The People of Emptiness
"He's unclean. You shouldn't touch him with your bare hands"
Those words from one of the guards caused the other four to jump and pull their hands away from the man they'd been about to take hold of.
But a single glare from their commanding officer and his 'Do it!' made them cautiously approach again and unfasten the shackles from their stakes.
The man had been pinioned to the wall of the underground cell with his arms spread out as if crucified. He didn't so much as lift his head as the guards approached. A casual glance would have taken him for a dead body.
But he was alive.
He was thin enough, but the flesh that covered his shackled arms to the shoulder bulged gently with young muscle, and the lacquer black hair that grew uncut held a gleaming lustre of its own in the midst of its darkness.
Two of the guards pushed the man down with a long spear shaft from each side, so that his thin neck fell forward. The poles bit into the back of his neck, telling him just how frightened the guards were.
The rusted lock on the shackles did not come loose as it should, and the man's shoulders, forced into such an unnatural position, made an unpleasant cracking sound; but neither the soldiers nor the man himself took any notice of it.
"...he's not going to run wild, is he?"
"He isn't strong enough."
"I dunno. He's a monster after all."
"Ssh, that's going too far. Remember you're in the presence of the 'toushin taishi."
"Aww don't worry. He don't look like he'll go repeating it to anyone. There's no way he can understand what we're saying."
At that moment the chains that had held the man's two wrists came free from the stakes in the wall, making a clanking sound. Still held down by the spear shafts, the man's tall body fell forward heavily onto the cold floor. A small pool of water that had welled up from underground soaked his cheek.
"Take him away. Hey, we're letting you out, monster. How's it feel?"
I see. I'm being taken out. Into a place where the sunlight falls.
The man had understood their words almost perfectly. Though treated like some kind of animal for so long a time, his innate intelligence was still extremely high. The very few people he'd seen during the long months and years, and the sounds of the outside world that filtered through the air vents, had been his only sources of information.
But he felt no reaction to the contempt the soldiers had shown towards himself. The only thing that seemed truly real to him were the colourless drops of water falling from his black hair onto his cheek.
He looked up slowly. His two eyes- one golden and one cobalt- looked between the strands of his dripping hair at the stairway that led to the world above. From the door at the end of it gleamed a spider's thread of strong white brightness, that pierced the cushioning darkness like an evil portent.
And so the beast was set free beneath the sun.
Dragging his weakened legs, he was led into a large and luxurious open chamber... that was totally empty. He was dazzled as if the sun's rays had literally stabbed his eyes, but the detailed decoration that adorned the chamber and the crazily dancing colours of it dazzled his brain in quite another way.
Some stranger- a man in early old age that they called the 'Lord of Heaven'- sat on a throne and opened his mouth to speak in a grandiloquent fashion.
The man looked up, realizing that what he was hearing was his own name. He'd almost forgotten he had one.
Homura made no answer, but the Lord of Heaven went on speaking as if not expecting any.
"The previous toushin taishi called Nataku having retired from his position, that office is now entrusted to you. Expend your utmost loyalty and deepest effort for the sake of Heaven's glory. There is no other path open to an impure being like yourself."
That was the gist of it, though the man phrased it in an endless roundabout fashion that Homura had difficulty following. He had no intention of responding and so stayed silent from beginning to end. The others assumed that he was mute and so the interview was able to conclude without incident. No doubt he'd never had the option of acceptance or rejection in the first place. This was compulsion, pure and simple.
The next place he was brought to was a single room far removed from the imperial residence.
"Please enter, Prince."
As if flicking a switch, his guards had been calling Homura 'Prince' for some time now, and both their attitudes and their expression were wrapped about in respect. He took a few steps into the room. The chain that linked the two fetters about his wrists clanked heavily as he moved. It was long enough to let him spread both his hands out to their full extent and more. Made of a special metal that wouldn't rust, it gave off a dull dark gloss as if it had sucked blood. It made him remember the long ages they had spent together.
"This will be the Taishi's quarters from now on. The servants will arrive shortly. In the meantime please rest and enjoy yourself."
With these words the guard left hastily as if their work was done. Homura remained standing in the middle of the room slowly looking about him.
There was nothing here. It was like an empty box, though large enough and neat. And of course it was much brighter than the dungeon had ever been.
Something white came fluttering suddenly in through the open window. He caught it in the palm of his hand. It was an oval-shaped flower petal. When he looked closely he saw it was pale pink.
Homura looked at it in puzzlement. He'd never heard of cherry blossoms.
They weren't visible from the window but in the grounds of the Emperor's palace a sea of cherry trees rioted in eternal blossom.
The glimpse of a human figure out the corner of his eye drew Homura's attention away from the petal. Without his noticing it, a stranger was now standing at the door to his room. Drawn by curiosity as to why he'd sensed nothing, Homura let his gaze focus on the newcomer.
He was a thin man, covered in a pale violet robe. From appearances he seemed likely to be older than Homura. His light lavender hair, almost silver, was drawn together and bound at the back of his head, and his skin was so pale as to give an impression of sickliness.
He stood in silence, eyes closed, but Homura was certain the man was looking at him.
"May I greet you at our first meeting, Toushin Homura?" The sounds were projected from the man's lips as if to sink gently and deliberately into the listener's ear. Eyes still closed, wasting no motion, the man took a slow gliding step and knelt at Homura's feet. The many strips of cloth binding his hair followed his movement and fluttered gently behind him. Homura's odd-coloured eyes followed them as they waved.
How beautifully they flow, he thought. It was perhaps the first 'dance' he had ever seen.
The lavender-coloured man, still kneeling with his face to the floor, continued: "I have been charged with the education of successive Toushin princes. If you please you may call me Shien."
"Shien..." Homura tasted the sound of it in his mouth with deep interest.
The man who'd named himself Shien as an innocent child would, stood up again in silence, faced Homura and continued: "It's written with the characters for purple and heron.
"A heron is bird of the stork family. It's a living creature with white wings, which is why people sometimes call it the 'winter guest'" There was a pause. "Have you ever seen a bird?
"No-- I don't know," Homura said honestly, then after a moment's thought, "But I'd like to. If that's your name." There was pure simplicity in what he said.
For a long moment Shien took in the sense of Homura's words. Then for the first time a gentle smile played about his mouth as he answered, "From now on you can see anything you wish. Now you are... free."
A soft breeze breathed into the room, carrying a sweet smell from somewhere. It gently fanned Homura's hair and the skirts of his jacket and the silk binding Shien's hair; but the dull-coloured chains that linked Homura's two wrists never stirred.
Two birds who didn't know what their destination might be.
The dungeons they descended to several months later were in a different place from the solitary cell where Homura had spent so many years, but the heavy darkness and the dank smell of it was hideously familiar to him. The pine torch threw Homura and Shien's shadows on the rock walls. They wavered and lengthened as if they were separate beings with a life of their own.
Homura stood in front of the cell at the farthest end to which Shien had directed him.
From the blackness behind the iron bars a hoarse insolent voice yelled "Hey, ain't it too early for dinner?". As Homura's eyes adjusted to the dark the voice's owner became dimly visible. A solitary figure, not manacled, but sitting slouched against the wall. A much younger man than his raw drinker's voice would suggest.
"General Zenon of the Eastern Army, I believe?"
"That's *former* General Zenon." The man called Zenon's shoulders shook with brief laughter as he answered Shien's inquiry.
Homura stood looking down at him in silence. The black gaping hole where the man's right eye should be bothered him obscurely. But when he looked closer he saw it wasn't a hole at all but a pale black eyepatch. A large eyepatch that seemed to be buried in the man's face as if it had grown roots there.
Shien continued without a flicker of expressions. "I believe you may already have heard that Prince Nataku has resigned the office of toushin. At present that duty is being carried out by the Prince Homura who stands here."
"Anh, I get it. So this guy is the new 'impure being?" Zenon said unabashed, and his left eye looked straight at Homura.
"I hope we may be friends," Shien continued.
Inside his cell the gleam of Zenon's eyes, bright and piercing, looked to the side. He was probably laughing. Homura felt he was facing a one-eyed meat-eating beast.
"So? This toushin taishi-sama, what's he want with me?" he said jeering, and sat up straighter. Homura saw the foreign-looking jacket that covered his torso and the way he drew back the corners of his mouth.
"The army led by the former Taishi Nataku has been wiped out. Or rather, since the revolt of the Seitan Taisei, the whole of the Heavenly army has effectively been destroyed." Zenon, listening, took from the back pocket of his jeans a crumpled cigarette package, and put a cigarette, equally twisted, between his teeth.
"Yeah, that sounded pretty terrible. Seems there were only four people in the rebel army. I heard they were led by this General Kenren and some Marshal Tenpou."
Yes. The incident was what triggered Prince Nataku's retirement as well."
"Well, I was here so I don't know much about it. Anyway, no one's allowed to mention it in Heaven these days. Even down here in the cells I don't think it's something you officials should be talking about like that."
He gave a rude snort of laughter, but the look that went with it didn't smile. The comfortable metallic click of his lighter echoed off the cell walls as he flipped it open. The end of the cigarette was damp so it took a good while to get it lit. Shien waited until Zenon had let out his first drag and went on:
"In essence, former General Zenon, we would like you to carry out the duties of a soldier under Prince Homura's command."
"...you're saying you'll let a criminal like me out of this place?" Inside the bars his one eye and the glowing cigarette end stared at them unmoving. "...ah, no, sorry. I'd rather be here. Life's pleasanter in this cell."
In the torchlight Homura's eye followed the shaking cigarette smoke that Zenon spat out.
Shien had given him a general idea of what had happened to this man. He'd been a gifted soldier attached to the Heavenly army, sent down to the lower world to conduct an investigation. There he'd fallen in love with a youkai woman and gone so far as to have a child with her. When that became known he'd been brought back to Heaven as guilty of an impurity and imprisoned in this underground cell.
"My wife and my child are dead," Zenon suddenly murmured as though he could see what Homura was thinking. "It happened while I was in here. Time is faster down there. A coupla centuries have already passed."
The lit end of the cigarette glowed a soft red each time he drew on it. A firefly's light. The blink of a firefly that seemed to demand that its small life should burn away there.
"There's nothing left for me. That's the way it is."
"*You're* left." Homura spoke for the first time. Zenon looked up.
"You've still got yourself."
The low soft tones of that settled voice. A voice like a flame burning in the subterranean cell.
"I'm the one who will validate your existence. I will be the flame that sheds light on you." The words were like a song. "Let me live my life fully so that I may let you live yours."
A reasoning that made opposites into one, two sides of the same thing.
Good and evil. Nothingness and being. Hope and despair. Past and present.
'Like he's drawing a mandala--' Zenon thought obscurely to the sounds Homura was spinning. Day and night repeating themselves forever. The gold and eye and the deep blue one were looking deeply at him.
Homura lifted up the thing he was holding in his right hand, a hilt of some kind, and flourished it above his head. Orange-coloured heat ran from it as if it had burst into flame. In an instant it took on the shape of a great sword wrapped in brilliance as if on fire. The concentration of Homura's spirit, expressed as heat and light, took the form of a curved Chinese sword.
Dazzled, Zenon unconsciously lifted his hand over his eyes, and from its shade stared at the blade that seemed ready to burn itself into destruction. 'Those flames will burn themselves out eventually,' he thought. Like the burning end of a cigarette.
But for no reason he could understand, the flame drew him.
He felt he'd longed for this: strong, short-lived and infinitely precious.
Homura gave a great sidelong slash with the sword like cleaving the wind. With a loud crack and a shower of sparks the bars of Zenon's cell fell apart, as though burned through in an instant by rays of heat: the thing that had kept the three of them apart vanished as if simply melting away.
Homura lowered the blade, turned on his heel as if nothing had happened and took a step towards the door out of the dungeon.
It was the first time Zenon had spoken the name. He didn't do it to stop Homura, but Homura stopped nonetheless. Not turning to look at Shien and Zenon, he spoke:
"Come. Come and live along with me."
A reasoning that made opposites into one. Like a song of hope, or a curse that invited you to your own destruction.
But Zenon got to his feet. He and Shien walked, following Homura's back as he again started towards the exit.
Homura threw open the great doors that led to the world above ground.
Their three forms were swallowed by the white brightness and disappeared.