Chapter 1

"After their fall, Hydra went to the Hand seeking protection. And in return, they shared their science and technology , bringing a new age to the Hand. We could finally change the world as we saw fit … I...I don't remember much from those early days. I'm sure you can understand. Do you go by Natasha or Nat now?"

With little effort and no noise, Black Sky slinked her way up the mountainside, her nimble hands grasping at the rock until she reached the edge of a perch that overlooked the valley. She pulled herself up into the air and then landed on the dirt, her body as light and quiet as a feather.

She stood to her full height, her eyes landing on the two figures hidden beneath the black of night —Echo and Lady Bullseye. Two of her best warriors.

"Why are they here?" Lady Bullseye asked, her voice little more than a whisper.

"They're moving in," Echo replied, her words drifting into the cool breeze.

"I'm aware, but why?"

"Because the Grandmaster deems it so." Their heads turned in Sky's direction, their calculative gazes assessing her quickly before they dipped their heads into a curt nod. She strode forward, trading a knowing look between the women before her eyes settled on Lady Bullseye. "And it is not your place to question him," she added.

"Forgive me, Masuta." Lady Bullseye bowed her head, her dark hair resting in a thick bun atop. "I was only curious."

Sky let her hardened gaze linger a while longer, just to get her point across. She took the time to notice the new, blatant design curving over Lady Bullseye's suit. Most of the Hand's acolytes wore the traditional attire —loose and colorless garments —but Maki had earned her name three months ago, along with the liberty to dictate her own clothing. She'd chosen the name Lady Bullseye in honor of that lunatic Bullseye, of whom she enjoyed boasting about regularly, and if that wasn't blustering enough, she'd chosen a one-piece with a giant, obnoxious black-and-white bullseye stretched across her body. It was a sleek design, but too flashy and not traditional.

She turned away and brushed past them. Lady Bullseye never cared much for tradition. She did what she pleased —within reason —and Sky didn't care. As long as the woman served, she could run around in a loincloth if that's what she wished.

She arrived at the edge of the perch and lowered herself to a crouch, her arms resting on her knees. Down below, surrounded by the immense range of the Hida mountains, rested their village. The intense yellow glow of oil lanterns illuminated the space between the Minkas and the thoroughfare that stretched uphill towards the great dojo. Bright lighting was forbidden to conceal the village's location, but tonight they'd made an exception.

"I do not know why this is happening," Sky said after a long time. The Grandmaster hadn't bothered to inform her of the transition up until a few days ago. "But Grandmaster Bakuto is wise." She could feel Lady Bullseye and Echo trade a look. With a roll of her eyes, she relented, "speak."

Lady Bullseye was expectantly the first to complain. "This is absurd," she huffed. "Inviting these Nazi scum into our home is an insult to our way!"

"I agree," Echo said in her light tone.

Maya spoke on rare occasions, and only in Sky and Lady Bullseye's presence. Over the years, she'd grown familiar with their manners, enough to discern meaning through their movements. Her deafness did not impede her in the slightest. However, Black Sky still wondered how the woman could read someone's body language when they were still as a statue and hidden behind a mask.

Maya had also chosen her name, but long ago—Echo for her gift of mimicry. Her chosen attire was efficient and straightforward—a sleeveless top revealing the lower half of her torso, black trousers, and grey hand-wraps that reached above her elbow. Not much different from Sky's suit, except the only skin she exposed was the top half of her face.

She chose to say nothing to the girls' comments because nothing short of ordering an assault would appease them. Instead, she watched as large military trucks continued to bulldoze into the village, crushing yellow Chrysanthemums beneath their crude tires. Men, German men, scattered like ants with complete disregard to the tended grass and bushes. They leaned against aged columns, their broad arms folded across their puffed chests as they chatted freely, as if they weren't standing in one of the most sacred places in the world. The village had no name, and no one, other than the Grandmaster, knew how long the structure had stood within the mountains' boundaries. Thousands of years, perhaps—not that these Germans cared. They had no respect, not for their own people or the world because they were Hydra. A festering infection on the planet.

If Sky had her way, she'd line them all up on their knees and cut their heads clean off their shoulders.

The infestation continued to pour in as more soldiers and scientists clad in olive-green suits passed through the wooden gates, along a dirt road and veered to the left. They'd been given the west section of the village, which hadn't been used in decades, and contained the least housing—permitting them to set up their great tents and facilities. It bordered the most towering peaks of the Hida Mountains, so if the Grandmaster ever decided to revoke their stay, they would be trapped between the mountainside and the rest of the settlement.

Like sheep to the slaughter, she thought.

"They are to be treated as if they were our own," she asserted with a tone that left no room for arguments. "Now, report."

"So far, they have delivered forty-seven trucks, two hundred men, and many machines we cannot identify," Echo informed.

"Anyone important?"

"No."

"I suspect they'll bring their officials once they're certain we won't kill them in their sleep," Lady Bullseye added.

Sky turned her head to the side. "Which we won't. Right, Maki?"

The silence stretched for a moment before Lady Bullseye agreed with a low sigh, "right."

The girls observed their new neighbors for the next five hours, remaining unmoved and indifferent, like gargoyles on a pious temple. Trucks, people, and machines continued to arrive. Security personnel increased every thirty minutes, signaling the potential appearance of more integral arrivals. They logged every new person and activity into their sharp minds, working to discover patterns and weaknesses in their organization—anything to get the upper hand. At the sixth hour, the narrow, wooden boards the men placed across a ditch at the village entrance began to shudder, but the trucks continued to hurtle on in droves across the flimsy wood.

All three women cocked their heads to the side as they saw the commotion before it began. As expected, a board slipped out of place and sent a truck almost tipping over before settling into the deep ditch. The tires landed with a loud splash and splattered mud across a nearby bystander. He gesticulated angrily, cursed at the wind, and then stormed off.

"I'd be happy to put him out of his misery," commented Lady Bullseye.

An angry roar vibrated through the air as the truck revved with all its might, its rear tires churning the wet mud and flinging it backward. Men collected around the scene, shouting orders at the driver. One went as far as to attempt to insert the boards in place, only to fail. The truck continued on, thrusting forward and sliding back. Over and over again. Every attempt to escape the trough of dark-brown sludge as futile as the last.

Sky smirked beneath her silk mask. Little did they know that that particular dike had been created for that exact purpose because vehicles were forbidden in the village. The girls watched with amusement as a growing tail of cars trailed off into the distance, and men scrambled about like chickens. She figured she should've ordered some of her people to assist them out of their pathetic predicament lest they call her a terrible host. Perhaps even show them a bit of Japanese hospitality. Germans enjoyed Sake, right? Yet, she did nothing. Their struggle was the most entertaining thing she'd seen in hours. Why stop it?

And besides...she was Russian.

Maybe next time, the Grandmaster would inform her of visitors with enough time for accommodations. Then perhaps, she would do something about the ditch.

A dour-looking man who had been shouting the most shook his fair-haired head in annoyance before storming off. He made his way down the line of vehicles and then stopped behind a particular truck. With an unnecessary grunt, he flung the backdoors open, both slamming against metal.

Sky perked up. The back of the trucks had yet to be opened. From her view, a scrawny, pale man with swept-over brown hair sat on a bench inside, his hands clinging onto a leather suitcase pressed against his chest. He scowled at the intruder, who released a flurry of commands, his broad arm pointing aggressively to the front.

The dark-haired man argued back in fluent Russian, his head shaking with displeasure. "No," he snapped, "find another way."

The two bickered on like dogs, and a bulging vein gradually swelled along the German's forehead until finally, the smaller man relented with a reluctant nod. He moved off the back of the truck, movements awkward and stiff, his briefcase never leaving his side. He was thinner than she thought, and by the looks of his thick eyeglasses and freshly polished Stacey Adams shoes, he was no soldier. Someone important. Sky etched the details of his face into her memory.

Moments later, someone else followed him out. A man with dark, shoulder-length hair, clad in all-black, stepped off the edge. His black boots landed on the dirt with a loud thud.

"They need help in the front," the thin man said to him. "Apparently, a field of soldiers is not enough to solve anything these days."

It'd been a long time since Sky heard one of the motherland's northerner dialects. She couldn't remember exactly how long, nor did she care, but the graze of a hazy memory edged around the corners of her mind and then faded away. As did all those long-forgotten memories of another life.

With a curt nod, the man in all-black cut through the crowd of soldiers, his steps deliberate and stride controlled. People drifted aside to let him through and watched as he took a moment to assess the vehicle's rear.

"They maintain their distance," Echo commented. "They fear him."

She was right. The soldiers around him stiffened at his proximity, and when he lifted the rear of the truck with one arm like it weighed nothing, they all but flinched. Sky felt the girls shift behind her, but they said nothing. Only watched as a human performed the near impossible.

The vehicle moved forward without another complaint, and Hydra's progress continued.

After a few seconds, Lady Bullseye spoke. "He is not human," she said. "He's one of those mutants. We should inform the Grandmaster."

"No," Sky interjected. "We wait." The Grandmaster was wise, and if he condoned the perversion, then she wouldn't question it.

She watched as the German and Russian fell into a discussion, their demeanors tense but cordial, while the dark figure loomed over them with an imposing presence, his shoulders squared and legs evenly spaced.

Sky eyed the newcomer. Using the energy that flowed within her like a gentle storm, she stoked it like a fire and let it ripple over her body until her skin tingled with electricity. Then like a taunt slingshot, it shot forward, into the air and down into the valley. It latched onto him, embedding itself into the invisible field encasing his essence. In a few seconds, she'd know what rested in his soul, light or darkness, and if he was human or not.

But she saw nothing, felt nothing as if she were trying to read a rock.

Odd, she thought, and then tried again.

A minute passed before she felt something, a gentle stir, slow and weighty like an ocean wave as his energy shifted around him, but the tension remained impermeable.

And then it crashed against her, nearly severing the spiritual conduit.

His head turned to the side, dark hair shielding his face as if he could sense the intrusion. When she pushed further, the muscles of his back flexed beneath his tactical suit.

Sky narrowed her eyes. Was he...was he resisting her?

With a smooth shift of his feet, he turned and faced her. A pair of pale, blue eyes locked with hers, their icy, lifeless orbs piercing. She felt it then, the utter coldness and emptiness of his soul.

As if he were dead.

"He sees us," Echo hissed. "That is impossible."

Sky was linked to The Beast, the Hand's demigod, and all its infinite power. How could a meager Hydra lackey detect her insertion?

"What are you looking at?" The Russian asked when he noticed the soldier's glower. "What is it?"

"We are being watched," he replied in the same dialect.

The Russian looked off in the distance, his beady eyes squinting as he tried to see through the darkness. "Bah," he said with a wave of his hand. "Ninjas. You will have to grow used to them, Winter Soldier. Come, we leave."

Winter Soldier stared at her for a moment longer before turning away to follow his comrade back to the truck. The connection broke.

Well, that was interesting.

"Are you certain we're not allowed to kill them?" Echo asked.

"Grandmaster Bakuto made his orders clear," Sky replied, rising to her feet.

Lady Bullseye scoffed. "Grandmaster. What a joke."

Sky would have admonished Maki for the blatant slight if she wasn't busy thinking about the soldier. Did Bakuto know about this? If he did, what was the purpose, and why hadn't he told her? Why did he insist on keeping her uninformed? Ever since he was inaugurated as the Hand's new leader, he'd done everything to oust her, from discrediting her at every turn to alienating her from the clan. He sent her across the world for nearly a year, and now Hydra was moving in.

Something wasn't right.

Sky turned around to face the girls. As the Hand's Master Assassin and the Grandmaster's right hand, it was against propriety to openly question his decisions, even if she disagreed with them.

"First darkness, then?" Echo asked.

A smile stretched across Sky's face. Fortunately, she didn't have to. Bakuto was Grandmaster, but Lady Bullseye and Echo were loyal to her and followed her without fault. That was something he never understood. Loyalty was earned, not given.

His orders were indeed clear. They were to treat the newcomers as their own...which included finding out all their dirty little secrets.

"Through the trees," she replied.

"Just like the old days," Lady Bullseye said, "when ninja meant something around here."

"Enough. Let us meet our new friends."

The girls bowed their heads and then ran past her. With perfect form, they flipped into the air and disappeared over the edge. The last thing to cross Sky's mind before joining them was the Winter Soldier's cold, hard gaze. She'd seen it before...in her own reflection. It came from a place of pure darkness...of destruction and death...a hopeless place.