Rain grows heavy as winds blow fiercely across the land terrifying livestock in the dark night. The herd tramples the grasslands beneath them and the earth trembles with fear. Their chaotic wailing alerts the farmer's dog.
Benji, a cattle dog, raises his triangular ears as he senses a disturbance in his owner's territory. He runs towards the door and barks. The commotion wakes up his master, Hashi (37), a former Warlord. Hashi has slept with his blade nearby ever since the ambush that almost took his life during the war against the rebels. He hastily picks up his katana near his bedside when suddenly the cries and shaking halts simultaneously.
The complete silence is even more unsettling. With little time, Hashi quickly puts on a hooded cloak, tucks his feet into his working boots, and rushes the door. Benji follows from behind-- then runs far ahead of Hashi and fades into the darkness of the night. That didn't bother him as he has complete trust in Benji, after all, nobody ever taught dogs how to fear.
Hashi surveys the cattle livestock and notices the fear in their eyes. Something had terrified them into silence. In the distance of darkness, Benji aggressively growls and barks. Hashi looks in that direction, it's coming from behind the horse stable. He approached with caution, his hands readily on his blade-handle attached to his hip. The horses frighten-- kicking while trying to escape their tethers. He inspects the ground-- a mixture of blood and water running towards his boots. He follows the stream of blood towards Benji’s barking.
"Benji. What is it, boy?"
He says softly under his own breath. Not a real question, just trying to ease his own nerves. He slowly paces closer, and his gut sickens deeper. Hashi turns the corner behind the barn when fear runs across his face as he discovers the limbs of dead children, surgically decapitated.
No torso is found, just a detachment of arms and shins that forms a huge ring. Naked waists and thighs lay outside of the circle facing outwards-- resembling of a sun diagram. And the decapitated heads just within the circle, upright, facing inwards. Their faces oriented to look at the center, a gravestone of his wife and child, while pools of blood flow in all direction-- slowly seeping into the ground.
A single lighting strike reveals a girl standing behind the grave--motionless and terrified. Benji runs towards his side as Hashi draws his blade. A thunderous clap from the heavens shakes the earth, and within it, a distortion of monstrous laughter echoes as a large shadowy figure rises behind the girl.
...Elsewhere, a young girl wakes up frantically, breathing heavily.
Snow just began thawing but before spring arrived, the cold season gifted one last storm at winters end. The sun is aligned directly above them, and Nazura (17) knew they've been riding on horseback for seven hours without a break. He's not formally educated, but he has a keen observation of the world around him. They had descended from the mountains in which they came before a hint of light shined upon the lands. He is guarding the rear and his father, Gai, in the front. They are escorting thirteen monks from Temple Mountain to Farm Valley in the news of the mass child massacre. The monks were summoned for a burial ritual to guide the children's soul to heaven.
They've been riding westward on the dangerous Road to the Heavens, an unmaintained path that's isolated and infrequent but easily navigated by mountain goats and leopards. The group arrives at a juncture, Koi Bridge that connects to Farmer's Way. Underneath lies the Heavenly Stream, a river that derives from the Falls of Awe from their home mountain which provides fresh water for the entire country. The front of the group comes to a stop before the bridge.
"We'll take a water break here," says Ravesha, the elder monk. "There's fresh water and plenty of fish."
Ravesha has been breathing since before the Unification Campaign. Monks don't keep track of birthdays, but he often tells the tale of blessing the legendary hero, Neji, in his crown ceremony.
Lan is a couple years younger than Nazura. He's a monk-in-training, but still a teenager.
Guarding the monks is not a job, but a way of life. They share a docile in Temple Mountain, and the community of monks had helped raise him, in return they have been protecting the monks. Ever since the Jin Dynasty took control of all the western lands, peaceful monks make easy targets. Nazura doesn't recall a time when it was safe, he was a year old when Jin took control. The country of the west was a unified country on paper, but those from the former Kyoshi Empire have never fully assimilated. And some who did not bend the knee were pushed out of their lovely homes and forced to work the farmlands. Many people from the city lost faith in the monks and their teachings. The peaceful majority is always ruled by the bloodthirsty minority. But in the countryside, they are still widely respected.
On the opposite side of Farmer's Way is another group traveling east from Kyo Castle. Prince Genjin has never ventured far from home, it is his first time in the countryside. He rides along with a small army of decorated of men, and riding next to him is his grandfather, Akura.
"High Advisor Akura," Genjin says as he surveys the land.
A bittersweet moment for Akura. He remembers a time when Genjin was shorter, and still addressed him as grandpa. It's been a month since Genjin was sent to further his study in diplomacy under Akura.
"Please, no need for formality, your grace," Akura replies.
"Then no need to say, your grace, gramps," Genjin wittily response.
They both laugh.
"You are your mother's boy."
"This must be the Valley Flats, it fits the description perfectly."
"Your study is uncanny, can't say the same thing about your sword work."