Welcome, traveler. Come sit here by the fire and avoid the winter cold. Have you been walking for a long time? No? Did you just arrive? Accompany this old man and I will tell you the history of these lands and the story behind the curse that haunts us all…
In the beginning there was nothing. From the dark silence the light was born and from the light came the gods and demons who were destined to inhabit the Ama, the celestial realm, keeping the universal balance. Soon, that balance was broken. The gods, believing that they were the first ones created, started the Great War. After that war the demons were expelled to Jigoku, the realm of hell, where they are still desperately seeking vengeance.
After seeing the celestial lands freed from demonic stain
, Arimasu cried with joy. Those tears fell onto the sea and created the islands of Hymukai, the ‘land blessed by the light’. The gods considered these islands as sacred ground because they were created by the goddess. They decided to make those lands the stronghold for the next war against the inhabitants of Jigoku.
The empress Suiko Tenno was created by the gods to rule and protect these sacred lands. The gods also gave her four objects of great power to create a protective shield for Hymukai. No one from any other land or realm could enter the islands as long as the empress’ lineage endured with the objects intact in their possession.
The great clans swore obedience to the messenger of the gods and each clan became protector of one of the sacred objects. The katana, the sword which represents the strength to react and to attack when any menace shows up; the o-yoroi, the samurai armor which represents the resistance of the realm against adversity and the endurance of traditions and the established order; the magatama, a collar that is the symbol of wealth that keeps the empire and the lifestyle of its inhabitants; the kagami, a mirror that represents the knowledge about oneself and the spirituality needed to rule. These symbols are also a reflection of the four predominant clans of the empire: the Buke, Kuge, Otokodate and Sohei, respectively.
After Empress Suiko gathered the great clans together under her command her reign was one of unrivaled stability. It was known as the ‘Golden Dawn’ because Hymukai grew more in wealth and population than in any other period.
When she was of marriageable age, the empress voiced the god’s will of marrying a saint to preserve the purity of her lineage. This would become a tradition that would last for generations, and from those unions the first-born would be a girl, the heir to the throne of Hymukai.
The empress, as a descendant of the gods, was totally isolated and protected from the world. Few people had direct contact with her and less could speak to her. The imperial palace was an impenetrable fortress full of courtiers, magistrates, soldiers and servants. When autumn was coming to an end the whole court, with the empress in their lead, moved to the winter residence and stayed there for six months. That journey was the only period when she could see the life outside of a palace.
And so it went for 500 years and 9 empresses. Until Jingu, who changed everything.
During the Empress Jinju’s procession to her winter court something unprecedented occurred. Four hell onmyouji invoked dozens of demons to attack Jinju and her guards. It was a violent combat between soldiers and demons that lasted until only an oni and a young imperial guard named Tagesho were left alive. The gigantic oni threw a huge stone that impacted and destroyed the throne carrying the Empress. When she sat up and saw all her servants dead amid the surrounding destruction, she began to cry inconsolably. Tagesho threw himself towards the oni with raised yari stabbing at its chest, the blow killing it instantly.
Tagesho, covered in blood and exhausted, approached the empress. When Jingu looked at the soldier’s eyes she instantly fell in love with him. So did imperial annals record the first union between the divine lineage of Suiko and a common warrior in place of the customary saint.
Three years later the empress gave birth. Unlike her predecessors, she did not have a daughter but rather two sons. For many prophets that was a sign of misfortune and calamity but for others it represented a new era of great change and opportunity for the empire.
The children were Sujin and Kogen. Sujin, the older one by just minutes, was thoughtful, studious, wise and very careful. He was a natural courtier, a diligent student and everyone could see in him the virtues of a saint. On the other hand
, Kogen was imprudent, vigorous, forceful, athletic and highly competitive.
The legendary Tagesho, the father of the heirs, died a
s victim of fever when the boys turned 16. They could not get over the loss and so they began to compete to be Tagehso’s worthy successor. When they reached their majority, they began to fight for the attention of a young courtier named Saimei. In the beginning the brothers traded only boasts, but later came to real blows as they sought her attention. This exacerbated the rift in the relationship which grew more obvious every year.
Their mother Jinju was sicked as she observed the increasing family breakdown. Sujin summoned the best doctors of the empire while Kogen went looking for the cure among the saints. They failed because they did not realize that the cause of her illness was the increasing hate between the brothers.
While Jingu was in bed, Sujin placed himself in charge of the daily duties of the court, from diplomatic relationships to the most transcendental decisions. On his behalf Kogen commanded the imperial army throughout the realm, keeping order among the clans, putting an end to the bandits and repelling the numerous demonic incursions that became more and more frequent. The weakening of the empress left the protective shield over the realm increasingly fragile, making it easier for the demons from Jigoku to enter Hymukai. Each brother served the empire in the best way they knew and each reproached his brother for not sacrificing enough in the pursuit of their duty.
After two restless years of battles and victories,
Conflict was rising, even as Saimei tried, without success, to calm them down, refusing to take either side. The family dispute ended as Kogen cursed his brother and withdrew from the palace. Declining to murder his brother on the hallowed palace grounds he instead gathered his troops while vowing war.
At the same moment that Kogen challenged his brother and Sujin accepted, Jingu died. For the first time in 500 years, Hymukai’s magical protections vanished.
The enmity between the brothers caused the first Great War of Hymukai, a war for both the control of an empire and the love of a woman.
Sujin commanded the empire’s best equipped troops and had an unlimited supply of provisions. Kogen had the weight of numbers on his side, but despite their experience in thousands of battles those loyal to him were generally ill equipped and fatigued from recent campaigns. The great clans could not decide which of the legitimate heirs to support openly. While Sujin excelled at court and administration Kogen had shown them his prowess in military matters across consecutive campaigns that he lead to keep the order among the clans.
Kogen knew that he could not trust his brother. Nor could he proclaim himself as emperor if he did not have the assistance of all the major lords. This was not just because of the military strength of the great clans-each also controlled elaborate supply lines, stockpiles of food and military supplies that each heir would need and messengers and scouts vital to piercing the fog of war. The Kuge included among their ranks some who could boast that they shared the imperial bloodline. Their merchants brought the clan great wealth, while their courtiers saw the war as an opportunity to gain full control of the imperial court. If they helped Kogen and he proclaimed himself as emperor, he would need their help to rule over Hymukai, his martial exploits could only cover his ignorance of palace intrigue so far. Accordingly they offered themselves to Kogen as his first ally.
Satisfied with the Kuge’s decision, Kogen
The Shichi no Kogen, as his seven most trusted generals were known, met him and debated for hours about how to deal with the situation. They concluded that the best way to rally the great clans to Kogen was through confidence, honor and duty. Three of them were sent as emissaries, one for each clan.
The Buke, Otokodate and Sohei saw, with a certain amount of suspicion and concern, the arrival of these great samurai at their gates. Not everyone received their clan’s guest with enthusiasm. Even so, each warrior swore loyalty and serfdom to the clan they visited. So began the negotiations for entry of each clan in the Great War. Few could imagine that those great warriors, as time went by, would become legends of their new clans.
Meanwhile, Sujin was not inactive. He spread the word throughout the empire of his imminent marriage with Saimei and the beginning of his reign as the new emperor. Blind with rage, Kogen
Sujin’s plan had taken effect.
Kogen moved his armies to Sukihoma Plains, about 40 kilometers from the capital
Suijin’s army moved to the Plains. While fewer in numbers they were better equipped and boasted more cavalry than Hymukai have ever seen before. As Suijin took to the battlefield, the Kuge army arrived from the north and Kogen smiled when he realized they had flanked his brother. Victory would be complete. Warriors began marching at their foes, arrows flew and screams overran the battlefield.
Kogen’s battle plan was perfect: he knew the terrain and his veterans. Suddenly he realized something was wrong. The army of the Kuge was not marching to attack the flank of his brother but instead joined him. That could not be true! The Kuge had betrayed him, but why? They sought a pact with him. That was when he realized that he should have waited for the rest of the clans because the joined armies of Sujin and the Kuge would overwhelm him. Someone else, in his place, would had give up in desperation. But not Kogen. Even if though defeat was clear, he charged into battle.
It was a slaughter. Kogen’s men were falling in each surge of the enemy army. At the center of the maelstrom Kogen, surrounded by the four Shichi no Kogen that were with him, held against the onslaught of a thousand enemies. They saw that the battle was lost when a cavalry charge devastated their left flank, coming though as a dagger sinking inexorably for the heart.
A blade pierced Kogen’s shoulder and he fell, but before he did, he was able to behead the unfortunate soldier who had wounded him.
Sato, the leader of the Shichi no Kogen, took his master and shouted at him, so he could hear him above the moans of the dying and clash of swords. He begged him to leave the battle and escape to the fortress of Kaidan, near the route to Yamanashi, where they would await their brothers and the armies of the great clans to stage a powerful counterattack In his rage Kogen refused: he did not want to run away and he did not want to see his brother victorious nor allow any of the traitorous Kuge to leave the field alive. Bleeding profusely, his resiliency was overcome by his wounds and he fainted. Sato looked at the rest of the Shichi no Kogen and they nodded. A total retreat was ordered. Sujin won the first great battle for Hymukai.
Thirty days later Kogen and the remains of his battered army arrived at the fortress of Kaidan. Then, they began to take care of the wounded while accounting for the dead and missing. Sato and the Shichi no Kogen were very worried: their master had not spoken since waking two days ago. He had a lifeless gaze, lost in contemplation of the infinite. His veins were noticeable around his forehead and neck, just as his jaw was always tight, giving his face a wrathful expression.
Days passed by and while the army was preparing the fortress, the Shichi no Kogen were sending messages to their three brothers, asking for urgency in their negotiations. They needed help, especially more men and supplies if they wanted to have any chance of victory.
Sujin came back to the imperial palace as the rightful winner. Court propaganda spread the Kuge in court was a huge success. Kogen was presented as a butcher who, in his infinite greed, had challenged his brother to steal his throne and future spouse. For the inhabitants of the imperial capital, Kogen was a representative of all the evil inside humanity and Sujin was their tireless defender, the true descendant of the gods. He was their rightful emperor.
The Kuge, who had betrayed Kogen to improve their position in court and for an increase of their lands by imperial edict, knew that time was against them. They convinced Sujin that the wedding should be as soon as possible. The sign of their great victory would be marrying Saimei and proclaiming himself as emperor as soon as possible. Sujin agreed.
While Sujin was marrying Saimei and proclaiming himself emperor, the Shichi no Kogen that were sent to the three great clans were about to arrive at their destinations.
To the lands of the Sohei arrived the oldest of them, Hikari Ryu. He was sensible, wise, patient and, among all the arts of war, his excellence was in teaching. For years he had been training the best men of Kogen. Hikari Ryu, who was capable of changing an ordinary man into an exceptional warrior, had arrived in these lands to transform exceptional monks into legendary warriors. After the completion of their training he would guide them to war with his master Kogen.
He received a cold welcome from the Sohei clan. Monks were looking for victory in a more spiritual way than what Hikari Ryu was offering them. The war between the brothers was not their concern and they did not want to sacrifice their lives in a superficial way. Glory and fame meant nothing to them.
Initially Ryu did not know how to deal with this conundrum. He could offer them the skills to achieve greatness in battle, but if his pupils did not want to fight, what was left? With the passage of days, he discovered that the Sohei monks were already great warriors by themselves. Their disciplined life, their capacity for obeying orders and their exceptional physical condition were the perfect breeding ground for a fearsome army. This thought grieved Ryu when he saw that they had no desire to partake in the war for the throne.
Everything changed the day a message arrived from the fortress of Kaidan.
In the message, Sato, his brother in arms and the first of the Shichi no Kogen, related to him the defeat at the Sukihoma Plains, the betrayal of the Kuge and their retreat to the fortress of Kaidan. He asked desperately for help, both men and supplies.
Hikari Ryu became enraged as he had not for years. He asked an audience with the abbot of the Sohei. He told Ryu that he had not changed his mind: the Sohei would not go to war. Ryu told him then about the betrayal of the Kuge and also cleverly added that the wish of the traitor clan was to govern over the rest. The Kuge would take their lands and rights because they thought that they were the ruling class and they did not respect creed or religion. Ryu offered once again his assistance to militarize the Sohei clan if they helped Kogen. He also promised that the lands of the order would be protected under imperial law with the reign of Kogen and that he, Hikari Ryu, as one of the counselors of the emperor, would become one of their monks.
The abbot asked him for three days to reflect on Ryu’s offer and talk with the masters of all the monastics orders. He only needed two days: the Sohei clan was going to war.
To the Otokodate clan arrived the youngest of the Shichi no Kogen, Kimura Key. He was just 17 but he was the best duelist that Hymukai had ever seen. It was precisely for his youth that he was sent to the Otokodate. The seven understood that Key would not have any prejudice
s against the new clan. They were right.
When Key arrived he asked for a hearing with the Regent Board. The Otokodate clan, as opposed to the rest of the great clans, was governed by a group of elders. When they saw the youthful Key arriving they laughed. How was it possible that Kogen sought their help by sending a representative that had left the dojo only recently? Key did not laugh, instead challenging their best warrior to a duel to the death. They accepted, still laughing. If he won, they would listen to his master’s proposal. If he lost, they would keep his daisho as a reward and could sell it to the highest bidder.
The next day at dawn they met near Odayaka beach. A hefty swordsman, his kimono dirty and worn-out with age, was on the shore
The samurai with the dirty kimono smiled, sheathed his sword and turned to Key. Key’s back faced his rival with his knee on the ground, his arm extended and his katana shining with the rising sun. My name is Katsushiro, he said, and now you know the name of the man you have killed. He fell heavily to the ground, coloring the shore with his blood. Key stood up, cleaned his sword, sheathed it, looking at his dead rival on the sand and made a gesture of reverence to him. He turned slowly to the board, with a heavy silence only broken by the waves hitting the body of the dead ronin.
The board accepted Kogen’s proposal. They would give him military aid and Kogen would protect them against the rest of the clans, giving them an introduction at court and securing their commercial routes.
Key succeeded. That was his last duel as a servant of his master.
An alliance with the Buke clan required a great sacrifice. For this mission, Odoka Hiro was chosen. He was one of Kogen’s most lethal warriors and enjoyed his full trust.
When Hiro arrived, he found a more violent situation than his partners. The Buke clan served the emperor above all and Sujin had proclaimed himself emperor several days ago. For all intents and purposes, Hiro, as member of the Shichi no Kogen was a traitor and would be executed without further delay. When Hiro discovered the situation, it was too late. Before he could react, he was already in a cell and his execution was scheduled for the next day.
At night, Tora Tadayoshi, the young daimyo of the Buke clan, known as ‘the young tiger’, met Hiro. He wanted to know why someone would act so thoughtless even suicidally.
: honor. That is the dilemma of the samurai: to live in balance between duty and honor, replied Hiro.
They spent several minutes looking at each other. Then, Hiro told Tadayoshi about Kogen.
He explained that as opposed to his brother Sujin, Kogen was a warrior, his devotion to bushido forged on the battlefield. He knew his soldiers by name because he considered them to be blood brothers. Sujin, on the other hand, only knew the luxuries of his palace. To him the samurai were just a tool to maintain control of the Dragon Islands in conjunction with the lies of the Kuge. If they helped Kogen, he would guarantee the institution of bushido as the way of Hymukai and he would ensure that the land recognized the value of a samurai’s life and his duty to the throne.
Tadayoshi kept silent, his eyes looking at the floor, his right hand rubbing his chin. After a few more minutes passed he replied to Hiro.
“I understand your reasoning” he told him, “and believe me when I say that I could not agree more with you. However, the Buke serve to the throne and, right now, you are an enemy of the throne and you must be executed. That is the order of the emperor, and it should be obeyed.”
“Duty and honor, the balance.” Hiro answered. “I understand that your duty is to execute me tomorrow morning, as it was dictated but, due to your honor, you must do what it takes to let Hymukai have the emperor it deserves so that the sacrifice of your men is recognized whenever they go. My duty is to persuade you that the Buke should help my master Kogen and my honor allows me to be executed tomorrow, knowing that I have persuaded you.”
Tadayoshi went to the main courtyard and stared at the stars for almost an hour.
The next morning, Odoka Hiro taken to the main courtyard surrounded by Buke samurai, but to his surprise he was given clean clothes and did not see the executioner. Among the samurai, Tora Tadayoshi appeared.
“Odoka Hiro!” shouted the daimyo. “You are a traitor to the throne and as the law dictates, you must be executed. Your courage and strength have surprised me. If I do not
“So be it! Duty and honor!” shouted the convict. He put the sleeves of his kimono beneath his knees, took the tanto that they lent him, wrapped it on rice paper and began with the abdominal cut from left to right and then up to the breastbone. When pain became unbearable, but before he could scream, Tadayoshi, who remained standing at his left, cut his head, ending his duty as kaishaku.
After the ritual, the young daimyo spoke with his men:
“This samurai has died with honor, he shouted, and I am going to respond in the same way. Here, in front of you, I promise to help Kogen. The Buke are going to march to war!”
The Kuge’s spies discovered Kogen’s attempts to rally the clans to his cause, making sure to regularly inform Sujin of the Shichi no Kogen’s progress. Accustomed to palace intrigues, Sujin knew that his only option was to counterattack quickly and forcefully.
Sujin ordered his generals to immediately prepare his army for the march to Kaidan fortress and put an end to the menace that Kogen and his men meant for his reign. He also cunningly decided to send his best negotiators to the great clans to persuade them not to join his brother. He knew their efforts would be in vain but Sujin did not mind as he only sought to buy time. While his emissaries conducted their negotiations, his army would have easily gain a couple of weeks, time enough for arrive and begin the assault on Kaidan without the interference of the rest of the great clans. And so it was. Sujin’s huge army would start the siege to Kaidan just 20 days after leaving the imperial capital.
When Kogen heard that Sujin’s army was approaching his scream of rage was loud enough to alert the whole fortress. He had confirmation of the help of the Buke, Sohei and Otokodate but he knew now that they would not arrive in time. He looked around and realized that only a few months had passed since his defeat at the Sukihoma Plains… and that was obvious in the state of his army. His forces were less than the half of the original army and there were many injured. Food were scarce and his troops began to starve. He had underestimated his brother’s cunning and that he was going to pay dearly for it.
He stood up, adjusted his kimono and went to his bedchamber. Only Sato, his most trustworthy subject, followed him. No one knew what talked about in the long hours that followed but those outside only heard screams full of anger, frustration and despair from Kogen.
At midnight Kogen appeared among his men dressed in the full panoply of war with his daisho perfectly placed at his left side. He radiated majesty and commanded respect. Without a word he began marching among his men to the top of the rampart. Close behind Sato was walking as ready as his master for the imminent battle. Inspired by their leader, his soldiers did not hesitate and quickly donned their armor and weapons in anticipation of the battle drawing nigh.
It was sunrise and
the first rays of light covered the rampart. Motionless as if they were statues,
Sujin’s army took several hours to arrive at the ramparts and deploy in all their glory. Sato fell silent after seeing so many troops. It was clear that they were going to be defeated, overwhelmed by a tsunami of spears. Kogen also knew it. He told Sato and his Shichi no Kogen to accompany him outside the walls.
The astonished soldiers on the ramparts opened the gates.
Kogen walked slowly by the main gate.
Kogen saw the banner of his house waving behind Sujin and for the first time felt defeat and regret.
When they were about 20 meters from Sujin
“Speak, brother” said Sujin, “but be brief, Hymukai need my attention and your foolish rebellion cannot waste more time. Since our mother died, attacks from beings not seen before in these lands have been occurring.”
“Sujin,” Kogen spoke firmly and challenging, “you have proclaimed yourself emperor and doubtlessly you have tricked Saimei into marrying you. You have put the traitorous Kuge at your side and your insults and slights against me have not stopped. However, brother, I forgive you. Dark times are coming to the Dragon Islands and we cannot allow an indiscriminate slaughter such as this one about to happen. My men are the best soldiers you will ever come across and Hymukai will need them. If you spare the life of such warriors I will swear loyalty to you in exchange. We will take charge of protecting the empire against any menace.”
Kogen’s words left breathless his men. The pride of the best general of Hymukai had vanished right before their eyes as he begged for mercy for his men. None of them expected that, except for Sato, who nodded with every sentence.
“I have a problem with your request” replied Sujin. “How can I trust you? How could I give you command of my armies? How can I know that you will not attack me once again? The empire needs stability, order and someone who knows how to govern, not a rabid dog driven by his pride to bite the hand of those around him.” Kogen tighten his jaw silently. “I am sorry brother, but I cannot afford trusting you.”
Without pausing, Sujin unsheathed his katana and with an unexpected strike pierced his brother’s chest. Kogen stared at his brother with an expression of surprise, eyes wide open and speechless due to the thickening blood that was bubbling from mouth.
“Brother,” said Sujin, “you are a traitor and I must teach everyone what happens to traitors to the throne. You do not seek to serve me, only to replace me. That is why you and your men will be eliminated, not only from this field but from history. Any reference to you, these events or your legacy will be erased. Any relative or friend of yours will be eliminated. No one will ever speak of Kogen, nor his Sichi no Kogen nor his damned betrayal, under penalty of death. You sought glory, brother, and you will achieve only oblivion.”
Sujin slowly removed his katana from the chest of his dying brother, who landed on his back while drowning in his own blood. The Shichi no Kogen were paralyzed from the cowardice of what they have just witnessed. Sujin turned his back on them while he ordered his men to kill them all. He mounted his horse with the shouts of the four men seeking vengeance and calling him coward before being slaughtered defending the body of their deceased master.
Sujin trotted calmly to the front of his enormous army. When he arrived, He ordered his taisho to attack the fortress, putting all within to the sword, mutilate the dead and leave the remains for the scavengers. Kaidan should go up in flames until nothing would stand there. No one is above the emperor
Thirty years have passed since the siege of Kaidan. The war between the brothers has been erased from the imperial records and from the memory of most of the inhabitants of Hymukai.
The emperor Sujin has no descendants but no one knows why many women (not only Saimei) have been in his bedchambers. For this reason, every year he goes on pilgrimage to Nijiyama, where he stays 40 days in the solitude of the Sacred Well Temple, communing with the kami and asking them for guidance and assistance to father a successor to the throne.
Hymukai may have been fatally wounded while the Emperor was returning from his last pilgrimage.
When the imperial caravan crossed the Kashiwara forest, it disappeared without leaving any evidence. This event created great confusion through the empire like a cancer. Some rumors say that the emperor have been killed, while others claim that he has disappeared or been kidnapped.
In the face of this unexpected event, struggle broke out among the great clans to seek power over Hymukai and the imperial throne. Several families demanded the right to govern the realm based on their military power. Nowadays, Hymukai is a battlefield for the supremacy of one above the rest and no one wants to end this chaos.
The Kuge are becoming strong at court. Their leader, Satoshi Asaemon, has been weaving a network of contacts, lies and favors that have positioned him as one of the most influential men of the imperial capital. With the help of the Hattori, he has been controlling several events around the islands.
The Buke, commanded by Tora Tadayoshi, now known as ‘the old tiger’, have the most numerous army. Over the past 30 years Tadayoshi has converted his men into a perfect war machine that seeks to conquer the whole empire and control it with the bushido as its precept.
The Otokodate are growing in power and numbers. Their recent agreements with the Namban, foreigners that are becoming more common everyday, provide them with new and strange weapons and war machines to secure and enlarge their domains. Commanded by Kimura Key, they are spreading more and more into the territories of their rivals.
The Sohei look upon the belligerence of the other clans with suspicion but they do not want to fight against any of them directly. They will fight for their homeland and their beliefs as circumstances dictate. Hikari Ryu, their leader, is now an elder who is in charge of adapting and monitoring each new member of the order and their conversion into great warriors for the cause.
After the interruption of the lineage of the empress and the loss of the protective shield of the gods, the Dragon Islands are at the mercy of raids of any type. From the north there are rumors about strange human beings covered by huge furs devastating everything in their path. From the east pirate raids are more numerous and dangerous due to the cunning of their evil leader, Turgot. From far away from the known seas come the Namban with exotic weapons who want to impose their commercial treaties and their strange religion. In addition the barriers between several realms weakening. Attacks from demons and creatures from other realms have become more frequent in the last few years.
But the true menace comes from the west: the forces of Jigoku, a huge army of infernal creatures, is creeping slowly and relentless into the lands of Hymukai. A horde without end that is advancing as they increase their numbers with those that had fallen on the battlefield of the lands they cross. The dead have forgotten their original clans and join this wave of corruption. No one knows what or who guides them, but there is a rumor of a legendary name long ago forgotten: Kogen…
The Hidden Path
Tiny water drops from the waterfall splashed out over the ground around Makoto. The monk was painting a beautiful landscape inspired by his surroundings. He stood on a narrow ledge within the mountains where the sun’s rays were fighting to break through to reach the waterfall to give rise to an explosion of colour. To find such a beautifully scenic spot, so high above the main land, was quite surprising. The area in front of Makoto was covered with an intense green cluster of plant life. And just before the waterfall rose a majestic cherry tree that leaned out from the abyss.
Hikari Ryu was aware of his 70 years as the niggling pain in his knees reminded him as much. He finally reached the Nachi waterfall exerting all his strength to pull his body up and over to safety. After catching his breath, he cautiously stood up and observed the monk that now stood a short distance away from him. Ryu was astounded to see the meticulousness attention to detail Matoko had achieved in his painting. After a while, Hikari Ryu approached Makoto.
“Good morning” said the old monk. “You had left the monastery very early.”
“You are right” answered Makoto. “True colour can only be found early in the morning. What brings you here, master?”
“I have come to this waterfall because I knew that we could talk calmly and with no interference. Six months ago you became part of our order and it’s about time that you tell me who you really are.”
“You already know who I am, Ryu-sama. I’m a painter who fell out of favor with his former lord. He claimed that my work was a disservice to his family’s greatness and banished me. I became an errant beggar until the Sohei welcomed me into their bosom and allowed me to become one of you.”
“Your acting capacities are almost as good as your paintings, Makoto-san, if that is really your name.”
The roughness and sincerity of Hikari Ryu’ words caught the young monk off guard. He blushed and hesitated while he answered:
“I don’t know what you are talking about, lord! If I have offended you in any way, I humbly beg your pardon. I never intended to make you feel misled.”
“And you keep doing it!” exclaimed Ryu. “Stop performing, please. I’m too old to be tricked. When you are relaxed and unaware of your role, your true nature comes to life. When talking to someone you place yourself with the sun at your back, so your face is hard to identify. You walk without making noise, the strokes in your paintings are extremely precise and whenever you enter in a room, you quickly analyze how many people there are and all the possible exits. Makoto-san” said the old monk changing his tone. “Since when have you been hiding from your clan? Since when have you been pursued by the Hattori?”
Matoko’s face suddenly became drawn and grim as he turned and looked with half opened eyes towards the elderly monk that had discovered him. Suddenly, the monk threw his brush as if it was an arrow at Hikari Ryu, and jumped to evade as a counter measure. The old monk, as if time was slower around him, dodged the attack with a graceful movement and, using the inertia of the spin and his cane, he stroked Makoto three times in three different venerable points while he was in the air. The monk fell like a rag doll, immobilized.
“Speak now!” said the master severely.
“How do you know the existence of the Hattori?” answered the defeated monk incapable of moving.
“You are not the first one that came here chased by your clan. 15 years ago, a comrade of yours, Hattori Sakai, also hid between us and lived here until a strong illness killed him.”
“I thought we killed him!” said the young man. “I am glad, as he was not a bad fellow, but if he spoke about our existence, he was a traitor to Hattori.”
“He was a traitor to nothing” exclaimed Hykari Ryu. “He did not agree with innocent killing, but he was sincere at least. I figure that you are here under similar circumstances, so I would not judge you so easily.”
Makoto closed his eyes and took a deep breath. He opened his eyes and said with grievance:
“You are right, I am sorry. I am already dead to my clan, and you are my last refuge. My name is Hamato Yoshi and I escaped from my family and my fellow clansmen nine months ago.”
Hikari Ryu calmly sat down on a big rock. He nodded to encourage the ninja to continue with his story.
“My clan has been fighting for nine generations for the stability of the empire. This sacred mission was bestowed to us by our protectors, the Kuge. Our mission was to extinguish menaces before they became visible, and we called ourselves – the guardians -. But we fell from grace. Greed, envy and ego made their way into our ranks and our mission had been corrupted.”
The ninja breathed slowly, as if he was freeing himself from an enormous burden, and he continued talking:
“The Hattori clan is commanded by a Grand Master who has two counselors, the Master of Venoms and the Master of Shadows. These charges were assigned by secret vote, and this responsibility must be honored until death releases them. Eighty years ago, the Master of Venoms, Tsi Huann, made a strange mixture that, according to him, would give eternal life to those who drank it.” Hamato Yoshi hesitated. “The Master of Shadows, Shisu Kage, was the first one who drank the immortality mixture. But something went wrong and he didn’t achieve immortality but became another being, a ethereal one, soulless, dark as the night and lethal. The Master of Shadows finally made sense of his name. Nagi, the Grand Master at that moment, was present at the ceremony and was horrified after seeing his counselor transformed into a monstrosity. But greed led him to ask Tsi Huann to improve his formula as he also longed for immortality.”
“The Shadow” it seemed the ninja trembled when that name was said aloud,” known before as Shisu Kage, proved to be a weapon of incalculable value. No one could escape from him. If he was entrusted with a murder, there was no place where the victim could hide: that person was already dead. He only asked in return to be allowed prisoners in his room, who screamed in pain enduring long sessions of torture, just to be returned later, dead and dry, without eyeballs and tongue. We started to call him “The Shadow of Infinite Hunger” and no one was able to look directly at his face.” Yoshi stopped briefly. “The first version of the formula was not refined and it took out all the evilness of the Master of the Shadows, but after some years, the Master of Venoms achieved the perfect formula. The Great Master Nagi and the Master of Venoms Tsi Huann drank that mixture. This time it worked perfectly, and they both were illuminated in total harmony along with their Ki giving them eternal life…”
Hikari Ryu was following Yoshi’s revelations. He was sure that this story about the Hattori was unknown outside the clan. Ryu made a slight gesture towards Yoshi to encourage him to continue his story.
“Before, I said the problems of my clan came from greed, envy and ego. Saki, the son of the Grand Master, was born when Nagi was already 95 years old. Even if he did not appear to be more than 40, Saki was the best Jonin I have ever seen. He was quick, astute, strong, intelligent, daring, and my best friend. We grew up together and got promoted in the clan competing and supporting each other. We accomplished the most difficult missions and defeated the most dangerous enemies. Anyone with a bit of judgment knew that Saki was destined to be, some day, the Grand Master of the Hattori clan. But if your master cannot die, you cannot be his successor. This idea stirred deep inside Saki and it began to corrupt his mind.”
The ninja continued his story. “Time passed and several seasons later Saki was sure that if he wanted to become the Great Master, he needed to kill his father. And he was willing to do it. I faced him to stop all this madness. It was true that the masters didn’t age, and they became wiser and more patient every year. But Saki did not think the same and he poisoned his brethren’s minds with his idea. That is how our civil war began. The conflict was not an open engagement, but that of foul play resulting in several members, from one side or the other, never returning from their missions, giving the impression that they had fallen in combat. Surprisingly the Master of the Shadows and the Master of Venoms did not choose sides because they found this internal crisis entertaining. Obviously the Great Master Nagi was opposed to his son’s ambitions. The civil war developed in the shadows, silently and lethal, until the night of the slaughter.”
Yoshi’s face became more sinister.
“After coming back from a mission in Otokodate lands, I found dozens of my comrades scattered on the floor, killed quickly and brutally. The number of corpses was rising as I approached the Grand Master Nagi’s bedchambers. And as I cautiously entered through the door, I heard the Master of Venoms talking with Saki, saying that he had finished his part of the agreement, and that he should do the same. Then Saki said something terrible that froze my heart and made me sigh loudly enough that The Shadow heard me and with that, he blew out the main door of the room. From the floor, I was able to see the Grand Master Nagi’s lifeless corpse. The Master of Venoms, at his right, was looking at me with curiosity, while Saki, full of anger, shouted at The Shadow of the Infinite Hunger that he must kill me.” The ninja stopped, it seemed like that memory prevented him from continuing. “What happened next, I only remember vaguely. I began to run as never before. Dozens of my comrades were stepping out the shadows and attacking me in a thousand different ways. I heard the Shadow behind me, as an icy whisper slipping quickly and lethally. My lungs were stinging and I moved faster than ever. Some might say it was my survival instinct, I say it was my overwhelming fear. At the east of the village, near the cliff besides the sea, I did what no sane man would ever do: I jumped into the murky emptiness. The impact against the water was brutal on my body. I dislocated my shoulder and broke my hand. Even then, I kept swimming for hours. Exhausted, I fainted feeling the cold embrace of the sea and death coming for me. I thought, at least, not by The Shadow.”
“I woke up, I don’t know how much later” he spoke like as if waking from a dream, “on a shore far away from that cliff when I felt the sharp pain of seagulls pecking at my bare skin. I continued my escape and three months later, I arrived here. The rest of the story is known by you, Ryu-sama…”
Hikari Ryu slowly got up. He put his hand on the ninja and with a quick movement he let loose the tightened muscles of his joints. With a calm and peaceful voice he said:
“Fascinating story, my friend! The good news is that the Shadow you escaped from won’t catch you in our temple: it is sacred ground. Rest and enjoy your painting, we will talk tomorrow at length about everything you have told me. But before I leave you, I need to know what Saki told to the Master of Venoms, I need to know what terrified you so much.”
Hamato Yoshi looked into his eyes, his lips were trembling slowly as he tried to articulate the words:
“Saki said that he would fulfill his agreement… kill the emperor!”