In this chapter:

Things happen.

Characters respond to them.

I struggle for things to say.

Read on.

3

I was struggling to maintain consciousness when the second pulse of magic hit. Like the first, it was close. In contrast, though, it was a lot more powerful.

Before me, the Big Guy turned to face it, a replay of what I had done when he'd hit me from behind. Not having as far to go, he actually made it all the way around, where I hadn't; not that it did him any good. It just meant he caught it in the face.

I glimpsed a flash of bright metal, and then the large Witch was down. So was I; his spell broke, and I toppled to the pavement, gasping for air, and finally getting it. I looked up to where the big guy had been standing, and saw instead where his body was laying. Embedded in his chest, neck, and face were a full dozen shining metal objects. As I recognized them as kunai, a few things began to fall into place, and I turned from his corpse to look at Cindy.

She was standing in the same spot, her little revolver pointed at the ground, staring at her dead accomplice with a shell-shocked look on her face. She had helped try to kidnap me, and come within a hair's breadth of succeeding, and it was an amazing piece of luck that she hadn't shot me dead by accident. Nonetheless, I pitied her; she didn't have any idea what had just happened. I did, and furthermore, I could already tell what would come next.

Drawing in another tortured breath, I gathered my voice to shout a warning. "Run, bitch!" I yelled; short, sweet, and to the point. Unfortunately for her, she didn't listen. Worse for me, it did serve to remind her that I was there. Acting on reflex, she raised the gun at me, and jerked on the trigger.

The only result was an impotent little clicking sound.

A man had materialized beside her; in his hand was a short Japanese sword, and with unimaginable precision he had lodged it's blade between the hammer and the firing pin, preventing the gun from going off. I've better than a layman's knowledge of weapons of the ages, and in that first split second, I noted more details about the sword than the man who wielded it.

It was short, the length of a wakizashi, but I could tell that it wasn't of that type; the curvature of the blade was too severe, and the tsuka, the grip, was much too long. It was a type of blade called a kodachi. Unlike a wakizashi, it wasn't meant to be used in complement to a longer katana sword. Rather, it was capable of being used in tandem with a twin of the same length, though the longer tsuka also made holding the single blade in a two-handed grip possible, to gain more control and cutting-power. Not that the over-long handle doesn't have another function. In the days of old, when swordplay was still the method of combat of choice in Japan, the user of a kodachi could wear it in a scabbard for a standard sized katana; a skilled opponent would overestimate the length of the blade, and thus the time it would take for its user to draw their sword. A nifty psychological trick, sure, but it was really the kodachi's shear versatility that's made it the blade of choice of a particular class of warrior since time forgotten. One of whom had apparently come to my rescue: the Ninja.

In the moment it took for me to make these observations,Cindy had just realized the assassin was standing next to her. As she turned to look at him, he spoke for the first time. "Your mission was a failure," he informed her, in a tone of voice that I can only describe as gentle, before he dislodged the gun from her grip with a flick of his wrist.

Before the pistol struck the ground, he had killed her.

I never actually saw the strike; one instant he was standing motionless, and in the next he had sheathed his weapon. Cindy stood still for another beat, and then, impossibly, a line of crimson seemed to blossom across her throat. And another across her abdomen. And again, high on each tanned thigh, where the femoral arteries branched from the groin to travel down the legs. I saw her begin to stagger, and turned away, and found myself looking down at my until then unseen third assailent. He looked like the highschool quarterback in complement to the blond cheerleader; he had wavy brown hair, the buff looks of an athlete... and at least fourteen of the ninja's dart-like throwing knives embedded in his spine and vital points. Somehow, he was still alive; as I watched he gasped and his face spasmed horribly, his eyes wide open and rolling. I stood, drawing back my boot, and kicked him in the temple with every ounce of force I could muster.

There was no malice in it, on my part. He had obviously been in agony, and was just as obviously dying. The least I could do was knock him unconscious; the most I could hope for was to break his neck and finish him quickly.

With that done, I stood for a moment longer, my stomach turning and my body still hungry for oxygen. I kept my back turned on my savior; I didn't feel up to facing either him, or the young girl's corpse.

"Mr. Kincaid, I presume?" I heard him say behind me in a calm voice. For all his excitement, you'd think he slaughtered a handful of people every- oh, right; magic murder machine. Rather than giving me time to answer, he asked another question. "Were you injured, by any chance?"

"Who the fuck are you?" I asked him, before a memory presented itself. "Blake something?" It occured to me at the back of my mind that I was being rude, but I didn't give a damn; I wasn't feeling like myself at the moment.

" 'Redfield', actually," he informed me, evenly. "I take it Rosarik informed you he had contracted my services."

I took in another deep breath, and turned to face him. As I got a second look, I realized why I had noted more details about his weapon than his features the first time around; his appearance made for a study in unobtrusiveness. He had dark eyes, black hair cut in a manner that didn't stand out in any particular style, and a dark skin tone; there were almost no clues to identify his ethnic background. He could have been Hispanic, a deeply tanned Caucasian, or a mix of any number of races. His clothes seemed to be chosen based on the criteria that they had nothing significant to draw the eye; he wore a long sleeved button down shirt of an inconspicuous off-white color, over dark colored slacks and matching Converse sneakers, that had been in vogue that season. The only thing that stood out to me were his sleeves, and only because I knew to look for it. He had rolled the long sleeves up to just below his elbows to free his hands, but he had done it along the interior, rolling the sleeve in on itself, to be sure that they wouldn't come loose. Members of the various U.S. Special Forces, one of my uncles numbered among them, make use of the same trick.

"Rosie sent you to trail me?" I asked, disturbed by the prospect. Yeah, we had saved me, but he wouldn't have known that he was going to do that when he started following me. Regardless of the circumstances, there was no way I was feeling great about the idea of a person this lethal following me around without my having known about it.

"Not as such," he answered, scanning the area around us casually; nothing in his voice or posture gave a hint that he was impatient, but even as stressed as I was, I knew loitering around a trio of dead bodies in a public place on a bright, sunny afternoon constituted a bad idea. It just took me a bit of effort to care at the moment. "Rosarik merely gave me your basic description; the decision to shadow you was my own." I thought I could hear the unspoken idea that I should be grateful. True as that may be, I didn't really feel like it.

"All this... was it really necessary?" I asked, indicating to bloodshed around him. Of course, the three dead people had hit me with a spell, at gunpoint, while planning to abduct me, but I couldn't imagine it warranted such a brutal response. The poor bastards had never had a chance.

"The short answer is yes. And we don't have time for a long answer," he said, finally indicating his failing patience. "A witness could stumble by at any moment, and even if that doesn't happen; these three had accomplices. They've been communicating by cell phone, and they're liable to rush over when these three don't call in with an update." He didn't give me time to ask any more questions, and looked at me in assessment as he continued, "Do you have access to a weapon you can use silently?"

"Yes," I affirmed, the danger we were still in finally catching up with me. "Do you know where these friends of their's are?"

"I did; there was one at the south of the complex, one at the north, and two positioned in reserve at the northeast, waiting to bring their vehicle around at a signal," he explained. He seemed to trust me to absorb the information, and didn't pause before he continued. "If you keep going this way, you should be able to get to your car without attracting attention, but you may run into one of them. Can you handle him alone?"

"I can," I assured him. I felt stretched to the breaking point; the lingering effects of air deprivation and the fall I'd taken combined with the beginings of an adrenalin hangover to let me know what an obese woman's leotard felt like, but I was starting to regain control of myself. As I stooped to get my bag, in which the clock I'd purchased had my fingerprints all over the box, I started to tell him where my car was parked. But when I looked back to the spot he was standing, he had already left.

I was suitably impressed by the display of stealth, but I didn't waste any more time; instead I drew out the Shield Sphere from my pocket, drew a weapon from under my coat, and got the hell out of there.

The building's of the Hillside aren't arranged in a perfect square; rather, it's composed of a long "L" shaped structure on the east opposite the smaller "T" shaped building which I was behind, and there were no shortage of alleys, alcoves and ledges to hide a potential attacker. Consequently, I heard the guy coming before I saw him; as I ducked behind a convenient dumpster, I caught the chirp of a mobile phone's walkie-talkie function rounding a corner in front of me. I paused there, ready with my weapon but unwilling to use it; I had no idea who was approaching, and wasn't willing to risk killing an employee emptying out a store's trash.

I got all the details I needed from his one sided phone coversation. "Did you get the Artificer? Richard? Answer me, damn it!" I heard him say frantically, just before he rounded the dumpster.

My mind made up, I was ready for him. Acting on some crazy impulse, I gave him a warning before I moved in; "He got away!" I said, moving in behind him as he whirled around. I only got a glimpse of his features; old guy, with silver hair, a Western wear silk shirt, and a body by Bowflex. Before he had time to meet my eyes, I had struck.

I call the toy I'd pulled up the Shikomizue; it's a seven and a half inch rod that looks like nothing so much as a sword-hilt with no blade. Essentially that's what it is. The bright orange blade would extend when I depress a pair of triggers on opposite sides of the grip. Constructed of some form of energy that legitimate science likely won't replicate within this century, the blade was three feet in length, and possessed some very peculier properties; you can hold your hand a quarter inch from its edges safely, but if you touched its length to a piece of steel, it would melt it to slag in a split second. Apart from a barely perceptable hum, it was silent in operation, and would never run out of ammo. The downside is it's only effective within kicking distance, but within that range, it's perfectly lethal.

I'd held the Shikomizue's business end less than eight inches away from the guy's jaw when I triggered the blade; "hot knife through butter" doesn't even begin to go it justice. The guy's cranium provided about as much resistance as the air around us. I was pretty sure it made for an instant kill, but just to be certain, I swept the cutting edge straight up through what was left of his face. I knew the heat from the blade would cauterize the wound, leaving it basically bloodless and probably confusing the hell out of the homicide team that had the shit luck of finding him, but I didn't stick around to make sure. Even as I heard him hit the ground, I had retracted the blade and turned to run.

Although I did pause for one thing; he had lost his grip on his phone when he died, as he was still turning around, and the momentum sent it spinning past me, bouncing off a wall to lay on the asphalt. Without consciously knowing I did it, I veered to pick it up as I raced by, dropping it in the plastic bag with my new clock on my way to the car.

I guess I shouldn't have been surprised to see Blake waiting by my Accura when I reached it, but I was. He was leaning on the passenger side door, holding onto a compact gym bag I assumed he'd hidden his sword in. He looked as if he intended to ride with me, but never gave me a chance to ask; even as I approached he was talking. "Did you encounter any trouble?" he asked, as I got my keys out.

"Yeah; I dealt with it," I answered, not wanting to go into the specifics of how. "You?"

"Yes. I took care of the other three." The other three?, I thought, my mind rebelling; he had said they were stationed at opposite points of the compass, and the grounds of the Hillside plaza ranged just over a square mile. I knew by this point that he was bad ass, but I wasn't prepared to accept that he had covered that distance, killed three people, and still beat me to my car. I knew it was possible, but that didn't mean I wanted to think about it...

Before I had time to ask him about it, he had gotten back to business. "We need to leave," he said, in a mild tone that still brooked no arguement, "Someone could find a body at any moment."

Rather than answer him, I slid the key into the door, and worked it twice to disengage all the power locks. As I got in, so did he, sliding into the passenger seat beside me without a word. As I backed out from the parking spot, I shot him a glance. "What about your car?'

"I didn't drive," he answered. I wondered briefly how he had trailed me without a vehicle, before deciding it would be pointless to ask. For all I could tell, he might have teleported, or chucked a shuriken and rode on it through the damn sky; he was a fucking Ninja.

As we pulled out of the parking lot, I spared another glance at his "face in the crowd" looks, no doubt carefully cultivated; anonymity would serve him well in his line of work. "I'm guessing 'Blake Redfield' is an alias," I said, just making conversation.

"Yes, it is," he confirmed, looking at me as if I had just stated the obvious. He didn't provide anymore; if he was uncomfortable in the silence that followed, it didn't show.

I was. "I don't suppose there's any reason I'd need to know your real name," I remarked.

"No, not really," he answered, before going quiet for another moment. Then: "I try to avoiding bonding with my clients beyond a professional basis, you'll understand." I almost got the impression that he'd thought I had been hitting on him, before he clarified further. "There's every possibility I could be commisioned to kill them at a later date."

Just a bundle of charm, that one was. I thought it over before I said anything else. "So, what are odds you'll kill me anytime soon?" I asked, casually.

"Not good," he said, as if it was a natural question. Hell, maybe it was. "Unless you did anything like pulling a gun on me," he amended.

I paused again while I considered his answer. "I am definitely not going to be doing that," I assured him, with total honesty. "Although I don't mind telling you that I think you're an asshole. So what kind of music are you into?"

The look on his face told me the way the question was phrased had thrown him; I liked that I had managed to catch him off guard. He sounded uncertain as he answered. "Mostly I listen to early heavy metal, if you must know... Sabbath, Zeppelin, Blue Oyster Cult, Kiss..." he faded off, as if he was embarassed.

"Right on. For an asshole, you have pretty good taste in music," I told him cheerfully, watching him squirm. "There's a BOC mix CD in the holder on your visor; put it in, and we'll rock." A thought struck me, and after a second, I added, "Thanks for helping me out back there." Manners are important, after all.

He didn't acknowledge me, instead reaching out to flip down his visor, checking the discs in the strap on case on it until he'd found the one in question. As he put it in the player, I told him," Go ahead and put it on track eight; 'Veteran of the Psychic Wars'."

Without a word, he obliged, and cranked the sound up.

Another day, another story arc.

I guess the first point that bears mentioning is that the description of Blake the ninja's kodachi is, to the best of my knowledge, accurate, both in form and use. Just a little tidbit that I stumbled across in my reading, and wanted to work into something. Now, there are some that will tell you that the short katana favored by the ninja should be referred to as a ninjatou; when they tell you this, you should hit them. The ninjatou is a modern and artificial type of weapon, and the concept has little to no basis in history. Heh; who would have thought this would turn out to be educational?

Speaking of swords- Andrew's shikomizue. Who am I kidding? That thing's a damn lightsaber; I just don't want George Lucas to sue me. I ripped off his concept as blatantly as he himself ripped off Westerns and Samurai flicks to get the plot for episodes 4-6... But I digress. If anyone's interested, the historical shikomizue were swords disguised as walking sticks with a concealed blade; if you've ever seen the movie Zatoichi, that's the proper name for his stick-katana. If it hasn't come through by now, I'm kind of a weapons buff.

Once again, big love to Jared10 and losingmyfaith, who until this point have faithfully reviewed every chapter. Another shout-out to Sabreael, who, despite coming late to jump on the strange and senseless bandwagon, has come on in a big way. Also, his Crown of Thorns series kicks ass. Read it. Finally, a nod to Aleksy Lorrain. She writes well, and in my experience responds to reviews promptly. Check out her profile if you get a chance.

-Disturbly