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Below are the prologue and first two chapters of Katana Shodan: The Scroll of the Five Masters.

Prologue

Hawaii, 1997

Yoshida dropped to his knees at the cliff’s edge, bowed his head and wept. Flames consumed the wreckage of Adrian’s car on the rocks far below. The stars wheeled in the night sky, waves crashed against the base of the cliff, and Yoshida wept until he could weep no more.

Slowly he rose to his feet, taking a deep, steadying breath. There was nothing more he could do here. Adrian and Kristine were gone. He walked back to the dojo, contemplating what to do next. Suddenly he vanished behind a bright flash of light.

Moments later he reappeared at Adrian and Kristine’s house. The front door was locked. Yoshida produced a key and let himself inside. The babysitter was fast asleep on the couch, a movie playing on the television. He moved noiselessly into the master bedroom, closing the door behind him.

There she was, lying in her crib in the corner of the room. Yoshida stared down at her, hardly able to believe his eyes.

“Startling,” he whispered. “Your chi is strong, little one.”

A tear slid down his cheek, but he smiled. Pulling his phone out of his pocket, he dialed two numbers. It took several rings before anyone answered.

“Hello?” said a groggy voice.

“Samantha.”

“Yoshida. What time is it?”

“Adrian and Kristine,” he said, choking back a sob. “They’re… they’re dead.”

What?!” she replied, more alert now. “How?”

“Their car… it crashed…”

“No…”

“It’s my fault,” he told her. “If I had arrived sooner… it would have been different.”

The sound of her sobs brought fresh tears to his eyes.

“What about Katana?”

“Safe and sound,” he said. “I’m with her now.”

“What will happen to her? Where will she go?”

“I will take her to Vermont.”

“Leanna. Of course. She’s her only family now.”

“Samantha… I must ask you to promise me that you will tell Katana nothing of my relationship with her father, or you, or the Hall—any of it. I will move to Vermont as well, to watch over her. But she must never know.”

“I don’t understand.”

“I cannot explain now. But please, give me your word.”

“You have it. I won’t say anything.”

“Good. I have to go. I’ll be in touch soon.”

Yoshida closed his phone.

“I will protect you, young one,” he said.

Katana smiled up at him.

Chapter One: Fear of Failure

Vermont, 2009

Katana Kahanu performed the kata with an exquisite balance of power and grace. Her ponytail and brown belt danced in time to the studied movements. She snapped her whole body into every strike like the crack of a whip, and rooted herself in every stance, solid and immovable. Her small stature and wiry frame might do little to intimidate an aggressor, but the look of intensity in her jade green eyes was enough to cut through the will of almost any opponent.

She threw her last side kick nearly vertical, then bowed to finish her form.

“Nice kick, Katana. Too bad it’s supposed to go to the knee,” chided Sensei Mike.

“Perhaps she was fighting someone very tall,” Master Osaka said with a wink. “Jill, you are next.”

Sensei Mike was taller than Master Osaka. He had bouncy blond hair and a very muscular build. His black belt was so tattered that the white material in the center showed through in several places. Master Osaka’s belt was so worn with age that it was actually more white than black.

Katana went to the back of the room and knelt down. Her jet-black hair was slick with sweat, but she felt more exhilarated than tired. Doing karate made her feel more alive, somehow, and she loved that.

Jill finished her kata. Master Osaka made some minor adjustments to her final stance. “Remember, Jill, in kempo karate, we always want to be rooted to the floor. Keeping your heel pushed out like that will give you a stronger base.”

He called Tyler next.

The dojo was mostly just a big, open room. The floor was covered with tatami mats. A jade carving of Buddha, a bamboo plant and two incense holders sat on the small altar at the front of the room. Behind the altar, hanging on the wall, was a scroll with a single Japanese character painted on it—the character for Do, or the Way.

On each side of the altar, the wall was covered with mirrors—this gave the dojo the illusion of being larger than it really was. The side walls hosted two long scrolls with Kanji characters brushed down their centers.

“Chris, you’re up,” said Master Osaka when Tyler was done. A boy with short, curly brown hair got up and started his kata. Although he lacked Katana’s elegance of movement, his form was strong.

“Excellent,” said Master Osaka. “You have made great progress with kata number ten, Chris.”

Chris was glowing with pride as he went to the back of the room and knelt down next to Katana. She knew how much trouble he’d had with their newest form, and how hard he’d worked to get it down. She also knew how much Master Osaka’s praise meant. She held up one hand, and Chris gave her a high-five.

It had been like this for as long as Katana could remember; she’d known Chris Boyd since they were infants. During their first few years at school, many had thought it strange that a boy and girl could be such good friends. When they were eight, a group of boys teased Chris about this. He replied famously, “Katana’s not a girl, she’s my friend.” This remark had earned him a punch in the arm from Katana.

Once Master Osaka had looked at everyone individually, he had them spread out and work on their own, giving everyone pointers and things to work on in their newest kata. At the end of class, he lined them up. They bowed and knelt down to remove their belts.

“Katana, Chris, Jill and Tyler,” said Sensei Mike very seriously once Master Osaka had dismissed the class, “you four, go get changed and meet me in the conference room.”

They went to change out of their karate uniforms, which were soaked with sweat, and filed silently into the conference room. They sat down at the table. By the confused looks on the others’ faces, Katana realized that she wasn’t the only one wondering why they were here.

After a minute, Sensei Mike walked in. “Chris, Master Osaka wants to see you in his office. You three, stay put.” He walked out again, taking Chris with him.

Sensei Mike returned a few minutes later; this time it was Jill’s turn. A few minutes after that, he came back for Tyler.

Katana had no idea what was going on, but she was getting nervous. Had they done something wrong?

Finally, Sensei Mike came back for her.

“Please, sit down, Katana” said Master Osaka when she walked into his office. “For six years now, you have trained here, and you have always worked hard, despite how easily most things have come to you. This summer, all that hard work will pay off. You will be testing for your black belt.”

“WHAT?”

Master Osaka smiled. “It will not be easy, even for you. It will take every ounce of will and focus that you possess to pass this test. But I am confident that you are ready. The test will be on August first. Congratulations.” He extended his hand, and Katana shook it.

“Thank you,” she said, and sat there, stunned. She knew that black belt was the next step, but it had always seemed so far away. In that moment, she would have preferred being in trouble. There was no way she was ready for this.

“You may go now, Katana,” said Master Osaka, with an amused twinkle in his eye.

“Oh… yeah,” said Katana, recovering.

“YES!” shouted Chris when they got outside. Katana looked at him blankly as they climbed into his mom’s Jeep.

“Hi, kids,” said Mrs. Boyd. “Katana, the hospital called your aunt in for the late shift. She asked if you could stay at our house again.”

“Oh, thanks,” said Katana.

“How did class go tonight?”

“Mom, we’re testing for black belt!” said Chris.

“Are you kidding? That’s awesome! Kat, what’s wrong?” she called over to Katana, who was sitting in the back seat.

“I… I don’t think I’m ready for this,” she pleaded.

“Osaka wouldn’t put you on this test if you weren’t ready, Kat. And besides, you’ve always done great in karate. I’m sure you’ll be fine.”

But Katana wasn’t so sure. She’d always wanted to test for her black belt, but the test had always seemed to be in the vague and distant future. Now that it was an imminent reality, she thought she’d be just as happy to put it off forever.

She’d heard from several of the older kids about how incredibly difficult the test was. In fact, she’d grown up hearing how strenuous it was, though no one would provide her with the details. Despite the rumors, what actually happened on the test was a secret known only to those who’d taken it. The mystery of it all served only to heighten Katana’s anxiety.

Chris’ family lived a few minutes outside of town, in an old colonial built in the 1700s. It sat on several acres of land and was surrounded by large pine trees. Those who came to visit understood immediately what Chris meant when he said he “lived in the sticks.” Katana loved eating at the Boyd’s house because Mrs. Boyd, unlike Katana’s aunt Leanna, was a very good cook. Meals at Katana’s house usually consisted of take-out or peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.

After dinner, she and Chris made popcorn and watched one of their favorite movies: an old Chinese kung fu film with English subtitles. It featured a young monk who trained at an ancient temple. He learned amazing moves with sword and staff, and did incredible flips and tricks.

“I wish Osaka taught us stuff like this,” Chris always commented.

“No one can jump that high, Chris, it’s only in the movies,” was Katana’s standard reply. They knew the actors used wires so they could appear to fly, or walk up walls. Chris even had a name for this type of special effect: “ninja magic.”

“Maybe once we get our black belts we can start learning some of these moves,” he said excitedly.

“Maybe…” said Katana doubtfully. “But first we have to pass the test…”

“We’ll pass.”

“How do you know that? Two people failed the last one!”

Mrs. Boyd came in then and said, “Haven’t you two seen this one about a million times already?”

“Two million,” said Katana.

“Well it’s late, you should be getting to bed.”

Katana closed the door to the spare bedroom she used whenever she stayed over and changed into her pajamas. She climbed into bed but had a very difficult time getting to sleep that night. She couldn’t stop herself from conjuring up images of a variety of impossible tasks that might be waiting for her on the black belt test, each worse than the one before. She’d heard enough rumors to fuel her imagination. One of the older students had hinted that he’d had to fight Sensei Mike on his test. And she was certain she’d overheard another girl say she had to break a brick on her test.

Katana fell asleep eventually, but kept having bad dreams about failing the black belt test.

The last couple of weeks of the school year seemed to take forever. Katana was sure that her brain would melt by the time summer vacation started. Their classes with Master Osaka had become much more vigorous since he’d told them about the upcoming test. Katana knew this would prepare them, but she found the workouts were pushing her endurance to the limit. This night was no exception.

After basics were done, Master Osaka arranged them into two lines, each facing the other. They were going to practice their self-defense combinations. But Osaka didn’t pair them with their usual partners. Katana and Chris almost always did combinations on each other, but today Master Osaka paired Katana with Jill McNamara, another Brown Belt.

“Get in stances, everyone,” he commanded. “Combination one. Ready, attack!”

Everyone in Jill’s line stepped in and threw a punch at their partner. Everyone in Katana’s line blocked the incoming punch, stepped in and wrapped their opponent’s arm, did a strike to their neck, swept out their leg—knocking them to the ground—and threw two more strikes once the opponent was down.

“NO!” shouted Master Osaka. “Do it again. This time, focus! You all have better technique than that. Attack!”

They went through all twenty of their combinations, then they switched, and the second group had their turn. They had to do every technique at least three times before Master Osaka was satisfied with their performance. Then he made them switch partners and start the whole process over again. People struggled to keep up. They were already tired from basics at the beginning of class, and Osaka was demanding much more from them than he ever had before.

They finished their second set of combinations, and Master Osaka assigned everyone their third partner of the night. Chris paired up with a boy named Tyler Jones, who was also a brown belt. Tyler’s line did their combinations first this time. He tried Combination One on Chris, but lost control of his arm as he did the leg sweep. Chris fell back hard, his head bouncing off the tatami mat when he landed.

“Everyone up!” yelled Master Osaka, running over to see if Chris was okay.

“I’m all right,” said Chris. But he looked woozy as he tried to stand up.

“Chris, sit down for a few minutes. Sensei Mike, please help him out to the waiting room.”

“Really, I’m fine,” said Chris, but his eyes seemed slightly out of focus, giving him away.

“Let’s go,” said Sensei Mike, taking his arm.

“Tyler! What are you doing?” demanded Master Osaka.

“I’m sorry—I didn’t wrap his arm tight enough, and I lost him.”

“You lost your focus, Tyler. Karate is about controlling the attacker. You cannot control him if you are not even controlling your own focus.”

Tyler snapped. “How can I focus when I’m this tired? You’re pushing us too hard!” He turned and began to storm out of the dojo.

“TYLER!” yelled Master Osaka. “Go to the back of the dojo, and kneel down facing the wall.”

Tyler appeared defiant for a moment longer, but the look on his face said he’d already thought better of it. He went to the back wall and knelt down.

Osaka took the rest of class through the remaining combinations for a third time, then lined everyone up and silently bowed them out. They knelt down to remove their belts, but no one said a word. Katana had never seen anyone lose his temper in class like that. But she had to admit she knew how Tyler felt. She too was exhausted.

Over the next several weeks, Chris and Katana doubled up the amount of time they were spending at the dojo. Now that school was out, Master Osaka had started a morning class two days a week that was open only to brown and black belts. Katana and Chris attended that with Jill and Tyler, and still kept up their regular evening classes. They also came in one or two days a week to practice on their own.

When they weren’t at the dojo, they spent their days at Turtle Beach, a secluded recreation area on Lake Champlain.

“The water’s finally getting warmer,” Katana said as they went back to their towels after a midday swim in July.

“Yeah, took long enough. I was tired of turning blue every time,” said Chris.

Katana sat down on her towel, pulled in her feet and hugged her knees. “Two more weeks until the test,” she said quietly.

“I know, I can’t wait. You’re still really nervous about it, aren’t you?”

“I’m scared out of my mind. Every time we go to class, I feel like I’m going to break down the way Tyler did that day.”

“But you haven’t broken down yet—Tyler breaks down almost every class now. You’re gonna be fine.”

“Everyone keeps saying that, but it doesn’t feel that way. I don’t think I’m ready for this. Tyler may break down, but he keeps going. I feel like I’m going to die. What if I fail?”

“You won’t fail, Kat. You’ve never failed at anything, why would this be any different?”

“Because nothing I’ve ever done has been as hard as this test is going to be.”

“I think you’re building it up too much,” Chris said. “You’re just freaking yourself out.”

Of that Katana was certain. They left the beach and headed home, walking in silence for a few minutes.

“Chris, I can’t do it,” she said finally. “I’m going to talk to Osaka and tell him I’m not ready. I’m sure I can try again next time.”

Chris stopped walking and stared at her.

After a couple of steps, Katana stopped, too.

“What?”

“You’re insane,” said Chris and resumed walking.

“I’m not insane, Chris, I’m telling you I can’t do this!

“But Katana, you’re doing better in class than anyone else. You were the only one who did the Dragon Circle right like the first ten times we did it! I really don’t get why you’re freaking out about this so much.”

“Whatever. I don’t want to talk about it anymore.” She knew what she had to do. She’d go to Master Osaka that night and tell him that she could not take the test.

“Fine,” said Chris.

They continued walking without speaking to each other.

“Well, I’ll see you later, I guess,” Chris said as they went by his house.

“Sure,” said Katana as Chris ran up the driveway. She walked the rest of the way back to her aunt’s house alone, then went inside and spent the afternoon sulking in her room.

Chris usually stopped by at five o’clock, and they’d walk to the dojo together—but when he wasn’t there by quarter after, Katana called his house.

“Hello,” said Mr. Boyd on the other end of the line.

“Hi, Mr. Boyd, it’s me, Kat. Do you know if Chris is on his way to karate?”

“Oh, he didn’t tell you? Nancy had to bring him to a doctor’s appointment, so she was going to drop him off after that.”

“No, he didn’t tell me. Okay, thanks Mr. Boyd.”

“Do you need a ride? I can swing over now and get you if you want.”

“No, it’s not a problem. I like walking.”

This put Katana into an even fouler mood. She walked by herself to Master Osaka’s, and resigned herself to letting him know that she would not be taking the test.

But when she walked in the door, Master Osaka said, “Katana, come in my office, please, I’d like a word with you before class.”

Katana turned and stared daggers at Chris, who was already in the dojo and making a point of not looking anywhere near her. She followed Master Osaka into the office.

“Have a seat, Katana,” he said, sitting down in his own chair behind the desk.

Katana sat down, and stared very intently at the floor.

“Chris tells me you are having some misgivings about the black belt test.”

“Yeah.”

“Do you want to talk about it?”

“No.”

Master Osaka let out a long sigh. “Katana, you are one of the most talented martial artists I have ever trained. Truthfully, you probably could have passed the black belt test a year ago, except that you didn’t know the last two kata yet.”

“But how do you know I would pass? What if you’re wrong? What if I get there, and I freeze up? What if I fail the whole thing?”

“Katana…” Master Osaka paused, and appeared to be considering his next words very carefully. “Katana, you are right. I don’t know that you’re going to pass. You might fail. In fact, you might fail badly. Or you might pass with flying colors. But that is the whole point of the test. Until you are there and you face it, you don’t know how you’re going to do. And I’m guessing that’s exactly why you’re so upset about this. Everything has always come so easily to you that you don’t know how to deal with failure, or even the possibility of failure.”

“Yes! That’s exactly it! I take tests at school, and I don’t even have to study for them—I just know the stuff. We do new drills here and they come easy to me. But this… this is totally different!  I have no idea what’s going to happen on this test. I just… I can’t do this.”

“Katana, think about how Chris feels.”

“He’s not nervous at all! He can’t wait to take the test!”

“I know,” said Master Osaka, “but that’s not what I meant. Chris has faced failure so many times now that he’s used to it. He always struggled at school, but he got through it, and he did much better this year. And things have never come as easily to him here as they have to you. But no matter what, he always came back and kept trying until he got it. But what I meant was, how do you think he’s going to feel if he has to take this test without you?”

“What?” Katana had never thought about this before.

“You have always been there, right by his side. You encourage him when he is having difficulties with something, and he draws confidence from you. He does not want to take this test without you. If you withdraw from the test, he has decided that he is also going to withdraw, and wait until you feel ready.”

“You’re kidding! That’s crazy—he’s totally ready for this.”

“As are you, Katana.”

“But… I don’t… he’s still…” she stammered.

“Katana, victory or defeat—success or failure—they do not define us. What defines us is how we face those things—how we cope with a challenge in which we might fail. If you withdraw from this test, you will be letting Chris down, and you will be denying yourself a chance to grow in a way that has never been possible for you before. I am not going to force you to do this—the decision must be your own. So think about it, and let me know.”

Katana could hardly look at Chris during class. Luckily, they were working on kata that night, so there was no risk of being paired up with him for combinations.

Not once since they’d learned about the test had she given a moment’s thought to how Chris felt. She hadn’t considered that her withdrawing from the test would have the slightest effect on how well Chris did—or on whether he’d take the test at all. She’d felt so certain about her decision a few hours ago. Now she didn’t know what to do. She was scared to take the test, but she knew she couldn’t let Chris down this way, either.

She didn’t talk to Chris for the next few days. They didn’t have class on Friday or Saturday. It rained all weekend, so Katana stayed inside and plowed through much of her summer reading.

Monday morning came and Katana’s first thought upon waking up was that this was it—the test was this Saturday. She decided she couldn’t let Chris down. She would take the test, although she still felt certain she was going to fail.

She walked to the Boyd’s house and knocked on the front door. Chris came out and said, “Hey.”

“Hi. Can we talk?”

“Sure,” he said.

“Osaka told me you’re not going to take the test if I don’t,” she said as she sat down on the top step. Chris sat down beside her. “And I think that’s crazy…”

“Well, I think it’s crazy that you’re not going to take it, too.”

“… but I’ve decided I’m going to do it. We’ve gone through everything together, and I don’t want to make you not take the test.”

“Don’t worry about it, Kat. When you feel ready, I’m sure Osaka will let us take it together.”

“But the thing is I don’t think I’ll ever feel ready. I know my stuff, that’s not the problem—but I’m going to be just as afraid to take this test in a year as I am right now. So I might as well try it now and get it over with. But you’re not allowed to make fun of me if I fail!”

“Okay, deal,” said Chris.

Their routine went back to normal for the next few days, and Katana did everything she could to keep her mind off of Saturday. Master Osaka eased up a little on them during the last few classes. If they weren’t ready by now, he explained, there was nothing more anyone could do.

And because Katana was dreading Saturday so much, the whole week rushed by and it was Saturday before she knew it.

Chapter Two: The Chen Do

Katana went to bed early Friday night, but to no avail. She couldn’t sleep.

Leanna had the day off from the hospital, so they got up and went over to the Boyd’s for a big breakfast on Saturday morning. The test didn’t start until noon.

It didn’t seem real to Katana—she couldn’t believe this was really the day. But it became very real when they arrived at the dojo. Chris and Katana went to change into their uniforms, then sat down in the dojo to stretch. Jill and Tyler were there, too. They both smiled and quietly said “Hi.” Several of the black belt students were there as well, but they didn’t look nervous. They didn’t have to take the test; they were there to help run it.

Finally the moment arrived. Master Osaka walked in, lit a stick of incense and lined everyone up.

“Please kneel down. This is the day for which you have been preparing and working since you first started training here. This test will be one of the most difficult things you will do in your entire lives. At some point in the next few hours, you are going to want to give up. Your body is going to tell you that it cannot possibly continue. Your mind is going to convince you that it would be easier to quit. Only your spirit will keep you going.

“Please rise.”

And with that, the test began.

Master Osaka was relentless. They did more basics than they’d ever done before—Katana was sure she had thrown at least a thousand strikes. When she thought she was going to drop, she saw Tyler run out of the dojo, then heard him vomiting in the bathroom. Strangely, this strengthened her resolve: vomiting was disgusting; she was definitely not going to let herself do that. But when Tyler came back, they continued with more basics. Finally they switched to kata, and Master Osaka had them do all ten in a row, as a group.

“Good, now do them like you mean it!”

So they did them again—and again, and again, and again.

When Katana thought they might get a break and come up to do their kata individually, they moved on to combinations without any rest. She did combinations on Jill, and had to repeat most of them at least three times before Osaka let them switch to the next move. When it was her turn to punch, she attacked, fell down and hit the mat, got up and attacked again. And so it went. Then they switched back to kata again.

This went on for what seemed an eternity. Katana felt unable to lift her leg off the ground, much less throw another kick. Still it continued. Her uniform became soaked with sweat. Her muscles felt rubbery, and her mouth and throat were so dry that breathing was painful.

At last, there was a break.

“It is time for the Dragon Circle,” said Master Osaka. “Everyone get in formation.” This time “everyone” included the black belt students. “Chris, you will go first.”

Chris took his place in the center of the circle. The Dragon Circle was one of the self-defense drills they’d worked on in class. Master Osaka would call out someone’s name, and that person had to step in and attack the person in the center. They could attack in whatever way they chose; they could throw a punch or a kick, make a grab, or even tackle the defender, who had to take on all comers.

Though Chris had experienced difficulty with this exercise the first few times he’d tried it, he’d had a breakthrough in the past few weeks. The key, he’d learned, was to stop thinking about what he was going to do, and instead react spontaneously.

After everyone had taken two or three turns attacking Chris, Osaka put Tyler in the middle. “Katana, attack!” he yelled; she stepped in to grab Tyler in a chokehold.

But instead of defending, Tyler yelled, “Oh no!” and ran to the bathroom. Katana grimaced as she heard him vomiting again.

Master Osaka put Jill in the center instead, and sent Sensei Mike to check on Tyler.

Jill got flustered on her first two defenses, but regained her composure and easily handled the remaining attacks. By the time she was finished, Tyler was feeling good enough to take his turn.

Katana went last. She felt nervous as she took her place in the center of the circle, but once the first attack came in, forgot her nerves and did what she’d trained to do. She blocked Chris’ punch, threw two strikes of her own, and swept out his leg, dropping him to the ground. Jill attacked next, and tried to put her in a bear hug. Katana flipped her over. Tyler attacked next, but before Katana was finished with her defense, Osaka called the next attacker—Jared, one of the black belts. Katana kicked Jared in the ribs to give herself a moment to finish with Tyler, then turned her full attention back to Jared. But Osaka had already called one of the other black belts, Allison. He then called Jill again.

Katana started to panic; Master Osaka hadn’t done this to any of the other candidates, and she didn’t know what to do. Suddenly, she dropped to a low horse stance, snapped her hands out in front of her, and let out a loud kiai—the shout Osaka had taught them to use for increased strength. An instant later, something very strange happened. There was a sound of rushing air, and Jared, Jill and Allison fell backwards a step, as if they’d walked into an invisible wall. They looked confused for a moment, then went back to their places in the circle, ready to attack again.

“Tyler, attack!” yelled Osaka.

Katana turned to face him, throwing her hands out again as Tyler lunged in to tackle her. He stumbled and dropped to the floor, falling as though Katana had swept out his front leg. But she hadn’t touched him, and still stood in her fighting stance, waiting for him to advance.

Surprised to find himself on the floor, Tyler got back to his feet and returned to his place in the circle.

“Allison, attack!”

Allison stepped in to throw a kick. Again, Katana turned to face her, and snapped her hands out in front of her. Just as Allison lifted her right leg for the kick, her left leg slid out as if someone had tripped her, and she fell flat on her back. She got up, looking embarrassed, and retook her place in the circle.

“Chris, attack!”

Katana had no idea what she’d just done, but whatever it was didn’t seem to affect Chris. He lunged in and grabbed her in a bear hug. Katana was so surprised that he’d lifted her off her feet before she reacted. She pulled up both knees and kicked back at Chris, who promptly dropped her. She turned, grabbed him and flipped him onto the mat.

“Enough!” yelled Master Osaka. “Everyone back in line.”

They did more basics for a few minutes, then Osaka had them kneel down against the back wall. He brought them up one at a time to perform their newest kata individually. Finally, he sent them all into the conference room. Sensei Mike instructed each of them to face a different wall. “There will be no talking in here,” he said. “Stay still and face the wall until we call you. Allison will be in here with you to make sure no one moves or talks.” He left the room and closed the door behind him.

After several minutes, they heard Master Osaka shout, “JILL!” Allison opened the door, and Jill left the room. Allison closed the door again, and everything was silent for a few minutes.

“TYLER!” shouted Master Osaka. Tyler left the room, and Katana started feeling nervous again. She tried to turn her head to see Chris, who was facing the opposite wall, but Allison quickly snapped, “No moving!”

Katana didn’t understand the enforced silence, which only increased her anxiety.

“CHRIS!” What on earth could be waiting for her next? They’d already done their kata, their combinations, and several different fighting drills. Finally, Master Osaka yelled, “KATANA!”

She followed Allison out of the conference room. The lights were out in the rest of the school. The sun was setting and it cast an eerie glow in the dojo. She bowed, and walked into the dojo. Osaka was kneeling before the altar, where two white candles burned. His back was to the altar, so that he faced Katana. In front of him was a very low table, which contained only two items: a large certificate and a black belt.

“Katana,” said Master Osaka, “come forward and kneel down.”

She walked across the dojo, and felt relief fill her very soul. It was over. She’d done it. She knelt down across the table from Osaka.

“Today you faced failure for the first time in your life. And you conquered it,” Master Osaka said solemnly. “Katana Kahanu, I hereby promote you to the rank of black belt in kempo karate.”

He held out his hand, and Katana shook it. She felt tears welling in her eyes as Osaka said, “Katana, please remove your Brown Belt, place it behind you, and put on your new belt.”

She tied the black belt around her waist for the very first time, and had trouble believing it was real. She’d always wanted this—literally for as long as she could remember.

Master Osaka lined everyone up again, then had them bow and kneel down.

“What you have done today is something very few people ever accomplish. Earning your black belt takes years of dedication and hard work, but never forget that the black belt is a beginning, not an ending. You are like a carpenter who now has all of his tools. It is time to begin building your house. Where your training takes you from here is up to you. But today you have proven that you can accomplish anything. Today, you are black belts.”

Chris, Katana, Jill and Tyler got up—slowly—and headed out of the dojo. Chris approached Katana to give her a high-five, but much to his embarrassment she grabbed him in a hug instead. “We did it!” she said, tears streaming down her cheeks.

“I told you you wouldn’t fail.”

With Osaka’s blessing, Katana and Chris took the next week off from training. Katana was grateful for the break: she was so sore she could barely walk.  She took advantage of the time and finished her summer reading.

On Wednesday, she and Chris got up early and went to Turtle Beach. They swam for a while, dunking and splashing each other, then went back up the beach to stretch out on their towels.

“This is the first day I’m not sore all over,” said Katana as she stared dreamily up at a passing cloud.

“Really? You’re lucky—my back is still stiff.”

Katana sat up. “I still don’t understand what happened in the Dragon Circle.”

Chris was flat on his back with his eyes closed. “Who cares? It’s over, and we never have to do that again.”

“Yeah, but why didn’t they attack me when Osaka called on them?”

“I didn’t know the last time you asked me that, what makes you think I’m going to know now? I still say Tyler fell because he’s a klutz.”

“Maybe, but Allison’s not. It was too weird—and why did Osaka call so many people at a time—he didn’t do that to anyone else. It makes me feel like maybe I shouldn’t have passed. Maybe Osaka should have failed me but felt bad about it.”

Chris opened his eyes and sat up, looking totally exasperated. “So you’re telling me you think you should have failed? First, you didn’t want to take the test. Now, you think you should have failed?”

“I don’t know.”

“Well, you’re crazy. We both passed, and I know I don’t want to go through that again!”

“Neither do I,” she confessed. “But I really want to know what happened.”

“So ask Osaka next time we’re there.”

That was exactly what she planned to do.

Katana was shocked later that day when Leanna told her that Osaka had called, and wanted to talk to her about the test. Maybe her worst fears were true—maybe she really had failed. The next morning, she walked into Master Osaka’s office, resigned to hearing the bad news.

“Good morning Katana,” said Master Osaka. “I asked your aunt to bring you here this morning because I wanted to talk to you about what happened on your test, during the Dragon Circle.”

“I failed, didn’t I?” asked Katana.

“Failed? Far from it. No, Katana, trust me, if you’d failed I would not have given you your black belt.”

Katana felt a huge weight lift from her shoulders. “Osaka, what did happen? It was so weird—they were coming at me, then they just stopped.”

“Katana, at one point, you threw your arms out and kiaied very loudly—what were you thinking right at that moment?”

“I wasn’t really thinking anything. I was feeling like it was too much when you called so many people at once—you know, that was really mean!” she said, but smiled as she said it.

Master Osaka smiled as well and said, “I know, Katana. Let’s just say I had a feeling you would be able to handle yourself. So you were feeling overwhelmed—anything else?”

“I wanted the attacks to stop because I knew I couldn’t handle so many at once.”

“Katana, do you remember when we talked about chi in class?”

“You said it was like an energy inside our bodies, right?”

“Yes, chi is the energy inside our bodies—inside every living thing, actually. Chi is what makes life possible—it is what makes a living thing like you or me or the trees outside different from anything not alive, like this desk or the air we breathe.”

“Desks and air don’t have chi?”

“Well, they do, but it’s totally different. The chi in normal matter is always the same; it is static. In that sense, chi is existence itself. But in living things, that chi is dynamic—it flows through us, like water in a stream. And it grows—the chi in the desk has always been the same. But in us, in living things, chi grows as we grow. And you can build your chi the same way you build your muscles.”

“Wait—what does chi have to do with what happened in the Dragon Circle?”

“Patience, grasshopper!” chided Master Osaka. “I’m getting to that.

“One of the things that makes us—humans—different from other living things is that we have the ability to control our chi in a way that other animals do not. We can direct our chi with our minds—with our intention. This intention is called shen. When someone attacks you, they direct the energy of their body, and thus the energy of their attack, with their intent to attack, or their shen. What you did in the Dragon Circle was to use the force of your own intent to block the intent of the attackers, the same way you would deflect an actual punch with your arm.”

“You mean I controlled their minds?!” asked Katana, shocked that such a thing could be possible.

“In a sense, I guess you could say that. But you didn’t control their whole mind—that is impossible. You simply deflected their intent to attack you.”

“But how could I have done that if I didn’t even know it was possible?”

“That,” said Master Osaka, “is a very good question.” He sat back in his chair, crossed his legs, and thought about this for a moment before continuing. “Katana, the only possible answer is that you did it by instinct, the same way someone who has never trained in martial arts may throw up their hands to fend off a blow. No one taught them to do it, but they throw up their hands instinctively to protect their head.

“In addition to that, although we have never worked explicitly on building your chi during class, karate develops your internal energy to some degree as it strengthens your body.”

“So when we do a kata, we’re building our chi?”

“Yes, precisely. And so for all these years, as you have practiced your karate and strengthened your muscles, you have been building your chi at the same time.

“Every martial art has both external skills and internal skills. The external skills we use in kempo are strikes and throws and such. The internal skill of any art is called its chen do. In kempo, the chen do is exactly what you did in the Dragon Circle—deflecting intent.”

“But Osaka, why didn’t anyone else do it?”

“Well, I didn’t call four attackers at the same time for anyone else the way I did for you, so no one else felt so overwhelmed!”

“You’re so mean!” Katana accused jokingly.

“Seriously, as different people are born with different amounts of muscle tone, so too are different people born with different amounts of chi. It is called ‘prenatal chi,’ or the energy that we start with, that we inherit from our mothers. Throughout life we build our chi, but we start with a certain amount of prenatal chi. It is possible—likely, actually—that you were simply born with more prenatal chi than most people, just like Sensei Mike was born with greater muscle tone than the rest of us.”

“But wait—Chris was still able to attack me, even though I was blocking his intent.”

“Yes,” Master Osaka sighed, suddenly looking troubled. “When we grow as close to someone as you are with Chris, our chi tends to intermingle with theirs to some extent. Have you ever heard of someone being able to sense the death of a sibling or spouse, even if they are not with them when it happens?”

“Um… yeah,” said Katana. “My aunt says she was able to feel it when my mom died.”

“Exactly,” said Osaka. “That feeling is only possible because of the connection that is established when our chi mixes with someone else’s. When the other person dies, the part of them inside of us dies as well. We can sense that loss.

“When you use a chen do, you are manipulating the other person’s chi in some way. And when you are so close to someone that your chi has intermingled with theirs, it is much more difficult to use a chen do against them. In some cases, it may be impossible.”

“So Chris and I will never be able to do a chen do on each other?”

“It’s hard to say for certain,” said Osaka. “If you stay as close as you are now, it is likely that your connection will continue to strengthen. Then, perhaps, the effect could become permanent. But remember: our chi grows as we grow. If you and Chris were separated for many years, chances are you would eventually regain the ability to do the chen do on each other.”

Katana thought about everything for a minute, then asked, “Will you work with us more on using chi, now that we’re black belts?”

“That leads me to our next topic of discussion,” he said, sitting up straight again. “There is a school in California called the Hall of the Dragon that teaches students like you—students who have shown a strong predisposition for the internal arts. I have recommended to your aunt that we send you there to learn more about how to work with your chi.”

“California… wow,” said Katana, feeling totally taken aback. “But… where would I live?”

“The school itself is actually a boarding school. The students live in the dormitories on campus. There is a private school nearby where they go to complete their academic studies. It’s an excellent college preparatory school—many of the graduates go on to top universities.”

“Why can’t I learn more about chi with you?” she asked.

“The Hall of the Dragon offers a much deeper and broader education than anything I could hope to provide here by myself. There are actually five masters in residence at the Hall, and each teaches a different art.”

“So they don’t just do kempo?”

“Oh, no, not at all. They teach kempo, tae kwon do, wushu, aikido and tai chi. They teach the external aspects of each art, but they also address the internal components, and ultimately all five of the chen do.”

“Tae kwon do does a lot of sparring, right?”

“Yes, tae kwon do and kempo are sister arts. But while kempo trains you to fight asynchronously—that means to defend against an untrained attacker—tae kwon do is synchronous—meaning you learn to fight against an opponent who uses the same skills that you do.”

“And I’ve heard of tai chi—that’s the really slow stuff, right?”

“Yes, tai chi is usually done very slowly, however do not underestimate it. Tai chi means ‘supreme ultimate’ in Chinese, and with good reason. It is by far the most powerful of the martial arts,” explained Master Osaka. “The external aspects of tai chi work with your chi much more directly than those of any other martial art.”

“And what about wushu and aikido—I don’t think I know what those are.”

“Aikido is the highest of the grappling arts, and wushu is the modern term for kung fu, which—”

“Kung fu! Like that crazy stuff with the swords and the tricks in ‘Fighters of Shaolin?!’”

“Yes,” Master Osaka said, grinning, “that is wushu.”

“I can’t wait to tell Chris—he’s gonna flip out when he finds out we’re going to learn kung fu!” Katana was nearly vibrating with excitement now.

“Katana,” he said, with a look of concern on his face, “if you decide to go to the Hall of the Dragon, you will be going without Chris.”

 

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