The First Step into Darkness
June 20, 1623. 25 miles north of Toyama.
A pathetic wail, like the one that had first drawn the lone traveler’s attention, pierced the eerily silent forest again as he hastily continued to cleave a path with his sword. The dense underbrush stubbornly full of prickers and low vines reluctantly gave way beneath his blade. Frowning he glanced up, eyes briefly searching the dark clouds visible through the foliage above. Rain that had been threatening most of the morning had begun to fall in earnest and the man attacked the clinging bushes with renewed vigor in an effort to find the child before the worst of the storm hit.
Another pitiful cry came, weaker this time, but thankfully much closer. The traveler continued to hack and slash a path towards the sound. Relief filled him when several swings later he finally broke through the bushes and stumbled into a small clearing, enclosed on three sides by the forest he'd just cut his way through.
And there, in front of a smooth stone wall directly across from him lay the ashen, unmoving body of a young, red-haired woman. Beside her the child he’d been searching for, weakly kicking the air as the cool rain continued to fall. The cord that had once fed the newborn babe still attaching him to his dead mother.
In two strides the traveler was beside the pair and he knelt down to severe the link between mother and child. Swinging his pack off his shoulder, he quickly dug out a worn kimono and lifted the child, quickly dabbing at the deep cut running down the babe's cheek. After a cursory glance to see if it was infected he deemed the cut clean enough for now and wrapped the still crying baby in the dry cloth.
Almost immediately the child quieted and traveler set him down long enough to fish out his waterproof cloak, swinging the garment over his shoulders. Collecting the infant to his chest again, he grabbed his pack and, with one last look to the newborn's mother, headed back the way he had come.
He remembered passing a small farm about six miles back down the road. Maybe they would be kind enough to take the babe in, or at least keep him until another family was found who could raise the orphaned child.
Yet, after the traveler had delivered the child to the family and left to continue his journey he would have no memory of ever being in the cursed wood or of the wounded newborn babe he had saved at the base of the Dragon God's stone-face prison. A memory washed away as quickly as his footsteps in the downpour of the following storm.
June 26 1633. 200 miles southeast of Toyama
Aged feet shuffled along the moonlit path cutting through another of the many tiny, no-named villages the wizened old woman had already passed through. Her pace was slow but steady as she moved silently between the handful of darkened, ghostly looking huts. Aching bones that had already seen too many winters protested the unerring call that had drawn her from her own humble home a fortnight before, but she could not stop herself from following. Even now with her strength failing she could not stop. Something was about to happen and she was meant to be there.
The loud wail of a newborn babe abruptly split the silent night and a papery sigh spilled from the grandmother's chapped lips as the need to continue on ceased. Hobbling towards the sound she rounded a darkened hut to find another lit by an unearthly blue light. Another cry came from healthy lungs and the old woman quickened her pace, the weariness in her aged body fading under the urgency as sounds of chaos suddenly erupted from within. A moment later the woven door was thrust aside and a man, tall in stature, stumbled from the hut with a crying bundle in his arms. In his left fist a lethal looking blade was clenched, poised over the child's chest. A single word she could not decipher spilled from his lips as he lifted the blade higher to strike.
True horror struck deep into the old woman's heart, and with strength and speed she didn't know she still possessed, she closed the distance between them and struck the man a stunning blow to the head with her clenched fist. The blade clattered to the ground as he stumbled to the side and the grandmother took immediate advantage, wrenching the now screaming infant from his arms.
Wild, frantic eyes nailed her with a look of fear and hate so frightening that it chilled her to the very bone. For a split second the old woman was sure he would kill them both but a pain filled scream from the now darkened hut tore the silence of the night, shattering the tension that charged the very air. With one last glare the man shot back inside. The wizened old woman wasted no time; quickly she retraced her footsteps out of the village and towards her secluded mountain home. She had found what she sought, now she must protect it for as long as she was able.
She was well outside the village and on her way back home by the time she decided it was safe to check the now silent child. Slightly trembling hands pulled the blanket away from the newborn babe's face and she immediately stumbled to a stop as her eyes met the crystal clear deep blue eyes staring back at her from beneath a shock of black hair. Further inspection of the child to determine the sex made her heart stutter in her chest before it began pounding madly.
A girl child.
With deep blue eyes.
It was then she finally understood why she had been called. With a shaking hand she placed her palm on the child's forehead and whispered the age old incantation she had been taught as an adolescent. For now the infant would be safest with her in the mountains but should anything happen to her before the girl was of age the spell would call those who could also protect her from those who would hunt her. Now all she could hope is that none save herself and the birth parents, who likely be too terrified to speak of this night, ever know of the child's existence.
But little did she know the effect the little girl's birth would have on the scar of a ten year old boy several miles further south in the small mountain village of Jouden. For the briefest of moments his scar bled as if freshly made before it sealed up again, leaving behind nothing but unanswerable questions that were soon forgotten.
September 14, 1651. 60 miles south of Kiyosu. (~300 miles southwest of Toyama)
A light breeze wafted through the open window as a lone cloud skittered across the moon, momentarily darkening the courtyard below. With a tired sigh, Yukishiro Tomoe turned from the sight of the two girls preparing for their departure below and walked on silent feet to the desk against the far wall of her private study. Sliding open the lone drawer on the right, she carefully withdrew the last gift she could bestow upon them. Her eyes studied the items thoughtfully, justifying to herself the need for what she was about to do. Resolution firmed her jaw as she turned, leaving the room and made her way through the empty halls to the ground floor and out into the moonlit yard.
Pausing for a moment just outside the door, she smiled sadly. They were still so young for what was to come. Too young. But unfortunately she had no other choice. Kanryuu had forced their hand by attacking those who had stripped him of his power and now these two young women were being thrust into a battle not their own. One that could very well get them killed if they weren‘t careful.
A flash of anger spilled through her veins at the untimely turn of events and Tomoe did her best to ignore it as she eyed the smaller of the two. She couldn’t help but feel at least a small measure of relieved satisfaction with the way the sole remaining Makimachi had grown. Misao would be fine, that she knew without a doubt.
Tomoe exhaled softly and let her attention drift to the other raven-haired young woman securing the last of her saddlebags onto her mount. In the craft, Kaoru was just as strong as Misao, if not more so. But unbeknownst to her young ward, she was also the first of her kind to be born in almost a thousand years. And because of that, there was still so much more she had hoped to teach Kaoru. So many things to explain to her before she faced the world beyond the shield, but now, thanks to Kanryuu, there was no time.
With a weary sigh, she shook her head. Maybe Kaoru’s lack of knowledge would be better in the end anyway. At least for now. Thankfully only Tomoe herself and a handful of other trusted mages knew of Kaoru’s true lineage. And all those who knew silently hoped and prayed that it was simply a coincidence that Kaoru had been born with blue eyes; when no other female child had for the last one thousand years. Even she, who had been tasked to raise the child since she‘d been found abandoned at the age of three, hoped with all of her heart that Kaoru’s birth did not have some other meaning.
Tomoe repressed the shiver that threatened to run through her frame at the thought. There was only one reason an Ancient would be needed again in their world. And despite the portent that Kaoru’s birth might imply, Tomoe knew without a doubt that the prison holding the dragon god captive still remained intact. She herself, along with those few she trusted, had gone to check and had found no evidence that the seal had been tampered with or weakened in any way. The only thing they’d found out of place were the bleached bones of what looked like a young woman who had seemingly died at the foot of the sealed stone gate holding Ryuujin within.
A soft nickering from the courtyard roused Tomoe from her thoughts and she shook off the small seed of trepidation tugging at the back of her mind. There was no use worrying about something like that right now when the girls faced a much more real danger. One that she desperately hoped she and the rest would be able to stop before it reached these two.
Stifling a bone weary sigh, Tomoe put on the best smile she could and finally continued making her way down the steps and into the moonlit courtyard.
Upon seeing her, Misao excitedly shouted, “Sensei!“ as she finished with the last of her saddlebags before spinning around to greet her.
Still busy with her own gear Kaoru glanced over her shoulder at the call and Tomoe’s smile softened at the bright grin her ward gave her. “We’re almost ready, Tomoe-sama. How long do you think it will take us to get to the keep?”
“You should arrive by midnight tomorrow night if you keep a steady pace. And remember don‘t stop for anything or anyone. No one must know where you are bound.” Tomoe cautioned, as she came to a stop before the two girls. “Gensai-sensei will be waiting for you at the side gate of the keep to bring you in.”
A shadow passed over both of their faces and with a smile that didn’t quite reach her eyes Kaoru cinched the belt holding her last bundle and asked, “Why all the secrecy, Tomoe-sama? Is there some reason why we can’t be seen? I know it‘s not normal for craft users to be guardians but it’s not unheard of.”
Tomoe gave her favorite student a weary smile as Kaoru turned to face her.
“If our enemy learned you two are craft users and came, he would come prepared even more so. At this time none of us here can help you, so the less who know about you the better.” She admitted softly, her gaze on them solemn. Although, if her plan worked he wouldn’t be coming. But she wouldn’t tell them that and give them false hope. They needed to be on guard in case the worst came to pass, that Kanryuu somehow evaded their strike.
Another cloud passed over the moon as Kaoru and Misao silently regarded her, their usually cheerful faces heavily shadowed with worry and even a small amount of fear. It hurt Tomoe’s heart to see them like this, to know that their days of naivety were at an end. But it was inevitable and at least it looked like they had finally realized that the journey they were about to set out on was not going to be anything like the practice sessions here within the manor. What they faced out there was far more real… and dangerous. And now they knew they would be facing it virtually alone.
The silence continued to stretch for another moment or two before Misao murmured, “Tomoe-sama…?”
The deceptively calm tone of her voice caught Tomoe off guard and she cautiously eyed the normally energetic teen, waiting for whatever it was she had to say.
“Who exactly is our enemy?”
Tomoe inwardly winced and exhaled softly. This had been the one question she’d been expecting… but dreaded most, especially where her youngest mage was concerned. Misao wasn‘t going to take this news well. However it would be careless to not forewarn them should he manage another attack on the two remaining members of the Takeshi family.
Steeling herself for the reaction she knew would come, Tomoe looked Misao straight in the eye and said, “Takeda Kanryuu.”
Misao recoiled from the name as if she’d been physically struck; the look of utter fear and hate twisting her young face hit Tomoe like a fist. Misao had lost her entire family to him already and it grieved her to have to pit the young mage against him. But there was nothing she could do otherwise.
“You cannot let the past color what you have to do now.” She admonished sternly, before Misao could recover, retaining the somber façade over her own jumbled emotions. “Your sole duty is to make sure those two girls are kept safe and away from him. If he gets his hands on them he will-”
Tomoe caught herself and stopped before she could frighten the girls anymore than they already were. That was a piece of information they didn’t need to know.
“He will what?” Kaoru pressed, the steel in her eyes demanding an answer. Eyes that had been bespelled to appear green now appeared dark with resolve in the silvery moonlight.
Immune to the glare, Tomoe simply shook her head. “It doesn’t matter. What does is the fact that if he comes to the keep you two have to keep those girls safe at all costs. Focus on that alone” And before either of them could reply again she said, “It is time for you to go. If we delay much longer you won’t be able to make the keep in good time“
Kaoru scowled deeply at the dismissal, but thankfully didn’t continue to press the issue. With a relieved smile, Tomoe stepped closer to them and lifted Kaoru’s hand to press a small, silver wing-shaped pendant into her young apprentice’s palm; the slim silver chain threaded through it glittering in the pale moonlight.
“This is the last gift I can give you.” She murmured as she released Kaoru’s hand and did the same with Misao. “Should you two get separated for any reason, this amulet will help you find each other. But please, do not let anyone see this as it will directly link you two to me. “
“Tomoe-sama - “
The older woman shook her head to silence Kaoru. “There is nothing more to say.”
Then she leaned forward and wrapped Kaoru in hug that she hoped conveyed just how much she truly loved the young mage. “Remember, don’t let anyone see your blue eyes.” She whispered softly into Kaoru’s ear as she strengthened the charm that kept her vivid eyes hidden behind the same bright green as Misao‘s. “They are our secret alone.”
A miniscule nod was her only answer and Tomoe focused on making the illusion as strong as she could. Once she was satisfied that the spell would hold under all but a direct assault, she released Kaoru and stepped back with a smile. A sharp pain pierced her chest at the slight shimmering in Kaoru’s eyes but she ignored it and turned to Misao, giving her second favorite student a parting hug before she stepped back to give them more room. “Remember, should anything happen bring the girls here.”
Neither Kaoru, nor Misao looked willing to give up the questioning and she watched in silence as they internally battled the need to voice that curiosity. A grateful sigh nearly passed her lips when, instead of trying to wheedle anything more out of her, they gave in and simply donned the necklaces and mounted their horses.
“We promise to do our best to keep Ayame and Suzume safe.” Kaoru murmured hollowly, as she settled herself in the saddle and dipped her head in a show respect. “It’s the least we can do for their parents.” And then, before Tomoe could say anything more, Kaoru tugged the reins and wheeled her horse around to head for the gate. But not before Tomoe saw the one lone tear slip silently down her young ward’s cheek.
Fending off her own tears, she simply watched as the child she’d helped raise quickly made her way across the courtyard and disappeared into the moonlit night beyond.
“We’ll be okay, Tomoe-sama. I promise“ Misao said from her own mount, before she too headed for the gate. With one final wave over her shoulder, she called, “I‘ll send a bird as soon as we reach Kiyosu.” And then she vanished out of sight, following Kaoru out into the silent night.
Tomoe dropped her eyes closed as they disappeared and prayed to whichever deity was listening to keep them safe through all of this. At least, they wouldn’t be completely alone. The bird she had sent earlier this morning would hopefully find the one it sought and, if the god’s be willing, the girls would have a guardian of their own. Though not mage born that particular person was still a force to be reckoned with. If all went as she hoped her girls would be safe too.
With a slight smile, she waved a hand to close the gate and headed back into the manor. For good or ill it was done. Now all she could do was pray that the strike she and the few remaining mages had planned for three days hence would succeed.
Kaoru tried not to flinch as the heavy thud of the gate closing came from behind her. Instead she continued to silently but steadily guide her horse down the tree-lined lane away from the manor that had been her home for the last fifteen years.
A heaviness unlike anything she had ever felt before settled in the vicinity of her heart and she sighed softly as she reached up to swipe away the thin trail of wetness from her cheek. She knew leaving would be hard but she’d never expected it to be quite this difficult. Snorting at herself, she shook her head. How pathetic for a newly appointed apprentice mage. Tomoe would probably have her mucking out the stables for the next six months if she ever found out just how much Kaoru wanted to turn around and go back.
A soft chuckle escaped against her will at the thought, but her humor quickly faded beneath the weight of the truth and her smile fell away. Even if she was given the chance to turn around she wouldn’t. Not now. Ayame and Suzume needed her far more now than Tomoe ever would, thanks to Kanryuu. Because in one single, brutal strike the former black mage had done the one thing Kaoru found absolutely unforgivable. He had in that one instant, made those two little girls into orphans… just like her. That was a fate no one should have to endure. She would die before she’d let him get his hands on them after what he’d already done.
A faint shimmering in the middle of the lane caught Kaoru’s attention and she sighed as she shoved the thoughts to the back of her mind and unconsciously slowed at the sight. Here was the last obstacle she had to overcome. And the hardest as far as she was concerned.
Her grip on the reins tightened as she eyed the shifting colors of the magical barrier protecting the Yukishiro manor in the nearly full moonlight. She winced as the ache in her chest tightened with trepidation. Was she really ready for this?
She tried to ignore the anxiety battering at her and absently twisted the reins in her hand. Ready or not she had to do this. Ayame and Suzume needed her and the only way she was going to get to them was by leaving.
With a deep breath, she closed her eyes and slowly exhaled, willing her nerves to calm. It wasn’t that she was scared of the world beyond… well… not completely. Granted it didn’t help that she had only ever crossed this barrier twice in the last fifteen years. Nor the fact that the last time had been five long years ago, when Ayame had been born, and then for only three days. The truth was the only reason she knew the Takeshi family as well as she did was because they had often taken the time to visit Tomoe and the others here at the manor.
All her life she had been forbidden to cross this barrier without Tomoe and now her teacher expected her to do just that. A tiny smirk whispered across her lips as she opened her eyes to watch the rippling colors weaving in and out of each other. That wasn’t to say she hadn’t tried to get through when she was younger but she‘d never succeeded. Tomoe had always managed to catch her before she got within ten feet of the magical wall.
To be honest she still had no idea why she’d been banned from the world beyond, but now it seemed that banishment had been lifted whether she was ready or not. Now all she could hope was that she could live up to her mentor’s expectations and not bring shame to the only person she’d ever called family.
The soft clattering of hooves against packed dirt roused her from her thoughts and she glanced to her companion and best friend as she came up beside her. “What took you so long?“
Misao rolled her eyes and smirked. “Didn’t realize you were in such a hurry. Who would have thought you’d be raring to go after your insomnia last night and pacing all day long today.”
Kaoru felt her face flush a deep red. Had she really been that obvious?
“Funny, I thought I‘d have to drag you through the barrier kicking and screaming.“ Misao teased, clearly enjoying her discomfort.
Kaoru scowled at the jab but instead of rising to the bait, she let the scowl morph into an evil grin and she leaned towards her green-eyed friend. “That’s what you get for thinking…”
And without so much as another breath, Kaoru put heels to her horses flanks and they shot forward, heading for the barrier at a dead run. A rush of exhilaration swept through her veins and she laughed as she heard Misao curse colorfully behind her then take off after her. Less than a heartbeat later she saw Misao come up beside her and then, with a wicked grin thrown her way Misao shot past her. A split second later, the dark-haired teen vanished into the swirling colors, leaving Kaoru and the barrier behind.
Resisting the nearly overwhelming urge to haul her horse to a stop, Kaoru clenched the reins tightly in white knuckled fists and closed her eyes as her horse plunged into the barrier. She gasped as the magic of the barrier enveloped her, making the hair on the back of her neck stand on end and her skin tingle as if a thousand little hands were her caressing her.
And then almost as soon as it had come the sensation was gone and Kaoru felt the cool night breeze brush against her face and she opened her eyes. She’d done it! She was through! A keen excitement filled her, as if all her worries and apprehensions had been remained on the other side of the barrier.
With a huge grin she glanced to Misao who smiled proudly at her and asked, “You ready?”
Kaoru nodded eagerly, “More than ready.”
With one last glance over her shoulder at the imposing mountain face the shield projected on the outside, she nudged her horse into a smooth canter. It was with lighter hearts the two young women started up the road that would eventually lead them to Kiyosu and the two little girls awaiting their arrival. Both of them completely oblivious to the tiny ripple Kaoru’s entrance into the world had caused.
A ripple that would be felt moments later by a wandering swordsman one hundred and fifty miles away.
Himura Kenshin sighed in exhaustion as he warily eyed the moonlit forest. His eyes searching the eaves of the shadowed depths along the deserted road he and his companion, Shinomori Aoshi, were traveling for a place to rest for the night. It was getting extremely late and neither he nor the icy-eyed man beside him had slept in the last twenty four hours due to the mission they had just completed. To be honest he was surprised they were both still on their feet.
With a tired smile, Kenshin continued on in hopes that either the forest would thin or they’d find a clearing somewhere beneath the trees to rest. The thick tangle of underbrush proved persistent however, promising nothing but thorns and branches.
Grimacing against the thought of having to bed down on the edge of the old dirt road he turned to his companion beside him to voice his thoughts. He’d only managed to open his mouth however when the left side of his face suddenly exploded with white hot fire, the unexpected agony nearly sending him to his knees.
Stunned, Kenshin instinctively slapped a hand to his left cheek as wave after wave of blinding pain radiated out from the lengthwise scar that marred his features. Doing his best to remain standing, he clenched his teeth and swallowed back the bile rising in his throat as he waited for what felt like an eternity for the attack to subside.
Finally the pain began to recede and he sagged into himself completely worn out from the assault. Sweat dotted his brow as he swallowed harshly. That had to have been the worst one yet. Inhaling deeply, Kenshin let the breath out slowly and righted himself as the pain continued to fade, soon to become nothing more than a memory. How many times had that happened so far?… Three?… Four? To be honest he couldn’t remember, but one thing he did know was that this time it had been far more brutal.
With a sigh, he dropped his hand from his abused cheek. Never had the pain been quite that bad.
Kenshin jumped at the soft statement and glanced to Aoshi with a confused look. “What - “
But before he could finish the question, Aoshi pointed to his cheek. “Your scar is bleeding.”
Startled, Kenshin lifted his left hand to feel what Aoshi was talking about but stopped when he caught sight of the black stain on his palm and fingers. The blood dark in the pale moonlight. Aoshi was right, he was bleeding. But… why?
Unfortunately he didn’t get a chance to think much more as a moment later a mournful cry he knew well split the quiet night. Glancing to the side of the road his eyes quickly scanned the treeline to find source of the call.
He smiled faintly when he spotted Besshi, the Yukishiro family’s private messenger bird, perched on a low branch just at the edge of the thick canopy of leaves. Wiping the blood from his hand and cheek with the cloth Aoshi offered him, he held out his arm in invitation and smiled in earnest as the white-faced, black-winged hawk took flight to land on his makeshift perch.
“I see you have something for me, Besshi.“ Kenshin noted as he eyed the tiny silver canister attached to the bird’s leg. Another cry came in answer and Kenshin gently rubbed his head feathers to settle him down again. He’d been expecting it actually, ever since he’d heard about the deaths in Kiyosu.
Once satisfied that the unique bird would hold still, Kenshin gently thumbed the lid open and withdrew the small rolled piece of parchment tucked inside. Recapping the tiny cylinder, he gave the bird a final rub in thanks then launched him up into the air. With one last cry, the bird took wing and headed south towards home.
A soft scraping came from beside him and then the moonlit darkness was chased away by the small flickering torch Aoshi now held to illuminate the message. Slowly unrolling the parchment, Kenshin quickly read the neatly flowing script. He smiled wryly as he reached the end of the message, the weariness he’d felt before coming back tenfold.
“It seems Tomoe-dono needs me in Kiyosu as soon as possible,” He remarked softly, as he rolled the message again and tucked it into a pocket.
“Why? More trouble?” Aoshi asked as he opened his water skin and poured out a small portion to douse the brand.
Kenshin shook his head. “No. She sent two of her apprentice mages to be the young Takeshi’s guardians and she wants to make sure they are kept safe too.”
Aoshi’s lips twitched in his estimation of a smile and he set about packing away the cooled brand and bloody cloth. “Do you plan to travel through the night then?”
Kenshin sighed wearily as he shook his head again and started down the road, again looking for a place to make camp. “Best to rest here for the remainder of the night and head out at first light. Neither of us has had much sleep lately and it’ll take me at least four to five days to travel the ninety miles to the keep.”
“It will take us four or five days...“ Aoshi corrected as he fell in to step beside him.
Kenshin smiled as he dipped his head in understanding. He’d expected that. Ever since they had crossed paths three months ago in a small town several miles north of here they’d been working together. Going from town to town, doing odd jobs to fill their stomachs and pockets. But one thing he’d noticed recently was the direction they always seemed to be heading. For some reason the icy-eyed man was heading south, questioning townsfolk as they passed through villages and towns along the way, as if the double kodachi wielding swordsman was searching for something and had yet to find it.
With a soft sigh, Kenshin continued searching the moonlit forest. Tomoe expected and trusted only him, but he wasn’t about to tell his companion to remain behind. Maybe Aoshi would find who or what he was looking for on their trek south to Kiyosu.
And if not, they would continue further south once this job was complete. But first they needed to reach Kiyosu. And quickly if the urgency he’d sensed in Tomoe’s neat handwriting said anything about just what kind of danger the two girls were in.
Because something had begun to move tonight. What it was Kenshin couldn’t say, but he could feel it deep down in his bones.
And he had a feeling that, whatever it was, would change the world as he knew it forever.