Written by Woodclaw :: [Tuesday, 02 February 2010 13:16] Last updated by :: [Monday, 22 July 2013 00:34]
Author's Note: while some characters from this story are actual historical figures – Hōjō Tokimune, Kublai Khan and the monk Bukko – all the others are completly fictional. I'm not big expert on the 13th century Japan, this is an exercise in fiction, not an historical essay.
“Cherished from Mandate of Heaven, the Great Mongol emperor sends this letter to the King of Japan. The sovereigns of small countries, sharing borders with each other, have for a long time been concerned to communicate with each other and become friendly. Especially since my ancestor governed at heaven's command. Innumerable counties from afar disputed our power and slighted our virtue. Goryeo rendered thanks for my ceasefire and for restoring their land and people when I ascended the throne. Our relation is feudatory like a father and son. We think you already know this. Goryeo is my eastern tributary. Japan was allied with Goryeo, and sometimes with China, since the founding of your country. However, Japan has never dispatched ambassadors since my ascending the throne. It is horrifying to think that the Kingdom is yet to know this. Hence we dispatched a mission with our letter particularly expressing our wishes. Enter into friendly relations with each other from now on. We think all countries belong to one family. How are we in the right, unless we comprehend this? Nobody would wish to resort to arms.”
Letter for Kublai, Great Khan of the Mongol Empire,
to Hōjō Tokimune, Shikken of the Kamakura shogunate
Kamakura, seat of the Bakufu – Late autumn 1275
“Luck? What do you mean with such word, Kuroda-san?” Hōjō Tokimune, raised an eyebrow, this was the only signal of irritation on his face, otherwise his composure was perfect.
Kuroda Tetsuo gulped silently. He was just a simple Buke – an unlanded warrior of the samurai caste – who received the great honor of being appointed as one of the Shikken’s personal retainers for his skill as a sword master. He knew he had overstepped his duties and his position, but the situation at hand demanded it, the Bushido demanded it. “Hojo-dono.” He continued choosing the words very carefully, “It’s an undeniable fact that our empire was blessed with peace for more than a generation, which came to an end when the Nanban barbarians’ ships were sighted in the bay of Hakata.”
“Indeed, we were blessed.”
“And now, thanks to the help of the gods, we were able to repulse their invasion.”
“Kuroda-san, I’m well aware of these things, please get to point.” The Shikken cut short, showing how irritated he was by conversation.
“The point, my lord, is that without the divine help, we wouldn’t be able to survive. Your own eyes witnessed the power of those foreign weapons, those so-called explosives. We weren’t prepared for such a power, our Kanjo was weak.”
“Kanjo, such a rare word these days. I recognize the truth in your words, I’ll give them proper consideration.”
“Thank you, my lord.” Kuroda bowed and retired.
Alone in the room the Shikken pondered deeply about the situation: he had great respect of Kuroda’s skill and he was one his most trusted followers – not to mention one the most fervent followers of the Zen philosophy that he himself was trying to spread across the country – but what his suggestions implies was a lot too scaring. Once again he felt the lack of his Zen master Bukko’s advice. After the battle of Hakata bay, he departed for a temple near Gifu to meditate upon the meaning of peace. As his sight wandered through the room, the Shikken met one of his greatest sources of worry. A large map, written in the flowing ideograms of the Classic Chinese language, hung on the wall – it was a spoil from the battle – and depicted in a great detail both the coast of the mainland and the islands of Japan. If the map was true. If the original cartographer was right in his calculation, then the islands were nothing but an insignificant fly compared to the huge extension of the Mongolian empire. Such a huge land that he instinctively refused to believe that a single man could rule it all.
“You look troubled, my lord.” The voice reached Hojo’s ears like silken hiss, he turned almost expecting a giant snake to face him.
“Ah, Hebi-san, you were not expected.” he greeted the newcomer.
Hebi was a thin man, with features so finely draw that he looked almost like a knife. He was a Kuge – a member of the landed nobility – and one of the finest politicians in the archipelago. “I was able to speed up my return from Nara, my lord, I hope this doesn’t displease you.”
“Not at all. I was hoping for some advice, and you are reputed a shrewd counselor.”
Hebi bowed in a theatrical manner, “Rumors are such a misleading things. Yet, my lord, I’m as always your humble servant. If you need my poor advices, then I’ll offer it with utmost speed.”
“Then, come here and examine this, please.” the Shikken pointed at the map.
Hebi hid his grin; the Shikken was giving him a lot of trust on this matter. If he played his cards well he might even get a really big advantage from the situation. “If I may be so bold. I guess that your lordship is troubled about the outcome of the recent battle with the naban. Yet I fail to see the reason, it was a stunning victory.”
“I see that your sight is indeed sharp. Yes, the future troubles, me. If this map is right, the warriors we faced in the past are nothing but a grain of sand compared to the real force of our enemies.”
“Indeed, my lord, but that’s a big speculation, based on a mere piece of paper. I, on the other hand, have a more secure source.”
“A source? You intrigued me, please continue.”
“My soldiers were able to capture some prisoners alive after the battle and, when properly interrogated, they revealed that these maps were fakes. The distances were altered to make their empire look bigger and more intimidating, a subtle propaganda to discourage an action from us.”
The Shikken weighted the idea of a trick and sighed a little relieved. “A cunning trick, not impossible for those honorless barbarians.” Then he looked to the map again and murmured, “Maybe Kuroda’s troubles are not so justified.”
Hebi was very proud of his excellent hearing and smiled sinisterly “Now, my lord, if you have no need for my humble person any more.”
“Yes, Hebi-san, you might leave.”
Hebi quickly left the room and pondered: ‘Kuroda … he is just a stupid soldier, but I can’t risk him advising the Shikken … an intensification of the military activities is not something I need to deal with … Yes, for me to prosper, Kuroda must be eliminated from the picture …’
Kishu region, secondary road near Saika – End of Winter 1276
The afternoon sun was pale and distant and, despite the season, the snow was still covering the bulk of the road, but for Kuroda Tetsuo that didn’t matter at all. Only a month had passed since he was removed from the service of his lordship, but everything looked like a long lifetime ago. Now he was just a pitiful ronin, a wandering warrior without a master.
Sitting on a stone under a large cherry tree he looked into the sky praying to the Buddha to clear his vision and enlighten him with a glimpse of his divine wisdom. Never before was a prayer answered in such an impressive manner.
The sky went dark as the midnight, the sun paled even more, becoming a distant purple stain. Distant, indifferent stars were like eyes from the vault of the sky. Then the ancient, mighty dragon streaked through the darkness. His howl uprooted trees. His light blinded eyes. The hot wind he summoned melted the snow and scorched the soil. He continued in his beautiful descending trajectory until it kissed the earth on the hill behind Kuroda.
For long minutes the samurai remained motionless, the memory of the majestic scene burned in his memory like an incandescent brand. Then, slowly he walked uphill up to the top. There, in the middle of a scorched circle, laid a silver egg, unlike any other he has ever seen; the polished surface was a perfect sphere. With the reverence of a unworthy creature, he barely brushed the surface, but even this light touch was enough to caused the dragon’s egg to open revealing his precious interior, a small girl, barely a year old, the most perfect he had ever seen.
A secluded home in the Tosa region – Early summer 1280
The marine breeze filtered from the open doors, but Kuroda wasn’t able to enjoy it; despite his strength he knew he was going to die very shortly. A few months ago he contracted a lung disease. He could feel it crawling through his body. He had only a few days, maybe even hours, but there was one thing to do before departing.
“Hoshiko.” He murmured, trying not to spit blood, he knew there was no point in shouting at this point.
A brief gust of wind signaled him that his daughter was at his side. He slowly opened his eyes and smiled. Even if she wasn’t blood of his blood, it was hard not to be proud of her. In just four brief years her body had matured into a fully grown woman, beautiful beyond his ability to describe. Her long dark hair, her slightly upturned eyelash, the perfect oval of her face, her sparkling yellow eyes, everything merged in a picture that betrayed her true unearthly origins. Even if her body was far from the canon of delicate and frail femininity, none right of his mind would be able to negate her magnificence.
“Father, I heard you calling.”
“Yes, my child, I have something to tell you. Something very important about your heritage.”
“Father, please, I do not wish to …”
“I’m sorry, my child, but you have to listen to me.” Slowly and coughing Kuroda pointed at a nearby cupboard. “There, you’ll find your heritage.”
Slowly and hesitating, Hoshiko opened the cupboard and reached inside. There were a light blue blanket, a sheet of silverish metal and a strange little object that looked like a puzzle box. She looked puzzled.
The ill samurai showed an uneasy smile. “Those objects are from your true parents.”
“My true parents?”
“Yes, I fear, I found you just a few years ago. The night the dragon brought you into this land.”
“Yes, it’s quite a strange story, even I don’t know the truth behind it. It was four years ago, I was just cast out from the Shikken’s service, and I was wandering the countryside. I don’t know how or why, but my path crossed that of the great creature. When he was gone I found his egg lying on the ground. And inside it I found the greatest blessing I’ve ever seen: you.”
Hoshiko was speechless, she knew how to tell truth from lies, her hearing was so acute to pick the tiniest flicks in a heartbeat and, despite the illness, her father’s heartbeat was steady.
“As soon as I touched you, I saw the ghosts of your parents, marvelous beings from beyond the heavens. While their words were strange to me, I understood that they summoned the great dragon to save you from a great catastrophe …” Kuroda’s voice faded in coughs.
With a trembling voice she cried “So this is the meaning of … my … my name …”
“Ah, yes … names must be meaningful, and I couldn’t find a better one than ‘Child of the stars’ … Those objects are the only thing I was able to gather from that day … The blanket you were wrapped in, a piece of the dragon’s egg and that device … I was unable to open it; the puzzle is so complex that my mind faded every time I tried it …”
Tears ran plentiful on Hoshiko’s cheeks. Her world was falling apart one word after the other and – despite her rigorous education and the immense intelligence that allowed her to master arts and skills in mere hours – she was still only 4 years old.
The old warrior coughed again and continued, his voice betrayed a hint of the pain – both physical and emotional – he was experiencing. “I’m deeply sorry for this, but I can’t live much longer … I can feel this disease running through me and I couldn’t spare you this pain.”
“B … b … but there could be … must be something I can do to help you, to ease your pain … to heal you … father”
The old man smiled between the aches. “No, my child, even with the marvelous gifts that came with your birthright, none can interfere with the wheel of Karma. My time is coming, so I have to demand two solemn vows from you. First, after my departure, please burn my body along with this house, so the disease won’t spread any further.”
Hoshiko tried with little success to fight the tears back “Y … Yes, I promise …”
Between coughs and sneezes the samurai continued. “More important, swear that you will put your gift to the service of our lord; that you will live with honor and dignity, faithful to the code as I taught you; and that you will protect our land from its enemies.”
“Yes, father, I swear I will … I will”
The old man nodded. “Then, my daughter, there is only one more thing. Please, help me face my last moment in a proper way.”
There wasn’t anything more to say, with the greatest care Hoshiko took the frail form of her father in her arms and slowly dressed him with white funeral clothes, then she help him to the veranda and posed him in a proper zagi position facing to the sea.
Just an hour later his breath was close to nothing and he passed away. Hoshiko collected a few items from the house, set it aflame and walked away, trying to convince herself that it was just the dense smoke that was making her cry.
A small village in the Inaba region – Summer 1280
The man handled the metal sheet back to Hoshiko with a blank expression, “I won’t do it, my lady. I’m sorry.”
“Then explain me why.” Hoshiko replied coldly, she was really struggling to keep her irritation at bay, “You are famed to be the greatest swordsmith in the south of Nihon. Why are you refusing my request?”
The man puffed his pipe a couple of times and answered in a measured and careful tone “There are two main reasons for me to refuse. First of all I don’t know this metal at all, I can’t tell if I can fashion a proper blade out of it. I have to test it and this will consume a large part of this sheet. Second, I don’t work for free, the glory of making this blade won’t feed my belly, nor warm my house …” he stopped for a moment appraising Hoshiko’s body, despite the stains on her dress and the general state of untidiness, she still looked magnificent. He had probably drunk too much sake at lunch and he was feeling more bold than usual, “On the other hand, this last problem can be solved, if you are willing to …”
It wasn’t a movement. It wasn’t even a flick. It was more like a gust of wind or the blink of a distant star. The blacksmith never saw Hoshiko moving, but in a moment he was dangling several inches from the floor, held up only by the woman’s left arm. Hoshiko was feeling the rage pumping through her body. It wasn’t a metaphor. She had felt it before: it was like having a great heat building up in her eyes, while her desire to cut loose, to unleash her full power grew by the second. Then the image of her father flashed in her mind. Her fingers opened against her will and the man dropped on the floor. Scared, she fled the workshop. The humble peasant never knew how lucky he had been.
Heading for the woods, Hoshiko left the main trail and started wandering aimlessly. Hunger wasn’t an issue for her, she had already experimented that she could survive for weeks without food or water. Slowing down, she rested under a camphor tree, it was the sixth village she had visited and the sixth time she had received the same answer from the resident blacksmith. She was starting to believe that her cause was hopeless.
Suddenly, a faint scream reached her ears. It was far and fading, but for her it was perfectly audible. Closing her eyes she concentrated and in a moment located the source of the noise and zipped through the trees like the wind. Arriving at the site, she saw two massive brutes lumbering over a pair of old woodcutters, probably husband and wife. The brutes wore old armor without any crest or mark, likely the pillage from a old battle, and carried an assortment of weapons, including a massive tetsubo. One was laughing at the feeble attempts from the woodcutter to defend himself with his hatchet. While his companion simply looked on with a bored expression. A lucky stroke – more out of desperation than skill – cut a small wound on the bandit’s arm. Enraged, the massive man locked the old man arms in a painful hold and roared: “Stupid peasant, see what have you done? I was thinking about letting you live, but now you must pay for injuring the great Satoshi!”
Tossing the man on the ground, Satoshi pulled his blade up in an exaggerated fashion. He waited for a second, savoring the fear on the man’s face, then he lowered it, or rather he tried. For a moment the bandit and the victim shared a puzzled expression. Satoshi turned expecting the blade to be nailed in a tree or something similar – he was proud of his massive strength – instead there was a woman, she was keeping the blade between her thumb and forefinger and blocking it with no apparent effort.
“Who in hell …” Satoshi started while attempting to free his blade from her steely grip. Hoshiko played with him for a couple of moments, but she tired quickly. With an almost imperceptible twist of her fingers, she snapped the weapon in half. Satoshi landed heavy on his rear, still gripping the stump of his weapon. She laughed under her breath. She had never guessed how funny and pleasurable displaying her superiority over another being could be. Wounded in his pride, Satoshi drew a tanto from his belt and charged like a bull. The blade connected with Hoshiko’s belly and pierced her clothes, only to slide upward across her body with a scratching noise – like steel on marble – until it smacked against her proud breasts and broke like a dry noodle.
Meanwhile Toma – Satoshi’s pal – reached for the tetsubo. Closing his eyes, he smashed it on the back of Hoshiko’s head with a powerful swing. His whole body trembled from the impact, like he had tried to smash a massive stone pillar. When he opened his eyes, he saw the great hexagonal club deformed around her head. He started trembling like a leaf in the wind and dropped the weapon. Before it touched the ground, Hoshiko turned with a low hissing sound, grabbed him by the throat and threw him over Satoshi. Then, with deliberate slowness, she picked up the tetsubo and held it by both sides and, before anyone could react, she folded it in half. The heavy hexagonal metal bar screamed its suffering in a high pitched noise, all but her covered their ears. She continued to bend and compress the metal until it was reduced to an absurdly dense and vaguely spherical shape, which she crushed with a flick of her fingers.
The two bandits looked at each other and run for their lives. It was very short run, in a moment Hoshiko appeared in a blur in front of them. Toma run right into her unyielding body and was knocked out, while Satoshi was grabbed and thrown against a nearby tree. Hoshiko ran to him and slashed the tips of her fingers across his chest, the armor plate was cut like rice paper, but only few drops of blood touched the ground. With a display of incredible control only the tip of her middle finger had penetrated the bandit’s flesh. The man fainted and collapsed.
Hoshiko slowly approached the woodcutters, “I hope you are well.” She said bowing.
Both were speechless, they knelled and lowered their heads to the ground several times and kept their heads down, not daring to look at her face and muttering a prayer.
Embarrassed and unsure about what to do, Hoshiko blushed and babbled “Please … don’t … I haven’t … I’m not … oooh … please rise, I’m not who you think.”
The old woman, apparently more receptive than her husband, answered in a low and muffled tone “O-kami-sama, please forgive us, but we can’t look upon thee.”
“O-kam … please, I’m not a goddess, I’m just a traveler.”
“None but a goddess can possibly defeat a warrior in such manner. Forgive us.”
Hoshiko was passing from embarrassment to irritation. “Listen, I won’t repeat myself anymore. I … AM … NOT … A … GODDESS! So please rise and face me properly.”
Hesitating the couple stood up, albeit trembling and uncertain. Hoshiko sighed loudly and asked again “Are you unhurt?”
“Yes, I think we are. How can we express our gratitude, my lady.”
“It was nothing and I don’t think you can help me. Unless you known someone capable of forging blade unlike any ever forged.”
For the first time the old man spoke “I fear not my lady. We are just humble woodcutters.”
“But, husband, there is the old man on Yama Daisen.”
The man stopped with his mouth half opened “Don’t be silly, woman. He is just a myth. Even if not, he will be dead by now.”
“Who is this man?”
“No-one of importance, my lady, as I said he should be dead by now, if he ever existed.” the woodcutter protect himself.
“I said who.” Repeated Hoshiko, quite irritated by the man’s behavior.
“May the curse of Heaven descend upon your stupid tongue woman.” he whispered to his wife. “It’s only a legend, my lady, some people says that, over the south-most peak of the mountains, lives a man that learned the art of forging metal from oni. A man so obsessed by creating a perfect weapon that he sold his wife’s and child’s souls to the demons to learn their crafts. They say that his weapons are so powerful that no samurai can wield them properly, only the tengu’s skills are worthy of them.”
“The south-most peak you said …” Hoshiko pondered, gazing toward the distant profile of the mountains, which only her amazing sight could spot among the tangled branches and trunks.
“Yes, but no man can reach it; it’s impossible to scale …”
Hoshiko was no longer paying attention to the man “No man can fore sure, but …” she disappeared in a blur and a gust of wind.
The two woodcutters remained speechless and paralyzed for a long moment, and in the years to come they told many times the tale of the wandering goddess they met in the forest.
Daisen-Yama, Inaba region – Summer 1280
The mountain line stood out against the darkening sky as Hoshiko approached the west spur. She stood with hands on her hips and appraised the scene. The old man was right, no ordinary man could hope to climb such face. It was just natural that everybody believed that none could live on the top. Still, she was far from ordinary and – despite the distance, the wind and the impeding darkness – she was able to see a thin line of smoke from the top.
She smiled and took a few steps backward. She had tested her strength quite a few times during the last year, but this was something entirely different, this time it was a challenge against the cold, the wind and the mountain itself. With a defiant look in her eyes, she crouched and focused entirely on her legs. Under her golden silky skin, her muscles started to pulsate with unrivaled power. With a single fluid movement, she sprang across the sky like an arrow, climbing higher and higher by the second. Her face was just mere inches from the rocky surface. The bun she usually kept her hair in undid, spurring the long smooth blackness of her mane like a cape. Even Hoshiko couldn’t defy the law of gravity forever and, after many seconds her ascent came to an end. With a simple motion she reached for the wall with the tip of her finger and toes, drilling some neat holes in the granite and stopping the fall instantly.
It took an hour to reach the top and even her indestructible body was tired when she arrived. A thin veil of frost covered her lips and eyebrows. When she finally set her foot on the top, she felt drained like never before in her life, aches and pains she never suffered run through her arms and legs, and she felt the bitter cold. Her only consolation was the sight of a small hut, with smoke coming out from a hole in the roof. Fueled only by her determination, she pushed herself onward.
She was about to collapse a few yards from the door, when a crackling and cavernous voice came out of the darkness. “Who dares defy the sanctity of my home? Who dares approach the door of the demon?”
Despite the tiredness, Hoshiko’s hearing was still acute enough to discern the human accent beyond the echo. “I dare. I am Kuroda Hoshiko, daughter of Tetsuo.”
“I’ve never heard of you little girl, but this doesn’t matter. I give you a chance to live, now begone! I’ve already eaten two of your kind today. My belly is full, but not so full to disdain a morsel of your eyes or your lips.” The voice continued, highlighting each word with a low guttural laugh.
“I’m here to see the master swordsmith of this mountain. And I won’t be denied! No matter if you are man or demon, I will pursue my goal.”
“The swordsmith?” the voice sound puzzled “Ah yes, the old man of this house. I ate him a long time ago. He was tasty, even if a little too tough.”
Hoshiko laughed, her voice had a strange crystalline resonance. “Then, my poor demon, I will have to rip your belly to find him.”
The voice hesitated for a moment “And how do you think to perform such feat, little one. I saw that you carry no weapon.”
“The same way I got here.” Hoshiko said menacingly. “With my bare hands.” She took one step toward the entrance.
The voice uttered more menaces, but these flew past Hoshiko without an answer. Each one highlighted by another step toward the hut, another step closer to the door, another step closer to her goal. She was just a mere moment away, when the voice changed tone. “Well, you may enter if you like.” It was the last thing she heard before the darkness felt on her.
Hoshiko never knew how long she remained unconscious, but as soon as she started waking up it was pain that greeted her. It was a foreign and new sensation, something she never had experienced so far, but real nonetheless. Carefully Hoshiko looked around, it was a poor house, with a single circular room, barely enough to keep the snow and the wind outside. A small fire was burning at the center of the room, next to it a man was cooking. He wasn’t old, he barely looked 40, but something in his posture suggested an idea of something ancient and immovable, not unlike the mountain itself. When he turned, Hoshiko saw the impressive scars on his arms and the heavy, steely features of his face, in her mind there was no doubt the man was one with the mountain.
“So, you are awake.” He greeted with a harsh tone, handing a bowl of food to Hoshiko, “I really don’t know how you did it but you were able to arrive here without help. So I have at least to listen to your story.”
Hoshiko tried to rise to a proper position, but he strength failed her.
The man gave her a critical look, “The mountain doesn’t like intruders. You are lucky to be still alive, so don’t overestimate yourself. Eat, we will speak later.”
Hunger was another new sensation for her, but she did as told. In a couple of minutes she had emptied three bowls. “Thank you …” She murmured, “I assume you are the swordsmith.”
“Yes, I am … or rather was. I no longer forge blades for stupid ungrateful people.”
“What do you mean?”
“You know what a sword is. It isn’t simply an instrument to kill. It’s a soul! The very essence of the warrior who uses it and of those who used it before.” The man said with flaming eyes, “I was once the best swordsmith in the whole country. I made souls, not simple pieces of metal, can you possibly understand?”
Hoshiko was speechless. The transformation was impressive, he was no longer a mountain, now he looked more like an erupting volcano.
“But foolish swordsmen kept coming, asking for newer better blades. A sword without a purpose is not a soul, it's just a instrument, just a mere tool. So, I decided to leave that meaningless world beyond and went here.” He concluded “Now, why are you looking for me?”
Calling all her residual energies Hoshiko pulled herself on her knees and bowed. “Please, oh great master – while I understand you grief and concern – I’m here to ask you to fashion me a blade.”
“Ah! For you? More likely for your father, your husband or maybe your lover. No, I won’t do it, young lady.”
“Please, I have no husband or lover and my father died months ago. My only legacy is in my bundle, a piece of fabric, a puzzle box and a sheet of metal. Please, I’m begging you to fashion me a blade from that metal.”
The swordsmith didn’t answer, but he undid the bundle and pulled out the metal. For long minutes he studied it. Running his callous fingers across the smooth surface. Gauging the flexibility and the weight. Hoshiko remained motionless and waited.
“Where did you get this metal?”
“My father said it was a piece of dragon's egg.”
The man simply shrugged it off and touched his chin with a look of ferocious concentration, like he was fighting an invisible battle against the spirit enclosed in the metal.
Finally, he turned to Hoshiko. “I think I can forge the blade you asked,” Her smile lighted the entire hut, “But I need something from you. The metal is sound, but you aren’t. As I said a blade need a purpose. There are those made to kill, those made to protect, those made to prepare food and many more. It’s your purpose that I have to infuse into the blade and you have none to offer right now. Think about it, when you are ready we will talk again.”
For the rest of the night Hoshiko didn’t sleep, she revised her life up to that moment over and over again, trying to find purpose. But her thoughts failed her, she still felt drained and unable to concentrate properly. Trying to relax, she studied the puzzle box. She never did before, her father was right it was incredibly complex – each single slide was engraved with a complex patter of intersecting lines, each face made up of 49 slides, the total number of combinations was astonishing.
It was almost the dawn when she put it down, no matter how much she struggled, her thoughts were dull and slow. It felt like having a metal chain forcing her mind to the ground. A first ray of sunlight penetrated from a hole between the stones, in the uncertain light Hoshiko studied her hand, she hadn’t realized how pale she was. It wasn’t normal at all. The ray shifted a little touching her fingers, she yelped watching her skin instantly darkening to her normal golden tan color. At the same time she felt her brain opening up, her thoughts fired faster and faster, freeing themselves from the cold veil. Ecstatic, she grabbed the box and focused on it. In moments, trillions of possible combinations flashed in her mind, her fingers danced over the tiles, shifting them at blinding speed until, with a final click, everything was set in place. Rotating it, she realized that the entire engraving was made up of single line twisted and overlaid many times. As on cue, the engraving started glowing with a bright blue light. The line moved like a living thing and detached itself from the box forming a complex shape in the air. Albeit enraptured, Hoshiko instinctively backed away from the bright shape but, before she could take a second step, two shining rays fired into her eyes and trillions upon trillions of pieces of information filled her brain in an instant.
The swordsmith witnessed the entire scene and was completely paralyzed. He simply stood there when Hoshiko rose and approached him, hand on her hips with a cold light of knowledge in her eyes. “I think I have found my purpose now.”
Kamakura, seat of the Bakufu – Spring 1281
Lord Hebi looked outside the great windows of the hall, letting himself enjoy the moment: his plans were about to come to fruition. It took him almost 6 years, but now he was de facto the Shikken’s right hand, effectively the second most powerful man in the whole country. Everybody knew that the Shikken was growing unreliable by the day, already many important courtiers begged him for favors instead of his lord and master. It wasn’t an easy task, but after getting rid of the pesky Kuroda and poisoning the old monk Bukko, it was only a matter of time before the whole country fell into his pocket.
“Hebi-dono! Hebi-dono! My lord, I have urgent news for the Shikken.” a scream reached him.
Highly displeased by the messenger's lack of control, the courtier hissed: “Stop babbling, you fool, this is no place for such excesses. Now tell me what is going on, and pray all the gods that it’s worthy of the Shikken’s time.”
The man bowed deeply. “I’m sorry, my liege, but the news is quite disturbing. A courier arrived moments ago from Hakata bay, it seem that they are back.”
“The Nanban, my liege, their ships were sighted yesterday by some fishermen heading to the bay.”
Hebi’s blood flew away from his face, his whole world collapsed in a moment, “We must raise up our defenses, mobilize the troops …” he muttered.
“Which troops, my lord, you dispatched the bulk of the army to the North last week.”
Hakata bay – Spring 1281
They say that Bushido means death, that the true purpose of the way of the warrior is finding your own death, to understand that your individual existence is meaningless. If this is the truth than all the few men – samurai, budoka and simple ashigaru – lined along the beach of Hakata bay were real samurai. The commanding officer, a fortyish man called Nakamura Nobutada, examined his troops another time, it was madness resisting with less than a hundred soldiers to an entire fleet. Their chances were less than ridiculous. He didn’t dare to look them straight in the eyes, he already knew that he could only see his own fear reflected back. He was about to try a boastful proclamation to raise their spirit, when the bell of the watchtower rang and the thin black line of ships appeared over the horizon.
Muttering a prayer, Nobutada rode up to the watchtower. Forcing his eyes to the maximum, he was able to tell apart the single ships among the fleet, their number challenged the imagination. Nobutada’s heart skipped a beat, then he closed his heart to fear and bid a silent farewell to his family. Riding back, he was mentally preparing to face the fear in his men’s souls, but before he could talk something miraculous happened. A sound like the wind cut the air, a cracking noise filled the entire bay and with a massive gurgling noise one of the points in the distance disappeared in a column of water.
Floating high over the approaching fleet, Hoshiko smiled. She was just in time to fulfill her promise to protect her country against the greatest threat ever. Almost absent-mindedly, she caressed the handle of her sword, the one the old swordsmith had fashioned from the dragon egg. The only weapon capable of surviving her incredible strength. With a swift motion, she grasped it and executed a iai strike faster than the eye could see. The pressure, the speed and the strength combined to create a blast of destructing wind that slashed the first ship under her in half. Splinters flew in all direction injuring the crew, before the large vessel collapsed under its own weight.
With a quick glance to the various vessels, Hoshiko located the flag-ship and flew gracefully toward it. She landed right in front of the commanding officers, a vision of beauty clad in a blue kimono – fashioned from the unbreakable fabric of her old blanket. In a mediocre Chinese – she only had a couple of days to learn it – she addressed the admiral: “I am Kuroda Hoshiko, daughter of Tetsuo. You just witnessed the power at my command. This land is under my protection, go away or be destroyed.”
After a moment of awkward silence, the Mongol officers burst out in a coarse laugh. Hoshiko didn’t care, these men were nothing compared to her, especially after she had received the last gift of her true parents: the full mastery over her powers and the complete knowledge of the magic of her true home. As the laugh started to subside, she stared at one of the closest officers, her yellow eyes widened and there was a bright flash; a moment later his body burst into a massive fireball. He howled for long seconds before dying. “Now, I repeat my offer for the last time: go away or be destroyed!”
The admiral was the first to react, he barked an order in his native tongue and two brave, or maybe foolish, guards rushed her. Hoshiko somersaulted, dodging them and landing in the middle of the deck. Unsheathing her blade she launched her challenge. As she expected, the Nanban demonstrated their lack of honor and rushed her en-masse. The following scene wasn’t a battle, she simply danced among them, dodging their blows with unmatched grace and returning them with blinding speed. Her blade caressed the bodies of her opponents with no apparent force, but its kiss was never less than lethal and the soldiers simply felt down one after the other as she moved along. A first wave of opponents was dispatched in mere seconds, then another one and a third immediately after. The horror filled the admiral’s eyes as he felt his sanity slowly fleeing from his mind.
As the fourth and fifth wave were dispatched, a lucky stroke disarmed Hoshiko of her blade sending it overboard. Seeing an apparent opportunity, the soldiers redoubled their efforts to bring the woman down, but it was no use. The blade wasn’t a needed implement, it was just way for Hoshiko to gauge and control her own strength, the battle became a slaughter. Her delicate and silky hands ripped chests, amputated limbs and smashed skulls with ease. Blood spouted from the wounds and covered the deck with a bright red paint. The men backed away from her, seeing no point in continuing the battle Hoshiko levitated away from the deck and cleared the mast, once again her eyes flashed red and the mighty junk was set aflame.
Clearing the fleet Hoshiko took a moment to ponder her next move. So many opponents, so little time. Clearly dispatching them one by one was a thrilling but inadvisable option. Closing her eyes she yelled to the sky: “Father, you told me how the gods favored our people years ago, sending the might of the divine wind to protect our country.” the clear blue sky witnessed her exalted proclamation, “Today I will be the wind, the thunder, the lighting and the raging fury of the sea! Watch me, father!”
She descended until the tip of her toes touched the frigid water and, with an exaggerated show, she started to inhale. An impossible amount of compressed air filled her lungs, pushing her breasts out a little bit and causing a her cleavage to poke out from her neckline a little more than what was considered polite. Then she blew. She huffed and puffed, rising a massive wave in front of her, a veritable tsunami that grew by second, roaring forward at insane speed, capsizing ships, smashing masts and planking, leaving only ruins in its wake.
Some lucky ships – those to the sides of the fleet – escaped the ruin, but only for a moment, since the invincible goddess had still some tricks at her disposal. Standing on the spot Hoshiko levitated a few feet higher and savored the full unleashing of her power. She started to spin with increasing speed and ferocity, until she was little more than a blue blur over the waves. Nature could do little but to bend to her will, the wind grew by the second, the water below started to whirlpool faster and faster, drawing closer to her until a massive waterspout surged from the sea. The column of water lurched toward the surviving ships and chased them, destroying each one with pinpoint precision. Only a small supply vessel was spared the massacre, so that its crew could bring the news and spread the fear across the enemies of the empire.
For long minutes after the apocalyptic scene, everything rested peacefully. In the distance Hoshiko emerged from the waves, carrying once against her sword, she dried herself out with a quick super-speed shake and proceeded to the beach. When she arrived, the hundred soldier knelt as one and touched the ground with their forehead many times. The commander murmured with a fearful voice: “Oh great one, we greet you as humble servants. Thanks for saving our lives, sparing our loved ones the burden of mourning.”
Hoshiko landed in front of him and spoke in a commanding voice: “Raise, noble soldier, and tell me: why are you here? Why did you stay rather than flee?”
Hesitating Nobutada rose, but didn’t dare to look the goddess face: “We are samurai, great one, we are bound to serve our master, to carry out his order at the best of our abilities. Our honor, our skill, our lives are committed to this purpose. No matter if an order is flawed or foolish, we had to abide to our lord’s will.”
Hoshiko meditated for a moment: “I might have the need of someone like you in the future, but for now farewell.” She flew away.
Kyoto, Imperial palace – Summer 1284
Nakamura Nobutada walked through the great hall of the imperial palace with a careful, but secure stride. His lacquered armor shone in the rays of light, with the family crest proudly displayed on his chest plate under the rank of general. The main door of the imperial private study opened before him. He took two step inside and knelt according to the etiquette. “My lady,” he started “The admirals informed me that fleet is ready. We can depart any moment at your command.”
The Empress turned slowly and lowered her eyes on her most faithful retainer. “You have performed admirably well, general, but this is no ordinary campaign. I am going to lead the invasion personally.”
“My lady are you sure …”
“General, you know I don’t like to repeat myself.”
“Yes, my lady, I’m sorry.”
“Besides, are you doubting my ability to conquer this enemy like I did with all the past ones?”
A shiver run along Nobutada’s spine, the memory of the day he had the honor to witness the divine power of the empress for the first time was still a vivid memory. “Absolutely not, my lady.”
“Good.” Hoshiko – now known as the Immortal Empress Sachiko – smiled “Because while I will be away I decided to entrust you with the grave responsibility of ruling my subjects with wisdom.”
Speechless Nobutada touched the ground three times with his forehead.
Xanadu, Summer palace of Kublai Khan – Summer 1284
The great Khan of the Mongol empire frowned after listening to his spy report “Are these news confirmed?”
“Absolutely, my liege, no less than four of my contacts confirmed that a fleet is about to leave the islands of Nihon to attack our empire.” The small unassuming man licked his lips and continued, “All agree that the creature that destroyed our fleet two years ago will spearhead the invasion.”
“These are indeed grave news. Leave us. We need to think about them.”
“As you command.”
The Khan stared outside the window to vast plains around and meditated, while toying with his favorite medallion. One with a strange piece of jade that people said it was from the palace of the Heavenly Emperor himself. Surely it wasn’t a usual stone, the common jade didn’t glow in the dark.