By Rich Wulf
"Perhaps even the Celestial Heavens are not beyond our grasp." - Shiba Aikune
"Stand aside, Yoma," Shiba Aikune demanded in a firm voice. Shiba Mirabu and Shiba Arai flanked Aikune on either side, glaring down at Yoma impatiently.
"I am sorry, my cousins," the Voice of the Masters said with a smooth, polite smile. "The Council's requests were quite clear. They are not to be disturbed. If you like, you may always make an appointment."
"An appointment?" Shiba Arai snarled. The dour yojimbo wore armor still battle scarred from recent confrontations with Dragon soldiers. A fearsome iron mempo covered his face. "This is Shiba Aikune, savior of the Phoenix Clan. If not for him those Council Chambers would be filled with Dragon peasants right now. You will let him pass!"
"And in recognition of his accomplishments I have been flexible in allowing Aikune-sama the opportunity to make an appointment to see the Council," Yoma said calmly, gaze still focused on Aikune. "Normally it is the Council that determines whom they shall entertain and whom they shall ignore. Such preferential treatment is a great compliment. Rejoice in it."
"This man is the rightful Phoenix Clan Champion, your rightful daimyo, Yoma!" Arai retorted. "You will show him respect!"
"He is no daimyo of mine," Yoma said, feigning confusion.
"You dare insult Aikune so?" Arai said, reaching for his sword.
"Arai, that is enough," Aikune said sharply.
The yojimbo fell silent, continuing to glare at Yoma.
"I have already made two appointments," Aikune said. "The Masters, in their wisdom, have cancelled them both. I wish to see them now."
Yoma continued to watch Aikune impassively. "My orders are specific, Aikune-sama. While the Council is in Chambers, I am to remain here, and prevent all intruders from passing through these doors." He paused meaningfully. "You understand, I hope."
"Yes, Yoma," Aikune replied in a quiet voice. "I understand."
The Chambers of the Elemental Council had been busy this day. A veritable flood of minor functionaries had passed in and out of the room, presenting documents to the Elemental Masters and then quickly hurrying away to deliver them to the appropriate recipients. Even after decades on the Council, Isawa Taeruko had never seen so much paperwork or listened to the pleas of so many courtiers.
The large, empty area where petitioners to the Council were allowed to stand and state their business was now occupied with a greasy Yasuki tradesman by the name of Naosuke, who was eagerly attempting to secure preferred trade status with the Phoenix for the Crane city of Musume Mura. Taeruko cared little for trade; such details were better left to the Master of Void. She merely sat in her seat and watched the Crane sourly, hoping he would soon come to a point and be gone.
As much as she despised wasting time in political discourse, Taeruko could not deny that the Phoenix Clan's budding alliance with the Crane was perhaps the most popular move the Council had made during her career. Morale was high, trade had increased, and there had been no word of a possible attack by the Lion Clan in months. On the downside, functionaries were flocking to Kyuden Isawa from every corner of the Crane and Phoenix provinces, all seeking to carve out their share of the lucrative alliance.
The most uncertain benefit thus far, Taeruko found, was the one that currently sat beside her on the Council of Masters. Doji Akiko, wife of the Crane Champion. She was the daughter of the first Isawa, returned to life during the Battle of Oblivion's Gate. Since she had been offered a place on the Council as Master of Water, she had proven herself powerful, cunning, and efficient. She was not unpredictable like Ningen, temperamental like Hochiu, or foolish like Nakamuro. Unfortunately, she also rarely agreed with Taeruko, a character trait Taeruko could not abide.
Taeruko looked to her right, the seat normally occupied by the Master of Air. Nakamuro had vanished again, following some rumors of a Dark Oracle's Covenant. The man believed that he could defeat Agasha Tamori alone where the entire Council could not. The very thought galled her - enemies such as Dark Oracles could not be waved away with convenient magic trinkets. Only faith, power, and determination could overcome them.
Yasuki Naosuke fidgeted uncomfortably. Sweat poured down his face as Taeruko's scowl deepened. "And so you see the course is clear," he said, looking to Shiba Ningen as he forced a nervous smile. "Musume Mura is a bustling port city, with connections to the upper echelons of the Doji. We are a small city, but we are growing. Would it not behoove your clan to have a controlling interest of-"
The Yasuki cut off with a terrified yelp as a ring of fire suddenly erupted in the air beside him. A young man in brilliant orange armor stepped out from the center of the ring, a sword of blazing light clutched in one hand. Shiba Mirabu and Shiba Arai flanked him on either side.
"Konnichiwa," Shiba Aikune said, bowing to the Council. "I apologize for my method of entrance, but Yoma-san forbid me from using the door."
"Aikune-san, this is highly unusual," Shiba Ningen said in a placid voice. He looked down at Aikune without surprise, as if he had expected his entrance.
"I apologize for my rudeness, but you left me little choice," Aikune said sternly. He sheathed his sword, the flaming circle vanishing behind him. "The Council has strange priorities these days."
"You are Shiba Aikune," Doji Akiko said in a soft voice. "The son of the last Soul of Shiba."
"I am he," Aikune said, bowing again to her. "I take it you are Doji Akiko, the new Master of Water."
Akiko nodded. Her eyes had not moved from the sword at his hip. "You wield the Last Wish," she said.
Aikune did not answer immediately. "Yes," he said, studying Akiko curiously.
"The Council still owes you a great deal for your heroism during our tragic absence," Shiba Ningen interjected, drawing Aikune's attention away from Akiko. "How may we serve you?" Taeruko sneered at Ningen's words, but said nothing.
"You may serve me by doing what is best for the Phoenix Clan," Aikune replied. "Why do we continue to make war with the Dragon Clan in spite of the greater threat? Why do we turn against those who were once our allies while Fu Leng attacks the Celestial Heavens?"
"Easily answered," Isawa Hochiu replied. "While the Dark Kami's power is not to be discounted, Tengoku has plenty of defenders. The Elemental Dragons, the Fortunes, the Kami, the spirits of past Emperors. In addition, mere mortals do not easily access the Celestial Heavens. What little aid we could offer would make no serious difference, and would in fact only weaken us against the Dragon."
"It is the Phoenix Clan's duty to serve the gods and kami," Aikune replied. "Now, in their time of greatest need, we refuse to aid them merely because it is difficult? I find that cowardly and unacceptable."
Taeruko felt the sting of Aikune's words and opened her mouth to voice an angry retort. Before she could speak, Akiko replied.
"Aikune-san," she said. "It is our duty to serve the gods, but it is also our duty to have faith in their power. Are you certain that your words are not influenced somewhat by the fact that your mother stands among the armies of Heaven? Perhaps you worry too much for her."
"I am worried for my mother," Aikune replied. "This is true. Still, I find it no less reprehensible that we have failed to do anything to stand against Fu Leng. Is it not the duty of all Rokugani to spit in the Dark Kami's face? Is it not our obligation to fight him if we are able? Who is better equipped to do so than the Phoenix Clan?"
"The gods," Akiko said.
Aikune frowned bitterly.
"Do not let your love for your mother cloud your judgment," Akiko said. "Our duty is to the gods, this is true. Our worship grants them their power and grandeur. Should the Phoenix Clan fail to protect its interests in the mortal realm, the gods will falter, and the Celestial Heavens shall surely fall. Our wisdom, faith, and power are the foundation upon which the armies of Tengoku are built. Did it not occur to you that perhaps the Dark Oracle of Fire began this war specifically to weaken the Phoenix so that the Fortunes would be unable to oppose Fu Leng at their full power?"
Aikune frowned. "I admit, Akiko-sama, that makes a great deal of sense," he said.
Akiko sighed sympathetically. "Sometimes the best path is not the most obvious, Aikune," she said, "but there are many ways in which to fight Fu Leng."
Aikune was silent for a long moment. "I understand," he said at last, head bowed. "Your words shame me, Akiko. My clan is fortunate to have the benefit of your wisdom."
Taeruko was shocked. She had not seen Aikune so humble, so contrite. Not since the day her daughter, Yaruko, died. Aikune had been engaged to marry Yaruko, and had failed to protect her from the Steel Chrysanthemum's killers. Taeruko had never truly forgiven him.
"I know that you have had a difficult time since you took up the Wish," Akiko said. "I have wielded it in the past, and I know what a draining experience that can be. In my own time, only shugenja could control its power and only with practice. I can only imagine your difficulty. Is it true that since your mother ascended to Tengoku that your family has had no leader?"
"Yes," Aikune said.
"Aikune is our leader," Mirabu said in a firm voice, "but we have no daimyo, and the Phoenix have no Champion."
"Then perhaps the time has come to pick a new Champion," Akiko said. "Once Nakamuro returns, the Council will be whole at long last."
"But only when Nakamuro returns," Taeruko interjected quickly. She suspected if Akiko intended to nominate Aikune for Phoenix Champion. She would stand for no such thing. There was little friendship between her and Nakamuro, but at least the Master of Air feared Aikune as much as she despised him.
"Of course," Akiko replied, looking coolly at Taeruko. "When Nakamuro returns."
"I apologize for interrupting these proceedings," Aikune said humbly. He drew the Last Wish, and the portal of flame appeared behind him. "I will take my leave now."
With that, Aikune and his soldiers disappeared. When they were gone, Taeruko turned to Akiko with a sour expression.
"You should not toy with him, Akiko," she warned. "Aikune is unpredictable, and we do not know the full extent of the Last Wish's powers."
"You need not warn me of the Last Wish's dangers," Akiko replied evenly. "Remember, I was slain by it."
Taeruko said nothing. She looked to the other masters. Hochiu was watching Akiko with a thoughtful smirk. Ningen did not seem to be paying attention at all.
"Umů as I was saying, esteemed Masters," Yasuki Naosuke said, shuffling back out of the shadows. "About my trade agreement?"
Shiba Aikune knelt in the shadows of the temple. The sound of chanting monks echoed through the vast halls. The structure was carved out of a natural cavern, statues of Fortunes and ancestors made out of the living stone. Piecemeal suits of armor and daisho sat on stands throughout the chamber, many of them scorched by flames. Aikune knelt before a bas-relief featuring countless depictions of samurai in the armor of Lion samurai. He held the last Wish's hilt in both hands, blade vertical before him. The gleaming eyes of flittering spirits watched Aikune from the corners of the room, the Children, strange entities who followed the Last Wish.
"Where are we?" Arai asked, looking around at the unfamiliar halls.
"I think this is the Temple of the Last Wish," Mirabu said. "But these sculptures were not here the last time I was here."
"I made them, with the Wish," Aikune said, his voice sad and distant.
"This is a Lion's sword," Arai said, studying a katana on its stand.
"It belonged to a samurai named Matsu Shinya," Aikune said. "A man I murdered using the power of the Last Wish."
"I was there, Aikune-sama," Arai said in a sharp voice. "I saw no murder. The man challenged your courage. You killed him in a fair duel."
"Fair?" Aikune asked, looking up at his yojimbo with a rueful smile. "I could have used the Wish to defeat him in a thousand different ways without taking his life. I could have removed myself from the area and waited until his temper calmed. Instead I let my rage control me. I used the Last Wish selfishly, as it should never be used, and many brave samurai died for no purpose." Aikune looked back up at the wall, the Lion samurai depicted there. "This temple honors them, as do the simple monks who have come here to tend their remains. I come here for their guidance."
"Cannot the Lion pray for their own dead?" Arai asked. "If you need guidance, pray to your ancestors."
"The spirits of my ancestors have never answered my prayers," Aikune said in a bitter voice. "The spirits of those I murdered, on the other hand, whisper in my ears every moment. I come here to seek their guidance, and beg their forgiveness."
"Forgiveness?" Arai asked. "You are a conqueror, Aikune! You need no forgiveness. You need not bow before the Council. We should return to Kyuden Isawa and force them to name you Champion."
"Arai, how long have you followed me?" Aikune asked, looking over one shoulder.
"Over a year now," Arai replied proudly. "Since you found the Wish. I was the first to swear loyalty to you after you defeated the Dragon."
"You do not know me," Aikune said, looking back at the wall. "You only know what I have become." A pulse of fire rippled up the length of Isawa's Last Wish, and Shiba Arai was gone.
"Arai?" Mirabu exclaimed, a note of worry in his voice. "Aikune-sama, what have you done with him?"
"I have not harmed him, Mirabu," Aikune said. "I have returned him to Shiro Shiba."
Mirabu's eyes widened. "The Wish is growing stronger, then."
"In a manner of speaking," Aikune replied. He looked up at Mirabu. "When my mother left, you were the last one she spoke to."
Mirabu nodded. "She ordered me to protect you, Aikune-sama."
"If she had not ordered you to do so," Aikune answered. "Would you remained beside me or would you fear me as the others do?"
"I do not fear you, Aikune," Mirabu said. "I fear that." He pointed to the Last Wish. "You should set it aside, Aikune. You do not need it."
Aikune looked into the flaming blade. "But it needs me," he said. "The Wish has a soul of its own. It was left in solitude for centuries, nearly driven to madness. I cannot abandon it now," Aikune looked up at Mirabu, "no more than you could abandon me."
"Aikune, if you still intend to challenge Fu Leng, you know I will stand with you," Mirabu said.
"I know," Aikune said.
And then Mirabu was gone as well. Aikune knelt in the cavern for a long time, staring into the flames of the Last Wish. It was said that the Wish took a new form in the hands of each one who wielded it. In Isawa's hands, it was a perfect sphere, an object of perfection with the potential to become anything. In Aikune's hands, it was invariably a katana of pure fire. It flickered quietly, waiting for his command.
"Take me to Tengoku," Aikune whispered.
Aikune frowned. Never before had the Wish resisted his commands in such a manner. "Why not?" he asked. "The Dark Kami seeks to corrupt the Celestial Heavens. The Elemental Council may well serve better supporting the gods from this realm, but we can take the fight to him."
"We have the power to oppose him," Aikune said. "I know we do."
-He killed Father.-
Aikune blinked in surprise. The Last Wish was a creature of emotion, but he had never felt such fear from it as he felt now.
"And my mother faces him now," Aikune said. "We must aid her."
-No!- The Last Wish sounded desperate now. -Your mother abandoned you. Your ancestors ignore you. Your clan fears and hates you. You need no one but ME! Together we are powerful, Aikune. Together nothing can ever harm us again.-
"And what good is power, if it cannot be put to just use?" Aikune asked. "You must be brave, my friend. You will not fight the Dark Kami alone." He harnessed the power of the Last Wish, concentrated on using it to open a portal to the Celestial Heavens, to transport him to the Dragon Road.
Shiba Aikune felt the Last Wish pulse in his hand. For an instant, it flared blood red. The only time it had ever taken that color was on the day that Matsu Shinya died. For a moment, Aikune felt something was terribly wrong. The aura of flame that surrounded the Wish pulsed wildly, uncontrollably. The earth trembled beneath his feet. One of the armor stands toppled to the floor. He pitted his will against the Wish, struggling to keep control. The flaming sword became a sword of glass, shattered in his hands, and reformed again. The Last Wish screamed.
-DO NOT MAKE ME DO THIS!-
"Aikune-sama?" an old monk called out, poking his head into the chamber with an alarmed expression. "What is happening?"
"Take the others and run, as quickly as you can!" Aikune shouted.
The monk stared blankly for the briefest moment, then quickly darted away. The Children of the Last Wish flew in a wild orbit around Aikune's head, shrieking in pain, anger, and betrayal.
-DO NOT MAKE ME DO THIS, AIKUNE!-
"I do not understand!" Aikune shouted at the Wish. "I wish for no selfish gain! I want nothing but to fight the Dark Kami, to help my mother and the Empire!"
-I THOUGHT YOU UNDERSTOOD!-
The bas-reliefs upon the walls began to melt and run like wax. A katana burst into flame on its stand, the steel burning like paper. The earth cracked beneath Aikune's feet.
-AIKUNE, HELP ME! I AM AFRAID!-
With horror, Aikune realized what he had done. The Wish was like a child, an innocent. The Wish had loved Isawa, and Fu Leng had killed him. The Wish did not thirst for vengeance. It wanted no retribution. It wanted no more than to avoid the evil creature that had killed its creator.
Aikune had forced it to do otherwise, with no thought for its feelings.
Such an act had been terribly selfish.
Everything went white, so bright that Aikune lost all sensation. He expected to die, but when his sense of self returned he found that he now lay at the bottom of an enormous crater. The temple was gone. The mountain was gone. Everything for miles around had been reduced to ash. His flesh and armor were untouched; the Wish had protected him. There was no way the monks could have escaped in time. Aikune bowed his head in shame.
And there, lying on the earth, nearby, was Isawa's Last Wish. It appeared as it had when Aikune first found it - a perfect glowing sphere. Aikune reached for it with one hand.
-Do not hurt me.- it whispered in his mind, afraid of him now.
"I will not," he said. "I am sorry." He cupped the Last Wish in one hand. He expected it to take its usual form, a flaming sword. Instead, it became a golden torch.
-I am sorry. I did not mean to kill them.-
"I am the one who should be sorry," Aikune said. "Now let us leave this place."
-Where shall we go?- The Wish's voice was excited, childlike, almost unaware of the carnage it had just caused. -Kyuden Isawa? Shiro Shiba? Perhaps Gisei Toshi. I would like to show you that place.-
"No," Aikune said, looking off to the northern mountains. "Somewhere new. Somewhere that we can no longer bring harm to others, until we learn to understand each other again."
Aikune sensed fear. -I will not be alone again, will I?-
Aikune laughed sadly. "No," he said. "I will be with you."
And then they were gone.
Mirumoto Temoru had nearly given up hope.
He had not seen the Dragon lands in many months. He was not even entirely sure if he was in Rokugan anymore. Through Zokusei's magic they were able to communicate with her master, Satoshi back in the Empire. He knew that the wall around Ki-Rin's Shrine still stood firm, and that the Phoenix no longer attacked his clan with such ferocity. He knew that Shiba Aikune still carried the Last Wish, but by all accounts had been acting more rational of late. As he trudged through the snow-covered mountains of the Yobanjin wilderness, he wondered if anyone even remembered his quest.
Had his quest to find a way to undo the magical artifact all been for naught?
Had he wasted his time?
Temoru felt the elements thicken, sensed the air kami swirling around his head.
"Of course you have not wasted your time," Zokusei said as she trudged through the snow beside him. "To seek knowledge is never a waste of time. So long as Aikune controls the Wish, he will inevitably grow more dangerous. Only here, where some remnants of Isawa's old magic linger, can we find a way to undo what Isawa created."
"I warned you about using your magic to pry through my thoughts," Temoru said in a low voice.
"You speak so little," she said with a chuckle. "I must look into your thoughts from time to time if I wish to stay sane I this wilderness."
"If you wish to speak to me, do so," Temoru said. "I do not appreciate-" the words died in his throat as they crested the top of the mountain. Below them lay an enormous Yobanjin fortress, easily the size of a Rokugani castle.
"Incredible," he whispered.
"Not so incredible," Zokusei said, clearly unimpressed. "The Crab build larger fortresses than that."
"That is not what amazes me," Temoru said. He reached into the inro box upon his belt, drawing out a jade figurine. He checked the symbol at its base then, with a satisfied smile, pointed to the gaijin symbol that marked the gates.
The symbol was the same.
The symbol of the statue's creator.
The symbol of the first Isawa.