A Deadly Shadow

I sat in mediation for some time that morning in a small garden of our dojo’s small pond, a few clicks from the dormitory, far enough into the meadow that I couldn’t hear the chatter of others.

I had been training my listening skills, hearing nothing but flies and bees buzzing for hours before I detected the particular footsteps of my abbot, the nearly-silent foot falls growing louder. Humans. They practically plod like giants when they walk, even my master.

“Greetings, master Syncletica,” I said, not turning about or bothering to open my eyes. The foot falls stopped.

“You have completed the stealth tests satisfactorily,” she said.

High praise from my master, especially considering the test she gave to me.

Syncletica’s final test was for me to enter the Firebrand Gnoll mines and retrieve several gemstones with as few kills as possible. But I was to go alone. She left a mercenary cleric nearby in case of grave danger but she was ordered not to accompany me through the mines itself, and would stay put at the quest entrance.

Most of the master’s acolytes have chosen the Path of Harmonious Balance, where ki is used to heal yourself and others, but can also be used to damage attackers. I am one of a few that chose the Path of Inevitable Dominion, where I use my ki for extra damage and to aid in cloaking my approach.

Many people seem to think this “dark” path is evil, or questionable. It is not. There is no evil in the training of mind and body, especially to use such skill against the true evils that trouble Stormreach and its neighbors.

My brethren think I am somehow weaker. Because of this, I accepted my final test with determination.

I accepted additional training in the art of the ninja. It gives me stronger stealth skills. Not only are my hiding and move silently training is enhanced, but I can use my ki to make myself invisible and a bit incorporeal for a brief time. I would need that inside the narrow corridors of the mines. I handle shortswords very well as ki weaponry for when my fists cannot overcome an enemy–a rarer event, thankfully.

But the most dangerous training I know is for when I must fight. I often strike and stun enemies while cloaked to quickly remove them without drawing attention from others. For when I must fight a group, I measure their strength. Spell casters and healers are felled first, if possible. I have crafted a pair of handwraps that aid in stunning and, with a fortunate strike, will encase an enemy in stone. These wraps are also vampiric, fortifying my healing ability. Otherwise, other than drinking healing potions, healing while in battle is not possible.

But my best skill involves the management of ki. Like any other monk, I need the ki force to empower my training. Others will fight to generate it, leaving them at risk of having to use more to heal themselves or others. My training allows me to regenerate ki while in stealth, up to my stable level of concentration. That’s not much ki energy, but it is enough to heal myself every few minutes without having to encounter one attacker, or mediate to generate energy.

Were I to be discovered and an outright fight was inevitable, I use my most punishing technique. I draw my ki into a ball of intense energy that punishes the lifeforce of any living being, often destroying them with that single attack. A few in the dojo were…concerned…with such a brutal attack. “We are not assassins,” they say. They believe there is something wrong in the sudden death of an enemy. Yet they, as I, will eventually learn a new sudden-death strike. Maybe my brothers and sisters confuse my training and attacks with my attitude. I’m not as social as others. Maybe they just see me as angry or mean. I do not know.

But I do what I must. And I completed my test. No cleric. Barely detected by most of the mine’s denizens. I left the required gems by the master’s doorstep late last night.

I could hear the master take a few steps towards me as I still faced the pond. A heard a slight rustle as some kind of package was placed beside me. “You have earned this,” the master said, as her footsteps receded from me.

A few minutes later, I opened my eyes. Next to me in a neat package was clothing that gave me stronger concentration and protection, two special shortswords of metalline, and headgear that no other in the dojo had been allowed to wear, until now.

As the sun began to set, I dressed in the new outfit and pulled the obsidian-black mask over my dull red hair. With a moment of concentration, I ran to the pond, running quickly over the water to the other side, hardly disturbing the liquid’s surface tension, then cloaked myself to disappear into the outlying forest and to my next mission.

I am the first ninja of my dojo. I will defend its honor, its members, and the citizens and friends of Stormreach.

And the Rock Said, “No Hiding Place”

Seems that my adventures have caused a few–questions in our dojo.

Long ago, against the advice and teachings of my abbot, Syncletica, a Grandmaster of Wind, I chose the ancient and disused philosophy of the Mountain. In my first adventures, I came back bloodied and beaten from tasks of justice asked me, but survived.

Today, my abbot has requested a private session. She has asked me, an acolyte, to begin teaching on the Way of Stone. While it may be an honor, I am terrified. The terrors of Xoriat and Shavarath are on our doorstep, some say. Why in the name of the Host would any of my lessons be superior to that of our abbot’s plans (who has met with several generals who have dared to take on Stormreach).

Syncletica corrected me. “It is not that your technique is superior. No one monk stance is completely superior over others. However, were we all to fight as I fight, I fear our victories would begin to fade.”

She explained.

“When I was an acolyte myself, I felt drawn to stay in the Fire stance more, believing that my increases in Strength and ki generation would allow me to dominate. But the stance reduced my wisdom, preventing me from making more critical strikes to stun or disable enemies before they could even put up a fight.”

“Later, I chose the Way of Wind but learned to move between it and Fire stance. While in Wind stance, I’m physically weaker but much faster. Since I can strike far faster and more often, I can readily take down mobs very quickly.”

“I watched many good monks become more rigid than I once was. They mastered one stance and almost never left it. As a result, when it came to certain brutes, their lack of training in multiple techniques left them more likely to be resurrected than victorious.”

“But you have…you have rediscovered that the best offense may be a good defense. Tell me again about your adventures in the Vale of Twilight.”

So I did. While in the third level of Mountain Stance, I recalled how I was able to quickly overpower enemies, even those of which I had not yet learned how to bypass their stronger defenses–all through sheer brawn inherent in the stance. The result was obvious: I was not faster, but simply more powerful, able to dispatch stronger enemies faster, through massively critically strikes, than the multiple hits in Wind stance.

Syncletica began to change into a light outfit. “And that is what we need to learn, Lynncletica. While speed has its usefulness, the toughest enemies are just that: Tough. We need to ensure we don’t get, well, set in our ways. Each path is a gift, even I didn’t understand it at first when you began your training.”

“All of Xendrik will fall if any of us–archers and fighters, thieves and holy warriors–if any of us become too predictable, or even expect an adventure to always go by the book, based on other’s recollections. Who is “right” doesn’t matter. All monks in my tutelage must understand what you understand–and that training starts with me,” the abbot said as she began to wrap her hands in training cloth. “We begin. Tonight.”

It was…weird, last night, as a light breeze moved through the orange blossoms of the trees surrounding our home. I stood there, teaching my teacher the way of Stone.