On the western docks of Taizen Gate, the kensei moves through the sweat and sea spray smell of traders and gamblers toward the looming city.
He buys a map chip from a street kid. Straight paths are nonexistent here, and it’s imperative to know which streets and tea houses are owned by which family. The kensei plugs the chip into a hologram reader and the color-coded map spreads out before his eyes. “Neutral,” he commands quietly, and a selection of streets, linked by peace shrines, light up in yellow.
He has seen this before. He knows what comes next. Deja vu.
He pauses, and everyone pauses with him. The tourists staring down at their own maps, the spoiled pleasure-seeking children of Aullerian oligarchs riding above the hoi-polloi in litters, they freeze in place.
What is happening?
Don’t be alarmed. You were injured, and now you are regaining consciousness.
The kensei spins around, looking for the woman to whom the voice belongs.
Who are you?
You can call me Kinetic.
Am I dreaming?
You are remembering.
He closes the hologram with a snap, and everyone moves again.
Weapon carry laws are nonexistent in Taizen Gate, but the kensei keeps his sword tucked under his cloak. Up rickety ladders, through manholes, and down trash-littered streets he travels between neutral shrines. He pauses at each, drops a coin into the offering box, and whispers this prayer:
Send me hardship, that I might learn from it.
To reach the School District, he must pay the toll on a public airbus. Uniformed students wear badges depicting adorable cartoon versions of their favorite Taizen bosses on their backpacks.
Beautiful women in kimonos call out from the gambling houses, enticing him to play badugi or mahjong or throw dice. Street kids swarm him with rolls of lottery tickets. Elders play Twenty Squares in tea houses.
The kensei moves through the markets, winding around ancestor shrines, avoiding the smoggy streets leading toward Boiling Bay.
How am I seeing this?
It is a therapeutic technology called Electronic Hypnotism. It is helpful after acute trauma to bring the mind to the present time.
There was an explosion…
We’ll come to that. Keep going.
Outside the city, the only place on the island where a healthy deep breath can be taken, is farmland, precious and expensive. Pristine roads connect orchards, rice paddies, and sprawling estates.
The kensei stops several paces before the gate of Third Boss’ mansion and dojang. He extends his sword forward and a holographic security barrier shatters into green pixels, then forms again around the blade. He draws his sword out and waits.
Within moments, alarm bells ring and dozens of students race out of the gate with knives and short swords dangling from their belts and revolvers pointed at him.
A thin, angular man in an expensive kimono walks through the gate under a nameplate that says “Pae.” He approaches the visitor, empty palms out and facing down. Both men bow low, eyes locked.
“You seek a duel?” asks Pae.
“I have found it.”
“Wonderful.” Pae’s smile widens. “Long have I wished to test my skills against the great kensei. Shall we discuss terms?”
“Down,” says Pae, and the security barrier dissolves. The students holster their guns and make a path.
“It was snowing.”
“It doesn’t snow in Taizen Gate.”
The men kneel across a low table from one another in a small rice paper and rattan tea room. Outside, Pae’s students stand at attention.
“I have been too long away from the mainlands. Many of the old traditions have been abandoned here,” says Third Boss, his voice smooth as silk as he pours the matcha.
“A shame,” says the kensei.
“Is it?” Pae offers a steaming bowl to his guest. “You are a relic. In Taizen Gate, we duel for power, not honor.”
“To the cut, then,” says the kensei, accepting his bowl.
“To the death,” says Pae.
The kensei sips. “What would you gain by killing me?I own nothing but my sword.”
“Your reputation is your wealth.” Pae drains his cup. “He who ends the kensei becomes the kensei.”
“To the death, then.” The kensei drains his bowl and rests it on the table. “Blades only.”
“Anything else would be dishonorable.”
“Shall we go to the dojang?”
“Why wait?” Pae grins, showing crooked teeth, as he whips his kimono open, revealing a vest lined with throwing knives. The first blade leaves Pae’s fingers at such speed that, even with the kensei’s wind-quick movement, a lock of his hair is shorn away. The second kisses the kensei’s cheek as he leaps to his feet. The small blades slice through the paper walls.
The kensei’s sword unsheaths with a brilliant shhhing! and the two men face off, Pae with throwing knives between the second and third fingers of each hand and the kensei gripping the hilt of his sword before him. The kensei strikes; Pae leaps and delivers a hooking kick to the empty air where the kensei had been. The kensei’s sweeping sword slices through the walls, peeling them away from the rattan. Two more knives fly, piercing the paper; a student outside gurgles as one small blade buries itself in his throat.
“You are quick,” says Pae, circling.
“You are stalling,” hisses the kensei. He shrugs off his hooded cloak and sinks into a ready stance.
More blades fly, some so small and fast they buzz the kensei’s ears like deadly bees, one a machete that turns end over end and splits a rattan support beam. Pae leaps like a barrel away from the kensei’s attacks, silk kimono flying. A rattan beam falls and the paper ceiling drops, blinding the kensei long enough for Pae to attack with a blade in each hand. The kensei’s blood splatters on the paper as he whirls and shreds, forcing Pae back. The tea house collapses, then bursts into shredded paper snow that catches in the breeze and swirls around the two masters as they spin and strike and cut, close and then far, blood on both sides, eyes locked.
The kensei steps back, closes his eyes. A second passes like an eternity while he meditates. He opens his eyes and races forward, the life of the Third Boss in his grasp.
There is an acrid taste on the kensei’s tongue, and then there is a flash of light in Pae’s hand.
The flying paper snow ignites in the blast, and all goes gray.
When I count down to one, you will open your eyes and be in the present moment.
Open your eyes.
A dim room comes into slow focus. Outside the window, skyscrapers and towers light up a moonless night.
A machine beeps out the rhythm of the kensei’s heart.
Kinetic stands at his bedside, a screen flickering over one eye. She presses a black-gloved finger to her ear and murmurs, “The EH was successful, sir. Roger that.”
The kensei stares at the gray ceiling. “He used magic.”
“Pae is known for cheating.”
“Where is my sword?”
“I cannot feel it.”
“What are my injuries?”
“Extensive. Stabilization took some time. We had to induce a coma. You’re lucky to be alive.”
“Luck did not save me. Why does New Aullerium want me alive?”
Kinetic crosses her arms. “Pae’s family followed you here. There are hundreds of them, and more arriving every day. Honor matters, even now, on Taizen Gate. They are already calling you Third Boss.”
“You think I will be your puppet boss in Taizen Gate.” The kensei chuckles. “You are unwise.”
The woman holds up a remote control and pushes a button. A mechanical sound erupts under the kensei’s hospital sheet. Blinding pain floods through his body. He grinds his teeth to stay silent.
“We could not save your arms and legs, so we replaced them with mechanical limbs,” says Kinetic. “The pain is your nervous system awakening. It should already be subsiding.”
The kensei gasps. His mechanical hands open, then clench closed. His metal knees bend and straighten.
His metal hand curls around the hilt of his sword.
“Your old life is over,” she says. “Now you are stronger. Faster. Unstoppable.”
The sword whips out from under the sheet, slicing the woman in half at the torso.
Green pixels scatter away from the wound, then reassemble.
The woman taps the remote control. The kensei’s mechanical arms and legs power down.
“Except by me,” says the hologram.
The sword clatters to the hospital tile.
The kensei closes his eyes. “You would make me into a criminal.”
“A criminal of purpose. Together, Taizen Gate and New Aullerium will take down the old empires.”
The kensei swallows hard, tempering his breath, refusing to meet the eyes of an apparition. “Kinetic is not a real name.”
“Neither is Kensei.”
With a wink, she presses the button on the remote control that sends brutal sensation flowing back through the kensei’s limbs.
The hologram flickers and disappears.