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.