Chapter 13:

Chapter 13: What’s Lost Is Found

Element U

The night came and went.

Under the guise of an early sunrise, Kiyo snuck out to meet Daisuke’s family to embark on the pilgrimage out of Nippon. Toward the rising Sun, overpacked and overprepared for the journey ahead, their plans came together. Even if it was just a short trip, they were sure to prevent any possible accident from befalling them. Their lives safeguarded under the blessing of Ameretsu.

Exiting the parted gates of Nippon, the group set off on the paved roadway to the place of transition. A site foundational to the Paladinian belief, it sat directly beneath the milky way galaxy that encapsulated the cavern with radiant starlight. Embedded in a cave deep beneath the surface, it could only be accessed safely through a narrow passageway. Said passage was identified by a series of blood-soaked spirals of twigs stuck to the walls of the corridor that held up a carved glowstone. The blue luminescence held an attractive pull on their eyes, a spectacular guide to the prize within.

Despite the easy direction and beaten path that eased the trek there, it was still a treacherous journey. Only those of permitted age were allowed to embark, a sanction gifted from the chieftain necessary for all marked children edging on adulthood to leave. It was a right of passage to speak.

Beneath the pink-soaked skies, the group departed at the crack of dawn, sunlight fresh on their skin as they crossed over the eastern bridge. Constructed of coarse coar hair and dead wood boards, the rickety concourse held its own as many Paladinians wandered either way. Large enough for two full-grown men to walk shoulder to shoulder there and back, no caution was presented. All minds geared for the prize ahead, yet Daisuke struggled to contain himself.

This occasion of visiting the sacred cavern was one that many families took the opportunity to do around this time of year. Specifically those with marked children on the cusp of being sent off for training. Assessment of their true potential for the Paladinian people.

Beneath the bridge lay a five hundred-foot descent into a low-level vastelly. Small craters dotted the environment that steamed into the air from the pockets of molten hot water. Derived from rising magma chambers that became active many years ago, the quaint geysers pierced the earth’s surface and decorated the barren wasteland.

Only light wisps of the misty air rose to the bridge. Cooled off from the ascent, it only offered a gentle brush of hydration against the Paladinian’s skin, alongside a slight cloudy blur in their vision. Regardless, the group continued on their venture across the bitter desert ahead.

Nippon reduced to a hazy speck on the horizon, the group delved deeper into the wilderness that lay between them and the cavern. With a thinning ozone layer overhead, they were forced to clothe their entire body to prevent burns and a possible outbreak of redash. Cancer.

Draped in a thick filament of brazen peeled teratoma leather, they endured the walk beneath the blazing Sun. Only their eyes and hands were visible to its majestic rays. This weakness was something they considered necessary as to see Ameretsu’s face was to see death and life itself at once. No soul could do such a thing, especially not a brittle Paladinian child.

Not even Daisuke, lost in his tiresome walk as he gazed at the Sun above. Its radiant glory something he wished to obtain. To become powerful.

Swaddled in white woven robes beneath the leather armor, the weight of the knapsacks that sagged off their backs only grew as time dragged on. Their confinements were a necessity yet a burden all the more.

Hours rolled by in what felt like seconds. Botan’s ability to track the time off of the shadows cast by stray ashen boulders was their only source of time. Their feet became weary and blistered from the extensive walking. Entrapped within narrow patchwork cloth patted leather bound like tabi boots. Tight against their skin with a thin leather lining to cushion the grisly ground beneath them.

Little by little, the crowd thinned to only the family remaining on the path beaten into the desert from generations past. A wretched trail that interlinked over the tops of cascading ashen gray rock mounds, blast-ridden canyons that engulfed massive craters. Antient impacts from the day the sky rained fire.

The scorched terrain was desolate for any signs of other viable life. Acute vass was the only plant able to sustain this constant attention from the sun as it tried to cling to the group's feet. Yet powerless to entrap a single soul, it was merely kicked away each time. Its fickle attempt to sustain itself stomped out over the grainy earth.

A clear ever-present blue sky filled the abyss overhead, lit up by the overwhelming intensity of the Sun that beamed down through clusters of faded storm clouds. The beam drew Daisuke’s attention to their surroundings, and nearly every second he was amazed. This being his first true trip beyond the bounds of Nippon, he managed to cherish every part of it.

Gazing out across the infinite array of canyons of dirtied gray rock topped with crusty flaxen vass laid a sliver of green on the horizon. Distant and beyond their scope of understanding, he could only stare at it and wonder. What was it like beyond the canyons?

The tops of trees were barely visible but undistinguishable from the hazy line of green amidst the heat waves. Pillars of smoke rose from the base of the canyons, fresh fumes from the deep charred crust of the earth. A natural spectacle that rose through the cracks in the rigid landscape.

Kiyo’s focus remained locked on the steps ahead of him, how much effort he would have to release with each stride forward. But he couldn’t ignore the inevitable, the grievous torture that awaited his return to the village. Glimpses of his father standing overhead were burned into his eyes, visceral images of his own charred knuckles. A merciless punishment deemed training that would leave Kiyo bedridden for days on end. All of this in the false hope to draw out Kiyo’s full potential, but he knew it was a lie.

Ronin enjoyed the torment.

But this was a day out.

Away from home.

While short, Kiyo embraced the opportunity of freedom from his father’s judgment. The feeling of the wind against his calloused fingers stained a timid tart as the Sun peeled away at his skin.

Daisuke occasionally jerked Kiyo out of his dreary day terrors to point out what the boy saw as rare sightings. One of which was an iron-back snake swiveling its way through the jagged cuts of the earth beneath them.

It captivated Daisuke’s attention, left with broadened eyes as he gazed at the slender creature decorated in a gray rock-like shell with an amber-colored underbelly. Its sleek yet bulky outer layer of serrated skin allowed the snake to navigate and cling to the rocky walls around it. Traversing right beneath the surface to remain out of sight, one to sneak attack its prey. With its fangs and poisonous tentacles, the snake protracted them to threaten nearby predators. Those that dared to close ended up immobilized and susceptible to consumption.

Other intriguing bugs and smaller specimens lined the path there. Each found itself to be a brief distraction from the draining weather overhead. Fatigue was the next thing to follow as the day spiraled further toward the night.

Ayame and Cho interchanged the duty of carrying Misumi along the way. While three years old, she was still not keen on walking such a treacherous road herself. The little lady was raised to be a more dependent child than Daisuke. Born and bred to be an adventurer, he dared to become a protector of the Paladinian people. To save everyone.

Throughout their adventure through the countless intense heat waves that washed over them, the group found composure beneath temporary tent setups. Short sit-downs to retrieve water from the bone-carved flasks in the leather sown sachets slung over their backs.

With breaks came explanations, and tales of Paladinians of the past.

Their ancestors.

Ayame kept watch as the rest of the group sat down on adjacent clusters of stones. Listening from afar, Botan turned back the years on Nippon’s known history.

Of the vastellies, they called home.

“It was many, many cycles ago. The land was still covered in fire from that day it rained down from the sky. It was said people hid underground to escape the flames. To survive.” Botan relayed persuasively with wild hand gestures to convey the story’s intensity.

All eyes on him, joy pierced Botan’s lips and widened into a devious smile.

“But someone came to save them. To bring them out of the dark. She flooded the valley and rid the earth of all fire with heavenly water that cleansed the tarnished grounds inside out. Water that trickled down into the very caves beneath our feet.” Baton said as he grabbed a handful of gravel and squeezed it in his palm.

“Really?” Daisuke asked with a deep gasp, his eyes overrun with wonder.

Kiyo wasn’t as gullible. His eyes wandered to the possible threats on the unknown horizon, yet his mind was locked in on the story. Enveloped in the history he had only vaguely been told. Botan’s detailed descriptions a way to link together the tapestries he had seen with the High Priest.

“Really. And on that day, those who came to the surface devoted themselves to the land. To the belief of the woman who saved them. A divine being sent by the Sun, Amaterasu.”

“Wait. You said some people came back. What about the others?” Daisuke pointed out with pouted lips.

Botan nodded and turned his attention to the dull landscape that surrounded them. Sincere joy sunk beneath the wrinkles on his face, overlapped by a bleak fright that settled in. Mind racing, he peered back to the tales he was told as a boy. What his grandfather bore witness to as a mere child.

“They became cursed ones. Those deemed unworthy of her precious air and forced to scour the pits of the underworld.” Botan leaned in closer and posted his hands on his knees.

“They changed, adapted to the world beneath the surface. Into something—dangerous.”

“Like what?” Daisuke asked on the edge of his stone, his right leg filled with an unshakeable uneasiness.

“Cave stalkers. Their faces sunk into their skulls. Their eyes became hollow and white as the moonlight. They became devolved of emotions, husks of people. But the one thing about them—is their fingers.” Botan said as he raised his left hand and spread his fingers apart.

“They became blade-like, devilish swords of their own.” Botan moved his arm very slowly toward Daisuke, the boy’s eyes full of unrelenting immersion.

“It’s what they do with them that really gets you.” Botan lowered his hand to Daisuke’s chest. “They stalk their prey for days and whisper at them to drive them crazy. To lure them in.” Botan leaned forward, head tilted down as he continued.

“And then like a thief in the night. Ever so silently before you can even utter a word. A peep.” Botan mumbled out over the face mask hanging off his chin.

“They’ll-cut-you-down!” Botan thrust his arm into Daisuke’s chest and sent him back off his smoothen stone seat onto the cruddy earth.

“Woah,” Daisuke uttered in amazement, lost in the picture he imagined for such a terrifying beast.

“Botan. You can’t say things like that.” Cho clamored as she shook her head, arms occupied with a sleepy Misumi swaddled in a cloth sling.

“Why not?”

“You’ll give him nightmares.”

“Cho. Look at him. He’s smiling.” Botan said sarcastically as he pointed at his laid back on the dirt with a gracious grin.

“But—Kiyo he might-”

“I’m fine,” Kiyo muttered dryly, face hidden beneath overlapping dusty robes tied tight around his body.

“Well—never mind then. Just tone it down a bit, for me at least.”

“Okay, okay. I will, I swear.” Botan responded as he stretched himself upright to his feet.

Ayame strolled back over to the group and unfastened the cover over her mouth as she motioned them to stand. Her crystal-minty eyes locked onto the drained crew as they re-directed their attention to her.

“Path ahead seems to be safe from what I can see. No other Paladinian is in the sacred cavern either.” Ayame said openly, fidgeting with her lips as strands of cloth irritated her skin.

“Wait—-were that close?” Daisuke uttered as he shot upright off the ground.

“Whew. . . yeah, yep. I think it’s a good idea to get in now. Honestly, I can't take much more of the Sun.” Ayame added as she wiped a greasy line of sweat off her brow.

Daisuke glanced ahead beyond the bounds of the group, face overrun with indescribable joy. Unable to contain it, he was left to contrive mental pictures of what he would see, find, and discover within the caverns. It was glorious.

Kiyo tried to snap him out of the daze as he waved his hand in front of his face. Yet it proved useless as Daisuke continued to dwell on nonsense, his entire body tingling with anticipation.

“Got it. Everyone, we’re going in.” Botan called out as he took down the tent.

Everyone besides Daisuke nodded, still in a trance. Botan walked over to Cho and squatted down to help ease her up to her feet. Misumi packed close to her mother's chest was still situated in a deep sleep. Her supple body tuckered out from the Sun.

Kiyo grappled onto Daisuke and wrung him out of the clouds back down to reality. Shaking him out of the daydream, the two darted after Ayame past Cho and Botan. Plumes of gravel spurted into the air behind their heels as they wildly ran across the fragmented plain. Each toying with the other. Kiyo shared in a sliver of the excitement Daisuke had buried in his mind as they ran, for a couple minutes his mind steered clear of home.

For now, he was with his friend, and he was happy.

In the last mile stretch, it was nothing more than a straight shot to the mouth of the cave. The entrance an unmistakable sight to miss across the barren tan-crusted landscape.

Situated in the middle of the path, the flat land took a steep decline down into the underbelly of the rigid cliffs of the vastellies. Gray molten gravel transitioned into a slimy white gypsum that spiraled down from the ceilings. The subtle splashes of water upon the floor echoed through the vacant space. Such a peaceful setting was trumped by clamping feet as Daisuke and Kiyo quickly scaled down to the chasm’s base.

Clap! Clap! Clap! Clap!

Their shoes struck stagnant puddles that lined the cave’s floor, minds too busy mesmerized by the scenic view in front of them to care.

“This is—HUGE!” Daisuke shouted as his gaze ran up the crumbly chalked walls.

“Daisuke, calm down,” Cho echoed from above as she made her descent with Ayame’s aid. Misumi awoke on the way down, her balled fists itching away at the lopsided slumber that rested over her eyes. Fussy with her early rise from her brother’s echoes she pleaded for freedom. Her tears not satisfied until Cho let her worn soles lay upon the frigid stone. The child free to wander at a close distance.

“Remember, this is a sacred place. Don’t go running off to anywhere that’s not marked.” Botan echoed from behind, his warning enough to bring the boys to a standstill.

“What marks?” Daisuke asked absentmindedly.

“See those?” Botan squatted down beside Daisuke and pointed to blood-painted glowstone torches that lined the path ahead.

The blue glow stones nestled in the center of the decayed vines linked onto the wall. A pathway emerged as Daisuke peered past his father’s direction toward the zig-zag nature of the torches that seeped further into the cave.

“All we have to do is follow them. The sacred room is just a couple miles down.”

“Ooooh. Okay.”

“Yes, so let's just—-stick together. Alright?” Cho implored with a brush of Daisuke’s hair from behind.

Daisuke and Kiyo nodded silently, allowing Botan to lead the way as they followed closely behind. Each gazed around the bumpy walls that stretched and flexed out toward them the further they traveled.

White dirtied rock stretched the entire way, discolored by water dripping from the stalactites. Small pools of stagnant brown water pooled on the floor. Deeper than they led on, the under-the-nose trap hid by a film of brown mush on the surface. One step in the wrong place and your entire body would end up submerged in a narrow chasm.

Critters scurried off in the distance. Further back away from the blue glow, the abyss consumed the untouched grounds. But something lurked beyond it. Veiling the creatures that basked in the darkness, watching the group from afar, the pitch-black atmosphere abetted their blood thirst. Countless beady white eyes brimmed with anticipation for someone to slip up, to wander off.

To get lost.

To give up.

To become prey.

Windy turns and random drop-offs plagued the entire path, yet the safety net laid by those before them was a guide enough to keep them from falling into the void. From getting lost in the dark. In the home of cave stalkers.

“Wait. Where’s Misumi?” Cho said as she spun around, but the child was nowhere to be seen.

“Cho. She was just—here.” Botan rushed out, his confidence dwindling as he failed to spot the toddler.

Everyone searched the extent of the path, the radius of the blue light scattered upon the crystallized floor. But she was nowhere in sight, absent from the bounds of safety.

“Misumi! Misumi!” Cho’s sore panicked voice shrieked through the space, muffling as it echoed further into the cave.

No one responded. Only brief spurs of wind and water droplets filled the ambient environment. Short on options, Ayame took control as she back trekked down the path pointing toward the entrance.

“I’m going to go check the way we came. She can’t be too far.” Ayame called out as she dashed off, her shadow’s presence in the light gone within seconds

Botan walked over to Daisuke and Kiyo, movements firm as he glared them both dead in the eyes.

“You two, stay here. Wait and see if she comes back. Cho and I will go on ahead. But just wait—listen for her and wait.”

They nodded without contest and fell beneath a subtle pat from Botan on their shoulders. With Cho close behind, he led her ahead, eyes vigilant at every turn.

Their shadows disappeared behind a corner ahead, but their presence was deafening. Desperation latched onto Cho and Botan as they continued to call out for the absent-minded child. Footsteps echoed through the cave. Yet Daisuke felt no worry in the moment, only regret as he sat on the floor. The water rippled beneath his sullen impact, head suspended in the clutches of his hands. Lazily staring off into the widened scalding walls of white crystal and minerals lining the cave.

“Let’s just wait and—I don’t know. They’ll find her probably.” Daisuke groaned in a broken manner, a bit disappointed he was tossed aside, told to wait as if he would be a burden in his own right.

“Mhm. And—” Kiyo trailed off in a hushed tone as he redirected his attention toward the shadows.

“And what?”

“Shh.” Kiyo shot back as he held up his palm toward Daisuke.

“Shh? Don’t shh me.”

“Well, be quiet.”

“Why? Who gave you—”

“I hear something.” Kiyo clarified.

Arms falling to his sides, Kiyo squinted into the boundless abyss that spewed out from the unknown depths of the cave. Stalactites blocked their view, yet Kiyo picked up on the brief surge of noise. If only for a moment, it was enough for him to hone in on. All life, sound, and sensations went numb as he plucked the single echo out of the bunch. A quaint cry.

“I don’t hear a thing.”

Daisuke failed to hear it, focus too obscured by what surrounded them. Lost for understanding, Daisuke shook his head in annoyance at Kiyo’s silence.

“Kiyo—there’s nothing there.”


A brief flurry of whispers brushed past their ears. Within the wicked wind, individual identities cried out, countless souls trapped within the abyss. Their voices were corroded and decrepit from the tunnels below, but their cries were heard. A single phrase repeated over and over.

“Don’t stop, come closer. Help me. Don’t stop, come closer. Help me. Don’t stop, come closer. Help me.”

Daisuke and Kiyo scuttled forward, eyes peering into the darkness beyond the flicker of the glowstone. Through a narrow squint they barely made out the twisting tunnels that lead off to God knows where. But their ears continued to hone in on the distant unearthly noise.

Yet without a warning they vanished.

Gone with the wind.

Drip. Drip. Drip.

Entrapped in silence the two stood there and tried to latch back onto it. Faint drops of water were all that could be made out within the deepening expanse, except a single muffled tone. A cry billowed their way as it reverbed off the walls. Growing louder and louder it bashed into their ears.

“Aaaaaaaah!” A familiar child cried out, her tone too distinct to not be recognized.

Misumi! Daisuke jerked his body toward the voice’s origin but he couldn’t even take a single step. His face was torn back, emotions restricted by the fear that rippled across his body. With every second that passed, every droplet that hit the floor, and every beat of his heart only invigorated his confined blind rage. But he couldn’t do a thing but listen. His sister could be dead and all he could do in the moment was listen. Fear plastered on the forefront of his mind.

He was pathetic.

A million different ideas raced through Daisuke’s head, of how to find her, help her, save her from whatever creature had snatched her up. But he couldn’t move.



Daisuke stumbled forward from a sudden thrust on his shoulder. Glancing back his panicked mind found ease as he locked eyes with Kiyo. Their difference in reactions to the situation was drastic, unrecognizable as Kiyo stood there stone-faced brimmed with confidence. Not a crack of fear was visible in the warrior composure the boy embraced.

Then and there Daisuke saw the true distance between them, one look was all it took to see how puny his patch of courage was compared to Kiyo’s mountain of emotion. A true warrior in heart and mind.

“We need to move. Now.” Kiyo uttered adamantly, with his head tilted down toward the spiraling cries.

Ripped off the wall, Kiyo shoved a bluestone torch into Daisuke’s chest to lead the way. Their job now was solely to save Misumi from whatever horror lurked beyond their sight. To be the warriors they sought to become.

Daisuke wound his fingers tight around the lustrous rock as Kiyo’s bravery rubbed off on him. Mixed with envy, Daisuke blew out a timid breath and grasped onto reality. Burying the pain he bore witness to from the teratoma, he lowered into a tightened battle stance.

Shaking his head, Daisuke kicked off toward the ongoing scream, left with nothing else to turn to but to chase it. To save her. Kiyo followed right behind him, both running with purpose as they navigated the narrow passageways. Side by side, they dodged stalagmites and drew near to Misumi’s muffled cries. This endeavor was one they couldn’t fail. This time too much was at stake, Misumi’s delicate face all Daisuke could imagine with every stride. His flesh and blood were lost in the pits of hell itself. Who knows what lurked down there?

Only one way to find out.