The little girl ran with the wind, splashing through the brook with a squeal of glee. It would be dark soon, and her parents would be calling her in for the evening meal. But for now, she did not care. She wanted only to run, to feel the wind in her face, the water on her feet, to catch the fireflies in the light of the fading sun. She leapt to catch a particularly bright firefly, the wind billowing her hair out behind her. Her bright, cheery laughter filled the warm summer evening. And from behind her, her laughter was answered.
Her father came through the meadow after her, a wide smile on his face. The little girl adored her father, just as her parents adored one another. She was only a child, but she had seen other adults in the village, and it was obvious they did not feel toward each other the way her parents felt toward one another. One day, she vowed, she would find someone to love that same way. She would never undergo the cold, stark life she saw in the others.
Hand in hand with her father, the little girl ran back across the meadow toward home, laughing all the way.
* * * *
Isawa Riake bowed reverently as she was given her wakizashi by the sensei of the dojo where she had spent the last several years in training. She had dreamt of this moment for years, ever since she first experienced the rapture of communing with the kami. Try as she might, she could not conceal her radiant smile. Her sensei smiled back at her, although very briefly. The old man had told her that she was the most gifted tensai he had trained in generations. His prediction was that one day she would rise to the rank of Acolyte.
Riake looked up and glanced briefly to those assembled to witness the ceremony. She could make out the distinguished visage of her aging parents. They looked so proud of her. It was all she could do not to run to them and thank them for the many things they had done her whole life to help her arrive at this point. But that would be a childish and dishonorable thing to do, and she was now a young woman in service to the Phoenix Clan. There would be time for honoring her parents later.
As she quickly looked across the way the other instructors, Riake could make out the form of Isawa Hochiu, the Elemental Master of Fire. Though they were very different, both in personality and course of study, she had been greatly privileged to enjoy several lengthy discussions during her study at the school. He was wise beyond his years, and a hero of the Empire. He favored her with a small, proud smile. She smiled, blushed furiously, and looked down.
Her whole life was before her, and it would be marvelous.
This was not at all what she had imagined.
Isawa Riake had been elevated to the rank of Elemental Master of Water a mere six months ago. At the time, it had seemed to be a dream come true, the fulfillment of her every wish and desire. Now, after just a short time, it seemed so empty.
The Council of Masters had just ordered the mobilization of troops into the northern mountains of the clan's holdings. There was some sort of internal conflict among the Yobanjin tribes, it seemed, and several large groups of refugees had fled south into Phoenix lands. Riake felt sympathy for the pitiful wretches, but she was alone among the council in this.
Hochiu seemed smug, almost excited over the prospect of the combat. His personality had changed over the years, becoming more and more like the raging flames he summoned. When had she begun to love him? When she was still his student, she supposed. His legendary status throughout the Empire had only fanned the flames of the passion she felt for him.
A cold weight settled in Riake's heart. She was to journey to the northern borders and assist Isawa Taeruko in the expulsion of the Yobanjin refugees. Magic had always been a spiritual thing to her, a beautiful experience. The thought of making use of it to destroy made her sick. Hochiu had chided her for such "foolishness." He insisted she would come to understand the necessity of it, perhaps even to enjoy it.
Riake hoped she would die before that happened.
She awoke to darkness. Searing pain filled her thoughts. As her eyes slowly grew accustomed to the pale red glow illuminating the subterranean chamber, she glanced at her left arm. It was shattered, nearly ripped from her body by the fall to the rocks from far above. The pain was almost overwhelming.
"Riake!" hissed a voice. Riake gathered her wits to attempt to heal her injuries while glancing around for the source. The exertion of the spell was more than she expected, almost as if the kami could not answer her summons. In the dim light, she could make out Hochiu. He looked haggard, almost panicked. Beyond him were four other figures. The other Elemental Masters, of course, and…
She started suddenly, climbing halfway to her feet. Tamori Shaitung was still alive. Why had the others not killed her? Her relentless assault had nearly destroyed the council. Riake had not been prepared for the Dragon's total lack of self-preservation, her relentless magical assault that had defeated first Riake and Nakamuro, then opened a crevasse to swallow the six of them when the three remaining Masters appeared to attack her. Shaitung had been willing to do anything to achieve victory, even if it meant sacrificing herself.
The Master of Water found her voice as the warmth of her own healing spell enveloped her. "Why is she still…" her voice trailed off as Hochiu made a frantic gesture for her to be silent. She frowned. It was unlike Hochiu to seem so out of sorts, even considering their exceptional circumstances. Riake started to ask what the matter was when she sensed something. Something dark and incredibly powerful. Only then did she notice the others were all staring at something behind her.
Riake slowly turned, a growing sense of fear and panic blossoming in her heart. There lay a great pool of liquid rock, burning red and white with its fury. She had not noticed the temperature in the cavern, but it was incredible. Sweat ran down her face in streams, drenching her bloodstained kimono. The thought of the heat was forgotten as soon as it came, however.
Something was moving in the lava. It shifted and hissed with each stirring movement. Riake was transfixed, just as were the others, as the form of a man rose from the liquid rock. The lava flowed off of his flawless skin like water, leaving even his blood red robes untouched. He did not seem to notice. He fixed the group with his burning red eyes, taking in each of them in turn. With a voice that roared and crackled like a raging wildfire, he spoke.
"Who dares disturb me?"
"Father!" cried Tamori Shaitung.
"Agasha Tamori," whispered Shiba Ningen in a voice that quaked in either awe or fear. Riake could not tell which.
"Yes, my darling daughter. It is so good to see you once again. I fear I have little in the way of refreshments to offer you and your friends, however. How is your mother?"
Shaitung stared at her father incredulously. "Father, you are yet a Dragon!" she pleaded. "Fight the madness! Help us win the war against the Phoenix! Punish them for their arrogance!"
Tamori laughed. It was a horribly cheerful sound. Riake remained strangely transfixed by the sight of the man. He was beautiful, more beautiful than any man she had ever seen. Even though her she was nauseated by the mystical sense of corruption and Taint that he radiated, she longed to caress the flesh of his bare shoulder. The Oracle continued his gloating. "You think that I would stop your war? Foolish girl. I will not destroy that which I have created."
"What?" rasped Riake. She was still transfixed by his beauty. There was something in his eyes, something that reminded her vaguely of Hochiu.
"Oh yes, little ones. Even as I struggled with the power trying to consume me, I could sense the alliance between the Lion and Phoenix, one conceived to battle the Horde. I could not allow such a thing, for in my weakened condition I might have proven vulnerable. So I provided a reason for the Phoenix to face other adversaries."
"The volcano," muttered Shaitung. "All the death and destruction…to protect you?"
"Yes! To protect me, and to punish the Dragon! After all my efforts on behalf of the clan, they betrayed me! My own family…traitors! How dare they dishonor me so?"
"Traitors?" shouted Hochiu. "It was your treachery that drove them to join us! It is you who dishonored the Empire by serving as the Hantei's lapdog!"
Tamori's face was transformed by rage, destroying the illusion of his beauty. "Arrogant pup! You dare address a Dark Oracle with such insolence?"
"Hochiu!" whispered Nakamuro. "Do not do it!"
Hochiu squared his shoulders and faced Tamori without fear. "I am Isawa Hochiu, Elemental Master of Fire and the destroyer of the Living Shadow. Even the power of an Oracle is nothing before me." With a sudden gesture, Hochiu summoned a great wave of flame from the air and sent it rolling across the cavern to engulf Tamori. A triumphant shout issued from the Master of Fire, who sent blast after blast of unrelenting, elemental fury toward the inferno where Tamori had stood.
"No!" shouted Nakamuro. "This is madness!"
"Yes!" cried Taeruko, a vicious grin on her face. She drew back her arm and hurled it forward suddenly. As she moved, a gigantic column of earth ripped itself free of the cavern floor and slammed into the barely visible outline of the Oracle. He disappeared under the crushing wave of earth.
Riake glanced to Shaitung, wondering if the Dragon would aid her father. Riake would have to destroy her if so, for Hochiu and Taerko were paying no attention to her at all. The Dragon stepped forward with tears streaking her eyes and an enraged snarl upon her lips. Riake cursed beneath her breath and prepared a spell to strike Shaitung down, but stopped suddenly as Shaitung joined the assault on Tamori.
"Damn you, father! You are a traitor and a disgrace, and I despise you for your weakness!" Her assault was every bit as furious as the Masters', and Nakamuro stepped back from her in alarm. Likewise, Riake could hear Shiba Ningen behind her, muttering under his breath. He simply whispered "No, no, no" over and over again. Had the horror of what was happening snapped his mind, Riake wondered? Hochiu and Taeruko continued their assault, never relenting. For a moment, it seemed as though they might have proven victorious.
There was a sudden blur of movement from the flame. Tamori erupted from the conflagration and lashed out at Taeruko. The blow caught her squarely across the jaw and sent her flying through the cavern. Hochiu attempted to throw himself from her path, but could not. Her unconscious form caught him fully in the chest and threw both of them back across the cavern to land near Ningen.
"Weakness, daughter? I will show you strength such as you have never seen!" Roaring like some great inhuman beast, Tamori lifted both hands to the ceiling. A massive wave of lava rose from the pit and crashed across the cavern toward the Masters like the great tsunami that sometimes devastated Rokugan's coast. Riake attempted to summon a counter-spell to repel the lava, but the water kami would not answer her call. They had been all but driven from this place by the Dark Oracle's presence. She ground her teeth and poured her very soul into the spell, desperate for something that would save them.
From the corner of her eye she could see Nakamuro grab Shaitung's arm. He was shouting at her, but Riake could not make out the words. Something about escape and warning the clans. Riake felt a surge of grateful relief at the thought: the Phoenix must be warned of this new and deadly threat. With much convincing and forceful shoving, Nakamuro took Shaitung down a side-corridor that was collapsing even as they fled. They, at least, would be safe.
Just as the wave began to crest over the Masters, a thick dome of ice sprang up to cover them. Riake could see immediately that it was not large enough. There simply were not enough kami to create it. Ningen, Hochiu, and Taeruko were protected as the lava washed over them. The ice cooled the lava almost instantly, forming a massive dome of solid stone that covered the three of them.
Though the lava did not reach Riake, the searing cloud of steam created by the interaction of fire and ice did. It rolled over the dome and enveloped Riake even as she collapsed from the exertion of her protective spell. She did not even have the energy to scream as it burned the skin from her body. The damage was horrible, more than she could hope to heal without the kami to call on.
She was dying.
Through the haze of pain, she could hear Tamori tearing through the stone that blocked the path Shaitung and Nakamuro had taken. He seemed oblivious to the notion that the Masters might be alive within the dome. Or perhaps he simply did not care. In moments, he had disappeared into the passageway, calling his daughter's name at the top of his lungs.
Riake's life began slipping away. It was not painful. There was almost a calming effect. She regretted only that she could not say goodbye to Hochiu. She had never confessed her love for him, but she knew that he was aware of it. He was simply not the kind of man who could openly express it.
She smiled while thinking of him, and died.
* * * *
Inside the dome, Hochiu pounded on the stone walls furiously. "Riake!" he shouted. "Riake! Can you hear me?"
"Hochiu," Ningen said quietly. "She is dying. She saved us, but could not save herself. And without Taeruko," he gestured to the unconscious Master of Earth at his feet, "we cannot free ourselves."
"I am the Elemental Master of Fire!" Hochiu screamed in Ningen's face. "I will not be imprisoned by mere stone!" He began chanting. It was a powerful incantation, one that could incinerate an entire mountain. This stone dome would be destroyed utterly, and they would be free.
"Hochiu," Ningen said simply. "If you unleash your power, you will indeed free us. We will become nothing more than ash upon the wind. There is neither enough room nor air in this chamber to support such a conflagration."
Hochiu ground his teeth and pulled at his hair. "There is nothing we can do for her? No way we can save her?"
Ningen shook his head. "Hochiu, we may not even be able to save ourselves. I can create enough sustenance for myself, but for the three of us…I do not think I can keep us alive for very long."
"I will not die here," Hochiu said. It was pure statement of fact, nothing less.
Ningen stroked his chin thoughtfully. "I can foresee another. One who will come seeking us. I cannot see how long, but I can ensure we survive."
"How?" demanded Hochiu.
"I can merge our spirits with the Void, which will place us all into a deep slumber. We will require no food, drink, or air. Our bodies will not age. We will exist in stasis until we are awakened."
"How long can you maintain it?"
Ningen shrugged slightly. "I have never spend more than a week in such a slumber, although there is no reason it could not last indefinitely."
Hochiu frowned. "What of Taeruko's injuries?"
"I do not know," said Ningen. "If they are not serious, then her body will remain exactly as is until we are awakened. If she is hurt badly enough," the Master of Void shrugged again, "then the Void will call to her spirit. She may not awaken."
Ningen watched as Hochiu considered the options. He was a man of action, and not accustomed to requiring aid from others. Like Ningen, he knew that this was a desperate gamble, but perhaps their only option. Finally, the Master of Fire looked up and met Ningen's calm eyes with his own fiery gaze.
"Do what you must. We will survive, no matter the odds. The Masters cannot be defeated."