Pearls of Wisdom

By Shawn Carman

             She ran her hands gently over the cool, flawless surface of the pearl, thrilling at the sensation of the smoothness against her skin. It reminded her of the first real silken kimono Tadaji-sama had given her as a child. It was made of the finest gaijin silk; not the sort the Unicorn traded to the other clans, but the sort they reserved solely for gifts to the Imperial family and their own use. It was a feeling she loved dearly. She often wore simple robes of her own making from the same material when conducting her rituals in private. She could not wear them publicly, of course. The scandal would never end. Even her more open-minded Unicorn friends would consider them improper. She wondered for a moment what that handsome young general, Moto Chen, would think of them.

            “Akasha,” hissed her teacher, narrowing slitted yellow eyes in irritation. “Your mind wanders again! Remember why you are here.”

            “Yes, Ghedai,” Akasha said apologetically. “I will focus.”

            “Very good, very good,” Ghedai replied.  With a flourish of his empty hand, he produced a perfect white sphere between two long fingers; the pearl was nearly the size of a robin’s egg. “This particular pearl is a scrying pearl. Do you recall the last time you were here, with Ta-da-ji? Do you recall the pendant that you admired so?”

            “Yes, of course,” Akasha said. “The jade one.”

            “Excellent.” Ghedai nodded sharply. “Focus on that. Remember how it felt in your hand. Remember the sparkle of the jade in the sunlight. Keep those thoughts and feelings in your mind and reach out through the pearl. The pearl is the world itself, and all can be found within. Find Ta-da-ji’s amulet.”

            Akasha cleared her mind as best she could, focusing on the memory of the pendant. She remembered it quite vividly, actually. The craftsmanship had been exceptional. Akasha brushed that though aside even as it threatened to distract her. She concentrated only on the pendant.

            Slowly, Akasha felt herself drifting upward. She could see her own body beneath her, yet somehow it did not seem strange at all. She turned her eyes upward as she floated through the temple ceiling to the open sky above the city. The stone buildings were elegant even from this unusual viewpoint. As always, she could sense the sleeping minds of the Naga deep within the cavernous buildings. It was a comforting feeling, yet one that always brought some small measure of sadness. It was almost as if she had a family she would never know. She saw a great structure in the distance, a mighty palace topped by colorful bulb-capped towers. Shiro Ide, the home of her Ide Tadaji, the man who had been like a father to her. She could sense him within the palace as she drifted closer.

            Akasha was distracted from her reverie by a strange sensation. It was almost like a… tug of some sort. She scanned the horizon, searching for something that might indicate where this might be coming from. There was nothing. Yet somehow, she could feel it coming from the south.

            Remembering Ghedai’s lessons on trusting her instincts, Akasha allowed herself to drift toward the distant mountains of the south. She floated slowly at first, and then with greater and greater speed until she was racing above the forest and plains at ten times the speed of the fastest steeds of the Unicorn. She could feel the cool autumn air passing through her ethereal form as she moved, and thrilled at the sensation. Mere moments later, she found herself hundreds of miles south of the city, floating to a halt above a region of the Twilight Mountains she did not recognize.

Below her in a small, secluded valley was a tiny village, consisting of no more than a dozen huts at the most. She could see people moving about the village, but they were not peasants. Each of them bore a weapon of some sort; some carried polearms while others carried a samurai’s daisho. Their faces and hands were covered in thick bandages, obscuring their features.

Akasha was puzzled. These strange folk did not appear to be suffering from any disease or injury that she could see, and there was no indication that the weather here was cold enough to warrant such strange wrappings. What would cause them to dress themselves so strangely? Who were these people?

“They are the Unbroken,” came Ghedai’s voice. The Jakla appeared beside her, gazing down upon the village with an oddly regretful expression. “They are the heirs to a ronin brotherhood that served the Ashlim during the Clan War many years ago. With the Ashlim returned to the Great Sleep, they seek my assistance from time to time. They are called the Unbroken.”

“I felt a… pull toward this place,” Akasha said.

“As you should have,” Ghedai replied. “When last the Unbroken visited me, I gave Tadaji’s pendant to Mariko, their leader.” Ghedai looked at Akasha, his narrow face tempered with amusement. “I noticed that you ventured to Shiro Ide at first; you did not know that Tadaji gave me his pendant, and even without an anchor you were nearly able to find your adopted home. Your love for your Unicorn family must be strong.”

 “They have given me much, as have you, sensei.” Akasha clasped her hands before her forehead and bowed at the waist.

Ghedai nodded in approval.

Akasha drifted slowly toward the ground, eager for a closer look at these mysterious ronin. She floated closer to one of them to examine him carefully, then drew back suddenly in surprise. She could see, or sense at least, some sort of energy in the man’s soul. It was like a tiny storm, darkness and light raging and tearing at one another only to reform and continue. Akasha had never seen anything like it.

“Yes,” said Ghedai, approval evident in his voice. “You are far more perceptive than I thought. Your lessons are progressing well.” There was a pause, and Akasha sensed that perhaps Ghedai was considering well what he would say next. “The original Unbroken were a brotherhood of ronin who were touched by the Foul – what humans call the Taint – during a Twenty Goblin Winter,” he finally continued. “Fleeing the Shadowlands, they chanced to happen upon one of the first groups of Naga to awaken from the First Sleep. The Ashlim saw in them a nobility that other humans lacked, a brotherhood much like our own Akasha, Akasha.” Ghedai chuckled a bit at his own pun. “Ashlim enacted a powerful ritual that gave these humans the ability to erase their corruption, but at great risk. They can purge the Foul within themselves by destroying the creatures of the Foul, but must do so within one revolution of the Bright Eye.”

“What happens if they do not?” Akasha asked.

“They die,” Ghedai said.

“One year?” Akasha asked, “but the tale you tell began many years ago. HOw could these Unbroken have lived so long?”

“Those who succeed in purging their Taint often remain in the Brotherhood to aid their brothers, and the door is always open to any who seek redemption. For many, the Unbroken is the only family they have ever known. They are bound by fate, and by a mutual hatred of the darkness. As I said, they are much like the Akasha. We Naga of the Jakla caste call upon them often. The Unbroken gladly perform whatever tasks we require in exchange for the rituals that allow their Tainted children the same chance for survival that they received. They have been quite useful in the past. I expect they will be useful in the future, if they survive.”

Akasha felt a stab of horror at Ghedai’s calculating assessment of the ronin. She quickly attempted to stifle the feeling, but not before a cynical smile spread across her teacher’s face.

“You think me cold, uncaring?” Ghedai asked with a short laugh. “Perhaps you are correct. The years have made me bitter. Though the souls of my brethren are never far away, the world is not the same as it was when we walked the world together.” Akasha felt a deep sadness radiate from her teacher. “You cannot know what it has been like, Akasha. After all, you are human.” 

“I am also a Naga,” she replied, her voice sympathetic, “and I am here.”

“Yes,” Ghedai nodded. “For that, I am glad. But you did not come here to reassure a melodramatic old Jakla. You came here to learn of the Unbroken.”

Akasha nodded. “There are many of them,” she said. “How can they possibly find enough enemies to cleanse themselves in time?”

“Not all who join undergo the ritual right away,” Ghedai explained. “Those less corrupted simply wait, and aid those who are currently being purified. In time, all either receive their chance at redemption, or die. For some time, it was difficult; the Shadowlands was a quiet place. Some Unbroken found it difficult to find enough Foul to burn away their corruption. Once, one of them asked me to perform a ritual for his three year old child, a girl born with the Taint.”

“A child?” Akasha asked. “You said that the Unbroken must kill the Foul to cleanse themselves.”

Ghedai nodded. “The man led a daring raid into the Shadowlands, capturing several goblins and carrying them back alive. Even a child can kill a helpless goblin with a loving father guiding her hand. Even yet, it was not enough. Knowing that his own Taint would never be purified father guided his daughter’s hand to his own throat, using his own Taint to cleanse her.”

“That is horrible,” Akasha said.

“That is sacrifice,” Ghedai replied. “The girl lived, strong and pure. She grew to become Mariko, and she now leads the Unbroken. The Unbroken know the meaning of sacrifice; to allow a lesser harm for a greater good. It is a lesson all Jakla must learn.”

“What will become of the Unbroken now that the Horde has begun its attacks on Rokugan again?” Akasha asked. “Will they be able to find enough enemies to cleanse themselves now?”

Ghedai shrugged. “I suppose we shall see. It is not my worry. Let us return, Akasha. You have seen enough.”

Akasha allowed herself to rise back into the air, turning back in the direction from which she had come. She wanted no more of this gruesome spectacle. The only thing worse than the plight of those poor people was Ghedai’s seeming lack of concern for their ultimate fate. The land beneath her lapsed into a blur as she raced across the heavens toward the depths of the Shinomen Mori. Everything seemed to melt together as she increased in speed until she snapped back into alertness sitting on the floor of the Naga temple where she had begun. Her eyes popped open as she gasped deeply for breath. She felt as though she had not been breathing at all during her journey, and was quite light-headed following the experience. In her disoriented state, she very nearly dropped the priceless pearl she still held clenched between her palms.

“Akasha?” said Ghedai. “You seem unwell.”

“No, sensei,” she answered hurriedly. “It’s just… the sensation is very strange. I have never felt anything quite like it.”

“The nausea will pass.” The Cobra seemed placated. “You have a natural gift for the ways of the Jakla, and your wisdom is great. It is easy for me to forget that you have so much yet to learn.  Perhaps we should continue our lessons tomorrow.”

“Yes, sensei. Thank you, sensei.” Still shaking from the experience, the young Unicorn samurai-ko stood and quickly left the room.

 •

             Normally, Akasha had no difficulty resting comfortably in the city of the Naga. It was very different from her home in the Unicorn lands, but it seemed somehow familiar, comfortable. Tonight, however, she could not rest. She thrashed in her sleep, her dreams plagued by images of bloodied bandages and the blackened corpses of children.

            She dreamt she was pursued by a gigantic, bandaged child who wept tears of blood. In the midst of the horror, everything suddenly went black. For the briefest of moments, Akasha thought that she had heard someone calling her name. She struggled desperately to awaken, but found that she could not.

            “Akasha,” came the whisper again, and this time she was certain it was not a dream.

            “Who’s there?” she shouted in the void of her dreams. The sound of her dream-voice echoed in the blackness.

            “Do not be afraid,” the voice responded. “I wish you no harm. I have come to bring you a warning.”

            Akasha recognized the truth in the words, but showed no expression. “I do not hold parlay with mysterious voices in dreams. If you wish to speak with me, then show yourself.”

            No sooner had the echo of the words died than Akasha found herself somewhere else. It was very dark, yet she could still see. There were vast fields of what appeared to be oysters stretching out before her, as well as strange plants that seemed to wave in the breeze. Occasionally, something would dart past her like a bird in flight. Akasha had never been here before, never even seen such a place, yet somehow it too was familiar.

            “The pearl beds of the Naga,” she whispered.

            “Yes,” came a voice from behind her. Akasha turned suddenly, frightened of what she might find. She had heard the tales of the so-called ‘Nightmares of the clans,’ and wondered if perhaps the sleeping Naga had created a nightmare of their own. But what stood before her was no nightmare.

            He was a male Naga, but his skin was pale, somehow faded. He looked as if he were wasting away. Her expression must have betrayed her shock, because the Naga smiled weakly and shook his head. “I have looked far better in my time, young human.”

            “Who are you?” she breathed softly.

            The Naga drew himself up to his full height. He clasped his hands before his forehead and bowed at the waist, though his shoulders trembled visibly. “I am the Shasyahkar,” he said.

“What has happened to you?” she asked.

 “I am dying,” he said.

            Akasha took in his words carefully. She was searching through her feelings for some sense of this Shasyahkar, but could find nothing. The few other Naga she had met had seemed familiar, as if she had met them before. This one… he was nothing to her. The sensation was strange. “I cannot sense you through the Akasha,” she said finally.

            “No,” he replied. “I have forfeited my place in the great Akasha. I only hope that I will return to the Akasha when my body perishes. I suppose I will find out soon enough.” He smiled weakly.

            “Separated from the Akasha?” she asked, incredulous. “How did such a thing happen?”

            “By my own choice,” Shasyahkar said sadly. “When I oversaw the others entering the Great Slumber, I learned much of the Akasha and the ties we have to it. After the New Sleep began, I came here,” he gestured around to the expansive field beds. “This is where the Great Golden Pearl was created.” He stared pointedly at Akasha. “This is where you were born. I was one of the ones who helped shape the Pearl, Akasha.”

She stared in awe at the sea floor, a bed of pearls gleaming in a thousand subtle shades. It was just as she had imagined it. Did it truly look like this? Or was it only because she was dreaming? There was no way to tell for certain. Akasha turned back to regard the Shasyahkar, his words suddenly sinking in. “Are you saying that you are my father?” she asked.

            Shasyahkar shook his head. “There are no mothers or fathers among the Naga,” he replied. “There is only the Akasha.”

             “Why would you do sever yourself from the Akasha?” she asked.

            “I had no choice,” said the Jakla. “It was the only way to hide myself from him.”

            “From who?” Akasha asked.

            “From a dark soul consumed by the lust for power,” he said. “From your sensei, the Ghedai.”

            “What?” Akasha retorted, surprised to hear her sensei spoken of in such a manner.

Shasyahkar nodded. “It may be difficult for you to hear, but it is true,” he said. “Why do you think the Jakla has taken such an interest in your well being, while most other Naga are content to let you live the life you have chosen among the Unicorn?”

“What does he want from me?” Akasha asked.

“He wants to learn the secrets of the Golden Pearl,” Shasyahkar said. “Though you were created by the Akasha, the Golden Pearl was not. It was the greatest masterwork the Jakla have ever created, a magical focus designed to give you physical form. If recreated, a new Golden Pearl would give its wielder tremendous power. By studying you, I believe the Ghedai intends to recreate the Golden Pearl and harness it for his own desires.”

“Do you believe Ghedai wishes to use that power for evil?” Akasha asked.

“I doubt he thinks he does,” the Shasyahkar said, “but I saw the greed, the raw desire in his heart. The Ghedai probably intends no harm, but power sought for impure motives will lead only to destruction.”

Akasha frowned. “How do you know Ghedai wants to recreate the Pearl?” she asked.

“He came to me several months ago, and attempted to convince me to recreate the Pearl,” the Jakla said. “When I did not comply, he grew enraged. He attacked me with his magic. I escaped, and severed my tie to the Akasha so he could not find me. He believes that I have died, and soon he will be correct. My only chance was to contact you. You are a part of all that is Naga. Though I can no longer touch the Akasha through will alone, my magic allows me to do so temporarily.”

            The young samurai-ko frowned. This was simply too much to take in at once. It left her feeling confused and powerless. She did not enjoy the sensation. It was time to take a hand in her destiny. “Tell me why I should trust you,” she said forcefully. “If your cause is just, I will aid you however I can, but if it is not, you must expect me to defend the honor of my sensei.”

            Shasyahkar chuckled. “You are as much a Rokugani as you are a Naga,” he said, “I have no proof that you would accept. I believe Ghedai will prove himself a villain, given time. I came only to warn you, and prepare you.”

“Prepare me?” she said.

“I would share with you the secrets of my pearl magic. In Ghedai’s hands, this knowledge would be deadly, and I cannot allow him to possess it. Neither can I allow it to be lost. If my legacy will serve to protect you, all the better.”

            “You want to teach me?”

            Shasyahkar nodded. “But you are not yet ready. You must learn the lessons Ghedai has to teach you. Only then will the knowledge I have uncovered be available to you. You must be careful, however. He is more deadly and ruthless than he appears.”

            Akasha said nothing for a long time. She regarded Shasyahkar impassively. It was clear that he was indeed dying. It was obvious from his appearance and from the exhaustion in his voice. She could not sense his thoughts, yet somehow she sensed truth in what he said. She remembered the cold, even tone of Ghedai’s voice when he described the plight of the Unbroken. There was no choice. “I will do it,” she said softly.

            “So be it,” replied Shasyahkar, his yellow eyes shining with hope. “You will truly be the Legacy of the Naga.”

            Akasha awoke in her chambers with a start. She was covered in sweat, and her heart was pounding as though she had been running all night. Silently, she rose and walked to the doorway of her chambers. The deathly quiet sleeping Naga city sprawled before her. Once again, she could sense the slumbering Naga deep within the chambers beneath the city. She was all that remained of them in the world of the humans.

            “I will not fail you,” she whispered into the cold night air.