Read the Story

Chapter 1
Strangers in the Dark

The howl of a wolf in the far distance abruptly pulled him from his dream.

He turned around on his back, wrapped the silk blanket tight around himself and put his pillow over his head as if to safeguard himself from any other potential sounds. He knew this would not really work, but it felt better to try than to do nothing at all.

 

He closed his eyes and slowly drifted off again, badly wanting to get back to the moment where he’d left his dream. It was a bit vague now but he could feel that there was something about to happen, that he’d been woken up at a crucial moment. He remembered a few things; the dark trees, the bright green light in the far distance, the river flowing underneath him. The more he thought about it, the more it came back. The soft, dense moss under his skin, the sound of the chirping birds, the touch of… black. It all turned black again. Scattered fragments impossible to tie back together. He gave up. His body and mind were too restless, too awake.

 

‘STOP!’ screamed a voice in the distance.

 

Ronin’s eyes snapped open. Whose voice was that? He pricked up his ears and tried to listen carefully. It had come from far away, probably about a half a mile or so and he thought it might have been female. He wasn’t quite sure, as the last time he’d heard a female’s voice was at least a few years ago. But it sure sounded like one. Much softer and higher-pitched than anything he was used to.

 

‘Please don’t…’ he heard the voice say.

 

He was sure now, this had to be a female. He threw the pillow from his head and pushed his blanket away, quickly getting onto his feet. The stone-floored room was a simple square with just a bed and pitch-black, but that wasn’t a problem for Ronin. He was nocturnal by nature, and in the Umbral Belt they barely ever had daylight. Instead, they lived in a constant twilight – night – twilight cycle, as the dense purple clouds prevented the sun from shining through. The Shadewalkers were used to seeing proper daylight only once a year – an event which they called “The Burn”. This day was celebrated by all who lived in the Umbral Belt. Festivities were held throughout the land. The only other light the Shadewalkers were acquainted with, was the light coming from the glow of the lava that permeated their land and a few lamps here and there, which seemed to be more for decoration purposes than actual use.

Ronin put on his clothes, grabbed his katana from the wall and sneaked out of his room into the long corridor. He was forbidden to leave at night but this was an exceptional case. If there really was a female in the training village, then something had to be terribly wrong.

He had to make sure Minoru was safe, as well as Kenji. They were his two best friends and both were also in training to become great warriors. However, Ronin knew they didn’t have the same hearing skills as he had. The chances of them still being asleep were high, especially for Minoru, who seemed to go into hibernation every time he hit the bed. Hence there was no other way: if there was danger lurking, Ronin had to check on them. His friends lived in a house just a little further up the street.

 

Leaving his house, thankfully, was something he’d gotten skilled at. He was able to move as quietly as a mouse. The rusty lock on the front door caused him no issue either, as by now he knew exactly how to unlock it without making a single sound. He’d left the house very often at night, as it was the time he felt most restless. He wasn’t quite sure why the others seemed to be able to sleep so well when the moon came up. For Ronin, it was then that he felt at his best. He would much rather nap during the day. Unfortunately, that was often not an option for him, with their tiresome training schedule lasting 12 hours per day.

 

Carefully shutting the door again behind him, he turned around and jumped down from the front porch to the road. All houses in Notan, as his village was called, were made from wood and elevated slightly off the ground to protect them from potential lava outbreaks. Their roofs were either tiled or thatched. The road itself was made with stones and went straight through the village, on one side leading up to the watchtower, and on the other to the harbour. It was a relatively narrow road, just wide enough for two people to pass each other at once, though this wasn’t really a problem, as only about thirty people lived in Notan. It was a remote village, but an important one in the Umbral Belt too, as it was here where the most renowned warriors were trained and their ruler lived. Strangers were not often welcome, which was all the more reason for Ronin to be worried about the sound he’d heard. 

Now that he was outside and could locate the voice even better, it seemed to come from around the watchtower. Which surprised him, as the only way to the watchtower was through the village. That meant the female would’ve passed by all the warrior houses after curfew.

Ronin could feel the concern in him growing. Something certainly wasn’t right here. He tied his katana to his belt so he could run unburdened, and then swiftly made his way up. The first house was the one where his master resided, the second where his friends lived.

 

His master, Yami, was the son of Kurai Damashi, who was the prevailing Spirit of the Umbral Belt and ruler over all Shadewalkers. Kurai Damashi wasn’t the youngest anymore, and neither was Yami, with 60 years under his belt. Yami was one of those individuals you instantly respected. Ronin wasn’t quite sure why. Maybe it had to do with the glowing, white hair of the wolf, or maybe it was the number of scars on his body, telling the story of countless battles. Perhaps it was because of his endless knowledge, his undeniable fighting skills, or possibly it was because of all the stories that were told about him. He’d lived through rough times, battled the wildest monsters across all of Elatora, survived the last lava outbreak, during which he saved hundreds, and guarded the gates of the Umbral Belt against intruders over and over again. Ronin didn’t know which stories were true and which were the work of overactive imaginations, but it didn’t really matter. Yami was to be respected.

 

Over the years, there was one thing Yami had emphasized to Ronin, and that was that he should always stay inside during the hours of curfew. There hadn’t always been a curfew in the Umbral Belt.. It had been introduced only about 12 years ago when Ronin was just 6 years old. He could barely remember anything from back then, the memories from his youth were vague. It was as if there was a thick mist surrounding them. Sometimes, when Ronin was in bed, he would try to revisit his childhood, attempting to get to it through his dreams. But it never really worked out. The only thing that kept coming forward was a forest, a glowing, enchanted looking mass of all the shades of green he could conjure. Which was strange, because there were no forests in the Umbral Belt. So it all had to have come from somewhere deep inside his mind, a visualization of things he’d maybe read or stories he’d heard. It couldn’t come from his own experiences.

Unfortunately, Ronin also couldn’t remember his mom nor his dad. Yami had told him how his parents had died in one of the lava outbreaks when he was just a few months old, and how he, who had come to the town to help in any way he could, had found Ronin and brought him home with him. Although Ronin was from another side of the Umbral Belt and not born from a great line of warriors, or meant to be raised in Notan, Yami decided to take him in, and raise him as if he were his own son. He gave him a roof above his head and trained him to become a warrior, among those who were meant to be, like Minoru and Kenji. They were both proud sons of previous warriors, and as such meant to follow in their fathers’ footsteps. To some, that may have sounded like a burden, but it was a great honour to become a warrior and to be trained in Notan, seeing that Notan was not only a secluded town but also where Kurai Damashi lived and from where he ruled the land.

Ronin was forever thankful for the home Yami had given him and he did his utter best to live up to Yami’s standards and wishes, however… Ronin was also a bit rebellious by nature, and if there was one thing that he had trouble with, it was the curfew. It simply clashed with his internal clock. As it also did on this specific night. If he’d been fast asleep, he probably wouldn’t even have heard the female’s voice. But as it was night time, he was always in a state of constant vigil.

 

Ronin was just about to open the door to Minoru’s and Kenji’s house, when he heard the soft voice in the distance again with a more desperate tone; ‘Please Yami, consider…, let me… Damashi’. Yami? Damashi? he thought. What was this female doing here? Why was she talking to his master? And why was Yami outside after curfew?

Ronin turned around, sneaked back down the steps of the front porch and returned to the street. He looked up the steps that lead through the sleeping village to the watchtower, feeling tempted to go closer, wanting to eavesdrop some more. However, the risk of Yami discovering him seemed quite high now. He shook his head and tried to get the idea out of his mind. It’d be better to just go back home, back to bed. If Yami was with this female, then surely his friends were safe. But… what if Yami was not safe? What if his master was in danger? That was a fair reason to go up to the watchtower, wasn’t it?

 

Ronin thought about it for a second and then decided that, indeed, this was a perfect reason. Yami couldn’t possibly argue with him about this. He had enough motives to now be outside, so he put his paws down and sprinted up the steps as fast and soundlessly as he possibly could. He knew there were a few looming black rocks surrounding the watchtower, so he could hide behind one of those. Notan was a small village but the watchtower was actually quite far from its centre, as it was built on top of a pronounced promontory. The steep steps to it had been carved into the rock, but the passing of years, together with frequent use, had rendered the stone with an uncharacteristic smoothness. As he neared the tower he could see the rocks pop up. The ones on the outer ring of the hill were towering and pronounced masses of stone, whereas the ones closer to the watchtower were significantly smaller. Ronin knew he could stay in the outer ring and overhear the conversation, but he wanted to make sure he wouldn’t miss out on any important bits, so he decided to get as close as he could. There was only one problem – the top of the steps. From there he’d have to move at lightning speed to not be seen by Yami or the female, as this was the only spot that was completely in the open. Plus, he had to make sure that he’d also stay out of any potential wind, otherwise, Yami could pick up his scent. The wolf had a superior sense of smell.

 

As Ronin neared the last steps, he flung his body to the ground and made himself as small as he could. He peeked above the final one, spotting Yami’s tail near the watchtower’s entry. He couldn’t see the female at all, as she was just behind one of the other rocks. The wolf stood sideways to the tower, and Ronin had to stop himself in his tracks for a second as the clouds parted and a ray of moonlight shone on them. He felt like his heart stopped beating as it seemed possible that Yami would have spotted him through the corner of his eye. As the moon hid itself once more, he took a deep breath, and then pushed himself, hugging the ground, to the top of the stairs. Immediately after that, he rolled over sideways, quickly becoming invisible behind one of the rocks. Perfect, from here he should easily be able to approach them just a little more.

 

As he was so focused on his encroachment mission, he hadn’t really been picking up any of the conversation going on, but he hoped he hadn’t missed out on any crucial bits. Still moving on his belly, to reduce the chances of Yami picking up his scent, he slithered to a rock a little closer to the tower. This was a good spot, from here he could hear every single word. He changed to a kneeling position, with his back against the coolness of the stone and concentrated on the conversation.

‘Listen Yami, I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t absolutely essential.’ claimed the female.

Yami took a deep breath. ‘I understand Narumi, but -’

‘Please stop with the excuses. You don’t seem to understand the urgency of all this!’ She said in exasperation, as Yami gave her a glowing stare. He wasn’t used to being interrupted.

The female continued with her plea, oblivious to his reaction, ‘The citizens have started to fight with each other, the tribes are no longer communicating. Everyone is in fear. I understand the risks you’re talking about but we can’t wait any longer.’

‘Is there nobody else who can take leadership?’ Asked Yami. ’Is there nobody among the council who could take up the role?’

‘No,’ the female’s voice sounded a little angry now, ‘don’t you think we’ve tried? Our folk won’t listen to the council anymore. They’re done with it after Haru eroded their trust with his unwise decisions.’

‘And you think the Peltens would listen to him!?’ exclaimed Yami. 

‘Of course they would! He is their true leader.’

 

Silence. The rustling of the wind against the rocks became evident. Ronin waited patiently, but Yami didn’t answer. He could also barely hear his master breathe. The female was, however, easy to distinguish, as she was breathing agitatedly. Ronin couldn’t quite identify what she was. She didn’t sound like a wolf, but also not like a badger or jaguar. But then… What was she?

Finally breaking the silence, Yami said, ‘I’ll have to think about it and discuss it with Kurai Damashi. He will have the final say in this.’

’I’m not going back without him, Yami.’ she uttered defiantly.

‘You’ll have to. Kurai Damashi will also need some time to think about this, and you can’t stay in Notan or the Umbral Belt. Your kin needs you.’

‘Yami,’ the female voice said, sounding strained, ‘I repeat, I’m not going back without him.’

 

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