The quiet of the tunnel would go undisturbed for weeks, months at a time. Dust from stone and ash filled stale air. Tiny particles of earth floated on the wind. The elements intertwined beneath the Palace of the Iron Flower intermingled with the stagnation of death.
Amid it all was a man, unmoving in silent meditation, statuesque in his reverie. The Abbot Zenshin remained for three straight days surrounded by the dead. The urns of heroes, ashes of samurai of worth, ability, power, and renown stared back unfeeling.
Outside the door a hummingbird beat its wings. In the space of time between beats, Zenshin’s soul pulled back from its expansion and his heart began to beat once again. The door of the corridor opened. With the noise came the inevitable rush of air cycling out the neutral odor of death. The tunnel gorged itself on the sweet air of life above.
“Shut it, Hudan. You will release the power. You will accelerate the decay.” Zenshin’s voice cracked rough in his throat and he held out his hand. The other monk moved quickly to seal the chamber beneath the Temple. He then felt his way along the dark corridor and found the Abbot’s waiting palm.
Zenshin clenched the other man’s fingers in a vise grip and shot his other hand out to grasp at his servant’s belt. The water from Hudan’s clay bottle flooded him with the fresh agony of life.
“Come." Zenshin croaked. "We must check it before I can come out again.”
Hudan felt the hand release, but the two had followed this path often enough for him to navigate by sound alone. “My lord, certainly there are more pressing matters. The artifact has not moved since we placed it and it shows no sign of budging.” The younger monk’s voice cracked a little in fear, but he knew better than to hold back his reservations. The Abbot had a way of knowing the innermost fear.
“One does not reach the age of enlightenment by trusting that things will remain ever as they are, Hudan. I know your worry. It is healthy for you to be afraid of such power.” Zenshin traced fingertips along the walls as he turned right, then left, then twisted down a byzantine path towards the chamber below. He felt the urns of the dead, most whole, some broken, and he felt the tokens of their lives. All dead. All covered in the ash of death.
“Tell me how things proceed above.” It was a command in a firm, yet forgiving tone and it set Hudan at ease in this dark place.
“My lord, the newcomers succeeded in your task. The bandits have been dispersed and the ronin leader is at the Magistrate’s Station.” Hudan closed his eyes. The Sin of Fear gripped his heart in the catacombs. It helped him if he could imagine standing above, in the beauty of the Temple.
Hudan went on. “It is as you fear, Brother. They are not the weak-willed lackeys of some Imperial nobody. They have been chosen by someone with the skill to pick servants of talent and ability.” Hudan felt the air grow thick as the two monks of death walked on. Only the steady slapping sound of Zenshin’s bare feet on stone guided his way.
“Then we will find another way to remove the threat,” Zenshin said.
“Killing them is not advised. It will attract the attention of their true lord and until we know who that is we should not act so rashly.”
“Not death, Hudan. There are many ways to remove the threat.” Zenshin halted at the final turn and spoke backwards into the dark. “We will employ our newfound political authority. Let our allies take the brunt of the assault and do some of our work for us. I will not have these ignorant, unenlightened fools stepping in where they do not belong.”
Zenshin paused, as if to consider. “Tell the other members of the Council to prepare a debate. We will tear at our opponents’ heart, their reputation and renown. Without the backing of history, these ‘heroes’ are nothing. Only proper, since one day they will become nothing once more. Now, wait here, brother Hudan. I will return shortly.”
The sounds of steady footsteps echoed across the chamber and Hudan could only listen. He had never been allowed to see the item up close.
As a former student of the Kitsu, Zenshin could sense the power of the weapon long before his physical senses could place it. In the twisting maze connecting Temple to the Shiro proper, a single hidden corridor led to a door that had never been opened since its creation. Zenshin approached the heavy iron seal and stopped.
One on side of the door, a peaceful monk sat at a lakeside in a lotus pose. On the other, a forbiddingly empty suit of armor stared back with empty eyes. It was said that on the other side of this door waited enlightenment.
“I will have it.” Zenshin whispered.
The Abbot could see only because of the weapon. The broken haft of a massive spear stuck out of the ground before the door and glowed with a steady pulsating green. The color threw off the senses and distorted the air around.
“In your story, Lord of Death, you were born again into one-hundred-and-eight lives, each one closer than the last to a final goal.” Zenshin spoke soft, so as not to disturb the glow. “You prepared for one-hundred-and-seven days, meditating in this very place, and you were interrupted before you could attain true enlightenment.”
Zenshin’s hand reached up lovingly to caress the old iron.
“When I open this door, I will be prepared. I will not wait for my lifetimes to come and go. I will not meditate for days on end. The ability to seize my goal is right here, in the now, and fortune favors the bold.”
Zenshin’s eyes grew wide and he forced himself to look into the blade where it pierced the bottom of the door. It hurt to be so brazen, to look directly at the source of power, but the draw was too great.
“This must be one of the one-hundred-and-eight mortal temptations, Lord Emma-O, to endure such pain for the barest glimpse of hope.”
Zenshin reached out suddenly and grasped the haft of the broken spear. A shock of immense power flowed through him. Every moment of every lifetime lived by that spear’s owner raced through the Abbot’s mind. Every soul judged stared back at him in silent consideration of his worth. It was too much.
It was too soon.
“Too soon…” Zenshin whispered as he came to his senses. He was kneeling on the floor covered in his sweat and the ashes of the tunnels. Without comment, he rose and walked to the tiny outcropping that shared this room. He closed his eyes tight and reached up into a broken urn, an urn whose worth exceeded all the wealth in this province, and covered his hand with the ashes of an Emperor.
Hudan heard his master coming and looked down the tunnel, into that greenish glow. In the dark, he was just able to make out the smearing of ashes across the Abbot’s face. A sense of purpose filled him with a deep joy and he fell in behind his master.
“The goryo will respond when called." Zenshin said. "For now, we need only keep our enemies distracted with politics and false purpose. Our time is coming, Hudan. The time for waiting is nearly past.”
The two monks left the dark chambers filled with remembrance of the dead, but Hudan could feel the truth of his master’s words even as they departed. It would not be long.
It would not be long.