By Rich Wulf
The Wrath of the Kami was ironically named, Isawa Nakamuro thought, considering that the pain and misery the volcano had brought the Dragon Clan had nothing to do with the kami. Black smoke stained the skies above and tinged the air with the smell of sulfur. Nakamuro could feel his eyes burn as he looked upon the shattered mountain.
"Crying, Phoenix?" came the mocking voice of Mirumoto Tsuge.
Nakamuro smiled politely at the young Dragon. "I am well attuned to the spirits of air, so I share their pain," he said.
"Is their pain very great?" Tsuge asked. The Dragon climbed the narrow ledge easily, unconcerned with the sheer drop to his left.
"Indeed," Nakamuro said with a nod.
"Good," Tsuge said coldly. "Whatever brings you more pain."
Nakamuro sighed. Tsuge was ostensibly the Master of Air's bodyguard during his self-imposed exile in the mountains of the Dragon, but it was quite clear that his hatred of the Phoenix had been the primary factor in his selection for the task. Tamori Shaitung considered Nakamuro a prisoner, not an ally. Tsuge was not his protector, but his warden.
"I do not understand," Nakamuro said, looking at Tsuge. "What is it that I have done to make you hate me so?"
Tsuge scowled. "My father and sister were both slain by your clan," he said.
"You blame me for the actions of my people?" Nakamuro replied.
"Why should I not?" Tsuge asked. "You are an Elemental Master, a ruler of the Phoenix Clan. The blood of my clan is on your hands."
"By that count I should blame you for the Dark Oracle of Fire," Nakamuro answered. "Is he not a Dragon? Is he thus not your responsibility? And, as a Dragon is ultimately responsible for the war that killed your family, are you not as much to blame as I?"
"Your words won't change my mind, Phoenix," Tsuge said. "I know your kind."
"Do you?" Nakamuro asked. "Tsuge, do you realize that my very presence here is what keeps the Phoenix from attacking your clan en masse?"
"Of course," Tsuge said, "and so you are our prisoner."
"I see," Nakamuro said. "I am a master of the air kami. The spirits give me powers over illusion, thought, and travel. If I did not wish to be your prisoner, what would stop me from leaving the mountain this instant?"
"Try it and see," Tsuge said, one hand resting on the hilt of his sword.
Nakamuro sighed. "Never mind," he said with a sigh. "Where is Lady Shaitung?"
"Below, in her family shrine," Tsuge said.
"I would like to see her now," Nakamuro said.
"This way," Tsuge said, gesturing to the path behind him.
Nakamuro edged around the samurai, noting that Tsuge did not move to allow him to navigate the path more easily. The Dragon's constant disrespect and belligerence were trying to say the least, but Nakamuro could not help feeling that he deserved it. Perhaps if he had been more active in his attempts to talk the Council into making peace with the Dragon before all of this happened, then perhaps Tsuge's family might yet be alive.
Thoughts of regret weighing heavily on his heart, Nakamuro stepped quietly into the Tamori family shrine. What he saw surprised him. Shaitung was there, as he expected her to be, but he had never seen her quite like this. The daimyo of the Tamori family knelt before an aged monk in saffron robes. Her head was low, her eyes averted to the ground.
He had never seen Shaitung so... humble.
"Ah, our Phoenix friend," the old monk said, smiling at Nakamuro.
Shaitung immediately stood, turning and glaring at Nakamuro. She had obviously not heard his arrival. "Nakamuro is not a friend, he is an ally and a hostage."
"Of course," the monk replied. "All the same I am pleased to meat you at last, Nakamuro-sama. My niece has told me much about you. I am Chosai, Shaitung's uncle."
Nakamuro's eyes widened slightly as he realized the implication of the old monk's words. If he was Shaitung's uncle...
"Yes," Chosai said, as if sensing Nakamuro's thoughts. "I am Tamori's brother. It saddens me that you saw him in such a state. He was a good man once. Bitterness and arrogance have combined to make him a monster."
"Chosai is the revered sensei of my family's shugenja dojo," Shaitung said. "His responsibilities to the students there are great, but he has been generous enough to offer us his advice and experience."
"Shaitung had only just begun to describe your two previous confrontations with Tamori," Chosai said. "You must be a very powerful shugenja, to have faced Tamori and survive, Nakamuro. My brother was one of the most talented products of our school."
Nakamuro nodded. "The Phoenix do not choose Elemental Masters lightly. Even yet, it was all that we could do to escape Tamori both times. The second time we faced him it was all we could do to escape to the surface, even though we had prepared ourselves specifically to fight him."
Chosai smiled sadly. "It takes more than power to defeat a man like Tamori. Only in knowing him can you defeat him."
Nakamuro looked curiously at Shaitung.
"I was only a child when my father disappeared," Shaitung explained. "I do not truly know him as Chosai does."
"Then we are grateful for your advice, Chosai-san," Nakamuro said. "I, myself, am an expert on matters regarding the Oracles. Perhaps my general knowledge of what Tamori has become can be combined with your knowledge of the man he was and we might find some weakness that can help us defeat him."
"Perhaps," Chosai said, sounding unconvinced. "What sort of information do you need?"
"I know that my father was a man quite set in his ways," Shaitung said. "Did he have any habits, regular rituals that you know of? If so, I would not doubt he practices them to this day. If we can catch him in a moment of weakness..."
"You will kill him," Chosai said in a bland voice. "You will kill your father."
"The Dark Oracle of Fire is not my father," Shaitung said. "He is just the beast that wears my father's flesh."
Chosai sighed. "I wonder if that is true," the old monk said. "If there is truly so little of your father left, then how did you survive your meetings with him? I do not doubt your talent or that of your Phoenix ally, but Tamori is... well, he is Tamori. Look only at the Wrath of the Kami if you have any doubts about his power."
Shaitung frowned. "Are you saying that my father might yet be redeemed?" she said. She looked at Nakamuro, but the Phoenix looked away.
"Tamori was a noble man once. His wife's death broke his spirit, the Agasha defection shattered his pride, and the Taint fouled his mind," Chosai said. "Even yet, I wonder if there might be some of the old Tamori left. I would not give up on him yet."
"Perhaps you are right," Shaitung said, nodding slowly. "Thank you, uncle, for your time. I will leave so that you might return to your meditation."
"Of course," Chosai said. "If you require anything further, niece, I will be here."
Shaitung turned and left the shrine, not giving Nakamuro a second glance. Nakamuro left as well, with Tsuge following. When he reached the mountain path he found Shaitung standing at the cliff's edge, her silken black hair flowing on the wind.
"Leave us, Tsuge," Shaitung said, not looking back. "I would talk to the Phoenix."
Tsuge bowed and withdrew, descending the mountain path. When he was gone, Shaitung fixed her gaze upon Nakamuro. "You doubt what my uncle said."
"Becoming a Dark Oracle is no accident," Nakamuro replied. "It requires something more than normal corruption. It requires an acceptance of one's darkest desires, a willing embrace of corruption. I believe that your uncle's memories of your father have clouded his judgment. I watched him murder Riake. I heard him revel in the destruction of his own kinsmen. I do not think Tamori can be redeemed."
"Nor do I," Shaitung said, closing her eyes sadly. Nakamuro was taken aback once more by how beautiful she was. Strong, solitary, indomitable, like the mountains from which she drew her power. "What will we do, Nakamuro?"
"If we knew who unleashed Tamori it might help us in finding a way to stop him," Nakamuro said. " The Dark Oracles cannot meddle in mortal affairs unless invited or attacked. The last time we faced Tamori he admitted that he had been invited to start a war between Phoenix and Dragon."
"By someone who bears a grudge against the Agasha for defecting to the Phoenix," Shaitung said.
"And someone with the right to speak for their clan," Nakamuro added.
"But who?" Shaitung asked.
"I suspect Isawa Taeruko," Nakamuro said.
"The Master of Earth?" Shaitung asked. "Why would she associate with a Dark Oracle?"
"Since her daughter died in the War of Spirits, Taeruko has been ruled by her anger," Nakamuro said. "She hates the Dragon for allying with the Steel Chrysanthemum. She has long thirsted for war with your clan to sate her bloodlust, but the Council has always ruled against her. She has both the influence and motivation to invite a Dark Oracle into this affair."
"But why would she ally with the man responsible for her daughter's death?" Shaitung asked.
"I do not know," Nakamuro said with a grim scowl. "That is the flaw in the argument that stops me from going to Kyuden Isawa this instant and confronting her."
Shaitung laughed faintly. "You have changed much since I first met you, Isawa Nakamuro. Once, you avoided confrontation."
"You misjudge me, Shaitung," Nakamuro said. "Just because I am a man of peace does not mean that I am a coward."
"No," Shaitung said, one corner of her mouth curling in a rare smile. "Quite the opposite, in fact. I know that now."
Nakamuro looked away. "I cannot remain here, Shaitung," he said. "I had hoped that by remaining as a hostage of your clan that my clan might negotiate for peace, but no such offer has been made."
"If Taeruko is working with the Dark Oracle as you suspect, that is no surprise," Shaitung said.
Nakamuro nodded. "I think I might be able to do more good if I return to the Council of Masters. I might be able to find evidence that Taeruko has allied with Tamori. Failing that, perhaps at least my presence will encourage the Phoenix not to attack the Dragon with such zeal. Hochiu will support Taeruko unless I can prove her crimes, but I know that Ningen is a reasonable man. If the new Master of Water can be reasoned with, then perhaps this war might end despite Taeruko's bloodlust."
"And what about Shiba Aikune?" Shaitung asked. "Some say that he is as dangerous as my father."
"Aikune was my friend, once," Nakamuro said. "He might listen to me."
"You risk much," Shaitung said. "Your clan might think that you are a traitor, that we have influenced you during your exile here."
"I am a Phoenix," Nakamuro said. "I cannot abandon my clan, even if they would abandon me. My only reluctance comes from leaving you behind to face Tamori."
"I am not alone, Nakamuro," Shaitung said. "The zokujin stand by me yet, as do my family. Samurai of the Ichiro family arrived at Shiro Tamori only two days ago. The bushi of the Badger Clan are experienced in fighting minions of the Taint, and are eager to aid our campaign against Tamori. Do not fear for me, Nakamuro. I have no lack of allies."
"Then I will return to Kyuden Isawa," Nakamuro said.
"Know that if you ever need my aid, you need only to ask," Shaitung said.
Nakamuro looked at Shaitung. He knew that in the past few months he had spent with her, he had come to love her. He knew her honor and pride would never allow her to admit any such feelings for him, if indeed she had them. Nakamuro wanted to say something, but he knew he could not. To say anything would only embarrass them both and make their fight against the Dark Oracle more difficult.
Nakamuro turned away from Shaitung began to whisper words of magic. A few moments later a sparkling portal leading to the Way yawned before him. By following it, Nakamuro could quickly return to the Council of Masters. Nakamuro turned to look at Shaitung a final time.
She was already gone.
"Shaitung was a fool to let the Phoenix go," Tsuge said bitterly, slamming his sake cup down on the table.
"Of course she was," Tamori Hitaka said with a nod. "A foolish gesture of peace, and one that the Phoenix will never comprehend." Hitaka was an elderly shugenja of the Tamori family. During the war against the Phoenix, he had fought at Tsuge's side many times. The two were friends, comrades.
"The Phoenix know nothing of peace," Tsuge said, lip curling angrily.
"How ironic a statement that is," Hitaka said, sipping tea calmly. "Once, the Phoenix were devout pacifists. My father used to tell me of the days when our clans were allies. Lord Yokuni commanded the Dragon to protect the Phoenix, for he knew they would be the first to see the threat of Fu Leng. How much they have changed. I find it sad. At least I can be grateful that Lord Uso saw your potential and placed you in command of our defense against the Phoenix."
"Ukira is dead and Temoru is still missing," Tsuge said. "Who else could Uso have chosen? Hitomi Vedau?"
Hitaka laughed. "That would have been interesting, if nothing else."
Tsuge's grin faded. The young samurai scratched his cheek thoughtfully. "What will we do, Hitaka?" he asked. "Our clan is caught between the Dark Oracle of Fire and Shiba Aikune. We have no weapons, no magic, that can harm such foes."
"Perhaps we do," Hitaka said. "If we are not afraid to take risks. I know of a powerful shugenja who lives in these mountains. He might help us, if given proper encouragement."
"A ronin?" Tsuge asked.
"In a manner of speaking," Hitaka nodded.
"Uso has given me leave to hire ronin to supplement the armies of the Dragon," Tsuge said. "If this shugenja is as powerful as you say I am certain we could pay him well."
"He may demand something more than gold," Hitaka said. "He will only work on the behalf of samurai with great strength of character. He will need to be impressed with the righteousness of our cause, or no amount of money will sway him."
"Then so be it," Tsuge said. "Take me to him, and I will convince him that serving the Dragon would be in his best interest."
"Gladly," Hitaka said with a pleasant smile. "I will go forth and tell him of your imminent arrival. Meet me here tomorrow morning with an honor guard of your finest samurai. We will show him that the newest officer of the Dragon armies will make a worthy ally."
Tsuge stood at the mouth of the cavern, staring uncertainly into the darkness. All Mirumoto samurai were trained to be familiar with magic. The most talented could sense the ebb and flow of the kami better than many shugenja. As he stood at the entrance of the home of Hitaka's mysterious shugenja, he could sense powerful magic awaiting him. The six Dragon samurai who had accompanied him seemed equally nervous.
"There is no reason for concern, my friends," Hitaka said, looking back with a pleasant smile. "The shugenja who lives in these caves values his privacy, and has placed many wards on his home. He expects our arrival, so as long as you follow me closely we will be in no danger."
"This feels wrong, Hitaka," Tsuge said. "The kami here are restless."
"Of course they seem that way," Hitaka said. "He commands them to be restless, knowing that experienced Dragon samurai like yourself will sense the disturbance and avoid the area. Quite clever, don't you agree?"
"I suppose," Tsuge said.
"You want power on your side," Hitaka said, looking at Tsuge evenly. "This man has power to spare. Do not judge him for his eccentricities."
"Of course, you are right," Tsuge said with a sigh. "War has made me paranoid. Forgive me, Hitaka."
"I refuse to forgive you for vigilance," Hitaka said. "Such virtue is the reason why you are in command. If you are reticent about this meeting, I will gladly bow to your judgment, Tsuge-sama." Hitaka bowed deeply to his commanding officer.
"We have come this far," Tsuge replied. "Let us see what this shugenja has to offer. Lead the way, Hitaka."
"Of course," Hitaka said. He turned away from them and summoned a ball of flickering flame to light the way. None noticed the sinister smile that flickered across his face.
The eight Dragons descended into the heart of the mountain. The further they journeyed, the warmer it became. With the recent volcanic activity in the mountains, such warmth was not unusual. Tsuge only hoped that Hitaka did not lead them into a random lava floe. If they made a wrong turn, random natural disaster could wipe out their entire group in an instant. After several minutes of travel, Hitaka finally stopped and waited for them.
"Here," Hitaka said, gesturing to a small side cavern. "This is the way."
Tsuge and the others ducked through the tunnel and emerged into a much larger chamber. Several small hovering orbs of white flame lit the room. In the center of the chamber a man in brilliant robes of red and green sat meditating on the floor, eyes closed.
"You took your time, Hitaka," the man said. "I was beginning to think that perhaps you would not arrive at all."
"Tsuge-sama required some convincing, Lord Tamori," Hitaka said.
"Tamori?" Tsuge hissed.
Agasha Tamori opened his eyes and smiled faintly at Mirumoto Tsuge. "I am he," he said, rising. "A pleasure to meet you, Tsuge-san." Hitaka moved to stand by Tamori's side. His face rippled and shifted as the illusions that masked his appearance faded away. Hitaka's eyes were dark and sunken. His flesh was as pale as a corpse.
"Traitor!" Tsuge snarled.
"Me?" Hitaka replied. "My first loyalty has always been to my true daimyo, Agasha Tamori."
"Do not draw your weapons!" Tsuge commanded, gesturing sharply at his fellow bushi. "Remember what Shaitung taught us. The Dark Oracle cannot attack us except to defend himself. Back away slowly."
"What, will you leave before hearing my proposal?" Tamori asked.
"I wish to hear nothing from you but your death rattle, traitor," Tsuge said.
"So be it," Tamori said. "You are right, Tsuge, I cannot attack you. However, I can cease using my magic to make this cavern safe for you." Tamori's eyes gleamed. A wave of lava suddenly rushed through the tunnel entrance behind them. Screams filled the cave as four of Tsuge's bushi were incinerated by the wave of molten stone. The chamber filled with noxious fumes. Tsuge fell to his knees as the heat and smoke tore the strength from his body. In the center of it all, Hitaka and Tamori were unaffected.
"Why?" Tsuge whispered in a hoarse voice. "Why did you bring me here, Hitaka? Just to kill me?"
"Do not be foolish, Mirumoto," Tamori replied, scooping to pick up a handful of molten lava. "I do not wish to kill you. I merely wish what you wish... to punish the Phoenix."
Tsuge looked up at the Dark Oracle, pain and confusion in his eyes.
"Already the Phoenix have invited me to help them destroy the Dragon," Tamori said. "What I wish is for the Dragon to give me permission to destroy the Phoenix in turn. You have been placed in command of the Dragon's defense against the Phoenix, Tsuge. Your permission should be sufficient." Tamori knelt beside Tsuge and favored him with a fatherly smile. "You are a good man, Mirumoto Tsuge - an honorable man. Surely you can see the wisdom. All I want is what you want - to destroy the Phoenix. Give me your permission, and your enemies will suffer. Deny me, and I will be forced to continue to focus my rage on your own clan."
A drop of lava trickled from between Tamori's fingers, sizzling on the back of Tsuge's hand. Tsuge grunted in pain.
"My apologies, Tsuge-san," Tamori said. "I am so clumsy. I hope you will be able to wield a sword in that hand again."
"Choose quickly, Tsuge," Hitaka said. "Without magical protection you and your men will not survive for long in this chamber."
"So be it!" Tsuge roared, clutching his injured hand and glaring into the Dark Oracle's eyes. " If you must destroy the Dragon, then destroy the Phoenix as well! I give you permission, Dark Oracle of Fire, to aid us in our war!"
"Excellent," Tamori said with a faint smile. Immediately the lava
in the room cooled and the noxious fumes receded from the chamber. "How
nice to deal with a reasonable Dragon, for a change. My daughter could learn
much from you, Tsuge-san."
Tsuge staggered to his feet, glaring at Hitaka. "I will not forget how you betrayed us, Hitaka," he said. "If I see you again outside of your master's protection, you will die. There is no place for you among the Dragon."
"I have seen what is coming for your clan," Hitaka said. "I am glad I will not be among you."
"Go now, Mirumoto Tsuge," Tamori said with a dismissive wave. "Return to your command. Your clan will see the results of your wisdom soon enough."
Tsuge turned and left the cave, defeated. He could not meet the eyes of his surviving bushi. He had saved their lives, to be sure, but what value was life without honor?
He only hoped that the Phoenix's suffering would be greater than his own.