Age: 14, Grade: 9
School Name: Yeshivah of Flatbush Joel Braverman High School, Brooklyn, NY
Educator: Sari Mayer
Category: Short Story
The Phantom And The Blade
Although the Okinei wasn’t physically large, the aura it had around it more than made up for the fact. The wooden beams that upheld the curved ends of the rooftop were intricately carved with crows that seemed as if they’d take flight at any moment. Words such as ‘discipline’ and ‘principle’ were painted around the entrance, the core values of the Karasu tribe. This was the place all the boys Hiroki’s age dreamed of being, yet he was living it. The setting sun gave everything around the Okinei an orange tint, and the entirety of the bamboo forest seemed as if it was holding its breath. Hiroki inhaled deeply, forcing his heart to slow. Legend had it that the Shishu, or Great Masters, could sense when their disciples were fearful. He gently closed his eyes, and allowed the cool winds of the northern mountains to swirl his black robes. A murder of crows flew overhead. All too soon, the unmistakable sound of a gong coming from the distance broke the silence.
Hiroki’s knee silently hit the ground as he kneeled, a practiced movement. He bowed his head, a sign of honor and respect. Although Hiroki could not hear him, he could sense the Shishu approaching. All was still.
“Rise,” a powerful voice commanded. Hiroki lifted his head and then the rest of his body from the earth. His eyes widened as he took in the man before him. The Great Master’s entire face was concealed by a dark mask, as was customary of the elders of each tribe. Karasu masks were formed from the bamboo of the surrounding forest. A curved piece protruded from the center, resembling the beak of a crow, with two slits for eyes carved into the mask as well. The elder wore a black robe identical to Hiroki’s, save for the silver letters that marked his waistband. His white hair reached mid back, a stark contrast to Hiroki’s close cropped black hair. This was undoubtedly a Shishu. The Great Master swiftly turned, his hair billowing around him.Hiroki took that as a cue to follow.
Tribe rules stated that he couldn’t speak to an elder unless directly spoken to; however, he wouldn’t have been able to speak anyway. Being in the presence of someone of such a high rank inspired an awe in Hiroki that he had never felt before. As he approached the entrance, his bare feet felt the smoothness of the wooden porch, worn down by the feet of the masters who had walked on it centuries before him.
The inside of the Okinei smelled of incense and wisdom. Wooden chimes hung from the large beams that lined the ceiling, and a single lantern on the floor exaggerated the shadows of the Shishu that sat around it. Hiroki kneeled once again and bowed his head as low as he possibly could.
“You may rise, young Chishi.” Hiroki’s heart thundered in his ears, and he suddenly began to feel hot. The elder’s before him would decide his entire future in a matter of minutes. There were seven or eight Shishu now standing around him, and even with the masks, Hiroki could tell they were scrutinizing him. The elder with the white hair stood at the center of the semicircle, and stayed silent for an uncomfortably long time. Finally, he spoke.
“Hiroki, son of Hirochi of the Karasu tribe, you have completed 18 years worth of training in just 15 years and now you stand before us. That is no small feat.”
“Thank you Great Master,” Hiroki tried to hide the quiver in his voice.
“However, now you must complete your Shigoto before becoming a Blade.”
“Yes. Please tell me so I can fulfill my destiny!” Hiroki said a bit too eagerly.
“Oh ho ho! Fulfill his destiny, he says. What an ambitious one we have here,” another elder with shoulder length grey hair piped up. The other Shishu chuckled. Hiroki became red in the face. The white haired elder cleared his throat, quieting those around him.
“We as the Shishu have decided to give you the following Shigoto: you must slay the one they call the Reisu, or Phantom, and bring her head back to us. Only then will you be considered a true Blade.” Hiroki’s face fell when he heard what his final task would be. The Reisu was the monster that had been tormenting all of Tochi Fuhai for a decade. Not one Blade from any of the tribes of the land had been able to slay her. She was responsible for the death of countless nobles, as well as the eradication of a whole tribe. This was what the elders wanted Hiroki to hunt and kill?
“I mean no disrespect, but there must be a mistake-”
“I assure you, young Chishi, there is no mistake,” the Great Master interrupted. “We have no place for cowards among our ranks.”
“Yes, Great Master,” Hiroki said submissively.
“Unlike the other Shigoto given to past Chishi, yours will have no time limit. However, if you come back empty handed, you will be exiled from the Karasu tribe. Do you understand your mission?”
“Yes, Great Master.”
“Very well, young Chishi,” The Great Master said as he handed Hiroki a scroll, “You are dismissed.” Hiroki kneeled once more, and turned his back on the Shishu. As he stepped out into the world, the words ‘discipline’ and ‘principle’ above his head, he swore to himself that the next time he would walk through the door of the Okinei would be with the head of the Reisu held in his hands.
After the elders were sure Hiroki was out of earshot, the one with the grey hair began to howl with laughter, and the others joined in soon after.
“Killing the Reisu is catching smoke,” one of them exclaimed.
“For such a clever boy, I’m surprised he wasn’t skeptical,” another added.
“He’s too powerful for his own good. This will be a lesson. He will surely come back empty handed!”
“Chishi with eyes like those won’t come back empty handed,” the white haired elder said. “He will wander the lands until his hair grows as long and white as mine.”
A strong wind blew, and the Shishu’s laughs were overtaken by the sound of the chimes’ song.
Hiroki entered the small hut in the mountains he had considered home for the past fifteen years. Although it had been brutal, training in such high altitudes aided him immensely in the physicality test. He was also an intelligent boy. At an early age he was enrolled by his father in one of the top academies in the land, as the parents of those who wished their children to become Blades did. The schooling only accelerated his natural cognitive abilities. Hiroki had endured inhumane tests his whole life; he wasn’t going to let an impossible task stand in his way of becoming a Blade. Hiroki unrolled the scroll to find a detailed outline of his task. He threw it down on the floor and stepped on it, keeping it from rolling back up. While reading over the mission, he snatched his whetstone and began sharpening his katana with vigor. He would not allow the Phantom to hinder his destiny.
For years Hiroki wandered the lands of Tochi Fuhai. Through mountains and deserts, across seas and grasslands. Gaining all of the information he could about the Reisu from all of the other tribes as well as his own. It seemed wherever she was, he was always one step behind. First she would attack a nobleman in the valley of the Shiruku tribe, and a month later attacked of the head of the Kaiyo tribe in their seaside town.
As Hiroki grew, so too did his determination. Five years after the start of his journey, Hiroki attended a festival in the Hana tribe’s territory. From what he gathered, an elder would partake in a public Shukkina, or religious ceremony, which would be the perfect opportunity for the Reisu to strike. It also had been a while since Hiroki had eaten sugary foods, of which there were ample amounts at the Hana festivals. It would be an embarrassment if there weren’t, considering their close proximity to the sugar cane farms. After enjoying his fill, Hiroki decided to scout from one of the mountains overlooking the podium where the ceremony would take place.
Nimbly, he scaled the wall until he found a large, shadowed piece of rock that jutted out of the mountain to stand upon. It was easy to see the Shukkina despite the lack of moonlight, for the podium was surrounded by bright lanterns. Hiroki watched for a few minutes, until he felt a stray breeze at the back of his neck. He quickly realized that the wind should have been coming down from the mountains before him and not from behind. He was not alone. How could he have not noticed until now? He was trained to hear even the most hushed rustle of clothing. Unless, the thing beside him was just as skilled in the art of concealment. In a flash, Hiroki drew his katana from its sheath and attempted to trip the nameless enemy, but it was too quick and jumped away. Hiroki spun, sensing its presence behind him, and slammed it into the rocky wall of the mountain. Not missing a beat, he pressed his blade on the throat of his opponent.
“Why didn’t you show yourself to me the moment I arrived,” Hiroki grunted.
“I didn’t feel a need to. I thought you came to watch the ceremony just as I had,” it replied, in a voice much higher and quieter than Hiroki was expecting.
“And why didn’t you watch with all the other civilians down there?” Hiroki jerked his head in the direction of the festival below. Just then, the clouds parted and the moonlight revealed who his skilled opponent was. Her skin was fair, and her hair was long; much longer than the traditional fashion worn in Tochi Fuhai. Her eyes were dark, like two black pits that held too many secrets to count. She wore a pale purple robe, not reminiscent of any of the tribes’ colors. This was the Reisu. Hiroki could feel it in every fiber of his being. And yet, she was just so beautiful. This couldn’t be the face of a killer. He stared down at the wrist he gripped tightly. Those unscarred, smooth hands couldn’t be the hands of a killer. He loosened his grasp on her wrist and slightly pulled the blade away from her throat. She used this opportunity to knee him in the kidney. Hard. He stumbled back a bit, but when he looked back up, she was nowhere to be found. Hiroki fell to his knees and roared up into the night sky. His ticket to the status of a Blade. Gone.
The Reisu looked curiously from the treetops at the young man on his knees. He spared her. He knew what she was; she could see the realization in his hard eyes. And yet, he let her go. This man was dangerous, she knew he was. And yet, no ordinary person would have her at the end their blade and let her live. This man was an interesting Chishi to say the least. I think I will keep an eye on this one, the Phantom thought.
For the next few months Hiroki told himself that if he found her once, he could find her again, but doubt began to gnaw at him with each passing day. Although he was exhausted and steadily losing hope, Hiroki’s travels weren’t completely futile. He assisted everyone he encountered during his voyages, from helping farmers who were behind in their planting, to plugging up holes in the dams that protected the smaller villages. All throughout this time, he couldn’t shake the feeling that he was being shadowed. As the weight of the unknown presence continued, it became a sort of companion to him. When it left, Hiroki felt colder.
One night, Hiroki slept by an expertly made fire in the lush forests of the Kusa region. A rustle echoed through the forest, and he sat up quickly, sword in hand. Gracefully, a figure swung down from the treetops.
“Hello again,” a voice said.
“You,” Hiroki growled, a feral thing, and charged. That voice had haunted his dreams too many nights. The Reisu effortlessly leapt out of the way.
“Stop and think for a moment. Think about why you let me go,” she spoke calmly, the light from the fire illuminating her sculpted features.
“I was an idiot and a coward,” Hiroki spat and lunged for her again.
“No, that’s not it.” Hiroki stopped and took a breath. Then another.
“No, it’s not,” he turned to her and looked into her bottomless eyes, “You’re not the monster everyone makes you out to be, are you?”
“You’re wiser than most who live out their days in Tochi Fuhai.” The Reisu sauntered over to where Hiroki stood. “You are also younger than most of the other Chishi I see traversing the lands, completing their own Shigoto.”
“Yes, I am,” Hiroki replied, and could not believe he was having a conversation with the monster he was meant to kill. “How would you know?”
“I was once a Chishi myself. In the last year of my training I witnessed something, and decided to follow my own path in the studies of the Blade.”
That would explain her impeccable technique, Hiroki thought. Maybe she’s more human than I was led to believe.
Noting the softening of his features, the Reisu murmured, “It’s been quite a while since I’ve spoken to another person. Would you mind humoring me, just for a few moments?”
Hiroki hesitated. If she wanted to kill you, she would’ve done so already. Just don’t let your guard down, he reassured himself. He leaned against a particularly large tree trunk and gestured for the Phantom to sit beside him. The unlikely pair shared stories of their pasts and hopes for the future until dawn.
“Will I see you again?” Hiroki found himself asking. The Reisu simply turned around and disappeared into the thick brush, for he already knew the answer.
As the two continued to ‘coincidentally’ meet, they eventually fell in love. Hiroki hadn’t forgotten about his mission, and every time he and the Phantom spoke he tried to find reasons to despise her. However, he only found reasons to do the opposite. Soon enough, Hiroki was desperate enough to ask the question they had both been avoiding since the day they met.
“Why do people say you’re a monster? Why do they call you a demon when I think you haven’t killed a single soul?”
“Why haven’t you asked me this before?” the Reisu asked bluntly.
Hiroki hesitated. “I was afraid I was wrong. That you did murder those people and I just didn’t want to know the truth. It’s easier that way.”
“What you just said, that is why you are good. You are honest. You are different. That’s why I trust you enough to tell you this. It’s the Shishu. They are the ones who butchered the noblemen and eliminated the Asagao tribe.”
“No. What reason do they have to do that?” Hiroki asked, disbelief in every line of his face.
“The ones they kill are those who go against Shishu law. The Asagao tribe planned to rebel against their elders. Don’t you see? They will eliminate anyone who threatens their power. That’s why I didn’t complete my formal training to become a Blade. I am the last of the Asagao tribe. When I was in the last stages of my preparation for the Shigoto, I returned home from the Shiruku region to find nothing but death. As I knelt beside my parents’ remains, I noticed the wounds inflicted on their bodies could only have been made by Shishu blades. Stunned, I hid in the forest for days until hunger drove me back to the Shiruku tribe. However, when I arrived at their market, I overheard the gruesome tale of the Chishi who massacred her own people. The Shishu had found their scapegoat.”
Hikori couldn’t believe what he was hearing. Everything he had put his trust into was thrown out of balance, yet he knew she spoke the truth.
“This is much for me to take in. Leave me now, and come again tomorrow.”
“I assumed it would be,” the Reisu said solemnly and took her leave.
That night, Hiroki mulled over what the Reisu had said. He turned it over in his head again and again, trying to make sense of it all. He questioned his morals, his life, his future. It all led to the same conclusion.
The Reisu came back at midday, and to her surprise Hiroki was acting no different than before. She thought that this revelation would take a larger toll on him, but clearly she was mistaken. He was chuckling and conversing as he had for their past six months together. By nightfall, Hikori had already fallen asleep. The Reisu laughed quietly to herself. Soon enough, she fell asleep too. When Hikori heard her steady breathing, he knew his opportunity had come. He opened one eye, then the other. Soundlessly, he wrapped his fingers around the hilt of his katana and cautiously made his way over to the sleeping figure of the Phantom. She was at ease, and slept deeply. Hikori squeezed his eyes shut, lifted the blade above his head, and swung down in one clean motion.
Hikori of the Karasu tribe approached the Okinei for the second time in his life. His dark hair was now long, his cobalt robe now muddied and worn. He stepped through the threshold with long, brisk strides, his head held high. In his hands was the head of the one they called the Phantom.