Chapter 1 The Finals
It's a beautiful spring day in Waku, the ninja village that is his place to stay for now. He've lived there for 2 years training all of his life during the culmination of his ninja training, having spent time in several other villages on his way here. His upbringing might have been more stable if his sister hadn't been taken and his parents hadn't been missing for years. He wouldn't been raised by an assortment of teachers, strangers, and students, never settling in one place long enough to truly feel at lost. However, this isn't rare for ninjas like him, and he's lucky that he made a few friends and allies in Waku.
Waku village has a long and infamous history. It was founded several hundred years ago by a group of samurai who vowed to serve the Shogun for the rest of their lives after disobeying orders in a pivotal battle. Although the debt to the Shogun was repaid after several generations, the village prospered on its own, training ninja and depending on a succession of powerful and mostly wealthy patrons for funding. Waku village itself is neutral territory, but he know that the landscape outside is constantly changing hands as various lords jockey for power and possession of the shogun's throne and title. In exchange for serving a particular lord, Waku has been left untouched by the wars.
But at this particular moment, history and outside conflict mean very little to him. The cherry blossoms have just bloomed, and many of his fellow villagers are preparing to celebrate before the rainy season and planting time arrive. Waku is situated in the middle of a wide plain, surrounded by forest on one side and rice fields on the other. In any other year, he'll be looking forward to the festivities, but this year he finding it hard to concentrate on the parties and natural beauty around since today is his school's final exam.
If he pass this test, he'll be regarded as a full-fledged ninja, able to earn money and glory for his village.
Outside of the classrooms Tisu-sensei stands in front of him and the small crowd of his classmates. Although he's old and frail-looking, he know better than to underestimate him: he seen him take on a group of ten older, experienced ninja and not break a sweat as he defeated each of them, one by one.
In his typically brusque manner, he says, "Today is a bright day for our village; that is, it will be if any of you fools can finish the final exam. I've hidden 10 bells somewhere in the training grounds behind the school. His task is to find the bells and then return it to this bowl—" he motions to a large grey piece of pottery on the table behind him, "unseen. Those who complete both parts of this test will almost certainly graduate. He should try to use all the skills he learned so far; a good ninja uses a mixture of magic and martial arts tricks to win a fight or complete a mission. Those of who don't end up with a bell, or who can't return it without being caught, will be evaluated by your teacher to see if their fit to continue your studies. Y myhave twelve hours to complete your test. We will begin in a few moments."
As Takashi chew over these words, he count the number of students around him. Including Takashi , there are twenty students waiting to take the exam.
This could mean anything: if some people take more than one bell, then the final number of people who succeed is going to change. He thought to himself.
There's an excited buzz from the other students. He catch a few conversations about temporary alliances, and not a little bragging. Nearby, one of your classmates whispers to another, "What if we fail?"
"I don't know," the other answers, "I guess you're stuck here doing farm work or cooking for the others."
That doesn't sound pleasant at all, particularly considering how much time and effort he put into his studies! Dismissing his nerves, he try to focus on the task at hand.
Tisu-sensei takes his place in front of the restless crowd and clears his throat.
"You're limited to the training grounds behind the school. All of you should remember what the boundaries of those are by now. Any student found wandering through the village before the exam is declared over will be disqualified. You're also not allowed to use weapons; the results of this test will depend on your wits and your own martial arts skills. I'll be observing your progress along with your other teachers. Good luck to all. The test begins now."
He stop to consider your options. First of all, what's the most likely place for the teachers to hide these bells? He think back over his lessons for a moment, and something that Hatsumi-sensei once said pops into your mind: "The best hiding place is that which is in plain sight but still hidden. Ninja can master the art of disguise for themselves, but disguising objects can be just as useful." Aha! Perhaps the coin is hidden in plain sight somewhere nearby.
The classrooms. It's one of the more unlikely places for the teachers to choose, but it certainly fits the principle of "hiding in plain sight."
He set off quickly towards the classroom building, which is really more like an enclosed two-story training space with classrooms on the side. He spent many, many days there, studying martial arts, ninjitsu, and the rudiments of most professions, in case he need to disguise himself for a long period of time and blend in with the local populace. But then you shake his head. This isn't the time for nostalgia, it's time to focus on the task at hand.
Just then, around the corner up ahead, he hear the sound of people talking and footsteps coming in his direction.
He decides to melt into the shadows. Better to find out who's saying what before he take any action.
easily find a hiding place behind one of many screens and listen carefully. It's two of the teachers, Mori-sensei and Sasaki-sensei.
"I hope none of the students try to hoard more bells than they need." Mori-sensei says thoughtfully. "That was an awful debacle last year, to have only four students pass out of eighteen."
"Some of them are going to try it. I just hope they don't hurt each other too badly. The no-weapons rule is a good addition, but knowing this group, there will be some broken bones at the very least," Sasaki-sensei replies.
"As long as they don't bust up the classrooms, I'm happy. Good thing Hatsumi-sensei didn't ask us to hide anything here," Mori-sensei says, and laughs. They walk away, and you finally allow yourself to exhale. It's good that he found that information out, but frustrating that he just wasted a bit of his precious time.
He head towards the forest. If the bells aren't hidden in the classrooms, it's the most likely place the teachers would choose.
Sure enough, as he approach the forest, he can hear sounds of other students fighting: a twig snapping here, a branch falling there. There are definitely bells to be found and fought over.
He head in cautiously, being as stealthy as possible. If there's a chance that he could obtain one without a fight, that would the best solution of all.
slink along the ground, keeping to the shadows of the trees and branches. The forest is dense and perfect for this kind of action; there are many hiding spots and shadows, no matter what the time of day is.
He gotten fairly deep into the trees when he hears the sounds of a commotion up ahead. It sounds like some of his classmates are already in competition over a bell.
Takashi make his way quietly and efficiently towards the sounds. As he get closer, even though he can't see who's fighting, he recognize the voices. They belong to Lazuli and Saw, two of the strongest students in his class. Taking on one of them on in a fight would be dangerous, but two of them would be downright crazy. Lazuli has a bell in his hands, but Saw appears to be winning.
He consider his Ickra options. He could create a double of one of them, or of himelf, to confuse them. He could turn yourself invisible and directly influence the fight, but that would mean giving up his hiding spot. He could even create a smokescreen, although that wouldn't really let him choose who the winner was, it would just make the fight itself more chaotic.
He mutter the incantation and make a few quick gestures, and Lazuli double appears on the battlefield. Both of them are so surprised that they stop fighting each other for a split second, and that's just the opening he needed he easily puppet the copy of Lazuli to attack the original, who doesn't dodge its blows in time and falls down. Saw attempts to attack the double while its back is turned, and he's forced to let it disappear.
His hiding place has stones scattered everywhere, and with a quick throw, he toss several to the other side of the field. Sae turns to see what happened, and in that moment, he attack!
This time, he manage to land the first hit, but in doing so, he barely able to dodge her attack. As he let himself fall in preparation for a front kick, he feel the rushing of her fist just above his head. His kick is successful and she falls to the ground, spluttering in surprise.
"Wait!" she gasps, trying to catch her breath, and holds up one hand. "Wait. I have an offer for you. I already have one bell. We take the other one from Kazuki and that way we each have one. How about it?"
"Very well I accept"
"Thanks." Sae gets to her feet and dusts off her uniform. "I knew you'd see reason." She reaches into Lazuli pocket and takes the extra bell out, tossing it to you in an easy arc.
Perhaps because of her action, Lazuli sits up, clutching his head and glancing dejectedly around. "Hell, I lost, didn't I? Damn." He staggers a little on his feet, swaying unsteadily. He won't be able to take on anyone else for a while. Sae looks at him and shrugs "What do you think about the situation?".
Unfortunate for him, but that's the way it is. No one's going to give us a hand up in the real world, right? Ninja aren't known for their politeness.
Sae nods. "Look, good luck on the second half, but I think I'd better do this part alone." She vanishes into the forest and you're left holding onto the bell by himself.
Takashi finally hold the twin bell in his hands. For something that was so important, it feels awfully small.
But there's no time to think about that. Now he have to make his way back to the classrooms without being seen, and he's willing to bet that this portion of the test will be more difficult.
He think about the place that he need to bring the bell to: it's open and exposed, a small circle surrounded by buildings and homes. There's no cover anywhere around it, which means that getting there will be all the harder. Right now, you have to get past several classrooms, not to mention a few homes and buildings, and you're certain that people will be around. You'll have to be stealthy, and you may to employ magic, or at least some kind of disguise, possibly one helped by an illusion. It will help if you're fast, too.
I'll rely on stealth, but if I need to, I'll add a spell or invisibility. in his thoughts.
quickly review what your teachers told you about stealth: sticking to the shadows, distracting anyone who might notice him, and staying still are all important. With those goals in mind, he make his way down the edges of the pathways between the buildings, trying to stick to the shadows and doorways that afford him easy invisibility.
just about to take his next step when he feel a hand fall on his shoulder. But did not scream aloud in surprise, but manage to keep composure and leap away from the person who touched him. As he turn, he see that it's Tamoto-sensei, one of his martial arts teachers. She shakes her head. "So easy getting the drop on you. I'm convinced we're turning out poorer and poorer students every year."
It's tempting to argue with her, but a small voice in your head counsels him to hold back. There's a good chance that he might be able to bluff or trick his way out of this, and for all he know, she's been placed there to test them on precisely that skill.
He start to plan a spell, but Tamoto-sensei waves him away. "Be off with you. Just don't make a total fool of yourself on the final portion of the test."
Without another word, she's gone. He don't waste any time setting off again.
By this time, he right at the edge of the clearing and he can see the table with the pottery bowl on it. There are several teachers clustered around it, talking together. They're not actively guarding the bowl, but they're not leaving it alone, either. Looks like you'll have to sneak across the field. Invisibility is exactly the spell you need here, and you're pleased at how naturally it comes to you.
Now comes the hard part, though: sneaking past the teachers will require absolute quiet—or at least, absolute quiet until he get to the point where he can dash for the final goal.
"I'll go towards the right, past the classrooms. It's slower, but I'm more familiar with the territory there, and less likely to trip on something".
The going is slower, but he's far more certain of his steps in his regular setting. Hi progress is slow yet steady, and he feeling certain that he made the right decision when there's a loud clattering and thumping sound from inside one of the classrooms directly behind him. All of the teachers outside freeze, and turn to stare at the exact place he's standing.
He make a spell come together as quickly as he can, and a wobbly-looking fire appears on the other side of the clearing. There's no sound to accompany it, but that doesn't matter, because it does what he want all the teachers turn to look at it. In the moment that they're distracted, he rush to the table and drop the bell into the pottery bowl. Success! He glad to let the spell go, and proud when the teachers cluster around to congratulate him.
Hakata-sensei congratulates him, himself, and then asks him to wait in the classrooms with the other students who've passed. As the minutes turn to hours, all of them get more and more anxious. It's a relief when one of the teachers appears and announces that the party will begin soon. A cheer goes up from the other students who have crowded around Takashi. He's hoping that he'll be able to celebrate right away, but one of the teachers stops the students who've passed the test. "Sorry, everyone, but there's some paperwork to be done. Girls, follow Mori-sensei to the left.
Signing his name into the record means that he's really a ninja now. He join his fellow students for a celebration.
It appears that only about half of the students passed the exam, and at the end of the table, he quickly spy Kenya and Makin, two of the students who he somewhat consider to be something approaching friends. Kenya waves at him, a wide smile on his face. "Takashi! You did it!"
Kenya and Makin are an odd study in contrasts. Where Makin is tall and thin, Kenya is a bit shorter and heavier, but his martial arts skills are always praised by teachers and students alike and he moves with a graceful fluidity that many of them envy. Makin, on the other hand, often slouches, trying to hide the ugly scar on the bridge of her nose, but her stealth and magic skills are well known among the students. He even heard the rumor that she's not quite human—after all, a younger student once reasoned, only something supernatural could be that still and quiet. The two of them work together at every opportunity, and you've known them ever since he arrived in Waku a year ago. He opened up to them a made up story about his past, although taken care not to reveal too much.
Makin motions for him to come and sit with them. "I'm glad you made it, Takashi, although I didn't have much doubt that you would pass."
For the first while, all he feel like doing is eating—passing that test was hard work Everyone around Takashi feels the same, and thankfully, there aren't any long, dull speeches to sit through. But eventually, his hunger is sated, and the atmosphere in the room gets louder and rowdier. They not the only students who's in the mood to party now, and it's more than clear that some of the teachers have been looking forward to this celebration all year (if their drunken singing is to be believed, or tolerated).
Kenya passes him one of the plates of sweets that's going around the table. "So, Takashi, what are you planning to do now that you're a ninja?"
"That's an awfully nosey question," Makin remarks, setting her cup of sake down on the table.
"I didn't mean it like that," Kenya says. "I meant, now that you're a full-fledged ninja, you'll have access to more information, better tools, that sort of thing. I want to master the ninjato—not just the bamboo blade we practice with, I mean the real thing. What do you want to do?"
I don't want to reveal anything, so I turn the question right back on them. You never know who might be listening. He thought to himself.
He clear his throat. "I'm not sure exactly what yet. Makin, what are your plans?" Makin frowns. "You already know my goal, both of you. I'm going to find the men who slaughtered my family and my hometown and make them pay."
For a second, Kenya's cheerful expression falters, and the conversation grinds to an abrupt halt. They do know what Makin's talking about, although Takashi suspect Kenya knows more of the details than he do. Makin's determination to excel as a ninja largely comes from her desire to avenge her family's death, and being on missions afford her a unique opportunity to gather information about their murderers. You have he has his own opinion about her goal, of course.
"I feel sorry for her. Say she does find the criminals and kills them…what then? What will she do after that?" Makin ask.
Makin pauses, aware that Takashi end of the table has gotten very quiet. She clears her throat, an embarrassed expression on her face. "I'm sorry, I didn't mean to be so negative."
"It's all right." Kenya smiles in relief, "Just keep the brooding to a minimum, please." Then, in an obvious effort to get the conversation back on track, Kenya hastily turns to you. "Are you going to let Kaoru know that you passed the exam?"
Maori. That name takes him back. In hid last village, Maori was a fellow student who he spent a considerable amount of time with. In fact, he like to think that the two of them had a special connection. But Maori was a year ahead of Takashi, and immediately after graduating, was sent off on a mission; he didn't even have time to say goodbye. He received two letters, but it's not the same as the contact he had before—it feels hollow and sad. If he care to admit it, he would probably say that he deeply Misses her.
Even though we had a great connection, it didn't go that far. My training was far more important.
He cast around as he try to find a proper answer to the question. Surprisingly, it's Makin's who gets the conversation back on track. "Never mind that, Takashi. Have you tried these azuki buns? I heard Tamoto-sensei made them herself, and they're very good." Kenya looks at her gratefully, murmuring words of apology in your direction.
Fortunately, at that moment, one of the teachers stands up and begins to make a speech about how proud the village is to welcome its new members, and he's relieved that the time for awkward conversation is done. After all, this means he's one step closer to starting his missions, and it's that possibility, rather than any of the problems or concerns from his past that he decide to focus on.
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