Chapter 9:

Chapter 9: Customs, Customs, Customs

Element U

High rise.

The torrid rays of the Sun beamed down upon the group, skin inflamed as they made their rapid escape from the wretched woods. Time dwindled as the storm nipped at their heels, the entire valley engulfed in its shadow. Within seconds of its arrival, acid rain sprinkled down from the roasted clouds as they concealed the clear blue skies.

Takeo and the rest of the Sun Kissed Warriors were quick to escape the valley, cloaks held about their heads as they sped along the beaten gravel path. Their salvation was in sight in the form of a small boxed lift. The small pulley system, managed by a duo of guardian scouts atop the cliffside, hung freely above the ground awaiting their arrival.

Plop. Drip. Drip. Plop. Drip.

Rounded bulbs of toxic water plummeted down from the dastardly invasive clouds above. No time was wasted as the drizzle snowballed into a full downpour. Rapid streaks of such a corrosive liquid could melt one’s skin. Too heavy to ignore, Takeo picked up the pace, arm outstretched as he firmly grasped onto the lift’s central rope.

Tug—Tug. Tug-Tug-Tug. Tug.

A defined pattern was intercepted from above, feet rushed as the guardians thrust themselves into action. Little by little, the dead-wood basket eased its way into the air. The rope stretched thin, frays splintered off from the sheer tension brought on by the group's weight. A breeze swayed it along the coarse hillside, the edges of the box scratched raw by jagged pikes of degraded gray rock.

Bits of vass and wild clubmoss clung to the side of the coarse stone slope. Teeny canary-yellow petals swirled together in spiral pikes from the veins of moss that enveloped the cliffside. Flowers in early bloom were forced to cope with the drastic shift of seasons that came with the eleven-year shift in the Sun’s poles. Now ready and willing to accept the blaring rays of mid-Spring. Vines wound tight on the divots within the cliffside, their green stems rejoicing in the wind as the rain slid down to their exposed roots. Somewhat nutritious even in the direst of circumstances.

Hoisted up to the top, everyone piled out as the cage door swung open. Takeo fanned them all out of the basket onto the stable Nippon grounds. Directed by the sole pathing of his outline in the heavy rainfall, he led the rest of the group to where Genki and Yoshito took Daisuke: the Mishiroah sanctuary.

Dashing through the cobbled streets, shops closed and families ducked back into their houses under the threat of the worsening weather. Yet despite the rain’s low acidity, equivalent to that of gastric acid, the paladinian skin had become adapted to the forbidding cloudburst. Its contact caused only a mild irritation that could lead to a fatality if one stood out for an hour on end. Endurance of the vile precipitation was a trait to be uplifted.

Across a rickety bridge between caverns, the group climbed the central steps from the stone honorary peace grounds to the uplifted temple. A small honorable temporary shrine for the High Priest over the Sunretsu clan. This humbled household Nippon’s offering of residency; an extension of their loyalty.

This shadow of the monumental bethel that Daisuke and Kiyo had always seen on the horizon from the housing village’s wall. It was a sight to behold for marked ones, their represented place of origin, the belief in which they were born to protect; the following of the Sun.

At the tippy top of the smoothed slab stairs, two Noble Bishops were standing guard by the doors. Hands gripped onto naginata spears, the spearheads were constructed from thick shaved femur bones of Sun leechers, a creature of high authority in their beliefs. One feared yet praised. The bone crystalized enough to wear through a thousand men yet sharp enough to cut one in half with a single slash in the air. Those gifted with such a weapon were only liable to do so under permittance from the most high.

Both royal bishops were draped in all red robes, faces obscured by a golden veil that matched the lining on the edges of the silky hand-sewn cloth. The glistening finish accentuated their relation to the high priest; their rank within the system. They were simply warriors assigned to safeguard him with their lives. Their own life made useful through their dedicated protection of the High Priest.


Rain slid off the weathered cloaks of Takeo’s group as they stood in the presence of the bishops. With a right fist pounded on their hearts, their greeting finished and respect paid to the higher-class warriors.

“State your rank and purpose of business.” The right guard uttered sternly, fingers wound tight on his staff's leather grip.

Takeo threw up his right hand and displayed his current rank within the clan. A Roman numeral ‘V’ seared into his calloused meaty wrist over the ingrained carving of a star. The symbol of a level seven warrior, dwarf class.

“My business is this boy and another taken here for care earlier.” Takeo stepped forward and leaned in close to the guard with a raised brow. “Both are marked children who broke the holy word.”

“How so?”

“We found them in the forest during the cleansing hour for today, and well—it doesn’t take much to see that the priest will want to see this child,” Takeo said confidently with a loose gesture back to Kiyo.

Motioned forward, Ena hauled Kiyo’s unconscious body into the dim lantern light and removed the leather tarp shielding him from the storm. Tarp whisked off his arm, the bishops pressed forward for a clear view of the boy’s charcoal club hand. Skin encrusted in a thick crumbly crust. On the verge of falling off, his skin clung together from the blood that seeped through the charred cracks.

But the right guard didn’t even flinch. He was fascinated, confused, yet fearful all at once, emotions concealed beneath his veil. Kiyo’s judgment passed with merely a glance toward the left guard, a head tilt all that was required for confirmation. Their silent debate about the urgency of this child was one of higher clearance. The High Priest’s direct instructions exalted over such a circumstance as this.

“Well?” Takeo prodded, a bit of worry scurried within him as he winced at their silence.

Hmph. The first boy is uplifted.” The right guard lowered his spearhead toward Kiyo. “But this one—under the priest's decree himself shall be evaluated.”

“Evaluated?” Kaiya bumped past Takeo and fanned her open palm toward Kiyo. “He needs healing, now. With his burns who knows how long—”

“Kaiya. Fall off.” Takeo ordered dryly, his tongue sharp and direct as it struck her back.

“But . . .” One look back from Takeo sent her interjection running, opinion sequestered. “Apologies to those of the high.” Kaiya sulked back into line and straightened up.

Arms flung down to her sides, her fingers pinched at the muddied cloth in bitter annoyance, she knew better, medical aid was her priority. Having served as a previous maiden herself she was more than capable of treating Kiyo's burns. Of saving the child.

“Never step out of line. You all have much to learn even still. Understand this.” Takeo made clear with an emotionless gaze, disappointment evident in the glimmer in his faded sunflower yellow eyes.

Ena, Jun, and Hijame offered their respects with a solemn nod. Kaiya was slow to fall into line with them as she grinded her teeth, distaste over the situation choked down her throat. Faces reduced to husks, they emptied their minds of any personal opinions in the light of their superiors. Each was laced with an inner desire to achieve higher ranks. This squad was a collection of those en route to lead others, to become their own squadron leader.

Takeo spun back to the bishop and pounded his heart.

“I understand. May I accompany the boy to make sure he returns home safely afterward?”

“No.” The bishop responded without hesitation.

“What do you mean no?”

“Only those permitted by the priest may enter.”

A heavy gust of steam wafted out of Takeo’s nose, a bitter vexation toward their secrecy. Exhaustion over the situation surmounted, Takeo clutched the bridge of his nose and backed away from them for a moment of thought. Their training mission to clear the woods only continued to spiral out of control. This rescue mission had taken its mental toll on Takeo. His mind stressed over this mystery-marked child.

“Right, of course, customs. Could you formally ask him if I may come in?” Takeo slung out with a janky toss of his hand down to his side.

The bishop took in his request and raised his left palm to put the conversation on pause. The door slid open behind him, he dipped inside the sanctuary, a brief scuttle of whispers evident through the thin boarded bone lined door.

Minutes dragged on as they waited. Left to the will of nature, the group stood idly by amid the serene rainfall behind them. Their enjoyment of the elements was interrupted by a rumble of footsteps that came to a halt at the door. With haste, it was pulled open enough for the bishop to shuffle through, a maiden seen through the gap for a brief glimpse on the other side. The door closed the instant the bishop crossed the threshold.

Takeo crossed his arms and awaited the word of the High Priest. Ears craving his response like many, the ability to enter the sanctuary for once a gift very few Sun Kissed Warriors, found themselves able to access. Head swarming with questions and ideas he held dear in search of answers. First starting with the boy. With Kiyo.

“You.” The right bishop pointed his spear into the center of Takeo’s chest. “Take the boy inside to the fifth level. You are allowed to wait outside the room, but no one else. Understood?” The bishop said severely.

Takeo grasped at the scarf wrapped around his neck, he found himself caught between intrigue and confusion, eyebrows furrowed. The shrouded meaning behind their reactions and commands for Kiyo to meet with him at once was concerning. No time to recover in between, this confrontation demanded by the utmost High Priest. But why?

Releasing the blackened cloth Takeo came to terms with the limitations set. A subtle bow of his head was enough to communicate his agreement to the formalities demanded of them as the bishop bowed back.

“Good. Take the boy with you to the fifth level.” The bishop stepped aside and gestured to the doorway. “Maiden Aiko will lead you to the holy one’s room.” The bishop uttered, and in a single motion slid the door open to reveal a petite girl on the other side. Her head overrun white hair was crowded with blond curls that clashed with her bleak charcoal robes, a maiden in training.

“Happy to serve you, t-today sir!” Aiko squirmed out nervously with an overly eager bow, the seven-year-old new to the frontlines of maiden work.

Being the same age as Kiyo and Daisuke, born in an eleventh year, she was one of the many that were left unmarked by the priestess. The Sun’s designation of her life was seen to be for another purpose. Her designated role was a maiden until further notice, training underway with the first visit from the High Priest since the poles shifted.

As were all new maidens, Akio was draped in the traditional white robe encompassed in a black cloak that hung down from her waist. Panic flushed her face pink, excitement clashed with stress to master the lifestyle appointed to her.

Takeo turned back to the group and stretched his arms out to Ena. Hesitant to release Kiyo, Ena jerked back for a peek around Takeo into the sanctuary. Possible ideas of entry came to mind but ending up gutted and shamed wasn’t a possibility he wanted to consider. Out of options he handed off an unconscious Kiyo into Takeo’s arms.

“All of you go back to the north post and inform Genki and Yoshito of the situation. That’s all for today.” Takeo ordered with an upward tilt of his chin.

The four bowed and darted off down the stairs through a thick curtain of rain, their outlines dissipating within the storm that consumed them. Soon out of sight, they shielded themselves beneath their leather-worn tarps en route to the northern outpost—a bunker for squads of warriors along the Nippon wall.

“Now.” Takeo gestured toward the dancing light that bled out from the doorway onto the drenched stone floor. “May I come in?”

“Agreed. Best to not have the priest wait any longer.” The right bishop responded in a dreary voice.

“I guess so.”

“I’ll take you th-there. Just right up here!” Aiko butted in joyfully with another bow, a wide smile braced on her face.

“Thank you,” Takeo replied with a slight nod, his menacing glare swamped with a hint of delight, kindness shed through a half smirk at the child.

The door slid closed behind Takeo, the two bishops left to guard it under all circumstances as the high priest conducted trials. Beyond the awning the storm persisted, the entire village coated in a faint green film as the clouds soared over the cratered vastelly. Windows shuttered and doors barred to remain dry, Nippon was doused in high noon darkness. Precious light became obscured by the trials of the new world.

In the center of the storm, the boys' futures came into question. Daisuke and Kiyo each equal in their part to play for the Sunretsu clan, their lives leading to something greater than they could ever anticipate. This day of darkness was a mere glimpse into that future.

“Errrm. Kiyo. . . did you see it?” Daisuke mumbled aloud as he slowly came out of his secluded rest.

“I—found one.” Daisuke swung his arms amid his rest. “They’re real. I knew it.”

It all came back to him in pieces. Fragments of the journey turned into tragedy. Nightmares that plagued Daisuke’s young mind, vivid scenes of the teratoma hurling his body through the woods resurfaced little by little. Glimpses of broken bones and bloodied skin ruptured by its fearsome talons embedded themselves deep into his subconscious. Concussed from the fall, Daisuke struggled to regain control. To pull himself out of the dream.

But then he saw it.

Creak. Thump. Thump.

Daisuke rolled side to side, mind unable to make sense of the flash that tarnished his eyes. A glimmer of Kiyo fighting the monster leaked in. Blurry backseat visions of him punching the beast. A wild rage subdued him. But, what was the green glow emanating off of him?

“Kiyo. What are you—-Kiyo!”

He lunged forward in a cold sweat that trickled down his back. Sat upright, he hung his head forward to catch his breath, to reel in what he saw. Streaks of pain shot out across his chest from the gashes left behind by the teratoma. Daisuke wrapped his arms around his stomach to muffle the jolts of agony, every second too agonizing to sequester as he collapsed onto his back.

Through it all, his friend remained ever-present in his mind. That image burned into his vision.

“Kiyo,” Daisuke glanced around the room, face scrunched inward by the opaque wood that surrounded him. “Wh—where am I?”

Gloss rubbed off his eyes, Daisuke took notice of the drastic change in his surroundings. The dead woods were long gone. Now laid on a weaved vass mat, coar hair used to bind the strands together, he scaled his gaze up from the floor to the ceiling. The room itself was similar to the very one he was born in, a matted floor encased in tarred crimson-soaked boards.

It was a secluded room with a single double slide door entrance. The roof was lined with gray wooden beams nailed in by obsidian spikes. No other living soul was present, Daisuke left to his lonesome.

Wait, but the teratoma hit me. It killed me. Daisuke thought to himself, head fuzzy from the entire event.

Hands raised against his face, Daisuke peeped through slits in his eyes. Expecting to find blood on his hands. To feel the treacherous mark of the beast, his horrid wounds. He gritted his teeth and slowly reeled his eyelids back open. Disbelief filled his gaze, hands shakier the longer he stared at his healed hands. It was like it never happened.

How am I alive?

Surprise masked Daisuke’s face as he patted at his chest wound in tight-knit layers of worn bandages. Blotches of blood seeped through, and three faint lines were left behind in their wake that imitated the scars beneath them. His first day in the woods impossible to forget.

“Woah, cool.” Daisuke took a second to admire the medical work and then reeled his focus back to his environment. “Hello?”

Shifting forward onto his knees, Daisuke honed his senses on the slightest details around him. The faint pitter-patter of rain leaked in through the creaking shift of footsteps throughout the sanctuary. Regardless, there was no clear way to know on his own where he was. Communication with the outside was his best course of action, his only course.

“Anyone there? Kiyo?” He called out through cupped hands.


Footsteps raced down the hall that sped around the outline of the room to its entrance. Daisuke followed the clamor of noise and narrowed in on the thin hide doors, a shadow cast onto them from the right end of the hall by the radiance of a glowstone lantern. It was small but still, it was another person.

“Thank Sun . . . wait.”

Relief shrunk into scowled fear across Daisuke’s face drawn out from the realization of his and Kiyo’s actions. They were caught like many before them. Punishment was expected as uncertainty tainted his thoughts with memories of the past public chastisement. The equivalent sentencing for leaving the sacred grounds before granted passage was a travesty on the most high. Scrambling back, Daisuke bumped into the wall, his jaded palms extended out in front of him as he tried to ward off the person.

“Wait, I didn’t mean it, I swear on the Sun,” Daisuke uttered as he waved his arms around wildly.

To be fair he couldn’t know, being only seven years old, the conceivable price to pay appeared infinite in his prepubescent mind. His teeth chattered relentlessly, unable to contain the terror that ruptured his mind. Old age came early as panic coiled around his heart, his face wrinkled beyond recognition. The end was in sight for his young pagan eyes.

“I’m sorry!” Daisuke wailed in a pitiful spout of tears.


The door slid open but Daisuke refused to look. Gaze blocked behind his forearms, the boy petrified by what waited for him beyond the darkness. Faces phased through his mind for his executioner in front of him, what they came to tell him. To do to him. What did they want?

“Master Daisuke, are you okay?” A gentle and sweet high pitched voice called out.

Daisuke fell still. Arms split apart, he peeked into the sliver of light that shone upon his face to identify the voice. Slumped against the frame of the doorway, Aiko stared at him with dire concern. Her face flustered from the sprint up the stairs, called into action by the mere panic in Daisuke’s shrill cry. She panted in the stagnant air and awaited the marked child’s response, the all-clear.

“Yeah. I think so.” Daisuke muttered as he lowered his arms to his sides.

“Are—-you sure?” Aiko inhaled a long, much-desired breath. “It looks like you were cry-”

“I’m fine, I swear!” Daisuke blurted out as a blush washed over his face, hands clasped onto his cheeks.

Whew! Aiko wheezed in relief, a little smirk creasing her face. “Thank Sun.”

“But where’s Kiyo?”

“Oh, the other boy?” Aiko straightened herself upright with a gracious exhale. “He’s with the high priest right now.”

Daisuke’s eyes widened, the idea of speaking with the most high of their people was something unable for him to comprehend. An unfathomable circumstance for any citizen of Nippon. The first guess of why was all he could surmise: punishment.

“Oh no.” Daisuke gasped aloud.

A colossal wave of worry sloshed around in his head, fear contorting his image of the priest to be some monster that would consume Kiyo. The prophetic holy one was reduced to someone who could wipe his friend off the face of the earth without consequence. Ayame’s stories of the priest banishing all children who went outside fed the hysteric fiery thoughts that echoed throughout his mind.


“The—high priest?” Daisuke asked in a shaky tone, body riddled with shudders.

“Yep! Must be so magical to get to talk to him,” Aiko said as she spun around, a cheery grin spread across her rosy scrunched baby face, her lime green eyes full of childlike wonder.

Daisuke had a polar opposite reaction as depression slithered in and rippled across his face. Skin paler than usual, he grappled at his hair.

With Kiyo on his mind, Daisuke could only stare into the grooves of the floor, lost in the overwhelming concern for what was happening to him. What torture he must be facing now for something Daisuke roped him into. Biting onto his left pointer finger, Daisuke pondered and wondered and worried. He couldn’t shake the nervous shivers, mind succumbed to guilt.

Aiko ended her spinning and gazed over at Daisuke. A tug of dismay drained her happiness, her smirk pulled aside as she strolled across the matted floor toward Daisuke. Weighed down by worry, he rocked back and forth biting away at his nails. With a bubble pout on her face, Aiko squinted at Daisuke. What was he thinking?

“You were crying, weren’t you?” Aiko asked with a jammed finger in his left cheek.

“N-n-no. I’m just—” Daisuke whined, but he couldn’t even finish his sentence, words stifled.

“It’s okay I cry sometimes too. Like earlier when I tripped and fell.” Aiko said in an overly energetic tone.

“You did?” Daisuke murmured as he rubbed the tears into his puffy cheeks.

“Yep. And another was when a bishop called me giftless. But it’s fine now because I know what I am.”

“What’s that?”

“Someone who helps others cause I can’t help myself!” She announced, arms raised to the heavens.

Needless to say, Daisuke didn't get it. Smile dropped and eyes squinted, he failed to find a reason to rejoice in her words. Her declaration was nothing more than a self-acknowledgment of her uselessness. Most Paladinians would disgrace themselves for such a thing, but she rejoiced.

“Also, this other time—” Aiko’s stories fell silent as Daisuke drowned her out, focus pinned on the situation at hand.

What does the high priest even want with him? Daisuke pondered intently, only able to imagine what it must be like. He took a deep breath and sighed it all out.

“But I can’t forget when the High Priest—” Hand raised, he planted his bare palm on her mouth and brought an end to her exposition. Concentration redirected to Daisuke’s narrow pensive gaze.

One request was all he had on his mind.

“Take me to him.”