See Chapter Nine for Disclaimer Do you know what a 'villian' is, Faith?
It's what the other side calls you when they are afraid. Afraid of what you are thinking, what you are planning. When they can't predict your next move because you have the ability to think outside of the little boxes where they spend their entire lives.
You and I are villians because we can do the things that they're afraid to even consider. That's why we're going to win.
Now, help me come up with a slogan for this year's downtown cleanup drive. We'd hate for the place to be a mess when the day comes for me to erase it from the face of the earth, right?
Richard Wilkins III
Taryuu guided his conservative, American-built sedan up the long, winding driveway, a feeling of dread lying heavily in his belly. The guards at the gate had searched his vehicle carefully; not even the head of street operations was allowed casual access to the leader of the Thousand Year Storm. The grounds and house were protected by the most trusted of the organization's soldiers, and powerful magicks were in place to guard against attacks by other means.
None of this meant that things were truly secure; that was what worried him.
At the top of the drive he parked his car, then got out and made his way to the front entrance of the house. There he was met by a servant, who ushered him inside without a word. The residence was furnished with understated elegance, the few treasures which his master had managed to bring with him to this country were displayed in various locations; jade figurines of an ancient Emperor and his court, a silk fan painted with the calligraphy of another time, the material crumbling with age, a collection of wooden puzzle boxes created by the most skilled of master craftsmen a thousand years ago. Taryuu ignored them all, following the servant through the quiet house and though the sliding panel that opened out onto the rear patio. Two more guards, both wearing dark suits in the American style were standing beside the doorway. They nodded respectfully, though they remained watchful. He ignored them, looking instead to his lord and master.
Furokita Akamori was practicing the sword. Moving with slow, deliberate precision, he executed the forms of the fighting art in which he had trained since childhood. Taryuu knew he performed these exercises each morning without fail, just as he knew that his superior did not tolerate any interruption of this time. He therefore stood quietly, prepared to wait there until such time as the other man was ready to hear him. He watched as his lord began another series of ritualized movements, and reflected upon how they had come to be here, in this place.
Akamori was young, as leaders of criminal organizations went, and there was a reason for that. Less than a year earlier, he had attempted to oust his father and take his place as the head of the Imperial Dragon Clan, one of Japan's most powerful underworld associations. He had not been successful. Still, it was a mark of his leadership abilities that he had been able to salvage what he had. Fleeing the east with his surviving followers, he had come here, to the westernmost shore of the United States. In this fetid, chaotic place, he had begun the process of building his own empire. Only months after they had arrived, the Thousand Year Storm had made significant inroads into the territory of the local criminal element, and they now controlled over one-third of this city. As impressive a feat as that was, their resources were spread thin, and the inhabitants remained uneasy with what they saw as foreign interlopers. The criminal clan's position here was a tenuous thing at best, and any disruption held the potential for disaster.
Which was the reason for this visit.
Akamori moved across the stone patio, in perfect balance, with utter concentration, the weapon cutting the air as he executed a traditional kata. The bared blade of the Katanna he held was black as pitch; by some trick of the ancient sword-maker's art the metal reflected no light at all. It was the most valuable of the treasures the young master had brought with him into exile; the weapon had been looted from the castle of a Daiyamo, a great feudal lord of Japan, by Akamori's ancestors over a thousand years ago. According to lore, the blade was ancient even then, its origins lost in antiquity. Despite it's age, the sword remained a very serviceable weapon, even today. Taryuu knew for a fact that its razor edge could remove a man's head with ghastly ease; he had seen it used in such a way, more than once.
With a final flourish, the young man completed his sword dance. He turned and regarded Taryuu.
"There was some urgent business?"
The older man bowed deeply.
"My apologies for disturbing your meditations, master. Yes, there is a matter which requires your attention."
Akamori nodded at this. Tucking the sword into the crook of his elbow he led the way back inside the house, and Taryuu followed. A moment later they entered the study. Taryuu watched as the young lord placed his sword on the lacquered stand designed to hold it. Gesturing for his subordinate to sit, he moved to his desk.
"Very well, what brings you here unannounced?"
The man cast his eyes downwards, taking a moment to compose his thoughts. What he had to say was not likely to lead to any personal harm for him; his master was not so capricious as to kill a valued member of his organization over so minor a matter. Still, Akamori was notoriously lacking in patience when it came to his subordinates displaying anything less than total competence. The events of last night and this morning did not show a great deal of competence on anyone's behalf; except perhaps a certain girl….
"There have been several… incidents, in the last twelve hours; troubling events. I have attempted to deal with it myself, but have been unsuccessful. I now humbly ask for your guidance."
Akamori's eyes narrowed, but his face remained impassive.
Taryuu forced himself to meet his master's eyes unflinchingly.
"There is a girl…." He went on to relate the events she had been involved in, as reported to him by those subordinates who had been unlucky enough to encounter her. The clan leader listened patiently as he described the attack on the street dealer, and the subsequent theft of his merchandise. The amounts involved were utterly inconsequential, but the very fact that it had occurred was dangerous, if not properly dealt with. When he described the orders he had given once the first reports reached him, Akamori nodded in approval.
"Yes. Sending Itai to deal with these children was the proper response. He is well-equipped to administer either warning or punishment." Seeing the sick expression on his lieutenant's face, he frowned. "There was some further difficulty?"
"There was, Lord. Itai returned to our stronghold less than an hour ago. He, and the men who accompanied him, were all badly beaten. Itai and one other are both near death."
The other man's habitual mask of indifference was broken by a faint look of shock.
"He was defeated? That is… most unusual." He folded his hands atop his desk and considered them for several moments. "Was he able to give an account of how this took place?"
"He was quite clear on one point, master. It was the girl alone who fought them; all four of them. It is his opinion that-" His voice became hushed. "Itai believes that the girl is not mortal."
Akamori's eyes glittered dangerously.
"She is a demon? A vampire?"
The older man made a half-bow of apology in his seat.
"We do not yet know. Our sources of information here are still few, and scattered. We are attempting to discover more at this time." He raised his head again, watching his master. "My contacts with the police may be able to tell us something. Nagasu is attempting to heal Itai. If he survives, he may be able to tell us more." Nagasu was the clan's most powerful mage, though healing was not his specialty. "From what he managed to tell us, we do know her name: Faith."
The clan Lord sat back in his chair, assimilating this.
"I find this most disturbing, Taryuu. We are nearly ready to move upon the northern section of town, extending our control to fully one-half of the city. There is also the matter of these idiotic locals, seeking to build some sort of organized resistance to our operations."
Taryuu winced internally at that, though he remained outwardly calm. The impartial brutality with which the clan was securing its new territory was provoking a strangely American response. Instead of submitting to the new masters of the underworld, a handful of foolish individuals were attempting to form themselves into some sort of… he supposed the term was 'movement'. The more troublemakers the clan killed, the more insistent these upstarts became that their fellows should join them in opposing the foreigners. As far as Taryuu's fledgling information-gathering network could ascertain, there were still relatively few of them, and their words had so far failed to translate into action. Still, the potential for serious problems from that quarter could not be dismissed lightly. Now this new factor, this girl….
"Do you feel that this Faith is a mercenary hired by the locals to oppose us?" Taryuu was suddenly more worried than he had been moments earlier. "If they have access to supernatural warriors, they may become a threat far sooner than we had believed possible."
Akamori considered this for a long moment before answering.
"It may be as you say…." His brow furrowed, then smoothed again. "Impossible to guess the truth. From your description of the initial attack, it seems that this girl may merely have acted on impulse. These westerners are little better than animals at the best of times; slow of wit and lacking any real discipline." He smiled faintly. "This is why we will thrive here, Taryuu. Once they see the order which we will bring to their lives, the increased security our presence offers, then they will follow us willingly."
It was true. Back in their homeland, violent crime was a tiny fraction of what it was here. The reason was quite simple; the clans, which controlled crime, did not allow it. Random killing earned no one a profit; it was bad for business. Murderers were more frequently tracked down and dealt with by the organized crime enforcers than by the police. When a Japanese shopkeeper paid a clan for 'protection', that was exactly what he received. Any criminal act against that individual or his place of business was dealt with quickly and harshly. Order was maintained, the people were free to walk the streets in safety.
So long as they paid tribute to the appropriate individuals, of course. It would be the same here, given time.
The young Lord stood, and Taryuu instantly followed suit.
"Go. Return to the stronghold and continue your efforts to find out more concerning this girl. I will join you there shortly."
The older man bowed deeply, and then hurried from the room. Whether she was a mercenary or merely a random, brawling creature that happened to have a human face, this Faith would soon be dealt with. The clan had larger things to concern it. One person, spirit warrior or not, could not hope to alter the path of the Storm.
* * * * *
Alex stood patiently in line at the counter, trying to keep Kelly's hands out of his pocket.
"C'mon, please?" She was giving him her sweetest smile, even as she attempted to relieve him of any loose change he might have on his person. "Please, Alex. It's only a quarter."
He captured her hands in his and held them firmly.
"No. You don't need any gum. If you still want some later, then we can get it for a lot less at Steve's."
She pouted, only slightly placated when he raised her hands and pressed his lips to her skin. The line moved forward by one person, and he moved up along with it.
They had been headed out of the donut shop when Faith had asked him to buy her another dozen jelly-filled to take with them. The Slayer was currently making use of the bathroom facilities, and Kelly was not making Alex's time in the line a happy experience.
"She made me eat that second donut just because she knows I don't like them. If it were something I did like then she wouldn't have bought me any." She leaned against him, unconsciously reassuring herself of his presence, all the while staring towards the bathrooms. "I hate her."
"Shh. Stop that." All the early morning customers coming in were keeping the poor guy behind the counter really busy. Alex watched as he took the order of the man in front of them. "I'm glad she made you eat. You never listen to me when I tell you to." He hugged her close to him. "You've lost more weight, the last few weeks. You need to eat."
Kelly said nothing. Staring listlessly off into space, she gave no sign that she'd even heard him. Alex felt the familiar stab of helpless worry, but there was only so much he could do. There was only so much she would let him do.
From behind him, he heard the doors to the outside open, and a moment later a uniformed policeman walked past to stand at the end of the serving counter. He glanced at the young man who was fetching the most recent order, but apparently decided that he was too busy to bother. Looking back into the baking area, he raised on hand.
"Hey! You the manager?"
An older man, wearing a nameplate and a narrow tie, looked up from what he was doing and nodded. He walked up to speak to the cop.
"I'm Tony Capari, assistant manager. Is there a problem?"
The policeman shook his head, setting a sheaf of black and white papers in front of him. For lack of anything else to look at, Alex leaned his head to the side and tried to catch a glimpse of what they were. A grainy image was visible at the top, with lines of small text underneath. There was something disturbingly familiar about the person in that picture….
"No, nothing concerning you. I was hoping you would do me a favor and post a couple of these. This girl was involved in an assault last night at a mini-mart not far from here. The security camera tape let us identify her as a fugitive from a little town northeast of here."
The man in front of Alex took his bag of donuts and walked away, which left him facing the clerk; the same clerk that had waited on Faith earlier.
"Ah, twelve jelly-filled. Please." Please don't look over there. Just get the damn things and let us get out of here. Please.
The manager was examining one of the flyers.
"Kinda cute. What's she wanted for? Robbery?"
The cop leaned on the counter, eyeing the displays of donuts with a wistful expression on his face.
"I think robbery's the only thing the warrant doesn't mention. Assaulting police officers, attempted murder, murder, resisting arrest… it goes on and on." His voice lowered slightly, taking on a conspiratorial tone. "The word is, this girl's insane. Totally, for-real loony." Dropping his hand to the gun at his waist, he gave the manager a significant look. "I'll tell you, if I see this little girl coming at me, I'm not gonna take any chances."
Kelly was staring, wide-eyed at the posters the man held. Alex squeezed her shoulder in warning, even as the clerk set the bag of pastries in front of him. As he handed over the money Faith had given him, he caught sight of someone in the corner of his eye. The man behind the counter counted out his change, and Alex watched as Faith walked past the tables towards them, then suddenly slowed as she caught sight of the policeman. Her eyes flicked to where he and Kelly stood, then away. In a casual-seeming movement she turned to look out the plate-glass windows, which happened to turn her face away from the cop, who was still talking with the manager. Pausing just long enough to avoid making it seem like a u-turn, she then wandered slowly towards the back again, where there was another exit to the outside.
"Sir?" Alex jumped involuntarily and turned hastily to face the clerk. "Your change."
He accepted the coins; trying to keep his hand from trembling with the adrenalin overload he was experiencing. Clutching the bag in one hand and Kelly's arm with the other, he turned and slowly walked outside.
"Alex, did you hear that?" She pulled away from him, far enough so that she could turn and stare him in the eye. "She is a murderer, and crazy too!"
"Shh!" He took her by the hand and walked quickly around the corner of the building. There was the side exit Faith must have used, but there was no sign of the girl. He looked around, uncertain of where she would have gone.
Kelly was scanning the area too.
"You think she's gone? Maybe she ran off when she saw the cop."
He shook his head, leading her down the sidewalk and past the rear of the donut shop.
"Maybe. We need to get out of here before that guy at the counter sees the poster and remembers that we were in there with her." It took several long, nervous seconds to walk across the parking lot and past the small strip mall that adjoined it. After they rounded that, and entered a narrow alley, they paused to catch their breath. Both of them were sweating like they'd run a mile, but there was no indication that anyone was following them. He stood there, debating what they should do next. Maybe Faith would head back to the apartment complex; she knew where it was, and would expect them to try and meet up with her there. The bad part was, some of Itai's friends might be waiting for them there too, and if the Slayer wasn't there, then things could get bad in a hurry.
Of course, things could get bad even if they did succeed in finding her. The cop had mentioned murder. More than one, actually; he'd said 'murders'. The part about the girl being insane was the sort of thing that people could be expected to exaggerate about, and he would have dismissed it out of hand, except…. He'd seen her when she was fighting. He'd seen the way she lost control, the wild, savage side of her that got free when she was in battle. It took no great stretch of the imagination to picture what would happen if there were no one around to stop her, like he had managed to do this morning. She would have killed those four men. She'd done it before; she might well do it again. He looked down at Kelly, wondering if he was doing the wrong thing by keeping the two of them with the strange girl. She might well be more dangerous than the Japanese criminals she was protecting them from.
The voice came from right behind him, and he whirled so quickly that he nearly shoved Kelly into the wall by accident. Faith was standing there, just out of arm's reach. Flashing him a quick smile, she leaned in and snatched the bag of donuts from him.
"Thanks." Ignoring his startled expression, she gestured over her shoulder with one thumb. "So, we were headed that way, right? To this place where your girl works?"
It was difficult to believe, but he thought he was actually getting used to the way she acted. Trying to match her air of unconcern, he nodded agreement.
"Yes, it's that way."
"All right then, let's go."
She led the way down the alley, idly tossing the paper bag over her head and catching it behind her back. Kelly, of course, couldn't leave well enough alone.
"That cop said you're a murderer."
Faith didn't even bother to look back.
"Uh huh. That's right."
The bland admission didn't help the uneasy feeling that seemed to have taken up permanent residence in Alex's stomach, but Kelly seemed by turns both outraged and fascinated by the whole thing.
"What are you then, some kind of serial killer?"
The dark-haired girl never stopped walking, but she did turn in place and walk backwards for several paces. With a knowing smile she inclined her head.
"That's it exactly. I travel the land hunting down and killing helpless cereal; especially the kind with stupid mascots. I've already wasted that stupid little Lucky Charms guy, and Toucan Sam, too." She gave them a conspiratorial wink. "I'm here, in your beautiful little town, in search of my next target." She turned to face forwards again, striding along with a noticeable sway to her hips. "If you happen to see a big tiger walking around, wearing a bandanna around his neck, tell him he's dead meat."
Kelly looked confused as they continued on, Faith chuckling quietly to herself as she stayed a few paces ahead of them. Alex just rubbed at his upset stomach and tried to hold on to that belief that everything would be okay.
* * * * *