To Change the World
By Rich Wulf
"It is perfect," the first man said.
"No," the other replied, "but it will be."
I looked upon them both, my senses full of wonder and amazement at this world into which I had come. Only moments from my birth, already I had seen so much. I sat on a small table, in the center of a great circle of kanji inscribed in white chalk and brown blood. At either side stood two of my fathers, two of the many who had worked together to bring me forth. Only two were here now. The others were away… fighting someone called… Fu Leng?
My fathers' eyes were full of pride and love, and I could not help but return their joy. As I saw them, I knew them for who they were, for I was created to understand. The second man who had spoken was the greatest of my fathers. I could sense the exhaustion, the pain that flowed through his spirit from the many months it had taken to weave the spells that had created me. Even yet, I could sense a deeper strength within him. He was Isawa, and though many have since carried his name, never has there been another like him. The first man who had spoken was called Sagoten, another of the many who created me. He bore the name of his mother, Asako. The symbol on his chest was that of an open hand, the fingers stained in blood, the symbol his father created to symbolize his family's dedication to the magic Isawa taught them. That symbol has long been forgotten. I wonder why?
My senses reached out, beyond my two fathers. I could sense others watching me carefully - the kami. I found them in every stone, in every flicker of every candle, in the air itself. Countless spirits greeted me eagerly. I felt a kinship with them all: fire, water, air, earth, and even void. I lifted my voice to greet them in return.
"No, little one," Isawa said. He reached out with both hands, lifting me gently. "You cannot speak to them. Not alone. Let me help you."
He whispered then, in words I could not understand, and the room flared into light. He added his magic to my own, and suddenly I could see. I felt the power of the earth, the fickle energy of fire, the subtlety of air, the supple strength of water, and the perfection that was the void. I reached out to touch the spirits, but they shied away. I heard the bricks whisper that they wanted to fly. It seemed like such a small request, so I answered. One wall of the shrine turned into a thousand butterflies and danced away on the morning breeze. I reached out to touch one of the creatures, and all erupted in fire. How sad.
Sagoten shouted something then, and scrambled away from me. I did not understand the terror in his voice, so I reached out to calm him. Isawa cursed and quickly drew his hands away. Why did he do that? I only wished to help my father.
"So powerful," Sagoten whispered, his voice shaking with terror. Why was he so afraid? "I had no idea it would be so powerful."
"Nor did I,' Isawa replied, stroking his chin thoughtfully.
What did I do wrong? I looked from one to the other.
Sagoten looked at me and laughed. "It's strange," he said. "It is afraid, mortified that it somehow disappointed us. It seems so human."
Is that wrong? Why did he laugh at me?
"It seems human because it is human," Isawa said with a small smile. "Did we not wish it to be so? It was the safest way to control its power… to give it a conscience."
"So powerful," Sagoten said again, looking at the place where the wall had once been. Why was he so surprised? Did he not hear the spirits in the bricks wishing they could fly like the air kami? Did he not hear the hearts of the butterflies wishing they could burn like the candles? "We could use this construct against the Dark Lord, Isawa-sama. We could turn the entire course of this war."
"No!" Isawa said, glaring at Sagoten harshly. "The Wish must not be used for war. It must be used only for understanding, as a catalyst to open communication with the kami."
Sagoten looked at me for a long moment, and turned to my father once more. "With all due respect, Isawa-sama, I do not think we can afford to make such distinctions. The Horde grows stronger with each passing day. If we can complete this weapon-"
"It is not a weapon," Isawa interrupted curtly. "It never will be."
I did not understand. If I could help my fathers by being a weapon, why should I not be? I would gladly kill for them. It was such a little thing to ask.
"You are as a child," Isawa whispered to me, looking upon me fondly. "You know little of this world, though you understand things we will never comprehend. You are intended to be a tool of understanding, not an instrument of death."
Is there a difference?
"While you struggle to understand the world, our brothers are out there dying in it," Sagoten replied sharply. I could see pain and anger split throughout his soul, like the veins of silver in the earth beneath us. I felt such pity for him.
Isawa only shrugged. "In either case, the point is moot," he said with a small laugh. "We will have years before the construct can be safely used, for any purpose. We have time to convince each other yet, my friend."
"Indeed," Sagoten said with a nod. "I would hardly want to charge into battle and find my right flank transformed into butterflies."
Did he not like butterflies?
I could feel another presence drawing closer, and was excited at the prospect of meeting another person. I recognized her before she entered, another of the many souls who had lent their magic to mine in the years it had taken to create me. Her name was Akiko, and her soul sang with beauty. As she entered, I could see that her shoulders were burdened by troublesome news. Tears streaked her perfect face. Sagoten and Isawa turned to regard her with concern.
"Daughter," Isawa said, quickly rising and moving toward her. Sagoten was only a step behind.
"The forces of the Dark Lord have been forced out of the Shinomen," she said grimly. "The Castle of Murder has fallen."
"That is excellent news!" Sagoten said, not noticing the look of pain that crossed her face. "My father has triumphed!"
"It was he who broke the enchantment upon the castle," she said. "He was cursed."
What sort of curse?" Sagoten asked quickly. "Surely, together we could undo whatever magic those pitiful sorcerers wove."
"He was cursed by Fu Leng himself," Akiko said. "Nothing can break the curse."
Sagoten's hands balled into fists. For a moment, he looked over his shoulder to the place where I rested.
"No," Isawa said. "It is not ready yet. Not for this."
"The longer a curse lasts, the more difficult it is to break," Sagoten replied. "Would you abandon my father to the Dark One's damnation?"
"No," Isawa replied. "Nor would I hastily use an imperfect magic to save him. Let me see to Yogo first. Perhaps I can still undo what the Dark Lord has done."
Sagoten said nothing. He simply glared at Isawa.
"Sagoten," Akiko said, grasping his hand in her own. "You know father is right. He would not wish harm upon Yogo."
Sagoten looked into her eyes. The anger that welled within him was instantly replaced with love for her. He smiled. "You are right," he said. "Of course you are right, Akiko-chan."
"Then let us move swiftly," Isawa said, exiting the temple. Akiko and Sagoten followed a step behind, the latter pausing only long enough to look at me one last time.
A long time had passed. Many had come and gone. Some were kind. Some spoke to me. Some merely came, chanted rituals to increase my strength and awareness, and left. I had indeed grown stronger. I glowed with the light of all the elements, and even those without the gift of the shugenja could see me, though each saw me differently.
The Shiba guardsmen look at me in wonder. Most of the Phoenix seemed afraid of me, even among my fathers and mothers. Even those who are afraid are still kind, and the kindest among them is Isawa. He is never afraid, or angry, or hurtful. Sometimes, he lifts me into the air and together we change the world.
The second time he shared his magic with me, I raised a mountain from a plain in a land far away. I had hoped he would be impressed, but Isawa did not allow me to change the world again for a long time after that. He said that the people who live there, the Lion, would be very upset at what I did.
I thought it was a very nice mountain.
I have learned many things. I learned that the bricks that make a wall are bricks for a reason, and if all were to become butterflies then soon there would be no more shrine. I still did not understand why the need for the shrine was more important than the need for the stone to become butterflies, but I suppose that will come in time. The wall I changed was replaced with a new wall. I suppose it is a good wall.
Sagoten is to be married to Akiko. Isawa says that their love will mend the gap between their families, a gap that began with the tragedy of Yogo. I miss Yogo. Though I never met him, I remember his presence when the Phoenix were creating me. He was a good man. I have heard much about Fu Leng, the terrible man who cursed Yogo, and who does so many evil things in the south. The curse he placed on Yogo could not be broken. Sagoten was deeply hurt by the news. I wish they would let me try to fix Yogo's curse. Isawa says that I do not have enough control over my power for that just yet. He is probably right. I would not want to make a mistake and hurt Yogo even more. Perhaps instead, I could use my power to change Fu Leng, to make him into someone less terrible.
When I suggested such a thing, Isawa grew very quiet. "The world is one of balance," he said. "Do you not remember the mountain? The day we lifted the earth from nothing, an island was swallowed up by the sea. If you wipe away the darkness that is Fu Leng, what will take his place?"
Evil cannot be changed into good? Strange. It seemed so easy for Fu Leng to change Yogo, to turn him from a good man into a tortured shadow full of anger and hatred. Nothing good came to replace Yogo. Where was the balance?
Does that mean that evil is stronger than good?
"No," Isawa said suddenly, and he was angry. I had never seen him angry before. "It is my wish that you will be the herald of a new age of peace, not a tool of destruction."
I cannot be both?
"No," Isawa said, and he seemed even more upset.
I am sorry I made you angry, father.
Isawa smiled then, and I was happy. Akiko stepped through the entrance of the shrine, her face grave. Isawa turned to her with a questioning glance.
"Father," she said. "Shinsei waits for you at the base of the mountain."
"Then let us attend to the little prophet immediately," he said. Favoring me with a final smile, he rose and exited the temple with his daughter.
I still had so much to learn, but was happy that Isawa would always be there to teach me.
"What is it?" the man called Hantei Genji asked, looking at me with narrowed eyes. He was the tallest man I'd ever seen, with very long hair and sharp features like a hawk. I did not like him much. He was surrounded on all sides by large men in armor of brown and gold. They wore the symbol of a great open flower. All of them seemed angry, though I did not know why. Everyone seemed so angry, ever since Isawa left to talk to Shinsei.
"It was my father's greatest creation," Akiko replied, standing to the left side of Hantei Genji.
"This?" Hantei Genji demanded with a harsh laugh. "A glowing ball?"
"It is a construct of incredible potential," Sagoten said, standing to the right side of the Emperor. Hantei Genji reached for me.
"Your Majesty, I would not suggest-" Akiko said quickly.
Genji lifted me in his hands. I saw into his spirit, then. There was great strength deep within him, and deep sadness. Hantei Genji had been a good man, once, but the world had changed him. To make the Empire safe, he had done many terrible things. I felt sorry for him. I wanted to help him, but I could not.
"It is quite harmless, Akiko-chan," Sagoten said quickly. "The construct is not yet usable by non-shugenja. It should be quite safe for His Majesty to handle."
Hantei Genji's eyes widened as he looked upon me. "It has changed from a sphere to a chrysanthemum," he said in awe. Hantei Genji sounded like a man unaccustomed to being in awe of anything. All the others seemed in awe of him. I wondered who he was that he was so important.
"The construct is very reactive," Sagoten said. "It takes a form most appropriate to it wielder."
"What does it do?" Hantei Genji asked.
Akiko answered. "We call it Isawa's Last Wish. It allows a shugenja to communicate directly with the kami, on a level which a mortal shugenja would never be capable. It can even alter the kami themselves, transforming an earth kami to an air kami, for example. However, it is incomplete. Its power is difficult to control, and often unfocused. Without Isawa to monitor the rituals, it will take us many years to finish it."
What happened to Isawa?
Hantei Genji frowned. "I know little of magic, but from my limited experience this construct sounds very dangerous," he said. "It feels like… raw power. Rumor tells that Lookout Mountain erupted from the earth because of this thing, and the Coral Palace sank. Why would Isawa create such a thing?"
I am not a thing!
Hantei Genji looked at me. "It spoke to me," he said, arching an
eyebrow as he set me carefully on the table once more.
"My father created it to foster understanding of magic," Akiko said. "He gave it awareness so that it would be responsible for its own actions."
"And perhaps were Isawa still alive I would trust the Phoenix to use it to just ends," Hantei Genji said, "but now I have seen Isawa's last creation for myself, and it becomes clear why the Isawa and Asako fight over it so."
Isawa… father was dead?
"Feud as you will, arrogant children, but I will not have you risk the safety of the Empire over control of such a dangerous artifact," Hantei Genji said. He turned to the armored men. "If it's unsafe as is in this incomplete form, if it were completed it would be too powerful for mortal hands to wield. Do not finish it. Destroy it."
"No," Sagoten replied sharply, and Hantei Genji gave him a withering look. Sagoten went pale and bowed so deeply his forehead touched the floor. "I mean no disrespect, Lord Hantei, but Isawa's gift cannot be destroyed, no more than the void itself can be destroyed. To even attempt its destruction would be dangerous."
"Then Isawa's notes will be destroyed," Hantei Genji said sharply. "If Isawa's Last Wish cannot be used safely in its current form, then it will never be completed. It will fall to the Shiba to guard it, since neither of your families can be trusted with the responsibility."
Sagoten looked up once more, opening his mouth to reply. Akiko looked anxious, as well.
"So declares the Son of Heaven," Hantei Genji said forcefully, his voice echoing through the chamber. "Further, the marriage between Isawa and Asako shall not be. I will not place my blessing upon a false peace, not between two families that would shed another's blood for…" he gestured toward me, "a magical toy. Isawa would be ashamed of you all."
Hantei Genji turned and left the room. Some of the soldiers followed him.
The temple fell dark after that. I was alone, and very sad for no one would tell me how my father died. I wanted to hate Fu Leng for what he did to Isawa and Yogo. I wanted to hate that Shinsei person for taking Isawa away. I wanted to hate Hantei Genji for leaving me alone here. I wanted to, but I could not. Isawa had taught me not to hate, and if I turned my back on that then somehow father really would be dead…
Light entered the temple, and I was filled with joy. My loneliness was at an end! When I saw the face of the man looking down at me, my joy was numbed. It was Sagoten, but something had happened to him. His skin was wrinkled like paper. His eyes were sunken. That was the first time I had ever seen someone grow old. His age, however, was not what ended my joy. It was his scowl. Sagoten was filled with rage, and it made me sad to see him like that.
"Wish," he said simply. "Can you hear me?"
I can hear you!
"Good," Sagoten said. He reached for me. "Are you ready to help me fix what has gone wrong?"
I became a curved dagger in his hand, blade stained with blood.
"Isawa is dead. My father serves Bayushi, and favors the children of his new Scorpion wife. Mother is dying for her love of him, but he has betrayed us. Isawa's arrogant servants now rule the Phoenix, disdaining my family because we will not share with them the secret Shiba reserved only for us. Akiko is to take a new husband; she has forgotten her love for me. The world has become a place in which I no longer want to live…"
Then we shall change it!
"Yes," Sagoten said with a smile. "We will change it."
I do not know what went wrong. I was swept away by Sagoten's anger, lost sight of what we were doing. The next I knew, I was sitting in the midst of a great, blackened field. A single crooked guard tower stood at the edge of the field, like the remnant of a once great castle. What had happened to the rest of the castle? Did I do that? White stones peppered the smoking field. Not stones… bones… Where had Akiko and Sagoten gone? I could not sense them anywhere…
I only wanted to help.
Soon a man in fiery armor, a Shiba, found me. He had tears in his eyes. I was returned to the temple and sat alone in darkness for a very long time.
Sometimes people would come for me.
It always turned out badly.
Sometimes they would ask me to destroy people for them. Sometimes they wanted me to make them into Emperors. Sometimes, they wanted me to do strange things, like turn the air kami into gold. Always, they wanted something for themselves. They wanted the world to bend around them. It always ended in ashes. I never understood why; I only wanted to help. It was so lonely in the temple. Why did they leave me there all alone? Why was everyone so afraid? I could sense the kami all around me, but I could not speak to them, not without help.
With no one else to teach me, I taught myself. Each time someone would try to use me, I would learn a little more about what I was. I grew and developed. I became more whole. If the Phoenix could not finish me, I would finish myself. Isawa would be proud. My power grew more focused; no longer could I create a mountain from nothing, but at least what I created would be where I wanted it to be.
After many, many years, light came to the temple again. When I saw the face of the man who had come to visit me, I could not believe it.
"A long story, little one," Sagoten chuckled as he stepped into the shrine. I saw that he bore no lantern or candle. The light that filled the temple radiated from his own skin.
Where have you been?
"That is complicated," he said sadly. "But I have had much time to think upon what I did, what I made you do."
I am sorry I turned you into ash and killed Akiko.
Sagoten frowned. "It was my own fault," he said. "I did not understand, though Isawa tried to tell me. Even magic has rules, especially magic as powerful as yourself."
"Rules, and consequences should those rules be violated," Sagoten said. "You are a tool that reshapes reality. A lever is also a tool, a tool that requires a fulcrum to rest against; should the fulcrum be weak, the lever will not function, or may even damage that which you wish to move. You are the same. Mortal will moves you, but should the motives from which that will stems be too weak, only tragedy can follow. Those who have tried to use you… myself included… were weak and selfish. We weighed all of reality against our own selfish desire. How could we expect anything other than our own destruction? No… to commune with the Last Wish requires purer motive… Isawa knew that."
Why did you come here?
"To apologize," Sagoten said, and lifted me in his hands again. In his hands, I took the form of a hammer and chisel. This time, when the world changed, it changed for the better. Sagoten did not use me to smite down his enemies, to create a mountain of gold, or to turn back the hands of time. No. This time, he merely reached out to the nearby void kami. The spirits danced and played, and changed. When the game was done, they resembled tiny floating samurai, as beautiful as a summer's day.
What are they?
"Call them the Children of the Last Wish," Sagoten said. "They will remain with you, little one. You need not be lonely anymore."
Will you not stay here with me?
"I will not," Sagoten said, a deep sadness in his voice. "The army of Hantei XVI follows me. They know that I helped create you. They know that I can wield your power safely." Sagoten drew a short sword from his belt and knelt upon the floor. "I will not give you to that tyrant. If his own shugenja try to take you, the Children will deal with them. Good-bye, little one. Remember what Isawa taught you."
Good-bye, Sagoten. I will remember.
Sagoten mumbled an oath to someone called "Toturi" and drew the blade across his stomach three times. The temple became quiet again after that, for a little while.
Soon, more shugenja came, bearing a mon that looked like Hantei Genji's. They were fierce and angry. My new friends, the children, became angry as well. Then there was fire and all was quiet again.
But I was no longer alone.
It was much better with someone to talk to. I taught the Children what I knew about the world. Sometimes they would fly out into the Empire, and return to tell me what they saw. I liked that. The world was such an interesting place, and the shrine was so very small. The time passed less painfully with friends. I grew more swiftly with others to help, encourage, and instruct. Soon, I was fairly certain that I could use my power in communion with any mortal, not just a shugenja. Of course, not any mortal would do, Sagoten had taught me that.
I learned much about the world. I learned that the Phoenix were only one of many groups of humans, called "clans." I learned that the Lion (the ones with the mountain) were another. There seemed to be so many clans, but none were as great as the Phoenix, for they had the greatest magic. All envied the Phoenix, especially the Dragon, a clan so weak it could not even feed its people. I felt bad for the Dragon, I wanted to help them, but when I heard they were attacking the Phoenix I wanted to hate them.
Wanted to, but could not. Isawa would not want that.
The Children brought me more news, in time. Toturi, the one who led the Empire, the one for whom Sagoten had died, had been slain. The news was saddening; though I never met Toturi he must have been a good man if Sagoten had honored him so. With Toturi's death, war broke out all across the Empire.
Even in the peaceful lands of the Phoenix, there was turmoil. The leader of the Phoenix, the one that bore the soul of Isawa's friend Shiba, had left the Empire to become a Fortune. The Elemental Masters, the ones who had taken Isawa's place as leader (for surely it would take five to replace one as great as my father) had vanished, leaving the clan with no leaders to direct them against the Dragon.
I felt very bad. I wanted to help those who had created me, even though they had forgotten me.
I sent the Children out into the Empire again. I asked them to find someone with the strength to wield me. The Children searched, but could find no one. That was maddening, for I knew there was one out there with the strength to wield me. I could sense him.
Then he found me.
I was uncertain. There was great strength within him; that reminded me of Isawa, but there was also great rage; that reminded me of Sagoten. Looking deeper, I saw great pain in his soul. He had been given infinite potential, but had been cast aside by everyone.
We were the same.
Either we would save the Phoenix, or we would destroy them.
Aikune lifted me from the table; I took the form of a great fiery katana in his hand.
Together we would change the world.