I am a Ninja and my name is Kogā.
The thought rings through my skull like a host of temple bells, and I center myself in the peace of early morn. I know my identity, it is something which is part of my soul, part of a secret place within my innermost being which I can connect into. Returning to my lesson-searching, I focus on the pale light of morning. The soft light filters through my bedroom windows, and I get up from my morning meditations seeing that the day has begun. A quick glance to the outside of my window shows me there is flashy snow on the ground and beaked icicles on the cherry tree which glitter with a certain harmony. They seem to tell me there is a lesson in them, and I realize my morning lesson-searching is over: the lesson has been taught to me. The lesson to be like ice, smooth and cold seeps into my being and I quietly shut the door to my quarters preparing to train. Training is a lifeline which all Ninja are relying on now, as our world changes due to the forces of Destiny.
Today’s training will lead to a test: a test on traveling by shadows. It was something which my father has made a reputation in the clan with. He was the quickest, smartest master of undercover movements when he was a Ninja, and now his mantle has passed on to me in both spirit and body. I seek to surpass his reputation, in respect to his high stands in the art of Ninjitsu. I train my body in both mental and physical as a Ninja should, and all my grueling training has had a reward. My spirit has built up endurance, and so has my body.
As the light continues to spill over the earth all around me, I open the paneled door to my ancient domain. It, for centuries, has been my people’s abode. A strong sense of belonging and honor washes through me, and I smell the aged timber which has stood the test of time. The paneled screens, and the bamboo mats upon the floor rustle beneath my feet. They tell me the story of those tests and the extreme weather they have fortified against.
My head takes me to times past as I daydream, my body taking me to the Ninja School. I walk in the morn with a determined vigor trying to ward off the cold, however, the cold seems to have teeth this morning, and it gets a bit of my skin. Sometimes I believe it is the physical manifestation of a frost Oni, one of the creatures from my people’s rich folklore.
I reach the Ninja School and focus for a second on how it is the center of a Ninja’s entire livelihood. Here is where we turn our training into reality, and the place where the Ninja Sensei gather. It is the place that if I pass today’s test, I could become the apprentice to one of the greatest Ninja Sensei ever.
Sensei Hiroko greets me at the door with his dark eyes flashing.
“Welcome young leader,” He bows in the formal sign of respect. I return the gesture, and I notice his kimono embellished with the three shurikens of Good Fortune. The sign of a great Sensei. I know we Ninja need good fortune as the Ninja arts we train in are being lost to the forces of Destiny.
Upon entering the Courtyard of the Ninja School, I greet my teammates by name. I assess their abilities one last time before we begin the test on our strength as a team, and as individuals. There is Domu from one of the furthest villages away. He has brown hair instead of the normal black hair most Ninja have, and is an excitable little friend. Matsu, who is my sister’s friend, stands set apart on her own the master of strategy and focus on our team. Finally, there is Nori. He is the strongest of any of us Ika-Ninja and is a great fighter. I sense our hearts intertwine as meet each other’s gazes: all our hearts pounding as we know we must pass this test.
“Let’s train,” I suggest and reach into the folds of my shozuku or training kimono for my trademark weapon: A pair of shurikens.
“All right,” Nori says and stretches his lanky body out releasing pressure and getting the blood flowing through his body.
I practice with my pair of shurikens. Using a focusing method which has taken years to master, I watch them spin through the air with a prepared eye awakening my reflexes to catch them when they return from their flight. At just the right moment, I catch them before they can hit Matsu who is practicing with Domu for the test we all are itching to get over with.
We are a team untitled by one goal which flows through our veins. We want to become Ninja who protect and serve our kind, who laugh at Destiny and the destruction she has brought upon our kind. However, only Destiny’s sister Time can tell us if we will succeed or not.
After my warm up with my shurikens, Nori and I practice hand to hand combat. There is an art to staying lose in order to not become trapped in Nori’s vicelike grip, and I use it on Nori who says very little with his mouth but says much with his strength.
“You are a slippery as an eel Leader Kogā,” He says in a whisper. His voice is never above it since he has a damaged throat from a training accident in his old Ninja Clan.
Matsu enters my view just as Nori throws me to the ground the ice and snow covering my shozuku. It seems girls always chose the most embarrassing times to show up.
I get up and dust myself off watching for Domu in the morning mist. Knowing Matsu she would have convinced him to use his shadowy skills to surprise me.
“What’s up Matsu?” I ask.
Matsu’s eyes twinkle. “Sensei Hiroko is coming.”
I go as stiff as a ramrod and gaze at the moon gate to the training area. Sensei Hiroko stands there with his stern face and quiet demeanor.
“Leader Kogā you are needed,” His kimono reveals his hands and within them resides the Jade Dragon.
No word needs to be spoken as I walk over to him. He holds my gaze for a long time and he places a hand on my shoulder. “It is time to embrace your heritage Leader Kogā. May your ancestors be with you in this test.” He takes a red headband and wraps it around my head, and another which he wraps around my right arm. This is the sign that I am the leader, and that I am sort of a target for the other team, willing to sacrifice for the greater good.
Thankfully, I am not going to in reality die today. However, losing a spot in the Ninja School by failing this test is almost as bad as dying for me.
Sensei Hiroko beckons to the rest of my team. “All you Ika-Ninja come to the Courtyard. It is time.”
We listen to Sensei Hiroko and prepare for the test, feeling united by our one goal. Glancing over to the opposite side of the Courtyard I see our opponents, Clan Snake, the most devious of the Ika-Ninja Clans.
I snap back to reality as Sensei Hiroko announces the contest. “We gathered here today to test your skills, you who are at bottom of the Ninja hierarchy. You will have to use everything that you have learned from your teachers. To retrieve this Jade Dragon out of my hands you must work as a team and as individuals. Sharpening each other’s abilities as a team you must defeat me as your final test. If you do so, you will gain the Jade Dragon!” Sensei Hiroko looks at all eight of us Ika-Ninja with his flashing eyes. His words are sometimes cryptic and full of radical things. Things which even the other Ninja Sensei question sometimes. Yet, his words today we must consider, and think out in order not to fail.
“Begin!” He says and I spring into action with the three other members of my team. We are from the Clan Phoenix which means we must be like the Phoenix, shadowy and full of fire. My team is ready for this, ready to get the Jade Dragon.
The object of this contest is simple. One must focus on staying in the shadows using your shozuku’s hood and main garment. As have learned since we were children, shadows are our best friends. As well, the shozuku of the Ninja’s training assists with blending into the shadows. Going through the plan Matsu and I made, I leap up into the rafters of the porch surrounding the Courtyard. Taking stock of where I have concealed myself, I launch into a frontal assault. The opposite team of Ninja from Clan Snake try to conceal in the shadows, attempting to take out our team but I am on to them.
Clan Snake is the clan which we have trained against since the beginning of our time at the Ninja School. They are stealthy and full of surprises. Surprises which no one would expect. Lethal combinations of weaponry and poison from his or her patron: The Snake.
“This is the real deal,” Matsu says alighting near me. She nods in the direction of Clan Snake, and signals with her forward stance.
The wooden rafters of the Courtyard provide an advantage. I climb up onto one of the tiled peaks to get elevation. To plan my strategies better, and I gaze down upon the Courtyard. Seeing one of Clan Snake move out and into the open where Sensei Hiroko stands, I expect the move is a diversion. Scanning, I seek out their leader who decided to cheat and not mark themselves with the red stripe of rank.
“Looking for me?” A voice rings out behind me. It is a female voice with a refined southern accent. I turn around to see Clan Snake’s leader with a staff or nin-jo in her hand. She lunges at me with her nin-jo moving it so fast I can only quickly duck.
It seems she can read my mind as she blocks every way of escape, and we begin to fight. By reading into her tone of voice, I can hear she is fueled by her anger and her intense desire to win. Whatever her anger issue is, it is a hindrance to our honor and she begins to fight dirty letting go of all Zen.
Letting go of one’s calm is a serious hindrance to a fight and I can barely block her blows. It causes my calm to become as cold as ice as I let the fluidity of water take over and my training to come into play.
Clan Snake’s leader and I balance on the peak of the roof, fiercely exchanging blows. One of us seeks to win a contest by fighting, the other of us, me, seek to win this contest with strategy. Clan Snake’s leader does the first steps in the dance of the fight with a blow aimed at stunning my dominant side. Unfortunately, she anticipates that I have a dominant side and does not know I do not. I have the same skills on both sides of my body. However, I still do not want to be out of this fight, so I block her blow in time. It feels pleasurable to know I can unite what Sensei Hiroko once called my weakness.
Clan Snake’s leader tries to break my defenses with more than blows. It seems she does not know how a Ninja’s honor code works. Even if we are ruthless as Ninja, we do not try to disrupt a human’s mental harmony. “Think you are worthy to have the Jade Dragon?” She asks arrogantly.
“I am about as worthy as you,” I respond gasping, trying to not provoke anymore of the fight within her.
However, it seems I am unsuccessful.
“You are not worthy Leader Kogā. You have been cursed and you know it.” Her voice is quiet and deadly, and, to make her point clear she grinds her nin-jo into my face.
The nin-jo strikes hard and damages me just above my eyes. A hot, searing pain erupts in my head, and surprised, I step backward in shock.
“No one wants to see those cursed eyes of yours Leader Kogā.” She smiles recklessly and attempts to slam another blow into my defenses, intent on winning. However, she is greeted with empty space as I hide in the morning mist. Knowing that the leader of Clan Snake will stop at nothing to win, I clamber down from the roof while the dizziness of the blow is at bay. Hoping my team and I can hold our own in this fight, I take a deep breath and feel dizzy.
“We are close Leader Kogā. The Jade Dragon will soon be in our grasp!” Matsu materializes beside me and points out Nori and Domu blocking blows and tiring their Clan Snake opponents. I value Matsu’s intelligence and ability to plan and I leave it up to her as I hold my head.
“So what do you suggest we do next?” I ask her as she grimaces at the large gash on my forehead.
Matsu adjusts her hood. “I’ll get the Clan Snake leader out into the open since you are in no shape to fight her again. Domu and Nori will distract her team. Then, we can Jade Dragon from Sensei Hiroko.”
I grin. “It will be my pleasure to cheer you on.”
Matsu holds herself back for one more second. “Don’t let your fire consume you Leader Kogā. You must stay balanced.”
I nod the anger over the remark about my eyes still hot as I seek to replace my thoughts.
Clan Snake’s leader meets Matsu in the center of the Courtyard. It seems she is itching for the challenge of taking the woman of Clan Phoenix out. They lock gazes, and the cold sensation of the fight flows upon me. It is the emotionless state my personage has built a reputation on.
“So you are the great Matsu I have heard so much about.” Clan Snake’s leader goes into a fighting stance. Matsu launches her body into a defensive stance her hands prepared to duel the leader of Clan Snake.
“You’re skilled.” Clan Snake’s leader remarks. Her amber colored eyes bore into Matsu as she and grabs her arm. I know she intends to try and throw her. I grit my teeth and concentrate on the fight. The ability to stay loose on Matsu’s part can influence the way that this contest goes next.
Sliding out of Clan Snake leader’s grasp is no easy task, but Matsu puts all her effort into preventing a throw and spill from happening. Right before she can get a chance to throw Matsu, she slides out of her grasp and lands a blow to Clan Snake leader’s shoulder. Using her momentum against her, Matsu throws her to the ground. She grunts with the shock. Matsu steps away from seemingly knowing the spot she hit her is one where the energy of a person’s body is the strongest. She will be out of the fight for a bit.
I smile at Matsu when she comes over to me and smirks. I have seen her takedown of Clan Snake’s leader and it feels like a breath of fresh air has come upon the contest.
“Let us get the Jade Dragon now,” I say and point to Sensei Hiroko who is fighting off two Ninja from Clan Snake.
Despite her heavy breathing from her fight Matsu’s mind is at work again. “One against two, no problem for Sensei Hiroko. Four against two, his back has always been his weakness.” She reminds me of the obvious fact about Sensei Hiroko’s back her as her strategic mind works. Sensei Hiroko, who injured during a samurai raid when he was younger, has always had a hidden weak spot on his back.
“You get the Jade Dragon. I’ll use my Dim Mak strikes to stun him.” She rubs her hands together. Her eyes glow with the fight, and I grin beneath my hood thinking how close we are to victory.
For a moment, I have my own conscience issues with the knowledge that one of our team will harm Sensei Hiroko. To pass the test and gain victory we must do this though. Yet, my worry is short-lived, as I imagine Sensei Hiroko as an evil oppressor of the common people. Then, I remember how we have learned to uphold one of the greatest Ninja values: the pursuit of the greater good.
Snapping back to the present; Matsu and I advance together. We keep our eyes sharpened for our two comrades. In our training, they were the ones who distracted most of the members of Clan Snake’s team. I spot Nori and Domu in the shadows blending in. They fight for the Jade Dragon, and in the center of the Courtyard, the competition intensifies.
“You were great Leader Kogā!” Domu whispers. He is small and very energetic as he fights. It seems a shock of hair is always hanging out of his hood.
“I am proud to call you part of my team.” I bow my thanks while strategizing my next moves.
“Everyone remember what we have been training for?” Matsu asks. We all nod and disperse to our assigned places still as possible.
My place is to get the Jade Dragon from Sensei Hiroko while Domu and Matsu take him out. Nori, who is our toughest and strongest team member is the one who will take on Clan Snake. Known to be quite proficient in the art of the fight, he is our powerhouse when it comes to many opponents. Calming my nerves, I watch as Clan Snake get hard blows by Nori, all trying to swarm us. While I look at them, I meet the glare of their leader holding her shoulder. She looks angry.
“Leader Kogā, now’s your chance!” Matsu hisses in my ear as she rushes up behind Sensei Hiroko. The Sensei engaged is in the fight with Clan Snake, and I slip in picturing my body as fluid as water. I exchange a few blows with the Sensei and then I withdraw as Matsu darts in delivering the Dim Mak. She stuns him as she hits the major chi points in his body, and he goes down. Because of her masterful skill, I am able to get the Jade Dragon out of Sensei Hiroko’s hands and into my own without much pain from my forehead. A sense of awe rushes through me as I see the end of this test and my future hope as a Ninja master’s apprentice coming true.
There is suddenly a deep silence in the air, one so deep only an explosion could have awoken it.
Clan Snake’s members get up from the ground. They bow full of respect at us as I hold the Jade Dragon in my hands. It feels cold in the winter morn as I touch its surface, but I have a warm feeling knowing that my team and I have won. We will now become the students of masters. They seek to preserve the Destiny of our people and fight to protect this sacred way of life, and now we are among their future ranks.
Sensei Hiroko gets to his feet after Clan Snake’s bows to us. He looks at Matsu and me with a shimmer in his eyes. “Leader Kogā,” he says with awe in his voice, “You have done well today. Today you have used resources you have learned you possessed as a leader. You have used them to their fullest, and shed real blood today. Shed blood even in your training has shown your teammates you value them more than your own life and that is the sign of a true Ninja. Since you have shown these qualities as well as getting the Jade Dragon, I offer you the chance to become my personal apprentice.”
My eyes widen as I realize what this means. I would become the apprentice to the Ninja Sensei who does missions for the Emperor. My team would become the next-in-line as the Emperor’s elite, and I would become a part of Clan Dragon.
Matsu elbows me. “So what do you say?”
I am speechless. Withdrawing my hood and bowing in a sign of respect, I make my choice.
“I am honored, Sensei Hiroko.”