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.
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.”
A single change. A course of evolution. A lifetime effect.
Humans are creature of change and among the living, they have the best abilities to adapt. And when the natural world called for the next stage of evolution, individuals with special variations, those who possess unique genomes, were preserved, thereby giving rise to a new species through natural selection.
To put it simply: people who could adapt quickly to their new environment are the ones who deserve to survive and jump up the hierarchy.
For centuries, these new species of humans, albeit shrouded in mystery and secrecy, had been the overlords of the world and the humdrums. Perfectly blending in with the normal humans, they have saved and destroyed civilizations and lives.
By the end of the 20th century, these unique speciation of humans were known within their own race as Erityians—a name befitting of their origins and capabilities--the children of the special blood.