“If things go on like this, the next winter will not end. You are the Savior, Hanashiro. You understand what you have to do, don’t you.”
“I understand,” Hanashiro says, head bowed so that the Prophet will not see his eyes. “I understand, Lord Shirofukurou.”
Lord Shirofukurou falls quietly, without even time to cry out, eyes widening with unguarded surprise as blood streaks Hanashiro's face, his hands, the pristine white floor. A single stroke across the throat, swift and clean, just as Hanashiro had been had instructed to do in the underground prison cell so many years ago. Conscience gnaws at Hanashiro: Lord Shirofukurou raised him, cared for him in place of his parents, trained him to kill without hesitation. But Lord Shirofukurou also wanted Kuroto dead, and so Lord Shirofukurou had to go.
Too late the Captain runs into the room, face aghast as his eyes alight on the Prophet’s corpse. “Hanashiro, this…”
“Stand aside, Captain. Or are you going to try to stop me too?”
“Brat,” the Captain hisses, one hand on the hilt of his own sword. “I taught you everything you know.”
Hanashiro smiles in response, sharp and cold as the glint of his drawn sword in the light, or the ending winter he is adamant will never arrive. “You forget, Captain, that I’m the Savior, and I'm stronger than you.”
Far away in the middle of a dense forest in an uninhabited region of Sen, in the basement of the Warden’s Tower, Kurotaka feels the white bird’s death like a dagger in his chest.
Mid-spring over the remote mountain range in Gun, the air is still sharp with the remnants of a chill, but the last of the previous winter’s snow has melted. The trees have all regrown their leaves, and the cliffs and slopes once again covered in a sea of green.
When Hanashiro arrives at the house, Kurotaka is reclining in a garden chair by the vegetable garden. “Sorry, little one, but Kuroto’s not here right now.”
“Actually, it’s you I came to see.”
“Oh?” Kurotaka straightens up, opens the back door and waves Hanashiro in. He fetches some water for them both; steeples his fingers on the table, and eyes Hanashiro expectantly.
“People say that the black hawk sees all,” Hanashiro begins. “Tou and Kana’s great war… I want you to find out where the fighting is, and then take me there.”
“Like you don’t already know,” Hanashiro says. “Will you do it? Or do you want to end up like the white bird?”
Kurotaka’s eyes flash at the mention of his counterpart. “You won’t kill me.”
“No,” Hanashiro admits. “But I can make you hurt. We want the same thing, don’t we? For that person to go on living. And you don’t care one bit about the world, so why not help me?”
He says it as casually as if he were describing the weather. Kurotaka regards him calmly, but his voice holds a tremor when he says, “You know, Savior, you're a scary one."
Hanashiro smiles sweetly then, though it does not reach his eyes. "I'm just part of the system, right? So if someone's to blame, it’s the one who made the world like this."
Early summer in Sai when the flowers in the royal gardens are in full bloom, Hanashiro kneels before Sai’s monarch without really meaning the respect the gesture signifies. If the King stands in his way, Hanashiro will just dispose of him, like Hanashiro already has disposed all of Sai’s advisers and generals who opposed him.
“Where I’m going… it’s not a big deal. I’m just going to save the world like I’m supposed to. You don’t need to know how, just wait and see in a few months’ time. And even if you know—if you value the safety of Sai, your majesty, you’ll stay out of it.”
In a small house in a remote village far from Sai's capital city, sunlight streaming through a high window over maps spread out over a table, Hanashiro remembers.
The Prophet said that if only one thing is eliminated, the world can continue on.
Hanashiro is the Savior, and the lives he takes do not contribute toward the end of the world.
Hanashiro is the Savior, and the purpose of his existence is to save the world from destruction.
Kuroto exists to one day drown the world in snow, and the violence along with it. But there is another way for the wars to end: when everyone who participates in them is dead. And Hanashiro would gladly drench his hands in the blood of the world, if it means the snow that falls upon that house in the mountains will always be pure.
The air is too hot and muggy to do anything, and Kurotaka sends Kuroto off to the village to buy some things while insisting Hanashiro stay at the house. Later that afternoon Kuroto returns, arms laden with bags and with a worried face. “Some of the merchants are marking up their prices. They say that this year, winter isn’t going to end.”
“Really?” Hanashiro says. “I don’t think we have anything to worry about.”
“Is that so,” Kuroto says thoughtfully. “... Don’t you have anything to tell me, Hanashiro…?”
Kurotaka coughs violently and excuses himself to the kitchen to put away the things.
“Mm? I guess… stay warm, and make sure you have enough supplies. This house is all the way up here, and if you get snowed in, even the bird won’t be able to help...”
Autumn over the borderlands of Tou, where day after day an army lays siege to Kana’s border cities as daylight dwindles and the air grows steadily colder. Hanashiro stands on top of the city gates, wills himself to ignore the thundering of horse-hooves, the war-cries, the clash and screech of metal against metal. He draws his sword; steps off the wall and lets himself fall.
Hanashiro is the weapon of the world, and the only one for whom violence is permitted. Not everybody on this battlefield wants to be here— but if these people are going to kill each other anyway, then let them die at his hands. Like this, their souls will be saved, instead of poured into the vessel of the world to hasten it toward its destruction. The Captain had taught Hanashiro to hold a sword; Lord Shirofukurou had trained him to use it without hesitation. Now, fresh blood drenches the hoof-trodden grass with every whirl and every parry, just as it had sprayed the stone walls in that underground prison. Now it seeps into the soil, and nourishes the grasses and weeds that will one day spring up amidst the corpses.
Later Hanashiro stands alone amidst the sea of armor and broken bodies; around him the air is stagnant and thick with the stench of gore. It covers his sword, his face, his hands, all of him, and his grip on his sword goes slack; he drops it, making a dull thud in the grass, and collapses to his knees and retches over the ground. Even after so long, his stomach is still too weak to withstand this, and he hates it.
Adrenaline courses through him, blurs his vision and makes him shiver. He turns his face to the sky stained red by the setting sun and calls to mind the image of that mountain cottage, cut off from the outside world by its remote location. Kuroto’s silhouette, sharp against the snow as he stands in the clearing overlooking the village beneath. Every year come winter, snow falls over that place, pure and white and unmarred by the blood and fire of everything that transpires here.
Gradually Hanashiro’s heart calms, his breathing eases. Tears are running down his face and he swipes them away, his fingers leaving streaks of blood in their wake. With effort he sheathes his sword, pulls himself to his feet. As long as it will keep that place and that person safe, he can keep doing this. For as long as needed.
The price of the world's continued existence is steep, and in the end, it was unavoidable that it had to be paid in lives. But Hanashiro will be the one to exact the payment, precisely so that Kuroto need never know the cost. As long as that person can live on, it will always be worthwile.
Above him, a great black bird circles in the shadow of the setting sun. It angles its head and screeches into the empty heavens, though there is no one left to know what it mourns.
Spring has arrived at the mountain ranges of Gun, and the trees and flowers in full bloom scatter masses of pollen that make Hanashiro sneeze. Kuroto makes sympathetic noises, fetches Hanashiro tea with honey and tells him not to come back until the season has passed.
“It’s fine, Kuroto, if I get to see you,” Hanashiro say miserably between sniffles. “Also, I don’t know what everyone was so worried about last year. Winter ended at the usual time, didn’t it?”
“Mm, it did.” Kuroto says, his brow furrowing as he seems to think about something. But Hanashiro holds out his cup with an expectant smile, and Kuroto obediently goes to fetch more hot water for him.
In the white halls of Tou’s royal palace, Hanashiro levels his sword at the throat of the emperor. Outside Hanashiro’s magic barrier, guards are yelling and hacking at the invisible wall while courtiers rush about in a panic. Hanashiro ignores them all. “Call off the war,” Hanashiro says to the emperor. “Bring back your troops, dissolve the army, and I might let you live.”
Blood stains Hanashiro’s boots and the front of his coat; he had not bothered with tidying his appearance before he came. Let them recognize the evidence of the war they are commanding from on high. Let them recognize exactly who he is and what he has done, and what he can still do to them.
“I cannot,” the emperor says. “Kana is pressing us on every front. If we retreat now, they will break through our lines and kill us all.”
Kurotaka had said that the monarch is young, untried. The war with Kana was his father’s, not his, but like all the other people in this world he had just quietly accepted the fate that has been handed to him. It sickens Hanashiro. “A pity,” Hanashiro murmurs, as silver arcs through the air and blood coats the floor.
Now people say that when a black hawk appears above a battleground, a red hurricane will follow before long. They say that hurricane is a red-eyed demon who has the strength of thousands, who moves as swiftly as the wind and who leaves no survivors. They say that hurricane single-handedly ended the great wars, and that it is useless to fear Kuroto and the ending winter now, because that hurricane will end the world before he can even begin.
The old warlords and their bloodthirsty courts have passed, carefully replaced by a generation of monarchs more interested in trade and commerce than war and conquest. Neutral zones lie fifty kilometres in either direction of country borders where no military dares to venture for fear the black hawk will find them.
And the world continues to turn, year on year, the seasons passing as they always have before. Winters In the remote mountains of Gun are still long and cold, but they always end. The snow cover always melts and waters the first blooms of spring.
In the workroom at the Warden’s Tower, Hanashiro stands on a footstool and peers over Kurotaka’s shoulder at the measuring instruments. “I can’t read those. How close is it now?”
“If it stays at this rate… another fifty, sixty years. Maybe not in your lifetime.”
Hanashiro nods, frowning. “… And that guy? Anything?”
“He still thinks it is just not yet time.” Kurotaka glances up. “That’s not to say that he won’t somehow find out what you’re doing, you know.”
“As long as he stays in that place and never goes farther than the foot of the mountain, how can he?” Hanashiro smiles serenely. “For that, I have you to thank. You were the one who sequestered him away there, where no news ever reaches. And you’ll never tell him either, will you?”
“… no. No, I don't think I will...”
Walking hand in hand together beneath a canopy of trees, Kuroto says, “Hanashiro, I don’t know what you’re trying to do, but isn’t it time you stopped?”
Hanashiro freezes. “Stopped what, Kuroto?”
“This… whatever this is. You, always coming to visit me like this. I’m Kuroto, the one who will end the world. And you’re supposed to kill me.”
“Ah, that—” Relief floods Hanashiro like ice. “I’m supposed to kill you to stop the world from ending, Kuroto. But the world isn’t ending, is it? Not a trace of snow anywhere. As for why I’m here… I think, I just like to be with you.”
Hanashiro turns to face Kuroto fully; places his hands on Kuroto’s shoulders and spins Kuroto round, looks Kuroto in the eye. Since they first met, Hanashiro has gained a bit in height, but he still has to rise up on his toes a little. “And if one day that winter does arrive… well, we can think about it then. How about that, Kuroto?”
It will not arrive, not as long as Hanashiro is around to prevent it. But Kuroto need never know that.
Kuroto nods, frowning. “Yeah,” he says. “I guess that’s fine.”
Above them a wind passes through the trees, shaking loose the spring flowers, and Kuroto holds out a hand to catch them. "... Just like snow," he murmurs, and Hanashiro smiles.