chapter 3

Hush-hush

Tales of Ronin  

It felt like a lifetime had passed before Yami broke the silence. “And now, back to your training. Good luck.” One by one, the fighters got up, straightened their kimonos, and walked out. They did not hurry or speak to one another. Everything in the Umbral Belt revolved around maintaining inner peace. Rushing was forbidden for warriors.  Minoru and Kenji got into the line to exit the room while discreetly eyeing Ronin, their concern obvious, but before the young red panda could join them, he felt Yami's strong grip settle on his shoulder. He froze. “Ronin, we need to talk,” said Yami. He felt stupid for thinking he had gotten away with last night without anyone knowing. Of course, Yami must have heard, seen or smelled him despi-

te the cover of night. The wolf seemed to know everything that happened in Notan. He probably even knew the number of stones on the village’s main path. No one escaped from Yami’s constant vigilance. “Yes, of course Sensei,” replied Ronin. His voice shook a little bit, a fact he hoped his master wouldn’t notice. Unlikely. If Yami asked about his presence near the watchtower during the night, he had a rehearsed answer ready. He had heard an unusual voice in the night and was simply concerned for his master and friends. He knew he had broken the curfew, yet he had measured his options and decided that going out was the best course of action. Yes, Ronin had his excuse ready to be drawn out, much like when he would unsheathe his katana. The trick, however, was the articulation. It was hard to lie to Yami when looking into

his penetrating eyes. No matter how sincere or virtuous Ronin's reasons were, he was aware that he had violated the rules. Yami gave Ronin’s shoulder a gentle tug to signal him to face him, something the young Shadewalker didn’t want to do; he felt exposed. Yet he turned obediently, looked up at the wolf, and prepared for what would come. “I have something to tell you, Ronin. It's a long story and I'm not sure where to start,” he started, taking a few steps back toward the center of the room, his tail drooping down. He took a deep breath, only to let it escape again a few seconds later. Ronin tilted his head and looked at Yami, puzzled. Was this not about last night?

His master knelt onto the light wooden floor, his white-blue kimono falling over his knees, and signaled Ronin to do the same. Outside, they heard the rest of the fighters leave for their training. Their footsteps and whispers disappearing into the distance. All that remained was the soft murmur of the boiling lava torrents that flowed around Notan. Normally, Ronin found these sounds soothing, but at this moment, they made him restless. “Listen, Ronin. As you well know, all our warriors must undergo a test when their training comes to an end here, so that they might measure their skills against the challenges they will face in the world out there.” His tone was serious, measured. “The details of one’s quest depends on the needs of the Umbral Belt, and it usually takes a significant length of time before a warrior is considered ready to set out to prove themselves.”

Ronin nodded his head. He already knew these things. “For you, however, the final test may start as early as this week.” Yami clasped his paws together and cleared his throat. “That's what I was talking about earlier. It’s up to Kurai Damashi to determine whether  you are ready for this.” He raised his head and glanced at Ronin, the gleam in his eyes difficult to decrypt. Ronin grinned, feeling a flutter of excitement rise in his stomach. He looked back at Yami and with renewed confidence. “I’m ready,” he said. Yami gave him a forced, sympathetic smile, but a frown quickly replaced it. “I’m not sure you are.” “Why not?” sputtered Ronin.

Yami straightened his back. “I understand you feel like you’re ready, Ronin. If this quest were set in the Umbral Belt, then I would have little reservation. You are a talented warrior. You are agile, strong, and determined, but…” He hesitated. “This quest is going to take you outside of our land, into the tumultuous Wild Growths of Elatora.” The young warrior’s eyes widened as realization set in. The Wild Growths? That was the place he had dreamt of visiting! Yami had once told him that this was where Ronin originally came from — or well, his family did. His parents, or maybe grandparents, had moved to the Umbral Belt at some point in time and lived at the far edge of the land, miles away from their homeland. Yami noticed the red panda’s excitement. “Stop. Don’t get ahead of things. Like I

said earlier, the choice is up to Kurai Damashi,” emphasized the wolf in a stern voice. “And if he were to ask me, I’d tell him ‘no’.” “But why?” protested Ronin, which earned him a sigh from Yami. “There are other warriors here who are more equipped than you. They have had more training and gone through many trials. The expedition will be exhausting and arduous, not befitting for a blooming warrior,” explained Yami.  “If you feel hesitant about me going, and if there are others more experienced, then why are you telling me, master?” asked Ronin, squinting in confusion. “Because this quest requires someone who...” Yami paused. His eyes narrowed

and he rubbed his brows as if to ward off a headache. “Someone who fits right in.” Someone who fits right in. Ronin didn’t understand his master’s words but could feel the flutter rising in his stomach. He had witnessed Narumi, so he had an inkling of what Yami was talking about, but he didn't plan on revealing this to the wolf. It would be better if his master told him himself. Ronin shook his head and said, "I'm not sure I understand. “As I said, Ronin, this quest would take you to the Wild Growths, where your origins lie,” replied Yami. “My friend Narumi, whom I have known for many years, has come here requesting us to send one of our warriors. She mentioned it'd be best to send someone who blends in. Which would be you. The rest of our kin would quickly attract attention wandering around.”

“But why's that so important? If they need help urgently? What's the quest even about?” “They need someone who can go undercover, Ronin. You'll find out what all this is about soon enough if Kurai Damashi decides you're ready for it. For now, I ask you to have patience and focus on improving your skills,” Yami said while effortlessly getting back up on his feet. He gestured for Ronin to do the same. “Now, please head back outside and continue with your training,” requested the wolf, straightening his kimono. Ronin nodded, paid his respects to his master, and made his way towards the main entrance. With every step he took, he felt the urge to start running. He couldn't wait to find his friends and tell them about what happened, as he was certain they'd be equally excited.

“Oh, Ronin,” Yami called out from behind him. “Don't tell anybody about this. We need to keep this undisclosed.” His master’s voice was stern, dulling his excitement. The red panda could feel the gravity of Yami's words. He felt like his excitement had been doused with a bucket of water. Though deep down he understood the essence of Yami's words, he also noticed how, in his mind, he was already searching for the boundaries along which he could play. There had to be a way to inform his friends about what had just happened without literally telling them, right? His train of thoughts was interrupted by Yami clearing his throat, who was impatiently awaiting a reply, a confirmation if you will. Ronin hesitated for a second, but then turned around and glanced back at the wolf, 

who still stood in the middle of the room. “Not even my friends?” Ronin tried.  “No, nobody. I demand that you keep this a secret. If you don't, it won't be without consequences. I’m serious,” Yami said, firm and unbending. He laid his left paw on the coal-black handle of his katana and then repeated: “Nobody.”