The Journey Begins
Rakuyo felt his heart race as he made his way deeper and deeper into the temple. Even with the torches that lined the walls, the dim stone passageways felt tight and stuffy as though he were being swallowed. But just when it seemed like there was no end in sight, Rakuyo eventually came to a door with patterns similar to the secret mosaic entrance Samos had opened earlier. His green eyes were drawn to a familiar slot before they turned to the crystal around his neck. Rakuyo raised it to the slot before inserting it in allowing the door to glow and part, opening to reveal a huge dark chamber.
As Rakuyo stepped in, he jumped when rows of large stone lanterns ignited two by two, engulfing the chamber with light. The boy squinted from the sudden brightness before he looked around the chamber as he slowly walked through, taking in every detail. The walls were coated in hieroglyphic carvings that Rakuyo guessed told of part of his tribe's history; it showed an abstract depiction of Mugen offering a mask to what appeared to be the first Elder; the Elder could then be seen wearing the mask and using its power to construct the temple that the village would then be built around marking the beginning of the Masque Raiders. One section that seemed to intrigue Rakuyo most was one that seemed to depict a group of Masque Raiders entering a cave before emerging with treasures. Could this be something his tribe used to do before they shut themselves away in their village?
Rakuyo decided he'd had enough history as he turned his attention back to the main chamber where he noticed two things that both fascinated and intimidated him. One was a large stone cylinder which stood directly in the centre of the chamber; the other was a tremendous crystal lodged in the back wall, the same bluish green colour as the shard he'd been given; the one that Samos proclaimed now made him the new Elder. Nonsense. Samos couldn't have been serious about it. Rakuyo couldn't make heads or tails of the situation, as all the walk had given him was some vague history and an overgrown gem. He was about to leave, but as he turned around he heard a voice whisper to him which made him freeze as still as a statue.
"Don't go~ You must see this through~" the voice whistled passed him like a breeze.
"Who's there?!" Rakuyo echoed as he wheeled round but saw no one. Nothing but the crystal which was glowing like a pulsing heart and he gasped when he saw Samos' charm was acting the same.
"Step forward, Rakuyo Kindleroot~ Use the crystal~" the voice instructed.
"Use it how? For what? Who are you?" Rakuyo questioned frantically but received no reply. Left to his own devices, the carver looked to the stone cylinder he'd almost forgotten about before he spotted a small pedestal in front of it, marked with the same slot he'd seen on the doors.
"I'm starting to see a pattern here." he muttered.
He tentatively placed the crystal into the hole when he reached the structure before the cylinder twisted as a beam of light split across its middle. Rakuyo stepped back as he watched the cylinder begging to separate; the upper half began to retract into the ceiling while the lower half sunk into the floor to reveal a stand hidden inside. And hovering about an inch from its surface, bathed in a brilliant orb of light, was a mask. It was pure white; ovoid and shiny, like marble and had almost no features except for three slanted, blue, pupilless eyes. Rakuyo couldn't look away from the item. Compared to his own creations, this mask outshined them all- quite literally at that.
Slowly, wide-eyed- almost entranced, Rakuyo began to reach out to the mask, his hands outstretched before his fingers wrapped around its frame as he gently pulled it out of the air. He took a moment to examine the mask, turning it over and brushing his thumbs over the glassy eyes which stared back at him before filling with an entrancing light. A strange sensation came over Rakuyo; one he couldn't describe. It was as though the mask was calling to him. As though he were being driven by a suppressed nature, he turned the mask over and slowly raised it to his head before finally placing it over his face. Almost instantly, his vision was engulfed by a blinding light. His first instinct was to remove the mask but soon found he couldn't pull it from his face as the light grew brighter still until he felt himself rising, as though his spirit was being pulled out of his body; and as he felt himself fly higher through the light the mysterious voice called to him once more.
"At last. My new disciple has come." Rakuyo eventually stopped rising as he found himself standing in a glowing white void. He stared as he found himself surrounded by floating masks of many colours and shapes which in turn stared back at him.
"Where am I?" He asked nobody as he tried to run off in search only for the masks to fly in front and block his path.
"Don't run. You aren't in danger, Rakuyo." The unknown voice spoke again, only clearer this time. It sounded unusual, similar to a multitude of tones, like a choir or echo.
"Who said that?"
"Over here." The voice replied. Rakuyo turned around and almost fell backward from what he saw. Before him was a titanic creature; it stood so tall it made the village temple look like a cottage by comparison. Its head, being about as big as the aforementioned temple, was covered by a mask alike to the one he'd just put on; sprouting from the top of it was a strange twisted crown, like the roots of a tree; many more masks were dangling from it like ornaments. The body was an amorphous geometric structure; changing from one form to another constantly with eight arms branching from the sides and back, while the legs matched the same shapeshifting texture as its torso, never settling on one style for long.
"Rakuyo Kindleroot. We meet again. Eight years it's been." It spoke. The young acolyte could hardly breathe as he stared in disbelief at the gigantic being. He'd never seen anything like it, but he recognised the crown. It couldn't be...
"Are...are you..." He tried to speak as the creature slowly nodded its masked face.
"Yes. I am the great being of your tribe. The Legend of Masks: Mugen." Rakuyo's mouth opened and closed as he tried to structure a sentence. This was the village Legend. The one who gave all its members their own mask of power. Rakuyo felt his being tremble; not just from the shock but something else. This being, was the on responsible for his years as an outcast. The one to blame for his curse.
"You..." He clenched his fist as his eyes blazed. "YOU TWISTED BASTARD!" He yelled, seemingly forgetting how small he was compared to the great being. "Do you have any idea what I've been through because of you?! The whole village avoided me like the plague! They all thought I was cursed cause I'm the only Masque Raider in history who can't wear a mask! They all looked at me with fear or contempt and I never had a friend in the world! And it's all your fault! How could you do this to me?! What did I ever do to deserve being cursed by you?! If I weren't so small I'd beat the life right out of you!" Mugen made no expression due to his obscured face. But he bowed his head and let out what sounded like a sigh of frustration.
"I never wanted you to find out like this. Samos had been planning to tell you everything at the festival. I saw the invasion through his crystal after you ran away. But now that he's dead, I must be the one to tell you the truth. The truth about you, Rakuyo."
"What are you talking about?"
"I've been waiting for you for a long time, child. Samos and I have been preparing for when your time would come. Though I'd originally intended for it to be when you came of age."
"My time? Time for what? Why did Samos keep talking about my time coming?!"
"Let me explain." Mugen raised one of his many hands. "You aren't cursed, Rakuyo, you never were. I have simply been waiting for when your body was ready. Ready for the power I always intended to give you."
"Power? What power?! Why couldn't you just give it to me when I was seven like everybody else?!"
"This power is one unlike any a Masque Raider has wielded. One so great, that at your young age, it would have surely overwhelmed you, even killed you I fear. I had to allow your body to grow bigger, stronger, so it would be able to contain the power. My power."
"Your power?" Rakuyo took a step back as Mugen lowered his giant head to Rakuyo's level, though the boy was still tiny standing in front of it.
"What I offer you is more than just the power of a mask. My power to you exceeds far beyond that. You are to be an Elder unlike any this tribe has ever known." He extended one of his open hands, inviting Rakuyo to stand on his palm. The young Kindleroot was intimidated by its size but chose not fear it as he stepped onto its surface as Mugen began to lift him up as he rose again to his full height.
"I know you have many questions for me. Of why I never allowed Samos to tell the tribe about my plans for you. Why I'm giving this power in particular to you. And who the attackers who destroyed our village and took our people and your family. All will be answered, but now is not the time. We must complete the ritual."
"Ritual?" Rakuyo murmured before Mugen began to reach for his mask and gripped it.
"Look upon me, Rakuyo Kindleroot, Elder of the Masque Raiders. From this moment on you will be known as the Face Changer." Before Rakuyo could ask another question, Mugen removed his mask and as he pulled it away a river of multicoloured light, like an aurora, burst forth. Rakuyo was instantly swallowed by the mass as he stared, transfixed in the Legend's gaze. He couldn't speak or move or even think as he looked upon Mugen's true indescribable face. His head felt like it was swelling as the light flowed over him, through him, into him and just when it felt like his brain was about to burst he felt something he never thought he would: His third eye snapped open.
Rakuyo awoke to find himself in the inner sanctum again lying on his back. He sat up and looked around. The mysterious mask was gone and the stone pillar closed. Rakuyo felt around his neck as his finger enclosed around the crystal charm which was shining brightly, as was the large one at the back of the chamber.
"A dream?" He thought as he raised his finger to touch his forehead and immediately retracted it when he prodded something damp. "OW!" He gasped as he ran to the crystal and stared at his reflection. His third eye, once closed for so many years, was wide open and slightly bloodshot from being poked. It was emerald green just like his other two, only if he focused he could see traces of other colours swirling inside it.
"Mugen?" He called out. "Are you there?! Answer me!"
"No need to shout, I'm right here." He heard the Legend's voice only it sounded slightly miffed. Rakuyo glanced down as he noticed the crystal charm pulsing with light.
"Where are you?" The crystal glowed as Mugen spoke.
"Within you. I'm a part of you now, Rakuyo. Each Elder must take me into their being. It's how they bestow my power upon other followers."
"Wait. You mean you've taken over my body?!" Rakuyo panicked. "I'm not your puppet!"
"Calm down, I'm not possessing you. Just hitching a ride, that's all." Mugen replied. "But now's no time for chitchat. You have a long journey ahead of you, my new Elder. You want to save the tribe don't you?" Rakuyo frowned.
"I don't know what your game is, but I'm not your Elder. I meant what I said about the tribe at the festival. All I care about it saving my family."
"As long as you're on my side." Mugen replied. "Now then, I believe you should begin to pack. Only take the necessities. You'll be needing your mask of course."
"What mask? You know I can't wear any." Mugen laughed. "What's so funny."
"Of course you can now we're a mask, Raku. In fact, you can wear as many as you wish. Well as many as you can handle at the moment. I'd say five would be safest for now."
"Five? What kind of power did you give me?" Rakuyo asked ever curiouser.
"You are now the Face Changer. Do you remember what Samos said? About not being limited by a mask? You can wield more than one. And I believe there's one in particular you've buried at home for eight years now." Rakuyo's eyes widened. He could hardly believe his ears.
"So where do I go? How am I supposed to find my family?" No answer. "Mugen? Mugen where do I go?!" He sighed. "Oh sure, answer when it's only convenient for you. What else would I expect from a Legend?" He scoffed before he turned to leave the temple. As he reached the entrance chamber he stopped when he saw Samos' mask lying there and his heart ached. He picked it up before he looked at the Masking altar and placed the late Elder's mask on the statue's face as he put his hands together and bowed.
"Goodbye...Grandpa Samos." He spoke before he descended the temple steps and made his way back through the wreckage of the village until he reached his family home. The door creaked open as he stepped through before he noticed two familiar masks lying on the floor.
"Kyuri...Azrael..." He whispered as the twin's laughing faces crossed his mind. He picked up their masks before placing them on the table and he ran out to the carving shed. A few moments later he returned with the backpack he sued for deliveries, his trusty sickles holstered to his waist and Shida's axe strapped to the bag. He packed the twins' masks along with his clothes; a blanket; his lantern; a book of recipes and food notes he and Fresa had written together; plenty of food along with a water pouch; Abedul's old journal about Gosea, for safety, and finally a small painting of his family he got from his bedside. He felt his lip tremble as he looked at the smiles of his parents, the grins of his younger siblings and the smirk of his older brother who had his arm around his shoulder. He placed the picture into the bag and was about to depart when he remembered.
He turned his gaze back to his room as he entered and walked over to the chest in corner. Swallowing hard he opened it and moved a few sheets away to reveal a mask. The very one Shida and Fresa had made him at birth. Its leafy trim, flame pattern and zigzag mouth were just as he remembered them as he reached in and picked up the mask. For so long this mask had been a cruel reminder of his indifferences; the symbol of his loneliness. Now, so he'd been told, he could finally wield it. Rakuyo didn't know whether to try it on now or if he should leave it behind. But if he truly did have power now, he knew he'd need a means to channel it, so he decided to pack it as well. As he lifted the heavy pack onto his back, Rakuyo took one last look around the house. He didn't know when he would next see his home, if ever again. He sighed sadly as he turned away and stepped outside to face the foreboding Gosea Jungle that lay ahead, its trees and vines spread wide and deep...like an open mouth.
"Here we go..." He murmured and stepped into the unknown.
A deep shuddering chill hung about Rakuyo as he made his way further into the jungle, far beyond the point to where the village had shrunken into a speck in the distance. When he'd left the air had been filled with the songs of birds and the aromas of the many exotic plants ran high and low. But after several hours of walking, the sun was almost away and had taken the pleasant sounds and smells with it; the last of which being the chattering squeaks of the gliders hurrying to their nesting holes. For now Gosea had become quiet and still as dusk had fallen upon the jungle, soon to be night.
Rakuyo unhooked his lantern as he reached inside it and took out two spherical rocks dotted with dull orange spots. One in each hand, he brought the stones together with a CLACK causing the spots to fill with a bright warming light. Rakuyo smiled as he placed the stones back in the lantern and sealed it before attaching it to an extendable pole, his torch now complete. He remembered the day he and Abedul found those lampebbles in a river one spring, likely washed down from the mysterious mountain, Glownest. The brilliant stones had proven useful many times so it was lucky they always stored them in the lantern for safekeeping; It certainly beat candles. He carried on down the beaten path, his lantern bobbing with each step. Just how far did the path go on? He'd never been told of what lay beyond the material groves, but then he'd never been told much by the villagers anyway. His ears twitched when he heard the distant sounds of wildlife stirring from their slumber; a new side of the jungle would be awakening soon.
"I'll need to stop and rest for the night." He thought as he slowed his pace. "But where is the question." He knew he had to be especially careful with where he was now. Even if he was still on the path, vulnerability could spell the end of you out here, be it at the hands of a predator or the leaves of a carnivorous plant. And that was only during the day so who knows how dangerous Gosea was at night?
His best bet would be to make a shelter in a spot predators would have trouble finding or reaching him. He searched the surrounding area before he spotted a large hollow at the base of a nearby tree. He hurried over and inspected the hole. It appeared deep enough for him to fit himself and his supplies in. The only problem was the wide entrance left him vulnerable. He thought for a few minutes before he cut down a bundle of branches with his sickles and sharpened the ends before plunging each one in front of the the opening, creating a fence to hide the hole.
Satisfied he slipped between the wall of spears into the hollow and set down his bag. He opened it up before pulling out some of the food he'd packed: some bread Fresa had made a few days ago. As he began to eat his simple meal, the light of the lantern filling the hollow, Rakuyo felt a sudden realisation hit him when a gust of wind blew through the old tree: he was alone. His family was gone; taken to who knows where and now here he was, scrunched up in a hollow tree, without a clue on where or how to find them. Rakuyo bit his lip as he felt the isolation weighing down on him and the chill of the night air rattling his bones even with the barring fence and the blanket wrapped around him.
"Mum...Dad...Az and Uri." He whimpered curling his body up tighter as he tried to fall asleep, he wiped a tear from his eye. "Where are you all?"
Rakuyo shivered as he sat wide awake. The musty smell of dead wood and the rough bark scraping against him as he tossed and turned made sleep near impossible; the ache in his heart didn't help matters either. But just when it seemed like he was about to drift off, a loud thud echoed throughout the silent jungle, snapping Rakuyo to attention. He licked his dry lips nervously as he crept to entrance of the hollow and peered through the fence he'd set up. His pupil shrank when he saw a large creature, shrouded by the dark, stomping towards the tree. As the creature drew closer, he saw that it had six legs with large flat feet and at the front of its body was a long thorn shaped horn. The thing didn't make a sound beyond a dull grunting as it breathed in the night air as it stopped in front of the tree. It didn't seem to have noticed Rakuyo was inside it; that or it just didn't care as it began to rub its large horn against the bark which shook the tree slightly. Rakuyo kept completely still, not wanting to alert or disturb the animal as it nibbled some of the bark it had scraped off.
"Must just be hungry." Rakuyo thought. "It'll go away eventually. Maybe even ward anything else that might cause me trouble." The creature grunted and clicked as it turned around and began to walk away as Rakuyo sighed with relief. WHAM! Rakuyo's sighed became a gasp as the creature charged against the tree with the force of a bull. It's giant horn broke through the thick wood as though it were cardboard, just above Rakuyo's head as he screamed in fright. The animal backed up and charged again, ramming the tree with its horn which rocked back and forth wildly with Rakuyo still inside. Until with a final charge the animal pushed the tree right over which fell the ground with a thundering crash.
Rakuyo shook his head as he sat up. It was lucky he'd been nesting at the base of the tree and not the top or he woudl have surely fallen. He poked his head out of the hollow and gasped as he saw the creature illuminated by the moonlight. It was a gigantic insect; a shimmering green colour with ruby red eyes and yellow legs. The shell on its back extended at the front to form the large horn he'd seen earlier. Rakuyo had seen these bugs before; they were known as treehaulers. They were known to uproot trees all throughout the jungle and then carried them off to who knows where. Rakuyo snapped out of his daze of wonder as he remembered why these insects were named as such as the treehauler jumped into the air and landed on top of the fallen tree; still ignorant of Rakuyo's presense. It's thorny feet bit into the bark as it gripped the tree tight, while its shell began to split open and an enormous pair of glassy wings spread out.
Rakuyo scrambled out of the hollow and was about to jump down when he remembered. "My bag!" trying hard to trip over his feet he dove back into the hollow to pick up his fallen backpack. Some of the food and clothes had spilled out but Rakuyo had not time to pick them up as he heard the loud buzzing of the treehauler's wings and the tree began to rise. The boy's heart raced as he squeezed out of the hollow once more and dropped down from the tree. Not a moment too soon, as the treehauler took off into the air, carrying the tree with it like a giant toothpick as Rakuyo watched it fly away and out of sight. He sighed in a mixture of exhausted relief and frustrated annoyance. Not only was he even more tired but he'd lost some of his clothes and a considerable amount of his food.
"Now I need another spot to sleep." He added to the list of problems. But when he heard the sound of other animals coming to investigate, he decided it would be safer to get out of the area. What a night this was turning out to be.
The lampebbles, having dimmed hours ago, clacked as they rattled inside the lantern which propped Rakuyo up as he stumbled further through Gosea, the morning sun glaring down on him. He didn't know how much sleep he'd managed to get last night, but given the fact he had to hop from place to place to avoid some random force of nature, be it flora or fauna, he doubted it was enough as he could hardly stay awake. His vision was fuzzy and heavy as his eyes slipped shut every few seconds; what he would give for some tea to wake him up properly. He yawned loudly as he plodded along aimlessly...Aimlessly? Rakuyo stopped walking as he looked around and a horrible weight of dread landed in the pit of his stomach.
"Where's the path?" he realised as he found himself surrounded by plants and the ground was carpeted in grass and flowers. He'd been so tired he hadn't been focusing where he was going and now... "I'm lost." He realised. He sat down on a nearby log and held his head in his hands.
"Don't panic, Raku, don't panic." he said to himself. "Remember what Dad said: If you ever get lost look for moss." a little calmer having gotten a chance to rest for a spell, Rakuyo began to examine some of the trees. It was a handy tip his parents had taught him and his siblings that moss often always grew on the north side of trees; They knew as they'd seen it enough times whilst out gathering wood. Rakuyo searched as he checked each tree he came across for any signs until his hand brushed across something soft and damp. The face of the gallhoganny tree he was inspecting was coated in a beard of deep orange moss, speckled with little green seeds.
"Bingo." Rakuyo smiled as he now knew which way was North (back in direction of the village). Now he just had to make his way west to find the path South again. Just as he was going to set off though, he heard a sharp squeaking noise from nearby. He looked to his right to see a nearby bush rustling violently and the frightened squeaking sounded again. It sounded like a glider. As Rakuyo got closer to the bush he jumped back when something sprang from the shrub. It was long and scaly like some sort of serpent with blood orange skin lined with purple rings and its face was one of the ugliest Rakuyo had ever seen as it glared at him with piercing red eyes. It let out a hideous screech as its long face split apart into three flapping segments, each one lined with teeth while a long hook tipped tongue lashed about in the centre like a worm.
"A hook-tongued scroop." Rakuyo took off his pack as he rested his hand on one of sickles. Scroops may not have been as dangerous as a clambergorm, but they were still not to be taken lightly with those paralysing tongues and crushing coils. One of the village farmers had limped home with a broken leg after tangoing with one. But what had really drawn Rakuyo's attention wasn't the scroop itself, but rather what was wrapped in its long body. A glider, small and snowy white, was squeaking in terror and gasping for air as the predator squeezed the hapless prey in its coils to silence it. The very sight of it made Rakuyo angry as he drew his sickles.
"Why don't you pick on someone your own size, you overgrown rock slug." He snarled as the scroop hissed back. "You really think that little glider's gonna fill your gut? Try me out for size." The scroop didn't seem to care as it ignored Rakuyo and turned on the glider, opening its horrible mouth to swallow it whole. "Don't turn your back on me, worm!" Rakuyo shouted as he charged at the scroop and slashed at its coils. It screeched in pain as its grip loosened on the glider which riggled free and leapt to safety. Rakuyo noticed as it ran, the glider was a mistmink; one of the more reclusive breeds as he noticed the pigmented spots on its white pelt flashing different colours. But he didn't have time to admire the mistmink as he heard the scroop, now without a meal and very angry, hissing at him. It recoiled its body as its tail twicthed before it lunged at Rakuyo, its jaws wide as the hooked tongue shot out at him to try and jab him. Rakuyo rolled out of the way as the hooked barb narrowly missed his chest; a sting to the heart would paralyse his whole body long enough for the scroop to strangle him, he needed to be careful.
He twirled his sickles as the scroop lunged again. He ducked its head as he slashed at its body earning another angry screech of pain from the animal before it rounded on him again. He tried to leap away only for his feet to catch on something and he fell to the ground, his sickles flying out of his hands. He looked to see his ankles were caught in the scroop's coils and the beast was going in for another strike as it struck at him with its hooked tongue again. Rakuyo tried to dodge the tongue but yelped when he felt the barb pierce his arm; the effect was almost instantaneous as he felt his left arm quickly go numb. The scroop opened its mouth and made a lunge to swallow his head only for Rakuyo grab it by the throat with his other hand. He groaned fiercely as he tried to push the scroop back, but with the numbing effect of the venom in his arm coupled with his tiredness the scroop was winning the struggle as its coils had reached his waist while its head drew nearer.
Its flapping mouth screeched as it prepared to strike him once more with its hook but just as its tongue shot out to sting Rakuyo in the face, there was a flash of white and the creature reered back in agony as its tongue was sliced clean off and sent falling to the ground. Both Rakuyo and the scroop looked in shock to see the mistmink, hissing at the latter, brandishing a set of long silver claws in each paw dripping with blood. The scroop glared at the mistmink and was about to attack when something long and sharp pierced its underbelly. It choked and hacked as it felt the sharp object sink further into its body as it looked back to see Rakuyo had managed to grab one of his sickles and stabbed it in the gut. The boy gritted his teeth and with a yell he forced the blade right through the scroop and out its back before ripping the sickle out as the wretched creature fell to the ground, dead.
Rakuyo panted heavily as he untangled himself from the dead scroop's coils, rubbing his numb arm. He pulled a leather pouch from his backpack and twirled his sickle before he set to work. He chopped off the scroop's head with a thunk before slicing up the long body into sections before dusting the ends with salt from the pouch to dry them. When he'd finished he stuffed the meat cuts into another pouch and wiped off his sickles. Scroop wasn't his favourite, he preferred bushboar, but it was edible.
"That'll keep my gut full for a while longer." He smiled as he prepared to leave when he heard a chittering noise behind him and looked to see the mistmink sitting a few feet away, looking at him.
"Oh yeah, I almost forgot about you. Thanks for your help." Rakuyo said as he squatted and reached into his bag before pulling out a large blue berry with white swirls. He held the fruit out to the animal who gazed hungrily at it.
"Come on. It's ok. Frostberries are my favourite." He encouraged the mistmink by eating one of the fruits himself, before the creature scampered up to him and took the berry as it began nibbling it. As Rakuyo watched it, he noticed the mistmink was a female; he could tell by her pale pink nose and the lack of black tips on her pointed ears. He'd never seen a mistmink closeup before; he had to admit she was a pretty little one, most likely a kit not long gone from her mother. Her body was long and slender with a bushy ringed tail at the end. Just imagine how soft her coat was? Tempted, Rakuyo slowly reached before he gently placed his hand on the mistmink's head. She froze at first but then let out a soft purr as he ran his hand down her back; her fur was silkier than he'd imagined.
"I have to go now. You just take care of yourself out there, alright?" Rakuyo said as he stood up. The mistmink looked at him as her head rolled to one side causing one of her ears to flop. Rakuyo chuckled at the gesture as he tossed another berry to her.
"For the road." He said before he headed off leaving the mistmink alone who continued to watch him, her enormous icy blue eyes shimmering.
A few hours rolled by as Rakuyo tried to retrace his steps in order to find the path again; even with the light the jungle still all looked the same. Thankfully he'd been able to regain some of his lost energy as he stopped to rest and eat. He tore off another bite of scroop meat as he looked up into the canopy, the sun now riding high at midday. He frowned as he digested both the food and the situation.
"What the hollow am I doing? I've got no leads, no plan, not even a direction. It's all I can do to find a spot to rest in this crazy jungle. At this rate I'm not going to last a week out here. I have to find someone, anyone; even just to point me in the right direction." He stopped thinking when he heard what sounded like footsteps and voices not far from where he was. He leapt to his feet as he began to follow the voices. The path must have been nearby and better still it was being used by someone else, which meant he could get help. He ran and listened as the voices grew louder before he burst through the foliage and found himself once more on the path.
"What the?! Who's this guy?!" Rakuyo turned around to see three acolytes standing in front of him, initially happy to see he'd found some of his own species. But his smile soon fell when he noticed they were dressed in red and black armour and leather hoods. They were Dark Binder scouts.
"I guess you are cursed after all you idiot." Rakuyo mentally insulted himself from unknowingly running into the arms of the ones responsible for his family's capture.
"Who are you?!" asked one of the Binders as Rakuyo thought. He couldn't let on he was a Masque Raider.
"Just a humble traveller trying to find my way." The scouts eyed his backpack suspiciously as the second one questioned.
"What's in that bag?"
"Nothing. Only my supplies." Rakuyo replied as casually as he could. The Dark Binders continued to stare at him before the third noticed Rakuyo's third eye.
"You're a three eye. Which Legend do you follow?" Rakuyo tightened his lips as the interrogation was growing more thorough.
"I...don't believe that's any concern of you." he replied. Big mistake as the Dark Binders glared at him, tendrils emerging from their sleeves.
"Watch your tongue, boy, before I rip it out of you. Tell us who you follow and empty out that bag." the first ordered him but before Rakuyo could answer the third Binder spotted his crystal and pointed.
"Look! Around his neck! A Shard of Legends!"
"A what?!" Rakuyo questioned the name his crystal had been given as the other Binders noticed it as well equally shocked.
"He's right! The kid's wearing a shard! But only Lord Elder Basalm can wear those, so that means..."
"This boy's a tribe Elder!" the first Binder confirmed as Rakuyo took a step back. "Right! You're under arrest for opposing the will of the great Kuromaku, heathen!" Rakuyo gulped as the Dark Binders advanced towards him, when suddenly a shriek filled the air and something white latched onto the lead scout's face as he screamed. "HEY! GET OFF ME!" the other Binders looked at their comrade as Rakuyo realised what was scratching the man's face: it was the mistmink from before.
She hissed and squeaked as she slashed at the Binder's face with her claws, only pausing to bite his nose with her small but sharp teeth. The man tried to grab her but she leapt away from his bloody face before going for the second Binder as she began to scratch him up as well. As the three scouts scuffled amongst themselves, Rakuyo's eyes met with the mistmink as she winked at him. She was giving him a chance to escape, just like he did for her. Rakuyo nodded as he turned and fled, but he didn't get far as the lead Binder saw him run.
"Hey, he's getting away! After him!" Rakuyo looked over his shoulder to see the scouts beginning to chase after him while the mistmink leapt onto his shoulder. The boy yelped when a black tendril almost ensnared his leg as the Binders began to attack him from afar. This was nothing like being chased by a clambergorm, these monsters were smarter. His focus was suddenly drawn to the mistmink who appeared to be tensing as her eyes were now closed and her fur was bristling as the marbled patches began to grow brighter until...PSSSSSSSSSSSST! A thick cloud of coloured smoke sprayed from the patches on her fur forming a large smokescreen behind the pair as the Dark Binders stopped in suprise.
"What was that! Where'd this smoke come from?!" One asked in confusion as they coughed and spluttered from the smoke. Rakuyo himself was astonished by the sudden act his furry friend had just performed. So that's where the 'mist' in their name came from.
"Rakuyo!" the carver stumbled when he heard the sudden voice of Mugen.
"What is it?" He inwardly asked the Legend.
"That smokescreen won't slow them down for long. They're going to catch up with you. You have to fight."
"And just how am I supposed to do that?! These are the guys who took down the whole damn tribe!"
"Use your mask! You have the power to fight back. Catch them off guard while they're still confused." Mugen advised. Rakuyo stopped running as he pondered the idea. True, Mugen was right he would need to fight, but he'd never wielded a mask before. Then again there were only three of them and they were scouts too. But he knew Mugen was also right in that he couldn't keep running; they would eventually catch up to him; he could already hear their running footsteps. Throwing caution to the wind, Rakuyo reached into his backpack and pulled out the mask his parents had made him. He had no idea what it could do, but there was no better test subject than his enemies. The mistmink cocked her head curiously as Rakuyo took a deep breath before he placed the mask upon his face and tensed when he felt a burning power flow through his body. He groaned as he felt the mask moving and shifting as it atatched itself to his face; the eyes, once hollow and dark, became filled with a blazing fire while the ring of leaves changed from green to a pale yellow and the zigzag mouth began to crack open, a deep orange glow at the back of the throat.
"There he is, I see him up ahead!" The lead scout cried as the Dark Binders had finally caught up but they stopped suddenly when they saw what he was wearing.
"...Is that..." the second one pointed in disbelief.
"But that can't be! We captured them all when Commander Grogar lead the invasion!" the third shouted while the first glared, not taking notice of the power building up within Rakuyo's mask.
"It seems the old fool did choose a successor after all. Must've smuggled him out of the village before we attacked. The Commander's not going to be happy when he finds out. But he will be pleased to know we nipped this last weed in th ebud before it became a thorn in his side. Seize him!"
"Now, Raku! Show them the power of a Masque Raider!" Mugen shouted from within as Rakuyo reered back his head before a blazing ball of fire was spat from the mouth of his mask as it collided with the Dark Binders. The fireball exploded into a mass of flames, blasting Rakuyo back as he was flung through the foliage and landed on his back as he skidded to a halt. The mistmink, having clung to his shoulder the whole time, shakily crawled off him as she made sure she still had all her fur. Rakuyo panted as he pulled the mask off his face and stared at it.
"So, this is the power I was meant to have." he thought.
"The Mask of Embers. A good start off to your arsenal." Mugen replied. "And it's only the beginning. Though you could definitely use better control over it."
"And whose fault is that?" Rakuyo asked back sarcastically.
"Touche." But just as Rakuyo was about to put it back on, a thorny black whip struck the mask causing it to become entangled with tendrils.
"I don't think so, heathen." Rakuyo looked to see two of the scouts emerging from the trees, both looking quite burned but still very much alive.
"That was quite a stunt you pulled back there. You will pay for the death of our comrade I assure you." the lead one snarled. Rakuyo glared back as he placed the mask back in his bag, knowing he couldn't wear it with it bound like that. He just needed the mistmink to cause another smokescreen so he could cut off the tendrils in order to use the mask again. But as he stood up he wobbled suddenly and gasped when he turned around to see he was standing at the edge of a cliff overlooking another canopy of jungle far below.
"But first, we'll killing that vermin for trying to rip our faces off." the second Binder eyed the mistmink whose fur bristled with anger before she turned and jumped off the cliff.
"No!" Rakuyo stared over the edge as he saw her fall but then gasped when the mistmink spread her limbs as her pelt stretched out into a large patagium and she glided down to the treese beneath. Rakuyo slapped his forehead and laughed. "Of course she would do that."
"But you won't be so lucky." Rakuyo cursed under his breath as he turned back to face the Dark Binders who were getting closer.
"It's over, Masque Raider. You might have slipped through our fingers during the attack, but not this time." Rakuyo felt his heel teeter on the edge of the cliff forcing him to glance over his shoulder with growing dread. "Stop resisting. There's nowhere to run." The boy gritted his teeth as his mind raced. He couldn't be captured, not now. It was as Samos and Mugen had told him: he was the only remaining Masque Raider free to save his family. He had to get away. But as he tried to think of a way out, he remembered the mistmink and took another look over the cliff. Slowly, he reached into his bag.
"Enough stalling. You're coming with us." Just as the Dark Binders took a step forward, Rakuyo turned on the spot and with a flying jump, leapt from the cliff shocking his pursuers. They ran to the edge and gasped to see their target drifting away; the boy had pulled out his blanket and was using it as a paraglider.
"Stop him! Grogar will have our skins if we let him escape!" One of the Binders cried while another reered back his arm and lashed out at Rakuyo with his tendrils. He narrowly missed, but upon reeling them in, the thorny whips slashed and tore at the blanket, ripping gaping holes in the fabric. Rakuyo gasped as he began to descend faster while the holes tore wider until the blanket finally ripped to shreds and Rakuyo was left at the mercy of gravity. Though he'd already glided down halfway, he was still a few meters above the canopy and screamed as he plummeted before landing in the leafy treetops. He grunted and yelped as he crashed through the canopy; branches snapped under his weight; twigs scratched at his face and he could hardly catch his breath as his body was tossed back and forth against the trees like a ragdoll. He pased out before he hit the jungle floor with a thud and fell still.
For a while, his body lay there, beaten and bruised from the fall. At the vulnerable state he was in, it wouldn't be long before some hungry animal came along to investigate and then eat him. The sound of rustling plants filled the air as something waded its way through the foliage before a hand pulled the branches of a bush away to discover Rakuyo. Only it wasn't an animal; staring from their hiding place, eyes wide with suprise and mouth slightly agape...was a girl. An acolyte like him, only she had navy blue hair and was dressed in a low cut, magenta robe adorned with a large white crest on the back. She brushed the bangs of her hair away to reveal her third eye, large and violet, as she stared at Rakuyo before hurrying to his side and knelt to turn him onto his back.
"Hey. Are you ok?" She asked, lightly slapping his face. Her lips tightened into a nervous frown as her third eye began to change to a luminescent blue colour. She took a breath before blowing a strange glowing mist onto her palms and rubbed them together as she laid one hand on Rakuyo's chest and the other on his brow. A few moments passed before she removed her hands as a look of worry washed over her face; she looked around to see if anyone else was there, before with a heaving groan she hoisted him onto her back and trudged off, carrying the unconcious acolyte with her. Wherever he was being taken to, it was certainly preferable to being left as dinner for the animals.