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Chapter 3 - The Sarutobi Ninja Scrolls


Winter was around the corner, and the new-moon night was really getting chilly. However, the air inside the traveling performers’ tent in a park in Drachen’s commoners’ district was practically sizzling with excitement.

“Damn, how long’s this troupe had that cutie?”

“What kind of diet does she use to keep her skin so smooth?”

“She’s got a great rack, but her body’s all sorts of toned, too. I-I’m into it!”

Drachen’s commoner laborers were cheering. Work had finished for the day, so they were treating themselves to an acrobatics show while guzzling beer. Drachen was a major hub for the performing arts, so shows like this one were common. The crowd was unusually excited today, however.

The reason for their fervor stood at the center of the tent.

The spectators’ eyes were bloodshot from how intently they stared. The alluring girl twirling her body in front of the tent’s support post was just that beautiful. Although she was on the shorter side, she was plump in all the right places, and the contrast between her peach-blond hair and her tanned skin only made her more radiant.

Her outfit was adorned with jewels and had only barely enough fabric to count as clothing. If she shifted even slightly, you could see under her skirt. It was designed precisely with that in mind, actually. Clad in the lascivious outfit, the performer bounced her disproportionately large breasts in time with the music, then turned her crotch toward the audience and suggestively opened her legs wide and swayed her hips.

Her risqué dance hit the male laborers right in the libido, and they got fired up like never before. The crowd grew so large that it couldn’t be contained in the tent.

The girl proved so attractive and deft at captivating the audience that she had to be the troupe’s main dancer…

…but she wasn’t.

She wasn’t part of the troupe at all.

Although the girl’s skin was bronzed a shade darker, she was undoubtedly Shinobu Sarutobi, prodigy journalist.

“Hey, she just winked at me!”

“What’re you on about, dumbass?! She was obviously winking at me!”

“You wanna go, big guy?!”

Obviously, Shinobu hadn’t come just to pole dance. She was here to retrieve a wayward teammate, Masato Sanada, and his apprentice, Roo. That was easier said than done, as Freyjagard was trying to forestall any move the Prodigies might make. Helping free Yamato had made Neuro an outright enemy, and war had already begun.

Security checkpoints leading to Drachen, the enemy capital, were strict. Shinobu was skilled enough to find a way around them, but their sheer number would have made that a huge amount of work. It also would’ve required a lot of time, and detours always carried their own risks. Ultimately, Shinobu elected to brazenly stroll through the checkpoints.

She’d joined with a caravan that already had permission to enter Drachen and blended in as one of its members. Facial recognition software was centuries away on this world, and the troupe’s members weren’t going to expose Shinobu and risk delaying their own journey.

Shinobu’s plan worked like a charm. She moved deep into enemy territory—all the way to the commoners’ district on the outer edge of Drachen, no less—and all without a fight.

Masato was in Drachen’s imperial castle.

His phone was turned off, but Ringo had modded the Prodigies’ mobile devices to ping her satellite with their current locations every so often as long as they had a charge, so at least Shinobu knew where he was.

The only obstacles were the two fortress walls separating the commoners’ district, the nobles’ district, and the castle. Both of the structures were impressively tall, but Shinobu could scale a building with only the tiniest handholds. Even rust was enough for her to grip. She’d be over the walls in no time.

However, it was too early in the evening. Commoners were still awake drinking. There were too many watchful eyes for her to try anything. She’d have to wait until the city was asleep.

Until then…

…I gotta make sure I really get things popping in here—to make it up to the girl I replaced, if nothing else.


Not a moment later, a different kind of stir ran through the hyped-up audience. The people looked aghast.

Shinobu had been moving to show off her body’s curves, but now her movements were quicker. She shifted from pole dancing to raw feats of athleticism.

“Damn, how’s she moving like that?!”

“That upper-body strength is nuts!”

“I can’t believe what I’m seeing…”

With one hand clamped on the tent’s support pole, Shinobu took a stroll in midair as casually as she might walk on the ground. Then she coiled her legs around the pole and twirled at an incredible pace. To top it all off, she held her whole body out like a flag.

On Earth, pole dancing was strongly associated with strip shows, but it originated from a wrestling-based form of gymnastics called Mallakhamba. The grueling exercise explored the limits of the human body using a single pole. It required immense strength, even from a ninja. Sweat beaded on Shinobu’s beautifully outstretched legs and proudly displayed breasts. The droplets glistened in the light of the tent’s bonfires.



…none cheered as they had previously.

The men still watched Shinobu, but the lust had faded from their eyes. They waited with bated breath for her to finish the performance.

Rather than fervor and enthusiasm, there was tense silence, which persisted until Shinobu spun her way down from the very top of the pole. She concluded her show by landing soundlessly upon the ground with her legs in a perfect 180-degree split.


The audience offered an earsplitting round of applause.

“That was INCREDIBLE! You’re somethin’ else, Shino!”

“That last part! Whew! I couldn’t tear my eyes away!”

“I watched so hard, I accidentally sobered up! I’ll take another round!”

Erotic dancing existed as a way for apprentice acrobats to get crowds excited despite lacking the perfected skills of a master. Seeing a show begin that way and then become something much more was a huge surprise. Shinobu’s performance earned the most excitement of any that night. The crowd cheered even harder when she waved and smiled. The booze practically sold itself.

Shinobu’s work for the troupe she’d infiltrated ended as a rousing success.

“All right, everyone, that’s a wrap!”


Once the audience cleared out of the park, the troupe members celebrated the show’s completion. Shinobu took part as well, of course. She emptied her wooden tankard of ale in a single swig…

“Whew! That hits the spot after a hard day’s work!”

“I gotta say, Shino, you really saved our butts today.”

“No kiddin’. When our dancer went missing out of nowhere, we had no idea what we were gonna do tonight. Who’d’ve thought a bona fide virtuoso like you would show up and agree to fill in? I guess we’ve still got a bit of luck left.”

…and the troupe leader and his wife thanked her from their seats beside her.

Shinobu was behind the apprentice dancer’s disappearance, but the couple had no way of knowing that. It was only natural for them to be so grateful to the disguised Shinobu, who’d approached the troupe claiming she wished to join the world of performing arts.

The journalist ninja smiled without the tiniest bit of guilt. “Ha-ha-ha. Please, I’m no virtuoso. Just a girl from the countryside with big dreams of being a dancer.”

“Nah, Shino, you’re something else. That pole dancing of yours was in a league all its own.”

“Those geezers were giving you some of the sleaziest looks I’ve ever seen, but for those last bits, they were so captured by your performance that sex was the furthest thing from their minds.”

“Hey, lemme check out your arm for a sec. I wanna see how ripped someone has to get to hold their whole body up the way you did.”

“Whaaat? C’mon, I’m no muscle head.”

“Yeah, yeah, we’ll see about— Wait, it’s so thin!”

“No way. How did you swing around so freely when your limbs are that dainty?”

“See, the trick there is you gotta kind of use your whooole body,” Shinobu explained.

Before she knew it, the entire troupe was gathered around her. It was the first time any of them saw a trick like that, and they peppered her with questions about how much she worked out and gawked in astonishment at her slender arms.

If anything, Shinobu’s arms were skinnier than those of the average girl on the street. However, just beneath the skin was a layer of the most pliable muscle around. The Sarutobis had been a ninja clan for generations, and they’d developed a training regime that focused on muscle quality instead of mass. Beauty was an important weapon in the kunoichi arsenal, so it had to be preserved. Shinobu had used that training to its utmost and cultivated a body that, much like a leopard’s, appeared lithe at first glance but was rich with unseen power. It was the perfect ninja build.

On top of that, Shinobu’s martial arts enabled her to augment her physical abilities in all sorts of other ways. She could support her body with her bones instead of her muscles or use centrifugal force to counteract some of her weight. With all those factors combined, an unrehearsed dance was child’s play.

None of it would’ve been possible if she wasn’t a genius hailed the world over as a prodigy, though. Understanding Shinobu’s techniques was one thing, but replicating them was impossible.

The troupe leader must have realized that, for he donned his business face. “Shino, what do you say to becoming a permanent member?”

He couldn’t let talent like hers get away. The offer was the rational choice for a troupe leader, and all his members voiced their approval.

“Good call, boss! C’mon, Shino, we’d love to have you!”

“With you as our main dancer, the sky would be the limit. We might even get shows in the nobles’ district! At least think it over, okay?”

However, Shinobu gave them an apologetic reply…

“Oh man, that’s so kind of you to offer. But I can’t. I want to see if I can join Luvirche and really put my skills to the test.”

…and fed them the same lie she’d used to join with the group in the first place.

The troupe members all slumped.

“Yeah, that figures.”

“If Luvirche’s on the table…then I guess we can’t stop you.”

Luvirche was one of the biggest performing companies in the empire. Its theatrical focus differed a bit from this troupe’s acrobatics. Still, Luvirche’s plays tended to incorporate flashy, intense action scenes, so they certainly had need of nimble employees. There was no point in trying to talk “Shino” out of auditioning with one of the industry leaders. A two-bit show that earned its keep shilling drinks to manual laborers couldn’t compete.


“A-are you sure about this? Luvirche is the big leagues, yeah, but their test is no joke. Plus, even if you get in, it’ll be ages before you’re big enough to make it on their billboards. Why put yourself through all that hardship when you could just stay with us and have a good time?”

…the performers hated to see Shinobu go.

Considering how young and attractive Shinobu was, some of the troupe members might have developed feelings for her. Whatever the reason, they didn’t want her to leave.


“Leave the girl be, Ted.”

…the troupe leader’s wife told off the member who’d spoken up.

“With talent and skill like Shino’s, she’ll be up on them big Luvirche posters before you know it.”

The troupe leader nodded. “Missing out on one so able sucks, but if she’s made up her mind, then she’s made up her mind. I’ll be rooting for you, Shino. Break a leg on that Luvirche application test.”

Shinobu smiled. “Thanks, boss! That means so much!”

Shinobu felt pangs of guilt for all the lies, but she was a consummate ninja and didn’t let it show on her face.

“But if you don’t make it into Luvirche, you’ll always have a place here with us,” the troupe leader added.

“Ha-ha. If I fail, I think I might take you up on that.”

After the attempts to recruit Shinobu died down, one of the middle-aged performers started twirling his mustache with a grim expression. “Luvirche, huh… For bein’ the best troupe in the empire, feels like I haven’t heard much good about them lately.”

The troupe leader and his wife nodded sagely. “Ah, right. That thing about them going up to Elm and putting on a show criticizing Emperor Lindworm.”

Shinobu heard about that back when she visited Elm. One of the Reform Party candidates, Glaux, had put together a dastardly scheme, and part of it involved Luvirche drumming up favor for the armed attack on the emperor that the Reform Party sought at the time.

“People are even saying that the Bluebloods put Lurviche up to it.”

“The Bluebloods got stamped out in the civil war. I wouldn’t be surprised if Emperor Lindworm and the Four Grandmasters put down Luvirche for supporting them.”

Luvirche had definitely picked the wrong side in that conflict, and the company could find itself ostracized from the nobles’ district for it. The troupe began talking shop, noting they’d have to be careful who they supported in the future, too.


“This is ridiculous.”

…a young stagehand drinking on a wooden crate was having none of it.

“You really think that the War Emperor is petty enough to care about little stuff like that?”

“What do you mean, Flit?”

“Emperor Lindworm is far more broad-minded than any of you give him credit for. No other ruler can surpass him.”

Something about Flit the stagehand’s statement caught Shinobu’s attention. It wasn’t her ninja instincts at work but the intuition she’d honed as a journalist. There was something more than blind faith behind his words. Where did it stem from?

Shinobu was never one to let a hunch go unexplored. “Wow, Flit. You think really highly of Emperor Lindworm, huh?”

“Of course I do. What sort of good imperial citizen doesn’t believe in their emperor?”

“Is that all there is to it, though? I dunno, it just sounded like you had some specific reason for your faith…”

The question was pretty intrusive, so Shinobu softened it with an adorable tilt of the head. A cute girl could loosen guys’ lips easily, and Flit was no exception.

“Well, both of them are dead now, so I guess it’s probably fine to talk about,” he said. “I saw something back during the Yamato War. Something that showed me just how great he is.”

“Oh yeah, that’s right. You served in those days,” the troupe leader’s wife remarked.

All eyes were on Flit. “What was it? What’d you see?” someone asked.

Flit seemed to enjoy the attention, and he ostentatiously cleared his throat. “There was a coup staged during the Yamato War, you see, and a savage attempt was made on Emperor Lindworm’s life. It failed, though, so I guess I should call it an attempted coup, but still.

“The whole thing was put under a gag order, which is why no one heard about it. But I was there. It was on a moonless night, like this one, and the attack was orchestrated by Granzham von Blumheart.

“He had a coconspirator, and if you can believe it, it was a man who was later granted a dukedom and became one of His Grace’s most loyal retainers—Oslo el Gustav.”

“ ?!”

Not even Shinobu could hide her surprise. That was the last name she’d expected to hear.

Flit watched her reaction with great amusement.

By his account, the Lindworm dynasty started a war three years ago to demolish the neighboring country of Yamato and to seize control over the entire continent. The Freyjagard ambassador’s covert operation succeeded better than all expectations, and after dealing a crippling blow to the Yamato empire, the imperial army pushed into enemy territory, crushing the routed samurai as they went. After a month, Freyjagard nearly secured victory. There was a handful of warriors still fighting using guerrilla tactics, but everyone knew it was only a matter of time until they fell.

But that confidence made the imperials complacent, lax. All of them, from the knights, to the mages, to the lowliest grunts, let their guards down. And on the day in question, when Flit was protecting Lindworm as he slept, he got sloppy, too.

That’s when the coup happened.

The emperor’s guard was thinnest after he retired for the night, and Blumheart and Gustav—just the two of them—decided to spring their surprise attack then.

For a coup, the plan was pretty simple. As Lindworm stood at the tent’s entrance on his way to bed, Gustav would approach from behind and hurl Rage Soleil at him. Gustav was already the Imperial Prime Mage by this point, and the attack hinged on his outstanding combat capabilities. The coup required only two people, and no one else knew of the scheme.

Flit, who stood next to the tent’s entrance, braced himself for death when he realized what was happening.


“He parried Rage Soleil with a sword…?!”

Flit nodded as Shinobu gaped in disbelief.

“That’s right. He took Gustav’s trump card, the war magic spell Rage Soleil that had burned a Yamato base to the ground in a single night, and shattered it to pieces with a swing of his massive blade.”

Lindworm’s golden sword was as long as he was tall, and when the Rage Soleil bore down on him, he pulverized it effortlessly.

Blumheart and Gustav had believed the plan already succeeded and were so astonished to discover the true outcome that they forgot to run. Nearby soldiers surrounded them in moments.

It took a few men apiece to pin the pair of insurgents to the ground, but once they were subdued, Lindworm posed them a question. He wished to know why they’d turned against their master, a man they ought to revere. What had driven them to action?

By that point, the two failed assailants had already accepted their fates. Their failure was absolute, and they saw no point in trying to resist. They told the emperor they’d done it for the powerless masses, to create a world where everyone could live in peace without fear of oppression.

They told Lindworm about how hordes of people were suffering under his militaristic rule. Plenty of blood had been shed between the civil war against the old administration and the empire’s invasions and annexations of its smaller neighbors to the south and the west. Blumheart and Gustav demanded to know when Lindworm would be sated. The casualties continued to pile up as Freyjagard advanced into Yamato, a nation with nothing to offer the empire.

Lindworm was a lion running roughshod over the entire world, and as Blumheart and Gustav saw it, they had a duty to stop him.

Flit and the other soldiers got ready to run the two rebels through. Freyjagardian society operated on survival of the fittest, and this pair had gone against the strongest man in the empire. Extenuating circumstances or not, it was a crime deserving of execution.


…Lindworm spoke.

He faced those who’d threatened his life and said, “Release them.”

Lindworm’s inexplicable order sent a stir through the troops. Still, they weren’t about to disobey a command from the emperor. They immediately released the two captives and sheathed their swords.

Blumheart and Gustav couldn’t make sense of Lindworm’s actions, regarding the man with bewilderment.

“Y-Your Grace?”

“…What’s the meaning of this, Emperor Lindworm?”

Lindworm responded with a question. “Blumheart. Gustav. You spoke of cutting me down for the sake of the people, but what then? Would you two take the throne yourselves? Do you believe that would create a world free of suffering?”

“Gustav and I would put in the necessary work to—”

“It would fail.”

Lindworm silenced Blumheart.

“Slaying me and ending the war with Yamato won’t stop all conflict. So long as impostors lacking the necessary qualities pretend to be kings and members of the rabble with no capacity to rule act as nobles holding dominion over others, there will be bloodshed. Jealousy and greed will drive them to it. You two will only become another pair of links in that chain. If you truly care for the populace and wish for a world where none need suffer, then know this:

“What this world needs is a flawless ruler. One who will not be beaten. One who will not perish. One who will not err.

“A world of hegemony, ruled by Lindworm von Freyjagard and Lindworm von Freyjagard alone.”


Lindworm’s declaration struck Blumheart and Gustav speechless.

“Your Grace, you believe that none can defeat you?”

“I do. Not you, or the nobles, or the rulers of any foreign states.”

“And you…you trust that no matter how much time passes, you won’t die?”

“I do. Peace that only lasts a generation is but a trifle. I shall reign over this world as its ruler in perpetuity.”

“A-and…you believe…that your decisions are always correct?”

“I do. You need only follow me with faith.”

“This is DERANGED!” Blumheart had finally managed to squeeze questions from his pale, trembling lips, and upon hearing Lindworm’s fantastical delusions, he turned furious. “I was right—you need to be stopped! All the blood you’ve shed, the bodies you’ve left in your wake, it was for…this lunacy?! You, a single man, seek to rule the world forever? That’s impossible!”

If Freyjagard bought into this madness, the empire would fall. Blumheart drew the saber hanging from his waist and leveled it at Lindworm.

“In all my days, have I ever spoken a single falsehood?”



Lindworm focused his gaze upon Blumheart and Gustav, and the look in his eyes was so enthralling, they forgot to breathe.

There was no false bravado to be found in him.

Lindworm wasn’t bluffing. He spoke with true conviction—the belief of a man who knew where he was going, who trusted his legs to get him there. In his eyes, his goal was attainable.

“You may not believe me now, but once this war awakens the true power within me, my capabilities will be plain to all. Everyone will see who this world truly belongs to, and when that time comes, I will abolish the imperial aristocracy and take on the totality of the burdens too great for my subjects to bear.”

Blumheart didn’t have the faintest clue what to make of that. However, Gustav fell to his knees as though struck by lightning.

Lindworm strode calmly between the two…

“In all of creation, I am the sole being fit to rule from on high. Put your faith in me and in me alone.”

…and left them behind.

“…It was crazy talk. We all knew that Emperor Lindworm was strong. Hell, he might even be powerful enough to unite the whole world. But still… Getting rid of the foreign rulers is one thing, but there’s no way he could govern the world if he abolished the aristocracy on top of that.”

It simply wasn’t realistic.

Blumheart and Gustav had known that, as did everyone else present for the speech. Flit recalled how he and the rest of the soldiers had agreed with the two failed assassins.

“But at the same time…there was something about him that made you believe he could do it.”

It should have been easy to write Lindworm off as a babbling fool, yet no one present had managed to denounce him.

That unwavering confidence brooked no argument. It was as though Lindworm knew he was more than human. If he truly was a flawless ruler who would never fail or die…

“…Then I want to live under his rule. Don’t get me wrong—Duke Gustav took things too far. But his belief in Emperor Lindworm was justified.

“Those Republic of Elm fools ramble about freedom and independence and commoners becoming emperors, but will that really make them happy? The emperor’s right. There aren’t that many people worthy of governing others.

“All that stuff about how making commoners into rulers will lead to a government that’s kind to all…that’s just as much bullshit as Freyjagard.

“When someone gets power, they cling to it. They grow suspicious of others and suppress enemies to solidify their strength. It’s in our nature. The only difference is the people can’t complain because they asked for freedom. Empire or Elm, if both are gonna feed me the same crap, I’d at least like to live under an absolute ruler I can trust.”


Shinobu voiced no agreement or opposition.

She had nothing to say. Flit was describing the ultimate fate of democracy, something her world had witnessed many times already.

It was late into the night, and all the sounds of the city were gone, save the occasional dog bark.

Once they finished their party, the troupe members dispersed to the respective tavern rooms they’d booked. The troupe was kind enough to get Shinobu a room, too, and she headed there. Upon arriving, she spread out her ninja tools on the bed to confirm everything was in order for her infiltration mission.

As she inspected her gear…

“Lindworm von Freyjagard, huh?”

…she thought back to Flit’s story.

Lindworm had referred to his “true power.” From the sound of it, Neuro and the other grandmasters probably fed him a couple of half-truths to embolden him while leaving out anything that would interfere with their plan.

In a sense, Lindworm was one of the grandmasters’ victims, too. Talking things out with him and winning him over like Tsukasa had suggested was still a possible option.

But on the other hand…

…Shinobu got the feeling that exposing the grandmasters’ scheme wouldn’t change Lindworm’s mind. From his perspective, Neuro and the others were day-one allies, whereas the Prodigies were a group whittling away at the empire’s territory and obstructing its goal of world domination. There was no question which side Lindworm would trust, and the Prodigies wouldn’t be able to prove anything until it was too late.

“If he really destroyed Rage Soleil that easily…then there’s gotta be something pretty funky about Lindworm himself.”

Not even Ringo’s antiair missiles could bring down Rage Soleil, yet Lindworm had smashed the spell to bits in a single motion. Whatever his deal, he was no pushover. Yggdra had told Shinobu and the others that Father required a suitable vessel and that the grandmasters waited for such an exceptional person. The grandmasters were undoubtedly a threat, but Lindworm deserved great caution, too.

“An absolute ruler…”

Never beaten. Never perishing. Never erring.

A world controlled by an unquestionable leader meant everyone except that leader would be equal. It would create a perfect world without war.

According to Flit’s story, Lindworm sought the ultimate form of monarchy.

“He almost reminds me of Tsukes.”

Tsukasa Mikogami and Lindworm both had their sights fixed on the same goal: a world of equality that was free of war, where people could live in peace. The only difference was the route. Tsukasa knew that people were born with evil in them, but he chose to believe in their inherent goodness, and he sought a society of people supporting one another. Lindworm believed in none but himself and desired to rule as a supreme overlord.

One chose faith; the other chose fetters.

The two were as different as could be…and yet…

If—if—War Emperor Lindworm was genuinely unbeatable, undying, and unerring, if he was a prodigy politician in every sense, then how would Tsukasa feel about opposing him?

When the young prime minister thought of those he’d let slip through his fingers on his quest to save as many as possible, how would he—?


Shinobu’s mind was straying to a dark place, and she clapped herself on the cheeks. She didn’t need to indulge those ideas. At the moment, she had more urgent matters.

“I’ve got a job to do.”

She had to find Masato and Roo, then tell them about Neuro’s plan.

Shinobu had known Masato forever and understood that for all his wits and pragmatism, he wasn’t the sort to let a friend die to further his ends. He saved that for enemies and those he acknowledged as rivals. Once Masato learned what Neuro was after, he’d come back, and the Prodigies would be at full strength again.

That needed to happen. Shinobu couldn’t afford any screwups. She focused and strapped on her ninja tools.

Once ready, she opened the large wooden box in the corner of the room.


Inside was a girl two or three years Shinobu’s junior. Her hands and feet were bound, and her mouth was gagged. Fear shone in the girl’s teary eyes, but Shinobu seemed unaffected, hoisting the captive up and laying her on the bed.


“Sorry. I know it must’ve been scary.”

…she offered an apology.

The girl was the troupe’s usual dancer. She hadn’t gone missing—Shinobu had kidnapped her.

“The nice innkeeper’ll come to the room for the wake-up call tomorrow morning. You can have her untie you.”

Shinobu placed a letter of apology addressed to the troupe beside the girl, then pushed the wooden window open.

The night beyond the tavern room was pitch-black. This world lacked electricity, so evenings were unfathomably dark, even more so tonight because of the new moon.

There was no better time to run a covert operation.

“All righty… Let’s do this.”

Shinobu leaped into the dark.

No roadside braziers lit her way. All Shinobu had to guide her was the faint glow from the stars. However, that meager light was enough for her honed ninja eyes. Commoners’ district roofs became stepping stones as she hopped silently across the city.

Eventually, she arrived at a wall seventy feet high—her first obstacle. This was the barrier separating the commoners’ district from the nobles’ one. Drachen’s three sections were separated by two immense, defensive bulwarks. Freyjagard was one of the greatest military powers in the world, and its heavily fortified capital stood as a testament to that fact.

Breaching the wall was impossible for most. However, prodigy journalist Shinobu Sarutobi was a different sort. This master of intelligence could infiltrate Air Force One if she so desired. She hooked her fingers into the seams between the wall stones, then climbed the vertical face as swiftly as she would a ladder. In no time at all, she was up and over, crossing the divide between commoners and nobles.

Shinobu dropped seventy feet and landed without a sound. It was a prodigious feat if ever there was one.

She had moved undetected. No one was aware of her presence.



…the moment she touched the ground, a terrible chill ran through her.

Shinobu gasped.


Meanwhile, a middle-aged man stood quickly from his seat at the bar in a guardroom within the fortress between the commoners’ and nobles’ districts. He was tall, lean, and blessed with an impressive beard. Unlike the rest of the soldiers, he wore a well-tailored butler uniform.

“Hmm? What’s up, Mr. Ninja?”

“You gotta hit the can or something? Damn, I woulda thought Yamato ninjas could hold their beer better. That’s weak, man!”

“C’mon, drink up! If you don’t take this mug, how am I supposed to know you’re one of us?!”

The uniform-clad man shook his head. “I wish I could accept your offer, believe me. But I fear I cannot.”


“It would seem that a crafty little rat has snuck its way inside. Pardon me.” By the time he excused himself, the uniformed man had vanished.



“Where’d he go?”

It was like he’d never been there at all.

Cold sweat ran from Shinobu’s pores as she raced through the nobles’ district. She didn’t bother to keep silent anymore, instead running as fast as she could.

Shit, shit, shit, shit, shit…!

Someone had noticed Shinobu, despite her flawless technique. She’d entered the nobles’ district silently and unseen, without leaving the slightest indication of her presence.

And yet someone had detected her. They’d picked up on the minuscule discomfort they’d felt when Shinobu cleared the wall.

No matter how expertly someone disguised their movements, it wouldn’t work on an opponent capable of doing the same. The more perfect the stealth, the easier for an ace opponent to recognize it.

In short, Shinobu’s foe was a ninja. One with skills on par with hers—perhaps better.


Shinobu had an inkling of who it might be.

During her time gathering information about this world, she’d heard about a rogue ninja from Yamato who had survived in the societal underworld on nothing but his own strength. He was an assassin who worked for anyone with coin.

Shinobu had witnessed how powerful Yamato’s people were during the last war, and she knew she couldn’t afford to fight one of them now. So she headed toward the castle, moving as fast as her legs would carry her…


…and realized that her enemy had circled around her and waited atop the roof of a nearby mansion.

“As a kunoichi, you should have known there was no escaping from Sasuke the Black Spider.”

“…Yeah, that tracks.”

The man before Shinobu was tall and lean, and despite the darkness and the sloped roof’s poor footing, his center of balance was solid as he stood atop the building’s peak.

There was no mistaking it. This man was a ninja.

Worse, the name he gave was worrying.

“I’ve heard a lot of stories about you. You used to be head of the Special Forces, right?”

“I fear I cannot profess to know of you… But I can tell you’re no Yamato ninja. Your face is new to me.”

The man stroked his beard as he fixed his eagle-sharp eyes on Shinobu. The gesture made him look off guard, but it was clearly for show. He carefully kept his limbs slack, ready to respond to anything Shinobu tried.

If she came at him unprepared, she would suffer a brutal counterattack.

And so…

“Well, sure. That’s ’cause I’m not a ninja. I’m a journalist.”

…she readied a shuriken in each hand while keeping a close eye out for any sudden moves from Sasuke.

Sasuke glared at the girl, recognizing her hostility…

“Yield now or this will hurt more than it has to.”

…and demanded her surrender.

His voice was deep and level, like a nightjar’s cry echoing through the dark. It rang with the sound of a man supremely confident in his abilities.


“…Look, if I had more time to work with, I might just take you up on that.”

…Shinobu hadn’t come this far to quit.

She liked to avoid battles when possible, but there was a time to flee and a time to fight, and she was wise enough to know the difference.

“Unfortunately, I’m in a hurry. I’m coming through, whether you like it or not.”

“Then you are a fool.”

“Oh, we’ll see about that.”

Shinobu had to strike now, and so she took the initiative. Thirty feet separated her and Sasuke, and she hurled her two shuriken at his feet. The goal was to restrict his mobility.

However, Sasuke wasn’t about to be disabled that easily. He evaded by sliding backward, then raced across the roof’s perimeter so he could rush Shinobu from the side. The footing was slanted, but it didn’t slow him down.


This time, it was Shinobu’s turn to react. She pulled out another set of shuriken from her holster and sent them flying at her foe to pressure him as he moved in. Ideally, that would’ve been enough to cause Sasuke to trip and tumble off the building.

That’s asking a bit much, though. Instead…

In addition to the standard iron shuriken in her holster, Shinobu also carried “shadow” shuriken that had been specially treated to be as matte as possible. Spotting them on a moonless night was impossible even for Shinobu…


…and yet they weren’t enough.

“Metal that doesn’t reflect the light? How novel.”

To Shinobu’s astonishment, Sasuke casually snatched every shuriken thrown at him right out of the air.

“Playthings will not avail you here.”


Performing a feat like that should’ve required seeing the shuriken. Was Sasuke’s eyesight better than Shinobu’s? The girl winced in frustration but kept focused on dealing with her opponent’s charge. She leaped backward and moved away as far as Sasuke ran in.

That hardly solved the problem, though.

Now that Shinobu had retreated, she had to deal with being stuck on the roof’s edge. And judging by Sasuke’s attacks…


…it seemed he’d been trying to push her to this point all along.

He swung his arm. Was he about to throw a projectile? That was the first thing Shinobu suspected, and she readied a pair of kunai to intercept. However…

…she realized that Sasuke was unarmed.

But then why—?

Suddenly, Shinobu spotted a long, thin object glinting in the faint starlight.


A series of slashes came hurtling down, deadly and invisible. Fortunately, Shinobu picked up on the slightest warning, giving her a chance to react.

She swung her kunai with all her might.

The friction of metal on metal sent a shower of sparks cascading through the air, and that tiny flash revealed the nature of Sasuke’s attack.

He was using string—or rather, steel wire.

By taking advantage of the spirits’ ability to manipulate objects on a microscopic level, one could manufacture blades as thin as a string. The technique was thought to be exclusive to Imperial Prime Mages, however. This was how the ninja known as the Black Spider killed his foes. Armed with that steel wire, he could slice his prey to ribbons, even from a distance.

Shinobu expertly parried the attacks, but…

…I’m not gonna be able to keep this up forever.

Sasuke’s strikes were so relentless that Shinobu didn’t have time to so much as blink. She could feel her limit approaching quickly.

Staying on the back foot wasn’t an option.

While using both hands to defend, Shinobu found room in between clashes to hurl a flash-bang.

A blast like white lightning filled the air. It was too bright for people to see through, making it functionally similar to total darkness.

The white void obscured Shinobu from her opponent’s view…


…yet the Black Spider continued to attack, undeterred.

“I’ve trained to follow my mark without sight.”

Shinobu had hoped the flash-bang would provide cover for her escape, but her opponent beat her to the punch. The moment she threw it, Sasuke charged across the rooftop and closed the gap. Now he was close enough to launch a palm strike directly at her face.



Shinobu responded resolutely to Sasuke’s challenge, and the two began a close-quarters duel so fierce, they didn’t have time to breathe.

Sasuke appeared to have bracers and chain mail hidden beneath his clothes, as whenever Shinobu went in with her kunai, her attacks bounced right off. Kunai weren’t designed for slashing, and Shinobu doubted they’d break through Sasuke’s defenses. Cutting the armor wasn’t an option.

However, Shinobu could put all her strength into a thrust. That might do the trick. The kunoichi continued fighting, searching for an opportunity…


…then wove through Sasuke’s tempest of strikes to stab him in the side.

Unfortunately, Sasuke had left that opening on purpose.

Shinobu’s thrust found only empty air, and Sasuke snagged her outstretched arm with his own. Shinobu’s fist was still clenched tight around her kunai, and Sasuke caught the hand in his armpit, then pressed up on her elbow with the back of his hand.

A horrible creaking accompanied the hot pain that shot through Shinobu.

This is bad…

Sasuke was going to break her arm.

Upon realizing that, Shinobu acted fast and leaped hard into the air. By taking the strength her opponent was using to snap her arm and turn it against him, she managed to jump over his head, break free from his hold…


…and launch a kick at the base of his skull.

Shinobu put her full weight into the attack. This was no time for mercy. She felt her attack connect, but the impact left her speechless.


It felt like she’d kicked a mighty tree with deep roots. Sasuke’s center of balance was so low, it was hard to believe he stood on something as uneven as a roof.

The man didn’t so much as twitch. Shinobu’s hopes of concussing him were dashed.

Sasuke fixed his gaze on her as she fled into the air. His eyes were like an insect’s, cold and unfeeling, and at that moment, a realization dawned on Shinobu.

This fight was kill or be killed. She was going to have to do whatever it took.


As Shinobu passed over her foe’s head, she threw two kunai toward where she’d been a moment earlier. Naturally, Sasuke wasn’t amateur enough to be hit by such an obvious counterattack. He looked back over his shoulder and casually swatted the kunai away.

That came as no surprise to Shinobu. His swatting the two kunai away was a foregone conclusion. And knowing that he’d block them, Shinobu had added another attack into the mix.

She used her tongue to fish out the deadly weapon she kept hidden behind her molars…


…then pursed her lips and spat it out.

Sasuke’s hands were both occupied by the kunai, so he had no way of reacting. Shinobu’s weapon sank into his thigh. The object in question was a thin needle, one coated in…

“Fugu, hmm?”


The next thing Shinobu knew, Sasuke’s fist slammed into her abdomen. She felt the shock travel through her abs to her back, shattering ribs as it moved.

Her body went flying across the roof, and although she managed to stick the landing, her expression was pale with grim shock. She’d hit Sasuke with a poison needle. The toxin was a special Sarutobi compound derived from fugu. It was deadly enough to kill big game instantly.

And yet…

“I’ve been ingesting it since I was eight to build up a tolerance.”

…it didn’t slow Sasuke in the slightest.

He casually plucked the needle from his thigh and flicked it away.


Shinobu groaned in agony at her fractured ribs as she bemoaned her miscalculation. There was no such thing as tetrodotoxin immunity. A person couldn’t build up immunity. Scientifically speaking, it was impossible. However, it was clearly the case with Sasuke.

I bet I have those experiments Yggdra talked about to thank for it.

A thousand years ago, the Yamato people’s ancestors were subjected to forced evolution, and the results were still evident in the nation’s modern citizens, most notably in their preeminent physical abilities.

The fact was, their bodies were different from most others’. Shinobu couldn’t afford to base her assumptions on how normal people functioned in this fight. She should have accounted for outliers.

“Pant, pant…!”

Things are going south fast. This guy…is on par with Shishi.

Sasuke’s raw combat abilities were probably a little lower than Shishi’s, but the difference was negligible. Either way, Shinobu was no contest.

Only Aoi could beat such opponents in a straight fight.

After her brutal thrashing, Shinobu conceded that her chances of victory were slim and growing worse by the moment. Cold sweat formed on her forehead from the stress and pain. She racked her brain for an idea…

“Hey! What the hell do you think you’re doing up there?!”

…but, as though to salt the wound, the situation worsened.

Nobles’ district soldiers were gathering after hearing the commotion.

“Isn’t that the ninja Marquis Northheim hired?!”

“That’s Master Heidekker’s mansion, you barbarians! Get down from there at once!”

Guards surrounded the mansion Shinobu and Sasuke were fighting on. There was nowhere for the prodigy journalist to run. She bit her lip, at a total loss for what to do…

Wait a minute…

…when she got an idea.

Shinobu would be done for if the imperial soldiers used their superior numbers to cut off all avenues of escape, so why didn’t Sasuke have the guards do as much from the start? He’d cut her off, suggesting he knew her route. Relaying orders to soldiers should have been well within his capabilities. He didn’t need to go out of his way to take Shinobu on alone.

But he did…

That’s it!

Shinobu’s flash of insight came not from her ninja skills but from the intuition she’d honed collecting information about and observing people as a journalist. And because of that, Shinobu was confident she was right.

The girl leaped from the roof with aplomb, casting herself into the sea of torches carried by the assembled guards.


Sasuke’s expression was placid as a mask this whole time, but now he grimaced slightly. He hurled a kunai to pick Shinobu out of the air.

The High School Prodigy had expected this, however. She unwound the scarf around her neck and swatted the projectile away. Just like Tsukasa’s jacket, her scarf was custom-made and designed to be stab-resistant and bulletproof. No kunai would ever pierce it.

The moment Shinobu landed…

“Agh! She actually jumped!”

“Catch her! Don’t let that girl get away!”

“Wh-who is this chick?! She’s so fast!”

…she charged into the soldiers’ ranks and wove around them, causing a huge commotion.

All the while, Sasuke did nothing.

He could have used his steel wire to slice her and the soldiers to bits, but he didn’t. That required an authority he lacked. The nobles’ district was home to those aristocrats who ran the Freyjagard government, and their private forces defended it. The thing was, those hired soldiers were assets. Damaging someone else’s assets could spark infighting among the nobility.

For all his skill, Sasuke was only a vagrant mercenary. He didn’t have the permission to instigate a conflict without his patron’s approval, so he couldn’t get another aristocrat’s guards caught up in his attacks.

Shinobu’s assessment was right on the mark…

“Dammit, where is she?! Where’d she go?!”

“Find her! FIND HER!”

…and the qualities that made her who she was allowed her to give her veteran ninja opponent the slip.

While Shinobu escaped…

“You struggle in vain.”

…Sasuke let out an exasperated sigh.

Shinobu and Sasuke’s battle ended indecisively, thanks to interference from an outside group of private soldiers. Sasuke had informed the rest of Marquis Northheim’s troops about the intruder before disappearing from the guard station earlier, and a short while after the fight, his colleagues arrived on the scene.

“SASUKE! Where is that bastard?!” Forstner, the middle-aged Gold Knight who managed Northheim’s men, was furious. Anger and drink colored his face bright red. “Where is he, dammit?! I swear, when I get my hands on him…!”

“Wait, huh? I could’ve sworn he was just here…”

“That sonofabitch, running off without my leave…”

Forstner’s fists shook. It was hard to blame him for being mad. His job was to supervise Northheim’s soldiers, and while Sasuke’s admission into the ranks had been abrupt, he was one of them now. Any blame for his misconduct would fall on Forstner.

This incident was no exception.

“Well, well, well. This is a problem, now, isn’t it? I really must request that you keep your subordinates on a tighter leash.”

“…Well, if it isn’t Heidekker’s lapdog.”

Heidekker’s soldiers had been shouting at Shinobu and Sasuke during their battle, and their leader, Gold Knight Dante, chastised Forstner with a look of open annoyance decorating his handsome face.

Dante was Forstner’s junior by more than a decade, and while they both held the rank of Gold Knight, Forstner saw Dante as an immature greenhorn. Being on the receiving end of his disappointment was the height of humiliation. However, the sad truth was that Heidekker’s land fell under Dante’s jurisdiction, and it had been Forstner’s responsibility to stop Sasuke from getting into a fight and damaging Heidekker’s roof. It pained Forstner to do so, but he had no choice but to bow his head low.

“I apologize for the trouble our numbskull caused.”

“Look, as an imperial knight, I have no qualms about assisting you in putting down those who would harm our empire… However, I must insist that you cover the repair bill.”

“Of course. I take full responsibility, and I’ll personally inform Marquis Northheim about the—”

“Sir Dante!” A soldier came rushing over and interrupted the Gold Knights’ conversation. He was one of Dante’s subordinates who’d been combing to find Shinobu.

“You have news?” Dante asked, and the soldier straightened up.

“When we searched the neighborhood, we discovered that someone opened an entrance to the old tunnels! We suspect the intruder used it to slip underground!”

“The old tunnels,” Dante mused. “Ah yes, I remember now.”

“What are you on about?”

“Dear me, Forstner. And you call yourself a member of the capital guard? It would be best if you hit the books, my friend. Long ago, back when Drachen had but the one exterior fortress wall, the city guard used the old tunnels as emergency passageways.”

In the early days, the underground passages stretched beneath all of Drachen, covering everything from the castle to the commoners’ district. However, with the introduction of the new city defense system thirty years ago, large fortress walls were installed between each of Drachen’s three sections. The tunnels were closed out of fear that intruders might use them to infiltrate the city. All the passages that crossed from one sector to another were filled in. Presently, each district had its own independent subterranean channels.

In summary, the tunnels accessible from the nobles’ district didn’t extend beyond that city section’s borders. None of the paths leading outside of Drachen remained.

“As I recall, there are only four entrances, one in each cardinal direction. If our intruder is down there, all we have to do is fortify the access points, and they’ll be caught like a rat in a trap,” Dante said.


The reply came from one of the two responsible for kicking off this incident—Northheim’s ninja, Sasuke.

“Sasuke!” Upon seeing the man, Forstner grabbed him by the collar. “What the hell do you have to say for yourself?!”

“There was an intruder in the nobles’ district, so I moved to intercept. I didn’t recognize her face or garb, but I suspect she’s the rumored Seven Luminaries ninja.”

“I didn’t ask for a summary! I’m talking about how you took off without leave and started a fight on someone’s house! As long as you’re with Marquis Northheim, you answer to me, Gold Knight Forstner! Don’t act on your own, especially not on your first damn day in the city!”

“My apologies. The intruder was unexpectedly swift. She might have reached the castle if I did not act when I did.”

“I’m not interested in your excuses!”

Forstner was so enraged that he swung his fist and clocked Sasuke on the cheek.

The moment the punch landed…


…Forstner’s eyes went wide. It felt like he’d punched a boulder.

By contrast, Sasuke didn’t even flinch. “If you wish to scold me, you can do it later,” he stated. “For now, you must prioritize locking down those four entrances.”

“You think you can order me around, on top of—?”

“All right, all right. Let’s settle down,” Dante interjected, stepping in between the two. After pacifying Forstner, he turned to Sasuke. “We found the tunnel entrance pried open, but that doesn’t prove our rogue kunoichi is down there, you know. She might have done it to throw us off the trail, then hidden somewhere aboveground. Or perhaps she descended for a bit but has already come up through another entrance. Am I wrong?”

The points were sound. However, Sasuke shook his head. “That isn’t possible.”

“Why not?”

“Because ever since she went underground, I’ve been tracking her footsteps and following her by ear.”

“Excuse me?”

“The intruder moved deep into the tunnels, but she’s made no attempt to return to the surface. She recognized my strength and realized I would capture her the moment she came back up. I imagine she’ll stay down there to recuperate.”

“Please, enough with the joking… You’re claiming you can hear underground footsteps with all this noise? That’s ridiculous.”

“If I couldn’t manage such a trivial thing, I never would have led the Special Forces.”


Sasuke’s feat was downright superhuman, yet he spoke of it so casually. Forstner’s face paled. He was starting to think that maybe, just maybe, he was dealing with a genuine monster.

Dante had a different reaction. “Ha-ha-ha, how splendid. I should’ve expected nothing less from Yamato’s famous rogue ninja. You do your rumors justice, Mr. Sasuke. It’s truly inspiring to have you on our side. I’ll have my men get to work guarding those entrances at once.”

Dante called his troops over.

“H-hey, hold on!” Forstner stammered. “You really buy into this nonsense?!”

“Why wouldn’t I?”

Forstner appeared even more bewildered, and a look of exasperation crossed Dante’s face. “You really don’t get it, do you?” he said before leaning in and whispering in Forstner’s ear. “This fine gentleman has decided to stake his reputation on the intruder hiding beneath our feet. If she isn’t there, he’ll take all the blame. And if she is, we can hide that we acted on his advice and take all the credit. Either way, we leave with clean hands. Unless you’d rather have us spit apologies while inspecting the mansions of every noble in the district?”

Dante was a man who kept an eye out for opportunities. That’s how he became a Gold Knight so young.

“…I guess you have a point.”

Once Dante laid it all out, Forstner realized just how advantageous the situation was for them. They stood to lose nothing, and on top of that, he had no desire to go around waking a bunch of nobles in the dead of night to search their homes. Dante’s proposal was perfectly agreeable.

“I’ll have my men start at the west and south entrances and work their way in from there, so, Forstner, I’m counting on you and yours to do the same at the north and east entrances.”

“Sure. We’re on it.”

Now all the imperial soldiers were on the same page regarding the search.

Once the higher-ups made their decision, Sasuke got ready as well. “In that case, I’ll head belowground and—”


“You are going to do nothing.”

…Forstner drew his sword to put Sasuke in his place.

“Your job is to wait here on standby. A soldier who doesn’t obey is useless to me. I want you to stay here with your head as empty as a fool’s.”

If Forstner accidentally allowed Sasuke to pull off something impressive, it would retroactively legitimize his earlier actions. No good would come to Forstner if he let that happen. If Sasuke joined him on the search, it could jeopardize the winning scenarios Dante explained.

“As you wish.” Sasuke likely realized that to some extent. Instead of objecting, he merely took a step back.

“Tch. Move out, men!”

Even the ninja’s obedience felt like he was flaunting his confidence. Forstner couldn’t stand it. He clicked his tongue before mobilizing his soldiers.

All the while, Sasuke stood and watched, as ordered.

He couldn’t care less who got the credit for his accomplishments. Glory was of little interest to him, and he saw no value in honor conferred. Others could praise him for his talents all they wanted, but if he wasn’t satisfied with his performance, it all rang hollow. Sasuke desired those moments when he became fully cognizant of his own brilliance. That was where he found gratification and drive. It was narcissism of a kind. And because of it…

The old tunnels are simple passages of reinforced stone. Their straight and unadorned designs leave no places to hide. Anyone could find the intruder with enough people to throw at the job.

…he wasn’t bothered.

Sasuke didn’t concern himself with work others could handle. He was the one who’d noticed Shinobu’s intrusion, intercepted her, and forced her into a situation where she had no choice but to trap herself in an underground dead end. He’d already done his part, and compared to his astounding feats, the grunt work about to take place was beneath him.

Forstner and Dante’s plan elicited nothing from Sasuke, not even displeasure.

He had no reason to be upset.

The only thing that irked him…

“You know, you didn’t need to make us go to all this trouble.”

…was Shinobu’s vain struggle.

In the deepest part of the old tunnels, there was a chamber that the city guard used as an armory. It was square, about thirty feet to a side, and packed full of wooden crates haphazardly stuffed with forgotten weapons and armor, or perhaps they’d just been deemed not worth the effort to retrieve.

Basically, the room was a scrap heap. And in that pile, hidden in the corner behind some of the crates, was a small living space comprising a bed and table. While living in Drachen as an exchange student, Shinobu had set up several such spots to use as bases of operation if things got hairy.


Shinobu’s pained groans echoed through the cold, heavy air.

She was sitting on the bed and treating her wounds by lantern light.

“…Whew. Well, that should keep me on my feet for now.”

She applied a medicinal ointment to dull the pain, then fixed it by winding a fabric bandage around her chest. That alone would go a long way toward keeping her mobile. It was a small mercy that none of her fractured ribs had punctured her organs or splintered.

“The situation’s looking pretty gnarly, though.”

Trapping herself here was a poor move. These underground channels were a dead end. Odds were, the imperial soldiers had already blocked off all four exits. She was caught.

However, there were no other options.

When I snuck down here, he probably tracked me by my footsteps…

Shinobu had little doubt of that.

After all, she could do that much, and although she disliked admitting it, her foe’s ninja skills surpassed hers. Shinobu believed anything she could manage, Sasuke could, too.

If she took the tunnels to another exit to escape, he’d simply ambush her again. That was the best-case scenario, and with broken ribs slowing Shinobu down, the issue was that much more acute. Ultimately, the prodigy journalist elected to stay in the tunnels to treat her injuries, pull herself together, and give herself a fighting chance.

That was the logic behind fleeing to the dead end, anyway. But logic or not, hiding here was a bitter pill to swallow. It was a last resort, and it didn’t do anything to fix the precariousness of her situation.

I can probably still get out, but it’d just be me…

Shinobu had set up more than a few secret bases during her exchange-student days. She’d also left multiple devices around Drachen. Setting them off would create enough chaos for her to escape.

Drachen’s security would tighten as a result, though, making Masato and Roo’s extraction more difficult.

Now that her original plan was in shambles, Shinobu had to grapple with a choice. She could give up on rescuing Masato and Roo and prioritize her own safe withdrawal, or she could hold fast to her mission and prioritize finding Masato and Roo. Between the two…

“Let’s be real—there’s no way I’m ditching Massy.”

Her mind was made up.

She wasn’t going to abandon them, not when she was the only person who could make the latter option a reality. It didn’t matter how difficult it was going to be.

“Gosh, Shinobu, you’re so compassionate,” she said to herself. “And so courageous! It brings a tear to the eye.”

The next issue was how to deal with the ninja.

Sasuke the Black Spider once headed up the Special Forces, and if Shinobu intended to complete her mission, then evading him wasn’t an option. Even if she managed to sneak out of Drachen with Masato and Roo, running into a threat like Sasuke with people to protect was the absolute worst-case scenario. Thus, the only recourse was to defeat Sasuke first.

“I hope there’s something in here I can use…”

To prepare for the upcoming rematch, Shinobu gathered the tools she’d stashed in her hideout and laid them out on the bed. There was a first aid kit, some wire, a few candles, a large bag of flour, some lantern oil, a hundred-odd feet of rope, alcohol, caltrops, some kunai, some grenades, flint, a hand-powered charger…

This pile had to coalesce into a plan that could turn this doomed predicament on its head.

Perhaps grenades could get the drop on Sasuke?

No. Shinobu had already used a flash-bang on him. Explosives would likely work on soldiers, but Sasuke was prepared for such weapons.

In that case, what if Shinobu poured oil everywhere and started a huge fire to incite panic?

Again, no. The soldiers were one thing, but Sasuke wasn’t the type to be rattled, even with a blaze under his feet.

What if she just hid and waited for the guards to pass her?

Nope, that was the least realistic option. The old tunnels’ construction and layout were very simple. There was nowhere to hide. As long as the imperials sent enough people to scour the place, they would find her. And even if she did manage to trick them somehow, there was no sneaking into the castle with that ninja alert aboveground.

No matter what Shinobu thought up, Sasuke’s existence threw a wrench in it. She was powerless without a way to defeat him.

The problem was…

The guy’s got no weaknesses.

“Rgh… Here they come…”

As if things weren’t bad enough already, Shinobu’s problems got more pressing. Footsteps sounded from somewhere above.

A wave of people approached from each of the four entrances.

Shinobu was in the deepest part of the tunnels, and she’d laid a fair number of booby traps on the path, but that would buy only so much time. In less than ten minutes, hostiles would pour into the abandoned armory.

Alarm rose within Shinobu, and she forced herself to take a deep breath. In times like this, staying calm was critical. There was no getting sloppy against these opponents.

“Y’know, maybe the calmest thing to do would be to bake some nice bread while I think my options over. Ha-ha, that’d sure be something.”

Shinobu grabbed the big bag of flour, then gave her own bad joke a sarcastic laugh.



…when she looked at the nearby candles, she was struck by a flash of inspiration.

That’s it. I can use this to…

She’d figured out the one way to turn this desperate situation around.

It felt like divine revelation.

“Get in there, men! The intruder’s one girl, and she’s on her own! Ninja or not, if she’s surrounded, we can get her! The first person who spots the kunoichi gets to help torture her!”


“Heh-heh-heh! Where aaaare you? Where are you, little wench?”

“And remember, we want to be fast but thorough! I want that torchlight covering every inch of this place, top to bottom!”

The Drachen soldiers entered the old tunnels through every existing entrance, flooding in like water to an ant nest. They had every reason to believe that the intruder had fled down here, and they were determined to find her.

Midway through their search…


…the one at the front of the line marching through the passage only wide enough to move single file let out a scream and sank down. Face twisted in pain, he shouted back, “Shit, that hurts! There’s something on the ground!”

The others lowered their torches and discovered that the floor was covered in pointy metal bits.

“They’re caltrops! Yamato ninja weapons!”

Forstner was farther back in the procession, and when he heard the news, his lips curled into a sneer. “If there are caltrops, then we’re in the right place. Now we know she fled to the tunnels! Clear out those spikes! Our prey is close at hand!”

“Yes, sir!”

The soldiers did as ordered and swept the caltrops away with their swords. Before they could finish, Forstner impatiently charged forward…

“Just you wait! I’ll be the one to claim the intruder’s hea— GAH!”

…then tripped and fell ten feet beyond where the soldier had wounded his foot.

He landed on his rump as though he’d smacked into an invisible wall.

“S-Sir Forstner?!”

The Gold Knight scowled at the seemingly empty passage…

“String, hmm? A petty trick! Take—this?!”

…and swung his sword.

He was aiming for wires stretched across the tunnel at the height of the average adult’s throat. Unfortunately, the cords were made of steel manufactured with techniques centuries ahead of this world’s. Forstner’s sword bounced off. The wires hung just as taut as before.

“Hrrrgh! Just crawl under them! If we don’t hurry up, Heidekker’s people are going to steal all the glory!”

Forstner was in a hurry, and the childish traps wasted his time. His expression twisted with annoyance, and as he barked orders to those at his back, he stooped down to pass beneath the steel cords.

However, that unstable posture proved to be his ruin.


“Sir Forstner?!”

The Gold Knight slipped and smashed his face into the reinforced-stone floor.

“I-it’s oil! The ground is covered in oil!”

“She must have set it up so you’d slip if you tried to crawl under the wire.”

“What an obnoxiously simple setup…”


Forstner roared furiously and beat the wall hard enough to leave a crack.

In that moment, his rage was all-consuming.

“…I won’t let her get away with this. How dare she subject an esteemed Gold Knight to such humiliation?! That little bitch… Once we’re done getting the intel we need from her, I’m going to torture her in every way I can think of until she breathes her last!”

Forstner and his troops were completely livid, and they surged down the tunnel like a tidal wave. They brute-forced their way through Shinobu’s traps, trampled the wooden crates scattered about, hurled jars aside, smashed open barrels, and when they found sealed-off corridors, they cleared them out, too. They had no intention of letting Shinobu escape, and eventually, their diligent search led them to her base—the old storeroom in the deepest section of the complex.

“Come on out, you little whore!”

“Do try to watch your language. There’s quite an echo down here, you know.”

The exasperated comment came from Dante, who’d arrived at the storeroom just as Forstner did.

“Heidekker’s man…! She wasn’t on your side?!”

“She wasn’t, and from your tone, I take it you were similarly unsuccessful. That said…” Dante swept his gaze across the abandoned armaments. “This is as deep as the tunnels go. If Sasuke was right about the intruder fleeing underground, this must be where she’s hiding.”

“Find her! Turn this place upside down and flush the rat out!”

“““Yes, sir!”””

The dozens of soldiers violently searched the room. There was no finesse or technique to their inspection, merely raw force. They found everything hidden there, including a still-warm lantern, a bed, and a few ninja tools.


Up on the surface, Sasuke waited obediently for the search party to return. He wasn’t idly standing there, either. To prevent the worst-case scenario, he paid close attention to all aboveground movement.

Nearly an hour after the teams left…


…he heard the voice of his new superior, whom he’d met for the first time earlier that day.

Several dozen pairs of footsteps approached.

Forstner’s team had completed the expedition.

Sasuke offered the group a respectful bow. “Welcome back. I trust you had no problems finding the intruder?”


The ninja didn’t receive the affirmation he expected but the corpse of a brown rat. Forstner threw it at him.

“You sent us rummaging around in that den of traps, and all there was to find was a single damn rodent! The kunoichi wasn’t there!”

“What do you have to say for yourself, Sasuke?”

As Forstner ranted and raved with his face bright red, Dante gave Sasuke a look that was far calmer but no less severe.

In reply…

“That can’t be. Perhaps you missed her?”

…Sasuke remained confident of his judgment, instead casting doubt on the search.

Naturally, the two knights were indignant. “Shut your damn mouth!”

“Need I remind you that you were the one who assured us she was down there? This is on your head.”


After menacingly reminding Sasuke that there would be consequences, Forstner and Dante set to discussing their next move.

Sasuke hadn’t seen the tunnels for himself…


…and refused to question his call.

Nobody had more faith in Sasuke’s talents than the man himself. He’d never mishear an opponent’s footsteps; he was the Black Spider. Shinobu had definitely fled underground. That was a certainty, which meant she was still there. She had to be. However, the soldiers couldn’t find her.

The only answer was a flaw in the sear—

“““ ?!?!”””

That’s when it happened.

A blast like thunder ripped through Drachen.

“Wh-wh-what was that?!”

“An explosion…?!”

It came from pretty close by.

While the imperial knights wondered what it could be…

“Messenger! Messenger, coming throooough!”

…a soldier wove his way over to them, his face pale.

“There was a blast of unknown origin at the second rampart separating the nobles’ district from the commoners’ district! It would appear that someone is trying to blow a hole in the wall!”

“Th-they’re trying to what?!”

Given the situation, there was only one person who could be responsible.

“It’s the kunoichi! So she was hiding aboveground after all!”

“She wants to destroy the wall so she can escape! We need to be there now! Move, move, move!”

“““Yes, sir!”””

The knights and soldiers rushed toward the scene of the explosion.


“ ”

…Sasuke didn’t follow.

That’s strange.

As far as people in Drachen who might blast a hole in the wall, that kunoichi was the only possible culprit. She had the motive. However, it seemed like an odd play given the timing. Even if Forstner and Dante were right about her remaining topside this whole time, it would have been more practical to detonate the bomb while her pursuers were belowground. Waiting until they were on the surface offered no advantage.

Plus, the wall was designed to stop invaders from reaching the nobles’ district from the commoner side, but not the other way around. There were stairs to climb on this side, and once at the top, getting down was just as easy. A conspicuous explosive seemed pointless.

No matter how you sliced it, Shinobu’s actions were illogical. And that being the case, they were probably a diversion. By all accounts, the intruder was the same Seven Luminaries ninja who’d assisted the Blue Brigade, and it stood to reason that she possessed technology to set off bombs remotely.

Still, that doesn’t tell me where she is!

Sasuke had called the soldiers’ hunt into question, but when he thought about it, they’d probably done a fine-enough job. The old sector-crossing tunnels were blocked-off cul-de-sacs, and the soldiers flooded into every access point. Even incompetent imbeciles could have found someone hiding in such an uncomplicated structure.

Overlooking a gem or gold coin was one thing, but there was no meaningful cover to hide behind or complex terrain to take advantage of in the subterranean passages. Concealing a several-foot-tall living creature from dozens of eyes simply wasn’t—

Wait, hold on.

Sasuke shuddered at the weight of his oversight.

There was nowhere to hide. That was a fact. However, that was only while considering the tunnels as they were ahead of the search. Things were different during.

The soldiers examined the passages and chambers by charging in with lots of backup, using only torches for light.

The question was, would they have noticed?

Would any of them perceive one more soldier among their ranks?


Sasuke ground his teeth. He’d screwed up.

There were plenty of discarded suits of armor down there. Cobbling together a disguise must have been a simple thing. Even if the old equipment was a bit worn, it needed only to pass cursory glances hindered by dim lighting. Plus, there were troops from both Northheim’s and Heidekker’s forces down there. The two sides weren’t close enough to visually identify a member of the other group from an impostor. A new addition would be quietly dismissed as a member of the opposite faction.

The tunnels lacked hiding places, but if Shinobu joined the soldiers, she could have escaped the search and marched with them right back to the surface!

It’s okay. I can still make it!

Sasuke took off at a run.

There was no doubt in his mind that the intruder evaded the soldiers by blending in with them. However, that meant she returned to the surface at roughly the same time as Forstner and Dante. No matter how good her disguise, she couldn’t have separated and gone in another direction without drawing suspicion, and she didn’t seem the type to take that risk in a tunnel system with nowhere to run.

Once aboveground, she likely triggered the explosion somehow and drew all the knights and soldiers over to the wall. And there was only one reason she would do something like that: to create an opening to head the opposite way, toward the final wall between the nobles’ district and the castle.

“ !”

Confident in his assessment, Sasuke rushed to the wall surrounding the castle and threw open a service door meant for soldiers beside the main gate.


“Going around you was never an option, y’see.”

…was a heap of defeated soldiers. Standing in their center was the prodigy journalist Shinobu Sarutobi. The candles had been snuffed, bathing her in shadow.

The service door loudly slammed shut under its own weight, plunging the narrow passage for guards into deeper darkness.

However, the two shinobi met each other’s gazes all the same.

Using their honed night vision, they tracked the other’s movements down to finger twitches.

“You are a crafty one; I’ll give you that,” Sasuke said.

“That’s what shinobi are all about, y’know.”

“But in the end, it was for nothing. I have you now.”

“You sure about that?”

Shinobu readied her kunai in the dark. Then…

“Honestly, I was planning on taking you out in the tunnels, so when you didn’t come down and I lost track of your position, it gave me a pretty good scare. I worried what you’d do if you found me on my way here. But to my surprise, you’re not quite as good as you’re cracked up to be…Mr. Sasuke.”

…she gave the enemy a small sneer.

“A two-bit ninja like you would never notice my trap. I can take you down here, no problem.”

Shinobu was baiting him. However, Sasuke was no greenhorn. It took more than that to get a rise from him.

If anything, he got more focused…

“Try me.”

…and seized the initiative.

Sasuke fired off a series of long-range slashes with the wires he dual-wielded. The darkness was so heavy that the cords didn’t even leave a visible arc, yet Shinobu evaded them.

She had the faintest of sounds of which to work off, the subtlest airflows, and her sixth sense, and by taking full advantage of them all, she survived. Some careful footwork allowed her to dodge most of the attacks, and she parried the rest with her kunai.

Sparks erupted where the weapons met. Sasuke was impressed by the brief glimpse he got of Shinobu’s fearless expression. However…

Sure enough, her movements are dulled.

…her footwork was slower than it had been during their previous skirmish.

That gut shot he’d landed was paying dividends. It explained why Shinobu went through the soldiers’ door instead of scaling the wall, too. Her wounds kept her from operating at peak capacity.

Sasuke pressed on, pushing Shinobu closer and closer to the wall…

She’s finished!

…until she was left with nowhere to go. He swung his steel wire, fully intent on beheading her.

And that’s when Shinobu made her play.

“Here, catch!”


Moving with more speed and agility than she’d demonstrated during the fight, Shinobu snatched a burlap sack leaning against the wall and hurled it at Sasuke. His steel wires tore open the sack, causing its contents to spray in every direction.

Flour?! But why would she—?

“I was planning on taking you out in the tunnels.”

“I worried what you’d do if you found me on my way here.”

“A two-bit ninja like you would never notice my trap.”

Sasuke recalled Shinobu’s remarks from earlier.

A confined passage with minimal airflow, candles extinguished ahead of time, the huge amount of flour in the air, and Shinobu’s kunai.

Oh no!

The chain of facts all came together in his head to form a single catastrophe. Ninjas took advantage of many phenomena to carry out their missions. Thus, Sasuke knew that a fire lit in a closed-off space full of fine particulate matter would lead to a massive explosion.

He was already in the middle of an attack.

The die was cast.

Sasuke’s steel wire would collide with Shinobu’s kunai, sending sparks flying.

There was no way to avoid it, no way to stop it.


At least, there shouldn’t have been.

However, Sasuke was a ninja who survived only on his skills. His ability to react to danger fell well outside of regular human bounds, and in emergencies, his body knew to take the best option available with no intervention from his brain necessary.

To avoid igniting the flour, he pulled his arm back on reflex.

For an instant, the combination of the power he put into his attack and the withdrawal exceeded the limits of his body. The burden of the opposed forces tore through the muscles in his arm.

Still, he got it done.

Sasuke wrenched his steel wire away from Shinobu, miraculously foiling her scheme.

And his choice to do so…

“Yup. I knew you’d try that.”

…was the blunder that spelled the end of the duel.

A dust explosion was caused by lighting a fire in an airtight or low-circulation enclosure full of fine particles. This triggered a process that led to rapid air combustion. The phenomenon was incredibly dangerous, and it was why coal mines and flour mills prohibited fires of any kind.

That said…

“Even starting a flame doesn’t guarantee a dust explosion. Not by a long shot.”

…the conditions were surprisingly strict.

One could happen to the unfortunate, but scattering some flour and lighting a fire wasn’t going to do much most times. Certain places banned open flames to prevent rare worst-case scenarios.

Shinobu pinning her survival on something that unlikely was foolish.

“But at the same time, you never know who’ll hit that one-in-a-million catastrophe.”

The slim possibility carried a surprising amount of weight.

Suppose there was a nuclear warhead with a 10 percent chance of actually detonating. Would the crappy nuke’s unreliable nature prevent it from changing the world? Obviously not. Even at one-in-ten odds, the mere fact that it had the potential to cause devastation meant it had the same deterring effect as a top-shelf bomb that exploded every time.

A faulty nuke could change the world, and that was because people refused to gamble when ruin was a possibility, even if the probability was low.

Shinobu had quite literally felt Sasuke’s talent in her bones. Even in this world, millers knew about dust explosions, and there was no way that a ninja like him, a killer like him, would be ignorant of them. Ninjas took advantage of many phenomena to carry out their missions, after all.

Shinobu trusted he’d catch on to the potential danger because he was talented. And upon realizing the threat, Sasuke would naturally try to skirt doom because he was talented. And because he was talented, he would succeed.

Despite lacking time to consciously respond, his reflexes had seized control, reacting in a way no normal person could have.

And that movement created something.

It provided a moment when that unassailably capable ninja was vulnerable.

“We’re in a building full of flour with poor airflow, and you were about to make a spark. The odds of an explosion were low, but with talent like yours, there was a one hundred percent chance you would respond in time to avoid that one-in-a-million disaster. All I had to do was use that to take you down.”


Sasuke was strung along to this fatal moment.

Shinobu’s thrown kunai came lancing for him, and he had no way to dodge. When he felt it sink into his throat, he knew that death would soon take him.

Sasuke the Black Spider wanted to become the greatest shinobi. He’d put everything he had to that end, and he’d trained for any crisis that came his way. His aim was to elevate his very being into a form of art.

But it backfired.

Sasuke was more skilled than Shinobu, more skilled than anyone. And that was why her plan succeeded.

“I suppose that’s that…isn’t it?”

Dying this way had a sort of karmic irony to it. And Sasuke, a man who’d spent his life pursuing self-improvement at the expense of all else, found it strangely satisfying.

Rather than offer any futile resistance, he gave in to the fatigue of death and collapsed to his knees.


“I miscalculated. You, ma’am, are a far greater ninja than I gave you credit for.”

…he offered the victor his praise, along with the first genuine smile he’d shown her.

In all likelihood, not even Sasuke recalled the last time he’d grinned so sincerely.

Shinobu responded with an impish grin…

“You miscalculated, yeah, but your new answer’s wrong, too.”

…then pulled her “press” armband from within her skirt…

“I’m no ninja; I’m a prodigy journalist, thank you very much.”

…and proudly wrapped it around her arm for display.

She received no reply.

The mighty foe who blocked her path had already breathed his last…

“Still, I’ll take heart knowing I was good enough to earn a compliment from such a capable guy.”

…and Shinobu paid respects to his corpse.

She abandoned the ninja path halfway along, but this man kept on it. Shinobu had nothing but respect for Sasuke for that.

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