Nagato peered past Akane to view Diego behind her. Their knowing stares held for a moment. “Very well. In that case, will you have Ren join you on whatever it was you were about to do?”
Akane paused, pursing her lips uncomfortably. Her pupils shrunk as they lowered toward Ren. Finally, she bowed her head. “Yes, father.”
Reluctantly, Ren ascended from her seat and lay Shinsatsu once again over her shoulder. She approached Akane, departing from the entrance to begin down the corridor again. And as she shuffled through the doorway, past Diego, she felt his gaze land on her for a split second. The sensation of what felt like needles washed across the full surface of her back.
As she emerged into the hallway and jogged to keep up with Akane, one thought filled her mind: “What am I getting myself into?”
Alone, facing each other, Diego and Nagato maintained their silent eye contact. After the prolonged stillness passed, Diego finally stepped inside and turned to close the door behind them.
“It’s been much too long since the two of us spoke.” Uttered Nagato over the sound of the door skimming shut. Once it clacked decisively closed, Diego turned around only halfway, presenting Nagato with only one of his jade eyes.
“I came to ask you something.” He whispered. “Lets’ say you’ve been waiting for something your whole life. Something guaranteed to happen. And once it did, everything would make sense.” Diego paused, giving a preemptive wince as if to brace himself to hear what he’d say next. “And say that doesn’t happen. What would you say?”
“I would say that nothing in life is given to us if we want them to. All things occur because we will them.” He answered immediately, as though expecting to hear that exact question. “Without reaping, there is no reward. And without taking action, one can arrive too late for things to happen.”
“Let’s also say this.” Diego turned the rest of the way around, revealing his second eye. The panic swimming through them matched the mounting tension in his timbre. “That if this thing were to happen, it would mean everything to the people around you. All their sacrifice to bring you to that moment would’ve finally paid off. And if it didn’t happen, the opposite is true. Then what would you say?”
“I’m afraid there’s no need to deal in hypotheticals.” Nagato sighed. Diego watched his jaw muscles flex through his wrinkled cheeks. “I brought you into Iga because you were alone and like me. I knew how to guide you and I did. What I failed in, however, was instilling in you the belief that you were somehow meant to take up Shinsatsu’s burden. Only fate can prescribe such things.”
“Then why didn’t you tell me it wasn’t my fate?” Diego’s volume jumped to just below what one would call a shout.
“Because it could have been.” Nagato’s voice softened. “Had other matters not intervened.”
“You mean Ren?”
“All I ask is that you don’t blame her.” Nagato proceeded at the same mellow, comforting pitch. “As much as it wasn’t her choice to take Shinsatsu, it wasn’t her choice for you to not.”
His chest ached after each heavy palpitation. His mind stirred with countless thoughts, too many to number or perceive individually, experiencing them instead as a single dizzying collage. Absently, Diego turned to face the door again, pushed it open, and sulked quietly into the cloister walkway outside. As if forgetting to remove it, his hand lingered on the cedar frame until falling away, returning loose and open at his left side. By his right, however, a fist taut enough to send the color bleeding from his knuckles quaked, wanting to close even tighter.
“Ren. Good.” Kenji greeted her as she and Akane approached him. She paused when she reached him to linger within the corridor. “The prisoner’s ready for extraction. Perhaps you have something to ask him.”
“You really gotta call it an extraction?” Ren asked, shivering. “Anyway, are you sure you want me to be there? This is the guy that tried at least twice to kill me, remember?”
“Even more of a reason for you to be present, Ren-san.” Akane uttered behind her. “Unless you believe you lack the courage for such a thing.”
“Of course not!” Ren spun around and blared. The timidness left her voice completely.
“Then he is in the courtyard, just beyond these doors.” Kenji said, facing the sliding shoji to their right. Together, they approached the exit. Ren held her breath as she watched Kenji pull apart the doors and then raised herself to her tiptoes to peer over his high shoulder.
The drumming of rain played softly in Ren’s ears as she watched it spill across the courtyard. At its center, erected on the wooden platform beneath the rose-tinted shade of the wisteria, was a small, iron cage, no bigger than a phone booth. Locked away inside, the shinobi sat slumped on the ground. He wore nothing else besides a white rag shirt, long tattered pants, and his signature eyepatch. His deep bronze skin and black, ruffled hair dripped with rainwater.
Akane, Ren, and Kenji emerged from the cloister to join Yuki and PJ, gathered around the cage already, with Diego exiting from another door along the wraparound porch. They each held wooden lacquered parasols over their heads to shield themselves from the light drizzle. Kenji handed Akane and Ren each an umbrella as well as they completed the half circle around the cell.
From behind the bars, the boy scowled, peering up with his visible eye narrow and his fists clenched tightly on the ground.
Ren entered the crescent-shaped gathering between PJ and Diego. “So this is the guy, huh.” She muttered.
“We just gotta know what he knows.” Yuki said. “How hard could that possibly be?”
“I will hold you to that, Yuki-san.” Akane muttered.
“Let’s just get this over with.” Kenji grumbled.
Ren glanced over at Diego, whose eyes were deliberately steered away from her.
At last, the prisoner rose to his feet. And what he did next, given a million tries, they never could’ve expected.
“Ladies and gentlemen!” He cried, throwing his two hands in the air, putting on a corny grin. “May I get a drumroll please?”
Yuki pounded against her thighs rapidly. When Kenji shot his agitated glare at her, she stopped, disappointment crossing her face.
“For one time and one time only,” He continued in his theatrical voice. “I present to you, the astounding, the talented, the charming…” He raised his brows at Akane, who rolled her eyes. “The terrific… Takeshi!”
Yuki broke out into an excited round of applause as the rest lingered silently, steeping the moment in awkwardness.
“Please, settle down, you’re too kind.” Takeshi said, mere seconds after Yuki’s round of applause. “Now, for my first trick: from inside this surprisingly cramped cage, I will disappear into thin air! But first, I need a volunteer.” He scanned them all once more, that time with a toothy smile. “You there, the lady with the key!” He pointed at Akane. “Perhaps you can be my assistant.”
“Perhaps not.” She immediately replied.
“Ok, maybe someone else…” His eyes swept over them again. His tone darkened. A wild, panicked glimmer entered his eye. “C’mon, I’m asking you nicely here,” He slammed both of his fists on the bars of the cage, causing Ren to flinch slightly. “To please, let me the hell out of this goddamn cage!”
Kenji marched up to the cage, where he pounded his fist back on the metal bars even harder, causing Takeshi to fall backward with a start. “Listen here,” He muttered through gritted teeth. “You are only alive today for one reason, and that is the combined persuasive efforts of everyone here, claiming you know something that I don’t. So, if you ever want to breathe air as a free man again, I strongly suggest that you answer every question given to you to the best of your knowledge.” Kenji turned his back on Takeshi and joined the rest of the circle. “He’s all yours, Ren. Ask away.”
“Oh, ok.” She mumbled, taking a few steps forward. She squinted at the boy in the cage. “Your name’s Takeshi, right?”
“Did you not hear my little spiel?” He raised an eyebrow. “Please don’t make me do it again.”
“Answer the question.” Kenji barked.
“Ok, ok, yes! My name is Takeshi! Is that it?”
“I know you!” Ren snapped her fingers. “I’ve seen you around school and you chased me all through town last Friday night.”
“Not my best work.” Takeshi snickered, scratching the back of his neck. “Go on.”
“Why are you after me?”
“I was assigned to you.” He said. “By the big man himself.”
“And who might that be?” Kenji asked.
“Now, now,” Takeshi wagged his finger. “It’s not your turn yet!” Kenji growled threateningly while rolling his sleeve further up his melon-sized biceps. Takeshi squealed in fear. “Ok, it’s Izumo! The ‘big man’ is Izumo! Mochizuki Izumo!”
“Izumo-san…” Akane repeated in a near whisper. From her glazed-over expression and increasing rate of breath, Ren could tell that her cold exterior was breaking away.
“Mochizuki Izumo was presumed dead centuries ago when The Yamato fell to pieces.” Kenji thinned his eyes. “Are you lying to us?”
“No! No, no, no…” Takeshi blurted. “Keyword, presumed.” They all exchanged glances. “We Kōga may not be as subtle as you Iga pricks, but it doesn’t make them any less tricky.”
“Kōga…” Akane murmured again. The fear flared up further in her expression.
“That’s impossible.” Kenji muttered, grinding his teeth. “The Kōga were defeated centuries ago. There’s no way…”
“No way?” Takeshi echoed, grinning. “Tell that to Izumo. Or the rest of us. Or me!”
“No more questions.” Ren said, slinking a step back.
Silence hung in the air. The crowd surrounding Takeshi each gazed at the ground in contemplation. A unanimous look of fear and anger was shared among Ren, Akane, and Kenji.
“Izumo… Kōga…” Ren stared at her balled fists. “Just like Nagato said. They would be the enemies of the Iga-ryū, like mentioned in the fortune. They’re the center of the coming battle. And now Shinsatsu.” She peered at the hooked, metal blade of the scythe strapped to her back from over her shoulder. “Now that I’m the wielder, does that mean it’s up to me to stop the Kōga? I can’t possibly…” She ground her teeth together and squinted her eyes. “I’m getting ahead of myself. Maybe this guy’s full of it.”
Ren opened her eyes and watched as Akane approached the cage next.
“Previously, you mentioned that the Kōga specifically assigned you to spy on Ren-san here.”
“Yup.” Takeshi answered. “Except ‘to spy on’ wasn’t quite the words they used, but go on.”
“Is there any particular reason why?”
“A couple, I guess. For one thing, you Iga have been ogling her for ages. Only fair to assume she’s important.”
“And the other reason?” Diego cut in.
Takeshi aimed his eye at him and broadened his leer. “Actually, big guy, it’s because of you.”
Another wave of shock rolled over them. Diego’s face discovered a brand-new shade of pale.
“That’s right.” Takeshi scoffed. “She was bait to get you out in the open so I could keep an eye on you.”
“M-me?” Diego pointed at himself. “But why?”
Takeshi shrugged his shoulders. “Hell if I know. Izumo didn’t say. But I’m not the only one watching you. Just as the others… if you can find ‘em.”
Diego emitted a low, furious growl. His narrow eyes flashed with fury.
“No further questions.” Akane stepped back.
Yuki marched right up to the cage and leaned her weight against it. Takeshi frowned.
“What’s your best joke?” She asked, narrowing her brow.
“I beg your pardon?”
“Tell me your funniest joke. Preferably one that begins with ‘knock-knock.’”
“Is she pulling my leg?” Takeshi aimed his thumb at her. Kenji threateningly cracked his knuckles. “Ah! As a matter of fact, I might know a few.” He cleared his throat. “Why did Sarah fall off the swing?”
“I don’t know, why did Sarah fall off the swing?” Yuki asked, grinning in anticipation.
“Because she had no arms!” Takeshi howled. Yuki’s smile quickly faded. “Hey, why didn’t Sarah get up?” Nobody asked why. “Because she had no friends!” Tears began to well up in Yuki’s eyes. Her bottom lip trembled. “You said you wanted a knock-knock one, right? Knock-knock...”
“Who’s there?” Yuki whimpered.
“Not Sarah!” Takeshi leaned his back against the cage and started to cackle while Yuki trudged off, sniveling.
Diego marched quietly toward the cage. He stopped a meter away, staring Takeshi dead in the face. His arch frown, glimmering eyes, and creased brow all spelled fury across his expression. “What’s it like?” He whispered softly in a voice separate from his aura.
“Gonna need some specifics.” Takeshi said.
“On the inside. Kōga. What’s it like?”
Takeshi’s mouth lifted slowly into a smile as he scanned the surrounding crowd for the third time. “When I look around here, I don’t see individuals. I see etiquette. I see rules on top of rules and nothing else. Kōga, it’s like a race to the top. Every day, they get stronger. Soon, nothing will rival them. I’d buckle up if I were you, because once we come for you, you’re in for one hell of a ride.”
Diego walked back into the semicircle. Takeshi eyed it all down with an equal part mischievous, equal part malevolent leer.
“PJ,” Kenji said. “Now’s the time to acquaint yourself with the shinobi world. If there’s anything you want to ask, ask.”
“Yeah, ask away. I don’t bite… Much.” Takeshi slowly licked his chops.
“Um…” PJ muttered. “I guess… what happened to your eye?”
“Wanna find out?” Takeshi muttered. He lifted his hand toward his black eyepatch, grabbed it, and ripped it away from his head. The crowd watched as the eyelid remaining shut over his right eyeball quivered slightly as if holding something beneath its surface.
Suddenly, it flew open. A red light, brighter and hotter than the sun itself, shone across the crowd’s faces, emerging from his pupil. The corners of Takeshi’s smile began to twitch. Squinting against the blinding glare, Ren looked down at Takeshi’s fingers, which trembled like they were being shaken down by hurricane-level winds. It appeared as though at any moment, smoke would erupt from his ears. His tremor in his hands spread through the entire volume of his body. Ren peered at her feet, where she felt the ground quake beneath her too.
“Wanna know what happens…” Takeshi whispered. He grabbed the bars of his cage. The metal screamed as he began to push apart the rods with his bare strength. “When I take off this eyepatch?!”
Quicker than lightning, Kenji threw an iron needle right into Takeshi’s leg. His eyes fell shut, extinguishing the blinding glare as his once-rugged body flopped over the pried opening in his cage. The group partook in a unanimous sigh of relief.
“Don’t worry, Ren.” Kenji grunted. “I didn’t kill him.”
“What the hell was that…?” Ren whispered.
“It’s like he got a powerup when he took off his eyepatch, but it made him go nuts…” Yuki reasoned.
“Did somebody say eyepatch?” Takeshi sprung to life again. The blinding, red light washed over them again. Kenji lobbed another needle at him, that one hitting him between the eyes. Takeshi fell back into a deep slumber, cutting off the light a second time. Another sigh.
“I suppose that concludes the extraction.” Kenji nudged Takeshi’s body back into the cage and pried the bars into their default location. “I’ll consult the blacksmith about crafting a more secure eyepatch.”
“Damn it, there he goes calling it an extraction again…” Ren muttered.
Little by little, the group funneled out of the courtyard and into the hallway veranda. As they silently marched toward the exit, Ren noticed out of the corner of her eye, Akane continuing to stand facing the wisteria. Her chartreuse eyes were absently fixed on the grass. Her thin, scarlet lips were pursed in a dense frown. Biting her lip, fighting back her better judgement, she decided to approach Akane.
“What’s wrong, Acne?” Ren whispered. “You look like someone rammed a stick further up your ass than usual.”
She sighed as she continued to peer at the grass reaching up beneath her feet, gathering tiny drops of rain. “My father told me that if a day ever came when Mochizuki Izumo-san awoke and decided to rebuild Kōga, then the only thing to look forward to would be a quick and painless end as opposed to a slow and agonizing one.” She closed her eyes. A quivering sigh passed through her. “For both your sake and mine, I pray that he is correct.”
Silently, Akane departed from Ren’s side, following the path the rest of the group took toward the veranda’s staircase. Her eyes followed Akane as she sulked through the exit, but when she did, Ren found Diego leaning against the empty doorframe. With an expression both anxious and grieving, he folded his arms and gazed down at the earth from the elevated walkway. Caution in her steps, Ren made her approach.
“I’ve heard your training’s gonna start soon.” Diego spoke softly as Ren joined him.
“Is that so? In that case, wish me luck.” Ren said with a friendly smile. She leaned against the opposite side of the same entryway as Diego and peered at him subtly. When she noticed his spirits hadn’t lifted, her smile faded to match his sour grimace. “Are you doing alright?”
“Just fine. Why wouldn’t I?”
“You just haven’t been acting yourself. If that makes sense.”
“I see.” Diego pointed his eyes up. Ren could see the sun begin to poke through the dispersing storm clouds, glistening in his green eyes. “I just have an important meeting and I’ve been searching for the right words to use.”
“What kind of meeting?” There was no answer. “Sorry if I’m probing…”
“No, no. It’s fine.” Diego rose to a stand. “I’m breaking up with Erika. That’s all.” With his hands stuffed down his pockets, Diego started off down the corridor. Without the right words to say, Ren lingered underneath the shade of the eaves, her jaw clenched tight.
“I gotta say,” PJ said, approaching her from the corridor. “This was not what I imagined happening when I asked to hang out with you: getting kidnapped by a bunch of shinobi blokes, almost having my memory wiped, and to top it all off, nearly getting blown to smithereens by some stir-crazy cyclops chap.”
“Yeah, I’m sorry about all that.”
“Sorry? What’re you talking about, mate? This was the best bloody weekend of my life!” Ren glanced up at PJ’s wide eyes, brimming with excitement. A wide smile stretched across his face. “I can’t wait to come back here!”
Over her shoulder, Ren stole one final glance at Kashiwabara’s garden. “Yeah.” She whispered, her cheeks lifting also. “Me too…”
Takeshi fixed his gaze at the iron bottom of his cage. He squatted low while absently picking at the tape pressing his eyepatch shut. Surrounding him, the courtyard breathed quiet stillness.
“So,” He muttered, seemingly out of the blue. “What do you have to ask me that’s so important, we just have to be alone?”
Takeshi raised his eye off the ground to peer across the courtyard. There, standing a distant five meters away, Fujibayashi Nagato peered at him. His arms hung at his sides, unthreateningly. Almost welcomingly.
“When I heard you speak, when you mention the Kōga-ryū, you quite often refer to them as ‘they.’” He began.
“What do you mean?” Takeshi muttered, obtaining a puzzled look.
“My question is why you say ‘they’ and not refer to your clan as perhaps ‘us’ or ‘we’?”
Takeshi blinked rapidly. “You know what, do whatever you want. Boil me. Stab me. Skin me alive. Just spare me from any more of these bull questions, will ya?” He ruffled his hands through his soggy hair.
“I see…” Nagato murmured. “Are you a Kōga, Takeshi?”
“I just told you to stop grilling me. I’m not answering.” Takeshi snarled.
“I understand. As I mentioned, you have no obligation to answer me.” Nagato’s gaze deepened. “I am asking you on your own behalf. Are you a Kōga, Takeshi?”
Takeshi sprung to his feet. His shoulders quaked in fury. “Starting from when I was six years old, I was raised to be a killer for the Koga, and every day for the past eight, I’ve served them proudly, becoming one of Izumo’s three elite guards. That’s over half my life I’ve been training, mastering the use of every single weapon known to man, all with the sole purpose of doing you in. Don’t even think for one second that I’d let that all go to waste. So, do I have you convinced?”
“Perhaps. But have you convinced yourself?” Takeshi’s tremors fell still. Nagato folded his arms calmly behind his back. “And out of curiosity, how much did it pain you when Izumo sealed all that power behind that eyepatch?” Takeshi opened his mouth to answer, but Nagato turned his back on the cage and strolled away. “Another question for you to ponder yourself.”
Ren burst through the doors labeled “south exit,” releasing a long, groaning sigh as though she had been holding her breath.
“Dodging classes, teachers, security guards, and balls. I’m beat!” She thought, yawning tiredly. “At least I managed to get more M.E.S.H. Cards.”
As she opened her eyes, Ren immediately spied Akane. Her arms folded tightly across her chest. Her gaze, set on Ren, hosted an impatient look.
“What, if I may ask, the hell are you doing here?” Ren muttered, approaching her.
“You require some method of arriving in Kashiwabara for your training.” Akane answered plainly, although her eyes continued to sear with contempt.
“Yeah, Acne, it’s called hailing a cab.” Ren rolled her eyes. “Remember how I got here last time? Of course you do, because you set it up!”
“And do you always presume that one of our highly-specialized shinobi will be your chauffer each time you wish to grace Kashiwabara with your presence? And to what do you say of entering a cab and requesting Kashiwabara’s location to a driver that is not of Iga?”
“Are you really that paranoid?”
“Some call it paranoia, others call it precaution. But no matter what it is prescribed as, seeing as though you are not fit to reach Kashiwabara on your own, I have been tasked with providing you temporary means of escort.”
Before she could ask what those means were, Akane turned to face Ren her backside and lowered herself to one knee. For a while, she simply stood there, watching her dumbfounded.
“Are you going to climb on, or will I be forced to carry you?” Akane hissed, the hostility in her voice finally matching the heat of her glare.
Frowning, Ren climbed onto Akane’s back. After which, they took off. As Akane darted across the high rooftops, over streets and alleyways, Ren’s face burned with embarrassment.
At last, after what felt like hours in Ren’s mind, Akane halted upon the familiar crimson bridge leading to Kashiwabara’s garden cloister. There, Ren hastily climbed off her back and dusted herself off as if to sweep away any traces of Akane left clinging to her clothes.
“I hope at least one of us was enjoying that.” Ren said, jaw clenched. “Otherwise, it would be a net loss for both of us.”
“How considerate of you.” Akane sneered.
“Just one more reason for me to train hard. So I won’t have to keep relying on your generosity.”
“Then it appears we both have a stake in your progress.” Akane narrowed her eyes. “Do not disappoint me, Ren-san.”
Her bare feet felt the plush, springy tatami floors. Her new set of loose-fitting garments swayed as she entered: a training gi consisting of baggy trousers, a matching, sleeveless top, and a red sash holding it together.
“This must be the dojo…” Thought Ren, passing her gaze across the lofty walls, coated in hanging weapons and scrolls. Shimmering, varnished pillars surrounding the perimeter supported the room’s high ceiling and second-story balcony. “No wonder this place looks so huge from the outside. It spans two friggin’ floors.”
Not long after she entered through one of the dojo’s doors, Ren watched another figure stroll inside as well. Across his body, he donned a matching robe. The only difference was his muscular, six-foot-tall physique filled out every square inch of his attire. Ren, whereas, had to roll up the sleeves of her pants in order for them to not drag on the ground.
Ren noticed the man’s physique seethed a raw power and strength. Although his aura didn’t overshadow Fujibayashi Nagato’s, his was certainly less subtle. But his raw muscles and visible strength weren’t the only things. A pair of bushy grey brows sat low over his blinky eyes. His hair, a similar color and texture to Nagato’s, was chopped short and spiny, highlighting the man’s rugged facial features. His large, square jaw and profuse frown filled Ren with a sense of worry, but not as much as when he halted a few feet from the entrance, peered at her, and folded his arms.
The only thing Ren could manage to say in that moment was, “You’re not Nagato.”
“Lesson one:” He stated, ignoring her previous statement. “Bow.”
“Right.” She folded in half quickly. “Sorry.”
At the same time, they both raised from their bows, finding each other across the dojo once again. “You are correct. I am not Fujibayashi Nagato. My name is Tanba Momochi. Perhaps he’s told you about me.”
“I remember now.” Ren tapped her chin. “He said you were chosen to be a jōnin leader like he was.”
“I have also been selected to be your teacher.” Momochi said, further entering the dojo. His footsteps echoed with booming confidence. “Lesson two: you will refer to me as either ‘Sensei’ or ‘Tanba-sensei.’”
“So Momochi,” Ren blurted. His gaze hardened. “Don’t you think teaching me is a bit above your paygrade?”
“Not at all.” He shook his head. “The first role of jōnin leadership is to set an example for all whom they command. I have trained every beginner-level shinobi in Iga, and today, that includes you too.”
“Guess I’m just a beginner, then.” Ren sighed.
“Everyone must start from somewhere.” Momochi said, starting to pace back and forth in front of her. “But from what I’ve been told, your case is highly unusual. Enlighten me about the events taking place before Diego’s party. Particularly, what happened outside.”
Ren blinked, taken aback with his request. “Gosh, with everything that happened over the weekend, I’d almost completely forgotten about that.”
“I was being threatened, and I got so mad. So mad I couldn’t contain it. So mad I couldn’t even breathe. When I was at the breaking point, everything turned this red color and I felt this wave of energy. It felt like I could do anything. With that energy, I beat the crap out of those guys who were threatening me, but after that, the power went away. What was that?”
“That is lesson three.” Momochi replied. “Somehow, you managed to tap into one of the three zen: body.”
“I’m sorry, zen?”
“Within your being, there exist three finite pools. These pools are known as zen, and there are three of them: body, mind, and spirit. As living creatures, we borrow energy, called ki, from these zen gradually, at a rate we can’t control. But a martial artist can enter a state of being in which they can tap into their power and draw as much ki as they want directly from it, increasing the area of strength that they so desire. We call this state ‘entering the zen.’ Any shinobi with basic practice can accomplish this, but you’re the first one I’ve seen who’s been able to tap into one without any training whatsoever.”
“Thanks,” Ren awkwardly smirked. “I- I guess…”
“The zen of the body is what you have experienced. It allows enhanced speed, strength, and agility. The zen of the mind is when secrets become unlocked. Any problem can be solved at a glance. The zen of spirit is when you hear all, see all, and be all in your general vicinity. The zen of body contains the strength to fight. The zen of mind contains the knowledge of how to fight. The zen of spirit contains the wisdom of why you fight. Understood?”
“Yeah, but what about all three at the same time?” Asked Ren.
Momochi’s gaze softened. “Do not get ahead of yourself. Accessing all three zen simultaneously requires a level of discipline and need that beginners such as yourself simply do not possess. Let it be a goal to work toward, but certainly not something you can expect to achieve any time soon. Patience will be needed. Especially at your rank.”
“Rank… You mean like karate belt?”
“In some sense, perhaps. There are three ranks of shinobi: blood moon, shadow moon, and zen moon.”
“And what belt am I?”
“Currently, none. But once I deem that your training with me is complete, then you will reach the rank of blood moon. In addition, rather than belts, your rank will be distinguished by tattoos lining your arms.” Ren’s heart jumped, imagining the fresh, hot sting of needles entering her skin. “I can sense your tension. Worry not. By the time your training with me is through, irezumi is going to feel painless by comparison.” Ren whimpered slightly nonetheless. “Before I start you off with the zen you’re most familiar with, allow me to clear up some confusion: Ninjutsu is more than just a martial art. Rather, it is a system that incorporates all three zen and all the abilities those zen promise.” He paused to reach into his pocket and retrieve a book the size of his palm. As he stuffed it into Ren’s paws as if it were poison, though, its width filled both her hands. “If you have any questions in the future, consult the text. Not me.”
She examined the face of the book. Its varnished black cover and crimson binding shimmered in the light of the dojo. Adorning the cover’s bottom righthand side was a blood-red dot and horizontal kanji text reading “伊賀” superimposed over it.
“This will be your last chance to ask me anything.” Momochi said, drawing Ren’s attention back to him.
“I snuck into a karate class when I was six. Does that give me a boost or anything?”
“Is that so? Then I’m sure if I asked you to, you could demonstrate a kata for me.”
Ren blinked. “What’s a kata again?”
“Memory is something we will perfect when we train the mind.” Momochi sighed. “Everything you need to know is inscribed in the book, making it essential to the learning process. Do not ever lose it.”
“Yes…” Ren said. Momochi thinned his gaze on her. “… Sensei.”
“Very good. You passed lesson two. Now open to the first page and lesson three will begin.”
“Will I need Tsu for this?” Asked Ren, obeying his instructions. Bewilderment crossed Momochi’s stern face. “Sorry, I meant Shinsatsu. I nicknamed it Tsu. Shinsatsu was getting kinda hard for me to keep saying, you know?”
“All that will be needed is what the book inscribes.” Momochi replied, his cold airs resuming.
“Oh right…” Mumbled Ren, peering down at the page she opened to. “This… just looks like an ordinary punch, though.”
“That’s because it is. Now show it to me.”
Ren slowly bent down, feeling Momochi’s judgmental stare boring into her each cautious second she took. She set the book down on the floor and resumed her upright posture. While staring at it, she assumed the same stance as the illustration etched into the page. And once it matched the depiction, she threw her fist. It launched strong but petered out on the follow through. Instinctively, her gaze jumped back toward Momochi.
“Was that right?” She asked, to which she received an immediate shrug.
“Does it look right in the book?”
Musing the page again, Ren sank her posture to the same stance and threw another punch, that one producing a swish of air. Again, she looked at Momochi for approval.
“Why do you keep looking at me?” He grunted.
“Because I’m not sure if I’m doing it right if you don’t say anything! Aren’t you supposed to be my teacher?”
“I’m here to guide your learning, but that text has been crafted to instruct new shinobi on all basic manners of Ninjutsu. Following its example will ensure success in your training. What say you try those again until you’re confident it looks right in the book. That will be today’s lesson.” With that, he turned away and began toward the exit doors. Urgency swelled within her, wanting her to call after him while her astonishment caught her voice in a bubble at the back of her throat. Eventually, though, her first impression won out.
“That’s it?” Ren howled. “You’re just leaving me to look at the book and do what it says until I think I got it right?”
Momochi halted in place, turned, and viewed Ren over his shoulder as if he couldn’t understand the upset tone in her voice. “Yes. And good luck.”
When he finally vanished through the doorway, defeat washed over her, feeling no other choice but to do what she was told. Ren sighed, dropped her gaze back down toward the page, and clenched both her fists.
Drops of sweat fell like steady rain after slithering down her face and falling off the tip of her nose or the bottom of her chin. They splashed against the floor beneath her, forming rings in the puddles they grew. And with each fist Ren threw, the perspiration pooling off her knuckles sprayed outward, catching the light of the dojo, appearing as a fine mist.
Dog-like, exhausted pants emitted from the back of her sour-tasting throat, becoming sharp hisses with each swipe she made. After every one, Ren lowered her bloodshot gaze toward where the open book lay face-up, displaying the same diagram as it had countless minutes ago.
“I got no idea how long I’ve been at it with this and I don’t wanna know! Just what on earth does Momochi expect me to be doing-”
A weight slammed suddenly into her, lifting Ren off her feet and sending her a full three meters airborne. The impact that launched her, however, didn’t rouse any immediate pain, almost as if it were a strong gust of wind. But when she landed halfway across the dojo, tangible pain shot through her. Her face tightened. A groan escaped her lungs like a rusty creek.
Once the searing hurt tapered off and she half-ascended to a sit, she narrowed her eyes at just what, or who, had sent her sailing away.
And there, behind where Ren once stood, still holding out the flat-open palm from the strike that must have hurtled her away, stood a man. The first detail Ren noticed of his was a red headband worn around his brow. Similarly to Momochi, he was dressed in a white gi. But more similarly to Ren, his trousers were rolled halfway up his stout, muscular legs. From the grey mustache sitting over his smirking lips to the wrinkles surrounding his pinched-together eyes, Ren could tell that he was the same age as Nagato and Momochi, and certainly no less powerful despite being shorter than either of them. In any case, Ren sensed no danger from him. Quite the opposite, actually. His beaming face and round features made for an air of safety and warmth, but that didn’t mean Ren wasn’t annoyed by his ambush.
“Sorry.” He said, dropping his fighting stance. “I thought you were an intruder.”
“You’re not Nagato.” Ren stated. “And you’re definitely not Tanba-sensei either.”
“Apologies.” He chuckled heartily. “First impressions, not strong.” Unlike Momochi and Nagato, who spoke with command over the English dialect, his accent was tangible.
“It’s fine.” Ren stood up and dusted off the seat of her pants. “It’s been an era of strange first impressions.”
“My name is Hattori Hanzo.” Said the man, bowing his head lower than Tanba Momochi had.
“I’ve heard that name before too. Brought up by Nagato in the same breath as Momochi. He’s a jōnin leader, whatever that means, just like the two of them.”
“Forgive me.” Hanzo winked.
“As long as you don’t greet me like that every single time I see you.”
“Well, that depends.” Hanzo shrugged. “Are you going to do something about it?”
“Hey!” Ren cried.
“That reminds me, Ren, I haven’t said ‘welcome’ to you.”
“Well, you just did, I think.” Ren rolled her eyes. “So if you don’t mind, I think I wanna get back to training.”
Hanzo glanced down at the book beneath Ren and let out a single scoff. “Hah! Is this Momo-chan’s idea of training? What a laugh. You don’t learn Ninjutsu from book. You learn Ninjutsu from doing. From teacher!”
“Yeah, but how am I supposed to know what I’m doing without looking in the book?”
Hanzo pinched the bottom of his chin, feigning deep thought. “Good point. Here, let’s try this.”
He started across the dojo toward Ren. Before she had time to ponder what his plans were, his extended index finger shot out and jabbed her in the middle of her belly.
She doubled over immediately. A feverish, nauseous heat rose to her face. As she cradled her impacted stomach and squinted her eyes, Ren pulled in deep, pained breaths.
“Wh-what was that for?” She uttered breathlessly. “What did you just do? My… my head!” She removed one hand from her stomach to knead her brow, growing hotter by the second.
“Oh, don’t worry.” Hanzo’s voice reached her as if her head were underwater. “I just give your zen of mind a little kick.”
Ren’s eyes peeled open as a new sensation swelled within her. Over the dizzying heat washed a burst of cold. At the same time, Ren felt her synapses and thoughts gain an icy, crystalline clearness. Fear exited her mind completely, replaced by a swift, unfeeling rationality. Her eyes opened further, revealing a blue glaze coating her vision. Her irises themselves exhibited the same sapphire hue.
Before Ren’s fully-open eyes, Hanzo picked the book up off the ground and fanned through the pages like a flipbook. Despite viewing each one for less than a fraction of a second, Ren’s pupils darted violently, engulfing every speck of detail like they were black holes.
Once the back cover snapped shut, the strange blue pigment exited Ren’s eyes and her sights returned to their normal tint. Likewise, she felt the burst of coolness fade to the back of her memories, just as inexplicably as it came. Her brows puckered in confusion as she raised her gaze toward Hanzo.
“What did I do just now?”
“Momo-chan’s idea of learning.” Hanzo smirked, holding the book aloft in one hand. “Now there is no need for this.” Ren watched his fist close tighter, breaking the book apart within his grasp like a flimsy cracker. Her blood turned cold.
“Hey, what gives! I was told to never lose that!” She cried, standing fully upright. “What the hell am I supposed to tell Tanba-sensei!”
“Book is not lost.” Hanzo unclenched his fist, letting the shredded pages flutter to the ground like falling petals. “Book is now in here.” He tapped his finger to his pruned brow. “Do you remember it?”
“Vaguely…” Ren scratched the back of her neck.
“Good.” Hanzo nodded and retreated a full three feet. “Then show me falling axe kick.”
Ren’s leg swung upward and sharply descended, like it was guided on a rail. After her foot landed, her eyes widened in astonishment at her own actions.
“What the…? My body just did that?”
“Outside sweeping block.” Hanzo barked at her next. Obediently, Ren swatted her hand away, from the upper corner of her shoulder across the full length of her body toward her waist. Her fluid motion produced a quick, airy swish.
“I didn’t even know I could do that! It’s like I’m a passenger to my body’s own thoughts and actions!” Ren’s astonished thoughts read.
Ren’s foot departed from the ground. When her second followed, her body corkscrewed in the air. But when her foot landed, it slipped out beneath her, toppling Ren to the ground in a clumsy pile.
“Yep…” She groaned. “That’s more like it…”
“There. You remember.” Hanzo strode toward Ren again, still collapsed on the floor.
“Again, vaguely. And look at how I wiped out just now.”
“That’s because there is more to Ninjutsu than just book. Come with me.” Hanzo turned around, facing the exit doors. “I show you a real dojo now.”
Together, they swam upstream through the shuffling sea of pedestrians. Iseji appeared just as lively as it had when Ren first passed through it.
“Hattori-sensei, good afternoon!” Ren heard a voice call from within one of the shops lining their path.
“Master Hattori! Won’t you stop by for a bowl? It’s on the house!” Bellowed a sweat-slick man on the other side of an open-air counter.
“I will soon be there!” Hanzo grinned, waving at the man. Ren’s gaze narrowed on him behind his back.
“He’s pretty popular around here. Can’t imagine why…”
When they arrived in front of a venue where open, wooden boxes faced the street acting as a counter and barrels laying on their side stacked as high as the roof, Hanzo paused. Ren stopped behind him and examined their destination. The boxes contained either fresh produce in a full spectrum of colors or what could only be described as an aquarium of different types of fish, mollusks, or crustaceans, bathing in habitats of ice. The last specimen Ren saw was a man, lounging against the inside wall behind the counter. His eyes were shut and the hairs of his flowing beard rippled with each breath that puffed from his nostrils. If he hadn’t been fanning himself off, he would’ve appeared asleep.
“Ren,” Hanzo faced her. “I would like you to meet Mr. Tenya. He owns this produce store and he will be sensei for today.”
“And what exactly am I doing here?”
Hanzo reached his arm inside the shop and retrieved two things. The first was a rectangular wooden box the length of Ren’s forearm. The only distinguishable detail was a metal slot on one of its faces. The second was what appeared to be a jagged chunk of wood, equal in size. Hanzo then ran the chunk along the roof of the box where the slit resided. A soft, almost indistinguishable sound of a scrape reached Ren’s ears. After, Hanzo removed the lid of the box to reveal its hollow interior where inside, Ren saw a paper-thin brown shaving.
“This is katsuobushi.” Hanzo said, handing her the lumpy, misshapen object. “Dried smoked tuna used for bonito flake topping. Mr. Tenya just sold out and needs more made.” Hanzo bent forward and placed the box on the ground between him and Ren. With slow, unsure movements, Ren took a seat on the floor, placed the katsuobushi slab against the box’s slot, and pushed. It scraped along the slot with visibly more resistance than when Hanzo did it. “Perfect. Except one more thing: do it all in the zen of body.”
“Are you crazy?” Ren scoffed uneasily. “I can barely be in the zen of body without feeling like I’m going to pass out.”
“Then it is a good challenge. Give it a try.”
Ren’s brows nestled lower over her eyes. Her lips curled back, revealing her gritted teeth. The veins across her arms began to pucker.
For a split second, a flash of red illuminated her irises and at the same time, her fist closed, shattering the katsuobushi slab in her hand like glass. When Ren’s eyes immediately returned to normal, she began panting as if she’d just spent a full minute underwater. Hanzo, brandishing an unsurprised expression, reached behind Tenya’s counter again, retrieved an identical katsuobushi, and placed it in front of Ren. As she continued to catch her breath, Hanzo turned and started off without uttering another word to her.
“Wait a minute,” She shouted after him, finally reclaiming her voice. Hanzo paused in place, having made it just two steps away. How’s this supposed to teach me Ninjutsu?” She grabbed the katsuobushi so hard, the color drained from her knuckles. “A book can’t but this can?”
“You will see in one hour.” Hanzo answered calmly. He then rubbed his hands happily together while licking his chops. “Now, time for my free soup!”
As he pranced merrily in the direction of the Ramen Shop, Ren faced the ground beneath her with a scowl. “Well isn’t this familiar…”
A whispering buzz permeated the air like the rapid flurry of insect wings. The sound grew louder in Hanzo’s ears as he approached the produce stand again. There Ren sat in the same manner he left her, sliding the katsuobushi back and forth across the shaver, producing the sawing noise. She viewed her work beneath her with eyes spread as wide as they could go. Faintly, Hanzo could spy flecks of crimson light tracing the perimeter of her irises. His index and thumb smoothed slowly over his mustache while his eyes twinkled with interest. Even as he reached a foot away from Ren where his shadow painted over her, she seemed to not even notice. That was until he cleared his throat into his closed fist.
“That’s enough.” He uttered. Like that, the liquid in Ren’s eyes changed. The scarlet hue slipped underneath her irises default black. She stood up, lifting the now half-sized katsuobushi away from the block, revealing one side completely flat and having gained a sleek varnish.
“That was an hour…?” From the quietness in her tone and the distance of her gaze, it was unclear if her question was even meant for Hanzo. “But I just started. Hattori-sensei, what was that?” She faced him where her bewildered expression was met by his radiant beam. “It couldn’t have been zen. I didn’t feel like I was about to explode. Or pound in the face of everyone in a five-meter radius. It felt like my body was listening to me this time. But at the same time, I was just obeying my body.”
“Because that is what zen is.” Hanzo’s smile widened, but instead of cheekiness, Ren saw genuine pride pinch at the corners of his small mouth. “Until now, you thought that zen was something you borrowed. But zen is something you are. A head full of worries or full of book cannot learn this. Only through doing. With repeated motion, your zen will grow more willing to listen to you and you to it until one day, you won’t tell the difference.” Hanzo paused, lifting his chin and squinting at the sun setting slowly behind the horizon. At the same time, a curtain of clouds slowly pulled across the sky to assume its place.
“It is late. Your training today is through. Be back tomorrow, same time, yes?” Hanzo peered at Ren once again and gave a sturdy nod.
The nature of Ren’s gaze changed a third time. They widened past their limits while her pupils shrunk. “Tomorrow?”
“What did you expect? You can only sharpen a sword when the metal is hot.” As Hanzo turned to stride off, one corner of his smile pulled tighter, becoming the same mischievous smirk she’d come to dread. “Tomorrow it is.”