Lush, green stocks soared to indistinguishable heights. The sunlight caught off the bamboo trees’ smooth surface, radiating a natural, emerald glow, permeating the air with peace and stillness.
With a casual swish, a hand passed through one of the trunks, causing it to tip over. As Ren stood behind it, watching the trunk plummet, she smirked.
“I’ve got to be the master of chopping down bamboo trees by now.” She thought. “But the more I think about it, after a week of training, that’s not much of an accomplishment…”
She shrugged her shoulders and turned to face the next stalk. Brushing the splinters off her hands, she continued her chopping, listening to her thoughts play through her mind.
“Since I began training here, a new schedule took form. Each day after school, I’d come here on the back of an ever-perturbed Akane. There, I’d find Tanba-sensei in the dojo where he’d tell me to do drills from the book. Luckily, he’d always leave before he realized I didn’t have the book anymore, thanks to Hanzo. Instead, Hanzo would find me, drag my ass to Iseji, and put me to work. First, I shaved bonito flakes for Tenya’s. Next, I grinded matcha for tea ceremonies at the bathhouse. After that I kneaded rice to make sake for Kanpai’s Izakaya, pulled dough into noodles for Itadaki’s Ramen, beat mochi for Tapiru café.” Her hand passed through one stock as easily as scissors gliding through paper. The only noise it produced was the sound of rushing wind. She smirked again. “But I realize now that each of those were lessons in disguise. Things to condition my body without me even knowing. Every exercise taught me how to better control my zen, requiring more precision, strength, and rhythm than the last. Because throughout all that, I was never allowed to leave the zen. And now, today, I’m putting that strength I’ve acquired to the test.”
Her knuckles smacked against one bamboo stalk. Instead of toppling over, Ren instead retreated her hand, clutching her sore fist and gritting her teeth in pain. Hardening her brow in frustration, she ascended the tree’s entire thirty-foot height with one single jump. As she descended the same distance, her open hand sliced through the bamboo’s parallel length. And once she landed, the two standing, vertical halves of the tree fell to either side.
“Even though the curriculum’s starting to feel second nature, I still can’t help but think I’m wasting my time…”
After the pain in her knuckles subsided, she began searching for another bamboo tree to knock down. As Ren turned around, she saw it: the final stalk, erect amongst its fallen siblings. She froze, reluctance beginning to fill her.
“Go ahead.” Uttered a cold voice behind her, inviting a shiver to race down Ren’s spine. “It’s all yours.”
She spun in the direction of the voice’s source where she saw a man. What stood out to her at first wasn’t his hairless dome, but that every inch of his clean-shaven head was covered in intricate black tattoos. His eyes were menacingly still and expressionless, but as she gazed into his pupils, Ren found a chilling gleam. His hands were neatly tucked behind his grey robe. His aura alone made her stomach churn.
She gazed back at the sapling: the final one standing tall amidst its fallen siblings. Sadness crawled its way up into Ren’s mind before defiantly, she turned toward the man again.
“I’m here to collect wood for Banashi’s Stationary.” Ren uttered. “How do you expect they get it in the future when there’s nothing left?”
“What a pity.” The man muttered. He approached the plant and without a note of hesitation, sent his fist plowing through it. Unlike Ren’s clean chops, the shoot practically exploded, shards blasting outward like deadly shrapnel. Ren imagined briefly if anything other than bamboo being struck by that hand. A strange sensation closed around her throat. “Nagato truly sees a lot in you. I almost envy him. How he talks about you non-stop without seeming to grow nauseous. Almost as much as he talked about your dear father.” Ren’s chest twisted again. The image of the dark figure turning around and disappearing from view inexplicably flashed in front of her vision. “The Great Kurogane…”
The corner of Ren’s eye twitched. “Listen, I don’t have a father, it’s not this Kurogane Sasuke, and he definitely isn’t great.”
“Interesting…” The man removed one of his hands from behind his back and used it to hold his chin. “Some would argue that he was the greatest warrior to ever come from Iga. But if you ask me, he was a waste of potential if I’ve ever seen one.” He began to circle her. “You remind me a lot of him too. Sharing his smug face is one thing, but your similar history is something entirely else. I cannot overstate how great he could’ve been. A man destined to carry the world on his shoulders. But under that pressure, he crumbled. Especially twenty years prior when he ran off with that spineless Alejandra girl. From that day forth, Kurogane Sasuke was a phantom. No one knew where he was for ages. I tried to convince the council to label him as a deserter and to send a search party after him, but they knew he would be impossible to find. Any failed effort would make us look foolish. Thus, we did nothing. We sat and twiddled our thumbs until low and behold, you appeared, broke and alone. I saw his faults as well as I see yours now. While a true shinobi accepts responsibility and fulfills it dutifully, Kurogane Sasuke ran from it. You run from it. He cowered from the smallest tasks. If he were standing right here today, he wouldn’t even cut down one simple plant.” He halted right in front of Ren. His half-closed, skeptical gaze drilled holes through her eyes into the back of her skull. “Do you see what I mean? Uncanny.”
“Yeah, well I’m not him, alright? If I couldn’t cut down a ‘simple plant,’ then what the hell am I looking at?” Ren asked as her vision swept across the ground, littered with fallen rods of bamboo.
“Respect your elders, child. It’ll go a long way.” He snarled, turning his back on Ren and marching off.
“And just who do you think you are anyway?” Ren asked lastly.
The man paused, his back still aimed at her. “My name is Sukesada. Tomo Sukesada. Dai-Chūnin of the Iga-ryū.”
Ren’s feet didn’t produce a sound as she crossed the bridge, leading from the cloister into Iseji. Her silent treads clashed with her white-knuckled clenched fists, swinging at her sides with each lunging step, and pinched brow.
“Who the hell does that puto think he is! Dai-Chump Sukesada…” Ren tilted her head back and sighed, allowing some of the tension to leave her system when she saw the afternoon sun continuing to shine fully in the pale blue sky. “At least I’m coming home early from practice. That’s a first. Bet June’ll be happy with all the extra-”
Her thoughts were cut short when a lofty mass fell from a surrounding rooftop above and landed directly in front of her. An involuntary scream escaped Ren’s lungs as she hopped away, startled.
“Oh, it’s you.” She sighed. Gradually she resumed her straight posture and bowed toward Kenji: the aforementioned dark mass.
“Ren,” He folded forward robotically, bobbed back up, and immediately faced her with his back. “We have to talk. Follow me.” As he started in the opposite direction, Ren gave an apologetic shrug.
“Sorry, but no can do. Gotta start my shift soon.”
“We’re both aware your lesson ended early. You have plenty of time. Now come.” Kenji barked behind him, just before exiting earshot.
“Fantástico…” She mumbled, running to catch up to him. As she did, slowing to a jog alongside his brisk stride, Ren peered into Kenji’s lofty face. “So what’s this for?”
“No kidding. But is that all you can tell me?”
“Not for long.” Kenji finally ducked his head as he entered beneath the shallow ceiling. Ren paused, watching as he strolled further into the murky depths of the abandoned Tamuro’s. A lump formed in her throat as her eyes swept across familiar nets of cobwebs and vacant shelves. Except that time, in addition to Kenji, two more people were present.
“Ren! You made it!” Cheered Yuki, bouncing up and down as she sat on top of the clerk’s counter.
“I’m assuming Diego didn’t arrive.” Said Kenji, traveling his eyes across each of the room’s occupants.
“Do you wish for me to find him, Kenji-san?” Asked Akane.
“No, I’ll proceed without him.” He replied. “But first…” His gaze snapped toward Ren, still standing within the sunlight outside the shop. She sunk her gaze, seeing the roof’s shadow painted across the ground an inch from her feet, marking the entrance into the open-air mart. Sinking her front row of teeth into her bottom lip, Ren took an intrepid step forward, entering the shop at last. With that, Kenji folded his arms, resumed passing his sight along each of the room’s inhabitants, and began.
“I should preface this by saying how recently, there has been a great deal of uncertainty surrounding a foe which has lain dormant for centuries. I am speaking of course about the Kōga. In the past, the Kōga-ryū’s attacks on Iga were ruthless and devastating and we can assume Mochizuki Izumo’s rebuilt Kōga is no different. Needless to say, if we’re to take our prisoner’s word at face value, then we have to fight back. That is why the chūnin council has directed me to stand before you all today with an opportunity to combat this up-and-coming threat: the formation of the Oniwaban.”
Ren glanced at Akane and Yuki, who watched Kenji with an understanding glint in their eyes.
“Centuries ago, our own Hattori Hanzo led one of the greatest Iga task forces to ever serve. What I’ve been instructed to collect is a permanent, cohesive group of genin. Normally, genin task forces are built up of random members for each assignment, but that’s where the Oniwaban differs. With each of you as part of one squad, playing upon each other’s strengths, defending one another, and serving as a second communion within our clan, I can confidently say that the Kōga-ryū will face firm competition on the field of battle.”
“No question.” Ren piped up, drawing Kenji’s eyes toward her. “I’ll join.”
“Me too!” Yuki stood up and approached them.
“As will I.” Akane added.
Ren detected the slightest hint of movement from the corner of her eye. Following the subtle indication, she turned and spied a familiar figure mixed in with Iseji’s crowds. Messy black curls, olive skin, and emerald eyes, fixed directly into hers.
“Diego?” Ren mouthed.
Diego’s eyes continued to linger on her, less joyful than she remembered them last. Not long after she turned to face him, Ren watched his chest inflate with a deep breath before turning away and mixing with the indistinguishable mob. Ren’s lip curled in disappointment.
“I like this place, don’t you?” Yuki remarked, her legs swinging as they dangled off the counter’s ledge. “Sure lucky it isn’t being used by anyone!”
“The descendants of this establishment’s previous owner have turned over the property rights to the jōnin. It effectively belongs to the clan.” Akane mentioned.
“Then can we keep it, Ken?” Yuki cried, jumping off the counter, wafting toward Kenji, and gripping two handfuls of Kenji’s shozoku top. She peered into his lofty, distant face with sad puppy-dog eyes. “Pwease?”
“I’ll submit a proposal to the council and pass down word if it is approved.” Kenji uttered. “Feel free to return to whatever tasks you were doing beforehand. In the meantime, I will alert you of any Kōga activity.”
Ren formed fists over and over again. Her unblinking eyes set dead ahead. Her skin teemed with power. Her brows creased harshly above her sight.
“This time,” She thought to herself. “This time, I will not lose…”
“Dodgeball!” Blared the rotund gym teacher.
Immediately, Ren spotted a bright, red, rubber ball soar on a collision course straight for the bridge of her nose. The wind whistled behind the round projectile, careening like a rocket toward her. Just then, Ren’s fingers unfurled at her sides. Her eyelids fell over her vision. All was quiet.
In a split second, Ren simultaneously shot her eyes open and lifted her hand. Fanning out her fingers and holding out her arm perpendicular to the floor, she caught the ball.
“Out!” The teacher belted.
“But you said it wasn’t a rule!” PJ, the one who had thrown the ball at Ren, cried.
He shrugged. “Just playing by your rules.”
After that, the game was on.
Ren counted over a hundred balls soaring straight for her. She parried each one with the ball in her hand acting as a shield while bouncing them back at the enemy team. Every other second, the teacher cried “out!” after each successful strike. Ren watched her opponents gaze at her with shocked expressions as she performed high backflips and elegant rolls to avoid their stream of punishment. Tangible dismay settled over the opposite half of the gymnasium.
Soon, across the dividing line, Ren’s classmates sat on the floor. On both sides, the players rubbed the impact zones where the rubber balls hit. Only Ren and a handful of her opponents remained in the game. One of whom just so happened to be none other than Missy Martinez, late for class again.
After backflipping in the air to elude one orb of death hurtling straight at her feet, Ren lobbed two balls at the same time. They landed against the two boys straddling Martinez on either side. After a pair of contiguous calls from the teacher, only Missy and Ren remained. Martinez leered.
Ren watched as Missy zoomed around the perimeter of her side of the gym, gathering dodgeballs under her arms as she went. As soon as she grabbed a ball, she lobbed it straight at Ren. As they flew, Ren’s eyesight flashed a vibrant shade of crimson. She leered as well.
Leaping in the air, Ren began rotating around like an airborne twister. Simultaneously she kicked forward with both of her feet, successfully launching back each ball that came her way. Ren landed back on the ground, just in time to watch Missy’s many reflected weapons rear back around and strike her square in the face over and over again.
When the last rubber ball landed with a loud splat against Martinez’s forehead, the towering leviathan fell. Ren, the one remaining victor, stood tall above her classmates.
Grinning widely, she leapt into the air and threw up her fist. “Fantástico!”
“No bloody way!” PJ said as he pushed open the door to June’s shop. The brass bell gave its welcoming chime. “I didn’t know you were an Ultra-Fan!”
“Yeah, well, this is an antique store.” Ren said, following him inside. “I got most of the old shows on VHS. Best thing to watch during break.”
“In that case, I should come over when you’re on break so we could watch together. I’m sure there’s some other hidden gems in June’s stockpile.”
“We already hang out enough.” Ren laughed. “We wouldn’t want people going around getting the wrong idea, now, would we?”
PJ chuckled awkwardly, scratching the back of his neck. “Haha, yeah…”
Together, they sat at one of the varnished, Victorian tables. PJ set his backpack down and began to rummage through it. “I’m bloody thirsty. Now, I know I have a can of Bepis somewhere. Have you seen it, Ren?”
She shook her head. As he bent down beneath the table to look for it, Ren quickly chugged the rest of his can of soda before tossing it out of sight.
“Well, bother. It’s probably still in my locker.”
Ren shrugged. “So, anyway, you just started training with Kenji, right?”
“Sure am!” Nodded PJ.
“Fantástico! Learning any cool skills?”
PJ’s eyes drifted off to the side as the previous training session entered his memory. He recalled the gravel beneath his wooden clogs, the massive mallet held in his pale grip, and his gaze fixed uneasily on the low, open barrel beneath him.
“Ok,” Kenji murmured beside him. “All I want you to do is hit it.”
“Are you sure, mate?”
“For goodness sake, PJ. It’s mochi! If my grandpa can do it, so can you!” Takeshi heckled from within his iron cage nearby.
“Ok…” PJ murmured, eyeing the ball of dough sitting patiently at the bottom of the wooden barrel. Gritting his teeth, he lifted the hammer above his head. He then brought it down as hard as he could.
Instead of striking the mochi with the mallet, however, the weight of PJ’s missed swing dragged his balance forward, causing him to plummet forward and pound it with his face.
“Bravo,” Takeshi gave a slow applause as he watched PJ struggle to free himself from the glutenous dough. “He’ll definitely come in handy one day, won’t he, Kenji?”
“Silence.” He barked, the strength of his voice blowing Takeshi off his feet.
“Yes, sir.” He mumbled, nervously hugging his knees.
PJ peered back at Ren across the table. “If by that you mean ‘learning how to be the guy who dies first,’ then yes. Definitely yes. Still,” He widened his smile. “I never thought this actually would be happening to me. In all my favorite stories, the hero always has their moment where they enter the new and unfamiliar world and well, this feels like mine, you know?”
Ren laughed and shook her head. “Nah, not really. Then again, I’m not a nerd like you so I don’t really have a frame of reference. I think training with Iga’s swell and all but really, I’m looking forward to striking out on my own again.” Her voice rang with defiance. PJ raised a concerned brow.
“Really? Why’s that?”
Ren shrugged, some of the confidence leaving her expression. “I’ve always worked best on my own. And truth be told, the only reason I joined Iga is the same reason I’m working for my aunt right now: to pay off this debt I owe her.”
“You can’t really mean that…”
Ren paused to think. She remembered her reflection shimmer in Tsu’s gem. She remembered the vast, tempting sensation of entering the zen. Then she remembered Yuki’s grave utterances: “Or to remain a mere product of the modern age, in doing so shall usher forth the Iga-ryū’s demise.”
“That won’t really happen if I leave,” Ren frowned. “Won’t it?”
She shut her eyes and scoffed. “You can be satisfied being the main character of your world and whatever, but my measure for happiness is set a little different. I don’t really need Iga or comradery for that matter to satisfy me…” As she said that, though, she remembered how easily she agreed to join the Oniwaban. Her assured smile reduced further.
“I see…” PJ murmured, spirits visibly sinking. “Anyway, what else have you watched here that you like?” He quickly followed with, eager to change the subject.
Ren rested her elbow against the table and her chin against her knuckles to think. “Let’s see… I mean, there’s this one called Uzumaki Genkai Shiro.”
“Oh, for real?” PJ bellowed. “I love that one!”
Takeshi continued to rest his chin against his knees. His indifferent gaze watched the steps leading into the gravel yard. Down each one, Fujibayashi Nagato steadily descended, his silver hair rippling with each commanding stride. Joining him in earshot, eyes fixed on one another, Takeshi greeted the man with a scowl.
“What do you want from me this time?” He narrowed his eye observingly. “No food, no bucket, here for more questions or are you just tired of being a boring, old bastard?”
“I’m here for something a little different.” Nagato said soundly. “Some might call it a second chance. In legal terms, a parole trial. I call it a deal.” Takeshi rose slowly to his feet. “Iga may follow a traditional path, but change is not impossible. We had no choice but to adapt with Ren and PJ’s entrance into our ranks. It was something Kenji had to undergo to spare your life. My point is, if we accomplish it, then it must not be impossible.”
“Easy for you to say.” Takeshi said, leaning against the bars as he stood halfway upright. “You don’t know me like me knows me.”
“Perhaps not. I still do not know the full story behind your eye. But then again, Iga is no stranger to different paths and different practices. Believe it or not, but Kenji is not originally from Iga. In fact, I ascertain that if his previous master knew where he was today, he would face a punishment far worse than Mochizuki Izumo could ever reprimand you. As I said, I want to make a deal. For I believe Kenji has a great deal to learn about himself through you.”
“What’s your game? I nearly killed one of your posse members, but now all of a sudden you can forgive me?”
“‘Forgive’ isn’t quite the word I would use. Every time you pick up your weapon to fight for Kōga, you make a choice. It’s that choice that defines who you are. If you chose the different path, the path of Iga, then I have no right to doubt you. No one should seek forgiveness for who they are.”
Takeshi’s gaze softened. Slowly, he faced the ground, shadows enveloping his expression. His shoulders quivered as quiet, choppy noises escaped his lips.
“Takeshi…” Nagato murmured.
“It’s nothing.” He said. “I’m trying to hold back a sneeze.” Gradually, he ascended to a complete stand and lifted his head to stare Nagato back in the eye. “Alright, I’ll bite. But what’s the catch?”
“No catch. Only that you never raise your weapons toward us or sabotage us in any way.” Nagato answered.
“Sounds good… boss.”
Perched atop the highest branch of the red wisteria, after having listened into the entire discourse, Akane pursed her lips in a wide, calculating frown.
“Today shall be a bit different.” Hanzo whispered, his voice lacking the usual playfulness. Ren sunk her gaze, seeing the ground comprised of gravel as fine as pennies, raked into swirling shapes. The delicate rings surrounded the pair of stones upon which she and Hanzo sat within a fenced off-private area of the garden cloister.
“Today, you are ready to begin training in the third zen: spirit.” Hanzo’s eyelids slid shut. “Be conscious of the universe. Let it be conscious of you. Be one with the world and all living beings.”
“Kinda vague instructions, but alright, I’ll try.” Ren squinted her eyes as well, sucking in one deep breath after another. The sounds of birds chirping in the trees above and the waterfall spilling down the mountain filled her ears. The crisp, cold air filled her chest. Her toes, however, curled restlessly.
“Sensei,” She blurted, abruptly jumping to her feet atop the stone. “I’m not sure if this third zen is really my speed. Can’t we just stick to spear or staff training? I’ll be a blood moon in no time that way!” She pounded her fist into her open palm. Its shockwave pushed the rings of gravel outward to form vastly larger circles across the ground.
Hanzo opened one eye. One corner of his mouth found that smirk of his while a scoffing breath blew from his nostrils. “One day you will learn that in order to master zen, you must master them all.”
“I know, I know. But just for today, how about a physical workout?”
“Hmm…” He held his chin. A mischievous glint entered his eye. “In that case, follow me.”
After they reentered the dojo, Ren watched Hanzo take a long, wooden pole off one of the racks lining the wall. He joined Ren in the center of the room, examining the staff closely.
“What I am about to teach you is a very special technique. Has saved my life many times.”
“Now this is more like it!” Ren grinned, jittering with excitement. “Lay it on me!”
Hanzo’s grip tightened for a split second before he swung the wooden pole forward. Like a whip, it cracked against her shoulder. Ren recoiled.
“Ouch!” She cried, squeezing her impacted arm. “What was that for?”
“Training.” Hanzo retreated the rod and whacked the side of Ren’s head.
“It is a common aspect of Ninjutsu I’ve held back from teaching you. As a shinobi, your skin must be your armor. The more times you get hit, the more your body learns from the pain.”
“Are you sure that’s true or do you really just wanna hit me with that-”
The staff broke in half over the top of Ren’s head. Her eyes rolling to the back of her skull, she fell backward against the tatami floor. Her jaw hung open. Hanzo casually tossed the broken half he held over his shoulder and dusted off his hands.
Ren walked along the sidewalk toward the high school in the distance. In her hands, she flipped through her stack of stolen M.E.S.H. Cards while between her teeth, she carefully held a blueberry muffin.
“And I thought I was good before my Ninjutsu training.” Ren thought, admiring the number of cards. “Sooner or later, I’m gonna run out of students to pickpocket.”
That was when she heard a noise: the gnawing sound of skateboard axels grinding against the hand railing of the staircase behind her. After aiming her gaze over her shoulder, Ren developed a perturbed glare.
“I should’ve known. My morning was going just too well…”
“I hope you aren’t trying to impress me.” Ren mumbled, her mouth continuing to hold her blueberry muffin, as Angelo’s skateboard landed in front of her, cutting off her path yet again. He peered at her with his lazy, half-open eyes and thin, slimy smile.
“I’m only trying to keep an eye on you, baby.” He said, kicking up his board and walking beside her. “One day you’ll thank me, ‘cuz I hear the Incognito Bandito’s at large again.”
Ren’s teeth snapped shut nervously, causing the muffin to fall from her mouth onto the ground.
“I haven’t heard anyone say that damn name for over a week…”
“Yeah, tons of kids have reported their M.E.S.H. Cards going missing. This is between you and me, but some people suspect that he even goes to our school. You wouldn’t happen to know anything about him, would you?” He uttered slowly.
“Nope…” Ren said, hiding the M.E.S.H. Cards behind her back. “Hope he doesn’t steal mine.”
“Well, if something like that was to happen to you, I’d gladly lend you mine.”
Ren shot him a fake grin. “Gee, thanks.”
Angelo flashed her his smirk again before turning and skating off. Once he was far enough away, Ren opened her hand, giggling as she examined his stolen card. “Yep. Thanks a lot.”
The afternoon sun shone brightly in the clear, blue sky. Basking in the heat, munching happily on a meat bun, Yuki swung her legs over the ledge of the countertop. She paused her chewing to watch Ren approach within Tamuro’s shop.
“Hey, Yuki,” Said Ren, taking a seat nearby upon one of the empty shelves. She took a quick glance throughout the store, empty apart from the two of them. “Where’s everyone else? Haven’t we started all eating lunch here more?”
“Kenji was here before but he said he’d be right back. Diego and Akane both said they were busy and I dunno where PJ is.”
Their eyes gathered on Iseji’s avenue in front of them.
“That aura. It must be Kenji now.” Ren remarked.
“Hi, Kenji.” Said Yuki, just before his tall shape emerged from the crowd and into the dim space. He sported an irked expression. More irked than usual. And before Ren had time to question why, Yuki spoke again.
His ruffled, dark hair, eyepatch, and friendly grin came into view as he materialized just behind Kenji. Donning his figure was a plain tee and blue jeans. In his hands, he carried nothing except a wrapped bento. Nevertheless, Ren’s chest twisted with surprise.
“Yo.” Takeshi waved casually like greeting a friend. He strolled casually past Ren, as if he didn’t notice her, and sat beside Yuki on the same countertop. He peered behind her back and spied her pair of nunchaku on the floor next to her. “Those yours?” He asked, starting to unwrap his lunch.
“Mhm!” She nodded. “They’re my favorite! Nothing beats giving fools a good smack with these!”
“I heard nunchaku were actually farming tools at one point. But don’t ask me what kind of farming they were used for.”
“Yeah, but what do you know about weapons?”
“I know more about weapons than Kenji knows about standing in corners and sulking.”
Ren peered at Kenji, who quietly took the insult while picking at his box of plain white rice. “A slight revision to your statement:” He uttered. “In one era, nunchaku were used as tools of the harvest. However, much like other shinobi weapons such as sickles and sai, they were wielded by peasant farmers as tools of rebellion against their local lords. These peasants soon adopted the way of Ninjutsu. The history of the nunchaku is synonymous with the history of the Iga-ryū itself.”
Takeshi scoffed. “Leave it up to Kenji to make nunchaku sound boring, of all the things.”
Ren listened to approaching, jogging footsteps before watching PJ stumble inside. “Hey, mates, sorry I’m late. So sorry in fact that I bought donuts.” He began to approach them, carrying a white box in his arms. But when he caught a look at Takeshi, the box flopped out of his limp grasp onto the ground.
“Quick!” Yuki squeaked, darting over to where the donuts fell and stuffing them one after another into her cheeks. “Five-second rule!”
“Kenji, what the heck is he doing here?” PJ whispered, aiming a shaky finger at Takeshi.
“I know, right?” Ren remarked.
“Look, I know what you must be thinking, but you guys can relax. I mean no harm, really.” Takeshi said, innocently raising his hands.
“Fujibayashi-sensei mandated that I keep an eye on him as he trains in Iga’s methods and joins the Oniwaban.” He muttered, sounding unhappy with the scenario.
“Right…” PJ replied. “And All I can say to that is good bloody luck.” He glanced anxiously over at Takeshi. “And welcome, I guess.”
“Are you eating that?” Takeshi asked. It took Ren a second to realize that his inquiry was directed at her.
“You mean this?” She asked, looking under her arm at her lunch.
“Yeah, isn’t that a watermelon?”
Ren shrugged. “Why not?” She chopped it down the middle with her palm and took a bite out of its red center.
“Hey, mate,” PJ said, lowering his voice to a personal whisper as he approached Ren. “I wanted to talk to you, in private.”
“Sure,” Said Ren. “Hold onto this for me.” She passed off the second half of the watermelon to Yuki, got up, and followed PJ out of Tamuro’s shop. Once outside, they glanced at each other and shared a friendly grin.
“Anyway, hi, good to see you, mate.” PJ bumped his chest twice and made a peace sign with his fingers.
“You did it again.” Ren rolled her eyes. “You know that isn’t gonna be a thing, right?”
“Whatever.” PJ snickered.
“So what’s up?” Ren paused behind PJ as he stopped halfway over the bridge.
“Nothing much, but man, Angelo’s been talking about you non-stop. Keeps on saying you’re head-over-heels for him. As if he wasn’t already enough of a bother.”
Ren grimaced. “He’s so full of it. You seriously aren’t jealous of him, are you?”
“What?” He blurted. “No, of course not...” He itched the back of his neck.
“That’s a relief.” Ren said, taking a nibble out of her melon. “But I know that’s not what you really wanted to talk about. If body language reading has taught me anything, it’s when you’re hiding something.”
PJ sighed, reaching into his back pocket. “You remember how you said you like Ultraman, right?” He held two small slips of paper in front of Ren’s eyes. Her pupils dilated. The melon fell out of her hands as she snatched the paper out of PJ’s paws.
“Two tickets for a limited-run theatrical release of Mega-Monster Battle: Ultra Galaxy Legends THE MOVIE, directors cut with thirty seconds of unseen footage and special pre-show opening?!”
“You betcha.” PJ smirked.
“How on earth did you get these? They must’ve cost you a small fortune each!”
“Well, as a matter of fact, they did. It’s not like I’m the Incognito Bandito or anything.”
“Yeah,” Ren said, sweat running down the back of her neck. “Anyway, this sounds awesome! When’s the screening?”
Ren reached into her pocket and pulled out her pink cellphone. “Sunday…” She repeated, typing it into her calendar. “Got it.”
“Say, nice gadget.” PJ said, admiring the phone. “Where’d you come across that?”
“Oh, you know, the shinobi gig pays well.” Laughed Ren, sweating again. “But anyway, you can count on me being there!”
That day after school, Ren approached the dojo, stretching her arms over her chest. Through the entrance, she spied Tanba Momochi, waiting inside for her as always. As she entered, though, Ren noticed someone else standing beside him.
“Hanzo?” She thought, narrowing her eyes curiously. “What’s he doing here? Usually he waits to see me until after Momochi leaves. Is something going on?”
“Ren, greetings!” Hanzo waved. His radiant grin pinched his eyes closed. Momochi, meanwhile, continued to sport his typical sneer.
“Hattori-sensei, Tanba-sensei, hi…” Ren murmured uneasily. “Is something up?”
Momochi lifted his long, muscular arms to fold them across his chest. “Across these past days, I’ve been observing your progress from afar. Your strength, speed, and power has certainly grown since you first enrolled in my training. And today, I’ve determined that the time has now come for your strength to be put to the test. Pass, and you shall ascend to the shinobi rank of blood moon.”
“Really?” Ren gasped. “Fantástico!”
“Don’t take this small accomplishment the wrong way.” Momochi growled. “All shinobi continue to train and ascend to greater feats of strength across their entire lives. It doesn’t end simply with blood moon. After today, if you pass, your training will continue, just under the tutelage of Hattori instead.”
“Crap…” Ren thought, feeling sweat start to breach the surface of her skin. “Does Momochi not know about my training with Hanzo?” She stole a quick glance of him. Hanzo’s eyes were deliberately aimed away as he whistled softly, innocently. Ren gritted her teeth. “Apparently he neglected to tell him…”
“The first step in the trial is obtaining the tattoos.” Momochi uttered, peering toward the left. Ren followed his gaze, seeing a bamboo needle lying on the tatami mat accompanied by a shallow, lacquered box swimming with an inky, black substance. They approached the set where they sat down. Ren rolled up the sleeves of her top. “You may want to brace yourself…” Momochi whispered cautiously, lifting the bamboo needle and dipping it in the pool of black ink. “This process may hurt. Immensely.”
As Momochi began jabbing the ink-infused point into Ren’s skin again and again, quicker than a sewing machine, her lips began to quiver. Hanzo watched her, frowning out of the corner of his mouth.
Finally, Ren unhinged her jaw and released a long, satisfied sigh. “Oh, man, this hits the spot…” She whispered, eyelashes fluttering.
Momochi paused, peering up from his work to show Ren a puzzled glance. “Strange. That’s usually no one’s reaction. Unless they’ve endured training to harden their flesh…” His eyes thinned accusingly as he turned toward Hanzo. Hanzo in return, coughed into his closed fist.
“Or maybe you’re old and you’re not doing it as strong.” Hanzo shrugged. Momochi scowled, spinning to face Ren before continuing with the process.
“So what comes after blood moon again?” Ren asked, peering at Hanzo.
“After blood moon is shadow moon.”
“Sounds awesome.” Ren grinned. “How do I get there?”
“Shouldn’t you be more concerned with your upcoming blood moon trial rather than gazing blindly ahead at shadow moon?” Momochi grumbled.
“Now, now, Momo-chan. She’s only curious.” Hanzo scoffed. “And to answer your question, Ren, to become shadow moon, you must go on a special quest called musha shugyō.”
“When do I go? When do I return? What am I looking for?”
“All of that is yours to decide.”
“Then what am I waiting for? I should go do that right now!” Ren exclaimed. Momochi shot her a chilling glare. “After I become a blood moon, of course…”
“Even then, it would be much too early at your current stage.” Momochi muttered firmly. “For the trip to be successful, one must already be in an enlightened state. Your body, mind, and spirit must all be united in your efforts as well. Don’t fret, though. Out of all of Iga, just a small percentage are shadow moon, and the overwhelming majority of them are the chūnin on the council.”
“So does that mean Kenji and Akane are…”
“Blood moon also.”
“Oh…” Ren murmured. “And also out of curiosity, I’m sure that there isn’t a rank above shadow moon, right?”
“That would be zen moon. And that rank can only belong to one person: the most powerful shinobi, Fujibayashi Nagato himself.” Momochi explained.
“Got it.” Ren nodded. “So shadow moon is the prize I should be aiming for.”
“And again, it is still much too early for that.” Momochi snarled, teeth gritted.
“Yeah, yeah, roger that.”
Once the process was complete and Momochi set down the bamboo needle inside the empty ink vessel, Ren peered down at both of her arms. A pair of murals lined the entire surface of her skin, starting from the tops of her shoulders, reaching all the way down to her wrists. Two unique, brilliant murals detailed each arm. Her right hosted a rising sun casting bright, visible ribbons of light across forests of winding, branching trees bearing brilliant, black flower petals. Her left depicted sharp, churning waves reaching toward the starry night sky where there hung a crescent moon. Her eyes twinkled with astonishment at the tattoos’ sheer scope and beauty.
However, Ren watched the dark ink images fade little by little, as if slipping beneath the surface of her tan arms until they disappeared entirely. Ren felt panic sweep across her chest.
“W-wait, where’d they go?” She blared.
“Of course they disappear.” Hanzo chuckled. “Shinobi are secret, after all. You don’t want to show those tattoos to everyone, don’t you?”
“They simply show up when you enter the zen.” Momochi explained.
To test his statement, Ren’s irises flashed crimson with the zen of body. Through her scarlet-tinted vision, she once again saw the sprawling motifs across her arms.
“Now…” Momochi muttered slowly. “Onto the true stage of the trial.” Ren exited the zen and straightened her stance readily, peering at her two masters. “To put your skills and strength to the test, you shall be facing an opponent in battle.”
“And who’s that?” Ren asked. “You, Tanba-sensei? Hattori-sensei?”
“Not quite.” A deep, deadpanned, female voice murmured inches away from Ren’s back. As the voice reached her ear, Ren felt an unwelcomed, aggressive air settle over the dojo. Hesitantly, she rotated her head to face the source of the voice behind her. Finally, she stared up into the towering, pale, freckled face of none other than Akane.
“You’ve gotta be kidding me…”
“I never kid.” Akane narrowed her already-thin chartreuse eyes. “You should feel fortunate to be doing battle against me, Ren-san. At the very least, I will try not to maim you.”
Ren turned around to face Akane fully, eyes brimming with hostility. “Oh really?” She scoffed. “Well I’m not so generous, Acne.”
Akane backed away slowly, drawing twin tessen fans from her belt. They opened with an iron shing, flaunting their metallic, crimson surface and dagger-sharp edges. Ren marched back a few paces as well, arming herself with Shinsatsu.
“This is going to be good…” Hanzo giggled, rubbing his hands together with excitement as he and Momochi stood in the corner of the dojo to watch.