Born into warring clans, wind ninja Sakura and fire ninja Temujin walk paths that couldn't be farther apart. But their separate worlds are thrown into chaos by the theft of Belshazzar's Scroll, an ancient relic that grants its possessor the divine right to rule over all the clans. To bring back peace to their lands, they must learn to fight together against a new breed of mystical half-human, half-demon warriors.
As though proof that a blade of love can grow even in the harshest places, Temujin can't help falling for Sakura. A ninja from the ice clan, Sasha, becomes his rival and seems to be a more suitable match for the beautiful wind ninja. Now, Sakura, Temujin, and Sasha stand in the heart of a conflict that shall decide the future of all the ninja clans.
Read an excerpt:
An Intruder in the Palace
Sunlight filtered in through the shoji paper of the windows. It was a beautiful day outside. Sakura could hear birds singing, children laughing. She imagined kites gliding on the winds. And here she was practicing calligraphy.
Seventeen-year-old Sakura sighed in boredom. She didn’t even realize she did until she had done so. By then it was too late and the calligraphy sensei, an old man who looked like the mythical tortoise that had been around since the creation of the world, glared at her from above the thick frame of his rivet spectacles. Those glasses were basically magnifying lenses riveted together (hence the name) and were better-suited for scrutinizing the faint underwriting on the pages of dusty tomes in the Imperial Library. Supposedly they made the wearer over-dependent and as helpless as a mole without them, but the eyes of the sensei still looked like those of a hawk and felt like they could probe straight into her soul and banish her to the netherworld.
Sakura stiffened on her knees in front of the low table. Although she was constantly at loggerheads with her tutors especially about what made a proper lady proper, mainly because she doubted very much that her senseis had any inkling of what that concept meant in that day and age, the tutors were acting under strict instructions from her grandfather. Now, her grandfather was someone she wouldn’t dare disobey. Her mother, Crown Princess Chiharu, she could reason with and disarm with her Puppy Eye Technique. But to go against her grandfather, Emperor and head of the Imperial House, it would take a more powerful and probably martial skill.
If only Father was alive, Sakura thought to herself and repressed another sigh that seemed to come from the lowest depths of her heart. Her hand was moving the brush elegantly and fluidly over the scroll. Ideally she was tracing the old strokes closer and closer to perfection, but in reality she was just going through the motions. According to the calligraphy sensei, perfecting her brushstrokes would lead to the improvement of her swordplay. If that was true, Sakura thought, she’d be a master swordsman by now.
Her father, fallen heir to the Gold Lotus Throne, was the greatest swordsman of his time. He was killed in a cowardly attack by assassins of the Clan of Dragon when Sakura was still a child. She remembered more of that day than anything else about her father, which was kind of messed up but nothing she could change.
The assassins from the Dragon Clan had transformed the Grand Hall into a sea of fire and looked like demons in her child eyes. Indeed, rumor had it that they had traded their souls for power and their bodies were nothing but empty shells for the dark elements. But they were still identifiable through the traditional red garb of the Dragon ninjas, complete with the mempo or faceplate that covered their faces from the nose down to the chin. Those faceplates were made of both iron and leather with a lacquered finish. They depicted the nose-tendrils and fangs of their spirit animal.
It was no secret that their target had been Belshazzar’s Scroll. It was the most precious of all the relics in the possession of Sakura’s clan, handed down to the prophets by the gods of creation themselves and entrusted to their care and protection. So it had been for many years. So it would be till the day of truth.
The Clan of Crane had carried on a proud and vigilant tradition as keepers and protectors of the scroll. Using both the martial and mystic arts, they kept raiders at bay. Sakura’s late father was the greatest embodiment of that Crane Clan spirit, wearing his immaculate-white shōzoku and leaping into the flames of the enemy like a giant white bird spirit that was light and airy and yet full of substance, sacrificing his own life and leaving his loved ones behind.
Before Sakura realized it, a tear had fallen from her eye and ruined the ink on her parchment. Perhaps the calligraphy sensei would understand. She quietly sniffled and wiped the corner of her eye with the long wide sleeve of her white kimono with the huge drum knot on the back. It took her a while to lift her bowed head to check the sensei’s reaction but as soon as she did, she realized something was wrong. The sensei’s typically watchful eyes weren’t trained on her. He was listening to something outside, his head cocked.
It was the Imperial Guards shouting: “Over there! Over there!”
“Stay here, Sakura-hime,” her sensei instructed, putting out all the candles and lamps in the room with a simple wave of his hand. With surprising agility, he slid open, stepped out of, then shut the door, throwing the room into darkness except for the pale sunlight seeping in through the paper windows.
As the commotion went on outside, Sakura floated backwards to camouflage herself with the banners and shadows of the wall and tried to regulate her breathing. Through her yoga training, she had learned to reduce her breathing to the point that her heartbeat and metabolism would become very slow and her body would conserve energy. She had resumed sitting seiza-style, which was half-kneeling half-sitting, this time in the dark and fighting back her curiosity with all the restraint she could muster.
As heir apparent, she wasn’t allowed to put her life in danger. Hundreds of palace guards would also throw themselves on the blades of the enemy before they would let any harm come to her. Sakura appreciated the selfless devotion but felt like any normal seventeen-year-old girl would: like a sitting duck.
What was all that about? Something unexpected so rarely happened on the peaceful Ethereal Nest so what could it be? She was burning to find out.
Then, all at once, as an ominous fulfilment of the saying “be careful what you wish for,” she felt the sliding door of the calligraphy room soundlessly open and then just as quietly shut. Someone had entered the room and, judging by the air disturbance and minute pressure shifts, it wasn’t her sensei.
Sakura let her eyes adjust in the dark. She could make out a shape right beside the entrance. It was human and crouching parallel to the door, only its profile visible to her. Then her heart gave a leap because she could discern the color of the ninja’s shōzoku. It was red!
The Realm of Cranes was scattered amid the peaks of the highest mountains in the East, veiled by clouds. On the other hand, red ninjas of the Clan of Dragon inhabited the very fertile lands at the foot of volcanoes. They enjoyed the hot springs there and tapped the burning energies from deep within the earth to forge terrible weapons of war. Seeing a member of the Dragon Clan here now was like seeing a mole on an eagle’s nest.
Sakura could hardly bear the suspense. It had been a decade since the last sighting of red ninjas on the Ethereal Nest. Who was this? A thief?
As though the red ninja could sense her, it turned its head to the shadows that hid Sakura. Sakura calmed herself again by meditation to become invisible.
Her camouflage appeared to be working, which was a relief. But then she saw the red ninja raise his hands to make the hand seal of Jin, the Inner Bonds, which would bring his awareness to a heightened state. He put his hands together, fingers interlocked. Then, to Sakura’s great surprise, he even whispered the mantra in esoteric Highland tongue: “Through the Infinite, I know the mind of each and all.” His eyes momentarily glowed red in the dark.
The Kuji Kiri or the Nine Hand Seals was a set of mudras or hand signs. Originally developed by the mountain pilgrim monks of the Ethereal Nest, they were used to purify ninjas under the raging torrent of a waterfall. By forming hand seals, a ninja was able to summon their ch’i (energy force) to perform their desired technique.
The particular hand seal the red ninja was making would give him the power to read the thoughts of others. It was very useful in scanning dark spaces for the presence of other ninjas. But the shocking thing about it was, the thought-listening technique called Chounouryokujutsu was supposed to be unique to the Clan of Crane, the white ninjas. Right now Sakura was looking at a member of the Clan of Dragon who knew how to execute it.
She could counter the offensive technique with a defensive one of her own, to shield her thoughts from his prying mind. But she focused all her energies on staying calm and sitting perfectly still, mainly because the multi-tiered sword stand was far to her left. The swords were all neatly arranged for display like the glaives and the hollow armors, too far out of reach in the face of a determined red ninja and his shurikens, flames, or both.
Sakura decided the next best course of action. She decided to surprise him by giving him a taste of his own medicine and communicating with him on the psychic plane. This was Ishin-denshin no Jutsu. The Mind Transmission Technique. Maybe she could distract him until an opening to tumble to the weapons presented itself.
- Who are you?
The red ninja was aghast. He whipped out a shuriken from the inner pocket of his jacket. When he fanned it out like a hand of cards, it was revealed he actually held six of the wicked throwing stars instead of just one. More than enough to seriously injure an unarmed princess at that distance.
But then the red ninja regained his composure and tried, rather belatedly, to demonstrate either courage or innocence. With a slight hesitation, he slipped his shurikens back inside his jacket.
- My name is Temujin, of the Clan of Dragon, he spoke in a voice that he might’ve deepened on purpose. He was now using the pidgin language of the Lowlands, which was very different from the melodic cadences of her Highland mother tongue but which Sakura had been trained to understand and speak.
I am Sakura-hime, of the Clan of Crane. I am pleased to make your acquaintance.
By adding the suffix “hime” to her name, she identified herself as a princess because it was very likely no secret to him now that she was in fact one.
She had always only used the Highlands language of the Cranes, which epitomized high-mindedness and erudition to anyone who heard it. It was her first time to use the Lowlands pidgin because that was the only time she ever needed to do so. It felt a bit strange and uncomfortable to be communicating in the foreign tongue, but she knew her diction and blending were on point and the intruder would understand her.
Sakura bowed low as she was taught. Without moving from her kneeling position, she lowered her body from the waist, hands sliding over knees till her fingertips touched the floor, momentarily leaving herself open to attack. It was mainly out of habit but she also didn’t want to break decorum and show that she was afraid. In hindsight, it extended courteous treatment to anyone, be they nobility or commoner, same clan or enemy clan. Perhaps the red ninja would appreciate the gesture and be softened or see reason.
The man who called himself Temujin gave a slight bow in return, if awkwardly.
- Tell me, Temujin, what brings you to our home? Sakura kept up the calm crisis negotiation.
- I, T-Temujin… the red ninja stuttered, which almost made Sakura smile, …have come to warn the House of Crane of an impending attempt at Belshazzar’s Scroll.
- On behalf of the Realm, I thank you for your efforts, Temujin. But if you finish your mind scan you will see that there is nothing to fear and I have no reason to lie to you. Belshazzar’s Scroll is safe and not even me, the Princess, have knowledge of its precise location.
Temujin looked at her as though to ask permission. Sakura nodded.
Soon, she felt his mind probing hers. Ninjas of the Clan of Crane were masters of the power of Jin, the Inner Bonds, not only for delving into another person’s thoughts but also for hiding one’s own. This time, she let him enter without resistance, still as a sign of good faith.
- Forgive me, Your Highness, Temujin finally said after he was satisfied with what he found. I have underestimated the security arrangements around the scroll and have insulted you by expressing my fear so urgently. Moreover, I came to the Ethereal Nest and this room without invitation.
Sakura was pleased with the reversal. It seemed even a red ninja could be taught eloquence and manners.
- I accept your apology. But now that you know so much about me, it seems unfair that I should know very little of you. And so, for my first question, please tell me… how did you come to know of our Chounouryoku Technique? I didn’t realize the Clan of Dragon was also trained in the spiritual arts.
- They’re not, Your Highness. I am but an exception to the rule. I was trained by a pilgrim monk from your homeland the Ethereal Nest. You can rest easy that only I among my clan know it.
- Interesting, Sakura replied. I would like to meet this wandering monk and—
All at once the paper of the sliding door was torn and Sakura screamed. A snare pole had thrust through, catching Temujin’s left hand and nipping any fire attack in the bud. The weapon was exactly like a snare pole except instead of a loop of rope at the end, the wielder manifested a noose made of either wind or vacuum which deprived Temujin of his fire-making abilities. The wielder also yanked the whole person out through the paper door, widening the hole and causing Temujin to tumble outside.
Sakura rushed out of the arts room using short-range teleportation, to skip the unprecedented choice of sliding the door open or simply going through the large hole in it. The first felt silly while the second was unbecoming of a lady, into whom the two-stage process of sliding the door open had been hammered during tea ceremony. Everyone beheld the sight that hadn’t been witnessed on the Ethereal Nest for many years: a red ninja was being restrained on both sides by members of the Imperial Guards.
“I’m not a thief! I came here to warn the Emperor! There will be an attempt on the scroll tonight!” Temujin shouted through the mempo mask over his mouth.
“Not a thief, eh? Then a spy! That’s what you are!” the guard on Temujin’s right said and threw a punch to the red ninja’s side, eliciting a groan.
“That’s enough,” Sakura ordered and the guards stiffened. She walked in stride towards the group on her high geta wooden shoes, which was no mean feat. They made her look much taller, very elegant and commanding. What do you know, Sakura thought to herself, those lessons do pay off.
“Please take your mask off and identify yourself to them,” she requested Temujin gently. She looked into his eyes, which were the only part of his face not covered by the faceplate mask. In them was a mixture of emotions: fear, confusion, and hatred. He didn’t respond.
Sakura held the top of the intruder’s ninja mask and slowly removed it. The swarthy face of a young man looked back angrily at his captors and uncertainly at Sakura, whom he was seeing for the first time up close. Sakura was taken aback. She hadn’t expected Temujin to be so young, about the same age as her.
He was lanky and his face was slightly pinched, with high cheekbones, but what stood out was the enhancement of his eyes by his hair. Apart from flashing a glint of defiance, those eyes possessed the monolids typical of the Eastern region but their color was a deep hazel brown below his long black bangs. On the Ethereal Nest, everyone had cerulean eyes and white hair regardless of their age.
“Take him to court,” a new voice spoke from the left and Sakura saw it was the First Minister, standing by the huge doors which had just opened and led to the Grand Hall. This character was even more dour than the calligraphy sensei and resembled an Ibizan Hound in Sakura’s rich imagination.
The guards dragged the prisoner into the doors as the young ninja continued to struggle and protest his innocence.
Princess Sakura was left standing in the hallway as the huge doors closed with a resounding sound. It was only then she realized she was still holding Temujin’s red mask, which included the hachi-gane or forehead protector. This consisted of a headband and a piece of metal plate from the many forges of the Dragon Clan and was engraved with curves and spirals suggestive of a dragon.
For Sakura, a sighting of that mark was as rare and magical as the beast itself.
About Mon D Rea
His friends say he’s a grammar Nazi with a hyperactive imagination, and these two personalities of him are constantly at each other’s throats. He used to be a Neanderthal but now almost tech-savvy. He likes superhero movies.