The current of the main continent’s four largest rivers all poured into a gigantic basin, the water churning with incredible force under the constant deluge from above. Screens of mist blew through valley, rays of light striking them and leaving at opposite angles, giving the curtains of fine droplets a shimmering quality as if seen through a kaleidoscope.
The school of Minamo rested steadily on an enchanted jet of water that rose in a column from the basin, sequestered in the rainbow mists like a pearl nestled in the protective grip of a clam. The classical architecture was reminiscent of the destroyed temple of Niigata, though on far more magnificent a scale: nearly a mile in length and width, the school compound contained several independent building supported on a common foundation. The school proper had a grand staircase leading to the sole visible entrance, that descended to the lip of the abyss below; flanked by two massive tusks of some long-extinct beast, Minamo could intimidate even those who had lived there for years. The tower rising from the rear of the building, straight and white, served as a domicile and access point.
However beautiful Minamo was when seen from the outside, the indoor accoutrements were equally spartan. Hashi woke feeling groggy and slow, looking around him at the bare walls and scarcely furnished room. He sad up in the stiff bed to find a gauze bandage wound around his torso; though it was painful to tense his abdominal muscles, the searing pain of the night before had vanished. His ankle had been dressed expertly, the swelling reduced, and he felt little discomfort when he swung his legs over the edge of the bed and stood.
Once again on his feet, Hashi’s stomach rumbled. Though he no suffered from injuries or fever, he was ravenous, and could barely wait to eat. As if cued, a small woman with white face paint entered his room bearing a tray. Setting it on the one small table in the room she bowed and left. Lifting the cloth, the odor of fresh, hot wantons and vegetable soup wafted up to Hashi’s grateful nose.
When he had finished eating, he opened the armoire that was the only other piece of furniture in the room. Hanging inside was a white robe banded across the center with a strip of brown leather. Securing the robe with a belt of braided cloth, he stepped to the door and slid it open.
The man that he had last seen in the flying creatures’ prison kneeled on a mat outside Hashi’s door. He looked old and frail, though Hashi had come to distrust appearances. His white hair was swept back from his head in a tight ponytail, and a meticulously maintained goatee hung from his weak chin. The man wore indigo robes that seemed to flow like the water that held the fortress aloft, a swath of green cutting the blue until it disappeared into the shifting folds.
Without opening his eyes, the man spoke. “Look with the eyes and find what you see,” he said. His piercing gaze ran across Hashi’s person, penetrating immediately through any layers of subterfuge that he may have pretended. “Look with the heart, and find what you seek.”
The small man rose from his position of supplication and presented his hand to Hashi. As they clasped hands, he introduced himself for the second time.
“I am Hisoka, Sensei of Minamo.”
“And I am Hashi Takashita. I apologize that I could not properly thank you for rescuing me from the flying men.” He gestured to the bandages still visible between the left and right halves of his robe. “I see that I still fall deeper into debt.”
Hisoka took Hashi’s arm and guided him down the passage as they spoke. “Do not worry, young man, for such hospitality is freely given. It is not every day that we have visitors in Minamo.”
They passed an open egress and Hashi glanced inside, startled to see a number of the strange flying creatures that had earlier taken him hostage. Hisoka noticed his trepidation and gave them a dismissive wave.
“Do not mind the Soratami. They will do you no harm; we have an arrangement with them, of sorts. They help us to ferry individuals and supplies to and from the mainland, while we use our magics to placate the Tide Star, a dragon that preys on their kind. While sometimes communication is difficult, it is a beneficial relationship; it allows us to remain aloof from the affairs of the world.” He sighed heavily, and his chin sunk almost to his chest. “Though I fear that is coming to an end.”
They had reached a set of great brass-bound doors. At Hisoka’s light touch, they swung forward with ease on well-oiled hinges. The room on the other side was vast, nearly half of the volume of the floating school; it was lined with row upon row of tightly wound scrolls, each one an ancient repository of history, culture, and magic.
Hisoka led Hashi past a tall, plain woman in salmon-colored robes that held one scroll unrolled whilst two more floated in the air around her, which Hisoka introduced as Azami, the Librarian. Reaching a small recessed alcove on the back wall, they sat across from one another.
“Though you have arrived by a most irregular means, there is but one reason people come to Minamo. What is it you wish to know?” Hisoka asked, stroking his beard.
Hashi, though brimming with questions, took a moment to compose himself. He would not waste this opportunity to gain insight into the fate his people had suffered.
“My people have always been loyal. Even on the dawn of the day we were attacked, I made my obeisance. Why have the kami turned against us?”
“An interesting question, yet one that you have already answered. Do you not seek Konda, Lord of Eiganjo?”
“Then better to ask what you might do when you find him.” Hashi merely nodded his head, and Hisoka continued. “The mists that surround Minamo allow us to see what would otherwise be impossible. It is a weak point in the veil that divides this world from that of the kami. The energies are delicate and must not be manipulated, but rather accommodated, for an acolyte to peer through their depths. Restraint is the key.”
“What immense talent that Konda displayed during his apprenticeship was balanced by a lack of restraint.”
“So he was a student here?”
Hisoka paused, letting the recollections wash over him. “Yes, one of the most promising we’ve had in the last century… but not without his flaws. His unbridled ambition manifested itself in an utter lack of self control; he disdained our philosophy that we should merely watch and interpret – he wanted to seize and control. He was enamored of the things he saw on the other side of the veil, and he wanted them for himself.”
“He became obsessed with the spirit world and was determined to find a way to use it. We ended his scholarship at Minamo in an attempt to dissuade and discourage him, to remove him from a position to do so; but now we know that he has succeeded at last.”
“Do you know what he has done?” Hashi asked.
“No one is certain, not even myself. It is obvious that he has ruptured the veil that divides our world from that of the kami, but how he has done so or how we can restore the balance we have not been able to divine. Since his foray beyond the veil, our vantage has become less clear.”
“What I believe has happened is that the magic Konda initiated has removed his soul to the place between our worlds. The energies so carefully balanced there were disrupted by his arrival. Though he cannot commune with the kami, he is immune to the rigors of the mortal world. He has effectively become immortal and invincible.”
“I have been working with Azami to sift through the sands of time, searching the most ancient texts for clues. There is little reference to one that exists in the divide between worlds. The only thing we have found is a few lines about the ‘Bridge between High and Low.’ You wouldn’t know anything about that, would you?” he asked, a wry tilt to the corners of his mouth.
Cold sweat broke out on Hashi’s back when he heard the phrase leave Hisoka’s lips as if it were a death sentence. He tried to remain calm as he allowed the sensei to continue.
“In all my time here at the school, I have seen but two people that could journey through the veil. The first is Konda, though he could not penetrate the spirit world.”
“And the other?” Hashi asked, though he already knew the answer.
“The other, young man, is you.”
Hisoka told him then how they’d discovered his presence near Minamo. He had been standing on the highest parapet of the school by moonlight, staring into the sheets of mist that hung like clouds over the thunderous basin. His meditation was interrupted by a vision from the veil. There were kami, fashioned from diffuse light, rallying around a central point; each had the shimmering, distorted appearance that came with any attempt to glimpse the other side of the veil. Yet the figure that each of the kami was drawn to was crisp and perfectly clear; a young man with a glowing brightwood staff, injured and sick, but aided by the spirits.
“I thought those dreams were a result of my fever,” Hashi said, feeling faint once again.
“I believe that you have more power than you realize. You could be of great help to us here, to find a way to mend the veil. You do not have the slightest understand of your gift, young mystic, but here we could train you. Will you stay?”
Hashi struggled internally with the gravity of the decision. He wanted nothing more than to end his weary travels; he had already seen his share of strife. The prospect of a new home was a heady and thought and he gave it serious heed. But the halls of Minamo, the fabled school at waters edge, would not replace his family and friends. He must be true to his promise to Ishita, and he would continue.
“I appreciate your offer, Sensei Hisoka, but I must continue. I will find Lord Konda and repair the veil; I will become the Bridge between High and Low.”
T O B E C O N T I N U E D . . .