The emperor and princes were so wrong in their estimations of travel time, that it would make a braggart blush. Their concept of travel was based on human transportation methods: car, train, and airplane. Before the changes occurred to their world, the trip from Tokyo to Kyoto was a 6-hour trip by car. It was roughly 457 kilometers, or 284 miles. Many Japanese citizens did not own a car, since there was a vast efficient network of high speed and fast rail lines that were built all around the country. By train for instance, it was a 3-hour trip, and a much more pleasant travel experience. The stations were laid out correctly, to maximize efficiency between changeovers. There were restaurants, or vending machine kiosks, if one were hungry while at the station. The trains worked effortlessly in all weather conditions, with the exception being heavy snow in the winter season. Skilled operators guided the train to their destination, while the passengers relaxed and enjoyed the trip.
The memories served as the subject of many arguments as the two cranes flew. Weeks passed of arduous flight around tall mountains covered with towering forests of dense trees. Terrible rainstorms with strong wind passed by, forcing emergency landings when the lightning became too dangerous to fly. They huddled together as the heavy rains pelted the land with the liquid fury of the heavens above. Despite the overall warmth of the day, sometimes ice pellets would mix in and pelt the birds as they flew. That always took them by surprise, as well as watching the extensive changes occurring to their country as they passed by. All signs of human occupation had been for the most part stripped from the land. The network of rails was covered by dense ground cover, and meadows full of flowers took their place. All manner of animals were seen going about their daily tasks. Some waved, others hid, as the large white birds flew overhead.
The exception to the human erasure were the big cities like Hamamasu and Nagoya. While most of the human residential areas were gone, the signs of heavy industry remained. Huge steel mills, manufacturing buildings, warehouses and the like could still be seen. Though they too were rusting badly, and holes forming in their exteriors. During the reconstruction after the war, American companies rushed to build factories due to the vast supply of cheap desperate labor. However, in time, the defeated Japanese people learned from their American counterparts. They build factories of their own, accelerated their development, and soon were a financial juggernaut on the world trade stage. While the country changed over the many decades since the war ended, generations of citizens worked and thrived around the vast network of metal buildings. The two former humans looked sad, to see the triumph of the nation rust away into nothingness.
Emperor Akio’s wing muscles burned, and his back hurt. It would be good to reach their destination, and he did not want to fly for a good while. Perhaps the palace’s hot baths were still functional? It would be so good to soak in the tub. The thought made him blink, and honk as he laughed out loud. The thought of a crane walking in, and entering the path with the rest of the humans? It would have resulted in many strange looks, angry words, and things thrown as the bird would be chased out of the bath house. Princess Chinatsu honked happily as she could see the vast Lake Biwa appear in front of them towards the southwest. “Father, that looks like Lake Biwa! Now…I think …. Maybe …we are only a day away.” Her father honked as he laughed, “you said that three lakes ago. I do not believe you!”
While the emperor was only teasing his daughter, he listened to her honk annoyedly at him behind while she glided. The lake did match the shape he remembered, having flown over the area in a helicopter many years prior. Biwa was known for scenic views, and for being named after the shape of a Japanese lute. Hundreds of years ago, a Torri gate was built out in the middle of the lake by Shinto priests. Humans used to sail their boats up to it, and fish around the sunken wood that was driven deep into the bottom of the lake. His father had taken him fishing there, and they did not catch anything except for bronchitis from a trade minister. Once again having been lost in thought, he was snapped back as his daughter started to descend towards an oddly shaped island in the middle of the lake. Following behind his daughter, they quickly landed on a rocky shoreline
The two landed on Okshima island. It was a sleepy island covered with a thick forest. It had a shrine, with many red Torri gates that lead towards it. There was also a fishing village, complete with a sightseeing ferry tour of the lake. Though given the current state of the world, that was all gone. Thankfully there were no predators on the island, so the two birds were able to get some rest. Other birds had chosen to rest on the island as well, and by the time the royal family awoke, the entirety of the trees was full of chirping birds. The opportunity for feeding was plentiful along the shoreline. Cranes with their long legs, and long beaks allow them to head out deeper into the water and snatch fish as they swim by. While the emperor patiently waited, before quickly striking with his beak, his daughter was impatient. By the time, her father had caught three small minnows, she had none. Finally, after many attempts, she got one, and swallowed it whole. She did not have teeth, her sense of taste was minimal at best, and all that mattered was she had food in her belly.
After breakfast, the two cranes began their flight once again. Flying over the open water of the lake, they watched as much larger fish leapt out and splashed back into the water. The sight of the lake completely empty, with no boat anywhere was quite the sight to see. However, in the distance, something caught both their eyes. Biwako bridge was two long bridges that ran parallel with each other. The massive concrete bridge deck was supported by thick columns of poured reinforced concrete that rose in height from the water’s surface. The bridge rose higher up to the central point, and then descended in kind on the opposite side. This was done to allow a variety of sized ships safe passage through the lake, while allowing the heavy flow of vehicle traffic overhead. Once heavy development on both sides of the lake used a vast fleet of ships to transport their goods to all parts of the region.
“Father! Look on the bridge!” Chinatsu called out, resulting in her father to narrow his eyes as he focused in on a pack of foxes walking across the bridge. There were red, brown, white, black, and silver foxes all following one wearing what resembled a Shinto priest outfit. “Chinatsu, we are landing on the bridge.” The emperor said, while adjusting his wings to begin to descend. His daughter did the same, and followed behind him, and flying over the foxes. Several looked up and barked at her, while she extended her legs and came in for a landing. Her father had already landed and was fluffing his wings as he folded them back. Turning around slowly and purposely, he stood straight and tall. Facing the approaching foxes, he honked in greeting. The leader was an older silver fox, with black paws and a black ring around the end of his tail. Adjusting the unique hat of the priesthood upon his head, the fox grinned and waved his right paw as he motioned for the pack to stop.
“Greetings brother crane,” the fox said with a purposeful tone. The emperor waved his right wing at the fox, “greeting brother fox. We were flying overhead when we saw your procession. I could not help but notice your hat, are you a Shinto priest?” The silver fox nodded, “yes, I am. I was born a human, not far from here actually, and became a priest when after the war ended. My name is Kaito, may I inquire as to whom you are?” The male crane nodded, “Akio … “Before the crane could say another word, immediately all the foxes bowed with their faces buried into the concrete road surface. The priest’s voice was muffled, “hail emperor Akio! We are not worthy to stand before you.” The emperor honked, “everyone …you may arise.” The foxes one by one slowly lifted their heads and started to look towards the emperor. They kept their eyes lowered, but did as order. The priest spoke once more, “Emperor Akio, I see you have a travelling companion?” The male crane motioned with his left wing towards where his daughter was standing, “this is my daughter …Princess Chinatsu. Kaito … let us walk and talk, I want to hear of your journey thus far.”
The foxes bowed again, though not as deeply as with the emperor. As the two cranes turned, the priest motioned with his paw and they started to proceed forward once again. The foxes all had been humans, and were priests of varying states of training. Kaito was the Kannushi for the Kyoto shrine when he was a human, and had somehow been turned into a fox and transported far to the south east to the destroyed city of Kumozuhongocho. Along the way, he had discovered the other foxes, and convinced them to follow along. With the distractions of modern life erased from this world, the Shinto teachings could be practiced once more without any worldly competition. No cellular phones or computers to steal attention, and distract the spirit. The trip through the mountains was dangerous, with all manner of predators having attacked the various shrines that dotted the forests. They did not understand why mainly the bears were destroying the shrines?
Akio and Chinatsu also spoke of their time to the north, and the terrible attack by the bears. When the princess spoke of the Yakuza, the priests nodded in understanding. While the mafia generally left them alone, monetary tributes were paid towards the development of educational training facilities. Everyone knew what the money was for, and those who did not pay, found trouble. There was much discussion between the group what the overall purpose was, and whether all bears were behind the attacks? There was no clear consensus, and as the philosophical discuss waned, the group crossed bridge and crossed into the ruins of Imakatata city. The concrete road surface started to crack, and soon they were walking on gravel. Neither the foxes nor the cranes understood what was occurring to their world, and walked for a long time until they saw a gray modern building, with a big yellow “M” on it with a name written in English. Chinatuso giggled, “I could really go for some American style burgers…” The foxes barked happily, while the Kannushi and Emperor laughed.
The group headed there, and found the glass panels that surrounded three sides of the building to be intact. The interior of the building looked dark, and after some exploration: a way inside was found. The beige tile floors were very slippery, and the foxes had fun sliding across the floors. The Kannushi padded underneath a counter and headed back towards the kitchen with a younger red fox following behind him. Chinatsu was staring at the brightly primary colors painted children’s play area, with all manner of Japanese safety rules posted for legal purposes at adult height. It was a series of boxes, with a climbing wall, and two slides. The emperor walked up beside her, “I remember you playing in there a long time ago.” The princess giggled, “I was mad at first that you weren’t paying attention, but then I realized you were busy talking to that American diplomat with ketchup on your cheek the entire time.”
The two cranes honked happily, and then watched as soon ten foxes were busy playing inside the playground and having a ball sliding down the slides. A sharp bark soon filled the air, as the Kannushi peeked over the counter. The foxes all turned and waved at him through various cut outs in the sections of the play area. “I leave you alone for five minutes….and you get lost in the playground!” The emperor laughed, “were you able to find anything back there?” The red fox’s tail could soon be seen, as he was dragging a clear bag with English words written on it that said “buns.” Using his claws and sharp teeth, he was able to split the bag open, and then snatched a sesame seed covered bun in his mouth. Soon the other foxes emerged from the play area and started to take a bun as well from the bag. Kaito appeared next, dragging an opaque bag labeled in Japanese, “apple pies.” As he dropped the bag and turned around, “did you offer a bun to the emperor and the princess??!!?”
The two cranes waved their wings, and were patiently standing in line behind several foxes. They backed away, letting the two birds cut ahead of them. Akio laughed, “that is not necessary, but thank you.” The two birds bent their necks down, and picked up a bun in their beaks, and walked off to peck at their meal. The head priest rolled his eyes at his subordinates, and then split the bag of pies open. Sadly, mold had taken over the entire bag’s contents. There was a sweet smell of green blocks of mold that dropped open, the room quieted for a moment, and watched as the head priest soon snatched up a pie and started munching on it. The room waited with baited breath, as the priest nodded, “pies are safe. Once you get past the fuzzy shell, they taste quite nice.” The room was filled with laughter, and as the foxes ate, they continued to play on the slides. Eventually night fell, and every animal found a place to lay down and rest.
In the weeks that followed, the group grew with former human followers turned animals. The black rabbit Touma, who once headed the security forces for the emperor was a welcome addition, as well as a collection of subordinate police and military officers of varying ranks and animal configurations. The group crossed over a mountain range, and headed through the ruined outskirts of Kyoto. While it would have been much quicker to fly, the emperor and his daughter preferred the accompaniment of their animal subjects. The banter of the foxes, and the exasperated Kannushi served for much merriment. Perhaps it was due to the size of the group of travelers, or that this part of the country was devoid of predators, there was no harassment of their group by aggressive animals. Much like the other human cities, the residences were wiped from the face of the earth, and in its place was vast stretched of overgrown meadows. While navigation was difficult, after a week of searching, they found the outer walls of the imperial palace.
The ancient palace still was standing tall, despite the destruction of the surrounding area. The tall walls of stacked stone were fortified with wooden barriers painted a creamy white, and dark oak stained timbers. Triangular roofs of green curved tiles were at the peak, and adorned with beautiful yet dangerous spiked flourishes. Though the paint was starting to peel, the overall state of the structure seemed to be intact. Their numbers had swelled to almost eighty animals, by the time they reached the northern gate to the palace grounds. Even as humans the gates towered high into the sky, with massive oak beams that supported an even larger curved roof adorned with various carvings. Wooden gates were starting to splinter, and had been pulled shut to block access within. However, over time, the gates slid open wide enough to allow animals inside.
The palace ground was laid out in a series of concentric rectangles. As they crossed under and through the barricades to reach the inner grounds, the group soon found themselves in a dense thicket of oak trees. Owls were sleeping in the nooks of the various branches, that had grown so densely, that the branches weaved together in the canopy above. The forest was dark due to this, but the shadowy effect did not last long, until they reached the first wide promenade. There were massive stretches of densely packed crushed white stone that served to support travel throughout the palace grounds. Across from their position, was an even taller wall, and another gate that led to the interior palace grounds where the emperor and his family’s ancestors once resided while ruling over the country. Touma raised a paw, and turned to the emperor, “emperor please stay here. We will explore the interior grounds, and confirm if it is safe to proceed.” The male crane nodded, and watched as a group of black rabbits quickly hopped off and under the wooden barricades of the central gate.
The Kannushi waved his paw at the cranes, “it is now time for us to depart your company, Emperor. The Fushimi Inari-taisha shrine is near to here. We must restore the purity of the shrine, and perform our duties.” The emperor nodded, “take care Kaito … I look forward to making an official arrival to inspect your shrine when balance has been restored.” As the foxes bowed, they walked backwards to not turn their backs towards the emperor. It was not until they were out of view, did they turn. The foxes were also accompanied by a group of roughly twenty field mice who wanted to help with the shrine’s restoration. So, by the time Touma returned, their numbers had dwindled to about thirty animals remaining. The black rabbit was confused, and was filled in while they headed to the interior grounds. Once they passed through the Sakudaira-mon Gate, it was not long until the first of many exquisitely appointed gardens was discovered.
The group wandered down the crushed stone, and stacked stone pavers that were laid out to form the walks that led to the various grounds. The group could feel the sense of history under their paws as they walked, between a series of plain looking wooden buildings with ornate green tiled roofs. This was the various service buildings that served the main palace. As the sun started to set in the distance, Touma led the group into a large white wooden building to rest for the evening. Once inside, they found themselves in a vast empty roof with smooth dark oak wooden floors that stretched throughout. The emperor nodded, “Touma …am I correct that this is where shinobi once trained?” The rabbit nodded, “yes emperor. These buildings served as the basis of command for the empire’s forces. My grandfather worked here for many years, in the service of your father. I believe it to be a suitable place to rest, until we can continue to the main palace tomorrow.” The emperor nodded, “this is suitable. Perhaps, once we are settled, shinobi can be trained here once again?”
The rabbit’s eyes lit up, and his tail started to fluff with excitement. Several other black rabbits started to bounce happily, while a couple of field mice amused themselves by sliding around on the wooden floors. Chinatsu looked at her father, “we will need to figure out a source of food tomorrow.” The emperor nodded, “yes, along with many other things.” Slowly the remaining group of animals settled down, and fell asleep except for the emperor. He slowly walked on his spindly legs as quietly as he could, and navigated out onto a dark covered porch. There was a warm breeze blowing, thick with humidity from the summer season. Outside was pitch black, with precious little starlight shining from above. It was a new moon, so there was no light from Luna to illuminate the darkness. Silently the former human stood there, sighing happily …. “I am home …once again. I will make things right. I will honor my ancestors … my father … my grandfather …. The emperor has returned.”
Overhead in the rafters there was a flapping sound, and suddenly an owl flew down to land in front of the crane. The owl hooted as he bowed in front of the crane, “welcome home emperor … I am Broken Claw … I have watched over these grounds since the time of your father. My elder watched here in the time of your grandfather. I was wondering how you would return … I was hoping for an owl.” The emperor laughed, “my name is Akio, a pleasure to meet you Broken Claw. When I was a human child, I remember an owl outside my window softly hooting.” The owl fluffed his brown feathers, “I remember those days … you were afraid of the dark. Your mother lit candles to chase the monsters away.” The two birds sighed happily, and watched as the clouds moved in the skies overhead. “Do you know what happened to our world, Broken Claw?” The emperor asked as he watched the stars twinkle. The owl hooted again softly, “I do not know. But I shall endeavor to find out, my Parliament is at your service, Emperor Akio.” The owl flew off as quickly as he arrived, and the former human nodded as he returned inside.
In the days that followed, the royal family was led to the main building that served as the palace’s royal court. It was serviceable for museum standards, but too big for their purposes. Wherever the emperor resided, was where court could be held. The decision was made to head to the main garden, which featured a vast lake surrounded by exquisite planting arrangements. The name of this region was Oikeniwa, and several buildings nearby were of appropriate size and configuration for their needs. The lake was full of fish, both koi and native silver minnows. All manner of plants were abundant, for the herbivores. Having sorted out food and water, decisions were made regarding security. The emperor decreed that the shinobi would once again defend the empire, and Touma was assigned to lead their order. They did not have the requisite number of forces for open warfare, so the traditional roles of what was commonly referred to as ninja would be required. Espionage, sabotage, assassination, and psychological warfare would be their method of defense.
Broken Claw returned every couple of nights, and relayed the information gathered. News of the return of the emperor was spreading, and all manner of animals were arriving in the surrounding areas. A small village was being built nearby to Fushimi Inari-taisha shrine, and fields of rice were being planted. The palace grounds were also being modified and enhanced, with new areas being purposed for royal use. The paper doors were pulled open daily, and the emperor and princess held court. The daily arrivals of new animals resulted in a warm greeting. Ones of immediate use were directed to Touma, and assigned to the various agencies that were created. While Touma served as the head of the command structure, with the emperor as the overall head, a subgroup of animals was assigned to the Oniwaban. This group, also known as the garden keepers, served as an intelligence agency for the emperor. The owl reports were documented, categorized, and filed using an expert system of filing as developed by a field mouse who once served as the head actuary for a Japanese car company when he was human.
All agreed that the destruction of the old world, and the reassignment as animals resulted in a return to a much simpler time. For the most part, everyone was happy, though some recounted fond memories of food and electronic pursuits. Those memories started to fade as time passed, and new memories replaced the old as the animals settled into their new homes. Months passed, the first harvest was performed to mixed results, and the shrine was operational once again. Until one day, Broken Claw and his subordinate Fett arrived with news. Touma stood beside Emperor Akio as the screech owl elder spoke. News of a wooden sailing ship was relayed, with 11 white fabric sails, and a tattered American flag flying at the top of the tallest mast. The ship was crewed by all manner of smaller animals, with a silver fox riding in the front cargo hold. There was a spike covered animal, wearing a metal helmet at the steering wheel.
Touma looked up at the emperor, “Emperor! We are not yet ready for an assault; we do not have the forces required to defend.” Broken Claw hooted sharply at the rabbit, “that ship is not the one you must be concerned with. We observed no armaments on board, and the animals looked scared … as if they were being chased. So, we continued to fly further out to sea, and found a second ship. On board that one, was heavy weapons, and six large cats that looked incredibly mean. Fett, please tell the emperor what you heard as we started to turn around. The younger owl nodded, and bowed while speaking to the emperor. “The cats said … we will come to Japan and lay claim to these lands in the name of Ghengis of the Pallas Cat empire.” The emperor nodded, “I see. Of the two ships, which do you think will arrive first?” Fett nodded, “the ship with the fox is a cutter … which means it is designed to travel long distances at a fast pace. The other ship looked like a barge style, which means it goes slower but can carry heavier weight.” Broken Claw nodded, “we believe the longer ship that has more sails will arrive first.”
The emperor rubbed his beak with his chin, “thank you Broken Claw and Fett for your report. Please continue to observe, and report back. Touma, mobilize your forces to the village and shrine. We will extend our wings and paws in friendship, and when they reveal their intentions … we will determine how to react. But one thing is for certain, unlike the last time with my father … I will not let the Americans tell me what to do. I am emperor of this country, and my word is final.” As the owls backed away and flew off, the shinobi rabbits disappeared into the darkness. Turning around, Akio saw his daughter looking at him with a disapproving look. “What is it, Chinatsu?” The princess looked at her father, “please do not forget that our country has an alliance with the Americans. We do not know why they are coming, perhaps they know what is going on with our world?
Emperor Akio honked sharply at her, “I remember the anguish of my father when he had to surrender to their army. The decades of pain our people suffered as our country was destroyed and humiliated. I will not make the mistake of underestimating them. And as for the cats, should they indeed prove to be hostile, our forces will deal with them appropriately.” Chinatsu honked sharply back at her father, “deal with them appropriately? Are you listening to yourself? You are talking of executions, when we need to learn. There is much happening to our world. Have you noticed all the stars are wrong? The fiery bird in the skies? The fact that it should be cold now, with snow … and yet it is still summer?” The male bird turned and started to walk away from the female. He stopped before exiting the covered porch to head inside the building, “I will listen.” Akio said without turning to face his daughter, and headed inside to his resting chambers. The princess turned to head in the opposite direction, choosing to rest in a separate area.
Several days passed, until a flurry of birds started to arrive with excited reports of the tall sailing ship docking in the harbor outside of the village. The ship’s crew was greeted by a local fisher-bunny and his grandson. Soon Touma was dispatched to make the official greeting, and start intelligence gathering efforts. The day of the arrival resulted in yet another argument between the princess and the emperor. She wanted to greet the arrivals, and her father said no. There was a loud series of angry honking noises between the two cranes, resulting in the female not speaking anymore to her father. It was early the next morning when Touma arrived yawning terribly and his eyes wide. The royal family stood silently, and listened to the intelligence report issued. Several other rabbits were taking notes, as well as comparing their separate reports for accuracy. Touma spoke loudly for all to hear, “I went to the sailing ship yesterday Emperor Akio. The name of the ship is “the Determined.” It is crewed by eighteen animals: one female silver fox, three rabbits, two field mice, a black bird, a blue bird, 4 squirrels, and 4 chipmunks. There were no visible arms, save for a couple of crudely made harpoons.”
Pausing for a moment, so the other animals could catch up, “The captain of the ship is an animal called Pudgy Hedgehog. He relayed a shortened version of his adventures. It took almost an entire day to relay the short version. He kept wanting to tell me the “good version,” but I got him to narrow things down. He had had many adventures: to the center of the earth, and into space. All over Europe and the United States, then most recently a trip to the Philippines then Japan.” The emperor and princess blinked, and Akio spoke. “He has travelled that far? In the sailing ship?” The rabbit shook his head, “no the ship is just recent. He spoke of a great spirit, and huge bird that fills the skies, who created all life on this world. He spoke of humans going to a gray place, and then his human friend returning as a dragon to fight coyotes.” Princess Chinatsu blinked, “wait … a dragon? Those don’t exist!” The rabbit nodded, “the hedgehog grew very upset, saying the dragon passed away and then was reborn as an eagle. The story does not make much sense, but I did force him to condense things. But the short version is, the owls and birds did something to make all humans go away. When that happened, the world reset, and all traces of human life was wiped from the world. “
The emperor nodded, “I see. Where is the hedgehog now?” The rabbit yawned terribly, starting to fall asleep while standing. “He went to Fushimi Inari-taisha shrine along with Argente Silver Fox and Shima Moyo Fox. I told Kannushi Kaito to have Pudgy tell the long version of the stories.” The male crane nodded, “good work Touma … get some rest. My daughter will accompany me to the shrine, so we may listen to the … long version … Come daughter.” The leader of the shinobi started to protest, “I should accompany you Emperor….” The said while falling asleep standing up. Chinatsu giggled, “no …you are a sleepy bunny, so you need to go to bed. Is it safe to assume that there are other shinobi present to guard the emperor?” The black rabbit nodded, “hai. The newcomers do not speak Japanese, so if you need to talk private, use our language and not this animal speak we somehow are all able to use.” The rabbit fell over, and passed out cold with his legs sticking up in the air. Chinatsu giggled, while her father was trying to stifle a laugh and maintain his royal demeanor.
The two cranes quickly strode out to the covered porch, and out to the crushed stone concourse that ran outside. Running quickly, they unfurled their wings and started to take flight. The palace buildings were all staying in generally a good state of repair, and from the skies above, the grounds seemed to be withstanding the withering that all the other structures were experiencing. Perhaps the hedgehog had an explanation for that as well? The shrine was able to be seen in the distance, and thankfully it was not a long flight. Given their wing span, reached the shrine in a couple of minutes. As the two cranes landed, several red foxes bowed and motioned towards the main shrine building. Chinatsu got out in front of her father, and quickly strode down a brick stone path towards a large flowering cherry blossom tree. Kannushi Kaito was standing quietly, peeking between the branches. As the emperor caught up, the two birds poked their heads between the branches to see a younger fox leading the white fox and silver fox towards a fountain. The little brown quill covered animal was between them, but still could be seen.
Kaito nodded, “there are the foreigners … come to our shores with rumors of an adventure. Touma relayed a short version, and the hedgehog is here to look for something called a ley line.” The emperor nodded, “what is a ley line?” The fox swished his black tail behind him as he continued to peek through the branches. “It is a large stone, that is connected to other stones via magic. Supposedly the hedgehog can connect them together, allowing travel. Japan could be connected to The Philippines and America. No more airplanes or ships, just boom you appear in the new area.” Chinatsu blinked, “if such a thing exists …can you imagine the possibilities?” The emperor nodded, “the American army invading our country once again. I need to learn more, is there a place to observe but not be seen within the shrine?” Kaito nodded, “yes … follow me emperor. Please walk slowly, and try to be unobtrusive. We will take the long way around to the back of the shrine.”
The two cranes followed the Kannushi, in single file with the princess bringing up the rear. They walked around a curved stone path that was running between several outbuildings where the human priests once resided. Occasionally they could see a gap between the buildings, and the newcomers were entering the shrine’s sanctuary outer building. The sanctuary was in its own separate building, which was connected to a front larger gathering room. This meant there were various side doors, and entry points to allow servants and priests access to both sections of the shrine. Now that they no longer needed to be stealthy, the fox led the two birds to a side door and pulled it open with his paw and mouth. Once sufficiently wide enough, he pointed with his paw inside. “Quietly, head down this hall, and then left, then right. That takes you to a service room, where we currently have extra cushions stored for the main gathering area. I need to make a proper entrance, and act as if I am going about by normal duties.”
The emperor nodded, “yes, that is best. The newcomers should not know we are here.” The cranes could see black rabbits peeking out from various spots around the buildings. The shinobi were present, so the area was safe. As the fox departed, the cranes quietly walked inside down the hall. Then they made the left down another hall, and then right to the service room in question. There was scant light inside, and a narrow slit in the paper screen could be seen. Chinatsu peeked through and watched as the white fox and silver fox entered with the hedgehog. They were being led by a younger red fox, and directed to sit on cushions. Chinatsu backed up, to allow her father a chance to look. The male crane did so, and listened to the words being spoken. A young fox priest spoke, “Please remain here … I will alert the Kannushi that you are here to see him.” The female silver fox turned to the white fox, “sorry about earlier with the fountain. That adventure was rough on all of us …especially with Pudgy. He still has nightmares to this day.” The white fox 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 emperor watched through the narrow slit as Kaito was dressed in a proper Shinto priest outfit befitting the head priest of the shrine. “Ohayo … I am the Kannushi of this shrine. Please call me Kaito, now with whom am I meeting today?” After the customary bowing, the white fox spoke, “this is my daughter Argente, and her friend Pudgy Hedgehog.” 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 slit only could allow sight into the main room, and the side room the group was being led to did not have a sight line. However, the shadows of movement could be seen through the paper. As the crane side of the room had no windows, there was no light that would betray their existence.
“Kiyoshi … the door … please?” The white fox’s voice could be heard, “Kannushi … do you remember my dreams when I first arrived here?” Kaito could be heard, “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.” The two cranes looked at each other, it would see that Kaito had been holding information back from them? Why, and for what purpose? The confusion between the royal family intensified as they listened. Kaito spoke again, “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 next voice was quieter, which required the birds to turn their heads to be able to listen better. It was a high-pitched voice, most likely being the hedgehog. “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.” Kaito spoke again, “I see, and what is your purpose here?” The hedgehog spoke quickly after the fox paused, “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 spoke, “and what does that mean?” The hedgehog spoke excitedly, “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. 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. 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.”
Chinatsu’s eyes were wide, and she looked at her father with a startled look. The emperor nodded, and closed his eyes to intensely focus on listening. Kaito spoke after a pause, “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.” The little hedgehog told a fascinating tale of heading to the center of the earth and meeting a man with a metal mask, and having a vast underground fortress. The adventures continued to the saving Christmas with Santa, then the moon to fight an ancient god and aliens, then ghosts, then defeating the ancient god again and sealing him under a lake. The two birds were missing the wonderful show as the hedgehog acted out the scenes, but every movement was observed. Shinobi bunnies were furiously writing down every word spoke and every action taken. Observations as to what the hedgehog’s mannerisms were, as well as every time he bounced what words corresponded. Pudgy was being analyzed in ways that no one could ever have imagined. The stories stopped suddenly, as the hedgehog fell asleep. The foxes all agreed that it was time for rest, and the two cranes stealthily turned around to walk out of their secret listening post. It was not very long, until they exited the sanctuary building, and were greeted by a well-rested Touma and several heavily armed shinobi rabbits dressed in black fabric and armed. The emperor yawned a moment, before looking down at Touma. “Touma … seize the Determined and imprison the crew. Begin interrogations gently, give food and get them talking. We must learn as much as we can about these gaijin as we can.” Touma nodded, “the order given has been received, by your will it is done emperor.”