Iron Fist: Hidden Village
The heart of the Land of Fire…
The serene, melodic chirp of the bird song heralded the coming of the odd bedfellows grouped together along the winding road. The columns of ninja and samurai snaked their way through the sea of trees, the canopies above now becoming denser and allowing only the barest hints of the late afternoon light to shine rosily from the sky. Subtle splashes of shadows covered most of the men, who were grateful for the surprisingly cool climate of the forest’s interior. The samurai especially, baking in their heavy white armor, beamed at the sudden change of circumstance; who among them had expected their situation to get better before it had gotten worse? Not only had they left combat while retaining most of their numbers, but they had even been brought by their supposed enemies to a more hospitable section of this cursed forest.
Sentinel glowered back at most of his men as a result, resentment at their laxness bubbling at the front of his mind, his eyes searing holes through the heads of the samurai; imbeciles! They were progressing deeper into enemy territory. This could easily be a trap. At the very least, they should have remained stolid if they had found it impossible to feign continued discomfort. Instead, they were grinning like fools and bumping shoulders in friendly fashion with the shinobi. Only Shibata, who knew better, and Hideyoshi, whose eyes wandered around in terror (often to the tall, brown haired shinobi roaming through the shinobi ranks) at everything that wasn’t coated head to toe in iron. The boy, he figured, was genuinely terrified, while Katsuie Shibata he could at least trust to be attentive. The eldest samurai on the trip, with even more experience than Sentinel, Shibata growled and roared gruffly at the other men where Sentinel could not. (Sentinel grimaced at that; he would have snuffed the behavior in an instant had he not dreaded attracting the scrutiny of the Senju brothers.)
“Oi, Oda! Keep your march at double time, we aren’t here for a blasted vacation! Put some vigor in that stride. Takeda, where is your quiver!? Well, than go get it swine! It’s worth more than your sorry carcass! Oh god damn it Uesugi! Fix that bloody sheathe, your katana will fall out and stab you in the foot. Do you want to have the thing cut off? Want us to carry you and your bloody, decapitated stump around? Correct yourself, you damned fool! “
Sentinel nodded in encouragement, his face almost breaking into a smile itself before he caught himself. Shibata had long been a drill sergeant since his war days, beating the greenhorns into fine warriors in the most violent and crude way possible. Many of his old students had claimed war was easier than training for “Devil Shibata.” (He had grown more mild in old age, Sentinel noted fondly.) Sentinel himself had served with Katsuie for over thirty years, and he knew of no man he would rather have beside him on such a campaign.
Especially, he thought, rubbing his temples with his mailed fingers, when the majority of his troops were the rawest of recruits and the rest were the soldier equivalent of peacocks. Sentinel furrowed his brow in stern contemplation as the iron of his boots crashed into the muddy earth in heavy steps; rain from a day or so before had apparently made the ground soft and soaked, Hashirama had told him. (As unwanted as the brown haired Senju’s attempts at friendly conversation had been.) His thoughts did not remain on the terrain long, though, as his mind wandered back to his soldiers. Why had the Taiko given him such a poorly trained force? This mission was one of the most serious in recent memory. It had been around twenty years since the samurai of the land of Iron had clashed with such a competent military unit as the Senju. The battles to come called for veterans, elites! Also gnawing at his mind…
Why did such a poorly trained unit exist in their ranks?
Why had such a group been allowed to rise above the status of trainees?
What was happening to the most powerful military force on the continent?
“Haha, home ahead!”
Sentinel’s eyes shot up into the trees, where Hashirama was standing comfortably upon a limb about half as wide as his foot. The breeze fluttered through the tree tops, blowing his hair back and making his smile deepen, loosening his broad shoulders and softening his brown eyes as he stared in adoration for his home in the heart of the forest; he cut quite a majestic figure, Sentinel had to admit.
Hideyoshi had his attention focused on the ground, and he found his breath being taken away once again. He almost cursed himself for that; he was a warrior. He was supposed to enter these foreign places confidently, and yet here he was, fawning like an easily amused child, blown away by mere scenery. By a mere village! By…
…by one remarkable village.
His green eyes swept over the home of the Senju. The shinobi were typically nomadic at the time, not staying in one place too long, known to live on the battlefield almost as physically as they did mentally. Yet, the Senju appeared to be different; while tents did encompass a large portion of the settlement, several of the holdings appeared to be made…from warped oak. From the trees themselves! Large trees had been wrought into small huts, military towers, and even a handful of larger homes for prominent members of the clan. Hideyoshi hadn’t believed that such an establishment would be possible for a ninja clan, and yet they had almost as much of a permanent living space as the samurai had at Three Wolves Mountain.
The young page almost leapt up in shock as a rough hand grasped him firmly on the shoulder. He looked back to meet deep red eyes, Tobirama Senju peering over at the man who was barely his junior in mocking amusement.
“Ha, surprised samurai? Didn’t expect civilization, did you?”
Hideyoshi felt the blood rush to his face, caught off guard by the powerful Senju, and merely nodded, increasing the length of his stride in an effort to escape the ninja. To his dismay, Tobirama merely matched his pace, grinning maliciously at the young samurai. The large array of men passed through the center of the village, the thin road which had been little more than an animal path expanding into a bustling main street, lined with carts and bustling with scores of people. Sound exploded around them, shouting and rapping on wood spreading as everywhere he looked, Hideyoshi saw the Senju going about their daily business: one man yelled loudly at a group of kids milling around his stand, a throng of women quarreled vigorously with various shopkeepers over their wares, fresh produce was peddled to families with bright eyed children, and even one man danced about at the entrance to an alleyway, fire erupting in a crimson flash from his mouth as he lit several torches in midair and proceeding to juggle them with gusto.
Inquiring glances were given to the samurai accompanying their warriors; the Senju recognized that armor, those formations, but other than a subtle tension rising through the market path, the ninja families did not break their routines. Hideyoshi looked about curiously, eyes large and roaming as he attempted to take the hasty pace of the village in all at once. The whites of his eyes tinted orange as he was mesmerized for a moment by the twirling and whirling of the street performer and his fire jutsu; the man didn’t look like most of the Senju. He bore dark, raven colored hair, and was somewhat scrawny compared to many of the Senju. He also noticed that Tobirama glared at him murderously, as if hoping the man would abruptly drop dead. He caught a quick muttering out of the Senju’s mouth, not making sense of most of it, but understanding the last part.
Tobirama suddenly twisted to face Hideyoshi, his blazing red eyes now seeming more intense and violent, pointing his finger accusingly.
“Remember this, samurai! We aren’t those pitiful Hagoromo fools you slaughtered earlier. Even if we can’t match you outright…”
He stared over at his brother, who was milling through the crowds with a beaming smile upon his jovial face, not a care in the world. Tobirama grinned and his voice became etched with a feeling of triumph.
“This village, these buildings, the attack he committed against your commander…that is only a fraction of what Hashirama is capable of.”
Hideyoshi’s face became a ghostly pale as the white haired ninja’s words set in; this…this was all done by one man?!
Tobirama coughed out a harsh laugh before walking towards one of the military buildings. Hashirama, finishing his pleasantries with the villagers who seemed to adore him, waltzed over to Sentinel, his face still shining brightly as he addressed the samurai leader.
“Ah, what a feeling, to be home again! What do you think, Saizo?”
Sentinel coughed, face passive and harsh, beady black eyes regarding Hashirama indifferently.
“I prefer Sentinel from most as a term of address, actually, begging your pardon. And it is very…festive.”
Sentinel said no more; Hashirama waited a moment before realizing the samurai would not be talkative beyond that. Looking abashed once more, Hashirama shook his head.
“O-of course…Sentinel…I meant no offense, please forgive me. Regardless, it will take some time to arrange an audience with my father. Please, use that building up there to rest your men. I’m sure they’ll be too tired to roam, our villagers wouldn’t want to bother tired soldiers.”
The brown haired Senju pointed up to a gargantuan house on the hill, near the middle of the village. Strategically, near the middle of the village, Sentinel noted again with a grimace. The hidden meanings behind the man’s carefully phrased choice of words: my father has ordered we place you in confinement in the middle of the village, you will be surrounded, your men had best not leave, or else accidents will more than likely befall them…and they will be fatal.
Sentinels nodded his thanks, gesturing imperiously for his men to group up and follow him. A cold bead of sweat trickled down his face after the ninja had darted in the other direction, allowing him to embrace a growing doubt in his mind; this would be a delicate operation, to be sure. More importantly, however…
He smelled a rat lurking somewhere in the details of this mission. Discrepancies were appearing in his information as he had assessed it.
Several hours later, in the guest house…
Hideyoshi panted, perspiration falling in rivers from his body. His torso, while thin and well defined, was covered in bloats and bruises. His leaden arms barely held the bokken in his hand; the wooden sword felt like a stack of bricks. His light brown hair hung tight plastered to his sweaty flesh, and his thin legs wobbled uncertainly as though they would give out at any moment. Staring over at him, Sentinel merely stood erect, not fazed or exhausted in the least. The samurai page had considered himself in excellent shape until he had sparred with his newest master.
The fact that Sentinel had handpicked him for special training along with twenty others that were among the new recruits in the army had come as a shock; surely the commander had remembered his failures against the Hagoromo? Why had he been selected?
Kinoshinta Hideyoshi had little time to dwell on it as Sentinel appeared in a blur next to him, bokken flashing forward to Hideyoshi’s unprotected left side.
“Again!” The old samurai declared with a roar, barely giving Hideyoshi time to slash his bokken to meet Sentinel’s own wooden sword. He didn’t deflect the blow, he realized through an exhausted and hazy mind, but merely redirected it enough to allow him to dodge. Sentinel growled in frustration as he picked up his slashed, Hideyoshi dancing madly to keep from being battered down like a rag doll.
“No! Stronger! Faster! You think the enemy will cease because you are weak?! No! You will die like a dog!”
Sentinel’s wooden sword appeared like a phantom within Hideyoshi’s guard and smashed across the page’s face, throwing him viciously ten feet away. Blood dripped steadily, red streaks lining from Kinoshinta’s mouth. He brought his head up slowly, vision blurry and mind cast in doubt; this maniac was trying to kill him! Fury slowly drew up within him as the elder warrior charged forward again in breakneck speed bringing his sword up in a fatal arc, executioner’s will moving in homicidal intent, Sentinel’s eyes casting a berserk gaze towards his young victim. At the top of the arc, a foot away, Hideyoshi felt the world slow as his master prepared to finish him.
Sentinel’s defense was wide open as Hideyoshi darted forth and stabbed his bokken forward in a lunge that slammed with a crack into the old man’s chest. The veteran was tossed a few feet back, forced to his knees as the breath was knocked from him. Sentinel blinked in surprise as he grasped at his bruised chest and winced. Hideyoshi’s eyes opened wide in horror as he realized what he had just done. The wooden sword fell from his now limp grasp as he fell to his knees and bowed deeply, head touching the ground. His eyes began to water as the page panicked at the punishment which was inevitable. He…he had struck a commanding officer! That was an offence punishable by death! Even in training, a mere recruit never, ever…
Sentinel’s gruff laugh echoed through the room and rang jovially off the walls. Hideyoshi meekly and with great hesitation brought his head up, only to behold Sentinel staring down at him, mouth twisted in half smile, half grimace, a tint of pride visible in his expression.
“Hahaha, very nice, Hideyoshi. Good taking advantage of your opponent’s distracted mind to deal a finisher. I yield, for today.”
Hideyoshi almost fainted as Sentinel made a light, mock bow before him, and nodded dumbly in recognition, taking his robe as the experienced warrior gathered up their clothes and handed it to him. Once both were dressed once more, the samurai commander patted Hideyoshi on the shoulder fondly and grinned.
“I believe that will do. Same time tomorrow, right boy?”
Without waiting for an answer, Sentinel moved to the door, gesturing for Hideyoshi to follow him.
“Come, attend me while I meet with the Senju leader. A messenger informed me earlier that he would meet with me soon. I am allowed to bring two; you and Katsuie will do.”
Once more, Hideyoshi merely nodded, wide eyed and blown away at the amazingly high honors he had been gifted with for reasons unbeknownst to him. The two walked slowly down the plain, empty halls. The walls were the color of the oaks on the outside, lit by sparse torches placed throughout. Through the occasional window, the faint, silver light of the moon now hovered across the black quilt of night, padded with stars and ruling over the skies. The sound of crickets chirping in a low whisper fell lightly upon the ears as the samurai met old Katsuie, who was dressed formerly and nodded at both of them, face twisting in light hearted amusement as he saw Hideyoshi, before they proceeded to an audience chamber on the second floor of the building.
The chamber was open; the sky served as a ceiling and allowing the night air to settle over the three samurai, surprisingly cool and relaxing given their previous experiences in the forest. Across the room, behind a simple ashen table, sat three men; two were the Senju brothers they had met earlier that day, Hashirama and Tobirama, flanking a third man in the center. The third man was large with long, dark brown hair, much like Hashirama, though his face was cold and stern, as was his son Tobirama. All three sat wearing multi-colored robes of their clan, the Senju emblem of the double sided spear emblazoned on each of them. The man in the middle, casting a dark glance at Sentinel, not even acknowledging his visitors formerly, drank deeply from a cup of a putrid red liquid and cocked his head to the side.
“Tell me…what brings a miniature army of samurai to lands which do not belong to them? To lands they are not invited nor welcome in?”
Katsuie bristled and seemed prepared to shout a retort, but at a glance from Sentinel, settled back into his seat. Only the two leaders, it appeared, would speak today. Sentinel reached for a small wooden cup of the same red liquid, drinking without being offered and earning a glare from Tobirama. Hashirama looked abashed in his seat, apparently displeased by the uneasy tension lording over the air. Hideyoshi himself shuffled his feet and shifted about uneasily, feeling out of place at a meeting of such powerful men.
“We are merely investigating a series of border attacks which took place two months ago. Several towns along the edge of the Land of Iron were assaulted and put to the torch. Reports from the few survivors claimed to have seen jutsu. We believe shinobi…”
Sentinel blinked as Tobirama interrupted with a deep scowl on his face, eyes blazing in fury, finger pointed in condemnation.
“You assaulted the Hagoromo with none of that ‘investigation’…” he spat the last word out as though it were a curse. “…why should we listen to a man here to make nothing but war, you damned…”
The lad’s father grabbed his son roughly by the shoulders, eyes glinting dangerously as he admonished his son with the gaze of his coal eyes.
“That is enough, Tobirama.”
The boy appeared to want to object, but filial fear seemed to best him as he closed his eyes and with an exasperated sigh returned to silence. The eldest Senju nodded in acceptance and returned his attention to Sentinel.
“I…am Senju Butsuma, Clan Lord of the Senju. Long have I steered this clan through the brutal conflict of ninja against ninja. I…am weary, I am old, but I am not stupid. To call what my son and his men have reported anything but an unprovoked attack would be foolhardy. Yet, you are not exactly lying…as far as you know.”
Butsuma coughed fiercely; Sentinel noted, through the man’s face etched with far too many wrinkles and the fading of color in his eyes and receding hairline that he was not faring well. His health was likely failing, and Sentinel almost had to hope that the man wouldn’t drop dead during the meeting as phlegm lined with blood erupted from the man’s throat. The Senju leader grimaced, but forced himself to continue.
“I have considered my options here. I have decided I must consider you a threat to our safety. We have lived here, in the heart of the Land of Fire for…for six months now. I don’t wish to uproot my family once more when we have finally established something of a permanent home. You…will be given the mansion here, for the night. You will then be escorted with your men back to the border of the Iron Lands tomorrow…”
The door to the room slammed open, revealing a panting Senju shinobi rushing through the door.
“C-Chief Butsuma! We’re under attack at the western end of the forest! I-i-it’s the Uchiha, sir!”
“Bastards!” Tobirama roared with hatred flaring in his eyes, animated suddenly and causing the white haired young man to grab for his sword and leap for the door. “I’m going father!”
Butsuma rose to his feet in panic, pain flashing over his face.
“Aggh, Tobirama, wait!” He turned to the messenger, concern moving over his face. “Gather the clan warriors and fetch me my armor! Hashirama, follow your brother, make sure he doesn’t do something stupid again!”
The messenger saluted and dashed off to sound the alarm. Soon, the sounds of war preparation could be heard ringing throughout the village. Shouts of anger and anticipation ran out.
“Death to the Uchiha!”
“Destruction to Tajima’s ilk!”
“Long live the Senju! Long live the sons of Butsuma!”
The shinobi poured from the village, screaming for blood and mobilizing for war. Hashirama ran ahead of most of them, chasing after his hate filled brother, crimson armor clanging underneath a face torn with pain. He whispered to himself, praying for the best, to avoid violence he knew was inevitable.
As the ninja left the village, Sentinel’s mind worked at a lightning pace. After a moment, he shook his head. It didn’t add up. This place was too far from the border. Six months is too long ago. It was…impossible…
The Senju couldn’t possibly be the group that assaulted the Land of Iron, as stated in his mission report. The Taiko had been wrong.
He shouted at Hideyoshi, holding up a mailed fist.
“Kinoshinta, tell the men to be alert and stay here! Shibata, on me, let’s go!”
Katsuie nodded, knowing what Sentinel intended. The two hurriedly reached their armor and dressed up. Katsuie blazed in the crimson armor of the Oni, horns adorning his helmet, giving him the strength of the demon. Sentinel’s ebony armor glistened brilliantly in the moonlight. Nodding at each other, the Dark Warrior and the Devil Shibata raced down the path the ninja had taken.
Hideyoshi ran towards the barracks and roused the men; the next senior man, Oda, nodded, and shouted for everyone to ready themselves. While the samurai were preparing for defense of the mansion if necessary, however, Hideyoshi donned his armor and slipped out the door. Racing towards the western edge of the village, the young warrior stared nervously into the maw of oblivion that was the dark forest. Seeing the faintest blaze of torch light in the distance (or was it the fires of combat?) Hideyoshi took a deep breath and plunged into the abyss.
Towards the fires of war.