Taro is at a crossroads: He has vanquished Lord Oda for good, but with no land and no title, he has no hope of marrying Hana, the daughter of a daimyo. So when Taro receives news of a murderous dragon and the large reward for killing it, he and his friends find themselves on a dangerous quest to slay the beast.
Their mission has the potential to save the people of Japan—but failure will result in the deaths of thousands. And dragons are not the only monsters they will encounter: The dead, led by the odious Kenji Kira, have begun to rise, and they have Taro in their sights.
In this heart-stopping conclusion to the Blood Ninja trilogy, the future of all feudal Japan is in danger, and everything Taro holds dear will be threatened. But it is the betrayal of flesh and blood—his own flesh and blood—that may be his ultimate undoing.
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Blood Ninja III
THE TENDAI MONASTERY
TWO MONTHS LATER
Taro drew back the arrow, stretching the bow, imagining all his fury and frustration flowing down his arm and into the wood of the shaft.
Then he let it all go.
The arrow struck the fan he was using as a target, nailing its center to the tree, which was seven tan away. His feelings, though, returned almost immediately, creeping back into his heart and mind.
He sighed, nocking another arrow. He was using long shafts—eight-hand lengths—of pure bamboo, tipped with sharp heads of antler bone, fletched with goose feathers. Arrows built for distance. His bow was new, a gift from the abbot. He no longer used the Tokugawa weapon, because he didn’t think of himself as being a Tokugawa, didn’t want to see himself as having a destiny anymore. It was his destiny that had ended up with him killing Lord Oda on a mountainside, in an explosion of blood.
He knew that soon he would have to make some kind of decision. Hiro and Hana were happy to remain here with him, of course, for as long as he wanted. Shusaku had gone . . . actually, Taro wasn’t sure where Shusaku had gone. He had said he had errands to run in Edo, the capital city, and—in his usual mysterious way—had left it at that. Taro hadn’t seen his mentor for a couple of months. Little Kawabata had decided to stay at the Hongan-ji, the monastery of the Ikko-ikki. He liked the attitude of the warrior monks, who trained with guns and swords, and who believed that anyone could reach enlightenment, even the lowest of peasants.
Taro suspected that wasn’t the whole reason, though. On the battlefield, Taro had discovered that he could control Lord Oda’s body with the Buddha ball, because it was Taro who had turned the daimyo into a vampire. Taro had also turned Little Kawabata. So, in theory, Taro could make Little Kawabata do what he wanted, as long as he was holding the Buddha ball. For some reason that Taro didn’t fully understand, his blood in someone else’s body was subject to the ball in the same way that the weather was. When Taro had seized control of Lord Oda, stopping the daimyo’s sword, he’d wondered if Shusaku would be able to do the same to him, since it was Shusaku who had turned Taro into a vampire. But it seemed the power didn’t work without possessing the ball.
The ball could make it rain; it could also make a vampire he had turned do whatever he wanted, including exploding in a rain of blood, as Lord Oda had. As a result of this realization, Taro had taken to hiding the ball away. He was afraid of it—it was too powerful, and he didn’t want to strike anyone with lightning, or call out to his blood inside them, as he could do with Little Kawabata if he wanted. But even though Taro never took the ball out, Little Kawabata still seemed to distrust him. He seemed uncomfortable around Taro, seizing any excuse to go elsewhere. Taro understood it—but it didn’t stop him from feeling hurt, especially since he’d saved Little Kawabata’s life once.
But then, if he was really honest with himself, he’d have to admit that he didn’t feel completely at ease with Shusaku anymore either. His mentor had turned him, and Taro now knew that this gave the older ninja the power to move his limbs if he ever got hold of the ball, to call on his own blood inside Taro’s body.
Taro was honest enough with himself to know that this was partly why he hadn’t really resisted Shusaku’s only half-explained departure.
He trusted Shusaku, but there was trust and then there was trust. Taro was a vampire, but he wasn’t immortal. A good blow to the heart, or a severing cut to the neck, and he would be dead. He knew that Shusaku would sacrifice him in a moment for what he perceived as the greater good; and he knew how loyal Shusaku was to Lord Tokugawa. He didn’t want to think about what might happen if the daimyo ever found out that Taro still lived, and asked Shusaku to rectify the situation. It would be unthinkable for a daimyo to have a son who was a vampire, let alone to publicly acknowledge the fact. And Taro had learned what daimyo did about things that were unthinkable. They made them go away.
Shusaku had invited Taro to go with him, of course, had alluded to some exciting missions on the horizon—assassinations was what he meant—but Taro wasn’t sure he wanted to be a ninja, any more than he wanted his destiny, whatever that was. After Lord Oda’s death, all he wanted was to remain quietly in the place where his mother had been so happy, thinking, training with the abbot.
But it had already been nearly half a year since Lord Oda died, and monasteries didn’t make a point of accommodating people forever unless they were to become monks—which was another thing Taro wasn’t sure he wanted to do.
Then there was the tricky subject of Hana. It was obvious to the monks, Taro could tell, how he and Hana felt about each other. The two had made no great attempt to hide it, but then how could they? The monastery was on top of a mountain. It didn’t offer much privacy. Still—what was he supposed to do? Clearly he couldn’t stay at the monastery, with Hana, pursuing a relationship that was not sanctified by marriage. Just as clearly, he couldn’t leave her in order to take monastic vows. The problem was that he couldn’t marry her either. How could he? He had nothing to offer her—no land, no title, no income. She was a noble, and even if he had killed her father, which was a topic neither of them ever discussed, she was still used to a certain style of life, a certain amount of power.
After Lord Oda had died (after I killed him, Taro thought), they had left the battlefield quickly, before Lord Tokugawa’s troops arrived to mop up the last of the Oda samurai. No one had surrendered, of course. That was not the samurai way. But the losing soldiers had been given the chance to commit seppuku on the battlefield, to join their fallen leader with dignity, and most had taken it. The register of wandering ronin had not been greatly expanded that day. Lord Oda was cruel, but he was proud, and his samurai were the same.
Of course, Lord Tokugawa was going to wonder who had killed his enemy Lord Oda—as well as where Oda’s body might be, since Taro had reduced it to a fountain of blood. But when Taro returned to Shusaku, who was sheltering from the sun in the Ikko-ikki castle, the older ninja had known what to do. With the help of the monks, he had put about the rumor that a champion of the Ikko-ikki had done the killing—a furious fighter, who had attacked Lord Oda so vigorously that he was cut into many tiny pieces and trampled into the mud. This hero, the rumor said, had subsequently disappeared into isolation, to meditate and to repent his violence against the Buddha’s creatures.
It was a preposterous story, but then it was no more preposterous than the truth, which was that Taro had spoken to the blood pounding in Lord Oda’s veins, the blood of his victims, and made it leave the evil daimyo’s body in one great burst. Anyway, no one could contest it. Most of Lord Oda’s samurai, who had been present when he died, had later killed themselves. A few had been too cowardly to cut open their own guts, even with a second ready to behead them right away, but no one paid attention to the gossip of ronin, and so the real story had yet to be told.
Taro was glad. It was not in his interest that the truth should come out. Again, what would he do? Stand before Lord Tokugawa and say, Hello, I’m your son, I killed Lord Oda, and by the way, Shusaku lied when he said I was dead? He might as well stab himself through the heart, and save himself a lot of time and pain.
No. Better that he should remain unknown, uncelebrated, unhated. Only then there was the problem that if he was unknown, he would also remain without land, money, or title—and then he couldn’t possibly ever marry Hana. She was still the daughter of a daimyo, even if he was a dead daimyo. She carried an ancient and noble name—one to which Lord Oda no Nobunaga had attached an even greater weight of nobility, with his famous victories. A person marrying her might not gain an army, but he would gain influence, and respectability. She would be a rich prize. One Taro couldn’t hope to deserve.
And then there was Hiro, too. What was he supposed to do about Hiro? He couldn’t leave his best friend behind either. It was impossible to know what Hiro wanted. Hiro had no family, save for Taro. He had always been content to follow Taro wherever he went, and to begin with, Taro had justified this to himself with the knowledge that Hiro had always dreamed of adventure. But it was hollow comfort. Taro knew by now, as Hiro must know, that adventure was a poor alternative to a quiet life. Adventure involved pain, and fear, and people dying.
The kindest thing would be to let Hiro go back to Shirahama, to live in his old hut and be a fisherman there. But of course Hiro wouldn’t go. Taro had saved his life when they were young boys, and Hiro saw it as his duty to follow Taro forever. If Taro tried to send him away, it would insult Hiro dreadfully.
The problem of Hana, the problem of Hiro. Both of them just went round in circles in Taro’s mind.
We’re trapped, thought Taro. All of us.
He nocked another arrow, no closer to finding a solution, and let it fly. The thwock as it slammed into the target gave him no satisfaction. Then he heard Hiro’s voice behind him.
“We thought we’d find you here,” he said.
Taro turned, groaning. “The two of you are ganging up on me now?” he asked.
Hana laughed. She had grown stronger in the months that had passed since she fell into a coma after going into the burning temple to rescue the sacred scrolls. There was a flush to her cheeks now, a light that flickered in her eyes. She was beautiful.
“We said one more chapter, and then you could practice the bow,” she said mock-reprovingly.
“And then you left me alone while you went to get water, and I was so lonely I had to distract myself somehow.” Taro held up the bow. “This doesn’t abandon me with boring old books.”
Hana put a hand on her hip. “Hiro, restrain him and carry him back to the hall, please,” she said. Hiro stepped forward, shrugging as if to say, Sorry, she’s the boss.
Taro made a gesture of defeat. “No need,” he said. “I like my bones the way they are. Intact.”
He was only half joking—Hiro had gotten even tougher since he had been training with the abbot’s monks. He was learning kicks and punches to go with his wrestling holds, and Taro wouldn’t want to be the one to anger him in a back alley—or refuse to accompany him back to the dreaded books, for that matter.
Shortly afterward he sat with Hana at the desk, which was situated under a large paper shoji window, to let in the maximum light. They were doing the founding stories of Japan—the Shinto tales that every child knew, but that Taro had been forced to learn, painstakingly and over the course of what felt like a very long time, how to read. It was frustrating to expend that amount of effort, and to be rewarded with a story that he had known all his life. But Hana said that the tales were one of the oldest books in the land, and an important part of his heritage, and if he wanted to learn the kanji properly, there was no better place to start.
It had been months already, and he saw characters dancing in front of his eyes when he closed them at night; meaningless, taunting scrawls in black ink. He’d mastered the simplified women’s writing system long ago, before he lost his mother, before he fought Lord Oda. But now Hana wanted him to conquer the Chinese ideograms too, the kanji.
Of course, despite being a girl, she herself could read the kanji perfectly. Just as she could ride a horse into battle and defeat a samurai with a sword. If he didn’t like her so much, he could really start to hate her. Bloody perfect samurai girl—
“You’re daydreaming,” she said, whacking his hand with a rolled-up scroll, as if she could hear his thoughts.
“Yes, yes . . . ,” he said. He ran his finger along the page, looking for the place where they had left off. It was the story of Amaterasu, the Goddess of the Sun, and her brother Susanoo, the God of the Wind.
He began to read, haltingly at first, then with more confidence.
And being brother and sister they were always competing with each other.
Then, because Amaterasu was given dominion over the lands, Susanoo her brother grew wrathful. He trampled her rice fields, filled the irrigation ditches with mud, and spread dirt through her halls. But Amaterasu did not upbraid him, saying that he must have done these things inadvertently. This only made Susanoo even more violent. He broke a loom in Amaterasu’s weaving hall, and while she saw to the weaving of garments for the gods, he threw into the hall a heavenly horse, from which he had flayed the skin, causing such fright among Amaterasu’s attendants that one of them died on the spot.
Amaterasu, terrified, fled to the cave of heaven and shut herself in.
Then the whole plain of heaven, tanaka ga hara, was cast into darkness, and the world, too. Eternal night prevailed. Now the eight hundred myriad deities cried out in the darkness like crickets, and a thousand sounds of woe rose in heaven and on earth. The gods begged Amaterasu to come out, but she refused. They knew that she must be made to leave the cave, or all of creation would die in the darkness.
Then Omoikane, the God of Wisdom, conceived a plan. He assembled the long-singing birds of eternal night and made them sing outside the cave. He took iron from the heavenly mountains and called on the great smith Amatsumara to make from it a shining mirror. He also instructed Amatsumara to make a string, eight feet long, of five hundred jewels. Then he took the jewels and the mirror and he hung them on a cedar tree that was growing outside the cave in which Amaterasu was hiding.
After this, he bade Hachiman, the God of Force, stand just behind the door to the cave, where he could not be seen. And he positioned Ama no Usume, the Goddess of Levity, in front of the cave, standing on a drum. She was dressed in the moss of the heavenly mountain, fashioned into a sash, and her headdress was of pine needles from heavenly trees, and the flowers of heaven were a posy in her hands.
Then Omoikane told Ama no Usume to dance, and she began to leap and turn on the drum—but no sooner had she started dancing than the moss she was wearing fell down, and she was naked. The eight hundred myriad gods burst into laughter, and she laughed too, continuing to dance.
Now Amaterasu moved aside the door to the cave, and peered out to see what the gods were laughing at.
She said to them, “I thought that owing to my retirement the Plain of Heaven would be dark, and likewise the earth; how is it that Ama no Usume makes merry, and that likewise the eight hundred myriad gods all laugh?”
Then Ama no Usume spoke, saying, “We are glad because there is a new god more bright and illustrious than you.”
Amaterasu was furious to hear this, and came out of the cave to see this god. Omoikane rushed forward and turned the mirror toward her, saying, “Here, this is the deity of which we speak.”
Amaterasu gazed into the mirror, amazed at the being of light she saw reflected there. Immediately Hachiman leaped behind her and secured the chain of jewels across the cave, so that she could not return.
At first, seeing the way she had been tricked, Amaterasu was angry, but then Ama no Usume began to dance again, and all laughed, including Amaterasu. She called for Susanoo, her brother, to be forgiven for his impetuous behavior. But the other gods, and Amaterasu’s father, who had made all of creation, refused, and so Susanoo was banished from heaven.
Then Susanoo descended to earth, in the form of a man, with a strong body, swift of movement, perfect for fighting. He traveled the lands for some time, until he came to the source of a great river. Here he heard, all of a sudden, a sound of weeping. He went in search of the sound, to see who was crying.
Eventually he found an old man and an old woman. Between them was sitting a young girl, and they were hugging her and lamenting over her.
“Who are you, and why are you weeping?” Susanoo asked.
“We are kami of the earth,” said the father. “River gods, who dwell in this place. This is our daughter Kushinada-hime. The reason we weep is that formerly we had eight daughters. But they have been devoured, year after year, by a fearsome eight-headed dragon, and now our last daughter waits to be eaten.”
Susanoo thought for a moment, seeing how beautiful the daughter was, the curve of her jaw and her big bright eyes. “If I kill the dragon, will you give me your daughter?” he asked.
“Yes,” said the river god, without hesitation.
Susanoo immediately instructed the kami parents to brew strong sake and pour it into eight buckets, and then to await the arrival of the dragon.
When the time came, the dragon actually appeared. It had an eight-forked head and an eight-forked tail; its eyes were red, like the winter-cherry or like great rubies; and its teeth and claws were longer than swords. As it crawled it extended over the valley itself and also the mountains behind—it was a creature bigger than the landscape.
Susanoo positioned himself behind a fence and placed the eight tubs of sake behind it. Then he called out for the dragon to come and get him. But the dragon, as he had hoped, was distracted by the sake, for all dragons love wine. It put its eight heads through the bars of the fence and began to drink. Soon it fell into a drunken stupor, with its heads trapped by the fence.
Now Susanoo drew his ten-span sword and began to cut off the heads of the dragon. But as he reached the final head, the dragon awoke and smashed free of the fence, breathing fire toward him. Susanoo jumped aside, slashing wildly at the dragon. He struck its tail, and felt his sword resound with the impact, sending a shiver of shock up his arm. He looked down in wonder at his blade and saw that it was chipped, and so he knew there was something hard inside the dragon’s tail.
Slashing again, he cut open the tail, avoiding the flames with which the dragon was trying to roast him, and pulled out from inside the most beautiful sword he had ever seen, the sword that became known as Kusanagi no tsuri.
Throwing aside his inferior sword, he seized Kusanagi, and dancing around the dragon’s remaining head, he cut it off with a single stroke, and so Kusanagi became the first and only sword to kill a dragon. Then Susanoo took Kushinadahime as his wife and went down into the lowlands to make his home, where he and his wife . . .
Taro broke off, embarrassed. Hana leaned over his shoulder—he felt the softness of her hair on his neck—and peered at the words on the page.
“Ah, yes,” she said. “The tales as they are written are not always suitable for children.”
He felt blood rush to his cheeks.
“Well,” she said. “Let’s leave it there. You read well today, Taro. You will be the equal of any daimyo in the land soon.”
He half smiled but felt irritated. Did she think he wasn’t already? He knew she meant well—he thought he knew, anyway—but sometimes her interest in his improvement could be a little patronizing. Or maybe it was just his pride, wounded by having to learn how to read, at his age, from a beautiful girl.
But then she smiled back at him, and he forgot all that—he couldn’t believe he had thought anything negative about her. She was the kindest person he had ever known, and he wanted her by his side always.
He just had to work out a way to make it happen.
He coughed. “Hana . . . You know Susanoo and the girl, the kami? They had no palace. No inherited land. But they were happy, right?”
Her lips twitched with amusement. “Are you asking me something, Taro?”
He shook his head. “I just . . .”
She put a hand on his shoulder. “I never asked to be the daughter of a lord,” she said. “I never even enjoyed it, really. As long as I can read, and dance, and ride, I will be happy. Anywhere.”
He narrowed his eyes, wondering if she was saying what he thought she was saying, but she turned away from him and began rearranging brushes in a pot.
He thought about the last time he had remembered the story of Susanoo and the dragon. He’d been sitting on the roof of a grain store, waiting for Little Kawabata to come back, so he could trap him and get him back for trying to kill him. Even then, when his whole world had been turned upside down, his father murdered by ninjas, his true identity as Lord Tokugawa’s secret son revealed, he had not known how far he would end up from the comforts of his seaside home. He had not known that he would see his mother killed in front of him too, or that he would rescue Hana from the kind of death she had fallen into, or that he would kill a lord.
He closed his eyes and prayed, fervently, that nothing so eventful should ever befall him again. There was a time when he had enjoyed stories like that of Susanoo, had dreamed that one day he would find a legendary, magical sword and fight a dragon. Now he couldn’t think of anything worse.
Please, no dragons.
He ignored Hana when she asked him what he was doing, if his head was hurting.
He didn’t know what he had been thinking. If Hana was happy to live in poverty with him, then he was happy too, it was all he wanted. Perhaps they could return to Shirahama. He knew how to fish, had learned it from his father. And his mother had been a respected ama diver. He would be welcomed there.
Yes. A peaceful life, by the sea. Hiro would come too, he knew it. Hiro would love to be back there—he could challenge passing ronin to wrestling matches again. The two of them could—
“Taro?” He looked up and saw Hana frowning at him, concerned. “You look tired,” she said. “Why don’t we leave it there for today.”
“Yes, Sensei,” said Taro, with a slight smile.
Hana rolled her eyes and put away the scrolls. She straightened up. “What would you say to some sword practice?” she asked.
Taro grinned. “I’d say let’s go.”
“Taro, Taro, Taro.” She sighed. “You do realize that you will have to be able to read, if you’re to make something of yourself? People won’t always be trying to kill you, you know. And you’re perfectly safe here on the mountain.”
“You would think so,” said Taro. “But people keep abducting me and making me read things.”
Hana stuck her tongue out at him. But she went to get her wooden sword, anyway.