It was a morning like any other when Hashi Takashita woke to sun slanting across his room. A lazy fingernail dug the sleep from the corner of each eye while he rolled across his rice-stuffed mattress to loosen the shade. Light blazed from the window, but Hashi flinched from the unexpected slash of shadow that obscured his eyes. Startled, he blinked bleary eyes, until he could focus.
His eyes rested on his best friend, Toshiro Umezawa. They were both born under the same moon: Hashi during the wax, and Toshiro on the wane. Though they were as different as their lunar counterparts, the two had been inseparable since the time they could walk. Hashi had always been broad shouldered, caring and slow, while Toshiro was slight and agile with a mean streak that rivaled a mischievous kami.
"Get up! I’ve been waiting for you for almost an hour. We have to move fast if we’re to get any time in with the cards before you-know-who comes around." Toshiro swept his ponytail behind his shoulder and moved aside from his post, letting the full strength of sun hit Hashi in the face. He threw one forearm over his eyes and mumbled, but got to his feet.
"Meet you around the front," Toshi said and disappeared from the window.
Hashi almost let out a curse, but caught himself mid-sentence and stopped. He did a half turn and bowed to the bust in the corner of his room, a creature carved from jade mined in the mountains nearby: O-Kagachi, the greatest of all kami. The curves of stone flowed together in a sinuous, amorphous shape, for none had laid eyes on the King of the Gods to know his true form. Hashi murmured his obeisance to the idol before sliding his feet into rice-paper sandals and padding from the room.
Hashi tied the belt to his kimono as he sat down to breakfast across from Toshiro. His comrade had already removed his cards from their protective sheath and begun to shuffle them across the table-top in piles of seven.
"You boys and your cards. When are you going to grow up? Don’t you want to join the samurai like your brother Baiku?" Hashi’s mother said, adding a plate of sweetened wantons to the table spread over with cards.
"You mean the battle-mad ronin?" Toshiro bit his lower lip to keep himself from laughing, although his mirth was plain.
"I do wish you’d stop using that name," admonished Hashi’s mother in a tone that meant business. She shook the tongs that she’d been using to dip wantons from hot oil to emphasize each word, and drippings flew dangerously close to Toshiro’s precious parchment cards. "If he were to hear, you’d have to pray for the kami to intervene."
"Hear what, mother?" said Baiku as he stepped noisily through the kitchen door.
"Oh no you don’t! I’ve told you for the last time not to wear that armor in the house!"
"But mother…" Baiku spluttered.
"No buts!" The tongs were quivering with the force of her rage and the wantons were about to burn for inattention. "You will not take another step in this house until you’ve taken that silly gear off!"
"Yes mother," Baiku said, bowing his head. Toshiro stifled another laugh while Baiku glowered, unstrapping each piece of lacquered red armor with care. When he was finished removing his equipment, he puffed out his chest and stood up to his full height as he strutted across the kitchen. Regardless of his preening, he stood only as tall as Hashi was sitting; now that the hard-lined musculature of the armor was removed, he was revealed as a runt. His skin was sallow and pale, and his joints pointed in all directions, bones showing through his gaunt body.
"I see these two weasels are playing stupid card games again," Baiku said with a sneer. He walked over to the table and looked at the drawings on some of the pieces of delicate parchment. "I can’t understand the fascination you have with this made-up world," he said with a dismissive snort. "Where are the kami? Where are the sorcerors? How can you even imagine a world without magic? Why would anyone want to buy your card games?"
"Because baby Jade said so!" Toshiro declared, referencing his younger sister. Hashi picked up where he left off: "Developing a card game isn’t easy, Baiku. We want it to be totally fresh so we decided early on that there will be no real-world references. That means no kami, no magic, and especially no geographical similarities between our world and the technologically advanced world it’s set in."
"Besides, playing cards is better than walking around town bullying people into hitting you," Toshiro mumbled before Hashi could kick him under the table.
"What did you just say?" Baiku screamed before launching himself towards Toshiro, who merely stood in place and allowed Baiku to work off his anger; to strike would have been just what the older boy wanted.
When Baiku tired of being ignored, he slunk over to his mother in the corner of the room. Hashi and Toshiro could not hear the whispered argument, but they both knew what he wanted. They exchanged glanced and rolled their eyes, prepared for the inevitable.
They turned around at the sound of a hard slap. Instead of the small, hunched teenager that had driven himself ineffectually against Toshiro, there stood Baiku flexing his now-taut muscles. His torso was a mountain range of slopes and ridges, from massive pectoral muscles to washboard abdominals. He was straining so hard that his teeth were grinding audibly and a vein stuck out on the side of his neck.
"Now you see the true power of the samurai! Perhaps if you weren’t so busy playing with your children’s cards, you’d have martial arts skills like mine!" He turned abruptly and ran down the hall to his room, his biceps flexed and fists pointed to the sky, before his Bushido could wear off.
Hashi’s mother removed the last of the wantons from the oil and laid them to dry on a wire rack. She cleaned the kitchen in quick, precise movements until it was sparkling clean. She turned to her son and put a hand on Hashi’s shoulder.
"Don’t mind Baiku, boys. I know I shouldn’t humor him but he’s always been so small and insecure. I just wish he wouldn’t wear that stupid armor everywhere. The neighbors are starting to look at me strangely in the paddies."
"It’s okay mother. I understand," Hashi said, while Toshiro just looked at his feet and shook his head.
"Well, it is time for me to prepare for the announcement. Don’t forget, you two!"
Hashi and Toshiro, already absorbed in the mechanics of their new game, did not see her leave.
Both young men were concentrating deeply on the game playing out in front of them when the sonorous tolling of the Junkyo Bell reverberated across the village. It was massive, made from a single mold of cast iron; used only in special circumstances, today it denoted an imperial decree from the Lord of Eiganjo himself. Everyone in Kamigawa knew the legend of great Konda, but it was not often that he sent word directly into his fiefdoms. The entire village had been simultaneously curious and nervous about the contents of the communiqué that had been delivered a fortnight ago.
After changing into their ceremonial robes, Hashi and Toshiro packed their cards and headed out the door. Hashi paused to bow before the kitsune statues decorating the egress while Toshiro waited with a disdainful hand on his hip.
"It’s foolish to bother with those foxes. They’re nothing but a nuisance."
"That may be," Hashi said slowly, "but they are messengers to the kami."
The boys set off towards the temple central to the town of Niigata. They traveled in a measured pace, walking down the main avenue. Hashi usually took pleasure in the sway of the land and the casual architecture of Niigata that completed it. The township had been built in a fertile valley between two craggy mountains; they had been blessed with a beautiful, self-sufficient ecosystem by the grace of the kami, so the town had spread across the earth according to nature’s plan. The straight lines of timber and bamboo houses appealed to Hashi’s sense of completeness, proving the divinity of the kami.
The houses, walled with paper screens for the temperate climate required no more, dotted the folds of the land. Row upon row of towering fir trees lined the sides of the great lake that provided much of their livelihood; Niigata was primarily a fishing village. Hashi blinked his eyes, though he’d scrubbed away the sleep early in the morning; something seemed wrong about the town this afternoon, but he couldn’t place his finger on it. Static hung in the air as if before a storm, though the sheltered region traditionally received little rain; the waters of the lake, most often deep and still, ran choppy in the absence of wind.
Despite his misgivings, Hashi continued the trek in lockstep with his friend. Friends and neighbors were slipping from their abodes in ones and twos, strengthening the trickle of men and women to a throng as they approached the temple. Hashi glanced at Toshiro and back to the architecture he had so often admired. Though Toshiro did not seem to notice, the strict geometry that gave the forms structure seemed twisted, somehow knocked askew, as if the people exited not merely to leave, but to escape. The sway of the earth, normally serene, seemed covetous and filled with malice.
As they approached the final turn that led to the temple, Toshiro nudged Hashi in the side and headed towards a pedestal set just off the thoroughfare. On the pedestal stood a twelve-inch, painfully delicate blue crystal statue of Hasharu, heralded as the first man to communicate with the kami. Toshiro’s sister Jade was playing and giggling at the base of the statue, peeking around the pedestal at empty air and rolling around the base as if tickled.
Many visitors to Niigata had found the shrine strange. Children seemed possessed in its vicinity and should not be allowed near the delicate, azure crystal. However, the villagers only laughed for they knew its secret. The shrine was a gift of the Hana kami, which were only visible to children. The shrine itself was hardened through magic, such that even Niigata’s most formidable samurai could not break it; since there was no danger of its careless destruction, and the flower kami were always there, children often chose it for play.
Toshiro knelt down and gave his sister a quick bear hug; though separated by over a decade, the two were almost as close as he and Hashi. After tousling her hair they moved to continue towards the temple. Throwing a casual glance back over his shoulder, Hashi was stunned to realize that he saw a group of Hana kami. He had not witnessed them himself since the death of his father two days after his tenth birthday. Of the group of miniscule kami, only one seemed to pay him any heed. It turned its impish gaze upon him and gave him a toothy smile before vanishing with the rest, although laughter still bubbled from Jade.
When they reached the temple, they were among the last to arrive. Hashi could not pick his out his brother among the band of white-robed samurai, nor his mother from the crowd. At the ring of a small gong recessed within the temple, a group of monks stepped to each side and drew back the gold-lacquered paneling that surrounded the temple, baring it to the humid air. At the highest tier inside the space stood the impressive bulk of the Junkyo bell, ringed with samurai; below, on the ground level, a miniature pyre burned within a brazier to symbolize the sacred flame. A bundle of fragrant wood and herbs were slowly burning, and Diviners knelt in solemn rows, partially obscured by the smoke.
At the second ring of the gong, Ishita stepped from an alcove bearing a scroll. Dressed in the flowing, cream-hued robes of a mystic, he moved with the casual grace and surety bred from long hours spent in meditation and communion with the kami. He stepped to the altar set before the sacred flame, knelt and spread out the scroll. The samurai surrounding the Junkyo bell drummed its lower rim with cloth mallets, and a low hum filled the air as Ishita began to read.
"By the imperial decree, hear now these words. A time of transformation is at hand; the death of the Empire of Eiganjo, and its rebirth as the Empire of Kamigawa. Years of toil by the revered mystic, Sensei Nine-Tails, has provided the means to transcend the struggle of mortality; as these words are read, Lord Konda shall step through the veil separating our world from that of the spirit, and he will return a Kami among men."
The throbbing of the Junkyo bell increased as gasps ricocheted across the room. The air, humid and dead, caused sweat to trickle down Hashi’s back.
"Lord Konda shall be the eminent, sole link between kami and man; by transcending his physical form, he ensures that humanity will no longer bow to capricious spirit masters."
The pulse of the bell, reverberating in Hashi’s chest, had become difficult to bear. As the tension in the air grew to a fever pitch, many of the audience moaned in discomfort, though most remained motionless with their gaze locked onto the golden, sacrilegious scroll.
"By imperial decree, it is so ordered that any and all shrines to the kami shall be removed and destroyed. Failure to comply will be punished by the most strict of measures."
Ishita’s hands shook as he rerolled the scroll and stood. After three hesitant steps towards the Junkyo bell, he picked up the hammer used to signal the end of announcements and swung it with all his might. When he connected with the bell, it was not a tone that issued forth, but the heart-rending shriek of a young girl. The silver hammer disintegrated from Ishita’s hand and swirled across the floor.
"Jade!" Toshiro screamed, and ran from the temple. The villagers shuffled after him, excited and afraid.
When the throng reached Hasharu’s shrine, the air whooshed from the collective intake of breath. Toshiro’s sister lay supine, the blood completely drained from her face; sitting calmly on her torso as if waiting were six tiny Hana kami. Upon being encircled by the crowd, they stood in unison. Baring their teeth in malicious imitation of a smile, they dissolved into nothing, with young Jade’s cry still floating in the air.
Toshiro stepped forward and fell to hands and knees beside his younger sister. Tears muddied themselves in the dust after dripping from his nose, his body quaking. As he sat back to look upon the statue of Hasharu, the first man to commune with the kami, cracks threaded their way throughout the unbreakable blue stone.
With the sound of an expensive chandelier smashing to the floor, the statue shattered. Thus began the War of the Kami: with the scream of a single child.