chapter 2


Tales of Ronin  

The next morning, the inhabitants of Notan were woken up by the solemn, rhythmic tolling of the clocktower bells. A small, but significant structure, strategically placed in the middle of the town for all to hear. It was seven o’clock, and the moon was long gone. The sun, however, was nowhere to be seen. The cloud cover in the Umbral Belt was eminently thick, created by the purplish lava gushing through the whole land and blocking out any sunlight from breaking through. Yet, this felt like ‘morning’ to the Shadewalkers. They were used to it. The night before had been unsettling. After Yami and Narumi had gone into the watchtower, Ronin waited for two hours, until his muscles strained from holding the same position. When he realized they would not come back out any time soon, he relaxed from his position.

They must’ve gone to talk with Kurai Damashi, and that could last throughout the midnight hours. After arriving back at his house, his restless mind kept him awake. He could not stop thinking about what he had heard and seen. The bells repeated their song a second time. It was time to prepare for the sunless day. Ronin rolled over, got out of his bed and looked around his room. His meditation mat lay in the same position on the floor, his katana was still on the wall, and his kimono was laid out next to the bed, just like any other day. His room didn’t show any trace of change, yet he felt that something was different. Each morning, after the bells would end, the inhabitants of Notan would get up, and take a moment for meditation. This was their way to prepare for the day ahead.

Then, the warriors and their masters would meet outside and make their way together to the central house, where the latest news would be shared and the schedule of the day explained. Seldom would there be any significant change to their routine, but this gathering was an inclusive and courteous time that helped maintain their bonds as warriors. However, today Ronin sensed that things could be different. He knelt onto his soft, rectangular tatami mat. Over the years, Yami had taught him how to meditate the proper way. How to find inner peace. How to find the flow. How to calm his busy thoughts. Normally, he would be able to enter meditation instantly, but he had trouble focusing today. The road to his meditative state had become a foggy maze, one Ronin was unable to navigate. He was too entertained with the prospect of breaking out of the monotony of his schedule.

To learn the mystery of what had happened the night before. Time passed slowly. The usual fifteen minutes of meditation felt like agony. And unfruitful. As soon as he was finished, he sprung to his feet, grabbed his katana from the wall, and left his room. He lived in the house with two older warriors and staff. The ornate sliding doors that separated their rooms from the corridor were still shut and the red panda could hear them scurrying around behind the paper-thin walls. But he wasn’t going to wait for them, as the front door was already unlocked by the housemaster. Ronin opened the solid wood door, its iron hinges squeakless from being oiled recently, and stepped onto the wrap-around porch into the brisk morning air. An ominous breeze danced over his

red fur, making his hair stand on end. His fatigue began to disappear as he took a deep breath and stretched his arms out with a finishing yawn. His eyes looked out into the velvet dawn that covered Notan. He hopped down the scarlet red steps in front of the house to the main road. He heard others leave their homes just behind him. This didn’t come as a surprise to Ronin, because if there were one thing that Notan was strict about, it was timeliness. He saw his friends Minoru and Kenji up ahead. They lived a little closer to the central house, which was the most important building in their town. It had a beautiful, gently curved roof, whose slightly arched eaves extended far beyond the walls. All three floors had a veranda that ran along each side of the building. Normally Ronin didn’t feel any urge to arrive early to their gathering place, but today he almost

ran the way over there, hoping to talk with his friends before Yami would appear. The second Ronin walked up the veranda, he felt great suspense in the air. Many of his peers were huddled together in pairs or small groups, on and around the entrance to the house, their soft whispers difficult to decipher but their voices clearly distressed. Did that mean others had also heard or seen Narumi last night? He hurried to find his friends inside the spacious centre room, which was located directly behind the main entrance. Minoru and Kenji stood in a corner, their tinted kimonos still crumpled from the intense training the day before. They were whispering to one another, just like the other warriors in training had been, and they were completely unaware of Ronin approaching them.

“Hey,” said Ronin, his voice hushed. Kenji, a meagre badger with soft black and white hair, turned around, looking up to Ronin as he stepped into their small circle. His thoughtful dark brown eyes glowed with excitement. “Ronin! We were waiting for you,” he squeaked. “Did you hear what happened last night?” Ronin nodded slightly. “I think so, but tell me. What do you guys know?” “Not much, really,” answered Minoru, before Kenji could. The inky black panther shrugged his slender shoulders. “We’ve just heard the rumours. I completely slept through all of this, didn’t hear a thing. Did you?” Ronin looked around, making sure nobody was eavesdropping on their conversation. All the young warriors had now come inside but they seemed completely preoccupied with their own gossip.

After a moment of hesitation, Ronin leaned in and whispered, “I heard and saw everything.” “Wait, what?” replied Minoru, giving Ronin a sharp glance, his brows furrowed. His menacing yellow eyes reflected what little light there was in the room. “What did you say?” “Did you hear about the female?” Ronin asked. His friends nodded. “Okay, you’re never going to believe this, but -” Ronin stopped mid-sentence. The steady murmur of whispered conversations turned into a deafening silence as Yami strode into the room. Everyone dropped to the ground, kneeling for the elegant wolf, who, within seconds, had reached the centre of the room, marked by a red circle on the ground. This was the speaker’s position, where a composed Yami knelt down every morning with his students.

This morning felt different. Normally, Yami’s face wore serenity like a garment. Not today. The wolf looked weary with tired eyes and drooping shoulders. He crossed his brawny arms in front of his chest, and with his jaw clenched, scanned the room of attendees with his piercing blue eyes. His gaze fell on Ronin. Ronin felt his heart sink. Nothing consequential had happened, but he felt like he had just been struck by an invisible force. His breath came out in hard gasps, and his palms started to get clammy. It was as if Yami were staring straight into his soul, into his mind, into his memories. As if he, at once, knew that Ronin had been there last night. He could feel a shiver run up his spine, the hair on his back and tail bristling up. What now? What was he supposed to do? The longer Yami stared at him, the dryer his throat felt.

He could feel the eyes of others in the room also narrow in on him, curious as to why Yami was giving him undivided attention. Perhaps even envious of it. Thankfully, Yami broke off his stare, and the wolf turned his back to him. Ronin breathed a sigh of relief. “Good morning, fellows. Thank you for being here on time,” Yami said, his calm voice breaking the silence. “I hope you are all feeling rested and ready for another day of training. However, before we start today, I need to share some important news with you all.” Everyone stared at Yami, giving him their full attention while he paused to collect his thoughts. Many unconsciously held their breath. “Last night, we welcomed a visitor to Notan. Her name is Narumi and she comes from far away. As you all know, Notan is closed off to strangers, and

hence I assume everybody in this room understands that she must be here for a very good reason. She has come with a request, one that Kurai Damashi is yet to make a decision on,” Yami explained, his tone turning a little colder and quieter. “Until then, she will be making her stay at the watchtower, and will not be allowed any visitors. Therefore, I hereby request you all to keep your eyes where they belong. I know the presence of a female is something many of you are not used to, but I don’t expect anyone to fall out of line. In other words, adhere to the rules.” He took another breath, to let the words sink in. He continued, his tone unchanging. Silence crept into the room. Yami's words whizzed around in the air, raising more questions than they answered. Ronin felt guilty; it was clear that Yami knew he had broken the

rules. That he, again, had not been obedient. The disappointment he sensed from his master should be reason enough for Ronin to never ignore the rules again. This wasn't the first time the young warrior had flouted the rules, nor was it the first time Yami had been disappointed in Ronin's actions. However, what concerned him more were his master’s eyes. It was something he hadn’t seen before in Yami. Hard as Yami may have been trying to hide his emotions, for the first time, Ronin saw fear in his master’s eyes.