Visions of the Future, Part I
By Shawn Carman
The Isawa provinces, year 727
A great storm raged outside. Asako Itsuo barely noticed. His wife had been in labor for nearly twelve hours, and judging from the midwife's frantic activity, it was not an easy delivery. Several times he had heard Biora cry out in pain, and it was difficult for him not to go to her side. Such a thing would be extremely inappropriate, however, and Itsuo would not dishonor his wife with so shameful an act.
The storm worsened throughout the night. Itsuo desperately attempted to find something, anything, to distract him from his growing fears. The feeling of powerlessness overwhelmed him. Finally, he retired to his family's modest shrine. He vowed silently to pray until Biora was finished, and his child was finally welcomed to Ningen-do. He was not a shugenja, but like most Phoenix he was a pious man. Perhaps the Fortunes would grace him with their mercy.
The night drew long, and the first rays of dawn began to break over the horizon, although the storm did not abate. In the back of his mind, Itsuo began to wonder if perhaps he had died and was damned to wander this particularly punishing corner of the Realm of Waiting until his soul was deemed purified.
Suddenly, the storm stopped. It did not die out or lessen. One moment the winds wear roaring outside his simple home, raging against the stone and wooden exterior, and the next… it was not.
Itsuo was on his feet instantly. A storm of such power could not possibly disappear so easily. It must be an omen. But would it be for good or ill? He completed his prayer in a hushed whisper then stepped out into the hall beyond the shrine. Several servants were gathering at the building's main entrance, staring out into the suddenly still night with awe and trepidation. Peasants they might be, but they knew dark portents just as well as any samurai.
"Itsuo-sama," a wavering voice from behind him came, softly. "Itsuo-sama…"
Itsuo turned to find a pale handmaiden holding what appeared to be a bundle of damp clothing. "Is that…"
"Your son, Itsuo-sama," the woman said softly, holding the infant out. The baby yawned widely and wiped at one side of his face with a weak, tiny hand.
With a great smile and a sigh of relief, Itsuo took his son. "Ichiro," he whispered to the squirming infant. "Welcome." Still smiling, he looked to the servant. "How is my wife? Is she well?"
The servant paled even further. "Master… Biora-sama… she… she did not survive the childbirth."
Itsuo's smile faded only a bit. There was no understanding in his eyes. "What?"
The servant stifled a sob. "She is dead, Itsuo-sama. Biora-sama is dead."
"Don't be ridiculous," Itsuo said. "Where is she?"
The woman looked as if she would fade into nothingness. "Gone," she whispered.
"Where is she?!" roared Itsuo, the infant falling from his hands. The woman fell to the ground, catching the baby before it hit the ground. "Where is my wife?" Itsuo shouted again. He tore at his topknot with one hand, long strands of hair pulling out between his fingers.
The servant could say nothing. She only huddled on the ground and held the crying baby close.
The sounds of rage and weeping carried through the still, quiet night air.
Eight years later, 735
Ichiro drew back his arm as far as he could, lifting his left foot slightly off the ground for balance, then threw the stone as far as he could, grunting with effort in the process. There was a brief pause, then a satisfying splash as the stone struck the surface of the lake well out from the shore. "There. That's a good one."
Ichiro's friend Toshi scoffed. "That was terrible! My last throw was at least twice that far."
"No it wasn't," insisted Ichiro. "You can barely manage to get it past those reeds out there." He pointed to the right. "Mine was at least ten feet past that!"
"The Tao says you shouldn't lie to yourself, much less others," Toshi said primly.
"You read the Tao?" Ichiro asked incredulously.
"Well, no." Toshi looked embarrassed. "But I bet it says that!"
Both boys laughed. They continued to throw stones for a few more moments before Toshi asked, "Have you thought about what name you'll choose when we go through our gempukku ceremony? I've decided on Tomaru. It was a mighty general's name."
Ichiro frowned. "Father says it is inappropriate to discuss such things before their time." He shuffled his feet. "I haven't thought about it very much."
"You have!" Toshi insisted. "I saw you reading my brother's scroll about famous battles and writing down names on that scrap of parchment."
Ichiro blushed. "I was just playing around. It wasn't serious."
"What name?" Toshi insisted.
The other boy shuffled his feet for a moment. "Akiro," he finally admitted.
"I knew it!" Toshi said triumphantly. "That's a good name! Where did you find it?"
"It wasn't in your brother's scrolls," Ichiro said. "I read about it in one of father's documents once. He was a historian who devoted his life to completing the Isawa libraries. He did a lot of great things."
"That's it?" The other boy was clearly surprised. "He wasn't a warrior?"
"Well what good is that?" Toshi demanded. "How can we be great heroes if we don't have heroes' names?"
"I don't want to be a hero," Ichiro confessed. "I think I would like to be a scribe or historian."
Toshi looked as if the other boy had just admitted to eating spiders for dinner. "Are you serious?"
"Yes. If all of us were heroes, who would there be to make sure the heroes were remembered?"
"I can't believe it! How can you not want to be a warrior? I dream of being a great warrior every night." He stared at Ichiro curiously. "Do you dream of being a scribe?"
Ichiro frowned and looked down. "No, of course not," he said quickly. "That's stupid!"
"Well then what do you dream of?" Toshi asked.
"I don't dream," Ichiro said crossly.
"Yes you do!" Toshi insisted. "When we went to stay with my aunt that one time both our fathers were called to serve as guards at Shiro Shiba. I heard you crying out in your sleep. You had to be dreaming."
Ichiro said nothing, but kicked at the loose stones along the lake's shore with his sandal. "I have… strange dreams. I don't really understand them very well. I do not like to think about them."
"Really?" Toshi was fascinated. "Tell me!"
"I don't think you'll find them very interesting," Ichiro mumbled.
Ichiro squirmed uncomfortably. "Last night," he began haltingly, "I dreamt of a fire."
"What kind of fire?"
Ichiro's frown deepened. "A house. A house was burning."
"Could you tell whose it was?" Toshi asked breathlessly.
"I think… I think it was yours," Ichiro whispered. His dark eyes fixed on Toshi's.
"Mine?" demanded Toshi, his voice suddenly booming. "Why? What makes you think that? Could you see it?"
"No," Ichiro continued to whisper. "I think… it was because… I could see your mother inside. I saw her burning, too. I saw her die."
Toshi was suddenly very silent. "That's a stupid dream," he finally said, his voice shaky. "It doesn't mean anything."
"No, of course it doesn't," Ichiro agreed vehemently. "Don't be silly."
"I don't know why you would even tell people about things like that," Toshi said, his voice growing sullen. "What kind of person tells people about things like that?"
"You made me!" Ichiro insisted. "I didn't want to tell you."
"Boys!" The shout caught both of them off guard. It was the stern, unyielding voice of Ichiro's father, Asako Itsuo. "It is growing late," he said. "It's time to return home. Follow me."
The two boys fell in behind Itsuo and walked silently back toward Ichiro's house. Both were silent, still reeling a bit from their rather bizarre conversation. After a few moments, Itsuo looked over his shoulder with a frown. "You two are quiet."
"Itsuo-sama," Toshi piped up, "do you think dreams have any meaning?"
"I don't know," the adult confessed. "I do not dream any more. Why do you ask?"
"He's mad at me because of a dream I had," Ichiro said sullenly.
"Don't be foolish," his father admonished. "Such things are beyond one's control."
"He dreamed about my mother dying in a fire!" Toshi exclaimed angrily.
Itsuo stopped suddenly. He turned on the boys with a frown and stared intently at his son. "Is this true?" he asked quietly.
"Yes," Ichiro mumbled.
Itsuo slapped his son savagely across the face, knocking him to the ground and causing Toshi to cry out in surprise. The surly man glared at Toshi and pointed back toward the house. Toshi needed no further encouragement, and ran away as fast as he could.
Itsuo leaned in close, his face red with fury. "There will be no more talk of dreams and omens in my house, boy," he said in a jagged whisper. "I will have none of that filth in my home! Do you understand?" He looked at his son expectantly.
Tears streamed down Ichiro's face, but he was too terrified to sob. "Yes, father," he managed.
"Good." Itsuo turned and marched back toward home, leaving his only son lying weeping in the dirt as the sun slowly dipped below the horizon.
Four years later, 739
Ichiro walked the halls of Kyuden Isawa quietly, his head down and his arms full of scrolls. Whenever possible, he preferred to take the outer hallways, the ones more often used by servants than samurai. It was unusual, but it meant that he would encounter fewer people while running errands for his master, and given how unpopular Ichiro was with the other students, he considered that a good thing.
Despite his difficulty with the other students, Ichiro had enjoyed his service at Kyuden Isawa. There were few students who were allowed to study in so prestigious an institution, but fortunately Ichiro's master, a scribe and historian who served under the provincial governor, was assigned to the palace, thus allowing Ichiro to move here and study with him. It was not glamorous work, a fact the other students were always eager to point out with great zeal and enthusiasm, but Ichiro found it fulfilling. All the great lessons of life could be found in the events of the past. A person with a keen mind and an eye for detail could clearly see the patterns that history followed, watching as cycles were completed and began anew. It was almost like seeing the future unfold before you.
"You!" Ichiro looked up, startled to hear someone shouting in the normally quiet hallways. He dropped several scrolls and struggled to keep from dropping the rest. An all-too familiar form was advancing up the hallway.
"Toshi," Ichiro said meekly, "what are you…"
The young scribe's question was cut off when the much larger boy reached him and punched him squarely in the face. Ichiro was sent sprawling along the cold, stone floor of the corridor, his precious scrolls scattering all across the hallway. He sputtered helplessly as the blood from his split lip threatened to choke him. "What… what are…" he managed.
"Shut up!" Toshi shouted, punching him again. "She's dead! She's dead and it's your fault!" He kicked the prone boy in the stomach, driving the air from his lungs and causing him to gasp desperately for air.
"I don't know what you're talking about," Ichiro wheezed. Even as he lay bloodied on the floor, it was difficult for Ichiro to imagine that he and Toshi had once been friends. Ever since that day years ago when he had foolishly told Toshi about the dream, Toshi had also seemed angry at him. It was Toshi who had turned the other students against Ichiro, and it was Toshi who was somehow involved every time the others turned on him. That same dream had destroyed Ichiro's relationship with his father that same day. He often wished he could go back and change how that day had unfolded. It was the beginning of a pattern like those he so often recognized in history.
"She's dead!" Toshi continued to scream. "Our home burned, and my mother died! It's your fault!"
"Toshi, no! I didn't…"
"You cursed her! You killed her!"
"No!" Ichiro shouted, feebly attempting to defend himself from the larger boy's assault. His weak blows went completely unnoticed.
"I'll kill you!" Toshi was screaming now. Tears were streaking his face, but he didn't notice. He was lost in terrible grief, one that was far too familiar for Ichiro's liking. It was exactly the way his father looked whenever the subject of Ichiro's mother came up. "I hate you!" Toshi cried, his hands held aloft, fists clasped together, posed for a devastating strike.
And then Toshi was gone, yanked off of Ichiro and tossed to the floor. The wizened face of Ichiro's master appeared in his blurred vision. "I have warned you about these corridors, Ichiro," he reprimanded calmly. "There is far too little traffic."
"He killed my mother!" Toshi offered, still outraged.
The old scribe turned to face the young boy, his face drawn tight in anger. "You disgrace your mother's memory, boy." He pointed back down the corridor. "Return to your chambers. Now."
"Now!" The old man's voice left no room for objection, and Toshi obediently disappeared back down the corridor. The scribe turned back to Ichiro, his face gentler now, worried. "Are you well, Ichiro? Do I need to summon someone to see to you?"
"No, master," Ichiro said shakily. "I… I just need a moment to gather my thoughts."
His sensei nodded mutely and helped the boy to his feet. Ichiro wobbled for a moment, but put his hand on the wall and took several deep breaths. After a few moments, his vision cleared and he could stand again. "Thank you, master."
"Next time," the historian admonished, "remember to use the main corridors as I said. Just to be safe." He glanced around the hall and bent to begin picking up the scrolls.
"No, master, I will take care of that."
"Don't be ridiculous. You are hurt."
Ichiro shook his head. "I am fine, and these scrolls are my responsibility."
The old man considered for a moment, then nodded appreciatively. "As you like. Please return to the library with them as soon as you can." He he looked over the battered young boy's injuries once more, then headed back toward the main rooms of Kyuden Isawa.
Slowly, Ichiro began gathering the scattered scrolls from the stone floor. He winced in his head as he bent down, but made no noise to indicate his discomfort. He was almost finished when he suddenly found himself somewhere else.
He stood in the midst of a barren plain, with nothing around save a mighty wall far to the east, a hazy sun peering through greasy black clouds in the sky above. That must be the Kaiu Wall he heard was built a decade ago in Crab lands, though it looked too old and weathered for a structure so new. One instant the plains were empty, the next a screaming horde of unspeakable demons and black-armored samurai surrounded him. A vast army from the Shadowlands rose up and drove past the Crab fortifications deep into the heart of the Empire. The Crab, who should have stood against the dark horde, instead joined with them. Serpents spilled forth from the forests to halt the tide of evil, but could not stand against their immortal foes. A man clad all in black and bearing the mon of a wolf stood at the head of an army of Dragon, Unicorn, ronin and peasant. A rotten, dead man clad in the tattered robes of a Scorpion rode at the front of the Shadowlands horde. A powerful demon stood beside him, covered in a sinewy red shell and wielding a tetsubo the size of a young sapling in one hand. The two great armies came together…
And suddenly Ichiro was back in the corridor, gasping for breath and flailing on the cold floor. He leapt to his feet and leaned against the wall, his breath coming in great gulping gasps, his wounds and the scrolls temporarily forgotten. He cast about right and left, desperate to see if anyone had noticed his strange behavior, but the hall was empty of servants.
"It was nothing," Ichiro whispered to himself breathlessly. "Nothing. Just a dream. It was only a dream."
Six years later, 745
The tiny library sat atop a cliff edge overlooking the sea in the northeastern reaches of the Isawa provinces. It was a redundant library, containing only those texts so obscure that only the most esoteric scholars even knew of or cared for their existence. It was rare for the library to receive visitors more than once a month, and then only those who were unable to gain access to more prestigious libraries for one reason or another. All things considered, the library had been forgotten by most Phoenix, and there was no one who cared enough to remind them of its existence.
Asako Akiro had served within the library for nearly three years, having actively petitioned his daimyo to be assigned there shortly after his gempukku ceremony. Since that time, he had worked quietly, unobtrusively, hidden among the rows upon rows of ancient, musty scrolls. There were only two other attendants for so small a library, and there had been a constant succession of young scribes filling those positions during Akiro's time there. So many had come and gone, in fact, that Akiro had quit bothering to learn their names or even go out of his way to speak to them. They left him to his own devices, which was his intent the entire time. He did not wish to know them, for to know them was to know their future and that never ended well.
Akiro's workspace was hidden away in a corner, well out of sight of the infrequent visitors. Every few months, one would inevitably stumble into his private area and make some bizarre request concerning the library. Akiro would look up from his work with a dazed expression, stare blankly for several minutes, then mumble something incomprehensible and point back out toward the shelves. No one ever came to ask a second question.
At the moment, Akiro was poring over an account of the tournament that preceded the creation of the Badger Clan. It was a second or third hand account, but certain aspects of the translation varied from the standard telling. For a scholar such as Akiro, such minor differences were fascinating. A shuffling sound came from the vicinity of the scroll shelves, along with a soft cough. Akiro frowned, but did not look up. He had answered a question only three short weeks before, and was not interested in speaking to anyone again so soon. He waited, hoping that whoever it was would grow bored or frustrated and find something else to occupy their time.
"Might as well speak to me," a woman's voice said. "I'm not leaving until you do. And I'm a rather messy guest at that."
Akiro looked up in surprise. "Mariko? Shiba Mariko? What are you doing here?"
The samurai-ko smiled broadly. "Seems the Isawa found some scrolls that were of at least mild interest. So of course they shipped all the worthless old rags over here to make room." She shrugged. "I thought I would volunteer to bring them so I could make sure you were still alive. Mother has asked after you on occasion over the past year."
"Please give Shimiko my best," Akiro said, looking at his cousin in wonder. She had grown so much since they had last met, from a giddy young girl to a confident and proud shugenja.
Mariko shrugged. "Why not give her your best personally? I had hoped I could convince you to join us this year for the Bon Festival. Perhaps you could tell her yourself."
"Oh, no," Akiro sputtered. "I… I'm far too busy here. Honestly, this place would likely not survive my absence."
"This place would likely not survive a cleaning," Mariko countered smartly.
"But I fail to see how your absence would change anything one way or another." She glanced over at his desk. "What is it you're working on, exactly?"
"A comparative study of the circumstances surrounding Minor Clan's creation," Akiro said dryly. "Fascinating, really."
"Oh, I'm sure," Mariko nodded sagely, peering at the manuscript. "The mighty Badger. I'm shocked there aren't more plays about them." She reached over and picked up a loose piece of parchment. "And this?"
"Nothing," Akiro said firmly. "Put it down please."
"Nothing, you say?" Mariko sounded suspicious. "Let's have a look then. 'An army of samurai, clad in finery despoiled by travel, riding beasts the likes of which the Empire has never seen, shall emerge from the Shadowlands, yet remain untainted. They shall be the Ki-Rin, yet not the Ki-Rin.'" She stopped and frowned at Akiro. "The visions. You're still having them, then."
"Yes," Akiro muttered.
"How many have come true?" she asked pointedly.
Akiro squirmed in his seat for a moment, but could not escape her piercing glare. "All of them."
Mariko's eyes widened. "All of them? Every one?"
"Most," Akiro said. "The ones I had when I was younger, I've managed to trace most of them to events that have happened in the past few years. The… visions that I've had within the past year or two have not. I think that they will come to pass in the future."
"You could be a great asset to the clan if you came forward with your abilities, Akiro."
"No!" he insisted. "No, I can't. I can't do that. Knowing the future brings nothing but pain."
Mariko shrugged. "As you wish, cousin." She put the scroll down and looked around the room. "I can never find my way around this miserable tomb. Where are the guest quarters again?"
"The first corridor on the eastern wall," Akiro responded, gesturing off to his left. "As luck would have it, we don't have any guests right now. You can have your choice of rooms."
"No guests," Mariko grunted. "I'm shocked."
Akiro shook his head as his cousin disappeared into the library's eastern half. He had only had infrequent contact with her during their lives, but she had always been very accepting of him and of his… eccentricities, once she had learned of them by accident during their youth. She had been one of his few friends, who had not turned away from him once they learned what he was. Sometimes Akiro wondered if perhaps…
Pain. Akiro doubled over, clutching his temples.
A city, lost in the depths of darkness. A temple dedicated to a sinister god who murdered Fortunes as a samurai slaughters unarmed peasants. Invincible in the heavens, only in the mortal world can his power be broken. A Dark Lord, his face masked in white, the last legacy of a fallen Emperor, guards the key to the god's defeat. His faith is the fulcrum upon which all others rest. Four Winds gather to face him. None of them alone can overcome him, and his armies are vast.
The vision continued, but Akiro managed to push it to the back of his mind. He came to his senses once more, this time still at his desk. He was clutching the skull so hard that his knuckles were white from the effort. This was the most potent vision he had received in many years. It was more sinister, somehow. More ominous. And worse, it felt unfinished. It was not a sensation he had experienced often, but when it did surface, he knew there would be more to come.
This vision had not yet been completed.
Four years later, 749
Mariko wound her way slowly along the path that led from the library to the cliff that divided it from the mountains to the north. The summons she had received seemed urgent, and Akiro had never been an urgent man. She was greatly concerned about the contents of his letter, and about what would come of their meeting. She concealed these feelings, however. Akiro was not one who dealt with uncertainty very well.
The young prophet stood atop the cliff, gazing into the depths of the chasm that split it from the mountains. The wind caused his simple orange kimono to flutter in the wind. He did not seem to notice.
"Akiro?" she asked hesitantly. "Akiro, are you well?"
"No," he said darkly. "No, I certainly am not."
"Cousin, what is this letter you sent me? Something about a Dark Lord? It sounds like something from a child's tale."
"I have seen it," Akiro insisted. "The same vision has been coming to me for almost four years. Each time something more is added. I do not know when it will happen, but it will happen. Of that I am certain."
"You can't know that for certain, cousin," Mariko insisted. "It could be a hallucination brought on by stress."
"Don't be foolish," he admonished. "I have seen countless tragedies unfold because I was not strong enough to stop them. I've hidden from the world for too long," Akiro said sadly. "I should have listened to you long ago, Mariko. I should have done something. There have been so many tragedies that could have been avoided if I had but the courage to intervene."
"You are only one man, Akiro," Mariko said.
"Fortune favors the mortal man. Isn't that what the Tao says?" Akiro shook his head. "But I'm through hiding. I will take everything I have to the Elemental Masters. I will place myself at their disposal."
"They may not have you," Mariko said darkly. "The Isawa do not think particularly highly of your family. Or of those who would call themselves seer."
"Then I will go to Otosan Uchi and offer my services to the Emperor." There was no room for doubt in Akiro's voice.
"Do you think they will admit you to the Hantei's court? They could very well lock you away as a madman."
"Then I will take that risk." After a lifetime of hiding and denial, there was steel in Akiro's voice for the first time in his life. He stood straight, his head held high, his eyes surveying the hills that led from the shore down to the Isawa provinces.
Mariko was silent for a long time. "Do you really mean to do this?" she finally asked quietly.
"Very well," she said softly. "I'm sorry, cousin."
Akiro turned to look at her questioningly. "Sorry? Why?"
"Because I have no choice." Mariko stepped forward as if to embrace her cousin. Akiro stepped forward awkwardly, unaccustomed to physical contact, but the embrace never came. A pained look came into his eyes when he felt the knife bite deep into his stomach. He staggered back, staring in mute horror at the blossoming red stain on his kimono. Akiro looked up at Mariko, disbelief in his eyes.
"I'm sorry," Mariko repeated in a sad voice. "I can't let your prophecy endanger us." She stepped forward and reached for his scroll satchel.
The dying prophet lurched away from his murderer, desperately looking about for some way to escape her. There was only one. With his last breath, Asako Akiro took perhaps the only defiant action of his life and hurled himself from the cliff, plummeting hundreds of feet to the jagged rocks below, clutching his satchel of prophecies as he fell.
Mariko waited for a while, allowing her tears to dry and hardening her heart against the act she had committed. A short time later, she turned and descended from the cliff, winding along the long path that led back to her horse. When she finally reached the bottom, she was not surprised to find an all-too-familiar form clad in a blood-red kimono awaiting her.
"Is it done?" the strange man asked.
Mariko nodded. "He is dead, Suru-sama."
"And his prophecies?"
She shook her head. "He threw himself from the cliff. His body and scrolls lie hidden among the rocks in the chasm below. No one will ever find them."
The stranger grunted. "I would not be so sure. One must always be sure." He removed a slender knife from his robes and slit his palm, letting the blood run freely. He whispered a sinister chant beneath his breath and threw his hand upward, sending a crimson spray arcing toward the mountain.
A great rumble answered the man's chant, and huge chunks of stone began disappearing as they fell inward, filling the chasm where Akiro's body had disappeared. Within a few moments, the entire chasm was full. The rock glowed red briefly, fusing into a solid cliff face at the tsukai's command.
"Now," the man said, clearly satisfied, "we can be sure. Yes?" He looked down at her, his pale, gaunt face creased in a fond smile. His red eye gleamed with satisfaction.
Mariko nodded mutely, bowed to Jama Suru, and departed.