The Dark Oracle of Fire, Part II
By Shawn Carman

The Agasha Provinces, year 1131

Color began to creep up his face, giving him an uncharacteristic ruddy, wrathful appearance. His eyes conveyed a mixture of anger and disbelief, each warring with the other for control of his expression. "You cannot do this!" he insisted, pounding his fist against the table. "It is treason!"

"Is it, Tamori-sama?" Agasha Gennai asked mildly. His voice was calm and even, but unwavering. It was the tone of a man resigned to his fate. "I say that we are the only ones who remember what it means to be Dragon. Hitomi's madness will destroy all who follow her, and if that means that the Kitsuki and Mirumoto wish to follow her into oblivion, I will not protest. I will not, however, allow her to destroy the Agasha." Sadness came into his face. "Even if you will, Tamori-sama."

"How dare you speak to your with such condescension!" demanded Tamori. "I have treated you like a son. Like a brother! And you repay that kindness and generosity by deceiving a third of our family into abandoning our ancient oaths of loyalty?"

"It is not a third, Tamori-sama," Gennai corrected. "As you must realize by this point, virtually all of our kinsmen have agreed to follow me. Only those who cannot see the truth choose to remain, and I predict many of those will join us in time, if we allow it to be so."

"If you allow it?" The incredulity in Tamori's voice was unmistakable. "Do you fancy yourself a daimyo, then? I see that this great plan of yours is little more than an opportunity to steal power. You would perform my duties!"

Gennai looked down sadly. "I would be greatly pleased if you retained your duties, Tamori-sama. Come with us, please."

Tamori drew himself up proudly. "I am no honorless dog, that I would abandon my clan like some soiled kimono. You disgrace our clan and family, and you insult me personally. Is there no end to your treachery, Gennai?"

The younger man shook his head. "This accomplishes nothing, Tamori-sama. I regret that you find personal attack where there is none, and I regret that you cannot see the danger Hitomi poses. She is mad, Tamori-sama, but I will not let that madness consume the Agasha." With that, he turned and left the chamber, his head held high.

Agasha Tamori shook his head in disbelief. That such a thing could be happening was beyond imagining. Gennai had ever been his finest student. For a moment, he glanced up at the wall where his family's daisho rested. He had never carried the blades, but it was traditional for a shugenja to do so when challenging another to taryu-jiai, a magical duel between shugenja. Such duels were usually displays of skill, but a duel to the death was not unheard of.

"No, Tamori," came a soft voice. The Agasha daimyo looked up at the unexpected sound to see a dignified woman in splendid robes standing in the chamber's rear entrance. "Violence will solve nothing. That is not the way of the Dragon."

"Nor is betrayal," he said solemnly.

"There is nothing that can be done about Gennai now, husband," Tsutomu said. "You must accept that this is the Fortunes' will. Our path may change, but it will not be destroyed. We shall endure, as we always have."

"They should be punished for this offense," he insisted. "It is a violation of everything the Agasha revere."

"And they will," she agreed. "No lord would readily trust a vassal who has betrayed his lord in the past. They have destroyed themselves."

"They shall disgrace the name Agasha throughout the Empire."

Tsutomu placed a delicate hand on his tense shoulder. "They abandon our name by abandoning the Dragon. They are not Agasha. We are the Agasha, but our family cannot be healed with death. Please, Tamori, put aside your anger. You are better than this."

The Agasha daimyo paused for a moment, indecision twisting his features. Finally, his shoulders slumped and he nodded. "You are right, of course. I shall concede for now, Tsutomu-chan. But Gennai and the other traitors will come to regret this."

His wife nodded. "I know that they will," she agreed, "but let us not protest their dishonor by compounding it with our own."

"You are right, Tsutomu-chan," he said, a sad smile creeping onto his face as he looked into the eyes of his beloved. "You are right…"

o

Isawa Mori, year 1150

The Shiba soldiers scattered throughout the woodlands, each taking a different path in the desperate hope that at least some of them might escape. Hida Tsuneo said nothing, only watched them disperse. He knew that his master would deal with them. He turned to face the army's command group, waiting for a signal.

Hantei XVI absently brushed a piece of lint from his flawless kimono. He seemed not to notice the Phoenix. After a moment, he waved Tsuneo back to his troops. There would be no pursuit, it seemed. The Steel Chrysanthemum turned to the shugenja riding beside him. "It seems you were correct, Tamori," he mused in a disinterested voice. "There was only minimal defense. Strange, that the vaunted Phoenix yojimbo would be so easily defeated. But it is no matter." He glanced to the woodlands, then back to Tamori. "You hate the Phoenix, yes?"

"Yes," hissed Tamori, his eyes hooded.

"Well, then," the Steel Chrysanthemum said casually. "I suppose you had best deal with those that are escaping before they bring the entire clan crashing down upon us, wouldn't you say?"

With a cruel laugh, Tamori leapt from his horse, a sheath of fire surrounding his body even as his feet struck the ground. He ran a few short steps, then leaped into the air, a crackling aura of flame blazing into brilliance as he did so. Tamori flew through the air with startling speed, traveling easily across the treetops of the Isawa forest without difficulty. The Phoenix would have no chance of survival. Even the Hantei's general Hida Tsuneo turned his back to the forest, unwilling to look upon the pointless death.

High above the trees, Tamori snarled in anger at the dense woodlands that shielded the Phoenix from him. A simple incantation summoned a massive firestorm that incinerated dozens of trees at a time, leaving great patches of forest blackened and bare of all vegetation. With the green canopy gone, the orange forms darting to and fro among along the ground were easy to find.

"You will not rise from these ashes, Phoenix," he whispered under his breath.

Wave after wave of hellish fire rained down from the sky, each plume of white flame obliterating a single Phoenix warrior. Tamori laughed all the while, his face twisting in a sickening grin of pure animal pleasure. For the first time, he gave in to the brutal urges the Taint had awakened inside him. They were only Phoenix, after all. His laughter echoed across the hills, ringing in his ears. Below the laughter, there was a dark whispering that Tamori could just barely make out. Something about power. Power, and fire. For a moment, he felt he had lost something. Something important. He felt a deep sadness for a moment, a pang of loss for his wife, who had died during the first wave of attacks at Volturnum.

Why did he think of Tsutomu? Why now after all this time? He pushed the thought out of his mind and laughed as another Shiba bushi died. A strange whisper gnawed at his soul, and the former lord of the Agasha listened to its words with rapt attention.

o

Kyuden Agasha, year 1151

The woman who had been called Agasha Shaitung only a few days previously sat in the darkened temple, her head bowed in supplication. She had sought solace with the Fortunes and the Tao all of her life, yet now they offered no comfort. There were no answers to be found in prayer, nor in meditation. She wondered idly if there were any answers to be found at all.

"They have assembled outside the temple, Shaitung-sama."

She looked up at the man standing before her. "I cannot do this, uncle. I am not strong enough. You must take my place as lord of this family."

Chosai shook his head. "You have strength you have not yet discovered, niece. You can do this. You must do this. There is no alternative."

"There must be," she insisted. "I cannot lead our family. And we cannot take my… his name."

"We must," Chosai insisted. "Your father has corrupted everything we stand for with his betrayal. If there is to be any hope for the future, we must redeem ourselves. Why not begin with the name? It's not as if we can ignore an Imperial edict, after all. The treaty demands that a family be created in Tamori's 'honor'. The choice is not ours to make."

"But can anything we do possibly wipe away the evil my father has done?" Shaitung asked.

"Perhaps," Chosai said in a distant voice.

"You must do it, uncle," she said. "The others respect you. The new additions know of you, and trust in your wisdom. Who am I to lead them?"

"You are Tamori Shaitung," Chosai said gently. "I am an old man, and the brother of a criminal reviled across the Empire. I cannot change our family, and without that change we are doomed. You are the only hope for us, Shaitung. If there is to be a Tamori family, if there can be any hope of redemption for souls such as ours, it rests with you."

"I can't," Shaitung whispered, tears brimming in her eyes.

"You can," he said firmly. "You can, and you will." He held out his hand. "Come, my daimyo. Let us see to your vassals."

Shaitung stared at his outstretched hand for several long moments, then finally rose and took it. The two shugenja turned and headed for the doorway leading to where their assembled family waited.

o

Deep beneath the Dragon lands, year 1157

The twisted form of a man writhed amid the vast lakes of molten rock. He grasped his head, desperate to control the power burning in his mind. The pain was like nothing he had ever experienced, nor anything he could even have imagined. The torment was never-ending. His agony was eternal.

A voice came to him. It was vaguely familiar, enough so to spark his interest even through the waves of searing, merciless heat that washed over his soul each moment. He lifted his head and struggled to focus on the two figures standing before him. "Who… who are you?" he demanded.

"That is not important, Tamori," one answered. The voice was strong, confident. Tamori wondered if the speaker would still be so confident if the lava swallowed them. "We have come to enlist your aid."

Tamori laughed. It was a throaty, sinister sound. "Then you must be fools."

"No," a second, familiar voice said. "But we recognize our clans, the Dragon and Phoenix, are in grave danger of succumbing to their weaknesses. They must be cleansed by both fire and adversity, and to do that we need an enemy both of us can stand against."

"Then war with one another and leave me be," Tamori said irritably.

"War, to be sure," the first voice returned. "But we need a catalyst. You are that catalyst, Agasha Tamori." The speaker paused for a moment, then continued. "I invite you to attack the Phoenix."

"And I invite you to attack the Dragon," the other said.

Tamori laughed again. "You are both fools, and you have damned your clans to destruction. But I shall give you what you seek." He held his hand before his face, watching the flames dance along it. "The Dragon and Phoenix shall feel my wrath… beginning with the two of you."

"I think not," the first voice said calmly. The speaker held something aloft, something that cast a sickly green light that penetrated the shroud of pain surrounding Tamori. For this first time in months, his mind was clear. "The Covenant," he hissed, feeling his powers ebb in its presence.

"The Dark Covenant of Fire," the speaker said. "And so long as we possess it, you cannot harm us. More to the point, however, you must answer any one demand we pose."

The Dark Oracle of Fire snarled, outraged that any pathetic Phoenix would speak thus to him. "Make your demand, then," he spat. "And be sure that I will find you and repay your demand in time."

"Use your power to pit the Dragon against the Phoenix," the speaker said. "Make each believe the other to be the aggressor."

"As you wish," Tamori answered. "And now you will die, for the Covenant no longer protects a mortal who makes a demand of me."

"Do you take me for a fool?" the first voice asked haughtily. The burning light changed hands as the first speaker handed it to the second. "My friend has not yet used his favor, and as such the Covenant protects him from your power. It was a simple matter for one of my power to enact a ritual to temporarily extend that protection to me as well. We will take our leave of you for now, Tamori."

"Covenant or not," Tamori hissed. "I will gladly ravage the Dragon and Phoenix, and then both of you will die at my hands."

"We shall see," the speaker said.

o

Kyuden Tamori, present day

Nakamuro shifted uneasily from one foot to another. He was uncomfortable with being kept waiting so long when there were matters of such importance to discuss. Still, he could hardly blame Shaitung. They were not the greatest of friends, despite all they had been through together. At times, it seemed almost as if she were warming to him, welcoming him as a friend and ally. At others, she was as cold and distant as the mountains that gave her family their power.

Asako Bairei gave voice to Nakamuro's concerns. "Anxious, Nakamuro-sama?"

"A bit, yes," the Master of Air confessed, keeping his voice low so that the Dragon guards across the chamber would not overhear. "I have not found the Tamori to be a predictable people."

Hitomi Maya stifled a chuckle, but said nothing. Bairei raised his eyebrows questionably. "How do you mean?"

Nakamuro sighed. "Tamori Shaitung was… somewhat hostile toward me for most of the duration of my stay here. One of my only true allies was her uncle, Tamori Chosai, the family's greatest sensei. Just when I believed I was making headway with Shaitung, when I believed that I had begun to earn her trust, I explained my theory about the Covenant."

"She did not take the suggestion well, then?"

"The opposite," Nakamuro said with a perplexed expression. "She was nonplussed by the entire affair. Chosai, however, was somewhat less understanding."

"Strange," observed Bairei.

"I thought so for a time, but upon reflection it was a terrible insult for me to broach the subject to him. His brother disgraced their entire family, and they have only recently begun to overcome the shadow of his crimes. It must be a painful memory. Then a Phoenix comes among them and all but accuses one of their number of being an equal disgrace." He looked up at his companions. "How could any honorable man fail to take offense? I was foolish and insensitive."

"Do not find fault with yourself, Isawa Nakamuro," Maya said. "A man who speaks the truth is never a fool, though he may inspire others to be."

"But even a fool can sometimes speak the truth," Nakamuro countered. "In any event, I may have ruined any chance we might have had for the Tamori to work with us in this matter."

"I could be mistaken, but I find it unlikely that Shaitung-sama dispenses powerful vassals to aid those she considers enemies." Bairei nodded in Maya's direction. The female monk stood with a knowing smile, her eyebrows raised questioningly.

Nakamuro frowned, considering Bairei's words carefully. Before he could answer, the doors to the inner chambers swung open with a loud groan. An elderly man clad in simple robes emerged and crossed the room to stand before them. His features were grim. "Shaitung will see you now."

The three bowed. "Thank you, Chosai-sama," Nakamuro offered.

"How thrilling!" Bairei said quietly. "I've often read of the unique characteristics the Tamori temples. With the war, I had despaired of being able to see them firsthand. This will provide invaluable in the development of our shrine, and…"

"Nakamuro will be admitted," Chosai said curtly. "You must wait."

"Oh," Bairei said, shoulders slumping in disappointment. "I see. Very well! I am certain there is much I can learn from these outer chambers." He immediately turned and began examining the statues lining the hallway with an intent expression, casting only occasional sad looks toward the doors.

Chosai frowned and glanced at Nakamuro, who only shrugged. With a nod to Maya, the two entered the hallway leading into the inner chambers, closing the doors behind them. There was an uncomfortable silence between the two, one that troubled Nakamuro deeply. Finally, he could bear it no more.

"Chosai-sama," he said. "I owe you an apology. When last we spoke, I showed enormous arrogance and offered you a grave insult, although that was not my intent. I did not consider the enormity of what I was saying until it was far too late. I beg your forgiveness."

The older shugenja's face twisted strangely, and for a moment Nakamuro believed he was going to face another explosive outburst similar to the one he had endured some months previously. "No," Chosai finally said in a surprisingly subdued voice. "There is no need for you to apologize, Nakamuro-sama. I… I am ashamed of how I treated you that last time we spoke. I embarrassed myself and my family." He paused for a moment. "It is difficult to dwell on what my brother has become. The notion that another of our clan might have betrayed us… it was too much to bear."

Nakamuro was quiet for a time. "I cannot imagine how difficult this must have been for you and your family."

"It is worst for Shaitung," Chosai said gravely. "She was very close to her parents. When her mother died, she clung to her father to keep Tsutomu's memory alive. His betrayal nearly destroyed her, and weighs heavily upon her still. She despises him, yet there are times when she desperately longs to have her father back. Discussing him with her can be difficult." He smiled slightly at Nakamuro. "I fear you have suffered for it."

The two stood before the door that led to Shaitung's private meditation chamber. Chosai gestured toward the door. "She wishes to see you in private. As a favor to me, I ask that you be mindful of her… her situation. Since the lords of the Dragon Clan learned of Tamori's involvement in the war, I think that many quietly blame her for what has occurred. None would be so bold as to say it, of course, but the idea that one who has fought so fiercely for her own clan could face such mistrust… well let us say that Shaitung is not always so strong as she appears. The entire affair has hurt her deeply."

"Of course, Chosai-sama," Nakamuro said, bowing deeply. "I understand."

"Thank you, my friend," Chosai said. "I will leave you now." The older man returned Nakamuro's bow and returned down the corridor the two had come through. Nakamuro stood for a moment, gathering his wits, then knocked twice and entered.

The chamber was dimly lit, with only candles illuminating the stark walls and shrines within. Tamori Shaitung was the only one inside, kneeling before a shrine against the opposite wall. Nakamuro noted that it was a shrine to the first Agasha before he was distracted by the gleam of candlelight on Shaitung's bare shoulder. A sinuous dragon tattoo wound across the skin, disappearing beneath the line of her kimono and again across her shoulder. The Master of Air found himself at a loss for words, but was unable to take his eyes off of her. "Hello again, Nakamuro," she said plainly, not looking up at him. "Shall I assume your return means your quest proved successful?"

"Partially, Shaitung-sama," Nakamuro croaked, finding his mouth strangely dry. "I have recovered information regarding your fa… regarding the Dark Oracle's involvement in this war. I am somewhat embarrassed to admit that even that might have been impossible without the assistance of your vassal Hitomi Maya. Her assistance was much appreciated."

"Maya, yes," Shaitung mused. "I am glad you found her invaluable."

"Indeed," Nakamuro agreed. He searched for the words. "I am afraid that my suspicions have been confirmed. The Covenant was taken from its resting place and used to force Tamori into initiating the Dragon-Phoenix war. Furthermore, two shugenja, not one, took the Covenant. A Dragon and a Phoenix."

"There is a traitor among my people, then." Shaitung's voice was cold, and Nakamuro was not certain if she had been asking a question or simply confirming suspicions she already held.

"One among your clan and one among mine, yes," he finally agreed. "Further, the spirits of earth that surrounded the Covenant revealed to me that it is being kept here, in Dragon lands. The traitor has kept it close by, believing it may prove useful in defending them against the Dark Oracle's wrath."

Shaitung stood and faced the Master of Air. There was a calmness on her face he had never seen before. It increased her beauty tenfold. "And will that work? Can the Covenant be used to protect someone from a Dark Oracle?"

"I… yes. Yes it can," Nakamuro stammered, turning to run his finger along the surface of a table. "Any of the Covenants will protect the bearer against the Dark Oracle of the same element, though the risk of being infected by the Covenant's own corruption is great. The Covenant also allows the bearer to make one demand of the Dark Oracle, but once this demand is made, the protection fades."

"A fool's bargain."

"Yes," he agreed. "But one we shall have to make regardless. A necessary sacrifice for the good of both our clans."

Shaitung frowned. "You intend to use the Covenant yourself?"

"Yes. Oracles take the wording of demands literally, attempting to twist the spirit of the request, but I think I know a way to word my demand to eliminate the Dark Oracle of Fire once and for all." He stopped and ran his fingers through his hair nervously. "But it means nothing if we cannot find the Covenant." He opened his arms to encompass the entire building. "I believe it to be somewhere within your temple, but it is so huge I have no idea where to begin looking. It could take months to find it, and by that time the traitor will have moved it elsewhere."

"Perhaps not," Shaitung offered. "The Dragon libraries have very little information on these Dark Covenants, but I did manage to discover one fact that seemed useful. Is it true that the Covenants exist outside the elements?"

Nakamuro rubbed his chin. "That is a description I have found in many different texts, yes," he said. "I believe it means that the items have no kami within them at all, not even the corrupted kansen. Somehow, they simply… are."

"That is our answer, then," Shaitung said firmly. "I warn you, however, you may not care for it."

o

"I do not like this," Nakamuro said through clenched teeth.

"If you have another means of locating the Covenant, I'm certain we would all be interested in hearing it," Shaitung offered somewhat crossly. Seeing that he had nothing to offer, she continued. "Chosai, Nakamuro, and Bairei, you will each summon a kami of your preferred element and bind it to Maya," she nodded to the ise zumi. "She can cover the most ground the quickest. While she does so, I will commune with the spirits you have bound to her. If the tales are true and the Covenant exists outside the elements, none of them will be able to detect the space it occupies, and it should be obvious when they draw near this "hole" in the elements." She looked at the group. "Do any of you have reason to believe this will not work?"

Nakamuro shook his head. "It will work, I believe, but it seems wrong to bind the kami in such a way, even if only temporarily."

"I agree," Chosai offered. "I would not risk insulting the spirits and have wrathful kami wandering a temple where fledgling shugenja attempt their first spells."

"Then you shall have to keep close watch over your students, uncle," Shaitung said matter-of-factly. "There is no other way, and we have waited long enough. Wouldn't you say so, Nakamuro?"

The Master of Air frowned. "I would have to agree."

Chosai bowed his head silently.

"Then let us begin," she said. She gestured to a circle in the center of the meditation chamber, with hastily inscribed kanji marking the position for water, earth, and air. Shaitung stood in the circle's center. "We will have to focus all our attention," she reminded the others. "Summoning and binding the kami will not prove difficult, but maintaining our hold on them as Maya moves across the temple could be more challenging. The distance will be the greatest obstacle."

"I hope no one minds if I make a few notes as we proceed with this ritual," Bairei said with a smile, pulling a scroll and pen from his satchel. "I have never seen magic of this sort."

Seeing Shaitung's glare, Nakamuro raised out a restraining hand. "That… might not be a good idea, Bairei. Worry about proper documentation later."

The scholar's disappointment was obvious, but he nodded and put the scroll away hastily. The others took their place in the circle and assumed a meditation posture. Shaitung nodded to Maya, who climbed to her feet and stretched languidly before pulling her sleeve up slightly and rubbing a tattoo on her shoulder. It was an image of a gaijin shield, much like those used in the Khan's armies. Maya closed her eyes for a moment as her skin took on a slightly grayish, steely hue, then smiled at Shaitung. "Let us begin," the shugenja said to her colleagues.

The summoning ritual was effortless. Maya's garments fluttered slightly as if caught in a breeze. Her left arm grew darker in color, and seemed to take on an aspect of stone while her right arm swirled with a strange pattern like that one might find in a tidal pool upon the beach. Shaitung reached out to connect with the kami encircling the ise zumi, then gave Maya the signal to begin.

The young woman disappeared from the chamber in a flash of movement. Shaitung gasped as she struggled to maintain her connection with kami that were now darting across the temple at amazing speed. An ocean of sensation flooded into her mind as the spirits sensed their respective kin in every object. For a moment, she feared their plan would fail, as she could not separate one sense from the others.

The next hour passed very slowly. Shaitung felt the strain of her colleagues as they struggled to maintain their connection, just as she struggled to maintain hers. Maya scoured the temple, searching every chamber she came across with the same incredible speed. Shaitung began to despair that they could finish the task without succumbing to exhaustion, and then she felt it.

It was a cold wave coursing over her. She felt the pain and surprise from the kami bound to Maya, and she gasped. Wherever she was, there was a great emptiness there, a spiritual void the likes of which she had never experienced. "Nakamuro!" she exclaimed.

The Master of Air instantly broke his connection and reached out to Maya through the air kami between them. "There, Maya!" he whispered under his breath. "It is within that chamber! Find it and bring it to us."

Shaitung and Nakamuro shared a victorious look, but Bairei and Chosai took longer to recover. Chosai climbed shakily to his feet, coughing fiercely. Shaitung took a step toward him, but Chosai shook his head and waved her away, stumbling over to a table to regain his balance.

It was only a few moments before a victorious Maya returned, holding a surprisingly subdued lantern in her hands. "I have it," she gasped. She lifted the lantern up for the others to see, and all present could sense the wrongness of it. She held a small shard of jade in her other hand, turning it over in her fingers as she studied the corrupted artifact.

"Incredible," breathed Bairei, utterly fascinated. He took a step toward Maya as if to examine the Covenant more closely, but he never had the chance.

Tamori Chosai stepped up from behind Bairei and struck him in the back of the head with an open palm strike. Caught unaware, Maya attempted to leap away from Chosai, but the old shugenja was too fast, catching her with a word of magic that showered her with fist sized rocks, slamming her into the wall and sending her sprawling to the floor in a bloodied heap. While Shaitung and Nakamuro stood aghast, he darted across the room and seized the Covenant. Lifting it in one hand, he turned to face them with a panicked expression.

"Uncle, no!" Shaitung cried. "What are you doing?"

"You do not understand," Chosai said vehemently. "I did not expect your makeshift ritual to work, but as in all things your stubbornness has only caused problems. It is too soon to end this war!"

Shaitung's eyes widened as she came to realize that which she did not wish to believe. "You were the traitor."

"Not a traitor," Chosai shook his head quickly. "I did this for you, and for the spirit of your mother! Don't you understand? For your father to be at peace, for his name to be cleansed, he must die! I could not defeat him alone, so I brought him back for you. Together, the Dragon Clan can defeat him."

Shaitung shook her head in horror. "How many dead, Chosai?" she replied. "How much damage have you done to both our clans, all out of a misguided attempt to save my father?"

"He was never a father to you," Chosai replied. "When your mother died, when you were disgraced by Tamori's treachery, I knew I had to help you! I am more a father to you than Tamori ever was." He looked from Shaitung to Nakamuro, seeking understanding. "Don't you see? I brought him back so that you could defeat him! You can cleanse our name and force the Empire to recognize your strength, just as I have always recognized it! I brought him back for you, but we cannot act until he has destroyed the Phoenix! The clan that drove him to destruction!" He leveled an angry finger at Nakamuro.

"Give us the Covenant, Chosai," Nakamuro said quietly.

"Be silent, Phoenix lest you feel the strength of a true master of the elements!" Chosai shouted. "This is a family matter!" He returned his attention to Shaitung. "It isn't too late, Shaitung. We can still succeed. You and I, together we can crush the Phoenix and use the Covenant to destroy your father. We can erase the stain on our honor once and for all. We can be whole again!"

"All those people. Our brothers and sisters, dead," Shaitung's voice was soft, but Nakamuro could sense the anger brewing deep within her, like a slow tremor before a mighty avalanche. "You thought to heal betrayal with even greater betrayal? How could you have been so idiotic?"

Chosai pointed vehemently at Nakamuro. "The Phoenix has poisoned your mind! His clan claims to value peace, when all they seek is to undermine the strength of others! We can destroy him and those that follow him, and only you and I will know the truth!"

"No more deaths," Shaitung hissed. "No more deaths because of this! Because of me! This is over!" She threw both hands out toward Chosai, and the building rocked on its foundations as gigantic stone hands rose from the cobblestone floor to seize him. "I have let anger cloud my mind for far too long."

"No!" Nakamuro stepped between the two of them. "This is wrong, Shaitung. You must not kill him."

"Kill him?" Shaitung said incredulously. "Did you not hear me, Nakamuro? I said no more deaths, and I am a woman of my word. Besides, we still need him if we are to find my father." Her face softened a bit. "And he is all the family I have left. I cannot kill him."

"I am sorry, Shaitung," Chosai gasped from his earthen prison. Nakamuro knew the sensei could easily break free, but he did not. Shaitung's refusal to bow to his will, more than her magic, had defeated him. "I was only thinking of what was best you."

"You were wrong," Shaitung said gravely.

"Shaitung," Nakamuro began.

"No, Nakamuro," she said firmly. "Enough talk. Gather your companions." She knelt and took up the Covenant from where it had fallen. "We must see my father one last time."

TO BE CONCLUDED