Ema’s sandals pounded against the ground, kicking up clouds of dust in her wake. Clutching her two swords tight against her waist, she headed straight for the forest beyond Kanae-machi. Her chest heaved as she gulped for air. She pushed harder still. No way in hells would she let those murderous Faction raiders escape unpunished.
Ragged, torn limbs.
Burned, charred flesh.
Broken bodies strewn about in thick pools of blood, spattered with a foul, black viscera.
She’d seen enough death to last a lifetime, but this level of brutality was beyond her experience.
The broken darkness of the forest laid ahead, inky shadows stretching beyond their bounds. Ema slowed despite the pulsing rage deep inside. She drew up against a moss-ridden camphor tree, its rough bark sharp against her back. No good would come of bolting into an ambush.
If only she’d arrived sooner, lives could have been spared.
If only she’d succeeded in taking down Prince Ichiyo.
Spirits, she’d been so close to ending all of this. Yet the deadly raids continued unchecked across Hinae. One by one, the clans had fallen to the might of the Ichiyo Faction — absorbed or destroyed.
And she was nothing but a lone rogue against the inevitable changing winds.
Ema clenched her fists with a silent curse. She had promised the frightened survivors she would bring the offenders to justice. Lamenting the past would not help her find them any sooner.
She peered around the tree. It was calm and all too quiet for the carnage she’d just left behind. Adjusting her swords, she took a deep, steadying breath and pushed off the tree.
Ema darted towards the rough-hewn path leading into the bowels of the forest. Several pairs of old footprints marred the dirt, partially obscured by fallen leaves. Not fresh. Had they even come through here?
Wrapped in the canopy’s cooling shade, she slipped into the shadows, finding a familiar solace in the relative darkness. She moved from tree to tree, pausing each time. Birds chirped, punctuated by the croaking of frogs. Yet there was no sign that anything had been disturbed.
She ran her thumb back and forth along the frayed grip of her katana. Could the villagers have been mistaken in their panicked states? Several had sworn that the killers were giant black beasts so large they blotted out the sun. Impossible. In all the confusion and violence, it was no wonder wild stories like these had been spreading throughout Hinae.
Hells, at this rate, she was running blind, with no leads or—
A splash silenced the frogs, followed by another softer one.
Something was out there.
Ema crept through the brush, silent as the giant trees around her, following the rippling water sounds. She tugged at her kosode, freeing it from the layer of sweat clinging to her skin.
A clearing lay just beyond a tangle of thick, leafy shrubs. Sunlight filtered through the canopy, dazzling a tranquil body of water below her.
A hot spring!
Endless green surrounded the glittering onsen. Clusters of blue, white, and violet hydrangea grew wild and content in sun-touched spots. The gentle lapping of the water below teased her with the promise of peace and relaxation.
Memories of warm laughter echoed in her ears. Ryo…. He would have jumped right in, coaxing her out of her clothes to join him in this hidden oasis. And she would have reveled in it, back in those days when nothing mattered beyond fulfilling missions and spending every waking moment together.
Ema gritted her teeth, shoving those thoughts aside. Ryo had made his choice, and so had she.
Kneeling beside a mass of gnarled roots, she closed her eyes.
Breathe. Listen. Wait.
As warm and pleasant as this place was, it was just as dangerous. Any of those Faction bastards could be out there watching, waiting. This was not the time to get distracted.
A splash echoed from below. She scanned the water, squinting through the wisps of steam until she spied the source.
A lone man waded into the onsen, water rippling away from his body as he moved. Where in the world had he come from? Ema touched a hand to her mouth as she stared at a broad, muscular back, tapering to his waist, down to his….
Damn. Thwarted by that steamy water.
She dragged her gaze back up to his dark hair, gathered in a knot atop his head. He turned, gracing her with a glimpse of an undeniably handsome face.
Heat rushed to her cheeks, heart thumping as she watched him bathe. Hells, she was five-and-twenty and no shy blossom. Yet, she couldn’t look away, enthralled by this primitive, vulnerable act in the middle of the woods. And for this one fleeting moment in time, they were the only two people in the world.
He slipped underwater, then resurfaced, running a hand over his wet hair, then dipped under again. And again. And again. Each time, her body thrummed at his emerging form, rivulets of water running down his shoulders and arms and back, lean with muscle. Not the body of an idle man. With a sigh, a faint smile curled his lips — as if he’d achieved some sense of serenity from the healing waters.
Ema steadied herself against the large roots before her. At least something pleasant had come of this excursion. Far better than chasing raiders!
Unless he was one of them, washing off the blood of his kills.
Damn it. She sank back against the giant tree, gripping the handle of her katana and scanning the surroundings once more. But the forest remained still, aside from the lulling lapping of the water below.
Ema peeked down again. As he waded towards the edge of the water, she got a better look at his lean, regal face, with dark, intense eyes that commanded her gaze. Certainly not like any of the rough, hardened raiders she’d encountered before.
Warmth flooded her body, a tingling awareness awakening something deep inside. Spirits, who was he, and why was she so drawn to him?
Of course, she had been on her own for months. Evading the Faction and hunting raiders wasn’t exactly the best of times. Could she fault herself for taking a few moments to appreciate an attractive man?
Yes, she could. He was a distraction — utterly unacceptable.
Her fingers tightened around the tree root. If he was loyal to Lord Noe, the very man who’d set the reward for her capture, then she could not be discovered here.
A sudden chill sliced through the air, piercing straight to her bones. She shivered against the icy tendrils curling in her chest. The sunlight flickered, then dimmed, as if someone had draped a shroud over the sky.
New shadows appeared where there were none before, shifting between the trees.
Only a trick of the light — or lack thereof.
But…hadn’t she felt this before?
A splash. Water pattered against the forest floor. The man was out of the hot spring pulling on his clothes, narrowed eyes flicking about. A tight frown had replaced his content expression. And the ash-gray silk of his kimono bore no evidence of blood.
Ema curled a hand around her katana. Killing him was a last resort. She refused to take a life without explicit purpose.
And if he wasn’t an enemy, then he’d given her something pleasant to dream about for the foreseeable future. She could at least ensure that he lived to see another bath.
The ground shuddered beneath her feet. She dropped a hand to the earth, a vibration from deep below ground radiating up her arm. Even the air itself had become deathly still. Her fingers trembled, but not from the icy cold surrounding her.
Yes. She had felt this before.
A black figure shot from the trees opposite the clearing and hurtled down — straight towards the bathing man. He stumbled back with a grunt, making for his sword.
He wouldn’t reach it in time.
She leaped over the rise, catching sight of his startled face. She hit the ground and rolled, popping up to face—
Holy hells, what was that thing!?
Ema gaped up at a massive creature, faceless save for a giant open maw darker than the blackest of nights. It seemed to suck in all the light around it, drawing the shadows closer and darkening the surrounding forest. Absorbing them. Consuming them.
Black shadows rising from the earth to claim the souls of the living. Death’s minions, soul stealers, bringers of eternal rest. The shi-no-kage.
No. It couldn’t possibly be….
It lunged, swiping a long shadowy limb, tipped in elongated claws that glinted like steel.
Ema dodged, but the creature barreled on, straight for the man. He’d retrieved his sword and freed it of its scabbard, planting his feet in a defensive stance.
There was no way he could face it alone. Hells, she probably couldn’t either. But if this was what had terrorized the villagers at Kanae-machi, then she had to stop it.
With a roar, she raced after the giant shadow and jumped, slashing her sword across its back. It cut through its body as if it was air, but it stole its attention. The man seized on its distraction and attacked, his blade also passing clean through the darkness. Their eyes met before the beast’s long arms swung wild between them, knocking the man into the brush.
How had it—?
The shadow reared, releasing a blood-curdling shriek, and whirled back on her.
Spirits, this was not happening. The shi-no-kage were only stories! Myths! They were not real. But how else could she explain the massive thing standing before her?
No. Charging for her.
Ema evaded the creature’s barreling lunge, using the opening to swipe at one of its limbs. Still no contact. What in the seven hells…?
It screeched again, its arm flailing wide, catching her side with a sickening tear. Ema gasped as cold fire ripped through her abdomen. She clutched at her torn clothes. How could it wound her when she couldn’t even make contact with it!?
The shadow advanced, its deadly claw-tipped limb raised. Stumbling back, Ema dodged its swing, then tried once more to hit it. Too slow. Something slammed into her back, hurtling her face-first into the vegetation. She tripped over a cluster of stones, righting herself and whirling back to face it again.
Every heaving breath was ice and fire. She wouldn’t be able to fight much longer. Behind her was the wall of the rise. Nowhere left to go but straight into the arms of that thing. And what had happened to the bathing man? Was he even still alive?
Fresh cold tickled over her skin. Small shadows crept closer, brushing her arms and legs with snakelike tendrils. No! She wrenched away from their grasp. Hells, a thousand years of training couldn’t prepare her for this madness.
Ema passed the katana to her left hand and drew the wakizashi with her right. If she was going to die, she was going down with both blades in her hands.
Surging forward, she leaped straight for its face, slashing both her swords with a reckless, desperate form that would make her old master cringe. Both she and her blades passed right through the frigid cold black of its body. No. Impossible! There was no way to—
Suddenly, the shadow seized up and howled, cowering away from her. Then it fled back into the trees, shrinking rapidly, as if being sucked back into the unmoving shadows cast about the forest floor.
Gasping for breath, Ema planted her sword in the ground. Gone. But why…? How…?
A crushing wave of agony tore through her. Shuddering, she clenched her jaw, breathing through her teeth as alternating hot and cold wracked her body. She clutched at her midsection, all torn fabric and flesh.
And hot, sticky wetness.
The dark red liquid coated her fingers, dripping over the handle of her sword and seeping into the grip.
Ema glanced up. The man was still alive, dirt streaking his clothes and face. He watched her now, wide-eyed, chest rising and falling as he caught his breath. Was that awe? Fear?
Or worse, recognition?
“A ‘thank you’ would be nice,” she muttered between labored breaths.
His eyes flicked up to something behind her. Cold steel pressed against her throat.
“Release your weapons.” The flat affect of his voice stilled her entire body.
He pulled the edge back harder, an explicit warning.
She dropped her swords to the ground. The blade at her neck disappeared, and a hand fisted the back collar of her kosode. Ema yelped as he dragged her back and shoved her against the crumbling dirt rise. She sucked in a breath, tears stinging her eyes as the wound tore further. Then the sword was back at her neck, a hand planted against her shoulder. His masked face revealed only his eyes.
Unusual and very familiar blue eyes.
Beads of cold sweat trickled down the sides of her face and neck in that final moment of recognition. Fear and curiosity and a hundred questions flooded her mind as she met his icy gaze.
It was him.
The steely indifference in his eyes flickered. He must have made the connection. The connection to the night that marked the end of her former life. The night that led to months of wandering and hiding and barely scraping by.
The night she had faced the assassin Akhito Nazhe.
He inclined his head. “The Black Thorn.”
She held his glare, tossing him a smile for good measure. “Miss me?”
His eyes narrowed to slits.
Ah, hells. Now she was in trouble.
Akhito Nazhe was a man difficult to forget — though likely few lived long enough to remember.
Ema dropped her head against the rise, dislodging pebbles and bits of dirt. Five months ago, he’d spared her at Aizhen-machi. The Faction soldiers sent to ambush them hadn’t been so lucky. And he’d warned her not to seek him out again.
She hadn’t. Oh spirits, she’d had no intention of ever crossing paths again.
Yet here they were.
Ema forced a smile. “Awfully familiar, isn’t it?”
Nazhe’s icy glare hardened as his grasp on her shoulder tightened.
The bathing man drew up beside him, arms crossed, appraising her with furrowed brows and probing dark brown eyes. Her heart thumped harder against her ribs, stomach quivering at the thought of his nude form in the water….
She swallowed as that quivering became a roiling, dizzying wave.
“She’s the Black Thorn?” He inclined his head towards Nazhe.
“Don’t sound so disappointed,” she muttered.
Nazhe glowered at her. “Emamori Matsukara, former lieutenant of the Taisho clan. Otherwise known as the Black Thorn.”
Ema snorted. “Well, thank you for that wonderful introduction.”
Twigs snapped and leaves rustled as footsteps thudded against the ground. A light-haired soldier emerged from the brush, stopping short when he caught sight of her.
Three against one. Poor odds in her current state. And what were they doing out here anyway, so close to Kanae-machi? She tensed. Could they be—?
“Akhito, is that necessary?” The soldier propped a fist on his hip, a hint of a smile touching his lips. “You really have no idea how to properly treat a woman, do you?”
“Keep your voice down,” the bathing man growled. “That woman is the Black Thorn.”
“Was.” Ema eyed the three of them. “I never liked that name anyway.”
The newcomer’s roguish smile broadened as he approached, igniting a pair of striking amber eyes with pure mischief. “Cute and dangerous.” Leaning an arm against the rise, he peered down at her with unabashed interest. “How many men have you killed, sweetheart?”
Oh dear spirits, was he actually serious?
She glared back. “A few who called me sweetheart.”
He tipped his chin towards Nazhe. “I like her already. So do you, apparently,” he added, drawing Nazhe’s disapproving glare. “Akhito rarely draws his blade unless he’s planning on killing you. I’m Hagane, by the way—”
“Are you done?” Nazhe cut in.
The bathing man ignored them. “Did you set that thing on us?”
“Yes, that’s what I do. Release enormous deadly shadow monsters and let them knock me around for a bit.” She let out a sharp breath. “You saw me. I was trying to kill it!”
He frowned, eyes narrowed. “Then who sent you here?”
“No one. I work alone.” Ever since her clan had sided with the Ichiyo Faction. Ever since Ryo— She stopped that thought. “I could ask you the same. Taking a little break after your killing spree in Kanae-machi?”
The lingering tension in the air tightened. Even that Hagane fellow’s mischievous expression vanished as the three men shared startled looks.
“What happened in Kanae-machi?” The man’s voice was low, threatening as he approached, a glare of simmering rage leveled directly on her.
“You really don’t know?” Nazhe — like her — was an enemy of the Faction, and particularly of Lord Noe. Unless that had changed. But judging by their shared reactions, it seemed unlikely they were Faction loyalists.
“Those bastards never stop!” The bathing man cursed. “Akhito—”
“Yes, Commander. I will handle it. And her?”
Hells, they may not support the Faction, but they weren’t allies, either.
“Since you remember me so well,” Ema cut in, “you must also remember the part about me not killing you? Helping you escape and all that?” She forced another smile as her wounded side spasmed.
“That is irrelevant.”
“Oh, I think it is very relevant, given that I just saved your commanding officer as well. No longer rogue, I take it?”
Nazhe’s expression remained unchanged.
“Tch. I don’t like this,” the man grumbled as he straightened his kimono. “What in hells are you doing skulking around out here?”
A smirk jumped to her lips. “I thought I’d have a dip in the onsen, but someone beat me to it.”
His eyes widened. Oh yes, he knew. She probably shouldn’t provoke him, but it was worth it for that look alone.
Cheeks flushed, he recrossed his arms over his chest and cleared his throat. “Despite your apparent heroics, you are a wanted individual.” He drew closer. “Quite a large price on your head, isn’t it?”
Her wound pulsed. Fresh pain ripped through her like a hot blade. Ema bit her lip, blinking back tears.
Nazhe’s grip fell to her upper arm, steadying her against the rise. She shuddered against the deep chills running through her, colder than the steel grazing her neck. Hard blue eyes remained set on hers, yielding nothing.
Spirits, would she be able to stand on her own if he let go?
“Oi, you okay?” Hagane eased back, eyebrows raised.
She nodded. “Nazhe, you know full well why Noe put the bounty on my head. And if I remember correctly, you hold no love for him either.”
The man in the gray kimono snorted. “That makes three of us.”
“Commander,” Nazhe hissed, sliding him a stern glare.
Ema glanced between them, vision wavering. Nazhe had some prior connection to the Ren clan, though her former superiors had disclosed little more about it. Something about the clan’s commander besotted with revenge?
“Does it really matter if she knows?” the commander snapped. “Noe already does. And besides, the bounty is probably more of their bullshit. For all we know, you’re still working for the Faction.”
“I’m not. Never did.” Knowingly. She cringed at the reminder.
“Say what you will. I have no reason to trust a single word out of your mouth.”
“Either way,” Nazhe cut in, “she is both a danger and a liability.”
“Agreed.” His gaze flicked back to hers, hard and unyielding. “But more a danger out of our hands than in, don’t you think? Unless you are suggesting another course of action.”
Oh, that didn’t sound good.
“Hells, you two. You know she’s injured, right?” Hagane pointed to the dark, shredded fabric of her kosode. “Your work?” He directed that at Nazhe.
The commander flicked her a questioning look but said nothing. She doubted he cared. Why should he?
“Hey, listen, we’re on the same side. Nazhe, you were there. You know the gravity of the choice I made—”
“I know nothing of your true intentions. Your choice means nothing.”
Ema sucked in a breath, his words a sharp slap across her face. His cold, dismissive tone was entirely unsympathetic to what she’d been through these past five months. He’d been the one to upend it all, sliding into her life, exposing the truth of her clan. And now….
“This pause in our journey was ill-conceived. We cannot linger here.”
“These are still our lands, Akhito. I will not be cowed by their threats. And I can take a bath in our onsen if I damn well please!”
She looked to Nazhe, his eyebrows furrowed, a break in that fierce control. A guarded frustration — no, something more that she couldn’t decipher. She could feel it in the way his limbs tensed as he held her still, keeping her life firmly in his hands.
The commander ran a hand over his chin. “Tie her up. We’ll take her back with us. Try to escape, and Akhito has free rein to deal with you however he sees fit. Got it?”
Ema swallowed another wave of dizziness. “As if I have a choice.” With three armed men against her, it would be suicide to try anything drastic in her current condition.
Slowly, Nazhe lowered the blade from her neck. Cold, hard eyes searched hers, the same eyes she’d seen in those awful shadow dreams, always guiding her back to safety.
Did he still have them, too?
His eyes widened. He released her arm suddenly, as if her touch had burned him. Without his support, her legs buckled. Ema flailed, catching herself on the nearest thing.
No, not thing.
Strong hands enveloped hers. Gentle. Warm.
Ema shoved Hagane away and staggered back, clutching at her burning midsection and fighting to keep her breathing stable.
Hells, she was in a state.
“Hey, I was only trying to help.”
“You can help,” she glared instead at the commander, breaths ragged, “by letting me go.”
He frowned. “That is not an option.”
“Well, good thing I risked my life for you.”
“No one asked for your—”
“Saitama,” Hagane cut in, “she needs help.” He gave her a nod before addressing the commander again. “If she aided you, we owe her that. Besides, I wouldn’t mind a little feminine company for a change.”
Ema stepped back, stopping only for the glare Nazhe shot her. “Don’t even think—”
“She is not here for your amusement.” Nazhe returned his wakizashi to its scabbard.
Hagane’s eyes widened as the smile vanished. “Oi, I didn’t mean–”
“Enough,” Saitama said. “Bind her, Akhito. We’re leaving.”
Nazhe tugged the scarf free of his face, removing the mask that concealed his unusually smooth and unmarred face. Just as she remembered from their meeting at the shrine. A narrow, aquiline nose sat above lips fixed in a straight line, effectively shielding his thoughts.
Did he ever deviate from that stoic expression?
Ema scowled but held them out. They hadn’t decided to kill her, and that meant something. But damned if she wasn’t the fool for getting caught. That commander, Saitama, could still use the bounty to his advantage.
Grasping her wrist with one hand, he crisscrossed the scarf between her wrists with the other. His fingertips brushed her skin, the touch surprisingly gentle for the ire she sensed within him. She sucked in a breath, watching his eyes as he worked, recalling a similar state of affairs the night at the shrine when he’d removed her mask, then his. Sweat trickled down the back of her neck, her heart beating at an unnatural rhythm.
“Nazhe.” She swallowed to steady the sudden quavering. “Let me go, and you’ll never see me again. I might even be dead by nightfall. See? Problem solved.”
He cinched the fabric, knotted it, and tucked away the ends. She might have been able to break free of it eventually — if she didn’t have searing hot pain ripping up her side with every movement.
His eyes flicked up to hers in warning, as if he had sensed her thoughts. He didn’t have to say a single word.
Try and die.
Mercifully, Nazhe’s hold on her arm remained firm and constant. When she stumbled, he kept her upright. She’d no choice but to rely on his obviously disingenuous assistance. Worn, drained, it was as if her body was fraying at the seams, absorbing into the dark shadows surrounding the trees. Perhaps she would lose herself into the forest altogether.
Ema shook her head. She had to keep her mind clear and void of strange, wandering thoughts. She wasn’t dead yet. Though the way that Hagane kept glancing back, a frown creasing his face, she might not be far off.
If they actually meant to help her, it may already be too late.
“Oi!” Hagane stopped. “She can’t walk all the way back to Aomori-to. You want to her die, Akhito?”
Nazhe’s fingers twitched, but he did not answer.
“I can…make it.” Her entire midsection might be tearing apart, but she refused to stop, refused to let herself give in to the grasping cold clawing up her legs.
But Hagane was already there beside her. A hand brushed her bound wrists while his other arm slipped around her back. She tensed as his touch sent skin-tingling shivers throughout her body. The commander stood beyond, watching with an impatient frown.
“I’ll carry you,” Hagane said, earning a glare from Nazhe.
“That’s…not necessary. Don’t take my…injury…for weakness.”
“Oh, I would never. In fact, I find you infinitely more attractive for it.”
Spirits, she had to maintain her guard, maintain some semblance of independence. If she let go now…. But it was getting harder and harder to breathe.
“Here, don’t worry about those two. We’re going to take care of you, okay?”
Ema stiffened when he tightened his hold. “And…what about…you?” She blinked against a wave of dizziness. Her toes and fingers had already gone numb.
“I’m completely harmless,” he murmured in her ear. “Anyone who helps a friend is a friend of mine. I won’t hurt you.”
What choice did she have? Death was coming for her, and the only possibility of survival lay in the men before her. Alone, she would perish.
Perhaps it was fitting. Payment for the lives she’d taken in the name of her clan.
Meeting his amber eyes, she managed a nod.
Before he could scoop her up, a stinging, piercing cold seized her chest. Ema doubled over, her breathing fast and shallow as everything around her blurred.
Was this it?
Strong arms kept her upright. Her head tightened, squeezing. Biting her lip, she closed her eyes. A high-pitched whine rang in her ears.
Stay in control.
Pressure built between her ears, scrambling her vision. Her sandaled feet refused to remain steady. She sucked in a breath.
Someone spoke beside her. She cast her blurred gaze up, but nothing made sense. Darkness crept in from all sides.
She was so cold.
Her knees smacked the ground, the last reminder that she was still alive.
Then everything vanished, sucked away by the sudden black.