Illustrations by MJ Fetesio, colour by Sindy Wo, story by Nicola Price.
Amongst the isolated, peaceful quiet of the mountain ranges, long-forgotten clans hide themselves beneath a blanket of mist. They remain a secret to the other villages of Misteria, their names struck from every record, their continued existence a testament to the determination of their ancestors. Yet some of these clans would emerge once more, and reveal the secrets of Misteria’s history.
The Mugenshi clan, having secluded themselves long ago, remain afflicted by an ancient curse that continues to take lives long after their self-imposed isolation. Each year, a number of their clan waste away, their physical and mental wellbeing deteriorating as they descend into despair. While many believe that a cure is all but impossible, some wonder whether the possibility of a cure is worth risking the mountains beyond their ancestral home.
Silence. The last of Katsu’s words echoed through the room as he watched the grandmasters turn their faces toward him, expressions cool and unaffected, as still as a lake in the midst of winter.
“It is not yet time.” Master Takumi spoke, his voice a counterpoint to the stillness of the room. “There are things that have to be taken into consideration. Autumn is already upon us, and you know well that the winds are more active at this time of year. That aside, the clan is not prepared for such a journey.”
“I am not asking for the entire clan to leave. Let me take just a few clan members with me, and we can begin the search.” Katsu gestured to the doorway, to the distant sounds of people sparring outside. “There are others who would be willing to join me. If it meant possibly finding a cure-”
Another grandmaster raised his hand, waiting for silence before clearing his throat.
“The clan has been dealing with the Seikan for generations. If there was a cure to be found, it would have been discovered years ago. As head of the clan, you have duties here that you must attend to. You have a responsibility to your people.”
“How can I be responsible for my people when they continue to wither and die from an illness that we do not understand? During my Jokyoku, I spent years travelling across Misteria and never once saw its like. Perhaps the way to a cure lies beyond these mountains…”
“Absolutely not,” Master Saori interjected, shaking her head. “We cannot risk revealing ourselves to the rest of Misteria, least of all to the Great Households. It is not yet time, Katsu.”
“When will that be? We lose members of the clan to the Seikan every year, as we have for centuries. When will it be the right time to finally begin searching for a cure, and find a way to save our people from this fate?”
The room fell to silence once more, every gaze fixed firmly on Katsu.
“We will know.” Takumi’s voice broke through the quiet, as usual, his tone level and calm. “When the time comes, you will be the first to know, Katsu.”
The village was tranquil in the early evening, as the clan had their evening meal and prepared for sleep. Only a handful of senshi were wandering between the buildings, some returning late from their training, others keeping a watchful eye over the Mugenshi Gorge. Each of them bowed to Katsu as he passed, pausing to bow back before continuing on his path.
As leader of the clan, no one questioned Katsu’s presence at this late hour. The very air around him was still as he made his way to the ancestral shrine, kodachi sheathed at his side. A faint breeze stirred as he passed into the shrine proper, slowly lowering himself to kneel upon the cool stone.
It’s been almost two years, and I am still no closer to convincing them. Katsu looked up to gaze at the sliver of night sky visible at the edge of the shrine, faint stars dotted against a sea of inky blue. They never have a reason, only excuses. They are afraid of leaving the gorge, afraid of change - they may never agree to my idea, or to look into a cure at all. Not when the information lies beyond the clan grounds.
Slowly, he pulled a long bundle from behind one of the statues, peeling open the layers of fabric to reveal his supplies. For several weeks, he had been slowly gathering supplies to bring to the ancestral shrine, preparing for this exact moment. Despite their age and detached composure, the grandmasters were sharp as a tack. If any of them caught wind of Katsu’s movements, they likely would have found a way to bring his plans to a halt.
Quietly muttering an apology, he rewrapped the bundle and slung it over one shoulder, darting atop the shrine to balance on the edge of the rockface above. In a fluid motion, he pulled himself through the gap and out into the fresh air above, climbing onto the edge of the cliff.
The crescent moon was a thin sliver of silver in the night sky, its soft light muted by the dense storm clouds lurking on the horizon. In the cool night air, a figure slowly emerged from the mists, a straw hat casting his face into shadow. Howling winds coursed through the gorge behind him, echoing deep into the mountains and disturbing the peaceful quiet of the evening air.
He turned to survey his surroundings, gaze sweeping over the landscape before him. Yet nothing else stirred, and he remained alone amidst the trees, a single figure cast in dark grey. His muffled footsteps carried him forward, darting along one of the ropes swaying between the cliffs.
A well-worn map lay tucked into his shirt, marking the paths from village to village. Over his years of wandering, he had long since found the trails leading to Mistcloak Gully, marked only by the passage of travellers such as himself. While several years had passed since his last journey to the town, the path remained unchanged, cloaked by a thick blanket of mist.
Two nights and two days passed in quick succession, sleeping in the warm sunlight, and travelling by the pale light of the moon. A peaceful silence hovered over the mountain ranges, a layer of mist coating the plants in glistening dew. The calm evening air brought a lightness to Katsu’s chest as he traversed the cliffs, wandering along the faint mountain trails.
It had been many years since his return to the Mugenshi Gorge to take over as the head of the clan, and in the time since, he had almost forgotten how it felt to travel in this way. While a part of him longed for those peaceful days, taking his time as he journeyed from village to village, he remembered his purpose for leaving, and the duty he had to his clan.
Yet on the third night, shortly after rising and continuing his trek, he paused, slowly drawing his kodachi. Eleven figures emerged from the mists, faces obscured by half-masks, eyes flashing in the dark.
“Be on your way,” Katsu warned, voice low and calm. “There is nothing for you here.”
“It has been some time since we met a member of the Mugenshi.” One man stepped forward, hands held palm-up before him, showing that he was unarmed. While his mask remained, obscuring the lower half of his face, a scar rose from beneath the fabric, the mark of a burn marring his skin. “We were simply curious - why would the head of the clan leave the gorge? We were under the impression that you already passed the Jokyoku.”
“Interesting that you should mention the Jokyoku by name, when not one of you belongs to the Mugenshi clan.” A wry laugh met Katsu’s words, muffled by the cloth covering the stranger’s face.
“There is much that we know about your clan. We mean the Mugenshi no harm - you and your people keep to yourselves, and cause no trouble, so we shall not cause any trouble for you. We have not known a single leader to leave Mugenshi Gorge after completing their Jokyoku. If there are storm clouds on the horizon, we would be grateful to know of their presence.”
“These mountains have weathered many storms, should a simple sun shower cause so much concern?”
“Even in the largest pond, a single raindrop causes ripples. We would know that rain is coming, so that we might prepare for any ripples heading our way.”
“There are no ripples to be found, nor any rain.” Katsu shook his head slowly, fingers grasping the hilt of his kodachi.
“I see.” The man’s hand settles onto the hilt of his own blade, eyes narrowing. “It is a simple request; I would not think honesty to be so complicated.”
“If it’s such a simple request, why are you so quick to draw your weapons?” Katsu shook his head. “I have no quarrel with you - I would prefer to continue on my way. There is no need for us to come to blows over this.”
“I’m afraid that isn’t entirely true. If you are so reluctant to share your plans with us, we shall have to convince you otherwise.”
The masked figures moved as one, darting through the shadows to strike at Katsu, their blades a flash of silver in the pale moonlight. Twisting out of the way, he called upon the wind, the air swirling around him as he moved to attack. The wind rushed outward in a torrent, streaming past his foes as he dodged past their blows.
With a quick flick of his wrist, he slashed open one of the figures, turning on his heel to cut down another in the moment before they struck. The wind curling around him helped to deflect some of the assassins, pushing them back several feet, yet others continued to get closer. The flow of battle shifted as Katsu went on the defensive, gathering the wind around him as he began to prepare for another blast.
Out of the corner of his eye, he noted a streak of crimson as more men raced into the clearing. They immediately joined the fight, closing in on his opponents with pinpoint accuracy. As most of his assailants were drawn away to defend themselves, Katsu struck out at the remainder with a blast of wind, sending them tumbling to the earth. His kodachi sung as he struck, quick as lightning, storming through the clearing to descend upon them.
The group quickly banded together, gathering around their leader. He turned to glare at the crimson-clothed ninjas surrounding them, neither of the two sides moving to close the gap.
“You rebels need to learn to stay out of our affairs. You cause far more trouble than you’re worth.” With a quick, sharp whistle, the man motioned for the group to retreat, maintaining eye contact with Katsu all the while. Every member quickly disappeared into the dark night, some of them clutching at their injuries as they darted into the line of trees.
Those who remained in the clearing all turned in unison to look at Katsu, identities obscured by the pale masks covering the top half of their faces. One of the men removed his mask to nod at Katsu, his cheek marred by a small, curling scar. He gestured over his shoulder to where the other men had disappeared, raising an eyebrow.
“Interesting, that the Scales should single you out. It appears we have a common enemy.” The rest of the group slowly gathered just behind their apparent leader; crimson robes draped over their armour.
“What would make you think that I’m their enemy?”
“They don’t stop to talk to just anyone. For them to meet with you personally, you must have done something to catch their eye.”
“Not quite.” Katsu shook his head in response, eyes narrowed. “If they do not often speak to those outside their organisation, I find it curious that you would be so familiar with them.”
“We are a group known as the Crimson Haze. We’ve been at odds with Aui’s Scales for a couple of centuries now. They didn’t exactly take well to our founder’s agenda - and judging by the pendant hanging from around your neck, I’m assuming that they have a problem with your clan, as well.”
“Is a simple jade pendant so rare? I have seen many others on my travels.”
“It is the symbols carved into it that give you away. Usually, only members of the Great Households wear seals such as yours, but the one that you wear is different to any of the other clans. I can only assume that you’re from one of the hidden households.”
“You speak as if you belong to one as well.”
“Its name would mean nothing to you.” The man shook his head. “Your struggle is ours, stranger. You should join us; we may be able to help one another.”
“You have no way of knowing that.” Katsu straightened, slowly sheathing his kodachi, though his hand remained on one handle. “I’m not sure that our agenda is the same.”
“This land no longer knows freedom. Our people are caged birds who have never flown. They do not know to miss it. They are hardly aware that they have wings at all. We would remind them.”
“Not every creature with wings is destined to fly. Would you also see them tumble from their nests like a newborn chick, unable to use their wings to soften their fall?”
“I would give them the freedom to make that choice for themselves. In any case, we may be able to help each other. What is it that you seek, wanderer?”
“What I look for remains a mystery to us both.”
“A burden shared is a burden lightened.”
A pause stretched between them, silence reigning as Katsu sized up the man before him. Despite the mask, he did seem genuine, and sincere about his offer of help. Beside which, if there was any chance that this man might know a possible lead on a cure, it was his duty to ask.
“My clan has suffered from an illness for generations. It is a curse, and we have yet to find its source or why it continues to afflict them. I wish to search for some way to help, perhaps even cure the illness altogether.”
After a long moment, the man nodded, looking thoughtful.
“While we may not have a cure to give you, there might be a way for us to help. Across Misteria, there are several hidden locations built by Aui’s Scales to store and conceal anything that they want hidden from the public. Most hold scrolls, information collected by the Scales over the centuries, but some also hold old artefacts.
The Crimson Haze were planning to send a team to infiltrate one of these strongholds. The particular building that we are targeting also holds several powerful artefacts. There may well be one there with curative properties. If not, you may still have the opportunity to find some information on what might be ailing your clan.”
“You would let a stranger accompany you into the heart of your enemies’ home?”
“We would give a fellow wanderer a chance to free his people from their burden. Our paths are not so dissimilar.”
With no other leads on the disease, and little to lose, Katsu finally nodded in agreement.
“If you are willing to have me accompany you, I would be grateful for the opportunity.”
Through the blanket of mist, the entrance to the building was completely obscured, a hairline fracture in the cliff face. Yet as they drew closer, the fracture slowly opened up to reveal a stairway leading down into the mountain itself. As they stalked down the hallway, the others slowly peeled away, leaving Katsu winding through the shadows alone.
While he lacked a map for the building, the rebel’s instructions were detailed, leading him past the guarded entrances and rooms, and into the heart of the stronghold. Those few times that he crossed paths with one of the Scales, he slunk back into the shadows, a simple breeze wrapping around him to obscure his presence. Finally, he reached his destination, not a single person alerted to the intruder in their midst.
The darkened hall slowly opened up to reveal a large chamber, shelves lining the walls. Not a single artefact was anywhere in sight, nor any item that could possibly help him. Instead, hundreds of scrolls were stacked upon the shelves, neatly organised and covered in a very light layer of dust.
Katsu stepped toward the centre of the room, where a single pedestal stood, constructed of white polished marble, with a jade tray containing six more scrolls. They were larger than many of the other scrolls in the room, free of dust and clearly well-cared for.
Just as Katsu began to consider how to carry the scrolls with him, he suddenly paused, slowly turning toward the person slipping through the entranceway. Immediately, he noted the lack of weapons on the man’s person, the light wrappings on his hands and feet, unobscured by the same fabric that hid his face and the rest of his body from view.
Katsu drew his kodachi just in time, stepping forward to block the grandmaster’s attack. Quick and strong, the master darted around Katsu, bombarding him with a series of sharp, swift strikes. His bindings bobbed back and forth as he struck out, using pure skill to work his way past Katsu’s defenses. Katsu quickly whipped up a gust of wind, using the blast of air to push the master backward.
It earned him only a fraction of an instant, but it was enough for him to shift the flow of battle, putting him back on the offensive. The pair danced around one another, blocking and dodging, trying to break through their opponent’s defenses. Despite his speed and agility, the master was rooted to the earth, as if there was a chain physically connecting him to the ground. Even Katsu’s strongest attacks could only make him budge an inch, earning a single second to try and land another blow.
As he called the wind to him, he lashed out at the master, finally driving him back once more. Yet in one fluid motion, the master quickly struck out at a small, barely noticeable metal disc attached to the nearby wall. The quiet chime that sounded in responsible slowly grew, reverberating until it had reached the intensity and pitch of a large, brass gong. The sound echoed through the chamber, and Katsu heard more of these begin to ring in the distance, a warning to any member of Aui’s Scales in the building.
More men ran into the room, drawing their weapons as the master descended on Katsu once more. Within moments, he was defending himself on all sides. Calling the winds toward him, he felt the air whip into a gale, circling him with the force of a growing storm. The energy coursed through his kodachi, answering his beck and call.
Growing stronger with each passing second, the wind coursed through the room, circling the chamber. The roar of the wind blocked out all other sounds as it reached the pitch of a full tempest, dragging each and every man in the room into its wake, Katsu standing steadfast in the eye of the growing storm. The gust struck the master with a sharp crack, sending him flying into the stone wall. In an instant, the fight was over as every member of the Scales was flung into the stone, knocking them unconscious.
Yet as Katsu began to sheath his kodachi, more ninjas came down the hallway, heading straight towards him, swords drawn and ready to attack. With a quiet sigh, he began preparing for another fight, drawing the winds about him - but suddenly stopped to glance at the entranceway.
Members of the Crimson Haze slowly began to make their way into the room - many more than the six that he had initially arrived with. The red fabric they wore did little to disguise the crimson stains marking their clothes, blood spatter coating their chests and arms.
The ninjas belonging to Aui’s Scales, taking note of the numbers before them, almost moved as if to retreat - yet before they could, the Crimson Haze were upon them, cutting them down without hesitation. Many of the rebels’ present began slitting the throats of those lying on the ground, not bothering to wipe the blood from their blades. Slowly, their leader stepped forward once more, gesturing to the pile of scrolls, still sitting neatly in their jade tray upon the pedestal.
“I see you found what we were looking for.”
“What happened to your small task force?” Katsu intoned; his voice low.
“It doesn’t matter.” The man lifted his hand, curling his index finger. “We’re here to take those scrolls, anything else is yours.”
“Not until you tell me what information it is that you’re looking for.” That gave the man halt, Katsu watching as his hand dropped back to his side.
“None of your concern. What was it that you said to the Scales?” He paused for a moment, before nodding to himself. “My plans are no business of yours.”
“They become my business when you trick me into doing your dirty work.” Katsu nodded to people lying around him, fingers tightening around his kodachi. “It’s obvious that you were using me as a distraction. Did you expect me to defeat the Grandmaster guarding the scroll, or had you intended for me to act as a buffer while you took care of the rest of the Scales in the building?”
The rebel leader sighed heavily, pointing to the pedestal.
“Just let us take them, wanderer. There’s no need for conflict over such a simple task. You don’t even need to lift a finger.”
“No. I may not know what your plans are, but I wager that they’re not as altruistic as you choose to believe.”
“...very well, then.” The man shrugged. “It’s clear that you are well on your way to ascending to grandmaster, but facing these odds, even the most talented ninja cannot fight alone and expect to walk away. I would prefer that we ended this without conflict, but you have clearly made up your mind. You will tire sooner or later.”
Yet before any of them could take a single step, Katsu held out a hand, halting the group. He turned his head slightly, looking over his shoulder at the air behind him.
“I have felt the wind stirring for some time now. If you are so determined to keep an eye on me, you might as well join us.”
After a moment’s pause, a breeze rolled through the room, revealing four grandmasters standing behind him. Each slowly drew their weapons, scrolls fluttering as a wind began to stir, rousing at the promise of a fight. As one, the Crimson Haze slowly began to retreat from the room, leaving the leader standing at the forefront.
“We will remember this.” With that, he left as well, disappearing into the shadowed hall.
Katsu turned to face the grandmasters, bowing his head.
“I appreciate the support, though I’m not sure why you followed me. I thought none of you were ready to leave Mugenshi Gorge just yet.”
“It was not the right time.” Before Katsu could respond, Takumi held out a hand, pausing. “However, when you decided to leave, it became the right time. You have shown that our clan is a secret no longer.”
“So, you were following me from the beginning.”
“You are Mugenshi. We would not let you face this alone.” Takumi gestured to the scrolls.
Katsu turned to inspect the contents of the jade tray, slowly unfurling the topmost scroll. A list of unfamiliar names stretched down the length of the parchment, each with some description of their last known location and current status. Some were held within Misteria, while others were scattered across Rathe. While the names of some seemed to hint at their abilities or properties, none were properly described, only their titles carefully noted down. Katsu turned to recite some of the names to the Grandmasters, watching as their expressions visibly changed.
“Do you recognise any of these?”
“Many of these were thought lost, though it seems as if Aui’s Scales has been tracking them all along.” Master Saori paused, looking thoughtfully at the scroll in Katsu’s hands.
“The Crimson Haze mentioned that one of the artefacts might be able to lead us to a cure for the Seikan. It’s possible that they were lying, but this is our best lead.” Katsu gathered the scrolls, wrapping them carefully in his bundle. “We must find them.”
“While many of these items are unknown to us, we can start by telling you of the ones we know. The Blades of the Seasons, the Masks of Misfortune, the…”
“You support this?” Leading the way through the darkened hall, Katsu glanced toward the grandmasters. “I thought that you might try to stop me.”
“If you do not enter the tiger’s cave, you will not catch its cub. We have sat idle for too long, and now that we have a lead, it is our duty to find a cure for the clan.” As they emerged into the pale light of dawn, Takumi turned toward Katsu with a nod.
Adjusting his bundle, Katsu turned to lead the way back home, leaping from the cliff face and disappearing into the mists below.