Wind blew lazily against the dust.
Bristles and fingers scraped gently, doing the work the wind would not.
Things uncovered, things removed, things to hold back the earth.
The Dark lay in wait.
The time was coming.
Chapter 1: The Dig
Kazuhiro Kinjo traced gentle paths through the dusty earth with his fingers. In his younger years he would have been scooping mounds of the dirt with his hands, or even with a shovel, and to hell with damaging anything underneath. Patience was a virtue he had only learned after deciding his life's true path, almost too late to make it a reality.
He had seen movies about archaeology, though most focused on the glamorous tomb raids that almost never occurred in real life, followed by dramatic escapes from spear-wielding natives that never happened except in movies. Kaz had never fooled himself into believing he would be out in the field wearing a fedora and wielding a bullwhip, though while his professor often ridiculed that portrayal of archaeology, Kaz still enjoyed them.
The loose, sandy grit constantly tried to re-fill the hole he was digging with his fingers, egged on only slightly by the mild breeze coming from the ocean. The Tottori dunes were unique in Japan; it was the only arid place on the entire island nation. As such, it had been a major find when Kaz's predecessors discovered artifacts of an ancient tribe hidden under the sand. Whether the tribe lived in this place or whether the items were washed here by the same ocean forces that created the dunes, they hadn't yet discovered. The pieces they'd found did not specifically match any known civilization.
That did not mean there was much pomp and circumstance. The few pieces found were not enough to garner major attention, and so Tokyo University's Archaeology department was able to gain full rights to the site, using it to train, and often break the spirits of, its students. Indeed, Kaz had seen many students storm off in frustration, swearing off "digging in this crap in this goddamn heat". The dig site had certainly done its job in that respect. To Kaz, it was a cleansing. Washing away his preconceptions in the heat, leaving only the patience that his sensei had always tried to instill within him and allowing it to grow.
"When the harumagedon comes," she had told him once, "it will come. Always be ready, but don't anticipate it or it will drive you out of your mind. That's the most important lesson I can give you, because I had to learn it the hard way." She told all her students this, but only a trusted few, including Kaz, knew it wasn't just a metaphor. Sensei knew that, sooner or later, the end would come. She didn't just feel it, didn't "predict" it as so many con artists had before. She knew, as sure as she knew her own name. She knew about her students, too, things about them nobody else could have known. As if she could read their life force directly.
Yes, she knew the world would end. She also knew that a small few would be called upon to save all of humanity. It had happened before, more than once, and Kaz was one of the few who would, if needed, heed that call. If she had told him this three years ago he would have thought she was insane. But she didn't. He trained with her for years, learned the best of many fighting styles, but most importantly, learned patience. And somehow she knew the moment he was ready to believe, and she told him the truth at that moment.
And he did believe.
He dug his fingers into the dust, waiting for it to tell him its story. Not just in the treasures it contained, but in the chapping of his hands, already calloused from years of martial arts training, and the sinking sun baking the back of his neck. He knew it would, in its own sweet time, hand over its secrets, and he would be there, patiently waiting, feeling for...
His middle fingernail brushed something. A rush of excitement filled him, and he was just barely able to stop himself from plunging his hands deeper into the dust. Taking a deep breath, the hot, dry air stinging his nostrils, he was able to restore control. "Patience isn't just a thing," Sensei often said. "It's a way of life. A way of taking control of yourself."
Be patient, Kaz, he thought. One gentle swipe at a time, just as you were taught.
It could be nothing. Probably was. A rock. Or maybe something dropped by a tourist; this place had seen a lot of foot traffic before the pieces were found. The pieces had, at first, thought to be such until carbon dating proved they were far older than any tourist's trinket could be. He'd heard one had been destroyed in the process, but it proved that all three, made of the same material with the same amount of weathering, were genuine. Now, after weeks of brushing and sweeping and poking and prodding into the dirt, they had found nothing more.
The professor had been pressured, even begged, by some of the students to use modern equipment. Sonar had been used for years and proven safe for the artifacts, but the Professor had staunchly refused. He was a traditionalist, like Sensei. And, like Sensei, he was strong-willed. And Kaz believed in his judgment just as he had in hers. Up to a point.
Kaz swiped his hand slowly, deliberately, time and time again, brushing just a little more dust each time as he watched a tiny object start revealing itself.
"I found it! I found something!" He looked up to see one of his classmates jumping to her feet within her roped-off square, cradling a small object in her hands. "Look, look!"
The professor, a small, bald man with a thin moustache, beckoned her toward him. She stumbled out of her square and over the rope marker toward him. You really suck at this job, Kaz thought, imagining her destroying a dozen buried pieces with each clomp of her heavily-booted feet.
Kaz looked back down at his find, uninterested in his classmate's, even though some of his other classmates rose and crowded around her and the professor. Kaz continued swiping away the dust, more and more of the small object peeking through.
And then, with one gentle swipe, a chunk of the top broke away. He knew right away what he was looking at, from his biology courses. "Crap," he muttered, for that was indeed what he'd found. A bit desiccated, but definitely much newer than anything that could be considered "valuable" in this desert.
"Disappointment is a way of life." That wasn't Sensei, though it certainly could have been. No, it was his professor. "The Anthem of the Archaeologist", he had called it. For every significant find, there are a million disappointments.
He looked up when he heard an indignant cry. His classmate, the one who found "it", was waving her arms and protesting loudly. The professor, calm and collected as always, said something, his voice too low to be heard over the breeze and his classmates' murmuring, barely moving his face as he spoke. He hurled the object that the girl had given him over his shoulder. It arced high and landed in the sand with a distant whump. Kaz's eyes followed it from the professor's hand up, to the apogee of its flight, and then all the way down to the ground. Before he knew what he was doing, he found himself making a mental note of where the object had landed.
Something about that thing...
"Pack it up, everyone," the professor said loudly, but calmly. "We'll review today's work over dinner, and then call it a night." He gestured toward the tents, indicating the end of their first day. While this wasn't Kaz's first school camping trip, it was a far cry from those inflicted upon him at Yasogami, even though, as he thought about it, those times he'd been on his knees in the dirt, searching for trash just as he had been today. This time, though, he really felt like he was accomplishing something. This time, he didn't have an almost-elderly teacher with breasts larger than his head trying to hit on him and his friends.
"Kaz, c'mon." He looked up. It was Emi, one of his friends and one of the people whom he'd driven here in his ancient clunker of a car. "Find anything?"
"Nothing much," Kaz said. He wiped his fingers in the dirt, and then accepted the hand she offered. He stood and stepped out of the dig site. "You?"
"Nope," Emi said. "Ryoko-chan's 'find' was probably the most exciting thing today."
"Well, you know what Okuchi-san says," Kaz said.
Emi smiled. "'If you're looking for excitement, you're in the wrong class.'"
Kaz was lying on his sleeping bag. Not in. He had feigned feeling warm, even though the night had gone chilly. Through the evening's lesson, dinner, and the pre-bedtime recreation, he'd had one thing on his mind: the object Professor Okuchi had thrown was something he had to find. Tonight. Even though he'd barely caught a glimpse of it, something about it touched his mind. Had a piece of Sensei's power rubbed off on him? Or had her teachings finally allowed him to open his soul to hear the wind speaking to him, as she said it did to her?
He could only wish he had her power, though. Instead of being able to tell when his tentmates were asleep by reading their minds, he had to wait until their breathing had evened out which, he hoped, meant they were out. Slowly, as patiently as he had been while uncovering the not-so-ancient turd in the sand, he sat up, and then stood, his boots making the slightest shuffling sound in the grit.
He slid out of the tent, stopping with each little scrape of his jacket against the nylon. He listened each time to hear if his tentmates' breathing changed, and then made another move. Eventually he was completely out of the tent, in the darkness broken only by the infinity of stars overhead and the lights from the tourist traps nearby.
He shuffled across the sand, keeping an eye and ear out for any activity, and making his way gently toward the spot where he had kept his mind focused the entire evening. The stars had moved quite a bit by the time he made it there, so slow did he walk, but he eventually made it to the spot. He knelt down and dropped his hand.
He moved it around in a small circle. Nothing but sand.
Perhaps his memory wasn't as good as-
His hand brushed something solid. He rolled his fingers around it, and then lowered his hand and clasped his fingers around it softly, as if it were an egg. For all he knew, it was.
He picked it up. It was small, but heavy. He couldn't see much in the dim light, but he ran his fingers along it. There were crevasses and pits in it, but without seeing it he couldn't tell if they were made by human hands, or by the relentless beat of nature.
He turned it over in his palm a few times, learning the object by feel. Before had seen something in this object, something special. Now, nothing.
A dim light appeared briefly in his palm. He pulled it closer to his face. It was dark again. He rolled it around, and found that it glowed blue where his skin touched it, but only briefly.
He pressed his other hand over top of it, held it for a second, and then uncovered it. The object glowed blue for only a fraction of a second, but just long enough for him to see two dark circles etched into it. Eyes. Those are eyes.
He heard a rumbling and looked up. Lights were flashing in the sky. Heat lightning, he thought. Probably typical out here.
He looked back down at the object. Even though it wasn't glowing anymore, he imagined the eyes on it, staring at him. He had something. He didn't know what, but it was important. He jumped to his feet and spun around. He could see a lot of dark shapes, but none were the one he wanted to see. He stuffed a hand into his pocket and felt for the cracked plastic of his car's remote.
He hesitated for a moment, and then pressed the unlocking button. He saw lights flash far ahead and to the left, accompanied by a pair of beeps.
Noise no longer a concern, he ran as fast as he could toward the car, praying he'd left enough distance from the dig site so he wouldn't trip over the rope partitions. He made it just as the doors re-locked automatically. He fumbled for the keys again, unlocked the doors once more, and threw himself inside. He started the engine and flicked on the headlights, and cursed. He'd done his best to park in such a way that he wouldn't be blocked in, but his classmates had apparently had other ideas.
Tents were rustling, and people were starting to emerge. He closed his eyes. Patience, patience, he thought. He opened his eyes, calmly placed the car into gear, and stepped on the accelerator. The engine hesitated a moment, but then clicked in and his wheels started spinning. For a brief second he thought they would become stuck in the shifting sand, but the car lurched forward. As if guided by some higher power, it slid perfectly between the two cars parked obliquely in front of it. Once he was clear he turned, back toward the nearby road and took a hard right turn. He didn't have to think about it, he just did it. Wherever he went, he always made sure he knew how to get back to Inaba.
As he disappeared into the night, leaving his confused classmates and professor behind, a figure stepped out from behind one of the cars. It was Emi, rubbing her upper arms to restore warmth to them. She sighed, and then pulled a cell phone from her pocket. She dialed a number and held the phone up to her ear.
"Something to report?" It was a man's voice.
"He has the talisman," Emi said. "He's heading south now."
"We'll track him," the voice said. "Keep your cover."
"Are you going to intercept him?" she asked, a little trepidation in her voice.
"No, we just need to know where he takes it."
Emi nodded absently. "O-okay." The calmness in the voice sent a chill across her entire body. She liked Kaz, and despite her employer's claims to the contrary, she also knew her employer's history of getting whatever they wanted by whatever means necessary.
"We'll call you when we need you again." The speaker beeped three times, indicating the other side had disconnected the call.
Emi closed her eyes, and shivered again. "Please be careful, Kaz. Don't fight them."
They were standing around her, their faces pure visages of contempt. Her wrists, ankles, and neck were chained to the ground, forcing her into a low kneeling position.
No, I've seen this already and it's a lie.
She could still turn her head and look about her. Tall figures glared down at her, each wielding a weapon. One lowered an aluminum baseball bat and touched her bare shoulder. It was like ice. She tried to shake it off but its owner kept it there, laughing.
"You've betrayed your family," said a familiar male voice. "You've betrayed me."
"No, this isn't real," she said. Her voice quivered, and for all the self-control she'd taught herself, she couldn't force herself to be calm.
It was like this every time.
"You've dishonored yourself, and there's only one way to restore it."
"I'm not playing along," she said, her voice squeaking out her tight throat. "I'm not playing along."
"This is no game," the voice said. "If you won't restore my honor, I'll do it for you."
A sword pierced her, running through from her back and out her stomach. The shock of pain tore through her...
And then she was sitting on the floor of the dojo, eyes closed, hearing only the slight crackling of the incense as it burned on the Kamidana before her.
Twelve years since she'd first been given that vision, on a television screen in a hospital room. For twelve years, she'd seen it every time she'd looked deep into herself, trying to touch what once was there. A place of power, but a place of danger. It frightened her, and yet she couldn't resist the urge to look again. And again.
The night had already been sleepless. Something was coming. She didn't know what or where, but it was the first true sensation, one she had not experienced in twelve years. It had kept her mind from settling into rest, despite the mental discipline she'd taught herself over those years.
So many years alone, she thought. Even with her friends, even with her students, she was always alone. Holding onto secrets she could not share for fear of endangering their lives. They knew something had changed with her, in her abandonment of her studies in favor of almost constant martial arts training, and in her opening of this dojo. Her father had never agreed with her choices, but had done his best to support her. Overcompensation for his absenteeism in her younger years, she supposed.
She opened her eyes, which fell upon a photograph on the other side of the incense stick. It portrayed a woman with big brown eyes and a wide, toothy smile on her lips. Her hair hung around her shoulders, framing the front opening of the otherwise modest blouse.
Have I made the right choices, Mom? She closed her eyes again. I mean, I can't un-know what I know. But should I have just tried to make friends, maybe find a man and have a family? And – did I really have to drag the others into this with me?
Of course, she knew the answer. She liked to believe it was her mother's spirit speaking to her, though from her experiences it was easy to become deluded, even by oneself, into thinking the dead were giving you an answer you wanted to hear. She and her father had both had their hearts broken in that way.
No, she had made the right choices. Though it had been hinted that things might not come to pass in her lifetime, she always suspected that they would. She knew that secret was kept deep in the dangerous place within her, the place she could not touch.
It was her blessing, and her curse, to know these things. It was the reason she'd chosen to devote her life to martial arts, and to open her dojo. She needed to find others she could trust, ones who wouldn't burden her with the kind of love she felt for her friends, the worry and the pain of watching them once again risk their lives. She needed ones who could be counted upon to take up the mantle of heroes when humanity needed them, ones she could lead into battle with a clear conscience. Teddie was the only one of her friends who followed her because, for some reason, she'd found it impossible to get rid of him.
And so had begun Dojo Harumagedon. Certainly not a subtle name, but she believed that anyone scared off by the name could not be expected to rise to the occasion of preventing it. She had not taught any one style, but rather blended her favorite parts of all of them. Karate, tae kwon do, balintawak, wing tsun – fighting with weapons and without, controlling one's body so one could change it from a vision of peace to a deadly weapon in the blink of an eye.
She had applied no dress code. In fact, she almost always wore a pair of sweatpants and a T-shirt, both in class and out. She knew it made her look sloppy, but she had never wanted her students to mistakenly expect any sort of accolades such as colored belts or tournament trophies. For even if they won their battles, even if they saved all of humanity, none would ever know about it.
She opened her eyes. While she could see into people's minds, her range was limited. One of her students had just entered hers. Kaz was coming back.
And someone else was coming down the stairs. "Sensei?" came a high voice. "How come you're still up?"
She turned to look at him, the flickering candle light making his pale face appear yellow and red in the dark studio. "Not a sleeping night. How about you, Teddie?" she asked, standing. She padded to him on bare feet.
"Couldn't sleep either," Teddie said, fingers playing through his perpetually-styled blond hair. "Something smells weird."
"I know you're not talking about the incense," she said with a sardonic grin. Then she released the grin and nodded. "Yeah, yeah it does." She lifted her head up and looked to the ceiling. "Someone's on their way."
"Kaz. He's driving up the street now."
"But I thought he was at school," Teddie said. "Is he coming back for a visit?"
She shook her head. "He was away on a field trip," she said. "It's got to be something important for him to leave it and come back here." She tilted her head slightly and her eyes wandered a bit. "He was on a – dig for his class. Archaeology."
"Ooh, like that one guy with the whip?" Teddie asked, his bright blue eyes open wide and appearing greenish in the candle light.
"Something like that," she said, not wanting to end up in another reality versus fantasy discussion with her old, naïve friend. "He's been driving all night to get back here. He's exhausted."
"Wow," Teddie said. "Maybe we can all take a nap together when he gets here!"
She smiled, an almost motherly smile, but also amused at Teddie's light attitude. No matter how old he was he did not appear to have aged a day, nor had he matured much in that time. He still looked upon everything with the curiosity of a child. She, on the other hand, had changed quite a bit from the girl who had first met him, about twenty years ago. At twenty-four, she felt as if she'd lived well over seventy years. Not in her body, which was about as fit as a human body could be, but in the life and the knowledge that had been inflicted upon her, and which she had, when necessary, borrowed from others.
"Go put on some tea, if you would please. I could use some myself."
"Sure thing!" Teddie scampered back up the stairs in his typical, happy-go-lucky style.
The sound of an engine, old and slightly out of balance, was becoming louder through the glass door at the far end of the studio, and shattering the silence of the dojo and indeed that of the whole neighborhood. There was a squeal of worn brakes and then the engine slowed, sputtered, and went silent. A creaky metal door opened and then slammed shut. She glided to the door and flipped the lock just as Kaz arrived at it. Kaz saw her do so and pulled the door open, triggering an electronic ding-dong.
"Sensei," Kaz said, stepping inside and stopping in front of her. She was tall, at least half a head taller than he was even though her feet were bare and his were encased in dusty, thick-soled boots. He opened his mouth to speak again, but no words came out. He held up his hands, an object cradled within them, saying nothing more.
She looked at the item he was holding before her. Immediately, without even touching it, she knew its purpose, even if she didn't know what it was or from where it had come. It was a sign. The sign she'd known was coming, that she'd taught her trusted few, the nakama she had formed over the few short years of her work.
She also saw what had transpired, how it had caught his attention even from a distance, how it had seemed to almost speak to him, even though he wasn't aware of it. That concerned her greatly.
She held out her hand and Kaz placed it into her palm. "Thank you, Kaz-kun. Your insight was good." She held the object up to her eye and examined it more closely. She felt no excitement at this revelation, only dread buried deep beneath the blanket of her mental conditioning. "This is...what we've been waiting for, I think. You were right to bring it to me right away."
Kaz, trying and failing to suppress his smile, bowed deeply to her. "Thank you, Nanako-sensei."