The Dark Oracle of Fire, Part III
By Shawn Carman and Rich Wulf
Asako Bairei sat on a cold, unyielding boulder as the brisk mountain wind tugged at the edges of his kimono. He withdrew a blank scroll and a piece of charcoal from his satchel and began writing busily, humming softly to himself as he did so.
"What are you doing?" demanded Mirumoto Tsuge. The bushi's face was red with irritation. "We don't have time for this nonsense. Put that away!"
"I beg to differ, Tsuge-san," Bairei said mildly. "We cannot do anything until Nakamuro-sama and Shaitung-sama return from their errand atop the mountain." The scholar nodded to the peak before them. "I have seen many intriguing things since leaving the shrine. It would be tragic not to commit them to paper, particularly if we are about to die."
Tsuge laughed. "You fear death, then?"
"No," said Bairei with a surprised tone. "I fear only that my death will be without purpose, so I document what I have seen. Why? Do you fear death?"
"Of course not!" the warrior said angrily. "I am Dragon! Death is the duty of every true samurai."
"We shall all be in excellent company, then," Bairei observed. The remark drew a wry chuckle from the silent Hitomi Maya, who watched the exchange without comment.
Tsuge snorted in disgust. "A true samurai would be making peace with his ancestors, not scribbling frantically to tell future generations about the color of some random bird he noticed." He sneered at Bairei. "What mindless drivel are you writing about now?"
"Actually," Bairei said with a smile, "I was just describing the exquisite craftsmanship of your katana's tsuba. It's a style not often seen these days." His expression grew serious. "I am very sorry to hear that you do not consider your grandfather's soul to be worthy of note. Fortunately, we may soon see him in Yomi, and I am certain he will forgive the insult."
The Dragon warrior's eyes narrowed dangerously, though the scholar did not seem to notice. Tsuge's hand drifted toward his blade. "Perhaps you would care to sample Dragon steel firsthand, Phoenix. For your records."
Bairei looked up, his face bright. "That would be wonderful! I have long been an admirer of Dragon metallurgy techniques. You really wouldn't mind if I examined your blade? I presumed you would not allow it or I would have asked already."
Tsuge's jaw fell open as he struggled to put his anger into words. Finally, he just growled inarticulately and stormed off, shaking his head in disgust. "Idiot!" he called out as he stalked around a large rock outcropping.
"Why do you do that?" Maya asked suddenly.
"Do what?" Bairei said innocently, not looking up from his scroll.
"Play the fool. You are easily more intelligent than anyone we've encountered on this entire journey, yet you seem more comfortable feigning ignorance."
The scholar shrugged. "In this particular case, your Dragon friend wanted to intimidate me. I simply took that away from him. I see no reason he should be allowed to take pleasure from my discomfort."
"And with the others?"
Bairei was quiet for a few moments. "I have been underestimated my entire life, simply because I place my priorities differently than others. Not so long ago I discovered that it is not always important that others see my worth, as long as I continue to utilize my talents to their fullest. At times, being underestimated allows me to accomplish things I never dreamed possible. I do not do what I do for personal fame or glory, only for the sake of knowledge. Thus, I allow it to continue. Those who think me a fool are welcome to do so, and those who see through my illusion are those I know I can trust to treat me as an equal." He shrugged again and smiled faintly at Maya. "Perhaps it's just my way of examining the world."
Maya nodded. "I think you would make an interesting monk," she added.
Bairei considered it. "That would give me more time to read, wouldn't it?"
The mountain winds were much stronger at the summit. Isawa Nakamuro did not mind, of course, but he marveled at Tamori Shaitung's ability to ignore the chilling winds that sliced past them. He had considered offering to transport the two of them to the top with a simple spell, but he knew Shaitung would have refused. The Tamori were a physical people, he had learned. She could have stepped through the earth at the base of the mountain and emerged at the top in mere seconds, but preferred to climb the mountain as any other might.
Above Shaitung, climbing at the head of the group, was her uncle, Tamori Chosai. He had not spoken in nearly three days, since he had been revealed as the traitor who betrayed the Dragon Clan to the Dark Oracle of Fire nearly two years ago. Shaitung would not allow him to leave her sight, not even for a moment. Nakamuro could sense the struggle within her, her duty as Tamori daimyo warring with her love of her uncle, yet he sensed that she would kill him in an instant if he showed any sign of betrayal. Chosai seemed to know it as well, and he offered no resistance despite his considerable power.
"There," Shaitung said above the whistling winds. Nakamuro followed her gesture to a cave set high on the mountainside. He nodded wordlessly and continued to climb, striving to keep pace with the two much more experienced climbers. He considered using a spell to lift himself to the cave's entrance, but discovered that he did not wish to have Shaitung think him a weakling. Nakamuro frowned at that, and was annoyed that he should feel such a thing.
An exhausting few minutes later, Nakamuro hefted himself up onto the ledge leading into the cave. He attempted to look as though the climb had not bothered him, but did a poor job. His hakama were stained with dust and grime; he had long ago been forced to remove his flowing robes. His hair was disheveled and his face was streaked with sweat. He took comfort in the knowledge that Chosai's breath seemed to be coming quicker than normal, and even Shaitung's brow was beaded with sweat from the effort of the climb. "Why are we here, Shaitung-sama?" he asked once his breath had returned.
"This cave is the only way I can contact… a certain vassal of mine," she said.
The Master of Air frowned. "What manner of vassal lives in such a remote, inhospitable place as this?"
"A very unusual one," Shaitung replied.
Nakamuro began to ask another question, but stopped when a strange sound reached his ears. It was a rumbling sound, almost a vibration. He instinctively began chanting a prayer to the kami to remove the three of them from the cave, certain that an avalanche was about to crush them. He stopped, however, as Shaitung did not seem alarmed. The sound seemed vaguely familiar. Where had he heard it before?
The sound grew louder, and then stopped suddenly. There was a louder, crashing sound, and the ground opened as if a doorway had been hidden within it the entire time. A small, bluish form emerged from the darkness. Long-fingered hands scraped along the stone as the strange being climbed out. "Greetings to you, Shai-tung."
"Greetings, Kjgkt," Shaitung offered with a nod.
"One of the zokujin shamans who helped us after we faced your father," Nakamuro said flatly. "This zokujin is your vassal?"
"In a manner of speaking," Shaitung said. "We have remained in contact since you and I escaped with their help. They share our enmity of my father, it seems."
"We remember you," Kjgkt said, gesturing to Nakamuro. "The other one. Shai-tung's mate, yes?"
"Uh, no," Nakamuro said hastily. "It isn't like that. We… are allies."
"It is time, Kjgkt," Shaitung interrupted, her voice somehow easily producing the rumbling sound that was the zokujin's name. "We are prepared to face Tamori, but we will need your help in reaching him."
"The dark fire man moves much," the zokujin said thoughtfully. "Difficult to keep track of, he is. And tunnels can be confusing for humans."
"I have someone with us who has experience in the tunnels," the Dragon shugenja said firmly. "We simply need to know how to find my… the Dark Oracle."
The creature clicked its claws together. "As you wish," it finally said. "I will arrange for the tunnels to be marked. We will be watching with the mountain's eyes."
"Thank you," Shaitung said with a bow. "We value your assistance."
The zokujin began to step back through the stone doorway it had created. "I hope it is enough," it said, glancing back at the three of them. "The dark fire man grows stronger. If he not stopped soon, the earth will bleed again."
"We will stop him," Shaitung vowed. "Even if we must die."
The climb down was far easier, much to Nakamuro's relief. The others would be waiting at the bottom, and he was anxious to begin. Still, there were questions he needed answered before he could feel at ease with their plan. "You said you had someone with experience in the tunnels," he said to Shaitung. "You mean Mirumoto Tsuge?"
"Yes," she confirmed. "Some months ago, he pursued and battled an enemy of ours in the tunnels. Tsuge knows enough of the tunnels to aid us."
"He won't be happy so long as Bairei and I are present," Nakamuro observed darkly. "He commands the Dragon attacks upon my clan. He'd just as soon see us dead, I fear."
"His wishes are not important," the Dragon shugenja said. "He will do as he is ordered. I have no doubt of that."
Nakamuro said nothing, but wondered if Shaitung was being overly optimistic. He glanced again at the silent Chosai, who followed without complaint. Shaitung seemed certain he was not a threat, but his power could kill them all instantly if they let their guard down around him. Nakamuro remembered how the old man had injured Maya before. Yet another threat that he would have to watch out for during their trip into the earth. There was a flicker of fear in his heart, but he quashed it instantly. The only chance he had for survival, for the survival of his friends, depended on him remaining calm and rational. If he panicked, there would be no second chance.
Their allies awaited them at the mountain's base, just as Nakamuro had known they would. Bairei and Maya seemed strangely amused, while Tsuge was even angrier than he had been when he had first seen the two Phoenix at Shaitung's side. Three shugenja, a general, a monk, and a traitor. It was a strange group to hope to oppose a Dark Oracle, but there was no time to try and change things. The Dark Covenant of Fire was in their possession, and soon Tamori would sense that the powerful nemuranai was moving. If he suspected that it had fallen into Shaitung's hands, he would burrow so deeply into the earth that they would never find him.
No. It was time to face Tamori.
The party had been below ground for less than four hours when the first attack came. Nakamuro had prepared himself for an endless onslaught of Tamori's fiery oni. When the ground upon which he and his companions stood lurched and rolled suddenly, he had been caught completely unaware. The convulsing earth threw him across the cavern, bouncing him painfully against a stalagmite. Nakamuro hissed in pain as his vision blurred, then forced himself to his feet.
Bairei was still alive, as was Maya. Tsuge was down and not moving, although Nakamuro could not tell if he was dead. Chosai and Shaitung had disappeared amid the rolling waves of earth that were crashing through the chamber. The Master of Air drew a deep breath and chanted a quick prayer to the kami. He threw his arms wide, filling the chamber with winds like those found in the hurricanes that ravaged his clan's shores. The soft earth that held the rocks together was blown away in an instant, leaving only the jagged stones beneath. Nakamuro heard a shout from across the chamber, and the stones disappeared as well. Shaitung was still alive, it seemed. "Nakamuro, do you have the Covenant?" she cried.
"Yes!" he answered, sending a second, focused blast of air through the chamber in an attempt to clear out the last remnants of the earthen spell's deadly manifestation. It was far too similar to the corrupted earth spirits that had tried to kill him when he, Bairei, and Maya had discovered the Covenant's former resting place. The notion chilled Nakamuro's soul. "Be ready!" he shouted to the others. "I sense someone coming! The…"
"The what, Nakamuro?" came a cold voice from the shadows. "The visionary? The genius? The shugenja with the power and conviction to change the future of our clan for the better?" A slim silhouette appeared near the cavern's exit. "But that's not it. You were going to say 'traitor,' weren't you? Because your pitiful mind cannot comprehend any other path but your own." The figure stepped into the light. It was an older woman, dressed in the robes of a Phoenix.
"Oh no," Nakamuro breathed under his breath.
"Taeruko!" Shaitung cursed. "You filthy witch!"
"Be silent, you shameless harlot," the Master of Earth said sharply. Her eyes trailed to Shaitung's exposed shoulders and Nakamuro's bare chest. "And for the Kami's sake, cover yourselves."
"Why?" Nakamuro demanded.
"To make you all pay!" Taeruko exclaimed. "You stood by and watched my daughter die! The Asako stood by and did nothing! The Shiba failed to protect her, and the Isawa could not bring her back. The Agasha are merely fools. You have all failed in your duties. Give me the Covenant, and let a true Master attend to what must be done."
Bairei drew near Shaitung, both of them grim and ready for battle. "You disgrace us all, Taeruko," he said. His voice was as cold as Nakamuro had ever heard it.
"Wait," the Master of Air held up his hand. "Something here is wrong. If that were truly Taeruko, if she were truly the traitor, she would not waste time baiting us." He studied Taeruko carefully. "What was your daughter's name?"
"What?" Taeruko said, her voice nearly a shriek. "How dare you ask me that?"
"Her name!" insisted Nakamuro. He pointed an accusing finger at Taeruko, lightning crackling down the length of his arm.
Nakamuro cast out his hand, commanding the air kami surrounding Taeruko to depart. For a moment, Taeruko looked as if she would charge across the chamber and crush him outright. Then, the illusion faded, to be replaced by a tall, handsome man in elegant red robes. He drew a katana in one hand, the steel rasp echoing eerily in the twisted cavern. "Well done, Nakamuro."
"What is this?" demanded Shaitung.
"Isawa Hochiu," Nakamuro said. "Why? Why do you help the Oracle?"
Hochiu frowned. "I do not help him," Nakamuro said. "I merely summoned him. I had hoped to turn you away, Nakamuro. It is not yet time for him to be defeated."
"Why would you do this, Hochiu?" Nakamuro demanded. The Master of Air's hands balled into fists, surrounded with an aura of lightning.
"Don't be naïve," the Master of Fire said brusquely. Isawa Hochiu touched his chest. "I am the last great hero of the Phoenix Clan, born of an age of heroes. Our clan has spawned many legendary figures throughout history, but who are our heroes now? My victory at Oblivion's Gate saved all the Empire, galvanized our clan with the fires of victory." He shook his head. "We have grown weak, Nakamuro. Look how pathetic we were in the War of Spirits. In the past we met crises head-on, without fear, unafraid of destruction for we are the Phoenix and will be reborn. Isawa Tadaka slew my wicked father and defeated Fu Leng, bringing our clan to a glorious new age. I defeated the Lying Darkness, forcing the entire Empire to acknowledge our strength. The time has come for us to be reborn in conflict again. If our clan does not regularly face such crisis, we will truly die."
"Death?" Nakamuro said incredulously. "You did this to avoid death? You have killed thousands of our brothers! Thousands of Dragon warriors!"
"Do not be so shortsighted, Nakamuro," Hochiu said. "We are both priests of the kami. You know that they died as heroes; their spirits live on in Yomi! The Phoenix will be reborn!"
"You're mad, like your father." Nakamuro felt a well of pity for the man, even though he still feared him.
"Am I?" Hochiu asked, his eyes clear and focused. "Would you have discovered the true breadth of your talents if not for this war? And what of that one?" He pointed to Bairei. "He would still be sitting in some forgotten corner of my family's library if not for this war. Both of you owe your greatness to me and my vision. Without me, you would be nothing."
"I would gladly give my life to have saved all those you murdered," Nakamuro said vehemently.
"Murdered?" Hochiu said, exasperated. "You comprehend nothing. Give me the Covenant, Nakamuro. Return to the surface. I will defeat Tamori, as it was meant to be, and the Phoenix will glory in the tale of a true hero once more."
"You killed Riake," Nakamuro said softly. "She trusted you."
For a moment, Hochiu's face faltered with doubt. "She… is in a better place now," he said. "She is a hero to her people."
"She was a sacrifice to your arrogance."
Hochiu scowled and pointed his sword at Nakamuro, flames erupting down its length. With that, a wave of water appeared from the air around Hochiu, crashing into him unexpectedly and driving him into the hard stone ground. Nakamuro glanced around to see Bairei, his face twisted in rage, sending wave after wave of crushing force down upon Hochiu.
"Murderer!" Bairei shouted. "You disgrace us all! You have stained our name and dishonored the entire clan, all for your insane ego!"
Hochiu exploded upward from the deluge in a column of fire, eyes shining with a fierce red light. "You pathetic wretch! Librarian! How dare you attack me?" He sliced the air with his sword, sending a gigantic wall of fire forward to collide with Bairei's summoned waves. The crashing hiss of fire being extinguished and water boiling was explosive, and scalding steam billowed through the cave. Nakamuro summoned a blast of powerful wind to send the steam rolling back toward Hochiu, but the Master of Fire was unaffected. Hochiu opened one hand toward Nakamuro and unleashed a ball of roaring blue flame. Before Nakamuro could summon his magic to defend himself, a wall of stone erupted from the cavern floor in the missile's path, causing it to explode several feet from Nakamuro with a deafening blast.
"Nakamuro!" Shaitung shouted, appearing suddenly at his side. "Are you all right?"
"I am fine," Nakamuro said, watching Hochiu carefully. Somewhere in the back of his mind, he was relieved that Shaitung cared, but he had no time to dwell on it. "Hochiu is very powerful! We have to end this quickly!"
Shaitung's earthen wall melted into lava as Hochiu stepped easily through it. He smirked at Shaitung. "Shaitung," he said, saluting her with his sword. "When last we met you showed me how one desperate warrior can defeat many. Shall I teach you the same lesson now?"
The Master of Fire leapt into the air, borne by wings of flame, causing the temperature in the cavern to swelter. Nakamuro sent a bolt of lighting toward Hochiu, but he easily batted it away with his katana. Bairei summoned kami of frost with a defiant gesture. The Master of Fire frowned impatiently as bands of ice formed around his arms and legs for a single instant before they melted.
"We are too close!" Shaitung shouted. "If this keeps up, my father will surely sense our presence!"
The shugenja's warning was cut short when the cavern exploded. Rock and fire were everywhere, raining down on Nakamuro like the vengeance of heaven. A large shard struck him where he had been injured before, causing his breath to catch in his chest and his vision to go completely red for a few precious seconds.
"Children, children," a warm, frightening voice boomed throughout the chamber. "There will be no fighting on my doorstep. It is unseemly."
Nakamuro climbed weakly to his hands and knees. There was a searing pain in his side, and if he had doubted it before he knew now that his ribs were broken. A thin ribbon of blood trickled down from the corner of his mouth. He was wounded badly, he knew, and would likely die if his injuries were not treated. Not that he would live that long.
"Shaitung, darling daughter," Tamori's voice continued. "So nice of you to visit your honorable father. If you are going to bring guests, however, I would prefer that you send word." The Dark Oracle hovered above the chamber, wreathed in flames so bright that it hurt the eyes to look upon them. His smile was replaced by a snarl when he saw who was present. "But such esteemed guests we have here. My beloved brother and his friend, the Master of Fire. How I have longed for your return." His eyes flashed with power. "Your ritual ended long ago. There is no protection from my power now. No one makes a fool of the Dark Oracle of Fire and survives!"
"Do what you will," Hochiu said arrogantly. "I have defeated worse than you."
"What will you do?" Tamori asked, smirking at Hochiu. "Throw fire at me?"
Hochiu sneered. "Chosai," Hochiu said in a commanding voice. "Now."
Tamori Chosai rose from where he crouched on the ground, the Dark Covenant of Fire in his hands. Nakamuro felt panic stab him through the chest as he glanced around. The Covenant had been lost during Tamori's arrival, and he had not even noticed. They were doomed.
"Agasha Tamori," Chosai said hollowly. "I command you to face Isawa Hochiu in an iaijutsu duel, without use of your magical abilities."
Tamori's eyes narrowed. "Treacherous filth," he cursed. "You turn against your own blood for this Phoenix?"
"I do what I must to save my niece," Chosai said, bowing his head.
"Then you had best hope both of you are gone when I kill this fool!" Tamori shouted as he lit upon the ground. He pushed his robes aside, revealing a gleaming katana on his hip. "I may not have my magic, but Jigoku has granted me strength and speed as well. Nothing will save you from me once Hochiu is dead."
Isawa Hochiu tore his kimono from his chest, placing his daisho in a dueling position in his obi. "I would have preferred to allow you to continue our war a bit longer," he confessed to Tamori, "but fate has forced my hand, it seems."
"Allowed?" Tamori said incredulously. "There is no end to your hubris."
"I will only admit there is a limit to my power when I am defeated," Hochiu countered. "That day has not yet arrived."
The two shugenja were silent then, each assuming a dueling stance and studying the other for weakness. Nakamuro crawled painfully toward Chosai, trying to get nearer to the Covenant. Maya locked eyes with him and nodded once, slowly. Nakamuro did not know what the ise zumi was planning, but hoped it would give him a precious few seconds when the duel was over.
The second stretched into minutes, but no one in the chamber dared move. For Nakamuro and his allies, there was no good outcome, for they would have to face and defeat whoever survived the duel. The notion of defeating either man was difficult at best, and Nakamuro knew there was little chance for success. He offered a prayer to his ancestors for strength.
There was a shout from one of the two men, though it was impossible to say which. Both struck with lightning speed, moving so fast that Nakamuro was unable to see their blades. One moment they faced each other, and the next they were standing past one another, their blades in the finishing pose. For one long moment, neither moved. Then, slowly, Agasha Tamori slumped to the ground as Isawa Hochiu clutched the long, jagged wound that crossed his chest.
"As I said," Hochiu proclaimed, "that day has not yet arrived."
"I am not yet dead," came a hoarse whisper from the ground. Tamori sat up, his terrible wound obvious across his stomach. "I have faced you, as Chosai demanded. I have fulfilled by part of the bargain."
"No!" Hochiu shouted, leaping forward to strike the Dark Oracle again. But it was too late. For a moment, the shadows seemed to deepen around the Master of Fire, then Master and Dark Oracle exploded into flames so intense that Nakamuro could feel their heat even across the chamber. There was a brief, defiant cry from Hochiu, and then… there was nothing left. Even his blade was gone.
A second blast leapt across the chamber and caught Tamori Chosai completely by surprise. The old sensei fell to the flames just as Hochiu had, but did not burn. These flames were slower, weaker. Either the Dark Oracle was weakening, or he wished his brother to suffer.
"Father," Shaitung said, stepping out to stand before Tamori. "Stop this. You are better than the Taint and anger that flow through your veins. I believe in you, as mother did."
Tamori looked at Shaitung for a moment, dispelling the flames that burned his brother. A small chuckle escaped his lips. "You cannot be serious," he said. "After all I have done are you still so deluded as to believe I care for anything that lives?" Tamori lurched forward, his body twisting from some terrible impact. A fountain of blood erupted from his lips.
"No," Shaitung said sadly, "but I believe you are arrogant enough to gloat at the threshold of victory."
Tamori looked down feebly at the length of bloodied steel that jutted from his chest. The dying Oracle looked down on it in confusion. He opened his mouth to utter some final words, but died before he could, his eyes and mouth gaping open in surprise and outrage.
Mirumoto Tsuge kicked the body forward, wrenching his katana from the corpse. He cast his blade down suddenly, drawing his wakizashi and falling to his knees. "Shaitung-sama," he said, tears streaking from his eyes. "I too am a traitor, just as was your uncle. Please, send word of my seppuku back to Uso-sama."
"What?" Shaitung said, bewildered. "What are you talking about? This makes no sense!"
"When I chased that fool Hitaka into the mountains months ago," Tsuge explained, "he led me to Tamori. Your father had gained permission to attack your family from Chosai, but needed permission to attack the Dragon armies, of which I was the commander. He killed my men until I agreed." He hung his head in shame. "I was a fool. I should have died to save our people, but I was weak. I allowed my fear of death and hatred of the Phoenix to overcome me." He held his weapon at the ready. "And now I will cleanse my ancestors' name."
"Stand up, fool!" Shaitung said. "We have too many wounded, and you are still strong enough to run! If you die down here, we all may die. Do you want more deaths in your name?"
"No," Tsuge said quietly. He looked up at Nakamuro. "No more death."
Nakamuro began to say something to the repentant samurai, but the sudden wailing of Tamori Chosai stopped him. Chosai's burning form rose from the ground, his arms cast out in agony. "Yes!" he cried in a wretched voice. "Yes, I accept, my brother! I will bear your burden!"
"What?" asked a confused Bairei. "Who is he talking to?"
The flames surrounding Chosai's burning form flared brighter, and suddenly his flesh began to reform, slowly at first and then with incredible speed, until he was standing before them, whole once more and surrounded by a nimbus of blackened fire. When he spoke again, his voice was not his own. "You cannot thwart Jigoku, fools!" he shouted. "The flesh is merely a tool! There will always be a Dark Oracle of Fire!"
"No!" screamed Shaitung, her voice ragged with pain. "Uncle, no! Fight it! Not again, please!"
A blur moved across the chamber, and Maya appeared before Nakamuro, the Dark Covenant in her hands. "I hope you know how to use this, Phoenix," she said. Even her tranquil expression showed the beginning of fear.
Nakamuro seized the Covenant. "Tamori Chosai!" he shouted. "I hold the Dark Covenant! Attend me!"
Chosai let out a sound that was half-laughter and half a cry of pain. Nakamuro did not relent, rising painfully to his feet as he stood before the Oracle.
"Make your request, Phoenix," Chosai said, scowling at the lantern.
"I command you to leave Rokugan as swiftly as you are able and never return!" he said.
Chosai's eyes widened. "Damn you, Phoenix!" he roared. "Damn you!" Chosai's form began to fade into the fire. For a moment, the dark fire in his eyes faded, and he cast a sorrowful look at his niece before he disappeared entirely. In his absence, the cavern seemed strangely dark and silent.
Shaitung bowed her head, a single tear streaming down her marble face. Nakamuro felt a deep pang of sorrow in his heart as well. For a woman who controlled her emotions such as she, it was an enormous display. She had watched her family fall to darkness, but had survived. She remained strong. Nakamuro tried to rise, to go to her, but the pain in his chest drove him to his knees again. He felt Maya's arm around his shoulders, lending him strength.
"All is well, Phoenix," she whispered to him. "She would not accept your comfort even if you offered, but she appreciates it just the same."
Shaitung looked back at the others, soulful eyes fixing on Nakamuro's briefly. "Let us leave this place," she whispered, her husky voice choked with grief.
Isawa Nakamuro moved slowly, the bandages that wrapped his ribs chafing his sides as he walked. Bairei was an excellent physician as well as being talented with healing magic, but there were wounds that only time could heal. Even now, the scholar was making preparations for the two of them to return home. But Nakamuro could not leave yet.
The precipice that overlooked the valley below Shiro Tamori was strangely still, with none of the winds that normally buffeted anyone traveling through the family's lands. It was almost as if the mountains, like Shaitung, were quietly grieving the loss of their own. Shaitung stood silently, motionless, looking over the horizon. Nakamuro could not approach her. After several minutes, he cleared his throat. "Shaitung-sama, we are about to leave. I just… I wanted to thank you once again. And to tell you… I'm sorry."
"There is no need for you to apologize, Nakamuro," she answered. "You have done my family a great service. We are forever in your debt. I am in your debt."
The Master of Air nodded. He turned to leave, but stopped. He stood for another few moments, his back turned to the mourning shugenja. "Shaitung," he began. "I have to tell you… I must tell you that… I…."
"Don't," she said softly. "There is nothing to be done. I am the Tamori daimyo. You are the Master of Air. We both have responsibilities that we cannot set aside. Not for any reason. You know that."
"Yes," he said. "Yes, I know."
"Then you know that I must stay, and you must go." Her voice had changed, and Nakamuro imagined that she had turned to face his back. "My father and uncle are gone. I have only the Tamori now. Do not ask met to give that up."
Nakamuro nodded. He turned to walk away, then paused. "You are a stubborn woman, Shaitung," he said. "You would remain here in solitude so that you are never harmed again, lonely like the mountain."
Shaitung turned, peering over one pale shoulder at Nakamuro. One eyebrow raised questioningly. "You have your own responsibilities, Nakamuro. The Council must be reformed."
"Distance is nothing to the Master of Air," Nakamuro said. "I can attend my duties there and return here from time to time."
"Why would you do that?" she asked, tilting her head curiously.
"You are not the only one who knows loss, Shaitung," Nakamuro replied. "And unlike the Elemental Council, loss is not an enemy that can be conquered alone. Send me away if you must, but I will return. If you must be the mountains, then I will be the relentless wind."
"How poetic," Shaitung said, laughing slightly. "I thought you were a Phoenix, not a Crane." She turned back toward the mountains. "Do as you will, Phoenix. If you must act a fool, I shall not stop you. Sayonara."
Nakamuro smiled faintly. It was not much of an acknowledgment, but for Shaitung it was something.
"Sayonara, Shaitung-san," Nakamuro said. He cast one final look at her, silhouetted against the mountain landscape, then turned to leave.