The now familiar whitewashed buildings with their red tile decorations filled the small town. But where others we had seen on the island appeared freshly painted, this old, aged and ancient. The white here appeared more grey and in places the red paint had faded entirely.
Master Togo met us at the top of the stairs that overlooked a steep valley below. In the distance, we could see the circular outline of the monastery building. From this distance, we could see the red banners waving, but the text and images were too far away to read.
The ground at the bottom of the stairs was covered in a pink floating mist like a cloud. Master Togo was bent over, studying it carefully. “Be wary.” He said in a strange thin voice as he straightened and looked at us. “I am not sure what it is, but you can see how it has turned the leaves of the plants brown.”
Master Togo was right, parts of the mist seemed to cling to the wild grass and it was now covered in dry brown patches as if burned.
We followed the path left, towards where a copper & brass statue of a Djinn stood tall and proud. The warm sun made the statue glitter like gold, in front of the statue was a huge bell, it gave a deep sonorous sound at Master Togo’s touch. The ground seemed to shake slightly and then I saw Koss take a step backwards. A giant horse like creature, the size of a grown man rose out of the ground and trotted towards us. The Djinn shook it’s head, mane and tail swishing in the breeze.
Master Togo smiled and reached out a hand, the creature came up to him and nuzzled his hand as if greeting an old friend. “Shrines are located all over the peninsula.” Master Togo said quietly. “They can be summoned if help is required. And I think for now – it may be best to be safe than sorry.” His eyes drifted towards another patch of the pinkish mist that floated near the bridge.
As we watched, the small group of people that had been gathered there changed somehow, their faces stretched and flesh fell away as they screamed in pain.
“AFFLICTED!!!” A woman screamed and ran away from them, down the hill towards the caves as if seeking shelter. The Djinn threw its head in the air, stamping the ground with its front paws and charged towards the group. Koss drew his sword and followed, blade flashing in the afternoon sun.
“Did any of it touch you?” Master Togo asked warily. We checked our clothing carefully, none of the mist seemed to have stuck to us.
“Mark of Protection.” Dunkoro muttered softly, and Master Togo nodded sagely.
The path came to a crossroad, to the left it curved downwards towards the caves cut into the volcanic cliffs, to the right, it curved up the other side of the now extinct volcano.
“Either way will take us to the Temple.” Master Togo said quietly, looking at me.
“Left.” I said with a shrug. “South through the caves, it seems less affected by this mist, I’d rather not take my chances.”
“It could be harder to see in the caves.” Koss replied warily.
“Perhaps.” I looked at him and pointed back to the floating miasma. “It seems to be affected by sunlight, here and there, there.” I pointed at the patches in direct sunlight. “The caves will be dark.”
Master Togo’s lips twitched into a thin smile. “Come.” He said quietly. We edged our way past the floating pink miasma as it lay bathed in sunlight near the entrance to the cave. The cave was well lit, in parts the roof had fallen in, leaving great swathes of sunlight.
As I had suspected, the parts that were in full light showed signs of the same pink mist, while the rest of the cave appeared relatively normal. Still, this was no time to relax, my eyes scanned ahead, curves, hidden alcoves, listening as much with each step as I looked. A squark and something fell from the roof. A dark red, it opened it’s wings and hissed at us menacingly. A mantid, a female by the tell-tale reddish hooks at the top of her wing joints. That meant there might be babies in the area. I was right, just a few feet away there were more squarks as more and more mantids flew down from the ceiling.
The path had curved and split off in two directions, left was in full darkness but seemed to be a full colony of mantids. To the right and up the hill came more of the afflicted. And in the centre, the same strange purple mist was rising. A man was frantically trying to beat off the mantids with a stick but he was becoming closer and closer to the pink miasma. Master Togo rushed towards him, muttering a protective spell.
He drew a deep breath, leaving heavily on the stick. A relatively young man with short brown hair, introduced himself as Headmaster Wang. He had been on the way to the temple and had decided to cut through the caves in search of fungus that grew in the region to bring back to his students to study.
We moved on through the cave, making our way upwards. The air grew cloudy, and in the distance we could see more of the pink mist in places. More and more people seemed to have become infected.
“Master Togo.” I said warily as we took rest against another Djinn shrine tucked into the hillside. “What do you think of what Master Ang said about a tear in the Mists – is it possible?”
Headmaster Wang gave a startled cry of alarm and stared at me wide-eyed. “Surely such a thing is impossible!” He exclaimed.
“All matter of things are possible, whether or not they are permissible.” Master Togo said quietly and Wang flushed deeply. “Of this I am not certain, but something has upset the people and animals in this village.” Master Togo continued. “I should like to speak to Master Kaana, he is most learned in the Ways of the Mist. Come it is not far now, I can see –“ He broke off, staring at the stone and iron work bridge in front of us.
Ahead lay the pink mist, it had covered the temple compound and drifts of it lay everywhere blocking the bridge. There was no way to the temple without moving through the mist. As we watched we could see Master Yijo clawing at his face with his bare hands, he was screaming in agony. Blood poured down his face from his eyeless sockets.
“He ate them! He ate his eyes!” A man was screaming, running across the bridge away from Master Yijo towards us. A cow munching on grass nearby, raised its head and with a bellow charged towards the farmer, knocking him over the side of the volcano to the water below.
Koss grabbed my arm, pulling me back as the cow then rushed towards us. Without stopping to think, I raised my bow. My arrow flew true and Yijo fell to the ground. Blood lay everywhere. It was too late for Yijo, too late for the farmer, too late for the cows. I prayed it was not too late for Master Kaana as we ran for the temple.
Kaana it seemed was holding class with his under monks. Interested eyes flickered towards us momentarily. “Master Togo.” Kaana said cheerfuly. “Come join us-“
“No time to explain.” Togo said gruffly and walked towards a bookcase, he picked up a book, put it back and picked up another, and then another. “Emporer Angsiyan.” Togo muttered and then gave a pleased cry. “Here.”
Kaana grunted, his eyes glazing over. But the monks were rising from where they had been meditating on the floor. Weapons in their hands. A red mark appeared on the floor. It seemed to spread outwards. Master Togo was staring at the mark.
Cynn’s eyes flashed with fire, reflected from the wall she cast between us and them. “Master Togo!” She called, as if seeking permission. The old monk sighed and nodded, tapping his staff on to the ground. The monks fell. Dead. All around them the pink miasma floated. But it was the red mark that drew our eyes.
“What is it?” I asked.
“A mark I had not thought to see.” Master Togo said quietly. He sounded troubled. “The emblem of Shiro Tagatchi.”
I gasped. The mark of evil. This place was cursed. Koss drew a cross in the air in front of himself and muttered under his breath.
“Is it true that the sea turned to jade at his death?” I asked.
Master Togo nodded and knelt over the mark, studying it and then he rose, placing the books into a bag. “Come. We must go find the Oracle. It seems we must become Closer to the Stars. Only then we shall know how best to deal with this.”