The Dark Oracle of Fire, Part I
By Shawn Carman

The Phoenix lands, 1147

Isawa Nakamuro inhaled sharply and opened his fan with his left hand, signaling to his instructor that he had a question. Isawa Noriko was an exceptional instructor, and Nakamuro never tired of her brilliant lectures. She made the heroes and villains of the past come alive with her vibrant lessons. History was laid bare before the student. It was exhilarating, especially to a mind as eager and curious as Nakamuro's. Unfortunately, sometimes his curiosity surpassed even Noriko's talents.

Noriko raised a hand to her head and rubbed her temple for a moment before fixing Nakamuro with a resigned look. "You have a question?"

"Yes, sensei," he said excitedly. "When you were recounting the incident with the Oracle of Fire near the Shosuro lands, I was hoping for more information on the Oracle. What do we know of him?"

"Very little," the instructor said curtly. "We cannot even be certain of his name, although it seems likely that he, like many Oracles, was an Isawa. Few others have the raw elemental mastery necessary to impress the Elemental Dragons and be rewarded with such a role."

Many other students nodded proudly, but Nakamuro persisted. "Shouldn't we know more about the Oracles? Are the Phoenix not the wisest and most knowledgeable clan in the Empire? That is what you and the other sensei tell us. If the Oracles are as powerful and as dangerous as you all say, is it not our duty to learn more about them?"

"Dangerous?" said Nokiro. "What are you talking about?"

"In 744 according to the Isawa calendar, you told us that the Oracle of Fire went on a rampage, destroying several villages before he disappeared in a great fireball and appeared in the Shadowlands."

"Enough," said the sensei sharply. "The incident you are referring to is subject to question. There is no proof that the man responsible for that rampage was an Oracle, much less that he succumbed to the Shadowlands Taint. You are allowing your boyish fascination with the Oracles to cloud your studies."

"But isn't it true…"

"I said enough!" Noriko barked. The other students all dropped their heads, averting their eyes from their teacher's anger. "If you want to discuss this, you should take your questions to Master Ariken. I am to instruct you on history, not theological matters. I warn you, Nakamuro, Ariken-san will not tolerate your folly lightly. You would be best served to remember why you are here and attempt to bring honor to your family."

Nakamuro bowed his head, obviously shamed. In his mind, however, he was not deterred. The Oracles were truly a marvel, the earthly representatives of the distant heavens. The Phoenix should know more. And if there was no one who could answer his questions, then he would answer them himself.

o

Kyuden Isawa, 1151

The candle had burned low, casting the study chamber in a dim, eerie light. Isawa Nakamuro took no notice of his surroundings. He sat motionless on his mat, his eyes glazed. The scrolls before him were unrolled but unread.

Every time he tried to focus his attention on his studies, the same scene replayed in his mind over and over again. He was with Aikune, fighting against the Hantei's guards to reach Yaruko. Hida Tsuneo's crushing tetsubo strike, crushing her body and sending it sprawling, broken across the floor. Aikune's screams of anguish echoed his own tears of pain and grief. Fighting side by side with Aikune against the Steel Chrysanthemum's armies brought no satisfaction, no end to the pain. The damage had been done.

Nakamuro closed his eyes. Sometimes he could force the visions away. Sometimes he could not. After nearly six months, it was becoming easier. Or at least it was easier while he was awake. At night, nothing could stop the dreams.

At fourteen years of age, less than a year after his gempukku, Isawa Nakamuro had lost everything. The girl he loved was dead, murdered by a madman in an attempt to blackmail the Phoenix into serving him. Even his best friend, Aikune, now despised him. Nakamuro's eyes burned thinking about it, but he had no more tears. The only thing that could distract him from his pain was study.

He reached out and picked up a scroll. It was a document he had been working on that compiled all the information the Phoenix knew on the Oracles. He had once hoped that such a document would give him more insight into these strange beings, but he rarely felt hope any more. Still, it would be good to put his mind on other matters, at least for a little while.

Nakamuro dipped his quill in ink and resumed his writing. After a while, the images slowly began to recede from his mind.

o

The Chamber of Elemental Masters, 1157

"You impudent little fool!" Isawa Taeruko was consumed with rage. She had been hostile toward Nakamuro ever since her daughter's death. Her grief had blinded her to the fact that he, too, had mourned Yaruko's loss. "Do you have any idea how sensitive those documents were? And you failed to return with them!"

Nakamuro bowed. "I am sorry, Taeruko-sama."

Agasha Gennai, Master of Air, held up a hand. "Tell us what happened, Nakamuro."

"I delivered the documents to Kuni Misashi as the Council requested. I understood that he was to provide an artifact for study in exchange for the scrolls. He did not. Instead, he attacked me, using maho."

Shiba Ningen, Master of Void, shook his head. "Terrible to lose so great a mind to the Taint. The Kuni are fools to meddle in such things."

"They do only their duty," Isawa Hochiu, Master of Fire, said with a sigh. "Someone must be bold enough to stand against the darkness, whatever the cost."

"What became of Misashi?" asked Isawa Riake patiently.

"I was forced to kill him," Nakamuro said sadly. "His dying spell destroyed much of his home. I searched for a day, but found no trace of the artifact you desired, nor the documents that were delivered to him." He shook his head. "I should have found another way. Perhaps he could have been saved."

Taeruko snorted. "Incompetence and sentimentality. What abject failure." She turned to the other Masters. "He is unfit to serve us any further."

"I have heard enough," Gennai said forcefully. The old man's fierce demeanor was so unusual that even Isawa Hochiu drew back in surprise. So long as he had studied with Gennai, he had never seen the man display anything other than earnest calm and serenity. "I too know the pain of loss, Taeruko. Unlike you, I have not allowed it to destroy my soul until I am nothing more than a bitter, hateful specter of a human being. You are a heartless fool. If you wish to blame someone for the death of your daughter, then blame Tamori. Blame the Hantei. Better yet, blame yourself. But do not blame this boy, for as of now he is Master of Air."

A hushed silence fell over the council room. Nakamuro shifted uncomfortably, uncertain what to do.

Gennai stood suddenly, glancing around the room with an expression of anger and disgust. "I retire from the Council and name him as my successor, for I no longer wish to be a part of these proceedings." He turned left the room without looking back at the table, pausing only to nod reassuringly at Nakamuro.

Shiba Ningen shook his head sadly, though he did not appear surprised. Riake looked down, her expression inscrutable. Only Hochiu looked at Nakamuro, his face flush with shock and indignation.

"Begone from this Council room, boy," Taeruko hissed in a low voice. "Do not return."

"With all due respect, Taeruko-sama," Hochiu replied. "You cannot address the new Master of Air in such a manner."

Taeruko eyed Hochiu for a long moment, then nodded with a scowl. Gennai had chosen his successor, and that could not be changed. The rules of the Council must be observed.

Hochiu looked down at Nakamuro. "What was your previous standing, boy?"

"Acolyte of Air," Nakamuro answered, eyes wide with terror.

"Hmph," Hochiu grunted. "Very well then." He gestured to Gennai's empty seat with a negligent wave of his hand. "Take your seat, Master Nakamuro. We have much to discuss before the day is done."

o

The Tamori provinces, six months ago

"I told you not to speak to me of my father," she said menacingly.

Nakamuro sighed and ran his fingers through his hair. "Shaitung-san, I know you are angry, but you must listen to me. There is no way we can hope to defeat your father unless we discover his plans."

"There will be no we," Shaitung returned curtly. "This is a matter for the Tamori to deal with. Your kind are not welcome in our affairs."

The Master of Air frowned, frustrated with this routine. "Then you are a fool," he said. "And you will soon be a dead fool. You cannot defeat a Dark Oracle alone, and you will die if you try."

An older shugenja present in the chamber bristled at Nakamuro's words, and began to cross the room, his face twisted in anger. His intent was clear, and Nakamuro prepared to defend himself. It seemed that no matter where he was, he could always count on others bearing him ill will.

"No, Chosai," Shaitung said, holding up a single hand.

"I will not hear him speak to you thus, Shaitung-sama," the old shugenja growled.

"Enough," she repeated. "That is the first time since the Phoenix joined us that I've heard him speak earnestly. Perhaps he has something interesting to say after all." Her expression softened for a rare moment. "Nakamuro-san is right. We have been fools."

Chosai frowned, but backed away obligingly. The murderous look in his eyes did not disappear, however. "I have studied the Oracles my entire life," Nakamuro continued. "I know much about their powers and weaknesses, but even more so, I know how few weaknesses they truly have. They are powerful beyond reckoning. A lone shugenja cannot defeat them, no matter how powerful she might be."

Shaitung smirked. "One might say the same of the Elemental Masters. Yet you were defeated, weren't you? And by a single shugenja."

Nakamuro nodded. "Exactly," he replied. "The only way you were able to defeat me and my brethren was through extraordinary circumstances. You were prepared. You knew the terrain. We underestimated you. A variety of factors combined to give the lesser opponent an advantage, to allow her to conquer a superior opponent. That, Shaitung-san, is exactly what we must do. We must not charge blindly into battle. We must plan, as you did when you defeated the Council."

"Then let us plan," Shaitung said impatiently. "What can you tell me that is of use against my father?"

"I know that a Dark Oracle cannot attack another unless it is attacked first, or it is invited to do so. If the head of a household invites his presence, he is free to act against that household. If an Emperor invites his action, theoretically, he is free to act against the Empire." The exhaustion was obvious in Nakamuro's voice. He had been considering his words for some time, it seemed. "My understanding is that it was Tamori who acted first when he caused a volcano to explode unexpectedly in your lands. Is that so?"

"It is."

"Then he must have been invited to attack you," Nakamuro said. "If your people did not attack him first, someone set him upon you."

"A Phoenix, most likely," growled Chosai.

"Impossible," the Master of Air countered. "Our clans were yet allies when that happened."

"How can we trust this Phoenix's so-called expertise, Shaitung-sama?" Chosai demanded. "He is the enemy."

"Nakamuro stood beside me against my father," Shaitung said. "If he wished to betray me he could easily have done so in the zokujin caves."

Chosai scowled at Nakamuro suspiciously, but Shaitung gestured for him to continue. Nakamuro drew himself up, his brow creased with worry. "I am saying that someone from each of our clans, a Dragon and a Phoenix, have allowed this war to happen. Caused it, even. Toward what end, I do not know. But our people are dying for someone's foolish pride."

Shaitung nodded. "Mirumoto Tsuge," she said. "The commander of the Dragon armies. He came to me and confessed that Tamori coerced him into inviting him into our war."

"No," Nakamuro said. "That was too recent. I believe Tamori had influence over the Dragon before that. There is another traitor, one who acted of his own volition most likely."

"How dare you?" exploded Chosai. "Your people deny us the land we need to live, and you would dare come here and suggest that one of our number is responsible? This is an outrage!"

"Be still, Chosai," said Shaitung firmly. She was looking at the Master with a strange expression. "What would you suggest we do, Nakamuro?"

Nakamuro rubbed his chin thoughtfully. "I have a plan."

o

The Shrine of the Moon, one month ago

"Simply amazing," Nakamuro said. "I cannot believe it."

"Apparently all those things my sensei said were true," Asako Bairei said with a smirk. "I really can accomplish more when I commit myself."

"There was nothing here a month ago," the Master of Air said incredulously. "You've done all this in a month?" He gestured about, indicating the large shrine around them. "How is that possible?"

"I found some intriguing notes regarding methods the Asahina use to accelerate the building process. With a handful of shugenja, you can accomplish in weeks what would take hundreds of laborers months to achieve. The practices haven't been used in several centuries because of some structural instabilities the Asahina discovered, and the Asahina never had great success with Earth magic, but I managed to correct their errors. Also, such construction is only possible in areas where the Earth kami are extremely strong. Fortunately, the site we chose for this shrine was one of great elemental harmony."

Nakamuro smiled. "You certainly live up to your reputation, Bairei-san."

The scholar raised his eyebrows in surprise. "I have a reputation? Really? What sort?"

Nakamuro's smile faltered. Truthfully, Bairei was known as an absent-minded, socially inept scholar with a tendency to forget trivialities like eating and personal hygiene. If it was not for his assistant, Asako Yuya, he might have long ago starved to death in his own libraries. Many prominent scholars admired his brilliance, but few wanted to be around him for any length of time. Respected, yet resented. Nakamuro could relate to that.

"You are known to be of great help to those seeking lost lore," the Master of Air said finally.

"Ah," Bairei smiled. "I have an eye for detail, that is all."

"And that is why I have sought you out," Nakamuro said. "I have need of your historical expertise."

"I am flattered, Nakamuro-sama," Bairei said as he bowed. "How may I serve the Elemental Masters?"

"Is it safe to speak?" the younger man asked, looking about cautiously. "This matter is… somewhat sensitive."

"Of course, my lord. There are a handful of monks who assist me, but none are within the Shrine of the Moon at the moment. Yuya is away, arranging for more supplies to be sent from Shiro Shiba. Otherwise, there is only the occasional Hitomi making a pilgrimage to the shrine. We are quite secure here."

Nakamuro nodded slowly. "What do you know of the Dark Covenants, Bairei-san?"

The scholar drew back in surprise. "They are powerful artifacts, said to hold power over the Dark Oracles. Their origins are unknown, as are their full powers. They are very poorly understood by mortal minds, and only a handful of scholars among the Great Clans' shugenja families know of them."

"Are you aware of how they disappear and reappear?"

"I have heard some accounts," Bairei admitted, "but nothing conclusive. Nemuranai - items enchanted by the kami - often have a will of their own, appearing and disappearing at a whim."

"These Covenants are among the most nefarious type of nemuranai," Nakamuro said. "They bring corruption wherever they are found, twisting the natural order. Whenever they are found, they are cast back into the Shadowlands, but they inevitably turn up somewhere in the Empire again. They long to bring their gifts to mortals, it seems."

"Fascinating," Bairei said.

Nakamuro laughed darkly. "That isn't the word I would use, but the sentiment is the same." He looked out on the courtyard beyond the hallway where the two men stood. "I have studied the Oracles and their sinister counterparts my entire life. My studies included the rare information on the Covenants, and I believe I understand their nature. They are drawn to sites where the Oracles have been active. It's as if they seek out remnants of the Oracles' purity in order to destroy it."

"That's incredible!" Bairei blurted out. "Have you recorded these theories? I would be greatly honored if I might make a copy for the library here. You see, I feel the shrine would be best served if it included…"

"I am aware that the Oracles were involved in the creation of the Elemental Nemuranai during the Clan War," Nakamuro continued, cutting Bairei's eager rambling short. "I know that they guided a henshin named Asako Shingon in the process, and that it was done in the mountains in our northern provinces, but I do not know where. There is no record of the location. The last known sighting of the Dark Covenant of Fire was during the Oracle's rampage nearly four hundred years ago, in the cliffs near the sea three days ride north of Shiro Shiba. It was lost shortly thereafter, but I believe it may be where the Nemuranai were created. That should be the closest suitable location, if my theory is correct."

Bairei rubbed his chin thoughtfully. His eyes darted back and forth quickly. Nakamuro could almost see his mind racing as he considered the thousands upon thousands of scrolls he had read and memorized. "The Shingon, a vassal family of the Shiba, take their name from Asako Shingon," he finally said. "Their records include another involved in the Nemuranai's creation, a Unicorn practitioner of Meishodo named Iuchi Yogersha…" Bairei winced. "Wait, no that cannot be right. Yogosha. I apologize, I have a terrible memory for gaijin names."

Nakamuro frowned. "That is not very helpful, I'm afraid."

"Wait!" Bairei exclaimed. "There was a cartographer's report from the early days of the Clan War that indicated a pony with Unicorn brands was found wandering a valley in the mountains near the Castle of the Faithful Bride. It caused a brief concern that the Unicorn had advance scouts in the area in preparation for an attack, but those allegations were dismissed as ridiculous."

The Master of Air stared at the scholar in wonder. "You remembered the account of a single cartographer from over thirty years ago?"

"Well," Bairei said embarrassedly, "it was a rather unusual report."

Nakamuro rubbed his hands together. "I will need a copy of this report if I am to find the valley. I must leave immediately. Where was this document to be found, Bairei-san?"

The scholar looked embarrassed and glanced down. "I… cannot remember."

The Master of Air's face fell. "That is unfortunate. Still, I thank you for your help. I am grateful that your vast memory could remember that much. Hoping for an answer to my every question would be too much to expect." He sighed. "I shall begin my search of the mountains come morning, then."

"Wait," Bairei said. "I do not remember where the document was found, but I remember well its contents. I will lead you to the place you seek."

"No," Nakamuro said firmly. "It is too dangerous, and you are no warrior."

"Neither are you," insisted Bairei, "yet you intend to face a Dark Oracle. I will not be denied this chance to witness one of the Covenants. Such a chance will not come again in my lifetime, I expect."

"Let us hope not," Nakamuro said grimly. He hesitated for several long minutes before finally sighing again and nodding. "Very well. Make preparations to leave in the morning. How long will the trip take?"

The scholar grimaced. "It is very difficult terrain, Nakamuro-sama. At least a week, possibly much more."

"Then let us waste no time," the Master added. The two men receded deeper into the shrine, speaking of preparations and supplies. Neither noticed the cloaked figure that emerged from the deep shadows along the wall and slipped quietly from the shrine.

*

The Phoenix mountains, two weeks ago

Nakamuro pulled himself up to the ledge with shaking arms. He gasped in exhaustion, grateful for the chance to rest. The climb was far more difficult than he or Bairei had imagined, and it had taken them nearly two days to reach the plateau where the scholar was certain the Elemental Nemuranai had been crafted. Nakamuro had been sorely tempted to use his magic to bring the two of them to the top, but he was leery of using so powerful a spell near the Covenant, if it was in fact here. The cursed items had a reputation for attracting kansen, corrupted elemental spirits, with their sheer presence, and the Master of Air was not eager to tempt fate.

"A bit of assistance, please," came a weak voice from behind him. Nakamuro turned and reached down to grasp Asako Bairei's arm, heaving him upward as best he could. As difficult as the climb had been for him, it had been infinitely worse for Bairei. The reclusive scholar was in no condition for such exertion, and Nakamuro strongly suspected he regretted his insistence on coming along. "Are we there?" Bairei rasped, gasping for breath in the thin air.

Nakamuro looked around. "I believe we are. I can sense the lingering presence of the Oracle of Air." He stopped and closed his eyes, holding his hands out before him. "Her essence is still in this place."

"Marvelous," Bairei said flatly. "I would hate to think that climb was for nothing."

Nakamuro extended his senses further. "There is something… wrong. Over in this direction. To the west. Something is not right."

"That must be our quarry, then," Bairei said, forgetting his exhaustion. He climbed to his feet quickly. "Let's go find it, shall we?" Nakamuro nodded silently, and the two made their way cautiously over the uneven rocks toward the west. Occasionally, the Master would stop and extend his senses again, each time growing more concerned. Bairei was, of course, oblivious to his trepidation.

In less than an hour, the pair came to a great depression within the plateau. The sides were smooth, almost like glass, and a strange glow came from the basin's center. Bairei gasped in astonishment. "It's here!" he exclaimed. "By the Fortunes, what an opportunity!" Without waiting, he began to make his way hurriedly down the basin's side toward the center.

"Wait!" cried Nakamuro. "It's not safe!"

It was too late. There was a thunderous rumbling sound, and the earth seemed to rise up in greeting. Three gigantic, ponderous shapes exploded from the ground. They were roughly humanoid in shape, but comprised of earth and stone. Their forms were blackened and twisted, as if warped by some great supernatural force. These were Jimen, demonic spirits infused in living rock.

"Oh my!" exclaimed Bairei suddenly. The man seemed dumbstruck by the spectacle before him, and did not raise a hand against the twelve-foot tall monstrosity before him. It lifted one gigantic fist to crush him.

"No!" shouted Nakamuro. He summoned an incredible tempest of air that rocked the giant, twisted elemental backwards, thwarting its attack. Bairei seemed to come back to himself, quickly summoning a wave of water that smashed into the giant's torso. Already off-balance, it toppled backwards and crashed into the ground. The force shook the entire plateau. "Get out of there!" Nakamuro shouted. He reached out and grabbed Bairei with another gust of air and pulled him from the basin. "The Covenant must have drawn these elemental terrors!"

"Evidently!" exclaimed Bairei breathlessly. "What should we do?"

Nakamuro watched the remaining two stone giants shamble toward them as the first climbed roughly back to its feet. "I think perhaps we should run."

"We can't!" exclaimed Bairei in shock. "The Covenant!"

Nakamuro held out both hands, unleashing a tempest of harsh winds against the three creatures. They slowed, but did not stop, plodding forward at a crawling pace. "We may not have a choice!" he shouted.

"All stone melts with enough heat," the scholar screamed over the roaring wind. "Can you not burn them?"

"Their hide is too hard!" Nakamuro returned. He looked at Bairei. "Unless you have another suggestion, I suggest we flee!"

A shadow fell over the two shugenja, and Nakamuro heard the faint flapping of cloth in the heavy wind. A figure wrapped in a cloak dropped into the path of Nakamuro's tempest. The cloak was thrown open, and the wind hurled the figure across the basin. The stranger kicked away from the first giant and landed on the second's shoulder. The cloak fell back and an arm reared back as if to punch the thing. A tattoo on the arm began moving, a rolling wave of water like a tiny tsunami flowing along the forearm. The arm came down in a brutal jiujitsu strike even as the earth demon reached up to grab its tiny attacker.

The fist struck stone with the sound of a thousand waves crashing on the shore. There was a flash of red as the jimen's stone exterior cracked, revealing the molten heart within. The cloaked stranger leaped away to perch on a second giant's shoulder.

With a great shout, Nakamuro dispelled his tempest and focused his power on the damaged giant. He focused the same power, the same intensity into a narrow blast of air that roared like thunder as he unleashed its power, drawing moisture from the air to send a jet of cool rain into the heart of the demon. The blast struck the open crack and sent the beast spiraling backwards. The Jimen shrieked in torment as its body burst open from the inside, torn by the rapidly cooling rock, it's broken carcass scattering among the other stones atop the plateau.

Bairei was busy as well, softening the stone at the basin's lip with his powerful water magic. The nearest giant sank into the thick mire nearly up to its waist, thrashing madly in an attempt to reach the two shugenja. With a target so close and completely unable to offer resistance, Nakamuro unleashed a second powerful spell. He seized control of the water Bairei had already created, granting it a life of its own, forcing it into every crack and fissure of the demon's rocky body. The Jimen began to shudder as muddy water spurted forth from chips in the surface of its flesh. Turning to face Nakamuro, it screamed in impotent fury and crumpled into clumps of wet dirt.

The Master of Air heard another thunderous report as the mysterious tattooed stranger damaged the third giant, and then the deafening hiss as Bairei's spells cooled its superheated interior until it was fused into a solid, immobile statue.

With the last bit of rock crumbling from the second giant, Nakamuro relented. The sudden absence of sound was eerie, and none of the three spoke for several minutes as they recovered from the exertion. Finally, Bairei simply offered "Thank you for your assistance, friend."

The cloak fell away to reveal a young woman. Her smile was strangely out of place, but seemed genuine. Nakamuro knew instantly from her attire and the many tattoos crawling across her barely-clad flesh that she was an ise zumi, possibly of Tamori descent. "That was invigorating," she said with a grin. "When I overheard you in the shrine, I knew following you would lead me to excitement."

"Excitement?" asked Nakamuro. "I thought monks craved enlightenment."

The woman shrugged. "When is the soul more alive than when exhilarated? The Tao says that the world is a temple, and that we are both student and teacher. I merely find my own lessons where I will." She bowed. "I am Hitomi Maya. I am honored to have been of assistance." She looked around. "Tamori Shaitung sends her regards, Nakamuro-sama. She must think very highly of you to send a vassal as talented as myself to aid you."

Nakamuro grinned. "We appreciate your aid, Maya-san."

Maya looked back toward the basin with a frown. "I assume you have not yet located the Covenant?"

"No," said Bairei mournfully. "But I believe it is in the basin. Perhaps with the guardians gone…"

"Do not bother," Nakamuro said. "It is not here."

"What?" exclaimed Bairei. "What do you mean? Where did those things come from if not from the Covenant?"

"It was here," Nakamuro said. "Of that there is no doubt. I can sense its lingering Taint." He frowned. "If it were here, the scent of corruption would be far greater. The Covenant has already been taken."

Bairei was crestfallen. "How will we find it now?"

"I don't know," Nakamuro said, his voice jagged. "It could be anywhere."

"Why not ask the earth?" Maya asked, gesturing to the mountain beneath them. "You can speak to the elements, can't you? Perhaps the mountain will appreciate how you dispatched its corrupted children and offer guidance."

Nakamuro glanced at Bairei. It would be dangerous, but it was possible. The earth kami might have nothing to tell them, or they may have all the answers they sought. "Yes," he said cautiously. "We can."

Within an hour, all three were rested and prepared to begin the ritual. Bairei would attempt to summon the earth spirits, and Nakamuro would commune with them. Maya was to assist should the demons they fought earlier attempt to manifest physical bodies once again.

A rumbling groan from the rocks all around them signaled that Bairei had succeeded. He nodded to Nakamuro, his brow knit in concentration. Breathing in deeply, the Master of Air extended his senses again, reaching out to the troubled spirits around him.

"Leave us in peace." demanded a thick, scratchy voice.

"Greetings, honored kami," Nakamuro said softly. "Forgive our intrusion, but we have need of your wisdom."

"Always questions," the spirit rumbled. "Never can we rest."

"If you would but honor my simple requests, great one, I will take my comrades and leave this place forever. We will trouble you no more."

"Doubtful. There are always others."

"What would you have me do to aid you, spirit of stone and earth?"

There was a pause. "The heavy stone upon which the painted one sits. Take it and hurl it into the sea. Perhaps there I will be free of your meddlesome presence."

Nakamuro paled. The boulder the spirit was referring to must weigh thousands of pounds. "I will have to return with others to aid me, honored kami, but I will do as you ask."

"Very well," the being grumbled. "Ask your questions."

"Where there any other humans here recently?" Nakamuro said.

"Two."

The Master frowned. Earth spirits were rarely forthcoming. "Can you tell me about them?"

"One the color of sunset, the other the color of pine."

A Dragon and a Phoenix. As he suspected. "Did they remove anything?"

"A small sun. It burned us with its light. It caused us great pain, created the Jimen that you destroyed."

Nakamuro frowned. "Why did the Jimen not attack those humans?" he asked.

"I do not know. Demons make less sense than humans."

Nakamuro thought carefully. "Where is this small sun now?"

"Gone. Taken far away, beyond my mountain. It sits in another mountain now, far to the direction of the setting sun."

"Thank you," Nakamuro said hastily. He leapt up from his crouch, his head spinning with the breaking of contact. "The Covenant was taken from here by a Dragon and a Phoenix."

"Where is it?" Bairei demanded.

"Dragon lands," Nakamuro said. His voice was full of resolve. "One of the traitors has it. And if we find one, they will lead us to the other."

"Shaitung-sama promised that my time with you would be interesting, Master of Air," Hitomi Maya said eagerly. "Lead on."

*

Deep beneath the Dragon lands, Today

The caverns beneath the mountains were cascaded with endless pools of molten lava. The heat was overwhelming, unbearable. Any normal human would be killed in moments, cooked alive by the unimaginable heat. Fortunately, Hitaka had to worry very little about such things. He strolled through the hellish caverns without care or concern, the soles of his bare feet barely sizzling in the molten stone.

Agasha Tamori, the Dark Oracle of Fire, sat in meditation, submerged up to his waist in lava. His face was twisted into a rictus grin even as he meditated. His cruelty and cunning were as limitless as his power. Hitaka could not help but admire him.

Tamori's eyes opened as Hitaka entered the chamber. "You have them?"

"Hai, Tamori-sama," Hitaka bowed. He held a loft a large box carved from stone. "These scrolls contain the genealogical information of every noble Dragon and Phoenix bloodline for the past twenty years. My magic should protect them from the heat."

"And the library from which you liberated them?"

Hitaka smiled. "It burns in your honor, Tamori-sama."

Tamori raised one eyebrow in approval. "Well done, my servant, well done. When my meditation is finished, I shall review them. Then my vengeance can begin in earnest."

"And what of the zokujin?" Hitaka asked.

Tamori sneered. "Idiotic pests, no more," he said. "We shall deal with the zokujin when we have finished with worthier foes."

Hitaka shifted impatiently. "What is your plan, Tamori-sama, if you will forgive my asking?"

Tamori looked at his vassal for a long moment, as if weighing whether to answer his question or reduce him to cinders. "Those selfish fools sought to bring me into a war with both their clans, Hitaka," he answered finally. "For a time, I was happy to play my part. They sought to manipulate me to their own ends, and dispose of me at their leisure. They shall soon learn the depths of their folly. They are so concerned about the next generation of heroes among their clans…" He chuckled as he reached for the scrolls. "I shall ensure there are no more heroes of any sort! The time has come to finish what the Steel Chrysanthemum began. The time has come for the Dragon and Phoenix to watch their future burn…"

TO BE CONTINUED