After he had buried Ishita next to his family, Hashi rested on a rectangular stone that had once been part of his home’s foundation. He contemplated the blisters that ridged both palms, cracked and stinging, then clenched his fists until blood ran from his fingers, letting it fall on the freshly turned earth.
As he looked across the devastated village, some of the ashes still smoldering, he had never felt more alone. Unless Toshiro had somehow escaped alive, Hashi was the last of the people of Niigata. Closing his eyes to the morning sun, the pall of his sadness swept over him, and he wept as he did the day his father had died.
Though he knew that Ishita was gone, he somehow felt as if the priest remained, guiding him through the pain. His mind remained aloof from the anger and torment crashing through his body; when the emotions had run their course, he felt relaxed and calm. He knew then that he would do as the Ishita had asked: he would seek Konda, Lord of Eiganjo, Betrayer of Kamigawa. He would become the bridge between high and low.
Hashi combed through the ruins of Niigata to scavenge materials for his journey. Eiganjo was over a week’s journey to the north, and he would be forced to traverse the mountains that surrounded his home, before facing whatever unknown obstacles lay behind them. Hashi gathered the things he thought he’d need: a full waterskin, hunting and fishing knives of several sizes, some spare clothes that fit poorly and smelled of someone else. An underground larder accessible by trapdoor had remained unmolested during the previous day’s battle, which yielded hard bread and cheese encased in a rind, as well as dried fish and fruit. While cutting sections of rope from laundry lines, he found a cloth pack that served as a adequate container.
Hashi began his journey by threading his way through the ruins for what would be the last time. He held his head high and did not look back, knowing what lay behind him; he could not complete his quest with backwards focus. He neared the burnt-out temple with trepidation; the ashes of the holy structure were spinning away on the wind and only one wall remained standing. Hashi was surprised to see Ishita’s staff leaning against what remained, upright as if placed there, waiting for him.
It was slightly taller than Hashi and almost completely smooth, carved from a single tree and planed to exacting standards. Runic inlays ringed the upper and lower portions of the stave, threaded into the solid wood with dedicated detail. Hashi traced a finger along the carved designs before adding it to his meager possessions, the last heirloom of Niigata.
When he was five miles from the village, the foothills of the mountains gave way to their craggy prominence. The path had dwindled down to a point where it was hardly recognizable amid the clutter of boulders and jagged stone. Hashi was forced to leave what was left of the path multiple times to avoid impassable rocks and other obstacles, until he could no longer find it at all. Sighting a peak several hundred yards to the west, he veered toward it, planning to use its height to regain his bearings.
He had almost reached the peak when he heard something behind him. Adrenaline jolted through his veins as he whipped around, fearing another attack by the kami. There was nothing behind him save the same round, lumpy boulders that had begun to appear after he had passed the last of the trees, so he continued the climb.
When he reached the top, the sun was at its zenith, and sweat darkened his shirt. The mountains were rugged and beautiful, shale and sandstone sloughing away from the side of steep inclines to reveal granite the color of a dusty brick. The stark faces of the towering mounts in the distance were a riotous swirl of copper tones, shimmering in the heat from the sun. Hashi spotted the deep cleft between the two highest peaks, known to his people as Tendo Pass. He used his vantage to plot a course towards the Pass, then reclined on a sheet of shale for his lunch of fish and cheese.
Hashi was repacking his provisions when another sound made him pause. A stone had been upset over the edge of the peak and clicked its way to the bottom. Hashi listened hard to discern where the stone had fallen from, but the echoes were faint. He had an uninterrupted line of sight down every angle of the hill where he stood, but again he saw nothing.
The elders of Niigata had told stories of the bandits that inhabited these mountains. While comfortably surrounded by his family and friends, Hashi had never believed them, for certainly no one could flourish in the harsh conditions that existed past the treeline. Now he was alone and needed more than ever to heed the warnings of his people. Although he had little defense against the malicious intent of the kami, bandits he could prepare for.
Scouting his chosen route again before disembarking, he saw several spots that would make good switchbacks. Perhaps the most promising point was an open space forty yards long; it was strewn with the strange lumpy stones that littered the mountain, but overall visibility was perfect. On the far side was a cleft in the rock big enough for him to hop inside, that would be invisible at eye level. If someone was indeed following him, they would have to pass where Hashi could see.
Hashi climbed down the slope and continued his journey towards the pass. Once he had lost his bird’s eye view, however, it was difficult to find the cutbacks that he’d identified. Even worse, his progress was much slower than he’d hoped, the late afternoon sun casting long shadows across the ground from the boulders strewn haphazardly across the landscape. Hashi’s heightened awareness that something was following served only to exacerbate his dread; though he could hear the scrape of foot on rock, he was never able to catch a glimpse of who or what it might be.
When he reached the open area he’d seen from above, he pondered his course of action. He hadn’t found any place to bed down for the night, and if he crossed the area he’d be exposed. Whoever was tracking him certainly maintained the terrain advantage; if he were to face his pursuer, it would be best to do it where he could at least identify them.
He heaved his pack high on his shoulders and set out across the flat plane, winding his way between the dull-spined rocks that lay every few meters. When he had almost crossed the breadth of the space, he heard something scrape against the shale. Immediately he had Ishita’s staff in his hand, for the difference was alarming: this time the sound had come from the front.
“I am Hashi Takashita!” he yelled, voice thick with fear. “Show yourself!”
In response, one of the knobby stones unfurled in front of him. Within moments it had sprouted spindly arms and legs tipped with razor-sharp claws; when the creature stood, it carried the rock-like shell on its back. The head was triangular, with a long pointed nose and a thick ridge of bone over each eye that shadowed the recessed socket. Ice-blue eyes burned above a small, mean mouth, the orifice brimming with sharpened incisors.
As Hashi stared at the diminutive monster, he heard loud rustling from behind him, but dared not turn his back on the demon before him. Hashi had always believed that the Akki, goblins who worshipped the most mischievous and mean-spirited kami, were a myth used to scare small children; now his adolescent nightmares were made flesh. It started chittering in a high-pitched staccato, which was returned tenfold from behind. Losing his nerve, Hashi turned around to look.
He now faced two dozen of the impish creatures. The hundreds of rocks he had found so strange during his trek must have each been a goblin hiding within its shell; they had not needed to track him for he was walking deeper into their territory with each step. Sweat slickened his hold on Ishita’s staff and Hashi’s hands trembled. He whipped back around when the lone rock-man addressed him, though his vocal instruments were obviously not meant for human speech.
“Me like your staff. GIMME!” He made a stabbing motion towards burnished stave.
“GIMME! GIMME! GIMME!” The command was taken up by the gallery of Akki behind Hashi, who hooted the call like a flock of seagulls before the chorus of voices dissolved into the rabid chittering of their own language.
Hashi stood his ground. “No.”
“You no gimme?” asked what must have been the leader. Hashi shook his head negatively. “Then I take!” With this, the creature cracked his knuckles and began to advance. The clacking of claw on stone echoed through the space as the rest of the goblins encircled Hashi, eliminating any possible chance for escape.
Even if Hashi had not been distracted by his impending doom, he would not have seen the slim women positioning themselves amid the rocks at the open area’s rim. Their sand-colored cloaks were expertly camouflaged to conceal their movements among the stones of the mountain. Sapphires affixed to the crown of their heads by silver gossamers glowed with a raging intensity; they lifted their arms and loosed a bolt of ice at the goblin bearing down on Hashi.
When the glacial ray struck, the solo creature was completely frozen in the instant Hashi blinked, one scaled foot still suspended inches above the ground. The troupe of Akki in the rear squealed in terror as three huge mastiffs barreled down the slope into their midst, breaking their semi-organized ranks and crushing the stragglers with powerful jaws while the others screamed, backpedaling. Almost a dozen samurai in heavy, insectoid armor rose to meet them from the rear; it took less than a minute of hacking slashing until the last of the goblins were dead.
One of the samurai stepped forward, wiping blood from a katana before sheathing it. The painted chest piece was painted in the dull reds of the mountain stone, and iron bracers clad the warrior’s forearms from elbow to wrist. Twin iron spikes rose from the shoulders of the armor, lending it an aggressive look. Small antennae stuck out at angles from the helm; only two fierce eyes were visible through a slit two fingers wide.
Hashi’s eyes went wide when the samurai lifted the faceplate to reveal the face of a woman. Though the features were distinctly feminine, the jagged scar over her left eye accented the hard lines of a face that had seen many battles. Her chest-length dark hair, tangled and matted with sweat, was gathered into three topknots on the back of her head.
Hashi bowed before. “My name is Hashi Takashita. I thank you for saving my life.”
“You may call me Fumiko, but there is no time for pleasantries. We must get to shelter before sundown or the Akki will flay us alive. Come.”
“Where are we going?”
“To the hall of the Bandit King.” With a raucous laugh, she kicked the frozen Akki; it tottered in place before shattering into a thousand pieces on the ground. When the raiding party had vacated the area, a single survivor emerged from his shell, staring silently at the smashed ice statue before slinking quietly away.
During the three days it took to travel to the King’s stronghold, Hashi learned much about his rescuers. It was on the morning of his second day when bare steel met his throat; he had incidentally made the gravest insult to the tiny band of warriors when he referred to them as samurai. He found then that they were Ronin, samurai without a master. Traditionally, samurai that fail their master commit seppuku, to restore their honor. The Ronin had eschewed this practice, opting instead to become their own masters. The disaffected had gathered in the mountains and forged an alliance, and their ranks had swollen each year.
Hashi also learned to navigate in the mountains, to move without being seen or heard. He was taught to control and care for the mastiffs by Akinari, the Ronin houndmaster, though everyone called him Smithers. One late night around the campfire, Smithers told him the whispered story of how Fumiko had fallen from the grace of her master. She had been bodyguard to Lord Konda himself; rather than be cast out, she had mysteriously deserted her post. Though none of the Ronin knew why she had done so, to Hashi it was as obvious as a beacon in the night, for the ambition that had pushed her away was what now drew him like a magnet.
At the eve of the third day they reached the bandit stronghold. Crawling through a narrow opening, they emerged into a labyrinthine cave. Indecipherable marks alternately gave clues and misinformation to anyone unlucky enough to stumble upon the lair, but Fumiko knew the correct path like the haft of her sword. When they reached a heavy steel door, she whistled three low tones. A latch on the far side was lifted and they entered.
The bandit stronghold proper was an extension of the cave they’d followed for several miles. Huge swaths of stone had been hallowed out of the walls to provide additional space for the men; Hashi was informed that it was only half natural, and that the rest of the space had been created by years of labor and toil. He was awed by the massive stalactites that hung suspended from the ceiling. Fumiko noted his stares and spoke.
“They were left to remind us that all we have is a gift of the kami… should we forget, their teeth are ready to bite.” Fumiko took Hashi to the larder and restocked his food supplies, as well as upgrading some of his scavenged equipment.
Later that evening, after he’d eaten and bathed, Hashi met Fumiko in the war room of the underground compound. A large mural of Kamigawa was painted on the wall of the cavern, lit by the unsteady light of torches that fumed oily smoke. Suits of lacquered mail glittered on their stands and scores of swords on quick-access racks lined one wall.
“I appreciate your hospitality. But I am curious; where is the King?” Hashi asked. It was the first time he’d seen her smile.
“Much like the Akki hiding under their shells, looks can be deceiving, young mystic. I, Fumiko the Lowblood, am the Bandit King.”
Though he had not been consciously aware of the truth, Hashi was not surprised. “Will you help me, then, to seek Lord Konda?”
At the mention of her former master, Fumiko looked away, conflicted with anger and shame. “I cannot. I have already broken enough rules by bringing you here. I am foremost a general, and men need guidance that only I can provide. If we did not guard Tendo Pass, the Akki would sweep into the plains below, and the consequences would be worse than an attack by the kami.”
“Then you can help me cross the pass?” Hashi asked, eager to continue his quest.
“I could. But I will not.” Hashi’s face fell. “For I know of a much faster route.”
Hashi and Fumiko left the sprawling cavern by dawn the next morning. It was a few short miles until they reached a sheer cliff through a hidden cleft in the stone; the river that had carved its way through the mountains rushed on, nearly one hundred feet below. Wind ripped through the canyon at high speed, straight from the highest peaks of the mountain range, and just as cold. Spanning the two sides of the gap was a bridge of ice as thick as three men abreast. When the sun cleared the edge of the overhang shadowing the bridge, it blazed with dazzling colors, reflecting them in a panoply of bright hues on the sides of the mountain.
“No one knows of this place,” Fumiko said. “I come here to pray to the kami.”
They stood in silence for several moments before clasping forearms. Hashi thanked Fumiko for her assistance and she left the way she’d come. Stepping with one wary foot onto the mass of ice, Hashi refrained from looking down. He strode out across the bridge, ready for the next leg of his journey.
Concealed in the rocks above the glowing ice, a lone Akki observed the human responsible for the death of his brothers. As the human stepped gingerly onto the bridge, Ishi-Ishi began to whirl a sling above his head. As the whirring of the taut string increased, Ishi-Ishi began to hum. When the anger roiling inside of him burst out in a vicious scream, the stone erupted in flames as he released it from the sling. A crack shot, Ishi-Ishi had aimed for the center, the weakest part of the bridge.
When the enchanted stone smashed into the glowing ice, it shattered in a rainbow of fragments, and Hashi Takashita tumbled into the abyss.