If humanity would name its greatest enemy other than itself, it would be nature.
Before humans roamed the Earth, nature had always been the progenitor of life. It could survive and flourish on its own, but humans would perish without it. Humanity had progressed to its current state because of nature, but it could also disappear with the latter’s wrath.
Nature had always had the absolute power over humans, but humanity could not seem to accept that. Envy. That was the only thing humans had that nature did not. Perhaps that was also the reason why some civilizations personified its terrifying glory into gods—the so-called superior beings who could harness the power of nature.
But there were also people who feared the real nature much more than the gods and the goddesses the civilizations had prayed to, because they knew firsthand how impartial it could be. Whether you prayed or not, whether you believe at those unseen beings, nature would not discriminate. It could save or kill you whenever, wherever, . . . however.
The adversarial relationship between man and nature had been the cause of several destructions, even almost extinctions, on both sides, but what drove both to stay around was their abilities to quickly adapt. Life would always evolve to ensure survival.
And perhaps the only ones who could be saved from nature’s wrath were those who chose to surrender themselves to its power. People who dearly loved and feared it that they developed special affinity to it. People who evolved with it. The change might be unnoticeable for centuries, and might be gradual over multiple generations, but once it finally manifested, society, environment, and even the power struggle between those who had evolved, would surely change . . . and sometimes, in the most unpredictable ways.
During the Renaissance, along the mountainous and extreme coastal regions between Norden and Rusnia, there lived several ethnic groups who had hidden themselves from civilizations for generations. After the emergence of urban settlements, these people were forced to retreat to the mountain ranges and other terrains that were too harsh for normal ones. Here, they knew they would be protected by nature and the strange abilities passed to them through a long line of ancestors.
Yllka was from a tribe that worshipped the rivers and waterfalls bordering their village. Her parents told her that their predecessors had formed an affinity with bodies of water. They had protected them from centuries, and these natural elements defended them and their territories in return.
“One day, Yllka,” her mother, Yndria, would always say before she goes to sleep. “One day, the great powers of the natural elements will be passed onto those who are worthy, as what our great ancestor Czeslav has foreknown.”
That was an old tale the elders would always tell the kids. The people of the tribe had an affinity for water for centuries. They could predict the weather, any natural disasters, and even sense the people around them through observing the movement of water bodies. However, there was never one who could control the element.
Yllka respected the tales, but she found them hard to believe, especially after what the rivers and waterfalls turned into.
She marched up the sloped terrain of the mountain as their village were located near one of the highest peaks. Yllka stared at the frozen waterfall in front of her. One of the reasons why she found a little credence to their narratives was that the same waters they told her about were frozen for centuries.
Winter was especially harsh at high altitudes. She only saw the waterfall alive during summer, which would only last for a month. That would also be the only time adults could get water for the village without going down the mountains.
“We should have worshipped ice instead of water then,” she muttered as she got up. Yllka brushed the soil and ice on her clothes.
She needed to get back to the village or else her mother and the elders would scold her again since kids weren’t allowed to roam the higher altitudes by themselves. One could only go if they had successfully secured their first kill in a hunt, or an adult was with them. She was upset because girls weren’t allowed to participate even though she knew she could do that, too.
Her father would take her here when she was younger, telling the same stories she had heard a hundred times from her mother. The higher peaks had become her place of solace, especially after her father passed away. Whenever she was upset or mad, she would secretly go here even if it was forbidden.
She heaved a sigh upon remembering him. “I must go home now.”
Just as when she was about to head back, she heard some rustling around her. She stopped on her tracks and tried to find the source of the sounds. She was hoping it was just a mountain hare or a roe deer, but her blood ran cold when a terrifying predator emerged from the coniferous trees and growled at her.
Several gray wolves appeared, and she froze in terror. Now she realized why the elders forbade them from entering the unguarded territory—it was a den of threatening predators.
Yllka slowly stepped back, but she realized she was still on the edge of the frozen waterfall basin that was connected to a river system a few meters below. The wolves growled louder the moment she moved. She knew they were highly territorial and the wolf fur that her father gave her years ago was making things worse.
“S-stay away,” she stammered as she pulled a few steps back.
Her mind reeled in panic. She could never outrun a pack of wolves nor defend herself from them. It was as if her only fate was death.
Yllka drew a deep, shaky breath. She maintained her eye contact with the largest wolf, which was almost twice her size, and hoped that it would back away . . . but the opposite happened. Out of desperation, she screamed while running toward the frozen basin. She could hear the wolves dashing behind her and one tackled her hard that her vision went black for a second. The wolf’s face came into her view, with its saliva dripping on her face.
Her heart was about to burst in fear. All she could think of was that she would die, and her mother would be left alone. She prayed desperately, hoping that the spirits of water that had protected their village for centuries would listen to her, but at the last moment, she knew she only had herself to figure things out.
She was not sure if it was because of the adrenaline, or her instincts just took over. The only thing she could remember that moment was hopelessly screaming while pushing the wolf’s mouth out of her face.
“Get away from me!”
She heard the wolf yelped followed by a crashing sound, and when she opened her eyes, her jaw dropped in surprise and terror. The wolf’s body was sprawled lifeless on the ice . . . and its head was missing. What she just saw were fragments of ice scattered near its body.
The rest of the pack turned quiet upon witnessing the death of their leader. Yllka was just as confused as them, but before she could even realize what happened, the wolves started running away. Moments later, she heard footsteps coming from the descent.
Her mother’s figure appeared along with two more adults. They rushed toward her direction, but a variety of expressions registered on their faces upon seeing the dead wolf’s body beside her.
“What happened . . .”
One of the guys asked, but his voice trailed off after realizing the predator was missing its head. His gaze shifted to Yllka, who was hugged tightly by her mother, shivering in terror. The adults exchanged nervous looks. She was barely a teenager and there was no way a kid could take on a full-grown beast . . . unless there was an unknown factor.
“Yllka,” her mother softly called, cupping her face. “Look at me. Are you hurt?” She shook her head. “No . . .” “Can you tell me what happened?” Yllka frowned, still dazed from everything that happened. “I don’t know.”
Yndria carefully inspected her body but both of them flinched when her mother touched her hands. They were freezing cold and ice crystals were forming on her fingertips. She was confused and terrified of what she just had seen.
The adults looked at each other, awe and fear reflecting in their eyes. Because they knew that that moment, nature had already bestowed its power to one of them.
Her strange condition spread like wildfire within the village and the neighboring tribes. Some even turned it into outrageous rumors. One said she had become an ice statue after berating the spirits in the waterfall, while others concluded that she must have had a peculiar contagious disease that could turn one into ice fragments.
The elders had no choice but to confine her at home. She could not go outside anyway because people would always look at her curiously.
“Am I a monster?” she remembered asking her mother after being locked up inside their house for several weeks. “No, Yllka, you are not,” Yndria said as she pulled her daughter into a hug, but Yllka stopped her.
After what happened to the wolves, she avoided touching anyone, afraid that she’d turn them into ice. The ancient tales that the elders had always said weighed on her chest. She thought having the power of nature, or any natural elements, was practically impossible and those stories were just created to force every generation to protect their territories, but here she was, a living proof of that terrifying forewarning.
It turned out every village was hiding their own breed of “monsters,” with some manifesting it years ago. They just kept it within their respective communities because having the ability to channel nature’s powers had its own risks.
Several months had passed but Yllka was still scared to face people. The elders also moved her mother out because she might be a threat to her safety. Yndria vehemently refused, but Yllka agreed with their decision. She did not want her mother to be with her at the moment because she did not even know the extent of her bizarre ability.
With nothing to do inside her confinement space, she used that time to understand her power. She wanted to control it so that she would not hurt people unintentionally.
She noticed that her body was also developing some cold resistance. Despite living in the wintry mountains, people could still feel the harsh and prickling sensation of the glacial temperature, but as months passed by, she could tell that her body had already acclimatized to the freezing weather, without needing layers of clothes and furs to make her warm.
What surprised her the most was that she could not only freeze things, but also disintegrate them into a pile of snow. That horrified her because she knew she could also do that to humans, and not even a single bone would be left behind.
It took her half a year to step outside without fear overwhelming her whole being. The village still looked the same, but she learned from an elder that the people viewed her differently now.
For some reasons, they started treating her like a god.
Adults treated her with reverence while kids her age were either too scared to talk to her or would rather look at her from afar. She was suddenly thrown to a position that had never been occupied from the start.
Do I deserve this? she mused after spending time with the people of her village.
Days later, she was declared as the protector of their territories. Perhaps it was because of her pride that she accepted it despite the grave responsibilities it would entail. She wanted to be a person whom they could depend on, even though she was just a young girl. Any authority or leadership roles had always been handed to adult men and she wanted to prove that she was also worthy of their trust.
“Hold it firmly!” a guy yelled as he showed her how to use a short sword.
Their best hunters and fighters started training her. She was not sure if it was because they believe in her, or they weren’t confident in her skills. Nevertheless, she accepted it. She knew she was still lacking in strength and judgment, and to fully utilize her power, she needed to improve those.
She was hoping nothing would go wrong until she was ready in every aspect, but a series of incidents forced her to fight.
“What happened?” asked Yllka after a commotion transpired outside the village. “Fjahr just came back from the borough below,” one of them responded. “He said he heard the soldiers preparing for a conquest.” Her brows furrowed. “A war with other countries?” The guy shook his head. “No, they want to conquer out lands.”
They had already lost half of their domain after the emergence of Renaissance. The extravagant structures built during its early era forced their previous generations to live in the less habitable regions in the mountains. Due to the rapid increase of the urban settlers’ population and the scale of their architectures, those people must have wanted to expand their dominion.
Their ancestors survived because they used nature against them—they knew the terrain well enough, and they lived here long enough to know how to use it to their advantage. However, with the sheer size of the urban settler’s army, the chances of seizing the expansive ranges this time would be a piece of cake . . .
. . . unless all the villages would work together.
The tribes within and at the foot of the mountains weren’t exactly enemies but weren’t friends either. However, they had no choice but to work with each other because this realm was their home. And this time, they had a common enemy.
The harjas, or those who were bestowed with the powers of nature, of the villages as well as their most skilled fighters were summoned to discuss and plot their tactics. As the youngest participant, Yllka could only listen, but she was in awe at how calm these people were. It was an honor for her to be here, learning everything about fighting and strategies.
“Scared?” Casmir, a guy from the lowlands who could summon fire, sneered.
They were stationed at the foot of the mountain after days of planning. Being the ones who could stop them, they were at the front lines, and all the villages were hoping they could stop the attack. Even without saying, she knew that her comrades think she was the weakest, especially since she was a girl.
She choked back the fear that was creeping in her throat. “No.”
Besides predators, Yllka had yet to try her powers against humans. She was the youngest fighter here, too, which burdened her more. She didn’t want to be the one who would be left behind.
She almost jumped in surprise when someone tapped her shoulder. Turning around, she saw the only person whom she felt comfortable with.
“Breathe,” Ivankov said.
He was from a village even nearer from the summit. Just like her, he had a unique affinity to ice. However, instead of the intrinsic property of ice, he could modify it into weapons.
“They’re marching here! Be ready!”
Her attention shifted to Krudj, who looked like he was catapulted from several meters away up to here. He landed perfectly in front of them and ran toward his designated position. Krudj could control the wind and he could use it for flying and navigation, something almost all of them were silently envious of.
She breathed deeply and readied herself. At the signal of Casmir, who was also their group’s commander, they engaged with a hundred soldiers.
Their ambush was successful as the soldiers broke their formation as soon as they entered their homeland. Krudj used the wind to send her comrades to strategic places and battle the enemies. Those who could control trees, water, and ground entered the fight, too.
Meanwhile, the three remained still. As much as possible, they did not want to use their powers because it might destroy the forest irreversibly. But something they did not expect happened.
Several of their fighters suddenly went down. Instead of the usual wooden or metal weapons, their enemies were using something else that they didn’t know—gunpowder. Because they closed off their home to any urban influences, they did not know how to counter it, especially since the soldiers could fire it from a long distance.
“Retreat! Now!” Casmir ordered but they were already getting outnumbered.
And it got worse when fiery arrows came raining down on them. The forest started burning and seeing the havoc sent their group in panic.
“Douse the fire!” Ivankov ordered, but several water harjas were either injured or dead.
Casmir returned the attack by alighting broken twigs and firing it back to them. Yllka was horrified upon seeing that and ran toward him.
“Stop that!” she said. “You’re going to burn the forest, too!” His jaw clenched in frustration. “Then what do you want me to do?! Your ice will just melt and my fire makes it worse! There aren’t any water harjas left!”
Yllka’s head reeled. It was as if the noise around her started fading away. All she could hear was her shallow breathing. She wanted to drive out the invaders. This was their home and it would be destroyed if they couldn’t do anything the in the next few minutes.
If only we could live in peace, free from outside interferences, she thought.
She felt a tug in her stomach, as if her anger and worry were coursing through her veins. The moment she opened her eyes, she saw an arrow flying toward her, but it froze midair, ice crystals slowly enveloping the fire at its tip. She channeled her power through a vehement scream and comrades and enemies alike watched in horror as a colossal wall of ice arose from the ground, stopping the parade of lighted arrows and projectiles from weapons with gunpowder. But what frightened them to death was when everything in her path slowly turned into snow.
Terror-stricken, their enemies scampered away, but Casmir lunged at them and finished what they started. Seething with wrath, the remaining force turned into ashes.
Yllka’s vision became hazy, but she could see the pale blur of Ivankov’s face running toward her.
“Yllka!” he called as her body collapsed on the ground.
She just used her power for a few seconds, but she couldn’t move anymore. Every part of her body was sore and her head felt like it would explode in any minute.
“W-what . . .” Ivankov lightly gasped upon seeing her face. “Your eyes,” he murmured. “They’ve become lighter in color.” “Wh—"
Her throat was so hoarse she couldn’t even finish her sentence. Before her consciousness seeped away, Casmir’s figure appeared in front of her, his hand extended.
“Well done, Yllka,” he said. For the first time, he acknowledged her name.
Everything started fading away, but she was happy that she did her part. That time, she thought everything would be okay as long as the villages continued working together to protect their home.
Returning to the mountains, they declared their victory. After what they had been through, every harja thought it would be better if the villages would amalgamate each other to further strengthen their power. The elders of each tribe were hesitant with that, citing the differences of their beliefs and practices, but those who engaged in the battle insisted.
Years later, villages formed a single community. Harjas were then renamed as Huntres, the strongest hunters and fighters with innate power of nature in them.
But little did she know, the same unity that they had shown despite living separately for a long time, would be the root of their own destruction.
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.
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.”