Shō had always had an insatiable curiosity since he was a child.
He could not remember his mother’s face anymore, but he could still hear her voice happily answering his questions. His father would also feed him with information about hunting, the might of the samurais and shōguns, and places he would like to visit, but would not entertain any questions about their clan.
As much as he wanted to learn what their dark secrets were, he did not expect to discover them at the expense of his father’s life. Witnessing how Shōtaro’s strange abilities come to life was both horrifying and astonishing to him. But what threw him into a panic was when he felt the change in him, too. His senses were heightened. His mind was buzzing with too many thoughts at once. It was as if fighting instincts got hardwired into his brain.
That moment, he felt powerful. Too powerful that it scared him.
The fatigue and emotional distress from his father’s death caught up on him and he wished he did not sleep that night. If only fear did not immobilize him when the villagers trespassed their land. If only he was courageous enough to help his father reasoned with them. Instead, Shōtaro sent them into an endless chasm . . . only to end up in the forest.
“What happened? asked Ryo, who was both confused and terrified of what just happened.
Even if it sounded preposterous, they knew their father just transported them instantly using some kinds of shadows and magic. And the way his eyes gleamed was that of a predator—someone who was born to survive.
When they witnessed their father’s last breath, it dawned on him that they, too, would end up like him if they do not know how to handle the power that had been kept a secret within their clan. Shō wanted to know more about his newfound ability so he could guide his younger brother once it manifested on him, too . . . but Ryō’s anger triggered his abilities to show itself sooner than he thought.
He looked at his brother’s cold, aureate eyes. His clothes, soaked in the blood of his victims, looked like a crimson cloak, reflecting his desires to avenge their father.
They lived in the forest for several days, sometimes, going back furtively to their old house to salvage anything that could help them survive. Of course, the villagers painted them as monsters, after discovering several dead bodies in their own homes.
“We need to leave this village, Ryō,” he reasoned, fearing for their safety, but his younger brother was obstinate in staying.
“I heard stories from those people,” he murmured while Shō was preparing the deer they just killed. “They said our clan was once a proud lineage of samurais.”
Shō halted skinning the deer upon hearing that. At the back of his mind, he already knew what their background was after seeing a meitou or a named sword as their clan’s heirloom. Only those with higher status could possess such celebrated sword but seeing how their family was treated and how their father was adamant on staying tight-lipped about their history, he figured the head of the clan that time must have dishonored the samurai’s code and became a rōnin instead.
“Why should we leave if this was supposed to be our fief . . . our land?”
“Brother, they won’t bother us anymore,” he said, his eyes gleaming with contempt. “I assure you.”
Shō did not like how his younger brother was bearing himself after what happened. He knew what Ryō did was wrong. Killing the villagers was not the solution to their problem, but Ryō had already had blood on his hands. Still, Shō wanted to be with his brother to make sure he would not let his emotions drive him to darkness.
Weeks had passed and just like what Ryō had said, the villagers did not come for revenge. They depended a lot in the forest for food and other necessities as they did not want to set foot on the village beyond them.
Their abilities were starting to develop, too. Shō knew that their father went decrepit because he suppressed his power to evolve, and without letting it manifest, it started corrupting and eating up his body. Shō would always feel disoriented whenever he opens his eyes. Everything seemed to be magnified and extended. He felt like he had eyes all over his body. And because he could see such great distance, he could also tell what could happen before it takes place.
Over time, he grew bored. His father would sometimes trade their goods with books from patrons, but because they had not left their land for several weeks, he had already read everything on their shelves.
He was planning to sneak into the harbor tomorrow and, if lucky, would trade boar and deer meat to pennies and books. Shō was excited but his blood ran cold when he saw a dozen . . . no, a hundred of torches drifting in the dark, toward their home.
“Ryō!” he cried, waking his brother from his slumber.
He told his brother what he had seen. They realized the past few quiet weeks must have been the villagers’ preparation for their raid.
“We should quietly leave the house,” whispered Shō.
Ryō, on the other hand, was burning with rage. He was about to unsheathe their father’s sword but Shō held his hand back. “Brother—”
“Do not soak your hands in more blood, brother,” he said, prompting Ryō to stop resisting. His younger brother was returning to his usual self the past few weeks and he wanted him to stay that way. “We will return once they learn that we are not here anymore.”
“But how? We are already surrounded.”
He smiled at his younger brother. “You can do more than wielding your sword, Ryō.”
When his younger brother’s power manifested, he knew Ryō would be more powerful than him. Besides his innate talent as a swordsman, his ability was something that could bend even reality. But just like him, his brother was afraid to wield this power because he could not control it well.
Amid the darkness, he could feel his brother’s uneasiness.
“It’s okay,” he said. “Just imagine the forest. The place where we built a shelter to escape from them before.”
His power was similar to their father’s. He could create gateways through something’s or someone’s shadow by touching it. However, he should also know the place where they wanted to end up. The first time he did it, they broke several bones after freefalling from the top of the trees.
Ryō concentrated on their shadows, trying to visualize a specific part of the forest, but his focus wavered when a barrage of arrows came raining through their house. He almost got hit on his chest but Shō caught the arrow with his bare hands before it could reach him.
“I cannot let you die here,” Shō murmured.
He pulled his brother’s arm and they scrambled to the back door, but several men were waiting for them outside. With adrenaline coursing through his veins and his resolve to protect his younger brother, he tackled one of them and swiftly seized hold of the man’s knife and quiver.
He did not wish to kill any of them but they could not escape without fighting. Shō wounded three men, targeting their knees and calves to prevent the people from pursuing them.
“Faster!” he yelled, urging his brother to run.
Ryō was itching to fight, but with those numbers and weapons, he might not have a chance. He gritted his teeth in exasperation and gripped their father’s katana tightly. For now, all they could do was escape.
It had been an hour since they were on the run. The forest was surrounded, hence, they had no choice but to traverse the village and hoped to hide and start a more reclusive life in a nearby village.
When Shō told Ryō his plan, the younger brother was against it but he did not say anything. He quietly followed his older brother, partly because he felt remorseful for not securing their way out earlier.
He noticed that his older brother’s eyes were starting to look like their father’s. They were hazel-colored—a mixture of green, gold and brown hues. His gaze shifted to Shō’s right hand. The bleeding had yet to stop. His brother hated hurting someone and getting hurt himself. Just like their father’s ideology, he knew Shō was too kind that people would surely take advantage of it. He wanted to be like them, too, but he could not bring himself to forgive the people who had wronged them without any retribution.
Their father took and endured every insult, hoping that he and his brother would not harbor any hate toward humans, but that just fueled his hatred. And hearing his father’s last words made him more resentful.
His thoughts receded upon hearing his brother’s voice. It turned out that even the neighboring villages were alerted. They must have been branded as criminals, yōkai even, and he knew a quiet life was already impossible.
“We have no choice,” Shō muttered. “We may need to cross the sea.”
Ryō looked at his brother’s face. He looked distressed and exhausted. They both knew that travelling by the sea was already a dead end. They would be executed for treason as nobody was allowed to leave the borders. Maybe it was his last resort, and a way to achieve his unreachable dream—seeing the world outside.
If only his brother could throw away his altruism, they could have a chance to survive and get away with less damage. But his brother was too nice to a fault, and he could not bear seeing him die without fighting.
They ran toward the port, and there was a boat that just started leaving. It must be a merchant’s boat, the only allowed outsiders to enter and exit the country. The villagers and authorities had caught up with them. They were cornered.
Shō moved forward and shielded both of them, but Ryō knew he would not fight and would rather sacrifice himself to let him escape.
‘Ryō, I hope you live free from shackles of hatred.’
He thought he was just imagining it but he could hear his brother’s thoughts. Shō said he heard their father’s thoughts, too, when he was on the brink of death, and that was when he realized that his brother was really willing to give up his life for his sake.
That moment, there was only one solution, and that was the best he could think of. A solution that would guarantee both of their safety.
‘Brother, you asked me if I wanted to see the world.’
Even Shō was surprised to hear his younger brother’s thoughts inside his head. He did not know how it happened. Maybe it was part of their abilities. Or maybe because they were brothers that they could understand each other’s thoughts without saying them.
The villagers started drawing their weapons, but Ryō suddenly knelt and touched his shadow.
Surprised, Shō asked him what he was doing, but Ryō only smiled. A crevice formed from his shadow and he knew that would be the last time he’d see his brother.
‘Apologies, brother,’ Ryo said as he unsheathed his katana. ‘See the world by yourself. I am staying here, and I will take back what they have stolen from us: our clan’s honor, our wealth, and father’s pride. Farewell, brother.’
With a stomp, the crevice expanded and Shō fell into the abyss. The next thing he knew, he was already crashing to the boat’s bow. He struggled to his feet, trying to see the situation at the port and his mouth hang open as he witnessed how his brother had already killed three people.
‘Ryō!’ he desperately called through his mind, afraid that he would witness his brother’s demise. ‘Please! Live!’
He prayed, despite his brother’s sins, hoping that the gods of death would not claim his soul yet. He wanted his brother to be there by the time he returns. He could not bear living if the only family he had would die.
‘Fear not, brother,’ Ryō replied, much to his surprise. ‘I promise, even the gods of death cannot stop me. For father and for you, I will become one of them.’
And that night, the two brothers went their separate ways—one to see the people and the world, the other to annihilate them by his sword.
Feudal Japan, known by its isolationism or Sakoku for 214 years was established to stop the growing colonial and religious influence of Spain and Portugal in the archipelago. But long before that, the country had been in a warring state and social upheavals during the Sengoku period. Ezo, now known as Hokkaido, especially its southern parts, had become a place to settle for the Wajins, mainlanders, to avoid battles, but it also turned into a series of conflicts and revolts between them and the Ainu of the North, the original settlers of the land.
In the early1500s, the Miyamoto family, one of those who settled early in the South of Ezo, was shunned by the people and feudal lord because the head of the family, Miyamoto Saitō, refused to commit seppuku after his master died. He reasoned that he saw his master’s killer from a distance, and he must avenge him before taking his own life. However, his fellow samurais and retainers did not believe him as they were surrounded by forests. His samurai status was degraded to a rōnin and they lost their lands and fief. For several decades, the main family lived quietly in the suburbs and endured and lived in shame brought by Saitō’s status and were often the subjects of taunting and ridicule by neighboring villages.
A century later, the main family of the clan continued living quietly in a humble house near the port of Hakodate. Miyamoto Shōtarō, the current head, worked as a merchant trader, with the help of his two sons: Shō and Ryō. Albeit contented with their simple life, the two would always wonder why they were hated by the people.
Shō lowered his head while walking through the village on their way home. “Father, why do they show us contempt every time we pass by their houses?”
“Is it because we are living in the outskirts?” asked Ryō.
Shōtarō’s eyes softened as he looked at his clueless sons. He did not want them to know the clan’s history and would like to continue living discreetly. He knew the family’s name would only bring nothing but pain and shame, and he was sorry that they had to inherit those. However, what he was worried about the most was their unusual chikara or energy. His forefathers knew that something was different from them and used Saitō’s ronin status as a reason to live in seclusion.
“This power shall not be known outside the household,” Shōtarō’s mother would always tell him when he was made aware of what he could do.
He did not know when or how or from whom it had started, but he knew they were one of the descents of modification . . . of a lone line of evolution. As his father would say, kamigami no riki—they possess the power of the gods.
It was also the reason why his wife, Emiko, died. During the night of her labor with Ryō, the elder who assisted her witnessed a horrifying sight—Emiko’s eyes slowly changed from brown to a hazel-like color as she gave birth to her second son.
The elder’s feeble body trembled as she looked at Emiko. “B-Bakemono . . . (Monster . . .)”
Worn out, Emiko reached for her son in the arms of the elder. “M-my son . . . give me my son . . .”
Still dazed and scared by her eyes, the elder started backing away while chanting some prayers. Shōtarō just stood at the side of his wife, unsure of what to do, until the elder refused to let their newborn son go.
“Monster!” she yelled as she attempted to leave the house, but he was faster. Shōtarō forced the door close, but before he could get their son, he felt an intense pressure and killing intent from his wife.
Her hazel eyes turned more and more to shades of green as her expression turned cold. “Give me back my son.”
All of a sudden, the elder’s face was frozen in a silent scream. She let go of their son and Shōtarō immediately caught him. When he looked up, he was horrified when he saw the elder floating a little while holding her neck, as if someone invisible was choking her. He turned to his wife’s direction and she was staring at the elder with controlled hatred. He knew it was her doing.
He tried to break her from the trance but to no avail. He could only watch as the life drained from the elder’s eyes while Emiko’s started shedding tears of blood.
That night, two lives were claimed by the power of the gods.
“Ah!” Ryō exclaimed when they arrived home. “Perhaps it is because of father’s peculiar eyes?”
Indeed, they were peculiar. Shōtarō had light brown eyes, but almost hazel now, as well as his mother and father, and probably most of his predecessors. A chill ran down his skin when he remembered how his wife’s eyes changed that night and how it became the cause of her death.
He felt the curiosity in his sons’ eyes. He knew they would be different, too, and would inherit whatever curse or power their bloodline had.
Shōtarō knelt before his sons and gave them a stern yet worried expression. “You shall never talk about our eyes’ peculiarity to anybody. Hear me?”
Shō and Ryō knew their father was unusual. He did not seem to be proud and would always lower his head whenever someone would talk to him. Still, they were thankful that they had several patrons who buy their goods despite their father’s stiff politeness.
“Do you think father has a foreign blood?” Ryō asked his older brother while they were lying on their bed.
Shō met his brother’s gaze. “Because of his eyes?”
Ryō nodded. “People are saying we have tainted the code of honor. I wonder if it is because father and our predecessors have foreign blood.”
“Maybe,” Shō murmured.
Wajins or any people from their land were not allowed to marry an outsider. Besides, they were under Sakoku, and having a relationship with a foreigner was comparable to treason. However, their family was never proven to be harboring any outsider, nor marrying one. But from the perspective of the people, now they could somehow understand the hatred of the people toward them if those assumptions were true.
As they grew older, they became more conscious of the animosity they were receiving. Despite Shōtarō telling them not to mind it and continue living quietly, it was difficult to ignore the hurtful words thrown at them. What was worse was their father’s health continue to deteriorate but people would not stop sending ill will to him.
Ryō, who loved his father dearly, started resenting his behavior, as well as the people’s treatment to them. He could not understand why his father would just accept everything even if it was already unreasonable and unfair, but Shō would always tell him to understand everyone’s perspective.
“Hate is a strong word, brother,” Shō told him. “It corrupts even the nicest people and inflicts nothing but pain.”
“But those people are also throwing hate to us, aren’t they? Why can I not do the same, brother?”
Shō smiled and adjusted the small deer they managed to hunt and kill in the forest on his shoulder. “I know it is hard, but father told us not to hate them. Father is a kind man, and he wants us to be like that, too.”
Ryō swung his knife onto its holster and picked up his face. “Kindness is not always right, brother,” he muttered. “Too much and the greedy and the wicked will take advantage of it. Father is kind, but also naïve.”
They came home to see their father struggling to even get up. Shō, who was nineteen, was undoubtedly the head of the family who had to take care of his decrepit father and younger brother. He understood where Ryō was coming from, and sometimes wanted to talk back to people, too, but he wanted to know the root of their hatred. He wanted to learn about their family’s oddity.
That night, they were about to sleep when Shō felt something strange. Even Ryō felt it and looked at his brother in concern and confusion. There was a continuous wave of chill on their skin, as if their mind and body knew that there was a looming danger. But what surprised them the most was when their father showed up in their room, looking horrified and worried.
“Father! Why are you—”
“Quick,” he said, cutting off Ryō. “Leave this place.”
They were about to ask what it was all about when Shō felt a piercing pain in his head and eyes. He clutched his head and closed his eyes, hoping for the throbbing to stop, but it became worse. He only realized he was wailing in pain when he heard his brother crying his name.
His eyes fluttered open and suddenly he could see better . . . no, not just better . . . he could see everything . . . and he could see through everything.
Beads of sweat formed on his forehead as he tried to make sense of what was happening to him. But he didn’t have the time to get his bearings because he saw several villagers heading to their house with torches and blades on their hands.
“F-father,” he called. “People . . . there are people heading here.”
Ryō looked at him with a confused face. “What are you saying, brother? Are you alright?”
Instead of answering, Shōtarō’s expression darkened. “It has manifested,” he murmured.
Shōtarō pulled his sons away from their room. Few seconds later, they could make out the number of people who were standing right outside their house from their silhouettes. Shōtarō knew it would end up like this, but he continued hoping that the villagers would just let them live in isolation. Years of regrets started surfacing. For once, he felt like he should have told his sons the real reason why they should not associate themselves to ordinary people.
The people started chanting ‘monsters’ as they demanded to kill themselves for the sake of the peace in the village. For them, they were the reason for every problem and tragedy the village encountered. Because their predecessor defiled the code of honor, they would bring nothing but misfortune and would always be blamed for it.
They started throwing the torches at their rundown house. Shō and Ryō were appalled that people could do this to them. That they could kill a family just because they were viewed as bad luck.
Never in their lives they had seen their father cry, but this time, silent tears streamed Shōtarō’s face as he hugged his sons with his frail arms.
Ryō couldn’t believe it but in his heart, he was yearning for this moment. “Father?”
Shōtaro gently pulled away and took the prized possession of his clan—his ancestor Saitō’s katana. Shō and Ryō flinched as they felt the change in their father’s presence.
“F-Father?” Shō called.
Shōtarō turned and the two stepped back, taken aback by his blazing eyes in the dark. “My body has turned feeble because I suppressed my chikara.”
In that moment, he understood why his predecessors died early. They restrained the power that was flowing in their body, in their blood, because they treated it as a curse. The body could not handle it and would corrupt it from the inside. If only they knew how to handle it properly. If only they had embraced and learned how to control it. His wife died because of the sudden release of that power during her weakened state. And he knew he would die this time, too.
He unsheathed the katana and turned toward his sons, a forlorn smile on his face. “The truth is, I have always hated humans, but I do not want you to share the same sentiment because not all of them are bad.” A single tear fell from his right eye. “No matter how hard it is, live well, Shō, Ryō. Live and prove that it is not a sin to be alive just because we are different.”
With a swift swing of his left hand, their shadows expanded. The next thing they knew, they were already falling into it.
That night, a monster was born, but not from Shōtarō’s feat, and would be known in the next few years as the Shinigami—the grim reaper.
Shō was in a stupor when he opened his eyes. He remembered hitting his head on a rock while trying to secure his brother’s safety. His surveyed the surroundings and realized they were in the forest. His brother was lying a few meters away from him and he scrambled his way to him.
He shook his brother’s body and heaved a sigh of relief when he regained consciousness a few seconds later. He helped him sit up.
“W-what happened—” Ryō’s body stiffened when he recalled what had transpired before passing out. “Father!”
With worried hearts, they got on their feet and struggled to find their way home. They were also thinking about what their father did and how did he do it, but Shō’s thoughts receded when he saw a horrifying sight from a distance.
He ran with urgency and his younger brother followed, the worst situation playing on Ryō’s head. They did not mind the cuts and grazes from the trees and thorns. All they could think of was their father whom they had left alone.
Shō stopped on his tracks when he saw his father’s body lying lifeless on the ground. He prayed and prayed that his vision was just giving him the thought that scared him the most, but it turned out to be real.
“Father!” cried Ryō as he ran toward Shotarō.
His heart dropped as he watched his younger brother cry in anguish. It pained him to see the cuts and stab wounds on his father’s body, but as his breath got caught in his throat when he saw the bodies sprawled a few meters from them. Four of the villagers who rallied in front of our home were dead.
He did not know how much time passed by while they were mourning for their father’s death. At the same time, they were mystified at how his eyes became amber-colored, almost gold with flecks of green, after what happened.
“We cannot allow them to see this,” Shō remarked, knowing that the villagers would paint him as a real monster and would pour scorn on him more than they had already did.
They carefully carried and buried his body at the forest, ensuring that people would not know its location. Shō was also worried how Ryō was quiet the whole time. He wanted him to rest but they could not return to their home anymore. Fortunately, the forest had enough materials to build a temporary shelter.
“We should rest for now,” he told his brother.
Ryō held their father’s katana tightly between his hands as he stared vacantly at the trees in front of them. He slowly turned to Shō’s direction.
“Brother, your eyes have changed,” he commented with a deadpan expression. “It’s lighter than usual.”
Somehow, Shō knew something had changed in him when he sensed the danger they were in few hours ago. He felt nauseous now that he could see everything clearer. And not just that, he could figure out even the minute details even in the dark and see beyond solid blocks. His perception of the surroundings also changed. It was as if his senses and awareness were heightened to the extremes. The hair on his skin bristled as realization kicked in. He had no blind spots.
Kamigami no riki. He obtained a vision and instinct equal to the gods.
Ryō drew his breath and slung the katana on his waist. He let out a snicker. “Perhaps we really are monsters. Father’s eyes. Your eyes. Even the mystery surrounding mother’s death and our clan.”
Shō could not argue. He, too, felt the same sentiment, but more than anger, he was curious about their lineage . . . their peculiarity. Thoughts lingered in his mind. Are there other people like them? Are they treated the same way? Do they possess strange abilities? How are they different from them?
Never did he think about what was outside of their land. After all, they were in the early stages of closing borders under Sakoku policy, and anyone who dared attempt to get outside was punished. However, for once, he wanted to see what the world looked like. He wanted to know the people who share the same irregularity if there are any.
“Do you want to see the world?” Shō asked.
Ryō remained impassive. “What for?”
“What if there are others like us? Don’t you want to—”
“And what if there are, brother?” he returned. “Do you think they are treated differently from us? People who are different from the normal will always be regarded as outcasts. As freaks. As monsters.”
There was a moment of silence between them. He wanted to reason that not all people share similar views, but his head began pounding painfully. Like someone was drilling a hole into his skull.
“Rest, brother,” Ryō said. “I will take the first watch.”
Shō did not argue anymore because he was exhausted from everything that had happened. He closed his eyes, hoping the pain would eventually go away, not knowing the menacing thought brewing in his brother’s head.
He woke up gasping for air.
Shō dreamed about his father’s demise and how he regretted living a pitiful life. His last words kept echoing in his mind: I should have done this from the start. I should have accepted what we are. Shō, do not follow the way I have lived my life. Live yours without regrets, son.
He was still disoriented from that terrible nightmare when he felt something odd. That was when he realized Ryō was nowhere to be found.
His heart thumped loudly, worried that something might have happened to his remaining family. “Ryō!”
Shō was about to search for him when he saw him from a distance. Dread registered on his face as he caught sight of Ryō’s state. His clothes were soaked in blood. Their father’s katana was dripping with a sinister tint of crimson. His eyes . . . they gleamed like gold in the dark. And albeit blank, he could feel their contained rage.
“What . . . what did you do, Ryō?”
Ryō stood in front of his brother and swung the blade, blood splattering on the ground. A smile grew on his face. “I continued father’s unfinished business.”
His blood ran cold after realizing what his brother had done. Anger and hatred had totally consumed him.
“Ryo, tell me . . . how many did you . . .”
“Do not worry much, brother,” he replied. “I only killed those who attacked us first.”
He, too, wanted those people to suffer the consequences of their actions, but not to this extent. Not by taking their lives. Hatred would only create more sufferings and tragedies. He feared his brother would be consumed by it and would ultimately be controlled by this destructive emotion.
“Doing this will just make them hate us more,” he said.
Ryō sheathed the katana back to its koshirae. “They do not hate us, brother.” He met his brother’s gaze and gave him a sinister smile. “They are afraid of us.”