The smell and stains of blood were not unfamiliar to Ryō. Born in a war-torn land and ostracized by their own village, he learned that people are just animals with a more evolved brain. Ingrained in their minds were the primeval instinct to hunt and kill for survival.
He was out of breath when he collapsed in the deepest part of the forest. Blood trailed from his katana, staining the ground in dark scarlet. The adrenaline had left his body and exhaustion washed over him. He stared at his hands as he recalled what he did earlier.
Ryō had never thought of killing someone but witnessing his father’s death and running away from the villagers’ rage awakened his feral side. He learned that no matter how much they explain themselves, people would continue to hate and be afraid of them because they were different.
The death of their father had not sunk in yet, but he had to let go of his brother as well. He knew they would not survive together as Shō would rather run away than hurt their enemies. He did not want his brother to die, too, and the only way to keep him alive was to let him escape the place that deprived them of that right.
A dry laugh escaped his lips as he stared at the night sky littered with thousand stars. This night was the most beautiful and clearest sky he had seen after a long while, yet it was also the most miserable he had ever been.
Realization had hit him quite late. He was truly alone this time.
Ryō did not know how many days had passed after losing consciousness in the middle of the forest. Overhead, the canopies of trees shrouded the sun, casting beam of lights on the forest ground with interesting patterns. He could hardly tell what time it was, but his stomach knew it was time to eat.
With effort, he tried to sit up. The bones and muscles in his body felt sore and tearing, but he started moving. Fortunately, the forest was an abundant source of food. He ate enough to satiate his hunger and disinfected his wounds right after in the upstream stretch of the river. His clothes were tattered and covered in blood so he decided to go home, hoping that there would be anything left after the villagers attacked it.
Their house was situated on a grassy slope, bordered by a quite expansive barren land on the side of the village and thick rows of trees on the other. As he hurried on, he sensed that he would not see the same house they had vacated days ago, and verifying his suspicion, he stopped cold on his tracks when he saw its ruins.
Their wooden abode was reduced to burnt wreckages. Soot and ashes covered the ground where their things should be. Anger coursed through his veins. Chasing them out of their home and even out of the village was not enough for these people. They wanted to erase their existence that much that they had to burn everything in their household.
Ryō knelt in grief as he picked up the ashes of what were once books on their shelf. He wished he could have saved the books that his brother loved so much, as well as their father’s log notes, because those were the only connections he had with them.
Resentment flared in his eyes. His father and brother wanted to forgive the people who caused them their tragic fate, but his leniency had worn thin. This would be where his mercy ends. Gripping his katana tight, her march toward the village. He was tired of running away. This time, he’d be the one coming for them.
The night was harshly cold and silent, but a scream of terror awoke the people. In one of the houses near the outskirts, a fountain of blood erupted, besmirching the ground in eerie crimson. A head rolled over the street, its face frozen in a silent shriek. Ryō remembered every face that rained arrows at their home and those who chased them away. He swore to make them pay tonight.
“S-spare me!” the next guy pleaded. “P-please, I have a fam—” Ryō smiled menacingly at him. “Now you’re asking for mercy.” Without any remorse, he swung his blade to the guy’s neck, blood splattering to his face. “It’s already too late for you to implore the very thing you stripped away from us.”
The village had turned into a gruesome nightmare. A lone man walking and knocking on doors with his bloody katana had taken lives as a retribution. That night, it was as if the god of death was there.
An eerie silence followed Ryō as he surveyed the far end of the village. His face contorted into a nasty glower. The head of the house was one of the people who always badmouths his father at the port, and he almost killed his brother when they were escaping. He felt a bit of satisfaction, knowing that the last person he would kill deserved it most.
He kicked the door open and found the guy shivering under the table while holding a knife. The latter’s face was as white as chalk upon seeing him trudge in his safe space. Cornered like a mouse, he scampered out of the table and ran toward the opposite direction. Ryō followed him with an amused expression, but it turned into a frown when the man yanked something behind the wall. No, someone.
A teenage girl.
He almost winced upon seeing the girl’s body. Purple bruises and fresh cuts covered her sickly face and thin arms. She did not even react when the old man pulled her and pointed the knife on her neck, like it was a usual occurrence.
“S-stay away, or I’m going to kill her!” the man threatened in a pathetic manner.
Ryō was about to reply he does not care, but her gaze met his. It was just a moment, a quarter of a second, but he saw something flicker on her eyes. He thought he was just seeing things, but he knew better now than to dismiss an unbelievable moment.
With renewed intent, he asked the girl. “Will you just let him take your life?”
The girl just stared at her. Never in her life she came across someone who would look her in the eyes while talking. People treated her like a terrible disease, perhaps because she was known as Tenmon’s slave, and she had accepted it.
Her lord had been abusive towards her, but tonight was the most extreme. He seemed scared, mumbling he would die as he paced back and forth. She thought he was getting unhinged, but she did not expect the next thing that happened. He killed his wife in front of her, fearing that the guy would use her against him.
Despite Tenmon’s maltreatment, she endured years of pain because of his wife. She was the exact opposite of him, and she always wondered why she married that monster. But now, she could not even ask that anymore.
The question of the guy in front of her rang in her mind. She had heard rumors about his family and somehow felt solace knowing someone out there was like her—different, hated, and unknowingly feared.
“No,” she mumbled, and she felt strange uttering the word she was forbidden to say all her life.
Without any warning, Ryō threw his katana at them with an unbelievable speed. Its sharp tip pierced the man’s head as if it was an arrow. The blade oscillated as he collapsed on the floor while the girl remained frozen. There was a tingling sensation on her cheeks. It grazed her when the katana hit his lord, but the pain was nothing compared to what she had suffered for years.
Ryō walked toward the dead man’s body and pulled his katana out of his head.
“You’re free now,” he announced, and before she could react, he started walking away.
Freedom had been an unreachable dream for her. A tantalizing glimpse of a life she could never have. She had long accepted that the death of her kin and being spared of the same fate as a newborn meant being alone and chained forever. She did not know the details, but her lord said they were sick beyond treatment.
Being an orphaned servant, she had learned how to survive the hard way. Her lord had a temper, and a small mistake would give her bruises that would last for days. Sometimes, the punishment would be starvation. But beyond abuse, hunger, and harsh words, what terrified her was herself.
It was an unexpected discovery, but she learned that she could control the force exerted to an object or person. She could attract and repel matter, and sometimes could even expand and contract them. The strange occurrence daunted her so much she did not allow herself to try or even think about it ever again.
There were times she was tempted to do it on her lord, but she was afraid she would face his fury. Besides, she was not even sure if she could control it. She did not want to risk her life and she might end up killing him. Despite the hell she had to endure staying with him, at least she was with them.
She did not want to be left alone . . . and yet she was this time.
Life had drained from his lord’s eyes. Blood continued gushing from the deep cut on his forehead. She thought she would feel sad, but her eyes were dry. Tenmon forbade her to feel unnecessary emotions, and now she could not even shed tears for them.
Her gaze shifted to the figure afar. For the first time in her life, she followed someone other than her lord. With reluctant steps, she stepped out of the household she couldn’t even call home and minced toward his direction.
Finishing his job, Ryō was on his way back to his sanctum—the forest. However, he was quite discomfited by the shadow looming behind him. The girl she just freed from the grasp of his last target was following him, and she was not even discreet about it.
He stopped on his tracks and few seconds later, the footsteps halted, too. He could have threatened her to stop following him, but he could not because he did not feel any ill intent coming from her. She was just curiously trailing him. Besides, she was just like her. Someone who was different.
But for a second, he wondered if keeping her conscious a while ago was the right choice.
Ryō continued walking and left her be. Somehow, knowing that someone was close to him made the loneliness bearable. At least, for this night, he was not alone.
Days had passed and the girl was still lingering around him, but he was relieved that she kept her distance. He did not acknowledge her presence but would look after her silently since the forest was not a safe place for a frail lady. It was especially hard to watch when she was trying to gather food. Some trees were too tall for her and she was not gifted in hunting. He wanted to help her, but he got surprised when she managed to pull some fruits from the trees without even lifting a finger.
Ah. It must be her ability, he thought, and he was taken aback by how it felt normal to associate strange abilities to peculiar people now. Perhaps because he had seen how her eyes flickered from dark brown to amber that night. No normal person could do that.
The thought also amused him. There are people out there who possess powers and abilities that can rival gods. People that can change the course of other people’s lives, war, and even history. Or perhaps the gods and the natural order of things have chosen people like them to be different, to be stronger . . . because they have a purpose. And whatever that purpose is, he hopes it won’t benefit the people who wronged, tormented, and hated the likes of them.
Ryō was getting used to their situation, but the frigid wind battered the trees one winter night and he remembered how thin and tattered her clothes were. He went out of his makeshift shelter to check on her and saw that she was shivering under a shade that seemed like a lackadaisical attempt to recreate his work.
Worried, he marched toward her direction, took off his ragged cloak, and draped it around her shoulders. “Follow me,” he said, and before she could react, he was already walking back.
Following orders was the only thing she exceled at; hence, she did not hesitate to obey him. Upon stepping inside, the warmth enveloped her body. The scent of smoked meat, damp earth, and wildflowers, hit her nose. It had been so long since she felt at ease and pleasant that she questioned herself if she was allowed to feel like that.
“Are you going to stand there all night?” Ryō asked.
She shifted nervously on her feet. Free will had never been given to her for the longest time so deciding what to do by herself was quite uncomfortable. But the guy was giving him a questioning look that she was forced to sit right across him.
The guy remained quiet, and the silence made her apprehensive. Plucking up courage, she stole a glance at him. The guy was carefully cleaning his katana. She realized he had a lot of cuts and bruises, too, just like her, but for different reasons.
He suddenly met her gaze and she averted it in panic. A burakumin, an untouchable, like her was never allowed to look at someone’s eyes, especially those in the tier-system. She could not even fathom why this guy helped her, but she was still thankful even if it were out of pity.
The guy motioned at the leftover meat beside her. “Eat it.”
Her stomach tightened. Hearing those words intensified her hunger. The forest was a paradise to someone like her, but finding meat was a difficulty.
She just stared at the meat for several seconds. It had been so long since she had eaten an opulent food and she wondered if she was really allowed to consume such dish. Before she could decide, the guy pushed it closer to her and stared with a penetrating gaze. Afraid to anger her savior, she reached for the food and started eating it.
“Why are you crying?”
His question sunk in a little late. She had not realized tears were running down her face. The feeling was so unfamiliar that she did not know how to interpret the emotion emanating from her.
Worried that he might feel burdened by the sight, she wiped them off promptly. “A-apologies, my lord.”
It had been so long since she cried. Even if she were hit a lot of times, she did her best to endure the pain without showing her tears. Ironically, it appeared when she was taken care of. Besides the lady who looked after her, it was only this guy, this cold-looking samurai, who did nice things to her.
“You’re not weak, aren’t you?” he asked, but she could not answer right away. “I have seen you using strange abilities.”
Her blood ran cold upon hearing his remark. She was careful not to manifest it when he was around. “M-my apologies, lord, this—”
“Why are you always apologizing?” he returned, cutting her off. Sighing in frustration, he extended his hand and opened a portal on the ground, much to her surprise. “You are not the only one who’s different.”
She stared in awe and horror as a swirl of shadow and darkness gradually grew from where he placed his right hand. It was terrifying but knowing that she was not the only one who was different gave her an unbelievable comfort.
“You have the power to stop him,” he said, but this time, a little less stern, “why did you not use it?”
“This servant is a mere untouchable, my lord,” she replied with a forlorn smile. “Even with this power, someone like me will remain as a burakumin until death. Such is the fate of those who were born in the lowest class.”
He scoffed. “Fate? Class? What you have spoken were dumb blether. My ancestors were from the samurai class, yet we ended up as merchants. Such fate was not given or caused by the gods but by those who were at the top—people who were powerful only because of their wealth.” His viridescent eyes flared with rage. “But there are those bestowed with powers that transcend any material wealth. Powers that can alter their so-called fate. And you,” he intoned, pointing at her, “are one of them.”
His words rang into her head. She thought he was a samurai because of the katana he possessed, but it turned he was not. She had always believed that someone like her did not have any chance to change the course of their lives . . . yet here she was, free from the shackles of her predestined life.
But if she were to choose, she would like to follow this guy, instead of being free but alone. Despite his cold demeanor and blunt attitude, he was good to her. And most of all, she wanted to learn from him.
“If it isn’t impudent, my lord, may I ask you your name?”
The guy was silent for a moment, and she felt embarrassed. She did not know if her voice was not loud enough, or he just did not want to answer it.
“Ryō,” he replied. “And you?”
Her stomach was in knots. Nobody had called her name in a lifetime because it was not even needed for someone like her. Thinking of uttering it out loud made her heart pound painfully. She looked at the dark portal that was slowly fading away after he pulled out his hand.
“Y-Yoru,” she mumbled. “My name is Yoru, my lord.”
“It suits you,” he commented. “You’re as quiet and compelling as the night.”
Before she could even react, Ryō lay on his makeshift bed, facing away from her.
“Now, sleep,” he said without turning around.
A thin smile escaped Yoru’s lips. “Yes, my lord.”
The past six months had been Ryō’s happiest moments after losing his family. Yoru was a big help, though it was not easy.
She was persistent on staying as a servant, refusing to call his name, or acknowledge that she was a free person now. It took her two months to finally let go of his appellation, and gradually became more comfortable of talking to him.
They also moved to the village, as it had been deserted after his manslaughter. The people in the next village even made fences between the boundaries after rumors about monsters living here. It was laughable, but he did not mind. In fact, it was better so they would not meddle with them. Perhaps fearmongering would be an effective tactic to keep out the ordinary humans.
Those rumors also made way for people like them to visit the ghost town, hoping someone would accept them and have a place that they could call home. To date, there were already six people besides them who occupied some of the abandoned houses.
He thought this was the life he had been dreaming of. A life where he could be himself, together with people who were just like him. Perhaps his father would be alive, and his brother would be here with him, if they have chosen to accept who they were much earlier.
However, that peace was short-lived.
He was waiting for Yoru, who went just near the border to gather food, but it was already getting late. Ryō was about to fetch her wherever she was when she emerged from the woods with blood trailing behind her.
Ryō frantically ran toward her and caught her before she hit the ground. He sighed in relief upon seeing that the wound was not fatal, and he could save her if he works on the wound now. He was about to carry her when she pulled the hem of his clothes.
“T-they are . . . h-here . . .” she mumbled with difficulty as tears welled up her eyes.
His skin crawled when he heard several footsteps coming from where she just emerged. He began realizing why the feudal lords surrounding the area kept quiet despite rumors flying by. They gathered enough men and weapons so that they could vanquish them without any struggle.
He immediately opened the portal but he did not know where to go. They must have already been surrounded and soldiers would be rounding the forest, too. Desperate, he thought of the port. Perhaps they could steal a boat and escape through the sea.
The portal was right in front of him, but for the first time, he was afraid. He was not sure if it were the right choice, and he did not want Yoru to be in grave danger. The men were coming out of the woods, but his feet remained frozen.
“Ryō,” Yoru suddenly called. “Go.”
Before he could protest, Yoru lightly pushed his shoulder, and they entered the darkness.
Upon entry, Yoru suddenly hugged him, as tears ran down her face. Her amber eyes shone brighter in the dark. She smiled at him and held his face with her delicate hands.
“Apologies, my lord,” she struggled. “I want you to be safe, so let me be a servant for the last time.”
He did not understand what she meant initially, until she shifted her gaze from him to the darkness around them.
Yoru had not tried using her ability to intangible matters, but she was desperate. She wanted nothing but safety for the person she treasured the most. And with her remaining strength, she called on her powers to help her realize her dream. She expanded the darkness, that was supposed to be a temporary gateway, to a dimension where they could hide and survive.
She screamed in pain as the weight and pressure of what should have been transcendental struck her. She could feel the blood coming out her eyes, as well as Ryō’s pleas to stop, but she endured the pain and held on . . . until her strength faded away.
Her body slumped on Ryō’s arms like a rag doll. Horror and fear were written on his face. With difficulty, she reached for it, but her words would not come out of her mouth.
‘Y-you are safe now,’ she thought, regretful that she could not tell it to him directly.
‘Why . . .’
She was surprised to hear his thoughts in her mind. She thought she was just imagining it, but his thoughts were flooding hers. But what made her tear up again was that she learned that he treasured her, too.
‘Ryō,’ she called in a soft tone. ‘I am forever grateful . . .’
And his face was the last thing she saw before her consciousness slipped out.
Ryō had not slept for days.
After what happened, he stayed at Yoru’s side to nurse her back to health. However, her body was paralyzed, and she could not talk anymore. Her consciousness would slip in and out, but he was relieved that she was still alive.
He could not bear losing her, too.
The rage that had been buried for months started to surface once again, and this time, more intensely. He had almost forgotten how dreadful humans were because of the fleeting peace they had given them.
When he went out of the dark realm Yoru had created out of his portals, a gruesome scene came into his view. The people who lived with them were slaughtered like animals.
He gripped his katana so hard that his hand bled. “No more mercy,” he vowed as he offered a prayer to those who perished.
With extreme hatred toward the human race coursing through his veins, he marched toward the next village. No, he would not stop there. With all the feudal lords conspiring against them, he would also bring down the entire island. He realized these humans would not ever change. They would continuously fear and hate beings like them because they could not comprehend their existence. Because they were the odd ones.
His father was a fool for being too kind, and his brother was ignorant for trying to understand them.
As soon as he stepped out of his village, everything was in havoc. Blood was spilled. Countless bodies littered the ground. Villages reduced to dust. To the people who witnessed his atrocity, he was death personified.
Within days, the entirety of Ezo was shrouded in darkness. Those who escaped told numerous rumors about the place in the mainland, but one was feared by all. Ezo had become the land where the gods of death walk. The land of the Shinigamis.