EVEN UNTO DEATH
(THE TEST OF THE JADE CHAMPION)
By Rich Wulf and Shawn Carman
At times, Tsubeko believed she might be dreaming. The Celestial Heavens were
beyond paradise, beyond even words to describe their beauty and serenity. Her
time here had been short, yet she felt as if she had spent a lifetime in Tengoku.
The physical realm of Rokugan seemed a distant memory. Tsubeko knew that he had
been here only a few days, but her recollection of the Empire was hazy, as if it
had been years since she had walked the hills of her homeland.
A boisterous laugh broke Tsubeko's reverie. "Come now! Even among the clouds, you Phoenix dream of other places. All your lives, you study the Fortunes. Now that one of you finds yourself among the Heavens, you think of Ningen-do!" A powerfully built man several feet taller than Tsubeko strode across the forge to stand next to the young Phoenix weaponsmith. "Is it possible for members of your clan to be satisfied with anything?"
Tsubeko lowered her head respectfully. "I beg your pardon, Tsi Xing Guo. I meant no insult. I am simply... overwhelmed."
"It is only just!" The Fortune of Steel nodded solemnly. "At times it seems that my own ascension was not long ago. I remember well the frailties of mortal life." He gazed pointedly at Tsubeko. "You have done well. I know that my choice was correct." Tsi Xing Guo looked at Tsubeko's creation, cooling even now. "And what will you do with your gifts?"
The Shiba looked down at the weapons she had crafted in the Celestial Forge, a brilliant pair of ebony jitte. "I will find one worthy to bear them. One who can bring order to the Empire. One with the strength to wield them properly." Tsubeko looked up at the Fortune. "They were never meant for me. I know that now. My task is only partially complete."
The Fortune frowned. "Indeed it is. The most difficult portion is still to come."
The Temple of the Morning Sun was silent today, but it was hardly peaceful.
Armored bushi stood atop hastily constructed fortifications. Hands once folded
in prayer now grasped the hilts of katana and the wooden shafts of yumi. Asahina
Kimita and Asahina Sekawa walked side by side, eyes fixed upon the crystal blue
"At least the sea is at peace, brother," Kimita said softly. Her white-painted face was sad. The fields west of the Temple of the Asahina were blackened, salted and destroyed by the soldiers of Hida Kagore. Shugenja in sky blue robes wandered the fields, drawing upon magic to heal the damage done. "Why must our family be the ones to pay for this war?" she asked.
Sekawa shrugged and smiled faintly. "What do you expect, sister?" he asked. "Do you expect Yasuki Hachi and Hida Kuon to come out here and heal the earth themselves?"
"Why shouldn't they?" Kimita demanded, wrinkling her brow in irritation. "The purpose of our family is to understand the mysteries of the kami, not to heal salted farmland."
"Our purpose is to serve, sister," Sekawa replied calmly. "Doji Kurohito believes that purpose is best served by war with the Crab. We must trust his judgment, even if we disagree."
Kimita sighed. "Let us not begin this argument again."
"Agreed," Sekawa replied cheerfully. "Now let us pay our respects to our uncle."
The two Asahina entered the tower. The chamber within was small. Though a brazier sat in each corner of the room, there seemed to be nothing that could be done about the terrible chill. As long as Sekawa and Kimita could remember coming here, it had always been cold.
"Konichiwa, uncle," the siblings said, bowing in unison.
A tall man in flowing blue robes turned from the window. He fixed the pair with sad blue eyes, and gestured for them to be seated. The two young shugenja did so, watching their uncle with carefully practiced expressions.
"Sekawa-kun, Kimita-chan," Asahina Tamako said, smiling fondly. "It is good to see you. What brings you to my tower?"
"We came to seek your blessing, uncle," Sekawa replied. "Toturi's heirs have declared a Test of the Jade Champion."
Tamako frowned. "What became of Kuni Utagu?" he asked.
"Utagu-sama is dead, uncle," Kimita explained. "For some time now."
Tamako shook his head slowly. "I hear nothing of the outside," he said with a sigh. "Some days I feel like a memory better off forgotten." Tamako turned to the window again. The younger Asahina siblings remained silent, leaving their uncle to his reflections.
Once, Tamako had been daimyo of their family. He was born under powerful omens, the seventh son of a seventh son. Surely a great destiny was in his future. During the Battle of Oblivion's Gate, Tamako joined Kuwanan's army as a healer. Sadly, like many others who fought at Volturnum, Tamako's wounds became infected with the Shadowlands Taint. Though he returned home alive, he could no longer be trusted to serve as leader of the Asahina. Tamako retired to this tower to continue his meditations, well guarded by magical wards to help him contain the corruption brewing inside. Tamako's six brothers swore not to abandon him, and visited Tamako regularly to help him maintain the strength to resist the darkness.
When they died, that vow passed to their children.
Now Sekawa and Kimita, grandchildren of Tamako's brother Koji, had accepted the duty.
Since he had become Tainted, Asahina Tamako had not aged a day.
"Kimita and I wish to enter this tournament," Sekawa said softly. "We seek your blessing, uncle."
"My blessing?" Tamako asked. "I am damned. What worth is my blessing?"
"You are a hero, uncle," Kimita replied. "You are a symbol of our family's struggle against evil."
"Why?" Tamako asked. "Because I refuse to die? A hero needs to be more than stubborn, child. A hero must be prepared to sacrifice himself for the greater good. For almost thirty years I have remained here. I have watched my brothers age and die. I have watched the world change, and I have felt the darkness grow. I feel the new Dark Lord's call; he whispers that the great omens that heralded my birth are unfulfilled. I know that if I were to step free from these wards and cease to resist the Taint, I would become a mighty servant of Jigoku. Perhaps a Dark Oracle. I am no hero, Kimita. I am the basest form of coward. Had I the bravery you imagine, I would remove the threat of my existence from your shoulders. My weakness was my arrogance... one should never rely upon one's destiny to guide the way. Only actions insure the future."
Neither Kimita nor Sekawa spoke. Both knew their uncle well enough to realize that arguing would serve no purpose.
"But your cause is worthy," Tamako said finally, eyes closing in deep thought. "You are strong, both of you. I believe either of you would make a worthy Jade Champion. You shall have my blessing, on one condition..."
"Yes, uncle?" Sekawa asked.
"Take me with you to Otosan Uchi," he said.
"But uncle, the wards," Sekawa said. "If you leave the tower, you will not be able to resist your Taint."
"I will not need to resist the Taint for long," Tamako replied. "The Jade Champion's purpose is to protect the Empire from Tainted magic. "I ask only that when you triumph, you begin your purification of the Empire... with me."
Akodo Kaneka stood in the middle of the road, watching as a virtual army of
artisans consumed the grounds of Kyuden Nio with silken banners and folded paper
decorations. The preparations for the Jade Championship had begun. At the edge
of the grounds he saw a tall man in green robes directing the efforts of a trio
of Crane ice sculptors. Smirking, Kaneka strode forward to meet him.
"Does all this ostentation serve a purpose," Kaneka asked, "or does it just help you flowers of the court feel more important?"
Hantei Naseru fixed a withering gaze on his half-brother. "The Jade Championship is a position of critical importance," he said calmly. "It is essential that we treat this ceremony with dignity and respect. These are two concepts I should expect you know little about, but I cannot fault you the consequences of your upbringing, can I, Akodo?" The three Cranes quickly turned away, hiding their mocking smiles.
The Bastard scowled. "Respect?" he repeated. "As you treated the Emerald Championship with respect?"
"I treated the Emerald Championship with the greatest respect, as was the wish of my father, Toturi," Naseru answered, stressing the word 'my.' "I endeavored to keep every element of the Test pure, adhering to the statutes of tradition. If the winner of the test was not worthy, then perhaps it is his own fault."
"Bah," Kaneka replied. "You hide behind rules and traditions, brother. You play games with people's lives."
"Perhaps," Naseru said. "At least I have a purpose. I am not some hunting wolf, ranging about the edges of the camp and picking for scraps I do not deserve."
Kaneka's lips pressed into a firm line. He reached for his sword.
"Do it," Naseru said, meeting Kaneka's gaze squarely. "Kill me now. Let us see how the murder of your more legitimate rival will aid your quest for my father's throne. Strike me down. Tsudao will be coronated tomorrow, and the Empire will finally perceive you as the rabid dog you are. My death will serve a purpose, as your life never did."
Kaneka stayed his hand. "Someday, brother," Kaneka said. "Your words will not be enough to save you."
"Not today, Akodo," Naseru replied.
Kaneka shook his head and turned his back on Naseru, headed for Otosan Uchi once more.
"Otosan Uchi," Doji Nagori said with a broad smile, gesturing to
the great city in the distance. "The gem of the Empire. Every time I see
her, my breath is taken away. I call myself a storyteller, but I find myself
unable to describe my feelings when I see this place. No matter what turn of
phrase I use, I feel it will be insufficient. Words fail me."
"Obviously," Bayushi Norachai replied.
The storyteller gave the magistrate a piercing look. Norachai simply smiled.
"Norachai, ride ahead to West Hub and arrange accommodations for the men," Yasuki Hachi said, riding forth to meet his advisors. "I will meet you there later. I must meet with Toturi Tsudao and thank her for offering troops to support us."
"Right away, Emerald Champion-sama," Norachai replied. He bowed from his saddle and galloped off without another word.
"That one's strange for a Scorpion," Nagori said, riding alongside Hachi. "I can't quite decide whether to trust him."
"Then trust him," Hachi replied. "The best way to determine the depth of a Scorpion's nest is to step in it. If nothing else, perhaps trust will shock him into revealing something."
"I'm not sure if that's the best advice," Nagori said.
Hachi shrugged. "Norachai does not concern me, nor do the Scorpion. I have plans for them. In the meantime, I place my suspicions where they are warranted." Hachi pointed to his left. In the distance, a figure in orange robes rode among the Emerald Legionnaires - Isawa Minoru. The Phoenix who had requested an escort home after the debacle in Friendly Traveler Village.
"Yes," Nagori said with a nod. "Minoru-san has spent a great deal of time speaking with young Hiroshi."
"The Kaiu?" Hachi replied. "The youth we're escorting to Dragon territory?"
"The same," Nagori said.
"Complications within complications," Hachi sighed. "Keep an eye on them both, Nagori."
The storyteller nodded.
Hachi shook his head and kicked his horse to a gallop. "Some days I think my life would be easier if I handed off the Emerald Armor to the first samurai I saw."
"Then why don't you?" Nagori called after him with a laugh.
"Do you want it?" Hachi shot back over his shoulder.
"Not for all the riches of the Crane!" Nagori answered.
The first day of the Tournament.
A frown marred Toturi Tsudao's lovely features as she stared out from her balcony toward South Hub Village. The Test was barely underway and already the proceedings had been marred by the dispute between her brothers. Even with fabulous contests of mystical skill and power proceeding in front of them, most of the assembled observers were too busy whispering about Naseru and Kaneka to give thought to the tournament.
It was Winter Court all over again.
Tsudao looked back at the stand where her armor rested. Would it always end in conflict? Often, she found herself fearing that her life would be filled with nothing but war and suffering. She closed her eyes, lowering her head and bringing her hand to lightly touch her forehead, as her mother taught her. She must find her center, and remain focused at all times. This was no time for weakness.
Shouting outside her chamber interrupted her moment of calm. Without warning, the doors flew open and a man entered, covered with the filth of the road. Tsudao moved like the wind itself. In mere seconds the man was pressed against the wall, her aiguchi at his throat, sharp steel hovering a hair's breadth from his flesh.
The Sword's eyes darted up and down the man's form quickly, noting the lion's-paw mon on his armor. "What is your purpose here, Matsu? By what right do you enter my chambers?"
"I beg your indulgence, Lady Sun," rasped the man. "I was ordered by my daimyo to come directly to Otosan Uchi into your presence with a message of the utmost urgency. The guards forbade me entrance. I only wished to fulfill my duty, and did my best not to harm them. I will gladly perform the three cuts once I have honored my daimyo's command."
Tsudao slowly removed the blade from the man's throat. "Speak quickly."
"The Tsuno have increased their attacks. They drive deeper into our territory every day. With our armies still returning from the war to the north, we are hard pressed to halt their advance. We will give our lives gladly to halt their advance, but our numbers grow less with each passing hour. My commander Kitsu Dejiko bade me bring you this news."
The Sword turned on her heel and shouted for her servants. When they arrived, she gestured sharply at her armor. "Prepare it," she said simply. "Have my steed readied as well. Send word to the barracks that we ride to the Lion lands within the hour." She turned back to the Matsu, who knelt upon the floor of her chamber with his wakizashi set before him. "On your feet," she barked. "I'll not waste a life that could take another from the Tsuno. And besides," she clutched her blades and headed for the door, the Matsu following, "that rug was a gift from my brother."
Few stood in the path of Yasuki Hachi. The normally cheerful young man strode
through the courtyard with a purpose, the badge of his office prominently
displayed upon his armor. A large number of Phoenix samurai and shugenja stood
about Kyuden Nio; presumably they had earned the honor of protecting the
tournament as the Scorpion had protected the Emerald Championship. If there were
greater political games afoot here Hachi couldn't be bothered to care. Toturi
Tsudao and Hantei Naseru had requested the Emerald Champion's presence at the
officiating of the duels. In truth, Hachi knew that his presence was essentially
meaningless. Few in the Empire regarded him as anything more than a pawn, and
even those who knew better did not believe that he could overcome the stigma
surrounding his appointment. It was maddening.
Regardless of public perception, Hachi could not argue the logic of their request. It was only fitting that the Emerald Champion be present at the Test of the Jade Champion. He hastened to take his place among the ranks of the court. Noting his fellow Crane, Doji Tanitsu, Hachi quickly moved to join him. Shiba Yoma, the so-called "Voice of the Elemental Masters," had apparently chosen Tanitsu's counsel as well. Hachi winced slightly; he knew Yoma and was not looking forward to dealing with him. Like most Phoenix, Yoma took every opportunity to snipe at the new Emerald Champion. Hachi cared little for Yoma's agenda and even less for his company. It seemed he was doomed to be at odds with the Phoenix Clan. Hachi sighed.
"Yasuki Hachi-san!" called a voice from the crowd.
The young Champion turned to face the one who had called him, expecting to find Norachai or Nagori with news of some new crisis developing in a remote region of the Empire. Instead, he found himself face to face with an older man wearing inky black robes that glittered as if peppered with stars. Smiling broadly, the older man bowed low from the waist in a show of respect. "I had hoped to meet you this day, Yasuki Hachi. I am honored. I am Naka Tokei."
Hachi's eyes widened in surprise before he remembered his manners and returned Tokei's bow. "Naka Tokei," he said numbly. "One of the legendary heroes that fought beside Emperor Toturi in the Clan Wars. I'm... I'm..."
Tanitsu stepped to Hachi's side, bowing as well. "Hachi-sama is a man of action, not words, Tokei-sama. Meeting the Grand Master of the Elements is a delight we had not expected this day. Please excuse his surprise. He is honored by your presence."
"Of course," Tokei nodded. "A sense of wonder is important in this life."
"Will you be remaining for the rest of the contest?" Hachi asked, rapidly composing himself. "I am certain the Winds would be honored if the Grand Master would oversee the tournament."
Tokei shook his head. "I cannot. I am needed elsewhere. Besides..." He smiled. "Why should I deserve such an honor? Imagine a simple ronin like myself overseeing the Jade Championship!" Tokei laughed, a warm laugh that caused Hachi and Tanitsu to chuckle.
"Good day to you, Hachi-sama, Tokei-sama, Tanitsu-san." Shiba Yoma, interposed himself in the conversation with a sharp bow. Hachi grimaced inwardly. "I hope the tournament is finding you well," Yoma said.
Forcing a polite smile, Hachi replied "Indeed it is."
Tokei turned toward Yoma with a curious look. "You know my brother," he said simply.
Yoma smiled quizzically. "Why yes, Tokei-sama. I am honored to know Lord Morito. His lands lie close to those of my family, and I have often..."
"I should visit my brother soon. Perhaps I will see you there?"
Mouth slightly agape, Yoma stuttered "B-but of course, Tokei-sama. It would be my great honor to escort you to Kyuden Morito. It is truly a marvelous estate, with many..."
"Well," Tokei interrupted the Phoenix, "I must be on my way. I merely wanted to meet you, Hachi. And to wish you luck. Remember this: the future lies in the past."
Hachi frowned. "I am sorry, Tokei-sama. I do not understand."
"You will." Tokei bowed one last time and disappeared into the crowd, fading from view before Hachi could say another word.
"Well," said Tanitsu, adjusting his kimono. "That was interesting."
Asahina Kimita sat motionless, deep in meditation in the small shrine. She
could sense the flow of elements despite her exertions from the duels she had
already participated in this day. She rejuvenated her spirit by immersing
herself in the symphony of silence. That silence was interrupted by the rustling
of cloth in the doorway.
"Sekawa-san," she said without looking up. "Please join me."
A soft chuckle came from the door. "I could never surprise you, Kimita. Not even when we were children." Asahina Sekawa knelt beside Kimita, his eyes on the shrine as were hers. "I did not mean to disturb you. I merely wanted to wish you good fortune in the next rounds of the Test."
"You are too kind, Sekawa," Kimita smiled. "You have done well, have you not? I saw your duel against the Unicorn earlier this afternoon. It was most remarkable. It is possible that we could wish each other good fortune once more before we duel one another for the position of Jade Champion. It would be a proud day for our ancestors if such came to pass."
"It would indeed," agreed Sekawa. A grin appeared on his face. "If that comes to pass, I will not insult you by inviting your concession."
A similar wry smile graced Kimita's delicate painted features. "And I will not insult you by laughing in your face, dearest brother."
Tsudao stood in full armor, directing her Legionnaires as they prepared to
march. Hantei Naseru and Doji Tanitsu waited nearby. "My mind is made up,
brother. I leave with my troops for the Kitsu provinces immediately. Every
moment delayed means more deaths."
"Of course, Tsudao-san," Naseru replied. "I will be more than happy to see to the tournament in your absence."
She hesitated for the briefest of moments. "Yes. Yes, of course, Naseru."
Naseru tapped his fan against his chin gently. Tsudao was concerned, that much was clear. It was unlike her to show uneasiness in the face of battle, so it must be something else. The contest perhaps?
"Tsudao-san," he said gently, "let us not mar this grand occasion with the conflicts of our family. Perhaps Tanitsu would agree to arbitrate the Test in my stead. I am certain that his many allies among the clans would recognize him as an impartial master of ceremonies."
Tsudao turned to the Crane. "Tanitsu?"
A look of mild surprise crossed Tanitsu's face. "Of course, Naseru-sama. Tsudao-sama. I would be honored to perform this service for you. Naseru-sama, you flatter me with your kind assessment of my meager skills as a diplomat."
"I never flatter," Naseru said simply. "Your reputation speaks for itself, my friend."
Relief washed over Tsudao's features, brining a smile to her face. "You will be perfect, Tanitsu. As you always have been. Thank you." She turned to face her brother. "And thank you, brother. Your wisdom far surpasses your years."
Naseru only nodded as his sister rode away.
Earlier in the tournament, there had been a constant, subdued murmuring
during most of the duels, the chanting of shugenja in other competitions. Now
that the field had narrowed to four competitors, there was only silence. Kimita
gazed across the field at her opponent, a rather wiry man in flowing feathered
robes of bright orange. Notorious for his stoic demeanor, Isawa Nodotai betrayed
no hint of emotion or concern. His features might as well have been hewn from
stone. The duels of the Jade test were like those of the Emerald test - more a
test of skill than a battle to the death. Each shugenja would have a limited
amount of time in which to demonstrate their superior magical talent.
"Phoenix-san," Kimita called to him. "Would you permit me to perform the tea ceremony prior to our match? It seems only fitting."
Nodotai furrowed his brow. "No thank you, Asahina-sama. I wish only to conclude our business and move on."
"Of course. As you wish." With that, both shugenja began focusing their energies. Nodotai's intent was obvious almost immediately. A small fire began at his feet, swirling and encircling him as it built in intensity. Kimita smiled. The Phoenix were always so intent on size and scope. Subtlety was lost upon them. Perhaps, after today, Nodotai would understand a little more.
Kimita listened to the whispers of the wind. She imagined the wind that whistled about Nodotai's head, rustling through his hair and echoing in his ears. She delicately glimpsed inside his mind, as gentle as the morning breeze. There must be something that would benefit her efforts...
There. A girl. No, a woman. A samurai-ko, bearing the trappings of the Lion's Pride. All too easy.
Smiling, Kimita began orchestrating the winds in a very specific, very elaborate pattern. As tiny flecks of debris became trapped in their circuit, an image began to form. An image made of the wind itself. An image of a girl. It was exquisitely beautiful. There were gasps of amazement from the crowd. Nodotai opened his eyes to see what Kimita was doing.
His eyes wide with shock, Nodotai rocked back on his heels, almost falling. "Who is she, Nodotai?" he heard Kimita's soft voice whisper in his mind. "Does she know how you feel? You've never even spoken to her, have you? Only fought beside her wordlessly against the Dragon Clan. When your war is done, you shall never see her again. So tragic."
Gritting his teeth, Nodotai struggled to regain control of the flames dancing about him. They were beginning to fade in intensity. Kimita did not relent. "The image of her in your mind... it is so beautiful. Is she truly such a marvel? Or do you see her with your soul instead of your eyes? I can only imagine the happiness you might share if you would but speak to her."
A gasp of anguish escaped Nodotai's lips. His features were contorted in frustration and confusion. Clearly, the powerful shugenja was completely unable to deal with the emotions Kimita had unleashed within him. Sweat drenched his brow as he fought for control of the energies he had summoned.
But it was too late. The flames flickered and died at his feet. He stood shaking and pale as Kimita's winds danced about the circle before dissipating. There was a murmur of approval from the crowd. Kimita bowed low to the dazed Nodotai, who barely seemed to acknowledge her presence. She turned to rest in the temple before the final match.
Yasuki Hachi leaned against the wall of Kyuden Nio, eyes fixed on the ground.
The words of the Grand Master puzzled him; he couldn't decide whether they were
merely pseudo-prophetic jabber of the sort shugenja typically offered without
provocation, or whether they were something more.
"Problems, Crane?" said a voice.
Hachi glanced up with a start, eyes narrowing in irritation. His face broke into his trademark crooked smile as he recognized the young samurai-ko approaching him. "Miyako," he said, pushing away from the wall and bowing. "It is a pleasure to see you."
"Likewise," she replied, returning his bow with a grin of her own.
Hachi looked a bit confused. "Likewise?" he asked. "I find that surprising. You are Miyako, correct? The same Miyako that nearly chewed off my arm when I tried to help her to her feet at the Emerald Championship?"
Miyako blinked, surprised by Hachi's open, friendly attitude. She laughed out loud at the memory of that day. "I was in a sour mood," she admitted. "It doesn't bother me anymore."
"I suppose seeing me made a fool makes you feel better?" Hachi grinned. "Or maybe hearing that Tsudao and Naseru chose Doji Tanitsu to arbitrate this tournament, when both of them knew very well that the Emerald Champion was here? Must make you feel a lot better to know it could have been you in this armor."
"No," Miyako said seriously. "To tell the truth, it doesn't. My father was a magistrate, and so am I. The Monkey Clan doesn't appreciate the Emerald Champion being turned into a pawn of the Scorpion and the Anvil."
Hachi straightened, his voice terse and angry. "Listen, Miyako, I don't know what you think you saw. I don't know what you've heard, but-"
"I know," she said softly, holding up one hand. "I know it wasn't your fault. I heard what you tried to do at Friendly Traveler Village. I know Tokei-sama wouldn't have given you his advice if you weren't worthy of it. I want to help you."
Hachi blinked. "You do?"
Miyako shrugged. "As much as I can," she said. "You look like someone who needs a lot of help. You can rely on the Monkey Clan, Hachi-sama. If you need us, that is."
"I do need you. I mean--" Hachi coughed and stammered abruptly. "I mean, I appreciate that, Miyako. I appreciate your help."
"Don't waste time appreciating us," Miyako said as she turned and walked away. "Just stay worthy of that armor you're wearing. You earned it."
Hachi smiled. He leaned against the wall again and took a deep breath of the afternoon breeze.
He suddenly felt a great deal better.