On top of the strong waves rocking the boat violently, the cold wind also felt like a thousand needles prickling through the skin. Winter was harshly felt on the dark, raging sea, but Shō was not bothered by it.
He was fortunate that night, he thought. The merchants were either asleep or worried about the boat’s condition when he landed on their vessel. He had to hide fast after seeing his brother escape from the hands of the villagers. He was worried, but he also knew Ryō could take care of himself, maybe even better than he could. Besides, even if he came back, he knew his brother would not come with him, nor listen to him any longer. He just hopes that Ryō would not let his negative emotions corrupt him and drag him into darkness.
The merchants’ vessel was not as large as the ships he had seen at the port, but it was enough to house thirty to forty people. The lamps near the mast were the only source of light, but the sea fog obscured every view possible. He scrunched down near the rails, away from the merchants’ quarters, veiling himself with a dirty mantle used to cover some of the wooden boxes on the deck.
His mind was buzzing with thoughts. Shō did not expect to leave the land without his brother. He would always dream of traveling the world with Ryō but after what happened, he knew it would take years to see him again.
‘Farewell, brother,’ he said inside his head. ‘I will return, and I will see you again.’
Shō did not know how many days it was already. Because it was already winter, it was hard to distinguish day and night at the sea due to the fog, mist, and snow. He had to pretend as a slave owned by one of the merchants to not raise suspicion, and fortunately, they did not bother to check the number of people aboard.
Besides himself, he only had the tantō, a short sword, and the quiver he stole from the villagers while they were running. Since this was an unexpected departure, he did not have any plan nor things needed for a journey. In addition, he had to always lower his head because of his strange eye color. He knew people would be suspicious because nobody in their land had that kind of eyes. Ironically, despite always looking down, he could see everything clearly. Shō saw a land few kilometers away and felt ecstatic to discover the world beyond his hometown.
Maybe two or three days had passed when they reached a harbor. He sneaked out of the crowd once the merchants and slaves came down. His heart was throbbing loud and fast. He was in a foreign land. He was about to see the world. It was the start of his dreams.
Shō wandered around, only to realize that the island was littered with the same people. There were Japanese soldiers roaming around who exercised authorities over the native inhabitants. He immediately hid, fearing that they might recognize him from the wanted posters back in his hometown.
He did what he needed to do—fled to the mountains, a place where he would be safest and most familiar to him . . . but that was also his biggest mistake.
For days, he had traversed the mountain range. He had no problem with food as he knew how to hunt and the forest was abundant of fruits and edible leaves. On his fifth day, he encountered a life-threatening situation—he got surrounded by indigenous hunters.
He recognized their clothes and they were the same natives who inhabits the northern part of Ezo. It turned out there were also people like them here in the island, and one thing he knew about them was that they were very territorial when it comes to their hunting grounds. They must have thought he was stealing the food they could have provided the village and if he did not surrender, he would be dead the moment he tried to run away.
Shō was brought into a hidden village in the mountains and placed in a wooden cage. He suddenly remembered his life back in his own land. He was once again an outcast, but strangely, this place seemed less hostile than his own village despite the fact that the natives were capable hunters.
He observed the kids who were playing near his cage while the adults were on the lookout. Shō never had any friends besides his brother and seeing a small yet tightknit village made him quite envious.
Fortunately, the tribe’s men did not do anything to him, but he was left outside when the snow started falling during nighttime. The temperature was below freezing point but he was used to this kind of cold. He waited until everyone was asleep and carefully, he unsheathed his knife that was hidden under his cloak.
It was hard to cut hack off the thick log of the cage but he had no choice. He couldn’t stay here as a captive. He promised his brother that he would explore the world and come back.
With a stronger resolve, he finally cut two of the wooden rails, allowing him to slip out of the cage. He silently steered clear of the villagers’ huts and ran away to the deeper part of the forest.
Shō was more alert than ever. He did not want to be in any unfavorable situation anymore, so he used his abilities to its full extent. Good thing it was already winter so the chance of encountering bears or other wild animals was low but he saw something he did not expect.
About a hundred meters away, a boy was following him.
Initially, he thought of running away. He was sure the kid was part of that tribe so he wondered if he was sent to kill him, yet he did not feel any ill intent from the kid. Unexpectedly, he looked more curious than hateful. He let out a quiet chuckle, recalling how he would also tail his father as a kid whenever he goes to the harbor out of curiosity.
He treaded the forest, meticulously avoiding the paths where he could see wild animals like bears and tigers roaming around. His eyes were starting to hurt and get heavy because he hadn’t gotten a good sleep yet since he left his hometown, but he didn’t want to stop while it was nighttime.
He was used to the cold because his village had a long winter season, but he did not have thick clothes to keep himself warm enough for a long journey. His makeshift cloak was already in tatters. Shō was worried about the kid, too, but being in a tribe of hunters, he thought he’d be alright as long as there wouldn’t be any threatening situation.
It was getting hard to breathe due to the rising altitude. He wanted to pick up the pace but his body froze when he saw a pair of feral, yellow eyes a few meters behind the kid. It was a gray wolf.
Shō looked at the kid straight into his eyes and he saw him flinched. It only dawned on the kid that the guy he was following knew about him already, but what surprised him was that the outsider had a peculiar set of eyes.
“Wolf!” Shō yelled, prompting the kid to turn around.
He was greeted by the wolf’s vicious eyes and it growled threateningly as it slowly moved toward him.
Shō had no choice but to help the kid. He raced toward his direction, his knife ready, but the kid pulled out something from his worn-out satchel. He halted and watched as the kid threw a piece of meat to the wolf and a few seconds later, it retreated into the deeper part of the forest.
There was a cumbrous silence between them, as if they were trying to gauge each other. The kid broke the silence by pointing at the direction where the wolf ran to.
“Wolves should not be harmed,” the kid said in a familiar language used by Ainus back in his hometown.
The kid explained that in their culture, wolves are revered as gods and killing them is forbidden. He said wolves would not attack humans unprovoked, and most of the times, would be wary of them. Their village had never been attacked by wolves before, but there were instances where they would hang around the borders because they could smell food. The villagers would offer portions of their hunt to them, and sometimes, wolves would do the same by not devouring their preys whole.
“I have been meaning to ask,” Shō said after the kid explained the relationship between his tribe and the wolves, “why are you following me?”
The kid was taken aback by his question and had to think of excuses, but he figured that the guy would see right through him. Sighing, he told the truth.
“Because you are different,” he stated.
“Different because I am an outsider?”
“No.” The kid pointed at his eyes. “Those.”
It only dawned on Shō that he had already removed his cloak upon escaping the village, revealing the peculiar color of his eyes. However, this was not the reaction he had expected.
“Are you not afraid?” asked Shō, recalling how the people in his own village almost killed them just because they were odd.
“Because I am like you.”
Shō thought he just misheard what he said, but suddenly, a voice echoed inside his head.
Believe me, the voice commanded, and he felt a strong urge to trust his words. The kid’s compelling, brown eyes bore into his own, and immediately realized what was happening. His instincts kicked into gear and tried to ignore the latter’s words in his head.
“S-stop . . . that—!” Panting, he grasped the kid’s shoulder to make him stop. “What are you . . .”
The kid’s eyes widened, confounded at how his ‘power’ did not affect the guy. That was the first time someone did not yield to his words. For once, he felt fear.
“H-how . . .”
Shō was still disoriented. He felt like someone just drilled a hole on his head. It was hard to go against what his mind was telling him to do, but that saved him from whatever the kid was planning.
“Is that your ability?” he asked, despite the splitting headache.
The kid stepped back, afraid that he had no power over this guy. “H-how did you resist that?”
Shō heaved a sigh. “You said it yourself. It’s because you are just like me.”
The kid finally opened up to him after an hour of apprehension and observing. Jikko Ikashiba, that was what he was called back in the village, but he did not like that name because it was from a deceased family member.
“Perhaps they gave that name to you because you reminded them of that person.”
He shook his head. “In our tribe, names of the dead are avoided, but my parents gave his name to me because they want me gone.”
Despite the kid’s impassive face, he could feel the sorrow in his eyes. Being ostracized by your own family must have felt awful and lonely, he thought. Ikashiba said his parents had unusual abilities, too, but they forced him to keep it a secret and never talk about it with the villagers. Both of them died a few years ago due to wolves’ attacks, but he knew that was not the real cause.
“They must have commanded the wolves to maul them to death,” he muttered. “To have the power to control someone’s mind is just too much for them.”
He decided to let the kid accompany him on his journey because he felt sorry for him. He also reminded him of Ryō, and he was afraid that he’d end up like his younger brother if he was left alone. Besides, he finally saw someone like him . . . someone who possess powers similar to gods.
“Ishida,” Shō blurted out as they started walking again.
The kid looked at him, confused. “Who is that?”
“You,” he replied. “You said you did not like your name, so I am giving you a new one.”
“Ishida . . .” the kid murmured as his eyes twinkled in excitement. “How about you? What is your name?”
He was about to tell him his name but he held back at the last second. His name, Shō, was a reminder of his life before meeting him. A life of hardships and tragedy. This was the beginning of a new journey, and he did not want the people he met and would meet to know about his past. That life . . . he could only share that to his remaining family, Ryō.
This time, he wanted to lead his kind to a path that would help them accept themselves and know more about people like them. He wanted to be a father or an older brother whom they can depend on, something he failed to do for his own family.
This time, he wanted to be a leader.
“Shinji,” he announced. “I am called Shinji.”
Being with Ishida made the journey through the forests and mountains easier. He knew where to go and the places to avoid. In just a week, they reached the border of the island.
Despite the age and culture difference, they grew closer as they shared time with each other. Shō learned that Ishida felt like he did not belong to his own tribe ever since he had consciousness. Like a wolf pretending to be a sheep. But upon meeting him, Ishida was instinctively drawn to him, as if his body and mind could feel that he was someone like him.
In addition, at the tender age of twelve, Ishida was already proficient in hunting. They had no problems with food and shelter because both of them were used to the harsh conditions of the forest. But what amazed and equally terrified Shō was how Ishida could kill preys in a quick and efficient manner, sometimes with a single shot.
“Kill or be killed,” he said upon seeing Shō’s reaction one time.
“Is that your tribe’s belief?”
Ishida nodded. “You cannot protect yourself just by running away, especially when danger is always looming. Sometimes, you have to toughen up.”
His words felt like a punch in the gut as he remembered Ryō’s sentiment. He already knew running away would not always be an option, but he still could not find himself attacking someone. Instead, he swore he would train in defensive combat to protect himself and Ishida.
During their resting time, he would continuously swing the blunt of his shortsword, thinking about maneuvers that would help him confuse and disorient the enemies for a few seconds, allowing them to escape.
Ishida was closely monitoring his sword skills but besides that, the kid was more curious about his eyes, and he told him that it wasn’t like that initially.
“I knew it,” Ishida mumbled. “I thought my eye color was turning lighter, too.”
“I am not sure how or why, but this peculiarity may be an index of our . . . abilities.”
“You may be right. Ah, I don’t know your abilities yet.”
He smiled at him and pointed ahead. “There’s a boat a few kilometers from here. Perhaps that would take us to the next island.”
Ishida knitted his eyebrows but realization hit him a few seconds after. “You can see that far?” he asked with his mouth wide-open.
He found it quite funny how the kid was awestruck at his ability when the latter could control a person’s mind, a power much cooler and definitely more frightening.
Few hours later, they reached the harbor. He was thinking of ways to get to Ruthenia, the largest landmass in their continent. He had heard about the country from merchants his family had talked to when they were still working at the port. However, seeing the sea reminded him of the time he and Ryō were separated.
I hope he’s okay, he thought.
“We are good to go,” Ishida suddenly said, and he realized the guards already had those glazed looks in their eyes. His gaze shifted to Ishida, knowing it was his doing.
They boarded the ship without spending a single penny but they had to lie low because everyone was getting wary of them and he understood why. A kid and someone who could barely pass off as an adult was an unusual sight in a ship of full of merchants and people from the middle class. They stayed out of people’s sight until the ship docked a few hours after.
The two immediately got off and ran away from the people. Only when they were in the mountains that they could breathe. Being among people was something they were not used to.
Still, it felt strange. They were in a foreign land. Both were excited and scared. The climate was harsher, too. They did not realize how cold it was until their adrenaline wore off.
The ground was already covered in a foot-deep snow and despite the two growing up in winter islands, the icy wind was something their bodies could not ignore. He spotted a bear and got envious of its fur but he was taken aback when Ishida attacked it by himself.
The kid would not even lay a hand on wolves but did not even hesitate to take a fully grown bear by himself. He felt sorry for the animal but Ishida was already taking its coat off. Before he knew it, the kid had already offered him a new layer of coat to keep themselves warm.
They were walking for several hours already and the snowstorm was just getting stronger. They did not want to stay in the mountains during the storm so they decided to take the empty roads nearby since there was no way someone would be travelling in this state.
As expected, the roads were covered in snow, too, but it was easier to walk on than the forest floor of the mountains. They were about to reach a sharp turn when Shō saw something coming from that side. He told Ishida about it and they decided to hide behind a nearby boulder.
Few seconds later, a carriage showed up, but the horse was having a hard time walking through the snow. The coachman and his company were visibly annoyed, whipping the horse in anger. He wanted to move once they left but his body froze when his eyes saw through the carriage. Inside was the most beautiful woman he had ever seen.
Her skin was as white as the snow. Even her hair and eyelashes were almost white, and they complemented her light brown eyes. But what surprised him was when the woman turned her head toward their direction. The hair on his nape stood up. Despite being hidden by the boulder, he felt like the woman knew they were there.
His focus broke off when Ishida suddenly groaned. Even without turning to him, he saw the kid was already on his knees, clutching his head in pain.
“What happened?” he asked in whispers.
“S-she’s . . . she’s in my head—!”
His breathing was turning ragged. “S-she’s one of us . . .”
Shō was about to ask what was going on in his mind when he saw behind his back the commotion in the carriage. The people at the front were yelling and it turned out the woman inside bolted out of it. She desperately ran barefooted on the snow while two guys chased after her.
He was reminded of how his family was chased out of their home and how nobody was there to help them. This time, he had the chance to lend a hand to someone, something he was deprived of, and he would not want anyone, especially those who were the same as him, suffer the same fate.
Without any concrete plan in mind, he ran toward the girl and before he knew it, he was already shielding her from the guys who were with her. She seemed not astounded by his eye color, though he doubted if she saw it because she quickly averted his gaze, but the two guys halted upon seeing him. He drew his shortsword, hoping that it would intimidate them, but they had arquebus, a firearm, slung onto their shoulders.
He had never seen a shooting weapon up close but he had read about it in books. They said it was the fastest weapon, even faster than arrows, propelling a metal called bullet that could fatally wound a person. However, an arquebus required a long time to setup due to its fork rest, so he chose the best option—running away.
He grabbed the girl’s arms and ran as he yelled Ishida’s name, alerting the kid to follow them.
The three ran back into the mountains without looking back. It took them at least an hour to stop, expecting the men had failed to tail them. Panting heavily, they settled in a cave below a small hill.
There was an eerie silence among the three. The girl looked exhausted but she managed to get down on her knees and extended her right hand without looking at him. Shō was confused at first but he reached for her hand and gently shook it. A quick and subtle smile escaped the girl’s lips but her face went back to being impassive after a second.
Ishida, on the other hand, was skeptical of the girl. He knew she was like them the moment he tried to peer into her mind. Just like Shinji, she was able to block his intrusion and even projected her own destructive thoughts, overwhelming him.
He saw unpleasant things through her memories. Men would chase her around, their depraved eyes craving for her scent. The girl met her gaze and he could see the pain and loneliness in her eyes. She gently shook her head, as if telling him not to dwell in her memories anymore.
“Are you okay?” Shō asked, using big gestures for her to understand.
The girl took a few seconds before responding. She slowly nodded her head. Shō and Ishida exchanged doubtful looks. He acted on impulse earlier and now he did not know what to do. Sure, saving her was the right thing to do, but he wasn’t confident that he could take care of her.
The girl leaned against the cave wall and fell asleep as soon as she closed her eyes. He was about to sit beside Ishida but he realized she was still holding onto the hem of his cloak, stopping him from moving.
“How are you?” Shō asked Ishida while pointing at his own temple.
“I am fine now,” he answered. “What is your plan, Shinji?”
He heaved a sigh. “We can’t leave her here. Let’s bring her with us.”
Knowing Shinji’s personality, he already knew that he could not leave someone who needed help. He felt sorry for the girl, too, and in the end, he told Shinji what he had seen in her head.
The snowstorm had calmed down but Shō’s anger did not dissipate. Upon learning what the girl had gone through, he wanted to curse everyone who abused her for years and made her suffer. He swore not to hate humanity but some humans were just vile and deserved punishment.
He wanted to get back at the people who were chasing them but their safety was his main priority. Besides, he could already see those two with more of their comrades closing in.
“We need to move.”
The three of them treaded through the mountains but they were a lot slower because the girl was not used to walking far distance. He offered to carry her on his back but she refused.
They did not know how many hours had passed. It was already dark when they realized they still hadn’t eaten anything. Ishida was about to hunt for food when the girl tugged Sho’s cloak. She showed them a small pouch and it turned out it was full of pennies. The two was not sure if that was hers or she just got it from those people but the money would help them a lot.
Despite the danger, they opted to go to the nearest town, with Shō lending her his cloak to conceal her striking features. They managed to book for a place to stay before the patrolling soldiers came. The room was small but it was enough space for spending the night.
Veronika had never imagined a life outside the walls of his patrons’ houses or that carriage. Because of her unique features, her beauty was revered as heavenly, often compared to the goddess of winter, Morana. When her parents died, high profile men wanted her hand in marriage, but her remaining relative sold her instead. At an early age, she had learned that people would do everything for money and nobody had chance against that power.
For years, she was sold to different households and men would bid high amount of money for her. She once told her for food because she was famished after working but she got punishment instead. Slaves do not have any right to talk and because of the abuse she received, she chose not to utter any word anymore.
Sometimes, she thought death would be better but it also scared her. Leaving the world without seeing its vastness would be a waste. Her dream was to draw maps and learn about different cultures, just like what her father had always dreamed of. She would sneak into the libraries of the homes who bought her, risking her life to read books written by people outside Ruthenia.
She was afraid her dream would only stay as a dream and her life would end at the hands of his landlords or . . . hers. A chilling memory resurfaced—the death of her first master.
Her parents taught her not to look directly into people’s eyes. She thought it was a sign of respect, but she learned the hard way that meeting people’s eyes while talking was the proper etiquette in their culture. For years, she wondered why they insisted on that matter, only to face the consequence after their death.
When her master entered the slaves’ quarter without her knowledge, she knew she would be in trouble. The look on his face was like an unhinged beast. Her body trembled in fear as her master approached her makeshift bed. For once, she held her gaze, fear coursing throughout her body. She wanted to scream and cry. All she wanted for that night was a peaceful sleep, but her master took that away from her.
The anger and agony she had kept for years finally exploded. The moment she stared back at his master, she felt like she could make him pay for the ill treatment she had to suffer. The lust in his eyes turned into fear, for the first time in her life, she felt powerful.
The next few seconds were something she did not expect to happen. Her master stood still, face frozen in silent scream . . . and all of a sudden, his body convulsed violently. She came back to her senses, only to witness the body before her thrash around until it got deformed into a sickening position.
The household went into chaos after learning the death of their master and she was treated like a curse but people in power still wanted her . . . and that was their mistake.
Every time his current master thought about abusing her, she would unconsciously tap the power she had manifested before. Once her awareness comes back, she would be horrified by the atrocity before her eyes. No matter how much she rejected the idea, deep inside her head, she knew it was her doing.
When nobody in their town wanted her anymore, the merchants did their bidding. Despite the horrors she brought in this place, once out of here, people would surely fight to obtain her. They were about to leave the town during the snowstorm when she felt two bizarre presences.
Veronika seldom used her eyes because of her strange ability, hence, her instincts and other senses were honed instead. People, no matter how nice they look, would always have a trace of menacing aura, but to her surprise, one of them did not.
She turned her head toward the direction where she felt those auras, hoping that they could feel her, too, but she flinched upon seeing the boulder. The hair on her nape bristled, sensing something wrong.
And then a voice echoed inside her head.
‘Who are you?’ the voice demanded.
Hearing someone else in her mind sent her into panic. The traumatic memories from the masters she had served came flooding her head. It was terrifying but somehow, the voice earlier disappeared.
Realizing that death would be inevitable to every household she would work for, Veronika finally decided to run away. She forced the door open and ran through the snow barefooted but her body was slowly giving up on her. She thought she would finally die when someone came into view and shielded her.
Her gaze remained at the wide back of the stranger who was facing her captors. Despite the freezing weather, the guy emanated a soothing warmth, something she had not felt for so long.
The guy pulled her arm and they ran away along with the kid who was waiting behind the boulder. The latter glared at her but she turned away, afraid that she might accidentally kill him.
Her feet were sore and her lungs felt like it would implode but for once, she felt happy. For once, she was free.
Three days had passed and she was slowly warming up to them. They left her town and managed to earn some money through physical work. Shinji, the guy who saved her, was slowly learning her language, too, telling her that it would be better if he could understand her.
Her intuition was also right. They were cut from the same cloth. She thought she was just losing her sanity, but it turned out they had peculiar abilities, too.
She told them about what happened to her masters and they theorized that her eyes might have the power to paralyze someone’s nerves once stared at. For that reason, she chose to tie a cloth around her eyes, afraid she’d hurt them by accident. However, Shinji told her that it would be better if she could control it rather than the other way around. Carefully, he removed the veil around her eyes.
“N-no . . .” she pleaded, stopping his hand with her own, worried that something bad might happen to him.
“It will be okay,” he reassured her. “Do not fear your power.”
Her heart was throbbing painfully as the strip of cloth preventing her from seeing him slowly loosened. She finally met his gaze and her breath was caught up in her throat. The eyes before her were the most beautiful pair she had ever seen.
Shinji’s viridescent eyes gleamed like emerald stones and she could feel the compassion through his gentle gaze. She was too enthralled that she only realized she was staring when Shinji broke into a smile.
“See?” he beamed. “You have nothing to be afraid of.”
“But . . .”
“So you need not to hide your eyes anymore,” he added. “They are ethereal.”
Hearing those words brought a lump in her throat but she managed to hold back her tears. After that, she finally told them her name, an indication that she had given her trust to them.
“V-Veronika . . .”
Ishida came closer. “Do you like your name?” he asked.
She was taken aback by his question but it made her think. It was a name used and spoken by people who made her suffer. A name that would always bring her back to her miserable life.
She shook her head. “No . . .”
Shinji knelt and met her gaze. He gently ruffled her hair and smiled. “Then I’ll give you a new name,” he said. “I have never experienced summer, but the warmth of your presence must feel like it. From now on, you are Natsue.”
Despite growing up in a place where it was winter all year long, she had never liked the cold season. Veronika had always dreamed of the warmth of the sun touching her skin and being given with a name analogous to it moved her to tears.
Shinji’s eyes widened upon seeing the welling tears in her eyes. “Why are you crying—!”
She reached for his hand and smiled. “I’m happy . . . thank you . . .”
That moment, she was truly free.
After meeting Ishida and Natsue, Shō finally knew what he had to do.
There were still people like them around the world. People who had the power given by the gods but ostracized by the society because they were different. People who just wanted to have someone who could understand them and treat them as family.
He had failed to save his own family, but this time, he wanted to be someone whom they could rely on. He wanted to be the hope they had long given up.
And once he had gathered and helped those people in need, he would return to his homeland. He would finally return to Ryō.
Little did he know, the journey he was about to take would give birth to one of the tribes of their own race. With their striking green eyes, sharp senses, and shrewd insights, Shinji’s group became known as the Senshins.