept the shuriken pressed to the man’s throat as her head turned in Moonshadow’s direction. He faltered at the sight of her eyes.
They were wild, mad, almost unrecognizable.
“No,” Snowhawk said with absolute conviction. “He dies.”
Excerpted from Moonshadow #2: The Nightmare Ninja by Higgins, Simon Copyright © 2011 by Higgins, Simon. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
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