With the stories told by the hedgehog from far across the ocean still in their minds, all the local Japanese animals found themselves contemplating many things. The shinobi were of the mind set that the Determined’s crew was a threat to the emperor. The priests did not sense any ill will, and wanted to learn more of the outside world as well as their hedgehog visitor. Ultimately though, it was up to the emperor to decide. Both members of the royal family never made it back to their room within the imperial palace, and chose to sleep in the center of the lake on a small rocky outcropping covered with pink flowers. Cranes slept standing up, like herons and other birds of that stature. The shinobi guard kept a watchful eye on the two cranes as they slept, until almost noon when the sun was the highest point in the sky.
A gray rabbit hopped as fast as his legs could go, underneath the eastern Torri gates, and through the partially open main gate to reach the wide concourse of crushed stone that surrounded the interior palace buildings. The palace grounds were laid out in a very precise rectangular pattern of structures. While there were roads and paths that were built to go directly to certain places, the trees and plant life had grown so thick that it rendered some sections impossible to cut through. That was not too much trouble for the small rabbit, as he ducked under the brambles and weaved through the tall trees. The rectangle patterns were mirrored as they narrowed as they continued towards the center of the imperial palace grounds. There was a tall stone wall, with various wooden accents and sharp triangular roofs that guarded each rectangular ring. And to enter, there was a similar fortified gate, of varying states of repair.
The former humans who had returned thus far, were coming back as smaller animals. Rabbits, mice, beavers, birds and the like. There were no larger animals, who could help with heavy lifting or able to reach high into the air. Thus, the repairs were taking a long time, and priority was being given to the inner-most ring of defenses to protect the royal family. There was also a missive sent to Fushimi village and the priests at the shrine, that if ever the area came under attack, they were to head to the palace. The princess had made a passionate case for the village to not be built so far away, but she lost the argument. Despite decades of progress, the women were once again being subjugated to the desires of men. The society was drifty more patriarchal once again, but that did not mean they lost all their power. Women have ways of suggesting a course of action, so they had their methods to ensure things did not get too out of paw.
A shinobi lookout looked up from his post, and watched the gray rabbit shoot past him. “HEY WAIT! You must stop at the gate, GET BACK HERE!” Cursing in Japanese, the black hare turned quickly and started to hop after the gate crasher. Through the ticket of trees they headed, until they reached a sloping road that led between two large sections of the palace. The shinobi called out, “STOP!” But there was no response, as they turned the corner of the building on the right, and headed towards the lake where the emperor was currently located. There was a fence put up around the edge of the concourse, to prevent humans from crossing over to the rocky shoreline of the lake. To the astonishment of the black hare, he watched as the gray hare collapsed just shy of the fence and slid a few inches forward.
Slowing his pace, he could see the paws of rabbit were starting to bleed from various stones and debris being lodged in them. The chest was moving quickly, as the rabbit gasped for breath. By this time, several other shinobi dressed in black outfits hopped up to see what the commotion was? The gate guard was cross, “I told you to stop! Why did you ignore my command?” The gray rabbit looked up at the guard, “a big ship is anchored off of Fushimi Village.” The guard nodded, “yes, the Determined. We seized it from the animals who arrived from the Philippines I believe.” Shaking his head, “no, it is a new ship! It is a big red one, with black sails. It looks like a junk from China, and there are 5 huge cats on board that look really mean. I ran as fast as I could here, I must tell the emperor!”
The various shinobi who had amassed around the gray rabbit nodded at each other, and one took off as quickly as he could towards the lake. Down the strip of grass, and across the rocky shoreline the black hare hopped until he reached the edge of the lake. Cupping his paws around his mouth, “EMPEROR! WE NEED YOU!” It was just as the words was spoken, when the shinobi felt the back of his head slapped. As he turned around, the rabbit could see Touma standing there on his hind legs, and his left paw on the hilt of his katana. “One does not address the emperor in such a familiar fashion! What is going on to warrant such a question?” The shinobi bowed, “I am sorry Jonin … that gray rabbit just ran as fast as he could to tell us that a second ship arrived. It has 5 large cats on board, that look very mean.”
Touma nodded, and turned to hop quickly over to where the gray rabbit was sitting. He was busy pulling stones out of his paws and wincing. “The ship you saw, what does it look like?” The young hare looked up as he was questioned by the leader of the shinobi, “it is a big one like a junk from China. It has a red hull, and black sails. There were 5 cats, long fur, mean faces … they were lowering a plank so they could come ashore. There was one who had a strange hat on, seemed to be in charge. It hissed orders with such a tone.” The various shinobi watched as the emperor turned in the distance, and started to flap his wings. Soon the crane was flying the short distance to where his forces were surrounding the villager. The leader of the shinobi, or Jonin, nodded again and spoke. “I see … is it located near the docks where the Determined is moored?” The young hare nodded, “yes, they were quiet upset that the docks were full. So, they sailed a bit further up, and then anchored in the marshlands at the end of where the water comes. Their ship was too large to enter the canal.”
Five large city blocks once stood in front of the imperial palace on the eastern side, bustling with the traffic of Kyoto. Past the main streets, side streets, sidewalks, and parking lots ran a canal. Ancient stone was held in place by modern concrete, trying to preserve the ancient history of the area. Several of the original stone bridges still stood, hundreds of years later, complete with tourist signs written in Japanese kanji letters. Now, a thick forest of trees covered the area, and the stream was a bit higher. However, the issue for both ships, was neither could travel the narrow waterway. It was in fact very possible with the smaller boats of Fushimi village to sail the 8-kilometer distance between the village/shrine area and the palace.
That was roughly 4 miles, which the gray rabbit ran instead of taking a boat. Despite the ruins that surrounded the canal on each side, the concrete was holding firm, and made for a smooth surface to walk upon. That distance was cut in half, and took half a day to get there. More importantly, the hare knew where he was going, while the mean cats did not. By the time that the crane traversed the short distance, and landed where the gray rabbit was sitting, the interrogation was completed. Emperor Akio walked up, “what is going on?” Touma turned and bowed with the five shinobi and gray commoner rabbits. “Emperor, we have received intelligence that a second ship has arrived. The crew are 5 large cats, who seem to be of ill temperament. What is your command?” The crane nodded, “Touma … dispatch your forces. Observe, and if they deem to do harm, take them into custody. I wish to speak to them, if possible. This is not coincidence, 2 foreign ships arriving in such a short time frame. It almost makes me wonder if they are working together?” Touma nodded, “yes Emperor, by your will it is done.”
The emperor nodded as he turned his gaze a moment towards the direction of the shine. “Where is my daughter?” One of the shinobi spoke, while still facing the ground, “Emperor … she is at the state guest house.” Touma turned a moment to look at his subordinate, “why would she go there?” The lower ranked shinobi spoke again, “she wanted to check on the status of the prisoners.” The emperor blinked, “I will have words with my daughter. Touma, you have your orders, move out.” The crane watched as the rabbits slowly back away while still bowing, and once out of sight of the emperor, quickly hop up the path. Shaking his head, “Chinatsu will give me gray feathers at this rate …wait … too late. “His body was covered in white feathers for the most part, which resulted in him laughing in the honking sound he had grown accustomed to. Quickly flapping his wings, he took flight and flew the short distance to the large series of dark stained wooden buildings, with nondescript pale green tile covered roofs.
In times long past, dignitaries would be housed in the various buildings. A team of servants would see to their needs, as well as maintain the buildings. A shallow pond was in the center of all the buildings, with various evergreen and leaf bearing trees around the pond. Concrete walking paths were the modern addition, residing by the paved stone bricks that formed the ancient pathways. However, in current day, this area was serving as a prison. The decision to locate it here was made from necessity. The various out buildings were all falling apart. This section of the palace was still in relatively good repair, and allowed for the housing of the Determined’s crew. As the emperor landed in front of the main receiving area, his claws touched the smooth white paver bricks. He could hear angry honking in the distance, which meant his daughter was not getting her way. As he walked at a measured pace, thoughts drifted to the various fights he had with her throughout the years. The modern Japanese woman was very difficult to manage, unlike her mother who deferred to his will.
It was not long, as he passed under a wide green covered porch roof, he saw his daughter arguing with two shinobi rabbits in their black outfits. They were standing guard, in front of a set of glass sliding doors that had been forced to the halfway open position on each side. “I have every right to see the prisoners! I want to check on their wellbeing!” The princess angrily honked, as the two rabbits shook their heads and had paws on their katanas. “Chinatsu …what are you doing?” The emperor said as he walked up behind her, watching as the rabbits bowed deeply. The princess turned around, “they have been telling me that only a command from the emperor will allow access. And why are the guest houses being used as a prison?!?!?!” The female crane stomped her foot and fluffed her wings angrily, while her father walked past her and up to the guards.
“What is the prisoner status?” The emperor asked, while watching the rabbit on the left bow lower and speak with his face towards the ground. It was a bit muffled, since he was also wearing his black mask as well. “All seventeen members of the crew have been located and housed within Emperor. We located the black and blue birds yesterday; they had been scouting the imperial palace for possible attack points.” The princess honked again, “our visitors have not shown us any ill will thus far. Did you happen to ask them why they were flying around?” The emperor nodded, and waved with his wing, “please answer the question. I am interested as well.” The rabbit nodded, “they said they were looking for the ley line. Whatever that is? The blue bird appears to be a priest, and was speaking of Christian topics to the other birds. We arrested the black bird for espionage, and the blue bird for violation of the prohibition of foreign religions.”
Chinatsu blinked and turned to her father, “Emperor …please tell me … that you did not re-enact that archaic decree?” The emperor looked at her and fluffed his wings. For hundreds of years, since the Edo period, Christianity was illegal along with many other foreign religions. Over the centuries that restriction was eased, until it was frowned upon but not punishable by death. Chinatsu blinked, “you actually did … didn’t you? You are pulling out country back hundreds of years, for what? Power? Influence?” The male crane got a look in his eyes, “this is my country, and I am its emperor. I will do as I deem necessary to ensure the safety and prosperity of this land. I WILL NOT BE QUESTIONED BY MY OWN DAUGHTER! Now be SILENT, Chinatsu!” The male crane honked louder than she had ever heard, and the sound echoed as it vibrated against the walls. “Shinobi, this place is to remain under guard, and no visitors are to enter. Am I clear?” The two rabbits nodded and said in unison, “yes emperor!”
Chinatsu was angry, with her dark eyes burning brightly. But she was quiet, contemplating a way around this temporary setback. Until her father spoke again, “guards be prepared for 5 more occupants to arrive, you are authorized to use force if they get out of line.” The guards nodded and bowed again, while the male crane turned to face his daughter again, “Princess Chinatsu …you will go to the Fushimi Inari Taisha shrine. Listen to the tale of the hedgehog captain, and report back to me with a summary of the story told.” The princess bowed, which was unusual for her, and backed away with a curt response. “Yes … emperor…” She backed away several feet, until she saw her father turn away from her. Then took off running, and flapping her wings until she took flight. The rabbits watched as the female crane flew off to the south, in the direction of the shrine.
As the princess flew higher into the skies, she honked angrily as she vented her frustrations. It was a mixture of animal speak, Japanese, Chinese, and American swear words. Oddly enough, every time she attempted to speak a curse word, she honked instead. So, to occupy her mind, and stop thinking of how much a honking honking honking jerk her honking father honking was … she tested out which honking words could honking be said. So far, she was up to … darn. Veering off course on purpose, she started to follow the canal that led down towards where the village docks were located. The area was much different than she remembered, covered with forests and meadows now, instead of block and block of old human buildings smashed together uncomfortably. In the distance, she could see the Determined, and its tall masts sticking up into the air. But a new ship was moored nearby: a larger red ship. This was perhaps the 5 new prisoners her honking father was talking about?
Adjusting her wings, she started to glide, and watched as the forest started to pull back as the ships came into better view. It was also when she heard the guttural calls from a group of 5 cats walking in formation up the canal by the stream. The head of the group was wearing a very distinct hat upon his head. It was fine dark red fabric, black leather accents, and ascended almost like a spire while being adorned with a gold sphere at its point. The cats hiss angrily, as they pointed at the bird flying overhead. The bodies were compact, and covered in a thick gray fur. White and black stripes could be seen at various points of the bodies, especially around their faces. Intense golden eyes angrily stared at her as they bared needle sharp white teeth. One of the cats picked up a river rock, and threw it as hard as he could towards her. She was easily able to dodge it, and flapped her wings to gain some altitude, as she turned to head towards the shrine.
“You throw like a woman Altan, I could have hit that bird with my eyes closed!” The aforementioned cat turned his head towards the insulting fellow member of the crew, and hissed at him. “I was not trying to hit the bird; I wanted it to veer off so it can relieve itself elsewhere. And I know how a woman throws, I was with your mother before we left home Bataar.” The two cats started hissing and arguing, while they travelled. Erdene and Gan shook their heads, while they walked and watched as Genghis turned around. “Altan! Bataar! Shut your mouths, we will be heard a kilometer away at this rate! This is supposed to be a stealth mission!” The leader of the cats turned around, and started to walk forward again. As the group quieted down, they continued to follow the stream.
When their ship first entered the cove where Fushimi village was located, they saw the Determined moored at the piers. The ship had been abandoned, and all the deck gear had been stowed away. The cats moored the ship a short distance ahead of the docks, and was greeted by a field mouse dressed in a Japanese style kimono. She was friendly, and was a source of valuable information. Readily she told where the village was, and of the hedgehog and crew who arrived several days earlier. She spoke of the crane emperor, and the palace up the stream. After giving directions, the cats tore her apart and shared the scant remains of the mouse. Ghengis gave the order to disembark, with the exception of Dawa, who was ordered to remain on board the ship to guard it. Following the directions, had resulted in a quick progress towards the imperial palace. The crew encountered several other field mice in the area along the way: friendly, helpful, and very tasty.
Each provided valuable information, directions to the palace, and what to expect when arriving. However, each of their actions were under intense observation, by the shinobi hidden in the tall grass on each side of the canal. After many hours of travel, the cats decided to cross the shallow stream to the opposite side on the western side of the stream. Per the directions provided, they would see a series of three ancient stone bridges, before the ruins of a modern bridge. The palace would be on the western side, and tall evergreen trees lined a path that led to the outer walls of the palace. The water was too warm, and almost had a sheen of some oily substance on its surface. It did not hurt, just left one’s fur feeling a bit off. They tried to shake off the excess water, as the group stopped to rest for a moment.
Altan turned to the stream, “I would have liked to take a drink from that water …but there is something off here.” The other cats nodded, with Genghis speaking with an air of authority. “Most likely the humans’ filth is leaking out into the water from a source upstream from here.” Gan pointed to the opposite side of the stream, at a quickly decaying high rise building that was gutted. “Look there … the human buildings …are all destroyed?” The Pallas cats turned and stared with eyes wide and mouths open, before starting their journey once more. They started to climb the stone banks, and reached the crest of the canal on the western side. The group passed dozens of human buildings, cars, trucks, and roads in terrible states of disarray. The metal was rusting, and the stone was crumbling, but there was no sound. No sign of any human anywhere, which unnerved the cats. On their travels to Japan, they had come across empty villages of humans, but figured there had been some rational cause for their departure.
As night started to fall, their leader ordered a stop and motioned with his paw towards a grove of pine trees with low hanging branches. “Everyone, get some sleep, I will take the first watch. We will rise early, and go to this crane emperor and inform him of our claim to this land. And if he refuses, he will learn to fear our wrath!” The other cats cheered, hissing in their angry guttural tones. One by one the cat crew members curled up under a tree, and fell asleep. Their leader was tired, but it was best he set the example and stay up first. As the sounds of his sleeping crew quietly filled the air, he looked up at the moon as it travelled through the canopy of the evergreen trees. The scent of pine was thick on the air, as well as a musty smell. There were two slender bodies of animals much higher up in the tree. The cat could not see that well in the darkness, and blinked as he heard the noise they made.
“Hooot ….. and who might you be?” Genghis looked up and squinted his eyes, “I am Genghis of the Pallas cat empire of Mongolia! And who might you be, my shadowy enemy?” The voice from above called out again, “enemy? I have only asked a question. Should I be afraid?” The defiant cat hissed, “you darn well should be afraid. We are dangerous warriors of the Mongol plains, sailed to conquer this land and claim it for the empire.” The voice called out again, “hoot ….. is that so? So, you have come to conquer, and not to speak of friendship?”
The cat had been focusing his eyes, and adjusting his head so he could angle the sounds in such a way he could figure out where it was coming from. As the moon moved slowly in the sky, the silhouette of the owl could be seen whom was speaking. Suddenly, Genghis shot towards the tree and quickly climbed it. In seconds, he had ascended the tree and reached the branch where the owl was located. He lunged towards his foe, and raked across the owl’s body with sharp claws. The owl hooted in pain, “FETT! FLY AWAY AND INFORM THE EMPEROR!” A second owl quickly flew off from a nearby branch, “WAKE UP EVERYONE! AND GET THAT BIRD!” The captain of the Ganzaya shouted, as he lunged towards Broken Claw. With teeth bared, he ripped the owls wings off and ripped feather covered flesh from the torso of the bird. Feeding on the remains, the owl’s eyes went glassy as it passed away.
The crew of cats on the ground woke up slowly, and watched as a mixture of blood droplets and feathers rained from the tree branches above. However, before they could speak, shadows started to move in the tall grass around them. “Genghis, we’re surrounded!” The cats backed up around the trunk of the pine tree and faced out in all directions. Altan squinted his eyes, “I cannot see anything! But I can smell something, a whole lot of something.” Bataar laughed, “probably you wet yourself with fear. I …. ARRRRGHHH!” The cats started screaming as he rolled on the ground in pain. Erdene rushed over, and found a metal star shaped object lodged in the left eye of the cat. Before he could say anything, the sudden sharp pain also hit him, as a similar weapon pierced hit his right eye. Gan rushed out into the tall grass, “come at me you feckless jerks!”
Genghis called out, “get back here Gan! Everyone, up in the trees!” As the captain of the Ganzaya shouted out his order, he turned to see the dark shadows with long fluffy ears quickly hopping through the tree canopy. Without warning, they rushed him, and pushed him off the branch. It felt like a dozen paws pushing, and the cat came crashing through the tree branches. Landing hard on his feet, his joints hurt as he watched his crew members writhe in pain while trying to dislodge the weapon stuck into their eyes. Cursing in his native tongue, the captain soon felt metal pressed up against his throat. A soft voice whispered in his ear, “watch.” The cat hissed as he felt the blade dig into his flesh, and heard the muffled screams from Altan and Bataar, until an eerie silence filled the air. “Altan … Bataar … are you alright?” The soft voice spoke again, “the conquerors have been dispatched.”
The cat hissed sharply, “Gan will bring my reinforcements.” The soft voice laughed in his ear, “you mean the one left on your ship before we burned it to the ground?” Or the coward that cried for his mother as my forces cut his limbs off by the stream? We watched the killings as you headed upstream, the murders of the innocent.” Genghis could not tell if this was an act of subterfuge and his crew was alright, or if this unknown voice was telling the truth. That question would be pondered later, but it was hard to think with a blade against one’s throat. “Take me to this crane emperor, I wish to have words with him.” The cat hissed angrily, which resulted in the blade easing away from his throat. Suddenly, and intensely sharp pain struck the back of his head, and he blacked out.
As the early twilight of morning started to fill the horizon, a very tired princess walked up to the palace building where they had chosen to sleep at. All thoughts of her fight with her father had been erased, having listened to the most frightening and sad tale from the hedgehog. The little quill covered captain spoke of terrible sights, and horrible monsters. In the end he was victorious, but his adventure was not yet done, requiring a third night of stories to tell. This would be of most interest, as it would explain what happened to the humans. The sounds of a crying owl filled the air, as she heard and felt the rush of wind as it flew over her head and inside the palace. Rushing to follow, she soon found the wide room illuminated by candles.
The owl landed a short distance away from the emperor, and was trying to speak as he sobbed. “Broken Claw …is …dead. The cats got him … he told me to come … I had to warn you” He kept hooting over and over, with mournful sounds filling the room. Chinatsu watched her father narrow his eyes, and fluff his feathers to make his body more menacing. “Fear not Fett, for my shinobi forces are tracking the cats. Ahh …. Here they are now …” The princess was out of view of her father, standing in an alcove between the main building, and a support building beside of it. She watched as a phalanx of two rows of heavily armed black rabbits were escorting a prisoner. The cat indeed was the meanest looking cat she had ever seen, now that he was up close. His mouth had been tied shut, and a rope was tied around his neck in the form of a noose. The rabbits were not taking any chances, and for the first time the princess could see the totality of her father’s forces.
There were at least a hundred shinobi rabbits from what she could see, perhaps even more in places hidden away and obscured by the low light levels. The emperor flapped his wings, “so …this is the mighty warrior … come to conquer my lands?” Touma stopped in front of the emperor, and bowed deeply. The other shinobi rabbits started to do the same, but Genghis did not. His yellow eyes burned bright with anger, and he stood defiantly. Shinobi on either side of the cat grabbed his fur and drove his face straight into the wooden floor. In unison they shouted, “BOW BEFORE THE EMPEROR!” The cat hissed despite his mouth being tied shut, and the intense pain of his face slamming into the wood floor spread throughout his head.
The emperor spoke again, “Touma … what of the crew?” The leader of the shinobi nodded as he remained bowed, “The ship held one crew member, who informed us the ship was called the Ganzaya. He tried to resist our boarding of the vessel, so we encouraged him from the ship. His body is currently floating out to sea, for the sharks to feed upon.” Genghis closed his eyes, and wanted to cry, but he could not. He had to remain proud and defiant in the face of the enemy. But the words spoken next by the rabbit hurt the most to hear, “we observed the crew as they travelled the canal killing indiscriminately. Broken Claw was killed by this cat here, while his crew was dispatched by your imperial shinobi forces. There were no further forces on the ship, nor can be seen heading towards us at this time. This … would be conqueror is the last to be dispatched. Shall I …rectify the situation?”
The emperor shook his head, “no …stay your blade for now. I wish to have words with this cat. Events are occurring outside of the range of our view. Strange ships, crewed by animals from afar are arriving within days of each other. Humans disappearing, and returning as animals … our once proud cities and structures are crumbling into dust. Events are afoot, and knowledge is power. For now, please place our cat prisoner under heavy guard and in a most uncomfortable manner possible.” The rabbits bowed further, and started to back up. The noose around Genghis’s throat tightened, and he was led away back through the open doorway. Eventually all the rabbits disappeared, and the room continued to brighten as the morning sun started to stream through the paper doors that surrounded the room. Fett the owl was asleep, but hooting occasionally sadly.
Princess Chinatsu walked slowly inside of the room, and watched as the pain filled her father’s eyes. She waved her wing gently towards him, “that was … hard to hear.” The male crane turned towards his daughter, “when I was a young child, I would watch an owl looking through my window. I was … afraid of the dark … but the owl seemed to quiet those fears. I found out recently, Broken Claw … the leader of this owl’s parliament, was that owl who watched over me as I slept. And now …” The princess honked sadly, as she looked at Fett sleeping on the ground, “and now he is dead.” The female crane paused, and after a long period of quiet, she spoke softly. “Father, I am sorry … for the words I spoke earlier today.” The emperor nodded, “apology accepted. Now, let us not talk about death, and relay to me the stories as spoken by the hedgehog. What more did you learn?”