Arc 1: Storm Descending
In which the team comes together
Tuesday, August 26, started as a normal day at the Thunder Ninja Academy in Southern California. The staff and resident students woke at daybreak, and the non-resident students joined them later in the morning. By 9 a.m. all the morning classes were in session, and the grounds were peppered with groups of ten to thirty students and their instructors.
Slightly apart from the other groups, two students were racing through an obstacle course, watched by an elderly teacher. The two were different in stature and style, but seemed evenly matched in skill: for a moment one of them was ahead of the other, and then the other would catch up to the first. Both sped as they approached the last hurdle. They climbed over it and landed on the other side with the agility and silence of two cats.
The two exchanged glances.
The teacher nodded. "Well done, Hunter, Blake," he said as he got up and approached them. "I do believe you have set a new record for yourselves."
"Thank you, Sensei," said the shorter of the two. The taller one inclined his head.
The teacher opened his mouth, but Hunter and Blake never found out what it was he was about to say, as at that moment a vortex opened over the main building of the Academy, and strange-looking troops appeared everywhere on the grounds. The students and teachers fought back, but they never stood a chance: white rays shot by the intruders trapped the defenders in white energy bubbles, cutting them off from their fellows and from the world.
The elderly teacher and the two students were not among those. The teacher grabbed his students as soon as the attack began, dragging them away from the fight.
"Sensei, we should fight!" protested the taller of the two.
"He must not find you and Blake, Hunter!" replied the teacher.
"Who are you talking about?" shouted Blake over the explosions.
The teacher didn't answer, though. He crouched behind a boulder and pulled Hunter and Blake along. He reached into the rock and pulled out a wooden box. He opened the box and thrust the two devices it contained into the boys' hands. "These are yours," he said. "Use them well. Now you must run."
The boulder behind which they were hiding exploded.
One of the white rays grabbed the teacher, pulling him away.
"Sensei!" shouted Blake and Hunter in unison. They leaped to their feet and moved as if to give chase.
The teacher shook his head vehemently. "Run!" he shouted to them. "Protect…"
And then the bubble cut him off and floated above and away.
Blake took a step forward, but Hunter grabbed his arm and pulled him in the other direction: the teacher's last words, and the urgency behind them, had triggered something in Hunter. He had no intention of failing.
The two ran, but they didn't make it far before they were blocked by one of the intruders. This was a tall, heavily muscular man, dressed all in black, his face half-covered with a black leather mask and his long hair fanning in the wind. He smiled at them, his smile that of a hungry predator. "Ah, you," he said. He raised his arm, his palm pulsing with energy. Hunter pushed Blake out of the way, throwing himself in front.
The man smiled down at the two unconscious boys. "My Rangers," he purred. He raised his gaze: the Thunder Academy was all in ruins, all its personnel captured. "Marah! Kapri!" he shouted sharply.
The two girls who were herding the troops looked up at him. "What is it, uncle?" shouted the pink-haired one.
"Find Zurgane, and that incompetent idiot Choobo," ordered the man. "We're done here."
"Already?" complained the other girl. She walked towards her uncle as the other girl talked into a handpiece of some sort. "I was just beginning to have fun."
"There are more schools to destroy, Marah."
"Ooh, they're pretty," said the girl, looking down at the two boys. "Can I keep them, uncle? Please?"
"You already have George," said the men sternly. Then he smiled again, the same wolfish, self-satisfied smile. "These two are mine."
The room was bare and, as far as Hunter could tell, was made entirely of metal. It had no furniture, only two shelf-like bunks that protruded from the walls. The walls themselves, as well as the ceiling and the floor, were coloured in black and red. Hunter was lying on one of the shelf-bunks; Blake, still unconscious, was on the other. Hunter had only just woken, and he was yet to move. For now, he surveyed the room with his eyes only.
He and Blake were unharmed. The blast that had knocked them out left no aftereffects and, as much as Hunter could tell without moving, he had sustained no bruises from falling on the gravel. Blake, lying some eight feet away from Hunter, appeared to not even have a scratch. Both boys were still in their training uniforms, and the devices Sensei Omino had given them were strapped to their left wrists. This was, probably, what disturbed Hunter the most: he didn't remember whether he and Blake had strapped on the devices; last he remembered, he was holding his in his hand. Why would their captors not only let them keep those devices, but secure them to their wrists? What were those devices?
Who had attacked the Academy, and why? Hunter looked over at Blake, again. Blake appeared unharmed - when would he wake up already? Just as Hunter was about to get up and check on him, Blake's eyes opened slowly. He surveyed the room, his eyes coming to rest on Hunter.
"You okay?" asked Hunter quietly. His voice was strangely raspy - these were the first words he'd attempted to say since waking up.
"Yeah, Bro. I am." Blake's voice was raspy, too. He cleared his throat before speaking again. "Any idea where we are?"
"My guess is as good as yours."
Blake's eyes caught Hunter's wrist, and then traveled to his own. "Any idea what those are?"
"They have to be important, or…"
"Blake," said Hunter warningly. "Someone might be listening to us."
"Oh. Sorry, Bro. Wasn't thinking."
At that moment part of the wall slid aside, revealing itself as a door. The person who came in was the same man as before, but his smile was warm and welcoming. "Hunter, Blake!" he greeted. "How are you feeling, my boys!"
"We're not your boys!" snapped Hunter, sitting up.
"How do you know our names?" demanded Blake, following Hunter's example and sitting as well.
"But of course I would know your names!" The man appeared unfazed by Hunter's attitude, his expression now sympathetic. "After that dreadful thing with your parents…"
Both boys froze for a moment. Hunter's fingers gripped the edge of the bunk so tightly that they turned white. "Don't you dare talk about our parents," he hissed. "Who the hell are you?"
The man shook his head. "Sensei Omino never told you anything, did he?" he asked sadly. "Tsk, tsk. I should've expected as much. Oh, well. My name is Lothor, and we are on board my spaceship."
"Your spaceship?" asked Blake. "We're in space?"
"He's just pulling our leg, Bro," said Hunter through gritted teeth. "Don't listen to him."
"I am not 'pulling your leg'," said Lothor. "Come and I'll show you." He stepped through the door - which had remained open all this time - then paused and looked back at the boys. "Well?" he asked. "Are you coming?"
"No handcuffs?" asked Hunter sarcastically. "No electronic collars?"
"If I wanted you prisoners, you'd be in stasis like the rest of the ninjas," snapped Lothor. "Now, do you want to see?"
Blake looked at Hunter. Hunter hesitated. Then he stood, drawing himself to his full height. "All right. We will see."
Blake stood at the same time as Hunter did. He said nothing, but followed Hunter and Lothor into the hallway.
"Not much to see on this level, I'm afraid," said Lothor as they walked. "But there should be a window right… there."
The 'window' appeared to be just a hole in the wall, with no glass or barrier that either Blake or Hunter could see. Through it, stars shone steadily, not blinking, and the Earth was visible like a giant jewel.
Both boys stared. Blake reached forward as if to touch the "window", but Hunter slapped away his hand. Blake said nothing as Hunter considered the apparently open hole in the wall, and then reached out himself and tapped the space where the glass should've been. The forcefield crackled under his fingers.
Lothor chuckled. "Pretty, isn't it?"
"Nice plasma screen," said Hunter, acting unimpressed.
"We can go down to the bay and open the doors," suggested Lothor, "now that would be quite the view. But really, if you still don't believe me, look around you." He spread his arms, gesturing at the long black-and-red metal corridor, the scurrying black humanoids. "Does this look like Kansas, Dorothies?"
"No," admitted Hunter after a moment. "It doesn't."
"What are they?" asked Blake, pointing at one of the black humanoids.
"And what do you want with us? Why did you attack the Academy?" asked Hunter sharply; Blake's open curiosity seemed to have reminded him of his suspicions.
"They're called Kelzacks. Drones, effectively: useful for fighting and some menial jobs, but very little else. And I want to reinstate the ways of the Dark Ninja, what do you think?"
Blake opened his mouth, but Hunter's hand landed on his shoulder. Blake closed his mouth.
"If you expected us to join you," said Hunter, "You can just forget it. Even if we ignore the Dark ninja thing, you still attacked our home."
"Attacking the Academies would make me unlikable to you, wouldn't it." Strangely enough, Lothor seemed amused. "I would've left the Thunder Academy to itself, actually, if I hadn't been so sure that Omino would've supported Watanabe through thick and thin."
"The head Sensei of the Wind Ninja Academy?"
"And the front man of the anti-Dark-Ninja campaign," said Lothor, rolling his eyes. "He's got a thing against quite many ninja sects, by the way. I believe you've heard of the Metal Claw massacre?"
They have, though not by that name: Metal Claw was one of the smaller ninja sects, but the other sects had deemed them deviants and turned on them. Not a single Metal Claw adept had survived. That campaign, like most recent campaigns against deviant ninjas, had been led by sensei Watanabe of the Wind clan.
"He killed a lot of other ninjas, over the years," continued Lothor, "Your parents as well, by the way."
"You're lying!" burst out Blake. "Sensei Omino…" Hunter's hand, which hadn't left Blake's shoulder, squeezed once. Blake fell silent.
"Omino never told you, did he," said Lothor. "He knew, though. I suppose he valued the unity of the schools over your right to know."
Silence reigned. Sensei Omino, head Sensei of the Thunder Academy, had raised Hunter and Blake since their parents had been murdered some eight years prior. He never had told them who murdered their parents, or why; the two boys had never stopped badgering him, certain that he knew what had happened. They also knew that he was on good terms with Sensei Watanabe of the Wind Ninja Academy, a friendship that hadn't extended to the rest of the Academies' staff - the schools had a too long a separatist tradition to be overcome in one generation.
"Sensei Omino raised us," said Blake in a low voice. "I don't believe you."
"Of course he'd raised you. He wouldn't hand you to the outside authorities, would he? That would be sacrilege of his duties as the Thunder Clan's chief. Apparently, he also thought the same of avenging your parents' death - and opening war on Watanabe's clan. The good of the clan first," Lothor spat out the words. "What a load of bull. Don't you agree?"
The sad part was, what Lothor said made perfect sense. Sensei Omino had always placed more emphasis on his role as chief of the US Thunder Clan than on his role as a father, even towards his own daughter; he was known as a ninja unionist; and he always refused to answer any question regarding the murder of the Bradley parents, even that it was obvious that he did know something.
"So you do want something from us," said Hunter. His voice was filled with loathing, but it was impossible to tell at whom it was directed.
"No, but I thought you deserved to know." Lothor shrugged. "The enemy of my enemy, as they say."
"As you say," muttered Hunter. "We still didn't say we believe you."
Lothor sighed dramatically. "Suit yourselves," he said. "You'll need a place to stay, at any rate. I told the girls to prepare you some rooms. The décor will probably be atrocious, knowing those two, but you can always change it to your tastes. They were also supposed to find you teleporter remotes, so you can come and go."
"The girls?" asked Blake suspiciously.
"Oh, I didn't introduce you to the girls, did I? My nieces, Marah and Kapri. They're about your age. They're quite incapable, and most of the time I don't know why I keep them around, but they are family."
A shiver went down Hunter's spine. He prided himself on his ability to judge character; all in all, Lothor struck him as a bad type, but his words just now, as he spoke of his nieces, rang of honesty. Lothor might think the two complete idiots, but it was very obvious that he held family in high regard. Everything else aside, caring for one's family was the ultimate definition of a good person in Hunter's eyes.
He felt Blake tense and shift next to him.
Anyone who honestly cared for their family would not cynically use someone else's family as bait, nor would they lie about something so important.
Blake looked up at Hunter; Hunter looked down at Blake; their eyes met. They didn't need words, or even a nod - they could read it in each other's eyes. Unconsciously, they shifted closer to each other, not noticing how hungrily Lothor's eyes lay on them.
Hunter's voice was terribly cold as he said: "We believe you."
"And I follow the tracks that lead me down
And I never follow what's right
And they wonder sometimes when they see all the
Sadness and pain the truth brings to light"
- "Black", Sarah McLachlan
"I told you they'd want to share a room," said Marah.
"Well, how was I to know?" retorted Kapri. "Some people like their space, you know."
"Not when so far away from home," argued Marah. "Remember, in our first week in school…"
"Okay, I think you're all set here," said Kapri, shutting up her sister with a glare. "You need anything, slam the buzzer," she told Hunter, pointing. "Some Kelzacks should come running. You'd want to speak clearly, they don't know English very well yet."
"But they're improving," said Marah brightly. "If one of them really messes up, Kapri and I get to use them for target practice, and then the rest of them improve really fast. And…"
"Do you ever shut up?" asked Hunter.
Marah's eyes widened and her lower lip began to tremble. Kapri rolled her eyes and grabbed her sister's hand. "See you tomorrow," she told the two boys and yanked her sister away.
"I thought they'd never leave," sighed Blake as soon as the door closed. He collapsed on the bed that had dark blue sheets. "This was a really long day."
"Yeah," muttered Hunter, sitting down beside his brother. "Felt more like a month to me."
It was about noon when they had waked up on Lothor's ship. After their conversation with Lothor, he introduced them to his crew and handed them over to his nieces, Marah and Kapri. The two girls turned out to be every bit as intolerable as Lothor had said, but they did help Hunter and Blake recover their possessions from the stasis bay. Most everything - even the dirt bikes - survived the trip to the ship without so much as a scratch. Next came fixing up their room - Kapri originally assigned them two linked rooms, but Hunter and Blake would not be separated even by a bulkhead.
"What time is it, anyway?"
"About six, I think." Hunter checked his watch. "Yeah, fifteen past."
"Dinner time," said Blake, but he didn't sound particularly thrilled about it. "But I'm not moving if I can help it. I really want to wake up and find that today was just a bad dream," he added.
"Same here," said Hunter, rubbing his forehead. "Don't think it's going to happen though, bro. I think we're stuck here for a while."
"And here I was hoping," said Blake, but there was no real sarcasm in his voice. "I feel like I don't know anything, anymore. Don't you? Nothing is certain. Everything's upside down." Blake stared, unseeing, through the bulkhead. "Stuff that was obvious in the morning turns out to be false. Dark ninjas are real, and some of them are actually decent. The Academy's gone and we're staying over with the person who did it. The person who killed our parents lived only a streak away all those years, and is now stuck as a big hamster." He looked down at his wrist. "And these. We forgot to ask Lothor what they are, but I almost feel… Bro? Hunter? You okay?" Hunter was staring him rather intently.
Most of Blake's words were lost on Hunter; he never heard them. His mind wrapped itself around one of Blake's earlier statements, examining it from all angles and not liking what it found.
"You know, Bro," said Hunter slowly, still looking at Blake with the same concentration, "there's one thing that hasn't changed, and it isn't going to, no matter what. Even if you can't be sure of anything else, this is the one thing you can count on." Hunter leaned forward, putting his hand on Blake's knee. "We're brothers, Blake, and no one and nothing is ever going to change that. We're like thunder and lightning, you and I. We're brothers, and brothers stick with each other. So don't go saying stuff like that again, okay?" Hunter's expression softened somewhat. "You had me scared there."
Blake swallowed and nodded, his hand closing reflexively over Hunter's. "I hear you, bro," he murmured. "With you all the way."