Chapter 1

Two more steps and you’re dead!”

Ronin paused a few feet from the mouth of the large cave, staring with wild eyes into its inky depths, imagining the horror that waited within.  His so-called friends were taunting him from a safe distance, pelting him with gravel to keep him moving ahead.  For all he cared they could have screamed at the top of their lungs; it hardly mattered.  All he heard was the wild pounding of his heart in his throat with each passing moment.  He wiped away the sweat beading on his brow with the back of his tightly clenched fist.

            It was wrong for them to be here they knew, but the trio of adventurous boys had stumbled upon the cavern by accident, and were drawn to it like an oasis in the desert.  They had come twice before to the mountaintop where the cave was hidden, but had never mustered up enough courage to enter – yet.  But there was something about the gaping hole in the mountainside that made their imaginations run rampant. 

            “Get going you big chicken!” said Makato, the largest of the three, finding another pebble to throw.

            “Yeah!  What are you afraid of, a giant dragon or something?” Obladi laughed.

            Ronin opened his fist and stared down at the crumpled blade of grass inside.  Being last to draw lots had its disadvantages; his friends had sealed his fate by simply drawing the larger blades first. 

            “Ow!” Ronin cried, shaking his hand furiously as one of the rocks smacked him squarely on the knuckles.  “Enough!”

            “Hurry up!” said Obladi, half-threatening, half-scared.

            Ronin turned and stared menacingly at his friends, his pale blue eyes smoldering with anger.  Obladi quickly ducked his pudgy frame behind the muscular Makato and away from the painful glare, while Makato merely returned the stare with a smirk.  Grumbling, Ronin turned his back on them to face the cavern again.

            The entrance was large enough for a dragon to pass through all right, although its outer edges were jagged and rough, covered by frayed stalks of hanging vines that crisscrossed the entrance.  Cracks and crevices spider-webbed out from the opening like giant veins, making the cavern seem ancient, as though the hungry mountain had been born with a mouth. 

The only tracks that led up to the entrance were those made by the three boys over the past couple days.  That brought a little comfort to Ronin, knowing that nothing else had approached the cavern since they had discovered it.  It did nothing, however, to ease his fear about what might be lurking inside.

            Ronin took another tentative step forward.  A cold breeze escaped from the cavern, taking Ronin’s breath away.  It was just a draft, but to Ronin it was much, much more – the mountain had felt his presence and was now breathing on him!  The young warrior began to hyperventilate, as the cool draft seemed to penetrate his skin and race up and down his spine like icicles.  Ronin’s fingers squeezed the hilt of his katana until his knuckles whitened, determined to fight through his fear.

            It’s just a draft.  Nothing more.  Caves have drafts.  The mountain is not alive!  How ridiculous! 

            He exhaled deeply and took another hesitant step forward, finally breaching the mouth of the cavern.  Just then, another cold gust washed over him, accompanied by a haunting voice.


            Ronin’s eyes grew wide as eggs when he heard the whisper in the wind.  He quickly glanced around the cavern’s interior, but could see nothing in the cold darkness that seemed to stare back at him.    He heard Obladi’s voice fading away from behind him.

            “Hey Ronin, you okay?”

            “What is it?  What do you see?” asked Makato.

            “Uh, Ronin?”

            Somewhere distant a gong sounded, signaling the next training period was about to begin.  Ronin had never been so glad to hear that gong as he was now.  The young boy turned around and shot off like an arrow, flying past his friends without a word.  With a curious look to each other, Makato and Obladi simply shrugged their shoulders before falling into a trot behind Ronin.

            “Hey wait for us!”

            “Yeah, I’ve never seen you so excited to go to practice before, Ronin!” Makato jibed.

            “And why are you so pale?”

            Ronin said nothing the whole way back, running at full speed through the Steel Forest at the base of the great mountain and down into the misty vale.  By the time they arrived back at the temple doors, the sun was just sinking below the Kun Sea off the western shoreline.  The boys were too tired to notice.  They were late and completely out of breath. 

            “Ah I see students Ronin, Obladi and Makato not only cannot hear, but they also are not in very good health,” said Sensei Hitoshi, causing the rest of the students in the temple to stop their sword practice and turn to face the three late arrivals.

            The boys knelt in formal seiza positions, bowing their heads on the spotless hardwood floor.  Sweat fell from their foreheads in steady drips.  They knew they were in trouble – again.

            “Forgive us, Sensei Hitoshi.  We misjudged the distance we were away from here,” said Makato.

            “Oh really?  I never realized that you have gone to so much effort to determine how far you can go and return without being late, student Makato.  Tell me – no – why don’t you show me – show all of us – how far you can go and still come back in time when the next gong sounds.”

            Makato’s eyes bulged.

            “Forgive us Sensei, but what Makato meant is that we apologize for being late.”

            “Was I speaking to you, student Ronin?”

            “No Sensei, but – ”

            “And do you now speak for student Makato?”

            Ronin shook his head.  “No, Sensei.”

            Sensei Hitoshi sighed. 

            “Now – student Makato, since you seemed to be so knowledgeable about distances, our evening practice will last another two hours.  Leave now and run as fast as you can away from here.  Then, when an hour has gone by, mark your perimeter, turn around and come back.  I certainly would like to know more about this remarkable ability you have to judge distance in relation to timing.”

            With a groan, Makato bowed and began to rise.  “Yes, Sensei.”

            “Wait,” said Sensei Hitoshi.  “Since you need to work on your stamina too, take the stone ball with you.”

            Makato groaned louder, glancing at the stone ball in contempt.  It was a polished round rock weighing a little more than a hundred pounds.  “Yes, Sensei.”

            “I do not hear any gratitude in your voice, student Makato.”

            Makato bit his tongue.  “Thank you, Sensei Hitoshi, for showing me the way.”

            Sensei Hitoshi waved him away.

            Makato rose quickly and moved to where the stone ball lay amid the other conditioning rocks.  It wasn’t the heaviest, but it was one of the most difficult to handle since it was so smooth and round.   Without a sound he knelt and lifted it from the floor, cradling it in his lap while his hands locked underneath it.  Slowly, Makato left the temple with heavy steps, trying not to show the strain on his face.

            Sensei Hitoshi watched the remaining pair in silence.   Ronin sat motionless, but after awhile Obladi fidgeted – just once. 

            “Student Obladi, do you have to relieve yourself?”

            Obladi winced.  “No, Sensei.”

            “No?  Well then do you have ants inside your uniform?”

            “No, Sensei.”

            “Hmmm.  Yet you move when I gave you no permission to do so.  Why is that?”

            Obladi squeezed his eyes shut.  “Forgive me, Sensei.  I’m just a humble student trying to find my way.  Please show me the way.”

            Ronin smiled.  Good answer, Obladi.

            Sensei Hitoshi sighed.  “Very well then.  Go out to the rock garden.  Collect as many ants as you can and return to me.”

            Obladi knew not to question the word of their Sensei.  “Yes, Sensei.  Thank you for helping me.”  With that, Obladi touched his forehead to the floor, rose and left Ronin by himself.  Sensei Hitoshi remained silent for another hundred heartbeats.

“Student Ronin, he who hesitates is lost.  Do you understand that maxim?”

            Ronin pursed his lips.  “Yes, Sensei.”

            “Are you talking to the mice, student Ronin?  Your voice is so soft – almost feminine.”

            “No, Sensei!” Ronin shouted. 

Again, another hundred heartbeats of silence passed.

            “Are you lost, student Ronin?”

            “No, Sensei!”

            “Then why did you hesitate with your apology?”

            “I – I was embarrassed for arriving late, Sensei.”

            “So your personal embarrassment caused your friends more problems, did it not?”

            “Yes, Sensei,” Ronin said with resignation.

            “It has also cost the rest of the students precious training time, has it not?

            “Yes, Sensei,” Ronin said, his voice cracking.

            “I’m surprised you have any friends at all, student Ronin.”

            The personal attack weakened Ronin, and he closed his eyes, trying to quell his emotions.

            Sensei Hitoshi sighed.

            Just then, soft footsteps could be heard from the temple doors.  Obladi knelt by the entrance and waited to be recognized.

            “Student Ronin, you have much to think about.  Take leave and meditate on this for the rest of the evening.  Skip your evening meal.”

            Ronin cleared his throat.  “Yes, Sensei.  Thank you for showing… ”

            “Go,” Sensei Hitoshi interrupted.

            Ronin touched his forehead to the floor once more and stood, backing out of the temple with as much dignity as he could muster.

            “Student Obladi, come forward.”

            Obladi bowed and walked quickly to the center of the temple, immediately kneeling when Sensei Hitoshi’s nodded for him to stop.

            “Show me.”

            Obladi opened his fist and showed the red ants crawling among his thick fingers.

            “How many did you collect, student Obladi?”

            Obladi rotated his hand around as he began counting them.

            “By counting them now are you admitting you didn’t count them outside, student Obladi?”

            Obladi bowed his head, defeated again.  “I’m sorry, Sensei.  I collected as many as I could and quickly came back as you instructed.”

            “So in your haste you sacrificed – knowledge – of the situation?”

            “Yes, Sensei.”

            “Then how would you know that you collected as many ants as you could if you didn’t know how many you had at any given time?”


            “And now, in your haste, is it possible that you may have inadvertently allowed one or more of the ants to escape your grasp inside the dojo, student Obladi?”

            Obladi nodded, watching helplessly as one of the ants fell from his hand onto the hardwood floor and began to scurry away.  He quickly scooped it back up.

            Sensei Hitoshi sighed.

            “Make a complete inspection of the dojo for any ants that you may have let in due to your lack of discipline.”

            “Yes, Sensei.”

“Oh, and student Obladi – you are now charged with the care of those ants you’ve collected.  Please keep them on you at all times.”

            Obladi groaned.  He could hear the future name-calling already.  “Yes, Sensei.  Thank you for showing me the way.”

            “After inspecting the dojo and accounting for your ants, you will sit next to me for the remainder of the class – unmoving.  Do you understand?”

            Obladi ignored the twinge of pain as one of the ants stung his finger. “Yes, Sensei.”

            “You may not understand the lesson here, student Obladi, but if you are patient and perceptive, you may come to learn a lot from those – ants in your pants.”

            Obladi bowed.  “Thank you, Sensei.”

            Sensei Hitoshi sighed again as he looked out among the rest of the students facing him.  A couple of them had turned away or covered their mouths to keep from laughing at the exchange.   There were twenty-five boys in all, ranging in ages from twelve to sixteen, hand-picked by the Emperor to become elite swordsmen for the Imperial Order.  They would spend their adolescence here, learning swordsmanship, academics and honor, but most of all learning the one thing that would help them survive once they left as Samurai warriors: discipline.  He would personally see to it, as he had done before with countless other classes from decades past.

            “Continue,” he said, and the group of students once again faced off with each other in pairs, attacking and defending with controlled effort.  Sensei Hitoshi stroked his long and wispy moustache as he looked in their direction but didn’t really notice them.  He was focused on the events that had just transpired.  Why is it that the finest students always lack the most discipline?

                                                            *   *   *   *   *

            Ronin took a couple of deep breaths after leaving the temple, trying to regain his composure. 

Why does Sensei have to make things so difficult? 

He shook his head in frustration and fought back a tear.  Through watery eyes, he looked for a sign of his friend.  Knowing Makato, he would have taken off towards the sea.  They both loved the sea, and would spend hours upon hours there creating adventures and searching for buried treasure that the tide would bring in.  With a deep exhale, Ronin squared his shoulders and set off towards the west.

            The young boy strolled past his living quarters and the smell of chicken broth coupled with pungent spices assailed his senses. 

Old man Kaizer is preparing another fine soup for the evening meal. 

Ronin’s mouth began to water.  He groaned, realizing that he, unfortunately, wouldn’t be tasting any of it tonight.   That was one thing that none of the boys complained about – Kaizer’s cooking.  The old chef put as much effort into their food as they did with their studies, and it showed.  He could make the leather in their sandals taste like veal, and some said he had actually done just that when there was a shortage of beef last summer. 

            The smell of Kaizer’s cooking was soon overpowered by the salt and brine of the sea, accompanied by the sound of crashing waves in the distance.  Ronin’s heart soared.  There was something magical about the sea, something that made him feel more alive than ever when he was near it.  He always looked forward to visiting the sea, no matter what time of day or night.  Just being there brought him a deep sense of peace and a rush of exhilaration all at once.  Indeed, the sea literally washed all his troubles away.

            The ground soon gave way to white sand and Ronin grinned, tromping through it as if it were snow.  The powdery granules felt cool against his feet, and he quickly kicked off his sandals and buried his toes with each step forward, kicking up sand like his feet were shovels.  It slowed his progress and made each step an effort, but Ronin didn’t care – this was a feeling he couldn’t resist.  So engrossed was he at the fun he was having he almost forgot why he had come in the first place.  A loud shout up ahead snapped him back to attention.

            Makato was about twenty yards distant, knee-deep in water, swinging his sword wildly at each rushing wave that crashed into him.  Each attack brought a vicious yell comparable to his unrestrained swings.  His vocal kiais were loud enough to be heard over the roar of the thunderous waves, which amazed Ronin who stood there and drank in the sight with a grin.  A moment later, he unsheathed his sword and waded in to join him.

            “It looks like you could use some help!” Ronin yelled as he approached, splashing water chaotically as he advanced.

            Makato turned and raised his sword at his friend, but was too tired to say anything as his chest heaved, sucking in the evening air.  “Don’t – need – help,” he managed, in between gasps.

            Ronin tried to warn his friend of the approaching wave behind him but could only watch as it rolled into Makato and whipped him forward.  Ronin used his sword to deflect his friend’s aside, and then caught hold of him before he fell face-first into the water. 

“You sure you don’t need help?”

            Makato grinned.  “Going to save me like you did with Sensei back there?”

            Ronin helped him back on his feet again.  “I only stated the obvious.”

            Makato turned to face the waves. “Bah.  You just haven’t learned when to say certain things.”

            A large wave plowed into the boys again, and Ronin had to use his sword as a cane, planting it into the silt to keep from falling over.  Makato, on the other hand, attacked the new wave cleanly – his balance fully supported in a deep stance by his large, muscular legs. 

            “So what – you think you said the right thing to Sensei – that you misjudged the distance?”

            Makato shrugged.  “We did.”

            “Then you got what you deserved, huh?”

            The older boy frowned.  “Well, what punishment did the teacher’s pet get?”


            “That’s it?”

            “I have to miss the evening meal.”

            Makato grinned.  “Don’t worry, I’ll make sure old man Kaizer gives me your portion,” he said, rubbing his belly.

            “Yes, looks like you need it being so puny and frail,” Ronin replied sarcastically.

            Another big wave rolled in and the pair cut it down together with deafening dual kiais.

            “What about Obladi?” Makato asked, wiping his blade on his soaking gi.

            “I’m not sure.  Sensei sent him out to find some ants.”

            Makato stopped and cast a curious glance at Ronin.  “Ants?”

            Ronin shrugged.  “He moved again when he wasn’t supposed to.  Sensei asked him if he had ants in his uniform.”

            Makato raised his eyebrows.  “Surely Obladi isn’t stupid enough to return with any ants, is he?”

            The pair just looked at each other for a moment before they burst out laughing.  “You’re right, Obladi ant that smart,” Makato added, sending them both into a roar.

            Soon after their laughter died down, Ronin looked around.  “Where’s the stone ball?”

            Without a word, Makato swung his sword in a cavalier stroke and pointed into the water about ten yards distant.

            “You threw it into the sea?” Ronin asked incredulously.

            “More like rolled the damned thing in,” Makato grinned.

            Ronin’s eyes widened as little bursts of laughter escaped his lips.  “Wh – what are you going to tell Sensei?”

            Makato shrugged.  “I’ll tell him I went as far away as I could from the temple, but I had to drop the rock before I drowned.  He can’t dispute that logic.”

            Ronin had a silly grin on his face.  “Sensei is going to be furious!”

            “Like I care.  The only thing he’ll be furious about it losing the damned rock.  The rest of the students will thank me for it.”

            “You’re right about that.”

            Another wave crashed into the boys and the pair made quick work of it, slicing it as many times as they could before it rolled past them.

            “You’re always pushing it, Makato.  Why do you oppose Sensei so much?  You just make it harder on yourself – on all of us.”

            “Sensei is going to get what’s coming to him one of these days, I guarantee it,” Makato said sardonically.

            “I wouldn’t be so quick to judge him.”

            “Oh come on, Ronin.  He makes our life miserable.”

            “No, we do that to ourselves when we don’t follow the rules.”

            “Bah, rules are made to be broken.”

            Ronin shook his head.  “You’re dangerous.”

            “We wouldn’t have as much fun if we followed all the rules now, would we?” Makato grinned.

            “Probably not.”

            “I can’t wait until someday I make the rules,” said Makato.

            “You mean you’re actually going to have rules?”

            “Probably not.”

            “I didn’t think so.  You hate every one of them here.”

            Another wave rolled in, and the boys slashed at it with waning strength.  Even Makato’s strength faltered after a time; the sea was relentless in its attacks. 

            “So what scared you back there at the cave?”

            “Scared me?  I wasn’t scared,” Ronin replied, keeping his eyes on the waves. 

            Makato laughed.  “Come on.  I saw it in your eyes as you ran past me.  I never knew you could run so fast!”

            Ronin shrugged.  “I thought I heard something.”

            Makato stopped cutting the water and faced him.  “Heard what?”

            Ronin looked up at him.  “It sounded liked a voice – an ancient voice.  It said, ‘COME’.”

            Makato said nothing for a moment, trying to read his friend’s face.  He knew he was dead serious.


            Ronin nodded.

            “And the voice came from inside the cave?”

            “I didn’t hear it until I entered the cave.”

            “You don’t think it was just the wind playing tricks on you?”

            “No.  I heard it clearly.  And I felt – a presence.  Yes, that’s the best way I can describe it.  An awful presence.  It was cold – powerful – I think it lived there.”

            Makato pursed his lips and chopped at the water, dicing up the sea with crisscrossing lines – the same way his mind was racing.  “Tomorrow – you, me and Obladi – we go back there.”

            Ronin shook his head.  “No way.  It’s too dangerous.  I’m going to tell Sensei.”

            Makato’s eyes flared and his feet ignited underneath him.  He splashed over to face Ronin like a moving fountain.  “You’ll do no such thing!  We found this place and he has no right to interfere nor any right to forbid us from it.”

            There it is, Ronin thought – Makato’s fear of Sensei’s dominance over his life – overwhelming his common sense.

            “Makato, he may know something about the cave.”

            “Who cares if he does or not?  I’ll be damned if I let him spoil our fun.”

            “Fun?  It’s not fun anymore!  We were all scared to be there in the first place, and for good reason.”

“I wasn’t scared,” Makato said matter-of-factly.

“He may know what’s there.  He could help us.”

            “Help us?”  Makato balked.  “When has Sensei ever helped us?  I’m telling you, Ronin – don’t say anything about this to anyone.  Don’t take this away from me – I mean – from us – not now.”

            Ronin saw the despair in Makato’s eyes – the loss of freedom – the need for his spirit to soar.  How could he say no? 

“All right, I won’t say anything,” Ronin grumbled.  “But I’m not going back there.”

            Makato grinned and slapped him on the back of his waterlogged uniform.  “Yes you are.”

            “No I’m not, and I don’t think you should either.  There’s something wrong about that place.”

            Makato rolled his eyes.  “Look around us, Ronin.  This whole place is wrong!  Now come on, help me finish marking my perimeter.”

            “Ah yes, you didn’t get very far, did you?” Ronin grinned, slicing through another wave.  “Do you think we should say a prayer for the stone ball that was lost at sea tonight?”

            Makato laughed.  “Yes.  Let’s pray that we never see that no good rock of pain ever again!”

            The two boys laughed and fought another dozen waves before they were too tired to raise their swords again.  That’s when the dead body crashed into them.