chapter 1

Strangers in the Dark

Tales of Ronin  

The distant howl of a wolf pulled Ronin from his dream. He turned around on his back, wrapping the silk blanket tightly around himself, and put his pillow over his head to attempt to block out the sounds of the night. He closed his eyes and slowly drifted off again, hoping to return to the last moment of his dream, before he had woken up. His memory of what had happened within it had become fuzzy. Vague. But he felt like he had woken up at the wrong time, as if something important were about to take place. The only things he remembered were the dark trees, the bright green light above, and the river flowing underneath him. The more he thought about it, the more it came back to him. 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. Ronin’s eyes snapped open. Whose voice was that? His furry red panda ears pricked up as he focused on listening. It had come from afar, about a half a mile away, or so it seemed. The scream sounded as if it might have been female, brighter and higher-pitched than anything he was accustomed to, as it had been a few years since he had heard a female speak. “Please don’t,” pleaded the voice in the distance. He was certain it was a female’s voice now. He threw the pillow from his head and unwrapped himself from his warm cocoon, quickly getting onto his feet. On the wall hung his sword, a katana.

Long and exquisitely sharp, tucked away in its saya. His simple, squared room was pitch-black. Fortunately, Ronin was used to the dark. In the Umbral Belt, the name of his homeland, they hardly ever had daylight. There was a constant, dense cloud that covered the whole of the land in a twilight - night - twilight cycle, preventing the sun from shining through. As Ronin got up on his feet, put on his kimono, grabbed his katana from the wall and then sneaked out of his room into the long, narrow corridor of his house. He knew he was forbidden to leave at night, but this was an exceptional case. His ears told him something was wrong, and he trusted his ears. Leaving his house was something he had become 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 he had learned exactly how to unlock it without making a single sound. He left the house often at night, as it was the time he felt most restless. While the others in Notan slept under the moonrise, Ronin felt that he was at his best. That he was truly alive. Closing the door behind him, he turned around and jumped down from the front porch to the road. All houses in his village, Notan, 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 stone road was narrow and went straight through the village, leading up to the watchtower on one side, and to the harbour on the other. Only 30 warriors lived in the remote village of Notan, yet it was an important place in the Umbral Belt.

It was here where their ruler lived and where the most renowned warriors were trained. Strangers were not often welcome, which was all the more reason for Ronin to be worried about the scream he had heard. He heard another echo of the voice coming from the area around the watchtower. This was odd to him, as the only way to the watchtower was through the village. That meant the female would’ve needed to have passed by all the warrior housing after curfew. Ronin could feel the concern in him growing. Something was wrong. He tied his katana to his belt so he could run unhindered, and made his way up the stony path. Houses lined down the stone path. The first house he passed was the one where his master, Yami, resided, and the next housed his fellow warriors and friends Minoru and Kenji.

Ronin stepped up to the front door of Minoru’s and Kenji’s house, but just before opening it, he heard the voice in the distance pleading once again with desperation, “Please Yami, consider...let me...Damashi.” Yami? Damashi? he thought. Why was she talking to his master? Was Yami with them too? It was odd that any of them would be out after curfew. Ronin turned around, sneaking 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, and felt the urge to move closer to eavesdrop. However, the risk of Yami discovering him was too great. 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 his master was not safe?

What if he was in danger? After a moment of careful consideration, Ronin decided to investigate. Yami couldn’t possibly argue with him about this. His reasoning was justified. He put his paws down and sprinted up the steps as fast and soundlessly as he could. The watchtower was actually quite far from the centre of Notan, as it was built on top of a pronounced promontory. There were several looming black rocks that surrounded the watchtower, so he would hide behind one of those. The steep steps to the watchtower 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’s original thought was keeping a safe distance around the outer ring to listen in on the conversation. However, he didn’t want to miss out on any important bits of conversation, so he decided to get as close as he could to the inner ring.  There was only one problem with that decision - 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. Additionally, he had to make sure to stay out of any potential downdraft of wind, lest Yami 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 but not

seeing the female at all, as she was just behind one of the other rocks. He stopped himself in his tracks for a few breaths as the clouds parted and a ray of moonlight shone on them. He felt like his heart stopped beating for a moment. Despite justifying his motives to investigate, he didn’t want Yami to spot him through the corner of his eye. As the moon hid itself once more, Ronin took a deep, slow breath, just before crawling to the top of the stairs. Once he arrived at the top, he rolled over sideways, quickly becoming invisible behind one of the rocks. Perfect. He was in position to get a little bit closer. However, he had been so focused on his encroachment mission that he hadn’t really picked up on any of the rest of the conversation. He hoped he hadn’t missed out on anything important. His hearing skills were exceptional, but he did have to focus for them to do their

magic. He moved on his belly to reduce the chances of Yami picking up his scent, and stopped at a rock that was nearer to the tower. From this vantage point, 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, causing Yami to glower at her. 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, and the tribes are no longer

communicating. Everyone is in fear. I understand the risks you’re talking, 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,” she replied, anger riding in her voice, “Don’t you think we’ve tried? Our folk won’t listen to the council anymore. 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,” Narumi said. Silence. Ronin waited patiently, but Yami didn’t answer. He could barely hear his master breathe. Narumi’s breathing, however, was easy to

distinguish. It sounded labored, likely from agitation. Ronin couldn’t quite identify what she was. She didn’t sound like a wolf, nor like any of the other creatures he was familiar with. Finally breaking the silence, Yami responded, “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 retorted, defiance in her face. “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,” Narumi said, voice straining. “I repeat, I’m not going back without him.”

Then, suddenly, Ronin could hear them move. He swiftly turned around to peek at the Watchtower, getting a short, but shocking glance of who Yami had been talking to. His body froze and his breathing stopped for a split second. Narumi indeed didn’t look like anyone he had ever met, but… she did look exactly like him.