The Last Lesson
By Seth Mason
“In the year 1133 did our wise Emperor finally end the maddened flight of the poison prophet known as the Hooded Ronin. Having failed to murder our glorious lord with his band of traitors, the descendant of Shinsei wandered the land unchecked stirring up seeds of revolt and blasphemy. In his unfailing vision did the Imperial Hantei appoint his unequalled Dark Council the duty of ending the possible threat Shinsei’s last descendant posed”
- Miya Satoshi, Imperial Herald, 1133 by the Isawa Calendar, the Eleventh Year of the Glorious Reign of Hantei XXXIX
* * * * *
“You are sentenced to death, traitor, by the unstoppable will of the Immortal Emperor Hantei,” the undead visage of the Dark Master of Earth twisted into a smile as he read the papers he was charged with. Kuni Yori continued as the small man stood defensively between his frantic companion and the four Masters, “If you consent willingly to the wishes of your lord and master, you will be spared the painful death of destruction at the hands of the Dark Council.” Yori yawned lazily, scratching the stitches that peppered his face with one hand.
Beside Yori, Kitsu Okura narrowed his pale gold eyes with a predatory sneer as he regarded the Hooded Ronin. “I hope you submit willingly,” the portly Dark Master of Water said flatly, twisting his grip on his worn and etched staff. The rings fitted in the end clinked quietly.
Behind them both, the youngest master’s white hair flowed upon the morning breeze. Daigotsu watched impassively from behind his white mask. Beside him, the mummified corpse that was Yogo Junzo watched Shinsei with empty eye sockets.
Shinsei let his eyes wander around the surroundings before he spoke. The Masters had found him just outside a forest in Akodo lands where he had met a woodcutter named Honzo. The Ronin had been spending time chatting idly with the stranger when the Masters appeared. The terrified woodcutter cowered behind Shinsei. The Hooded Ronin turned and smiled warmly at the other man, “I am sorry I didn’t have more time to talk with you, Honzo,” he said with genuine regret in his voice.
Honzo could only nod dumbly, flicking his eyes back and forth between the little teacher and the Dark Masters. “Are we going to die, master?” he whispered.
Shinsei smiled. “Yes, Honzo. I think so,” he said cheerfully, reaching behind him and under his cloak. The little man produced his shakuhachi flute and spun it with one hand. As the staff began to spin, Shinsei’s crow leapt from his shoulder with an irritated caw and vanished into the forest. “Everyone dies, some of us sooner than others.” The Hooded Ronin shoved Honzo aside while the Masters watched his staff cautiously.
The young farmer stumbled from the impact and vanished.
“What is this?!” Okura hissed, clapping his staff into a combat stance quickly. “Where did the other man go?”
“Daigotsu. Junzo,” Kuni Yori snapped imperiously. “Find the beggar’s student. Shinsei’s precious Way dies here.”
The two Masters silently disappeared.
“This?” Shinsei said with curiosity in his voice as he charged the two men remaining, “This is a staff, esteemed Master,” with motions even Okura’s supernatural senses could not follow, the monk stepped into his reach and disarmed the Master of Water then shattered his jaw with two precise motions. The flute sang an eerie song as it traced its way through the air.
“Filthy little man!” Yori bellowed, summoning a cloud of dark spirits with a gesture. “Do you think you can best the Council?” the Tainted shugenja’s feet hovered slightly over the ground as the earth churned and recoil at his influence. The ground began to rip and spray outward as if it were an shattering piece of porcelain.
Shinsei grunted as he turned his ever-whirling staff to protect him from the shards, though a few still slipped by his guard and sliced his arm and leg. The assault ended quickly as Yori flew toward him, and the Hooded Ronin stopped his staff long enough to strike the end of it into the ground at his feet.
“The earth resents you, Master,” he whispered.
A jagged spire of rock rose from the ground, striking Yori from the air. Okura recovered himself and let out an inhuman bellow through his ruined jaw. The Dark Master of Water leapt at Shinsei and struck him firmly in the chest with his shoulder. The two men collapsed. Shinsei felt the earth beneath him slowly melt into a thick quagmire at the Master of Water’s command, sucking him down. The Master of Water’s smiled triumphantly as he slid his jaw back into place with one hand.
Yori stood shakily glared at the bubbling pit of mud. “Gone?” the Dark Master of Earth asked.
The look on Okura’s face was deeply disappointed as the other Master walked over to him. “How Lord Fu Leng ever fell before this man’s machinations to begin with is-” the Master of Water began, but was cut short when the unmistakable sound of a tree’s base cracking assaulted their ears. Yori and Okura both looked toward the forest edge only feet away and were greeted by an unnaturally large tree falling towards them. Both men attempted to move but found their feet somehow held firmly by the mud that had expanded to envelop their own feet.
Neither Master had time to defend themselves before the tree smashed them down into the very mire they thought had trapped Shinsei. The Hooded Ronin stood next to the newly-formed stump and looked onto the scene with slight amusement on his shadowed features. “I thank you for your sacrifice, brother tree,” he whispered with a smile.
“You are not as stupid as you seem, Little Teacher,” a pleasant voice came from the dark recesses of the forest. Shinsei did not have to turn to know who it was that greeted him. Daigotsu’s form seemed to melt from the surrounding darkness until he appeared as a solid figure standing with his hands folded behind his back. “So you must know your struggle cannot end well for you.” The Dark Master of Void sighed.
“I will fight, son of Hantei,” Shinsei said and turned to face Daigotsu. “Just as the father will always fight for his son, no matter the cost, neh?” the little man raised a questioning eyebrow towards the Master.
Daigotsu’s reply did not come.
“Do not waste time, Daigotsu!” another voice cried from above them, and both men looked up to see the Dark Master of Air plummeting from the sky. Dark bolts of electricity danced along Yogo Junzo’s twisted and withered hands as he charged the Hooded Ronin with the speed and precision of a diving hawk.
The ground burst into blackened smoke and debris where Shinsei had stood only a moment before. The monk had barely enough time to escape the unnatural blast of power that erupted from the Dark Master of Air. He landed nimbly and spun his staff up to meet Junzo in mid-air. The Master growled as the weapon struck his withered throat. The little monk quickly darted away from Junzo’s swiping claws.
Pain shot upward from Shinsei’s left arm and he suddenly felt blood trickle down to his fingertips. The monk looked over and saw Daigotsu still far from reach, chanting softly and waving his obsidian knife in complex motions. Another quick slash from the Dark Master of Void left a trail of blood hanging in mid-air in the weapon’s wake and Shinsei stumbled back as another cut trailed across his chest.
Junzo stumbled toward the monk, a sepulchral moan echoing from his ruined throat. A cloud of dark green smoke boiled out from Junzo’s mouth, where his jaw had once been. Daigotsu pulled the knife back to slash through the air once more and Shinsei quickly grabbed the Dark Master of Air’s arm and pulled the undead shugenja forward. A spray of green dust filled the space in front of Daigotsu and the Dark Master of Void cried out in surprise from seeing his attack used against his fellow Master. Daigotsu dropped his knife in alarm as he backed away from Junzo’s poisoned blood.
Shinsei cast Yogo Junzo’s limp body aside quickly and hurled his staff at the Dark Master of Void. Distracted by Junzo’s acidic blood, the butt of the staff met Daigotsu’s mask dead-on. The porcelain shattered and fell away from the Dark Master of Void’s face.
Daigotsu roared in frustration, holding a hand to his injured face. “You will suffer, monk!” the Dark Master cried as he pulled the slivers of porcelain from his face and hurled them at Shinsei. The small pieces crossed the distance between the two men with supernatural speed and exploded into dark radiance when they struck the Hooded Ronin.
The smirk never left Shinsei’s face as he fell. The monk twisted his left hand in a peculiar fashion, and Daigotsu felt a sharp pain in his ankles. The Dark Master of Void looked down for just a moment to see Shinsei’s staff animated as if of it’s own will. The bo quickly struck Daigotsu in the ankle and pushed its way between his legs just as he was thrown off balance. The Master went down yelling in surprise and struck the ground solidly, headfirst.
Shinsei didn’t have any time to contemplate the victory as his world suddenly exploded into fire. The Hooded Ronin was thrown up into the air and far backward from the blast, landing a good distance away from the edge of the forest. He didn’t hesitate to keep moving just as he landed, rolling away from another hurled missile of fire from the sky. As the monk regained his footing, he looked into the air to see the unmistakable figure of Fu Leng’s most feared Dark Master. Isawa Tsuke sneered in disdain as he hovered inexorably closer. His body resembled a body burnt by flame, flesh pulled tight over the bone and covered with wretched scars. A nimbus of green fire surrounded Tsuke. He casually gathered two handfuls of fire and hurled them at the Hooded Ronin. The bolts of fire were anything but casual in their speed, and the little monk found himself quickly leaping and rolling along the ground just to keep alive. The Dark Master kept his distance, hovering in the air close enough to continue his assault but far enough away to stay safe from the monk’s tricks. Just as he attempted another leap, the ground beneath him yielded under his feet as it was transformed into a thick mud. Over his shoulder, Shinsei saw Kitsu Okura standing slowly and working his dark magic.
One of Tsuke’s blasts caught Shinsei full in the chest and sent him flying. Shinsei arced up into the air and tried to twist his body to land safely, but suddenly he realized he was not falling at all. Yogo Junzo’s power held him aloft in a column of concentrated wind. The assault died off as quickly as it began, and the Hooded Ronin was slammed hard into the ground below.
The air was knocked from Shinsei’s lungs with the impact but he refused to stop moving. The little man rolled to the side and sprang to his feet only to feel something rise beside him and grip his arms and torso. Blackened roots had sprung from the earth and bound the monk to the spot, defenseless before the Dark Council of Fu Leng.
The five corrupted shugenja strode wearily towards the Hooded Ronin. He looked up at them defiantly. Daigotsu walked to the fore of his peers and withdrew his obsidian knife once again. He walked fearlessly to rest on one knee a foot away from the legendary man whom he and the other Masters had beaten at long last. “Did you think you could defy the will of the Dark Lord, little man? The power of the Emperor?” he whispered, pressing the tip of his weapon against Shinsei’s chest. “Surely you could not have bested us with even your impressive abilities. Tell me, monk. Tell me why you still look at me as if you have won, and I will listen. You will get no such offer from the others.”
Shinsei looked directly into Daigotsu’s eyes and then to the four men behind him, just far enough away that they could not fully understand what was being spoken. “I do not need to defeat the Council, son of Hantei. You will do it for me,” he said. The monk smiled warmly and with a swift motion effortlessly broke the bonds around his wrists and pulled the Dark Master of Void’s ear to his mouth.
The Hooded Ronin whispered quickly into the surprised Master’s ear and then gripped Daigotsu’s hands into his own. With a final effort, Shinsei plunged the knife into his own chest and fell away from the Dark Master of Void onto the ground.
Tsuke and Okura began to move swiftly towards the scene, fearing the monk would attempt to resist further. Daigotsu whirled on them, his right hand still around the knife that held firmly in the chest of Shinsei, “Get back!” he snapped, and the other Masters stood down.
“Take the corpse,” Yori said firmly even as Shinsei’s body wracked with spasms of pain. “We can make something interesting of the last descendant of Shinsei, I think.”
“No,” Daigotsu replied, pulling the weapon free if its victim in a small burst of blood. The Dark Master let his piercing gaze fall on Yori longer than the others. “Let the carnivores have him. Let the ronin bands find his corpse. Let Toturi hear that Shinsei has been murdered and let none be able to dispute the matter.”
Each of the other Masters seemed to start a protest, but the Dark Master of Void met each of their gaze with an intensity they had seen in only one other being – their Emperor. “Now,” Daigotsu finished. “Let us return to Otosan Uchi and bring the Imperial Throne word of our victory.” Without preamble, Daigotsu’s form seemed to melt into the very air.
The masters looked at the place where Daigotsu had been, expressions of distrust and hatred clear upon their faces.
“What of the monk’s student?” Okura asked. “The one who vanished.”
“Stay and look for him if you like,” Tsuke hissed. “I am returning to Otosan Uchi.” The Master of Fire vanished in a crackle of flame. Yori and Junzo also disappeared. Kitsu Okura took one final look around the clearing, shrugged, and vanished.
* * * * *
Timidly, the frail form of Honzo poked his head out of a pile of fallen leaves with the look of a sheep who had just watched five wolves walk by. Once he saw the form of the little master laid out on the road he quickly ran and dropped to his knees, weeping loudly.
“Hon. . . Honzo. . . please. I am. . . trying to sleep. . . ” a weak voice came from the body.
The young woodcutter nearly fell backwards at the sound of his master’s voice. “Shinsei!” he cried, “You’re alive!”
The little monk smiled weakly and looked up at his last student. “I die, Honzo. . . the kharmic wheel is done with me. The time of Shinsei is done.” He coughed a little, blood speckling his lips.
“What will we do, teacher?” Honzo asked frantically. “Who will teach us? Who will show us the Way?”
“Is it not obvious?” the Hooded Ronin laughed. “You will.”
“I could never do such. . . I’m. . . just a man. . . I’m nothing special. . . ” his voice trailed off as Shinsei held the farmer’s eyes with his own.
“That is why. . . it must be you. . . ” Shinsei said.
“I don’t even know where to begin, master,” Honzo said weakly.
At that, the little monk smiled. “With a. . . single step, Honzo. . . ” he spoke hoarsely.
And then he spoke no more.
Honzo buried the little monk and made his way from the forest. When the crow alighted on his shoulder, he hardly even noticed.