The dark figure crouched motionless on the rain-soaked limb of the giant oak, gently pressing his back to the trunk of the ancient tree. A steady rain had long since soaked his mottled green and brown ghi to his skin and continued to drum on the huge leaves of the canopy above, creating a cacophony of white noise. Like unmoving, long-forgotten statues, he and his comrades had waited patiently among the shadows for hours, waiting for night to fall and for the last of the windows to go dark. Then they waited hours more, timing out the patterns of the patrols that wandered back and forth along the narrow wooden walkways that wove around and between the trees, and memorizing the shadows cast with each flash of lightning.
Leaving their posts in the shadows, the interlopers moved as one, scaling the giant trees as silently as the fog that rolled along the ground. As they approached the darkened windows high in the canopy, the wraith-like figures moved into loose pairs and flowed through the narrow openings into the homes. Moments later, each pair emerged from their respective windows carrying a small bundle between them, and glided silently to the ground, disappearing into the early morning dark. With the first glow of dawn came the screams and cries of alarm from high in the trees, as more than a dozen Elven mothers discovered their children's empty beds.
L'rynn Quickfire slowly pried his eyes open, fighting against the crushing weight that seemed to hold them shut. His tongue felt thick and rough, as if covered with sand, his limp muscles refusing to obey his commands to move. He lay bound, hand and foot, on a rough, unsteady, wooden surface. As the grogginess faded and his muscles began to wake, his vision focused, allowing him to take in his surroundings.
Peering between broad wooden slats, panic threatened to overtake him as he realized that the deep forest of his home was gone, replaced by sparse pines and scrub brush scattered across endless fields of lush grass. Instead of the familiar sounds of the wind caressing the leaves and the distand roar of waterfalls, the creaking of wooden wheels filled his ears as the wagon lurched and bumped across the land. Insects clicked and buzzed as the wagon rumbled along, drawing the attention of the occasional sparrow that flitted in for a quick morsel before darting back to the safety of the tall grass.
From behind him, a muffled moan drew L'rynn's attention from the fear welling up in his heart. Twisting his body to peer over his left shoulder, he realized for the first time that he wasn't alone in his predicament. Packed into the dark, dusty wagon with him were ten or so other Elven children, all males, that he recognized from his village, each one similarly bound, and apparently all recovering from the same poison that had rendered him unconscious. Being the eldest, L'rynn knew the others would quickly turn to him, hoping for guidance and reassurances, though he silently feared he would have none to give.
As the cart rumbled quietly along its path, the rest of the children gradually came out of their stupor, and, as L'rynn had expected, began to whisper questions. With a curt jerk of his head and a flick of his eyes, the younger captives immediately quieted themselves and steeled their nerves as best they could, awaiting any signal that might come from their elder clansman. And the cart rolled on.
Three days and nights came and went without stopping. What little they could see of the landscape through the thin breaks in the wooden slats of the cart began to change around them. The trees were nearly nonexistant, and the lush grass had given way to small tufts of scrub grass poking up through sandy terrain. Soon, there was the distinct tang of salt in the air, as the cart seemed to shift and slide more than it bounced and rolled. From somewhere off in the distance came the soft thunder of crashing surf, mixed with the occasional shout of a language none of the Elves understood. Finally, after almost four days of non-stop travel, the cart came to a stop.
L'rynn glanced about quickly, briefly meeting the gaze of each of the other captives, and then focused his eyes on the rear of the cart. Within seconds the hatch dropped open into a makeshift ramp to the sand of the beach. To either side of the now open cart stood a man clad in simple robes and a broad straw hat, each armed with a sword of sorts, and grasping a thin wooden staff in his hands.
The man to the right met L'rynn's gaze and barked what sounded like an order of some kind, in the same strange, gutteral language the Elves had heard coming from the surf. The words may have been foreign, but the men's body language was crystal clear ... they wanted the youths out of the cart, and now. When L'rynn hesitated, the man barked again, louder this time, and added a sharp wave of the staff in his hands. Moving cautiously, never taking his eyes from the one giving orders, L'rynn edged slowly towards the opening, until the robed figure reached into the cart, grabbed his ankle in a vice-like grip, and jerked him sharply from the cart to land hard on the semi-packed sand of the beach. L'rynn's defiant glare from the ground earned him a sharp blow to the side of his head that raised a long knot beneath his hair and made his vision swim, but he never made a sound. One by one, the others were removed from the cart in similar fashion, minus the blow to the head, as none repeated L'rynn's show of defiance.
Finally turning his attention from his captors to the surf, it was then that L'rynn finally saw the ship anchored just off-shore, and the realization began to take hold that their journey was far from over.
The Elves spent the next two weeks crammed into small pens in the hold of the ship as it made its journey east across open sea to a large fishing village. From there, the ship followed the coastline north to a large port city where the youths, despite L'rynn's hesitant reassurances to the contrary, were separated, sold, and taken in multiple directions. However, in L'rynn's case, his continued defiance and rebellious nature had earned him beating after beating, making him much harder to sell, as he appeared to be "damaged goods." Finally, his captors decided that rather than simply drop him in the harbor with a stone tied around his neck, they would deliver him to their Daimyo, Lord Yashida, and let him decide what to do with the troublesome Elf.
The four day trek into the mountains of Shinzu province were no more hospitable for L'rynn Quickfire than the previous three weeks had been, largely due to the fact that L'rynn lived up to the reputation of his family name, and having only recently entered into adolescence did nothing to help his temperament. Though he was beaten and bloodied, the keepers were careful to deliver him unbroken.
Upon arriving at the village, L'rynn was paraded through the "streets", such as they were, past the homes and workshops of the locals, and taken directly to the palace, the ancestral family home of Clan Yashida. Once they finally reached the front steps of the house, L'rynn was left outside with four handlers, while the fifth went inside.
Moments later he re-emerged, followed by a middle-aged man in simple, but elegant robes, wearing an equally simple-but-elegant pair of swords tucked into his belt. Ishiro Yashida was taller than the rest of the men present, approaching six feet, and broadly built. His hair was pulled up into a top-knot and he wore a completely dour expression on his weathered, clean-shaven face. The handler that had gone into the house now approached L'rynn and gestured in his direction, as if presenting him to the Daimyo. Ishiro merely glanced at the handler as the man gave a sharp, deep bow at the waist, and then stepped back, as did the other handlers, leaving L'rynn standing strangely alone. Slowly, as if appraising a prize bull, Ishiro moved around L'rynn, taking in every physical detail. Finally, he stopped in front of L'rynn and met the young Elf's defiant gaze.
"My scouts," he rumbled quietly, in perfect Western Common, "tell me you are strong-willed ... defiant." L'rynn simply held the Daimyo's stare, silently confirming the handler's claims. With a quickness L'rynn would not have thought possible from a human, Ishiro drew the scabbarded sword from his belt and drove it into the Elf's solar plexus. L'rynn's knees buckled and he doubled over as the air exploded from his lungs. His vision blurred, but he managed to stay on his feet. Finally, as he gasped air back into his body, he slowly raised his head to glare at the human through the long, straggly mane of hair that had fallen over his face.
"But, you are stoic, as well," Ishiro nodded, replacing the sword in his belt. "Perhaps you'll survive your 'reeducation' ... only time will tell. From this day forth, your birth name no longer matters. You are Masamuro of House Yashida." With that, Ishiro rounded on his heels and started back up the steps of his home, flatly giving orders as he went.
"Start with the surgeon ... begin the rest in the morning."
The next morning was to be the first day of more than five decades of unspeakable tortures and inhuman treatment at the hands of his "trainers." To make him look more human, Lord Yashida had Masa's ears clipped, rounded, and burned, to keep them from growing back. To further darken his skin, Masa was staked out and baked in the scorching sun for hours at a time, day in and day out. On top of all this were grueling, intense training sessions that would last from well before dawn to long after sunset, with no rest, food, or water until nightfall.
For nearly a decade Masa rebelled, refusing to accept this new culture and their ways of war, but with age comes wisdom. Masa finally decided to bide his time and wait. These barbarians hadn't broken him thus far, and he was determined to keep it that way. "My time will come," he told himself, and what better way to make his escape than through the use of their own training? With his new plan in place, Masa began to accept their teachings, excelling in all he did. His skills in archery and swordsmanship increased rapidly, and over the next twenty years came to exceed even those of his teachers', eventually earning him the rank of assistant instructor himself.
Because he not only spoke Elvish and Western common, but Eastern common as well, Masa occasionally served as interpreter. To this end, he was also taught to read and write, and learned several other languages as well.
More than seventy years had passed since he'd been stolen from his home, but Masa remained young while he watched three generations of Yashidas rise and pass. Now one of the most trusted of Lord Matsuo Yashida's Samurai, Masa suddenly found himself appointed personal bodyguard to the lord's concubine and newborn son, Saburo, and the years continued to drag on uneventfully.
Then came the night of young Saburo Yashida's ninth birthday. The celebration was done, the candles extinguished, and the family was asleep. All at once, Masa found himself on his feet, crouched in the shadows outside the young lord's bedroom, his katana drawn in preparation for battle. No sound had awakened him, yet something was very, very wrong.
The shadowy figure seemed to appear before him out of thin air. Masa tensed as the shadow shifted, and the two moved as one. Masa felt the faint rasp of steel on steel followed by soft, wet resistance as his blade impaled the would-be assassin. With a quick twist and a sharp jerk, Masa freed his blade, allowing the figure to drop. Even as he filled his lungs to bellow an alarm, the bells began to ring in the courtyard. Masa dashed down the corridor, almost colliding with Lord Yashida himself as he too skidded to a halt at the mouth of the corridor.
"Masamuro," Lord Yashida began, as he buckled his armor belt, "stay here and protect the house. I will deal with these interlopers."
Masa bowed sharply. "Hai!" Lord Yashida fastened his helm in place and slipped out the door into the night.
For the next hour, Masa could do nothing but listen to the sounds of battle being waged around the sprawling house, while all remained quiet within. Gradually the din settled and faded into near-silence, save for the groans of the wounded and dying. Masa turned down the corridor, katana still in hand, and faced the young lord's bedroom door. With a deep breath, he strode down the hall and through the door, one final time.
Lord Yashida pulled heavily on the handrail leading up the steps to the house, blood dripping freely from his hand as he reached for the latch and opened the door. From his son's bedroom he heard the faint pad of footsteps stop just outside the doorway.
"Masa," he sighed, sounding utterly exhausted, "Fetch me a surgeon."
Hearing the faint creak of the bowstring being drawn, Yashida stiffened. The long, sleek shaft had already transfixed him, passing through both lungs and bursting the heart, when the near-silent "thummm" of the bowstring reached his ears. Blood bubbled from his lips as he turned his head and tried to speak, just as the second shaft lodged in his throat.
As Yashida sank to the floor, Masa flowed silently from the shadows and moved to kneel over his former lord's dying body. Yashida's eyes blinked questioningly as Masa drew his tanto and cut through the thick swordbelt around Yashida's waist. Grasping the ornate scabbard just below the hilt, Masa stood, tugging the belt free. Slowly, never taking his eyes from Yashida's, Masa slid the scabbard from the belt and tossed the useless strap aside.
"Today I regain my freedom," Masa stated calmly. "The Yashida bloodline dies with you this night. I have seen to that. In time, I shall make my way home, and your family will be forgotten. Once more, I am L'rynn Quickfire. Sayonara, Daimyo."
As L'rynn turned to go, the last flicker of life seemed to fade from Yashida's eyes. Stepping silently out onto the porch, he glanced about the courtyard, surveying the paths and gardens he'd toiled over, now strewn with bodies. Pausing briefly, he knelt beside the body of a slain ninja and began rummaging through the folds of cloth. L'rynn quickly found what he was after. He opened the pouch as he stood up, reaching carefully inside to draw forth a handful of shurikens. Tucking the pouch in his belt, he made another quick search for the assassin's bag of tetsubishi. With the sash from a slain ninja, he fashioned a sling for his katana and hung it over his shoulder. After one last stop to refill his quiver, L'rynn took a final glance back, and carrying his daikyu, disappeared into the forest.
Bright sunlight filtered through the dense foliage overhead as L'rynn strolled down the well-worn road. Still shining down on his back, the sun warmed his shoulders nicely, reminding him of his almost forgotten childhood. Even now, days after his escape from the daimyo's house, he could still hear the trainer's voices, barking orders at him, shouting threats of tortures unimaginable. More than once, while he was a captive, the searing sun had baked his skin nearly black, while he lay staked out facedown on the ground. Heat so unbearable even the ants dared not venture out from cover. Yet he'd survived. Silently swearing to himself, time and again, "my time will come."
L'rynn shuddered and shook his head to sweep away the memories. Once more aware of himself and his surroundings, he realized the trees and undergrowth were beginning to thin out, and soon found himself at the edge of the forest, gazing out over a seemingly endless expanse of green grass. Closing his eyes and tilting back his head, L'rynn took a long, deep breath, savoring the fresh scent of honeysuckle on the warm, gentle breeze. The field seemed to slope upwards at a very gradual incline to a low, rolling crest, giving no hint to what might lie beyond. Before continuing forward, L'rynn sat for a moment in the warm grass and removed the worn leather tabi from his feet. It had been so long since he had been allowed, or even allowed himself, to run barefoot through a soft field such as this that the urge overwhelmed him. With his boots slung over his shoulder, off he ran, like the wind, towards the distant knoll.
As he approached his destination, a sudden gust of wind brought the sharp tang of saltwater to his nostrils, and cresting the hill, his suspicions were confirmed. There before him lay the ocean, but which ocean he couldn't be sure. Continuing to jog along, he watched the, lush, green grass give way to scrub brush and finally to the sand of the beach. Beautiful white sand, as far as the eye could see, in either direction. Thinking back to his teachings, and his knowledge of clan locations, L'rynn decided to head south, in hopes of finding a town or city where he might book passage on a ship to points west.
As the day progressed, L'rynn took to jogging leisurely along the crest of the dunes, keeping the ocean within sight on one side, and the safety of the forest on the other. Once the sun began to drop below the horizon, he returned to the trees, and, after careful selection, climbed the side of an ancient, majestic oak, settling in against the trunk to sleep atop a massive limb. He lay gazing up at the twinkling stars as his eyelids grew heavier and heavier, until finally he drifted off.
For the first time in decades, L'rynn dreamt of his home and his family. His mind conjured images of his mother, her coal-black hair flying in the summer breeze as they raced along the massive limbs of the great trees. The thick green canopy of the forest, his home, seemed to stretch out forever, the large, soft leaves shimmering in the failing rays of the setting sun. Then they were at the heart of the forest, winding between the beautifully ornate homes of clan Eythermitore, woven into the very trees themselves. L'rynn and his mother burst laughing and dancing into the large, open sitting room. There sat his father, smoking a long, thin, hand-carved pipe, his flame-red hair pulled back in a loose braid. A bright smile flashed across his lips as his wife and son flitted playfully about the room.
All at once, the smile faded from his father's lips as the skies grew dark and the wind began to howl through the boughs of the trees. L'rynn's father stood slowly from his chair, a frown knotting his fiery brow, and took the pipe from his lips as he turned to peer out the arched door at the gathering gloom. L'rynn huddled against his mother nervously as the wind roared in the trees, making their home shudder with its ferocity. A sudden blast of wind blew leaves and smaller branches in through the door and windows, and his father threw up his arm to shield his face from the debris. His mother clutched him to her side and cried out...
For the second time in two days, L'rynn found himself instantly wide awake, sword in-hand, in the middle of the night. What small amount of sleep he'd gotten was fitful at best, beseiged by unnerving dreams and nightmarish visions, and had afforded him no real rest. Now, some thirty-odd feet in the air, perched on the limb of a huge oak tree, his Elven ears once again strained against the silence of the night, desperately seeking any sounds even faintly out of place. And he found them.
He could no longer hear the sound of the surf from beyond the dunes, nor could he detect the salty tang of the sea in the air. Instead it had been replaced by the scent of a deep, ancient forest, thick with pines and maples. Gone was the smell of honeysuckle in the field, replaced by the faint stench of decaying leaves, old pine needles, and mildewed earth.
His clothes were damp, likely from the thick fog that hung heavily in the air and on his limbs. All at once he felt the hairs on the back of his neck stand up as the shadows below shifted unnaturally, appearing to weave in and among the trees. L'rynn shuddered as gooseflesh raised the hairs on his arms, and blood thundered in his ears. Gradually he returned to a seated position with his back against the trunk of the oak, and after what seemed like hours, just when he was sure dawn should be breaking over the horizon, he could no longer keep his eyes open, and slipped back into a fitful sleep once more.
When he finally woke, L'rynn no longer felt the strong, solid tree limb beneath him, but instead found himself lying in thick, wet grass, his robes soaked through on the side against the ground, proof that he had indeed slept in the grass for some time. Gone were the trees, and for that matter, the entire forest, it seemed. Though he could not see through the dense fog, his other senses told him that, other than the grass, there was nothing in the way of vegetation nearby, not for hundreds of yards at the very least. Far off in the distance he could hear what sounded like strange birds, calling to each other in the darkness, but what troubled him were the nearby sounds he could not identify. Faint, gibbering sounds, like insane whispers in an inhuman tongue, seemed to come from all directions, but always out of sight. Sounds of the stealthiest movements, as near as arm's reach, again raised the hairs on the back of his neck and made his skin crawl. Still, he stood his ground. Running would only lessen his ability to hear sounds around him, and increase his chance of becoming more lost than he already was, although something told him he was no longer in any land he'd set foot in before. Silent as a wraith, L'rynn drew his wakizashi and eased himself into a low crouch, closing his eyes and focusing on the sounds around him.
For what seemed like hours, he remained motionless, straining to pinpoint any sound or scent in the cold, dank meadow. Gradually, at long last, the darkness began to give way to a lighter, hazy gloom, and the fog started to thin. The malicious presence he'd felt all around him faded away with the fog, until finally he could see the meadow stretch out into gently sloping hills in every direction under overcast skies. Far off to the west was the vague outline of a low mountain range, but the distance was difficult to judge accurately. Deciding the likelihood of finding civilization was greater near the mountains, L'rynn sheathed the short sword, gathered his few possessions, and headed west.
The walking was easy, as the ground was soft and relatively even, but the gray, unfriendly skies and the cool, damp air made the miles drag by endlessly. Just after midday L'rynn crested a small rise, and peering down into the shallow ravine on the other side he spotted a rough and somewhat overgrown road winding along the valley floor. As he approached the worn furrows in the grass his Elven ears detected the unmistakable sounds of combat off in the distance. His curiosity piqued, L'rynn jogged along the road towards the sounds. As he approached a bend in the road that wound to the left and around the hill he'd just descended, he slowed his pace and drew the daikyu from his back.
The scene unfolding before him was one of a caravan under an ambush attack. Easing back up the bank to get a better view, he saw that gypsies had surrounded and set upon the caravan, with the obvious intent of slaughtering every traveller in it. Being that the travellers were human, L'rynn was inclined to let the scene play itself out, until one particular act caught his eye.
From a rather ornate carriage near the center of the caravan, a burly gypsy was dragging a well-dressed Oriental woman out and onto the grass beside the lifeless bodies of what L'rynn assumed had been her escorts. Something about the woman and the way she attempted to defend herself, without the usual screaming and mewling that comes from a woman under attack, immediately held L'rynn's interest. Even when the gypsy knocked her to the ground with a savage backhand to her cheek, she hadn't made a sound, but rather glared up at him from the ground in defiance. It wasn't until he heard the humm of the bowstring and saw an arrow suddenly appear in the back of the gypsy's head did L'rynn realize he'd fired the shot. Why, he thought to himself, would he expose himself to save a human? Especially an Oriental human... ? Perhaps it was simply a reflex, born of decades spent as the personal guardian of his human master's family. 'What's done is done, ' he thought, and started down the hill.
Looking up from her position on the ground, the woman flinched as over a foot of arrow shaft exploded from the face of her assailant. She stared in confusion as the gypsy froze like a statue and then crumpled to the ground at her feet. Lifting her head, she peered through a haze of dust at the figure striding down the hill towards her.
L'rynn moved with purpose in his step. Never breaking stride, he continued to fire arrow after arrow, dispatching gypsy assailants with each shaft. Upon reaching the woman, he took up a position mere feet from her and continued to rain death on the caravan's attackers.
"Get back in the carriage," he said flatly between shots, never actually looking at her. Glancing about, the woman grabbed a long dagger from the belt of her fallen bodyguard and scrambled back into the wagon as her rescuer commanded. From the shadows of the wagon, she studied this young samurai. Judging from his posture, the weapons he carried, and his level of skill, he could be nothing else, even if he was a bit slight-of-build for such a legendary class of warrior.
Within minutes the gypsies were driven off and the caravan's survivors fell to the tasks of tending to the wounded and salvaging whatever they could. L'rynn turned his eyes to the woman in the carriage for the first time, met her gaze, and bowed slightly. The woman nodded in reply, and watched as L'rynn turned and began moving from body to body, salvaging what arrows he could and searching for anything else of use. As she slowly stepped from the carriage and surveyed the carnage around her, a burly man wearing heavy, studded leather armor rushed to her side, a look of concern on his face.
"Highness," he began, glancing down at he dead gypsy by the wagon, "are you alright? I feared the worst..." At hearing the word "highness" L'rynn paused in his scavenging and slowly turned his head to look back at the pair.
"I'm fine, Markus," she breathed, briefly meeting L'rynn's eyes again, "thanks to a late arrival." Following her gaze to L'rynn, Markus turned back to the woman and bowed briefly before moving off toward the lone samurai. L'rynn eyed the man warily as he approached, and tightened the grip on his bow. This Markus had a look of Germanic, or perhaps even Norse heritage about him. He wore a heavy, studded leathern tunic over his large muscular frame, and a thick cloak of black fur across his broad shoulders. Long, wavy, dark-blonde hair flowed to the middleof his back, and a thick beard done into two large braids reached almost to his chest. A massive broadsword hung at his left hip, and a longbow was slung across his back.
Markus stopped a full pace from L'rynn, his piercing, slate gray eyes taking in the young samurai from head to toe.
"My thanks for your aid, traveller," Markus said in a low rumble as he extended a massive hand. "I am Markus Ruhl."
L'rynn studied the man for a moment, glancing past him at the Oriental woman, and then back to meet Markus' steely gaze with his own. Still wary of disclosing his true identity to unknown humans, he quickly decided it better to keep certain information on a strictly need-to-know basis, and for now, this human didn't need to know.
"I am Masamura, formerly of House Yashida," he replied, and gave a short bow before reaching out to shake Markus' hand.
"Formerly?" Markus asked, cocking an eyebrow.
"Sadly, yes," Masa sighed, "Lord Yashida's house was wiped out while I and my bretheren were away on assignment. With nothing to keep me there, I had hoped to find my way to my own ancestral home, but I fear I became lost in the mists during the night."
"I'm not familiar with House Yashida. What province was it located in?" Markus asked, releasing Masa's hand and taking a more relaxed stance.
"Shinzu province," Masa stated flatly. Markus looked pensive for a moment, then shook his head gently.
"Never heard of it. And your family, from whence do they hail?"
"Near the forests of Amlar, west of the Toadsquat mountains," Masa replied. Markus sighed heavily, again gently shaking his head as he looked to the ground.
"I fear, Masamura-san, that you are no longer in the 'realms. It appears you are yet another unfortunate 'guest' of the mists."
A frown creased Masamura's brow as his fears of the previous night were confirmed. He was no longer in the lands that he knew. The only question now was how to find a way back?
"How does one return to the 'realms?" Again, Markus sighed heavily.
"To the best of my knowledge, you don't. At least, I've never heard of anyone escaping these lands. Perhaps milady can offer some better advice. Regardless, I'm sure she'll want to speak with you presently." Markus turned and gestured in the direction of the Oriental woman who was still standing beside the carriage. Masamura nodded his assent and the two men began walking back to the carriage.
"Highness," Markus began, bowing, "May I present Masamura, formerly of House Yashida of Shinzu Province. Masamura-san, this is Princess Michiko of House Tzen."