One might think the little hedgehog would have been sleepy from his extended meeting with the mayor, but that was not the case. The proper Japanese tea as Shima called it, was so strong and full of caffeine, that Pudgy was wide awake. Argente giggled as she walked beside her mother, watching her little friend ride on her mother’s back. His quills were indeed sticking out in all directions, and his nose was twitching. They were walking the stone path that connected Fushimi village to the shrine that was located north of the village. Past the stone markers, etched by hand with kanji characters, and through a red and black Torii gate the trio headed.
As the town faded away, and was obscured by the trees, the foliage thickened considerably. Although, the path was still wide enough to walk side by side. Shima wiggled her white fluffy ears as she looked at her daughter, “It is not too much farther to Fushimi Inari Taisha.” Pudgy nodded, “is the ley line node close to the shrine?” The white fox nodded, “it is perhaps a half hour away by the human standard of time keeping. The Shinto priests control this land, and you must follow their customs in order to access it. It is for the that very reason, I will be taking you two to Kannushi Kaito. He will want to speak to you, and to guage your intent. Answer his questions truthfully, as he will know when you are lying to him. Japan in the time of humans was a very structured society. When the humans began to return, they brought that way of life with them as well. Most animals went along with it, and adapted to this new way of thinking.”
Argente twitched her left ear, “most? What happened to the ones who disagreed?” Shima sighed, “well some rebelled and fought back. It was an unsettled time in this land, until the emperor brokered a peace treaty. Those that wished to remain with the original nonhuman ways, departed our land and headed to the north and east of here. I still remember that day … there was much sadness. I watched as they crossed the land bridge that connected to Fuki sunk beneath the ocean waters. There is no way the land animals can return here.” The silver fox nodded her head, and reflected on when she first came to live in Pudgy’s forest. She had been wild her entire life, and it took a long time for her to acclimate to the regular presence of Pudgy’s human friends who visited occasionally. The constant activity, then the adventures, for those less able to adapt it would be unbearable. She too had held those very same thoughts to leave and not return, but in the end, she was glad she chose to remain.
The path curved slightly to the right, and a massive human-built Torii gate was standing in front of them. The red paint was fading, and chipped in several places. The black painted areas were fading to various lesser shades of black. Shima sighed, “we have not been able to produce a paint that is capable of matching the original. It keeps washing off, and lacks permanence.” Argente nodded as she placed a black paw on the black ring at the bottom of the post. “This looks like it has been here for a long time, I am surprised it did not deteriorate like the rest of the human structures?” A new voice called out, “that is because these two posts were actually trees. Our ancestors carved and shaped them into the main supports for the Torii gate.” Pudgy looked to his left, and watched as a young red fox was padding fairly quickly from a stone path in that direction.”
Argente turned her head, and then waved her paw at the approaching fox. He was wearing a white robe, that had been crafted in such a way to still allow him to walk on all four paws. He had a very unique hat on his head, which was short and rather boxy looking, of similar fabric. It had been tied onto his head with a white rope. The red fox’s eyes lit up, “Shima! You are back! Did you bring your friends from the Philippines with you?” The white fox giggled, “ohayo Kiyoshi, yes, I did. This is my daughter Argente, and on my back is Pudgy Hedgehog.” The young fox looked at Argente and grinned, “a pleasure to meet you Argente. That is a unusual name, at least around here, does it mean something?” Argente giggled, “yes, it is the word silver in the human language once referred to as French.” The young fox nodded his head, and then turned to look at the brown quill covered animal on Shima’s back.
Shima motioned with her left paw, “this is Kioshi. He is a young priest in training here at the shrine.” Before Pudgy could introduce himself, the trio of foxes all started to move at a quick pace. The young priest was leading the way, and his red tail with white top swished back and forth occasionally. They passed under many Torri gates, one after another, every ten paces or so. In the Shinto religion, there was a meaning behind each gate and the distance between. This fact was lost on Pudgy, who watched the gates pass by one after another, and the stone tiles becoming larger and larger. They were of a smooth gray nature, and clear evidence that they were cut by human hands so very long ago. As they started to pass by a monument base of stacked whitish gray stone, Pudgy spotted a copper fox that had oxidized to a light green. Wiggling his nose, he started to see more of the statues in various spots around the temple grounds.
The path continued to wind to and fro, around remnants of temple buildings. Many had deteriorated, and fallen into disrepair. However, the hedgehog soon started to see dozens of foxes working on buildings. “Pudgy see foxes working on buildings,” the little hedgehog said. Shima nodded, “as more humans return, or available fox power has been increasing. We can repair more of the buildings that have been lost. However, at a much more manageable animal level of building in terms of proportion.” Kioshi slowed his face, to walk beside Shima and look at Pudgy. “The Kannushi instructed us to start work on repairs at once when he arrived at the shrine. Although we are running into an issue, we lack the proper education on construction and repair.” The hedgehog bounced happily, “once we get the ley line going, Pudgy friends in Friendship Town can help you rebuild!” The young fox’s eyes lit up, and then Shima giggled. “Well first things first Pudgy, we have an appointment to keep.” The group continued to head forward, and watched as the various buildings pulled away, to a wide concourse of stone. Weather beaten concrete stairs were crumbling, but the original hand cut stone were intact. Pudgy nodded to himself, noticing the manmade materials seemed to be the first to deteriorate.
In the distance, a massive human-built structure was coming into view. Argente’s mouth dropped open, as Pudgy pointed excitedly towards the building from the back of Shima. Three rectangular box like buildings were connected to one another. The center rectangle was tall, at least 40 feet tall, maybe even more. To each side left and right was a smaller building, and were at least fifteen feet tall. The main buildings were painted white, but the trim work was painted red. The support posts for the balconies and roofs were of a similar construction in terms of Torii gates. The roofs were complex curves, with each corner point sticking upwards. The center roof pitch was sharp and angular, adorned with gold painted circles. There were two massive wooden doors painted red, and adorned with black iron bolts painted black. One door was shut, while the other was open enough to allow entry for a single width fox.
Kiyoshi nodded, “everyone follow me single file, and please do as I ask.” Argente slowed her pace so that her mother would go first, and then giggled as she saw Pudgy waving at her. Passing underneath a giant Torri gate, Kiyoshi stopped and spoke out loud. “Bow, then step with your left paws.” The fox bowed his head, and then with both front and rear left paws, he stepped forward. Shima bowed her head, “Pudgy bow too.” The little hedgehog bowed, and then when the white fox lifted her head, he did the same. Argente followed suit, and soon they were moving once more. The path was clearly marked, with a lighter white gray stone tile, marking the proper route to the shrine. Pudgy would have just gone straight, but that would have been considered extremely rude. They headed towards a big rectangular box, full of water and a series of bamboo cups with long handles on the top if it. Before Kiyoshi could speak, Pudgy whimpered and pointed a symbol on the fountain.
“Noo … what’s that doing here? Pudgy saw that symbol before when Pudgy fought the Kaiser! We have to get out of here!” Argente turned her head, and watched as the little hedgehog was trying to climb off of Shima’s back. “Pudgy wait, let Kiyoshi explain.” The young fox turned, “Pudgy … I know what this looks like. It is not that symbol, there is no hatred here. This symbol is a Sanskrit, which both Shinto and Buddhist shrines use. I assure you; this is not what you think it is. It is good you are dismounting Shima, because you have to do this too. Now everyone, please take a cup of water from the fountain. Argente, can you help Pudgy?” The foxes watched as Pudgy dropped down to the ground, and then scampered timidly up towards the fountain. Each clasped the long handle, and scooped a cup of water out of the fountain. “Given our current situation, please place the cup of water on the ground in front of you.” It was not long, albeit awkwardly, that four shallow bamboo cups of water was placed on the ground. “Everyone rinse your mouth out, then wash your left paws, and then your right paws.”
One by one the animals followed the instructions given, and their bodies were cleansed based on shrine standards. Kiyoshi narrated once more, “the actual steps are wash your left hand, then your right, then your mouth, then your left hand, then empty the cup …. But since we no longer have hands, and have four paws instead of two feet, it required a change. Please empty the cups of water over here, and then return the cups to the fountain. Since outsiders are arriving once more, it may be proper to cover up that symbol again. There used to be a shroud the temple used, but we can’t find it.” The young priest motioned to empty the cup of water into a nearby rock bed with an ornamental tree growing in it. Shima and Argente followed suit, with Pudgy struggling to drag his cup. The priest grinned, and helped out the tiny hedgehog with his task. With the cups returned, Shima eased down so the hedgehog could climb back onto her back.
Pudgy wiggled his nose, noticing the water was pure, and did not have any after taste to it. The fountain must have been connected to a spring. Once more they were moving forward towards the towering central structure. Up close, the scale of the human construction was amazing. Long ago, the priests built this structure with hand tools and prayers. Despite everything that had happened, it somehow survived many terrible events. Shima nodded, “I see the new paint is holding up.” The young fox nodded, “better than the last formulation. It has a nasty side effect though; you get nauseated when using it. Plus my paws burn …” They approached the massive red doors, and then followed Kiyoshi inside. The central chamber was gigantic, and there was no second floor inside. Pudgy thought there was a balcony with a place upstairs, but that was not the case. It was a vaulted ceiling, with the exposed wood rafters painted a dark black. Though if you leaned just the right way … there was a shade of green mixed in.”
The floors were made of wooden, and had a mirror shine to them. Despite the deep mahogany brown color, Pudgy looked down and could almost seem himself in the reflection from the floors. As they approached, there was an altar set up. Unlike the trappings of the Christian faith, there was no crucifix nor religious statues. There was no stained glass, nor the stations of the cross adorned upon the walls. The walls were a vibrant white, and the wood was painted red or black. There was a low table, in front of a rectangular white cushion, which the priests once kneeled on. What resembled tassels were hanging at measured distances across the front, beneath yet another Torri gate. Lanterns made of gold were hanging, and their candles were lit inside. They hung from the rafters on chains, or were standing upright on the floor, casting light in various directions. Kiyoshi motioned with his paws, so Shima and Argente would stand on each side of him. The white fox eased down, and let Pudgy climb off of her, so he could scamper between Kioshi and her.
“Everyone … bow twice, then clap your paws twice, and then offer your prayers.” Pudgy followed the directions, though he was a couple seconds off. So instead of a clap in unison, there was a ricochet effect. Pudgy asked the great spirit to keep an eye on his friends, and that everyone would be ok until he could return. Kiyoshi spoke again, “when you are done praying, bow once more.” The group bowed again, and the young fox nodded. “Please remain here … I will alert the Kannushi that you are here to see him.” The young priest bowed again to the altar, and then padded off towards the left side of the room, and ducked between a paper screen door. This left the hedgehog and his friends alone in the cavernous structure. The level of adornment was impressive, and the kanji letters were everywhere painted in black. Argente turned to her mother, “sorry about earlier with the fountain. That adventure was really rough on all of us …especially with Pudgy. He still has nightmares to this day.”
Shima sighed, “I would very much like to hear that story. It would shed light on our current situation.” A deeper male voice called out from the rear of the room, “as would I Shima.” The group turned around, and watched as an older silver fox was approaching. He wore a white under vestment, and had a deep red robe covering it. His hat was tied on like Kiyoshi, though was black and a bit more ornate. Soon, Kiyoshi ran in behind him and stood at his side. “Ohayo … I am the Kannushi of this shrine. Please call me Kaito, now with whom am I meeting today?” The priest bowed, and at the direction of Shima, Pudgy bowed as well as Argente. Shima spoke, “this is my daughter Argente, and her friend Pudgy Hedgehog.” Argente smiled, and waved her front left paw at the head priest. The little hedgehog bounced happily, “hi my name is Pudgy! Pudgy glad to meet you!” The older fox smiled, “let us depart the shrine, and head to a place more suitable for discussions.” The Kannushi strode past them and headed to the right side of the shrine. Upon reaching a set of paper doors, he folded his left ear down. “Kiyoshi … the door … please?” The younger fox quickly strode up, and then started to open the doors for his superior. In the prior days, they would have been open with precision, and the subordinate priest would have moved backwards and to the side of the room to allow passage. Current day events, meant that protocols had to change.
With the doors open, Kaito entered the room, and headed towards a series of cushions. The foxes walked at a slow pace, so that they would not leave the hedgehog behind, so it took a bit of time until everyone was seated on the flat cushions. Pudgy bounced on the cushion, since it was nice and soft, and settled into place. Shima spoke again, “Kannushi … do you remember my dreams when I first arrived here?” The head priest nodded, “yes, I do Shima. You spoke of a land far away, and of a quill covered animal. He did wonderous things, and fought monsters. You also spoke of a void of darkness, at the bottom of the ocean. Of an island far to the south, with a stone of significance. Of a ship which carried animals, to climb the mountain, and defeat the darkness.” Argente stayed quiet, but shuddered internally. Her mother had omitted the part about defeating the darkness. Up until this point, all their discussions were centered on the voyage to places. She would ask her mother later about this, and many other things.
The older silver fox nodded, and wrapped his black tail around him, which was tipped with gray. “And within the last few days, a ship arrived outside of Fushimi village. On board was a crew of at least twenty animals, who sailed a vast distance across the ocean.” The Kannushi motioned with his left paw towards Pudgy, and smiled softly. The little hedgehog bounced, “Pudgy and his friends sailed all the way from Friendship Town to the Philippines! And then Pudgy and friends sailed from the Philippines to Osaka then to Kyoto.” The older fox nodded, “I see, and what is your purpose here?” The hedgehog nodded, “Pudgy need to find the next ley line. It is supposed to be here, and when Pudgy activates it, Pudgy can connect it to the other locations.” Kaito nodded again, “and what does that mean?” Argente noticed the gentle leading questions, and realized that this was an interrogation. She hoped that all would work out well in the end, but there was a good chance that this might not happen.
Pudgy nodded, “when Pudgy activate ley line, Pudgy can connect it to Friendship Town in Pudgy Forest. Pudgy can also connect it to the Philippines, and other places as well. Pudgy hope Akimitsu has found the node on Osaka, can connect it there too.” The older fox nodded, “I see. But once you connect the points, what does that mean?” The hedgehog nodded, “then you can travel through the ley line to the places they connect to. Pudgy used the keylines before, when they were open. But when the moon dinosaurs attacked, and then the wolves started to destroy the land, the great spirit locked them down.” Both priests’ eyes went wide, and then looked down at the hedgehog. Pudgy continued, “Pudgy crew on Determined had two otters on board. They teleported from the Philippines to the lands once called Pennsylvania in seconds. Pudgy can also talk to friends in forest, but the time difference seems to be day here and night there.”
Kaito nodded again, and rubbed his nose with the back of his black fur covered paw. “Hmm, before I ask my next question, I wish to know more of your adventures. You spoke of moon dinosaurs, wolves, and a great spirit. Please start from the beginning of your adventures, and leave out no detail, no matter how small.” So once more, Pudgy began to tell the grand tale of his adventures. In time, more priests arrived, and sat in various places around the room, and listened intently. The sun traversed the sky, and by the time evening arrived, the Kannushi halted the story. The priests headed to the shrine for evening prayers, and then returned to the room which the hedgehog was sitting with his friends. Subordinate priests brought in what resembled to be crackers and green tea. Once more, the proper Japanese tea energized the hedgehog. The stories continued, and the critter started to act out the scenes for the growing audience of Shinto fox priests. Then all of a sudden, the hedgehog fell over and passed out.
Kiyoshi yawned, “Pudgy has the right idea.” Around thirty foxes of various sizes and colorations nodded, and settled down on their cushions. Kaito nodded, “Oyasuminasai.” The shrine was peaceful, and the warm night air blew on the breeze through window slits at the top of the wall, just as the roof line was about to start. No one moved a muscle, nor got up to attend to business during the night. Every animal in attendance had a restful sleep, and did not wake until morning. Kaito directed his priests, as well as their visitors, that the stories would be on pause until the various shrine tasks were completed. Prayers, then a morning meal, then work, then stories. The younger foxes groaned, but quieted when the Kannushi gave them all a look. Pudgy was given a tiny broom, and told to sweep the shrine.
As the hours passed, the daily chores were completed in record time, and the foxes were all practically bouncing with excitement. Kaito on purpose wanted to inspect the work, to ensure proper completion, which only drug out the morning activities. When he could not wait any longer, orders were given, and all returned to the room where Pudgy was still sweeping. The little hedgehog was placed in the center of the room, and was ringed around by thirty foxes. Pudgy spoke once more, and told tales of his fight against the evil Kaiser. Demons and monsters, little airplanes, and the hedgehog saving the day. It was by night’s arrival that Pudgy once more fell over and passed out. Kaito turned to Argente, “these stories are fantastical. Where would you say we are in the timeframe of his adventures?” Shima watched as her daughter yawned and nodded, “about half way done. The next story will be about the owls, and what happened to this world. I think that is the part which will be of most concern to you.”
The head priest nodded, “Oyasuminasai everyone. I must attend to a matter, before I join you for respite.” The older fox strode out of the room, and then slowly shut the paper screen doors behind him. As he strode through the shrine, he headed towards the halfway open left door, and exited the building. The stars were out, and the night air was warm. Looking upwards at a cherry tree nearby, two owls were perched. The fox priest headed to the base of the tree and looked up at them. “Broken Claw … I see you have a new subordinate.” The older owl nodded, “Fett …former human that joined our parliament recently. Fett, this is Kannushi Kaito. He is the head priest of this temple.” The former human turned owl hooted in greeting, and then waved his wing tip at the fox. Kaito nodded, “inform the emperor, that the gaijin hedgehog and kitsune are here at the temple. I will have much to report. Tomorrow, the hedgehog will explain what is happening to our world.”
Broken Claw nodded, “I will, but you know he will have questions. What have you learned thus far? We made a stop at Fushimi Village last night, and Sichio Touma informed us of many things. The mayor did not have detailed information, only high-level descriptions.” The older fox grinned, “and let you take all the credit? I serve the emperor, and by his will I maintain this shrine. If I provide knowledge, he will reward resources to this temple. What is the status of the ship?” The owl hooted with an annoyed tone, “the ship has been secured. The crew remains on board, under careful watch. I am told by my daytime counterpart that they were near starving when the security forces arrived. Two birds flew off, and have not been able to be located thus far. Leads have been obtained, but we expect them to be searching for the hedgehog. If you see them …”
Kaito nodded, “I will keep them here at the shrine. Now, I must be off, these late nights are too much for an old fox like me. Oyasuminasai …” The fox bowed, turned around, and padded back into the shrine. Fett turned to his leader, “what is going on?” The older owl nodded, “the owls are the night time eyes and ears of the emperor. It is by his will that we shinobi live and serve this land. Come, let us be off to see the emperor once again.” Broken Claw leapt from the branch and took flight, with Fett following after him. Higher and higher they flew into the night sky, and towards where the Determined was moored to the docks. It was a short flight, over a thinning forest of trees. Fett looked down at the ship, noticing that black rabbits were encamped amongst the tree line. “Who are the rabbits … Broken Claw?” The younger owl called out, to which his superior slowed his flight and coasted beside him. “I believe the term you would use is … ninja.”
Fett’s eyes went wide, and his mind raced as he thought about ninja bunnies. Broken Claw narrated, “they are the eyes and ears of the emperor during the day. There is not a movement on that ship that is not observed and relayed. I am told that someone within Fushimi village is their leader, but I have not been able to find out as of yet. As the owls banked to the right to head north once more, they noticed the deck of the ship was clear. They flew over the destroyed city, with the forest reclaiming more of the human developed areas with each day. Long ago, the city would have been full of light, and humans milling about. The darkness and quiet were a welcome nightly occurrence now. The leader set the pace, and was flying hard to maintain as much speed as possible. Fett was getting winded, but gritted his beak and decided to tough it out.
After about an hour of hard flight, Broken claw signaled to land, and the two owls extended their wings to glide downwards. They were approaching a tall wooden structure, that almost resembled a Torii gate. Although this one was more fortified. There was a combination of wooden and stone wall that extended far past either side of it. There was a sea of gray underneath them, barely lit by the moon light. Sending out a greeting call, Broken Claw hooted, and landed on a stone chip covered ground. Fett landed shortly afterwards behind him, and noticed that the stones were well travelled. So much so, that it was almost as if the ground had been paved. Fett strode beside Broken Claw towards the open gate way ahead of them, until a voice called out from in front of the gate. “That is far enough … state your business at the imperial palace!”
A rabbit was standing on his hind legs, covered in black fabric. His face was covered, and his black ears were sticking out and perked to hear better. One paw was on the hilt of a tiny sword, ready to strike. Broken Claw raised his left wing, “Oyasuminasai, we are eyes and ears of the emperor during the night. I bring word from Fushimi Inari Taisha. The hedgehog and fox are there, under the careful watch of the Kannushi.” A second voice rang out, as another rabbit strode from behind the gate. He was wearing a traditional Japanese male version of a kimono. It was dark, and he his white fabric wrap that served as his belt, had two tiny swords tucked away. Fett could not believe it, but somehow the rabbit was wearing wooden shoes and walking on his hind legs in them. The traditional cone shaped wide brim hat completed the outfit, though his ears were sticking out from the top of the hat.
“The emperor will be pleased with this information. Do you have any more to provide?” Broken nodded, “Kaito is being difficult as always. The old fox spoke of tomorrow being of great importance. A mouse that owes a debt to me, informed me that the hedgehog has been telling a grand story. I do not wish to assume that a mere animal such as myself would offer advice to the emperor, but it may be wise to have the ears of the emperor present to witness first hand the events of tomorrow?” Fett noticed the long method of speaking, and wondered why his superior was talking this way. The rabbit in the shoes nodded, “I will offer your words, and the emperor will reflect upon them. He was pleased with the information about the cats from the Chinese mainland. Their status has been properly determined, and they were dispatched from our shores. The emperor wishes for you to remain on alert, and relay any occurrence of the ship moored at Fushimi village.”
Broken bowed, and motioned Fett to follow suit, which he did. The two bunnies walked backwards, and disappeared into the tall grass that grew on either side of the gate. Fett blinked, “I can’t even see them now.” The older owl nodded, “I will advise that you do not step further than where you stand. While you can not see them, we are surrounded. With one flourish of a wing, the emperor can call down the fury of the heavens, and strike you down where you stand. Glory be to the emperor …” The leader said, while turning around, and running to take flight. The former human did the same, and soon was flying off behind his superior once more. Many obscured words were spoken this evening, which required further thought. Though this time, their flight was more leisurely, which made it easier to return to the Fushimi Village docks. The two owls would keep watch over the Determined and its crew, and wait for word to be sent.
By the time that the two owls reached the tall pines that were just to the north of the moored ship, the light of dawn was just starting to crest over the horizon. They landed and perched on nearby branches, and watched as the deck of the Determined started to become illuminated. As Broken Claw closed his eyes to sleep, Fett watched as the ninja bunnies were on board the ship. They had the ship under heavy guard, with at least five on the deck, and another six stationed around the docks. Fett hooted softly, “it looks like they captured the ship?” His superior yawned, “go to sleep Fett. The crew is being treated well, in a secure location.” The former human turned his head, “you mean they are imprisoned?” The older owl hooted softly, “detained … go to sleep … I will tell you more tomorrow night.” The former human wanted to press further, but soon too felt the call of sleep, and drifted off as the warm summer sun started to be cast upon his feathered body.